Friday, July 14, 2017

PAW AND ORDER


Review of PAW AND ORDER by SPENCER QUINN
(seventh in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

Private investigator Bernie takes his beloved dog and most trusted partner Chet to surprise Bernie’s journalist girlfriend Suzie after she moved away. The sweet surprise turns awkward when Bernie bumps into another man leaving Suzie’s place. Even more awkward when the same man turns up dead less than a day later and the cops suspect Bernie.

The unique spin on this mystery series is that each story is told through the dog Chet’s perspective. A lot of fixation on smells and food, folks! As I’m finding usual with these books, I enjoy the narration more than the actual mystery. It’s worth mentioning that I’m not much of a mystery reader anyway, unless there’s something thematically that appeals to me like a focus on dogs or books. I usually find myself far less interested in Bernie’s leads and theories and even the ultimate reveal than I am in Chet’s tangents, obsessions, and other cute dog behavior twisting and turning the case in unexpected ways.

A fun layer to this particular perspective is how Chet adores his owner Bernie. As far as Chet is concerned Bernie is perfect. Chet’s only begrudging, embarrassed criticism is on the issue of Bernie’s appalling human sense of smell. Along those lines I found myself impressed in this one with how much the author must have thought through all the smells dogs encounter. Chet comments on all kinds of details that never would have occurred to me, but that do make perfect sense.

This is another fun, quick read following an adorable, dedicated dog’s efforts at solving crime.

Friday, June 30, 2017

THE GRIM GROTTO


Review of THE GRIM GROTTO by LEMONY SNICKET
(eleventh in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

After barely escaping Count Olaf’s clutches at the end of the last book, the Baudelaire siblings find themselves, of all things, aboard a submarine. Here they continue their quest for answers while evading the relentless villain Olaf.

I like the shift in setting. The ocean is certainly a unique change of pace! In general, I prefer the whole series more when the books moved away from the repetitive going from one guardian’s house to another and on to more original locations.

Even this late in the series, we meet new characters. The Baudelaires make new friends and a possible new antagonist is introduced. Or perhaps an ally? All we know for certain is that this mysterious new person scares Count Olaf, which could be very good or very bad.

As more unfolds on the mysteries of V.F.D., alliances become a constant question mark. People the Baudelaires trusted have betrayed them and other times they discover surprising allies. It’s hard to know what to think anymore, but at least they can always remain confident placing trust in each other.

Sunny in particular emphasizes the passage of time throughout this series. She’s less an infant and more a notably mature toddler now. Her gibberish makes increasing sense, she walks instead of crawls, and her passions shift from biting things to cooking.

As I near the conclusion of this long series, I’m eager to see how it ends. While this is a re-read for me, I only remembered the first few books and from there everything else has felt fresh. I definitely don’t recall how it ends at all. The author has created a complex web of plot threads and I hope the end lives up to everything he’s designed.

Friday, June 23, 2017

CATSKIN


Review of CATSKIN by ARTEMIS GREY

Poor Ansel’s world turns upside down the day he finds a quiet, injured girl hiding in his parent’s barn. Having been teased most of his life for being albino, Ansel’s an introvert not partial to meeting anyone new. But with this girl bleeding out and no one else around, he starts taking care of her. He even nicknames her Catskin based on a fairy tale, and at first she does seem much like a stray animal: she won’t speak, she lashes out sometimes even when he’s only trying to help, and she seems driven by nothing more complex than survival.

Gradually, though, as she feels increasingly safe and loved, Catskin reveals more personality. Though she still won’t share her real name or talk about her past, she and Ansel form a connection he never would have anticipated. Not just Ansel. His entire family takes Catskin into their hearts, no questions asked. And they’re ready to fight for her when someone threatens to take her away.

This book is above all a heart warmer, rooted in themes about finding your soul family, rather than defining family only by blood relations. It’s also extremely romantic but without any actual bodice ripping. Ansel’s parents raised him on traditional values, so against his body’s urgings he won’t sleep with Catskin. Nevertheless, the sexual tension between them is one of the book’s primary drivers.  

My only regret is that I wanted Catskin herself a little more developed. We follow Ansel’s point of view, so we feel very close to his every thought and reaction. Meanwhile, Catskin is a quiet, minimally expressive, closed off mystery. Without being privy to her thoughts I felt like I never got to know her to the degree I wanted.

This is a fun, warm, endearing novel about finding those people who become your home.

Friday, June 9, 2017

SLIPPERY SLOPE


Review of THE SLIPPERY SLOPE by LEMONY SNICKET
(tenth in the A SERIES OF UNFORUNATE EVENTS series)

At the end of the last book the Baudelaires found themselves swept away by the current. Now they’re carried out to sea where a submarine fortuitously rescues them. On this submarine they make some new friends and run into some old, as well as uncover more information about the mysteries keeping them on the run.

I just adore the narrator’s voice in this series. Each book has several quote-worthy lines, but I’ll pick out my favorite from this one: “Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant, filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.” Too true, witty and mysterious narrator, too true.

Minor spoiler, but Count Olaf actually doesn’t play as much of a role in this book. At this point he has become a constant background threat even when he’s not around and, for that reason, probably isn’t needed on as many pages. Oh, he does make his obligatory appearance, but he isn’t driving this story anymore. The Baudelaires are far more preoccupied with pursuing answers.

We’re nearing the end of the series now. Even though these are re-reads for me, I don’t recall the ending, so I’m eager to see how the author wraps up all these ambitious plot threads.

