Category: Minnesota author

Book Review: Last Things by Jacqueline West

Last Things is the newest YA from New York Times bestselling author Jacqueline West. Her award-winning The Books of Elsewhere is one of my favorite MG series. I was excited to hear that she was writing another YA, especially after reading her most recent book, The Collectors, last fall.

This story simply hummed! This story kept me turning pages well past midnight. *cough 2am cough* Not that reading this in the dead of night is the best idea. Because no. It is creepy, it is heebie jeebie, it is deliciously spooky. It might make you rethink the wisdom of reading alone at night next to an uncovered window. Just me? Oh, okay.

Continue reading

Halloween Reads 2018

Need a good book that will send chills up your spine? I have a great selection this year! If you are not familiar with my Halloween Reads posts, I have been doing this since 2010 (first on, where I was the Minneapolis Books Examiner, and now on my own blog. Look for links at the end to these past posts for more recs!). I love it when the weather turns chilly and gloomy, leaves blowing across the grass, and a slight mist in the air. Join me! I’ll wait while you get your hot beverage of choice, a pumpkin latte? A hot cider? Good old hot chocolate? Mulled wine? Here we go!

Quick recap: these are not horror. I don’t have the nerves for that. I try to find a couple different genres, but really, I just post whatever I find that appeals to me!

Let’s start with a classic! Continue reading

Halloween Reads 2017

Every year since 2011 I have done a round-up this time of year of spooky and creepy reads that I have enjoyed. I have sometimes included horror recommendations from other people (like in last year’s post from Alison at Little Bookworm), but I haven’t read those because I am a chicken. This year, though, I am happy to supply several titles that seriously fit the bill. I personally know a couple of these authors, but honestly, that has no bearing on my recommendation. They are all great stories.

At the bottom you will find links to my previous years’ posts, and an apology from me for falling off the radar here for so long. First, on to the books! Continue reading

Best Books of 2016, Part II

Here is part two of my Best Books post, in which I wax rhapsodic about another YA fantasy, some mysteries, some middle grade and a few children’s picture books! I hope you have a chance to check some of these out! And if you missed it, check out part one of my post of Best Books of 2016!

Now, if you know me, you know how much I love YA. And if you know how much I love YA, you know how much I love Leigh Bardugo. I didn’t miss the sequel to Six of Crows, and I didn’t leave it off my list! Here we go, making the world right:

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Yes, this is one of my favorite reads. I am, however, still in a bit of huff because the series is over. This book is the second one in the Six of Crows series. I reviewed Six of Crows here. Have I told you lately how much I love these characters? I love them so much, it hurts to say goodbye. In fact, I had a really hard time getting into this book. I had to enact the buddy-read method to get me to keep moving forward – and so that I would have someone to cry with when it was over. Okay, I didn’t cry (much). But it was still very sad. Nevertheless, pain is a part of life, and I suggest you get your hands on all the Leigh Bardugo books you can carry, and just sit down and read them all straight through. You’ll have a helluva hangover, but it will be so worth it. This setting, the writing, the story, the characters – you will be in love. (Bonus: I did preorder this, and I did get the most coolest preorder swag ever! More on that later.)


In the Moors, Unraveled Visions, Beneath the Tor (Shaman Mystery series)
by Nina Milton

I’ve recently discovered a series published by a Minnesota publisher, Flux, which has a mystery imprint called Midnight Ink. I was looking for books about shamans, and stumbled across the Shaman Mysteries series by Nina Milton, about a modern shamanic practitioner named Sabbie Dare. Not only is it fascinating to hear about how she plies her trade, but the mysteries are good too. They are set on the Somerset moors, which only adds to the overall appeal. There are three in the series and I read them out of order, which does not seem to matter too awful much. Each one of them pulled me in and kept me going late into the night. I love Sabbie and I am totally rooting for her, even if she does have a habit of sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Bonus: this counts as research for my work in progress!

