Friday, November 27, 2015



This book about a magic book hooked me from the first page with a remarkable voice. Tamara Goodwin walked off the paper and introduced herself, and her story tugged at my empathy right away. This is a familiar tale about a spoiled rich girl learning what really matters - the hard way.

The book opens by filling us in on Tamara’s father’s recent suicide. She found his body. Soon after, she and her mother learned of their imminent bankruptcy and realize Tamara’s father likely opted out of life before the ugly turns he saw coming. They lose their mansion, their wealth, their reputation and status, their you-want-it-it’s-yours lifestyle and move out to the country to live with Tamara’s aunt and uncle. Her mother retreats into herself and spends all day a mute lump in her room. Meanwhile Tamara discovers an unusual blank journal. Each day a new entry appears in her handwriting, detailing what we will happen tomorrow. This gives her some unexpected control, but not as much as you might think. For example, you might know that if you take a certain action something bad happens, but that doesn’t mean something worse can’t happen by seeking an alternative route.

That all said, the magical element, the prophesying book, isn’t introduced until well into the story, over 50 pages. Foremost, this a novel about family and, well, tomorrows. The themes in this tale seep to the surface and intermingle nicely with every twist and scene.

I liked Tamara from the start, even if perhaps we’re not supposed to like her that much. Maybe it’s her self-awareness that endeared her to me despite her flaws. She knows full well that she’s been spoiled and that she can be cruel to people when she doesn’t get her way. She calls herself a horrible person. Silly as it sounds, I found her less horrible for saying so herself. And it’s always enjoyable to watch a well-handled character transition. She tells herself that she wishes her dad had talked to her instead of killing himself, but she acknowledges that without being on the other end of his suicide she would have been a brat if he came to her and admitted they were about to lose everything.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like rating books and one of my reasons is that, for some books, I want to give so many stars before a certain page count and a different number after. This is one of those books. I would happily give the novel 5 stars up until the climax. Then the story, that felt so carefully crafted and nuanced to me, falls into a pit of convoluted melodrama that undermines everything I loved earlier. While I didn’t like all the revelations near the end and how they’re handled (like a “Here’s what was really going on” info dump), I will say that I liked the very end of the novel, the exact scene and note on which the author choose to conclude everything.

What I loved about this book, the strong themes about how much control we really have over our life, remain potent even through the bits I didn’t like. It’s well-titled, too. THE BOOK OF TOMORROW doesn’t merely refer to the magical journal, but to this book itself, a story examining the concept of tomorrow and everything that word means.

Friday, November 20, 2015


(third in the PRINCESS TALES series)

In PRINCESS SONORA, Levine spins a new version of “Sleeping Beauty.” One where her fairy gifts annoy the king and queen more than please them. They want a normal, healthy daughter, one they can watch grow from infant to woman and develop into her own unique individual. Well, the gifts make Sonora magically extraordinary but sometimes the royal couple longs for a more average child. That said, the gift that really drives everyone in the kingdom crazy is the one that makes Sonora ten times smarter than anyone else in the world.

Of course, the gift that worries everyone (even baby Sonora because she’s so smart she understands everything) is when the snubbed fairy Belladonna curses Sonora with inevitable death by finger prick. As the story goes, another fairy intervenes and changes death to 100-year sleep. Everyone thinks Sonora cries at that because she’s a baby, but she’s bawling so much because she doesn’t want the world to change around her while she takes the longest nap ever.

Thanks to Sonora’s incredible smarts, the kingdom develops its own catch phrase: “Princess Sonora knows, but don’t ask her.” Whenever anyone anywhere asks something that no one can answer, that’s the joke. For to ask Sonora a simple question means to invite a lecture expounding on a subject far more than one ever intended.

As Sonora matures, her parents start seeking potential suitors, each with their own list of wonderful fairy gifts crafting their perfect personalities. Sonora detests them all. Perfect on paper, lacking in person. Carson does a stellar job in pinpointing what Sonora needs in a partner. She likes to answer she needs someone who likes to ask them.

Another cute, witty installment in this middle grade series of fairy tale retellings.

Friday, November 13, 2015



Like THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, Erdrich’s first novel LOVE MEDCINE spins a long-spanning story about a family history. However, in this case it’s more like a tribe history - with complicated connections linking disparate characters together. Spreading across 60 years, the book follows Ojibwa characters living in North Dakota. 

