Dear Committee Members

by Julie Schumacher
First sentence: “Dear committee members, Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency — that enviable literary oasis in the woods south of Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic camaraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese…”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s very much an adult book in sensibility; not to mention about a half-dozen f-bombs dropped in frustration throughout the novel. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a while; I even was given an ARC by the publishing rep when they came to talk about the lineup a long while back. I just didn’t get around to it until my book group foist it upon me, saying the same thing everyone else did: It’s hilarious. You’ll love it.

It’s the story of Jay Fitger, a tenured English professor at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest, told entirely through his letters of recommendation (and other letters) for various people. At the outset, it’s a brilliant work of fiction: you get a thorough sense of Jay and the kind of professor (and person!) he is through the letters. Also, you get a sense of not just the passing of time, but also the kind of responses he’s getting, without seeing those. These are entirely one-sided letters, and yet I felt like I got a complete picture of everyone in Jay’s life, from his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend (both on campus) to the woman he had an affair with and modeled a despicable character in one of his (bad) novels after. I knew these people (at least on the surface) from the way Jay wrote to them (and about them) in his letters.

But that wasn’t enough for me to love this one. No, I didn’t find it funny because it hit too close to home; my husband is a professor in a small department in a struggling liberal arts college in the Midwest, and the things Jay was dealing with were just too familiar to be funny. In fact, I think this book is funnier the further away from academia you are. (Or at least the English department; the person who chose the book is a biochemistry professor.) But for those of us in the humanities, or at struggling small colleges, it’s just not funny. It’s Truth. And, at least for me right now, Truth wasn’t what I wanted to read.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder
First sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s really nothing, but because it’s a classic, it would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

For my in-person last month, we wanted to read a classic. We looked at this huge long list of modern-day American classics some guy put up (I can’t remember right now who it was or why), and chose this one (mostly because it was the shortest). I know very little about Thornton Wilder; I’ve seen Our Town a couple of times (and never really “got” it) but that was the extent of my knowledge.

This story is a short one, a series of short vignettes about five people who died in a (fictional) bridge collapse in Lima, Peru in 1714. They were loosely interconnected, and the framework is about this monk who spent time researching their stories. I think it was supposed to be about the randomness of life and death, that both good and people can die at any moment and how it really doesn’t matter how you live your life.


Seriously. That’s how I ended up feeling at the end. I read the words, but none of them registered in my brain. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, the plot was nonexistent. I do have to admit that it may have been me (why else would it be on all the “you must read” lists?), because this isn’t the first book lately that I’ve gone “huh?” when I’ve finished. Slumps will do that to you.

Or maybe it’s the book. Either way, I finished it, but that’s about all I can say.

The Riverman

by Aaron Starmer
First sentence: “Every town has a lost child.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some alcohol usage and talk of murdered children. Also, it feels really adult in its sensibilities. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’m not happy with that. On the other hand, it’ll languish in the YA (grades 6-8) section too, so I might just leave it where it is.

Alistair Cleary  is the kind of kid who blends in. He’s not popular at his middle school, but he’s not reviled, either. His best friend is a gamer — which is quite unusual, since it’s the fall of 1989 — but Alistair has managed to escape certain geek doom. He’s content to slide through life. Until Fiona decides that it’s Alistair who needs to write her sad tale down.

And what a tale: Fiona insists that she’s been going to this imaginary land, Aquavania, which is absolutely real. She’s added months to her life in her trips (which become years later in the book). And that her friends in Aquavania — who also happen to be real people in the Solid World — are disappearing because someone called the Riverman is sucking their souls away.

I had Issues with this book. It compelled me enough to finish it, sure, but it was one of those books that I threw across the room when I was done. I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to write about my issues, and to boil my problems with the book down into a neat, concise package, but I don’t think I can. There will be spoilers.

My initial problems come from the incongruity between the cover and the book itself. The cover screams middle grade, but the content is very… adult. On some level, I feel like Starmer should have gone all the way, made this incredibly dark and sinister, used the metaphor that he was building — that Aquavania is a crutch for Fiona, who uses it to escape horrible things in her life — and made it an adult book.

