Serena’s Review: “Olivia Twist”

34817232Book: “Olivia Twist” by Lorie Langdon

Publishing Info: Blink/HarperCollins, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Olivia Brownlow is no damsel in distress. Born in a workhouse and raised as a boy among thieving London street gangs, she is as tough and cunning as they come. When she is taken in by her uncle after a caper gone wrong, her life goes from fighting and stealing on the streets to lavish dinners and soirees as a debutante in high society. But she can’t seem to escape her past … or forget the teeming slums where children just like her still scrabble to survive.

Jack MacCarron rose from his place in London’s East End to become the adopted “nephew” of a society matron. Little does society know that MacCarron is a false name for a boy once known among London gangs as the Artful Dodger, and that he and his “aunt” are robbing them blind every chance they get. When Jack encounters Olivia Brownlow in places he least expects, his curiosity is piqued. Why is a society girl helping a bunch of homeless orphan thieves? Even more intriguing, why does she remind him so much of someone he once knew? Jack finds himself wondering if going legit and risking it all might be worth it for love.

Review: I’ve only read the original “Oliver Twist” once and it was quite a while ago, so I was intrigued when I ran across this gender-swapped retelling of the classic tale. However, in the end, I felt a bit misled by the book description and had a few problems with the characterization of our leading lady.

Olivia grew up on the streets and it is only through a chance of luck that she now finds herself leading the life of a society lady. But even here, amidst the gossip and sparkle, she can’t escape her past. Especially when said pasts presents itself polished up in a dashing suit and shooting her wicked grins. Jack MacCarron is more than he seems, and his history with a younger “Oliver” is only the start of what will tie these two’s future together.

What I did enjoy about this book was the writing style and historical setting. I’m particularly prone to enjoying books featuring lords and ladies circulating around ball rooms and snarking wittily at each other. The story was also quite fast paced, jumping into the action mere pages into the story. Olivia and Jack are introduced to each other very quickly, and through some well-placed flashbacks, readers are able to begin putting together their history. What also makes this fun is Olivia’s extra knowledge of their shared past, as she was only known to Jack then as a young boy named Oliver. From what I can remember from the original book, the author also does a good job at tying together the two stories in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.

However, I had a lot of trouble with a few aspects of the book. My biggest problem was not being able to suspend my disbelief about the situation that our two main lead characters find themselves in. Somehow, magically almost, both are raised on the streets but then easily slip into lives as gentry after only a few years. What’s more, they are welcomed in with very little struggle or gossip. Part of my problem with this could be the same fast-paced-ness that I praised above. In the very first chapters we’re introduced to Olivia, a lady now living the life of a society woman. But then in some quick flashbacks, we see the abject poverty and limits of the world she grew up in until she was a pre-teen. And yet, there was no evidence of this in her current manner as a lady.

I don’t want to go all “My Fair Lady” on this, but…really? Not only would I have found Olivia’s story that much more compelling had her arc included more about the ongoing struggles she had to face living this life full of politics and rules, but it was frankly unbelievable to see her navigate the ins and outs of a society that was notorious for confusing and strict rules of conduct. Many other historical fiction works set in this time narrate on and on the challenges that even women who grew up to this life encountered when living life in public society. To simply buy that Olivia, a woman who grew up without an education, without parents, and, what’s more, as a boy, would be able to simply fall into this role was just too much to swallow. The same goes for Jack, to a certain extent, but as the rules are less strict for men of the time, I was able to let this go a bit more.

My second major criticism comes with the first line of the book description and the reality we are given. Right there, in the very first sentence of the summary, we’re told that we’ll be getting a character who is not a damsel in distress. The reality is exactly the opposite. In the first few pages, we get a very unfortunate reference to the “beauty leads to rape” myth when a man instructs a midwife to raise Olivia as a boy since if she turns out to have the looks of her mother, her life will be more rough. That alone is pretty bad. But as the story goes on, Olivia repeatedly makes terrible decisions, finds herself threatened with attack and assault, only to be saved by Jack. This happened repeatedly. Not only do I never appreciate repeated threats of sexual assault as a driving force in any story, but to combine that with the first chapter’s reference to it being at all affected by a woman’s beauty and the fact that we were promised the exact opposite of a damsel in distress in the book summary, makes the whole thing very upsetting.

This all added up to a fairly disappointing read for me. The romance and chemistry between the two leads was charming, and I still enjoyed many aspects of the historical setting. But I couldn’t get past the suspension of disbelief issue or my increasing dismay with regards to the use of assault as a plot point and Olivia’s role as a repeated victim in need of rescue. I do think this book will still appeal to many other readers, perhaps those looking for a bit more of a fluffy romance read, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me.

Rating 5:  The intriguing concept and strong romantic chemistry weren’t enough to distract me from an unbelievable leading damsel who too often found herself in distress.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Olivia Twist” is a new title and so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “Olivia Twist” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Batman: Nightwalker”

29749090Book: “Batman: Nightwalker” (DC Icons #2) by Marie Lu

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Before he was Batman, he was Bruce Wayne. A reckless boy willing to break the rules for a girl who may be his worst enemy.

The Nightwalkers are terrorizing Gotham City, and Bruce Wayne is next on their list.

One by one, the city’s elites are being executed as their mansions’ security systems turn against them, trapping them like prey. Meanwhile, Bruce is turning eighteen and about to inherit his family’s fortune, not to mention the keys to Wayne Enterprises and all the tech gadgetry his heart could ever desire. But after a run-in with the police, he’s forced to do community service at Arkham Asylum, the infamous prison that holds the city’s most brutal criminals.

Madeleine Wallace is a brilliant killer . . . and Bruce’s only hope.

In Arkham, Bruce meets Madeleine, a brilliant girl with ties to the Nightwalkers. What is she hiding? And why will she speak only to Bruce? Madeleine is the mystery Bruce must unravel. But is he getting her to divulge her secrets, or is he feeding her the information she needs to bring Gotham City to its knees? Bruce will walk the dark line between trust and betrayal as the Nightwalkers circle closer.

