Serena’s Review: “Princess of Thorns”

18782855Book: “Princess of Thorns” by Stacey Jay

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2014

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

Book Description: Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?

Review: I picked up this audiobook in a spur of the moment panic brought about by previously requested audiobooks not being ready at the library and a long, traffic-filled commute staring me down. This book had been hanging out for so long on my to-read list that I have completely forgotten how it go there and (an even worse habit!) I had begun to assume that because I hadn’t gotten to it in so long, I must not really have been that interested in the first place. Reading the description, some type of bizarre fairytale re-telling about the Sleeping Beauty’s daughter it sounded like something that would be right up my alley, so why hadn’t I gotten to it?! Ah, the mysteries of life, and one that burned me in the end here for ignoring such a delightful story for so long.

Just as the description suggests, this is indeed a fairytale type re-telling, if by “re-telling” you mean “tragic post script to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ story that, depending on the translation, is already pretty horrifying.” The prince who wakes up the Sleeping Beauty is indeed a jerkwad of the “hide your multiple wives” variety. And things only get worse when an Ogre prophesy puts her two children at risk, leading to her imprisonment and some truly terrible forced choices. The story then picks up 17 years later following Aurora who is now working off a tight deadline to rescue her brother from the Ogre Queen and raise an army to save her kingdom. All with the help of Niklaas, a seemingly shallow prince who is hell-bent on marrying a princess.

Niklaas was one of the most surprising elements of this story. Based on the cover, the book description, and, let’s be honest, the tons of YA fairytales that have come before it, I went into this assuming that Aurora would be our one and only POV character. So color me surprised when Niklaas shows up and steals away half the story for his own! And I couldn’t be more happy about it. Niklaas brings his own fairytale to the book, this time a twisted version of the “Seven Swans” story, and his own personality to the page. His is one of my favorite character types to stumble upon. Witty, but flawed. Self-aware, but delusional about how he comes across to others. He’s the type of character you should hate (as Aurora first does as well) for all of his egotism and blatantly stereotypical and demeaning opinions about women. But he’s so charming and hilarious that you end up loving him anyways, gleefully waiting for the inevitable slap to the face that will knock him out of his narrow way of thinking. He was a perfect foil to the more impulsive (reckless!) Aurora, and a humorous balance to her own more straight-laced approach to the trials and tribulations they find themselves in.

Aurora, herself, was also a great character. Not only did we have Niklaas showing up as one of my favorite types of romantic leads (the kind that exist as more than a romantic lead in the first place), but with Aurora I had another favorite trope: girls disguised as boys. The biggest challenge with this approach is balancing the friendship/romance between the two main characters in a believable way. For Aurora’s perspective, it is easier, as she is in on the sham the entire time. So for her, it was most enjoyable simply watching her slowly realize that for all of his foibles, Niklaas might be a good guy. But for Niklaas, it’s harder. His relationships with Aurora starts out purely platonic, with him believing that she is her younger brother. Their friendship and camaraderie during this period was great, and I was beyond pleased with the way the author transitioned this relationship once the secret comes out (this is NOT a spoiler, cuz…obviously). Particularly, I loved that the challenges of this reveal weren’t hand-waved away. Not only does Niklaas have to come to terms with the new reality he’s living, but also that he’s been actively lied to for weeks. Full points for the author in her handling of this entire storyline.

Beyond these two, the most surprising part of this story was the inclusion of a handful of story chapters from the POV of the Ogre Queen herself. Initially I was rather put off by this as I had been having a grand ole time romping around in the woods with Niklaas and boy!Aurora. But the Ogre Queen’s chapters, and the character herself, brought a necessary level of severity to a story that could have easily slipped into pure silly escapism (though there’s a healthy dose of that, for which I was glad as well). For the few number of pages she’s allotted, the Ogre Queen’s transformation and story arc was probably the most compelling. Her story was unique and completely unexpected, probably bring the only truly “new” portions to this fairytale from the long lists of marks that are almost always hit in these types of books.

My only frustrations came towards the end. Throughout the story, Aurora’s character is pushed to grow and adapt from her particular brand of bravery that often revealed itself in foolhardy decision making with results that could have been prevented if a bit more thought had gone into them. With all of the build up, I went into the final act ready for her to complete this arc. And…in a way she does? But not really. She ultimately makes all the wrong choices and is only saved by the courage and sacrifice of those around her. There’s a very brief moment where she does confront this reality and make one good decision that does have major ramifications. But only after making ALL OF THE WRONG decisions up to that point, with only luck leaving her this one last opportunity to make it right. She does pay a steep price, but I ultimately felt that her arc was left rather incomplete in this area. Did she really learn a lesson here? Was it really satisfying that everything ended up aces for her out of pure luck? I wasn’t completely satisfied on either account.

