Serena’s Review: “The Wrath and the Dawn”

18798983Book: “The Wrath & the Dawn” by Renee Andieh

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, May 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: One Life to One Dawn.

In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster. Each night he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad’s dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride. Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive, but to end the caliph’s reign of terror once and for all.

Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving stories that enchant, ensuring her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last. But something she never expected begins to happen: Khalid is nothing like what she’d imagined him to be. This monster is a boy with a tormented heart. Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love. How is this possible? It’s an unforgivable betrayal. Still, Shahrzad has come to understand all is not as it seems in this palace of marble and stone. She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid’s life as retribution for the many lives he’s stolen. Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?

Review: Fairy tale retellings have been enjoying quite their moment in the sun over the last few years in the young adult publishing industry. And while they are some of my favorite stories to read, I’ve also about reached my saturation point for the number of ways you can try to make the prince character in a version of “Cinderella” actually interesting. So, I was very excited when I ran across this book and discovered it not to be yet another common fairy tale exploiting a craze but instead a story inspired by “A Thousand and One Nights.” I mean, I dressed up as Scheherazade as a kid for Halloween once, so obviously I was going to read this immediately. And, for the most part, it’s a pretty solid entry.

It’s hard to review this while also gauging my reaction based on whether or not I appreciated this book for what it was actually doing or because I was just so thrilled it was doing something different from the many other retellings. A big question with these is whether or not it differs enough from the original story. And this sort of did? The basic premise is still there. King kills wives each morning, woman sets out to avenge her friend who was a victim of this madness, woman staves off the axe via elaborate and strategic story-telling. And Shahrzad embodied many of the traits of the original character: spunk, bravery, and sheer stubbornness to see this mad plan through.

Unfortunately, because it is a novel and not a fairy tale, the book also fell victim to its premise. In the fairy tale, it’s very easy to spin this type of tale and escape relating the details or inconsistencies, especially using common story telling lines like “Another morning dawned. Another day passed. And Scheherazade continued to enchant her king husband.” That’s sweet and poetic and moving forward along those lines, it’s easy enough to set up your happy ending. With this? Not as much. There’s no way, even with the most sympathetic king character to not make Shahrzad’s transition from “revenge driven murderess in the making” to “love stricken girl who thinks maybe, yeah, he’s not that bad” seem less then believable and make her, as a character, highly questionable. All that said? I think the author did the best she could with this set up. I mean, it’s a crazy story to begin with, so going in, there has to be some forgiveness for the madness of the whole set up.

Other than this, the writing and scene-setting was beautiful. Again, maybe it’s because we don’t see a lot of settings like this in YA fantasy books nowadays, but the descriptions of the desert and lifestyle were beautiful and fresh. I also liked the inclusion of the stories that Shahrzad told each night. It would have been easy to just use a cheat, maybe tell one story, and then sweep the remaining nights under the rug. But the tales themselves were interesting and fun. Your mileage with this may vary, however, as the stories can also read as long breaks in the actual narrative of the book itself.

One other big detractor: a love triangle.

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(Source)

Overall, I really enjoyed this story. It’s the first in a duology (praise be, not a trilogy or, heaven forbid, a series…) So, I’m moving directly on to the next and should have a review of that up soon! This story pretty much wrapped up the retelling part from the original, which leaves the next with completely new content. We’ll see how it goes!

Rating 7: Good retelling, but fell into some common pitfalls.

Reader’s Advisory:

Kate’s Reviews: “Ink and Bone”

27276336Book: “Ink and Bone” by Lisa Unger

Publishing Info: Touchstone, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty-year-old Finley Montgomery is rarely alone. Visited by people whom others can’t see and haunted by prophetic dreams, she has never been able to control or understand the things that happen to her. When Finley’s abilities start to become too strong for her to handle – and even the roar of her motorcycle or another dazzling tattoo can’t drown out the voices – she turns to the only person she knows who can help her: her grandmother Eloise Montgomery, a renowned psychic living in The Hollows, New York.

Merri Gleason is a woman at the end of her tether after a ten-month-long search for her missing daughter, Abbey. With almost every hope exhausted, she resorts to hiring Jones Cooper, a detective who sometimes works with psychic Eloise Montgomery. Merri’s not a believer, but she’s just desperate enough to go down that road, praying that she’s not too late. Time, she knows, is running out.