Review: Now it is very true that both Serena and I are big Superman fans here, willing to stand for him and stand up to anyone who would wish him ill or call him anything less than great. And we were solidly Team Superman in the most recent DC movies that involved him. But I do have to admit that even though I want to smack Batman upside the head a lot of the time, especially in his most recent iterations and interpretations, there is a very special place in my heart for him. I will openly concede that I love him, darkness and all. What can I say? I am a true, true sucker for the emotionally unstable messed up problematic loner guy in my fiction. Bruce, take your place alongside J.D. from “Heathers”, Kylo Ren, and Bobby Briggs.

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Oh and who could forget this fella? (source)

So you KNOW that I was all about reading “Batman: Nightwalker” by Marie Lu, the second book in the “DC Icons” young adult series. These books tend to take the teenage selves of these superheroes/heroines and give them something of an origin story, or at the very least an early foray into their ultimate heroic destines. I read “Wonder Woman: Warbringer” by Leigh Bardugo last fall, and was very excited to see what the next in the series had to offer. Marie Lu herself has become a bigger and bigger name in YA, with her previous book “Warcross” getting a lot of buzz for its sci-fi and techno thriller premise. So giving her Batman was a natural choice, with his love for tech.

The Bruce Wayne that we meet in “Nightwalker” is not Batman yet. He’s still a teenager, recently turned eighteen and trying to keep going in spite of the loss of his parents, a trauma that still haunts him. Lu’s Wayne feels more like the teenage self of Michael Keaton’s version of Wayne. He is damaged and sad, but he still wants to see the best in those he cares about and wants them to be safe. There isn’t any disproportional arrogance here; he’s reflective and cautious, and has genuine connections and affections for the important people in his life. He also is fully aware of his own privilege in this world, and Lu takes many opportunities to address that his wealth and skin color has given him all the advantages that other people in similar situations just would not have (more on that later).  It’s a characterization that I found refreshing, and one that has been sorely missed ever since Bale took the cowl over and Affleck went from there. Lu does a very good job with Bruce, and with most of the other characters she writes, both familiar and original ones.  Alfred is a properly dry but loving guardian to Bruce (and yes, he’s still a bit too permissive, but then Alfred would kind of have to be for Bruce to turn into Batman later in life). Lucius Fox is a gadget fanatic but has some other background and abilities, mentoring Bruce in his love for all things tech. And my favorite was the appearance of Harvey Dent, who is one of Bruce’s best friends. I don’t know what it is about so many newer stories framing Harvey as a good person who’s turn to villainy as Two Face is steeped in tragedy (probably because of “The Long Halloween”), but I am HERE for it and I have to say that Lu has written the best one yet. There is no hint of what’s coming for him in the future, there is only a moral person and a wonderful friend who cares deeply for Bruce. Whenever Harvey was a perfect cinnamon roll of an individual (so pretty much ALL THE TIME) I just whimpered and clutched the book to my chest.

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WHY, MARIE, WHY?! (source)

The original characters, however, did not fare as well for me. Okay, let me rephrase that. Most of them did. I liked Detective Draccon, who puts Bruce on the Arkham community service beat, though she wasn’t really doing much beyond being Gordon before Gordon was around. I REALLY liked Bruce and Harvey’s bestie Dianne, a smart and empathetic brain who is fiercely loyal to her two main dudes. I had a harder time believing Madeline, the antagonistic (or IS SHE?) criminal genius who may or may not be connected to The Nightwalkers, who are targeting and killing the rich in Gotham. While I liked that she was super intelligent and super morally ambiguous, I felt that the forced star crossed lovers sort of vibe that she and Bruce gave off was unnecessary. I didn’t really need their empathy and understanding towards each other to turn into a romance that couldn’t be, I think that it would have been just fine if it was left platonic. I felt that by making her pine for Bruce undermined her own agency and self-actualization. Also, their constant “do I trust you or should I not because there’s this sexy charge between us but you are on the other side of this big long conflict” dynamic was WAY TOO Batman/Catwoman, and that just will not do. There can be only one Selina Kyle. The Nightwalker concept itself did feel very Batman villain-y, and also brought in some interesting questions about capitalism and wealth distribution in this country. I greatly enjoyed that entire aspect and how Bruce approaches it, and explores it just beyond the black and white morality and fully into the greys of capitalism’s winners and losers.

Overall, I found “Batman: Nightwalker” to be a pretty fun book. I would absolutely recommend it to any fan of Batman, especially those who may need Batman with a little more hope.

Rating 7: A fun early Batman adventure with some familiar faces and a likable Bruce Wayne. I didn’t approve of the need for a love interest, but it was a fast and fun read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Batman: Nightwalker” is included on the Goodreads lists “Super Hero Books (Not Graphic Novels”, and “2018 Retelling Releases”.

Find “Batman: Nightwalker” at your library using WorldCat!

Not Just Books: February 2018

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

mv5bmwrmyjvjm2ytndawmi00zgzmltgzmjqtyjy4mtnjmtljnjhjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjexmjk0odk-_v1_sy1000_cr007081000_al_TV Show: “Broadchurch”

So clearly I’m on a bit of a kick with the whole British murder mystery TV shows. I highlighted “Wallander” last month, and now I’ve moved straight on to “Broadchurch” which I’m loving even more. The season long mystery is excellent with a bunch of red herrings and various suspects (for someone who kind of prides myself on being able to call the killer early in shows, I didn’t manage to get this one until a few episodes from the end. A definite plus!). But beyond this, there’s no getting away from the fact that the show lives and dies on the power of the two leads: David Tennant and Olivia Colman. These two are known powerhouses, so it’s not a surprise that they are excellent here. The combination of them together though? Just magic. Their characters have excellent chemistry. If there was a criticism I had for “Wallander” it was that its lead character was too broody/ansty without an appropriate foil. “Broadchurch” does better at striking this balance, relying on Tennant to provide the broodiness (but even he brings a bit more comedy than Branaugh’s Wallander had) and Colman to bounce off him with exasperation and humor. Supposedly there are two more seasons, but I’m not sure how they can recreate the magic that this one was, so we’ll see!