But let’s not end on that note! Even with those frustrations, this book was completely and utterly a joy to read! It may have hit me at just the right moment when I needed a bit of humor, romance, and adventure without too many complicated strings attached. But as a beach read, I think it’s perfect, so make sure to grab a copy before you head off on vacay this summer!

Rating 8: Pure fun! If only brought down a few points by a bit too much luck in the end for my taste.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Princess of Thorns” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Disguised as Boys” and “Fairy Tale Retellings: Hidden Gems.”

Find “Princess of Thorns” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising”

31624824Book: “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” by Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo (Ill.), and Laura Braga (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Based on the hit DC Collectibles product line! As World War II rages across Europe, the Allied forces issue a call to arms for the greatest heroines the world has ever known! With an old villain arising from beyond the grave, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Kara Starikov, Kortni Duginova and Mera must aid the Allied forces while at home, a brave group of Batgirls must defend the homeland!
The incredibly popular DC Collectibles line is brought to life in these stories that reimagine the course of history! From writer Marguerite Bennett (BATGIRL, EARTH 2: WORLD’S END) and featuring artists including Marguerite Sauvage (HINTERKIND), Laura Braga (Witchblade) and Mirka Andolfo (Chaos) comes DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 3.

Review: With the way that the last “DC Bombshells” collection ended (if you’ll remember, it was devastating), I was wondering if we were going to get into more pathos in which we’d have to potentially say goodbye to another of our beloved heroines. I suppose that I should have steeled myself for that possibility from the get go, as this is WWII and with war comes death. And given that our ladies are spread out across various fronts, battling not only Nazis, but also Nazi Zombies, the stakes are pretty high. And we jumped right back into it.

But first, we went back to the home front to check in with the Bat Girls! They’re continuing there time of taking up the mantle for Batwoman while she is overseas, and this time they have a new ally to go along with Maggie Sawyer.

LOIS LAAAAAAAANE!!!!

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It’s her time at the table, folks, so buckle up! (source)

Seeing Lois introduced (and giving her a very interesting backstory that gently but deftly touches on the immigrant experience) was a serious treat for this Lois Lane fangirl. It was also great seeing her jump in without having to worry about needing help from Superman (still nowhere in sight), and helping the Bat Girls break up a crime ring (involving the Penguin!), though they find themselves wanted in the process. Seeing this and a non-Two Face-d version of Harvey Dent going on and on as a political candidate with an “America First” platform made this story feel pretty close to home.

But meanwhile, in Europe, we catch up with our Bombshells on the front lines. We don’t get to see Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or the aftermath of Stargirl’s death this time, but that’s okay by me. I’m not ready to see the fallout from that. But that isn’t to say that we have a lack of stories this time around, as we are juggling a number of story lines. We have Batwoman, leaving Wonder Woman and Stargirl to try and get back to the front lines, who meets up with an old flame, Renee Montoya (aka The Question). They first met during the Spanish Civil War, and fought on the rebel side against the fascists. Now they are teaming up again, in spite of bad memories of losing a young protege and friend named Jacon (YES AS IN JASON TODD I AM SCREAMING) and the end of their love. You have Zatanna, who has been sent to a ghetto because of her Jewish and Romani heritage, and is being tormented by Joker’s Daughter, who has taken away her powers. You have Mera, who has washed up in Ireland without her powers, banished from Atlantis and her rightful throne. And we finally come back to Harley and Ivy, who have become freedom fighters for the resistance, and have found love with each other as they try to make their way to Berlin to take down the Nazis from their home base. And I haven’t even mentioned Huntress, Miri Marvel, Joker, Catwoman, Raven, and Aquaman, who all make appearances as well.

It’s definitely a lot to balance. But Bennett does a really good job of slowly but surely weaving all of these stories together. It was SO lovely to see my girls Harley and Ivy again, and to see how they play into this whole thing. I was wondering how it was all going to fit together, but it does. I was also really relieved that even though we did get a bit more romance with some of the heavy hitting men of the Universe (Aquaman and Constantine, specifically), it didn’t bring down Mera or Zatanna. Even though Mera has found lighthouse keeper Arthur, there is no sign of him having powers that are going to outdo hers as of yet. Their romance is just another part of her as a person, but Mera remains Mera and isn’t distracted from her goal of getting her powers and Atlantis back. The same can be said for Constantine, who is in the ghetto with Zatanna. He is there to support her, but his presence doesn’t weaken her or make her seem like he is her only strength in a horrific situation.

