A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

A Tangle of KnotsInformation

Goodreads: A Tangle of Knots
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2013


In a world where nearly everyone possesses a Talent, eleven-year-old Cady, who lives at the orphanage, has a special knack for baking.  But though she can match the perfect cake to the right person, Cady fears that the orphanage director will never be able to match her with a family.  Then one day a man arrives and takes Cady home, where her life entwines with those of her fellow boarders–a girl searching for her Talent, a woman searching for her voice, and a man searching for a lost heirloom.  Can they all help each other or will their lives unravel like a poorly tied knot?


A Tangle of Knots attempts to tie together the stories of several different characters, including a thief, a girl looking for her Talent, a woman with memory loss, and a man running from his past.  However, though the threads of the stories get sorted in the end, the book lacks some of the cleverness that I think it believes it possesses.  The interweaving of the stories could have used more subtlety and maintained a little more mystery.  Instead, the narrative provided so many clues and broad hints that the magic was lost and I continued reading, not because I was intrigued, but because I kept hoping in vain that the story would get better.

From what I can tell, this book has received many a positive review and it is quite possible that the reviewers have in mind the middle school audience to which the book is marketed.  However, even as a middle schooler I would have found the plots too broad and obvious; I would have wanted a little more suspense.  Had the characters interested me more I would not have cared so much about the plot, but the book does not balance its large cast of characters well.  Instead, the perspective switches after about every two or three pages, allowing little time for character details to emerge and little time for character development.  I really wanted to love these characters, but ultimately I felt I did not know them well enough.

Lisa Graff really impressed me with her sensitivity and subtlety in Lost in the Sun and I picked up this book with a lot of anticipation. However, I think Lost in the Sun succeeds because it does not attempt to be clever, only to tell a story honestly.  I hope Graff continues in that vein with her future work.

Your Entertainment Outlook 10/7/15

sunPaste Magazine posted an exclusive cover reveal for Marked, the sequel to YA author Jenny Martin’s Tracked.
rainbow weather
HP coloring bookGood news for adult coloring book (okay, any coloring book) fans!  On November 5, Warner Brothers will release a Harry Potter Colouring Book.  It’s coming out in the UK, but Amazon will also ship to the US.
Daniel Handler (“Lemony Snicket”) and his wife have donated $1 million dollars to Planned Parenthood, announcing that their good fortune “should be shared with noble causes.”  The social media reaction appears to have been largely positive, but this could still be a controversial move in an America still strongly divided on the issue of abortion and Planned Parenthood’s role in it.

Partially CloudyCBS has announced a Nancy Drew television series.  The show is supposed to feature a thirty-something Drew who works as an NYPD detective in modern-day NYC, but fans of the super-sleuth are skeptical that anything about the show will scream “Nancy Drew” besides the protagonist’s name.

nightStephanie Meyer announced yesterday that she is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Twilight by releasing a gender-swapped version of the book.  Featuring Bella as the vampire is supposed to convince critics that Bella is not really a “damsel in distress,” just an ordinary human unlucky enough to be surrounded by people with superpowers.  But will any of the critics even read Life and Death?

Middle grade author Lauren Magaziner has announced she will be signing (free!) ARCs of her upcoming novel Pilfer Academy this Sunday at NY Comic Con.

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin

School for Unusual GirlsInformation

Goodreads: A School for Unusual Girls
Series: A School for Unusual Girls #1
Source: ALA
Published: May 2015


When Miss Georgianna Fitzwilliam’s parents become frustrated with her out-of-control science experiments and unladylike behavior, they send her to England’s most notorious reformatory school.  None of them know that Stranje House is more than a school for Regency England’s rich and powerful young ladies. It’s a front for an organization that trains girls of unusual talents to serve their country as scientists, diplomats, and spies, and Georgianna is about to become entangled in some dangerous plots.


Stranje House is a bit of a mystery.  The school is known among England’s elite as a cold-hearted reformatory for the most stubborn and unmarriageable girls.  In reality, it is a training ground for girls with exceptional talents to excel in those talents—and potentially put them to use in service of their country.

Protagonist Georgianna Fitzwilliam is a promising chemist, whose attempts to create an invisible ink undetectable by light or heat have caught the attention of Miss Stranje herself.  Readers will love Georgianna’s intelligence and fierce devotion to reason, her efforts to learn as much as she can in a world that denies equal access to education to women.  She is a strong female heroine whose strength lies in her brain more than her brawn.

However, Stranje House offers nothing is not variety.  The cast of characters includes girls of all talents and temperaments, ranging from the coolly rational to the nearly mystical.  All the characters get adequate page time, and readers will come to feel as if they know them all—making a great opening for the next books in the series to be told from other girls’ points of view.  And the main message behind everything is that no talent, no type of woman, is more valuable than another; the girls are strongest when they work together.

