Beach Reads: Summer 2017

Back for 2017, here is a list of some more favorite beach reads! “Beach read” is a very fast and loose term for books people read over the beautiful summer months when we really should be outside “doing things” but are instead reading…maybe outside. Some people see these months as an opportunity to slog through long classics (we’re looking at you “Moby Dick”) before the busy-ness of of the fall starts up, but for the sake of this list, we’re limiting our choices to stand alone, mostly feel good books (though there’s some obvious leeway here for Kate’s horror tastes!) that could be easily brought along on vacations. So, still a very loose definition, but hey, we had to start somewhere! We will select one title for each of the genres we most read.

Serena’s Picks:

18782855 Fantasy Title: “Princess of Thorns” by Stacey Jay

I reviewed this one fairly recently on the blog, but it’s still stuck with me as one of the more simply “fun” fantasy books I’ve read in quite a long time. Not only is it a standalone fantasy book (quite the rarity in its own right), but it’s a perfect pick for a summer beach read due to its expert balancing act of tone and story. There’s plenty of action and adventure, just the right amount of romance, witty dialogue, and two main characters who are each a blast. On top of this all, the villain of the story is a compelling and sympathetic character on her own, and in many ways, brings to bare the true heart of the story. This is a fast, fun read that is sure to please fantasy lovers, especially those who like fairytale retellings. For more on this book, here is my review of “Princess of Thorns.”

6424171Science Fiction Title: “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton

So while trying to come up with a science fiction pick for this list, I’ve discovered two things: 1.) I need to get back to my science fiction list, cuz man, it’s been a while since I’ve read any and 2.) what I have read is all super depressing and not really fit for a “beach reads” type of list (ie Oryx and Crake). So we’re going old-school with the fan favorite “Jurassic Park.” I don’t need to tell you the story with this one, though if you are basing all of your knowledge on just the movie, you will be surprised by aspects of it. There’s much more science mixed in with all of the dinosaur adventure madness. And yes, before you ask, dinosaurs eating people is my idea of a light read!

91661Mystery Title: “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”  by Laurie R. King

As a lover of all things Sherlock Holmes, of course I have to highlight King’s amazing “Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes” series. I’ve been reading these books for over a decade now, and while there are some hits and misses in the long-running series, the first several books, and the first book itself, “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” are simply excellent. (While this is the start to a series, it easily reads as a stand alone novel, so I feel justified in including it). Here, Mary Russell becomes the apprentice and, later, partner of Sherlock Holmes. There are nods and winks to the original mysteries, but the stories themselves are all new. Most importantly, Holmes is spot on with the way I always think of him, and Mary Russell is a strong enough character on her own to never get lost in his large shadow. Definitely check this book out if you like historical mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes especially.

37470Historical Title: “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory

Chances are good that if you’re a fan of historical fiction, especially historical fiction focusing on the years during the Tudor reigns, you’re already well familiar with Philippa Gregory. She’s written what seems like a million and one of these novels in her many years as an author, but I remember picking this book up way back when she was lesser known, and this was her first book and absolutely loving it (I have fairly mixed feelings about many of her following books). The story focuses on the life Mary Boleyn, the younger sister of the infamous Anne Boleyn. Through her eyes, we see the inner workings of the court, all while waiting with a sense of sickened dread for the inevitable doom of her family. While that sounds grim, and yes, it is, Mary’s story still has moments of brightness, and, for the most part, ends in a satisfying manner…you know, given the beheadings and all. This is a longer book, but for fans of historical fiction, especially those who like some romance in their stories, definitely check this one out!

Kate’s Picks:

924765Horror Title: “‘Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King

If you want to go for fun beach reads that are also a bit scary, you really can’t go wrong with horror master Stephen King. While he’s very good at dark and angsty existential dread, he can also tap into entertaining and ‘lighter’ horror. His second book, “‘Salem’s Lot”, has been referred to as vampires meets “Peyton Place”, so you know that there’s going to be some fun and sudsy drama along with your vampire scares. When a man comes home to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot, he slowly comes to the realization that the townspeople are turning into vampires. This is the book that has the iconic scene of the little boy vampire hanging outside his brother’s window, and since it was still kind of early in King’s career it was before some of the darker and deeper themes of small town banality and innocence actually hides a deeper evil, a la “It”. Really, for fun vampire fiction, this is the book.

2247142Thriller Title: “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith

I literally read this one on a beach in California when I was a teenager, and have been meaning to revisit it as the trope of the ‘charming psychopath narrator’ has started to gain popularity again. Tom Ripley is living an unfulfilled life, so when he’s approached by the wealthy father of former classmate Dickie Greenleaf, he’s a bit surprised. Seems Dickie is living it up in Italy when he should be at home. So Tom says he’ll go find Dickie, but instead finds a life of luxury and power that he doesn’t want to come back from… even if that means murder and identity fraud is necessary. I haven’t seen the movie version, but I was quite struck with how charming and yet malignant Ripley was, and he paved the way for future characters like Dexter Morgan and Joe Goldberg. For unsettling and addicting thrills, take this one with you.

12959045Graphic Novel Title: “My Friend Dahmer” by Derf Backderf

Okay, before you question my tastes (more than you probably have already), I want to make it clear that this isn’t the story of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes. This is the story of his teenage years, as seen through the eyes of his high school classmate and kind of friend Derf Backderf. It looks at the high school years of both boys, with Backderf’s not so popular group taking Dahmer into their fold, but only because they think he’s a complete weirdo whose weirdness entertains them. Backderf tells us the Dahmer he knew in school, the one who was the product of a broken home, who was hiding a heavy drinking habit, and who was never a member of any group of peers who could, or would, relate to him. While Backderf takes special care not to give Dahmer a pass when it comes to his later, horrific crimes, he does ask where the adults in his life were when he was so clearly fighting a number of demons, and whether interference could have saved multiple lives. This book is insightful and, yes, upsetting, but it’s also compulsively readable.

What are you planning on taking to the beach with you this summer? Let us know in the comments!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #12: “The Reaction”

815401Animorphs #12: “The Reaction” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, November 1997

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Rachel’s got some pretty strange stuff happening. She can’t control her morphing. One minute, she’s doing homework. The next, she’s morphing a full-grown crocodile, and — without returning to human form — she becomes an elephant. That’s when the floor gives way and Rachel finds herself looking up at what used to be the kitchen ceiling.

What’s going on? No one’s sure, but Rachel and the other Animorphs have to figure it out — quickly. Because if someone sees Rachel’s out-of-control morphing, the other Animorphs and Ax are in some serious trouble…

Narrator: Rachel

Plot: The story starts out in typical Rachel-fashion: jumping into a crocodile pit at the zoo! To be fair, she does it to save a small boy who has fallen in, and this is exactly what she tells Jake when he rants at her later at Cassie’s farm about “exposing them all” when the “friendly crocodile” gave the kid a ride out and drew notice. And in a book full of Rachel making really rash decisions, this one is pretty understandable! Pretty sure they all would have done it, but Rachel has a history of rashness (morphing elephant at both a used car lot and at the zoo, to make animal rights points), so the hammer always seems to come down on her a bit more for this type of stuff.

All of it seems to be mostly put to bed, until Rachel gets home and suddenly, unwillingly, starts morphing elephant in her own room. This, unsurprisingly, brings down the house and she is only just able to get control of herself and morph back before her sisters and mom show up. Between this and the crocodile escapade (people thought she also fell in), she gets quite a lot of local news attention. Rachel, being Rachel, decides that this is just some strange one-off and keeps the whole weird morphing to herself.

