Review | 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You, Vicki Grant

36 Questions_cover36 Questions is such a fun YA romance! Bad boy Paul and overachiever Hildy are paired up in a psychology experiment to determine if asking a series of 36 probing questions can make romance blossom between complete strangers. I remember reading about this type of experiment in the New York Times a couple of years ago, and being intrigued at the possibility. Both this novel and the New York Times article are inspired by an experiment conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron in the 1980s, and if you’re interested in trying it out for yourself, the NYT also printed out the full list of 36 questions. The idea of course is to create a sense of intimacy, however artificial. Asking 36 personal questions cuts right through all the awkward first date chatter and reveals the inner workings of a potential partner. The final part, where you have to stare into your partner’s eyes for a full four minutes, just enforces this sense of connection.

The realist in me thinks all this intimacy is artificial, that you may ‘know’ your partner for an hour and possibly even develop feelings for them, but that will all dissipate once you return to the ‘real world’ and go about your everyday tasks. The romantic in me just fell head over heels in love with the sparks flying between Paul and Hildy in this book. There’s a Filipino word ‘kilig‘ that I use when any English equivalent (‘giddy feels’?) just isn’t enough, and it perfectly encapsulates what I felt when reading Paul and Hildy’s banter.

The book is told in a non-traditional narrative style. Most of the book is just the dialogue between Paul and Hildy as they ask each other the 36 questions, evade the questions that get a bit too personal, and gradually allow themselves to open up to each other. I love the rapid-fire pace this allows eschewing any extraneous narration and integrating any additional details (e.g. the characters’ looks) seamlessly into the dialogue. A flying fish (really) switches up the pace a bit and gives Paul and Hildy a bit of a real-life break before they pick up their conversation and IM their responses. This gives us a glimpse into their lives beyond the questions, in particular Hildy’s family problems and the reason she tries so hard to maintain a perfect facade. Paul’s troubled family life isn’t much of a surprise, but Grant orchestrates some delightfully cheesy scenes at a diner from Paul’s childhood.

36 Questions is romantic comedy at its best. It unironically believes in love and earnestly professes the possibility of finding love through a psychology experiment. The characters have real problems — Hildy is dealing with major guilt about her family and Paul is dealing with major trust issues — and both characters do bond genuinely over emotional connection, but this all feels secondary to the sparkly repartee and hilarious antics (see: flying fish) that just propel Paul and Hildy towards their happily ever after. The final copy of the book will include illustrations (mostly in Paul’s notes to Hildy), and the descriptions alone made me squee, so I’m really excited to see how they turn out.


Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Bonfire, Krysten Ritter

33876540I’m a huge fan of Krysten Ritter’s work as an actor in Jessica Jones, and after reading Bonfire, I’m now a major fan of her as a thriller author as well. Please tell me she’ll write more thrillers like this!

Bonfire is a mystery thriller about a Chicago-based environmental lawyer who returns to her hometown to investigate a plastics manufacturing company that employs most of the residents. Abby Williams’ interest in the company isn’t so much about their current environmental impact, however, as it is their potential link to a mysterious illness that befell Kaycee Mitchell, a high school queen bee and former childhood friend, almost a decade ago. Kaycee left town immediately after graduation, and after she and her friends admitted the illness was an elaborate prank, but things never quite added up for Abby, and she’s determined to dig up the truth.

I absolutely loved this book, and devoured it in a single day. It’s tense and atmospheric, and more importantly, it’s just a really good mystery. There are enough twists and turns to keep the reveal a surprise, but I like how Ritter delves into the investigative process, so that while we’re interested in learning the truth, we’re not quite racing towards the reveal so much as enjoying the gradual unearthing of clues along the way. The mystery does take an unexpected turn, but one that fits very well within the rest of the story, even better than the original hypothesis would have.

More than a mystery, Bonfire is also a deeply emotional character study, particularly in the complex relationship between Abby and her father. She left him behind ten years ago to escape his violent temper, and returns to find him in the early stages of dementia. While she struggles against feelings of pity for him, she can’t help but soften and admit that what she feels is more than pity — it’s a kind of love that she can barely begin to face, given everything he’s put her and her mother through. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of the story, one subplot among many yet especially powerful in its restraint.

