Friday, December 29, 2017


(based on a review copy)

At first I feared this book may not live up to the glowing quotes I read from other authors. Marketed as a twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the story feels very familiar for the first few chapters. The sole twist appears to be our protagonist (and, as most readers will expect, the princesses’ eventual savior), a young girl named Reveka - as well as her unexpected interest in herbs.

However, the novel really hits its stride about a third of the way through, when it becomes apparent that this is a much twistier version than I anticipated. The plot actually melds two favorite fairy tales and the second (one of my personal favorites) becomes glaringly apparent about halfway into the book, about the same time when the story veers off into delightfully unexpected and compelling directions.

I struggled a little reconciling Reveka’s young fourteen years of age with her maturity and the decisions she makes, but I don’t fault the story for that. If anything, her youth adds to classic fairy tale tropes and it’s nevertheless pleasing to encounter a young girl with so much agency against such overwhelming odds.

You can add me to this novel’s list of admirers.

Friday, December 22, 2017


(based on a review copy)

I love Holly Black’s work. I find her premises unique and imaginative, her protagonists complex and engaging, and her tone delightfully sinister. Holly Black, it seems, loves fairies. THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST harkens back to a much earlier series I read by her called TITHE. In many ways, this latest novel feels like TITHE’s older sibling (yes, even though it was “born” second). I particularly enjoy Black’s classic mysterious and creepy take on the fey.

Hazel and her older brother Ben live in an unusual town. The manmade structures live close to fey inhabited forests. The humans and the fey live together, well, semi-peacefully. The fey mostly leave the town residents alone; however, tourists and those who can’t mind their own business are fair game. Hazel and Ben’s unique childhood included hunting down cruel fey and fantasizing about the fairy prince trapped in an endless sleep in a glass coffin in the woods. When they find the coffin empty and the fey start behaving more unpredictably violent, Hazel and Ben take it upon themselves to look into everything.

Black’s lead characters usually win me over with flawed, original personalities. However, I found Hazel a combination of two tropes: Mary Sue and Crazy Manic Pixie Girl. Everyone wants her, wants to be her, or wants to kill her and she’s kind of a hot mess, emphasis on the hot. While I liked her brother Ben, Hazel didn’t have enough depth or distinguishing characteristics for me beyond the standard trope elements I mentioned.

As implied by the title, this tale will take you back to old interpretations of fairies laid against a more modern backdrop. A fun read for any fey fan.

Friday, December 15, 2017



This installment in Gregory’s loose series (set during the same historical time period with overlapping historical characters but can be read in any order) follows Katherine of Aragon, Henry the VIII’s first wife and the woman known primarily for being set aside for Anne Boleyn.

Gregory is the author who first drew me to historical fiction and her work remains the bar against which I measure whatever else I read in the genre. She clearly does significant research and every book feels bursting with historic detail and atmosphere. However, what I relish most about a Gregory novel is how she makes these historical figures her own. Her characters come to life on the page. Whether or not her interpretation of the inner thoughts of someone long dead remains open for dispute, but regardless she pens a huge cast of compelling, believable characters with plausible motivations for the real-life figure. This book was a re-read for me, but I found myself glued to the page and reading longer than I should just the same.

Katherine of Aragon usually plays a secondary character in our account of Anne Boleyn’s or Henry VIII’s story. What I adore so much about this book is that it is Katherine’s story. The book ends well before Anne disposes Katherine from the throne, instead focusing on Katherine’s early years, ambition, and much overlooked accomplishments.

Whether Gregory got Katherine’s real psyche entirely wrong or not, her Katherine’s strength of character blows my mind. We often define strength by the physical or by flashy displays of exerting power over another, even if the power is more intellectual. However, I have a soft spot for characters with incredible emotional strength, like Katherine, characters whose circumstances overwhelm my empathy even on a hypothetical level. Katherine accepts her life with a matter-of-fact resolve, but I find myself marveling at the kind of restraint and determination life demands of her every single day. Court intrigue novels always unnerve me, probably because I shudder at a life where every word, every move must be carefully calculated, and one slight misstep could destroy your social standing and, therefore, way of life. Katherine finds herself in such a viper’s nest, but she handles everything with an admirable grace and poise.

In contrast, Gregory’s interpretation of Henry VIII is anything but flattering, though entirely believable as well. In fact, he’s a frighteningly familiar figure across history: a narcissist more concerned with his own ego and immediate gratification than anything of real substance, including other people’s well being not to mention the well being of the country he rules. One could almost mock him for his immaturity, but the ripple effect his actions take on the lives of others zaps all the humor out of his childish selfishness.

Gregory’s work will always hold a special spot in my heart as what introduced me to historical fiction and re-reading this book proves to me that special fondness is well deserved.

