Not Just Books: July 2017

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks:

mv5bntk4odq1mzgznl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtmymzm4mti-_v1_sy1000_cr006581000_al_Movie: “Spider-man: Homecoming”

I know I for one was a pretty skeptical when this movie was announced. I love super heroes as much as the next guy. To be honest, probably more than the next guy, but even I had to role my eyes at the idea of having three Spider-man origin stories presented for us on the big screen over 15 years essentially. But after seeing “Captain America: Civil War” and loving Tom Holland’s brief cameo in the role, I was a bit more on board. All of this to say…set your skepticism aside, folks, turns out they can give us something new with this character after all! The true game changers of this movie are the wise casting (Tom Holland is perfect in both iterations of the character), wise story decisions (thank god we didn’t get another Uncle Ben dying “with great power blah blah blah” scene), and wise plots (this is truly a story about a highschool boy as a superhero, and the only version of the three that rings true to the day-to-day challenges and life of a boy this age). Add on a great villain with Michael Keaton’s Vulture, and you’ve got a great summer flick! Definitely check it out if you like superhero movies of any kind!

mv5bmjezmjyzmdq0mv5bml5banbnxkftztcwnze1otm5ng-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_Movie: “Chronicle”

This movie came out in 2012, but my husband and I only got to it this last month. And man, if we knew how good it was, we would have done it sooner! I didn’t really know what to expect from this. It’s a small production, “found footage” type film about three teens who discover a strange cave and emerge with powers. From the sound of it, it could have been quite trite and cheesy. But man, not only is the “found footage” aspect done extremely well (I’m not usually a fan of this medium), but the film tackles some dark topics amidst its super powers action scenes. It’s also incredibly funny and heart felt. I really can’t recommend this film enough. Bonus points for it being set in Seattle, my old stomping ground!

game_of_thrones_title_cardTV Show: “Game of Thrones”

One of us had to do it, so this time it’s me! Obviously both Kate and I are huge fans of “Game of Thrones.” I’m there for all the high fantasy political action, Kate’s there for the dragons, we’re both there for the eye candy (don’t tell our significant others). While I’m super bummed that this is a shorter season than the last several, I’m also exorbitantly pleased to see a show taking the correct approach to story telling: tell the story, complete with beginning, middle, and, most importantly, an end. All too often massively popular shows attempt to drag on for forever to the detriment of the quality and sense of their own story. There’s tons to get through in these last two short seasons, but I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to wrap it all up in a, I wont’ say “happy,” but, satisfying way.

Kate’s Picks:

mv5bmji1mdexodg0mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmji4mta2mji-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Netflix Show: “GLOW”

I love me some 1980s nostalgia trips, and thanks to my husband I’ve found a certain joy from watching the over the top glory and soapiness that is pro-wrestling. So it’s really no surprise, I’d imagine, that both he and I were super into the new Netflix show “GLOW,” a fictionalized origin story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Along with the pretty impressive and always entertaining wrestling moves and in ring antics, we also get the stories of some pretty well rounded women who, living in the 1980s, are trying to succeed in an entertainment industry that doesn’t take women very seriously. Alison Brie as Ruth is, of course, a delight, but there are also a lot of wonderful newcomers that all give their characters a whole lot of backstory, motivation, and complexity. I cannot wait for Season 2.

nosleep-podcast-s4-logo_1400Podcast: “The No Sleep Podcast”

Looking for some original and deeply unsettling horror stories for your commute, gym visits, or doing chores around the house? Then do I have the podcast for you! The “No Sleep Podcast” selects some of the best stories from the Reddit board “No Sleep” and dramatizes them, turning them into a radio drama for the horror geek. I’ve been on the “No Sleep” board a number of times, and while there are definitely ways to find really good stories there, sometimes you have to dig. With this podcast, they do the digging for you, and give them an eerie ambiance with how they tell them. I’ve been devouring my way through the seasons, each episode being about two to three stories each (and if you are willing to pay for it, you can access even more stories), and have found some VERY scary gems within. Listen if you dare, but I don’t recommend doing so late at night.

headerVideo Game: “Stardew Valley”

I was at a Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention at the beginning of the month, and while I was there I became privy to a very chill video game called “Stardew Valley”. In this game you are a person who has just inherited a plot of farmland from your grandfather, and have to become a farmer and to join the community of Pelican Town in Stardew Valley. It’s kind of like “The Sims” meets “Farmville”, with some “Zelda” thrown in for good measure. It’s a very laid back and relaxing game, just the thing that I need when the world gets to be a bit too much. You can pretty much decide what your gaming experience is going to be; you can farm, or fish, or go exploring in caves, or make friends and possible romances as well. I really like the open sandbox design of the plot, and the look of it feels like something out of a Super Nintendo era game. If you are in need of a video game that is super relaxing and incredibly charming, “Stardew Valley” may be the right match for you.