I loved seeing all of these women come together to fight against Joker’s Daughter and the Nazis, and that a number of these women in this story are Jewish or of Jewish descent, as Batwoman, Zatanna, Miri, and Harley all make mention of their heritage while they are inside the ghetto during a shabbat dinner. There was great beauty in this entire moment, as it wasn’t solely a ‘savior’ moment, as these women are also targets because of their heritage. The symbolism was bittersweet, and I really appreciated it. It was also good seeing the concept of abusive and controlling relationships being addressed, and not just in romantic ways. There was a small moment with Harley and Joker as she tells Ivy about her past, but there is also the relationship between Joker’s Daughter and Zatanna, and the relationship between Mera and her former beau. There is also poor Raven, who has only known Joker’s Mother as her mother figure, and is so damaged in her need to please her but also her need to escape. These are things that women in real life have to grapple with, and I so appreciate that this series dares to bring up the toxicity of relationships like these, and contrast them with healthy relationships. Harley finds Ivy. Zatanna finds Constantine. Raven finds a new group of women to mother her. Mera finds Arthur. And they all find more self respect. It’s just so positive!!! I can’t gush about it enough!!

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(source)

There is just so much to love in this series. It continues to be super feminist, it continues to strive for diversity, and it continues to have some awesome action sequences that are just as good as any other superhero comic out there. I am once again sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the next one in the series (out this fall I think!). While I’m worried that some characters are done, I am excited to see who else could show up.

Rating 10: Once again “DC Bombshells” knocks me off my seat and excites and thrills me until I turn the final page. These ladies continue to kick serious ass!!!

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but given the lists it’s predecessors are on it would fit right in on “#fempowerathon”, and “Amazons, Female Warriors, and Wonder Women”.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “DC Bombshells (Vol 1): Enlisted!”, and “DC Bombshells (Vol 2): Allies”.

Emily’s Corner: “Ready Player One”

20170202_140222Emily and I (Serena) have been friends since the first week of freshman year of college. Other than a lost purse (I did the losing, Emily did the calming), take a wild guess as to what we bonded over? Yes, that is correct: books. And the fact that we both had plans to be English majors and would go on to coordinate our schedules to have as many similar classes as possible! All that said, Emily has agreed to be a semi-regular contributor to our blog, so keep your eyes open for posts from her in “Emily’s Corner” on random Mondays going forward!

9969571Book: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

Publishing Info: Ernest Cline sold the novel in June 2010 in a bidding war to the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. The book was published on August 16, 2011.

Where Did I Get this Book: Barnes and Nobles

Book Description: In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.

But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

Review: I adore science fiction, though I often lament the cheesiness that plagues the genre. So I was utterly floored by this book. This is the kind of science fiction that would convert even the most ardent sci-fi hater. Ernest Cline absolutely hit it out of the park on his first try.

“Ready Play One” is set in our world, less than thirty years into the future. The world is a bleak place, with a gaping divide between rich and poor, where the OASIS is the only respite from a reality of war, famine, violence, and disease. This book is believable because both the reality and virtual reality presented hit close to home. Global war is the norm, the populace consists of the uber-wealthy and people living on the streets, there is no middle class. In-game commerce is more valuable than hard cash, and the OASIS has more engaged voters than the actual government does. This isn’t Star Trek; it’s a future that feels hauntingly close at hand.

Wade is the perfect protagonist. Yes, he’s a teenager. He’s whiny at times, and you want to smack him upside the head when he pines too long after his love interest. But you can’t help rooting for him because he represents what it means to be the little guy, to go up against “the man” against all odds. He’s brilliant, but flawed enough that he doesn’t get preachy.

Wade’s story pivots around a global treasure hunt set up within the OASIS by its’ creator, a treasure hunt that is in itself a love letter to pop culture of the 80s. I loved the references I caught (shout-out to Wil Wheaton, who also narrates the audio book!), but wasn’t distracted by the ones that went over my head. I’m too young to catch the majority of the early 80s gaming references, but if anything it made me want to research Pong-era gaming systems. Atari, anyone?

The treasure hunt within the game is an engrossing adventure, complicated by real-world villains in the book, the IOI conglomerate who want to monetize and control the OASIS. Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS, becomes the first player to crack the first of three clues that lead to both in-game and real-world treasure. He becomes the target of the IOI and cautiously teams up with other top players, known as Art3mis (pronounced Artemis), Aech (pronounced like the letter “H”), and brothers Daito and Shoto to win the game and keep IOI from dominating the OASIS.

“Ready Player One” is a great springboard for discussion on issues of technology, privacy, monetization, and legal liability which are hot topics today. It also provides thoughtful commentary on the positives and negatives of a fully immersive virtual world and the risks inherent to addictive technology. This is a thoughtful book, one that immerses you in the story but also makes you question your own addictive tendencies. Personally, I was struck by the idea that books were the first virtual reality, and wondered if I, as a self-proclaimed book addict, could really judge people who spend hours on video games.

There is a great twist near the end of the book, as Wade’s in-game friends introduce themselves to him in the real world. If nothing else, the reveal of Aech’s identity is worth reading the book for. There is also a teaser at the end which could leave room for a sequel. My guess is that Ernest Cline will wait to see how the movie adaptation turns out before deciding whether or not to pick up the story again.

