Monthly Archives: January 2017

CBR9 #5: Goldenhand by Garth Nix

tl;dr: Stick with the first three books in this series: Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen.  I don’t know what Nix is doing with these later ones, but he’s not doing it super great and it’s a total bummer.

Goldenhand isn’t a waste of time, but it does not hold up to the originals, especially the first two.goldenhand

The Back Story

For five years I was a seventh grade English teacher.  One of the best parts of the job was hearing my students’ book reports and reading their book logs.  I had a built in data-pool and instant access to titles to explore (or avoid) for 180 days a year.

My first year of teaching, one of my students gave a report on Sabriel.  It was a delight to watch because he had that excited frustration that a reader gets when a book is so good and you can’t find the words to explain it so you just want to thrust it at someone and say “Please, just read it!  Trust me!”  I could tell that he loved it and immediately recognized that eagerness to share it with others.  I got a copy soon after and was not disappointed.

Nix created something original using the familiar when he wrote Sabriel.  Almost 500 pages of intense description, world creation and history with strong plot and characters.  And an amazing kick-ass female lead.

When Lirael came out, I thrilled at the brick sized paperback.  Again, almost 500 pages continuing the Abhorsen story line.  Lirael was even a more compelling character than my beloved Sabriel and I was so happy to live in her world.  Nix again took his time to create her story and weave it into Sabriel’s world.  So much mystery, the same familiar magic and more characters who were an absolute delight to read.

He finished up with Abhorsen.  Not quite 400 pages this time and the font and page size was bigger, but still a satisfying read.  Lirael and Sabriel’s stories are added to the history of all the Abhorsens and while I wanted to read more and more and more about them, I was content with what Nix had created for us.

It was massive, it was well written, the female characters were awesome, and whenever anyone asks me for a book recommendation for a niece or cousin or family friend’s kid, this trilogy is always my immediate response.

Perhaps not wanting to leave the Old Kingdom and knowing there were more stories to tell, Nix published Across the Wall, a book of short stories.  I grabbed it and it was a nice companion to the three.

And then he threw Clariel at us.  I was disappointed in a way that only happens when a creator somehow manages to make his original work become less by screwing up with new stuff.  (Looking at you, Star Wars Episodes 1-3.)

Feel free to read my review over on Goodreads.

Ugh, it was such a drag.  I found myself wondering if Nix had even written it himself.  It didn’t follow any of the strengths of the original three and I was sad and confused.  How could someone who created such an amazing trilogy of books somehow lose his mojo when writing the backstory of one of his characters?

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when someone on the Cannonball Read FB group suggested the original three.  There were a bunch of us who had read them and were all “YES!!!” and someone reminded me about Goldenhand.  I had completely forgotten that Nix was working on book five, and even better, it was done and out.  I snagged it from my library and hoped it wasn’t another Clariel.

The Review

We’re in hardcover here, and I immediately knew it did not measure up to the page count of Sabriel and Lirael.  This was my first indication that this was not going to hold up to its sister books.  Those first two books especially were not the kind of YA  to talk down to its readers with large font and large pages.  These were physically solid books that were not fucking around.  You were going to work to read them.  Abhorsen grew in page and font size, and while it lagged behind, it wasn’t trying to scrimp on ink.  Clariel fell into the big font and pages that seem to be the norm of YA.  Yes, I want readers to not feel overwhelmed by a book, but at the same time, I want them to feel accomplished when they’ve finished a book that is massive both in page count and plot.

The story picks up where Abhorsen ends.  I read these a long time ago, but felt like I was brought up to speed fairly quickly.  Nix doesn’t take time to retell everything, but throws in a few sentences here and there to remind us what happened.

Lirael is still a delight.  She’s shy and awkward and doesn’t quite fit in.  Part of her very much wants to disappear back into the library, but she knows she doesn’t belong there.  She is in physical pain from mourning her Disreputable Dog and I felt like I could cry with her.  Dog’s disappearance meant Nicholas was returned to life, and while there is a great deal of solace there, Lirael aches with emptiness.