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: “The Andalite Chronicles”

Andalite_chronicles_front_cover_hi_resAnimorphs 12.5: “The Andalite Chronicles” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, January 1998

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: His name is Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul.

An Andalite war-prince. The one who gave five young humans the ability to morph into any animal they touch. They are still out there, fighting an evil so powerful there isn’t a moment that goes by when they can actually feel safe. Their story continues.

But this is how it all began…

Narrator: Elfangor

Plot: This book is twice as long as a usual Animorph book, so strap in for a long post folks!

Similarly to how we first met his little brother Ax, we find Elfangor aboard an Andalite Dome ship, an aristh eager to prove himself. When the Dome ship comes across a Skrit Na raider ship, Elfangor and his fellow aristh, Arbron are tasked to board it, as they are small enough to navigate the cramped quarters. Aboard, they discover two human kids, a girl named Lauren and a boy who goes by his last name…Chapman. After rescuing the humans, Elfangor and Arbron are re-assigned to travel with disgraced War Prince Alloran, who long ago fought in the Hork Bajir wars, and return the two humans to Earth. On the way, Elfangor bounds with Loren, noting many of the quirky facts about humans such as their “artificial hooves” (sneakers), their amazing arm strength (the ability to lift their whole body off the ground), and the fact that they don’t eat through their feet, but with their mouths!

I spoke like I would to a child. Obviously, this species was primitive. They didn’t even have tails.

He is less a fan of Chapman who is just a jerk in every way and takes the time to drop this little nugget early in their relationships:

At least that’s my motto: Grab what you can.”

Charming. On the way, Arbron uses science to somehow discover that another Skrit Na radar ship had escaped and was carrying a mythical and powerful machine, the Time Matrix. Desperate to recover it before it can be sold to the Yeerks, they change course for the Taxxon home world, a favorite buyer for the Skrit Na.

Upon arrival, Elfangor, Arbron, and Alloron morph Taxxon to scout out the planet and locate the Time Matrix, leaving Loren and Chapman aboard the cloaked ship. Their plans fall apart, however, when they are separated by the chaos of a Taxxon feeding frenzy (the Taxxon morphs has very strong instincts of constant, almost debilitating, hunger). It is after escaping this mess that Taxxon!Elfangor is captured by a Sub-Visser Seven Hork Bajir Controller who immediately lays forth his plan to force Elfangor to demorph so he can be the first Yeerk with an Andalite body. When he refuses, he is pushed out of the ship and only escapes by morphing an Andalite home world bird. Flying around, he sees their original ship land and Chapman emerge saying he wants to “strike a deal” with the Yeerks. He happens to know of a world with a bunch of sentient beings who could be great Controllers.

Re-morphing Taxxon, he stumbles upon Arbron, still in Taxxon morph as well. Together they locate the Skrit Na ship that holds the Time Matrix and bluff their way on claiming they are there for repairs and are able to steal it. While flying away, Elfangor discovers that Arbron is stuck in Taxxon morph. Arbron attempts to force Elfangor to kill him with a Dracon beam, but when Elfangor resists, the Dracon cuts a hole into the ship resulting in a crash landing. Elfangor awakes alone. He steals a Mustang (the car was also scavenged from Earth by the Skrit Na), and races back to the space port. On the way, he is captured by a hive of Taxxons where he finds Arbron. Turns out there are some Taxxons still resisting the Yeerks. They plan an attack, lead by Arbron who has an Andalite’s knowledge of the Yeerks.

The attack itself quickly falls into madness due to the Taxxons’ hunger issues. It is all Elfangor can do to hold off Arbron from attacking the two humans when they find them. They are almost overwhelmed by Hork Bajir Controllers when Hork Bajir!Alloran shows up to save the day be taking Sub Visser Seven captive as leverage to get back on their own ship and leave. Arbron, however, refuses to come, saying that he has no life with Andalites anymore, and returns to the Taxxons.

In space, Alloran forces the Sub Visser Seven to jump to his death from the ship and then orders Elfangor to destroy a cargo ship full of Yeerks in their transport pool. Elfangor refuses, saying it is dishonorable to kill helpless Yeerks. During their disagreement, Chapman attacks a distracted Alloran and knocks him out. Elfangor lands back at the wrecked Skrit Na ship to retrieve the Time Matrix. It is only after he off the ship that he questions Chapman’s behavior and realizes that both he and Loren have been made into Controllers. He races back, but it’s too late and the unconscious Alloran has been taken over. Sub Visser Seven reveals that the Hork Bajir Controller had only been posing as him. Elfangor is able to stun Sub Visser Seven, leaving him behind, and flying away from the Taxxon world.

Loren’s Yeerk chooses to depart Loren rather than starve to death on the promise that Elfangor will freeze it and expel it into space, which he does. Elfangor and Co. fly aimlessly around Zero Space for a few days, as he knows that the Yeerks likely placed a tracker on their ship and that once they come out of Zero Space they’ll quickly be found. He navigates them to the location of the original Dome ship, hoping that the added forces will be enough to combat the Yeerks.