But, even though that is the set up for most of the book, Starmer doesn’t follow through. He pulls what I have come to think of as a bait-and-switch, a “HA! It’s Really REAL” moment. For which he has given us no basis in the rest of the book. Our narrator, Alistair, believes Fiona is making it up. He believes in the dark understory, so I do too. And so it’s incredibly unsatisfying (for me as an adult; would an older kid?) to have the rug pulled out from underneath you.

I’m sure there I have other complaints (did it really need to be set in 1989? REALLY?), but that’s the main one. Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, but by the end I hoped for a lot more than what I got.

Dorothy Must Die

by Danielle Page
First sentence: “I first discovered I was trash three days before my ninth birthday — one year after my father lost his job and moved to Secaucus to live with a woman named Crystal and four years before my mother had the car accident, started taking pills, and begin exclusively wearing bedroom slippers instead of normal shoes.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy handed to me by my manager who said “Get on this.”
Content: A pregnant teenager, a moderate amount of swearing including a few f-bombs, and some violence. The book belongs in the store’s teen section (grades 9+).

At first glance, the idea of this book is awesome: Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, didn’t want to be in Kansas after she went home, and found a way back to Oz, where she has taken over and is not only a tyrant, but she’s a bully. And she’s draining Oz of its magic. It is going to take another girl from Kansas — Amy, of the trailer park — who finds her way to this new and drained Oz, to kill the tyrant and save Oz from certain ruin.

See? Sounds pretty cool, right?

Well, not so much.

It’s not that this one was Horrible, per se. There were a lot of things to like about it, starting from the cool idea. I liked the way that Page developed the magic in the world, and made the Wicked Witches if not the good guys, at least the better ones. I liked Amy, and her willingness to try even though the odds were against her.

But that was about it. I won’t delineate my entire complaints (which include having Amy say “I was used to cornfields back in Kansas..” UM, where??), but rather my main one, this: why is this book not a stand-alone? There really was nothing in this book that either 1) warranted that it be 460 pages or 2) meant for it to go longer than one book. I think with some better plotting and editing (and less of the pregnant bully in the beginning) this could have been a tight, fun, cool romp in a unique version of Oz.

I guess I’m a bit miffed that it’s not, and that’s effecting how I see the book. Others (who don’t mind the whole drawn-out-ed-ness of this one) may find it more enjoyable. Part of me hopes she finds success with this, because it’s a really cool idea.

I just wish the execution was better.


by Wendy McClure
First sentence: “Jack didn’t notice the smoke until there was far too much of it.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a some bullying and a fire that kills a family member of a main character, but that’s about it. It’s short enough to be a beginning chapter book, but it might be too challenging for most 1st and 2nd graders. Definitely belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jack lives in a walk up in New York City in 1904. Their family is poor, but making it. That is, until a fire takes both their building and the life of Jack’s older brother. Frances and her younger brother Harold are orphans and living off the charity of one of the many orphanages in the city. Both find themselves on a train headed west, as part of the efforts of the Society for Children’s Aid and Relief Office. But, as all three find out, the best intentions of adults don’t always translate into good things for kids.

Faced with being separated from her brother, and looking forced labor in the eye, Frances, Harold and Jack decide to jump off the train before they reach their final destination. They’re wandering the Kansas prairie when they find Alexander, another orphan train escapee. He’s decided to start his own town, called Wanderville, and while it doesn’t look like much (or anything, really) it’s not his own. Unfortunately they way they get supplies is by “liberating” them from the nearby town. Which, obviously, is going to lead to trouble.

I wanted to like this one. It’s got a good idea — exploring the world of the orphans from the orphan train — and it’s set here in Kansas. I was hoping that it’d be a good contribution to historical/Kansas middle grade fiction. But it’s not. Perhaps it was me, but I didn’t like the characters, and felt the text itself was too condescending and predictable. I felt that if I had a checklist I would have ticked every single cliche off.  Bully on the train? Check. Evil man exploiting the system for his own gain? Check. Rugged and slow cop? Check. Sisterly figure who always knows better than the boys? Check. Adorable 7-year-old who is Wiser Than His Years? Check.) That’s not to say that kids won’t like it. I’m sure many will.

