Fantasy, Fiction

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

I love a good fairy tale adaptation and when I first heard the true story of the Little Mermaid, I became a bit obsessed with all accurate adaptations.


Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning, as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father’s greatest rival. Certain that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom.

Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart…


I had beautiful, enchantingly high hopes for Mermaid. I wanted it to be what I think the author originally envisioned it to be – an amazing retelling of the classic tale that added some depth, intrigue, and a few more character flaws, into the original plot. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I still award three stars, simply for the fact that it held my attention. I read it quite quickly as I kept waiting for it to turn into something amazing, but then encountered a lackluster ending, put it down and just said, “Huh.” On to the next book I guess.

Like most fairy tales, our female protagonists profess great love for the prince despite hardly knowing him, and Lenia, the mermaid, gives up everything for a handsome, unconscious human, and then unrealistically expects him to fall in love with her. The prince, being a philandering human with fully functioning anatomy, takes advantage of this gorgeous woman throwing herself at him, and she mistakes this act for deep and enduring love. Boring and predictable and this does not elevate the retelling or rectify the issues I had with the Disney movie. Hopefully must adult women reading this book are intelligent enough to realize that they do not want to be like the mermaid – they should aim to be more like Margrethe, Lenia’s rival for Prince Christopher’s affection.

​Well, not really, but if you’re going to pick one of the two women to focus on as a better role model, Margrethe is a clear winner. Brought up in a convent for her own protection, she encounters the prince first when she discovers him on the beach where Lenia saved him. She nurses him back to health, and then later realizes that if she marries him, she might save her country from the ceaseless wars they’ve been fighting with Christopher’s kingdom. Additionally, she realizes that she doesn’t love Christopher, but realizes she will be serving the greater good, not her own selfish desires. Does this make her a better human? I don’t know. But she does agree to raise Lenia and Christopher’s daughter which is at least a little admirable. Either way, I’ve already ordered Carolyn’s next book and hope that it will be more satisfying than this one!

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.00 • 9780307589922 • 224 pages • published March 2011 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.62 out of 5 • read in November 2011

Carolyn Turgeon’s Website

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Contemporary, Fiction, Uncategorized

Brida by Paulo Coelho

One of my GED students from Brazil recommended this book to me as the author is from her home country (though she read it in English) and she really enjoyed the premise. I agreed to read it in an effort to continue to encourage her to read in English, but I was not quite as impressed as she was.


Brida, a young Irish girl, has long been interested in various aspects of magic but is searching for something more. Her search leads her to people of great wisdom. She meets a wise man who dwells in a forest, who teachers her to trust in the goodness of the world, and a woman who teachers her how to dance to the music of the world. As Brida seeks her destiny, she struggles to find a balance between her relationships and her desire to become a witch.


Brida is… interesting. I’ve read a few books that are translations from the original language or dialect, but this is the first time I’ve read a work of fiction that was a translation and it just felt… awkward? It’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished reading Brida and I’m still trying to figure out if my feeling of awkwardness comes from the translation or Coelho’s writing style.

Brida is an intriguing character as she is a young woman who simply decides that she wants to be a witch. The story starts off with her quest to find the Magus, a potential teacher/mentor for her to follow on the path of the sun, a spiritual path open to those who choose to study witchcraft. The Magus, however, realizes that the path of the sun is not Brida’s destiny but that she is, in fact, his soul mate. The Magus points her in the direction of Wicca, a teacher of the path of the moon, which seems to fit Brida better on a spiritual level.

Brida takes an interesting approach to the world of magic be enveloping it in to organized religion and taking it beyond Wiccan culture. The paths of the sun and moon are described as paths to God. The book is a discussion of the “meaning of life” through Brida’s decision to become a witch. She learns to dance to the music of the world, use all five of her senses simultaneously, and ultimately get the most out of life. She goes through a crisis of “faith” or two and doubts her abilities and life choices. Overall, though, I think I was ultimately disappointed because it just felt so ordinary and scatter-brained.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780061578953 • 212 pages • first published in 1990, this edition published February 2009 by Harper Perennial • average Goodreads rating 3.46 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Paulo Coelho’s Website

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Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I’ll readily admit that Ella’s dark green dress on the front cover of the first paperback edition was what first caught my attention. But given my established record as a lover of fairy tale adaptations, it should come as no surprise that this is the book that started my obsession!