Middle Grade

Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper

What a lovely, refreshing, too-true bit of magical realism! I met Abby while we were both working on a project last spring, and I was so happy to find that her debut novel is every bit as effervescent as she is. It is a story about bullying, but also about self-confidence, about being true to yourself, and about the rigors of junior high. The main character may have a made-up condition, but the challenges she faces are as real as anything you will ever read. I loved Elyse, and her chirpy voice is spot-on and feels like someone I know. I am looking forward to more from this author!

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee by Erin Petti

This is delightful. That is the first word that comes to mind. This was one of my top Halloween Reads this year (check the link for the full review). It is a bit creepy, yes, and in the way of children’s literature, involves giving the children a great deal of license to do as they wish. But it is a lovely story, a bit of a mystery, a love story and a ghost story all rolled into one. The construct of the main character being very curious and loving scientific method means that this is very literally used in the story, which is one way of slipping in exposure to that. But Thelma is so delightful, and her need is so dire, that we cannot help but root for her. There is even an online component. I received this at the Heartland Fall Forum book show.

Children’s Picture Books

I just got my first issue of Horn Book, which had a very cool subscription deal that I couldn’t pass up. And it reminded me again how much I love a really beautiful children’s book. I will highlight a couple here that came to me over the past year.

One North Star: A Counting Book
by Phyllis Root
Illustrations by
Beckie Prange and Betsy Bowen

This is flat-out gorgeous. I love the combined woodcut and watercolor illustrations, the deep colors, and the depiction of the natural world. It is a counting book, too, which is absolutely fun. It takes the reader deep into caves, under water, and into a bear’s den. The pages are lush and rich with detail, while at the same time being very simple. I also like that there is information in the back on the different habitats depicted. If you have not yet discovered Phyllis Root, also check out her Plant a Pocket of Prairie book, also illustrated by Betsy Bowen, or any of her other many titles. This is my top children’s book of 2016! I received a copy of this book from the publisher, University of MN Press.


Tinyville Town Gets to Work! By Brian Biggs

This book reminds me of the old Richard Scarry books I had when I was a kid (which, yes, I still have), with its busy bright pages full of people doing all kinds of things. This is the first in the Tinyville Town series by Biggs. I got to meet the author at the Heartland Fall Forum in the Moveable Feast, where he told us about this book. It describes a very big process (building a bridge) in a very simple way, and celebrates the idea of how people working together can make great things happen. I look forward to more in this series!

Wake Up, Island by Mary Casanova
Woodcuts by Nick Wroblewski

This details a similar landscape as One North Star but contrasts with its very delicate, lovely illustrations that also include woodcuts but with a softer palette. This book shows the whole world waking up – not just a sleepy bear scratching his back, but pine trees that stretch, and lichen that warms a rock. This is full of fun sounds – mallard wings “wuff-wuffing,” a chickadee calls, a red squirrel chatters and munches. Children will get a feel for the whole world that is contained in this tiny spot of the north woods. I received this book from the Minnesota publishers reception at the Heartland Fall Forum.

There are so many good books out there. This is a much longer list than I typically give. I keep thinking of more books I want to add. But hopefully, one of these will appeal to you, and you will find the book that you need at the time that you need it. Because books really do change lives, and they really do matter. I hope you have many great books come your way in 2017!

Best Books of 2016, Part 1

I love my stats. I am still not sure if I’ll make my reading challenge goal for this year – I had hiked it up to 80 books, even though last year I had not made my goal of 75. Call it a fit of optimism. But the year before last I read 100. Now my challenge shows me that I have 1 day and 10 hours to make my goal. This year, they have a feature called My Year in Books, which is like catnip to me. My longest book was Crooked Kingdom at 536 pages (every moment of it worthwhile); my average page count per book was 296 pages. These 72 books I’ve read so far this year amount to 20,439 pages. I like that. It’s a nice round number. I only wish I had more reading stats.

What I do have is a list of the books I liked the most. The ones that stuck with me. Here I’ll highlight my favorite reads of the year, covering many genres. My top three (no surprise) are all YA fantasy.