I just didn’t.

Lord and Lady Bunny — Almost Royalty

by Polly Horvath
First sentence: “It was summer on Hornby Island.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire
Content: The only thing I can think of is that some of the vocabulary (like synchronicity or textured soy protein or materialized) might make it challenging for younger readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5th) section of the bookstore.

Fresh off their last adventure, both Mr. and Mrs. Bunny and their human friend Madeline are finding life a little boring. Madeline’s still stressing about money (thanks to her parents’ — Flo and Mildred — lack of foresight), and most especially about a college fund. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny are back to squabbling and comparing themselves to their uppity neighbor Mrs. Treaclebunny. But never fear: adventure is in the cards. Flo and Mildred discover they’ve inherited a candy shop in a small English village and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny decide to head to England on vacation. Of course they meet up on the cruise ship ride to England from Victoria, Canada (implausible, I know  — but some of the funniest scenes are on the cruise ship), and of course madcap farce ensues.

I don’t know if it was my mood, but I didn’t find this one as funny as the first. Maybe it was because it was very much the same thing over again, and not being New and Fresh, it wasn’t as enjoyable. But I also think it was because there was a lack of a consolidated conflict. In the first book Madelline and the Bunnys had to save Madeline’s parents from the bad foxes. This time, they were just going across the ocean and puttering about England trying to raise money. Not as, well, interesting in my book.

Though there were some brilliant moments. My favorites was the often-repeated aside that went like this:
“No. Canadian.” When would they learn to tell the difference?

I laughed every time.

I was also amused at the meta part where Mrs. Bunny ended up at a book signing that the “translator” of the first book was at. Because, well, the humans think the translator is making things up, and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny don’t exist. It was pretty amusing.

But, in the end, it didn’t tickle my funny bone the way the first one did.

Grasshopper Jungle

by Andrew Smith
First sentence: “I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy highly recommended by our publisher rep.
Content: Weeelll….. sh*t is Austin’s favorite word, and all grasshoppers do is “f**k and eat”. Which gives you a pretty good idea of the language. And Austin and Robby smoke. There is some drinking and one very unsexy sex scene (and talk of masturbating and erections and sex). It’s in the teen section of the bookstore, but I know I’m going to find it difficult to find a parent willing to buy this one for their kid. (That’s not to say the kids won’t like it. They might.)

The short version, the one I’ve been pitching at work (after I realized it was more than “grasshoppers and sex” — though it is that), is that it’s what would happen if Holden Caulfield found himself in a Stephen King novel. Austin — he’s the 16-year-old, sex-obsessed boy whose head we’re living in — is confused and lonely (even though he has a best friend and a girlfriend) and angsty and more than a little self-absorbed, much like Holden. And yet, the setting is so utterly antithetical to our character: a strain of mutant bacteria gets out and starts changing people into six-foot-tall praying mantises whose sole purpose in life is to eat — everything, including each other — and procreate.

Who dreams up these sorts of things? (Well, Stephen King and Andrew Smith, obviously.)

At any rate, it’s nothing like what I expected. I think with all the advance buzz — not just from our rep, but also Publisher’s Weekly, and just the reviews on Goodreads — I expected something, well, amazing. And I got… well, a sex-obsessed, selfish, confused 16-year-old boy. I can deal with that, for the most part (I did make it through Winger after all), and I appreciated Smith for giving us a confused sex-obsessed boy; Austin’s not only confused about life, but also about his own sexuality: how can a person be in love with — and desire — both of his best friends at once?

But, reading through the Goodreads reviews, I stumbled upon one from Kellie at Stacked that made points that I think had been at the back of my mind while reading this book. Nominally, it boils down to this: a woman couldn’t have written a book like this about a girl talking so frankly about sex or her vagina and have it receive the same amount of buzz and acclaim that this one is getting. And secondly: Austin treats girls and women as objects.

