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!

 

Kate’s Review: “Saint Death”

31145190Book: “Saint Death” by Marcus Sedgwick

Publishing Info: Roaring Book Press, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In a shack on the outskirts of the border city of Juarez, a teenage boy is visited by a long-lost friend.

Arturo scrapes together a living working odd jobs and staying out of sight. His friend Faustino has joined one of the city’s violent drug gangs. Now Faustino is in trouble: he’s stolen money from the narcos to smuggle his girlfriend and her baby into the U.S., and he wants Arturo’s help getting it back before they kill him for what he’s done.

Review: One of the greatest discoveries that our book club helped me make was Marcus Sedgwick. When we read “Midwinterblood” I was completely enthralled by it, it’s dark fantasy/horrorscape sucking me in and twisting me all around. When we went to ALA in 2014, one of my greatest moments was meeting Mr. Sedgwick at a book signing (and a coffee klatch!), and getting to talk a little bit about the movie “The Wicker Man” with him, as “Midwinterblood” definitely took influence from it (and I’m talking about the original “Wicker Man”, not the one with Nicholas Cage in a bear suit). So now I do my best to read any Marcus Sedgwick books that cross my path. While none have quite lived up to “Midwinterblood”, Sedgwick has become one of my favorite YA authors. And that brings me to his newest YA novel, “Saint Death”. And amazingly, I think it’s his darkest one yet.

I will admit that I was a little hesitant to pick this one up when I first heard about it. After all, the subject of life for Mexicans in the border towns, especially Juarez, is a difficult and painful one. American corporate interests and consumption of illegal drugs has led to massive poverty, and lots of gang warfare between various Cartels. So yeah, my teeth got set a little bit on edge when I found out that a British man was going to tell a story set with this backdrop. I’m still not totally certain if I think it’s his story to tell. BUT, that said, I think that Sedgwick did take it on and portray it in a sensitive and responsible way. It’s pretty clear that he did some massive research on his own, and asked for input from those who may be more familiar with the realities of this situation. And besides, “Saint Death” pulls no punches in postulating where some of the blame can be laid for the violence, corruption, and poverty that is seen in Juarez. American corporations exploit NAFTA to profit off of factories across the border that make them richer but barely pay anything to the workers, and the American consumption of illegal drugs fuels the Cartels. Throw in the topics of undocumented immigration and closed borders, as well as some climate change to boot, and you have yourself a very political book that makes it’s readers question how culpable they are through Capitalist ideals and the supposed free market.

But even without the frank and brutal politics, the characters in “Saint Death” really kept me interested and invested. Arturo and Faustino both make terrible decisions in this book, decisions that may have baffled and frustrated me. But at the same time, because of how well written they both were, I not only believed that they would make them, but I also understood exactly why they were making them. Though it’s Faustino whose choice to steal money to save his girlfriend and baby sets our story in motion, it’s ultimately Arturo whose story we follow. His journey to try to get one thousand dollars for his friend is a short one, and only takes place over a couple of days, but so much happens and he grows and changes so much you really see how his circumstances have completely changed him and the course of his entire life. Even if we spend a comparatively short time with Arturo, Sedgwick does a great job of getting you attached to him. I felt completely tensed up as he got deeper and deeper into Faustino’s mess, especially because of the impending sense of doom that lingers throughout the pages. In part this is because of the presence of Santa Muerte, a folk saint that the people in Arturo’s community have come to worship, including Faustino. While Arturo goes in not believing in Santa Muerte, she is in the pages, given her own perspective points and waxing about the human race as a whole. I loved this device, as it was a great way to tie in the global politics to Arturo’s story.

Finally, while I don’t want to spoil anything about this book and the places it goes, I need to address one thing in vaguest terms possible. Remember all those times I’ve said that I hate last minute twists that feel like a cheap way to try and shock the readers one last time? Well, this book did that. But it did it SO WELL that it achieved what those kind of twists are supposed to achieve! When I got to that quick and fleeting passage that changed SO MUCH, I literally gasped out loud and yelled

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(source)

Now THAT is how you pull off the end page twist. I salute you, Mr. Sedgwick!

“Saint Death” is a difficult book to read, but I think that it’s a pretty important one. I’m impressed that Sedgwick trusts his YA readers to be able to take on these topics and think critically about them, and hope that more authors follow his lead. Just be sure to steel yourself for something very dark, as important as it may be.

