Serena’s Review: “Heartstone”

31290944Book: “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride & Prejudice” in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms.

They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.

Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.

Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.

Review: I keep doing it to myself, picking up books that are re-tellings of Jane Austen’s famous novels, always hoping and yet so often disappointed. But this, this, is why I do it! Every once in a blue moon an author gets it right, not feeling too beholden to the original, while also staying true to the themes and doing proper justice to the characters. I very much enjoyed “Hearstone,” both as a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and as an original work of fantasy fiction!

As the summary explains, only the barest of bones of the original story can be seen here. This is a different word with a different history and a different society. Fantastical beasts aren’t simply inserted into the Regency England we know from the original novels. And right off the bat this is a strength of the story. Jane Austen’s works are filled with female characters who in one way or another struggle with the limitations that dictate their lives. White does away with this aspect right away. Women not only populate this world equally, but they are active, functioning members of the world. There were many characters from the original who are gender-swapped, like Colonel Foster who becomes a female commander. This was a particularly interesting and freeing choice, I believe, as the story is laid out in a much more action-oriented manner, and White’s world allows all of her characters to play in it equally. Aliza and Anjey (the “Jane” sister) don’t simply get to know their to-be Rider beaus through balls and dancing, but by contributing to the cause to rid their land of monsters.

The story is also told from first person perspective, another change from the original. But Aliza is an entertaining and relatable leading lady. It is interesting watching her develop her opinions and prejudices from the perspective of her inner thoughts, something we don’t see from Elizabeth Bennet. Further, her change of heart as she learns the truth about Daired and grows to care for him is an interesting arc that feels news and fresh coming from this more introspective viewpoint. Daired himself is an appealing leading man. While there is no competing with Mr. Darcy, Daried’s own prejudices and points of pride make sense for the character. In some ways the fact that he manages to attach himself to Aliza based on very few interactions is both more understandable and less than Darcy’s affection for Elizabeth. The two spend more time together than Darcy/Elizabeth and in situations that would cause attachments to develop more quickly. However, as great as the Aliza is, as a character it is less obvious to see why she would stand out so much to Daired who runs into so many people throughout society. Elizabeth’s sparkly wit and uniqueness were always obvious. However, I very much enjoyed their romance, specifically the added action towards the end of the book.

As for secondary characters, it is interesting to see that White seems to have looked at Austen’s original supporting cast and essentially thought “Man, not everyone can be that obnoxious!” This, too, was a welcome change. Austen’s ability to write the ridiculous side of humanity and people is unparalleled. So rather than try to mimic it, White simply eased up on it altogether. The Mr. Collins character is still silly, but she makes him also a good man who ends up in a truly affectionate marriage. Mrs. Bentaine is still set on marrying off her daughters, but she’s also clearly a loving parent, and her insufferablness is very much cut back on. Even deplorable characters like Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley are reformed, though still flawed. The Caroline Bingley character is a perfect example of both this more positive reimagining and the increased role that female characters play in the story, being a Rider herself alongside Daired and Brysney.

As for the world-building, I very much enjoyed how White built up her fantasy world around this classic story. Nothing felt forced, and she used the fantasy elements as motivations for the plot, not simply as window dressing to support a pre-determined system of events. All of the major plot points from the original story are inherently tied to the specific aspects of this new world.

This was one of the more enjoyable Jane Austen retellings that I can remember reading in quite a long time. If you enjoyed the originals, but also like high fantasy, I definitely recommend checking this one out!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heartstone” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Best Jane Austen Retellings.”

Find “Heartstone” at your library using Worldcat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Overnight” (Fear Street #3)

656729Book: “The Overnight” (Fear Street #3) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1989

Where Did I Get This Book: Interlibrary Loan from the library!

Book Description: “Nothing bad will happen,” Della O’Connor assures her friends in the Outdoors Club. So what if their advisor can’t go on the overnight to Fear Island—won’t it be more fun with no adults around?

But it’s no fun at all when Della gets lost in the woods, and the dangerous stranger appears, whispering threats, driving her to a violent act.

Suddenly all of her friends are involved, prisoners in a conspiracy of silence, trying to conceal the terrible truth. But someone saw what Della did. And he’s threatening them all, forcing them back to Fear Island to find the evidence they forgot to bury…

Had I Read This Before: No (I’m starting to wonder if I read more standalones and “Super Chillers” rather than the original “Fear Street” series).

The Plot: As if the teens of Shadyside didn’t have enough problems and woes on their plates, we now have to factor in the possibility of leaving the more populated parts of the town and go straight into a remote location where mischief and mayhem (and in all probability MURDER) can wreak havoc. That’s right guys, “The Overnight” doesn’t just take us into Fear Woods! It takes us to the not until just now mentioned Fear Island, which is in the middle of the lake within Fear Woods! That is where the Shadyside High Outdoor Club is planning on taking their overnight this year. Our protagonist is Della, one of the members of the aforementioned club, along with her innocent and sheltered bestie Maia, her (as of very recently) ex-boyfriend Gary, the preppy and awkward Pete, the obnoxious class clown Ricky, and the town bicycle Suki (who is my favorite character in the “Fear Street” series because her physical description makes it sound like R.L. Stine has watched “Return of the Living Dead” a few too many times). At their meeting (where Della is moping about Gary and Suki being so close now), their faculty advisor, Mr. Abner, tells them that he won’t be able to escort them to Fear Island that weekend, as he has just heard of a family emergency and has to leave RIGHT NOW. The Outdoors club is disappointed, until Suki suggests that they all go anyway, just unsupervised. Maia is SHOCKED that she would even suggest such a thing, but Della thinks it will be fun and convinces her to go, because what could possibly happen?

