Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

This book was recommended to me by a customer at the bookstore – and when I realized the illustrations were done by one of my favorite graphic novel artists, Skottie Young, I was sold.

Synopsis

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: thummthumm. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.” … “Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”

Review

The elementary school teacher in me loves this book – it would make the absolute perfect read-aloud for any class from 2nd to 4th grade. The artist in me loves this book for Skottie Young’s illustrations. The reader in me? Well, I’m getting kind of tired of Neil Gaiman. My coworker would probably faux-smack me for saying it, but alas, I think it’s true.

This book is, by all accounts, hilarious. Young children will find it absolutely hysterical. But I didn’t laugh. Not once. I’m not sure why, I felt like I was in the right mood/mindset to do so, but for some reason, I just didn’t giggle, not once. Fortunately, the Milk is the story a dad recounts for his two children as an explanation of why it took him so long to pick up milk for their breakfast cereal one morning. It’s full of adventure, time traveling dinosaurs, pirates, a talking volcano, ponies, all sorts of mischief and mayhem.

But for some reason, I didn’t enjoy the adventure. Maybe that’s a commentary on the book, maybe that’s a commentary on me, I honestly don’t know. So if you love a book that is adventurous and exciting, if you are between the ages of 8 and 12, then please, take a look at Fortunately, the Milk, I bet you’ll enjoy it more than me.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780062224088 • 101 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Harper Collins Publishers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Neil Gaiman’s Website for Young Readers

Fortunately, the Milk on Goodreads

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Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor

When I first saw the cover of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I fell head over heels – love at first sight. Blue hair, dynamic fonts, intriguing synopsis, Prague as a setting, fantasy world. I was just coming off the high of finishing City of Dark Magic and was very excited to find something that might be similarly fantastic. 

Synopsis

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

Review

I didn’t know much about the Seraphim/Chimaera trope until I finished reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Ben had to correct my pronunciation of “chimaera.” So for the majority of the book, I was greatly intrigued by the seemingly unique fantasy world – it was just new to me. That being said, Karou discovering of her place in that world and stumbling upon the unending conflict was revealed marvelously and magnificently as she rediscovered her past – and her past love, Akiva, a seraphim.

The “modern day” fantasy retelling of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers is common in most young adult literature, it can even be viewed as the ultimate love story, the tragic fated love of those who were never supposed to be together in the first place. Karou is brave and resilient, unapologetic for who she is (as soon as she discovers the truth) whereas Akiva is a spineless sniveling coward who just irks me to no end. Yes, he’s gorgeous. No, that’s not what you base an entire relationship on, give young adults a bit more credit. There is nothing other than wanton lust pulling these two towards each other and honestly, I’m tired of reading about hot people falling for other hot people just because they’re über-attractive. Nothing sells their relationship, nothing anchors the fantasy world of the second half of the book in reality and even the most wildly outrageous fantasy still has some sort of foot hold into reality – it’s the only way it can be relatable.

I’m not entirely sure what it was that made me decide to finish this series, given my lack of insta-love for Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but I am certainly glad I did. I enjoyed Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters infinitely more than I enjoyed the first book.

Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters take place immediately after the first book and Dreams of Gods & Monsters is set only over the course of a handful of days. They chronicle the renews war crimes committed by the chimera and the seraphim in the name of Eretz, their homeland, though further backstory reveals that the Seraphim were not always native to Eretz. As Karou takes up Brimstone’s mantle of creating new bodies for the slain chimera souls, Akiva is saving chimera in an effort to ingratiate himself with his blue haired love. The story is a rollicking adventure and the secondary characters, particularly Ziri and Liraz, and Zuzana and Mik, make the story worth reading.