Friday, December 8, 2017


(first in the ABHORSEN series)

I first read this book back in junior high and it stuck in my mind ever since as an all-time favorite. Re-reading such books fills me with excitement to re-live the wonder the story aroused in me the first time as well as trepidation that it won’t live up to my memory. Over a decade later and SABRIEL impressed me as much as on my first read as a teenager.

This story follows Sabriel, daughter of the Abhorsen responsible for keeping dead things dead. A literal wall divides the magical from the non-magical. On one side, you have creatures rising from the dead in abundance while skilled necromancers keep them from ever reaching or passing the wall. On the other, you have a world more recognizable to us. Many guards on the wall believe the fantastical rumors, but the farther away from the wall you go the more haughty skepticism you’ll encounter about undead threats. Ironically, Sabriel grows up among these doubters while her father handles said threats. One day, through a mystical, telepathic-type connection, Sabriel realizes her father has died, making her the next Abhorsen, not to mention a daughter determined to find out what happened to a father she loved but barely knew.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Philip Pullman describing this book as “fantasy that reads like realism.” I entirely agree. As someone who spends a better part of her life pushing book recommendations on others, SABRIEL stands out as one with an unlikely, eclectic mix of fans. Generalizing, I don’t like undead stories, but Nix’s take on zombies doesn’t even feel like the same genre that I dislike. I also don’t like action scenes; I skim the chase or fight parts and skip to the resolution. Yet when Nix writes a battle or an escape I find myself glued to the page, savoring every word of the scene playing out in my mind. I have also recommended this book to people who don’t like fantasy and nevertheless they enjoy it.

I believe the core of making any book feel so real is the characters. While Sabriel herself doesn’t go down in my mind as a fascinatingly unique character, instead I see her almost as a kind of every person. True, her exceptional bravery in unlikely circumstances should be acknowledged, but there’s also a relatable sense of child groomed to follow in a parent’s footsteps. Maybe we see this situation in our modern world more with doctors and business owners than necromancers, but I view Sabriel as a down-to-earth, every day heroine fated with an absurdly heavy burden of responsibility.

It’s been so long since I last read this book that I managed to forget several important details and twists and found myself delighted whenever the story took me by surprise. I entirely forgot about Mogget, a literal demon cat. There’s something so darkly whimsical about Mogget, and reminiscent of Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Once upon a time he was a horrifying creature from our worst nightmares, until someone imprisoned him in the form of a cat with a catlike personality to boot. However, for a morbidly humorous twist, Mogget has a way of escaping his cat form at the worst possible moments. Whenever Sabriel finds herself attacked by some terrible beast, you should bet on Mogget slipping his leash, too, so to speak, and adding himself to her list of problems.

I also love the concept of the wall marking literal division, both geographical and social. On one side you have horrors as well as those who protect us from said horrors and on the other a quiet, content lifestyle so safe one doesn’t even believe in said horrors. It’s a powerful metaphor and a thought-provoking dynamic.

SABRIEL more than lived up my memory on re-reading and I look forward to delving into the rest of the series.

Friday, December 1, 2017


(first in the COURT OF FIVES series)

Above all else Jessamy lives to compete in the Fives, a popular obstacle course competition in her society. However, a ruthless, rigid class system rules said society and Jessamy’s unrealistic dreams could undermine everything for which her family has worked so hard.

This book presents a heavy-handed (but nevertheless invaluable) look at prejudice. Social stratification remains the forefront theme throughout the story, soaking into every character, relationship, and plot thread.

Sadly other readers overhyped this book too much for me. It’s a great book and I come up short for a list of complaints, but it flailed against how many people described it to me as “the best book ever.” I wrote a whole blog post on overhype a while back and expectations will always play a role in our perception and final opinion. A book I go into expecting I won’t like can wow me for the surprise of being good at all while a wonderful book that has been inhumanly idolized can’t help but fall short of such lofty expectations.

The Fives game appealed to me very much conceptually. I’m a big fan of American Ninja Warrior and heard this author speak at a conference where she quoted that competition as one of her specific influences. That said, I struggled picturing the individual obstacles, which detracted from the impact of those actions scenes.

As is standard for me, I found myself most invested in the relationships, particularly those among Jessamy’s family. Elliott crafts such distinct, dynamic characters and I especially enjoy seeing them play off each other. Frequently, Jessamy learns that someone isn’t how she perceived them. She realizes that she made all the right observations but drew all the wrong conclusions. I’m impressed with how the author handles these moments, too, because as a reader I went along with the protagonist Jessamy’s conclusions more often than not only to discover later that the author provided me the same clues and I let myself misread them.

Jessamy’s relationship with her father strikes me as the most interesting. I adore nuanced characters and he comes across to me as a man trying oh-so-hard to be a good man in a society where the odds are stacked against him and where a seemingly easy turn from his values will reward him enormously. He’s a far cry from an ideal father, but he’s no oversimplified, pure evil villain either. 