As a harsh white winter moves into The Hollows, Finley and Eloise are drawn into the investigation, which proves to have much more at stake than even the fate of a missing girl. As Finley digs deeper into the town and its endless layers, she is forced to examine the past, even as she tries to look into the future. Only one thing is clear: The Hollows gets what it wants, no matter what.

Review: I had originally put “Ink and Bone” as one of my highlighted books for the month of June, but then it got bumped off in favor of “The Girls” by Emma Cline. But in an ironic twist of fate, I got to “Ink and Bone” before I got to “The Girls”. I do like a good mystery, and I do like themes of psychic consultants and procedural dramas that center around missing or kidnapped people. Perhaps that makes me morbid, but meh, I’ll own it. So I was pretty excited to actually get my hands on “Ink and Bone” when it came in at my library. But I think that what was ultimately the downfall of this situation was that as far as grit-lit thrillers go, I’ve read quite a few really good ones as of late. And “Ink and Bone” just didn’t quite live up to those.

I will start with the good, though. The opening prologue, in which Abbey is kidnapped, was very well written and did suck me in. Unger did a very good job with how she set up the scene, how she laid clues to later plot twists inside of it, and how she put the reader in Abbey’s shoes, so profoundly that I was on edge throughout the whole segment. It definitely started the story off with a serious bang, and I was very interested in finding out what happened. It started at such a high and tension filled level that I was thinking that it could only go up from there. Unfortunately, at least for me, the rest of the book never quite reached the same levels of intensity and suspense that the first few pages did. And for a thriller novel, that is quite the no-no.

I really did like Finley, our main character and tormented psychic. I liked that she wasn’t perfect, and wasn’t exactly the trope that many of these psychics in stories like this fall into: the serene, calm, almost ethereal enigma. Finley doesn’t have the temperament for that. She is young, and a bit insecure with herself, and hasn’t quite come to terms with her gifts. Her grandmother, Eloise, is trying to guide her in hopes that she will be able to hone her craft, but Finley, at first, isn’t quite sure that she has what it takes. After all, Eloise is basically the go-to psychic for cops and investigations that are at the end of their ropes. It was fun seeing a young psychic trying to get her sea legs, as so many in pop culture (like Alison DuBois in “Medium” or Billie Dean in “American Horror Story”) are already in tune with what they can and cannot do. I also liked her relationship with her tattoo artist on-again off-again lover, Ranier. Their relationship isn’t exactly the healthiest, but I could understand why she was drawn to him, and how he is both good and not so go for her. Her need to get tattoos all over her body as a coping mechanism to her visions was a very fascinating character trait, and gave her a bit more of an edge without seeming cloying.

Most of the other characters, however, were fairly predictable. Eloise definitely fell into the role of serene and wise psychic grandmother, and while she was perfectly nice it didn’t exactly do anything new for the old chestnut of a trope. I felt the same way about Merri and Wolf, the parents of Abbey, the kidnapped girl. Wolf is, of course, a shitty human being who has been sleeping with other women throughout his entire marriage. Of course he is. And Merri is the woman who stands by her man in spite of it all. I think that perhaps she was meant to be a bit more well rounded because she fully knows what he’s doing and has a certain amount of disdain for him and his actions, but it just felt odd to me. I know that they were both dealing with shared grief, but I just couldn’t quite get on board with them as a couple. Maybe I wasn’t meant to. The kidnappers were also the usual suspects: a crazed man who is also a pedophile (at least implied), and his naive wife who is trying to replace their dead daughter with other girls, who happen to be psychic as well (or at least highly sensitive). It felt a little “Doctor Sleep” to me in that regard, as while they weren’t eating the psychic girls’ life forces they were forcing them to speak to the ghost of their dead daughter in hopes of keeping a part of her with them, and therein sucking the life out of them that way. I couldn’t tell if we were meant to feel sympathy for the mother or not. Their mentally disabled son, Bobo, is another story. He bonds with the present ‘Penny’ (the name that all the kidnapped girls take on, after the dead daughter) and doesn’t want to hurt her, as he didn’t want to hurt the others, but is domineered by his mother and his need to please her.

