Book Review: Genius Camp

Genius Camp
The Smartest Kid in the Universe #2
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

12-year-old Jake and his scientifically enhanced, super-smart brain are invited to Genius Camp for a week by Zane Zinkle, a man who had once held the title of the smartest kid in the universe. Now he owns a large corporation (the 2nd wealthiest in the world) and has created an AI computer, which he wants to pit against Jake’s smarts.

This book was just as fun as its predecessor. I really appreciated that Jake was insecure about his newfound genius, partly because he wasn’t sure if/when it might suddenly wear off, and partly because he knew the jelly beans don’t cover every subject. I like his connection to Haazim Farooqi (jelly bean creator) and Farooqi’s involvement in this story. And I love that a certain other book series by Grabenstein is officially in the same universe as this series (I really want to say more, but I won’t, to avoid spoilers).

Kojo started to drive me a little crazy in this book, with his insistence on adding “baby” into his dialog so often. If I met this kid in real life, I’d have to walk away pretty quickly. I also was initially put off by the incredibly ridiculous immaturity of the villain, but I mentioned this to my 11-year-old daughter who had already read the book, and she pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily unrealistic, given the villain’s backstory, and I was able to look past it more easily after that. I did predict the sort-of-twist at the end, but I think that’s mostly because of a certain movie I’ve seen several times (I won’t name it, because it would spoil the ending), which I’m sure kids in the age range that this book is meant for would be a lot less familiar with. As I mentioned above, my 11-year-old daughter read it before me, and she loved it as much as the previous. That’s the strongest endorsement I can ever give for a middle grade book, so make sure to check it out for your kids (or you)!

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Children’s Books for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Austere Academy

The Austere Academy
A Series of Unfortunate Events #5
by Lemony Snicket
read by the author

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been sent to boarding school. Except Sunny isn’t old enough for school, so instead she works as an administrative assistant. Yeah. But Count Olaf is there, along with some of his henchmen, and even though the kids have been proven right each time they’ve made that claim in the past, Mr. Poe doesn’t believe them.

The author continues to be redundant, I suppose in an attempt at humor, but it’s done so often it’s just started to bother me along the way. But then again, this is not my kind of humor anyway—far too much injustice and even child abuse, none of which gets addressed or remotely amended, for my taste.

The formula that’s been so frustratingly followed for this series so far is broken slightly, in that the kids actually get to make some friends. But if you think that will work out well, you don’t know this series at all. It didn’t go the way I feared it would, and actually, I didn’t mind the way the story was left in the end, regarding the two friends. What I didn’t like is that the author nearly ruined the mild suspense provided by that ending, what made me feel, for a moment, at least, that I actually have an interest in the next story. Ah, well. I’ll continue on either way, because Tim Curry comes back with the next installment, and his narration is the only reason I got into any of this. I wouldn’t be continuing with this series if I wasn’t being read to by Tim Curry while I go about my day (except for the last 3 books, which I endured for the sake of…well, you get it).

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Book Review: A Map of Days

A Map of Days
Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #4
by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA fantasy

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series.

After their victory over the wights and hollows, Jacob and Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children are disappointed in the assignments they’re given in the Devil’s Acre as part of the reconstruction process. Jacob, in particular, really wants to follow in his hollow-fighting grandfather’s footsteps, so he does whatever he can to make that happen. But peculiardom in America is vastly different from what he and the others are used to in Europe, and there’s a whole new menace to defend against.

It was really nice to see these “kids” who have been through so much have a chance at a little rest. Certainly not as much as they want or deserve, but the book started out more leisurely than the 2 before it. The explanation for why America’s peculiar community is so much wilder than Europe’s makes complete sense, and I loved the overall change of scenery from the first 3 books. I’m also perfectly okay with Jacob and Emma’s relationship cooling off, considering that it always weirded me out anyway.

This book was a lot longer than the previous 3, but it didn’t feel all that long. I don’t remember at any point thinking that something could have easily been cut out. It’s the set up to another 3-book arc in the series and unsurprisingly ends with a cliffhanger. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like continuing on in this series, but I’m excited to see what comes next!

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2021 in Books

2021 was my second full year of reading and reviewing the books I read, after starting this journey in 2019. Now that I’ve been doing this for 2 full years (I started halfway through 2019), it’s been fascinating and fun for me to compare stats from this year to last year.