Populated with a fascinating cast, COURT OF FIVES begins a new series about making our own place in a world that tries to tell us to stay in our place.

Friday, November 10, 2017



I adore this author and the way she creates such complex, believable, and fascinating characters. In this novel, we follow six viewpoints as the story interweaves between past and present. Something happened at a recent gathering between this crowd, something that changed everyone’s perspective.

However, the reader doesn’t learn what happened until over halfway through the book, page 293 to be exact. This frustrated me immensely. I do not like information being withheld from me - the reader - that the point of view character clearly knows, especially if this technique seems aimed at keeping me reading. Also I believe that the longer an author withholds a mysterious secret from the reader, the better and more interesting that secret better be once it’s finally revealed. I did honestly love this book, but would have much preferred the novel open upfront with what happened.

I nevertheless enjoyed the character studies from beginning to the end, and enjoyed entirely without complaint after turning the corner of the big revelation. The six main characters consist of three couples. Tiffany and Vid hosted the infamous barbeque that caused such fallout. Tiffany is a gorgeous, vibrant woman and her husband Vid has the charisma and charm to hold his own in her company. In contrast, they have a quiet daughter who keeps her nose stubbornly buried in her books. Sam and Clementine have two young girls and a seemingly perfect marriage. Clementine is a musician while Sam’s art may be his admirable optimism. The last couple Erica and Oliver don’t fit in as well. Erica has been best friends with Clementine since childhood, though perhaps due more to Clementine’s mother than Clementine herself. Both Erica and Oliver had hard childhoods that left them with numerous ticks, quirks, and compulsions. They’re well-meaning, lovable people, but they understandably grate on people’s nerves.

Despite my insistence that the big reveal should come much earlier, this book hasn’t in the least undermined my strong respect for this author. On the contrary, I’m even more convinced at her knack for creating characters I won’t soon forget.

Friday, November 3, 2017



Agnieszka lives in a small valley where every ten years a terrible mage known as the Dragon takes one young girl to serve him. In return he keeps the awful Wood’s dark magic from overrunning the village. This novel feels both fresh and modern as well as a familiar fairy tale classic.

Everyone anticipated that the Dragon would take Agnieszka’s friend, Kasia. She’s the Dragon’s type: gorgeous, intelligent, talented in so many ways. Of course, he doesn’t take Kasia; he takes Agnieszka.

I will confess that I liked a lot of what this story does conceptually with common tropes more than I found myself engrossed in the plot of the book. That disclaimer aside, I loved the friendship dynamic between Kasia and Agnieszka. In almost any other book, they would be frenemies. Or Kasia would have a painful fall from her place of reverence. In UPROOTED, however, Agnieszka does not give in to the temptations of jealousy, nor does Kasia take on an expected holier than thou air. The two girls are loyal, steadfast friends who respect one another and cherish each other’s gifts.

The relationship dynamic between the Dragon and Agnieszka also sidesteps typical roles in a story such as this, though their relationship isn’t explored and unpacked quite as much as I wanted.

I loved the suspenseful Wood plotline, but found myself confused and lost in some of the twists and turns and action scenes. I suspect more is revealed about the inner workings of this mysterious force than I followed.

With fairy tale elements and a feminist heroine, UPROOTED is definitely a modern classic. 

Friday, October 20, 2017


(fourteenth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

Oh, did you think the series was done and finished after thirteen books? Well, it’s back with an additional bonus installment, a very tongue in cheek autobiography of the mysterious character behind chronicling the Baudelaires’ unfortunate events.

This is an even quicker read than the already short middle reader books in the original series, as it’s packed with photos and “documents,” meaning fewer actual words on the page.

At times I found the humor a bit young for me, sometimes tedious. Part of the style is Snicket’s propensity for ridiculous rambling tangents. That being said, I expect it’s spot on for the target age and has the fun reward of involving the reader as a co-conspirator in untangling this spy-like puzzle. And the humor still managed to take me by surprise with a good laugh. I particularly encourage reading the Index at the end. My favorite entry is “Poe, Edgar Allan,” which - after listing the relevant pages - says “see also overall feeling of doom.” Look up to the “O” section for “overall feeling of doom” and you find yourself redirected to “see doom, overall feeling of.” Flip back to “D” and the page numbers of relevance are listed as “ix-211.” Yup, that would be the whole book.

It should be no surprise to readers of the series if I add that there isn’t much logical flow to this “autobiography” and that you might find yourselves with more new questions than new answers by the end. Regardless, it’s a playful addition to a popular series that should give younger readers the chance to hunt for clues at coded double meanings.

Friday, October 6, 2017


(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


(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



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


(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



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


(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


(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


(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


(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



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


(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



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


(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


(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


(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


(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


(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.