I want to say that YA fantasy has really stepped it up in recent years, but maybe it is just that I have only begun paying closer attention since I started blogging. I have gotten to know many bloggers on Twitter and Instagram who focus on YA, so that might be leading me more towards that genre as a whole. I am not a huge fan of contemporary (though I love Rainbow Rowell and I am looking forward to Adam Silvera’s new one), but I can’t get enough of the fantasy.

Without further ado, here are my top reads of 2016!

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This one has stuck itself deep into my heart, deep into my psyche and my imagination. It is one of the most highly imaginative, well-executed books that I think I have ever read. It feels cut out of whole cloth. It is magical, awe-inspiring – the superlatives do not do it justice. What Kristoff has done here is imagined a whole new world – one with three suns, then created a lexicon that uses that specific element – days are not days, they are “turns” and so these characters do not say ‘some day,’ but “some turn.” He has then populated that landscape with an incredible cityscape, and other continents that share their own incredible histories, and then peopled that world with characters that make you cringe and make you cry, that you will root for and fear all at once. The writing, the very magic of the words and sentences, is sublime. There is even – wait for it – a vast, cavernous library that has its own surprise, and is prowled by actual bookworms, which will eat you whole.

This is deep and dark and full of foreboding. People die. Many die in gruesome, startling ways. Our heroine, Mia, is befriended by shadows, and you will soon wish you had your own Mister Kindly. Her story is heartbreaking, but she rises above it in ways that will astonish you. You may not agree with everything she does, but you will want her to succeed at doing it. Let’s just say it earns the hashtag for this title, which is #stabstabstab.

I cannot say enough good things about this book, except holy hell, why was it not on every best list, and why is it not being sung from the mountaintops? And just that you should go get it. Read the synopsis on your chosen book site, and then know that is not nearly enough. It is so much more. For some reason I haven’t published my review yet. And my library doesn’t have a copy. I had to get mine from another system (thank the goddess for Interlibrary loans!). But it is worth hiking over hills and mountains to get this in your hands.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

It was hard to choose, if I had to, between this and Nevernight. The clincher, I think, was the overall feel of the book. This is a fantastic story, told by two teens, who are very different from each other. I don’t know if you will like Katie, but that’s okay. You may be repulsed by August, or utterly charmed by him. You will certainly feel for them as they are drawn into this world they inhabit, which they are trying very hard to resist. I loved the story here, I loved the characters, and I loved the utterly forlorn nature of the situation. This is not sugar-coated. It is dark and it is nasty. But there is music, though it does not bring beauty, and at the end, there is hope. This was the second book I had read by Schwab, and I found it even more wonderful than her Darker Shade of Magic series. No romance here, thank you very much. And I can’t wait for the second in this duology, Dark Duet. You can see my full review here.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

I’ve been championing this book ever since I first read it. I loved it. It is a fast-paced, rousing rebel-with-a-cause adventure, and I want to get back to the desert and see what could possibly happen next. I loved Amani and I loved the setting. I could taste both the dust in my mouth and her own desperation to get out of her sleepy little one-horse town. But along with the adventure, this was also a book about stories. There are legends, and myths, and everyone has their own secrets, and the stories might be true, or might not. There is magic, there is a lovely spot-on bit of blushing romance, and I can’t wait for the next book. I don’t own a copy of this one, but I am torn now, because they changed the beautiful cover for the next book. Why oh why did they do that? They just don’t understand – series must match! And that gorgeous cover is something I would have loved to see carried through. Ah well. I know well enough by now that publishers have reasons why they do things.


Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

I read this bit by bit, trying to savor it but still rushing to the next chapter. I loved the way it was laid out. Each chapter focused on a different element of writing. You might want to skip ahead to whatever is eating you at the moment, but I urge you to read it all the way through. It’s like a little masterclass between covers. See how many flags are in my copy? I am excited to put all this great advice to use. A Minnesota author by a Minnesota publisher! I got this copy at the Minnesota reception at Heartland Fall Forum, where I finally got to meet Ben in person.