Rating 10: This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, one that may just get added to my annual reads list.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ready Player One” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality” and “Nerdventure.”

Find “Ready Player One” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “The Cold Eye”

28962896 Book: “The Cold Eye” by Laura Anne Gilman

Publishing Info: Saga Press, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: In the anticipated sequel to “Silver on the Road,” Isobel is riding circuit through the Territory as the Devil’s Left Hand. But when she responds to a natural disaster, she learns the limits of her power and the growing danger of something mysterious that is threatening not just her life, but the whole Territory.

Isobel is the left hand of the old man of the Territory, the Boss—better known as the Devil. Along with her mentor, Gabriel, she is traveling circuit through Flood to represent the power of the Devil and uphold the agreement he made with the people to protect them. Here in the Territory, magic exists—sometimes wild and perilous.

But there is a growing danger in the bones of the land that is killing livestock, threatening souls, and weakening the power of magic. In the next installment of the Devil’s West series, Isobel and Gabriel are in over their heads as they find what’s happening and try to stop the people behind it before it unravels the Territory.

Review: After reading and loving “Silver on the Road,” I was excited to pick up this prequel. In the first book we were introduced to the unique, re-imagined West that is ruled by the enigmatic Devil who has sent out 16-year-old Isobel to travel the territory as his own brand of magical justice. In many ways, this book simply doubled-down on the same elements readers were presented with in the first novel, in some ways to its benefit and in others, less so. But ultimately, the “freshness” of the story/world/characters pulled through, leaving me with favorable impression of this second book in the series.

As before, the atmospheric world of the West was one of the biggest appeals with this book. The story starts out with Isobel traveling alone, and through her eyes we once again get to experience this strange, untamed landscape that effortlessly blends the ruthlessness of nature (with some added teeth from the magical elements) alongside the stark beauty of the rolling plains. Of course, there would be no story if something wasn’t amiss, and Isobel’s “sixth sense” leads her down a path of darkness and mystery.

While I enjoyed Isobel’s independent moments in the story, I was also very happy when she was reunited with Gabriel, as their friendship/mentorship was one of my favorite parts of the first book. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book also continued down these relationship paths without any addition of romance. Each respects and admires the other, but, if anything, they read as siblings on the page. It is refreshing to read a story about a 16-year-old female protagonist that proves you can draw an interesting tale and create viable and intriguing relationships without the need to insert romance into the equation. Believe it or not, teenage girls are capable of forming other types of relationships with those around them.

I did have a few frustrations with the story, however. And, like the pros to the tale which all built upon elements I loved from the first book, the negative aspects came from the same quibbles I had with the first as well. Namely, the pacing and the magical system. While the slow and meandering travels allow readers to fully immerse themselves in the world that has been built, it can also deflate the story from the brief action sequences that can be found, leaving readers wondering just how many descriptions of dusty saddles are really necessary. The last third of the book involves some high stakes and challenging moral considerations (of the kind that really make you wonder about the Devil’s thinking in sending out an untrained, teenage girl to deal with the forces at work in the Territory), but it takes a long time to get to this point, and I wish there had been a way to tighten up some of the storytelling of the first two-thirds.

And lastly, the magical system. I love the uniqueness of the magic that is set up in this book, especially that which is connected to the animals (the buffalo’s herd magic, and the speaking snakes). But as far as Isobel’s own particular brand of power, it is just as frustrating as it was in the first book. She does things, but never knows how she is doing what she is doing. And more often than not just lead into an action by an undefined “feeling.” I understand that she is learning what her role is as the Left Hand, but that means she must actually learn. Just discovering that something worked without any explanation or knowledge of how/when/in what circumstance she could hope to repeat the process, at a certain point simply feels like lazy writing. And a bit boring.

But, as I said, at this point in the series, the uniqueness of the world and the appealing nature of Isobel and Gabriel and their friendship is enough to keep me interested. But don’t take my word for it! Check it out for yourself and enter to win a hardcover copy of “The Cold Hand!”

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Rating 7: A strong sequel that builds on the elements I liked from the first, but also, sadly, doesn’t improve on my original quibbles either.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Eye” isn’t on any relevant  Goodreads lists but it should be on “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories. “

Find “The Cold Eye” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously reviewed: “Silver on the Road”

Kate’s Review: “Riding the Bullet”

11605Book: “Riding the Bullet” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster, January 2000

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

Book Description: A Stephen King ghost story in the grand tradition, Riding the Bullet is the ultimate warning about the dangers of hitchhiking.

A college student’s mother is dying in a Maine hospital. When he hitches a ride to see her, the driver is not who he appears to be. Soon the journey veers off into a dark landscape that could only be drawn by Stephen King.