Unfortunately, my lack-luster feelings for Karou and Akiva, our woeful star-crossed lovers, remain. I really struggled to connect with either of them and found their moping and whiny incredibly irritating and I really wanted to rush through their parts. But, with an audiobook, not possible, so thankfully Laini Taylor at least wrote those parts very well, even if the characters didn’t sell it for me. I tried to understand, I tried to appreciate the Romeo and Juliet nature of their relationship, but at that point, I would have realized that life is short (particularly theirs, being that they’re in the middle of  war) and therefore one shouldn’t waste any time going after the things they want and the things that will make them happy.

So overall, can I recommend the trilogy? Sure, why not. But that’s only half-hearted and rides more on the fact that Laini Taylor is a gifted wordsmith than anything else.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition (Daughter of Smoke & Bone): Paperback • $12.99 • 9780316133999 • 418 pages • first published September 2011, this edition published June 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in May 2013

Laini Taylor’s Website

Daughter of Smoke and Bone on Goodreads

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Daughter of Smoke & Bone (2)

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Warcross by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is officially now the most reviewed author on this site! This may be due in large part to a very exciting event that took place at the bookstore I work at two weeks ago when I had the great of fortune of moderating a discussion between the lovely Marie Lu and her friend and fellow author, Alex London. 

Marie Lu

It was an absolutely delight to discuss everything from diversity in books to fan art with Marie, and I am happy to report that she is a genuine kind and compassionate human being. And while I wanted to record the interview and post the transcript here, in all my excitement I completely forgot to do so! So please settle for my review of her newest book, Warcross!

Synopsis

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight success.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire, Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem… and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation will uncover a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Review

This is my favorite of each of Marie Lu’s books and I almost didn’t read it. First, it was pitched to us by the publisher as being a middle grades novel (definitely not the case), and second, as my husband often says, I didn’t have a “real childhood” because I never once played a video game. The gaming aspect didn’t appeal to me. For those who might hesitate to pick this up because you think it’s a gaming novel, let me put your mind at ease. Virtual reality is a closer description of Warcross and it is part of the plot, but most of the book does not take place in the world of Warcross, most of it takes place in the “real world,” in Tokyo.

For the number of books I read each year, I’m always amazed a, that I remember any of them, and b, I can still be wholeheartedly surprised to love a book that I didn’t expect to. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I would certainly like Warcross, but I didn’t expect to love it on a level close to that which I love the works of my favorite author, Sarah J. Maas. Emika is now one of my all-time favorite leading ladies, and she is, like her creator, quite the magnificent lady. She is brave, she is compassionate, she is driven to do what is right. And unfortunately, there are those in the story who would like to take advantage of those qualities. Well, not quite unfortunate because without other character’s motivations, there would be no story!

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I feel like just about anything I might say would lead into spoiler territory, suffice to say that if you have read Legend or The Young Elites, you will recognize Warcross as another book in Marie Lu’s catalog that is witty and enjoyable with just the right mix of adventure and a little romance. But it’s way better than Legend and The Young Elites and I enjoyed both of those very much.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9780399547966 • 368 pages • published September 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Warcross Website

Warcross on Goodreads

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Warcross

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

London Belongs to Me by Jacquelyn Middleton

Thank you Buzzfeed, because an ad for this book was embedded in an article I was reading on the site. I quickly located it on Goodreads, and then asked my sister to track it down and she special ordered it for me. The story of a young woman moving from the USA to London because she loves the city’s history, culture, and landmarks was a story I hope to have myself. Since I knew I was headed to London for graduate school, I figured reading this story would possibly prepare me.

Synopsis

Your flight is now boarding! Join Alex Sinclair for a life-changing, trans-Atlantic journey. London Belongs to Me is a coming-of-age story about friendship, following your dreams, and learning when to let go … and when to hang on.

Meet Alex, a recent college graduate from Tallahassee, Florida in love with London, pop culture, and comic cons. It’s not easy being twenty-one-years-old, and Alex has never been the most popular girl. She’s an outsider, a geeky fangirl… with dreams of becoming a playwright in a city she’s loved from afar, but never visited. Fleeing America after a devastating betrayal, she believes London is where she’ll be understood, where she belongs. But Alex’s past of panic attacks and broken relationships is hard to escape. When her demons team up with a jealous rival determined to destroy her new British life, Alex begins to question everything: her life-long dream, her new friends, and whether London is where she truly belongs.