Abby’s relationships with other characters are fascinating as well, and likely relatable for many readers who’ve returned to their hometowns after a long time away. Meeting the adult versions of her high school classmates forces her to reevaluate and reconsider her memories of how they were. Was Misha, the high school queen bee’s second in command who is now the high school vice principal, really as mean-spirited as Abby remembers, or was she simply going along with Kaycee’s cruelty out of fear? She also encounters Brent, a former high school crush, and Condor, a former high school slacker whom she finds herself attracted to despite her instinct to stay away. There’s a great line where Abby realizes that the difference between Brent and Condor is that with Condor, it’s herself she doesn’t trust, and any casual romance reader can tell where the sizzle truly lies, and that there isn’t much of a love triangle here after all.

Overall, Bonfire is a fantastic mystery thriller about digging up the secrets of the past and confronting the reality of what happens when an entire town becomes dependent on a single company. It’s about corruption, exploitation and violence against women that can take its root as early as high school. I’m very much excited to see Krysten Ritter back on Netflix in season 2 of Jessica Jones, but I’m even more excited to see her continue to write mysteries, and I look forward to her next one!


Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Bonfire will be released in Canada and the US in November 2017.


Review | Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan

34467031I remember liking Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, so when I saw she was coming out with a new novel after seven years, I was eager to give it a go. Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, then follows the story of a young woman, Anna Kerrigan, as she becomes a diver during World War II. Alongside her story is that of a nightclub owner / gangster Dexter Styles and his possible connection to the disappearance of Anna’s father, a professional bagman. I’ve had a wonderful run of really good historical fiction recently (The Heart’s Invisible Furies and The Address), so I was eager to immerse myself in the world Egan creates.Unfortunately, I just found Manhattan Beach boring and the ending drawn out too long.

There were some parts I really enjoyed, and that kept me reading till the end: Anna’s diving and her struggle to prove herself in a traditionally male profession was particularly strong. I also liked the parts about Anna’s disabled sister Lydia, and her response to visiting the sea was incredibly moving. The side characters as well were compelling — Charlie Voss’ affection for Anna was sweet, Aunt Brienne and Nell were such awesome women, and fellow divers Bascombe and Merle were intriguing. I liked the way Nell’s romance turned out — even though part of me wished she got her happy ending, I like that what happened to her felt realistic, and probably happened to many other women during that era. Finally, I really liked Dexter’s backstory — while at times it felt like mere distractions from the real story, I liked seeing how his father shaped the man he became.

But overall, the book fell flat for me. I didn’t really care about why Anna’s dad walked out on his family, nor did I care about how he became involved with the criminal world, and this was such a huge chunk of the plot and source of Anna’s motivation. Anna’s romance felt icky, mostly because her first encounter with this man was when she was a child and he an adult, so all I kept thinking was that he was old enough to be her father.

I also thought the minor characters were under-utilized, and that they had the potential to do so much more. But I think part of that is that their disappearance and reappearance in the story just felt somewhat random, and they never quite felt fully integrated into the story. Even Anna’s mother, who cared for her and Lydia long after their father disappeared, seemed to have been discarded from the plot about halfway through, and given some pretty major moments in Anna’s life later on, I wondered why she didn’t turn to her mother for help.

Overall, the book isn’t bad. There are some interesting parts and the quality of Egan’s writing carried me through to the end. But it also felt long, and bogged down with details and subplots that weren’t all that interesting.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Dark Lake, Sarah Bailey

34220609The Dark Lake hits all the notes of good grip lit, but I was never quite fully engaged. The plot follows a popular grip lit trope — a beautiful woman from the heroine’s high school is murdered and scandals from the past come to light. The heroine in this case is DS Gemma Woodstock, who grew up in the town and so is privy to lots of the residents’ secrets. The mystery was solid, and Bailey unveils various mini-reveals as Gemma slowly but surely uncovers the truth behind Rosalind’s murder.

Unfortunately, nothing about it really grabbed me. It felt a fairly standard example of the genre, with nothing quite making it stand out. I didn’t predict the big reveal, but I also didn’t feel invested enough in the story to care much about it.