The novel switches time and perspective every chapter. Pay close attention to the chapter headers that inform you of who’s speaking and when. Most chapters feature a first person narration, which makes mixing them up easy if you don’t root yourself at the start of the chapter in who’s speaking now. I personally do not like when a book features more than one first person voice. When we follow different characters in third person, it’s simple telling them apart because we’re reading a different name. With multiple first person viewpoints, the voices need to be starkly unique, and more often than not I don’t find the voices distinct enough from each other for me to consistently track who’s speaking when.

I had a similar reaction to LOVE MEDICINE as THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB. Good but not as great. Strong writing, but not notable enough that I fawn over phrases - like I did with THE ROUND HOUSE. A big cast of interesting characters and yet I didn’t invest in them enough to fall in love with the book.

As with THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, characters lead the novel more than plot so I want to take a moment to describe the key players. The book spends the most time with a love triangle featuring Lulu, Marie, and Nector. Many small communities have that someone about whom everyone gossips, that someone who causes waves whether they meant to or not. Lulu is that someone for this community. She loves easily and briefly and a lot of children by different fathers have come from that carefree love. She’s independent and unpredictable and the kind of person who thrives more than wilts under criticism and judgment. Nector falls for Lulu hard as a young man, but ultimately marries Marie, a safer choice. When Nector and Marie struggle having children of their own, Marie starts taking in orphans whenever she can until they have a house brimming over with kids. Meanwhile, Nector never lets go of his torch for Lulu and it starts burning away at the edges of his marriage. There are plenty more characters, many of whom get their own chapters, but if I had to pinpoint a focal center, it would be Lulu, Marie, and Nector.

I had this strange reaction to LOVE MEDICINE that I’m not sure I ever felt for a book before - where I found the characters more intriguing off the page than on. What I mean is that while I was reading, I didn’t find myself strongly investing in characters’ motivations, goals, experiences, etc. However, whenever I set the book down I continued thinking about them. Any book that can do that has my respect and I would definitely push this for book groups.

Friday, November 6, 2015


(second in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

Lorelei would be a helpful person if she could, but she’s tragically too fragile to be much help with anything! Since infancy, injuries and illnesses have plagued her, often brought on by the smallest, most unexpected, variables. Though she’s a kind person at heart, she seems selfish and lazy to some because she spends so much time lying about recovering from her latest ailment. Now what fairy tale would a finicky girl like this find her weakness to be a weird strength? Why, “The Princess and the Pea,” of course!

Levine delivers another short, sweet spin on a familiar story. These fairy tale retellings for young readers stand out from many similar stories by avoiding any didactic tones. Levine isn’t preaching anything here. There’s no moral at the end of the book, or simple structure with good people and bad people, the former rewarded at the end and the latter punished. The tale’s a bit (delightfully) wacky at times, but never didactic.

I read these as a young girl and would highly recommend them for beginner readers, but they’re also one of those pleasant surprises that hold up as an adult. The stories are simple and young, yes, but fun and smart, too.

Friday, October 30, 2015



After surviving World War I, German sniper Fidelis Waldvogel seeks out his best friend’s widow. His friend died in the war, leaving Eva pregnant and alone, so Fidelis marries her, and from tragedy and obligation they carve out, over time, a fierce and very genuine love. This quiet, steady conviction in each other serves them well when they leave Germany for America - where Fidelis uses his inherited butchering trade to build a business starting with nothing but some sausages.

I fell in love with Erdrich as a writer after reading one of her more recent novels THE ROUND HOUSE. From the writing to the characters to the plot, I savored nearly every detail of that book with relish. I wrote a blog post once about over-hype, when a book cannot live up to our own expectations (or the expectations others helped craft for us). In this case, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, while a good book, couldn’t live up to how much I esteemed THE ROUND HOUSE. In retrospect, I approached Erdrich’s work the wrong way - from most recent to earlier publications. THE ROUND HOUSE is one of her more current successes, a product of decades of honing her craft and writing many stories before. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, thought far from Erdrich’s first book, was nevertheless published almost a full decade before THE ROUND HOUSE, doubtless quite the gap of time for sharpening a skill.