How can a fairy’s blessing be such a curse? — At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy’s gift—the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it’s hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head! — But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse—and live happily ever after.


I LOVE Ella Enchanted. Other than the American Girl books, it was the favorite book of my childhood. When I was home sick in elementary school, this is the book I made mom and dad read to me. When I wanted to find a costume for Halloween, I wanted to be Ella. When I grew up and got married, I wanted it to be to Prince Char. When Laura was making me crazy, I called her Hattie. When I wanted a book to make me happy and cheer me up, I reread Ella Enchanted.

​I had the same copy of Ella Enchanted since it was first published in paperback for the school market in 1998 when I was 8 and in 3rd grade and it finally suffered its last spine crease this summer and I was forced to buy a new copy. So, I bought two! One for me and one to read to Ben’s little sister because I’ll be darned if she misses Gail Carson Levine’s literary greatness! If you are looking for an excellent book for the upper elementary school age girl in your life, look no further than Ella! And please, if you haven’t already, don’t watch the movie.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $7.99 • 9780064407052 • 250 pages • first published 1997, this edition published May 2017 by Harper Trophy • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 stars • read in 1998

Gail Carson Levine’s Website

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118-Ella Enchanted

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

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Jessica Darling

Fiction, Historical

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

This book may be going out of print soon and as it is one that I love a great deal, I figured best to post this review while it’s still available!

A few years ago, I had to have foot surgery. Not fun. My wonderful mother agreed to come and care for me – and do the week’s grocery shopping for her invalid daughter. As I was hobbling, she left me at the bookstore (this was before I started working there) and as I needed a book to keep me company and I’m a sucker for a good World War II novel, I snatched up The Secret of Raven Point.


1943: When seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted brother and then discovers that he’s been report missing in action, she lies about her age and travels to the front lines as an army nurse, determined to find him. Shy and awkward, Juliet is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, a sprawling encampment north of Rome where she forges new friendships and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients.

One in particular, Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court-martial may hold the answer to her brother’s whereabouts – but the trauma of war has left him catatonic. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Willard, to break Barnaby’s silence before the authorities take him away. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s memories of combat, Juliet and Willard are forced to plumb the moral nuances of a so-called just war and to face the dangers of their own deepening emotional connection.


I carried this book around like it was my lifeline – without it I felt I would tumble into the abyss right along with Juliet’s patients. For the first time, I didn’t listen in at lunch conversations at work, I read. I read with fervor and passion, anxious to find out if Juliet found out what happened to her brother. In the end, though, it didn’t matter – and that was the most glorious part of the story.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of books that either jump extended amounts of time or cover great swaths of time in a short period in what I can only describe as a diagonal approach. However, in The Secret of Raven Point, doing so enhances the story telling – while being a nurse during World War II was certainly eventful, I have a feeling that most days, the activities were fairly similar – there are only so ways a bullet or mine can decimate a human being and only so many limbs that can be removed. As such, Jennifer Vanderbes skips to times that are relevant to the plot line she is developing, almost like giving a few select cross-sections of the narrative.

While Juliet’s initial and final goal is to learn the truth about what happened to her brother, it is not prevalent on each and every page. The notion is not drilled into the reader to the point where one shouts, “I get it, enough already!” Juliet has a life, she does other things, has a little fun, and does not spend every waking minute focused solely on her goal. The things we care about can consume us, but they do not need to define us.