Friday, June 2, 2017

THE NANNY


Review of THE NANNY by MELISSA NATHAN

This one was a re-read for me. At first I worried I had misremembered how much I liked this book, as it wasn’t holding my attention yet. Then around page 20 it became clear why this made my re-read list. Our main character Jo starts musing on why she has refused her boyfriend’s marriage proposals three times. “Did he really think she’d want to start their married life feeling like his role was to make the decisions, hers to agree or disagree with them?” I know chick lit novels are meant to be lighter in content, more about entertainment than deep reading, but my favorites always carry at least a small thread of deeper content to them. In this case, I respect Jo’s feminist values and that respect makes all the silly humor of the rest of the novel even more enjoyable.

The premise of this book is that experienced nanny Jo accepts a job in London working for a wealthy family. She’s a small town girl and this means leaving the place where she’s spent her life, leaving her parents, and leaving the boyfriend who keeps proposing. It doesn’t take Jo long to figure out why the salary for this particular family is so high, but she’s up to the task of learning everything she needs to on the job. However, things become a bit more complicated when her boss’s adult son moves in as well, to the room right next to Jo’s. She can deny it all she wants, but it’s obvious to the reader from the get-go that there’s chemistry there...and that Jo sidestepping around the fact that she does have a boyfriend isn’t going to end well.

The dialogue in this novel is particularly fantastic. There’s a big cast and plenty of pages where a conversation turns into a quick back and forth between several characters, often a very entertaining back and forth.

THE NANNY is a fun, light read with some real depth on women’s issues subtly woven into a lot of humor.  

Friday, May 26, 2017

THE CARNIVOROUS CARNIVAL


Review of THE CARNIVOROUS CARNIVAL by LEMONY SNICKET
(ninth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

At the end of the last book, the Baudelaires escape one awful situation (aka unfortunate event) by willingly entering another awful situation: shutting themselves in their nemesis Count Olaf’s car trunk - since his vehicle is the only means of escape. They wind up at a carnival in the middle of nowhere (sidenote: bad for business).

Here the Baudelaires finally learn how Count Olaf so easily tracks them from one new home to another. Apparently, he knows a psychic at this carnival, eager to give him whatever information he wants.

The Baudelaires put their newfound expertise in disguises to work and blend in as carnival freaks. This turns out to be a less than ideal tactic, since Count Olaf has some plans of his own for the freaks...involving very hungry lions.

I think this book is my favorite of the series (with the disclaimer that I haven’t re-read the rest yet, but I remember it as my favorite and so far that’s still the case with re-reading.) I talk about the unique humor in this series a lot and page 100-101 is a perfect example of what I so love about this series. I also found this one a faster read than any of the others, because I’m more into the story.

SPOILER ALERT in this last paragraph. We learned in the last book that one of the Baudelaire parents may have survived the fire. Previous history from this series suggests it’s best to prepare ourselves for tragedy and disappointment, but that possibility still provides a light at the end of the tunnel as well as a little more mystery.

Friday, May 19, 2017

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE


Review of THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE: A STORY OF BOTTICELLI by ALYSSA PALOMBO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Based on real history, this story follows Simonetta Cattaneo, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Florence as well as the muse for Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus.

Each character, especially Simonetta, feels remarkably real and complex. Many of the main characters are taken from history, but Palombo does an excellent job filling in the blanks and developing these historical figures into real, believable people. I also admired the relationships. With nuanced characters comes more opportunity for an examination of how so many different personality types interact with each other.

In particular, I liked the relationship between Simonetta and her husband. This book is focused on Simonetta’s relationship with Botticelli, but with Simonetta’s marriage Palombo shows how relationships can morph over time. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help comparing Simonetta’s clean-slate introduction to her future husband at the start of the novel to their more complicated relationship by the end.

Above all, though, I adored Simonetta’s character. I ached for her. She’s a woman born in the wrong time, for certain. She wants to be appreciated for her mind more than her body, but many swoon over her beauty while considering her intellect a bonus novelty in an attractive woman. She’s starved for intellectual conversation because few deem it appropriate for her. She also craves independence in a time when such was scarce for women. While she carves out a place for herself as best she can, there’s a touch of tragedy from the beginning that her life will never be what she really wants.

I loved this novel from the very first page. The beautiful prose pulled me in and the vivid characters and complex relationships held me riveted to the end.

Friday, May 12, 2017

THE HOSTILE HOSPITAL


Review of THE HOSTILE HOSPITAL by LEMONY SNICKET
(eighth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)


After fleeing “the vile village” from the last book, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere and falsely accused of murder. They find shelter, if you can call it that, in a strange hospital that looks like the architect/construction workers grew bored halfway through and gave up on building the other half.

In this installment, the Baudelaire siblings finally manage to make the general uselessness of adults work in their favor. For seven novels now, they’ve found themselves frustrated by the fact that their nemesis Count Olaf can slap on a mediocre disguise and all the adults believe he must be someone else. Well, two (er, four if you count all the siblings) can play at that game. The Baudelaires realize if adults are so easily fooled, they can disguise themselves, too.

I love that the series becomes increasingly unpredictable as it moves forward. So many series lag in the middle, but A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS thrives in the middle. The first few books start off with a very formulaic plot. A few key points stay consistent with the later books: a change of setting for each book and Count Olaf’s unavoidable arrival no matter where the orphans go. However, the other similarities start blurring. The earlier books see the orphans placed with a variety of guardians. In the later ones, they’re in more unusual settings, often out on their own. (They have, by now, realized that adults are useless and stopped seeking them out for help.)

I also like that Sunny’s aging becomes apparent in the later books. Her word choice is maturing and she’s transitioning from crawling to walking. Especially in a series that can feel set aside from time, it’s a nice reminder of the passage of time as the children go from one unfortunate event to the next.