Rating 8: A tense and politically relevant thriller that raises a lot of questions about politics, capitalism, and American social values, and how they affect people living in Mexican border towns.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint Death” is pretty new still and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is, however, on “2017 Titles By/For/About Latinx”, and I think it would fit in on “Books for Fans of BREAKING BAD”.

Find “Saint Death” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Julia Vanishes”

22400015Book: “Julia Vanishes” by Catherine Egan

Publishing Info: Doubleday Canada, June 2016

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

Book Description: Julia has the unusual ability to be . . . unseen. Not invisible, exactly. Just beyond most people’s senses.

It’s a dangerous trait in a city that has banned all forms of magic and drowns witches in public Cleansings. But it’s a useful trait for a thief and a spy. And Julia has learned–crime pays.

Her latest job is paying very well indeed. Julia is posing as a housemaid in the grand house of Mrs. Och, where an odd assortment of characters live and work: A disgraced professor who sends her to fetch parcels containing bullets, spiders, and poison. An aristocratic houseguest who is locked in the basement each night. And a mysterious young woman who is clearly in hiding–though from what or whom?

Worse, Julia suspects that there’s a connection between these people and the killer leaving a trail of bodies across the frozen city.

The more she learns, the more she wants to be done with this unnatural job. To go back to the safety of her friends and fellow thieves. But Julia is entangled in a struggle between forces more powerful than she’d ever imagined. Escape will come at a terrible price.

Review: This book is a strange combination of a million and one elements that shouldn’t work together, but somehow, do! We’ve got an “Ocean’s Eleven” style thieves guild, essentially, operating in a world that is similar to our own, but at an undefined period of time (there are carriages, but also “electric” carriages, people use swords, but there are also muskets, at one point they use an elevator in a building, but they also sail their boats…), There is an inquisition-style hunt going on for witches, but there are also other magical beings that are thought only to exist in folklore. And in the middle of the story we’re presented with an entire new level of world-building with the introduction of a new set of beings with a god-like relation to history and current events.

Throughout this all, what holds things together is Julia, her narrative style and individual character arc. Julia, and her brother Dek (the spelling of character names/places is always confusing when you listen to an audiobook and never see the name spelled out! Ah, the challenges of book reviews!), are the orphaned children of a father who drank and then abandoned what remained of his family when their mother is convicted and executed as a witch. They are taken in by Esme, a woman who runs a successful thieves underground system, and grow up working jobs for this new family. Which all leads to the current circumstance that places Julia, requested by the client for her unique ability to go “unseen” by others when she chooses, as a spy in the household of Mrs. Och and thus caught up in complicated mystery that surrounds the young woman and her toddler son who are taking refuge there.

Julia’s growth through the story was one of its strongest appeals. Not only does she not understand her own abilities, especially when she discovers there is more to them then simply becoming invisible for a bit, but her own world views, and her understanding of her place in it, are consistently challenged. I particularly enjoyed the parallel that is drawn between Julia and another character, Pia, and the example they each set for the consequences that come from making the choices we do in life. Julia, at first, has a very pragmatic approach to her life and her work. She does the job, she gets paid. And this is a comfortable arrangement, allowing her to morally set herself back from her own actions. But when this approach comes to a head in the middle of the book, Julia must question her own definition of “living.”

While Julia’s is obviously the main arc of the story, I also appreciated the other views into poverty and the choices that are available to those struggling to get by that are presented by the other characters. Her brother, Dek, is a talented inventor, but due to their status as orphans and thieves, and his own deformities from a childhood illness, he worries about every being financially compensated if he came forward in an attempt to sell his goods. Another character, Wyn, hopes to be an artist, but struggles to get his foot in the door with an apprenticeship or a place in an art program. Again and again, we see these characters have doors shut in their faces and can understand the comfort that comes from the stability found in their role in this thieves guild, even if the work itself is morally questionable.

As for the story itself and the world-building, I was very surprised when about halfway through the book the plot suddenly expanded massively to include world-changing characters and events. Before it had been a rather simple murder mystery with a strange monster and a mysterious woman with a past. Suddenly these were all small pieces in a much larger moving plot machine. While I liked these expanded elements, they did seem to come out of the blue, forcing the entire story to shift completely, resolving some of the initial elements suddenly in the middle of the story while introducing new ones at the same time. It almost felt like two completely different books. I think this was simply a matter of pacing and of a few info-dumpy passages that were overwhelming. Ultimately, things did become clear, but there was a bit in the middle where I was honestly confused about who was after who and why.