The first point, I can see and understand and am a little bit miffed about. It really does go back to this “boy books” and “girl books” thing we (publishers/sellers/parents) have gotten into. We “need” this book because boys “need” this book (because they’re not reading anything else). But that least me to point number two, which is what was bothering me while I read the book. I had chalked it up to being inside a 16-year-old boy’s mind, which is not a comfortable place. But, looking back, it’s really because, to Austin, all women (well, perhaps all people) are a means to an end: sex. He says he “loves” his girlfriend, but honestly, he just wants to jump her. And this — at my very core — bothered me. (In fact, when Robby finally confronts Austin and tells him he’s selfish, I cheered. More of that, please.)

I was talking to a friend at work about this and she pointed out that maybe, just maybe, it was meant to be satirical or ironic. That perhaps we, as readers, were meant to see that Austin is a complete jerk, and find humor in that. Or at the very least, self-reflection.  Perhaps. All I found was discomfort.

There were other things I was disappointed in: Austin’s circular telling of his own personal history, his constant repeating of people’s names (yes, I know Shann’s name is Shann Collins and her stepfather is Johnny McKeon, can you PLEASE stop already?), and just the general uneven pace of the narrative. That said, there were things to admire: actual sentences that made me laugh aloud. Or the fact that Austin’s (and Robby’s for that matter) sexuality was just a thing, and not an “issue”. Or six-foot-tall unstoppable praying mantises.

But I don’t think the positives outweigh the negatives on this one.


by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
First sentence: “If found, please return to the workroom B19, Main Library, Pollard State University.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Language, including lots of f-bombs. And some violence. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

The thing that piqued my interest about this book was the buzz about the form. We had a sample copy and I perused through it. The format — a book published in 1948, stolen from a high school library, with notes scribbled in the margins — was intriguing. Enough so, that I bought myself a copy for Christmas, and eagerly dove in. It IS an intriguing concept, reading someone else’s notes, figuring out the story as you go.

It’s an incredibly layered book: the “book” is one Ship of Theseus, written by the mysterious V. M. Straka. A book where the main character, S., has amnesia, and goes on a journey to figure out who he really is. In doing so, he finds out that he was involved with some shady figures. The second layer is the work that a disenfranchised grad student, Eric, is doing to figure out the real identity of V. M. Straka. All that’s really known about him is that he was involved in this mysterious organization, the S. Eric gets help on this quest from a struggling undergrad, Jen, who finds Ship of Theseus laying in the stacks and begins a conversation. Which brings me to layer three: Jen and Eric’s story. They work together, and over the course of the book, develop their own relationship.

I realized fairly early on that the layers were too dense for me. I couldn’t hold everything in my mind, for starters. I ended up giving up the main Ship of Theseus story, partially because it was boring, but also because I just couldn’t keep multiple storylines in my head. Call it being out of practice, or lack of interest, but I just couldn’t do it. But there was also the fact that the story’s told  inside out and backward. I did think that maybe if I had read it in shifts — read Ship of Theseus first, then the inked-comments, then maybe it would have made sense.

So, in the end, this was all form and no substance. In the end, all the thrills, chills, and mystery They were promising weren’t there. It was a simple story, one that tries to give grad school a mystique and make it cool (it doesn’t succeed). It did succeed in being a homage to paper books — there’s no way this would make a decent e-book. But it wasn’t much else.

And in the end, I found that disappointing.


by Brandon Mull
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent by the publisher because this is my January book group pick at work.
Content: Some mild fantasy violence, and one intense scene. Resides happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the store, though the language may be a bit difficult for the younger end of the spectrum.

People have been telling me for YEARS that I need to read Fablehaven. That they LOVE Fablehaven. That it’s brilliant. So I jumped at the chance to pick it for my 3-5th grade book group.