The main plot of the story gets tied in when the Animorphs discover that the Yeerks are quite interested in a certain teenage boy actor, one Jeremy Jason McCole. So, I haven’t talked much about the dated aspects of the book, because for the most part they’re just random mentions of VCRs and such, but this is a big one. Teenage super stars are no thing specific to any decade. I mean, we have Beiber and the Jonas Brothers and all that, now-ish. But this one’s pretty hilarious for anyone who grew up in the 90s, as it is a clear and direct reference to Jonathan Taylor Thomas. I mean, you’ve got the name with the rhyming ring to it, and past that, they even discuss the show he is on which has to do with family and, you guessed it, construction. This is such a direct and obvious call out that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud every time I read about it. Which was a lot, since it was the main focus of the story. So, sure, this will read fine to new readers picking up the books today, but without the 90s memories of “Home Improvement” and the JTT madness, much of the humor of this will be lost. But I got it all! And love it.

Jeremy Jason, for all intents and purposes.

Anyways, Cassie and Rachel are the only ones who truly understand how bad it would be if Jeremy Jason was to be made a Controller and started promoting The Sharing. After they very strictly made this point to poor, clueless Jake and Marco (while throwing in the fact that boy, wouldn’t it be fun to scout out this situation anyways!), the team decide to morph seagulls, fly out to Jeremy’s yacht (cuz of course he has a yacht), and see what’s what. Turns out that Visser Three himself is there wooing Jeremy Jason to become a willing Controller. Much of the love for Jeremy Jason is thus instantly evaporated for poor Rachel and Cassie.

With perfect timing, Rachel’s morphing issue strikes again and she falls from the air, somehow morphing directly from seagull to other animals (luckily, conveniently, so that the Controllers don’t find out they’re all human). After escaping from another of Visser Three’s freaky morphs (some type of javelin-throwing sea creature that Rachel is able to “pop” by biting it in her croc morph), Rachel’s little problem is outed. Ax, of course, knows a bit about it and it turns out that Rachel is allergic to crocodiles, and will continue to have this morphing issue until she somehow mysteriously “expels” the DNA.

Now knowing that the Jeremy Jason thing is a serious problem, Rachel decides to take advantage of her moment of stardom as “disaster girl” and get on the same local TV program that will be featuring Jeremy Jason. They will then…somehow stop him from promoting The Sharing?? To do this, however, she lies to her friends and says that the whole allergy thing was taken care of, DNA expelled, she’s ready to go.

So, of course, while they’re all at the TV studio, Rachel’s croc problem goes live and she begins growing a crocodile out of her back (apparently what Ax meant by “expel DNA” was grow a full, live crocodile out of oneself that will detach and then just…be there). This leads to much mania and confusion (Marco morphs a llama, Cassie morphs Rachel, a wild croc is loose), and they are only saved from complete discovery by the fact that there also happened to be a zoologist scheduled for the show and the wild animals running everywhere are thought to be his. Through this all, the Yeerk (bizarrely) decides to bail out of Jeremy Jason, and Rachel steps on it accidentally. Jeremy Jason than flees to Asia after deciding that this whole Controller thing wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. The end!

Xena, Warriar Princess: Rachel’s strengths and weaknesses are fully shown in this book. Like a wounded animal, she doesn’t like to let others see when she’s hurting or confused, which leads to much of the craziness from her not asking for help with her morphing issue right away. Later, when she also lies about having expelled the DNA, we see another example of her hiding things from the others. This time, however, we can also see that this is tied up with the fact that she understands her role in the group. She’s the brave one, the one who often helps push the others into action, and to do what they hesitate to do. She, partly rightly I think, worries that without her, the others would struggle with this, and many, missions.

She’s also incredibly brave. When Visser Three is coming after them in the ocean, she plays dead and attacks him when he gets close, giving the others time to flee. She often puts herself in these roles where her own survival is called into question to save her friends.

The other notable feature of this book was the direct tie between her reaction to her croc allergy and her ability to keep control of her emotions, specifically anger. I know that this is a recurring theme in the Rachel books: her anger is what makes her powerful and brave, but it can also really hurt her. Some of the later books get quite silly with this, I think, almost jumping the shark with her character. But this was a good look at this issue as it begins to play a bigger role in Rachel’s character and arc throughout the series.

Our Fearless Leader: Poor, poor Jake. After the last book which focused on the tough realities of being a leader, here we have this one where the poor guy has to deal with crazies like Rachel who just go ahead and don’t tell the whole group relevant information that then leads to even worse scenarios, that he then has to make a call on, mid-mission. All cuz of Rachel’s bad decision making.

<No, it’s much better to find out this way, Rachel. You know – when you
could get us all killed,> Jake said.

Other than this, it was funny reading about Jake and Marco’s endless discomfort with the girls’ infatuation with Jeremy Jason McCole. When they first decide to scout out the yacht more closely, this is Jake’s original plan:

<Marco and I will go in close, land on the boat like any ordinary
seagulls, see what we overhear,> Jake went on. <Rachel and Cassie, you
can be backup. Stay ->
<Yeah, right,> I jeered. <You and Marco go. Me and Cassie stay away.
Yeah, that’s really going to happen. Come on, Cassie, we’re going in.>

A Hawk’s Life: Was Tobias even in this book?? Thank god his book is coming up next and SPOILER this problem gets mostly solved. But not too solved, gotta keep a hold on the massive corner of the teenage tragedy market that is Tobias’s life.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Why Cassie?! Why are you such a fun character in Rachel books, but then become the most stick-ish of sticks in the mud during your own books?? It drives me nuts. Cassie was actually a blast in this book, and her friendship with Rachel is definitely me favorite platonic relationship (others being Marco/Jake and Tobias/Ax). They had a lot of good moments just being girls about Jeremy Jason, and it was fun to read. Cassie was also quick to always correct any mistaken identification of the crocodile as an alligator, too, thus fulfilling her “animal facts” quota for the book.

A fun example of their thoughts on the boys’ reaction to Jeremy Jason:

<It’s so sad to hear so much jealousy, don’t you agree, Cassie?>
<It is sad, Rachel. Terribly sad.>
<This is the worst mission we’ve ever been on,> Marco said.

The Comic Relief: Marco gets some good comedic moments in this one (what’s new), when he decides to abandon Jake with the whole “morph a bug” plan while scouting out the TV studio and just morph a convenient llama that was wandering around from the zoologist’s program. I mean, any excuse not to go bug, ammiright? Lots of quips about llama fur and llama spit and llama behavior ensued and it was great. Most impressive, however, was when things went south with the now-detached croc, Marco, in llama morph, did a mad rush at it. For all of his comedy moments, Marco is one of the bravest members of the group and my love for him only grows! He also has a fun moment in the end of the book with Rachel and some more “Xena” nods.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax, too, plays a significant role in handling the loose croc situation and essentially takes it out of play all on his own. Rachel makes some pretty clear comments about how she’s been impressed by Ax in the past, but this moment really highlighted the strength and speed of Andalites, raising him to a new level in her eyes.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Hands down, the “expelling” of the crocodile DNA. I mean, there were pages and pages of descriptions of the very slow process that was the crocodile growing its way out of Rachel’s back and finally dropping off, fully formed. I mean, just think about that whole experience. Or, better yet, don’t.

