SPFBO Judges Introduction: The Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffins


Welcome! Welcome to the Critiquing Chemist, a blog that is almost in its 5th year of existence. Mainly focused on book reviews, you’ll find beekeeping or travel posts, e.g., Spain, Jordan, Peru, Egypt, snuck in every so often. This is the first year that the Critiquing Chemist has been a judge in the Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO). Briefly, the SPFBO is in its 6th year and involves 300 titles being whittled down to one winner over two phases spanning 11 months. Phase One, taking place over 5 months, has the 300 novels split between 10 judges, whereupon each judge puts forth one title into the finals. The remaining six months has a winner determined from the finalists in Phase Two. Sarah is the solo author behind the Critiquing Chemist, so she recruited her brilliant, book loving friends Stephanie, Dani, Jennie, and Kelley to her team for the SPFBO contest. Learn more about each of us in our introductions below. Keep a look out next week for a post detailing our judging formatting and assigned list of titles.

Sarah Lockwood-O’Brien

Hello my friends! I’m Sarah, the author and creator of the Critiquing Chemist. My blog, The Critiquing Chemist is a project derived from my innate need to over analyze everything I come into contact with and my lifelong love of reading. 

As Stephanie discusses in her intro, I’m thankful that my friends throughout elementary and high school were all voracious readers. We challenged each other to experiment with new genres every few months. Over pizza and Mountain Dew, we would discuss and exhaust each subject at length. Still to this day, I can recall random Greek mythology facts and identify many constellations as a result of our momentary fascinations. Throughout school our dalliances transitioned from Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and King Arthur, to romance novels and Stephen King. We were devouring these tomes at ages that might cause one to raise an eyebrow, for example, Stephen King’s IT before becoming teenagers.

An anecdote my family is fond of retelling is based upon what happens when a child has spent every second riding along in the car reading books then obtains a drivers license on their 16th birthday. As I started driving by myself, it dawned on my whole family that I had absolutely zero general sense of direction due to continually having had my nose in a book while in a car throughout my youth. I required step-by-step directions everywhere I drove, even to my Grandma and Grandpa’s, who lived a mere 6 miles away. To provide complete transparency with regard to my book induced helplessness with directions, the six miles to my Grandparents’ house was a single one right turn down a country road. Still to this day, I read whenever I’m able to in the car. Thankfully, Luke rarely asks me to drive.

In college and graduate school, leisurely reading took a bit of a backseat to playing lacrosse and getting through my studies. I graduated from Michigan State University in 2014 with my PhD in analytical chemistry and if you’re looking for a truly technical fascinating read check out my dissertation: Utilizing fluidic platforms for the development of in vitro pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic models. It might be a published book, but not nearly as entertaining as the fantasy books I prefer to read.

After graduate school, I had finally had free time again to dive back into my passion for reading, leading me directly into the creation of The Critiquing Chemist as a way to keep track of the titles I’d read and my general thoughts regarding them. In my reviews, I strive to give a concise overview of the book, followed by a spoiler laden additional insight section in which I explore concepts or thoughts that had caught my attention while reading. I try to incorporate a vocabulary builder in my reviews, a relatively recent addition to the Critiquing Chemist.

A few fun facts about me (Stealing Dani’s wonderful idea!):

  • Titles that I could talk endlessly about are A Song of Ice and Fire, Red Rising, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Narnia. I have a white tattoo with the most memorable icon of each of the aforementioned series.
  • Other notable series I love discussing are:
  • While fantasy is my genre of preference, I do fit in nonfiction approximately 25% of the time. Some of my favorites are as follows:
  • The more world building and character depth packed into a novel the better. Also, beautiful writing will win my devotion every single time.
  • Pet Peeves: Hmmm. This is hard. I would have to say, love triangles, shallow world building, too many convenient solutions and a rushed ending.
  • Unpopular opinion: I didn’t mind the last season of Game of Thrones. Fight me.
  • Unpopular opinion #2: I would rather Rothfuss or Martin NEVER release another book than give into fan pressure to release something less than perfect. I’ll wait another 10 or 20 years if they need it. Take your time guys! I’ll be patiently waiting.
  • I was an extra in the Batman vs. Superman movie. You can see my glistening forehead behind Ben Affleck’s well tailored shoulder while he was at the bar in Lex Luthor’s house. It was such a cool experience and Gal Gadot is the sweetest person.
  • Luke and I are beekeepers. We have five hives on our farm in southern Michigan, where we also grow corn and soybeans. We also have an International tractor I’ve named “My Precious” after the Lord of the Rings.
  • I’m also an avid sports fan. You’re talking to the reigning fantasy football champ: “Newton’s Laws of Touchdowns.” I’m a huge fan of any Detroit team and my Michigan State Spartans. Go Green!
  • My other passion is traveling! We just got back from Egypt and Jordan in February and Peru last year. I’m always plotting our next adventure.