The+Boy+Who+Hasn't+LivedPodcast: “The Boy Who Hasn’t Lived”

This is a new podcast that I’ve discovered and have systematically binged. It features one host, dedicated and rightly obsessed Harry Potter fan, Arlie doing a first-time read through with his friend CJ who has never been exposed to the series before. My love of Harry Potter definitely expands to the point of loving watching other people experience it for the first time. I mean, really, if I could have any series to read for the first time ever, it would be this one, so it’s great fun hearing about someone else’s first time experience. Both hosts are hilarious and bring the perfect amount of geeky knowledge (Arlie) and new found wonder (CJ) to the experience of reading this series. If I had the time, I’d be doing a re-read with them, but, alas, I hear my next Animorphs book calling.

11669536Comic Collection: “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”

Ok, yes, this one is kind of cheat-y because it’s more reading, but…but…they aren’t books! So it’s ok?? I’ve always loved Calvin and Hobbes and have a bunch of the smaller paperback collections, but also splurged on this lovely hardback full collection a few years ago. This last month I’ve been pretty stressed by some things that I don’t have much control over, and these comics have been a great resource for my tired mind. I mean, when reading an actual novel seems like too much work, you know it’s bad! But this collection provided the perfect amount of humor and whimsy that I needed, and all in a format that didn’t have a requirement for “finishing the book.” Some of the references are also hilariously dated, and really, that just makes it all the better!

Kate’s Picks

assassination-of-gianni-versace-teaser-and-key-art-1-600x600TV Show: “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”

I remember riding home from school when the news broke over the radio that Gianni Versace had been shot and killed outside of his mansion in Miami. I remember when it was announced that Andrew Cunanan, a serial killer who started his spree in Minnesota, was the culprit. It was the first time I was following a serial killer in real time, and I was freaked out and horrified. So when Ryan Murphy announced that the second season of his anthology series would focus on Cunanan and Versace, I was very excited to watch it and get a new look at it all. Not only does this show have great performances (Darren Criss as Cunanan! Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace!), it is also a fascinating examination of obsession with fame and celebrity, and gay culture in the 90s and how the lingering stigma was not only unfair, it was downright deadly for some. I love this show, and it’s SO well done even my true-crime disinterested mother is watching it with me.

91zyrtg1vl-_ri_TV Show: “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars 3”

That’s right, gang, not only are we getting a new season of drag queen shenanigans, it’s once again the Quarter Quell The All Stars Season! Former contenders come back to try and get the crown they missed out on the first time round, and the stakes are upped as the challenges are made more challenging and pressing. Some of my favorites (Chi Chi Devayne, Trixie Mattel, BenDelaCreme) from past seasons are here this time, making it VERY difficult to pick whom I want to win. But it’s always excellent seeing these ladies come back to perform, throw shade, and crack wise all while looking absolutely devastatingly fabulous. I also like that they kind of shake elimination procedure up during All Stars, as the queens lip sync for the weekly win, AND the opportunity to eliminate a fellow contestant. CUTTHROAT! DRAMATIC! ENTERTAINING! RuPaul’s back on our screens and I’m pleased as can be.

mv5bmtg1mty2mjyznv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtc4ntmwndi-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Movie: “Black Panther”

So perhaps you’re thinking ‘another Marvel movie? I thought Kate was a DC girl!!!’ And yeah, okay, so maybe this is ‘uncharacteristic’ of my usual allegiances. But guys, “Black Panther” is pretty badass. For one, the cast is fabulous, from Chadwick Boseman to Lupita N’yongo to Angela Basset to FOREST FRIGGIN WHITAKER (who is NOT wasted in his role, unlike in “Rogue One”). For another, this movie brings some excellent social commentary to a universe that could easily coast on superhero bust ups. Not only do we get the return of T’Challa, one of the more compelling parts of “Captain America: Civil War”, we also get a SLEW of kickass ladies who get shit done. I had a very fun time while watching this movie, and it brings MUCH NEEDED representation to a traditionally super white universe. All hail T’Challa, to be totally certain.

Serena’s Review: “The Cruel Prince”

26032825Book: “The Cruel Prince” by Holly Black

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Jude was seven years old when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

In doing so, she becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, discovering her own capacity for bloodshed. But as civil war threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.

Warning: This review contains a lot of ranting, and because it’s so popular on Goodreads and other places, I know this will be an unpopular opinion. But it’s mine. It doesn’t have to be yours and, while I think that even those who like this book deserve better, especially as far as the romantic interests go, everyone’s tastes run differently! And that’s ok! That’s why we have libraries packed full of options for everyone! But if it’s hard for you to read negative opinions on things you love (which I totally understand), it’s probably best to just pass on this review now.

Review: This was one of the few books that I broke down and bought without having read it before. Sadly, it is also further reinforcement for why I have that general policy to begin with. But I was beguiled by the beautiful cover and a book description that was right up my alley. Perhaps also the hype, which really should have been my warning sign, as I’ve found that very few books that are super hyped in the fantasy YA community these last couple of years actually turn out to be my cup of tea. Alas.

As I said, there is a lot to love in this book description. I’ve always loved stories about Faerie courts. I also love stories about sisterhood. And, of course, political intrigue. What should have been my warning was the concept of the cruel prince himself, Cardan. My bookclub comrade, Alicia, was also reading this book when I was and asked what I thought about this book when I was only 50 pages in or so. At the time, I said that I was enjoying it but that the main character had better not get together with the titular “cruel prince.” And Alicia just looked at me and laughed. Well…yeah…touche, I guess!

I like to try and say positive things about all books I review on here, and this book in particular seems to be getting a lot of raving reviews, so I know there must be things here that many people are liking. But honestly, I just don’t see it. The writing was technically good, I guess, and the Faerie court was appropriately capricious and beautiful, but that’s about all I have.