The confusion she feels over Nicholas was not my favorite part of this book.  On one hand, it makes sense that Lirael is so awkward.  It would be off and wrong if she was suddenly self-assured and commanding.  But she also read like a young teenager sometimes and it took me out of the story.  The same with Nick’s POV when he’s tripping over himself to try and be cool.  There were moments when it was a little cute, but other times it felt clumsy, and not because the characters were clumsy.

Sabriel and Touchstone have been forced into a vacation, leaving the kids to run the kingdom.  Not the best plot point, especially when it’s echoed later with the Clayr, but whatever.  We need to get Lirael and Nick back together.  A message is sent from over the Wall, Lirael investigates, here comes Nick, and off we go.

On the other side of these chapters we have Ferin.  Here’s a character who I enjoyed, but by the end was very concerned at how close to Mary Sue status she came.  There is some serious danger headed down from the North and Ferin is the only one who can warn Lirael and save everyone.

Ferin, like Sabriel and Lirael, is a total badass.  She’s was brought up to be the best of everything and does not have time to deal with the unknown or insignificant.  She moves toward one fixed point, doing whatever she needs to do in order to get there.  There were times where I felt like this should have been a negative trait and more strife should have happened, which is where the Mary Sue comes from.  But I also liked her matter of fact attitude.  She immediately accepts the facts, deals with them, and moves on.  She’s not going to ponder all the what-ifs or dwell on what could be.  She assesses a situation, looks at what she has in the moment and moves.  It’s really fun to watch.  I’m not sure why she didn’t bug me, and this is where Nix’s talent shows.  Ignoring Clariel, he writes great characters.  I wanted Ferin to succeed and watching her interact with Sam and everyone else on the other side of the Greenwash Bridge was a lot of fun.  Sam especially needs to learn to get out of the way because she’s going to take him out when she passes by.

A bunch of stuff happens super fast and the book ends.


The pacing of this book is such a let down because in the first three Nix took his time.  And it wasn’t boring!  He describes the journey.  He lives in Sabriel and Lirael’s heads.  He shows you how they’re changing and you see what they are missing.  He sets up his plot points so he can reveal them later.

Goldenhand though?  Was he told he only had so many pages?  There were only short descriptions of getting from Point A to Point B.  Maybe nothing of importance happened, but it made me miss the original books.  Nix had a lot to say and show and share in them, and it’s not here.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book based on previous works, but isn’t that a sort of compliment to the author?  Nix did an amazing job, so when he isn’t amazing, I hold him to this higher standard.  If this book was the first book, maybe I would have liked it more.

Even the final scene was “Eh.”  There were only a few pages left and I knew there’d be a happy ending so I was almost skimming to get to the part where everything is fixed.  I don’t remember feeling that way in Sabriel and Lirael.  Lirael especially had me stressed out because how were things going to get resolved?

This ending felt rushed and way too short.  Just hang in there, dear reader, everything is going to be A-OK.

I am glad I read this.  I was happy to be back in the Old Kingdom.  It was wonderful to see Lirael and get a tease of what’s coming up from her after this book ends.

I missed Sabriel and Touchstone.  I guess we’re not supposed to care about them anymore because they’re boring grown ups.  I’d like to get another story of everything they’ve been doing since Sabriel ended, but the stories have been turned over to the next generation.  Even Clariel went back to the teenage years.

If you’ve read the Old Kingdom books, you’re going to read this one.

If you haven’t yet, read the first three.  Love them.  Reread them.  Hold them in your heart.

Maybe stop after Abhorsen and be content with two books that feel close to perfect and a third and final that is an acceptable conclusion.


CBR9 #4: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

booksellerIt’s such a bummer when you read a book that’s just “eh”.

If it’s something you hate, you can decide if you want to cast it out of your life and be done with it or if you want to revel in how bad it is, knowing you’ll be able to write a fun review. (See Dan Brown. And also Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy.)