The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang

If you have not read The Late Homecomer, you may not be familiar with Yang. She is a Minnesotan, but her writing will take you far away from here. In her latest book, she tells the story of her father. It’s interesting to hear a daughter focus on her father, but clearly they have a special relationship, and his gift made an impression on her. This is a riveting account of his life, from the mountaintop jungles to the refugee camp to life in America. It is clear that should Yang choose to, she would be an astounding poet. If you ever – I mean EVER – get a chance to hear her speak, run, don’t walk. She can make an entire room cry just answering a question. Her thoughtful, clear-headed story will leave its mark on you. Bonus: if you are not familiar with the Hmong people, you are in for a helluva story. I am so glad that she wrote this book. This one should be filed under “miraculous.” (I received a copy of this book from the publisher at the spring bookseller meeting of MiBA.

Grief Is the Things with Feathers by Max Porter

Never mind that Porter stole the title of the poem that was my mantra while my best friend was fighting cancer. I was irked by that at first, wishing I’d thought to title my poetry collection with this, but that would be too close to the source, wouldn’t it? At any rate, I did not have huge high hopes for this novel. I thought it was at best an affectation, at worst an over-hyped golden boy. But, ahem, I stand corrected, even if only to myself. This spare, lyrical novel will give you pause. It may seem crazy, but just read every word and take the journey. The journey is always different but the ending is magnificent. Keep going.


The Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt

Carry yourself away, 400 years in the past and across the ocean, to Italy, to England. Mary Sharratt brings it all to life. In what is fast becoming her trademark of authenticity, she has recreated the world in which, perhaps, William Shakespeare made the acquaintance of England’s first published lady poet, Aemelia Bassano. He may or may not have traveled to Italy with her, and then, returning to England, he wrote those sonnets – to her? It is all conjecture at this point, but oh, highly suspect! And somehow, it just feels right. We get glimpses of the court life, glimpses of the precarious nature of society then, the predicament of women, and the words, all the words. This is a lush, fully-imagined story, great for anyone who enjoys diving into historical fiction. Disclaimer: I worked with Mary on a social media campaign for the release of this book. Look for #OpheliaReads on Twitter and Facebook for some fun pics!

Wintering by Peter Geye

And now for something completely different. Peter Geye fully brings to life the landscape of northern Minnesota like no one else. In fact, you could say that the landscape is another character in his books. If you have not read his earlier work, The Lighthouse Road, you could pick that up first, and then binge both of these. They are each told covering two time periods, and contain multiple perspectives, sharing some characters. It is complex writing, and beautiful. Geye returns to his North Shore town of Gunflint, and tells the story of a trip a father and son took into the wild years before. It is an adventure story, tense yet full of the peace of nature. You do not need to have read Lighthouse Road in order to enjoy Wintering, however. Just find yourself some Peter Geye, and settle in for a great winter read.


And with that, I got carried away. Check back tomorrow for the second half of my Best of 2016 reads, with more YA, mystery, middle grade and children’s picture books!

Book Review: Sticks & Stones

PrintI soared through this sweet, inventive middle-grade story – not that I wanted it to end… but it simply grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Elyse’s voice is spot-on, perfect. I love her internal dialogue! Everything is on point, and completely feels real.

Well, yes, even the CAV (the medical condition that she has that makes words appear on her skin). When I first heard about this premise, I thought it was a clever way to display the effects of bullying. But it is much more than that. It does not feel like magical realism, it does not feel surreal. It feels totally believable and my heart ached for El more than once. For one, if you have ever had a skin condition that itched, you will know that this is no joke. I grew up with toxic eczema, which landed me in the hospital once (they tell me I almost died). And I’ve had recurring skin rashes throughout my life, that affected how I dressed, whether or not I went swimming, etc. Along with everything else, this was especially hard during junior high (when we had swimming in gym class!). I wouldn’t repeat those years for a million dollars.

