Kate’s Review: “The Followers”

Layout 1Book: “The Followers” by Rebecca Wait

Publishing Info: Europa Editions, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Followers” is not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.

Find “The Followers” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Fifth Petal”

29741905Book: “The Fifth Petal” by Brunonia Barry

Publishing Info: Crown, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: Blogging For Books

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.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Fifth Petal” is a newer book, but it is on this Goodreads list: “Fall, Halloween, New England Fiction.”

Find “The Fifth Petal” at your library using WorldCat!

More information:

About Brunonia Barry

More on The Fifth Petal”

Kate’s Review: “Fragments of the Lost”

27797316Book: “Fragments of the Lost” by Megan Miranda

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.

Reader’s Advisory:

“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”.

Find “Fragments of the Lost” at your library using WorldCat!

Not Just Books: November 2017

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

Serena’s Picks:

mv5bmjaxota2mjc3mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtmxmzixndm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_Netflix Show: “The Crown”

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.

mv5bmtu2nja1odgzmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtm2mti4mje-_v1_sy1000_cr006661000_al_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 (of course 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.

mv5bmjuwmdgzotg3nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwnti4mdk5mzi-_v1_sy1000_cr006691000_al_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.

Kate’s Picks:

r-11021239-1508398177-4205-jpegAlbum: “John Carpenter: Anthology”

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.

thedisastorartistteaserposterTrailer: “The Disaster Artist”

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.

mv5bmjmyndkzmzi1of5bml5banbnxkftztgwodcxodg5mji-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Movie: “Thor: Ragnarok”

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.

Serena’s Review: “La Belle Sauvage”

34128219Book: “La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman

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.

Reader’s Advisory:

“La Belle Sauvage” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Alternate History in 2017” and “Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2017.”

Find “La Belle Sauvage” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Batwoman (Vol.1): The Many Arms of Death”

34657854Book: “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!

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Help me understand. (source)

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.

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(source)

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.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Batwoman (Vol.1): The Many Arms of Death” is on the Goodreads lists “Queen Women Kicking Butt”, and “If You Like Agent Carter Try…”.

Find “Batwoman (Vol.1): The Many Arms of Death” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Girl in the Tower”

34050917Book: “The Girl in the Tower” by Katherine Arden

Publishing Info: Del Ray, December 2017

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.

Previously Reviewed: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

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!”

Rating 10: Somehow even better than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl in the Tower” is a new title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists except for  “Young Adult & Middle Grade Historical Fiction set in Russia.”

Find “The Girl in the Tower” at your library using WorldCat!