Seth and Kendra are off to spend a couple of weeks at their grandparents’ house while their parents are off on a cruise. The thing is: this is the side of the family they don’t know very well (you know there’s always one). Their grandparents are reclusive, and they’ve hardly seen them. In fact, their mom had to beg and plead in order to get them to let Seth and Kendra to stay there. So no one is really expecting things to go well. This feeling is exacerbated when, upon arriving, Seth and Kendra are shuttled off to the attic and told to stay either there or in the yard.

(Complaint #1: REALLY?  I’ve heard of controlling parents, but controlling grandparents is a first. I wanted to smack Grandpa for this. “It’s for your safety.” BAH. It’s a middle grade fantasy novel. Lighten up. Also: if that’s the way he treats the creatures in Fablehaven, I’m not surprised at the way he treats his grandkids.)

The kids are complete opposites. Kendra follows everything to. the. letter while Seth is the macho end of things and completely disregards Grandpa’s rules. (Complaint #2: why is it that 11-year-old boys are often
 portrayed as brats? I don’t have a son, so I don’t know if it’s typical. But I wanted to smack. the. kid. I also wanted to shake Kendra: lighten up a little, girl.) This not only leads to the discovery that Grandpa’s house (Grandma’s “missing”; she turns up later, just in time to help save the day. Which leads to Complaint #3: while Seth did a grand job creating conflict, the kids did very little in solving it. Sure, they were there, and they helped, but they didn’t DO much of anything.) is full of fairies and mythical creatures, but also to Seth creating a whole bunch of havoc.

And the book is already half done.

(Complaint #4: It seems like authors use series books to be lazy with world building. They take half the book SETTING THINGS UP and then hurry to wrap things up — or not — in the second half. *sigh*)

I wasn’t much interested in Seth or Kendra much after the halfway point. They did some stuff, they got Grandpa into deeper hot water, they rescued Grandma, blah, blah, blah.

I just didn’t care.

Perhaps this was a victim of high expectations. Or maybe it was reading it after reading So Many Cybils books (it wouldn’t have made my shortlist!). Or maybe it was lousy world building, with obnoxious characters, excessively floral language, and an uninteresting plot.

But it could be me.

Audiobook: Longbourn

by Jo Baker
read by Emma Fielding
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some talk of sex, but it’s vague and not at all explicit. And some mild swear words. It’s in the general fiction section at the bookstore, mostly because that’s the way it’s marketed. If a 15 year old were interested, I’d give it to them.

This is, to be frank, Pride and Prejudice fanfiction. All the familiar settings — Longbourn, Pemberly, London — are there, as are the familiar characters — Lizzie, Jane, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, Bingley and Wickham (Darcy not so much).The difference is that it’s really only the bare bones of the P&P and the story is told from the points of view of three servants: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper; Sarah, a maid; and James, a footman.

It basically follows the plot arc of P&P, though the concerns are not the concerns of Lizzie and Jane. And, honestly, I was expecting to love visiting that story from the perspective of the downstairs help. However, I was in for a surprise: unlike Austen’s witty observations on human character, Longbourn is a very pedantic book: every day is get up, do the work, collapse in bed. It’s also a dirty book — literally, there’s dirt, blood, pig slop, mud, you name it; Baker doesn’t whitewash the 19th-century.

There’s a slight love triangle between Sarah, James and Mr. Bingley’s footman, and while it goes somewhere, it feels kind of superfluous. I never really connected with the help; Baker didn’t make me care about all the work they were doing, or how annoying Mrs. Bennett was, or what a creeper Wickham was. And so, when at the beginning of volume 4 (I think; listening to it kind of throws off those things), I got backstory on Mrs. Hill and James, I was more than annoyed. First, at the timing — why wait until most of the way through the book? — but secondly because Mrs. Hill and James were not who I cared about or was interested in.

And then it just kind of petered out at the end. Baker kept the story going past the end of P&P, through the marriage of Lizzie and Darcy and even later until everyone is Old. I didn’t care. I wanted to care, but I was just Tired of the story.

I finished it. But I’m thinking that I shouldn’t have. Which is too bad.

(A note on the reader: she was fine. She was interesting. But it wasn’t enough to make me really like the book.)