This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. So this week, Monday through Thursday will be devoted to our joint reviews of all four books now released in the series. And to round out the week, on Friday we’ll be joint reviewing the BBC series “Strike” that has covered the first three books in the series so far. Today we move to “The Silkworm.”
Book: “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith
Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, June 2014
Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it from the library.
Book Description:When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.
But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.
When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…
At the start of this book, my hopes were on an upward trajectory. The first book had taken me completely by surprise with how much I loved it, especially my immediate attachment to both Strike and Robin. But how would these relationships progress and would the quality of the mystery be sustained? Given that I routinely reference the fact that, regardless of anything else, it is truly a heroic feat that Rowling managed to maintain the quality of her Harry Potter series amidst a world gone Potter-mad, this was probably a silly worry.
After the success of the Lula Landry case, Strike’s private investigation firm has taken a turn for the positive. It is made even better by the burgeoning abilities of his receptionist Robin who has proven herself more than capable of taking on a few of the investigative aspects of a case herself. However, neither are prepared for the strangeness of the mystery that arrives on their door: a reclusive author, a poisonous book, a ritualized killing, and a whole mess of suspects.
Like the first book did with its behind-the-scenes look into celebrity life and the fashion industry, this mystery delves into the seedy underbelly of the publishing world: its challenges, rivalries, and the various roles that so many play in the creation of a work of art. Within this world, we meet a whole slew of potential suspects, all with their own creepy little ties to the victim and his work. But unlike Lula, even our victim has his own sleazy connections. While the first book’s crime was fairly straightforward, this book delves into the truly disturbing aspects of a ritualized death and highlights the dark and uncomfortable versions of art (this time in the written word) that can be found in the world.
With this darker tone, it is a relief to still have Robin and Strike at the heart of the story. Their histories and ongoing struggles are slowly continuing to be padded out, as is their strengthening friendship. We even get a tense little meeting between Strike and Robin’s horrid fiance, Matthew.
The mystery itself was excellent (though I did have a better guess as to who the perpetrator could be), but its the strength of the characters that really continued to sell this series to me. That and the strong writing: Galbraith has a particular talent with dialogue that is best exemplified in exchanges between Robin/Strike and when Strike is testing the waters with new suspects.
After I enjoyed “The Cuckoo’s Calling” so much, I knew that “The Silkworm” was going to either dash my hopes for a good series, or solidify them. So when I picked it up and started reading, I was relieved to see that not only was Galbraith still going strong, but she had even taken it a few steps further in regards to complexity and darkness.
I loved the mystery at hand even more this time around for a few reasons. The first is the nature of it. What starts as a missing person’s case (when Owen Quine’s long suffering but still loyal wife approaches Strike) turns into something far darker, involving a ritualistic murder and the darker aspects of the publishing industry. Not only did I highly enjoy the fact that Galbraith had no qualms calling out a lot of the cutthroat and abusive aspects of the industry as a whole, I liked that, given how entrenched Galbraith has been in the business for a couple decades now, it felt like this portrayal had some teeth behind it. Many of the suspects are in the industry in various capacities, are skeevy in their own rights because of how they treat others and each other. Quine himself sounded like a real prick, and I liked that, unlike Lula Landry, Strike and Robin were investigating the death of someone who didn’t deserve it, per se, but was unlikable enough that it made the suspect pool that much larger since seemingly EVERYONE had a beef with him. Because of this, I was left questioning things a bit more. Plus, the murder itself was, while disturbing, incredibly creative and memorable. But it also didn’t feel like it was purely there for shock value; it manages to tie into the story at hand, and say a bit more about how others viewed Quine and the poison pen work they attributed to him. I also feel like Galbraith felt more at ease in terms of writing a full fledged mystery in “The Silkworm”. While I of course adore “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, “The Silkworm” felt like it came together more naturally with its clues and how they fit together.
And like Serena said, at the heart of this book is the friendship and working relationship between Cormoran and Robin. I loved that Robin has been given more to do since Strike has a more comfortable and trusting rapport with her, as while the ‘his girl Friday’ trope is a fun one, she really does go above and beyond it. Her passion for the work has really allowed her to grow as a person and a character, and now that she and Strike are both friends and on a more equal footing it means that their relationship just becomes all the better and more entertaining. Of course this story isn’t without some obstacles to this friendship, namely in Matthew, Robin’s sleaze of a fiancé. Matthew never quite manages to grow as a character and remains pretty two dimensional, and while sometimes I find that frustrating it actually works in this story for a couple of reasons. The first is that his inability to grow really highlights how much Robin DOES grow, which of course leads to tension between not only them, but also between Robin and Strike (though theirs is the far more enjoyable romantic type). And the second is that it is fun to have a character to hate, at least until a point, which I’m sure Serena and I will touch upon in the later books…
Overall, “The Silkworm” proves that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” wasn’t a fluke for Galbraith, and it also made it so this series became an absolute must read for me. It shows that, like the “Harry Potter” books before it, Galbraith is comfortable to push into more complex territories as her stories go on.