I read 126 books in 2021, hitting my Goodreads challenge of 125 books on Dember 29th. My total page count was 34,593, making my average book length for the year 275 pages.

Below are the books I read in 2021. The link is to my review for that book, and a link to the book on Goodreads is at the bottom of each review.

January

Maus** by Art Spiegelman (5 / 5)
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (4 / 5)
A Noble Masquerade by Kristi Ann Hunter (3 / 5)
The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham (4.5 / 5)
The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus* by Jaime Jo Wright (2 / 5)
Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen (5 / 5)
Anne of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (4 / 5)
The Warden and the Wolf King** by Andrew Peterson (5 / 5)
There I Go Again by William Daniels (5 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein (4 / 5)
When Twilight Breaks* by Sarah Sundin (4 / 5)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (5 / 5)

February

Awake and Alive to Truth by John L. Cooper (5 / 5)
The Orchard House* by Heidi Chiavaroli (3.5 / 5)
The Cat Who Saw Red** by Lilian Jackson Braun (5 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race by Chris Grabenstein (3.5 / 5)
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (3 / 5)
Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea by Frank E. Peretti (4 / 5)
The Secret of The Desert Stone by Frank E. Peretti (3 / 5)
The Hiding Place** by Corrie ten Boom with John & Elizabeth Sherrill (5 / 5)
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as retold by Gary D. Schmidt (2 / 5)
From this Moment* by Kim Vogel Sawyer (3 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game by Chris Grabenstein (3.5 / 5)

March

Jo & Laurie by Margaret Stohl & Melissa de la Cruz (3.5 / 5)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (4 / 5)
Maus II** by Art Spiegelman (5 / 5)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (2 / 5)
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (5 / 5)
Wingfeather Tales* by Andrew Peterson and other authors (3.5 / 5)

The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters (3.5 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket by Chris Grabenstein (5 / 5)

April

The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey by Frank E. Peretti (4 / 5)
An Elegant Façade by Kristi Ann Hunter (3 / 5)
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (5 / 5)
When You Reach Me** by Rebecca Stead (5 / 5)
The Purple Nightgown* by A.D. Lawrence (4 / 5)
Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse by Lee Goldberg (4 / 5)
The Spice King by Elizabeth Camden (4.5 / 5)
A Woman of Words* by Angela Hunt (3.5 / 5)
The Silver Shadow* by Liz Tolsma (2 / 5)
Crocodile Meatloaf by Nancy S. Levene (4 / 5)

May

Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham (4 / 5)
The Legend of Annie Murphy by Frank E. Peretti (3.5 / 5)
Schindler’s List** by Thomas Keneally (5 / 5)
Refugees on the Run* by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert (5 / 5)
Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii by Lee Goldberg (3.5 / 5)
Tidewater Bride* by Laura Frantz (4 / 5)
Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers by Tessa Arlen (4 / 5)
The Cat Who Played Brahms by Lilian Jackson Braun (5 / 5)
Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery (3.5 / 5)
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (4.5 / 5)
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (5 / 5)
Redeeming Grace: Ruth’s Story by Jill Eileen Smith (3 / 5)

June

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes & Joe Layden (5 / 5)
Rabbits* by Terry Miles (2 / 5)
Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred by Frank E. Peretti (4 / 5)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (4 / 5)
Project Hail Mary* by Andy Weir (5 / 5)
The Widows of Champagne* by Renee Ryan (3 / 5)
No More Broken Promises** by Angela Elwell Hunt (5 / 5)
Welcome to Vietnam** by Ellen Emerson White (4 / 5)
A Forever Friend** by Angela Elwell Hunt (5 / 5)
Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu by Lee Goldberg (2 / 5)
The Compass by Tyler Scott Hess (2.5 / 5)
A Basket of Roses** by Angela Elwell Hunt (4 / 5)
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (3.5 / 5)
Hill 568** by Ellen Emerson White (5 / 5)
Princess in the Spotlight by Meg Cabot (4 / 5)
A Dream to Cherish** by Angela Elwell Hunt (4.5 / 5)