Review

While rather predictable, I loved this book. While I did not connect as deeply with the main character, Alex Sinclair, as much as I thought I would, I found her to be extremely relatable. Alex leaves for London after graduating college with plans to rent a room in her friend Harry’s apartment, whom she had met when he studied abroad at her college. Alex has the comfort of knowing her father is in Manchester, but she intends to work as hard as she can to become a successful playwright. Alex faces moments of self-doubt and suffers from panic attacks, all of which seemed so wonderfully ordinary in the story. And I do not mean that as a criticism. No path to success is easy, and Alex’s struggles, and at one point, plans to give up and move back to the USA, were some of her most relatable actions and circumstances.

Shortly after arriving in London, Alex runs into an old friend, Lucy, who quickly becomes Alex’s best and truest friend. With Lucy, comes Freddie and Mark, the latter of whom is Alex’s dishy Irish new crush. The story takes place over the course of about a year and chronicles Alex’s journey of self-discovery and inner strength. I found Alex’s responses to difficult situations completely realistic. Sometimes, I just want to run away and not deal with embarrassing situations. And other times, I know that it’s best to stick up for myself because it could lead to wonderful opportunities. Alex employs both strategies throughout the story so it was very easy to relate to her character and actions. Overall, London Belongs to Me is a charming coming-of-age story that is worth reading by anyone in the early years of adulthood and just trying to figure it all out. And learning that they are not alone with their doubts, fears, and dreams.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.95 • 9780995211711 • 396 pages • published October 2016 by Kirkwall Books • average Goodreads rating 3.69 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Jacquelyn Middleton’s Website

London Belongs to Me on Goodreads

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London Belongs to Me

Non-Fiction, Poetry

Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna

When this book first showed up at the bookstore on Monday, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. After my less than stellar experience in reading modern poetry last week with Milk and Honey, I didn’t think I would really want to try again. But after all the teenage girls started asking for it on and after its release date Tuesday, I figured I better see if we were going to have another Milk and Honey type of situation on our hands at the store.

Synopsis

In poems ranging from the singsong rhythms of children’s verses to a sophisticated confessional style, Gabbie explores what it means to feel like a kid and an adult all at once, revealing her own longings, obsessions, and insecurities along the way. Adultolescence announces the arrival of a brilliant new voice with a magical ability to connect through alienation, cut to the profound with internet slang, and detonate wickedly funny jokes between moments of existential dread. You’ll turn to the last page because you get her, and you’ll return to the first page because she gets you.

Review

I’m not a big poetry person, but I am a millennial, and the publisher marketing synopsis’ last line is absolutely true. I could launch into a whole big long thing about being a millennial, what that means to me vs. the rest of the world, and how Adultolescence is a perfect example of the millennial mindset, etc. etc. But that would be ranting, and annoying, and I don’t want to be either today.

So let’s start out with why I actually started reading this book – yes, the teenagers at the store did have a little something to do with why I read it so quickly after it’s release date, but I bought it on Monday, before it was technically available to said teenagers for many reasons. There is, though, one that truly sticks out: Gabbie and I both went to Pitt, The University of Pittsburgh, Hail to Pitt! So not only do we have the shared experiences of being part of the same generation, we have four years worth of memories and, I’m sure if ever meet and have a chance to chat, we would be able to go on and on about Oakland (the Pittsburgh neighborhood, not the CA one), the Cathedral of Learning, the Penn State rivalry, the uniqueness of Pittsburgh weather, how awesome it was to be done for the school year before May even started, though we’d probably disagree on sports – I’ll take the Eagles over the Steelers any day.