Serena’s Rating 8: A strong sequel that turns its darker tone on the underbelly of the publishing world and the disturbing nature of art.
Kate’s Rating 8: With more complexity and a comfortable descent into darker thematics, “The Silkworm” serves as proof that Galbraith knows how to write a solid mystery with excellent characters.
This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. So this week, Monday through Thursday will be devoted to our joint reviews of all four books now released in the series. And to round out the week, on Friday we’ll be joint reviewing the BBC series “Strike” that has covered the first three books in the series so far. Today we start with the first book in the series, “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”
Book: “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith
Publishing Info: Mulholland Books / Little, Brown and Company, April 2013
Where Did We Get this Book: Serena owns it, Kate borrowed it from the library.
Book Description: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
When I picked up this book, it was a few month’s after its release and the cat was already out of the bag about Rowling being the author behind the pen name of this new detective series. And I’ll admit, that was a factor in my picking it up originally. While I love mysteries, I typically find myself reading historical mysteries rather than contemporary detective stories. But past giving me the extra nudge to pick up this book, I can honestly say that the story and characters captured my attention immediately, in no way needing any latent HP nostalgia to keep me invested.
Though I will speak a little more to that point to say that none of us should really have been surprised to see Rowling go in this direction. There were many components that worked together to make the Harry Potter series special, but one of the ones that often gets swept aside in talks about the amazing fantasy world and the characters that captured the hearts of so many is just how clever Rowling was when stringing together detailed and complex mysteries. Not only did each book contain multitudes of false leads and little clues scattered where you wouldn’t think to look, but the series as a whole read as an even larger and more complex mystery of its own. But here in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” free from the trappings of fantasy and YA/children’s literature (much love to ya!), we really get to see Rowling flex her muscles.
The mystery itself is so incredibly rich. Throughout the story, we explore a vast network of secrets and deceptions, wrapped in familial, professional, and personal trappings. Lula, a supermodel whose life was seemingly led in the public eye; why would she commit suicide? The other apartment renters in her buildings; were they connected and what did they see? And throughout it all, the smallest details remain important. I like to pride myself in being able to pick apart most plots and anticipate twists (most commonly in TV shows and movies, but also books) and here, every time I thought I was on to something, nope! As mystery readers, we’re trained to keep an eye for every little clue and yet somehow, things were still snuck right by me, under my nose. Like a well-trained magician, we’re all too often left watching the wrong hand during the trick itself.
So yes, the mystery was on point. But what really drew me into the series were the complicated main characters at its heart: Cormoran Strike and his temporary assistant, Robin. Re-reading this series now after following it for several books more, it really struck me the depths of character that was built into each even this early. Most importantly, we are given details that make both of these characters feel like real people, with real lives and real flaws. And yet, in this book, we’re only scratching the surface! And sue me, but I was all over the foundation for emotional drama that is laid out in this book, both with Strike’s ex and Robin’s fiance, and of course the partnership and friendship that builds between them both. Yes, my hatred of Matthew was established early, but look, giving us a guy to despise is just as key to sucking in devoted readers as giving us heroes to root for. I’m not just here to see what happens between Strike and Robin, but I want to see Matthew go down!
I missed the “Harry Potter” craze back when the books were first being published. I probably thought that I was too cool to be reading a ‘kids’ book when I was solidly in high school, and while I did eventually read the series, the anticipation of the next book coming out was never a feeling I experienced. But when it was leaked that J.K. Rowling was the actual name of Robert Galbraith, the author of a mystery series about a detective named Cormoran Strike, I decided to check it out. And now, a few years later, I’ve found myself waiting on pins and needles for the next Cormoran Strike book to come out. So good job, Rowling. You eventually got me. And it all started with “The Cuckoo’s Calling”.
The thing that I loved about this book the first time I read it was that while it was solidly dark, and absolutely a noir mystery, the main characters were so appealing and interesting that I was immediately invested in their lives even beyond the case at hand. Cormoran Strike is the first of these protagonists, a veteran turned private eye who lost his leg while deployed to Afghanistan. He’s a bit slovenly, a bit of a curmudgeon, and filled with snark and a little bit of angst. The second is Robin Ellacott, a woman who takes a temp position as Strike’s assistant, and then gets completely sucked into this job and the case of Lula Landry’s death. Robin is smart and kind, and also very much a go getter who has higher ambitions than those around her (particularly her dipshit fiancé Matthew) realize. And when you combine the two you get a nearly perfect team and perfect foils for each other. Cormoran treats Robin with the respect of an equal, while Robin brings in a fresh perspective when it comes to investigating the Lula Landry case. Their partnership and eventual friendship is charming and lovely, and I would happily just read a novel where they went on a non-crime related adventure.