The pacing felt slow, and the personal dramas around Gemma’s life felt like a bigger part of the story than the actual mystery. Unfortunately, her personal dramas weren’t all that interesting. She has a son with a serious boyfriend whom she doesn’t love but stays with because of the child, and she’s carrying on an illicit romance with her married co-worker. But the stakes never quite feel high enough. She’s worried about her boyfriend finding out, but she also wants to leave him so I don’t quite get what the problem is. She’s also angsty about her co-worker still having a relationship with his wife, but their romance seems more convenient than any great source of passion. There’s also a couple of random scenes involving roses and her son where the mystery infringes on her real life, but these plot threads mostly just meandered to a close. On one particularly dramatic event, the resolution came about so quickly that I actually missed the bit where the resolution actually happened; I just turned the page and saw that subplot had concluded.

The high school flashbacks were interesting but not quite explored enough. Gemma sets Rosalind up as a larger than life gorgeous creature whom all the men swooned over, but we never quite get a real sense of who Rosalind is. Even as an object of desire, Rosalind falls flat, and apart from being high school classmates, I didn’t quite understand why Gemma cared so much about her. There’s a hint of her personality in a flashback scene about an English class in high school, and I wish there had been more of that.

We also learn about Gemma’s high school boyfriend who died as a teen and left behind a younger brother. There’s a connection to the mystery because the younger brother was in a school play that Rosalind directed and that opened the night of the murder. And all of Gemma’s emotionality over her high school boyfriend’s death ties into the larger story as we learn more from flashbacks later on, but for most of the book, it just felt like an annoying detour that kept cropping up.

Overall, Dark Lake is a solid, entertaining thriller that unfortunately doesn’t quite stand out for me.


Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Six Degrees of Freedom, Nicolas Dickner

33245472Six Degrees of Freedom is about three characters: Lisa, a young woman who wants to be rich; Eric, her best friend who is agoraphobic, a tech genius, and determined to be a millionaire by 18; and Jay, a woman in her 30s who is serving out a sentence for identity fraud by working for the RCMP tech department. The story begins with Lisa and Eric building a hot air balloon that will take a digital camera up almost into space, and take pictures of its journey.

Fast forward several years into the future. Eric is now a young shipping magnate millionaire, Lisa has a job she doesn’t enjoy, and Jay is on the RCMP team investigating a mysterious shipping container with a potential link to terrorism. The camera Lisa and Eric sent in a hot air balloon as children will play a significant part in how their stories intersect, and it’s pretty cool to see how an act of such childlike enthusiasm could have such far-reaching effects.

There are things I enjoyed about this book. I loved the beginning, with Lisa and Eric’s tinkering, and the way the camera was traced back to them years later. I also liked the character of Jay, and her detective work around the shipping container.

But the pacing was slow and I found my attention lagging at times. There were also times when I wasn’t quite sure where the story was heading or what the point of the characters actions was. The language was also cumbersome at times, although I don’t know if that’s because of Dickner or his translator Lazer Lederhendler. For example, one character is described as spending a flight “in the depths of a bituminous slumber” (page 17), which according to Google, refers to a type of coal or asphalt, and doesn’t help make the description any clearer.

I also didn’t quite understand the point of Lisa’s scheme with Eric’s invention. He builds an intelligent, responsive technology that can deliver consumer goods more efficiently, and Lisa tells him that’s a waste of its potential, so they should instead use his invention for a brilliant idea she had. I understand what she did with the invention and I can see how what she did links thematically to Jay’s story with Jay having “a problem with geography,” but I don’t quite understand Lisa’s larger vision. I can see how it’s beneficial for both of them on a personal level, but in the grander scheme of things, I don’t quite get the wow factor. Likely as a result of this, the ending fell flat for me. There was a flurry of activity towards the end, but I didn’t quite understand what the point was.


Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Murder in Little Shendon, A.H. Richardson

26588555I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie and English village whodunnits, so I expected to like this a lot more than I did. Murder in Little Shendon had all the usual elements of the genre: a murder victim who was widely disliked, a village full of suspects, and a likeable team of detectives both professional and amateur. One of the mystery-solving team is even an actor, and I’m a sucker for any theatre-related story. Even the manner of death is pretty good — the victim was killed by a candlestick in his own shop, and I thought the choice of weapon and the way characters referred to it were a nice shoutout to the classic whodunnit game Clue.