When they come out of Zero Space, they discover that the Dome ship is under attack by strange asteroid creatures that essentially eat space ships and can’t really help when Sub Visser Seven (now Visser Thirty Two, having gotten a promotion for Controlling an Andalite) arrives in a Blade ship. Elfangor is able to trick them into getting close enough for him to shoot the belly of the ship with his shredders, but they still get boarded. However, weakened, it tears free, leaving Elfangor, Loren, Chapman, and now Visser Thirty Two trapped in an airless ship. Between the three of them (Chapman loses consciousness cuz he’s a weakling), they are able to activate the Time Matrix and escape.

However, because there were three of them trying to control their destination, they end up on a strange plane of existence that is a patchwork of their three home worlds. Elfangor and Loren are able to find each other and figure out how to find the Time Matrix. They meet up with Visser Thirty Two a few times and closely escape. After finding the Time Matrix (to get close to it, they discover that time speeds up and they each age several years very quickly, Loren ends up around 18), Elfangor tells Loren to take control and bring them to Earth. He’s had enough of this fight, having lost Arbron, allowed Alloran to be taken by a Yeerk, and, in his mind, failed in every way.

The two travel to Earth where Loren has made sure (using timey-whimey magic) that everyone accepts the fact that she is now 18. They bury the Time Matrix, deciding it is too dangerous a weapon for any one species to control. Three years pass. Elfangor creates a human morph for himself by combining DNA and traps himself in that morph, taking on the name Al Fangor. He marries Loren and goes into computer science in college. All is as well as it can be until our friend the Ellimist shows up one day.

He says that Elfangor is not where he should be and through various forms of manipulation convinces Elfangor that he must return to the way things are supposed to be, leaving Earth and Loren (whose memories will be wiped) behind. It is only after he agrees that he learns that Loren was pregnant with their son. The Ellimist shows him that his son will be very important in the future, one day meeting up with Elfangor’s own younger brother and four others.

Elfangor returns to the Andalite war and after saving a Dome ship from the now Visser Three instead of Thirty Two, he is hailed a hero and thus starts what will be a long and honored career as an Andalite Prince. The story ends with him landing on Earth, injured and hoping to find the Time Matrix again (the beautiful forest where it was buried has now become an abandoned construction site). He briefly meets his son, and gives him and the other kids the morphing power. He then dies at the hands of Visser Three, leaving a recording of his tale (this book) that is sent out into space.

Elfangor: Elfangor is such a great character. There are clear similarities to Ax with his earnestness and desire to become a great hero of his people. However, he also is more quick to trust the humans he encounters and bond with them. It’s notable that, unlike Ax who in his book was confused by why people thought Rachel was beautiful, Elfangor is immediately taken by Loren and her golden hair. He also more quickly catches on to human humor and adopts it himself.

The stakes get incredibly high for Elfangor through this story. He loses his close friend to Taxxon morph and then is indirectly responsible for the fact that Alloran gets taken over by to-be Visser Three. By the end of the story, it is very understandable why he chooses to retreat to Earth.

The entire book gives us so much great background information for a character who was only ever introduced so briefly back in book one. Even then, I felt like he made a huge impact as a character, beyond the obvious reasons he was necessary for the plot. But this just adds so much more to him. We see the history behind his choices. Why he came to Earth when he was injured in the first place. Why that construction site. Why he chose to break the Andalite law and give human kids the ability to morph (throughout this story he marvels at Loren’s strength and bravery as “just a human kid.”) Why he lingers longest with Tobias. And why his fight with Visser Three felt personal.

Loren: Loren is so great. She’s essentially the character you would get if you mixed Rachel and Marco. She’s brave, but also clever. There were many scenes where she saves the day, either by tricking those around her, or physically taking on beings much larger and stronger than she was. When the Dome ship is being attacked by the living asteroids, she is the one to figure out that they are attracted to energy patterns. She’s Elfangor’s equal in every way, and their relationship at the end is completely believable.

Arbron: Arbron’s story is clearly the saddest. While in Taxxon morph, Elfangor very bluntly discusses the horribleness of the all-consuming hunger that plagues the Taxxons. He even begins to understand why they might choose to become willing Controllers if it would result in more feeding of that hunger. In the end of the book, the Ellimist informs Elfangor that Arbron still lives back on the Taxxon home world in the free Taxxon hive. This is either good news, or incredibly tragic as well.

Alloran: Elfangor’s conflict with Alloran on the ship when it comes to killing the helpless Yeerks comes to an even greater head when he learns that the reason that Alloran is a disgraced War Prince is that he was the one who released a quantum virus back during the Hork Bajiir wars. Basically, he was using chemical weapons. This further dis-illusions Elfangor to the Andalite race, contributing to his decision to flee the war and hide the Time Matrix even from his own people.