Again, pretty standard tropes for a thriller.

I even guessed the twist pretty early on, which never gives a book any points. Doesn’t take away points, mind you, but in this case, other problems couldn’t quite save this book for me. It isn’t a bad book by any means, it just wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Rating 5: I really wanted to like this book more than I did, but it didn’t draw me in as much as I had hoped it would. I liked Finley enough, but other characters are pretty familiar tropes and the story hasn’t added much to the genre.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Ink and Bone” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Most Anticipated Mysteries of 2016”, and “2016: What the Over-35s Are Reading”.

Find “Ink and Bone” at your local library using WorldCat!

 

Joint Review: “Jane Steele”

25938397Though we do tend to read different genres, there is sometimes overlap in the books that we pick up and devour. When this happens, we decide to do a joint review, giving our thoughts through our own personal lenses of what we look for in reading material. 

Book: “Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye

Publishing Info: G.P. Putman’s Sons, March 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!;

Book Description: “Reader, I murdered him.”

A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement.  Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess.
 
Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognito, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents—the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sardar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend. As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past?
 
A satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies, by a writer who Matthew Pearl calls “superstar-caliber” and whose previous works Gillian Flynn declared “spectacular,” Jane Steele is a brilliant and deeply absorbing book inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I didn’t discover “Jane Eyre” until a couple years ago, but when I did I immediately fell in love with it. I loved Jane, I loved Rochester, I loved the broody star-crossed romance between them, and I loved how brassy and spitfire Jane was. It has now become one of my very favorite “classic” novels, and I am always on the look out for a good interpretation of it, or a good retelling. I can say, safely, that this search hasn’t always borne the best kind of fruit. One that stands out in particular was the book “Jane Eyre Laid Bare” by Eve Sinclair, and boy was THAT a huge miss for me. Essentially it was “Jane Eyre” but with erotic sex scenes sprinkled throughout, and that doesn’t really offend me on paper. What offends me is that it ends after she leaves Thornfield Hall the first time, and it made Rochester into a submissive slave for his dominatrix crazy wife in the attic, who wants Jane as her new sub.

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I want my Jane and Rochester romance brooding, but not creepy. (source)

Luckily, “Jane Steele” is a much better interpretation of the source material. It isn’t so much a retelling of “Jane Eyre,” as much as it is an homage to the themes of it. Jane Steele is certainly an orphan girl with a cruel aunt, who goes to a boarding school, and ends up as governess to a girl in a sweeping mansion on the moors… But she’s also a fan of “Jane Eyre” the novel. Oh, and she’s a serial killer, though I would argue that in most cases she is completely justified in what she is doing, so to try and paint it as such seems a bit dishonest. In fact, I think that was my biggest frustration with the book, in that I thought it was going to be about a crazy version of Jane who kills mercilessly. But it wasn’t. But ultimately, that was okay.

I liked Jane Steele as a narrator and protagonist quite a bit. True, I sometimes found the winking at the reader airs about her to be a bit much, but overall I found her to be well rounded and I found her to be a good proxy for the original Jane. Her hardships at home and at school always felt very real, talking about the way that women during the time period were mistreated and abused in a very realistic way. In fact, up until we got to the stuff at Highgate House, where Charles Thornfield (the Rochester Proxy) lived, which also happened to be her childhood home, I was totally on board with this book. Regretfully, it was when she started the part I was most anticipating that it started to lose a bit of its luster for me. Charles was fine. I really liked his butler/friend Sardar, who is Sikh. Charles and Sardar fought together during the Sikh Wars, and I really liked that Faye didn’t just ignore the British imperialism that was going on at the time and the consequences it had for those that it was conquering. Unfortunately, Sardar and his deep and complex friendships with Charles and Jane aside, Jane and Charles didn’t have the oomph and chemistry that Jane Eyre and Rochester Proxies NEED TO HAVE. They need to smolder, and Jane and Charles didn’t do that for me.