The story does resolve itself for the most part in this book, however the door is clearly left open for sequels. Now that the cards are shown, per se, about the grander conflict going on in the series, I have hopes that any future books would be more settled in their own skin with what story they are wanting to tell. I was also given just enough of Julia’s abilities and origins to keep me coming back for the second book to find more answers alongside her. “Julia Defiant” will be up shortly, I suspect!

Rating 7: A great main character and interesting new world. But it felt like two books mashed together at times, with one focused on a simple monster story and the other setting up larger-than-life characters and plots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Vanishes” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Vanishes” at your library using WorldCat!

 

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Fire Game”

176636Book: “The Fire Game” (Fear Street #11) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1991

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

Book Description: It was just a game…

The first fire started almost by accident. A wastebasket fire in the school library. Jill Franks and her friends found it exciting. And it got them out of school for a few hours.

Who could have guessed that the fire game would quickly spread? That one fire would lead to another? What Jill, and Andrea, and Diane, and the three boys they hung around with would find themselves caught up in the most dangerous—and deadly—game of all?

When one of their fires ends in murder, the game ends—and the real terror begins. All of them realize that someone is playing the game for keeps. Now Jill has no choice. She knows she must find the murderer—before her life goes up in flames!

Had I Read It Before: No.

The Plot: We find ourselves back in Shadyside, after a field trip up to the mountains of Vermont. We join Jill, Andrea, and Diane, three teenagers going to Shadyside High. Diane is new, but Jill thinks that she fits in with her and Andrea because 1) they’re all gymnasts, and 2) Diane is sweet and serious, whereas Jill is flakey and Andrea is a mythic bitch. They’re all lamenting the upcoming geography quiz as they sit in the library, though Andrea is trying to think of a good song for her gymnastics routine instead of studying. Diane mentions that her old friend Gabe is not only a songwriter, he also is moving to Shadyside! And apparently he’s super handsome too. Before they can get more info out of Diane, Max and Nick stroll in. These boys both have crushes on Jill, which pisses Andrea off. Jill, however, isn’t interested. Max and Nick talk about horror movies they watched, and start horsing around. Nick pulls out a lighter and starts playing with it, which makes Diane freak out for reasons unknown to everyone else. A folder accidentally catches fire, and Diane runs away. Andrea snuffs the fire out and drops the folder in a waste basket. They meet up with Diane on the way to math and she apologizes for freaking out…. But then, in math class, smoke wafts into the hallway. Of course the fire wasn’t out, and they set the library on fire! Though no one gets hurt, the geography quiz is cancelled.

They friends all go out after the fire, and they run into Gabe! Boy is he handsome, if not super aloof and elitist about having to move to this small town. But his ears perk up when they mention the fire at school, especially when Andrea takes the blame/credit for it. When Max and Nick ask if he’s ever set a fire before, Gabe doesn’t really answer them, but smiles creepily. It becomes even creepier when at school the next day, he suggests that they set another fire so that they can take the rest of the day off, deliberately this time. Though the friends think that he’s joking at first, he makes it clear that he’s DEAD serious. Diane gets visibly upset and makes an excuse to leave, and when Jill calls after her Gabe dismisses her, saying she’s ‘always been jumpy’. Yeah, Gabe, JUMPY. Andrea, on the other hand, is practically flooding her basement at the concept of setting a fire, and Max grabs the lighter and rushes off. As the others leave the cafeteria, there’s an explosion from the boy’s bathroom.

At this moment it’s solidified that I’m really just reading a book about a bunch of teenage pyromaniacs.

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(source)

After the attempt of deliberate arson, the friends all meet on the soccer field. Max made it out just in time, and explains that there was a bottle of cleaning solution in the bathroom next to the wastebasket. Diane isn’t pleased, but Andrea is elated. School is cancelled for the rest of the day (that’s it?) and they all go for a picnic and swimming at the cabin that Diane’s parents bought on Fear Island. The boys all have a swim race, and Gabe wins. Andrea makes her interest known, and Diane says she doesn’t care if they date, though doesn’t seem convinced anything will come of it. The friends eat hotdogs and then Diane surprises Gabe with one of his old guitars he gave Diane. As he plays (and is perfect, of course), Jill thinks about how much has changed since he got to Shadyside (a day ago?) and that things have really changed for the better. IIIIIII’M SORRY, he’s a psychopath, Jill! He then holds the lighter under his hand, mesmerized by the flames.

