Monday, April 28, 2014


(review based on an advance reading copy)

My investment in this book waxed and waned, but every time I almost dismissed the story it snuck up on me with some twist or phrase that lured back my attention. I found the writing wonderful and distinct from the start. I haven’t read Setterfield’s popular first book THE THIRTEENTH TALE, but that might have been an asset. Readers I know who read her first novel seem disappointed in this newest work. I had a fresh perspective and found BELLMAN & BLACK an enjoyable, if not extraordinary, read.

Though advertising calls this a ghost story, that’s a misleading label. BELLMAN & BLACK is literary fiction. Magical realism perhaps, but thematically the story still feels closer to realism than magic. There’s a sense of mystery, a fixation with ravens and crows, and - yes - a possible ghost that plays a smaller role than the promotion implies. More so it’s a weaving biography of a driven man with little life outside of work.

Some people dissect stories based on factors like characters, setting, writing, pace, etc, arguing that an individual reader is more likely to choose books based on their preferred factors than things like genre labels. I know I’m primarily character-fixated when reading and BELLMAN & BLACK isn’t a character-driven story. Setting and writing contribute more to the book’s strengths. My second preferred factor is probably plot (with the third being writing) and this novel isn’t that plot-driven either. The focus feels fuzzy and unclear, a long sweeping view of one man’s life. Additionally some of the more fantastical scenes are described with such confusing phrasing that I’m left not knowing what just happened. My point here is that character- and plot-focused readers like myself won’t enjoy this book as much as those drawn primarily towards strong writing and evocative setting. As my third interest, the writing saved this book for me, but personally I’ve never had strong attachments to setting.

The pace feels rather jerky, adding to that sense of an unclear focus. Sometimes the story zooms in to follow closely on Bellman’s heels with detailed descriptions about the processes of dying cloth while other times the pace jolts forward with summaries of numerous dramatic developments over significant chunks of time. Along this note, the Bellman & Black store of the title doesn’t even enter the story until well over halfway through the book.

Setterfield portrays Bellman almost as a super human or at least an unbelievably hyper-productive human. I found myself irritated more than once with Bellman’s overdone perfection: he accomplishes more in one day - one hour - than any human possibly could, wins people over with a sentence - a look sometimes, and seems an immediate expert in any new field he enters. The text informs the reader of these things not once, but again and again and again. One could argue that Bellman’s implausible accomplishments are part of the magical realism, but I suppose my frustration stems from seeing success portrayed as effortless. In particular, anyone who has owned a business or worked in retail is likely to scoff and roll their eyes at how fantastically smoothly everything runs for Bellman when he opens his unusual store.

Speaking of which, his store does raise plenty of questions interesting for discussion. I want to avoid spoilers since it enters the plot so late, but suffice it to say that Bellman’s making quite a lot of money from other people’s misfortunate...and believing himself a saint for doing so.

I’ve listed far more criticisms than praise is this review, but I wanted to end on a positive note. Strange as it sounds, it wasn’t the story that impressed me in this book but smaller details. Setterfield has a real knack for observing small and mundane minutiae about the every day world. As one example, I adored young Fox’s realizations after leaving Bellman’s employ. When working for Bellman, Fox grew accustomed to the fast pace: filling every minute - every second - with production. Then he stepped back into the regular world and felt immediately frustrated with everyone else’s slowness and inefficiency. In particular, I liked his comments on how he often grasps someone’s meaning near the beginning of a sentence (depending on circumstances, even before they speak), but still feels obliged to listen to the entire sentence placed out painfully slowly, word by word. BELLMAN & BLACK doesn’t have a flashy plot but it boasts countless smaller moments than capture the truth of everyday life. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Website Focus: Book Crossing

So you’ve finished a book. Great! Now comes the question: what do you do with it? If you borrowed it from a friend or library, hopefully you return it. If you bought it, though, the question remains: keep, give to a friend, sell, donate? Well, if you like spreading your book addiction, consider going to

Here’s what you do:

1.     Register your book. This is free and easy. The book will get an identification code.
2.     Print out a label and put it on the book. This label has the book’s code and instructions for the next person.
3.     Leave the book somewhere. You can give it to someone you know if you prefer (friend, family member, co-worker, etc.), though a lot of people have more fun with what’s called a “wild release,” which means leaving your book in a public place for a stranger to find - park, restaurant, train station, coffee shop, wherever.
4.     Track your book on Your work is done. The next steps are for other people: finding the book, reading the book, adding their own comments on the website, and releasing it again. Still you can have fun checking in with your book’s identification code and seeing where the book travels and what other people thought.

