Fiction, Historical

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

I love any book set in Europe during World War II, it is by far one of my favorite time periods to read about. I requested the audiobook from the library to listen to while driving to and from work and I wound up enjoying it so much, I bought the actual book as well.


After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. With his best friend, Hank, Ellis decides that they only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel once very publicly failed – by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster. Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.

The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet she finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected. As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her but of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.


While I had never read any of Sara Gruen’s books, well, still have never read as I listened to this one, I have seen the film adaptation of Water for Elephants and enjoyed her story-telling technique. Typically, when I choose a book to listen to in the car while driving back and forth from work, I pick one that is sitting on my shelf, but that I just haven’t had the chance to read yet. With At the Water’s Edge I decided to go for a new book, in keeping with my love of women’s World War II stories. Plus, it starts in the high society quarter of Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square), near where my grandmother lived as a young girl during World War II.

Maddie, main character of At the Water’s Edge, starts off as the agreeable, and mostly clueless wife of a charismatic young man, Ellis, born into great wealth. Her family is tainted by scandal via her mother and his through his perceived inability to serve in the war. Together, with Ellis’ friend Frank, they set off in search of the Loch Ness monster to reclaim their rightful place in society. They find themselves sheltered in a rundown inn quite near the loch where the manager is surly and the young women who work there don’t think much of the trio’s high society ways. Over the course of a few weeks, Ellis and Frank habitually leave Maddie to her own devices as they search out the monster and Maddie befriends the two women who work in the inn, Anna and Meg (who are by far the best characters in the book).

At the Water’s Edge is what I have come to discover is stereotypical woman’s fiction. Shortly into their adventure, Maddie realizes that her husband is a world class asshole and she attempts to assert her independence in any way she can. In this sense, Maddie goes from being the docile little sheep being led around blindly by Ellis and Frank (she crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the war because they suggested it) to standing on her own two feet and defending those she has come to care about. She eschews her high society background and falls in love with the Scottish Highlands, and the grouchy inn manager to boot. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it was bound to happen or there would be no story – Nessie only exists in our imaginations.

​Sara Gruen’s work reminds me of that of Sarah Addison Allen (are we noticing a pattern of Sarah’s here?) in the sense that it was a breezy read/listen, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was predictable, but not to the point of boredom or irritation. The best scenes are the unexpected ones, particularly those involving the Canadian lumberjacks. Maddie, Anna, and Meg are all real, emotional characters that waver occasionally on being two-dimensional, but their friendship is believable and that is the most impressive part of the book. Writing female relationships is more challenging than writing romantic ones and Gruen does so here with an expert hand.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385523240 • 416 pages • first published March 2015, this edition published November 2015 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.65 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Sara Gruen’s Website

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122-At the Water's Edge

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, Young Adult

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

A few years ago I was looking for new books to listen to on my long work drives and picked up Eleanor & Park, having seen it all over the book stores and hearing lots of wonderful things about Rainbow Rowell’s work. I almost didn’t bother listening to it after the first 5 minutes – I am not a fan of the 1980s – but I kept listening because my heart started breaking. Eleanor’s life sucks, there’s no way around it, and I had to know if she would find some happiness. 

Now, however, my opinion of E&P has fallen slightly – when I interview people at the bookstore, I ask them to find their favorite book in the store. One day, I did three interviews, and they ALL choose E&P. Each and every one. So now I, unfortunately, associate with unoriginal thought.


Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.


[warning: potential spoilers ahead]

Eleanor & Park broke my heart. Rainbow Rowell reminded me that people’s lives are real and terrible and wonderful simultaneously. Eleanor is a complex character, deep and shallow, scared, and excited, open to, yet closed off from, the world around her. Park is naïve and loving, shallow and superficial, deep, and inviting, and thoroughly and completely real. They are both so real that it’s a bit terrifying.

I almost stopped listening to Eleanor & Park multiple times, I don’t like books that are so completely realistic. This is not a fairy tale, there is no guarantee of a happy ending because life has no promise of eternal happiness, just hope. All we get from life is the opportunity to hope for something better, something incredible, something that makes us feel like life is worth living – hope. Park gives Eleanor hope that even though her step father is a terrible person and her mother has turned on her and her father doesn’t care about her and the mean kids at school bully her, there’s still some hope that she can find happiness. That she can be herself without needing to hide away in a closet, a completely private place surrounded by walls, so she doesn’t, so she can’t, get hurt. She’s strange and different and, understandably, has some self-esteem issues. But with Park, she can be herself, and that’s all anyone can really hope for, to find that one person with whom we can let all our walls down, call off the guard dogs and open and share our lives.

We’re all just looking for someone to share our lives with, someone who will love us without judging our life choices, someone who understands, who really understands, who we are and where we come from. For Eleanor, that person is Park. But she knows their time is limited, they’re sixteen years old, and the impermanence of their world, their lives, is almost too overwhelming for her to really relax and let him in. Like any sixteen-year-old girl, she doubts him, her life, everything. Does he love her? How could he love her? It’s the question we all ask when we first fall in love – what’s so special about me? How did I get so lucky to have this person in my life?