Though even with these aspects, Black wasn’t introducing anything we haven’t seen a million times before with fantasy like this! Yeah, yeah, beautiful food that is actually rotten. Faerie folk who have animal aspects like hooves and wings. Dancing. Mermaids. And this speaks to one of my first problems: the world-building and storytelling. If an author is going to write a Faerie court book, the fact that there a million others out there should serve as a motivation to put extra effort into plotting and characters. You already know you’re playing in a very full sandbox as far as the world itself, so you need to challenge norms in other areas. Unfortunately, Black does not. Instead we get a long checklist of YA tropes being ticked off one by one.

This book is a case study in “telling, not showing” writing. We are simply informed of most of the plot points with very little build up, no clear arc, and characters who behave and say things simply because they must, but without any written character support for their choices. We’re told that Jude wants to be a Fae Knight, and there is some hand service to her wanting to gain power, but none of this is set in any concrete character position that we are consistently shown throughout the story. At one point early in the book, we get to this grand tournament, an event she’s been training for her entire life and where she can exhibit her skills…and I’m pretty sure we get this exact line: “I fought harder than I ever had before.” End scene. Great. She’s a fighter whose been telling us for pages how important this all is and how much she’s trained (again, we’ve seen none of that) and then the moment comes! And we’re just told she fought hard.  How intriguing! I’m definitely invested now! It’s sheer laziness of writing and the kind of things that drives me crazy.

And this bland writing is paralleled in bland characterization. Throughout the entire book, I never understood Jude. What’s really important to her? Why did she do one thing here and another there? How is she growing, learning, and reacting to pretty big events happening around her? There was just nothing consistent going on with her character that readers could latch on to.

What’s more, most of her story is directly contrary to the message that I thought this book was going for, and the one thing that could have really given Jude depth as a character. She saw her parents murdered before her eyes and then was raised by the man who killed them and in a land where she and her sister are systematically abused and terrorized by those around them. This is the set up for a strong story of resilience and of reclaiming one’s own power. At its most basic level, you could get a pretty good revenge story out of this.

But no. Jude is every YA heroine we’ve ever read. We’re told she’s bad ass, despite never seeing it.  She makes horrible decisions with apparently no sense of self-preservation, and worse, no sense of the fact that her choices also result in harm to others. We’re told she’s terrified by those around her, but she still wants to be one of them. She’s thoughtless and impulsive, with no foundation to speak of that would explain why she does what she does when she does it.  Her thoughts on Faerie and its people are completely dependent on what the story needs her to do, or feel, next.

With all of this, Jude’s own Stockholm-syndrome-esque behavior and her sister’s passive victim hood, I thought the book was building up towards some sort of commentary on the effects of bullying, terror, and abuse. But nope. There’s nothing there: like the Faerie food, it looks beautiful and complex, but at its core, it’s nothing. It’s honestly confusing. Was this just a coincidence, that the author set up all of these factors around abuse and victim hood? Did she do it on accident while trying to write a fairly typical YA fantasy story? Because, as it stands, its as if she honestly didn’t realize that that’s what she had written for all of the attention its given.

And, worst of all, we have yet another YA love interest who is the epitome of abuse and bullying. And I am absolutely sick of this persistent and pernicious trope of authors creating a character who does despicable things, giving him “a past,” and then hand-waving away his own behavior (especially if he’s done it because secretly he’s kind of into the heroine). This is not a message we should be sending to young women. Yes, people can survive terrible things, and often those who commit them had darkness in their past. But they are still responsible for the terrible things they do, and while you can pity the circumstances that brought them to that point, they ARE NOT love interest material. They need help. Professional, practical, and ongoing help.

I’m completely fed up with this, and it is disheartening to see it continue in YA fantasy books and have those books receive rave reviews. In a year full of #metoo and terrible stories about women being subjected to horrendous behavior by men in power, the fact that we are still reading about YA heroes who outright abuse the heroine but are then presented as potential love interests just makes me sick. This is not ok. Even the final twist of the book doesn’t save this from what’s been set-up: multiple love triangles between victims and their bullies.

Ultimately, this goes down as my first major disappointment of the year. I’m not sure why this book is as hyped as it is or how it is receiving all of the positive reviews it is. At best, it’s presenting a pretty familiar story with all the elements we’ve come to expect: a story that is told to us, not shown; a heroine who has no clear characterization and whose decisions are nonsensical at best and outright stupid at worst; and a love interest who has no right being a love interest at all. I don’t recommend this book. Instead, if you want to read an amazing Faerie court book that’s come out recently, check out “An Enchantment of Ravens.”

Rating 2: A major disappointment. I expect more of YA fantasy. And, at this point, we have a responsibility to those who suffer from real life abuse and bullying to put away this notion that cruelty in any form, for any reason, can be “sexy” or “charming.”

Reader’s Advisory:

I’m not going to include the lists it is on, but if you’re looking for good Faerie court books, check out “An Enchantment of Ravens” and “Wildwood Dancing.”

Find “The Cruel Prince” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “13 Minutes”

32768519Book: “13 Minutes” by Sarah Pinborough

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Natasha’s sure that her friends love her. But does that mean they didn’t try to kill her?

Natasha is the most popular girl in school. So why was she pulled out of a freezing river after being dead for thirteen minutes? She doesn’t remember how she ended up in the icy water that night, but she does know this—it wasn’t an accident, and she wasn’t suicidal.

Now Natasha’s two closest friends, who are usually her loyal sidekicks, are acting strangely. Natasha turns to Becca, the best friend she dumped years before, to help her figure out the mystery.

At first Becca isn’t sure that she even wants to help Natasha. But as she is drawn back into Natasha’s orbit, Becca starts putting the pieces together. As an outsider, Becca believes she may be the only one who can uncover the truth…which is far more twisted than she ever imagined.

Review: One of last year’s runaway thriller hits in this country was “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough. Yes, it’s on my pile, I’ll get to it eventually. Even though the U.S. didn’t get their sights set on Pinborough too much until this book came out, she has many, MANY books under her belt. One of those books is “13 Minutes”. So of course once “Behind Her Eyes” got the attention it did in the U.S., the same publisher brought “13 Minutes” on over too. So THAT is how I read that one before the megahit. And I must say, even though I went in without any expectations (I didn’t realize they were written by the same author until I had already started it), I can see why people are kind of obsessed with Pinborough’s thriller writing right now. Because “13 Minutes” really sucked me in.

“13 Minutes” pretty much takes “Mean Girls” and throws it into a British crime procedural, a mix that is of course super tantalizing to the likes of me. There’s something about a Queen Bee ending up in a freezing river and then having to solve the mystery of how and why she got there. This story is told in a few different ways. We get straight up third person narrative, some first person POV, and then texts, diary entries, psychiatric notes, and news reports. These are all pretty standard these days when it comes to thriller fiction, but I liked how Pinborough carefully crafted it all together and took you down a path with lots of twists and surprises. I will happily report that a few of them actually caught me off guard. I even got that moment of ‘okay, this seems wrapped up, but there’s so much story left, so what’s going on OHBOYOHBOY’, something that I just delight in when reading a thriller novel. I feel a bit sheepish that I was so easily tricked, but Pinborough combines meticulous clue hiding and just enough unreliable narration on ALL sides that I’m not even mad that I was so totally thrown off the trail, especially since the stakes became quite high quite quickly once I realized I’d been duped.

The characters themselves, however, kind of fall into tropes that are all too familiar these days. Tasha is the mean girl who may have more depth than we expect of her. Becca is a brooding loner who tries to be aloof, but is still desperate for the affection and acceptance of her former best friend. Hayley and Jenny are both nasty and poisonous, but are also victims of Tasha’s scorn and their own insecurities. I didn’t really feel like the wheel was being reinvented with any of them, and while I was attached to Becca at least and wanted everything to be okay for her, I knew that I wouldn’t be horribly upset if it wasn’t. I wasn’t really in it for the characters as much as I was the plot and the mystery. That said, I do think that Pinborough did a pretty good job within those characterizations. I was especially taken with her writing of Tasha, who did feel like the most of complex of them all. I did also like that the book addresses that for many people the need to be accepted can make you do things that you aren’t proud of, and that being a teenager as well can make things especially messy.

But if you are in it to be taken on a fun and wild ride, “13 Minutes” will probably be a good match for you. I read it in about two marathon sittings, and I probably could have done it in one if I had the chance and time to do it. Now that I’ve found out what the big deal is about Pinborough’s thriller writing, I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for any future works that she may be bringing to the table.

Kate’s Rating 7: Though the characters were fairly standard and trope ridden for the most part, the plot and mystery itself kept me guessing and on the edge of my seat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“13 Minutes” is included on the Goodreads list “Young Adult Contemporary Thrillers 2016”, and would fit in on “If You Enjoyed ‘Gone Girl’, You Might Also Like…”.

Find “13 Minutes” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Bone Witch”

30095464Book: “The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupego

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: copy from the publisher

Book Description: Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Review: First off, thank you so much to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book to read and review! It now has a loving spot on my bookshelf, so that should give readers a clue about my thoughts on this book!

A young Tea has just learned she is a Bone Witch, a rare Asha who can raise and control the dead. Her kind are especially needed for their abilities to raise and banish daeva, fearsome beasts who will escape their graves on given intervals and rampage the countryside if they are not put back to rest. But an older Tea is the one telling us this tale, and through her we see that life has not been what she had expected when she first was trained. The elder Tea is banished, living on a forlorn beach surrounded by monstrous beasts, and she has her own plans. With these dueling perspectives, Chupeco weaves together a world full of magic, mystery, and darkness, and one girl’s story that has already happened and is also about to begin.

My first point of praise goes to the narrative set-up of this book. I love stories that are told from a past/present point of view. Through the elder Tea, we get a sense that things have gone wrong, but we don’t know why, how, or what her plans are now in response to those events. The younger Tea, whose story takes up the majority of the book, is as new to much of this world as the reader and through her we see innocence, wonder, and fear of what her growing abilities really mean. Both narratives draw from the other, dropping little clues here and there that tie neatly between the two, but also raise more and more questions. The elder Tea is definitely not rushed in her story-telling, or willing to simply give the end away. There were excellent surprises planted throughout both storylines, and it was exciting seeing how they interconnected.

The world-building was probably the strongest point in this book’s favor. It’s been compared to a fantasy version of “Memories of a Geisha” and this is spot on. It did walk a very fine line of being almost a little too close to that book for my taste at times. Some of the characters involved, the miserly older woman who runs the house, the successful and beautiful older Asha who is in the prime of her abilities, and Tea’s own slow rise from servitude towards a spectacular debut. However, the magical elements and complicated history and politics of this world did enough to pull the story away and into its own place. I absolutely loved the magical system of this world, especially the way proficiency in these magical arts combined in a variety of ways. Asha are not only excellent performers who serve as entertainers (here’s where the geisha-like comparisons come into play), but they are also warriors, healers, and politicians.

Tea, as a Dark Asha, or Bone Witch, walks a slightly different path. Dark Asha are rare, and, while their abilities are the most necessary of them all, it is not surprising that the common people fear them. Through Tea’s experiences, and that of her mentor Mykaela, we see the fears and superstitions that they must deal with, all while performing the challenging and necessary work of the land.

So far we have a complicated past/present narration style, a magical system that has intricate workings and specific challenges for our main character, and a geisha-like system that incorporates entertaining, fighting, and politicking. On top of all this, there is also the world itself, made up of many different kingdoms each with their own cultures, ethnicities, and views on Asha and the ongoing fight with the daeva and the Faceless who control them. One of my biggest criticisms comes in this part. If ever a book needed a map, it was this one. There is simply too much to keep track of in this book to expect readers to navigate the terrain as well. Even by the end of the book, I was still confused about the layout of the world and how these various different kingdoms worked together.

With all of these details, this book is definitely heavy on descriptions and works with a slower pace. I love immersive writing like this, but I do think the book will have varied responses based on this fact. There is action, but in small bursts slotted between pages of the average day for Tea learning to be a Dark Asha. It’s not until the very last part of the book that the action really picks up, but when it does, man is it exciting!

And, since the second book is coming out shortly, you’ll have a safer time reading this one now than earlier, as the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger. By no means are all of the mysteries resolved; if anything, I had even more questions at the end than I did at the beginning, and it felt like the story was cut off right when things were really starting to get moving. I’m fine with that, since I can pick up the second one right away, but it’s something to keep in mind when you’re scheduling your reads (doesn’t everyone schedule their reading order??)

So, while all of the complicated elements of the world and story did leave me confused at times, the strong central character and the huge set up for book two were more than enough for me to thoroughly enjoy and recommend this book. If you’re a fan of fantasy with a darker twist, definitely check this one out.

Rating 8: Immersive and detailed, there is no loss for world-building in this book. If anything, it’s overwhelming!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bone Witch” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Rag and bones – and skellies and skulls” and “Fairytales for wild girls.”

Find “The Bone Witch” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Wrong Number 2”

19900200Book: “Wrong Number 2” (Fear Street #27) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1995

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

Book Description: Don’t answer that phone!

“You’re not safe anywhere. I’ll get my revenge!”

Can it really be Mr. Farberson on the line? He has to still be locked up after trying to kill Jade and Deena last year. Maybe the calls are just someone’s idea of a sick joke. But who else could possibly know the things the caller knows?

Then they realize that someone is nearby, watching them, close enough to know their every move. Someone who desperately wants revenge. Someone who wants to reach out…and kill them.

Had I Read This Before: No

The Plot: So given that R.L. Stine had taken Deena Martinson, his main gal in “Wrong Number”, and put her in a number of other “Fear Street” cameos, I shouldn’t have been surprised that his first sequel book was going to be “Wrong Number 2”. I don’t think that Deena is a particularly compelling heroine, but the dude sure seems to fixate on her, and that’s why we are here now. We start with Deena having a flashback to the night that Mr. Farberson, the man she crank called and therein she found out killed his wife, tried to kill her and her best friend Jade with a chainsaw. All because her rotten half brother Chuck (fucking Chuck) who did the prank call in the first place. But Deena reminds herself that Mr. Farberson is in prison and won’t be getting out. The next night in her friend Jade’s bedroom, the two girls catch us up on what’s been happening since book 1. Rob and Deena broke up, she’s thinking of asking out the hot Australian exchange student Steve, and Jade is dating a guy named Teddy who’s on the basketball team. Deena finds a letter from Chuck to Jade, as they had been going out before he went off to college. Apparently he’s staying out of trouble, but we’re reminded that he’s a ‘hothead’. I recall him being a total cock, but whatever. Jade says she’s been seeing other guys because Chuck is off at school, and I say good for her. Deena worries Chuck may lose his temper over it (asshole), and Jade shrugs is off and leaves the room to find some chips. Then her bedroom phone rings. Deena answers and it’s someone saying that ‘this is your wrong number, and I’m coming to get you REAL soon’. Deena is convinced it’s Mr. Farberson, but Jade reminds her that he’s in prison. That night when Deena goes home, she also gets a similar call.

The next day at school Deena is having a hard time focusing. Even when she bumps into Steve (who literally says ‘g’day’ to her), and she makes a bad joke and immediately regrets it. When she and Jade are walking home she tells her about the phone call, and Jade thinks that it has to be someone else since Farberson is in prison and probably isn’t calling them at all hours. They notice a strange car following them, and when it speeds up to match their pace they make a break for it towards Jade’s house. They lose the car, but are certain it wasn’t following them just to ask directions. The next day at school Deena sees Steve walking with Bree Wade from “Double Date” (you know one of those badass twins who humiliated a misogynist), and decides that she couldn’t possibly compete with her. She and Jade go to the basketball game that night, and Deena notices a strange guy in an orange hunting cap who appears to be watching them. Because orange hunting caps are super incognito. Teddy throws the winning shot, and the Shadyside Tigers are victorious!!! Later that night Teddy drops them off at Jade’s house and he and Jade make out while poor Deena just kind of stands there. They eventually go inside the empty house (as Jade’s sister is at a friend’s and her mom is at a ‘hairdressers party’, whatever that is). Jade confides that Teddy is a fun distraction while Chuck is away. Then there is a tapping on the window, and since they’re on the second floor they both freak out. They open the curtain, expecting I don’t know what, but it’s even worse. It’s Chuck.

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I mean, I knew he’d be back. But I don’t have to be happy about it. (source)

He was the one in the ugly baseball cap at the game. They let him in the window and he and Jade fall right back into their old romantic interactions, and I’m missing the basketball player. Deena asks why he’s home a week before winter break, and he tells them that he dropped out of school because a couple of professors were ‘giving him a hard time’. He tells them that he’s decided to move to L.A. and break into show business. He just needs to get some money, and NO, DEENA, he isn’t going to tell their Dad and Deena’s Mom! He then tells Jade that he saw her kissing Teddy at the basketball game, and Jade basically tells him that she is always going to go out and have fun with boys but will always wait for him. Deena sends him on home with her key, telling him that Mom and Dad are gone on a trip so he can rest easy for now, and she stays the night at Jade’s. The phone rings in the middle of the night, and Deena answers. It’s the mysterious caller, and he asks them if he remembers the closet they hid in.

The next day Deena gets home to find her parents yelling at Chuck. They argue about him dropping out, and he runs off, saying that he’s going to L.A. at the end of the week. Deena finds him at Jade’s house that afternoon, where they are watching a movie and he’s trying to convince Jade to come to L.A. with him. Jade says that she’s still in HIGH SCHOOL, dummy, and Deena points out he has no money. Chuck says he’ll get it, and tells Jade that she’d be safer if she came with him, as she told him about the calls. The doorbell rings and Jade goes to answer it. Outside she finds an envelope, and when she opens it has a letter that says “YOUR TURN NEXT”, as well as a crudely drawn bloody chainsaw. Deena points out that prison mail is censored, so it couldn’t possibly be Farberson, and Chuck suggests that they go drive past Farberson’s house to see if someone is there, in case he got out somehow. So that means we’re driving to Fear Street.