Review: As a longtime Stephen King fan, I have read a lot, and I mean a LOT, of his books. But given how prolific of an author he is, and given how long he’s been at it, there are still plenty of King books, novellas, short stories, et all that I haven’t read yet. And while I’ve hit most of his more popular and famous works, it’s the ones that I’ve never heard of that continuously surprise me on my reading adventures. Be it “The Long Walk” (written under his Richard Bachman pen name) or “Charlie the Choo-Choo” (a children’s book based on the book within his “Dark Tower” series), King has popped up and shown me new things in the past couple of years. So when I was looking for something to listen to in the car, I just punched King’s name into the search bar to see what was available. It was then that I saw a title I had never heard of before: “Riding the Bullet”. Seeing that it was short and that I’m always trying to expand my King repertoire, I downloaded it.

Even in a novella such as this one, King has created a cast of characters who feel so well explored and real that I got a sense for who they were and what motivated them. Specifically Alan Parker, our narrator and protagonist who is picked up by a ghost on the night his mother is sick in the hospital. As you read the story you get the sense that Alan has a strained relationship with his mother; though they are really all the other one has, Alan also notes moments in their past that could be seen as abusive. You understand the love he has for his mother and why he would drop everything to try and hitchhike down to see her when she has a minor stroke and ends up in the hospital. But taking this into account, even without King saying how deep this tension and complexity to their relationship goes, it makes things down the line seem believable in the face of incredulity.

I really enjoyed how king took the old urban legend/ghost story of the Phantom Hitchhiker and turned it on it’s head, with the hitchhiker being the one who is potentially in the presence of a ghost who leaves a trinket behind. In the usual story a person picks up a hitchhiker on the side of the road on a dark night. Usually it’s a man picking up a young woman. They talk and connect, telling each other their names and about their lives, and the driver drops the hitchhiker off to wherever she wants to go. They part on friendly terms, but as the driver is driving away he realizes that she left a sweater, or a scarf, or something behind. He tracks down where she lives based on her name, and when he brings the object back to the house, a family member will ultimately tell the driver that “She died ten years ago” or something to that effect. It’s a classic. In this case the ghost is George Staub, the ghost of a man whose grave Alan had seen in a cemetery on his journey south. While on the short but terrifying ride with George, Alan notices the button that the ghost is wearing: “I Rode The Bullet At Thrill Village, Laconia”, a rollercoaster that Alan once had the chance to ride when he was a child. But when he and his mother got to the front of the line, he chickened out. Now instead of trying to return the forgotten object (as there is no question that Staub is a ghost from the get go), it serves as a reminder for what happened that night, and the consequences to what happened in the car between Alan and Staub.

What I liked most about this story is that there is a certain ambiguity to it. The ambiguity isn’t whether or not Alan was picked up by a ghost that night, as that much is clear. But the ambiguity is placed within the choice that Alan makes (which I don’t want to reveal), and whether he ultimately has any culpability in the potential consequences that may, or may not, come because of it. It kind of digs into philosophy about what children owe to their parents, and what parents want from their children. As the story carries on beyond the encounter with the ghost, Alan has to grapple with these questions. He’s convinced that because of his actions, something bad will happen to his mother…. And the tension of this, of finding out whether or not this is the case, definitely had me on the edge of my seat in the car. I think that there wasn’t really a good release for the tension I was feeling, and that I could have used more story to really unwind from all of it. As it was, it just kind of tapered off, and I was left wanting a bit more.

I should also mention that Josh Hamilton was the narrator for this audiobook, and I thought that he did a great job. I know him best from when he played Serge on “Absolutely Fabulous” and also from a driver’s ed video I watched when I was a teenager (I WISH I COULD FIND THIS VIDEO). It’s so important to have a person who really dives into the story they are reading, and I was totally immersed in his narration.

Overall, I enjoyed “Riding The Bullet”, both for it’s effective suspense and for the bittersweet pathos that it had. Stephen King is so good at both horror and humanity, and “Riding the Bullet” is a solid example of both.

Rating 7: A solid ghost story with some fun references to various urban legends. King is so good with characterization that while I felt more could have gone into this book, I got a feel for Alan and George Staub alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Riding the Bullet” is included on the Goodreads lists “Riders Up!”, and “Theological Weird Fiction”.

Find “Riding the Bullet” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “This Savage Song”

23299512Book: “This Savage Song” by Victoria Schwab

Publication Info: Greenwillow Books, July 2016

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

Book Description: There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

Review: After reading and loving Victoria Schwab’s “Darker Shade of Magic” series, I decided to go ahead and check out her young adult offerings. And while I still prefer her adult fantasy trilogy (though this was a very high bar so most books should be excused from not reaching the same highs, even those by the same author), I very much enjoyed this first book in what will be a completed duology once the final book comes out one week from now.

Schwab herself described this book as “Romeo and Juliet” but with monsters and without romance, and since my biggest problem with “Romeo and Juliet” wanna-be stories is the often trite romantic flounderings of the protagonists, I was excited to see how she would pull this off. I mean, what even is a “Romeo and Juliet” story without romantic nonsense? Turns out its pretty much a gang war in a city that has been taken over by demons of its own creation.