I’m so very much looking forward to being a judge in SPFBO and thankful that my talented friends are joining me on this literary adventure. Seriously, these women are so impressive and I’m lucky to have them in my life! I’ve been friends with Stephanie since elementary school and our friendship only grows stronger with each passing year. I treasure our conversations because they always find depths worth exploring. Kelley and I are so very similar in our personalities, preferences, and attitudes that she’s a sounding board I’m constantly grateful for. Plus shes a great euchre partner. My first memory of Dani is how utterly intimidating and driven she was our first year in graduate school. She knew exactly what she wanted and tackled it head on, while always being willing to help! Jennie is the sweetest and most utterly selfless person I know. She also is one of the most thorough people you’ll meet. I dearly miss our morning coffee walks.

You can hear their voices really shine through in their delightful introductions below.

Stephanie Johnson

Hello!  I’m Stephanie, the aspirationally (not professionally) sciencey one.

I met Sarah when we were just two nerdy elementary kids at a school surrounded by corn and cows and a whole lot of nothing (which we enjoyed; it meant reading was one of the best options for entertainment).   The older we grew the closer we became, along with our other book-loving buddies, until we were lining up together at midnight for the newest Harry Potter release, then reading until our vision blurred and making promises not to give away spoilers until the others had finished.  While we may no longer be racing through 800 pages of J.K. Rowling together, our passion for discussing and sharing books has only grown throughout the years, and I was thrilled to be asked to join the Critiquing Chemist team for SPFBO (BONUS: I can now tell my students that, yes, they DO need great reading and writing skills because one day they might just be asked to help judge a prestigious fantasy blog off!).

I have been a bibliophile since I was a babe in arms and began hoarding books when I first could circle their covers in those ubiquitous Scholastic order forms sent home from school.  I chose my career, teaching English, partly based on my predilection to be nearby and collect large quantities of books. In my work, I attempt to pass on my love of reading and language to children, sometimes successfully but always passionately.  

I am an equal-opportunity reader when it comes to genres, but fantasy always holds a special place in my TBR pile.  Fantasy was my first love;  binge-reads of The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter led to Tolkein, T.A. Barron’s Merlin series, and Garth Nix.  As an adult, I was delighted to discover Neil Gaiman, that master of mythology, and to learn that life after Hogwarts could exist in Patrick Rothfuss’s books.   I greatly enjoy female-centered books like Circe by Madeline Miller (has there ever been more beautiful writing?), N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth Saga, and The Power by Naomi Alderman.  Fantasy aside, I love memoirs that are heavy on the comedy (Yes Please by Amy Poehler and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah are my favorites) and sciencey or historical non-fiction that teach me things in interesting and fun ways (e.g. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and everything written by Bill Bryson).  I also read large quantities of middle grade and YA literature for my profession and will admit to weeping like a baby as I read Alan Gratz’s Refugee aloud to 30 seventh graders (they were shocked and horrified, as was I).

My pet peeves are predictable plots, clunky writing, and gratuitous/unnecessary violence against female characters. I get bored with long-winded descriptions or slow-moving set-up. Also, people who don’t use Oxford commas are barbarians.

I will fall truly and madly in love with a book that features beautiful prose, that surprises me, and that has likable characters.  I can forgive some plot holes and loose ends if the action is captivating and the characters are those I can whole-heartedly root for. I want a book that will keep me reading past my bedtime, which leaves my fingertips scrabbling for more pages. I want a book in which to lose myself, where I can walk through tangled forests or fly above raging battles.  Give me a meaty book; I want a book with big ideas and new perspectives, a book to chew on, a book on which to ruminate.  I want a book that will lodge in my brain and roll around after I’m done, bumping and thumping, refusing to be forgotten long after the last page has been turned. 

