Friday, October 6, 2017

BEWARE THAT GIRL


Review of BEWARE THAT GIRL by TERESA TOTEN
(based on a review copy)

This story switches in a quick back and forth between two teenage girls: Kate and Olivia. Kate is a hardened manipulator. After a nightmare childhood, she’s learned to take care of herself, a skill that involves no small amount of lying. Currently, she’s conning everyone at her prestigious prep school into believing she lives with her aunt, when in reality she rents out a dump of a room in Chinatown. When Olivia befriends and subsequently invites Kate to move in, it’s the break Kate needs.

Olivia is an idol at their school, due in part to wealth and part to juicy rumors. She disappeared for a whole school year and no one seems sure about why. From some medicine cabinet snooping, Kate knows it must be mental health related but not the details.

Then the young, charming Mark Redkin joins the school administration as a fundraiser. He’s gorgeous with a killer smile and always seems to know exactly what to say to win over whomever he’s addressing. So then why does he make Kate’s skin crawl?

Perhaps her past makes her too cynical, but Kate suspects Mark’s public mask is too good to be true. Her gut tells her he’s bad news, but she can see Olivia being sucked in by the charm. One of the keys to survival is not investing enough in the well being of others to jeopardize your own hard-won safety, but Kate’s finding it harder than she expected watching Olivia drift dangerously closer to Mark.

This is one of those books that exemplify why I dislike rating books with stars. I would give most of the book 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured it. I found the characters disturbingly believable and the suspense had a level of creepiness I usually only experience in speculative fiction. That said, I felt the whole story fell apart at the end. It feels like character development, believability, subtlety, all of that gets sacrificed at the alter of drama and fast pace for an overdone climax that doesn't fit well with the rest of the novel.

While disappointed that the book didn’t hold its own through the end, I still found it a fast, gripping read that I would particularly recommend to anyone interested in psychology. The main characters here are vastly different but each grapples with their own internal battle of survival and what that concept means to them.

Friday, September 29, 2017

NOBODY'S PRIZE


Review of NOBODY’S PRIZE by ESTHER FRIESNER
(second in the NOBODY’S PRINCESS series)

Helen returns for more adventure in this enjoyable sequel. Determined not to let her gender keep her from the action, Helen disguises herself as a boy and sets sail on the Argo. Of course, she can ignore her womanhood all she wants but the world won’t do the same. Her friend Milo and her brothers still want to protect her. There’s also all the romantic attention she receives by anyone who figures out she’s a woman, not to mention Helen’s own unexpected crushes.

These books feature the kind of skilled, unobtrusive writing that fades against the page and lets the reader focus exclusively on the story.

For anyone still not clear, the Helen I mentioned is Helen of Troy. I adore Friesner’s portrayal of this iconic figure. Helen is no damsel in distress. If she cannot escape a bad situation, you can trust that it’s not for lack of trying. She is clever and determined. These books take place before her beauty started a war and it’s clear from comments that she’s still growing into her beauty: a gangly ugly duckling slowly transforming into a swan. She doesn’t yet see herself as beautiful, but what she does know is that when men perceive her as beautiful it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.

The book ends before the more familiar part of Helen’s story, but I can’t help hoping the author will return to tell more. I’m a sucker for women who refuse to climb into the box society has prepared for them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

BOY MEETS BOY


BOY MEETS BOY by DAVID LEVITHAN

Most of us are familiar with the classic boy meets girl storyline: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back. That’s exactly what the title of BOY MEETS BOY promises...with one obvious distinction.

Paul attends a high school like none I’ve ever known, though I (and probably many others) wish this had been my high school. The campus is populated with dynamic characters. Take Infinite Darlene as one example, previously known as Daryl before she realized she likes strutting around in heels and false eyelashes just as much as she loves playing quarterback on the football team.