The case of potentially murdered model Lula Landry is the main plot of this book, and Galbraith sets up a solid mystery with a lot of viable suspects. When I first read it I was kept guessing as to who the culprit could be, and Galbraith made it so that all of them had good motives and lots of questions in their backgrounds. But they also felt like real people as opposed to cardboard cut out distractions or red herrings. The way that Strike interacts with them, and the way that he and Robin slowly hunt for clues and piece together the mystery, was always interesting and never slogged or dragged. And I was genuinely shocked by the solution. I also thought that Galbraith did a good job of portraying the ins and outs and ups and downs of the fashion industry, and how elite, and dark, it can be. Lula was constantly objectified and molding herself into what an ad or a designer would want, and it’s only after her death that the world started to see just how being a blank canvas, in multiple ways, could be damaging.
I knew once I set down “The Cuckoo’s Calling” that this was a series that I was going to love. I was waiting on pins and needles for whatever Galbraith came up with next.
Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent start to a series! The mystery kept me guessing and my eternal love for Strike and Robin was cemented early and firmly.
Kate’s Rating 8: This is a very solid beginning to a great series! I was completely taken in by the mystery, just as I was taken in by the goodness that is Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott!
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, March 2000
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: The Yeerks plan to use the Helmacron ship they have repaired to capture the Andalites and track down Elfangor’s blue cube–the cube that gives Cassie, and the other animorphs the ability to morph.
Plot: I had zero memory of this book when I picked it up again. I think if you had asked me whether there was an Animorphs cover with Cassie morphing a buffalo, I wouldn’t have been entirely sure you were even serious. That’s how fully I’d forgotten this book.
Erek shows up at Cassie’s barn with bad news: the Yeerks have discovered how to use the Helmacrons’ morphing tracker and are even now on their way towards the blue box that emits a low level morphing energy. Cassie quickly nabs the cube and hops a ride to The Gardens with her mother. There, the others in seagull morph show up and they try to decide what to do, since any morphing will draw the attention of the Yeerks. Before they can form a plan, helicopters begin circling the area and Cassie makes a break for it, hiding in a van that is exiting the park. Inside she confronts a cape buffalo. She acquires it to keep it calm, but chaos suddenly erupts when the van is intercepted by the Yeerks, including Chapman and Visser Three. She morphs the buffalo and barges out of the van. The real buffalo attacks the Controllers and head butts Chapman. Cassie is able to escape into the nearby woods, with the real buffalo trailing behind.
Back as a girl in the woods, she witnesses something horrific: the buffalo must have touched the blue box and acquired Chapman when he headbutted him. He wildly morphs and demorphs partially between his true buffalo body and the human Chapman form. By morphing the buffalo again herself, Cassie is able to get the buffalo to mimic her actions and return to its true form as well. The others arrive and are caught up to speed on the horror of the situation. What’s worse, the buffalo has now witnessed Cassie morphing, so if the Yeerks capture or infest it, the Animorphs’ secret will be out.
The helicopters are still circling, so they morph wolves and take off once again, leaving the buffalo behind. They hide in a cave and continue to discuss what to do not only about the tracker, but about the buffalo. They all know that the buffalo can’t be left alive, though Cassie is hesitant to kill it, now that it has human DNA in its system. As for the tracker, the challenge will be getting to it when it’s up in a helicopter. So they decide to go with the tried and true method of dropping something heavy on the bad guys over water. But before they can move on this plan, they hear the buffalo in distress. Knowing they can’t let the Yeerks capture it, they head off.
They find the buffalo surrounded by Controllers with Visser Three himself yelling at the “Andalite” to reveal himself and tell the Visser where the cube is. The buffalo manages to acquire the Visser and begins morphing him. The group uses this as a distraction to escape (sorry, but I just can’t help but interrupt myself…didn’t they JUST say they were there to rescue the buffalo? And then immediately ditch said buffalo to escape the situation they willingly put themselves in in the first place? Ugh.) As they run off, they see the Andalite!buffalo and Visser Three go at it with their tail blades. The Andalite!buffalo gets in a lucky shot and knocks out Visser Three and then comes running after them.
The group decides that the majority of them will continue on to the ocean, but that Cassie will stay behind with the buffalo to distract the following Yeerks. She manages to get the buffalo to again demorph into its natural state before the Yeerks show up once again. She takes off, buffalo following, and jumps off a minor cliff to escape. They both crash to the bottom and are horribly injured. Cassie demorphs and gets the buffalo to also morph human to heal its own injuries. She then catches up with the group again.
The others wonder at how the buffalo managed to survive the fall and Cassie tells a white lie that the buffalo simply mimicked her morphing, leaving out that she was actively trying to save it. In human form, the buffalo begins mimicking their speaking patterns. Cassie insists that it is learning, but the others push back saying that it is only mimicking and that she is making too much out of this. As they are talking, Cassie brushes an ant off of the cube that she is holding. She finally gets the buffalo to morph back to buffalo and then they have to leave it behind once again when they hear the helicopters approaching.