To say I connected with Gabbie and her poetry is an understatement. I have anxieties, panic attacks, and I have no idea what I want to do with my life, no really. While I love my bookstore job and I one day want to go back into teaching and I’m happily married, I still don’t know what I want my life to look like in five years, ten years, twenty years (other than I would like to be employed and still happily married). My brain is filled with the same doubts and insecurities as Gabbie’s and, while I don’t presently make videos of my life (though I’d like to try at some point), I do have this book blog, so I guess that counts as another similarity.

Adultolescence is the perfect book for anyone who needs to know that they are not alone in the world – their doubts and fears are felt by many others as well. It is the perfect book for my generation – a week into owning it and it already looks well worn and loved because I keep going back to my already favorite poems because I’ve needed a pick me up or some cheering up during the week.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars (I’m still getting used to poetry)

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781501178320 • 256 pages • published September 2017 by Atria Books • average Goodreads rating 4.32 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Gabbie Hanna’s YouTube Channel

Adultolescence on Goodreads

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Adultolescence

Fantasy, Fiction, Novella

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

I completely fell for the cover of this book and I’m a sucker for dark fantasy adaptations. This book (and series) fit the bill quite well.

Synopsis

Once upon a time… in a kingdom far, far away, a handsome prince sets out to find a lost castle, only to discover a city slumbering under a terrible curse, and a beautiful princess who can only be woken by true love’s kiss.

Review

Beauty is a reimagining of a couple of different classic tales, notably Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. It reminds me a great deal of the ABC series, Once Upon a Time in the way that it marries many different tales together into one story. Most of the time, I enjoy such a premise, but as Beauty is more of a novella than a full novel, I found myself thinking there were more characters and stories than Sarah Pinborough really had time to effectively explore.

And that is really the crux of why I didn’t love Beauty as much as I really wanted to, and why it took me far longer than I would have liked to read. Like every good fairy tale, a prince is set off on a quest, in this case to investigate a kingdom that appears to have been swallowed up into a forest. A huntsman is enlisted to help him and along the way they meet Petra (Little Red Riding Hood) and she joins them on the adventure as she senses her destiny lies somewhere on the other side of the densely forested wall. The three make their way into the kingdom and awaken Beauty, a la Sleeping Beauty.

And that’s when things turn decidedly more Grimm. This is not Disney. Beauty is written in the same vein as the original dark and terrible German tales by the brothers Grimm. I liked that things were flipped on their head, but it was far too sudden. I wish there had been fewer characters, fewer fairy tales and more about those that really intrigued me, or that the story had been fleshed out into a full novel and not written as a novella. I finished the book wanted so much more out of it.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $14.95 • 9781783291144 • 208 pages • published May 2015 by Titan Books • average Goodreads rating 3.6 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Sarah Pinborough’s Website

Beauty on Goodreads

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Beauty

Fiction, Science Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I had wanted to read Station Eleven for quite a while, since I first saw it sitting on a table in a bookstore. I picked it up regularly in stores and contemplated purchasing it before finally doing so two years ago. And then it sat in my to-be-read pile for far too long. So when I decided to start my book club, The Modern Readers, I thought it would be the perfect first book! In starting a book club, I hoped that if I picked the books, I would really want to read them and it wouldn’t feel like required reading… but, confession time, alas, it sort of did feel like required reading – I was flying through most of the second half of the book while half-awake early in the morning a few hours before our first meeting.

1 - October 2015 - Station Eleven

Synopsis

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as they story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Review

Station Eleven was a book I desperately wanted to love. As the first pick for the Modern Readers, I was hoping it would just knock my socks off. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that I was struggling just to finish it, let alone enjoy it.

I don’t know what exactly was so disappointing about Station Eleven, other than to say all of my fellow book club members seemed to feel similarly. Our overall consensus was that the idea was completely intriguing – a disease decimates most of the population and those who survived must figure out how to survive in this new and unfamiliar world. My problem, specifically, was in the characters. They really just existed in the world and their connections and relationships to each other all felt a bit forced and contrived and didn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the characters.