Soon after Jill, Diane, and Andrea are shopping. Andrea keeps grilling Diane for information on Gabe, and Diane talks about how she’s known him since Kindergarten. They pass a pet shop and Jill notices that the cats in the window look like her cat, Mittsy. Oh boy, does this mean Mittsy will be relevant later? Don’t you kill another cat, Stine! The girls go to try on new clothes, but when Andrea tries to go into Diane’s dressing room, Diane freaks out and starts screaming at her. Andrea is shocked. She knew that Diane was modest, but this is nuts! Andrea goes home and after having a pointless conversation with her Mom, she gets a call from Gabe, who asks her out. Even though she thinks that he’s kind of a wackadoo, she also thinks he’s cute, so she says yes. Because bad boys, right?

Sometime after, the group of friends are driving around Shadyside showing Gabe the sights. He’s not too impressed, but when they get to Fear Street his ears perk up enough to only make SOME disparaging comments about it. I assume it’s because he’s evil and feels at home there. They tell him about the time a crazy guy tried to kill people with a chainsaw (“The Wrong Number”), when an old house burnt down after a Halloween party gone awry (“Halloween Party”), and how two kids parents just vanished without a trace (“Missing”, though to be honest they were found pretty quickly…). Gabe thinks that they should go look at the cemetery. He then suggests that it’s time to start another fire, and it’s Nick’s turn. Gabe suggests an abandoned shack in the cemetery, and Nick refuses. Gabe tries to call his bluff, but then decides ‘ah, fuck it’, and sets it ablaze himself. They run off and watch the fire department come at a distance. When they get back to the car, Andrea, pushed to her sexual limits, starts making out with Gabe in the backseat of the car.

Later, Jill, Diane, and Andrea are hanging out watching videos at Andrea’s house. She shows off her new computer, lamenting that the ink in the printer is blue instead of black, but still writes a poem about how horny fires make her. The police are starting to think that there’s a pattern here, and while Jill and Diane are nervous, Andrea is still aroused. Diane says they should stop playing this game, but Andrea refuses to stop saying that it’s way too fun to commit arson. The phone rings, so Jill answers (even though it’s Andrea’s house?) and though the person on the other end says they’re from the fire department, it turns out it’s really just Max playing a trick. Jill hangs up, and demands that they stop the fire game. Andrea finally concedes that they can ‘slow down’ at least. While Diane is in the bathroom (totally happy that the game is going to maybe end), Jill tells Andrea that she has a date with Gabe the next night. Andrea sees it as a challenge.

On the date, Gabe is actually acting like a pretty nice and romantic guy towards Jill. He plays the guitar, opens up about some of his past, and they have a heartfelt conversation. Though when Jill brings up the fact that the girls want to stop the game, he’s dismissive of her and her feelings…. Until they get to Pete’s Pizza and they find that someone has set his father’s car on fire!!!

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NOT SO FUNNY NOW, HUH? (source)

He and Jill think that Nick must have done it out of jealousy. She calls Nick later that night to ask him why he did it, but he denies it and hangs up on her. Then she calls Andrea to tell her what happened. Andrea is more concerned that the date ended without getting anywhere, but concedes that maybe the game will be done now. That night Jill wakes up to smell smoke, and then finds her cat Mittsy burnt to a crisp!!.. But then it’s just a nightmare, thank GOD, I’m glad no cats had to die for a plot twist this time.

The next day Jill and Nick talk a bit, and he asks her over that night to study together. When she goes to his house, she sees him and Max getting into a car and driving away. Suspicious (And miffed he’s breaking their study date), Jill follows them. They drive to Fear Street, and of course as soon as she turns down the street, her car lurches to a stop and dies. She starts to panic, but is helped by a kind policeman who saw her stranded. He gets her car going again, and she continues to drive. She parks near the cemetery, and gets out to walk on foot… And then sees their car by an old abandoned house… WHICH SOON BURSTS INTO FLAMES!! Jill sees Max and NIck running away from it! She drives to a fire box to alert the authorities, but then drives home. After trying to calm down with yoga and “Three’s Company” re runs, she turns on the news… and finds out that there was a homeless man in the house that burnt down!! Nick and Max are murderers!!

Jill calls Nick to confront him. He balks at first, but then admits that he DID ditch her that night to go to Fear Street with Max, but that they didn’t set the fire! Someone left a note on his doorstep (and Max’s too) telling them to go to Fear Street, and when they got there the fire started. Jill thinks that then it must be Gabe who did it! She calls Diane to go with her to get the note from Nick. But when they get the note, they see that it’s printed in BLUE INK!!!!! LIKE ANDREA’S PRINTER!