With THE ROUND HOUSE, I caught myself appreciating phrases on nearly every page and awing over how not a single word felt out of place. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB doesn’t have that same tight, polished feel, but I could see glimpses of the writing I admire so much emerging. However, the same keen insight is there even if the turn of phrase didn’t strike me as much. I particularly liked when Delphine confronts her alcoholic father. When she asks him why he drinks and he responds that he does so to fill the emptiness, she explodes that “everyone does everything to fill the emptiness” and therefore that is no excuse for dreadful behavior and poor choices.

I couldn’t invest in this story the way I wanted to primarily because the characters felt more like flat sketches on a page than real, breathing people. I found both the Erdrich books I read driven by character above plot, but when I don’t connect with the characters enough I crave more plot focus. At its heart, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is a family saga, not following one event or one person but a particular family over a long period of time. The characters are all interesting and certainly draw the reader in to consider their strengths, weakness, paradoxes, and quirks. Yet they never popped for me the way I like, where I can nearly imagine having a conversation with them myself.

Since this book focuses on the family and characters, I thought it fitting that I describe the cast - since they’re more important really than the plot premise I outlined above. First we have Fidelis, the cliché strong, quiet man who keeps his feelings to himself though he does in fact feel a lot. Then there’s his wife Eva, pregnant with his best friend’s son at the initiation of their marriage. She, too, exhibits a kind of understated determination and work ethic that draws the admiration of Delphine. A former circus performer and forever stubborn, independent woman, Delphine latches on to Eva as the mother she never had. Meanwhile, Delphine takes a fake fiancé Cyprian to stave off small-town rumors on her single life. Cyprian is a veteran and acrobat who, despite his intense feelings for Delphine, cannot love her in the way she wants. Then there’s Delphine’s drunken father Roy who explains her need for some kind of parental role model even as a young woman herself. Eva and Fidelis also have four sons. The oldest Franz has no idea he’s actually fathered by another man and grows up to be Fidelis’s mirror in spirit, though his passion is for planes rather than butchering. Eva and Fidelis first have twin boys, Emil and Erich, and then another son Markus, who becomes Delphine’s favorite and someone she takes great pains to nurture as best she can. There’s also Franz’s girlfriend Mazarine, Fidelis’s busybody sister Tante, the undertaker and Delphine’s best friend Clarisse, and the menacing Sheriff Hock.

In all honesty, I found THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB a good book with ample to discuss regarding characters and relationships not to mention history. I only caution that if you read Erdrich’s later work first, you might be startled at the realization of how much her writing has developed over the past decade.  Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Fidelis also possesses a remarkable voice and participated in a singing club with other master butchers in Germany, a tradition he brings with him to America.

Friday, October 23, 2015



Every day A wakes up in a different person’s body. A took this simple name for themself, because they have no consistent name, physique, friends, family, gender, life. Every day A is someone new. In fact, A (unintentionally) borrows another person’s body for the day. A is considerate about the fact that it’s not their life. Every single day is a day stolen from someone else, so it’s never a day for A to do whatever they want. Then A meets Rhiannon, someone they want to see the next day and the day after that, someone with whom A hopes they could form a long-lasting relationship rather than the millions of single-day parents and best friends A has known.

As a writer myself, I found the premise utterly fascinating. The concept explodes with questions and I recognize what a challenge it would be to write something like this. I already loved Levithan’s work, but I admire him for tackling such a brave notion.

Amazingly, A does have a distinct personality despite no single body. Dry wit. Observant. Unusually mature for their age, but expected for their circumstances. A has mastered the quick assessment of a person. While A can access their current body’s memories, it’s not an easy, immediate task, so A often works from cues. They know how to summarize their temporary family and friends and look for signs that anyone expects something from A (or rather from whomever A’s residing in that day).

As always I found Levithan’s writing beautiful and popping with plenty of sharp insights that resonate with me enough to bookmark. I nodded along with A’s breakdown of kindness vs. niceness. A believes niceness is superficial, an indication more of how you want to be perceived, while kindness is unselfish and sincere, a genuine reflection of your character. I also know I’m not the only one to pull out the following quote as exemplary: “Love can’t conquer anything...It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf.”