But an “eh” book is tough because maybe it’ll get better. Maybe there will be a twist or an ending that’s satisfying.  Or maybe you’ll finish it and it won’t be great and you’ll be mad you spent time on a book that wasn’t your thing.

That is  what I have been struggling with while reading The Bookseller. It’s not a bad book. I’m curious about the conflict and unknown. It’s not the type of book where I don’t care about the characters.

But… eh.

It’s human nature to wonder about the life we don’t have.  The one we’d be living in today if we had chosen a different college.  Taken the bus instead of walking.  Not answered the phone.  Got the job.  Turned left instead of right.

Kitty is currently living both of these lives right now, only one version is an incredibly real dream.  Here, she’s married and has children.  She somehow knows how to be a wife and mother.  She is deeply in love with her husband.  There is an easiness here.  Bills are paid.  Grocery lists are organized by meal.  Days are scheduled.  She is Kathryn.

In Kitty’s waking world, there is confusion.  She and her best friend are struggling to keep their bookstore open.  There are no dates.  No love.  But there is friendship and the familiar and she’s never felt miserable.  Just… maybe not completely whole.

Kathryn, however, is complete.  Dependable.  She knows what to do and what to say.  How to be a mother.

But something is wrong here and Kitty is having a hard time keeping up with the rules of the dream.

And then the book turned and went from being “eh” to becoming “What in the hell?”

Kitty starts remembering things in Kathryn’s world that she shouldn’t know.  Then she starts forgetting things in her waking world.  She’s lost two days, sort of.  She knows she must have gone to work, but doesn’t remember how she got there.  Dreaming, Kathryn can’t remember how to drive from the park to the grocery store, but she knows what kind of shoes to get for her kid.

Clearly something was going to be decided and I couldn’t tell what it was.  Was Kathryn dead?  Was Kitty dead?  Did Kitty get to decide to go to sleep and never wake up and stay as Kathryn?  Would Kathryn overthrow Kitty?  Was she in a mental institution?  Was ANY of this real?

I burnt through the last third of the book because I could not figure out what was real.  Or was ANY of it real?

I liked being confused, even if I was worried Swanson wasn’t going to be able to end it in a way that made sense.

I liked the setting of this one a lot.  It’s early 1960’s and women don’t have it super awesome.  Kitty and her best friend have their own bookstore, but had to have Frieda’s father cosign because women can’t get loans.  They’re in their thirties and unmarried and there’s a mix of freedom and “Oh, how sad.”

And there are infuriating moments where women are blamed for things they have no control over.  I thank science for figuring out that A did not happen because of B.  Things happened in Kitty’s dream life of Kathryn that made me clench my jaw because I’m sure women are still told it’s their fault if they need to get a c-section.  And that it’s the mother’s fault if things aren’t right at home.  And the wife’s fault if there is unease in the marriage.  It’s worse here though because there is no one telling her that this is all bullshit.  Little details that made the book feel honest.

This is another addition to the “What if…” conversations that we will continue to have.  What would your life be like if you kissed that person?  What if you had ordered the chicken instead of the pasta?  If you had left your house ten minutes before you did?  If you had taken the later flight?

And what would you do if you dreamt an entirely different life?  Would you wake up?


CBR9 #3: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniaturistI don’t know how to write this review.

Partly this is a physical problem.  I have an injured dog wearing a cone trying to get as close to me as possible, forcing me to twist toward the keyboard which will result in muscle rebellion later.  (He scratched his eye and will be fine, but is so very pitiful right now.)

But more than that, this book is hard to describe because of how different and solitary it is.  I keep pausing to find my adjectives and debate connotation over denotation.  It’s a strange book, but that’s not quite the right word.  It’s not something brand new, but it is very much its own thing.  I’m not madly in love with it, but these characters are absolutely going to live in my mind and I know I’m going to be wondering what came next.  Burton did something that’s now part of me, and not all authors win the rights to my brain space this way.