There was one big exception to this – Clark, the British friend of the man who started everything, Arthur, the great actor. While Clark is absent for the vast majority of the story, when he does come back into play, his presence is not meant to only draw other story lines together, but we really get some insight into who Clark is as a character – the first and only time we really get any character motivation injected into the story.

Other than a perceived lack of character development, we collectively agreed as a book club that we would have loved to see some of the drawings and pieces of the graphic novel mentioned throughout the story that lends the book it’s title, Station Eleven.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780804172448 • 352 pages • first published September 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in November 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Website

Station Eleven on Goodreads

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Station Eleven

Biography, Childrens, Non-Fiction, Picture Book

She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton

Growing up, I loved any and all books about women who did amazing things. It’s not often, now in my adult years, that I go through the picture book section of the bookstore, but with lots of young ones joining my family (not my own, but nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.), I want to be sure that I give them books as they grow up the inspire them to be thoughtful and persistent young people.

Synopsis

Throughout American history, there have always been women who have spoken out for what’s right, even when they had to fight to be heard. In early 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced in the Senate inspired a spontaneous celebration of women who persevered in the face of adversity. In this book, Chelsea Clinton celebrates thirteen American women who helped shape our country through their tenacity – sometimes through speaking out, sometimes by captivating an audience. They all certainly persisted.

She Persisted is for everyone who has ever wanted to speak up but has been told to quiet down, for everyone who has ever tried to reach for the stars but was told to sit down, and for everyone who has even been made to feel unworthy or unimportant or small.

Review

The bookstore that I work at is in a republican stronghold. Despite Philadelphia’s perpetual blue status, the suburbs are usually blood red. While I try to keep politics out of my reviews, I did decide that the first review on here, ever, would be Pantsuit Nation, so my inclusion of a book by Chelsea Clinton should not come as any surprise.

This year, a young female family member is turning five years old – the perfect age for picture books and she devours them. As I thought about which book to pick out for her for her birthday, only one came to mind – She Persisted. She has terrific parents who have read probably every book under the sun to her already, and I know they want her to know that regardless of any adversity she might face, she will always find the strength within herself to persist until she achieves every goal she sets for herself.

She Persisted includes both well- and little-known women in America’s history. Clinton forgoes including Rosa Parks and instead includes her predecessor, Claudette Colvin. She chooses Clara Lemlich over Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Chase Smith over any other female politician. Her choices are diverse and inclusive, not just in terms of heritage and skin color, but also in occupation and the obstacles the women had to overcome. I adore each and every women included, particularly the inclusion of Sonia Sotomayor over Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Sandra Day O’Connor.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781524741723 • 32 pages • published May 2017 by Philomel Books • average Goodreads rating 4.48 out of 5 • read in July 2017

She Persisted on Goodreads

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She Persisted

Non-Fiction, Poetry

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

I received Milk and Honey as a wedding present over a year ago. Last night I decided I might as well pick it up and see what all the fuss is about. 

Synopsis

this is the journey of
surviving through poetry
this is the blood sweat and tears
of twenty-one years
this is my heart
in your hands
this is
the hurting
the loving
the breaking
the healing

Review

So… I still don’t think I fully understand the obsession. This book has spent over a year as a bestseller at the bookstore, first on the New York Times list, then on the Indie list. Milk and Honey was originally self-published and I will readily admit I am skeptical of anyone who is self-published. Milk and Honey was then picked up by a major publisher, Simon & Schuster, who published the edition that is readily available on the shelves of most bookstores. It’s popularity is even to the point that when people come into the store looking for our poetry section, we immediately ask if they actually want the whole section, or if they’re looking for Milk and Honey.