Couples Watch!: Man, for a book told from the perspective of one of the four characters involved in a couple-ish situation, there was very little to go on here! Maybe a few private asides from Tobias, but we got zero, ZERO, bedroom visits by hawk!Tobias, something that I remember clearly associating with this couple and as happening fairly often in their books. But nope! Nothing! Very disappointing. But the next book is his, so hopefully we’ll see an improvement there. For this book, I just had to fall back on my secondary Marco/Rachel fixation.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: It was strange having Visser Three sucking up to Jeremy Jason McCole, essentially. Didn’t really seem like his usual style of “do first, ask never.” I guess the idea was to highlight how much easier it is on the Yeerks, especially the one controlling someone, if the host is willing? But still, there are more than enough examples of forced-Controllers and in a situation like this where this one, very specific person is needed, it seems like Visser Three wouldn’t have given a hoot what the potential host wanted. But at least he had a relevant morph for chasing the Animorphs again! The javelin-shooting beast (Ax wasn’t paying attention in school to know all about it. Typical.) was a pretty good adversary, all told. Except for that “burst balloon” action there at the end.

The fact that they Yeerks then just let Jeremy Jason run off to Asia to hide also seems highly unlikely. I guess they figured that he wasn’t likely to say anything about it without sounding like a crazy person. But why not just re-capture him and go on with the original plan of using him as a spokesperson for The Sharing?

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: This didn’t have a whole lot in the “feels” department. It was a pretty wacky story, bookended by an even wackier morphing allergy. Even the side plot with Rachel’s family seemed fine. It’s clear that she still has a good relationship with her father, and the brief moments with her sisters, especially her fear that they may have been hurt when the house collapses, were nice. All in all, just a kind of fun adventure!

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, I’m pretty sure Rachel just straight up admits that they have no plan whatsoever when it comes to trying to mess up the Jeremy Jason TV spot. Beyond the lack of plan there, Rachel herself knows there is even less of a plan since she was the only one who know that the crocodile allergy hadn’t exactly been taken care of. All of the luck, all of the time!

Favorite Quote:

Rachel sums up her own character:

But the thing about fear is you can’t be afraid of it. I know that sounds confusing. I guess what I mean is, be afraid if you have to, right? Fear is like this vicious little worm that lives inside you and eats you alive. You have to fight it. You have to know it’s there. You have to accept that you’ll never get rid of it, but fight it just the same. Brave isn’t about not being afraid. It’s about being scared to death and still not giving in.

Scorecard: Yeerks 3, Animorphs 5

No points awarded! I guess the Animorphs technically pulled off their plan of stopping Jeremy Jason from being taken. But really, if I was going to award points for their success in that, it would be 1 point for the crocodile.

Rating: Pretty good! Lacking in much sustenance, but a fun read none the less. I can excuse wackiness when it leads to a fun story. But when wackiness is combined with dramatic nonsense *cough”The Secret”cough*…

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: “Final Girls”

32796253Book: “Final Girls” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: A free ARC provided by Net Galley.

Book Description: Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past. 

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

Review: First and foremost, I want to extend a sincere thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. It means a lot and I greatly appreciate the generosity,

You all know my deep deep love for horror movies, and that I have a serious guilty-ish pleasure for the slasher film genre. There are so many things about it that are kind of grotesque and trite, but I really do enjoy a slash ’em up kind of flick like “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, or “Scream”. I think that my love for that subgenre stems from my time as an awkward teenager who was a bit more cautious and shy than some of her lady friends. Because of this, I really related to the “Final Girl” trope that those movies almost always trot out: the virginal good girl who triumphs over evil and is the only one who can vanquish the bloodthirsty villain. The movie “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” did a great job of deconstructing the concept of the Final Girl, as did the movie “Final Girls”, and I’ve been aching to read a book about it as well. When Lauren Beukes “Survivors’ Club” didn’t quite get there, my only hope left was “Final Girls” by Riley Sager, and BOY am I THRILLED to say that this book nailed it and gave me everything I needed.

The very scenarios given in this book as the mass killings that the Final Girls endured are so textbook 80s slasher film that I was living a Dayglow glittered fever dream. You have the college kids in a cabin in the woods, the sorority house massacre, and the isolated motel ambush with a killer who is wearing a sack on his head! PERFECTION. But even beyond setting up the perfect slasher scenarios, Sager also painted pictures of how an actual ‘Final Girl’ might endure after the trauma. As much as we love the idea of Nancy Thmpson or Laurie Strode going on to live happy lives, in the real world the consequences would be far more long lasting. Quincy is a complete mess whose outward appearance is a lie to the pain underneath. She has her baking blog and her true blue fiance, but she is addicted to Xanax and unable to let go of Coop, the cop who saved her all those years ago from a killer in the woods. She has distanced herself from other survivors of violent massacres, Lisa and Sam, because while the media loves to lump them together, she just wants to be herself and to live her life. I really loved Quincy for her full damaged self.

The thing that surprised me the most about this book was that it wasn’t the meta and self referential homage that I was expecting it to be, even though it’s set up was one hundred percent spot on for such a novel. Instead there was a serious mystery here, specifically involving Sam. After Lisa, the original and perhaps most ‘with it’ Final Girl is found dead of an apparent suicide, Quincy is approached by the second, Sam, who had been off the grid for years. The mystery at the heart of this book is about Sam’s experiences, as well as Quincy’s. Though I went in thinking that it would be about the two of them teaming up to find a killer, it turned out to be something much different. And then it superseded my expectations AGAIN when it also became a question about Quincy and her experience at a cabin in the woods. The movies like to portray these Final Girl types as innocents caught up in a whirlwind of circumstance, the ultimate Madonnas who are better than the Whores that surround them and therefore they get to live. But Sager poses that perhaps it’s more interesting if they are just complex, well rounded people instead of just a trope, and questions whether being innocent is the absolute only thing you can be to deserve to survive something as brutal as a slasher killer.

I truly enjoyed this book as a fan of the slasher genre, even if it wasn’t the self satisfied wink fest I thought it was going to be. Fans of this genre really need to go out and get their hands on “Final Girls”. Quincy has every right to stand with Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and all those other badass women who take out those who wish them ill, and she can do it while still being damaged.

Rating 9: A great mystery with some excellent character studies, “Final Girls” goes beyond a meta romp for slasher horror fans and is a fabulous and suspenseful summer read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Final Girls” is new and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists as of yet. But I think that it would fit in on “Best Female Driven Mysteries”, and “Popular Slasher Books”.

Find “Final Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

3682Book: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray

Publication Info: Simon and Schuster, December 2013

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

Book Description: A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy—jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order.

Review: You may be wondering…a book about snarky popular girls? Why is Serena reviewing this and not Kate, the keeper of snarky girls’ clubs? Well, after I started this book, I found out that Kate did in fact read this book before we started this blog, and I’m now just playing catch up. But, in many ways, this book also sounded like something that would be up my alley. I love historical books, and especially those that fall into the very specific “fantasy of manners” category that often mixes Regency/Victorian fiction with magical worlds and systems. So, while the snarky girls did get on my nerves at points, these other elements that are more typical of my usual reading wares were definitely working in its favor.

The story starts out with us meeting Gemma, a spoiled and rather bratty teenage girl living in India with her parents and dreaming of London. After tragedy strikes and her mother dies in the midst of some strange dark magic, Gemma finds her “dreams” coming true, but not in the ways she would expect. Yes, she’s now in England. But being the new girl isn’t all that she thought it would be, and not only is she set apart by this status, but she’s hiding a dark secret of her burgeoning magical abilities. All too quickly, things begin to spiral out of control and now Gemma needs to not only manage learning her own powers, but finding a way to keep her new friends safe in the process.