While Della is packing that Saturday, we get some exposition about Fear Island. It’s either an old research facility that is now inhabited by mutants, or the site of an Indian Burial ground (ugh, goddammit, this friggin’ trope). Obviously a destination for camping fun. Pete picks Della up, his obvious crush flying over her head, and they meet the others at the lake, where Gary and Suki are already chumming up pretty heavily. After a close call involving Maia’s parents and Ricky acting like a moron in the boats, they get to the island and decide to play a round of ZAP tag. Which pretty much sounds like paint ball, but the guns spray liquid paint instead of pellets. Girls vs Boys, of course. After Suki (and her punk rocky boy crazy attitude) pisses Della off, Della goes off on her own. And suddenly, a strange man approaches her. Her first thought, instead of ‘hm, strange man acting funny in the woods, I should be careful’, is ‘ooh, hottie alert!’, and she starts to flirt with him. He tells her that he’s studying the trees in the woods, but can’t keep his story straight, and yet no warning bells are going off for Della yet. After she prods him a bit more he attacks her. He says some gobbledy gook about communication and something about an old man, and Della gets herself free from his grasp long enough that she can shoot him with the ZAP gun. A chase begins, he catches her at the top of a ravine, and she shoves him down it. And then she realizes that it looks like he’s dead. So while trying to cover him up with leaves, the others find her and the mass freak out begins. Mostly by Maia, who isn’t as concerned that a crazy man tried to murder and do God knows what else to her best friend, but that her parents will find out that she was on an unsupervised trip!! Really, bitch? They decide that instead of going to the police (when it’s pretty clearly self defense here!), they should just leave him there to rot because who will find him? They complete their camping trip so as not to raise suspicions, and outside of some weird noises in the night they sleep fine.

The next day they leave the island and go back to their lives. The day after that Maia is freaking out that her parents are going to find out about all this (still not about the dead guy), so Della goes to reassure her and suffer some guilt tripping from her friend. This is just too much. For being best friends Maia is pretty much the goddamn worst. When Della returns home, however, she finds a note in her mailbox, which contains some jewelry that the dead man was wearing, and a note that says ‘I KNOW WHAT YOU DID’.

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Hm, I’ve seen this movie… (source)

The Outdoors club meets to discuss this turn of events (as Gary also got a note). Both Dell and Gary are missing their wallets, so that’s how whoever this is must have found them. Pete arrives fashionably late, and shows them a newspaper clipping about a recent burglary and murder, where an old man was murdered, possibly for money that he may have had, and there are pictures of the suspects (I guess? I don’t know how they would have figured that out, but okay). ONE OF THE SUSPECTS IS THE DEAD GUY! So maybe the person stalking them is his partner! Maia freaks out about her parents again, Della FINALLY tells her to SHUT THE HELL UP, and they are all surprised when Della’s mom comes home with a gentleman caller, which pretty much breaks up the meeting. Though Pete has time to ask Della on a date. Which she accepts.

Pete and Della go dancing at some teenage dance club, but while they’re driving home they are nearly run off the road by a strange car. They maneuver their way out of it, and see the strange car crash into a tree. When they look to see who was driving, the driver has already skedaddled. AT WHAT POINT DO YOU JUST GO TO THE POLICE?! They go back to school on Monday and at Outdoors Club tell the others about this (Maia is still freaking out. She’s clearly the weak link, guys). Mr. Abner returns and has great news!! The family crisis is over and he can finally take them all to Fear Island THIS COMING WEEKEND!! Della and Ricky try to play it cool by feigning interest, but everyone else tries to make excuses. Mr. Abner, acting less like a teacher and more like a child, guilts them about how he’s made special time to do this. Dude, really? They say they will let him know in a couple days. Most of them want to bail… But then Ricky tells them he’s missing a ZAP gun, which must still be on the island with the body. Somehow this could tie him to the crime, I guess, and he says that if it does he’s taking all of them down with him. So they agree that they will go back to Fear Island this weekend to get the evidence.

The Outdoors Club doesn’t even try to pretend that they are having a good time, so poor Mr. Abner must really be feeling like he’s stuck with a bunch of ingrates as he leads them across the lake and to the camp. Once they’re settled Pete and Della try to go get the gun, but Abner, convinced they’re going to go bang, says they can’t leave his sight. He says he’ll go get it (because at camp they won’t get into shenanigans I guess), but is soon knocked out by the CREEPY GUY, who runs off into the night. The Club makes a decision: Ricky, Gary, and Suki go for help,Della goes to get the gun, and Pete and Maia will stay with Abner (because Maia would rather have someone with her instead of letting Pete go with Della, the little wretch). Della goes to get the gun, but finds that the body is missing! And in a scene very reminiscent of “Robocop”, Della finds herself face to face with the man she thought she killed. Turns out she hadn’t. Apparently he has a ‘very faint pulse’ and that’s why she thought he was dead. He is then mad that she left him for dead, and tries to kill her again, as unlike her fake gun, he has a real one!…. But then Pete shows up and shoots him with the ZAP gun, getting paint in his eyes. They run back to camp with the guy chasing them, but the others have arrived with the police, who have also nabbed his partner.