Richardson also avoids a lot of the usual problems that annoy me in contemporary Christie-type cozies. None of the characters are too cutesy for words, none of the leads are Mary Sue-level perfect, and none of the jokes were cringe-worthy. At one point, I even felt like I was watching an episode of Midsomer Murders, which I love.

Despite the promising beginning, I ended up getting bored about halfway through. The characters were all quirky without being particularly memorable. I found myself getting confused by the large cast, and found that while each had a strong personality trait, none particularly stood out for me. The pacing as well was slow, which is expected in this type of mystery, but it lacked a clear sense of the movement towards the big reveal.

Richardson is a good writer, so I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for me with this book. I’m afraid it just didn’t work for me, despite its genre being right up my alley.

Murder in Little Shendon is the first in a series featuring Sir Victor Hazlitt and Shakespearean actor Beresford Brandon. Below are the other books in the series.

Hazlitt Brandon MM'S


Thank you to the author for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Blackbird Season, Kate Moretti

32895536A flock of starlings falling from the sky kicks off this novel about a juicy scandal in a small Pennsylvania town. Beloved math teacher Nate Winters is accused of raping a troubled student, Lucia Hamm. An unpopular goth and perceived witch, Lucia disappears shortly after someone sees Nate with her, and the investigation uncovers uncomfortable truths about the town’s residents. Lucia’s prickliness may hint at bullying and abuse on multiple fronts. Nate’s friend and fellow teacher, Bridget Harris, becomes his sole supporter, using Lucia’s class journal and tracking down her friends and family to prove Nate’s innocence.

I didn’t quite find it a novel of “nerve-shattering suspense” that the blurb promised, nor did I think that the twists and turns were all that surprising, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Rather, I think Moretti has crafted a really good character study that delves deep into the psyches of its characters. The ultimate twist was a big reveal not because it was difficult to identify the villain, but because it cast a harsh light on some troubling situations that are likely happening in real world high schools.

Many of us can probably remember having a teacher like Nate. He’s like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society — charismatic, passionate, and with a finger firmly on the pulse of his teenage students. Part of me finds his interest in his students’ lives a bit creepy, e.g. setting up social media accounts just so he can follow all of his students on social media and keep tabs on their lives. But I can also imagine myself back in high school, and how flattering I may have found that kind of attention from a handsome, young male teacher. So I can see why Lucia would have been drawn to him, and why Bridget would have carried a secret torch for him for so long. He’s probably the most thinly drawn of the characters, and possibly deliberately so. We’re not quite sure what lies beyond his charisma and overall nice-ness, but there is no undercurrent of darkness that makes us believe he could commit the crimes of which he’s charged. He probably becomes most interesting when stress gradually peels off his veneer of perfection, and reveals his resentment at the lack of support from his wife and the town in general and at his lack of agency in determining his son’s care.

I can also understand the frustration of his wife Alecia, who I found the most compelling and nuanced character in this book. Alecia’s a Type A personality, who takes the lead on caring for their autistic son. Unlike Nate, who advocates to let their son simply be himself, Alecia takes him to one therapy session after another, and refuses to heed the therapist’s warning that her son may not be ready for kindergarten yet. When a reporter confronts her about Nate’s affair with a student, her carefully constructed world crumbles, and her fear over the outcome is palpable. While Bridgette was clearly the heroine of this novel, genuinely supportive of Nate and caring about Lucia’s fate, I thought Alecia was the most relatable character.

Despite being the linchpin on which the entire plot turns, Lucia probably was the least interesting of the characters for me. Rebellious goth, emo girl fascinated by death and poetry and blackbirds, a bully who may also be being bullied herself… we’ve seen this character before and multiple times. While she does go through some horrible experiences in this book, she’s still ends up being pretty flat as a character, and I cared about what happened to her only in a general way I would care about any teenage girl who goes through what she did.

Overall, Blackbird Season is a pretty good read, and a glimpse into how a small town deals with a scandal.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.