While I found myself wanting to smack each of these girls up side the head at one point or another, I loved the clear-eyed look at the harsh realities that were forced upon Victorian young ladies. Each girl has her own struggles to overcome. The beauty who is being essentially sold to the highest bidder in a marriage of convenience. The powerful, popular girl whose charm and magnetic personality allows her to reign over the school but whose control over her self and her decisions doesn’t translate to a life where she has been abandoned by her mother and ignored by her father. The orphan, attending school on a scholarship and whose dreams of beauty and singing are being squashed beneath the realities of an almost unavoidable future as a governess. And Gemma, herself, who is being told again and again by the men around her to keep her head down, be a good girl, and definitely don’t learn anything more about her own magical abilities.

Each of these girls was distinct, and each responded differently to the sudden power and freedom they discover in Gemma’s abilities and the mystical Order, a group of magical women that existed for centuries before coming to a mysterious and tragic end a few decades ago. I loved the slow reveal of the Order and the truth behind the girls who had been at the center of its downfall. There were plenty of surprises, and some that, while I was able to guess the result, were just as delicious in the telling.

I was pretty much picturing scenes from “Practical Magic” throughout this entire book. (source)

My few qualms with the story are purely personal preference. There’s a reason why Kate is the queen of the snarky girls groups and I’m not. At various points in the story, but especially towards the last third, I would get increasingly frustrated with the nonsense of these girls. While the tenuous balance of their friendships read as true of teenage girls, even if I found it annoying at times, it was the complete lack of thought that went into some of their actions towards the end that really got to me. The author did a good job of building up the desperation, frustration, and fear of the future that drove these actions, but I still had a hard time with the complete idiocy that made up some of these decisions, given the information they had about past events. However, this last third was saved by some good action sequences, and a realistic bout of consequences for everything that occurred.

My last point will be that there was the seemingly required romance sub plot in this story. And when I say sub plot, I mean sub sub plot. It was barely there to the point that whenever it was referenced, it almost felt like it was coming out of the blue. The boy in question was rarely involved in the action of the story, would be absent for large chunks of time, and really had no relationship building with Gemma, leaving any feelings she had for him based purely on physical appearance. Luckily, the relationship doesn’t develop much, which felt on par with the above mentioned limitations, but I was left wondering whether it needed to be included at all. I’m guessing that more will come of this in the next few books, which may, in retrospect, make this element read better a second go-around.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. I loved the setting of a Victorian boarding school, with the strict boundaries set before these girls as the force upon which the freedoms and power of the magical elements worked against. While I can only hope that in future books the girls wisen up a bit, and maybe snap at each other a bit less, I’m definitely interested enough to continue with the series.

Rating 8: While my tolerance for bratty girls may be rather low, I still loved the magic and the Victorian setting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Great and Terrible Beauty” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain” and “Fantasy of Manners.”

Find “A Great and Terrible Beauty” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer”

119427Book: “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” by Jennifer Lynch

Publishing Info: Pocket, January 1990

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

Book Description: Laura Palmer was introduced to television audiences in the opening scenes of “Twin Peaks”–as a beautiful dead girl, wrapped in plastic. Now available in print for the first time in many years (and in e-book for the very first time!), THE SECRET DIARY OF LAURA PALMER chronicles Laura’s life from age 12 to her death at 17, and is filled with secrets, character references, and even clues to the identity of her eventual killer. Fans of the show will love seeing their favorite characters again, and Laura’s diary makes compelling reading as she turns from a naive freshman having her first kiss to a “bad girl” experimenting with drugs, sex and the occult.

“As seen by” Jennifer Lynch, creator David Lynch’s daughter, THE SECRET DIARY OF LAURA PALMER is authentic, creepy, and a perfect book for anyone who loves supernatural suspense.

Review: In case it hasn’t become abundantly clear at this point, I am a HUGE HUGE HUGE “Twin Peaks” fan. It was a show that burned too bright and went out too fast, but went on to change television as we know it. When I finally got to start watching the recent revival, I felt a need to actually get my hands on one of the tie ins to the show that I had heard of, but never actually experienced. That is, of course, the notorious “The Secret Life of Laura Palmer”, a book that is supposed to be the journal of the doomed and tragic Laura Palmer, the victim whose murder kicks off the series. It’s notorious because, similar to books like “Flowers in the Attic” and “Go Ask Alice”, it has a reputation for being salacious and scandalous.

There is definitely something that should be said right away about this book: if you are not familiar with the show “Twin Peaks” and it’s mythos, this book is probably not going to make much sense to you. Jennifer Lynch, daughter of the show’s creator (and amateur meteorologist) David Lynch, writes these diary entries and expects that the reader is going to understand who these characters are and what the significance is to the various situations that Laura describes. So while I knew why it was absolutely upsetting when on page 4 Laura write ‘p.s., I hope BOB doesn’t come tonight’, those who are going in blind would not. My advice would be that if you haven’t seen the show this book should probably be avoided until you have, not only because of confusion but also major spoilers to the plot. All that said, I found it to be a fun(?) read because of the hidden references and the first person perspective from the girl who was dead in episode one. I also have to admit that I smiled pretty broadly every time there was mention of one of my favorite characters from the show, like Bobby Briggs or Audrey Horne. This book also does a good job of expanding upon characters that we only saw through the show’s perspective, and showing sides that perhaps they couldn’t or wouldn’t show after Laura’s murder. This mostly applies to my bae Bobby Briggs. On the show we mostly see an angry teenage boy who makes dumb decisions and generally acts like a brooding whiner. But I loved that in this book we saw the sweet side that was long extinguished by the time we get to know him.

When you are both vindicated and hurting in your love for Bobby Briggs. (source)

But, all that said, as fun as the references and new perspectives were, this book doesn’t really tell me anything that I don’t know about Laura Palmer and how awful and sad her life was. If anything, it merely puts the awful abuse, torture, and sadness that she endured on full display. I need to give Jennifer Lynch the utmost credit for writing the voice of a pre-teen to teenage girl so well. As I was reading this book there were so many moments that I thought to myself ‘yep, my diary entries at this age totally sounded like this’ (to an extent), and I think that it was a genius move to let not only a woman, but the daughter of the series creator as well write it. But the authenticity just made all the stories of sexual abuse, drug use, sex work, and violence feel all the more awful. I know that some of the appeal of books like this one and “Flowers in the Attic” is the taboo-ness of reading them, but when you are reading about a teenage girl recounting all the awful things she has been made to do and the reckless and dangerous coping mechanisms she finds herself in, I was less ‘wow this is fun’ and more ‘ugh, this makes me want to take a shower’. It’s not that I found it exploitative, exactly, as I think that Lynch is very good and making it uncomfortable and decidedly NOT sexy. But I did find it upsetting. Which, at it’s heart, Laura Palmer’s story is supposed to be. By seeing this side of her, it shows her as more than just that smiling picture that everyone thinks of when they think of the show.

“The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” isn’t necessarily a ‘must read’ for fans of the show, and it certainly isn’t a way for people to get an introduction to the show’s universe. But I appreciate that it gives Laura Palmer a more personal voice than the show did (and I can’t speak for the movie “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” as I have not seen it). Maybe I would have had more fun if it was the secret diary of Audrey Horne.

Rating 6: While it’s enjoyable for a “Twin Peaks” fan like me, it doesn’t really add much new to the canon beyond a personal perspective. But that personal perspective is super sad and tragic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Epistolary Fiction”, and “Twin Peaks”.

Find “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” at your library using WorldCat!