Friday, May 5, 2017

THE ORIGINAL GINNY MOON


Review of THE ORIGINAL GINNY MOON by BENJAMIN LUDWIG
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Ginny is a foster teenager lucky enough to have finally found a forever home with wonderful adoptive parents. Of course, it’s no happily ever after. In fact, the novel opens with Ginny stuffing a pretend baby into a suitcase when it won’t stop screaming. Given that they gave her the doll as practice for the real baby they’re about to have, this understandably concerns Ginny’s adoptive parents.

I positively adored this book, more so than I have any book for a while (and by a while I mean a few weeks). I loved the story so much due to Ginny’s remarkable voice. Ginny is autistic with other personality quirks that could be labeled as anxiety, OCD, etc. She requires a daily list and precise routines to keep calm and comfortable. She distinguishes between approximately and exactly seven o’clock, because that’s an important difference for her when someone claims they’ll do something at a certain time. She keeps her mouth firmly shut when she’s worried people can see her thoughts. When someone asks her more than one question, she becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t know which one to answer and usually then says nothing.

One of the most amazing things about Ginny’s voice is that by being in her mind, as the reader, you understand her completely. However, she speaks so little that it’s entirely believable why everyone around her is struggling to understand her at all. She simply doesn’t know how to express what she means in a “normal” way that others can accept.

It’s not only Ginny I liked. Every character in this book feels nuanced and distinct. No one’s perfect. Her adoptive parents do their best, but they both have their breaking points. Her teachers and therapist all mean well, but everyone’s missing things, including one big thing! Her birth mother loves Ginny, but she’s deeply flawed and dangerous. With great characters often come intriguing relationships and this story is no exception. From Ginny’s bond with her adoptive father to her unconditional acceptance from her therapist, each relationship feels complex and interesting.

I really liked how the writing style itself develops Ginny’s character. Many of her thoughts and snippets of her dialogue are italicized, calling attention to words and phrases that she’s basically parroting back from someone else. Probably due to how Ginny struggles with expressing herself, she often takes something someone said and repeats it. This can make her dialogue feel a little stilted, some parts juvenile and others too mature for her character, except for the fact that the words aren’t originally hers. The italics work well in emphasizing Ginny’s adopted (couldn’t help the pun) words as she tries to mimic those around her.

It’s very easy to tear through this whole book in one or a few sittings, because the chapters are so short, many only 2-4 pages. And once you’re invested in Ginny’s well being you have to keep reading about her self-sabotage with your fingers crossed that she learns how to look out for herself and the people who’ve taken care of her before it’s too late.

Friday, April 28, 2017

THE VILE VILLAGE


Review of THE VILE VILLAGE by LEMONY SNICKET
(seventh in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

“It takes a village to raise a child,” which is why the village of V.F.D. decides to accept guardianship of the three Baudelaire orphans. Unfortunately, the people in this village seem to have the saying a bit backwards. They expect the children to do all the chores for the entire village. To make matters worse, this town lives by a long, loooong list of strict rules: everything from what books (not many) are allowed in the library to how many nuts are allowed on a sundae. Punishment for disobeying any of these rules is being burned at the stake.

If you’re a silver lining sort of person, though, let’s focus on the fact that the town handyman takes the children under his wing. (You’ll get the pun when you read the book.) Hector is very much like Jerome from The Ersatz Elevator: nice and well-meaning, but sadly too much of a coward to be that useful as a guardian. Hector might be a reasonable person who knows all the town’s rules are alarming nonsense, but he’s too fearful of those in charge to speak up about anything.

There’s a fun mystery in this novel as the children discover a string of poetic riddles that they’re convinced their friend Isadora is leaving. They suspect their kidnapped triplet friends must be nearby...which means Count Olaf is probably nearby, too, not that his presence would be much of a surprise by now.

This may be one of my favorite books in the series so far. As I mentioned in earlier reviews, some of the books start to feel too repetitive in formula, but this addition had more of a complete plot within the one installment - thanks in great part to the poems mystery.

Friday, April 21, 2017

LUCY AND LINH


Review of LUCY AND LINH by ALICE PUNG
(based on a review copy)

This book took a very long time to pull me in, but I became a devoted fan by the end. On it’s surface, LUCY AND LINH is an almost cliché novel. Lucy comes from a lower class background, but earns a scholarship into a fancy private school where she struggles navigating the subtle teenage girl politics. Several iconic, thematically similar novels pop right to mind as you start reading. However, both Lucy and her story develop into something unique as you keep reading.

Lucy is a very smart girl, but quiet and withdrawn. She plans to coast through her high school experience, attracting as little attention to herself as possible. That idea goes out the window when she catches the eye of “the Cabinet,” the student nickname for a trio of popular girls who pretty much control the school, including the teachers, with petty but effective emotional warfare.

The Cabinet a tiresome trope, but I invested in this book so much because I found myself intensely relating to Lucy. She’s a hard worker who believes in work ethic for the sake of itself rather than for recognition. In fact, it embarrasses her when her work ethic, or anything else, draws to much attention her way. She’s smart, but many around her think having nothing to say is the same as having nothing to think. She wants to avoid drama, but finds sometimes it seeks her out. I connected most strongly, though, to her introverted side. Especially when things become convoluted or overwhelming, Lucy sneaks off to spend time by herself. Her peers find this weird and suspect, and I encountered similar confusion in my teenage years when I had social offers but opted for alone time instead. The book puts it very well: “As a general rule, teenage girls never, ever see solitude as a choice.”

This is a thought-provoking novel with plenty to discuss, especially around themes of class, privilege, and race. Lucy overhears one of her teacher’s friends refer to Lucy as “your little Pygmalion project.” Lucy may not know what that means, but we do. A good portion of this book is about Lucy’s slow revelation that sometimes by standing aside you are part of the problem. She wanted to stay tucked out of the way minding her own business, but as she sees behavior she detests she has to decide what’s worth more: taking a stand or minding her own business.