The murder scenes are rightfully gruesome though! I liked seeing Jane Steele going out there and perpetrating various crimes of revenge. I think that had some of these cases addressed been a bit more shades of grey it would have given the story more literary clout.  On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a power fantasy of women getting revenge on those who have abused them or abused other women. Sometimes that can be satisfying, too. The villains in this book are almost always White Men with Too Much Power, and given that British imperialism during the time period that “Jane Eyre” was written in was very much the name of the game, it was very nice to see that turned on it’s head.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed “Jane Steele.” As far as homages to “Jane Eyre” go, this one is a true winner.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I remember growing up and hearing over and over again that “Jane Eyre” was my mother’s favorite book. It was a yearly read for her. Around middle school, I discovered Jane Austen, another favorite of my mother’s and an author who was often mentioned in conjunction with her raves of “Jane Eyre.” So, after finishing all of Austen’s works, it was a natural jump to this. Unfortunately, this jump might have been my first mistake. Having come off the witty, light, and comedic notes that Jane Austen is known for, “Jane Eyre”‘s much darker, angsty tone didn’t sit quite right for me. I found the tone of the book glum, and while I like Jane Eyre as a character, I thought that Rochester was generally a jerk towards her and that she could do better. I thought this even before getting to the “hidden crazy wife in the attic” part. Now, as an adult, I have re-read it and appreciated it more. But, while I can completely see how this book became a favorite for Kate (whose love of brooding men knows no limit!), it still never hits quite the right notes for me, especially in the romance department. All that said, I still enjoyed it and was very intrigued by the concept of this book. Bizarrely, I assumed that making Jane Eyre a serial killer might actually lighted up the original tale, and in some ways, I think this was right. I mean, what a crazy idea! But it works!

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this novel. The language was seamless and appropriate to the time. I think this is often one of the greatest challenges of retellings of classic novels. Authors attempt to mimic speech patterns and language choices and either wildly miss the mark or come across as trying too hard. So, too, it is too easy to superimpose modern sensibilities on historical time periods, thus completely undermining aspects of society and worldviews that are imperative to the original story. In both of these ways, “Jane Steele” was a success. The challenges Jane faced were realistic and appropriate to the time. And while reacting with murder was certainly not the common approach, her motivations and methods were believable.

As Kate mentioned, one problem with this concept was the way the book was advertised: “Jane Eyre as a serial killer!” as well as the way Jane Steele refers to herself as a murderer throughout the book. Perhaps this has to do, again, with modern perspectives looking in on these situations, but I, like Kate, found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Jane’s inability to accurately assess the context behind many of her supposed murders. Unfortunately, for me, this problem also undermined an important moment in the conclusion of the novel. The build up and resolution didn’t seem to fit. But, on the other hand, this could just be a case of an unreliable narrator, and in many ways it’s understandable. Just slightly frustrating for the reader.

I actually really enjoyed Jane’s time at Highgate House. Perhaps because I wasn’t fully on board with Jane/Rochester in the original, the changes to the type of relationship and interactions between Jane and Charles didn’t bother me as much. If anything, for me it was still too similar. I don’t know, brooders aren’t my type!

I definitely agree with Kate, however, that a strength of the book was its secondary characters and the backstory for Charles and Sardar with the Sikh Wars. Their history was complicated and interesting, and their child ward was much more engaging than Adele was in the original.

I enjoyed the call backs to “Jane Eyre,” particularly when Jane Steele called the character out on choices that I, too, found questionable in that book. However, I also agree with Kate here that some of these winking nods could also interrupt the novel and be slightly jarring in tone. I like where the author was going with it, but at certain points, it felt like she was trapped by her own idea a bit.

All in all, I very much enjoyed “Jane Steele.” As a fan of historical novels, this book landed well. As I first mentioned, the biggest challenges (the language and the adherence to the structures of society in that time period) were handled aptly. And while I did have a few criticisms, I would highly recommend this book to fans of “Jane Eyre.” You don’t have to have read the original, but I guarantee a basic knowledge of that book will improve your reading enjoyment of this.

Kate’s Rating 8: A tense and fun read, with lots of “Jane Eyre” love to go around. I just wish the romance was stronger.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong retelling that doesn’t fall into the common traps for historical retellings. The unreliable narrator was both a plus and a negative, however.