As the others continue forward, Cassie begins to demorph again to put the plan in action. But before she can get far, she sees something truly nightmare-inducing: an ant morphing into a version of Cassie herself. She realizes that the ant that had crawled on the box and her hand earlier must have acquired morphing abilities and her own DNA. The Cassie!ant goes crazy half way through morph and attacks her with gigantic pincers. The buffalo shows up and attacks the Cassie!ant, but the ant begins demorphing. Cassie rushes over and stomps everything in sight. She then quickly begins morphing the osprey, finally ready to put their plan into action. As she gets ready to leave, the Yeerks show up and kill the buffalo with a Dracon beam.
Osprey!Cassie flies out to sea where the Yeerks are now shooting down at the rest of the Animorphs in dolphin morph. Gaining altitude, Cassie positions herself directly above the helicopter and begins to demorph. But it goes wrong and she loses her wings too quickly and begins to fall too fast. She makes it back to human and is partially through her whale morph when she realizes that she won’t be big enough when she hits the helicopter and will likely be cut to pieces by the blades. What’s worse, the helicopter pilot looks up and spots her, veering out of her line of descent. Luckily for everyone, a rogue seagull gets sucked into the engine and the helicopter blows up, destroying the Helmacron sensor within it. Cassie is badly burnt, but wakes up again in the ocean in her human form and surrounded by her friends. They call it a success and head home.
Peace, Love, and Animals: This is one of the better Cassie books as far as characterization of Cassie herself goes. The book is a hot mess in every other way, but her sympathy and struggle with how to resolve the buffalo situation is a very sympathetic cause. Any animal lover would understand just how difficult this situation would be. Though, that being said, her nonsense about the human DNA part of it is just that: nonsense. And what makes that worse is not only does this line of thought just seem ridiculous and undermines Cassie’s character as a rational, thoughtful being, but it was completely unnecessary. As an animal lover myself, the idea of having to kill an innocent animal, especially one that has bounded with you and trusts you, is just agonizing. We don’t need any silly other justifications to explain Cassie’s hesitancy.
The one question I do have about her handling of this situation is the balance between her repeatedly saying that she understand the buffalo can’t be allowed to live but then her willingness to essentially draw out its torment. We’ve seen some really good examples in the past of Cassie knowing that sometimes the harder choice is the right one, specifically when she was trying to save the Hork Bajir the Yeerks had experimented on back in the Atlantis book and knows that in the end it is best to let him die then to keep trying to fix the unfixable. That was an excellent scene that highlighted that mercy some times comes in strange forms. But here, the poor buffalo is repeatedly being abandoned by the Animorphs, drawn into battles with the Yeerks to protect the Animorphs, lead of a cliff to plummet to a painful end, and then finally killed by the Yeerks. It’s a tough situation, but it would have been another good opportunity to highlight this particular strength of Cassie’s, had she realized that this ongoing torment was not actually better.
Our Fearless Leader: At one point in the story, Cassie is upset with Jake for “not trusting her to do what is right.” But….really? I mean, for better or worse, Cassie has a long history of not necessarily doing the “right” thing objectively, even if she feels it is right for herself and her moral code. From a team leader perspective, I can absolutely understand Jake not trusting Cassie to do the “right” thing. Girl let herself be infested by a Yeerk! She asked Jake to outright murder a Controller on her behalf! Just a few books ago, she was all set to go on a mission purely based on revenge! She lost the right to feel miffed about casual distrust like this quite a while ago. And really, at this point, after being in Jake’s head, we know that some level of casual distrust goes out to all of the Animorphs at various times, it’s just one of the struggles of being a leader. Jake knows the weaknesses of them all, and thus can’t always trust them to do the right thing in specific scenarios that play to those weaknesses.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Along with Marco, Rachel is quite clear from the very beginning that the buffalo will have to go. She also firmly tells Cassie to stop making more out of the human DNA thing than it deserves, which, thank you!
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias has practically nothing. I mean, you could probably count his lines of dialogue on one hand.