So, you know, pretty low-key expectations, really.

Anyway, bring on the books!  I can’t wait to see what hidden gems are waiting in this year’s contest, to immerse myself in new fantasy, and to share my journey along the way.

Jennie Miller

Hi! I met Sarah (a.k.a. The Critiquing Chemist) in grad school, over lunch in the grad lounge on the 5th floor (prior to it being cordoned off as a hazardous waste zone, you know, as tends to happen around any work fridge), where she described her internship at Campbell Soup. This probably made me regret my sad lunch choice of a sandwich and string cheese more than normal. Anyway, grad school is where I came to know most of the other judges as well – Kelley and Dani were also budding inorganic chemists (SCIENCE!). And I met Stephanie when Sarah whisked folks away to Canada to celebrate her upcoming wedding. Given this group of ladies and the task at hand, I’m happy that Sarah’s roped us all into participating as judges in SPFBO6!

As for me (*commence elevator pitch*): I hail from the Midwest with a Ph.D. in chemistry received as a result of my research studying the photophysical properties of iron complexes with laser spectroscopy for solar energy conversion and am currently working with elementary and secondary students in the art of mathematics. If I didn’t lose you there, I’ve also been known to partake in races that cause others to question one’s sanity: 5ks, a 10k, a half marathon, a full marathon, and competitive distance swimming (this one I did from age 11 through college). I should add that Kelley, Dani, Sarah, and I all competed at the Sleeping Bear Dunes together once. All this is to say that I’m stubborn in the sense that I like to finish what I start – well, at least the things that I’ve said out loud and thus could be held accountable for. And although there are plenty of books that I did not finish (or DNF in book lover’s lingo), it’s because I’ve set them down and haven’t quite gotten back to them yet as the to-be-read (TBR) list continued to grow (J. R. R. Tolkien, I hardly knew ye). We’ll see if I need to embrace the DNF lifestyle here. But I have been training for the reading marathon that is upon us! I started last week!

Stories that I enjoy the most tend to go back and forth between circumstances leading up to an event and the aftermath of trying to figure out what the heck just happened and why. Another plus is if an author is able to continually flip the script in an unexpected direction (but in a reasonable way, where it’s not just to tie up loose ends). Additionally, I’m a fan of swapping the point of view between characters, which can be used to learn more about a situation or character development. I also think it can be interesting when there’s confusion between whether what happened is real or imagined by the main character as a result of the brain acting hinky for one reason or another. In any case, to get a sense of what I’ve enjoyed in the past, I’ve compiled the following lists (which tend to span beyond the Fantasy genre):

·  Books – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, works by Gillian Flynn, novels by Gregory Maguire, Slade House by David Mitchell, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, The Martian by Andy Weir, In the Dark by Loreth Anne White…

·  Podcasts – The Message produced by GE Podcast Theater and Panoply, LifeAfter produced by GE Podcast Theater and Panoply, The Bright Sessions created by Lauren Shippen, Limetown produced by Two-Up Productions, Darkest Night produced by The Paragon Collective and NoSleep, Lore hosted and produced by Aaron Mahnke, The White Vault created by K. A. Statz…

·  Movies – Robin Hood: Men in Tights directed by Mel Brooks, Beetlejuice directed by Tim Burton, Pan’s Labyrinth directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Boondock Saints directed by Troy Duffy, The Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew Goddard, Labyrinth directed by Jim Henson, The Babysitter directed by McG, Memento directed by Christopher Nolan, Insidious directed by James Wan…

If this jives with your interests, great! If not, great! To each their own.

Now, let’s get to it!

Dani Arias-Rotondo

*You should read Jennie’s intro first, it’ll save me some time*

Hi! I’m Dani, a born-and-raised Argentinean and self-proclaimed adoptive Michigander. Just like Pope Francis, I hail from a neighborhood called Flores, in Buenos Aires (admittedly, I’m the lesser known of the two). I lived in that neighborhood until I finished college, when I packed my bags and flew ~6000 miles north to pursue a PhD. As Jennie said, I met her, Sarah and Kelley in grad school, and we’ve completed several races together. She forgot to mention that it was her idea to do a full marathon.