It’s 1686.  Nella is 18 and newly married.  A quick ceremony and her husband is off without a wedding night or even a kiss at the ceremony.  Nella leaves home to join him in Amsterdam.  Her father is recently dead, leaving the family with an old name and endless debts.  Her mother wrote letters, found a solution for her eldest, and here she is, standing in front of her husband’s house, waiting for someone to open the door.

Her husband’s house.  Her house?

Instead of the comforts of wealth she may have expected, she is met by a cold sister who has no interest in kindness or conversation.  Is Nella to be the mistress or merely a child in Marin’s way?  What does Marin want?

And where is her husband?  And why doesn’t Marin know where her brother is?

So many secrets and confusion for both me and Nella and I found myself quickly wondering if there would be any happy endings in this book.

I am the worst at piecing together mysteries and rarely figure out the secrets ahead of time.  I was searching for clues throughout these pages and while I had guessed at a few, I had no idea what the full truth was.  Burton is very careful with her slipped in clues and sentences that I had to go back to later.

Something is wrong in this house, but also on the streets and canals of Amsterdam.  There is money, but there is also fear of God.

Nella receives gifts that she doesn’t understand.  Items that she ordered, but then others that are too real.  Someone knows what she doesn’t and can see into rooms that Nella thinks are closed.  She tries to puzzle out the meanings of the pieces and cannot tell if she is being warned or if she is being toyed with.

Money is power but secrets are worth more.  Nella comes to her husband’s house with few skills and grasps for friendship and knowledge anywhere she can find it.  Her husband, when he is there, is kind, but something is wrong.  Marin and Johannes fight and I was as lost as Nella trying to figure out their relationship.  They each protect the other, but from what?  What secrets do they share and what’s being hidden?  Who is running the business and who keeps the family safe?

And still the gifts come.


One of the strengths of this book was that all of the characters were well developed and written.  I didn’t hate anyone, mostly because I was so confused.  I knew Marin had a past and there must be a reason for her to behave the way she does, especially toward Nella.  And her actions felt so real.  There were moments of… not kindness, but a sort of understanding where it was clear she didn’t wish harm on Nella, but painfully understood that Nella was in no way prepared for the truths behind closed doors.  Her anger with her brother was also shot through with love and I knew that something must have happened that Marin was trying to either make up for or protect him from.  Or punish him with?  It depended on the sentence.

Nella was a perfect slate for the story to be written on because she was a complete outsider.  Nothing was familiar to her, and things she was expecting from a marriage weren’t there.  She had to piece things together, and because the setting of the story was completely unfamiliar to me as well, I was right there with her in confusion.  She’s not a child, but with her lack of knowledge, she might have been a schoolgirl still learning basic lessons.  She struggles to keep her feet beneath her and hang on to her dignity.  She has value and she knows if she can just find a crack to dig into or a corner to call her own, she’ll be OK.

But eventually things begin to slip out from behind closed doors and Nella has to decide what to do in order to keep the family intact.


CBR9 #2: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-danteFew things are as satisfying as starting a book and realizing you’re going to sit there and read it straight through.  It is such a wonderful moment where you know this is your life’s purpose for the next few hours and you can measure your next bit of existing by the number of pages the author has handed to you.  It didn’t take me long to know I’d be with Aristotle and Dante and Sáenz until the last word.

Ari is 15.  He’s bored and miserable.  He can’t figure himself out or anyone else.  He can throw a punch, so everyone leaves him alone, and this makes him happy.  He doesn’t understand how people interact with each other.  What they talk about.  How they’re supposed to feel.  So he hopes things will change but you can tell he doesn’t really even know what that would mean either.

Happily he has a great relationship with his mom.  She worries about him, but there’s lots of love there.  Several times during this book I wondered what Ari’s life would be if he didn’t have her.  His dad?  That one is confusing.  He’s back from Vietnam, but he’s not really back.  He and Ari try, but for Ari, it’s easier to avoid and wonder why his mom fell in love with the guy in the first place.