Joint Review: “Triple Threat” by Gwenda Bond

31632115Book: “Triple Threat” by Gwenda Bond

Publishing Info: Switch Press, April 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: For the first time, Lois Lane has almost everything she wants. Non-temporary home? Check. Dream job? Double check. Incredible BFFs? The absolute best. And now, her online crush, SmallvilleGuy, is coming to Metropolis. If all goes well, they’ll turn their long-distance friendship into a some-kind-of-fairy-tale romance. But when does all ever go well? Before she can check boyfriend off her list, Lois must take down a mad scientist plus a trio of mutant teens, protect the elusive flying man from the feds (including her dad), and navigate her very first date with SmallvilleGuy. In the follow-up to FALLOUT and DOUBLE DOWN, Gwenda Bond’s reimagination of DC Comics’s first leading lady takes on her toughest challenge yet: Love.

Kate’s Thoughts

So I will wholeheartedly admit that after reading “Double Down”, the previous book in this series, I was starting to feel disheartened. While I absolutely loved Lois Lane and her relationship with SmallvilleGuy, I was starting to realize that I just wasn’t interested in Lois’ life in Metropolis, or her friends, or the mystery that they were all trying to solve. Plus, I was worried that Gwenda Bond wouldn’t be able to sustain the cute relationship between Lois and SmallvilleGuy, aka Clark Kent, aka the future Superman, because if she was to stick with canon, Lois and Clark don’t meet until they are adults. How much longer could I accept Lois and SmallvilleGuy just having an online relationship that doesn’t progress beyond that?

Well good news! Gwenda Bond just tosses all that canon out the window, because it is in “Triple Threat” that Lois and Clark finally meet in person!!!!! Most of the time I’m kind of irked when a new writer or content creator ignores the history of the characters, but in this case I’m grateful  that she did. Because I’m still really just here for Lois and Clark.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like Lois’s friends in Metropolis. Because I do, for the most part. But ultimately they are kind of inconsequential, because they just aren’t quite strong enough to stand on their own two feet next to Lois and Clark. And hell, next to the rest of the original characters that have shown up in the series thus far. I even find Lucy Lane infinitely more interesting than Maddy, James, and the rest of the gang. I also wasn’t too interested in the main mystery this time around, just like last time. Teenagers with mysterious powers, potential connection to SmallvilleGuy, blah blah blah.

The true strength in this series is definitely Lois, and to a slightly lesser extent Clark. It’s fun seeing them interact with each other, and be cute and hesitant boyfriend and girlfriend together. These were the parts that I liked, and boy did I like them a lot. I think that while I don’t want Lois to lose her reporter storylines, because that IS who Lois is and she does deserve to be on her own without Clark part of the time, she is stronger with Clark. And honestly, I think that’s kind of a shame.

But something else that I enjoyed about this book? Lex Luthor has shown up. And I think that he could potentially bring interesting storylines in the future should this series continue. Especially seeing the dynamic between the three of them has been switched up a bit.

“Triple Threat” brought us some wonderful and cute Lois and Clark moments. But while I greatly liked those parts, part of me wishes that this Lois Lane could interest me more in her own right, not just when she’s with Clark. However, for pure shipping and romance purposes, this really does a great job of showing what a great couple Lois and Clark are, both romantically and professionally.

Serena’s Thoughts

I had the same feelings going into this one as Kate has expressed. I’m mostly here for Lois and Clark, and while the system that Bond has put in place for them to interact through a virtual reality chat system is cute and all, it was beginning to wear thin. So, in this instance, I was more than thrilled when Bond just threw her hands up in the air and said “Canon schmanon!” and had them finally meet up.

Also, as Kate said, I had similar feelings in the first two books about the unfortunate comparisons that are inevitably drawn between canon characters and the original characters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these characters on their own, but they don’t have the emotional heft and weighty backstory that accompany even the most minor of original characters. Like Kate said, even Lucy, who has tiny, incremental scenes in all of these books, reads as more interesting than the story lines of Maddy, James, Dante, and the crew. This problem is only being expounded upon as the number of canon characters is beginning to heavily out number these originals. We had Perry, the Lanes, Lucy, and online-Smallville guy in the first two books. But here, we have the addition of not only Clark in the person, but his parents the Kents (who I always adore in every version!), and another heavy-hitting character with Lex. Even his father shows up!

This feels weird to say, as the concept of these books as an original take on Lois Lane as a teen is a great idea, and with that goal should come new characters. But whether it was the execution of these new characters or the fact that their storylines were frankly not that interesting ever (there’s a lot of relationship drama between Maddy and Dante that doesn’t fair well in a book where you have Lois and Clark meeting for the first time in real life. The comparison level of interest is never going to play in favor of that), my urge to skim these sections is at an all time high. At this point, there are so many canon characters and their storylines and scenes are so inevitably more interesting, that I almost think it would be best to just shelve these original characters largely. It feels wrong to say/admit that, but I kind of think it’s the truth. I love that Bond has brought in Lex and Clark (outside of the internet), but it’s kind of a game-changer move, and the reality is now that we have them, it’s even harder to think of a fourth book not predominantly focused on this threesome.

In the last two books, I’m also on the record as saying that I have never been a huge fan of the mysteries that are central to the plots. It’s a weird believablity issue, really. Which is a strange thing to say about a book that has a flying alien as a romantic hero. But, look, Superman aside, this is supposed to take place in the real world. So when I’m reading a mystery about teens with wacky abilities, and the science behind it, and the scientists themselves, are all pretty wacky, I end up being thrown out of the story. If my brain is waking up and questioning the physics of things, there are problems. This is also a strange problem, as the comics, cartoon versions, and my beloved “Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman” all have a long history of zany mysteries that are just like this. But, and we’re back to it, at the center of all of those plot lines you had Lois and Clark together and a great super villain behind it, Lex. Without those core elements, the wacky, unbelievability of these plot lines just stand out in a negative way.

But, as Kate said, this book gets major props for the things it did right. Namely, forgetting canon and bring in Clark early in Lois’s life, and the addition of Lex. Bond did some creative things with his character that laid a really solid groundwork to understanding how this teenage Lex could grow to be the super villain we all know and love. So for these things, I will be still be here when book 4 comes out!

Kate’s Rating 7: Once again I had little investment in the main story line, BUT there was so much Lois and Clark interaction (and a surprise cameo by Lex) that I was pretty happy with it overall.

Serena’s Rating 7: I’m staring to admit to myself that I just want a novel version of “Lois and Clark: Teenage Reporters” without any of the original added aspects of this series. Sorry, but not sorry.

Reader’s Advisory

“Triple Threat” is fairly new and isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but like it’s predecessors it would fit in on “Ladies of DC”, and “Books with Comic Book Heroes”.

Find “Triple Threat” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Skullsworn”

29939037Book: “Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, April 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer–she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one you love / who will not come again.”

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love…and ending it on the edge of her sword.

Review: Readers first met Pyrre in Staveley’s debut trilogy, “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne,” the badass assassin whose religious order, the Skullsworn, worship the deity of death, Anashael. When I heard that he was writing a spin-off (prequel?) that centered around this character’s origin story, essentially, I was a bit skeptical. Sure, Pyrre was great in her supporting role, but she at times came across as unbeatable, and thus having no conflict, and, while we got into a few of the details of her religion in those first books, it also seemed like its seemingly callous philosophy would present a challenge to creating a sympathetic main character. But, lo and behold, this book blew me away, setting all of those concerns to rest and reminding me just how much I’ve been craving good, standalone fantasy fiction.

Death is at the center of the story. And if that sounds morbid, well, Pyrre, and Staveley, have much to say on the subject. We meet Pyrre at the cusp of her journey to become a full priestess of Anashael, wherein she must complete her final trial, killing ten types of individuals all listed in an ancient song of the order. She has a specific number of days to complete this, all overseen by two witnesses, the grumbly, but deadly Kossal, and the bright, complicated Ela. To do this, she returns to her childhood home of Dumbang.

Having already been introduced to this world, I was particularly thrilled with the setting of Dumbang for this story, a confusing maze of swamp, floating islands, and deadly creatures. The culture, history, and city itself all tied neatly into the greater world we are already familiar with, but were so unique that they stood alone as a completely new slice of this world. Reading this story, I could almost feel the heavy presence of this city, its beauty, its mystery, and the foreboding sense that people are treading where they should not. It perfectly mirrors the philosophy that Pyrre and the Skullsworn abide by: that death is inevitable and, in many ways, the most merciful part of life. Not something to be feared, but to be lived alongside.

The story itself is so compelling, mixing action with adventure, comedy with heartbreak, and neatly tying together the pieces of Pyrre’s life to perfectly illustrate how she came to be who she is and how she will continue to grow into the woman we meet in later stories. Kossal and Ela are great characters off whom Pyrre bounces, challenging her, and the reader, to expand her thinking on what it means to worship Anashael and to live a full life. Ela, specifically, was brilliant, jumping off the page and stealing every scene she was in. At first I was concerned that she was going to fall into a fairly established character type, all smooth sexuality and arrogant charm. But as the story continued, I began to have greater and greater hopes for her as a character and her ultimate role in the story. All of which were ultimately met, much to my joy and relief.

Bizarrely, Run Lan Lac, the man who Pyrre seeks out with the goal to love and to kill, was one of the weaker characters for me. But, given the overall commentary on love and death, upon further reflection, I’ve almost come to feel that this might have been intentional? He plays his role, and I was glad to see that his character remained true throughout all the revelations of the story.

Towards the end, the plot takes a massive leap out into the greater mythology of the world. And, while I have read the original trilogy which lent these reveals some interesting added perspectives, the story itself remained contained within its own pages, and I feel that it is still approachable for new readers even with this more expansive later plotline.

I can’t say enough about the strength of Staveley’s writing. As I said earlier, there were so many challenges he gave himself with the premise of this story. A main character who worships death and kills people with few qualms who must be made into a sympathetic and appealing leading lady. A new setting with a complex history that must still fit within the constraints of a previously built world. Multiple religions with a variety of gods, some familiar from previous  books, some new. All while trying to create a standalone novel that is approachable to new readers, but also familiar and appropriately laying the groundwork for a character known to readers of the original series. He not only does all of this, but the book was laugh-out-loud funny at parts and had me on the brink of tears at others. Staveley is quickly climbing the ranks of “must read” fantasy authors.

Rating 9: The epitome of setting tough writing goals and then  blowing them all out of the water!

Reader’s Advisory

“Skullsworn” is a newer title and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Book with Heroes/Heroines Who are Assassins.”

Find “Skullsworn” at your library using WorldCat


Kate’s Review: “Gwendy’s Button Box”

34430839Book: “Gwendy’s Button Box” by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Publishing Info: Cemetery Dance Publications, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

Journey back to Castle Rock again in this chilling new novella by Stephen King, bestselling author of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, and Richard Chizmar, award-winning author of A Long December. This book will be a Cemetery Dance Publications exclusive with no other editions currently planned anywhere in the world!

Review: One of my favorite things about Stephen King (and there are so, so many things to love about this man, in my opinion) is that he likes to make references to his past works within his books. It makes it feel like his stories exist in their own universe, and it makes it fun to try and spot references as you read his books. He also brings some characters from some books into other books. For example, in his Science Fiction/Suspense book “11/22/63”, his main character travels back in time to stop the Kennedy Assassination… and makes a detour in Derry, Maine, the infected town in “It”. We even got to see some of the characters from “It” in that book, even though they were definitely just treats for his readers. But the character that he does this the most with is Randall Flagg, aka The Man in Black, aka The Walkin’ Dude, aka Walter O’Dim. Flagg is mostly seen in “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” Series, but every once in awhile he’ll show up in other King works. It’s rumored that he’s He Who Walks Behind The Rows in “The Children of the Corn”, and Raymond Fiegler in “Hearts in Atlantis”. I’m always on the look out for Flagg to come back, as he’s one of my favorite villains of all time.

And in “Gwendy’s Button Box”, the new novella by King and Richard Chizmar, it’s very possible that he has.

M-O-O-N that spells ELATED! (source)

Gwendy is a typical awkward pre-teen girl. Teased by her peers and living a less than ideal home life, she’s taken it upon herself to slim down before she starts high school. She does this by running up a very steep set of stairs every day in her hometown of Castle Rock, Maine. And it’s on one of these days that she meets Richard Farris, a mysterious stranger wearing a black hat and coat. The Initials R.F. tell us right away that this is very likely to be Flagg, as does his appearance due to his penchant for wearing black. Oh, and the fact he gives her a magical box covered in buttons, and tells her that it is her responsibility at this moment to keep this box safe. While he doesn’t say it outright, he implies that pressing the buttons could have dire consequences for the world around her. It’s such a terrifying and fascinating concept to hold such a small yet powerful thing in your hands, and Gwendy is the one who is going to be the keeper of that responsibility. At least for now. This is Flagg at a more benign level, as he feels less destructive and more impish, almost like a mentor to Gwendy. The Box rewards her with beautiful chocolate animals, antique coins, and a boost of self esteem. While it didn’t feel like the Randall Flagg that I know and love, this potentially kinder, gentler Randall was pretty fun to read and rather ‘aw’ inducing. After all, how kind and gentle could he be truly if he knows that this box could potentially spell doom for mankind if it falls into the wrong hands?

I think that King and Chizmar did a very good job of writing Gwendy. Even though this is a novella and doesn’t have many pages to delve into her psyche, I felt that she was a realistic and relatable pre-teen girl. She isn’t too popular, she is unsure of herself, and she is happy to take the highs of this box and it’s responsibilities, but reluctant and scared of the lows. I enjoyed that as I was reading this book it was hard to know if there was a cause and effect going on, at least part of the time. When Gwendy pushes one of the buttons, shortly thereafter the Jonestown Massacre happens. Is that coincidence? Or did Gwendy cause it? It’s philosophical tension at it’s finest, making the reader question if she has any affect on the world, or if Richard Farris (aka Randall Flagg) is merely toying with her. She struggles with the knowledge that she has this thing that could potentially be destructive, and yet lives for the perks that it may be giving her. I also think that King and Chizmar did a good job of capturing adolescence as a whole, even if a magical button box wasn’t there. Gwendy makes friends, loses others, finds first love and has to deal with cruel and bad people who are in her life, and it always felt so real and bittersweet watching her go through her teenage years, button box or not.

King and Chizmar created a pretty cohesive book. It’s hard enough to pull off a novella, to hit all the points that you want to hit, and I imagine that doing it with another person is harder still. But it never felt like I was reading two competing voices in this book. It sounds like they created a system that worked for the two of them, and I have to say that I was very impressed with what they came up with. It has that undercurrent of thriller, wondering if Gwendy is going to keep hitting buttons and cause a catastrophe. But it also has that coming of age feel as Gwendy learns about herself and life. Given that King and his son Owen just wrote another book together, I see this as a positive sign that King has the ability to adapt, or at least tweak, his writing to mesh with another person’s.

“Gwendy’s Button Box” was a quick and very satisfying read. We get a nice taste of a return of The Walkin’ Dude, but we also get a heroine grounded in realism, and an existential crisis that kept this reader on the edge of her seat.

Rating 8: Filled with ambiguity and philosophical horror, “Gwendy’s Button Box” doesn’t only bring us back to Castle Rock, it may bring back The Man In Black. King and Chizmar work well to make a cohesive story between two voices.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gwendy’s Button Box” is fairly new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is, however, on “Best Books to Read In Summer”, and I think that it would fit in on “Weird and Freaky Books”, partially because Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” is on that list and this book is super similar.

Find “Gwendy’s Button Box” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Conspiracy of Kings”

6527841Book: “A Conspiracy of Kings” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers, March 2010

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

Book Description: Sophos, under the guidance of yet another tutor, practices his swordplay and strategizes escape scenarios should his father’s villa come under attack. How would he save his mother? His sisters? Himself? Could he reach the horses in time? Where would he go? But nothing prepares him for the day armed men, silent as thieves, swarm the villa courtyard ready to kill, to capture, to kidnap. Sophos, the heir to the throne of Sounis, disappears without a trace.

In Attolia, Eugenides, the new and unlikely king, has never stopped wondering what happened to Sophos. Nor has the Queen of Eddis. They send spies. They pay informants. They appeal to the gods. But as time goes by, it becomes less and less certain that they will ever see their friend alive again.

Across the small peninsula battles are fought, bribes are offered, and conspiracies are set in motion. Darkening the horizon, the Mede Empire threatens, always, from across the sea. And Sophos, anonymous and alone, bides his time. Sophos, drawing on his memories of Gen, Pol, the Magus and Eddis, sets out on an adventure that will change all of their lives forever.

Review: After blazing through the first three books in this series last fall, I decided I needed to pump the brakes so I could stand the wait until the fifth book’s publication this spring. Delayed gratification and all of that. But by now the next book has dropped, I’m on the waiting list at my library, and it’s time to finally catch up with the last book in the series to this point.

One thing that I have commented about in all of the previous books in this series, is the way the author plays where her narrator and narrative method. For a series that has such a strong character as Gen, it’s a brave choice to focus the story on periphery characters and leave your star player benched, essentially, for large chunks of the story. Here, she takes an even bolder risk by throwing the story into the hands of Sophos, a character who played a large role in the plot of the first book “The Thief” but has been entirely absent, apart from random asides, throughout the rest of the series.  He was an interesting enough character there, but it is always hard to tell how truly compelling any character is on their own when they’re working of the character of Gen who seems to draw out the best parts of many characters. So if you’d asked me whether I was interested in an entire book seen through his eyes and regarding his struggles with family and kingship, I’d probably have been like “…meh?” But, as usual, I should never have doubted!

One of the few things I remembered about Sophos as a character was his crippling insecurity. Here, after the events of “The Thief” and back in his home country under a new tutor, we can see why he struggles with this. His father is completely disappointed in him as a son and heir and never misses an opportunity to rub this fact in. So in many ways this is a story of self-discovery and self-confidence, all wrapped beneath an action packed plot. After Sophos’ family is attacked and he is sold into slavery, he finds himself completely alone in the world, and, for the first time, anonymous. How can he escape his current situation and re-claim his throne? And, more importantly, does he even want to?

As I mentioned earlier, Whalen Turned doesn’t just change up narrators between books, but she also changes the way she tells the story. Here, very early on, it is clear that Sophos is relating his experience to a listener, but it is not clear who that listener was. This plot device was both interesting and endlessly frustrating as I kept coming up with guesses for who he was talking to and the purpose of telling the story the way he was.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that yes, he eventually does meet up with Gen, Attolia, and, most importantly Eddis again. As leaders of their own countries, each are valuable allies for the displaced Sophos. But much has happened since he last left them, most importantly the upstart theif Gen is now King of Attolia. And Eddis…he’s not quite sure where he stands with her. I loved seeing all of these characters through the eyes of Sophos who has been gone for much of the series and missed the progression of change that we the readers have had time to come to terms with. Further, all three rulers have different approaches to what it means to lead a country and how they go about it. I loved the insights they each provided Sophos as he began to realize the depth of the decisions before him.

The only thing that knocks this book down from a perfect score is the complicated politics of the regions. And I even hesitate to mention it because this aspect of the series is also one that makes it stand out and has been one of the draws for me as a reader. And it still is here. However, there were times when the plans and actions of the characters were confusing to me and I had to re-read portions to fully understand how everyone knew what when. But, like I said, I’d rather things be more complicated than be spoon-fed the plot, so take this “criticism” how you will.

Surprising no one, I loved this book. And surprising no one, all the doubts I had going in where laid fully to rest. I will now go back to obsessively refreshing my library hold account page to see if the line of people before me is dwindling for the next book “Thick as Thieves.”

Rating 9: Another great entry in a great series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conspiracy of Kings” is on these Goodreads lists: “Political themed YA fiction” and “Royalty.”

Find “A Conspiracy of Kings” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Thief” and “The Queen of Attolia” and “The King of Attolia”

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Ski Weekend”

176588Book: “Ski Weekend” (Fear Street #10) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1991

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

Book Description: Snowbound!

“Red” Porter was a stranger they’d met on their ski weekend. But Ariel Munroe, Doug Mahr and his girlfriend Shannon Harper were grateful he was there when they set out for home on the icy roads. Thank heaven for Red! He spotted the hilltop lodge when they were stranded by the blizzard. He took charge when they stumbled into strange surroundings, scared, tired and looking for refuge. But can he save them when their refuge becomes a trap? Suddenly their hosts are acting very sinisterly. Doug’s car is gone. The phones are dead. And the house is full of guns. If they steal one, maybe they can escape! Until a shot is fired and the real terror begins…

Had I Read This Before: Yes.

The Plot: We start out in a car with a group of friends from Shadyside who are coming home from vacation. We have Ariel, a science minded girl who is also our protagonist. There’s Doug, Ariel’s oldest friend who is kind of a tough guy who makes bad choices. There’s Shannon, Doug’s girlfriend who is pretty bland but very pretty. And then there’s Red. Red is NOT part of this group. You see, the fourth is supposed to be Randy, Ariel’s boyfriend. But they got in a fight over the fact that he wanted to cut the ski weekend short so he could go play basketball. After a blow out argument they had in public (which led to Randy leaving with his car), Red approached Ariel to see if she was okay. After he got along with her and her friends, he asked if they could drop him off in Brockton. I don’t know, but an older guy swooping in on a teenage girl who is vulnerable after a fight isn’t someone I would trust, but here we are. Doug is driving like a maniac in spite of the fact there’s a snow storm falling on them, Red suggests that they turn down a country road, because according to him the plows clear those out before the highways. Horseshit, Red! But these city kids don’t know up from down, so Doug turns down the road, and doesn’t get far before his car dies. Red says he’s overheating the engine, and they should ask one of these farm houses to give them shelter for the night. So they grab their gear and go to ask if they can crash.

The door is opened by a guy straight out of a backwoods horror movie, at least in mannerism and stereotypical personality. He says his name is Lou, and introduces them to his wife, Eva, who sounds like she’s a mouse of a woman to his boonies son of the soil demeanor. He says that they can stay overnight, and tells them to make themselves at home. He also blatantly lusts after Shannon, and let me tell you it’s disgusting. He also tells stories about misfortune that his acquaintances have met in the past, and laughs about it. Amazingly, their phone works, so Doug calls his parents, and when Ariel tries it’s very hard to hear anything. She asks Eva for a cup of tea, and notices that Eva is very quiet and kind of jumpy. Back out in the living room, Lou opens the door and sees that a branch has crashed through the porch roof. The men go outside to move it, and Lou is mad that Doug doesn’t listen very well. I sense the start of a rivalry.

After dinner, Ariel, hoping to escape Lou and his awful stories, asks Eva where she can sleep. After being led to a room, she tries to sleep… But wakes up to the noise of the front door opening and closing. She sees no one has gone outside, but hears footsteps downstairs, though everyone seems to be in bed. She goes to investigate, but chickens out when she hears a lamp crash to the floor. She runs into Red, who tells her he thought he heard Lou and Eva fighting, and Lou hitting Eva. Ariel votes that they should try and bail, but then they start kissing a bit. Which is pretty gross, R.L. It sounds like Red is definitely older than 18. They eventually stop and go back to their separate rooms. No thought as to whether Eva could be hurt. Oh the 90s.

The next morning Ariel wakes up to the smell of bacon. She goes downstairs and finds her friends at the kitchen table, and Lou making them breakfast. When asked where Eva is, he says he’s letting her ‘sleep in’, and I’m suspicious because I don’t remember Eva from my time as a kid reading this book. Doug announces his intentions to check on the car, though Lou berates him for thinking about that because there’s no point until the road crews come. Red and Ariel opt to go with him (WHY SHANNON STAYS BEHIND WITH PREDATORY LOU IS BEYOND ME). They find that the car is gone, and when they do find it it’s been pushed into a ditch. When they return Lou offers to call for a tow, but NOW the phone is dead. Lou freaks out about the phone, and says that while he does have four wheel drive he’s not going to take them anywhere because the snow is too deep. After they beg, he says that he’ll give it a go and tells them to get their things.

WHile they wait for him they have a snowball fight, and when Lou pulls up Ariel notices his plates are from Alabama and not Vermont. Red says that there are lots of cars with out of state plates and it doesn’t mean anything. Lou smells of beer (SO GREAT that he’s driving), and tells Shannon to sit next to him. But the the Jeep also sputters and dies. Lou freaks again and storms into the house, and the gang is getting more worried. That afternoon while Red works on the Jeep and Lou gets more drunk, Ariel goes to find Eva. Eva is NOT dead, but she’s pretty beat up and says that Ariel and her friends shouldn’t be there. Seemingly not so concerned, Ariel goes downstairs just in time for Lou to yank the phone out of the wall. So stable, this Lou. Ariel, Doug, and Shannon play cards, and when Ariel looks out the window SHE SEES A STRANGE MAN IN A SKI MASK! She screams, and Doug and Shannon see him too just before he vanishes. They tell Lou, but Lou is too drunk to care. Red comes in and says he doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Then Lou asks Doug if he works out. I have to assume this is the kind of thing those self proclaimed Alpha guys do. Instead of calling Doug a cuck, he challenges him to a wrestling match. Doug is on the school wrestling team so he agrees, and I’m just flabbergasted. They fight, and Lou smashes Doug in the knee and hits his head against the floor a bunch, until Red pulls him off. Doug is convinced his leg is broken, but Ariel, who wants to be a doctor, reminds him that she did a school project on the knee, and after examining it says it’s just sprained. Lou shrugs it all off.

Seriously, Lou. (source)

The gang gathers in Ariel’s room and tries to plot an escape. Red tells them that he heard Lou and Eva conspire to rob them and make it so they can’t leave, and that he found some photos in a drawer of a couple that isn’t Lou and Eva. Come to think of it, Eva doesn’t know the kitchen and Lou’s clothes don’t fit. So this must not be their house!!! Red says that he lied when he said the Jeep was still dead, he just wanted to wait for the right moment to get in it and leave. So they decide to wait Lou out. So after Lou goes to bed around midnight, they wait another hour to sneak out of the house with their things, Doug grabbing a gun. THey go into the barn, ready to go, but then are surprised by a strange man standing in the doorway in the dark. They assume it’s Lou, and Doug fires the gun, shooting him… BUt it’s not Lou!! It’s some random guy! Ski mask guy?? It’s at the very least the man in the photos Red showed them! Lou runs in and says that they just killed Eva’s brother JAKE?!?! Who must have been coming to save them in the storm?! They find a ski mask in Jake’s coat, so he was the guy looking in the window. Which makes NO sense, but everyone buys it. Lou tells them they have to help him hide the body in the basement.

While Lou is telling Eva that her brother is dead, Ariel feels like something is off. She goes into the basement to check out the body. She examines poor dead Jake, and notices that not only is there not a lot of blood, but the body is completely frozen even though he’s only been dead for a short while. Red interrupts her examination, and she says they need to find Doug and Shannon! They find their friends, and Ariel says that she thinks Jake was already dead when Doug shot him. If he’d been alive he would have bled a lot, which he didn’t. And his body wouldn’t be frozen solid yet! I like how brainy Ariel is! Red isn’t convinced, and thinks they should confront Lou. The others outvote him and opt to leave. They run outside, and Ariel tells Red that he doesn’t need the pistol he’s carrying… But he tells them that HE DOES. AND HE POINTS THE GUN AT THEM.

Oh wow, the older guy macking on a teenage girl turns out to be a creep, I’m so shocked. (source)

Red takes them back to the porch and he and Lou tell them the whole scheme: Red was the one in the ski mask (the cover of this book is officially wrong then), the phones have worked the whole time, and not only are Eva and Jake siblings, Red is the THIRD sibling! Apparently Jake stole the inheritance from his siblings, and Lou killed him because of it. Eva, however, tells them that she never wanted this, and JUST CALLED THE COPS ON LOU! While Lou is processing this, Ariel hocks a snowball at him. He drops the gun and Doug tosses it (why he didn’t hold onto it is beyond me). The teens run back to the barn, but realize that Red has the keys to the Jeep! Ariel, always thinking, jumps on a snowmobile and just as Red and Lou are running in, she plows through them and towards the lake. She falls off the snowmobile and skids onto the ice. The guys catch up with her and grab her, but with the police sirens blaring they argue about how to proceed. Lou wants to give up, but Red wants to take her as a hostage. While they fight Ariel runs onto the ice, and Red follows her. But then the ice starts to crack, and Red falls through, as his sister screams on the banks (this is actually way sad). Ariel almost falls through, but Doug saves her. Lou gives himself up. Eva’s life is ruined.

A tow truck comes and is able to get Doug’s car out of the ditch, and it runs just fine now. They’re driving home and Ariel jokes that they should go on another ski weekend next weekend. Doug, as if predicting her bullshit joking in lieu of a trauma, pulls a snowball out of the glove compartment and smashes it in her face. The end.

Body Count: 2. Luke didn’t deserve that, but Red sure did!

Romance Rating: Gotta be 1. Domestic abuse, statutory make outs, attempted murder, and basketball being prioritized over a ski weekend. At least Doug seems to care about Shannon.

Bonkers Rating: 3. I’ll give some credit for the Red twist, but otherwise it’s pretty milquetoast.

Fear Street Relevance: 1! It has nothing to do with Fear Street besides Ariel living there, but she lives there off page! It probably should have been a standalone like “The Babysitter” or “The Snowman”.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“I started to say something else – but stopped. Doug and I both cried out in surprise when we heard the snap of a gunshot right behind us!”

…. And it’s a mousetrap. PLEASE.

That’s So Dated! Moments: Well besides Red on the cover looking like David Hasselhoff (seriously, look at him), when Lou and Doug are having their awkward and stupid wrestling contest Lou keeps calling Doug ‘Hulkster’. As in Hulk friggin’ Hogan.


Best Quote:

“Be a scientist, Ariel, I told myself. Examine the corpse… scientifically.”

Okay, Ariel’s determination to be STEM-y is kind of adorable.

SO, it doesn’t fit in on the “Fear Street” roster at all, but I remember that child me was totally blown away by the Red revelation. “Ski Weekend” is pretty okay, and at least it was memorable all these years later, unlike others I’ve read. Next up is “The Fire Game”!


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