SO, Cagney and Lacey go to confront Andrea. Andrea says she didn’t do it and that Jill is only accusing her because her date with Gabe went sour. When they don’t believe her she yells at them to get out and never come back! But then in the middle of the night she calls Jill to ask her to meet her at the gym before school the next morning, because she thinks she may be close to figuring out what’s happening… and that it may involve Gabe! Jill agrees, and the next day she goes to the gym to find Diane there, who says Andrea called her too… BUT THEN THEY FIND ANDREA, AND SHE’S DEAD! Wait, not dead, knocked out. So an ambulance comes to get her. The gym teacher thinks she fell of the balance beam to have hit her head, but they can’t know until she comes to. Jill wonders if Gabe found out that Andrea was on to him, however….

Jill insists that the rest of the group come together, and suggests that perhaps it’s a stranger setting the fires to get to them (though Gabe is still a contender in her mind). It doesn’t go well, as they all start accusing each other of setting the fire and trying to kill Andrea. As Jill is walking home Gabe catches up to her and gives her a ride home. She’s convinced that he’s the one who did it, but doesn’t want him to catch on. He says he has a feeling the fires are done, and that he never should have come to Shadyside or none of this would have happened. I have to agree. Jill, unable to resist his charms in spite of the fact he’s a creep, agrees to go out with him again, especially after he assures her that he’s not interested in Andrea. Jill’s questionable happiness is short lived, as the police show up that night, asking her if she saw anything the night of the fire, since she was in the vicinity. She lies and says no.

Diane invites Jill to her family cabin on Fear Island to unwind. Jill breaks her date with Gabe, and is having a great girls weekend with Diane… Until Andrea calls. Andrea starts to threaten Jill, saying that she knows that it was HER who tried to kill her and that SHE was the one who wrote the note by using her computer!!! But then she says ‘Diane’. SHE THOUGHT JILL WAS DIANE!!! DIANE IS THE ARSONIST/MURDERER! Andrea tells Jill to leave, but after she hangs up Jill can’t find her keys!! So she runs into the woods, but of course gets lost, and of COURSE Diane finds her. When she acts perfectly normal, for whatever reason Jill goes back with her… But yeah, Diane is indeed nutty, and is the one behind all of this. Her motive, of course, is because of Gabe. She tried to take out Andrea for going on a date with him, and set Gabe’s car on fire because she saw him and Jill at a distance. Oh, and also, she is obsessed with fire because, shock and awe, her body is covered in burn scars after she was in a fire when a kerosene lamp exploded when she was a girl. Gabe was so sweet to her when she was recovering, she fell in love with him and has been obsessed with him since. But because of her scars, THEY CAN NEVER BE. Good God. Diane then starts setting the cabin on fire. She is about to set Jill ablaze, but Gabe bursts in, as Andrea told him where he could find them. They all get out of the cabin, and Gabe apologizes for setting off Diane’s psychotic break with his ‘fire game’. The end.

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(source)

Body Count: 1. I always find it a bit cheap when a homeless person is used as a convenient dead body. Let’s just dehumanize them a bit more, why don’t we?

Romance Rating: 3. I gotta admit that Gabe playing the guitar for Jill was pretty romantic, but then again, he’s also happily stringing along Andrea and Diane to an extent. Also, he’s a complete psychopath.

Bonkers Rating: 2. This was just about a bunch of arsonists being the goddamn worst. Nothing bonkers about that outside of the sheer despicableness of it all.

Fear Street Relevance: 8. The biggest fire with the most dire consequences took place on Fear Street, but more importantly we got a nice little run down of previous “Fear Street” plots in this one! That walk down memory lane easily bumps the number up!

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“‘I don’t believe it!’ Diane cried. ‘She’s dead!'”

… And then, she isn’t dead. She’s very much alive. Wishful thinking, Diane.

That’s So Dated! Moments: There is a whole scene in which Andrea is showing off her new computer. It’s so amazing it can do calculations, has games, and even a ‘word processor’ on it. It was so quaint and cute. And there is also a scene in which a lime green shirt is the pinnacle of fashion.

Best Quote:

“‘Well I’m not sure about the Undead,’ Jill admitted, ‘but there is something very creepy about Fear Street.'”

It was as if R.L. had to remind us of the premise of this entire series.

“The Fire Game” was really just about a bunch of arsonists with far too much privilege for their own good. I’m hoping that our next book, “Lights Out”, has more responsible (and less sociopathic) protagonists.