This also, obviously, adds even more depth to Visser Three. We met Alloran himself very briefly back in Ax’s book when he was free for a few minutes and asked Ax to kill him. At the time we didn’t know more than what he told us: that he was still fighting against Visser Three and wanted Ax to tell that to his family.

Chapman: Chapman is the worst. I mean, I could pretty much leave it at that. At every single point in this book, he says and does terrible things. And not just in little, average bullying ways. He literally attempts to bargain away the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE to the Yeerks on the Taxxon home world. And even after he’s been made a Controller then left when Visser Three takes over Alloran, he STILL is on the side of the Yeerks.

Loren and Elfangor run into Chapman back on Earth during the three years, and they find out that his memory has somehow been wiped of the entire experience. We later learn from the Ellimist that Chapman is also important to the future.

Visser Three: From the very first moment we meet him, we all recognize our favorite villain. He’s obsessed with getting an Andalite body, a big fan of announcing his plans, and, turns out, very into collecting alien species even before he had the ability to morph.

By this point in the series, we’re all pretty familiar with his penchant for morphing some strange alien creature and telling the Animorphs all about its super cool abilities. On the strange patchwork world that he helps create using the Time Matrix, he has two alien “pets” whom he introduces in a similar manner before siccing them on Loren and Elfangor. So, the power to morph couldn’t have gone to a better Yeerk! He was already in the business of collecting animals!

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias is Elfangor’s son! Am super excited to see how this is revealed to him.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: There’s a fun call back to Ax’s obsession with the power of taste and cigarette butts. When Elfangor’s taking the Mustang for a cruise, he finds a picture of humans enjoying the scenery while putting “slim white cylinders” in their mouths. He thus equates those with human happiness and has to be informed by a laughing Loren that no, cigarettes are bad for you and that picture had only been an ad for them.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The Taxxons, man, they’re terrible. The cannibalism of their own and the fact that they have pretty much zero self control over that is made very clear in the most gruesome ways.

Couples Watch!: As a whole, this is the most romantic story of them all! We actually get an entire romantic arc with Loren and Elfangor meeting, falling in love, and getting married. I remember this as one of my favorite Animorphs books as a kid, and I think part of that has to do with this aspect of it. As much fun as it is to watch the Tobias/Rachel and Cassie/Jake ongoing drama, at a certain point I just wanted them to get together! And here I had that!

“I Get That Reference!”: There were a few references in this book that went completely over my head the first time around! It made re-reading this book super fun this time, discovering them finally. First of all, the Skrit Na creatures are essentially two species. The Skrit are these cockroach-like mindless drones, but the Na are described as short creatures that walk on two legs, but have huge heads and huge eyes. It’s mentioned that the Skirt Na are obsessive about collecting other species and performing strange medical experiments on them. So, there you go! The little alien creature that we generally use, and all the stories of being abducted and experimented on, it’s implied that that came form “real” experiences with the Na! Somehow I didn’t pay enough attention to that description as a kid, and missed that whole tie-in.

Secondly, when Elfangor is on Earth as a human, he references having two computer science friends named “Bill” and “Steve” and how he had to use simple words like “window” and basic icons, like fruit, to describe complex topics to them. As a kid, I completely missed this, so it was super fun seeing it now as an adult!

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: So many things! Arbron’s whole situation. I mean, he’s a kid, and now he’s stuck as a Taxxon, by all accounts the worst thing to be in the universe, forever. In one swoop, he loses everything. Tobias’s situation seems ideal next to this. Alloran, who goes on to be trapped as Visser Three for years and years. And, of course, Elfangor’s choice to leave Loren and his unborn son behind, especially when he meets Tobias later and very briefly hears about his sad life, and how Loren was essentially broken mentally and left Tobias in the care of his neglectful aunt and uncle. Ugh, so sad.

Favorite Quote:

One of the many bad ass moments from Loren, pretty much summing up how we all feel about Chapman:

“You know, Chapman, you are really making the human race look bad,” she said. “You are seriously embarrassing me.” “Who’s side are you on?” Chapman grated. “Not yours,” Loren said.d. She fired the shredder and Chapman jerked and went limp.

Scorecard: Yeerks 3, Animorphs 6

No change!

Rating: All the high ratings! As I said, this was one of my favorites as a kid, and I love it all the more re-reading it as an adult. There’s so much packed into this story, and the characters are all so fully developed for the still-limited page count. And as my massive plot section shows, there was tons going on in this book. It’s an excellent backstory for a character who was only briefly around, but it adds so much to the story going forward.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Kate’s Reviews: “One of Us Is Lying”

32682118Book: “One of Us Is Lying” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars, One of Us Is Lying is the story of what happens when five strangers walk into detention and only four walk out alive. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone has something to hide.  Pay close attention and you might solve this.
On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention: Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule; Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess; Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing; Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher; and Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app. Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention, Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates, which makes all four of them suspects in his murder. Or are they the perfect patsies for a killer who’s still on the loose?  Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them.