The Comic Relief: As expected, Marco is not very sentimental about the fact that the buffalo can’t be left alive. He and Rachel both team up on this position right away, and there’s really no arguing with their reasoning. The case could maybe be made for getting the buffalo to acquire some similar animal, morph that animal, and then get itself stuck in that form and then have Cassie “adopt” it at her farm. Seems like something that Cassie or even Tobias would think of, but we can say that they were all too frazzled from the constant running to really think of this solution.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has a running joke with Marco where he’s trying to still understand humor. He even joins in the fun with what he thinks are good jokes only to be met with silence and thus concluding that humor is over-rated. So there’s some good dialogue bits with that, but not much else for him in this book.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: I mean, the entire concept of this book is pretty horrifying, but I will reserve the honor of this section for the Cassie!ant. It just had to be ants, didn’t it? It’s not like the poor Animorphs haven’t suffered enough trauma at the hands (pincers?) of ants already, but now one has to go and partially morph Cassie and then almost bite her arm off with its ginormous pincers. Then Cassie gets to watch the buffalo start tramping something that looks just like her to death. Though, I will note that apparently human DNA is only morally impactful in mammals, since she had zero concerns about stomping all over that ant once it was small again, human DNA or no human DNA.
Couples Watch!: Not much really. After Cassie’s fall from the sky, Jake remarks privately to her how glad he is that she is ok and since she’s in human form, she has to respond out loud, cluing in everyone as to what’s going on. Marco teases them some, but she says she doesn’t care since everyone knows how much Jake and Cassie “like” each other. This might just be my age speaking, but it gets more and more uncomfortable as the series progresses to hear about these relationships in terms of “liking” each other, especially when the “love” word has been thrown around. It just doesn’t ring true to the level of maturing and closeness that has built after fighting a war like this for as long as they have. I get that its done for the age-level of the audience, but I still find it weird. I honestly don’t think teens would have been weirded out if the writers had just gotten over it and said “love” already.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: So, Visser Three loses a tailblade fight to a buffalo….there’s just no getting around that fact. A mammal, in a completely foreign body, with a very low-level of intelligence, somehow managed to knock him out cold pretty quickly. I’m not sure who this is worse for, Visser Three and his ego, or all of the others (including Ax!) who have failed to take Visser Three down themselves in a fight! It’s not a good look for any of them that’s for sure. Also, I’ll add, this is yet another supremely unbelievable element of the book, so even talking about this in any verging-on-serious manner is pretty pointless. But the fact remains: it’s now canon that a buffalo is a better tailblade fighter than Ax.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Ok, as dumb as the whole buffalo morphing plot was, I have to admit that there was a good amount of tearing up in this book for me. I’m a sucker for animals and I particularly have a hard time with descriptions of animals suffering and not understanding why. So all of the scenes of the Animorphs running off and the poor buffalo trying to follow behind just really got to me. And then it goes and saves them several times and just casually gets blown up, right after Cassie is saying goodbye and doesn’t know what else to do but tell it that it has been good, one of the few words it seems to understand.
<l have to go now,> I said, knowing it couldn’t understand me. <Thank you for saving my life.>
The buffalo’s ears twitched. And then I knew what to say.
<You are good,> I said softly. Its ears came forward and it made a soft, almost friendly sound.
So stupidity aside, they definitely got me invested in this buffalo storyline in the end and there may, MAY, have been some tears.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Oh man, this entire book, again was full of terrible plans. But two big ones come to mind. 1.) They keep insisting that the buffalo can’t be allowed to be captured by the Yeerks, even going so far as to run back towards danger to “rescue” it at one point. And then they repeatedly abandon it and leave it behind to potentially be captured. And their “rescue” attempt was the worst example of it. They literally run back to it, find themselves surrounded, and then immediately use the buffalo itself as a distraction to bail, leaving it behind once again. What was the point of even going back if this was the plan?? And like I said, that was just the worst example. They leave the buffalo behind at least 4-5 times, any of which could have resulted in its capture by the Yeerks. 2.) The “anvil” plan with whale!Cassie. I mean, this was implausible enough the first time it showed up in Megamorphs #1 and in no way deserved a second showing. Not only am I getting sick and tired of this “wash and repeat” attitude towards past plot devices, but this one in particular was rather hard to swallow the first time and is even dumber here. At least it didn’t work, which is shouldn’t have for all the reason we saw here, mainly that it’s pretty easy for a helicopter pilot to become aware of a whale plummeting towards them and move out of the way. Luckily, a convenient sea gull was just where the author wanted it.
<He should trust me to do the right thing,> I said. <He does, or he would’ve made somebody else carry the cube. That’s why he put me back here. While you do the right thing, I do the necessary thing. Get it?> [said Rachel]
(Inset long rant about the difference between doing the the right vs. necessary thing. It’s a nice distinction that Rachel is drawing here, but I’m pretty sure Jake’s version of it was not trusting Cassie to do the right OR necessary thing.)
Scorecard: Yeerks 10, Animorphs 15
I’m going to give a point to the Yeerks just because they were the only ones with the semblance of a clever plan here with the idea to use the Helmacron ship this way. The Animorphs only survived this out of sheer luck, with the Yeerks taking care of the buffalo and a random seagull sacrificing its life for the cause.
Rating: I liked this book as far as Cassie’s characterization goes. I hated this book for its bizarre ret-conning of the blue box. And I couldn’t care less about this book for the fact that I honestly couldn’t even remember the order of events during the middle third since all it was was running around randomly stopping/splitting up/getting attacked by Yeerks and repeat.