They drive to the ol’ Farberson house, and it looks ramshackle and abandoned.. Except for the FLICKERING LIGHT IN THE UPSTAIRS WINDOW. Chuck, being a total fucktruck, decides that he’s going to check it out and hops out of the car! I personally say they should let him die. As he heads up the porch, the light moves to the downstairs! Jade jumps out to warn him, and then the sound of an engine comes from behind the house. Chuck goes to check that out (goddamn I hate him), but Jade pulls him back to the car. She manages to slip in the snow and hurt her ankle, and Chuck guides her back, just as a car comes out of the Farberson driveway and takes aim at Chuck and Jade. They manage to get into the car, and a car chase begins. It’s a dicey one, but they manage to get away as the other car crashes into another one. When they get back to Jade’s house, Deena says that it was a WOMAN driving the car coming after them. Deena and Jade think they should tell the cops, but Chuck balks, saying that the cops will accuse them of ‘looking for trouble’. Deena says they should tell their parents at least, but Chuck says that they will be grounded. Yeah, these are definitely just as bad outcomes as being horrifically murdered. Jade says that the woman following them and calling them MUST have been Farberson’s girlfriend from the first book! Deena reminds her that the caller is a man and Jade tells her that she has ‘read about a little electronic gadget that can make a man sound like a woman or a woman sound like a man’. And this is even before “Scream” used this to it’s full effect!!!

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Someday I will tell you all about my deep, deep, DEEP love for this movie. (source)

They remember her name is Linda Morrison and Jade finds her address in the phone book. She suggests they pay her a visit the next day to show her they aren’t afraid of her.

The next day Deena wakes up to the sounds of Chuck and her Dad fighting again. Chuck runs off and while I do feel that their father completely failed him in life by leaving his mother and starting a new family right away, I can’t really blame Mr. Martinson for his ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ approach at the moment because Chuck is THE WORRRRRRRST. Jade shows up in super adulty business clothes, telling Deena’s parents that she and Deena are helping out at a ‘business’ party her mom is throwing, and they fall for it. Upstairs Jade tells Deena she has a plan to confront Morrison without being familiar: she saw a ‘for sale’ sign on Morrison’s house, and so they are going to pretend to be real estate agents who can help her find a buyer. Her aunt, you see, is a realtor so Jade knows how it works. She also got some wigs and some make up to disguise them. So they go off on this Lucy and Ethel-esque scheme, all dolled up and totally unrecognizable. They go to Morrison’s house, and Linda lets them in. When she insists on seeing a business card, Jade has one she took from her Aunt. Always thinking, that Jade. When Linda leaves them to ‘take measurements’, Jade and Deena snoop. They find a key to Farberson’s house (with a keychain that says ‘Farberson’, how convenient) and a drawn diagram of the Farberson house. But then Linda confronts them, saying she called the real estate firm and that they aren’t who they say they are, and she remembers them from the unpleasantness from the year before. She asks what they want, and Jade asks why she has been calling them. Linda says she hasn’t been calling them, and admits to following them the night before but only because THEY had scared HER. Because she’s been told that Farberson may be getting out of prison on a technicality! She was at Farberson’s house because he’d stolen a bunch of money from his restaurant and was convinced that Linda had taken it, even though she didn’t. She was searching the house because he said he’d hidden it there, and was scared he’d kill her if she didn’t produce it. She then accuses Jade and Deena of taking it, but Jade shuts that shit down right away. She tells them that they should be careful in case Farberson gets out.

They reconvene with Chuck and get him all caught up, and he says he thinks that Linda has the money and was lying. And then he thinks that the money is rightfully theirs!!!! After all, they went through so much the year before, they’ve EARNED it, obviously. Jade seems to agree with this assessment.

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God I hate him. (source)

Chuck says that he’s going to find that money, and goes out the door, but then is attacked by a strange man dressed in black! Turns out it’s Teddy, who has mistaken Jade yelling at Chuck for something criminal. They fight, and when Chuck tries to attack him he miscalculates his attack, falls, and cracks his head on the ground. An ambulance comes for stupid head, and Jade tells Teddy that she’s seeing Chuck and she’s breaking up with you. You chose poorly, Jade.

They visit Chuck in his hospital room, and he confesses to them that HE WAS THE ONE WHO MADE THE PHONE CALLS TO THEM. And he’s been doing this because he literally wanted to scare Jade into dumping Teddy and follow him to L.A. so they could live happily ever after. He was also the one who scared them to death by following them home from school in a weird car the other day. But it’s just because he doesn’t want to lose Jade, guys.

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Fuck this guy. Seriously. (source)

AND THEY ARE COMPLETELY OKAY WITH IT. THEY ARE COMPLETELY OKAY WITH IT, GUYS. This is how I am feeling about all of this. But at least Farberson isn’t out.

Things start looking up and Steve asks Deena out, and just as she’s feeling better about everything, a news report comes on the TV a few days later. Turns out, FARBERSON HAS BEEN LET OUT AFTER ALL. And the Jade calls and tells Deena that Chuck checked himself out of the hospital, and he left a message for JAde telling her that he was going to go back to the Farberson house to look for the money. Deena tells Jade that Farberson is out, and they realize that he could find Chuck there, and I say LET HIM DIE, GODDAMMIT. But no, they decide to bus over to Farberson’s house (no cars tonight apparently). Jade says that Linda’s phone number has been disconnected and they figure she’s blown this pop stand. They get to the house and find the backdoor open. They go inside, and search for Chuck. They search all the rooms but don’t find him anywhere, but they find his hospital ID bracelet on the floor. They also find blood. THEN they find him in a closet, a wound on the side of his head. He tells them that he found the money, but then someone hit him on the head and took it. Deena thinks it must have been Farberson. They try to leave, but they hear someone opening the door to the kitchen. They dive out of the light, but see Mr. Farberson there. They rush to the basement looking for an escape, but Farberson finds them.