Review: You want to talk about classic high school movies, one of the assured mentions is going to be “The Breakfast Club”. While I really don’t like what happens to Ally Sheedy’s character (as a ‘basket-case’ in high school myself, I didn’t appreciate being told that if I just got a makeover boys would like me), I have to admit that the concept of kids coming from different social circles and getting along for one day is really appealing. ESPECIALLY when one of those kids is Judd Nelson, my GOD. So when I heard about this book, and that it’s basically “The Breakfast Club” with a murder mystery to boot, I was TOTALLY IN!!!!

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I say naaaah, nah nah nah nahhhh… (source)

But we actually got so much more than that. While sure, the Brat Pack in that movie each gets their own little piece of vulnerability, McManus has an entire book to explore each of her characters to their fullest extent, and can paint them in complicated and well rounded ways that gives the reader reasons to be invested in all of them. We get four perspective characters in this book. Bronwyn is the brainiac who is carrying an Ivy League dream not only as a legacy, but as a biracial girl whose Columbian side of the family literally pulled itself up by the bootstraps to start said legacy. Addy is a girl who has been taught that her only strength is her beauty, perpetuated by a vapid mother and a controlling boyfriend. Cooper is a star athlete whose family is riding on the idea of him getting a major league offer because of his pitching arm. And Nate, oh my sweet sweet Nate, is a dealer on probation living in a ramshackle home with a drunken father. And all of them have secrets, which is why all of them are viable suspects when Simon, app creator and provocateur extraordinaire, is murdered while they are all serving detention together.

All of these characters had realistic and believable voices, and I saw the vulnerability and desperation in each of them as their secrets started to come to light. It became pretty clear from the get go that none of them were actually suspects to be taken seriously, and while I don’t know how I feel about that, it was a delight to be able to see them hide other things instead of throwing an entire barrel of red herrings my way. And while some of them had secrets that weren’t that hard to guess, getting to the answers was a heck of a ride, especially since all of them grew and evolved so much as they got there. Addy especially went on a character arc that felt so organic and so heart-wrenching and yet empowering that I was especially happy to get to her perspective chapters. This storyline brings up questions of relationships, romance vs domination, and what sort of value we put on women and girls who are attractive but not encouraged to be much more. I also really liked reading how Nate and Bronwyn’s relationship progressed and evolved. There of course was going to be some romance in this book, and of COURSE the geeky girl and the bad boy is a trope that’s ripe for the picking. But I liked how McManus had these two interact and complement each other without  making either feel like they were out of character. I also liked that we got to see Nate’s backstory and how it wasn’t the usual ‘my Dad’s abusive and that’s why I’m a nasty prick’ sob story. It wasn’t much more than that, but it did address the struggles of families with mental illness, especially when resources are limited when it comes to getting help.

The big mystery itself though? Well, while I had a super fun time just going with the flow and following it to it’s conclusion, I did find the final answers to be a bit disappointing. True, I did like that our four main characters were pretty much in the clear from the get go, I still think that had there been some more twists and reveals instead of things being pretty easily explained and neatly finished it could have been a seriously stellar mystery. As it was, I was pretty much satisfied with how it all shook out, but it wasn’t much to write home about. The strengths in this book were definitely in the characters, and the supporting characters that they each had in their lives. I would have been completely content if there was no murder mystery at all and it was just about a bunch of kids from different groups learning that they could, in fact, become friends….. So, basically, “The Breakfast Club”, but without that bullshit makeover scene.

“One of Us Is Lying” was a fun and entertaining read. The side mysteries were fun, the characters were well written, and I would totally read something else from Karen M. McManus down the line. With the right amount of mystery and suds, it’s the perfect read for the dog days of summer.

Rating 8: Though the solution felt a little bit thrown together and convenient, I quite liked learning the various secrets of all the characters in this book, as well as seeing them all grow and change.

Reader’s Advisory:

“One of Us Is Lying” is new and not on many lists yet. But it is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 Suspense and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Cliques and Crime”.

Find “One of Us Is Lying” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Strange Practice”

32452160Book: “Strange Practice” by Vivian Shaw

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Greta Helsing inherited the family’s highly specialized, and highly peculiar, medical practice. In her consulting rooms, Dr. Helsing treats the undead for a host of ills – vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s been groomed for since childhood.

Until a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human and undead Londoners alike. As terror takes hold of the city, Greta must use her unusual skills to stop the cult if she hopes to save her practice, and her life.