The world building was strong, right out of the gate, from the equally hellish northside and southside of the city and their various approaches to life in a now monster-filled world, to the monsters themselves. Born from human acts of hatred and violence, the city is plagued by three types of beasts. The Corsai, a viscous shadow-like creature that lurks in the dark places of the world only to emerge at night and shred its victims. The Malchai who resemble skeleton-thin humans and drink blood, similar to vampires in all but their ability to walk during the day. And the Sunnai, most rare and least understood of the monsters who can steal a soul with their song. Years ago, with the sudden appearance of these monsters, the city’s population sank into warfare only creating a tenuous peace after a massive disaster took out several city blocks. Since then, the city has been split, north and south, with one side fighting against the monsters and enforcing a strict rule of law for those committing crimes (and creating more monsters in the process), and the other ruled by a gang lord who has managed to rope the monsters into some semblance of control and requires his citizens pay for protection. These are the two sides from which our main characters come. Kate, the daughter of said gang lord, eager to prove herself stronger than the mother who attempted to flee the city so many years ago only to meet a tragic end. And August, a Sunnai, and adopted son of the fighters’ leader, who wishes he weren’t a monster and who struggles to find his role in this war.

Both Kate and August were intriguing, complicated characters. Each struggles with their own tenuous understanding of family, from Kate’s complicated relationship with a father who has distanced himself from her throughout her entire life, to August’s role, alongside his “brother” and “sister,” the only other two Sunnai, who all have been adopted by the leader of the resistance. Not only do the two not fully understand the war that they’ve inherited and the people who have already been fighting it, but each struggles with their own understanding of what is and what is not “monstrous” in this world.

August’s Sunnai abilities were particularly interesting, both the connection to his music and his own limitations. The Corsai and Malchai are fairly clearly described early in the book, while the Sunnai remain mysterious, even while having chapters featuring a Sunnai himself. This exploration of what it means to be a monster and what it means to be a Sunnai specifically was very compelling. All three Sunnai, August, his brother, and his sister, are all different in their abilities, their philosophy on the use of those abilities, and the arc they travel throughout the story.

Throughout all of this detailed world and character-building, Schwab manages to insert an action-packed plot full of danger and mystery. Every time that it felt like the plot was reaching a crescendo (ha!), she would wisely pull back for a quiet, character-driven moment. It was this delicate balance between action, adventure, and quite frankly, a lot of violence, with these these slow, beautiful, character introspections that really made this book stand out.

The only thing I will say as a negative was that while I loved Kate and August as characters in their own right, they didn’t jump off the page the same way that Lila and Kel did. There were a few scenes that read a bit flat, a few instances where I felt that Kate and August were slow to pick up the clues that were laid before them, and just a few missteps with dialogue that rang a bit forced. But, really, take all of these criticisms with a gigantic grain of salt. Again, see the overly high expectations that were set by the “Shades of Magic” series. For fans of young adult fantasy who are looking for a completely unique magical setting and two main characters who are blessedly free (so far) of romantic entanglements, definitely check out “This Savage Song.”

Rating 8: A great new YA fantasy, blessedly free of love triangles and any romance at all, really!

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Savage Song” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Feuding Families” and “Unique special abilities/superpowers.”

Find “This Savage Song” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Stepsister”

842704Book: “The Stepsister” (Fear Street #9) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, October 1990

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

Book Description: Emily wants to like her stepsister, but it hasn’t been easy. As soon as Jessie moves in, she takes over Emily’s room, starts wearing Emily’s clothes, makes secret late-night calls on Emily’s phone – and that’s just the beginning!

Before long, Emily is living in total fear of her stepsister. Emily tries complaining to her parents. But Jessie is such a good liar, no one will believe Emily!

Emily’s terror mounts when she picks up Jessie’s diary and learns a horrifying secret from Jessie’s past. Did Jessie really murder someone? Does she plan to murder again? Emily knows she must find out the rest of her stepsister’s dark secret. Her own life depends on it!

Had I Read It Before: No.

The Plot: So this is the story of Emily Casey and her newly cobbled together blended family. While she and her sister Nancy have been the only siblings in the house for awhile, their mother just married a man named Hugh Wallner and he has two kids, Jessie and Rich. Now that Hugh and Mom (because why should she have a name?) are married, they’re finally moving in together. There’s talk of Jessie and Rich’s mom being an absent parent, but it isn’t really harped on too much. Jessie and Emily are going to share a room, and when they both go up there Jessie establishes herself as a total cooze. First she says the room is too small, then she says that it’s a ‘dump’. It then turns into making fun of Emily’s Mom for being ‘enthusiastic’ and Nancy for having red hair, and bitching about lack of closet space. Then she says she’s sorry because she’s so ‘nervous’ and worried about the changes of becoming a blended family. Yeah, okay, because that makes it alright to be such a bitch. To make matters worse, Tiger the terrier runs in, and Jessie freaks out and shoves him away lest he get fur all over her sweater. Then, as the coup de grace, she ‘accidentally’ rips the head off of Emily’s teddy bear. JESUS. Nancy comes in and tries to quell the tension by talking about Rich and his love for Stephen King (You’re a good man, Rich), and slips in the plot exposition that Emily is now dating Nancy’s ex Josh. Yeah, I don’t think that’s so cool, Emily.

Over cake and ice cream we get to see what a dick Mr. Wallner is.  He makes fun of Jessie’s anxieties, makes fun of Rich for reading and for his cracking voice, and acts indignant when his abuse isn’t seen as funny. He also likes to brag about not reading books. Emily is reminded that her Dad loved to read books. But on a camping trip to Fear Island, when he and little girl Emily were out on a boat on Fear Lake, a wind kicked up and her father fell overboard, drowning. Oof.

The next night after Emily and Josh arrange a time for him to come over, she goes down to eat dinner with the family. And then Jessie comes down wearing Emily’s sweater, but insists that it’s hers. An argument ensues, but no one believes Emily. Mr. Wallner says that he’s glad that he has ‘four women’ in the house to clean up. (SO, not only is he applying antiquated gender roles, he’s also picking on his young and shy son by calling him ‘womanly’. This fucking guy.). After dinner Emily goes to work on her big paper for school. She leaves the room to get an apple, and when she comes back Jessie is at the computer. Emily tells her she isn’t done, but when she tries to pull up her paper again, it’s been erased. As someone who has been there to some degree, I legitimately feel for her in this moment. Emily pitches a fit and attacks Jessie. Everyone runs into the room and believes Jessie when she says she didn’t do it. After they leave Jessie snarls at Emily to not embarrass her in front of her father, and then kicks at the poor dog Tiger. Emily grabs her dog and runs to Nancy’s room. Nancy tells her that Jessie is seeing a therapist a couple of times a week and that she has emotional problems.

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(source)

Josh comes over. As he and Emily make out, Jessie spies on them. Emily ignores it. That night Emily wakes up and hears Jessie on the phone saying ‘I really could kill her!’

A few days later, things seem better, as Emily and Jessie are going to make a cake. Their playful natures come out and they spray whipped cream all over each other, and Nancy too. Emily goes to take a shower. But when she gets out, she sees her hair has become patchy and miscolored. Someone put peroxide in her shampoo! And this time, no one believes that Jessie didn’t do it, because Nancy says Jessie spent a lot of time in the bathroom earlier in the day. Jessie runs off crying, and Emily’s hair is somehow saved by a home haircut that Nancy performs.

Not to be outdone by his sisters, Rich is escorted home by the police for shoplifting.

A few nights later is the homecoming dance. While Emily and Josh have a great time dancing and then making out in the car afterwards, the fun is short lived. Because when Emily gets to her room, she finds that someone has killed Tiger! While Emily accuses Jessie because she always hated Tiger, Nancy accuses RICH because HE LIKES TO READ STEPHEN KING AND IS READING “PET SEMATARY”!! Rich denies it because OF COURSE HE DIDN’T DO IT BECAUSE OF STEPHEN KING, and Jessie offers to run a bath for Emily she she can relax. Emily is interested at first, but as Jessie is in the bathroom Emily decides to read her diary! In it Jessie talks about how in her old town people think that she was involved a murder! She hides the diary before Jessie can see that she was reading it, and balks at the bath because the water looks like Jessie put some kind of crazy chemicals in it! But then Jessie takes the bath instead, because water conservation, and proves that Emily is succumbing to paranoia.

Emily is awakened from a nightmare by Rich, who really wants to tell her that he didn’t kill her dog. She believes him. Later she wakes up again, and sees that Jessie’s bed is empty! She discerns that Jessie must have snuck out because the window is open, and decides to read more in her stepsister’s diary. Seems that Jessie’s friend Jolie died in some kind of awful accident and everyone assumed that Jessie had something to do with it because she was the one who found the body. I think that’s pretty flimsy, but her reputation was ruined. The next day Emily wants to get away from the house and says that she’s going to a computer lab at school. And when she opens her backpack, Tiger’s corpse is inside.

At dinner that next week, talk goes from talking about Rich getting into fights at school to Jessie talking on the phone at late hours (which she denies of course). After dinner she’s upstairs expecting Josh, and hears voices downstairs. Josh is down there, having a VERY in depth conversation with Jessie! Emily pulls Josh outside and chews him out for talking with Jessie. Josh thinks she’s acting silly.

At school, Emily is trying to enjoy a lunch of suspect macaroni when Jessie’s friend Krysta confronts her about being so mean to Jessie. Emily spills food on her shirt and goes to the girls’ room, only to find Jessie. They rehash the usual fight, accusing each other of being awful, and Jessie leaves. Emily dawdles, and while she’s in there she hears footsteps come and go. And then she smells smoke. Someone has set the bathroom on fire! And when she tries to escape, the door won’t budge and the windows have been painted shut! Luckily the teacher Mrs. Hoffler opens the door and Emily is freed. The school is evacuated and Emily can slowly breathe again after nearly choking to death on all the smoke. Nancy takes Emily home, and it seems like she finally believes her now about Jessie.

Though a bit later they’re all going to a concert together. Emily and Nancy hadn’t wanted to take her, but their parents insisted. Jessie has been very nice to Emily since the fire, but Emily isn’t buying it. At the concert they are up in the nosebleed section, with very steep cement stairs. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that someone shoves Emily when the lights drop of the concert to start. She falls down the steps a few seconds, but someone stops her before too much damage is done. Must have been Jessie! A few weeks later it’s cold out and Emily is walking home, when she sees Josh’s car in the driveway. Did he come to surprise her? NOPE! He’s making out with someone else! JESSIE! Emily starts to run off, but then decides to go home and confront Jessie once and for all (but apparently not Josh for kissing someone else. Typical)!! She doesn’t find them anywhere, but does find a knife in Jessie’s drawer! The one that must have killed Tiger! It’s all coming together.

And now the family is going on a camping trip together. Because Mr. Wallner wants them to act like a family for once. I would argue that he’s one of the main tension factors in the house, but it’s nothing a little wilderness can’t fix. Nancy and Emily are frustrated because they were trying to organize their evidence (and Nancy has SO MUCH HOMEWORK) but now they have to go camping in South Carolina, boo hoo hoo. Once on the trip Mr. Wallner refers to his family as a harem and I think he should seriously be reported to the police, guys. Emily, Nancy, and Jessie are recruited to go get wood. Emily gets separated from Nancy, and in a paranoid moment runs away, convinced Jessie is going to kill her. She runs into an old cemetery, and falls into an open grave!!!! She screams at Jessie to let her out, and she can’t climb out herself, and thinks that she’s going to die in there as Jessie leaves her to rot. But when she looks up, she sees it isn’t Jessie… It’s NANCY!!!! IT WAS NANCY THE WHOLE TIME! Everything that Emily thought was Jessie was Nancy, the dog, the peroxide, the fire, the JOSH! Nancy blames her for their father dying, and for stealing Josh, as they were the two most important men in her life!!!!

But luckily Jessie is there, as she hits Nancy with a shovel to knock her out, and helps Emily out of the grave. I still can’t get over that there’s just a random open grave in an old timey woods cemetery. They go get the rest of the family, because there’s no way this camping trip is continuing.

So we end with assurance that Nancy is getting the help she needs, and Jessie and Emily are finally sorting out their differences. Jessie didn’t kill Jolie, of course, and would disappear at night or be up late on the phone because of her mystery boyfriend that she is seeing. Emily apologizes for blaming her for everything. Rich comes into the room with a new book. But when they ask if it’s another Stephen King story he reveals that it’s, in fact, The Hardy Boys! And the book ends with the three of them laughing and saying “Wow! Things really ARE changing around here!”

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This is how we react to your sister having a psychotic break, eh? (source)

Body Count: One, in the form of poor poor Tiger. We had a good run of not killing any animals in these books, but that ended.

Romance Rating: 1. First of all, I still contend that Emily never should have hooked up with her sister’s ex, and then Josh just happily makes out with Nancy again? Terrible boyfriend. Also, Mr. Wallner is a total prick and his wife can do much better.

Bonkers Rating: 5. Sure, the fact that it was Nancy the whole time was kind of crazy, but it was clear that there was going to be some twist from the start because no way Jessie was doing these horrible things.

Fear Street Relevance: 7. Once again, our characters live on Fear Street, so that’s a given. And the initial ill fated camping trip was on  Fear Island, so I’ll rate it higher than average.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger: 

“Struggling to free herself from Jessie’s emotional grip, Emily realized she had never been so afraid in her life.”

…. And then the next scene is them going to a concert together. Doesn’t seem very resonant.

That’s So Dated! Moments: At a school dance, Emily is dancing a song that has the lyrics ‘pump it up pump it up’ and a description of synthesizers in it, and while it wasn’t expressly said I’m thinking it was supposed to be “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic? The timing may be off, but it sure seems to line up. Also talk of floppy discs.

Best Quote: 

“She’s totally crazy about him, Emily thought with some dismay. What on EARTH does she see in him? He really IS a sexist pig!”

I like that Emily seems to be hip to feminism.

“The Stepsister” was predictable and kind of flat, and I don’t really know how it warranted a second one, “The Stepsister 2”. But that’s a long ways off in this re-read. Next up is “Ski Weekend” .