I have quite an eclectic taste in books, but if they’re British and/or a murder mystery, they have really good chances of success. So, yes, I love Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy Sayers (and yes, I know that Sherlock Holmes is not the author, but A.C. Doyle’s other stuff wasn’t as interesting to me. I’m sure that’d make him sad). Flavia de Luce is wonderful as well (a sassy British girl who solves murders and loves chemistry? Hell yeah). I’ve also read Harry Potter more times than I care to admit, and Lord of the Rings at least twice. Jane Austen, you say? Yes, please.  I also like things that are neither British nor Mysteries. I’ve really enjoyed (i.e., read twice) The Martian and Ready Player One (something about smart-ass characters?). And I like authors that make me laugh, like Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde.

Some book-related fun facts about me:

  • My mom is a self-published author, with 5 books to her name
  • I wrote the first chapter of a book you can buy on amazon for over $200. Sadly, the rules of scientific publishing determine that I’ll never see a penny of the royalties.
  • I knew my husband was the one when he found me crying my eyes out holding a book and instead of rolling his eyes, he held me tight until I stopped bawling. Bonus fun fact: the book was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – a loan from no other than Jennie. 
  • I prefer paperbacks and I crack the spines. Come at me. 
  • My snobbish trait is hating translations. When you only speak three languages, you have to resign yourself to translations anyways. My goal is to read The Three Musketeers (one of my all-time favorites) in French one day.
  • Books I’ve read in Spanish and English: Harry Potter 1-4, LOTR (whole trilogy), The Three Musketeers, Pride & Prejudice, The Sign of the Four, 1984.
  • I avoid buying new books at all costs. As in, I buy them used. Of course I buy books all the time and my “to read” pile threatens to engulf me.
  • I bought a likely illegal copy of El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera in a street fair in Sucre (Bolivia). There were two blank pages in the first third of the book. It’s still my only copy of the book, and I still don’t know what it said on those two pages.
  • A lot of my travel memories include whatever I was reading at the time. When I buy books on trips, I usually document that on the books themselves.
  • Unpopular opinion #1: Dune bored me. Still, I finished it.
  • Unpopular opinion #2: I don’t like Haruki Murakami. Except for What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (unsurprisingly so).

Note that all of this makes me sound way cooler than I am.

Kelley Young

True to form, I am the last of the group to get my intro done, I am a wee bit of a procrastinator. I have also been watching a lot of Outlander, so wee keeps making its way into my vocabulary.

Sarah and I were destined to be friends before I had even met her in person. I was college roommates with her high school friend and she actually stayed in my room while I was out of town. I was a chemistry and math minor and had equations written on my bedroom mirror to look at and memorize, which she apparently enjoyed. When we were in graduate school together, the friendship was easy. We both loved chemistry and athletics and our grumpy husbands got along, too. As Jennie and Dani have said- we also did some races together and spent many fun summer nights playing slow-pitch softball. And, like Jennie, I got to meet Stephanie during Sarah’s wedding festivities- I think we got along well because we are both old souls (sorry if that isn’t how you see yourself, Steph, but I felt a connection…). 

I grew up in a small town in the thumb of Michigan, not quite as country bumpkin as Sarah and Stephanie, but pretty close. I went on to college and grad school and am now a chemistry professor. I tend to spend most of my free time outside and I have two small kids that keep me pretty busy. I don’t get to read as much as I would like to, though I am working at doing a better job at carving out time to do so- this also means I have also become very selective about what I read and will unapologetically DNF a book. Ain’t nobody got time to waste on something they don’t enjoy.

The group of women I am paired with here are some pretty heavy-hitters in reading. I feel like a bit of an imposter, but here I am! I have always loved reading but am unfortunately plagued by trying to do things fast. I would read all of the “Battle of the Books” in a matter of days only to miss questions about the main plots (reading comprehension is apparently important?). Though I have gotten much better at this with age, sometimes I still catch myself doing this, so much so that I have read the same book twice to only again be surprised by the ending.