The nature of the magic system raises countless discussion questions about identity. A isn’t tied to specific friends. Even if they like certain kinds of people more than others, they likely won’t see them the next day. A has not had a typical childhood. In fact, A has been molded more by society overall than any one particular household. A doesn’t have hobbies or much opportunity to hone a specific skill. A views gender more fluidly than your average teen since they’re often in a girl’s body one day and a boy’s the next. A views themself in emotional and intellectual terms rather than physical. And identity is only one category of questions. Then consider the ethics. A has no control over this body swapping, but they still feel like an imposter and a life thief. A lives so carefully as not to interrupt a person’s life, but then rarely lives for themself. A constantly considers how actions in a single day could affect the next day, week, month, year, lifetime for the person who will take their life back in 24 hours. A battles with unanswered questions about what they are and whether any amount of deliberate effort can ever outweigh their accidental body snatching.

One of my few criticisms in an otherwise fantastic novel is that I didn’t understand what was so special about A’s love interest Rhiannon. As A mentions repeatedly, they have seen so many people in their lifetime. Rhiannon didn’t strike me as unique enough for me to believe A has never met anyone like her. Her special qualities were usually told and rarely shown. Upon first sight, A thinks she’s different, special enough to jeopardize the whole system A has worked out for laying low, but I never followed the logic or emotional reaction about why A admires Rhiannon so much. Nothing against her. She’s a strong character, but I don’t think she’s one of a kind and I don’t buy that A has never met someone like her before. 

I read this entire book awing at the ambitious scope and wondering how the author would begin to end something this complicated. The good news is that EVERY DAY is a terrific book, but the bad is that its scale makes it difficult to find a satisfying ending. The story feels like it cuts off as it’s only really picking up and one primary resolution felt, for me, sweet but forced.  I finished the book with a combination of lingering respect and unsettled questions.

Friday, October 16, 2015


(review based on audiobook, read by KATHLEEN MCINERNEY)

SPRING FEVER opens with a wedding. In fact, Annajane Hudgens sits in stunned silence as she watches her ex-husband Mason marrying another woman. Then something stops the wedding and the couple has to postpone it for a while. Annajane has tried and tried to convince herself that she’s over Mason, that she’s fine with his remarriage and blissful in her own recent engagement, but now fate has handed her an opportunity to call her own bluff, if she has the courage.

I found this another simple, enjoyable read from Mary Kay Andrews. The story features engaging characters and the audiobook boasts an excellent narrator. The plot leads you along easily and the writing lends the air of a friend telling you the story.

I liked the, more than usual, complicated relationship dynamics. Mason and Annajane aren’t merely exes, but exes who work closely together. Not so unusual, you might be thinking. Well, let’s add in the fact that shortly, suspiciously shortly, after their divorce, Mason took sole custody of Sophie, his newborn daughter with an unnamed mother. The gossip around town speculates that Sophie’s mother and Mason had a one-night stand while he and Annajane were still married. Annajane knows that the timing is discomfortingly close to their divorce regardless, but to her surprise her bitterness melted away as soon as she met Sophie. She fell hard for the little girl and has played an active role in Sophie’s life ever since. That all said, I will admit that some of the twists at the end took the relationships from intriguingly complex to soap opera melodrama.

In my mind, there’s some hypocrisy going on with Quixie. That’s the soft drink company handed down in Mason’s family, the company where both he and Annajane work. While the book paints (with heavy handed strokes) Quixie as a wholesome family business, it’s ultimately a huge commercial enterprise that keeps their family stinking rich by selling people an unhealthy product. Wait, I’m not actually on a soapbox here. I just found myself rolling my eyes when Annajane goes on about the purity of the Quixie brand time and time again. 

In general, though, this book doesn’t view things in the shades of grey I prefer but more in black and white. Take Mason’s fiancé and almost new wife Celia. As I see happen in many stories, Celia (the other woman figure) starts off as a nice if somewhat shallow person who’s simply not a good fit for Mason. However, her character descends into a mind-bogglingly deceptive and selfish woman. Personally, I enjoy the earlier incarnation of her character better. I think it makes a stronger statement when someone chooses between two people who could be good for him, rather than simply figures out which one is evil and which his soul-mate.

In many ways this sweet, simple story becomes a tale about pride, a tale about two people who could be great together if they can put the past behind them.