Have fun!

Monday, April 21, 2014



Today I’m veering away from my usual YA fantasy taste and reviewing a photography book, one perfect for dog lovers like myself. Since coffee table books are so visual, I’ve included some extra photos in addition to the cover. 

The title tells you what to expect: photographs of dogs underwater - but you might be underestimating how hilarious such photos can be. From bubbles to muzzles ballooning like swim trunks, these photos catch all the amusing detail when a dog plunges their head below the surface.

This is a great gift book, especially for dog lovers and people who enjoy a good laugh. I can’t help hoping we haven’t seen the last of Casteel’s swimming-canine-photography.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Grammar Nerds: Serial Commas

If you don't care much about grammar specifics, here's your warning that this series of posts won't interest you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift.
Today's focus: serial commas.
Disclaimer: serial commas aren't right or wrong by modern grammatical standards. In the literary community, they're a source of controversy. While some of my grammar nerd posts will call out common mistakes, the serial comma is a matter of opinion.
First, let's make sure we're on the same page. A serial comma is a comma placed right before a coordinating conjunction (and, or) in a list (meaning at least three items). Example: I love books, dogs, and tea. That comma before "and tea" is the serial comma. Some people would write the same sentence as: I love books, dogs and tea - no comma. The argument for the latter method is that the coordinating conjunction (and) and the serial comma serve the same purpose of separating the listed items and, therefore, the coordinating conjunction alone would suffice.
I'm a serial comma supporter. In general, this lines up with my more traditional stance on commas: I always opt for the comma. Commas tell you how the sentence flows, where to pause. I say traditional, because it seems to me that modern literature is moving away from the comma. While many style guides still call for a serial comma, I see more and more books or publishers omitting commas that I don't even think are "optional" with the argument that all these punctuation marks clutter the writing.

Of course, another big reason for those commas is avoiding ambiguity. A carefully placed comma clarifies a sentence that could otherwise be read in numerous ways. Consider the sentence: I miss my cats, Daisy and Jess. Without the serial comma, the sentence currently implies that Daisy and Jess are the cats. Add a serial comma - I miss my cats, Daisy, and Jess - and it becomes a clear list.
As for you other grammar nerds out there, do you have a stance? To serial comma or not to serial comma?

Monday, April 14, 2014


(review based on an advance reading copy)
I declare this novel...delicious! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Katherine Longshore, especially her young adult Tudor books, but this one wins the prize for my favorite of her novels so far. In BRAZEN we follow the lesser known historical figure Mary Howard from the day of her marriage to Henry FitzRoy. (Though a bride, she’s still only fourteen years old.)

I couldn’t resist using the word “delicious” in describing BRAZEN, because Mary associates emotions and words with food and taste. Time and again, she describes her feelings through flavors and she informs her husband that every word has a taste. This technique might sound a little gimmicky, but I’m bursting with admiration for how well Longshore pulls it off. I don’t connect emotion and taste the way Mary does, but every single one of her “food-for-feelings” metaphors feels so precisely on the mark it’s like Mary’s showing me something I’ve been looking at every single day without noticing.

BRAZEN hooks with what sounds like a somewhat silly, superficial but nonetheless entertaining premise: Mary wants to sleep with her own husband and isn’t allowed. (Don’t misunderstand me, though, with the word “silly”: the book had me from page 1.) I loved BRAZEN for it’s sweet romance and amusing politics long before it turned a corner into something far more serious. That switch won’t be a huge surprise to anyone who has studied history, whether Henry VIII or history in general. Even Mary’s entertaining ambition to seduce her own husband only thinly veils the more sinister concept of power; the king wants control over everything and that includes everyone. Though most modern readers will agree with his ruling that Mary and Fitz are too young for consummating their marriage, humor turns to horror at the thought that a woman kissing her own husband could be considered treason and worthy of a death sentence. Before long this amusing tale about a teenage girl desperate for a kiss from her own husband turns into an empowering and affecting story of personal growth.