The whole book is told in first person as though Lucy is addressing an old friend from her previous life, Linh. So there’s some second person as well, directed at Linh. I think I found the format a little confusing and hard to get into, which is why the book grew on me so slowly. We don’t know that much about Linh, and it’s easy to forget she exists, except every now and then Lucy throws her name into the middle of a sentence as a reminder: everything’s being told to Linh. All that said, trust the author. There’s an unexpected twist about why the author chose this format. The twist is exceptionally well done and makes everything clear after the big reveal.

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR


Review of THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR by LEMONY SNICKET
(sixth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

For their latest guardian, the poor Baudelaires find themselves living with Jerome, an old friend of their parents’, and Jerome’s status and money obsessed wife Esme. The couple lives in an “in” neighborhood filled with rich, bored people who spend all their time gossiping about what’s “in” and “out” and restructuring their entire lives around these arbitrary guidelines. Unfortunately, Esme and Jerome live in the penthouse suite of their building...but elevators are out. Fortunately, though, orphans are in!

Jerome isn’t so bad, but - as is the Baudelaires’ luck - he’s another incompetent adult, concerned more with getting along with everyone than doing what needs to be done. I liked his character and found him more realistic than I care to admit. He’s nice, caring, and articulate, which sadly makes his primary weakness of being a coward all the more disappointing.

However, I will say that this is the first book where we encounter some adults who don’t feel entirely incompetent. Unfortunately, hope is a fickle thing and the hope that someone might be able to help them followed by the realization that, no, they can’t after all might be one of the cruelest twists the orphans have encountered in a while.

I do like that the villains feel a bit more capable and, therefore, dastardly in this installment. So far, Olaf has leaned far more heavily on the assurance that everyone else is an idiot. This is the first book where I feel he really does pull one over on the Baudelaires and becomes a more threatening villain for doing so.

Overall, the entire series is becoming more nuanced than the first few books. The first ones had a repetitive rhythm of: orphans being sent to a new guardian, Olaf shows up in disguise, no one believes them, Olaf ruins what might have been an okay home, his deception is revealed, he escapes, and book ends with the knowledge that the orphans need another new home. Well, okay, these books follow that plot line, too, but the past two have far more layers and plot twists, and they actually start to surprise me a little.

These books are much younger than what I tend to read and I do find the logic too loose for my tastes at times. You need to suspend disbelief a lot to get into this over-the-top story and sometimes I find my capability in that area strained to the breaking point.

As always I love Sunny’s baby talk. I’m a sucker for smart characters being overlooked as dumb, especially because others just can’t understand their type of intelligence.

Friday, April 7, 2017

LEARNING CURVES


Review of LEARNING CURVES by GEMMA TOWNLEY

This is the first book that I’ve re-read that didn’t live up to my memory. I think perhaps I mix up chick lit novels, since they’re very formulaic. Maybe I confused this one for another that I liked more, but the point is that I questioned why I thought it worthy a re-read. I debated whether or not to even review it here since I have so many criticisms, but ultimately decided that I did still enjoy it. Despite a plethora of intellectual complaints, I would still recommend the book to someone looking for some pure fluff reading without much substance.

When Jennifer’s materialistic, corporate father cheated on and abandoned her mother Jennifer took her mother’s side. Her mother, Harriet, raised Jennifer alone and filled her head with environmental ideals, some business savvy, and a lot of badmouthing about her father. Jennifer hasn’t seen her father in fifteen years when Harriet pressures her into going undercover in his company as a business student. Harriet suspects some shady doings and relishes the opportunity to take down her ex. However, as Jennifer finally comes closer to her father, she learns that perhaps her mother wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

My complaints about the book are numerous, but can all be boiled down to superficiality. There’s a lot of stock put into appearance as well as concepts like “re-branding” yourself to win a potential romantic prospect. There’s a sense of the men knowing what’s going on while the women run around messing things up until the men explain everything. There basically wouldn’t be a plot if the characters simply communicated with each other like emotionally healthy, mature adults. Characters who, by the way, feel flat, more like puppets for the plot, a plot that often feels contrived, forced into twists that don’t seem organic. There are lots of info dumps and the sexual scenes read far more awkward than steamy.

Despite all this, though, there’s also a lot of humor. As one example, the business students repeatedly enjoy putting their professors on the spot by suggesting condoms whenever the professor requests a sample product to discuss selling. Cue innuendo.

This is a flawed novel to be sure, but if you’re looking for some light entertainment reading it will certainly do the trick.  

Friday, March 31, 2017

THE AUSTERE ACADEMY


Review of THE AUSTERE ACADEMY by LEMONY SNICKET
(fifth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

It’s off to boarding school for the Baudelaire orphans where the horrid vice principal assures them that having a few descriptive words entered into a school computer will ensure Count Olaf stays away from the premises. By now, though, the children are catching on that all adults are incompetent, so best they be as resourceful as possible.

I found this installment more engaging than earlier ones, because it’s where the three siblings meet triplets Duncan and Isadora. Yes, you read two names. Their third sibling passed away in the same fire that claimed their parents, but Duncan and Isadora insist that doesn’t change the fact that they’re triplets, not twins. (There’s really plenty of wisdom buried in the ridiculousness of these books.) The Baudelaires have had no one but each other for four books now and it’s a refreshing change of pace for them to meet others who are not only kind (for they’ve met other kind people), but actually helpful. For once, it seems the Baudelaires’ lives just got a little bit better rather than worse.

These books are much younger than I normally read, at the low end of middle reader, but I still love them nevertheless, primarily for the witty undertones. There’s an understated kind of intelligence to the absurdity. Take the following excerpt as an example: “Assumptions are dangerous things to make, and like all dangerous things to make - bombs for instance, or strawberry shortcake - ” And it seems baby Sunny’s gibberish often isn’t as nonsensical as you might think. Read closer.