Ari is waiting for things to change.  For summer to end.  For it not to be so hot.

And then he meets Dante and… Ari doesn’t know what’s happening.  Are things changing?  Is this how you act when you have a friend?

Dante is different from anyone Ari has ever met.  He gets excited about things.  He wants to talk about everything.  He shares his thoughts and ideas and experiences.  He wants Ari to do the same.

Ari doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t want to share.  He’s worried that he doesn’t have anything to share.  Maybe he’s so entirely different that if he did share, Dante would realize there is something wrong with him and decide he didn’t want to hang around.

But that doesn’t happen.  Suddenly Ari is laughing all the time.  He’s reading books he didn’t know about.  He’s thinking more about who he is and why he acts the way he does.  He doesn’t like that part so much.

He wants to know the secrets in his family.  Dante is always asking questions, but Ari stopped asking long ago.

And then he finds out Dante is leaving at the end of the summer.  Ari doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel.  How to react.  He’s sad and excited for Dante.  Jealous.  Relieved.  He doesn’t know how to be a friend.  He won’t have to answer questions.

And after the accident happens, he won’t have to see Dante cry.

School starts.  There are letters.  Ari wants to go back to who he was, but he didn’t know who he was before Dante and he doesn’t know who he is now.

More time passes.  More confusion.  Anger.  Relief.

And then Dante is back.


Oh, this book.  Ari is a complicated and carefully written character.  The way he questions everything without wanting to think is both confusing and true.  Sáenz has created a strict set of rules for Ari and does not break them.  There’s sadness and sometimes you see hope.  Ari is afraid of hope.  He’s afraid of Dante.  Of not being friends with Dante.  Of not knowing how to be a friend or how to talk to people.  Of being normal.  Of not being normal.

Dante on the other hand?  Pure and open and honest.  Sure, he has a few things he keeps to himself, but other than that?  If he thinks it, he says it.  His questions don’t stay locked up.  He wants to know favorite colors and deepest fears.  Ari is a puzzle.  Ari is a friend and Dante wants Ari to be open and honest.  Dante has the social constructs down for friendship, but Ari is hesitant because he knows some questions aren’t supposed to be asked.

The parents in this book are so awesome.  Mistakes are made, but there is so much love there.  Knowing Ari and Dante had their parents before they had each other is comforting.

Watching Ari navigate and distrust friendship spins perfectly around the secrets in his own family.  How can you be a friend if you don’t know what happened when you were too little to remember?  How can you be open and trusting when your mom shuts down when your brother’s name is mentioned?  Who is your dad and why do you only get to see parts of him?

Everything about this book… struggles of growing up, coming of age, anger, first kisses, school, fights, family, pure confusion and terror of being a teen.  Sáenz is gifted.  He created a world and made me care about everyone.

I’m really curious about what’s in store for Ari and Dante in There Will Be Other Summers.


CBR9 #1: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I’ve got a ton of nonfiction in a pile next to my bed but I decided I really needed some fiction to take the edge off my anxiety.

This wasn’t the best choice.

I mentioned this on Facebook and my friends wanted to know if I had fallen down and hit my head because why would I think a Judy Blume book would be calming?  I tried to disprove them and then I remembered:

  • Iggie’s House – racism
  • Superfudge – dead turtle
  • Blubber – Mean Girls before Mean Girls was a thing
  • Sheila the Great – big ol’ liar
  • Tiger Eyes – dead dad
  • Sally J. Freedman – racism, maybe Hitler, sick kids

I could continue.

Happily for my mental health, Judy Blume is an amazing writer and even if the subject wasn’t calming, the book was great and worth my while.

in-the-unlikely-eventIn December of 1951, again in January 1952, and for a third time in February of the same year, planes crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  This is true and Blume was an eighth grader living there when it happened.

Something like that doesn’t leave a person, and when you’re an author, it can hang around long enough to become a book.

In the Unlikely Event follows a slew of characters that could have fit into any book.  We get to see them through the lens of the crashes.