I liked Mary’s description of the historical figure Thomas Cromwell. She says he makes her feel safe and sabotaged all at once and through Longshore’s portrayal you can easily imagine how he coaxes seemingly innocent information from one source and then another before stitching it all together into a more menacing retelling than any one individual implied.

I have read numerous novels about Anne Boleyn, including Longshore’s own TARNISH, but none has made me feel her inevitable death more than BRAZEN. Longshore may have laid some of the groundwork in TARNISH by presenting a younger Anne Boleyn that I loved and wanted to protect, so in BRAZEN I juxtaposed that trapped teenage girl against the angry, bitter woman Mary sees. Anne retains much of her rumored flair for drama, but rather than appearing the manipulative vixen she strikes me as a terrified young woman. As Mary observes, Anne knows a fight for the king’s affection is a fight for her own survival. I knew it was coming and still felt utterly gut-wrenched by her downfall.

As always, I also enjoy and recommend reading the author’s note at the end about fact vs. fiction: what really happened and where Longshore filled in blanks or altered history to serve her own novel.

I found the romance simply wonderful. Fitz might be quite unlikely for a man from his time period (very progressive, especially in regards to women’s rights), but he’s swoon-worthy nonetheless. Though married and playing the parts of adults in court, both Fitz and Mary remain realistically shy, uncertain teenagers discovering their own priorities and passions in a big, complicated world.

Aside from the romantic relationship, Longshore has envisioned a strong friendship between Mary and two other young women at court: Margaret Douglas and Madge Shelton, both real historical figures. This trio sometimes possesses a powerful, fierce bond while other times that image frays to nothing more than a pretense of friendship in an environment overflowing with rivalry.

I’ve liked everything I’ve read by Katherine Longshore so far, especially her Tudor novels, but this one impressed me more than any of the others. An addictive, moving read of top quality.

Friday, April 11, 2014


(review based on an advance reading copy)

This didn’t seem like my type of book at all. I would have passed over it except someone literally shoved a copy in my hands at a book conference and declared, “You have to read this!” (That kind of thing happens more often at book conferences than in the rest of the world.) Boy, were they right. I had to read this and now you do, too!

At only sixteen years old, Travis was dying. Then doctors gave him an opportunity to volunteer for implausible medical procedures that they expected might be ready not that far into the future. Though presented with a few equally far-fetched options, Travis and his parents took a chance on the following: removing his head from his dying body, freezing it until such time that this procedure becomes ready, and then transferring his head to a donor body. You might already see why I didn’t think I would like this book. I balked and scoffed at this premise, utterly unconvinced, but upon starting NOGGIN it became apparent near immediately that this story isn’t about convincing explanations behind a science fiction premise; it’s about the characters and their emotions and this resurrection-type surgery serves as one intense catalyst.

As you probably already gathered, scientists do perfect this method and bring Travis back when someone with a brain tumor donates his otherwise healthy body for the procedure. Five years have passed, but Travis is still sixteen years old and feels like no time at all has passed. NOGGIN stays firmly rooted in characters and emotions. A huge part of why I managed to hop on board with the bizarre surgery concept so quickly is the following quote: “My parents took a little less convincing than I’d thought. They loved me. I was dying. This was a way for me to not be dying anymore.” No one, Travis included, really believed this procedure would work, let alone that he would come back a mere five years later, but at the time when they thought they were saying goodbye forever volunteering for a possible resurrection eased everyone’s pain. Now Travis discovers how much more complicated coming back from the dead is than he ever imagined. To him, no time has passed, but his loved ones considered him dead, mourned him, and moved on. He feels like he merely woke up from a somewhat strange night’s sleep, but his parents have given away all his possessions and strangers are sending him fan mail calling him a miracle and hate mail calling him an abomination. To makes matter worse, both his girlfriend and best friend have aged five years. His girlfriend’s engaged to someone else and won’t come see him while his best friend Kyle’s keeping a big secret. (Before Travis had his head chopped off from his original body, Kyle revealed that he’s gay, admitting that he wouldn’t even be telling Travis this if Travis weren’t dying and, hence, taking the secret with him. Of course, Travis expected Kyle would come out on his own time and now feels immensely disappointed to discover his friend casually talking about a girlfriend and pretending that conversation five years ago never happened.)