I also like how the narrator keeps warning the reader again and again how horrible everything turns out and begging them to read something else. I, for one, intend to ignore him and keep reading.

Friday, March 24, 2017

JULIA VANISHES


Review of JULIA VANISHES by CATHERINE EGAN
(based on a review copy)

The truth is that I liked this book a lot, but yet still have a hefty handful of criticisms that might make this review look more negative than positive. The good about the book is subtle, not things I consciously noticed and admired, but I’m nevertheless aware that I liked this story despite my complaints. When I push myself to consider why, I realize all the characters feel very believable and I’m above all a character-driven reader. Add to that a sense of mystery that I savor, even if it does make the story feel slow at times. 

Julia lives two lives. In her real one, she lives a cramped existence with a few corrupt if well-meaning thieves who have become her and her brother’s only family after their mother was drowned for being a witch. But she’s taken a job that requires she live another life for now, pretending to be a simple housemaid while spying on the household and reporting back anything unusual. She knows her mysterious employer is obviously looking for something, but she doesn’t know what yet. And, if she didn’t know already, she certainly learns by the end of the book the dangers of accepting an assignment without knowing exactly what that assignment is.

Moving into the book’s drawbacks, though, my primary issue is that I don’t like the protagonist, Julia. Not at all. She’s a despicable person, in my opinion. I believe the author makes a run at balancing Julia’s bad qualities against her troubled past, but personally I feel there are a million excuses for being a bad person. Ultimately, you decide whether to give in to those excuses or fight to be better. Julia is selfish, manipulative, and a coward. And the fact is I’ve read too many characters and known too many people in real life who have pushed past adversity to be a good person to have any sympathy for those like Julia. I did a whole blog post once on whether or not you need to like a character to like a book. I don’t, but in this case I think I was supposed to like Julia at least a little more than I did.

I sometimes enjoy stories with unlikable lead characters, especially when the character grows and changes over time. When well-done, it’s a treat to follow someone’s mindset transformation like that. Julia only becomes more and more appalling until a near irredeemable act initiates, to me, a too little too late change in her attitude. Even when she takes more admirable actions, it feels like she only does so to assuage her own guilt; she has no concept of what genuine kindness looks like.

There’s another side to my issues with the protagonist, too. Despite being our viewpoint character, Julia isn’t really an active player in this story. In fact, the book recognizes this itself, near the end, with the following line: “The great players here are the Xianren, Bianka, even little Theo. This is their story. This guard, and I, we are just caught up in it.” That’s how it feels. Julia is a close proximity witness to an unfolding story of significant magnitude, but her role seems to be mostly observer. Frequently throughout the book I felt myself reading about another character and longing to be in their viewpoint instead. It almost feels, at times, like everyone else’s story is more interesting.

Which is also part of why I kept reading, and enjoying, this book. All of the characters, Julia included, feel like entirely believable people. Though I frequently wanted to be in someone else’s perspective, I still enjoyed experiencing everyone else’s stories through Julia’s eyes and the combined tale is definitely intriguing. The characters include her protective, scarred brother of few but deliberate words; her creative, lost soul lover; her guardian of sorts who both shelters Julia and assigns her crooked, dangerous missions, to name few from a large cast. That’s not to mention all the awful types she encounters in her line of work or those misguided souls lured in by her innocent act.

Despite a good deal of criticism in this review, I liked this book beginning to end. For all my grumbles about Julia, I never found myself bored.

Friday, March 17, 2017

THE MISERABLE MILL


Review of THE MISERABLE MILL by LEMONY SNICKET
(fourth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

After yet another misfortunate befalls the Baudelaire orphans’ latest guardian, the infamously incompetent - if well-meaning - Mr. Poe arranges for the children to stay at a lumbermill. Little does he realize, once there the orphans are expected to work at the lumbermill under horrible conditions and for no pay.

Well, that's not quite true. The lumbermill pays its workers in coupons rather than cash, but without any cash the 2 for 1 and 20% coupons are tragically useless. This is an example of the kind of droll humor that peppers this entire series. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for the dedications at the beginning and letters to the editor at the end of each installment as both these play a role in the story.

At this point, book four in a long series, the plot can start feeling very formulaic, but Snicket manages to tamper with that formula just enough for each book to feel different and interesting. And I have to hand it to any author who can craft unique characters with such a small word count. My favorites in THE MISERABLE MILL include the useless sweetheart Charles and naively optimistic Phil.

Friday, March 10, 2017

THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS


Review of THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS by GAIL TSUKIYAMA

With this novel, Tsukiyama spins a tale of two brothers. Orphaned at a young age, Hiroshi and Kenji go to live with their grandparents. Strong Hiroshi and timid Kenji both discover their passions very early on in life: Hiroshi wants to be a sumotori and Kenji a mask maker. Hiroshi’s dream almost seems possible, while Kenji’s feels too far out of reach. Then both ambitions fade into the background as World War II devastates Japan.

These brothers’ lives are interwoven with that of two sisters, daughters to a famous sumo trainer. Like Hiroshi and Kenji, one has a stronger and another a weaker presence. After their mother’s violent death during the war, the elder sister Haru takes charge, helping her household as well as her father’s sumo pupils. Then she moves on to university where she grows into a strong-willed, smart, modern young woman who pushes against Japan’s traditions. Meanwhile, Aki wilts after their mother’s death, never recovering from the trauma. She’s quiet and withdrawn, unsure of herself and less capable of all chores Haru leaves behind when she goes to university.

These four characters form the heart of a story that spans most of their lifetimes.  I am a very character-centric reader and am happy to report that everyone here feels like a real person, and the intricacies of their relationships when they interact is what held my attention.