The book ends with Pete picking Della up for a date, and in an attempt at comedy he brings a folded up tent in his car. Good one, Pete. Let’s remind her of all the trauma she’s gone through. But then they opt to eat marshmallows and watch movies all night instead. The end.

Body Count: Zero! Can you believe it?! I feel ripped off, in all honesty.

Romance Rating: 6. Not much, but okay, I admit it, I liked Pete! He and Della worked and made sense. And I was happy that there wasn’t any kind of love triangle either between them and Gary.

Bonkers Rating: 3. The twists were pretty standard, and felt like a run of the mill thriller. I was hoping that it would be MR. ABNER THE WHOLE TIME, but then it wasn’t. Meh.

Fear Street Relevance: 4. I am calling a cheat on this because while it took place on Fear Island, Fear Island wasn’t established as a place within this universe until it was convenient!!

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“The canoes!” Della said. They were gone. “Oh no!” Maia cried. “We’re trapped here!”

…. And then it was just that Ricky hid them like a douche.

That’s So Dated! Moment: Sadly there were few and far between super dated moments in this book! Though at one point Della’s shoes were described as white Reebok hightops, and I totally had a pair of those!

Best Quote:

“Knock it off, Suki,” Gary warned. “Stop picking on Ricky.” “Ricky’s picking on ME by existing,” Suki muttered.

I freaking love Suki Thomas.

I expected more from you, “Fear Street”. This just felt like “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. So maybe Kevin Williamson stole that idea from this. Regardless, it wasn’t one of the better stories in the series. Hopefully “Missing”, the next on the list, will be better.

Joint Review: “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast”

41424Book: “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” by Robin McKinley

Publishing Info: Harper, October 1978

Where Did We Get this Book: Serena’s owns it, and Kate borrowed it from Serena!

Book Description: Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage.

When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?”

Serena’s Thoughts

I originally read this book back in highschool after finding it while browsing through my school library. What a lucky day of my life! I had read a few books by Robin McKinley before this but had somehow missed the fact that she wrote a Beauty and the Beast re-telling (she actually wrote two! Her other book is titled “Rose Daughter” and is a bit more of an adaptation of the tale than a straight re-telling like this one). Fast forward an undefined number of years and “Beauty” is one of a handful of books that I re-read almost on a yearly basis. It’s the epitome of a comfort read for me, at this point. And with that in mind, I’ve found it a bit challenging to review it here for the blog! Unpacking the book as an actual work of fiction outside of my own long history of gushing over it is tricky!

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this tale is its simplicity. There are a million and one Beauty and the Beast adaptations, and they all approach the tale differently with unique additions to the tale and versions of the main characters. What makes “Beauty” stand out is the fact that it really isn’t providing anything extra to the tale: if you could have a novel-length version of the fairy tale itself, no bells or whistles added, this would be it. The tale unfolds in a very familiar way, broken into three parts essentially. There is Beauty’s life through her family’s fall from wealth, then her time adapting to a more simple life and hearing tales about a mysterious woods that one days hits too close to home with her father’s unlucky trip to a strange castle, and then the final third, Beauty’s time in the castle itself, falling in love with a Beast.

I particularly appreciate the fact that McKinley doesn’t rush the first half of this novel. As anxious as I am (and I’m sure many readers as well) to get to the meat of the story, Beauty and the Beast’s love story, this initial build up is important for setting up Beauty as a three dimensional character. We need time to understand Beauty herself, and to grow to love her family as well so that her sacrifice, when it comes, to leave them forever has the emotional weight it deserves.

Due to this greater fleshing out of the beginning of the story, Beauty’s family all get a lot more page time. The sisters, particularly, become their own characters with their own struggles. And, luckily, they are treated much more kindly by McKinley than sisters often fare in fairy tales being neither catty nor selfish.

But, of course, the true joy of the story does indeed come in its second half when Beauty begins her new life at the castle and meets the Beast. Here lies the true brilliance of the story. Under less sure hands we have seen too many incantations of the Beast where he can fall into many character traps, like the overly angsty Beast, or, most likely, the “anger issues are sexy” Beast. The Beast in this story is perfect as a strange, romantic hero. The tragedy of his story and life up to this point is the primary emotion that is brought to the forefront. And it is this sympathy for him upon which Beauty begins to build her feelings. But, even more importantly, McKinley allows her characters to travel the full of arc of a burgeoning relationship. Each are wary of the other (Beauty, for obvious reasons, and the Beast due to the vulnerability he must show to grow close to another human after so long), then through small moments and risks on each character’s part, a friendship develops, and only from there do we begin to see the romance come. McKinley never stumbles in this progression, and its this sure-handedness that makes the story and Beauty and the Beast’s relationship so beautiful and believable.

Re-reading this book for the millionth time, and especially with the new movie on my mind, it strikes me that the original Disney movie might have needed to credit this book for parts of their story. I mean, really, there’s even mention of a dog-like footstool! And this was written before that movie!! Perhaps a questionable lack of attribution on Disney’s part…

Kate’s Thoughts

So I had never actually read “Beauty” until I was at Serena’s house awhile back, and she literally thrust her copy of the book into my hands. I had only read “Sunshine” by Robin McKinley before then, though I had some familiarity with her other works because my mother really likes the “Damar” series. I, too, am a huge fan of the story of “Beauty and the Beast”, as the Disney movie is my favorite Disney movie of all time, and I’ve always enjoyed the fairy tale. Hell, in college I wrote a paper about the symbolism of the Beast in regards to sex and growing up. So yes, Serena was right to toss this my way with the command of ‘read it, read it now’.

I think that the biggest thing that strikes me about this book is that McKinley is very careful to flesh out all of the characters, from Beauty to her sisters to the Beast. While some fairy tales function more on tropes and common themes, McKinley takes these kind of stock characters and explores them a bit more. I was especially happy, like Serena was, that Beauty’s sisters Grace and Hope were also kind and empathetic people. I was worried that there was going to be some of the usual ‘only one girl can be the good one’ malarky, but this book is really kind to it’s female characters. Beauty herself was a wonderful surprise as well, as she is good and kind but has her own weaknesses and is not perfect. I felt a lot of love from her family, which is so rare in so many fairy tales. Seeing them going from wealth to near poverty was a really neat take, giving the story more motivation for the Father to go off, and more motivation for Beauty to make the sacrifices that she ends up making. And I will admit that I was also invested in the love story that befalls upon Grace, who is longing for a long lost love to return to her, even if the odds aren’t in her favor.

And like Serena, I also liked the parts with the Beast and how their relationship progresses. The Beast never really comes off as an actual threat to Beauty, which is a difficult line to treat with this story. I know that a lot of people compare this fairy tale to Stockholm Syndrome (I have a lot of opinions as to why this is incorrect, but that’s another rant for another day), but in “Beauty” it felt more like a mutual understanding between Beauty and the Beast instead of a captive situation. I feel like this gives Beauty the credit she deserves, and it doesn’t let any critiques turn her into a victim in spite of her obvious agency. Her relationship with the Beast is tentative, then sweet, and it was nice seeing them progress and learn about each other.

I think that the best part about this book is that it’s really just fluffy and pure escapism, which sometimes we really just need. There isn’t any unnecessary drama or nonsense, and you know that you’re going to get a happy ending. But even if the ending is guaranteed to be happy, McKinley does a great job of keeping you interested in the journey to happily ever after. If you are a fan of “Beauty and the Beast”, this is definitely a book that you should be picking up. Do yourself this favor!!!

Serena’s Rating 10: My absolute favorite fairy tale re-telling of all!

Kate’s Rating 10: An absolutely lovely retelling of one of my very favorite fairy tales.

Book Club Questions:

  1. Which telling of “Beauty and the Beast” are you most familiar with? What differences were there between this book and the story you’re familiar with?
  2. In many fairy tales, the family members of the hero or heroine are cruel and evil people, but in “Beauty” Beauty’s sisters are lovely and kind. What did you think of that?
  3. We also get to learn a lot about Beauty’s family life well before she meets The Beast. How did you feel about this part of the story? Did it add to the experience?
  4. What did you think about the progression of Beauty’s relationship with The Beast?
  5. What other fairy tale retellings have you read, and which are your favorites?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” is on these Goodreads lists: “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Best Fairytales and Retellings.”

Find “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: #5 “The Predator”

125337Animorphs #5: “The Predator”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, December 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Marco never wanted to be an Animorph. He never wanted the ability to change into any animal he touches. He just wants to chill. Whatever happens, happens.

Narrator: Marco

Plot: This book is a perfect example of something that I knew I was going to eventually stoop to discussing, and that is the awful individual names of each of these books. If anyone else noticed, by this point it might have become clear that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION between the supposed name of the book and anything obvious in the plot. I read somewhere that the publishers, not Applegate, chose the names for these books, but I feel like they should have known there was going to be a problem when, in what turns into a 50+ book series, they were already having a hard time matching this “The____” format with the actual plot of the books themselves by only book #5. Who is the “predator” in this?? Anyways, this is going to be an ongoing issue, but I’ll try to restrain myself to commenting on it for only the most egregious examples. On to the plot!

Ax is feeling the effects of being stranded on a strange planet far from home and wants to establish contact. So the action starts off in a very “E.T. phone home” sort of way. Turns out, shockingly, that Earth tech isn’t quite up to the loft standards of the Andalites, so the first third is essentially a caper around the mall looking for adequate substitutes at Radioshack (oh, the 90s). This adventure doesn’t go as well as one would hope due to Ax’s inability to reign in his joy at the discovery of taste buds (Andalites have no mouths, as we must remember). The end results is an inordinate amount of time spent hiding as lobsters before being taken to some poor woman’s kitchen where the nightmare of her life takes place: three lobsters turning into two human boys and a bizarre alien. So she’s definitely scarred for life.

The second third consists of their next brilliant plan: sneaking back into Chapman’s house, this time as ants. What could possibly go wrong! Lots, as it turns out. Ants are by far the worst morph they have ever chosen so far, as I will go into more later.  They do manage to get the super specific, high tech communication chip that Chapman uses to communicate with Visser Three on the Yeerk home ship, however. So on a purely practical (but not ongoing mental health) sense, they are successful.

The third part is where it all really goes wrong. The plan is to call down one of the Yeerk Bug Fighter ships and use their technology to reach across space to the Andalite home world. Turns out the Yeerks aren’t complete chumps and see through this ploy from a mile away. They show up in force and things aren’t looking good for our gang. The group, all disguised in battle morphs, are corralled onto a ship and transported into space. They’re all pretty resigned to their fate, at this point, as not only would they now need to overcome a massive force of Yeerks, but they’d also need to find a ship, learn to fly it, and survive a return journey.

But, as always, they hit a stroke of luck. Visser One, the most powerful Yeerk on the Yeerk high council is visiting to see how things are going on “Project: Take Over Earth.” Visser One is Visser Three’s superior, and they don’t get along. This internal, political feud pays off for the Animorphs in a big way as it turns out that Visser One is more interested in embarrassing Visser Three and highlighting his incompetence by having him lose a bunch of Andalite warriors off his own main ship than in actually capturing said Andalite warriors. Thus the Animorphs are provided with a clear path out and a pre-programmed ship to return them home. But…the most major revelation of it all, Visser One isn’t just any old Yeerk Controller. She is Marco’s mother, not dead at all. This obviously changes Marco’s entire outlook on the fight going forward.

The Comic Relief: Marco has been the most reluctant Animorph from the very beginning, but he also has the best reason for this. Of them all (except for Tobias), Marco’s life already kind of sucked before this whole alien war started. His mother died suddenly in a boating accident a few years ago, and his dad has spiraled completely, losing his job and their home and essentially withdrawing from life and Marco. At this point in the story, Marco is coming up on the two year anniversary of his mom’s death, and looking at the state of his dad, he decides that this is his last mission. His dad can’t survive another loss if Marco doesn’t make it, and after the close call as a dolphin in the last book… In respect for the sacrifice that Ax’s brother, Elfangor, made on their behalf, he’ll help with Ax’s project to reach home, but after that he’s out.

Marco is the most reserved of the narrator’s we’ve seen so far. Not only have we seen Marco putting on a brave/snarky front in the other books to the other characters, but as a narrator himself, he feels more withdrawn and less open with the readers, still playing it close to home with his true feelings. As his book continues, these barriers come slowly down, most dramatically when he discovers the truth about his Mom. But I found this to be an interesting and very true take on the Marco, that something that is so central and has been so well established to Marco’s character (his unwillingness to easily lower emotional walls) would still be present, even in his first person narrative.

As a narrator, Marco is, of course, a good time. He’s witty, while also probably being the most insightful into the true character of each of his friends. And really, it’s a lucky thing he has all of this going for him considering the more weighty aspects of his tale. Other than Tobias, who has definitely locked in on the award for “Most Tragic Animorph,” Marco’s life has been rough for a while and though he discovers his mom’s still alive, the fact that she is controlled by the most powerful (and thus most well protected) Yeerk in the galaxy is a small joy. Though, this does give Marco his reason to finally truly commit to the war against the Yeerks.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake and Marco’s friendship is great. We have some lighter moments that shed some insight onto how these two became friends, with Marco’s wit to balance Jake’s more serious take on life. But Jake also is the one person who truly understands Marco’s reluctance to join this battle. When Marco says he’s out,  Jake doesn’t pressure him or judge him for this decision. Jake is also the only Animorph who had met Marco’s mother before, and thus the only one to realize who Visser One truly is. At the end of the story, Marco makes it clear that this is a secret he is not willing to share right now, and Jake respects this decision as well.

Xena, Warriar Princess: We get another example of why as badass as Rachel’s elephant morph is, it’s really not the best battle morph she could have picked. Size issues are always posing a problem for her, and we’ve had one too many overly graphic scenes of her trying to frantically demorph while fleeing from the Yeerks, this time in cramped alien spaceship hallways. I know that she gets an even more awesome morph soon, and I can’t wait until then! Rachel also still clearly remembers her experiences in the Chapman house from book two and is very adamant that however the Animorphs choose to infiltrate the basement this time, there can be no chance that they will be caught and risk Melissa’s life again. It’s a nice little callback to Rachel’s story and to the fact that loyalty is such a strong motivator for her character.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias actually ends up in the action for the last bit of this story which is a nice change. In the last book he was largely absent due to the obvious fact that hawks don’t do water. But here he gets to join in all the kidnapping fun and even take a few swipes at Yeerks during their escape on the home ship.

Peace, Love, and Animals: I feel like Cassie came up with the ant plan. And right there, Cassie has failed in her one and only duty! Knowing the animal facts! Come on, Cassie, you had to know this was a terrible idea!!

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax is comedy gold, guys. I have very clear memories of reading and cracking up at this  mall scene (and I’m sure others) where Ax goes nuts for Cinnabons. And it was just as hilarious now. There’s some bit where I’m pretty sure that it is established that Ax is so far gone in his love of taste that not only is he licking other people’s used plates, but even eating cigarette butts. It’s all very humorous. On a more serious note, Ax provides a lens that highlights just how far the Animorphs have already come. They’re kids, yes, but at this point they’ve seen many battles, and when compared to Ax, they’re pros. He’s much quicker to give in to Yeerk goading and has a bad tendency to want to rush to his death for the sake of “honor.” At this point, the Animorphs know that a good retreat is never in conflict with honor when the other option is a pointless death. Ax also serves as good mouthpiece for the group with the Yeerks, as he is the only true Andalite among them and adds credence to their disguise as an entire group of Andalite warriors.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The whole ant scene. All of it. You’ve got the initial existential horror when Marco and Co. completely lose themselves in the ant mind. He describes it as literally forgetting that Marco exists at all. He just wasn’t there. So that’s horrifying. And then, even worse, they get into a fight with another ant colony and start getting eaten/torn apart alive, and they only escape by demorphing out of the ground. Marco mentions finding a severed ant head still attached to his waist when he showers later. Which….just….no.

Couples Watch!: Marco comments that Jake and Cassie are sort of together…or something…He notices them giving each other sappy looks, and such. As the one Animorph (not including Ax, which…obviously) not involved in a romantic pair, it was fun reading his narrative eye-rolls at the whole thing.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: I really liked the introduction of all the Yeerk politics. It adds depths to them both as villains and as a unique civilization that has its own problems outside of taking over the universe. Also, the fact that Visser One openly mocks Visser Three to his face on his massive ignorance of the planet he is charged with conquering is everything.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The scenes of Marco’s dad, just sitting in a dark living room staring at the TV. And then the whole revelation at the end about his Mom. And not just the obvious, that she’s a Controller. But now Marco has to question all of his memories. When did she become a Controller? A month before she disappeared? A year? When was the last time his true mother was even part of his life?? All the cries.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, kind of the whole thing, right? But I have to say, the idea to hide as lobsters in a lobster tank from the Controllers chasing them (they spotted Ax trying to demorph in a state of panic in the mall, another example of Ax being new to this fight and cracking under pressure) seems particularly flawed. I’m not sure what the better option was, but when you find yourself having to demorph in someone’s boiling pot of water in their kitchen, you know something went very wrong somewhere along the line.

Favorite Quote:

This one cuz I love Rachel and this seems true:

“I swear that, if she could, Rachel would be wearing a suit of armor and swinging a sword. And it would be a fashionable suit of armor, and she would look great in it.” ~ Marco

This one cuz it highlights Ax’s newbie issues:

“The higher the danger, the higher the honor.” ~ Ax

And this one because it quintessential Marco:

“We’re mostly against the idea of getting killed.” ~ Marco,

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 2

The scorecard goes unchanged in this one. Yeerk political infighting was all that saved this from being a “Game Over” for our favorite morphing teens. But the Yeerks didn’t exactly show off their best face either. Though it does prove that sticking it to Visser Three really IS the best thing ever. Even better than potentially kidnapping the supposed Andalite warriors who are the only thing keeping the Yeerks from fully conquering Earth. So…there’s that.

Rating: Marco is great fun, though his sads are for real, folks.

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!

Kate’s Review: “Tiny Pretty Things”

18710209Book: “Tiny Pretty Things” by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, May 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

Review: I honestly couldn’t tell you what it is, but there is something about the “Drama and mean girl bitchery happening at a boarding school/organization for some kind of art form” trope that I am a complete and total sucker for. It doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be about ballet (after all the movie “Fame” isn’t strictly about that art form and I LOVE it), but it’s just an added bonus if it is. “Center Stage” is by no means a good movie, but if I stumble upon it on the TV I am guaranteed to watch it. “Black Swan” messed me up real good and I could have taken even MORE mental anguish and paranoia from it. Because the competition of being the best within the strict and narrow world of ballet makes people do AWFUL THINGS, according to this trope, and I live for it.

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HERE. FOR. THIS. (source)

So of course “Tiny Pretty Things” was going to appeal to me. The fact that it has an underlying mystery is really just a bonus, I would have picked it up regardless. But “Tiny Pretty Things” also surprised me in a lot of pleasant ways. In a book that could have easily been about a bunch of spoiled and rich white girls (as the ballet world and culture is disproportionately white), authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton instead represented a rather diverse cast of characters, and the struggles they all face trying to fit into the ballet box. And they do this seamlessly, weaving these everyday moments of frustration or microaggressions against them into the bigger picture, so their struggles are just a natural, and yet exposed, part of their day to day realities. And there are a LOT of themes here, and since I want to break them all down, we’re going to have a lot to talk about.

One of the themes this book talks about is discrimination in the ballet world, both racial and sexual orientation. Gigi, being the only black student at the school, is always being put in the ‘Other’ role by those around her, be it fellow dancers or even the administrators. Her talents and merits are always being picked apart by those around her, and there is always a question of how much she deserves the roles that she’s getting. June, too, isn’t immune to such treatment, even if it’s to a different extent. Her biracial ethnicity has left her without a group, and since she has never known who her father is she is feeling even more like she has never known her true identity. And while they aren’t given many perspective moments, it’s mentioned that there are a number of the Korean dancers at this school who are absolutely fantastic at dance… but never get lead roles, and rarely get solos, because they just don’t ‘fit’ the part. Not only are racial biases spoken of, but so are those of sexuality and the idea of masculine and feminine ideals. There are two GLBT characters in this book, and while neither of them have perspective chapters, you do get to learn a bit about them through the other girls eyes. William is gay, and is definitely one of the best male dancers at the school. But again, because he doesn’t meet the physical (and yes, sexual preference) ideal of how a male ballerina should be, he too is denied lead roles. And Sei-Jin, June’s enemy, is a closeted lesbian. She torments June but is also terrified that June will tell the world that she’s a lesbian, therein ruining her chances, in her mind, at stardom. I really appreciated that this was touched on in this book when it easily could have just been ignored.

Along with discrimination there is the obsession with perfection and how far you go to achieve it. Be it the eating disorders that June and another girl named Liz are living with, or the Adderall addiction that Bette has, the competition runs all of these girls completely ragged. And this is why even Bette, mean awful HORRIBLE Bette, is a character that I can’t completely hate. She is certainly entitled and spoiled and bordering on psychopathic, but it is because this is all she has been raised to know, even since she was a little girl. She has seen her perfect older sister rise into prominency in the ballet world, and now their emotionally abusive and alcoholic mother wants both of her daughters to be stars. So Bette, who has been raised to be a star, is driven to the extremes beyond her Adderall addiction to achieve this perfection, and starts to spiral into madness when it just can’t quite be achieved. I really liked that this story addresses the fact that these CHILDREN are being completely put through the ringer, and that most of them aren’t going to make it in the ways that they are being pushed to do so.

Which leads us into the mystery of this book (as yes, there is indeed a mystery). Since Gigi is new and black and doing phenomenally well, someone starts harassing her and tormenting her. And while it very well could be Bette (and some of it is Bette because she’s the worst), some of these pranks and taunts are downright violent. While I may have a pretty good idea as to who it is (this is the first in a duology, so it hasn’t been revealed yet), I’m not quite certain. And I love the fact that I’m not quite certain! There are other little mysteries in this book that are a bit more obvious(such as the identity of June’s father, which I won’t spoil here, but it’s really not too hard to figure out), and while that’s fine, the mystery in itself is pretty run of the mill. The joy and power of this book isn’t in the mystery, though there are lots of pretty amazingly over the top moments of drama that surround it. The joy is definitely in the complex issues that Charaipotra and Clayton put in here, as well as, yes, the juicy juicy drama. Whenever a book about ballerinas ends up with one of said ballerinas getting glass shards left in her ballet shoes, you KNOW that I’m going to be a total sucker for it.

I really really enjoyed “Tiny Pretty Things” and will certainly be picking up “Shiny Broken Pieces” as soon as possible. It’s definitely soapy and dramatic, but it uses this premise to talk about other, very relevant problems within the ballet culture. So it’s a double win for me. Definitely pick it up if you want something fun, light, but thoughtful.

Rating 9: Steeped with soapy and sudsy drama, but also taking on some pretty relevant issues within the ballet world, “Tiny Pretty Things” is both a trashy mystery romp and a relevant commentary. A perfect quick read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tiny Pretty Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Diverse Books by Diverse Authors”, and “Hell Is A Teenage Girl”.

Find “Tiny Pretty Things” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Wintersong”

24763621Book: “Wintersong” by S. Jae-Jones

Publishing Info: Thomas Dunne, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ebook ARC from NetGalley

Book Description: All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Review: This book has been marketed as a good read for fans of “Labyrinth,” and while I’m familiar with the movie, I wouldn’t say that I’m a die hard fan by any means. I think I’ve only seen it once? But from what I remember, this book description does seems very close to that story. Perhaps too close? I have read several iterations of the “Goblin King” fairytale, however, and have had a hit or miss run of them. But I’m always intrigued by the basic arc and curious to see what new twists each author will bring to a fairly established story. However, while “Wintersong” is written beautifully, after reading it I wouldn’t list it as one of my top choices for this type of story.

Basically, this story can be split into two halves. The first deals with Liesl’s mission to save her beloved sister Kathe from the clutches of the Goblin King who has stolen her away. For the most part, I very much enjoyed this first half of the book. Liesl’s relationship with her sister is realistically complicated, based in both deep familial love but also challenged by Liesl’s jealously of the perfection she attributes to her sister based on her beauty. While this strained relationship could at times leave Liesl looking a bit selfish and self-centered, I felt like it also tapped into the true undercurrents that develop in many sibling relationships. And the fact that beneath it all Liesl would do anything, even sacrifice herself, to save her sister properly orients both her character and the sisters’ relationship as a positive one.

The second half of the story is where it goes a bit off the rails for me. This is kind of surprising, because as much as I loved the first half, I always knew where the meat of this story would lie: Liesl’s time spent as the wife of the Goblin King. And typically, this is the part of these types of stories that I enjoy the most. That said, it is also the most challenging to write as now the Goblin King must be developed to have more layers beyond villainy and the complicated relationship between him and his stolen bride must be more fully fleshed out.

And while there were elements of this half of the story I did enjoy, I also felt like the novel became a bit confused about what it was trying to do and say. Honestly, it almost feels as if this book would have done better if it had been marketed as an adult fantasy novel. Being pushed into YA territory leaves the physical aspects of the two’s relationship rather strained and almost working against the author’s arc of self-discovery for Liesl. It just felt odd at times.

The Goblin King’s transformation into a tragic, romantic hero also felt like something we have seen too often before. And while that isn’t always a fault (as I said, I’ve read many of these types of novels), this book’s descriptions of him at times seem to take its own angst and oh so tragic beauty too seriously. The lyricism of the novel that serves the story so well in its world building and descriptions of music, begins to feel a bit empty and cliche when it comes to their romantic relationship.

At this point in the review, I would say the book was coming in at a solid 5. I liked the first half, didn’t really like the second half, so a very middle of the road read. However, I won’t spoil it, but I was very disappointed with the end of the novel. I understand what the author was trying to do. However, there are too many questions left unanswered, and, again, the beautiful tragedy of it all seemed to be taking itself too seriously for the type of book this is. I hear there is a sequel in the works, and I do not appreciate books that leave cliff hangers that require readers to continue to get any sense of resolution. Sure, leave the door open and set the stage, but end it in a way that is still satisfying if readers don’t want to continue. So yes, I was unhappy with the end of the book. It may work for some, but it didn’t for me, hence the extra drop in my rating of it.

Kate’s Review: “Scary Out There”

28954124Book: “Scary Out There” by Jonathan Maberry (Editor)

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Multiple Bram Stoker Award–winning author Jonathan Maberry compiles more than twenty stories and poems—written by members of the Horror Writers Association—in this terrifying collection about worst fears.

What scares you? Things that go bump in the night? Being irreversibly different? A brutal early death? The unknown?

This collection contains stories and poetry by renowned writers such as R. L. Stine, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, and Ellen Hopkins—all members of the Horror Writers Association—about what they fear most. The stories include mermaids, ghosts, and personal demons, and are edited by Jonathan Maberry, multiple Bram Stoker award winner and author of the Rot & Ruin series.

Review: During one of our recent book club meetings, our fellow member Aimee mentioned to me a book of short stories she was reading for a book committee she was on. That book was “Scary Out There”, and as the resident (and kind of lone) horror buff she felt that this might be a good fit for me. I’ve read horror short story collections for teens before. One of the very best ones I’ve read is the FABULOUS book “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys”, and knowing that there are some great horror authors out there for young adults, I was pretty intrigued by “Scary Out There”. The problem with short stories collections is that sometimes you may have a set of stories that may have some stand outs, but are, as a whole, a dud. And unfortunately, “Scary Out There” pretty solidly fell into this unfortunate trap.

But I will talk about the stand out stories first. Because there were a few that I really liked.

“Danny” by Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman is the author of the incredibly creepy and completely ambiguous “Bird Box”, so when I saw that he had a tale of terror in here I had high hopes. The man did NOT disappoint. This story is about Kelly, a fifteen year old girl who wants to start babysitting, even though her parents aren’t sure she’s up to the task. After some convincing on their part, she answers an ad for The Donalds, who need a babysitter for their young son Danny. After her Dad drops her off for the job, the Donalds come clean. They don’t actually have a son, but really, really wish that they did, so could she just go through the motions of acting like she’s babysitting their nonexistent while they go out for the night? Kelly, wanting to seem responsible and not get an ‘I told you so’ from her folks, agrees. But is she actually alone in the house? HOW SCREWED UP, but also, how Josh Malerman. This story really hit all the right notes, as you spend the majority of this book wondering if the Donalds are totally insane (scary enough on it’s own), or if there is actually something else in this house with Kelly. I was completely unsettled and freaked out by this one, and Malerman did a great job of building suspense slowly, and being deliberate in turning the screws on the reader.

“Corazón Oscuro” by Rachel Caine

This one is definitely an old school, nightmare fuel ghost story, with horrifying imagery and revenge. When Zenobia and her doctor mother are driving in the desert at night, they come upon a car accident. While her Mom goes to help, Zenobia calls 911, but instead of connecting to help, she connects to something else. Shortly thereafter they realize that they are not alone in this desert scape, as illuminated eyes and strange noises can be seen in the darkness. Help in the form of a man in a pickup truck comes to them, and he tells them about the ghost of a girl covered in scorpions. Zenobia and her mother get caught up in the unfinished business of this girl. I loved this story. It had a taut and scary plot, really creepy moments, and hit all of my ‘NOOOOOPE’ bingo squares with the description of the girl ghost (strange movement, sounds, AND scorpions?! YIKES).

“Death and Twinkies” by Zac Brewer

This one stood out mainly because it’s more sad and melancholic than it is scary. Jeremy is a depressed teenager who is on a quest to kill himself to get away from his terrible life. But when he goes to jump off a bridge, a mysterious teenage boy is there. They start talking, and Jeremy realizes that he’s talking to Death. As they talk, Jeremy starts to wonder if he can go through with what Death should want him to do. I liked this one because, oddly, it was one of the more tender stories in this book. Definitely not scary or unsettling, but kind of sweet and hopeful. Plus, Death is a fun and snarky character, as any personification SHOULD be, in my opinion.

“Non-Player Character” by Neal and Brendan Shusterman

Neal Shusterman is just a powerhouse in the YA world, and this time his son came along for the ride! Darren is a teenager whose parents are obsessed with an online video game. Darren pretty much cares for himself they’re so far gone, and cares for them too. But then he sees a strange girl inside the game, a non-player character. Darren is compelled to pick up the controller and play too, if only to get closer to her. But as he does get close to her, his own dangerous obsession begins. This one was upsetting on a few levels. The first is that Darren’s parents are the absolute worst in how they neglect him. The second is all about the power of the game itself, and what it can make people do. The end was screwed up beyond belief, and I loved that about it.

But guys. These are just four stories out of twenty one. The rest didn’t really do it for me. They were either boring, pointless, or ended abruptly and felt haphazard. There were multiple times that I would feel like the story built up so much that it didn’t work where it ended, feeling incomplete and unfulfilling. Other times there would be such hamfisted ‘issues’ stories that could have used horror as a good metaphor, but ended up falling pretty damn flat. OR, they ended on a cliffhanger and that was it. Come on! I don’t want so many stories to end with a big ol’ question mark, or a ‘she ran away but doom was certain… but was it?’ kind of resolution.

So while four of these stories were pretty damn awesome and I shall sing their praises to hell and back…. the rest were rather disappointing. If you can find these mentioned stories on their own, definitely do. But if you want want a more well rounded book of horror short stories for teens, I would say definitely go with “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys”. “Scary Out There” just doesn’t have the balance.

Rating 5: While four of the stories stand out as strong contributions, the rest of them are rather lackluster and not as scary as they want to be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scary Out There” isn’t on many Goodreads lists that reflect the material, but I think it would fit in on “YA Short Stories and Collections”, and “Short Horror/SciFi Collections”.

Find “Scary Out There” at your library using WorldCat!