Much of the plot focuses on how the girls must pool their knowledge and abilities when a plan to help protect England from a scheming Napoleon goes horribly wrong.  The story is refreshingly original, and the pacing perfect.   Although the focus veers more heavily to romance than some readers might be expecting, there are still plenty of thrills and daring escapades.

A School for Unusual Girls is a wonderfully imagined story of romance and adventure the will appear to fans historical fiction with strong female leads.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin's ApprenticeInformation

Goodreads: Assassin’s Apprentice
Series: Farseer Trilogy #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 1995

Official Summary

In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.

Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals – the old art known as the Wit – gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.

So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.


Assassin’s Apprentice is a well-known and loved epic fantasy novel, frequently gracing lists of the top-recommended fantasy books. Unfortunately, I felt the novel was bogged down by historical info dumps and focused too much on character sketching instead of plotting; I never got into the story and spent most of my time reading wishing it were all over.

The novel is structured such that each chapter begins with an except from the history that a future version of the protagonist is writing. While this can be a handy way to convey world-building, including necessary information about the history, people, and magic of the fantasy world, something about it also seems lazy. Hobb doesn’t utilize the form to it best advantage. Instead, these excepts are scattered and confusing. Some are long, some short. They jump around in time. A few give information vital to the present plot, easily missed for anyone sick of the excerpts and skimming, while others seem tangential to the story as a whole. I didn’t really know what to make of them, except that I didn’t want to read them but there were apparently a few key times I had to.

In the story proper, action is also lacking. I admit it: fantasy is genre fiction and there are conventions I expect from it. One of these conventions is plot. However, instead of providing a fast-paced tale of intrigue and adventure, Hobb provides a character sketch of protagonist Fitz. Most of the book is spent inside his brooding mind, which could be interesting if his thoughts weren’t close to monotone. Fitz is cynical, bitter, judgmental, and certain he’s smarter than nearly all those around him. While he certainly has good reason for bitterness, the mood doesn’t fit his entire character arc. The story follows Fitz from the age of six through his teenage years, but he skips childhood and adolescence and consistently sounds like a grumpy middle-aged man. Age-appropriate character development and voice would have made this novel realistic and helped it resonate with me more.

There were a few key moments in the book where I really wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next. Most of these are near the end of the book, however, and I was pretty close to setting the book aside as a DNF before I ever reached them. It is many chapters before Fitz begins doing what the book promises, working as an assassin, and many more chapters before readers get in-depth looks at what this entails. I can get behind a book that’s about training to do a certain job, but the training in Assassin’s Apprentice never receives the proper detail and attention, as though the author thought this is actually tangential to the point, even though it comprises the majority of the novel.

Assassin’s Apprentice is a dry read, one that I don’t particularly care to repeat. This series has two more books, and after that the author has written even more about Fitz. I won’t be reading any of these books but will instead move on in my quest to find engaging epic fantasy.

Sophie Simon Solves Them All by Lisa Graff

Sophie SimonInformation

Goodreads: Sophie Simon Solves Them All
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2010


Third-grader Sophie Simon loves calculus, but her parents believe “well-adjusted” children don’t like math or science or thick books.  So Sophie knows that they’ll never buy her the latest graphing calculator–especially not for $100.  Little does Sophie realize that her classmates have problems of her own.  And, if she helps them, she might just help herself.


Sophie Simon Solves Them All is one of those feel-good books where everyone’s story is connected and helping one person can set off a chain reaction that helps them all. The story seems meant for a younger middle-grade audience, so the connections do not have the subtlety of a Dickensian novel–most readers will probably guess immediately how Sophie will solve most of the problems–but watching everything together is still fun.  Readers looking for something light and light-hearted will enjoy this offering from Lisa Graff.

I particularly enjoyed the way in which Graff plays with the stereotypical genius character.  Sophie Simon, as many a young intellectual will relate to, has no friends.  However, in this story, that is not because Sophie’s classmates find her weird (although they do, a little) or socially awkward, or because they fear some sort of social repercussions if others see them speaking with her.  Rather, Sophie has no friends simply because she does not feel she needs any.  She is happy by herself studying and sees no reason to change just because others want her to.  Sophie is an extreme introvert and confident about it.  And I loved that about her.

Startlingly, however, Sophie’s introversion leads her to be a little uncaring about her classmates.  In a feel-good book where problems are solved, one does not expect the protagonist to decline repeatedly to help her classmates with their problems unless they can hand over enough cash for her to buy a calculator (in this case $100).  Sophie may not feel the need to interact with people, but that should not translate into practically extorting one’s fellow third graders.  Of course, in the end she finds she needs friends.  Or so I think the message goes.  But I wonder if the people she helped will really be her friends.  Sophie still thinks she does not need any, so I think “friends” in this case means people she might not mind talking to on occasion, especially if she can get something from them.