But man, that blue box thing. That’s pretty out of line as far as completely disregarding past precedent for a pretty important artifact. Not only does the box thing itself make zero sense (it’s not like David suddenly had morphing abilities after just touching the box), but the fact that animals would then be able to acquire DNA and morph?? In every book, EVERY BOOK, we hear the Animorphs talk about having to concentrate to both acquire DNA initially and then to morph. There is no way the buffalo, let alone the ant, would be able to do anything like this. It’s so stupid and there’s no getting around the fact that the majority of this book is hanging on this idiotic concept.
Then add in the fact that we have yet another repeated story that involves essentially just re-writing a previous book. The entire Megamorphs #1 book was about some Yeerk controlled thing tracking morphing and then ends with whale!Cassie crashing it into the sea. And here, YET AGAIN, we have the Yeerks tracking morphing and whale!Cassie trying to crash it into the sea. Like I said in the Marco book that did this, at least mix and match. At least TRY to pretend you’re doing something original. Or…maybe don’t, if what you consider original is ret-conning the blue box and pretending that ants/buffalo are capable of the intelligence required to morph.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!
Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!
Book Description:When Johnny Smith was six-years-old, head trauma caused by a bad ice-skating accident left him with a nasty bruise on his forehead and, from time to time, those hunches…infrequent but accurate snippets of things to come. But it isn’t until Johnny’s a grown man—now having survived a horrifying auto injury that plunged him into a coma lasting four-and-a-half years—that his special abilities really push to the force. Johnny Smith comes back from the void with an extraordinary gift that becomes his life’s curse…presenting visions of what was and what will be for the innocent and guilty alike. But when he encounters a ruthlessly ambitious and amoral man who promises a terrifying fate for all humanity, Johnny must find a way to prevent a harrowing predestination from becoming reality.
Review:During the Great Stephen King Binge of Eighth Grade, I hit a lot of classic King stories that have endured the test of time. But interestingly enough, one of the titles I skipped during that time was “The Dead Zone”, King’s fifth book (not including a few he wrote under Richard Bachman), and therefore still SUPER early in his writing career. It’s also one of his first books in Castle Rock, now a staple setting for a lot of the King Mythology. Looking back I have no idea why I skipped it; it’s about a man who becomes a psychic after an accident and has to deal with having horrible visions as well as deal with how his new powers affects his relationships. Perhaps at the time it sounded too tame, but now I know that psychics are some of my favorite tropes in dark fantasy/horror/what have you. Suffice to say, I decided to give it a go, and now I am sorta kicking myself for waiting so long to pick it up. Because not only does “The Dead Zone” include one of my favorite tropes of all time, it also has a villain that feels incredibly relevant to today: a malignantly narcissistic politician who garners a fervent following in spite of (because of?) his brash, callous, and cruel nature and false promises.
John Smith is our protagonist, a humble and serious school teacher who, after a car accident that leaves him in a coma for years, suddenly gains the power to touch someone or something, and get an impression about the past, or the future. King writes John in the way that I think most people would be if they gained this power: unhappy with the burden of it, but also unable to make himself ignore it should the consequences be grave and also potentially malleable. While this is a fairly standard recipe for modern ‘psychic who wants to be normal’ characters, John was probably one of the earlier iterations of the now familiar trope, and I enjoyed watching his character have to grapple with the responsibility. While it may feel a little old hat now, when this book was published in 1980 I wonder if the idea of ‘reluctant psychic’ was as prevalent as it is now. King really emphasizes the pitfalls of this gift, be it because of people who will harangue you as a fraud, or the people who will be desperate for you to give them answers to things that may not have easy, or wanted, solutions. Multiple times John has to weigh the pros and cons of telling people what he has seen, and King makes it clear that the emotional exhaustion and fallout oftentimes takes serious tolls on him. There are multiple moments in the story where I felt so badly for John, because he gains very little from this gift, even when it does positive things. In fact, if he does predict an outcome, usually those he helps are then completely terrified of him because of his supernatural abilities.