It’s hard to pull a quote without spoiling things, so I’ll just say that whether words are on the inside or the outside, they can still hurt. And that you don’t need someone else to tell you’re awesome. But sometimes we forget that. Everyone has something that they are lacking, or something they need – whether you are the snotty cool girl or the girl with the weird skin condition. And if you have it within your power to give someone what they are lacking, you will feel better for doing so.

Along with the smashing character development, the plot was compelling enough to keep me turning pages long into the night. I loved the little twists and turns and especially the one at the end! I love the device of the Letters to Future Self that helped us sort out the confused thoughts of an 11 year old, and I loved that “hate him/love him” love interest, the “too-nice” guy that you just couldn’t date, the snotty girl – they were all real. I mean, for real real. I knew every one of them. Ugh. Thank God that’s over, and here we just get to visit.

I want everyone to visit. For days afterward, I found myself wanting to return to this setting, these characters. And that, as we all know, is the mark of a good book. This is a wonderful, charming, touching read full of great characters with a fantastic story and message. And can we get a hand clap for that cover? I love the colors – the whole book is lime green and pink. Just yummy. Get your hands on it!

Abby Cooper does the impossible – she makes it seem like junior high is almost worth all the pain. This is lovely. It is simply lovely. I hope we hear a lot more from this author. Also note that she will be doing events to support the book. Her launch is this coming Saturday, July 23 at the Arlington Heights Community Center/Library in St. Paul, from 3-5pm. There will be cake! She will also be at Barnes & Nobles: Galleria in Edina on July 30 at 11am and Har Mar in Roseville on Aug 6 at 2pm. Check her website for more event information, including school visits, festivals and more!


Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the author. Yes, I know her. She’s delightful. I met her while we were working together on an editing project. She in no way influenced this review or my rare use of stars on GoodReads (FIVE stars, baby!). And I do sense a tiny bit of Abby in Elyse!

Way Back Wednesday BookRev: Silhouette of a Sparrow

I’ve got a lot of books laying around. I mean, lots. That’s one of the reasons that I started this blog. It just didn’t seem fair. And now, I get to share them with you! So I’m going to periodically (on Wednesdays) be taking some of my old review copies, ARCs and purchases out to give them the light of day. This is the first post for Way Back Wednesday, when I share with you a lovely book that I got at the Heartland Fall Forum about three years ago. I put it in a pile, and there it sat, with its lovely cover beckoning to me. Then I realized it had not only won the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature, but that it was written by the wonderful Molly Beth Griffin, one of the most generous writers ever, who hosts #1kTuesdays on Facebook. So I picked it up for the #24in48 Readathon, and oh my. What a lovely read.

Also, this week, I want you to take a peek up at the top. Yes, up there. See my lovely new banner? I had it custom-designed by illustrator extraordinaire Rebecca McConnell, and it was such fun to work with her on it! I hope you think it is as cozy as I do. This is my dream station in life, folks.

SilhouetteSparrowAll right. Now, without further ado, let me tell you about Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow!

This is a wonderful story, full of the place and time and thoughts of a girl perched just on the cusp of her life, watching it unfold before her in so many ways. A heroine for the ages, someone to root for.

Griffin pulls you in right away, making Garnet Richardson into a completely sympathetic character, a smart, serious girl who is growing up in a time when old habits die hard. When flappers are scandalous still, and her family wants her to settle down and marry, and be a good wife and mother.

SilhouetteDetailBut she likes birds. I love that she likes birds. Birds are things that I never gave two cents about, until suddenly, once I bought a house, there they were. And I gave my two cents. And now I love them. I’ve seen all the birds she counts, the ones she snips out in her miraculous silhouettes. (I can’t imagine how anyone could do that!) I was enamored of the cutouts that served as chapter headings, and often found myself flipping back during the chapter to look at the bird shape. I loved how each chapter somehow touched on this bird, and how it applied to the story. It’s a marvelous framework.

Much of the charm of this (aside from Garnet) is in the time and the place. Like the sweet little book Through No Fault of Her Own by Peg Meier, we are tossed right into a privileged world (though Garnet is reminded constantly how firmly she is on the outside looking in), here it being epitomized by that languid summer lake life, the one that takes place at grand hotels, when women of a certain class really didn’t have much to do but sit around and gossip and embroider. And the gist of the story is that anyone with half a brain could simply go stark raving mad in that environment.