July

A Love to Cherish by Linda Ford (2 / 5)
The Much-Adored Sandy Shore** by Angela Hunt (4 / 5)
‘Tis the Season by Ellen Emerson White (4 / 5)
Love Burning Bright** by Angela Hunt (5 / 5)
The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket (4 / 5)
Stand Down by Ellen Emerson White (4 / 5)
The Chance of a Lifetime** by Angela Hunt (5 / 5)
Murder at the Manor by Catherine Coles (3 / 5)
The Cryptographer’s Dilemma* by Johnnie Alexander (4 / 5)
Star Light, Star Bright** by Angela Hunt (4 / 5)

August

The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White (4 / 5)
Hangman’s Curse** by Frank Peretti (5 / 5)
The Glory of Love** by Angela Hunt (3.5 / 5)
A Gilded Lady by Elizabeth Camden (3.5 / 5)
Hollow City by Ransom Riggs (4 / 5)
The Eagle and the Lamb** by Darlene Mindrup (5 / 5)
Night of the Twisters** by Ivy Ruckman (5 / 5)
Trace of Doubt* by DiAnn Mills (2 / 5)
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis (4 / 5)

September

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill by Julie Klassen (4 / 5)
The Face of the Earth by Deborah Raney (3 / 5)
Independence Hall by Roland Smith (4 / 5)
Socks by Beverly Cleary (5 / 5)
All That Is Secret* by Patricia Raybon (2 / 5)
Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa* by Jake & Luke Thoene (5 / 5)
The Princess Bride by William Goldman (4 / 5)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (5 / 5)
Escape from Fire Lake* by Robert Vernon (5 / 5)
Terror from Outer Space* by Robert Vernon (4 / 5)

October

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs (4 / 5)
Night Song by Tricia Goyer (4 / 5)
Fan Fiction* by Brent Spiner (3 / 5)
Nightmare Academy** by Frank Peretti (5 / 5)
The Cat Who Played Post Office by Lilian Jackson Braun (5 / 5)
Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan (5 / 5)
Once Upon a Wardrobe* by Patti Callahan (3 / 5)
Poison at the Pump by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert (4 / 5)

November

Lost in Darkness* by Michelle Griep (3.5 / 5)
Return to the Hiding Place by Hans Poley (5 / 5)
Princess in Love by Meg Cabot (4 / 5)
The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket (2 / 5)
The White House by Roland Smith (4 / 5)
Elinor* by Shannon McNear (3 / 5)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis (5 / 5)

December

Lead Me* by Matt Hammitt (5 / 5)
Shadows of Swanford Abbey* by Julie Klassen (4 / 5)
Remembering Christmas by Dan Walsh (3.5 / 5)
Chapter and Curse* by Elizabeth Penney (3 / 5)
Merry Humbug Christmas by Sandra D. Bricker (4 / 5)
The Smartest Kid in the Universe by Chris Grabenstein (4 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone** by J.K. Rowling (3.5 / 5)
The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by David Rosenfelt (4 / 5)
Winnie-the-Pooh* by A.A. Milne (4.5 / 5)
To Kill a Mockingbird** by Harper Lee (4 / 5)
The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket (2 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets** by J.K. Rowling (4 / 5)

This list includes 28 ARCs (marked with a *) and 25 re-reads (marked with a **). My favorite book from 2021 was Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. During the last year, I started 22 series and finished 10 series, caught up on 4 series (meaning the author plans to release more in the future), and decided not to continue 6 series (after being at least 2 books into the series). I currently have 10 series in progress. I also DNF’d 1 book (not listed anywhere in this post).

Considering that I gave only 3 5-star ratings out of 47 books in 2019, 38 out of 126 this year is pretty great. I don’t think my standards for what makes me like or dislike a book have changed, either. I think I’m just getting a little better at vetting books before I read them. My average rating for the year is up a little from last year too.

Here is a break-down of the ratings I gave (there were a few books I read twice during the year, so I only counted them once each):
1 star: 0
1.5 stars: 0
2 stars: 11
2.5 stars: 1
3 stars: 13
3.5 stars: 15
4 stars: 42
4.5 stars: 6
5 stars: 38
Average rating: 4

I’m going to stick with 125 books as my reading goal on Goodreads. I almost didn’t finish it this year, though I can also see that as 125 being the exact right number, since it took me right up until the end of the year to hit it.

My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here. I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads, if anyone is interested in that.

What did you read last year? Let me know in the comments, and even feel free to link to your own summary post!