Reader’s Advisory

“Jane Steele” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Derivatives of Jane Eyre”, and “Female Anti-Heroines”.

Fine “Jane Steele” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland”

18961361Book: “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, March 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: When a young troll named Hawthorn is stolen from Fairyland by the Golden Wind, he becomes a changeling – a human boy — in the strange city of Chicago, a place no less bizarre and magical than Fairyland when seen through trollish eyes. Left with a human family, Hawthorn struggles with his troll nature and his changeling fate. But when he turns twelve, he stumbles upon a way back home, to a Fairyland much changed from the one he remembers. Hawthorn finds himself at the center of a changeling revolution–until he comes face to face with a beautiful young Scientiste with very big, very red assistant.

Review:

This book marks a notable shift from the books previous to it in the series. Alas, our beloved September is nowhere in sight! And instead of experience the bizarre transition from “reality” to “fairyland,” the trip has been reversed with poor baby troll, Hawthorn, being selected as a changling and mailed (the postal service exists everywhere it seems!) to the “real world.” Here he faces the challenges of adapting his nonsensical worldview to a very sensible (or so it claims) world. While the story differs, the beautiful writing, philosophical musings, and abundant creativity remains. So following my established reviewing format for this series, here are a few passages that stood out to me.

Growing up has been a theme throughout this entire series, and this book was no different. The mixture of melancholy and joy, confusion and excitement, and the general sense that we don’t have this whole thing figured quite out is wonderfully discussed.

I shall tell you an awful, wonderful, unhappy, joyful secret: It is like that for everyone. One day you wake up and you are grown. And on the inside, you are no older than the last time you thought Wouldn’t it be lovely to be all Grown-Up right this second?

So, too, the coping mechanisms of childhood. I, obviously, identify with this last method.

Some small ones learn to stitch together a Coat of Scowls or a Scarf of Jokes to hide their Hearts. Some hammer up a Fort of Books to protect theirs.

One of my favorite things about this series are the quirky insights into aspects of life that, on the surface, have very little to do with the story of a Changeling troll or a wandering human girl in Fairyland. One of my favorites from this book:

English loves to stay out all night dancing with other languages, all decked out in sparkling prepositions and irregular verbs. It is unruly and will not obey—just when you think you have it in hand, it lets down its hair along with a hundred nonsensical exceptions.

Philosophical views on life are vivid and rich in this book. I’m still surprised by how seamlessly the author works these in. What could so easily become preachy and silly-ly on-the-nose instead reads as a beautiful side note placed directly next to an excellent fairy tale.

A choice is like a jigsaw puzzle, darling troll. Your worries are the corner pieces, and your hopes are the edge pieces, and you, Hawthorn, dearest of boys, are the middle pieces, all funny-shaped and stubborn. But the picture, the picture was there all along, just waiting for you to get on with it.

The other books probably had this as well, but in this story I found myself appreciating the shorter, one sentence thoughts that sprung off the pages. Someone should make a coffee table book out of these stories with some of these quotes.

She’s an old woman possessed of great powers–but aren’t all old women possessed of great powers? Occupational hazard, I think.

Lovely.

It is not so easy to always remember who you are.

True.

Rules are for those who can’t think of a better way.

Correct.

A thing too familiar becomes invisible

Worth an extra thought.

While the beautiful language and creativity remained in this story, I found myself missing our familiar characters. Hawthorn is a lovely protagonist, but I had spent three books coming to know September, and the last books ends with the feeling that she is on the cusp of something important. And, while she does make an appearance towards the end of this story and I see the neat place that this story fill within the larger narrative, I still found myself finishing it and wishing for a bit more.

That said, I still highly enjoyed this book and it is clearly setting the series up for this final book. I’m both excited and so, so nervous! Please let things work out for my lovely September!

Rating 7:  Still quite enjoyable, but slightly less preferred than others in the series

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Boy Who Lost Fairyland” is included on this Goodreads list: “Fairies in Children’s Fiction” and “Changelings.”

Find “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Reviews: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There,” and “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two.”

 

Kate’s Review: “Welcome to Night Vale”

25270656Book: “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Publishing Info: HarperAudio, October 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Description: Night Vale is a small desert town where all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard are actually true. It is here that the lives of two women, with two mysteries, will converge. Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked ‘KING CITY’ by a mysterious man in a tan jacket. She can’t seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City before she herself unravels. Diane Crayton’s son, Josh, is moody and also a shape shifter. And lately Diane’s started to see her son’s father everywhere she goes, looking the same as the day he left years earlier. Josh, looking different every time Diane sees him, shows a stronger and stronger interest in his estranged father, leading to a disaster Diane can see coming, even as she is helpless to prevent it. Diane’s search to reconnect with her son and Jackie’s search for her former routine life collide as they find themselves coming back to two words: ‘KING CITY’. It is King City that holds the key to both of their mysteries, and their futures …if they can ever find it.

Review: In the summer of 2013 I discovered a quirky and strange little podcast called “Welcome to Night Vale”. This is going to sound incredibly hipster of me, but I got into it right before it exploded in popularity on the Internet and across geek fandoms everywhere. I followed it for awhile, as it really is my kind of story. It’s kind of like “Lake Wobegon” meets “Twin Peaks” meets “X-Files” meets “Parks and Rec”. The premise is that it’s a radio show of community updates run by a man named Cecil Palmer, and the community has black helicopters, monsters for librarians, floating cats, and hooded figures congregating in the local dog park, which may or may not transport you to another dimension. So it’s weird. Like, VERY weird. But it also has a lot of heart. I kind of lost interest after the StrexCorp storyline wrapped up, but I do still have a fondness for the universe and decided to give the book a try. I initially got it in print from the library…. But after perusing it, I was like ‘oh… Maybe not’.

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My thoughts: “Oh God, was it always like this? Was it always this aggressively quirky? Did I LIKE this?!” (source)

After having a crisis of faith in a podcast I had fond memories of, I returned the book and vowed never to speak of it again. But then I saw, months later, that the audiobook was available to download, and that Cecil Baldwin, the voice actor for Cecil Palmer and main voice of the show, was reading the book. So I decided to give it a try that way. And THAT, my friends, made ALL the difference.

So yeah, “Welcome to Night Vale” is weird, and is aggressively quirky, and yeah, it probably has a smug sense of satisfaction about itself and how clever it is. But Cecil Baldwin as Cecil Palmer just makes it so damn charming and makes the town so damn lovable that he really, REALLY saves the story. And he does the same for the book when he reads it. I think that as a book this kind of set up just doesn’t really totally work, so it makes sense to give it the pacing that an audiobook can provide because this is it’s home format. You need to listen to “Welcome to Night Vale”, just like you listen to the podcast. I can’t explain why. But you just do.

“Welcome to Night Vale” also happens to have a lot of heart buried in it’s creepy and strange and uncanny-esque premise, and the book has the same thing going for it. Though it isn’t in community radio format (sadly, though Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos DO make appearances), it does have strange anecdotes and oddities in a narrative sense. In the book we follow two women, Jackie and Diane. Jackie is perpetually nineteen, but she is also trying to find herself just like many nineteen year olds are. Her struggles are both strange, as she has a piece of paper permanently attached to her hand, but she wants to know who she is, as she cannot seem to remember. And then there’s Diane, whose son in a shapeshifter, sure. But their relationship is so damn spot on in it’s portrayal of a single mother dealing with a teenage son who is growing up and apart from her. It is the very parts of these characters that make them human that make the aggressive quirkiness easy to swallow. Even if “Welcome to Night Vale” is goofy and very, very strange, if you look past that, the characters are people with very real, touching problems. And I also really liked the relationship between Jackie and Diane, who are united in their need to know what King City is, but are still very different and aren’t always going to get along because of that.