Like many who have grown up in Minnesota, I have heard many times about the amusement park that used to be in Excelsior, which is a sweet little lakeside town. Still, I have lamented that I was just that much too late to ever get to ride the roller coaster next to the lake. I’ve been to Excelsior, and I’ve been to the lake, and I can easily imagine with Griffin’s pert and direct prose the lush green lakeside with the white hotels, and cool breezes, the hats, the park rides. The storms, the birds and the facial expressions. It’s all right there.

What a lovely book, exquisitely designed. What a lovely story, with the will-she-won’t-she tug throughout – there are so many wrong decisions that Garnet could make! And we are rooting for her! This is a coming of age book that deals with issues that might be slightly different than you might expect. (Let’s just say that it may be on the upper end of YA.) And in the end, well, in the end Garnet is Garnet.

Jacketed Hardcover, 224 pages
Milkweed Editions 2012
ISBN 1571317015 (ISBN13: 9781571317018)

Book Review: Best to Laugh

This has been acknowledged as the most autobiographical of any of Landvik’s ten novels. I have it on good authority. I’ve met her many times, but I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with Lorna at a writers’ conference on the shores of Lake Superior. She was the keynote speaker and shared her journey, much of which is somehow alluded to in this book. This book will let you see further into her than any of her other books.

BesttoLaughBest to Laugh is a nostalgic yet bittersweet look at a time when a girl was just coming into her own. A new place, new people, new risks and new opportunities, and this is her enjoying it all. The setting is Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, taking place at a storied apartment complex full of washed-up legends, wannabes and up-and-comers. The cast of characters is large, yet there is never confusion, because they are all so distinct.

There might have been, in lesser hands, some temptation to make cheap jokes at the expense of some of the characters, or to make them into caricatures of their own selves. But that is not what happens here. The main character, our lovely Candy, is earnest, she is honest and young and thriving and striving. And she takes every person as they are, though of course some of the fun is a tiny bit of Landvik’s own wit, which errs on the side of truthfulness, as all good humor does.

Landvik is a smart, whip-funny wisecracker who does dialogue like no one else, and I have no doubt that many of these lines were taken from real life. Candy is someone we want to know, who we wouldn’t mind having as a friend, whose famous yellow cake with fudge icing we would want to sample. (Lorna confessed to me that hers was “real” fudge, with a shell that you had to crack.) And being herself, we can’t help but root for her. We don’t know from the beginning explicitly what happens to her, so every turn around the corner is a delight, from working at the record company to being a temp at the ‘Rogue Mansion’ to her relationship with the seer to the stars to her blossoming comic career.

You will laugh, you will cry. I mean it. This is not a trite cliché. Okay, well, maybe it is. But just go on a little ride down memory lane, with the Hollywood pool and the dreams and hopes of a girl that you would swear was your best friend in high school. The bittersweet part is set up at the very beginning, when we see a faded dress hanging near a photo of an apartment complex under the wrecking ball. But that’s okay. All good things must come to an end.

And that, I think, is the message of this book. We are here for a time, we are there for a time, and that is our time. Enjoy it, meet people, talk, love, eat, drink, laugh. Best to laugh. Really. I loved this ride. The feeling it leaves behind reminds me a lot of Rainbow Rowell’s Landline. If you liked Landline, you will love this too.

If you get a chance, go see Lorna in person. She is a treat and a delight. Check her website for her upcoming events. Those in the Twin Cities would do well to mark out a spot on their calendar in January, in case she does her improv at Bryant Lake Bowl again.

Note: Minnesotans might recognize some place names alluded to in this. After all, who is Candy Ohi anyway?

Best to Laugh by Lorna Landvik
University of MN Press, 296 pages, hardcover
ISBN 9780816694532, 2014
Released in paperback Sept 1, 2015

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