December in Review

I read 12 books last month, which is a lot more than it was shaping up to be early in the month. Then I realized it was the last month of the year, and I was still 6 books away from completing my Goodreads challenge to read 125 books for the year. I knew I could just throw in some short books to finish it off, but I didn’t want to complete it that way. I stuck with what I had planned, but threw some audiobooks in there too, which I’d been neglecting for various reasons. I managed to hit 125 books on Dec. 29th, and went 1 past it due to being sick enough on the last couple of days to not be able to work and thus having more time to listen to an audiobook.

Here are the books I read in December:

Lead Me by Matt Hammitt (5 / 5)
Shadows of Swanford Abbey by Julie Klassen (4 / 5)
Remembering Christmas by Dan Walsh (3.5 / 5)
Chapter and Curse by Elizabeth Penney (3 / 5)
Merry Humbug Christmas by Sandra D. Bricker (4 / 5)
The Smartest Kid in the Universe by Chris Grabenstein (4 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (re-read)
The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by David Rosenfelt (4 / 5)
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (4.5 / 5)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (4 / 5)
The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket (2 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (re-read)

This list includes 4 ARCs and 3 re-reads. My favorite book from December was Lead Me. I started 2 series, continued 1 series, and finished 0 series. My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.

Book Review: The Miserable Mill

The Miserable Mill
A Series of Unfortunate Events #4
by Lemony Snicket
read by the author

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been set up with a new guardian, name unpronounceable, who sets them to work in his lumber mill. Yes, including the baby. And they get only gum for lunch. Count Olaf is in there somewhere, but he’s barely needed to make this stop on the Baudelaire journey a terrible one.

I can’t get a handle on these books—since the beginning I’ve struggled to understand if they’re meant to be serious or not. I mean, clearly there’s humor injected here and there, or at least parts that I can tell are supposed to be funny. But is the world the stories take place in meant to be remotely realistic? Is it modern or some time in the past? How does it make any kind of sense that the kids are put to work in a lumber mill? That the workers of this mill are given only gum for lunch and paid in coupons? The absurdity level is too high for me to find any humor in it, especially with the overall serious tone. If there were some kind of payoff, it might work better, but there really isn’t.

One break in the formula in this book, which I did appreciate, is the way the older two kids had to fill the other one’s role in order to escape Count Olaf’s evil scheme. But I still feel like I’m just hanging in there for the series to get good, as some reviews still promise. Handler (the book author’s real name) is not the best at the narration. He’s soft-spoken for the kids’ voices and normal narration, then gets loud for most everyone else. There is something to be said for hearing how a character’s voice sounds to the actual creator of the character, though, and the unnamed caretaker’s voice in this book is certainly unique. Now I’ve got 1 more book to listen to before I can get back to Tim Curry, which was my whole point in starting this series.

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Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Literary classic

Like so many people, I read this book in high school. Unlike most of the other books I read for assignments then, I liked this one and remember being able to understand the symbolism and themes better than I could in most of the others. This is the first time I’ve read it since then and the first time reading it for fun, rather than for an assignment, and I doubt that, as a teenager, I was as frustrated by the society presented in this book as I was when reading it this time.

Atticus Finch is shown to be a man who bucks society, making it clear to his children and community that he will do the right thing, no matter what others say, and that he does his best to love everyone, no matter the color of their skin. It’s clear that he doesn’t like things the way that they are and would change them if he could. But why he doesn’t stand up to his sister more, I don’t understand. Why it’s never addressed that she is the one who gave her grandson terrible things to say about Atticus, which were then repeated to Scout, causing Scout to react, I don’t know. I understand that Atticus is a single parent just trying to do the best he can to raise two kids and work a difficult job, and that might be enough reason to still allow is sister to move into his house and help with the kids. Perhaps he never fully understands that any of that is happening, since the kids try to protect him by not telling him everything, but on the other hand, it’s also clear that he knows more than they think he does.

That’s the extent of my rant for this book, and it’s not really a complaint about the book (much). It’s frustration at how slowly things change in a society. The book itself is beautifully written, though, and really immerses the reader in the 1930s south. While some of part 1 seems unnecessary at the time, it all goes into building the characters and the town (which is like a character itself), and much of it comes back up again in some way in part 2. I do wish that both Boo Radley’s arc and the aftermath of Tom Robinson’s outcome had been expanded on a bit more by the end, though.