I loved the voice. Travis feels so real and following his train of thought so natural. His reactions to a bizarre surgery also helped ground an unrealistic premise for me. He balks at the idea of cutting off his head let alone attaching it to a new body, but comes around to the idea merely as a way to placate all the people insurmountably distraught over his inevitable death.

Questions pop up before the story even starts, from the premise alone. I certainly consider NOGGIN a great one for discussion. There’s the role media plays in all of this. Travis isn’t returning to his old life after all. He’s returning to one where he’s a celebrity, the second person to survive this extreme resurrection-type surgery. Being a minor, the media has to keep a reasonable distance, but they’re still there: wanting to know every little thing about him, as if Travis doesn’t have enough on his mind. Then there’s the passage of time. Five years have gone by, but Travis remains sixteen and feels like he only woke up one morning and everyone jumped ahead of him. He has a very hard time grasping that he can’t return to his previous life, that he’s starting anew. He doesn’t understand why his old friends resist seeing him at first or how his girlfriend could be engaged to someone else. (Sidenote: While I adored this book, the people I know who didn’t cite Travis’ inability to grasp the five-year difference. I found this believable and tragic, but I know others who grew frustrated with his determination to maneuver everything back to how it was before.) As Travis’ father points out, “They’ve grieved you for years and now they’re being asked to un-grieve you, and, sadly, that just isn’t something that very many people understand, because, well, it’s never been a possibility before now.” Which also brings up the fact that there are a lot of great quotes packed into this novel.

NOGGIN had me crying not once but practically throughout the entire second half of the book, with some scenes calling for a small trickle and others turning on the faucets. (As I mentioned before in earlier reviews, I’m not an easy crier when it comes to fiction.) While some people might have felt annoyed with how Travis won’t accept that his girlfriend is five years older, has mourned his death, and found someone new, I found the whole thing tragically believable. All this time, Travis assumed he was signing on for this procedure to pick up with his teenage life. He also considered the possibility that everyone he knew might be dead by the time the technology was perfected, but he never contemplated the in between: when enough time has passed to change everyone from the people he remembers. It wasn’t just Travis’ relationship with Cate, either, that opened my heart (and my tear ducts). Imagining what it must be like for parents who have spent five years trying to move past their teenage son’s death only to get him back earned more tears than I can count. I also shed some general tears for what it must be like for the world to change for you overnight, for how utterly overwhelming this must be for Travis. I do want to specify that some books that make you cry and you resent them for it while others make you cry and you love them for it. I loved NOGGIN for making my cry.

I found the ending satisfying but not quite as much so as I wanted. Much feels unresolved, ending on a note that everything will be hard for Travis and I think, “Yeah, we know that. That’s why we wanted to read a book about how he deals with everything.” Also the ending zeroes in on only one aspect of Travis’ complicated life rather than considering the whole mess.

If NOGGIN doesn’t look like your kind of book, I suggest considering it again. I didn’t think I could hop on board such an improbable premise, but Travis’ voice, the cast of wonderful and real characters, and the emotional implications of such a strange catalyst make NOGGIN one of my favorite reads so far in 2014.

Monday, April 7, 2014


(review based on an advance reading copy)

The title of this book summarizes the premise. For an English class assignment, Laurel has to write a letter to a dead person. However, rather than handing in her finished letter Laurel continues composing letter after letter to dead people she admires as her own kind of therapeutic journaling. “Letters to the dead” might sound a little gimmicky, but Dellaira makes it so much more than that.

Laurel’s story unfolds in these letters, rather than chapters, each one averaging 1-5 pages. She writes to Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, and many others. Part of why the letter structure doesn’t feel too gimmicky is how Dellaira does tie Laurel’s thoughts and problems back to the specific people she selects for each letter. It doesn’t take much observation skill to quickly deduce that Laurel locks her emotions away and doesn’t communicate them to others. Before I even understood why, I saw how these letters served as a lifeline for someone who can’t voice what she wants to say but needs an outlet.