But I think that while John is a perfectly fine person to follow, I believe that the greatest strengths in this novel are the supporting cast of characters, in particular John’s old girlfriend Sarah, and the villain of the piece, Greg Stillson. Sarah and John are very tragic in a muted way, as while John survived the crash and eventually did wake up, Sarah, assuming he never would, moved on with her life. She has a husband and a child by the time John wakes up, and while she never stopped loving him she thought that she could never actually be with him. When confronted with the reality of what COULD have been is desperately sad. But at the same time, Sarah isn’t mired down by her sadness. I like that she takes the agency and little control she does have over the situation and is able to find closure in some ways (though admittedly I did roll my eyes a little bit at one aspect…. It felt weird and schmaltzy, but no spoilers here). She is a very steadfast character who feels deeper than just the old girlfriend who has lingering regrets. However, the strongest supporting character is assuredly Greg Stillson, the aforementioned politician whose power comes from a slowly growing cult of personality. Stillson and John spend much of the novel separate, but while we see John’s eventual rise as a reluctant psychic, we see Stillson’s rise in the political world (gains made mostly through violence, extortion, and intimidation). While I was at first wondering just where Stillson was going to come into all of this (as I went into this book with very little knowledge about it), King does a great job of carefully and slowly bringing them together at the most critical time in the novel. By the time John and Stillson do meet on the page, you have been given enough info about both of them that you know it’s the meeting of two powerhouses in their varying ways. Stillson scares the hell out of me, if only because Stillson feels like our reality…. Except there was no reluctant psychic to step in and stop his mad reign.
I listened to this on audio, and oddly enough it was read by James Franco. My guess is this was recorded around the time he was starring in “11/22/63” and the tie in was too good to pass up, but while it was odd to hear him at first he did a pretty okay job with the material. He varied his voices appropriately and emoted enough without feeling over the top. He’s no Will Patton, but I was overall satisfied with how he did (though, hilariously, one of the characters calls for a Polish accent, and so I just kept imagining Franco as Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” whenever the Polish Neurologist was around).
“The Dead Zone” was a dark and unsettling novel, but it is SO classic King that my nostalgia meter was off the charts. While it felt a little too real at times, I greatly, greatly enjoyed finally reading it.
Rating 8: A classic King book with a newly relevant feel, “The Dead Zone” is an unsettling read.
Book: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” by Elizabeth Peters
Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 1998
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: The prospects for the 1907 archaeological season in Egypt seem fairly dull to Amelia Peabody. Despite her adored husband’s brilliant reputation in his field, his dashing-yet-less-than-diplomatic behavior has Professor Radcliffe Emerson ignominiously demoted to examining only the most boring tombs in the Valley of the Kings — mere leftovers, really. All the Peabody Emersons profess stiff upper lips and intend to make the best of a bad situation, but this year the legendary land of the pharaohs will yield more than priceless artifacts for the Emerson expedition. For the desert guards even deeper mysteries that are wrapped in greed — and sealed by murder.
In a seedy section of Cairo, the youngest members of the expedition purchase a mint-condition papyrus of the famed Book of the Dead, the collection of magical spells and prayers designed to ward off the perils of the underworld and lead the deceased into everlasting life. But for as long as there have been graves, there have also been grave robbers — as well as those who believe tomb violators risk the wrath of gods like Thoth, the little baboon who protects the scales used to weigh such precious commodities as hearts and souls.
Review: It’s been a while, but we’re back with another Amelia Peabody novel. I usually turn to these when I find myself in a reading slump, but luckily I’ve had a pretty good run on books recently. But I still found myself with a hankering for my favorite female sleuth, and so here we are!
Back in Egypt, Amelia and her family find themselves looking forward to what will likely be a long, boring season. They have been “banished,” essentially, to some of the lesser tombs in the Valley and aren’t likely to make any grand discoveries. However, adventure is sure to find them, this time in the appearance of a priceless artifact that is recovered by Ramses, Nefret, and David. But following the artifact is a wake of mayhem and murder. Determined to find out who is behind these disturbances, Amelia and co. are on the case! Matters are only muddied, however, when their extended family (Walter, Evelyn, and their daughter, Lia) arrive and previously unknown attachments are revealed.
Many of the tried and true aspects of this series that I have always enjoyed are still present. While the narration is now more broken up, with the introduction of manuscripts and letters written from the perspectives of Ramses and Nefret, we still spend much of our time with our familiar and beloved Amelia. Here, however, the story really does take a new turn with regards to our heroine and her role in these stories. Up to this point, Amelia has been a solid point of reason, sound thinking, humorous commentary, and an adventurous spirit. All of these aspects of her personality remain here, however we are also exposed to a new reality: even Amelia herself has flaws and falls prey to certain prejudices that she wasn’t even aware of in herself. While it is difficult to see our reliable main character clash up against points of view that the modern reader immediately recognizes as traps of prejudices, I loved the full exploration of how this type of latent viewpoint could exist even within the most modern and intellectual beings of the time. And, be assured, even this challenge, as unexpected as it may have been for our heroine, is one that she is up to conquering!
As these books have continued, readers become more and more invested in the goings ons and thoughts/feelings of the younger group of the Emerson party. And this is probably the first book where I felt like these sections truly came into their own. Ramses continues to struggle with his repressed feelings for Nefret. Nefret, herself, continues to run into the barriers that are set against her due to her age and sex (even by members of her own family). And David struggles to find his role in a world that would often judge him first by the color of his skin, even when strong connections exist between him and those who might judge.