But buyer beware. I think that unless you have a working knowledge of this podcast and the world that it has set up, this book will be very confusing and probably maddening to you. It’s working on the premise that you know what the scoop is with Night Vale, and it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand in the strangeness. It just leaps into the narrative full throttle. The podcast was always weird, but kind of gradually worked it’s way to where the story is now, and the book just goes into it. Which kind of makes me have to ask this question, if you jumped in and were surprised or indignant that it didn’t make sense to you:

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(source)

That would be like me jumping in the middle of a “Halo” novelization series and wondering why it was that I don’t understand what was happening. Those books aren’t written for me because I am not a “Halo” fan, and sadly, this book isn’t written for you because you are not a “Night Vale” fan. This book can’t stand alone, guys. It just can’t. You need to know this mythology. Which isn’t exactly a great thing for this book, in all honesty. The point, I would imagine, was to try and branch out to other people outside of the built in listener base. And this book probably won’t do that.

I thought it was fun enough. I’m not necessarily clamoring back to the podcast in a game of catch up, but I do still love Cecil Palmer the character and Cecil Baldwin the voice. “Welcome To Night Vale”, if listened to, should be a fun little bonus for the podcast. But a stand alone book it is not.

Rating 7: This will probably be fun for fans of the podcast, but I don’t think that there is any way that a layman could enjoy this book. If you haven’t listened to the show, this is NOT for you. Either jump into the podcast, or leave it be. Also, it only worked for me when I listened to it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Welcome to Night Vale” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists as of now. I’m not surprised. So instead, here is a link to a blog that has some read-alikes, and hell, here is the damn podcast. You really should start here.

Find “Welcome to Night Vale” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Ghost Bride”

16248223Book: “The Ghost Bride” by Yangsze Choo

Publishing Info: William Morrow, August 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

Review: This book has been hanging around on my TBR list for so long that I have zero idea where it came from, and honestly, had very little idea what it was even about. A historical book about Malaysia in the late 1800s? A ghost story? Fantasy book? Yep. Yep to all three. “The Ghost Bride” came out of left field and was everything I hadn’t known to look forward to.

There are so many things I could talk about with this novel, I’m not even sure where to start. First off, I guess, is the rich detail that Yangsze Choo brings to this story. The language, culture, and vibrancy of Malaya (now Malaysia) was so rich and nuanced throughout. It was like the most beautiful, most interesting history lesson on a part of the world and the merging of several cultures that I had very little understanding of to begin with. It was evident that Choo had meticulously researched her subject, and more impressively, she integrated these facts and details in a way that never felt unnecessary or distracting from what was, largely, a very action-packed story.

The story itself was also surprising. I guess if I had read the book description a bit more thoroughly, this might not have been as shocking. But the unexpected turn from a traditional, period piece story into a underworld fantasy adventure was a jolt to the system. And even throughout these more fantastical portions of the story, the narrative never lost sight of its foundation, even then laying more insight into the time period, culture, and religious beliefs of the people of Malaya. (It is worth noting that while elements of this story were created by the author, she includes detailed author’s notes at the end that explain her decisions and provide even more insight into the background of these elements.) Even the ending was unexpected. About one third of the way through the book, I thought I had a pretty good idea where the story was going. About two thirds of the way through, I had changed this slightly, but it was still pretty much the same. The last 50 pages? Nope, I had it all wrong the whole time and the story was even better for it!

The characters themselves were also well written and thought out. Li Lan is an endearing protagonist, Tian Bai a compelling villain, and side characters such as her loving, yet superstitious nanny, Amah, and Er Lang, a mysterious man who keeps crossing Li Lan’s path, add flavor and spunk to the story.

Additionally, I listed to the audiobook version of this story which was read by the author herself. She had a great voice, and her pronunciation was particularly useful for a book like this where I would have likely butchered half the words in my head had I been reading the book. If you enjoy historical stories with an fantastical element, definitely check out “The Ghost Bride.”

Rating 9: An  unexpected yet very welcome surprise! Just like the ending of the story itself!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ghost Bride” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Chinese and Japanese Fantasy.”

Find “The Ghost Bride” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “I Know What You Did Last Summer”

47763Book: “I Know What You Did Last Summer” by Lois Duncan

Publishing Info: Laurel Leaf, April 1999 (first published October 1973 by Little Brown)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It was only an accident — but it would change their lives forever. Last summer, four terrified friends made a desperate pact to conceal a shocking secret. But some secrets don’t stay buried, and someone has learned the truth. Someone bent on revenge. This summer, the horror is only beginning….