I am a pretty pragmatic person, so sometimes I have a hard time with highly improbable plot lines, even within the genre of fantasy (I still can’t make it through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). However, like the others in my cohort here, I was heavily influenced by authors such as C.S Lewis and J.K. Rowling- getting lost in those books are still some of my favorite memories. As an adolescent, I was the weird kid reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels (Salem’s Lot, The Green Mile, and The Odd Thomas series are still some of my favorites). Nowadays my reading tends to lean more toward adventure, bonus if the adventure is also non-fiction (Into Thin Air, The Revenant, Into The Wild, Welcome to the Goddamn Icecube), dark (Give me *all* of the Chuck Palahniuk), mystery and suspense, true crime, and as of late, non-fiction and memoirs (Devil in the White City, Educated, The Bastard Brigade, and Lab Girl). I also tend to read whatever Jennie lends me or has read- she is usually the source of the fantasy books that I read and enjoy (see her list). The Martian is another favorite, and like Dani, I love a good smart-assed main character. 

Book likes: strong, sassy/smart main character, twisting plot but laid out logically, and excitement, remarkable people/situations.

Book dislikes: convenient and highly improbable plot tie ups, dangling plot-lines, and main characters with no redeeming qualities.

Book fun-fact: I am also about to be a book author, but on a boring ol’ chemistry textbook. Writing is hard, y’all.


  1. Nice to know you all! Loved the introductions. You seem really splendid people—despite the fact that one of you liked GoT’s last season and a fellow South American didn’t enjoy Hitchhiker’s. The horror… hahaha

    Looking forward to your reviews 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve received an email saying you replied to my comment, but I can’t see it here. Just to answer it, I’d love to follow them all! Would it be possible to add their blogs to their intros?

      By the way, Sarah, the Instagram link on your sidebar leads to a non-existing page. Maybe the handle is an old one?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello again! Sorry for the confusion. Your email was likely that I’d approved your comment. I don’t respond to comments typically till after work. All the reviews will be posted here on the Critiquing Chemist as my friends have only Twitter and Goodreads accounts. Good idea though and we’ll post that information likely in our next post where we discuss our judging process. Thanks again too for pointing out the Instagram issue. Not sure what the glitch is there. Good luck by the way


    • Hi Thiago! You got us mixed up, I’m the Argentinean but I loved Hitchhiker’s, although I’ve yet to read 3-5. I’m the one who got bored with Dune.
      Looking forward to your book!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the introduction! As one of the authors in your pool, I was waiting with bated breath to see what your team’s preferences were.

    Having been an SPFBO judge (with AM Justice on Fantasy-Faction) in the past, I can tell you it can be lots of fun, and at times, some hair-pulling.

    If I may ask, do you have a plan for how you proceed? Will you be divvying up the books, or will you all be reading a little bit of each entry to come up with a short list?

    Thanks again for participating!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! Nice to meet you! We are looking forward to your Crown of the Sundered Empire.

      We will have a post next week discussing in more detail how we will approach judging but in short we will break the Phase One batch into smaller groups. So a bit different than Fantasy Faction approaches their set.

      Good Luck!!! Let us know if you have any other questions.



  3. Hooray for girls and science!! Though I have to admit that due to calculus and physics being incomprehensible I did not go into science but the arts (for a while). Chemistry was awesome and I loved it but had no patience to do it all the time. I am so excited to see how this process will work with yer cool group of friends. Also I meant to tell you that your trip to Jordan and Egypt sounded awesome and the pictures were great.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello,
    Can’t wait to read up on your journey through the competition! I am excited to see the reviews and also super nervous as my novel is in your pool 😀
    In any case, wish you lots of fun, wonderful reads, and will be following the whole thing avidly.
    Thank you for all those great presentations!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] I’ll refrain setting any reading or blogging goals for year seven, as with my previous annual posts due to Luke and I expanding our family by one with the birth of Miss Quinn in May! I fully anticipate that this year see a significant reduction in reading quantity due to now being delightfully distracted. That said, The Critiquing Chemist has joined with Lynn’s Books as a team of judges in our second year in Mark Lawrence’s Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO). […]


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