Review: First off, thanks to Orbit for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for a review! I read the description for it, and was pretty much like “Yep, gotta read that!” As a lover of urban fantasy, it’s been a distressing few years recently. Many of my favorite series (“Mercy Thompson” and “Kate Daniels”) are beginning to show their age and are likely (perhaps hopefully) going to wrap up soon. Beyond these, many of my other forays into the genre have yielded middling returns. Either these books stray too closely to tropes already well-established in staple series in the genre to trigger any sense of originality and interest, or…they’re just kind of bland? Not so with “Strange Practice!” Shaw has expertly introduced a new leading lady with a unique perspective on her urban fantasy world and lifestyle, and I was digging it the entire way.

Greta Helsing is a doctor for the strange and unusual, the monstrous and the arcane. It is a family practice after her family decided to turn away from the hunting business and re-focus in on the helping side of things. Right here we have such a unique take on urban fantasy that I was immediately completely sold on. Not only is Greta a great character on her own, but her perspective as a doctor presented readers with an entirely new lens through which to view the supernatural world. How do mummies get by with their rotting bodies? What about sunburns for vampires? Do any of these creatures suffer from mental illnesses? Cuz living forever could have some major psychological implications. Not only was there a plethora of creativity in this area, but Greta remained true to this focus throughout the story, even when the evil monks showed up and the action really got started.

A big frustration of mine with urban fantasy is when the heroes or heroines sillyly jump beyond their own abilities, somehow thinking (and for plot convenience, accurately thinking) that they can play on the same field as magical beings who have million times the magical power as they. Suddenly the author is forced to create loop hole after loop hole to keep their protagonist up and moving instead of simply being hand-swiped away in the first minute. With this in mind, it was refreshing that Greta’s entire perspective on her situation was always rooted firmly in her position as a doctor. Even more so, in that she realizes the unique service she provides to her clients and understands the importance of staying safe, not only for her own sake, but for those who would suffer without access to medical care. As I said, refreshing, and when she does end up in the action (cuz of course, she must), she plays a believable, yet important, role. See?! It is possible to keep your heroine grounded while also staying true to the action of your story!!

Beyond Greta, I was surprised to discover that we had several other point of view characters as well. I always wish there was some way for these book descriptions to hint at this possibility, as it always feels like a bit of a side-swipe to be set up as if the book is from one protagonist’s point of view, and then end up with a handful of others. But alas. With this story, it is of no matter since I thoroughly enjoyed the perspectives these other creatures brought. We had a vampire and a vampyre (the distinction having to do with the type of blood they require), a demon, and even a few chapters from the viewpoint of the nefarious schemers. There was quite a lot of unique world-building and monster “history” that was brought in with all of these characters, and the many other supernatural beings who made appearances.

I particularly liked the tone of the story. Dark, witty, and full of literary allusions that were great fun to spot. There as a nice balance struck between the horror aspects and the vampire-friendship-fluff. On one page there would be murder and mayhem, and on the next, a vampire shopping spree! And never once does the story get swept away by its own concept. It would have been all too easy for the humor of the story to have veered into the silly, but Shaw walks the perfect line. Lastly, the setting of London for this story gave it an extra dash of depth, as, like the city itself, the timeless aspects of these creatures that are steeped in history and meaning must now adapt to exist alongside the speed and change of the modern world.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, and are hankering for a new series to follow, I can’t recommend enough that you check out “Strange Practice!”

Rating 9: An excellent new entry into what was beginning to feel like a tired genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Strange Practice” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Monster Books” and “Urban Fantasy – London”

Find “Strange Practice” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper”

72445Book: “The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes” by Scott Frost

Publishing Info: Pocket Books, 1991

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

Book Description: Former Eagle Scout and lifetime audio freak Dale Cooper brings us his autobiography, culled from his private collection of personal tape recordings beginning with his thirteenth birthday. Discover the secrets, never before seen on television, of Twin Peaks’ most-wanted man, who scored a perfect 100 on his marksmanship test and once let a gentle, beautiful woman lead him astray. He’s Dale Cooper – the man who seems too good to be true – and this is his story.

Review: This “Twin Peaks” train keeps on chugging along!!! And while the revival of the show has been both wonderful and absolutely confounding, I have also been turning to the books that came before it. This time instead of focusing on poor dead Laura Palmer, we are getting to know a little bit more about the always optimistic, super enthusiastic, but also ultimately a bit tragic, Dale Cooper, the main protagonist of the show. Dale Cooper is one of my favorite characters of all time, his bubbly earnestness completely charming and absolutely adorable. I was a little skeptical that this book would be able to do him justice, as Kyle Maclachlan just brings him to complete and total life. BUT, I have GREAT news. This book pretty much manages to do it. A warning, though, if you want to see anything else about the town itself and it’s inhabitants, sadly it ends right before Cooper arrives. This is all Cooper, all the time, and while that was totally fine by me, it’s good to know that this is his story, not that of the beloved town.