The mystery itself was also enjoyable. While I was able to predict certain twists and turns, the romp was still worth the ride. Many familiar faces play a role in this mystery, wandering in and out of scenes in some unexpected ways. I was particularly pleased to see the return of a certain villain who often creates many disturbances in the Emerson clan. What’s more, the stakes in this mystery are much higher than they have been in the past. While the book is still a “feel good” mystery, there was much more darkness and tragedy than I have come to expect. I never love crying over a book, but in this instance, I felt like the sadder moments were not only well-earned but a necessary send-off to certain storylines.
The archeological portions of the story were also quite compelling. We’ve gotten so used to our meticulous and studious main characters, that reading this book and its descriptions of the mishandling of a tomb found by another excavation team, I found myself almost getting as emotionally worked up as Emerson himself!
As I’ve said, many portions of this book felt familiar, but in the best way. There are significant strides made in advancing the storylines of the younger generation, which I’m sure we’ll see continue to play out in books to come. It also takes a new approach to examining Amelia’s own character, forcing her to confront some weaknesses in her own perceptions, an aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed. As always, for fans of this series, keeping plugging along! You won’t be disappointed!
Rating 8: Continues the series’ long line of success, but adds new layers with an exploration of Amelia’s own flaws and an extra focus on the lives of Ramses, Nefret, and David.
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.
Book Description:Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.
Review: Thank you so much to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
I first read Tana French with her first “Dublin Murder Squad” novel “In The Woods” around the time it came out. I liked it enough, but didn’t really move on until I read “Faithful Place” a few years later. I like French’s style, and I like her characters, but the mysteries themselves never really intrigued me as much as I wanted them to. But when I read about her newest novel, “The Witch Elm”, I was immediately interested in the premise. A man returns to a childhood family home and while he’s there a skull is found in a wych elm. Given that it sounds a little like the ‘who put Bella in the wych elm?’ crime, I wanted to see what French would do with it given her prowess for eeriness and dark characterizations.
“The Witch Elm” is a mystery about how this skeleton got into this tree, as well as how our main character Toby is connected to it. But ultimately it is more a story about family, memory, and how our perceptions of reality can change. Toby is an unreliable narrator not in that he is deliberately hiding facts from the reader, but in that he has gaps in his memory because of time and because of a traumatic brain injury sustained at the start of the book. French did a very good job of integrating the burglary and attack into the plot without making it feel purely plot driven, as there was a slow build up to it and then a sustained period of immediate consequences after that lingered well before the main drive of the plot at Toby’s Uncle Hugo’s home. And since Toby is constantly questioning his own memory, and his potential culpability in regards to the body in the tree, the reader also has to wonder whether or not we are following an innocent bystander caught up in a murder, or the murderer himself. But French is also very adept at presenting other characters who could also have a hand in murder, for many realistic and believable reasons. I quite enjoyed the mystery and seeing where it was going to go next.
I also very much enjoyed the family dynamic that Toby had with those around him, from his Uncle Hugo to his cousins Susanna and Leon. While the relationship with Susanna and Leon was a bit strained, be it because of their potential to be suspects to their differing views on how they should be dealing with their uncle to baggage from the past, it felt very real for a family with various dysfunctions. And Toby’s relationship with Hugo is quite lovely, as Hugo is dying of a brain tumor and Toby, having his own medical set backs and problems with cognition, really connects with him. They all did feel like a real family with it’s ups and downs, and this aspect of the book was probably the strongest for me.
I think that the main quibbles I had were with the length of the story. It takes a little bit of time to get started, for one thing, and while I understand why it does (as mentioned above, French is careful to make the attack and break in feel like more than just a device to get Toby’s mind foggy), I felt like it dragged its feet a bit. I found myself tempted to skip ahead to the family estate, and while I didn’t do that I do think that it took just a little too long to get all of the set up into place. And then it went on a bit longer than it had to, with a tacked on moment at the end that didn’t feel lit it needed to be there. I don’t wish to spoil it so I won’t say what it is here, but a new moment of conflict with very dire consequences happens well after we’ve found out the solution to the Wych Elm mystery at hand. And I didn’t quite understand why it had to happen at all. It felt unnecessary and it didn’t add much to the plot.
But all that said, Tana French is still an author who knows how to write an atmospheric mystery with some fascinating characters. “The Witch Elm” was a fun detour from her “Dublin Murder Squad” series, and I will be very curious to see if she is going to write more stand alone novels down the line, because this one stood on it’s own two feet pretty handily.
Rating 7: While there was a compelling mystery and family story at it’s heart, “The Witch Elm” took a bit too long to get going, and lagged longer than it had to.
We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “A Thousand Nights” by E. K. Johnston
Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”
Book Description: Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.
And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.
Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.
Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.
Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?
There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.
For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.
By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.
I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.
It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.
Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.
I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.
All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.
I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.
Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.
Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.
Book Club Questions
This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?