It is rarely the case where I read a book that I end every page thinking “There’s no way I could have written that sentence,” or “How did she do that?” Words are words, they only gain meaning when we arrange them in particular ways. Typically, I won’t read a book that has any type of gore at night as I am susceptible to nightmares (Night by Elie Wiesel and Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian particularly so) but the way Jennifer Vanderbes wrote about the horrors of World War II was both powerful and palatable. But words cannot accurately describe the sensation of being pulled headfirst into Juliet’s world on the front lines of the forgotten front of World War II, the heart of Italy.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781439167045 • 336 pages • first published February 2014, this edition published April 2015 by Scribner Book Company • average Goodreads rating 3.72 out of 5 • read in May 2014

Jennifer Vanderbes’ Website

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Secret of Raven Point

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I may need to reread Rose Under Fire – when I first read it, I was “broken” on World War II novels – I’d read so many, I didn’t really “feel” anything when I read them anymore. There are things that happen in Rose Under Fire that are absolutely horrific and I just kept turning the pages. SO, if you decide to pick this wonderful book up, I advise doing so when you have not, like me, been binge-reading WWII novels.


While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?


I feel emotionally broken by books about World War II. But not in the way one would expect. I’m out of emotion. I’ve exhausted all the “feels” that come along with reading about the war by reading every book I can get my hands on with a female protagonist and a setting in the ten-year period from 1935 to 1945. I’ve tried so hard to find my grandmother’s story in book form that I’ve stopped connecting to the characters.

Time of truth: I didn’t feel anything while reading Rose Under Fire. “What?” You cry, “A book about a young woman suffering through Ravensbrück- RAVENSBRÜCK! and you felt… nothing?” But it’s true. I didn’t care about Rose. She seemed entirely too self-absorbed. Her friends died, and I didn’t shed a tear because I felt like I didn’t know them – I have enough people I know about to cry for, and Rose didn’t give them much life. But her writing is stupendous – Elizabeth Wein is one of the best writers that I have ever had a pleasure to read and for that reason I’ve rated this reasonably well and why I will still read anything and everything she writes. But back to the book.

Survivors’ accounts of the concentration camps and the Holocaust are incredibly moving because they are true, and I think Elizabeth Wein took on a massive challenge in trying to recreate a fictional survivor’s account and, by public opinion poll, she was incredibly successful. I think I found it less successful because I’m too close to it – my grandmother lost so many people in her hometown of Nürnberg during the war – real people that she loved and cared for. My love for my grandmother makes her tragedy part of my history, part of my cultural identity. My annoyance with Rose made it incredibly hard to care about the trials and tribulations of her and her compatriots. I kept wondering if it was the overall story I didn’t connect with or the character and ultimately, it was the character. Rose bores me when compared to the literary juggernaut who appears in both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire and I’m not talking about Maddie, but I don’t want to give anything away. I would have loved to read that story. Any chance of a third book from a certain German’s perspective?

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423184690 • 384 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

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Rose Under Fire

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Review Previously Published, Updated November 6th with Laura’s Review!

Just like A Study in ScarletMurder on the Orient Express was one of the Modern Readers’ Magical Mystery Tour books from last summer. Every since I saw The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s plays, and watched the Doctor Who episode that includes Agatha as part of the storyline, I’ve wanted to read one of her famed mysteries.

8 - July 2016 - Murder on the Orient Express


Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprising full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.


Laura’s Review

Mysteries are not usually my first choice to read, but I definitely enjoyed my first Agatha Christie novel! I was not sure entirely what to expect but when I told people I was reading it they said that it would be pretty easy to figure out the conclusion. However, I consciously tried to not obsess over who the murderer was because I wanted to enjoy the thrill of the book. Therefore, I enjoyed the suspense and being surprised with each red herring and revelation.

Murder on the Orient Express is definitely a classic kind of mystery. While I don’t usually read mysteries, I have watched my fair share of crime shows (favorites being NCIS and Law & Order). The TV shows are always trying to be bigger, bolder, and better than the last season, but this book was just a straight-up whodunit. It presented the facts of the crime, the evidence of the passengers, and the detective’s analysis of the all aspects of the crime. And it was fascinating.