Miri is in ninth grade and this could have easily been her book, no plane crashes needed.  She’s at that age where she loves and trusts her mom, but is starting to see her as a person and not an all powerful being.  She wants to know more about her absent, not mentioned dad and is trying to figure out what it means to be getting older and what happens the first time you fall in love.  She has a tight group of girl friends, but things are changing there.  They’ve all been in a familiar path with routines and parts to play, but things aren’t staying the same and Miri wonders if she should be upset by it.  Of course having her first ever boyfriend helps, even if her best friend sees him as a problem.

If Blume had chosen to follow Miri, this would have been a solid book.  I liked her a lot and related to the joys and horrors of the teenage years.  She didn’t need the plane crashes to guide her decisions, but the way she reacts to them is in line with they way her character is written.

Along with Miri, we have sections from:

  • Her mother Rusty and grandmother Irene
  • The Osner family – senior in high school Steve, Miri’s best friend Natalie, Dr. O the town dentist, Mrs. O his beautiful wife, and young daughter Fern who was probably a big surprise.
  • Mason – Miri’s first love
  • Ruby the beautiful dancer
  • Leah – Miri’s uncle’s girlfriend
  • Henry – Miri’s uncle
  • Christina – young assistant in Dr. O’s office
  • Daisy – Dr. O’s long time assistant
  • And a few other characters that get to share a bit from these months

I should have written this list earlier because I kept confusing Leah, Christina and Daisy, which makes no sense because they are so incredibly different from each other.

The structure of the book is interesting because Blume didn’t need the plane crashes.  She’s created a cast of characters that are solid and true and everything that happens, with one exception, would have happened anyway.

But then, that’s the point.  When tragedy happens, everything changes but nothing changes.  You still have to get up and eat.  Dogs need to be walked.  Teeth need to be cleaned.  There are dances to go to and boyfriends to kiss.  Secrets to keep.

What the crashes do is show how each character responds to the every day boring moments as well as the defining moments.  Blume’s talent is that they all react truthfully based on who she has created them to be.

Later, when Miri is faced with an entirely different crisis, the crashes have given her a foundation to react from.  Would she have responded the same way had she not dealt with the terror and confusion of death?  Seeing a crash, losing people she knew and having the terror of not knowing if people you love are alive are thrown against “normal” family secrets, lies and panic.

For me, this was Miri’s book.  The other characters have good story arcs and I liked their sections, but I was all about Miri.  She’s a good kid with normal teenage girl thoughts, feelings and reactions, and like all of us, she has to learn who she is and redefine family and friendship as she gets older.  We all went through it.  She just had to do it with wreckage strewn across her town.

Abandoned Book #1: Strong by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove

strongThat’s right!  My first book review of 2017 is a book I abandoned.

tl;dr This book isn’t for me, but it might be for someone else.

This book was a recommendation from Kelly Coffey of Strong Coffey.  I know her in real life and she is the real deal.  Knowing that it’s going to be near impossible to book time in January with the trainers at my gym, I figured I’d give this book a try to learn about lifting.

The problem isn’t with the book.  I’m the type of person that needs someone to show me how to do the thing.  Learning a new game?  You read the directions and explain as we go.

Looking at pictures of exercising and then replicating them isn’t going to work for me.  I need someone there to explain how to move and where to adjust.  I can’t position myself to look in the mirror to see if it matches what I think was in the book.

I can totally see this book being someone else’s bible though.  There is great information here and I appreciated that Schuler looks for recent studies and isn’t using the latest trends unless there’s science to back it up.

It’s also super honest that you need to follow a plan in order for the plan to work.  WHAT?  LOGIC?  Readers who complain the most that they didn’t get results are the ones who changed everything to “make it work for them.”  Uhm.  No.

If you’re the type of person who can translate text and images into real life movement, then this book is totally for you.

If you need someone to show you how to do it, skim through this at the bookstore or get it from your library like I did and then use it as inspiration to get on the waiting list for the trainer at the gym.