Much like “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer”, you have to go into this book with the knowledge of the show to really get anything from it. We get to see Dale Cooper’s life through his ‘tapes’, transcribed audio recordings that start at his thirteenth birthday. And boy, did it just sound like good ol’ Coop to me as I read them. It really shouldn’t surprise me, as Scott Frost was a writer on the show, but I found myself smiling and cackling with glee as I read this book, it’s content far less heavy than “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer”. Even thirteen year old Dale Cooper is filled with joy and wonder for the world around him, as well as picking up on little hints and details about the people in his life that sheds a little light on things that happen to him later in life. This book explores more of the theory that Cooper is deeply intuitive to the point of being a bit psychic, and expands upon it through his childhood and his family members (specifically his mother; seems that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in this regard). I enjoyed reading about how he saw the changing times of the 1960s, how he viewed his coming of age, and what life was like for him when he first came to the F.B.I. I was ESPECIALLY waiting for mention of one of my other favorite characters on the show, Albert Rosenfield, because boy do I kind of ship the two of them, and without spoiling anything I can tell you that THIS BOOK DID NOT DISAPPOINT!

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The ship sails on. (source)

But along with the fan service that felt totally designed for me, this book also gave me a dark side of Coop that isn’t seen as much in the original series. His tapes do serve as his own diary in spite of the fact that he’s sending a fair number of them to Diane, and there were moments of despair and existential angst that I’m not as used to seeing in my man Cooper. He did have his darker moments in Season 2, and in the revival BOY are things bleak for him, but in this book I felt like we got to see a whole other side to Cooper that I tend to forget, or did even know, existed. He expounds upon the losses of the important women in his life with a subtle grief, or will disappear for months at a time, and I just felt like this book does add a new darkness to the character who can be seen holding chocolate bunnies or gleefully experiencing coniferous trees with childlike wonder. Sometimes this could be a bit too much, especially when we get to the Wyndam and Caroline Earle part of his life, but in the right amounts it was very pathos ridden and melancholy.

Plus, there were genuine moments of creepiness that I thoroughly enjoyed. Be it the brutal natures of some of the crimes that Dale investigated, or the weird moments of odd rambling that he would do with his tapes in darker, more harried mind spaces, there were parts of this book that gave me chills down my spine. Nothing was totally scary or freaky, but there would be moments that were turned just a little bit odd, and that when I thought about it for a moment I just felt weirded out. That’s the power of “Twin Peaks”, the little moments that are just a bit askew, but completely set you  on edge. This book is filled with them.

Do you have to read this book if you are a “Twin Peaks” fan? Probably not. It didn’t give me any new insights into anything, really. But it’s a fun little bonus that can be put to the mythos of the series as a whole, especially seeing some of these things being played out or alluded to in the new revival. If you can’t get enough of “Twin Peaks” and are still scratching your head over some of the stuff in the new series, “The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper” will probably suit you just fine.

Rating 7: A bit more enjoyable than “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” in tone, Frost has Coop’s voice down pat. Not much is added to the “Twin Peaks” experience, but it’s a fun, and at times creepy, read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper” is included on the Goodreads lists “TWIN PEAKS”, and “Books Written by Fictional Characters”.

Find “The Autobiography of F.B.I Special Agent Dale Cooper” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Summer Giveaway: “We Were Liars”

It’s time for another Library Ladies giveaway! And since we’re in the heart of summer, what could be more perfect than giving away a SIGNED hardback copy of “We Were Liars!” Perhaps you’ve heard of it. But it may be better if you haven’t. Read on…..

16143347Book: “We Were Liars” by e. lockhart

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, May 2014

Book Description: A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

Mini review & Synopsis:

Kate here! So I read “We Were Liars” a few months after it was first published. I knew that it had a lot of buzz surrounding it, and I knew that people were keeping pretty tight lipped as well. I basically swallowed it whole over the course of two days, reluctant to put it down unless I absolutely had to, and I can say that it is amazing, and the perfect summer book to give away.

So why is it the perfect summer book? For one, it’s compulsively readable. Like I said, I couldn’t put it down while I was reading it. It would be a great read for the beach, or an airplane, or just sitting around your house on a super hot day whilst drinking lemonade. And for another, the story and setting really set the mood of summer. It’s about a teenage girl named Cady Sinclair who spends her summers on the family island out east (think Kennedys). She goes with her mother, and spends a lot of time with her cousins. She is closest to cousins Mirren and Johnny, but is also very close to the nephew of Johnny’s mother’s boyfriend, Gat. They’re all so close that they formed a little clique that calls itself The Liars, and Cady and Gat even strike up a summer romance. But during the fifteenth summer, something happened that has left Cady with horrible headaches and few memories. After taking a summer away from the island, she and her mother return for the seventeenth, and she’s reunited with The Liars. But what did happen that fifteenth summer? And why did she forget?

Seriously, this book is a major treat and a lot of fun with its twists and turns. You may not have a private family island to read it on, but the story will nearly whisk you away so that won’t be necessary. Good luck, everyone! You’ll want to get a hold of this book! For a fun bonus, this book has been signed by the author!