If you haven’t read this book and aren’t sure if you should, I suggest you check it out. If you haven’t read it since high school, consider reading it again some time, without the assignments to go along with it.

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Book Review: The Smartest Kid in the Universe

The Smartest Kid in the Universe
Book #1
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

When 12-year-old Jake eats some jelly beans left sitting on a table, he never expected there to be consequences. Before long, though, he’s become the smartest kid in the universe, because the jelly beans were actually indigestible knowledge! Not only does he know a lot of things he hasn’t studied, he also learns faster when he does study new things. But will this newfound intelligence be enough to help him and his friends save their middle school from destruction, not to mention solve an old pirate legend?

This is an adventurous book that pushes the boundaries of modern technology in a fun way. Jake starts out as a kid who is too lazy to do much of anything, including learn new things. The jelly beans certainly give him a new outlook on life, and even though they do give him information without him having to learn, they don’t give him all information. Some things he needs to know he still has to study like the rest of us. Well, not quite like the rest of us, because his brain learns a lot faster than normal, but I do like that he’s not just handed everything he needs to save the day. I also like that he’s not the only smart one when he joins the quiz team with his friends. He may be the smartest kid in the universe, but he still needs some backup.

Jake’s best friend, Kojo, has recently become obsessed with old detective shows, which leads him to use the catchphrase of one of those old detectives a lot throughout the story. I grew up on Matlock, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote, but Kojo was hung up on Kojak, which was a little before my time. I was just hoping for one, “Oh, just one more thing,” when Kojo was about to leave a room. Still, the way Kojo’s obsession plays out later in the book is pretty great.

I wish that this super-smart kid would have had some opponents that were a little smarter themselves; the villains were pretty stupid, especially Mrs. Malvolio. But maybe Grabenstein will step that up in the 2nd book in the series. There are also still parts of the author’s writing style (especially in dialog) that rub me the wrong way, but I did my best to ignore it. Like the Lemoncello series before it, my 11-year-old daughter strongly recommended this book to me, because she loved it! That’s the strongest endorsement I can ever give for a middle grade book, so make sure to check it out for your kids (or you)!

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Book Review: Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh
by A.A. Milne
narrated by Joel Froomkin

My rating (for this version): 4.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic

It can be difficult to review a beloved classic, and that is the case for this book, even though I haven’t read it before myself. I’ve read parts, but never the whole thing. Of course, I’ve seen many of the different cartoons, especially the older ones that were more based on this book. So it was nice to read it all the way through and see the source material for the first time. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

My rating is specific to the audiobook version releasing from Dreamscape Media in 2022. The story itself was wonderful, and the narrator did an overall great job. Of course, it can be difficult to let go of the voices we’re used to after so many viewings of the movies and television show, but I did my best not to compare it to that, as that really wouldn’t be fair. For most of the characters, and for the narrator voice itself, I thought it was done well. My only issue was with his voice for Piglet, which was a little unpleasant.

Thank you to Netgalley and Dreamscape Media for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date for this version: January 4, 2022

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Book Review: The Twelve Dogs of Christmas

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas
Andy Carpenter
#15
by David Rosenfelt

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Mystery

When Martha “Pups” Boyer, long-time dog rescuer, is accused of murdering a man she threatened after he complained about her dogs, Andy Carpenter takes her case. Even as he pulls on threads and begins to find the truth behind who really killed Pups’ neighbor, he can’t put his finger on what motive the murderer would have. But that won’t stop him from digging.

This book sort of fell into my lap when I was looking for more Christmas reads. I haven’t read any of this series before, but saw someone say that wouldn’t be a problem, and it really wasn’t. It also wasn’t exactly a Christmas story—it just happened to take place at Christmas time. All of that being said, I really liked the book. It felt a lot like an old detective show, like the kind I watched when I was younger—Matlock springs to mind. I enjoyed the main character’s wit and snark and the colorful cast he gathers around himself to help him do his work, both long-term and short-term. The way the case unfolded made for a good story, and even the courtroom scenes, where we get to see into the mind of the defense attorney using his tricks to get the jury to see things a certain way, were interesting.

Though I’m sure that some of what was shown in this book is a spoiler for past books in the series, and while author pushes dog love way too much for my taste (I’m a cat person through and through), I do believe I’ve found myself a new series to read after plunging in at book 15.

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