For our narrator Paul being gay has never been more than another part of his identity. Not a revelation, not a struggle. Of course, the same can’t be said for everyone. One of his gay friends Tony has religious parents determined to fix him. Then there’s Paul’s ex-boyfriend Kyle who, after what seemed a sincere romance, spread rumors that Paul somehow tricked him into liking guys.

In other complications, Paul feels he’s losing his best friend of forever, Joni, to a new relationship. He watches the person he loved being swallowed by someone else’s wants and feels powerless to stop it.

All that fades away when Paul meets Noah, the boy who seems different from any other boy. Uniquely and perfectly special. As our established storyline warns us, however, Paul’s about to make some dumb mistakes.

I have heard frequent criticism of this book that it isn’t revolutionary enough, that it’s merely the same old formula but with two boys instead of a boy and girl. Exactly! I think. Count up the number of boy meets girl stories for a ratio and you see we still need many, many more boy meets boy stories. Not to mention that it’s counterproductive to hold queer fiction to some higher bar where every book needs to blow your mind in a way not expected from romances between a girl and a boy.

Besides, I do think BOY MEETS BOY has potential for mind-blowing. The characters are so wonderfully quirky and nuanced and yet so believable. The high school seems like a “different” kid’s dream where everyone can “come out” as themselves with all their eccentricities worn on their sleeves. After all, the details make the story and the details here certainly make this book memorable.

Friday, September 8, 2017

THE END


Review of THE END by LEMONY SNICKET
(thirteenth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

In the final book in the lengthy SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS saga, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves shipwrecked on a strange island with their nemesis Count Olaf.

I’ll address the end first, because with the final book in a series this long the end is what affects the reader most. The end of THE END is neither satisfying nor unsatisfying. The author finds a good closure point for a tale that clearly continues. However, as I expected the closer we came to the end, many plot threads remain unresolved. That said, this has always been a strange, mysterious series for which it seems fitting that there remain things we never know.

In some ways the story gets even darker in this last book. However, the author also makes efforts to humanize the villain Olaf in the last few books, humanize without excusing any terrible actions.

This installment also continued the trend I disliked of having some incredibly long paragraphs - as in stretching across pages without a break long paragraphs. While it adds to the sense of a rambling narrator, this formatting takes the joke too far for me and just becomes frustrating for the eyes.

This whole middle reader series is a fun, quirky tale about being a good person even when the world isn’t being good to you.

Friday, September 1, 2017

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF UNICORNS


Review of THE NATURAL HISTORY OF UNICORNS by CHRIS LAVERS

This exploration of the legendary unicorn delves into historic records of unicorns and likely explanations for the creature’s mythical evolution across centuries. This in-depth analysis explores several cultures not to mention dozens of animals that all possibly contributed to the unicorn mythology.

To anyone already well-informed on their unicorns, I don’t think there’s much new here. The book can also feel a little technically dense with quotes from old writings about unicorns as well as detailed descriptions of animal species. The speculation becomes somewhat repetitive, too. In short, the theory is that different cultures borrowed aspects of real animals and pieced together this famous creature, which then developed further over time as the stories took on a life of their own.

That all said, if you care about the subject matter then this is still an interesting read. For one thing, I learned about a lot of species about which I had never heard before. I also found myself intrigued separating out where certain beliefs originated, be they secular or religious originally as well as geographical origins.

This is a detailed scholarly examination of an iconic creature and the truth behind the fantasy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

FUSE


Review of FUSE by JULIANNA BAGGOTT
(second in the PURE trilogy)

It took me a long time to get into this book. Were I someone who gives up on books, I may have stopped reading simply because this didn’t hold my interest for a decent chunk at the start. That said, once I did find myself being pulled in, the book pulled me in hard. I became more and more invested in the story with each page, an ardent fan well before the end. Hard for me to say why, but I suspect because the book feels more plot and action driven near the beginning while what I adore most about this series is the complex, unique characters.