Review: Last month, the literary world lost a great YA thriller legend. Lois Duncan passed away at age 82, and I felt a deep, serious sadness. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Duncan was considered the queen of YA horror and thriller stories, and won numerous awards for the books that she wrote, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which honors an author who has contributed significantly to YA literature. While she has written numerous books, perhaps her most famous is “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. Most people probably think of the movie version that came out in 1997. After the success of “Scream”, Kevin Williamson wrote a new teen slasher flick based on Duncan’s book, which proved to be another hit with audiences. Hey, I will fully admit that the only reason I read this book for the first time in seventh grade was because my parents wouldn’t let me see the movie. But here’s the thing: Duncan hated the movie and what it did with her source material. Fact is, Duncan’s daughter was murdered when she was eighteen, so taking her book about personal responsibility and morality and turning it into a flick where teens are brutally killed by a guy with a hook? Didn’t sit too well. And while the film version is okay (if not a bit disrespectful), it’s a true shame because the book is phenomenal.

For the unfamiliar, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” follows four teens: Julie, Ray, Barry, and Helen. The summer after Barry and Ray’s senior year, the four went on a picnic in the mountains to celebrate the boys graduation. But on the way back, they accidentally hit a young boy on his bike. Barry, the driver, sped away from the scene, and after a vote of 3-1 (Julie being the dissenting vote) they decided not to go back, but to leave an anonymous tip on a pay phone. When they found out that the boy died en route to the hospital, Julie cut herself off from all of them…. Until the next summer, when she gets a strange anonymous note. All it says is ‘I know what you did last summer’. So she seeks out Helen (a local tv celebrity now somehow. It was the 70s.), Barry (a big man on campus and still a douche), and Ray (back from California and pining for her) so they can try and solve who is stalking them. There are no hooks. There are no twists about the man they hit actually surviving and having previously murdered someone. These are four kids who killed a child, and ran from the responsibility of it all.

Pretty heavy stuff for teens to read, and pretty dark for 1973 as well! But that is one of the many reasons that this book is far more compelling then the movie that was made of it. Our four protagonists (with the exception of Barry, I would argue) are all young adults that are, at the heart of them, okay people who made a terrible mistake, and Duncan writes them as such. The book is less focused on them being stalked, and more on the horrible thing that they did. True, there are some pretty creepy things that their stalker is doing in this book, and the big reveal is one of the best twists that I have ever seen in YA literature (and really can only work in book form). But at it’s heart, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” is less about chills and thrills, and more about doing the right thing, no matter how hard and scary that it is. Unlike in the movie, where the characters are arguably pretty much objects that have terrible things happen to them, Duncan has written some very complex characters that you do fear for and care about. I think that Helen is probably the greatest accomplishment in characterization. Even though she is constantly praised for her beauty, and even though she is a local celebrity because of her TV status at the news station, her self esteem is crippled because of her past body issues and being treated like crap by Barry. She starts out as someone who is easily manipulated by him and wounded by his cruelty, but as the book goes on and she finds herself the victim of someone who is potentially worse than he is, she realizes that she deserves better and is a much better person than Barry makes her out to be. I love Helen. I love that Helen figures out that she is strong, strong enough to move on from him, and strong enough to face the consequences of her past actions. Duncan knew how to write well rounded female characters, even in 1973.

The one sad thing about recent editions of this book, and other Duncan books, is that she updated them to be in present day. I don’t know if that was her own decision, or the publishing company’s decision, but it just feeds into that so untrue myth that teens can only empathize and relate to characters who are just like them and the society they live in. It’s really unfortunate, as Duncan’s books, while a tiny bit dated, ultimately stand the test of time without the unnecessary time and technology changes. I just regret that I lost my copy of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” from my middle school years, and now you can only really find the new, updated versions. And this saddens me.

I am going to miss Lois Duncan and everything she brought to the YA literature world. If you haven’t read “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, you should definitely do so. While it’s not necessary to find an old copy, I strongly suggest that you do over the new editions. But regardless, just read it.

Rating 10: One of my favorite teen thrillers that many teen thrillers owe a serious debt to.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Teen Sceams”, and “Bring On the Creepy!”.

Find “I Know What You Did Last Summer” at your library using WorldCat!