The story was never dull and I was reading through it quite rapidly, occasionally trying to work out who was responsible, but never quite getting it right. Which was actually the most fun part of reading it. Of course it seemed so obvious after I finished it, and it was a similar feeling to anytime I read Sherlock Holmes stories and Sherlock points out everything Watson or the reader missed as if it truly is the most obvious thing in the world. If you want to start reading mysteries or have been wanting to read your first Agatha Christie novel, I definitely recommend Murder on the Orient Express as a great one with which to start!

Sarah’s Review

For years I wondered why Agatha Christie had such an appeal, until my father-in-law gave my husband and I tickets to see the stage production The Mousetrap in Philadelphia one weekend. And I now know why she is the queen of mystery writing. Her plot and pacing are superb – it is easy enough to follow along, the writing in her books and the dialogue in the play made you feel like you were in the hotel/on the train with the inspector as they attempt to solve the mystery.

Christie reveals enough details and suspicious that the reader can attempt to solve the mystery themselves, but she also allows for enough wiggle room for you to eventually be surprised by the final twist without feeling completely blindsided. While I have not been a mystery reader for a terribly long time (this could probably be considered my first true mystery novel, save for a Patterson novel I read shortly after college), I have quickly come to appreciate the differences in storytelling required for a good mystery versus a good novel.

Suspense is key, but in moderation. If the crime is committed at the start, then there should be enough background build up for each character that it doesn’t feel procedural. If crimes are continuing to be committed, it should feel like at least one character’s life is still under threat.

After reading Murder on the Orient Express, I immediately went out and purchased more Agatha Christie books – they make for a delightful, quick, beach or summer read and I have enjoyed them immensely.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780062072495 • 265 pages • originally published in 1934, this edition published January 2011 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in June 2016

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Murder on the Orient Express


Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult

Paper Towns by John Green

When I was student teaching, my sixth grade students raved about John Green. Around that time, The Fault in Our Stars was blowing up and the movie was expected to do well as well. Given how much they raved about him, I figured I might as well read one of his books, especially given how many webisodes of Crash Course I’d been watching. 


Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So, when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.


*I originally wrote the review below in April 2014, and the more I think about this book over the years, the more I dislike it. But these are my thoughts from immediately after reading Paper Towns.*

Paper Towns is a book full of adventure and follows the theme of overcoming personal fears to do something “heroic” and selfless for someone else. I put “heroic” in quotations because the main character, Q (Quentin), has no idea that he is acting heroic, nor does he know that he is, in fact, a hero.

Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose full name is used to capture her complete Margo-ness, has been Q’s next-door neighbor for his entire life. As children, they were best mates until one morning when they discover the body of a man who committed suicide in their subdivision/development’s park. This affects them both on different levels for the next ten years as they go through school. And for much of that decade, Q and Margo barely speak. Until one night in May, when Margo shows up at Q’s window, and cue the synopsis above.

Quentin goes through the process of getting to know Margo without the benefit of having her around and the things he learns after she leaves frighten him a bit. His quest to find her is a hopeful one, though it is not a happy one. The story, first person in Q’s point of view, follows him and his friends, as well as one of Margo’s friends, as they encounter odd and seemingly meaningless clues about Margo’s possible location.

It is an interesting perspective as it is Margo who drives the plot despite only being physically present for a short period of time. Margo is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and Q and company’s attempts to solve that mystery are painstakingly realistic, their fear for Margo’s well being is their constant companion. And [spoiler alert!] when they do find her, things aren’t resolve in a nice neat way which I appreciated greatly.

It’s a relatable tale and many of Quentin’s thoughts on how well we can truly know a person are eerily like thoughts I had myself while going through high school and college and attempting to understand the motives behind others’ actions. Paper Towns is incredibly well written, and I want to read more of John Green’s works – it was hard to pick just one of the many intriguing stories by John Green. Overall, it is an intriguing tale and Quentin has a clear voice throughout.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142414934 • 305 pages • first published October 2008, this edition published September 2009 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 3.88 out of 5 • read in April 2014

John Green’s Website

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Paper Towns

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review Previously Published, Updated October 16th with Laura’s Review!