Eleanor and Park live in a world that is terribly flawed and therefore completely real. And for me, that was too much to handle. I don’t like reading books that remind me that the world can be a terrible place – I want books that give me hope and a happy ending, regardless of whether it’s realistic or not, not books that remind me that hope is all I have and that happy, sunny endings are the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t like to be reminded that when I was 19, I acted exactly like Eleanor, that I ruined something potentially wonderful because my own life was too overwhelming. I wouldn’t share it with anyone and it led to heart break. I hate it, because I want Eleanor and Park to be together, not have to go their separate ways in life. I was lucky and realized that my first relationship was worthless and terrible and that my life now is far better than it ever would have been had I made different choices at sixteen and nineteen. But for Eleanor and Park, I don’t want them to have to wait to find happiness. I want them happy now, unrealistic though that may be, I don’t care.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9781250012579 • 336 pages • published February 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 • read in April 2015

Rainbow Rowell’s Website

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Eleanor & Park

Fantasy, Fiction

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Knowing of our shared love of Good OmensBen picked up a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane for me from the Strand one year for Christmas!


A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse where she once lived, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.


The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an interesting book, a difficult one to really wrap my mind around. The main character is a grown man, reliving an extended childhood memory over the course of the novel. The idea behind the book is to play on our understanding of our memories and how they are a fluid thing, evolving and changing as we do when we grow older. Our memories of our childhood may not even be actual memories, but rather fabrications of our minds to explain something that our childhood brains could not fathom or comprehend.

This is the understanding one must accept when starting to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane or else it just seems trippy. The little boy suffered traumas, that much is undeniable. But whether Ursula Monkton (the blamed source for his difficulties) was really of another world and whether Lettie Hempstock really went to Australia, well, those matters are up for debate. Neil Gaiman expertly crafts fantasy based on the real events and occurrences and delves into the childhood memories with such a careful hand it’s hard to imagine that any other explanation for the boy’s suffering is even possible.

Alas, though, fiction that twists reality, fantasy, and psychology kind of freaks me out. It’s hard for me to think too hard about thinking and I tend to prefer to not have to do so unless necessary. An understanding of Gaiman’s purpose in writing is essential in experiencing The Ocean at the End of the Lane in the fullest way possible.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Mass Market Paperback • $7.99 • 9780062459367 • 256 pages • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2016 by William Morrow & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 • read in January 2015

Neil Gaiman’s Website

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Ocean at the End of the Lane

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finally realized why I read so many books about young women during World War II. My grandmother grew up in Nürnberg during this time and she has never spoken about her childhood. From what my father has told me about her experiences, I wouldn’t talk about it either. I read so many books because I wonder – is this her story? Liesel Meminger’s tale is probably closest I’ll get to the unknown story of my grandmother’s childhood in Germany.


It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed.


The Book Thief is an extraordinary book. Narrated by Death, it chronicles Liesel Meminger’s life from 1939 to 1943 – the time in which she lived with her foster family, the Hubermanns, in Molching, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Liesel is not Jewish, but an incredibly reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Her daily life, at the start of the war, continues in much the same way as life before and after the war. She plays soccer on the streets with her friends, she attends school, she reads books, and she delivers laundry for her foster mother. But as the war progresses, her life changes in the ways one would expect a young German girl’s life to change due to war – rationing, air raids, knowing people who have been drafted into the army, etc.

However, Liesel’s story is not the typical WWII era narrative as it is, on the surface, the tale of the ordinary German, not very sensational or particularly moving. But Liesel is a literary powerhouse of a protagonist. Her brother dies, and she copes by stealing a book – a book from which she learns to read. And learning to read, that changes the course of her entire life.

It was an interesting choice, on Markus Zusak’s part, to have Death narrate the book – it adds a sense of foreboding but also a tone of almost “hyper-reality” – giving a voice to the one fact that we all know but don’t like to confront – everyone dies. Death is exhausted by World War II, between the soldiers, the Jews, and the civilians, he’s exhausted. But Death is touched by Liesel, the girl who seems to see him and a girl he encounters more times than he believes he should (I use “he” because I listened to The Book Thief and the reader is male).

Personifying Death takes away the fear, Death narrates the book like Liesel’s old friend, not as an inevitable outcome and I believe that makes Liesel’s tale more profound and moving. My words are inadequate in describing the suffering Liesel endures but Markus Zusak does so with a great love for her, for all his characters. Throughout The Book Thief, Liesel is moved herself by the power of words and though she starts as an illiterate child, she quickly becomes a voracious reader. She recognizes the power words have, the words that stay with us long after they are spoken or read, and she learns some valuable life lessons from her words and the words of others. Death reveals the outcome of the book long before the final pages but that doesn’t make the end any easier to accept. While not a direct story about the Holocaust or a novel of expected and imminent danger, the outcome is heartbreaking and completely, harshly real to Liesel and the reader.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375842207 • 552 pages • first published March 2006, this edition published September 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in May 2015

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Book Thief

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

There aren’t many books that I can say I jumped on when they were first released in hardcover, but I’m very proud to own a first edition of Seraphina. It is one of my favorite books (I know, I say that a lot), but this one I love specifically to recommend to people. Seraphina, the character, is the perfect character for anyone who feels like the world doesn’t completely “get them,” and I believe all humans fall into the description at one point or another in life.


Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, pairing with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.


Seraphina is a very interesting character. She reminds me a lot of the characters that I heard about at all the Diverse Books panels I attended during Book Con. As a half-dragon, half-human, she has many difficulties that she must deal with and overcome, as well as secrets society pressures her to hide, something that I’m sure many young women and men can relate to.

I think Rachel Hartman and I could have lots of awesome conversations about music, dragons, and just growing up in general. A lot of what Seraphina must deal with runs true to the challenges of most young people’s lives and the awesome thing about her story is that, even though things go terribly wrong, she has a strong and supportive group of family and friends to back her up and stand by her.

One of the best parts about writing fantasy is that you can write about so many themes that can seem untouchable or insurmountable in realistic fiction. Seraphina’s story would be heartbreaking in the modern world. In the context of Goredd, her home country, she’s not supposed to be able to exist – I can’t imagine reading a story about a child whose very existence is supposedly impossible and if that child did exist, multiple factions would actively try to kill her. It’s so much easier to make dragons the bad guys, it’s plausible and believable, and its what fairy tales have led us to believe for quite some time.

But it’s the humans of Goredd who are much harsher on Seraphina, it is the humans who fear different people and fear change. This is true in the real world as well, but seems much less critical through the lens of a fantasy world. Fantasy is one of the perfect genres for social commentary and anyone who misses it in Seraphina is in denial. Seraphina’s story is a great one and an enjoyable tale of dragons and fantasy as well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780375866227 • 528 pages • originally published July 2012, this edition published December 2014 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.98 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Rachel Hartman’s Website

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Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

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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

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

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Salt to the Sea

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!


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.


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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Be Frank with Me (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Screenplay

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to rename the Millennial generation the Harry Potter generation. The series is one of the most unifying features of my generation. I was first introduced to the magical world at the at the age of nine, a year after the first book was released in the states. I attended at least three midnight release parties for the books and at least as many, if not more, midnight releases of the movies. I watched the students at my alma mater play college-level Quidditch and I have a wonderful friend who hosts a whole Harry Potter weekend every January. She also got to see the Cursed Child play in London and joined in our great delight when the bookstore that I work at decided to revive the midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.


It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children. While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes darkness comes from unexpected places.


I no longer own a copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I returned it. I couldn’t stand to see it sitting on my bookshelf with the other seven books. Last week the paperback edition was released and it may have rectified some of the issues that I will bring up in my review below. This review was originally written in August 2016.

When it comes to stage plays, I have a very distinct bias. I’ve studied them, written them, and had my own works performed on stage. Also, working in a bookstore, I’m aware of the publication history of the physical book copy of Cursed Child and, in short, it was a rush job. While the dust jacket of the hardcover edition makes it very clear that the edition released to the public on July 31st 2016 was a Special Rehearsal Edition, it really never should have seen the light of day. It is missing many of the key elements a stage play – stage directions (admittedly pointless for the vast majority of the intended audience) are noticeably absent, but more importantly, there is no description of action that happens without dialogue. If something is only an on stage visual, there is no record of it in the script. I hold out hope that the paperback edition will correct a lot of these problems.

Now that I’ve griped about the format, let us discuss plot. What a trainwreck. It comes across as bad fan-fiction. And yes, those who disagree with me, including many of my friends, are quick to remind me that it is meant to be seen on stage and experienced, but the magic of production can only do so much to ease the pain of a barely mediocre plot. One of my biggest gripes with the Harry Potter series as a whole is the lack of consistency and plethora of plot holes. While I don’t believe the intention with Cursed Child was to fix any problems in the original seven books, it certainly didn’t help matters as it just introduced a whole lot more, particularly regarding Bellatrix and Voldemort. As I’d like to keep this spoiler free, I won’t say why, suffice to say that revisionist history is rarely a good or effective idea.

What’s worst about this whole thing is that the negative reaction to Cursed Child means that the script for the movie of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will most likely under perform. And while Cursed Child was clearly a rush job in publication, Fantastic Beasts will be a completed piece – the production has had years to polish it and make sure that it is pristine. So I hold out hope that it will be better than Cursed Child, but I don’t think the rest of Rowling’s disgruntled readers will be ask optimistic.

Rating: 3 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9781338216660 • 336 pages • originally published July 2016, this edition published July 2017 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 3.76 out of 5 • read in July 2016

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Laura & I at the midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at Towne Book Center & Cafe

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Copy