This story feels remarkably real, mostly because the characters feel like real people. I had no difficulty imagining Laurel as a living, breathing teenager somewhere. Thoughts, family, friends, romance: it all felt rather convoluted and all the more realistic for the complications. We learn early on that Laurel’s older sister May died less than a year ago and then her family fell apart. Her parents divorced, her mother moved away, and her father slipped into depression. We don’t know why yet, but Laurel also blames herself for May’s death.

Laurel’s not the only one who feels real. All of her friends become more than the quick labels a lazy author might utilize. Quick label for Natalie and Hannah: lesbians. But if you asked Natalie who she’s attracted to I bet she would say “Hannah” rather than “girls”; she only has eyes for Hannah and demonstrates a fierce devotion despite some mistreatment. Hannah, on the other hand, shies away from that label and, though she’ll kiss and cuddle Natalie in private, in public she parades around with a steady stream of unsuitable boyfriends. Hannah also has a few complications at home that emerge more as the story progresses. Then there’s Laurel’s love interest Sky. Quick label for Sky: bad boy. Except he’s the most mature bad boy I’ve ever known! I don’t have any of the common bad boy gravitation, but I came to love Sky for his level head. He really grounds the novel. When Laurel romanticizes her dead sister, he calls her on it. When she behaves recklessly, he calls her on it. When she won’t communicate her emotions, he calls her on it. I also admired the progression of their romance. It’s unusual for fiction but extremely common in real life.

I had two predictions about the book and both turned out to be true, but I didn’t hold either against the novel. The first I forgave because the truth still skewed a little away from my exact guess and Dellaira also sidestepped my fear that a reveal would be milked for melodrama. The second had to do with predicting something about the ending early on, but if the ending’s predictable it’s because that’s the way the book is meant to end. It felt right.

I have a lot of praise for this novel and few criticisms. The first comes down to taste. At times, I found it too sad for me. I never liked the book any less for being sad, but I did literally have to set it down for a few weeks when I needed a break from how intensely I empathized with a very troubled person. Second, I worried the book might romanticize depression. That fear abated as I continued reading and came to the realization that Laurel, not the novel, romanticizes depression and overcoming that is part of her own personal growth. Third and final, the instances are few and far between but here and there the writing felt a little forced. A phrase might be quite beautiful, but it would feel extremely “writer-ly” and not in keeping with Laurel’s voice.

Laurel grows and changes immensely over the course of the book. She even sees the people she’s writing to in different lights as her perspective shifts, which elevates the letters-to-dead-people hook far above gimmicky. LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD is truly an extraordinary novel.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Blog Focus: Jenny Blenk

Blog Focus: Jenny Blenk

A lifelong bibliophile, Jenny works at an independent bookstore (Village Books) as a bookseller and is a blogger, reviewer, and aspiring writer. Her favorite genres are Young Adult and Speculative Fiction, but she also reads Science, General Fiction, and History from time to time. Jenny most enjoys reviewing books that present something new - an idea or an interpretation - and that will spark ideas and discussion among readers. When she's not reading, Jenny enjoys writing, gardening, hiking, playing with her pet rabbit, and spending time with close friends.

Jenny and I have both reviewed the following books:


Jenny’s summary: What if when you died your memories were stored as a History in a vast secret library? Mac works for the Archive, catching and returning ghosts that wake up and escape. But now there's something going wrong in the Archive: Histories are waking up left and right, and Mac seems to be right in the middle of it.


Jenny’s summary: Alina has never really shown much promise at anything. It's her best friend Mal who's always had the talents, been the center of attention. But when their company is attacked during a dangerous crossing, Alina suddenly manifests a rare magic that could be used to either save or destroy the kingdom. A hefty dose of Russian cultural influence gives this awesome story a distinctive flavor, too!


Jenny’s summary: It's not easy being a prodigy, especially when you don't think you'll ever achieve true genius. In a desperate attempt to make his mark on the world, Colin decides to come up with a mathematical formula to predict the arc of a relationship using his nineteen previous relationships - all with girls named Katherine - as a starting point. Cue the wit, hilarity, and teenage summer fun!

Some Other Books Jenny Has Reviewed:

Some of Jenny’s Other Blog Posts: