Book Description:On the windswept moors of northern England, a small religious cult has cut itself off from society, believing they have found meaning in a purposeless world. Led by their prophet, Nathaniel, they eagerly await the end times. But when the prophet brings in Stephanie and her rebellious daughter Judith, the group’s delicate dynamic is disturbed. Judith is determined to escape, but her feelings are complicated by a growing friendship with another of the children, the naive and trusting Moses, who has never experienced the outside world.
Meanwhile, someone else is having doubts, unleashing a horrifying chain of events that will destroy the followers’ lives.
In the aftermath, the survivors struggle to adjust to the real world, haunted by the same questions: if you’ve been persuaded to surrender your individual will, are you still responsible for your actions? And is there any way back?
Review: I’ve been deeply interested in cults since I was in California during the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. I remember seeing footage of the crime scene on the television, and being completely horrified and yet taken with the idea that this group believed that a spaceship was on the tail of Hale-Bopp comet. Ever since then, I’ve had a twisted interest in books about cults, be they true stories or not, and the way that people can fall into them. So when I stumbled upon a New York Times article about “The Followers” by Rebecca Wait, I requested it, thinking that it was going to be a thrilling yarn about a scary cult wreaking havoc. While I sat on the couch reading it (making a lot of scandalized noises that my husband kept enquiring about, until the fifth time and he just stopped asking), I was totally engrossed. This was everything I wanted it to be, but it was a bit more than I bargained for as well. After all, at the heart of this is the story of a woman who takes her daughter and whisks them both away at the whims of a religious fanatic who has completely cast her under his spell. So, you know. Fun times.
The thing that stuck me most was that it shifted between various levels of believer/non believer. First we have Stephanie, the single mother who falls in love with “The Prophet” Nathanial. She feels so doted on and loved by Nathanial when they first start dating, and she feels so trapped in her life as a single working mother, that his affection is enough to make her pick up her entire life and follow him anywhere. As I read it was clear that Nathanial was big trouble, but I could also completely understand why Stephanie wanted to go with him, even if I was cursing her and the terrible decisions she was making. Then there is the perspective of Stephanie’s daughter Judith, whose adolescent rebellion is only kicked up a few notches when they move to the commune. She’s a strong willed girl who may have treaded towards unbelievable in her mental strength, but she felt so real and so well realized that I didn’t even care. Then you have Moses, the only friend that Judith makes at the commune, who was born into it and fully believes that not only is Nathanial the Prophet and the ourside world the road to hell, but that his birthmark on his face is a mark of the devil. At first I was very worried about him and his intentions towards Judith, but he really is just the epitome of naive wonderment, raised in a warped society that is all he’s known. And finally you have Thomas, a long time member of Nathanial’s thrall, but who has started questioning it. With these different characters on different parts of the belief scale, Rachel Wait has done a great job of showing the full gamut of emotions for the members.
I loved the description of the commune, which is located in the Moors of England. The isolation was palpable, both physically (with the description of few buildings and many bogs, forests, and other barriers) and emotionally. The members are told that if they leave they can never come back, and will be doomed to stay in “Gehenna” and probably rot with all the nonbelievers when the end of days comes. The manipulation that Nathanial administered to his disciples was also incredibly creepy, through kind syrupy promises and yet no physical action of his own to place his controls upon them. I think that Wait hit the nail on the head with Nathanial, and he was the perfect villain, just as Stephanie, Moses, and the other members were perfect victims. And yet this was told in such a way that it always felt a couple steps up from your run of the mill thriller. We also got to see beyond the cult moments, and where Judith and Stephanie ended up after all was said and done. Spoiler alert, it’s pretty bleak. But along with the overarching bleakness, there was also a fair amount of purity and hope, specifically through the friendship between Judith and Moses. They are both outcasts in their own ways in the commune, and while he’s a true believer and she’s a non believer, they forge a bond that was absolutely sweet and powerful. They really do bring out the best in each other, and their types of belief and non belief feel more constructive than those of Stephanie and Thomas. Every time they were together, my heart would grow ten sizes bigger.
And yes, the slow build up of terror as the cult starts to fall apart was absolutely riveting. I love a good slow burn build up, and “The Followers” really nails the ‘frog in a pot of boiling water’ pace.
All in all, “The Followers” was an entertaining and insightful story that exceeded my expectations. If a good and twisty cult story is your idea of a good time, definitely pick this one up. You’ll get a bit more than you bargained for in the best way possible.
Rating 9: A sad and suspenseful tale about fanaticism, family, and the way that tenuous bonds can be broken if a monster figures out how to exploit them.
Book Description: When a teenage boy dies suspiciously on Halloween night, Salem’s chief of police, John Rafferty wonders if there is a connection between his death and Salem’s most notorious cold case, a triple homicide dubbed “The Goddess Murders,” in which three young women, all descended from accused Salem witches, were slashed on Halloween night in 1989. He finds unexpected help in Callie Cahill, the daughter of one of the victims newly returned to town. Neither believes that the main suspect, Rose Whelan, respected local historian, is guilty of murder or witchcraft.
But exonerating Rose might mean crossing paths with a dangerous force. Were the women victims of an all-too-human vengeance, or was the devil raised in Salem that night? And if they cannot discover what truly happened, will evil rise again?
Review: This is the second book by Barry, the first being “The Lace Reader.” I haven’t read this book, and when I requested this one I didn’t know that it was connected to this first novel. However, luckily for me, this story takes place many years later and any recurring characters that appear are at a different enough point in their lives that I never felt that missing this first book had much of an impact on my views of this. And, all told, they were fairly postive
As we all know by now, Kate is the horror/thriller reader on this blog, but in the spirit of Halloween, I tried to choose one book to read that month that was at least somewhat “on theme.” Enter “The Fifth Petal,” a murder mystery with ties to relations of the women accused as witches in the Salem trials. So, yeah, about as close as I’m ever going to venture to true horror. Witches, however, are more within my realm of experience and interest, so this seemed like a good compromise.
As the story progressed, I found this connection to modern day Salem and its history to be one of the more intriguing aspects of the story. Like many people, this place, time, and horrifying event, has always held a note of fascination for me. I feel that I went into this story already knowing much of this information, but I still enjoyed the nuggets I as able to pick up here and there, especially about the modern day town.
The author’s note at the end goes into good detail about how much of it is based on truth, which made these aspects of the story even better, in hindsight. Much of layout of the town is accurate, such as the location of the hanging tree. Goes to show how much good research reflects well on a story.
The story was also very action packed and never wanted for movement. This is a good and bad thing, in my view. I whipped through this read very quickly, but at the same time, portions of the story felt muddled, trying to fit too much within a limited page count. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I feel that either slowing it down in a few parts, or simply extending the page count out a bit so each of these elements had more room to breathe, would have ultimately served the novel well. At a certain point I began to question whether all of these various plotlines were necessary.
Callie was an ok leading lady. The mystery of her lost memories was interesting, but in a lot of ways she was just kind of bland. Nothing about her really stood out to me, and she ended up reading like the typical main character at the heart of stories like this. This, too, might have been improved had the author not devoted so much time to the many, many plotlines that I referenced earlier.
I also found myself enjoying the romantic spin of the story. I don’t typically read contemporary books, or contemporary romance, specifically, but every once in a while, themes from books like that can hit the spot. This book was a good compromise in this way as well. Got my romance fix, but still got to keep my fantasy/thriller moments.
Ultimately, I enjoyed “The Fifth Petal.” It wasn’t without flaws, and it falls pretty far outside of my usual reading tastes, but it was an fun enough time. It won’t stand out to me as anything special, but for readers who enjoy thrillers and contemporary romance a bit more than me, this might be a good read for you!
Rating 7: Fairly unassuming and enjoyable. Could be improved by fewer plotlines stuffed into one story, but was a quick read, especially for those interested in the Salem Witch Trials.
Publishing Info: Crown Books for Young Readers, November 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley!
Book Description:From the New York Times bestselling author of All the Missing Girls and The Perfect Stranger comes a suspenseful psychological mystery about one girl’s search to uncover the truth behind her ex-boyfriend’s death. Perfect for fans of We Were Liars and 13 Reasons Why .
Jessa Whitworth knew she didn’t belong in her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room. But she couldn’t deny that she was everywhere–in his photos, his neatly folded T-shirts, even the butterfly necklace in his jeans pocket . . . the one she gave him for safe keeping on that day.
His mother asked her to pack up his things–even though she blames Jessa for his accident. How could she say no? And maybe, just maybe, it will help her work through the guilt she feels about their final moments together.
But as Jessa begins to box up the pieces of Caleb’s life, they trigger memories that make Jessa realize their past relationship may not be exactly as she remembered. And she starts to question whether she really knew Caleb at all.
Each fragment of his life reveals a new clue that propels Jessa to search for the truth about Caleb’s accident. What really happened on the storm-swept bridge?
Review: A special thank you to Crown Books for Young Readers and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!
So perhaps you all remember that I read and reviewed Megan Miranda’s novel “All the Missing Girls”, and I wasn’t very impressed with it beyond the framing of it. But I was intrigued enough by her as a writer that I knew I’d probably pick up something else she had written in the future. That book happened to be “Fragments of the Lost”, a new YA psychological thriller by her. I saw that it was available on NetGalley, and decided to request it. When I finally got to reading it, I figured that I would start it one evening and make my way through, as I did with “All the Missing Girls”. But lo and behold, I actually sat down and read it in one sitting. So you know that we’re off to a pretty good start when THAT happens.
I think that what grabbed me about this book right away was Jessa, our main character. She’s a girl who has gone through the awful trauma of losing her ex-boyfriend Caleb after his car is thought to have gone off a cliff during a rainstorm and flood. She’s believable in that she has mixed feelings about cleaning out Caleb’s room, as they had broken up before his car went off the cliff on that rainy day. She was a very down to earth and realistic person, never treading into the realm of simpering or frustrating in her emotions. Which is funny, because I fully prepared myself for her to be the kind of wreck that Nicolette was in “All the Missing Girls”, and yet it was in the YA novel that Miranda’s main character was bit more nuanced. As she cleans up Caleb’s room, we get to see their relationships through flashbacks, depending on the object that she is sorting in the moment. While it had ample chances to become schmaltzy, it never did because Jessa is that well rounded and complex of a character. As for the other characters, we really only got to see them through Jessa’s eyes, so it was harder to get a gauge of who they were. I think that you certainly can give readers a handle on other characters through a main character filter, but I didn’t feel like we completely got there with Jessa. While I really liked her, everyone else was fairly bland. Caleb was really just this enigmatic good person that we didn’t really get to know beyond this plotline, and while I did like their mutual friend Max, a sweet geeky kind of guy, he was really just there to provide support to Jessa through thick and thin, no matter what. I liked him and I liked how he interacted with her, but he was just there for the ride and showing up when needed.
The mystery was solid enough, and I liked that we were given the pieces as Jessa boxed up his room. From a pair of spare glasses to a broken fan to some sporting equipment, we learn bit by bit what Caleb was like, what his relationship with Jessa was like, and why perhaps none of it was as real as she thought it was. I think that had it stopped there, and been an examination about young love lost, the different sides of people even in relationships, and why we may never know everything about them, this would have been a pretty powerful book. But while the mystery was solid (as to what actually happened to Caleb that day), I think that it may have actually hindered an already powerful narrative. That isn’t to say that Miranda had to write a book that was solely a meditation on grief and loss, because it’s her prerogative to write a mystery and I say have at it. Hell, this mystery was interesting to follow and I liked it enough. But along with it, we started to get into areas that kind of pulled me out of the story because of how unrealistic things were. It was mostly little things, like how a library computer would probably NEVER have search history that went between sign in sessions because of privacy laws, or how it would take a whole lot more than just a fake ID to completely restart your life as a new person. These may not seem like much, but it was enough to take me out of the story even for a little while, which was distracting. There was also a sudden shift in solution in the end, and you all know how I feel about that kind of thing. When I’m told that only options A and B are going to work, I have a really hard time swallowing a sudden option C rearing it’s ugly, if not convenient head.
“Fragments of the Lost” was a twisty turny read, though, and I think that it’s one of the stronger YA thriller/mysteries that I’ve read this year. Meg Miranda should definitely write more for this audience, as she brings the nuance that is needed to write an effective whodunit.
Rating 7: A pretty interesting mystery with an engrossing parsing of clues, “Fragments of the Lost” is a tangled read with some unexpected surprises. The characterization of supporting characters could have been stronger, but I enjoyed reading it.
“Fragments of the Lost” is pretty new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Post Death Novels”.
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!
I’ve been staring at this as it continually shows up on my recommended viewing list for the last year or so on Netflix. For some reason, I never got around to watching it. What was wrong with me?? I mean, I love me some historical mini series. Perhaps it was my general lack of knowledge of the Windsor family as a whole. But once I finally started it, I was hooked! And I’ve found that my lack of knowledge might actually be making me enjoy it more. It’s gotten to the point now that I sometimes watch the show with a laptop open on my lap so I can Google the various different historical facts that come in the show. Was Prince Philip really an insecure prat? What about that fog?! Did Winston Churchill really burn a portrait of himself? These may be commonly known things to others, but I’ve tremendously enjoyed diving into this political drama and highly recommend it for fans of historical shows or fans of Queen Elizabeth. Yes, her corgis make appearances.
Movie: “John Wick”
Alas, yet another one where I am late to the game! But I do get there, you have to give me that. I’ve always been a fan of Keanu Reeves. Sure, his dialogue can come off as slightly stilted, but there’s no denying his success as an action movie star. And at its core, that’s all the movie “John Wick” is about. The plot is simple: jerk crime lord son (ofcourse the actor who plays Theon Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones” was cast in this role. That poor actor, is he now just type cast as “weaselly, horrible, ultimately cowardly and insecure, villains?”) steals John Wick’s car and kills his dog (this was truly traumatizing for me, even though I knew it was coming!) Then the entire rest of the movie is a straight forward revenge plot with John Wick taking out anyone who gets in his way. And it was excellent! Other movies could learn a thing or do from this movie. Your story doesn’t have to be crazy complicated to be good.
Netflix Show: “Stranger Things 2”
Obviously “Stranger Things 2” had to make it on this list for me! I was one of those people who was practically counting down the days and then binged watched it immediately after it came out. Kate and I were talking about casting our friends as characters in it the other day (we’re nerdy like that, but that’s nothing new), and she was like “As long as I’m not Steve…” And my response was “What?!?! You obviously have watched the second season yet! Get on that girl!” Cuz, let’s be real, Steve was awesome. Alongside so many other new and awesome things! Eleven’s whole journey, Will’s more active presence within the show, the ever expanding and more terrifying Upside Down. There were a few bumps in the road, but in my opinion, season 2 was a complete success. And now I can happily go and binge watch both seasons back to back while I start up yet another countdown to season 3.
I am a gigantic fan of John Carpenter’s movies, as his range is huge and his stories are compelling. From “Halloween” to “Escape from New York” to my personal favorite “Starman”, Carpenter has created many worlds of horror, wonder, and even sometimes joy. He also tends to write the music for his movies (with a few exceptions, such as “Starman” and “The Thing”), and each theme has been compiled for his album “Anthology”. I was lucky enough to see him perform a number of the songs from this album in concert, and it was a serious pleasure to watch this icon rock out on stage with his synthesizer and back up band. I’ve been blasting the album ever since.
As a connoisseur of bad movies, it is one of my great shames that I have never seen “The Room”, the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies. This film is so notoriously bad that it has a cult following devoted to its awfulness. It was written, (sort of) directed by, and starred the enigmatic and strange Tommy Wiseau. The making of it was so bizarre that Greg Sestero, cast member and close friend of Wiseau, wrote a book about the experience of being in this movie. And now that has been turned into a movie starring James Franco as Tommy Wiseau. Apparently its getting RAVE reviews on the independent and film festival circuits. I am so excited to see this movie (a review of the book will be here in the near future), I have been watching the trailer in anticipation. It looks strange, funny, and oddly a bit sweet. Sign me up.
Trust and believe, it was kind of a toss up between this and “Justice League” (as yes, I did enjoy that movie), but ultimately the Taika Waititi factor made this one the winner. As a DC Girl, that says a lot. Thor has always been my favorite member of the Avengers, if only because his stories don’t seem to take him TOO seriously. Add in the director of one of my faves, “What We Do In The Shadows”, and you get a really fun, really funny, and sugar blasted ride. Not only did we get much loved returns of Loki, Heimdall, and Thor himself, we also got some great new characters. While Valkyrie was EXCELLENT and Hela was BADASS, it was Jeff Goldblum’s quirky and dramatic Grandmaster who cemented this movie as a serious winner.
Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .
Review: This is going to be such a hard review to write! Not only do I have drastically mixed opinions of this book, but there’s just no escaping the fact that there is no way I can be completely objective about this. As I was reading it, my husband looked over and asked about the strange smile on my face and the only way I could explain it (yes, he is one of those rare individuals who hasn’t read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy) was to compare it to reading a new Harry Potter book. It’s something you never thought would happen, so much so that you gave up wishing for it, and yet, one day, it arrives on your step and you’re once again back in this magical world, and more than than, you’re back to when you were a kid reading the series for the first time. The only word to describe the entire experience is “surreal.”
But. I did have qualms, and I think through these I was able to take off the nostalgia glasses long enough to be able to analyze the book as much outside of its connection to this beloved trilogy as I can. Here we go!
Set eleven or so years before the events of “The Golden Compass,” this is the story of Malcolm, an 11 year old boy whose family owns and operates an inn called the “Trout.” Malcolm is everything we expect from young heroic boys: smart, resourceful, and kind. If you look up the actual definition of “boy scout,” I’m pretty sure it would say “See the character of Malcolm from Philip Pullman’s “La Belle Sauvage.”
Other than caring for his beloved canoe (the name of which is where the title of the book comes from), his main duties in life are avoiding the acerbic teenager Alice who works as a dishwasher at the inn, and helping a group of nuns who live in a priory nearby. Until, that is, a mysterious baby girl named Lyra appears in the nuns’ care. Now, devoted to Lyra, Malcolm finds himself caught up in a cold war between two powerful parties both looking to determine Lyra’s future (or whether she should have one at all). Fleeing the disturbed man named Bonneville and his even more disturbing daemon, a three legged hyena, who have their own designs on the baby, Malcolm, Alice and Lyra flee during a massive flood, looking for safety and a future for this small, but important, girl.
First with the simple parts of my review. Obviously, Pullman is still the incredible author we all knew him to be. His writing is clear, concise, and compelling. While the story starts out slowly, this, too, that fans of this author should have been expecting. “The Golden Compass” itself isn’t known to have a bang of a start. And once the flood takes place, the action picks up to almost a frantic pace, changing dramatically into an almost “Odyssey” like tale with Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra drifting from one mystical and dangerous island to another. This aspect of the story was a complete surprise to me, and I very much enjoyed the entire sequence and the various types of magical elements that these scenes added to Lyra’s world.
Further, his main character, Malcolm, is a strong addition to the cast. This was probably the biggest challenge: how do you create a new child hero that will hold his own when compared to Lyra and Will, and notably not be the same as either of those two characters? Malcolm has much of Will’s earnestness and good will, and, if Will’s childhood hadn’t been flooded with the darkness it was, he and Malcolm may have turned into very similar boys. Malcolm is essentially the result of a good childhood and good parents. In some ways he could be read as a bit one dimensional in this goodness, but as the story progress, specifically the last half of the story, his character is tried and tested enough that I think he can avoid this accusation. Malcolm confronts real horrors and real choices, and while he holds true to his “boy scout” mentality, he is also clearly very much changed by the end of the story.
The second biggest hurdle faced by Pullman was how to handle characters we are all familiar with from the first trilogy. It would be all to easy for these known characters to overwhelm a story like this and wash out the new characters being introduced. For the most part, I think he handled this very well. The cameo appearance of many of these character were like bright jewels to run into, but at the same time, I was satisfied enough with the main story not to crave their absence. There were a few moments, like a very brief scene with Mrs. Coulter, that I felt verged a bit too close to fan service for my taste. Was it really necessary to this story that she appear on the page? But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I thought Pullman mostly avoided any pitfalls in this area.
Now, my concerns. There are two that really stand out: Bonneville as a villain and the aspects of the story caught up in him, and Alice’s character and role in this story. We’ll start with Bonneville as I think he leads nicely to my second point.
Bonneville is introduced as a criminal with a pretty nasty past, one specifically dealing with his imprisonment for some type of sexual crime that Mrs. Coulter testified against. So, we can make some assumptions there. Then, throughout this story, we see Bonneville terrorizing and coercing the women around him, notably Alice and a few of the nuns. And towards the end of the story, this culminates in a very horrible way.
Look, Bonneville himself, and his creepy hyena, were scary villains. They served their purpose as a persistent and unpredictable terror following close behind the children. But the fact that his danger is tied up in sexual violence read as strange, especially with regards to the choices made with Alice’s role in the plot, and, more importantly, with all of the work Pullman did in his first trilogy to reclaim the importance of the body and to write strong, complex female characters.
At one point, early in their flight, Alice accuses Malcolm of only bringing her along to change the diapers of Lyra. And, in the end, this is most all she does. She’s clearly a smart and competent character, but she is given very little to do in this story other than care for Lyra and wait while Malcolm saves the day (repeatedly). Which all just makes the sexual violence towards the end all the more disturbing and off putting.
I’m not sure exactly how this trilogy is planned to play out, but I read somewhere that at least one of the next books will deal with Lyra as an adult. If that’s the case, are Malcolm and Alice only the main characters here? And if that’s the case, this last violent scene plays all the worse. I’m not convinced it is necessary, other than to push Malcolm into action (won’t go into that aspect of it, just look up “fridging female characters” and you’ll get my point), and I’m worried that it will be left as is, with no real followup in subsequent stories.
Ultimately, the whole thing was just confusing to me. Why was this choice made? What purpose was it serving? And, from an author like Pullman who gave us such excellent characters as Lyra and Mary Malone, why was Alice written so simplistically and then, even worse, combined with these story choices? I honestly can’t understand it.
As I said at the top, I closed this book with some very mixed feelings. I can’t help but love the fact that there’s a new entry into this world, and I very much enjoyed Malcolm and much of the action of this story. And there’s never an argument to be had about Pullman’s mastery of writing. But some of the choices with the villain and the themes brought up with him were very unsettling. What’s more, the original trilogy simply had more to say. And very little of that philosophical underpinning can be found in this book, leaving us only with a very gruesome and largely unaddressed sexual violence theme. But, obviously, I’ll be back for the next to in the series, and hopefully some of this book’s action will be addressed there. And if not, hopefully Pullman will once again find his footing with the larger questions that made the first trilogy so fascinating.
If you’re fa fan of his first series, I don’t even need to tell you to check this out, because I’m sure you will. If you’re a new reader, I strongly recommend reading the fist trilogy before picking this up; not only is it much better, but it provides much needed context for a lot of what is presented in this book.
Rating 7: A wonderful return to a beloved world with an excellent new character in Malcolm, but one that is marred by some jarring writing decisions.
Book: “Batwoman (Vol.1): The Many Arms of Death” by Marguerite Bennett, James Tynion IV, Steve Epting (Ill.), Ben Oliver (Ill.)
Publishing Info: DC Comics, November 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.
Book Description:Batwoman returns with her own series in BATWOMAN VOL. 1, as a part of DC Rebirth!
The newest chapter of Batwoman’s life begins here! Monster Venom is the hottest new bioweapon on the market…and to break up the syndicate spreading it around the world, Batwoman’s going to have to return to the place where she spent some of her darkest hours!
With writing from Marguerite Bennett (DC BOMBSHELLS) and James Tynion IV (DETECTIVE COMICS), as well as spectacular art from Steve Epting (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER) and Ben Oliver (THE MULTIVERSITY), this new series spins directly out of the smash hit DETECTIVE COMICS series!
BATWOMAN VOL. 1 collects issues #1-6 and the one-shot special BATWOMAN: REBIRTH #1.
Review: I want to extend a special thank you to DC Comics and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!
This should have been a slam dunk on paper, guys. When I read that DC’s “Rebirth” series was going to jump start Batwoman (after cancelling her during the “New 52” run), I was happy. When I found out that it was going to be written by Marguerite Bennett of “DC Bombshells” fame, I was ELATED!! Not only do I love the “DC Bombshells” series, as you all know, I really love what has been done with Batwoman/Kate Kane within it. Kate Kane is a super great and super important superhero, as she is tough as nails and also an out and proud lesbian, and seeing her get a series again is great. I love Kate Kane and I love that she is getting page time.
But sadly, I don’t love how her story has picked up in “Rebirth”. In fact, I was pretty underwhelmed by it. AND I DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT BECAUSE IT IS BATWOMAN AND IT IS MARGUERITE BENNETT!
I think that my mistake was thinking that since Bennett was taking the lead that it would have a similar tone to “Bombshells”. It decidedly does not. In fact, this is some pretty dark and gritty stuff going on on these pages. I’m vaguely resentful because I gave up on “Batwoman” during her “New 52” run because it was so bleak, dark, and scattered, and I hoped that it would bring focus back to Kate, Bette, and Maggie Sawyer. But, alas, Bette and Maggie are mentioned only in passing, and Kate is on the hunt for traffickers of Monster Venom, which has spiked in usage and is causing a lot of trouble. The group is called the Many Arms of Death, and Kate is on the case! This, however, brings us to a spike in Kate’s own past, as she returns to an island that she spent some time on with Safiyah, the leader of a rowdy band of outlaws, during her search. Safiyah and Kate were lovers during Kate’s stint (captivity?) on this island, and now Safiyah has disappeared… Though some old faces remain, and are determined to cause trouble for Kate, just as a looming corporation has plans for the island. I mean, fine, okay, but I kind of liked it when Batwoman was doing her own thing in Gotham, and wasn’t being told what to do by Bruce Wayne. International drug traffickers and corrupt executives doesn’t really get my goat in my comics, and I couldn’t really bring myself to get invested in this entire storyline. I did like seeing Julia Pennyworth, Alfred’s daughter, acting as Batwoman’s sidekick. She provides some very fun humor and snark to go along with the brooding angst that Kate brings us (there’s a rather funny joke she has regarding ‘creepy twin bingo’ and a square that says ‘weird incest vibes’). But it was a small solace in a storyline that just had me more bored than anything else.
AND THEN, after we got through that bit (for now) and finally made our way BACK to Gotham, we jumped ahead to some kind of strange dystopian future where Batwoman is helping fight against some new, corrupt Batman (who is not Bruce Wayne). I’m sure that this will all play out and make sense as time goes on, but I’m not so sure that I’m at all interested in THAT kind of storyline either.
I do want to reiterate that I love Kate Kane. I love that she has been changed from an inept and shallow love interest to Batman to a strong, driven warrior in her own right. I also like seeing her woo and court and kiss and flirt with so many ladies, as that’s the perfect mirror to the original ‘Bruce Wayne As Playboy’ trope that she initially was written to fall for back in the day. I want to love these new stories for her because I want Batwoman to succeed and live up to her awesomeness. But the way it’s happening here outside of “Bombshells” just isn’t meeting the wants and needs I have for an entertaining comic, and I’m very sad about that.
I should mention, however, that some of the art in this is absolutely beautiful. Stephanie Hans did this issue in the collection, and I just love the dreamlike quality to it.
I’m sorry to say that the new “Batwoman” arc in “Rebirth” just may not be for me. I have some time before the next trade comes out to ruminate on whether or not I’m going to continue, but as of right now I may just need to stick with “DC Bombshells” for my Kate Kane fix. I wish her all the best and all the success that she deserves, though.
Rating 4: Though I love that Kate Kane/Batwoman is back in the “Rebirth” run for DC, the ever gritty and dark tone to her new series is just not doing it for me.
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from Bookish First, and an e-ARC from NetGalley
Book Description: Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.
Review: It wasn’t even a year ago when I, on a slight whim, picked up “The Bear and the Nightingale.” It was in the middle of winter, and here in Minnesota, that’s a real thing, so the gorgeous cover with its deep, cool blues centered around a girl, out in the cold, facing inwards towards the cozy warms hues of hearth and home, struck a particular cord. But nothing could have prepared me for the sheer joy that was reading that first debut novel by Katherine Arden. This time, I was prepared. And yet…was I? Once again, I’ve somehow been blown off my feet by the sheer scope of Arden’s abilities and the story she is weaving together in this series.
“The Girl in the Tower” opens with a few chapters from the perspective of Vasya’s siblings. These first glimpses highlight not only that life has gone on outside of the strange and magical happenings in Vasya’s remote home village, but that in this time period, across all of this space, word does not travel fast. And her siblings have their own concerns. Olga, living the life of an aristocratic woman in medieval Russia, constrained to a tower and seclusion, is trying to raise her two children, particularly her willful young daughter, while looking forward to the birth of her third. And Vasya’s brother, Sasha, a wandering warrior monk, brings news of villages being raided and burned, their daughters stolen, to his close friend the Grand Prince.
Within this framework, we return to Vasya, almost immediately after the end of the previous book, still set on her plan to wander the world, accepting neither marriage nor a convent as reasonable choices. Even in the face of Morozko’s, the frost demon and god of death, open skepticism of her plan, she sets off. Only to discover that he is both right and wrong. The world is filled with much more danger than she had expected, but oh so much more beauty, as well. Along the way, she takes on the appearance of a young boy for further safety, and rescues two girls from the same group of bandits that Sasha had discovered. After running into her brother and the Grand Prince hunting these bandits, Vasya finds herself living a lie that is full of freedom but doomed to not last. Olga and Sasha, alone, understand the true, political dangers of what their young sister has gotten them all tangled up within.
As I said, I loved the first book in this series, and while I was hopeful that this book would continue to show that same strength, I never expected it to exceed it. And exceed it did, in almost every way. This book was by far more action-packed. The romance was increased. The danger and horror were there. And the characterization, allowed to build on what came before without the pressure of introducing completely new characters, blossomed. By being exposed to the world and its realities, the beauties and, more importantly, dangers and restrictions that confront women, Vasya’s former naivety is brutally stripped away. And yet she never loses her fierceness or her conviction that, whatever anyone says, this is wrong. Seeing their fiery, brilliant sister’s struggle, Sasha and Olga, not the most conservative individuals themselves, are forced to confront the lives they are leading and the expectations and assumptions they’ve made about themselves and those around them. One of my favorite quotes, from Sasha:
Witch. The word drifted across his mind. We call such women so, because we have no other name.
Further, I continue to love the mixture of historical detail of a time period and location that is rarely explored, with Russian folklore and fairytales, some of them recognizable, some completely, refreshingly, new. The tower from the book’s name, for example. In the author’s note, Arden discusses how locking aristocratic women in remote towers or wings of castles, completely removed from society, was a common practice in this time period. But perhaps most interesting, no one fully understands why this was done. And here, she ties this aspect of Russian history so neatly into a full-fledged fantasy novel that includes frost demons, magical talking horses, and firebirds.
And, like the first book, Arden’s prose is simply beautiful. While this book has more action than the first, this in no way detracts from atmospheric style of writing. Again, the cold of winter, the darkness of the woods, the bustle of the cities. It is all gorgeously drawn landscapes across which her characters romp.
The story also fully succeeds as a middle step in a trilogy. It takes concepts and interest points from the first story (particularly the romantic undertones with Morozko) and expands on them, tells a complete and compelling story of its own (the bandits, and a surprising tie-in to Vasya’s own familial history), but also lays the groundwork for the next and last in the trilogy. Vasya’s place in the world is by no means defined, and where she will go, and what role she will play in the ever-fading mystical world to which she is so closely connected is still yet to be determined.
Lastly, as a horse lover already, Solovey stole the show in this book. He was the primary source of much of the humor of the story, but it is also clear that without him, much of what Vasya accomplishes would have been impossible. As much as I love the bittersweet romance with Morozko, I’m all in for the horse/girl relationship as my primary bread and butter.
Honestly, I can’t recommend this book enough. And like with “The Bear and the Nightingale,” I want to share the love! Enter the giveaway to win an ARC copy of “The Girl in the Tower.” The giveaway is open to U.S. entrants only and ends on November 28, 2017.
Congrats to Kara for winning our giveaway of “The Girl in the Tower!”
Johanna Wise has always longed to be part of Dennis Arthur’s rich, popular crowd, and she can’t believe it when he finally asks her out. Now she’ll do anything to continue to hang out with his cool friends and keep Dennis as her boyfriend.
So when Dennis dares her to kill their teacher, Mr. Northwood, she doesn’t say no. She can’t. Besides, it was only a joke, right? But now the joke has gone too far, and the whole school is taking bets on Johanna. The dare is serious…dead serious. Will she do it? Will she really kill for love?
Had I Read It Before: Yes.
The Plot: We meet Johanna Wise as she and her BFF Margaret are going to the local 7/11 to get some hotdogs for dinner. Both Johanna and Margaret are unpopular girls at Shadyside High School because they’re both average looking and poor (though Johanna brags about how skinny she is and how ugly Margaret is. So this is the kind of first person POV we get, huh?). As they’re waiting for their hotdogs to cook, a group of five rich kids from North Hills come into the store as well. The leader, Dennis, is Johanna’s crush, because he’s handsome and rich and really really funny. If funny means he and his friends making a huge mess in the 7/11 with the slurpies while daring each other to do it, angering the poor cashier who probably wasn’t even supposed to be there today. When confronted, Dennis pulls a gun and shoots the clerk!… but of course it’s just a water gun. The kids laugh and laugh, and Zack throws cash on the counter as they leave, as if it’s not super condescending and humiliating. Johanna thinks all of this is hilarious.
In history class the next day we meet Mr. Northwood, the stern instructor that everyone is kind of meh about. He’s described as a ‘beardless Clint Eastwood on a bad day’, and honestly, that doesn’t sound too bad if we’re talking younger Clint Eastwood. One could do worse. Johanna is lingering behind to get some clarification on a paper, but sees Dennis arguing with Mr. Northwood about a make up test. Apparently, Dennis’s family is going on their annual trip to the Bahamas in a short while, and Mr. Northwood isn’t letting him make up the midterm at a later date. It’s either be there or fail. Absolutely affronted that he’s not getting his way, Dennis throws a textbook on Mr. Northwood’s desk and Johanna beelines for the hallway. She and Margaret eavesdrop, and Dennis storms out just as Margaret makes her exit. Johanna feels bad for Dennis (though she notes to the reader that SHE isn’t getting any trips to the Bahamas any time soon), and they start a weird game of fantasizing about killing Mr. Northwood after Dennis says that he could just kill him. She tells Dennis that she’s actually Mr. Northwood’s neighbor and they both live on Fear Street. He seems intrigued by this, and they walk to the student parking lot, talking the whole way. But then Caitlyn, Dennis’s girlfriend, pulls up in a red Miata, and tells Dennis to get in. He tells Johanna he’s offer her a life but it only seats two, to which Johanna says she’ll make room, opens the door, and pulls Caitlyn out and dumps her on the pavement as Dennis looks on in awe…. Except NAHHHH, that didn’t happen. It’s just one of Johanna’s violent fantasies about hurting and humiliating people. Totally normal, right? She actually says bye and watches them drive off.
A week later Dennis is off to the sunny Caribbean and Johanna is in history class. Melody, another rich kid who is dressed head to toe in Ralph Lauren, talks back to Mr. Northwood and blows off his request that she stay after class for a talk. Mr. Northwood kind of unprofessionally makes a snide comment about not caring how many banks her father owns, and that she isn’t special, and MAN, I AM FEELING THIS FRUSTRATION. I was SURROUNDED by these types at my high school. That night Johanna and Margaret are talking on the phone about Dennis and Mr. Northwood and how he is always on the rich kids cases, but Johanna hears a weird noise outside, a car door and a crash, and is convinced someone is breaking in! She looks out the window and sees Zack, Melody, Caitlin, and some dickswizzle named Lanny, crouching behind their car on the street outside Mr. Northwood’s house. Johanna goes to investigate, and they’re surprised she lives on Fear Street next to their teacher. They tell her not to tattle about what they’re about to do, and she promises she won’t, though Melody isn’t convinced. The guys dare each other to cause a fuss, and they put sand in Mr. Northwood’s gas tank and slash his tires. They’re about to carve Dennis’s name in the fender, when the porch light comes on and the rich kids bolt, leaving Johanna with Mr. Northwood. He asks her why she’s hanging out with these jerks, and she claims she just heard a noise and came to investigate. He says he’s going to call the cops, but after Johanna goes home nothing really comes of it that night before she goes to bed.
The next day that group is out of class. The police came late and deigned to do anything since it was a bunch of kids of the most powerful people in town, so Mr. Northwood asked that the school suspend them. Mr. Northwood says he believes her that she wasn’t hanging out with them, but is going to keep an eye on her. That night Johanna is studying when the phone rings. It’s Dennis! He’s asks if she’s ready to kill Mr. Northwood! But he’s just kidding, he’s actually back from the Bahamas and was apparently thinking about her (when he wasn’t having a wonderful time, which he gladly brags about). He wants to know if she wants to go to a party that Friday that Melody is hosting. Johanna asks about Caitlyn, and he says that they ‘see other people’ sometimes, and let me tell you, that’s the oldest trick in the book. He also informs her that his friends are no longer suspended because their parents went to Mr. Hernandez, the principal, and threw their weight and power around, and demanded apologies, which they got. SIDE FUCKING BAR: Once in middle school a friend and I were at lunch and a guy we were sitting next to LITERALLY dumped his food tray all over my friend on purpose because he didn’t like her. We reported him to the principal, and he got in some trouble, until his MOTHER marched into the school and threw HER weight around, and the school administration ended up apologizing to this DOUCHE CANOE for dumping his food on MY FRIEND. There is no justice. I take this shit personally and hate these North Hills kids. Johanna now wants to be a part of this group because of the power.
At school the next day Dennis meets Johanna at her locker and gives her a beautiful conch shell that he brought back just for her. Caitlin storms up and says that it is HER CONCH SHELL and demands Johanna hand it over. Johanna instead opts to smash her in the face with it…. Just kidding! Caitlin didn’t even notice, and instead just pulled Dennis off with her. Another psychotic fantasy. At lunch she and Margaret are sitting together and they see Dennis and Caitlyn making out, which makes Margaret skeptical about this date that Johanna says she and Dennis have. And then in history class, Dennis argues with Mr. Northwood again about retaking the midterm. When Mr. Northwood says that it’s about fairness, Dennis says that it’s not fair to HIM and that if he fails he won’t be eligible for track and his Olympic dreams will be ruined. Yeah FUCKING right, you dick. He storms past Johanna like she isn’t even there when Mr. Northwood refuses to relent.
That night Dennis picks her up after she frets about maybe it all being a joke or a hallucination. They go to Melody’s house in North Hills, and she lets them know that her parents are at the movies so the house is all theirs. I hope they’re hitting a triple feature, Melody. As the party goes on it’s pretty clear that Dennis is less interested in associating with Johanna and more interested in hanging out with his friends, and then the conversation turns to Mr. Northwood and how Johanna and Dennis are going to kill him. And maybe it’s a joke? Johanna isn’t so sure. They’re regaled with impressions of Mr. Northwood, and a story about how he docked five points off Carter “The Cheater”‘s Phillips test for forgetting to write her name. Dennis is really keen on joking about it, but Johanna is a little uncomfortable… Until he drives her home and they make out in his car. Of course, they’re shocked to see Mr. Northwood watching them from his front yard. Dennis freaks and tells Johanna he’s leaving, and Johanna goes inside and is CONVINCED that Northwood was spying on her (when he was probably just taking out the garbage or something). She paces around her house and pulls a pistol out of a drawer, continuing to fantasize about killing Mr. Northwood. Her Mom catches her and Johanna claims she thought she saw a burglar, but that it’s gone now, and she goes to sleep with that lie on her conscience.
At school the next day Melody tells Johanna to watch out for Caitlyn, who would be super jealous that she went on a date with Dennis. Dennis then asks if Johanna wants to hang out at her place that night, and since Johanna’s Mom works nights she says okay. But problems, because when she gets home she is reminded she had a friend date with Margaret that night when her bestie calls her. Johanna fakes ill. Dennis arrives, but has brought his whole posse of friends. They all settle into their favorite topic: why Mr. Northwood sucks. Today it’s because he caught Zack cheating on a test (Zack claims he was just asking Deena for the time, but yeah, sure you were asshat). They are convinced that Mr. Northwood hates them because they’re rich and he’s not, and Zack says he brought something to teach him a lesson! He got some Skunk ‘juice’ from his brother, who works at a lab with animals. They conspire to throw it on Mr. Northwood’s porch, and nominate Johanna to do it after another dare escalation happens and she volunteers. Because she’s cool too now!
Mr. Northwood almost catches her but she drops the stink bomb on his porch. She and her new friends go to the Corner to get some burgers in celebration. When she gets home, though, Margaret catches her, as she was bringing her chicken noodle soup since she thought Johanna was sick. They fight, and Margaret drops some truth bombs about how the rich kids aren’t really Johanna’s friends, and leaves in a huff.
Dennis and his friends keep hanging at Johanna’s house in the next few weeks. One night, Dennis finds the gun that Johanna was playing with earlier, and says that THIS is how they can kill Northwood! He then actually puts a bullet in it and starts dicking around because PRIVILEGE, GUYS. Johanna, Caitlyn, and Melody tell him to knock it off, but he doesn’t and he actually shoots Zack. Like ACTUALLY SHOOTS HIM. I thought it was going to be another dark fantasy, but NOPE! The friends panic, and Dennis tells someone to call 911 before he drags Zack out of the house, telling them all to clean up. When the cops arrive the friends and the police find Zack sprawled in Mr. Northwood’s yard. And Mr. Northwood is holding the gun in confusion, since he stumbled upon a bleeding kid on his property. Dennis has tried to frame him for the shooting.
Which of course DOES NOT WORK, since the gun is registered to Johanna’s absent father and there was blood ALL OVER HER HOUSE. The truth comes out and the rich kids parents make it all go away (because Zack isn’t dead, I guess). They try to get their kids transferred out of Northwood’s class (which would probably be best for everyone involved), but to no avail. And according to Johanna, Mr. Northwood is even meaner to them than he was before.
Johanna’s mother had forbidden her from seeing Dennis, but Johanna’s sneaking around with him. They’re parking and mauling and rounding the bases when he gets all hung up on Northwood again (GIVE IT UP, MAN), and he says that Lanny dared him to kill Northwood. Johanna isn’t sure how serious this is, and then Dennis dares her to kill him. She coquettishly takes the dare.
At school rumors start swirling that she is going to kill Mr. Northwood, and she gets a lot of ‘good lucks’ from her peers. FUCKING SHADYSIDE. You know how I know this was pre-Columbine? Margaret confronts Johanna about the rumors, and says that Lanny and Zack are taking bets on whether or not Johanna will actually kill him. Johanna tries to brush it off as not serious. But she sees Lanny later and he tells her that the pool is up to 1000 bucks, and if she does it he’ll give her five hundred of it. Johanna thinks that this is a lot of money, and GIRL. GIRL. GIRL. I know that you are not wealthy but I would imagine that an actual murder hit on the dark web goes for SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT???!!! FIVE HUNDRED BUCKS TO BE A CONTRACT KILLER. ARE YOU SERIOUS? That night she mulls her options, thinking that she’d be doing it for Dennis because she loves him so much, and he calls her to tell her that it has to be Saturday.
On Thursday Johanna has one of her twisted fantasies, this time thinking about maybe beating Mr. Northwood to death with logs from his woodpile. She has stayed home from school because she’s not feeling well. I wonder why? She’s planning a hiding place for the gun (so did the police just give it back to her after Zack was shot?), and trying to plan for Saturday. Dennis calls her that afternoon to update her on the pool. 1200 bucks now! 600 still isn’t the running rate for a hit, Johanna. Starting to get twitchy, she decides that she’s going to SHOOT HIM NOW, and grabs the gun and runs to the backyard where he’s still gathering wood for a romantic fire for one, I’d imagine. Before she can pull the trigger, though, Margaret shows up and Johanna hides the gun. Margaret says she brought notes for her since she was sick, and Mr. Northwood says that she’s such a good friend, but since he is always recording his lectures with his dictaphone she could use that instead. Johanna demurely declines, and Margaret pulls her aside and asks if Johanna is ACTUALLY going to kill him. Johanna lies and says no.
Murder Day approaches, and Johanna is a wreck. She’s watching Northwood paint his shed (in winter because he’s like that) and is planning to shoot him, when there’s a doorbell. She answers and it’s Dennis, who has come to see if she’s going to do it. She says she is, and shows him the gun, but says she needs to go upstairs and take something for her stomach. She is still very jumpy, hearing a car backfire makes her even more on edge. She retrieves the gun from the drawer and notices that Dennis is sweating, he’s as nervous as she is and AWWW HE MUST BE WORRIED ABOUT HER. She trudges through the yard and is going to shoot Mr. Northwood….. but he has ALREADY BEEN SHOT!!!!! Dennis comes up behind her and crows about how she did it, but she says no, she didn’t, he was like this when she found him! But he says nah, she did do it. Just look at the gun. There’s gunpowder residue. The gun was fired, and he’s called the cops! HE SHOT MR. NORTHWOOD AND IS PINNING IT ON HER!!! That car backfire was a gunshot! And to add insult to injury, CAITLIN POPS OUT AND WAS IN ON THE WHOLE THING! Apparently she dared Dennis to get Johanna to take care of their Northwood ‘problem’, and he took her up on it. Dennis faked an interest in her and stung her along because she was so attention starved and in desperate need of their acceptance. Betrayed and devastated, Johanna marches up and shoots Dennis right in the chest!!!… Except NOPE! JOKES! Another hallucination. The police arrive and start to arrest her, as Dennis and Caitlin say that they arrived just after she shot Mr. Northwood……
BUT…. Mr. Northwood is still alive! And on top of that, the cops remove a certain DICTAPHONE from his coat pocket…. which has recorded EVERYTHING!!! Which include’s Dennis and Caitlyn’s confessions. BUSTED YOU LITTLE PSYCHOS!!! As they are hauled away and Mr. Northwood is put in an ambulance, one of the cops says that Johanna has shitty friends, and asks her what they were saying about a dare? Johanna says that it was all just a fantasy, and walks into her house. The end.
Body Count: Zip! It wasn’t looking good there for Zack or Mr. Northwood, but it all ended up fine, mortality wise.
Romance Rating: Zero. Dennis was just using poor Johanna and there were no other love interests.
Bonkers Rating: 6. If only because there were those SUPER VIOLENT FANTASIES interspersed throughout the book, and Zack was totally shot whilst playing with a gun.
Fear Street Relevance: 8. Johanna lives on Fear Street, as does Mr. Northwood, and all of the tension happens there.
Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger: EVERY SINGLE ONE THAT STARTED AS CARNAGE AND ENDED UP AS A FANTASY. So, SO many.
That’s So Dated! Moments: Oh man, where to start! From the mention of CD players to the outfits (specifically an ensemble of a denim vest over a work shirt and faded blue jeans with manufactured holes in the knees) to dictaphones to slurpy runs at the gas station, this one was chock full of 90s goodness.
“I had to ask Mr. Northwood a question about the paper I was writing about Charles Lindbergh. I didn’t know if he wanted me to just write about Lindbergh’s career, or did I have to write about the kidnapping of his baby too?”
This just resonated with me as someone who’d want to write (and has written) a history paper on a horrific true crime incident.
Conclusion: “The Dare” is really more an exercise in trying my patience, as the main characters are either a bunch of spoiled, awful rich kids, or a pushover with a chip on her shoulder. I feel like it kind of wanted to be “Killing Mr. Griffin”, but didn’t have the balls that Lois Duncan had. Up next is “Bad Dreams”!
Occasionally we here at Library Ladies get an email asking for some Reader’s Advisory. Sometimes it’s a general ‘what should I read next?’, and sometimes it’s a specific genre or theme that the reader is asking for. We do our best to match the reader to some books that they may like based on the question they give us.
Dear Library Ladies,
Lately I have become more interested in learning about the experience of living with mental health issues, (diagnosed or otherwise) so I would love material that covers those topics. I am open to everything, fiction and non fiction, children through adult, provided the depiction is more or less realistic. Things that include the treatment experience would be especially interesting, though not mandatory. I am also open to more than just books, be it tv shows, podcasts, etc. Thanks!
“It’s a lot more nuanced than that”
Hi Nuanced (we get that reference)!
It’s always good to expand one’s knowledge when it comes to relevant topics in today’s culture, and given that there is still a large stigma surrounding mental health it’s great that you’re trying to educate yourself. Here are some reads that we personally think may be useful, though as we are not mental health experts this is by no means perfect or comprehensive.
Book: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman
Publishing Info: HarperCollins, August 2015
Neal Shusterman tells us the story of Caden, who isn’t sure whether he is presently in school with his friends, or in the bowels of a submarine traveling to the depths of the Mariana Trench. As Caden tries to distinguish his actual reality from the hallucinations that he is experiencing, we get an honest, sometimes dark, but also hopeful story of a person who is struggling to pull himself from the brink. It’s important to note that Shusterman’s son had a hand in this, as he suffered from similar issues that Caden does. This gives the book an even deeper sense of realism, and while it doesn’t try to give too rosy of an end, it does show that mental illness isn’t insurmountable.
Book: “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen
Publishing Info: Random House (originally Turtle Bay Books), 1993
This memoir is a bit famous now, given that the critically acclaimed movie based on it starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie brought these actresses such attention. But Kaysen’s book still stands the test of time. Kaysen, after attempting suicide, was committed to a 1960s mental institution and diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She is frank and honest about living with her diagnosis, and also provides some insightful critiques into the mental health system. Though a number of things have changed in the field since the 1960s, this book is still considered relevant when it comes to the stigma surrounding mental health in this country, and the unique stigma applied to girls and women.
Book: “Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson
Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, September 2015
Jenny Lawson is known to her fans as The Bloggess, and is also known for being incredibly witty and funny. In this book she writes about her experiences with anxiety and depression, and is STILL incredibly witty and funny. While some people might want to write about their own personal experiences with mental illness by giving a ‘how to get through it’ sort of story, Lawson kind of turns that on it’s head, and makes it more of a ‘so this is how you can do super well in spite of the hurdles you’re encountering’. Certainly not something that can apply to every situation necessarily, but her frankness and humor glitters in this book of admittedly upsetting topics.
Book: “Before She Ignites” by Jodi Meadows
Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2017
If you’re looking for portrayals of mental illness in genre fare,check out “Before She Ignites.” Fantasy world, lots of dragons, political maneuvering, all typical stuff to books like this. What makes this one stand out is its portrayal of the main character, Mira, who has grown up being told she is perfect and special and the one would brought together all of these different island nations. However, Mira suffers from crippling anxiety attacks and uses compulsive counting techniques as a way to self-soothe. In a genre full of “chosen ones,” this book stands out by presenting a protagonist who goes through the same “hero journey” as others, but who also lives with mental illness and must manage this aspect of her life throughout it all. A nice example that our strong young women heroines don’t need to all look/act/feel the same to still be strong young women heroines.
TV Show: “Jessica Jones”
As you asked for other recommendations beyond books, we’re throwing this Netflix Original into the mix. “Jessica Jones” falls in the ever-growing Marvel universe and could be easily dismissed as “just another super hero” show. But wait! You could even make the argument that the “super powers” aspect of this show fall to the wayside, and instead this is one of the most thoughtful and detailed portrayals of PTSD that I can remember watching in quite a while. As a subject, all too often PTSD shows up in one episode of a series and is limited to the most well-known aspects of the disorder (jumping at loud noises, for example). “Jessica Jones” addresses and re-addresses this topic throughout its entire run. Beyond that, it addresses PTSD driven by trauma other than warfare, which I think is also unique. The show can be a tough watch at times, but I can’t recommend it enough for those looking to get a better understanding of what survivors of assault go through, and how PTSD can present other than in the more expected ways.
Podcast/Website: “The Mental Illness Happy Hour with Paul Gilmartin”
This is kind of the one-stop-shop for mental illness podcasts and is extremely popular, so excuse us if it’s already known to you! This is a weekly podcast that is done in an interview style, bringing in comedians, artist, and even doctors, every once in a while, to discuss various aspects of mental illness. It also includes topics on trauma and addictions since many of these challenges tend to overlap. Paul Gilmartin is an excellent host and this site is well-organized and easy to use, so if you’re looking for information on specific topics, you’re sure to find it here.
What books/TVshows/podcasts do you recommend that discuss living with mental illness? Let us know in the comments!
Book Description: Cassie’s had it. After the last mission, she realizes she’s getting tired of missions. Tired of battles. Tired of being an Animorph. She decides that she just can’t do it anymore. So she quits.
Plot: Oh man, the book I’ve been dreading: the one where Cassie quits the Animorphs. But, I will say, there were aspects of this story that I didn’t appreciate as a kid, especially the very in-depth conversations about war and morality, that I was much more on board for during this read. So, while Cassie was still infuriating, I did end up not hating it as much as I remember hating it. With that blazing intro, let’s dive in!
During a “spy on The Sharing” mission that goes bad and results in a battle with Hork Bajir, Cassie finds herself hitting the metaphorical wall of “had it” with the violence that is life as an Animorphs. It all comes to a head when she goes in for the kill on a Hork Bajir she was fighting, even after Jake calls for a retreat. To Cassie, this is evidence that she is losing her ability to care, becoming deadened to the fight, and that’s something she can’t stand. And she quits. Walks away.
That night Cassie learns from her parents that the wildlife rehab center they run in their barn has lost funding and will likely have to close. Plus, there’s a leopard loose in the woods, escaped from a local exotic collector. With all of these happy thoughts, Cassie goes to bed, only to be plagued by nightmares. She wakes up and wanders to her window where she thinks she glimpses a pair of eyes looking back up at her.
The next day, the group confronts her in the barn about her decision, mostly refusing to believe she was serious. As it becomes clear that, yes, yes she is serious, the group reacts with varying degrees of outrage. Marco, unsurprisingly, simply calls Cassie a coward, choosing to selfishly focus on her own needs rather than the sacrifices it takes to save the world. Rachel sees Cassie quitting as a condemnation of everything Rachel is, that Cassie would rather leave than be like her. Tobias simply flies away, and Jake tells her that she can’t use her morphing abilities at all, if she’s not part of the group.
Not in the best head space, Cassie decides to go for a ride in the woods. As she rides, she comes across a small girl being chased by a bear. Cassie jumps into action and manages to snag the girl, but as the horse panics, they both are knocked into a near by river. Cassie almost drowns, but wakes up later on the shore, with the girl standing near her. The girl’s name is Karen, and Cassie is immediately suspicious of her, noting that she doesn’t speak like a kid. She quickly figures out that Karen was the one spying on her, and Karen confronts Cassie, saying she knows what she is, and that Cassie killed her brother. Karen is a Controller, and the Yeerk’s brother was the one Controlling the Hork Bajir Cassie had killed the other day. After seeing her brother die, Karen tracked Cassie and saw her, as a wolf, disappear into a bush, and then re-emerge as a human girl. More worryingly, Karen says that there are some Yeerks who have suspected for a while now that the “Andalite bandits” might be humans instead.
Cassie goes above and beyond to play this off as not true and that Karen has “quite the imagination for a kid.” Besides, they’re both now lost in the woods with a leopard on the loose, so she tries to distract Karen with this fact. Internally, Cassie panics. The Yeerk in Karen knows the truth about them, but simply taking her out is impossible: Karen herself is just a little girl. Further, Karen’s leg has been injured along the way, so Cassie must choose to actively help her survive or leave her behind. Of course, she helps her.
As they walk, the two discuss the morality of what the Yeerks are doing (all while Cassie continues to act as if she is simply indulging Karen’s crazy theories). Karen, more and more enraged by Cassie’s continued pretending, rants about the Andalites as arrogant busy bodies. She says the Yeerks have a right to expand, and the Andalites are all terrible. Cassie points out that if she’s on the side of these all terrible Andalites, then why is she helping?
Night is falling, and the two come across a cave. While Cassie is exploring it for bears, Karen is attacked by the leopard. Cassie morphs wolf and scares it away, but this confirms everything Karen has been saying and puts an end to Cassie’s act.
The two hunker down in the cave. As they continue to talk, Cassie notes some strangeness in the way the Yeerk is talking. It seems the Yeerk may feel slightly bad about Controlling a child. Through these conversations, Cassie begins to think that there might be another way. The next day they continue these conversations, this time with Cassie specifically trying to lead the Yeerk through morality exercises, asking her how it feels to have the real Karen crying in her mind. Cassie also goes into her own qualms about participating in a war and the violence that entails. Karen confesses that there are similar Yeerks out there who think it is wrong to take unwilling hosts. Cassie’s hopes rise even more.
This is interrupted when the leopard attacks again. An osprey attacks it several times, but the leopard still manages to drag Karen away, crying Cassie’s help. Cassie quickly deduces that the osprey is Marco and rushes to morph a wolf and keep him away from Karen, knowing what he will do. But the leopard isn’t scared by her wolf morph this time, and Karen is only saved when Marco shows up as a gorilla.
Marco quickly figures out what is going on and insists that they do something about Karen. Cassie doesn’t know what to do, but decides they should hear from the little girl herself, without the Yeerk. So she presses her wolf ear to the girl’s and becomes Controlled herself. Marco calls her an idiot and rushes to morph a bird and fly away, quickly understanding that the Yeerk will now have morphing abilities, too (something Cassie somehow forgot to realize!)
Now Controlled, Cassie learns the Yeerk’s name is Aftran. Aftran sorts through Cassie’s memories, and we get quick flashes of scenes from prior books with Aftran’s commentary. She notes that the Vissers are more concerned with in-fighting than the war (referring to book #5), watches Cassie panic after killing the termite queen and is confused by her caring so much (book #9), and laughs at the Andalite toilet episode (book #14). Cassie realizes that she has put all of her friends at risk as now Aftran knows them all. Aftran morphs a bird and flies away. From the air Aftran/Cassie see two groups: the Animorphs flying around as birds, and a group of Controllers on the ground. Aftran warns the Controllers about the “Andalite bandits” as birds, and flies on. Cassie notes that she didn’t give away their secret.
Aftran flies back to Karen and re-takes her. Cassie sees her crying, and knows that it is the Yeerk in control, and the Yeerk who is crying. Aftran rants about how unfair it is, to be born as a species so limited by its own body, unable to see the world around them, and to understand what Cassie is asking her to do, to return to the Yeerk pool and stay there forever. She finds a caterpillar and proposes a deal: if Cassie morphs this caterpillar, and then lets herself get stuck in that morph, in a body similar to the Yeerk’s, then Aftran will return to the pool and let Karen go free. Aftran points out that she will keep her word, because if she didn’t mean to, letting Cassie get stuck in morph when she has a much-desired morph capable body, would be a complete waste. Cassie agrees, and once morphed, in despair and loneliness, retreats to the caterpillar’s mind.
The story switches to Jake’s perspective, and after a brief run in with the roaming Controllers, the group catches up with Karen and caterpillar!Cassie. Karen is crying and saying she can’t believe Cassie did it, that she tried to stop her in the end, but caterpillars can’t hear, so she didn’t know. Cassie is stuck as a caterpillar. Karen explains their deal, and Jake lets every Animoph decide on their own what to do about it. Eventually, they all walk away, unwilling to undo Cassie’s sacrifice.
A few days later, the group watch as Cassie emerges from her cocoon as a butterfly. Ax casually asks whether Cassie would prefer to be a butterfly to a human. The group are shocked, and it turns out that since the caterpillar essentially “morphed” to a butterfly, the time clock should be reset.
The book ends back with Cassie as a human. The rehab center gets funding from a bank president whose daughter insisted they do something for it (Aftran had been in Karen for the sole purpose of spying on said bank president). And Cassie runs into Karen in the mall; she’s free and Aftran held up her end of the deal. Cassie notes that as long as she can fight for things like this, for finding another way, that is enough.
Peace, Love, and Animals: This book is very different from other Animorphs books. For the majority of it, it’s just one Animorphs character and a Yeerk, discussing very complicated moral and philosophical quandaries. It’s clear that this book was important to Applegate, and that she had some clear points on war, violence, and right/wrong that she was trying to convey. And I really enjoyed much of this. Further, the character of Aftran is excellent.
But I still ran into many of the same struggles I’ve had with Cassie in the past (and that I know will recur in future books, especially towards the end of the series with one big decision she makes). So, I’ll try to lay it out as best as I can.
Much of this book illustrates why I can never fully get behind Cassie as a character. She is clearly a character that is given the privilege of making the “right” choices, because she’s in a work of fiction. Many, many choices she makes in this book are only “right” in hindsight. Morally? They’re probably right most of the time. But on the grand scale of things, Cassie is incredibly, foolishly, unforgivably reckless with the lives of not only her friends but an entire planet (as well as the freed Hork Bajir, and the Chee, to name a few others), by choosing to quit because she doesn’t want to pay the same price the others do, knowing that she’s leaving them to an even more uphill battle, paying that same price over and over again, and then later letting Aftran Control her.
And yes, I agree with Marco. It’s selfish and self-righteous. And the only reason we can close this book and feel good about what she’s done (which I’m not undermining, it’s incredibly important and impressive, managing to talk around a Yeerk, something no other Animorph could do) is because she’s been given a pass. Her character is allowed to make stupid decisions that always turn out for the best. And this just reads as false to me. It undermines the reality of the toughness behind the rest of the Animorphs’ decisions. Jake’s slow fall. Rachel’s reckless courage. Marco’s cold detachment. These characters suffer severe changes and make huge sacrifices of themselves, choices that impact them for the rest of their lives (which we see play out in the end) because they are forced to live a real war story. Cassie comes out the other side ok, but it’s because she’s been allowed to make reckless, selfish decisions, to keep her soul more intact, and not pay a price for it.
Again and again we see her making decisions based on her own ability to live with herself and feel good about herself, and letting other step in to suffer the more extreme consequences. In Jake’s book, #16, she wants to kill the Yeerk, but wants Jake to literally do the dirty work for her. In Megamorphs #2, she chooses to save the alien race, and is only spared from destroying humanity’s future by Tobias shouldering the harder decision. And those are just in the most recent books! Cassie’s character is the only one that is given the privilege of making decisions based purely on her own feelings, to not sacrifice massive pieces of herself in the war to save Earth, without having it blow up in her face.
As I’ve said, I think Cassie is an important character for the series. But I wish there had been some type of more realistic balance that was struck between Cassie’s unique view on the world and the realities that that view would need to confront in a war.
Our Fearless Leader: Jake gets a few chapters of his own in this book, which is the first time we’ve seen a change of narrator in a regular series book. I can’t remember if this happens again or not, but it further illustrates the importance of this book in Applegate’s eyes. Jake’s big moment is notably not making a decision about what to do with Karen/Aftran after they discover her with caterpillar!Cassie. He lets this be one where everyone must come to their own conclusion about what is right.
Xena, Warrior Princess: I’ll go into more of Rachel’s stuff in the “Couples Watch” section, since I think Rachel and Cassie’s friendship is the big relationship of this book. But Rachel’s moments with Cassie when they’re confronting her in the barn are big. Rachel, like Marco, can’t get behind the idea of not sacrificing oneself for the larger cause. But Rachel also clearly loves Cassie and respects her, unwilling to agree that she’s a coward. But as Cassie goes on to explain that she can’t stay in this fight because she’s going numb to the violence, Rachel walks away. Cassie tries to call after her that they can still be friends, but Rachel interrupts to say “No” and:
“See, you’ve just said the whole world can drop dead, so long as you, Cassie, don’t have to end up turning into me.”
It’s a brutal put-down, all the worse because Cassie can’t deny it.
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t do much in this book either. He silently leaves when they confront Cassie about quitting, never really saying much. But when they discover Cassie stuck as a caterpillar, he says he can respect her choice to not want to live in a vioent world, saying that he is forced to live with violence every day, and can’t blame someone for not wanting to live that way.
The Comic Relief: Marco is by far the most harsh on Cassie’s decision to quit.
Marco laughed a short, brutal laugh. “Fine. You have your morals and your fine feelings and all that. We’ll go off and risk our lives to save the world. You just sit here and feel righteous.”
But he’s also the one to come to her rescue as an osprey (it’s never made clear what exactly he was doing flying around over there anyways). And then, towards the end, the leopard attacks Karen/Aftran again after Cassie’s been stuck and the group has discovered them, and Marco takes it out as a gorilla, saving the Yeerk. In the end, he, too, wants to respect Cassie’s sacrifice.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax does practically nothing in this book, other than deliver what some may call the deux ex machina at the end, with the whole “naturally occurring morphing” loop hole of convenience. There a brief bit when, during Jake’s narration, we get a brief fight scene with the roaming Controllers, and Ax has to run off with a wounded eagle!Rachel. But…yeah, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with stuff for him.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There isn’t a lot of body horror in this one, other than the typical “morph to a bug” nastiness. However, I will note here how effective the threat of the leopard was through out the middle majority of this story. It kept popping in and out, and Cassie has a good mental dialogue moment going over how dangerous leopards are, especially because you never know they’re there. It adds a good level of tension to a book that is mostly made up of talking.
Couples Watch!: There’s practically nothing for our romantic couples in this one. Instead, I’d say that Rachel and Cassie’s friendship is the major player in this book. Throughout it all, Rachel is the most hurt by Cassie’s decision to quit, but also the most supportive of her the entire time. In the first confrontation in the barn, when Cassie agrees with Marco’s assessment that she’s a coward, Rachel, even while mad, says that that isn’t true.
And then, when Marco returns to tell them the craziness that Cassie is up to, letting herself get infested, we have this:
Marco said something he didn’t really mean about Cassie not being an Animorph anymore, so she wasn’t our problem. Rachel knocked him on his butt. Marco is my best friend, but there are times I admire Rachel’s directness. [Jake’s perspective]
And lastly, when the discover Cassie as a caterpillar, Rachel is the most enraged against Aftran, and the last to walk away. But when she does, she insists on carrying the leaf that caterpillar!Cassie is on, saying that she will look after her and keep her safe.
I love their friendship!
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: No Visser Three in this one! Other than the mini rant Aftran goes on while Controlling Cassie about all the in-fighting within the Visser political arena. I guess at least we know that isn’t only these two that are like petty children in the school yard.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: When Cassie morphs the caterpillar, the book does a very good job of highlighting just how awful this life will be. Cassie’s descriptions of her own despair and loneliness, and then choosing to simply retreat into the caterpillar’s simplistic mind as an escape, it’s pretty terrible. I do think that one aspect of Cassie and Aftran’s whole deal that was notably not discussed was comparable life spans. Given that Visser Three has been around for many decades, we can assume that Yeerks have at least similar life spans to humans. So even if Aftran returns to the Pool, she has an entire life before her. But she’s asking Cassie to morph a caterpillar that, yes, may have similar restrictions as a Yeerk, but is going to die very, very quickly! This isn’t an equal deal at all with this in mind.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Ummm….CASSIE LETTING HERSELF GET INFESTED AND SOMEHOW FORGETTING THAT THE YEERK WILL HAVE HER MORPHING ABILITIES! For all that I appreciated this book more reading it now as an adult, this part of the book is so incredibly infuriating. It’s such a bone-headed move in every way. First, the whole goal is to get the real Karen’s perspective, which, why. Obviously she doesn’t love being Controlled!!! Second, it’s not like this is the first time we’ve seen an Animorph be Controlled. Cassie was right there during Jake’s whole ordeal, so the fact that she somehow forgets this has to go down as one of the most idiotic things in the entire series. And third, morphing ability aside, Cassie is also shocked to remember/realize that this decision has now exposed all of her friends if Aftran so chooses. It’s so incredibly irresponsible and reckless, and again, not even for any good reason.
This is from one of the chapters from Jake’s perspective, and I think it makes the most sense as a response to my earlier rant about Cassie.
“I guess sometimes you have to choose between smart, sane, ruthlessness, and totally stupid, insane hope,” I [Jake] said, not even realizing I was speaking out loud. “You can’t just pick one and stick with it, either. Each time it comes up, you have to try and make your best decision. Most of the time, I guess I have to go with being smart and sane. But I don’t want to live in a world where people don’t try the stupid, crazy, hopeful thing sometimes.”
My problem is that her stupid, crazy, hopeful choices ALWAYS work, and the rest are never allowed that saving grace or must bail her out from the stupid, crazy, hopeful choice that if it had went through really would have ruined it all.
Scorecard: Yeerks 4, Animorphs 9
I’m not going to give this any change. It’s a huge victory for Cassie, personally, to convince a Yeerk (a Yeerk whose brother she killed!) to return to the Pool and not infest anyone else. But in the grand scheme of things, right now, this is a smaller achievement. I know there is a payoff later, but we’ll add that when we get there.
Rating: I liked this book more than I did as a kid. But it also highlights my overall problems with Cassie as a character. I think that after this she’s much less wishy-washy about the war, which I will appreciate. But I know for a fact that her questionable (and conveniently lucky) bad decisions will continue, especially in a big way towards the end. Ugh.
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!