This is not a book about feminism. This is a book about femininity. There is a HUGE difference between these two terms and one that I think is frequently lost when people start describing this book to each other. One of the few reasons I finally decided to read it after looking at it on the shelf for over a year, was that I had been told yesterday that it was a book that celebrated feminism. While recanting her own experiences with hurt (abuse), love, and heartbreak, Kaur encourages women to love themselves. When, in the last chapter, she attempts to turn to feminism, I take great issue with many of the poems in that chapter, one in particular:

our backs
tell stories
no books have
the spine to
carry

women of color

I’ll let that one sink in for a minute. Rupi Kaur spends pages of poems before that encouraging women to support each other. She looks out for her sisters, her fellow women. And then she includes that poem. Until I read the last line, it was my favorite in the entire book – it was the one that I finally felt I could connect with. Throughout Milk and Honey, Kaur uses that last line (beginning with a hyphen) to indicate the audience of a specific poem, or to guide your thinking towards a particular phrase or point in the poem. And I realized, this particular poem was not for me. I felt like I could not claim to identify with it because I’m a white middle class suburban blonde haired blue eyed young woman.

And then I realized, that yes, this poem must be overwhelmingly true for women of color, particularly in the US and Canada – I cannot begin to understand the differences in their experiences of life here and my own. But I think the power of poetry is for all people, all of Kaur’s “sisters” to find themselves in her words and I believe her last line here is exclusionary. These words rang particularly true of my grandmother, an immigrant from Germany post WWII. These words fit so many immigrants, women who identify as part of the LGBTQI community, victims of abuse, the list can go on and on.

But what it boils down to, is that Rupi Kaur’s poetry made me feel something. It may not have been the feelings she intended – I was angry most of the time I was reading – but the point of poetry is to elicit a feeling, so on that part, well done.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781449474256 • 208 pages • published October 2015 by Andrews McMeel Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.26 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Rupi Kaur’s Website

Milk and Honey on Goodreads

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Milk and Honey

Contemporary, Fiction

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

One random day in January 2016, shortly before I was due to head to Denver for a bookseller’s conference, a book arrived at the bookstore for me – a copy of Be Frank with Me. Needless to say I was incredibly intrigued and discovered that I was due to have dinner with the author while in Denver and the publisher sent me the finished copy to read beforehand!

Synopsis

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies – with a few stipulations: No Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away – as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, a wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.

As she gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation – and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Review

Admittedly, I was very hesitant to start reading Frank as I had the dreaded “required-reading-and-exams” flashback each time I looked at it, so I didn’t actually start reading it until I was sitting on the plane to Denver. Instantly, though, I found myself drawn into Alice’s experience as a publishing assistant trying to keep Mimi on track to finish her second novel (sort of like Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman) and her efforts to keep an eye on Frank.

Alice is a twenty-something know-it-all, just like me, and, like me and most other childless twenty-somethings, thinks she knows a hell of a lot more about parenting than she really does. While she is not outwardly critical of Mimi’s decisions regarding Frank’s upbringing, as the story is told in first person and exclusively from Alice’s point of view, readers are acutely aware of how she really feels, not only about Mimi as a single mother, but also about Frank, whom she comes to love as if he were her own.

While Alice is the narrator, the story is not really hers to tell – it is Frank and Mimi’s. Like the reader, Alice is an interloper, a stranger, being forcibly inserted into a very delicate, sensitive, unfamiliar and precariously perched family unit, and she must learn to accept that role, and later embrace it if they are all to survive their summer of forced cohabitation. Alice and Frank’s relationship is the heart of Be Frank with Me, but Frank’s relationship with his mother and the world around him is really the soul of the story. Frank is, by far, one of my favorite children in literature and I would love to see more of him if Julia Claiborne Johnson plans to continue his story.

The only part of the story that fell flat is the role of Xander, who serves as Frank’s sole male role model, and he’s not a very good one by the standards of keeping promises, holding a job, and general maturity (despite being well into middle age), but he loves Frank, and for Frank, that really is sufficient. His relationship with Alice feels contrived and their romance is superfluous and unnecessary when viewed next to the strength of each of their relationships with Frank.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062413727 • 320 pages • first published February 2016, this edition published September 2016 by William Morrow and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read in February 2016

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