Enter the Giveaway!

Serena’s Review: “Flame in the Mist”

23308087Book: “Flame in the Mist” by Renee Andieh

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, May 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from NetGalley!

Book Description: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: Right off the bat, there were several things going for this book when I first saw that it was coming out. First and foremost, I had very much liked Abdieh’s previous YA fantasy duology, a re-telling of “One Thousand and One Nights, “The Wrath and the Dawn” and “The Rose and the Dagger.” Together they made up a unique re-telling of one of the few remaining fairytales that hasn’t been beaten into the ground (this coming from an avid fan of fairytale re-tellings), and the style of writing appealed to me with its lyrical quality. “Flame in the Mist” had the same elements. To its detriment.

I want to applaud the author, however, for sticking to her guns in choosing lesser known stories and focusing her world-building and characters on non-European/western settings and cultures. Here we have what is essentially a “Mulan” re-telling set in a proto-Asian setting. I don’t have a wealth of knowledge of Chinese/Japanese/etc cultures, so I can’t speak to those aspects of the book (similar to my lack of knowledge of the “realism” of the Middle Eastern setting used in her previous duology). However, both that series and this are set in fantasy worlds, for all their similarities, so outside of blatant issues (which there were none that I could tell), there was a lot of free reign to build a completely new world order/culture with this story. This was one aspect of the story that I really enjoyed. It was refreshing to read a fantasy story that takes place in an eastern setting. This left not only the fantasy elements to learn and to explore, but also the immersive quality of being quite outside my own culture, while still having threads to tie back to what little I do already know of the regions of the world that this story draws from. Full marks for world building.

Unfortunately, that leads me to the rest of the story, all of which I had more issues with. First off, I feel that, as a reader, I would have been better served having this book not presented to me as a “Mulan” re-telling. For better or worse, my knowledge of that story is pretty well tied up with the Disney version. I know the story is based on a traditional Chinese fairytale of a young woman who dresses and fights as a man, but I haven’t read it and couldn’t even speak to the accuracy of Mulan. So…Disney’s all I’ve got with this one. And as far as this book goes I got far too little of this:

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And far too much of this:

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One of the things that made Disney!Mulan’s story appealing were the noble and, most importantly in this case, understandable reasons for why she does what she does. Her hand is quite literally forced, for love of her father and nothing more. Sure, she feels out of place in her own skin and that she is letting her family down, but she never contemplates abandoning home until the situation with her father being called to war comes to play. Not so with Mariko.

For all intents and purposes, Mariko is quite acceptable as a daughter. Sure she’s frustrated and angered by the fact that she is being traded away in marriage, but alas, such is the life she was born to lead. In the short introduction we are given to her character before the action sets in, we are given every reason to think that Mariko is above all a practical and dutiful daughter. These are traits she prides herself in. But then her caravan is attacked, her guards and maid killed, and she finds herself wandering around in the woods alone. And this is where I first knew there were going to be issues for me with this book. Mariko rightly worries that her situation is going to be problematic for her family to explain; when/if she returns home, her virtue could be called into question due to this, and through this, her family’s honor. What is to be done? Obviously, running away, disguising herself as a boy, and tracking down those who attacked her so that she can save her virtue. Somehow.

I’m a fantasy reader, I’m more than happy to turn my brain off and go on many an adventure where implausible things happen. But only so far as the world allows. This type of blatant, plot-serving faulty logic drives me bonkers. How in the world could dressing up as a boy and hanging out with a bunch of (male!) thieves improve her chances of retaining her family’s honor and her own virtue? Nothing about it makes sense. And unfortunately, this type of backwards thinking continues for Mariko throughout the story. She sometimes even made the right decision, but made it for such the wrong reason that I couldn’t even give her credit for it.

Beyond this, I’ve found that in this, the third book I’ve read by this author, the writing is starting to get on my nerves. What came off as lyrical and appropriate in the previous duology, read as strained and forced here. Perhaps the focus on storytelling that was at the center of the other two books simply lent itself better to this type of writing, and now, removed from that topic, it simply felt awkward. It’s hard to even describe, really, as sentence-by-sentence there’s nothing wrong with the writing. But as I kept reading, it just kind of built up as an annoyance, and enough of one that I repeatedly found myself putting the book down.

“The Flame in the Mist” was not for me. I could never get behind Mariko as a main character with her blatantly contradictory thought process and decision making, and the more dramatic and lyrical writing style seemed to rub uncomfortably with this more action-oriented tale. For those looking for a good woman/warrior story, pull out the classic “Alanna” series instead. Or, hey, check out the “Bloodbond” series that I recently finished up and loved.

Rating 4: My expectations were too high for this wanna-be-Mulan story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Flame in the Mist” is included on these Goodreads lists: “SF & F Atlas – Asia” and “Fairytales for Wild Girls.”

Find “Flame in the Mist” at your library using WorldCat!