At the end of the first book, Partridge escaped the Dome and uncovered a mess of lies perpetrated by their leader, his father. They send his crush Lyda out after him in the hopes she can convince him to return. The ironic twist is that Lyda ultimately wants to stay outside while Partridge feels he needs to return. Partridge also met his half-sister Pressia. She continues working with her companions Bradwell and El Capitan in an effort to decode each new mystery they encounter.

I expect some people love this story for the worldbuilding, the disfigured Beasts and Dusts left by the detonations as well as the politics surrounding the Dome and its inhabitants. Personally, I skim the action scenes. For me, the characters make this story. I LOVE these characters. Every one feels vibrant and intriguing, the relationships between them very real and layered. In fact, I adore these characters enough to talk about each one by one.

First, there’s Pressia, our original heroine from book one. The detonations left her with a doll in place of a hand and a fighter spirit that carries her through everything. Then there’s her half-brother Partridge, who is only now awakening to the realization that his sheltered life in the Dome has all been a cruel deception. I especially like Partridge’s crush Lyda, mostly because she would hate me labeling her that way. As much as she likes Partridge it only takes a little taste of freedom outside the Dome for Lyda to decide she would rather dangerous freedom than controlled safety; that includes Partridge’s own protective behavior. Pressia has a love interest of her own, the understandably cynical Bradley who shares her inquisitive mind. However, El Capitan has to be my top favorite character. The detonations fused his own brother Helmud to his back, but reduced Helmud’s verbal capabilities to repeating overheard phrases or words. El Capitan is a fierce, merciless man of war battling his own insecurities about being an unlovable monster. Last, I want to mention a new addition in this book, Iralene. She comes into play later, so I won’t say too much, but she’s a tragically convincing portrayal of someone pushed past the boundaries of a natural, healthy human life.

At times I found the villain, Partridge’s father Willux, too hyped for my tastes, more when others discuss him from a distance. I found I most related to the smaller interactions between him and his son Partridge. It’s unsettling imagining the mindset of anyone who can isolate emotions and rearrange his own perspective as needed for whatever he wants to accomplish.

Before signing off from this review, I do want to call out one thought I particularly admired from Pressia’s perspective. Having grown up in a post-apocalyptic world with few resources, no luxuries, and very little human connection, she muses on what she has learned about her mother’s past life before the detonations. Consider this beautifully phrased line: “Pressia can’t help but think of her mother as love-rich, love-spoiled.” In a society that puts so much emphasis on material possessions, I cherish the idea of reflecting on how love spoiled I am.

Friday, July 28, 2017

THE PENULTIMATE PERIL


Review of THE PENULTIMATE PERIL by LEMONY SNICKET
(twelfth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

At long last we reach the second to last book in this tragic series. Momentum builds for a grand finale as the Baudelaires go undercover as concierges in a hotel that is mysteriously attracting almost every person, good and bad, from their recent past.

As if they don’t have enough difficulty telling friend from foe these days, there are also two managers named Frank and Ernest. One of them is an ally and one is a villain. Oh, but did I mention that they’re identical twins? In the end, the Baudelaires can’t tell who is who, so they can’t exactly reveal themselves or ask for help from either manager.

Nearing the end of the series we also see the Baudelaires straining to maintain their previous code of ethics. They’re starting to wonder what the good of doing good is if it only brings them so much bad. Doing the right thing has never served them well and you can see that harsh truth pressuring them like never before during their stay in the hotel.

My only quibble with this book is the long paragraphs. I haven’t compared, but I could swear this is only a trend with this particular book, not the whole series. The paragraphs run much longer then earlier books, to the point that some paragraphs go on for several pages before a new one. From a format standpoint, a paragraph is similar to a new sentence or a comma: it’s a pause between thoughts. To me, the long paragraphs feel very rambling and like I am not being given a moment to digest anything between these rambling thoughts.

The next book, the thirteenth, is the last in the series and I cannot wait to see how the orphans conclude their terrible story. Fingers crossed that they choose not to give up on good!

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.