My only criticism, and if I recall this is true of the other book I read by this author, is that the storyline feels a little too tragic for my taste. There tends to be a theme in Tsukiyama’s writing of people making the wrong choices. As the reader, these mistakes seem so obvious and you can almost imagine an alternate happily ever after for the characters if they did even one thing differently. But they don’t. The characters can’t see what seems to the reader, or at least me, like the smart choice, and they pay the price for that emotional blindness. My favorite stories usually feature active characters who take control of their lives. Tsukiyama’s characters feel more like they’re surrendering to life, fixated on a certain path to the point that they don’t notice they have other options.  However, she does portray a very realistic phenomenon and the character decisions, if sometimes frustrating, are always believable.

THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS is about four specific children surviving a changing Japan, but it’s also a beautiful tale about family, emotional bonds, and pursuing our passions.

Friday, February 24, 2017

THE WIDE WINDOW


Review of THE WIDE WINDOW by LEMONY SNICKET
(third in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

The bad luck streak continues for the poor Baudelaire orphans. After their sweet uncle Monty died in the last book, they’re being shipped off to another even more distant relative. Josephine means well, but she’s no ideal guardian. She’s too timid, fearful, and concerned with her own well being to look after or out for three grieving children being pursued by an evil mastermind.

Many of my comments on this series remain consistent from book to book, my main one being that all the adults are incompetent. The level of hyperbolized incompetency can be frustrating, but ultimately I consider it a therapeutic metaphor for any child who feels adults aren’t taking them seriously. And the fact that no one listens to the Baudelaires forces them to be resourceful.

One criticism that’s a bit new to this specific installment in the series, though, is that there’s some pretty transparent phobia about gender ambiguity. One of Count Olaf’s lackeys is described from book one as a person who can’t beg pegged as either man or woman. That description alone can be interpreted as objective or prejudiced depending on how you read it, but in this book that fact is specifically cited as one of the scarier characteristics of this person.

Each of these books is a fast, simple read that follows a similar formula: Baudelaires go to new home and then it all goes horribly wrong. Along the way, you’ll encounter plenty of witty, subtle jokes that make each story well worth the read.

Friday, February 10, 2017

TEXAS GOTHIC


Review of TEXAS GOTHIC by ROSEMARY CLEMENT-MOORE
(first in the GOODNIGHT FAMILY series)

Amy comes from a family of witches, but doesn’t seem to have any magical gifts of her own. She hopes ranch-sitting for her aunt in Texas will be a nice, normal break from her crazy life. Well, she can forget that dream when she stumbles across a skeleton, starts finding herself haunted by angry ghosts, and can’t help antagonizing the cute - if tightly wound - guy next-door.

I’m not normally one for ghost stories, but I met this author at a conference and wanted to give her book a try. So glad I did. Themes are an easy way to sort what we expect we’ll like, but they’re not everything. And this is so my kind of book!

Above all, I loved the novel for the protagonist and her unique but familiar voice. Amy comes from one of my favorite character molds: a strong-willed girl who hides whatever insecurities she does have beneath a thick layer of humor. Despite being recognizable as a type, though, Amy still feels like a distinct individual with her own quirks and surprises worked into her personality.

Oh, but the humor. The writing here feels one of a kind, filled with unusual phrases that tell us plenty about Amy’s state of mind while earning laughs. In some ways, Amy puts me in mind of Brigit Jones a little, always finding herself in embarrassing situations and unable to filter herself as much as she would like. Let me share the first line, for example: “The goat was in the tree again.”

There’s a strong romance element running through this novel. I’ve mentioned plenty of times that I like romance, but I’m a very critical romance reader. When a romance meets my high standards, it can be my favorite part of a story, but when it doesn’t it’s where I’ll hit the hardest in a review. TEXAS GOTHIC falls in the former category. Neither character is portrayed as “perfect” but nor is the guy an idolized jerk. In other words, the author avoids all the cliché pitfalls of writing romance that can wind me up and instead presents a sweet story about two people who challenge each other and both come out better for it.  

Oh, oh, oh! And as a crazy dog lady, I loved what a big role Amy’s pack of rowdy dogs plays in the story. Easy tip to make me like a book more: add a dog. Even more: add another dog. It’s that simple.

I didn’t realize this is the first in a series. For one thing, the author does an excellent job writing this first book so it can be read as a standalone. No cliffhanger ending here! Nevertheless, I cannot wait to read the second.

Friday, February 3, 2017

ABARAT


Review of ABARAT by CLIVE BARKER
(first in the ABARAT series)

I first read this book back in college, on the recommendation of a friend, and remember being beguiled by the complex, extraordinary world Barker crafted. This one lives up to a second read as well as my flattering memories.

Candy lives a mundane life in a small town with her mother and alcoholic, abusive father. Then one day everything stops making sense, but becomes a magical adventure in the breakdown of logic. A sea sweeps in to the middle of a field - yes, a sea - and pulls Candy from her world into another: the world of Abarat. Here each hour of the day is an island, each one strange and different in its own way. There’s also an island for the 25th hour, the time out of time, but we won’t get into that yet.

In case you haven’t caught on, this book is weird. Writing weird is difficult, because tastes vary so much. Sometimes I find weird stories and I mean the adjective as a confused insult. In this case, when I call ABARAT “weird” I mean wonderfully, beautifully, enchantingly weird. Exactly my kind of weird. From invented creatures to how the magic works to surprising plot twists, here you’ll find page after page of the unexpected...and it feels like that sea swept you out to another world, too.

My only complaint has more to do with the specific edition of the book I read. The author is also an artist who paints dozens of images from his stories. The first time I read this book I borrowed it from the friend who recommended it, and her copy had the author’s paintings sprinkled throughout the story, almost every page. When I decided to re-read this one, I bought my own copy, not even realizing it was a copy without the illustrations. Get the illustrations! Get the illustrations! They add so much to the story...and the weirdness.

This tale transported me to Abarat and has lingered in the back of my mind for years. It’s one of those rare books that feels like its own kind of magic and reminds me why I’m in love with reading.

Friday, January 27, 2017

INKHEART


Review of INKHEART by CORNELIA FUNKE
(first in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

I first read this back in college and it has been one of my all-time favorites ever since, so when I started re-reading books for reviewing here this was one of the first ones to come to mind.

Meggie lives with her father and, though they’re both avid readers, he refuses to ever read aloud to her. She doesn’t recall exactly what happened to her mother, only that she went away a long time ago. Then one night a mysterious stranger lurking outside their house brings a warning for Meggie’s father and starts the ball rolling on an adventure Meggie could have never imagined.

Books about books have a special place in my heart for obvious reasons. There are stories within stories here. There’s the story we’re reading. Then there’s the book that all Meggie’s problem revolve around. Then there are all the books she and her fellow readers reference, as well as quotes from other books opening each chapter.

I especially adore magic systems that have to do with reading and books. Minor spoiler coming, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to start this book knowing as little as possible. Meggie’s father Mo has the unique power to read characters out of books and into our world when he reads aloud. I love, love, love, most any literary magic system, but this is still my all-time favorite spin on bookish magic.

Naturally, I like a lot of the characters, too, for the simple reason that they’re readers. From curmudgeonly Aunt Elinor to quiet, imaginative Meggie I can relate to each individual. If they’re not exactly me, as someone with a lot of reader friends I at least know someone like each and every one of them.

I mentioned that I only ever re-read books to review ones here that I actually read long before I started blogging. One fun aspect of reviewing something I’m re-reading, though, is noting which books stuck with me and which didn’t as much. INKHEART stands out among all the books I re-read as one I adored the first time, as much the second, and that stayed with me all the years in between.

Lots of glorious bibliophilia here!

Friday, January 20, 2017

THE REPTILE ROOM


Review of THE REPTILE ROOM by LEMONY SNICKET
(second in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

After escaping from the evil Count Olaf and his plot to steal their family fortune, the three orphans are sent to live with their Uncle Montgomery. He’s a kind man who studies and collects snakes, and plans to take them on an exciting research expedition. It sounds too good to be true, and for such unfortunate orphans, it is.

It’s a theme throughout this series that adults are mostly incompetent. Often well-intentioned, but incompetent nonetheless. Every time the children figure out what’s going on, their greatest battle is convincing an adult who can help that they’re correct. In general, the adults in this series seem more comfortable doing nothing, a portrayal that, while at times frustrating for the reader, might be therapeutic for real-life children who feel they aren’t being heard by the adults around them.

Similarly, I have heard this series critiqued for being too dark for a young audience, but I think many children can relate to feeling helpless. The Baudelaire children are a helpless hyperbole, and yet they never use that as an excuse not to try. They’re capable and resourceful and work together. At its core, this is a tale about being a good person even when the world isn’t being good to you.

There’s also a fun story within a story in this series, as the author crafts an entire false persona for himself that ties into the plot. The dedications allude to a mysterious Beatrice. The author bios are odd and unsettling. The letter to the editors are further fiction with hints at what’s to come in the next book.

I love the humor in this series. There’s a very wry type of wit that understates the joke to make it all the funnier.

Unfortunately, though, this book does not have a happy ending.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Favorite Books Read in 2016


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2016. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2016, not necessarily books published in 2016.

1.     CREWEL by GENNIFER ALBIN

In a world where gifted people can weave time and matter on a physical tapestry, Adelice stands out as extraordinarily talented. Only her invaluable skill keeps her alive, since she boldly questions and challenges her superiors in a society that wants to make every decision for every person without any resistance.

2.     EVERY OTHER DAY by JENNIFER LYNN BARNES

Kali is your cliché over-the-top, kick-ass, invincible heroine...some days - but every other day she’s a normal teenager. Then Kali spots a mark on a girl at her high school that means that girl will die within the day. Unfortunately, this happens on one of Kali’s “normal” days.

3.     SHARK GIRL by KELLY BINGHAM

When fifteen-year-old Jane loses her arm in a shark attack, she also loses her artistic talent and her privacy. She can’t sketch anymore without her good hand and now the media expects her to act out the part of inspiring survivor.

4.     WRITTEN IN RED by ANNE BISHOP

Meg is a blood prophet, which means when someone cuts her skin she sees visions of the future. She’s held captive so this power can be sold as a service, but she escapes and flees to live with the Others. While dangerous themselves, the Others don’t abide by human law and have no legal obligation to return a human fugitive.

5.     THE GATHERING STORM, THE UNFAILING LIGHT, and THE MORNING STAR by ROBIN BRIDGES

Set in 19th century Russia, this series spins a captivating story of glittering balls and dark magic. Duchess Katerina hides her necromancer power until a vampire prince threatens her family unless she marries him. Now her taboo gift might be the only thing that can protect her.

6.     TELL ME THREE THINGS by JULIE BUXBAUM

Jessie’s still reeling from her mother’s death when her father abruptly remarries and moves them to a different state to live with the new stepmom and her son. Los Angeles is a big change from Chicago and Jessie might be lost at her pretentious new school if not for the help of a mysterious stranger who emails her tips on how to navigate the local social politics.

7.     THE PHOENIX DANCE by DIA CALHOUN

In this twist on “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Phoenix wants to be a shoemaker but her manic depression makes her an unreliable employee, sometimes brilliant but other times apathetic. When her mentor loses his appointment as the official royal shoemaker since the princesses keep wearing through their shoes overnight, Phoenix takes it upon herself to figure out what’s really happening.

8.     PLACEBO JUNKIES by J.C. CARLESON

Audie scams drug trials for a living, but she and her friend have a plan to sign up for as many as they can without getting caught and really cash out. Trust the author with this book, even when things don’t quite make sense. Drug addled Audie is an unreliable narrator and things aren’t what they seem. 

9.     THE FAIRY’S RETURN by GAIL CARSON LEVINE

This last tale in Levine’s charming “Princess Tales” series spoofs “The Golden Goose.” When Princess Lark stops so much as smiling, her father declares she can marry the first prince to make her laugh. We know that will be our hero Robin, but not yet how this commoner will get around the prince requirement.

10.  BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY by JACLYN DOLAMORE

Mermaid Esmerine has always had a love for all things on land, which is why she’s one of the select few chosen to become a siren, who can walk on land with the help of a magical belt. When her sister’s belt is stolen, forcing her to stay on land, Esmerine enlists the help of a childhood friend, the winged bibliophile Alander.

11.  NOBODY’S PRINCESS by ESTHER FRIESNER

Everyone knows the story of Helen of Troy, but usually Helen is depicted as a passive object in the story, a trophy. Friesner instead presents an active, determined young Helen who wants more for herself than a husband and children.


Ibbotson writes sweet, young adult, historical romances, each featuring a smart, self-sufficient, kind-hearted heroine. From pre-war Austria to the Amazon, these novels are rooted in setting and each feature a wide cast of lovable characters.

13.  ON WRITING by STEPHEN KING

Part memoir and part writing guide, this book follows King’s journey to his successful writing career and is packed full of helpful advice and insight for aspiring authors. Writers and King fans alike will enjoy this medley of personal biography and motivational writing tips.

14.  FINDING AUDREY by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Audrey has incapacitating social anxiety that keeps her homeschooled and friendless. Then her brother’s friend Linus starts taking an interest in her and reaching out for a connection. Only Kinsella could give this premise so much heart and hilarity.


This true crime book follows the story of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman murdered in Japan. From the culprit’s mindset to Lucie’s work as a hostess to the media reaction over her disappearance, this book is packed with fascinating discussion-worthy content.

16.  BURNING MIDNIGHT by WILL MCINTOSH

A while ago colorful spheres popped up all over the world. Find two of the same color and you can “burn” them for some kind of personal enhancement: taller, stronger, smarter, etc. Welfare kid Sully buys these spheres and resells them for a small profit. When he teams up with a sphere hunter, they wind up finding a sphere no one has seen before...and they’re not ready for the revelation of what burning it will do. 

17.  ESPERANZA RISING by PAM MUNOZ RYAN

Esperanza lives a privileged life on her ranch in Mexico until her father is murdered by bandits and her family forced to abandon all their wealth and flee to the United States. Now Esperanza must work hard for a meager living. When her mother falls ill as well, Esperanza’s character will truly be tested.

18.  HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN

After Libby’s mom died, she ate her feelings and became morbidly obese. Though still overweight, Libby finally lost enough to return to high school - where she meets Jack, a popular jerk who secretly has face blindness. Jack might be better at blending in, but Libby has what really counts: a resilient spirit and maturity beyond her years.

19.  ENDERS by LISSA PRICE

This sequel to STARTERS picks up after Callie overthrew the organization that “rented” young bodies to the wealthy. Now people are hunting down the Metals, those with a chip in their brain enabling their body to be controlled by another mind. As a Metal herself, Callie goes on the run and tries to pick up and help as many others like her as she can.

20.  I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

As kids, best friends Libby and May invented a character called Princess X and together created a series of comics featuring their strong, wacky heroine. Then Libby dies in a car crash, but three years later May finds a Princess X web comic. The storyline contains details only Libby would know and even hints that maybe Libby didn’t die but was actually kidnapped. 

21.  THE SOUND AND THE FURRY by SPENCER QUINN

This latest installment in the Chet and Bernie mystery series has private investigator Bernie and his loyal dog Chet working a missing person’s case. Narrated from Chet’s canine perspective, the voice sometimes comically strays from the point or fixates on inconsequential details.

22.  CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by STACY SCHIFF

Usually portrayed as a manipulative seductress, records suggest Cleopatra wasn’t actually that attractive. Her notable charm came from her intelligence and charisma. This biography chronicles Cleopatra’s unusual and fascinating life and all her stunning endeavors.

23.  THE BAD BEGINNING by LEMONY SNICKET

Siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are sent to live with their relative, Count Olaf, upon their parents’ untimely deaths. They quickly learn their new guardian is a cruel brute set on stealing their family fortune and then killing them off, too. This morbid series features a unique sense of witty, wacky humor.

24.  POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER

Yelena’s about to be executed for murder when she’s offered an out: become the Commander’s food taster instead. Better to risk death than walk into guaranteed death, so Yelena accepts. However, surviving won’t be easy. The father of her victim wants her dead and she seems to be developing magical abilities in a land where such powers mean a death sentence.

25.  AND I DARKEN by KIERSTEN WHITE

In this dark, epic fantasy tale, White crafts a story of doomed friendship. When royal siblings Lada and Radu are given to an enemy as collateral for peace they meet the future Sultan Mehmed. Together the three form a powerfully bonded but toxic friendship triangle that will both build each other up and wreck destruction in all their lives.

26.  THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by NICOLA YOON

Can two people fall in love in one day? Natasha is a cynical skeptic due to be deported tomorrow and Daniel a hopeless romantic who wants something else for himself than his parents’ plan that he become a doctor. On paper, they don’t make sense, but Yoon crafts her characters with care and the chemistry between them is utterly convincing.