Salt to the Sea first came into my hands as an ARC (advanced reader copy) shortly after I was introduced to Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I picked up a copy of Between Shades of Gray at a not-so-little hidden gem of a used book store in center city Philadelphia. When I met Ruta at Winter Institute in 2016, I just knew I would love her books.


Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.


Laura’s Review

Salt to the Sea quickly became one of my favorite books even as I was in the middle of reading it. I was nervous about reading about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, thinking that the subject matter would be too depressing. Even though I knew Salt to the Sea is a work of fiction, I was also aware that nearly all of the events depicted actually happened.

I do not think I could have read this book if it had not been in the structure that it is. The chapters are all very short and the perspective shifts with each one between four very different teenagers, all of whom end up on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The reason being that the subject matter is so intense (and since I am particularly prone to nightmares) that if it had not switched perspectives every few pages, I think I would have felt overwhelmed trying to comprehend all of the atrocities that happened to just these four people as World War II was drawing to a close. Despite shifting perspectives so frequently, every character was well-developed and I had strong feelings, both positive and negative, about all of them.

The experiences of these four teenagers was different than any other World War II historical fiction novel that I had read, and yet it was also very similar. Three of the four, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are attempting to escape into Nazi Germany, since for them, Nazi Germany was less dangerous that waiting for the Soviets to overtake their lands and ship them to the Gulag camps. The fourth, Alfred was a Nazi officer who had sociopathic tendencies. Ironically, I felt the most sorry for Alfred. He was barely an adult and yet his mind had been corrupted to believe that anyone who was not an Aryan German was inferior, and that it was his duty to enforce the superiority of the Aryan race. He had become highly dangerous, and yet he was essentially still a child. The sections of the book from his perspective were my least favorite because they caused me to feel a mixture of revulsion and pity at the same time. I was much more invested in the fates of Emilia, Florian, and Joana and was desperately hoping that they would survive the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

While trying to escape into Nazi Germany made the experiences different than other characters in the other World War II historical fiction novels I have read, it was also heartbreakingly similar. All they wanted to do was survive, just as the British, French, Americans, and many others. The difference being that their best chance of survival was in Nazi Germany away from the Soviets, whereas the Allies’ best chance was if Nazi Germany was defeated with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is one of the best World War II historical fictions books that I have read and would recommend it to anyone at all interested in the genre.

Sarah’s Review

Salt to the Sea is a beautifully written and moving book, written in four alternating points of view, three of whom are refugees fleeing the Soviet advance across East Prussia who are trying to get into Nazi Germany – a new perspective for young adult World War II fiction. The fourth character to offer his take on the situation facing the Germans in January 1945 is a complete and terrifying sociopath and his actions, relayed in his chapters and the others, creates the most friction and anticipation int eh story for those who already know the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff (go on, I dare you not to Google it if you don’t already know). These alternating points of view are woven together with expert hands and for those who already know and love Ruta’s storytelling, Salt to the Sea does not disappoint.

I flew through Salt to the Sea very quickly and would have read it even quicker if I didn’t have to take breaks to sleep and work (I read straight through meals) and for those two days it was all I could think about. Our three refugees, Emilia, Joana, and Florian, are traveling with a cast of characters including an elderly gentleman affectionately referred to as the Shoe Poet, an endearing little boy who has lost his entire family, a salty older woman who views traveling with the group as nothing more than a necessary step to freedom, and a blind young girl who quickly proves to be the bravest and most intuitive member of the rag tag collective.

Ruta (she told me I could call her that in person!) alternates quickly between her protagonists’ viewpoints which leads to anxious reading, wondering furiously what is going to happen next. And while the final action regarding their escape is known to history, the fate of the individual characters and the challenges they face along the way are unknown and I believe that is the true power of Ruta’s storytelling. One can quickly look up what happens in history, but that event is really just that, an event, but it becomes so much more when conveyed as part of the complex and interesting lives of all of Ruta’s characters.