Aside from Sophie’s attitude (which I admit is a realistic one, if unusual for this type of book), I found Sophie Simon Solves Them All a generally charming read, if a bit young for me. Some middle grade books speak to all ages, but I think I would have liked this one more had I read it when I was the age of the target market.

Top Ten Tuesday (110): If You Like The Paper Bag Princess

TTT stars

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten Books if You Like The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Looking for books with princesses who control their own destiny?  Look no further!  And if you like finding books like the ones you already love, check out our feature “If You Like…Then Read.”

1. The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale: Who said princesses can only wear pink?  Or that they can’t save the land from monsters before tea time is over?

2. The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson LevineWhen the Gray Death strikes her sister Meryl, timid Addie must venture forth alone to find the cure.

3. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George: Left by themselves at home, Princess Celie and her siblings must save the nation from a foreign takeover.

4. The Wide-Awake Princess by E. D. Baker: Sleeping Beauty’s sister finds herself alone while the rest of the palace slumbers under a curse, so, of course there’s only one thing to do–set forth on a quest to break the spell.

5. Pericles by William Shakespeare: After fleeing from a plot against her life, the princess Marina finds herself sold for her flesh.  Can she find a way to stay true to her values?

6. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien: Eoywn seems to be a fan favorite, but Tolkien wrote about a lot of other amazing women, including Luthien, who took on Sauron’s master Morgoth.

7. Princeless series: Tired of waiting for a man to rescue her, Princess Adrienne escapes from her tower and sets forth on a quest to free her sisters from their various prisons.

8. The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke: When Violetta’s father offers her hand in marriage to the best knight, Violetta determines to win the competition herself.

9. The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye:  A princess gifted with “ordinariness” runs away and becomes a kitchen maid.  But is anyone truly “ordinary”?

10. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis:  A retelling of the “Cupid and Psyche” myth.

Bonus: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis: For Susan (actually a queen) and Aravis (also not a princess, but still nobility).

Responding to Student Writers by Nancy Sommers

responding to student writersInformation

Goodreads: Responding to Student Writing
Series: None
Source: Class
Published: August 1, 2012

Official Summary

Written from one teacher to another, Nancy Sommers’ Responding to Student Writers offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers — and for thinking about the benefits of responding to writers as well as to their writing. Braddock Award–winning Nancy Sommers has taught composition and run composition programs for more than three decades; she currently teaches writing and mentors future teachers in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In this resource, which is based on her research and her travels to two- and four-year colleges and universities, she focuses on the roles that teacher feedback plays in writers’ development and offers strategies for moving away from responding as correcting. This is a free resource for instructors.


Nancy Sommers’s Responding to Student Writers is a short book (less than 50 pages long), so to some extent it has time only to suggest to teachers the tone of approach they should take to commenting on student essays. Very specific advice on whether it is better to write statements or questions or what kind of questions are the most helpful does not appear here. However, I think the book does a great job, especially for new teachers, of orienting them to grading essays. Sommers makes the process more helpful and engaging for both instructors and students by reminding them that writing is a process and the teacher’s goal must always be to help students learn to write better, both now and in the future.

To that end, Sommers has a few deceptively simple guidelines to grading essays: teachers should take the students seriously as writers, they should respond to the author rather than to the essay, they should remember to point out the strengths of the paper so the student can cultivate them, and they should be very clear about how the “lessons” from this graded essay can be applied to future assignments. All of this amounts to something surprisingly profound: teachers are less frustrated by having to “fix” everything in a student’s essay, and students feel less like the point of grading is just so the professor can point out “everything that’s wrong” with the paper. Instead, student writers are assumed to be people with interesting things to say who may just need some guidance in finding the strongest ways to express their ideas.

This is a book I wish every one of my instructors have read. I think most students have had incredibly frustrating or even insulting experiences with graded essays, receiving vague comments or comments that too bluntly say, “This isn’t very good.” Sommers includes some anecdotes from her own research looking into the ways professors comment on essays the ways students respond to those comments, but I think she could have left them out and nearly every reader could have filled in the blanks with his or her own stories of professors whose comments were baffling, too sparse to be useful, or just downright rude. This is a book that can speak to nearly everyone. If it can convince just a few teachers that grading essays can be an opportunity to encourage and sincerely help students, rather than an opportunity to correct everything that’s wrong with their writing, I think this book will have done some good in the world.