While for many, this is a five/ten star book, and is, by right, a five/ten star book, I still hold all of WWII fiction up against the harsh judgment of my love for Code Name Verity and The Book Thief and while Salt to the Sea is absolutely wonderful, it still falls just a touch behind my two pillar of great YA WWII fiction.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142423622 • 448 pages • first published in February 2016, this edition published August 2017 by Penguin books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Fiction, Historical

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A former co-worker first recommended Cinnamon and Gunpowder to me when I told her of my love of pirate tales. It then became a book that sat on my shelf for far too long until I decided it should be a book selection for my book club, the Modern Readers!

4 - March 2016 - Cinnamon & Gunpowder


The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. While Wedgwood attempts to satisfy his captor with feats such as tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider, he realizes that Mabbot herself is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. But there is a method to Mabbot’s madness, and as the Flying Rose races across the ocean, Wedgwood learns to rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: a formidable giant who loves to knit; a pair of stoic martial arts masters, sworn to defend their captain; and the ship’s deaf cabin boy, who becomes the son he never had.


Sarah’s Review

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an incredibly fun book that is not particularly funny. Narrator Owen “Wedge” Wedgwood is press-ganged into “Mad” Hannah Mabbot’s rag tag crew of pirates with the express purpose of cooking a fine meal for pirate captain Mabbot every Sunday from whatever happens to be available in the middle of the open ocean as she continues on her journey to hunt down the elusive Brass Fox, who has been plaguing the shipping lanes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Told from the staunchly anti-pirate Wedge’s perspective through makeshift journal entries on whatever scraps of paper he can find, Cinnamon and Gunpowder focuses on his relationships with the crew, the Fox, a mute cabin boy, and the captain herself. Despite constant escape attempts, Wedge’s opinion of his fellow shipmates changes, practically against his will, and he gradually finds himself enjoying the company of his compatriots on board.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder was not the book I thought it would be and, for once, it was a very pleasant surprise instead of a disappointment. Eli Brown’s storytelling is superb and his cast of characters are richly developed and thoroughly intriguing.

Laura’s Review

This was certainly unlike any other book I’ve ever read. I did not know culinary-piracy could be a book genre, but Eli Brown seems to have made it one all his own. I was not entirely sure what to expect when it was announced as the next book club read, but after hearing “female pirate captures chef to cook for her” I thought it would provide some good laughs and be a rather light read.

Cinnamon & Gunpowder was a much more serious story than I was expecting. It took an honest look at the life of pirates, the dangers of opium addiction, and the politics and corruption of the East India (renamed Pendleton in the book) Trading Company. There were a few light moments, but after his kidnapping by Mad Hannah Mabbot, Owen Wedgewood’s life becomes extremely difficult, rather depressing, and occasionally infuriating. The story is told entirely from Wedgewood’s point of view as it consists of his musings that he writes down during his time on Mabbot’s ship. I understand that the story is told from Wedgewood’s point of view because he is most like the reader for he is taken from the comfort of his home and thrown into a world of which he knows very little. As he learns more about his captors, he begins to feel less like a prisoner and more as a member of the ship’s crew.

For me, some of the best parts were when he was describing what culinary masterpieces he was making for Mabbot and how he managed to pull them off while living aboard a pirate ship. However, I think the book could have been even more compelling and enjoyable if everything had been from Mabbot’s viewpoint. Hannah Mabbot lived a long, tortuous, complicated, exhilarating life that we only learn through about through Wedgewood, and always through his eyes, whether they be judgemental or sympathetic.

I enjoyed the story; I certainly learned quite a bit about both pirates and the British merchant aristocracy and how neither were wholly good or evil. I just would have enjoyed it more if it had been Hannah Mabbot’s diary I was reading, and not that of Owen Wedgewood.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781250050182 • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2014 by Picador USA • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read March 2016

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