He ushers them back down to the basement and pulls a gun on Deena. He then demands that they hand over the money. Chuck says they don’t have it. Farberson doesn’t believe him, and he makes Deena tie Chuck and Jade up. He then ties  her up, asks where his money is, and grabs his good ol’ chainsaw!!!!! He says he’ll cut them up if they don’t tell him where the money is. He starts to move in on Deena, but before he can do anything of the sort Chuck says he’ll talk. He admits he took it, but that someone else took it from him. Farberson isn’t convinced, but before he can cut Deena up, SURPRISE!! Linda Morrison is at the top of the steps with a gun!!! Linda says she’ll shoot him if he doesn’t put the gun down, and they start a showdown. He lunches at Linda with the saw, but he trips over some garbage, drops the saw, and FALLS ON IT, dying. Wow!!! Deena, Jade, and Chuck think they’re safe now…. But nope. Because Linda had planned from the start to kill Farberson, and she has the money!!! And she’s going to burn this place to the ground while they’re tied up. And let me tell you, she does it in the most Cersei Lannister kind of way, as she dumps a bunch of gasoline covered rags all around them on the floor, and lights a FRIGGIN’ CANDLE to burn down and set it all alight. She leaves the basement, and the teens have to figure out how to get out. Jade throws herself on the floor, shoves Farberson’s body off the chainsaw, and FUCKING CUTS HER ROPES ON THE BLOODY BLADE because she is a BADASS. The fire lights and Jade is able to untie Chuck and Deena. They rush up the steps but the door is locked! They break the door down and escape.

As an epilogue Deena, Steve, Jade, and Chuck are watching an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s six months later, Chuck’s back in school, and since they helped catch Linda they got a monetary reward. Chuck jokes that they should do another prank call for old time’s sake, and Deena doesn’t know if he’s joking. The End.

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Get this away from me. (source)

Body Count: 1, and again, I want to point out that he FELL ON A CHAINSAW.

Romance Rating: 2. I cannot BELIEVE that Chuck and Jade are back together, and I miss Deena’s old boyfriend Rob, but she’s dating an Aussie so to her I say GET IT.

Bonkers Rating: 3. Not too crazy, in all honesty, chainsaw death aside.

Fear Street Relevance: 7, as we go back to the good ol’ Farberson house on Fear Street.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger: 

“A deafening squeal. A long skid. The crunch of metal. The high tinkle of shattering glass. Then everything went dark.”

… And they weren’t actually in a car accident after all, just the two cars behind them.

That’s So Dated! Moments: The most glaring was that Jade makes mention that if she dyed her hair blonde, she would look like Sharon Stone. This is peak 1990s, y’all.

Best Quote:

“I know you kids think this is some kind of Nancy Drew adventure story, but it’s not. It’s all real. And if I don’t get my money, I’m really going to hurt you.”

Linda Morrison speaking to every “Fear Street” reader out there, saying they better not make the same dumbshit decisions that Chuck, Deena, and Jade make.

Conclusion: As a sequel, “Wrong Number 2” is much of the same, except Chuck is even LESS likable this time around. You probably don’t have to read the first one to get caught up, but just know that they’re both equally lame. Up next I’m going to divert from the original “Fear Street” series and start the “Cheerleader” Trilogy!!!!

Joint Review: “The Belles”

23197837Book: “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, February 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First; an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Kate’s Review:

Many thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this novel!

My first experience with Dhonielle Clayton was the sudsy and dramatic “Tiny Pretty Things” duology that she wrote with Sona Charaipotra. While I loved the first book in that series, I was left cold by the second. But when I heard that Clayton was writing a fantasy series on her own, I knew that I would absolutely need to get my hands on it. I know that I say that fantasy isn’t really my wheelhouse, I do have exceptions, and this kind of fantasy (other worldly dystopia/utopia) absolutely falls into that category. I sat down and read “The Belles” in one day, absolutely taken in by this amazing fantasy world that Clayton created.

And oh my gosh, so many FASHION DESCRIPTIONS. I have no style, but I love fashion.

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Sashay shanté, bitches. (source)

Orléans  is unlike any other fantasy world that I have seen in a very long time. It has certain similarities with our world, feeling like a combination of French Revolution era societal castes and factions, and yet with magic and grand technologies dispersed throughout it. The Belles, women who have descended from the Goddess of Beauty, have magic flowing through them that allows them to create beauty with various tools and powers that they have. The mortals of Orléans have been cursed with a distinct lack of beauty and grace (the mythology is indeed explained), and the Belles are the only ones who can help them. I greatly enjoyed Camellia’s moral journey as a Belle. She starts wanting to be the very best, to be picked as the Favorite of the Royal Court and to live with them, just as her mother had. But as she starts to live that life, she starts to change, as realities that she has never seen start to become all too real. The way that she changed and met those changes was very fascinating, and hers was a complex and interesting perspective to follow.

The other characters in this book are all very well done as well. Though we only see the events through Camellia’s eyes, I feel like I got a good hold on the supporting ones too and what their motivations were. I greatly enjoyed one of the other Belles named Edel, whose inherent need to rebel and question her life as a Belle was a small, but telling, theme about how different people function within this opulent world. There are different ways that the characters in this book fit into the complicated society, and I was impressed and genuinely horrified by how willing Clayton was to go into disturbing and dark situations to show the dangerous side of a beauty obsessed and power imbalanced culture. Keep an eye out for Princess Sofia. If you want a really screwy and messed up villain in your YA fantasy, she is exactly what you’re looking for.

I really enjoyed “The Belles” and am waiting for the second book on pins and needles.

Serena’s Review:

I had never read any books by Dhonielle Clayton before this, but the intriguing book description alone was enough to convince me this was one to check out. The fact that Kate was also interested was also a plus, since she’s not a huge reader of fantasy, so when there’s one that appeals to her as well, than I’m usually pretty curious!

The thing that stands out about it the most to me was the world-building and descriptions of the beauty that make up the lives of those able to afford such luxuries. The fact that this beauty is also tied to the world’s creation story and is a tangible part of their lives further cemented it as an intriguing concept. What could have read as a fairly superficial fantasy world was instead fully realized and complex, using beauty as not only the primary aspect of the magical system itself but a commentary on what is important to the people in this world. But the simplistic moralizing that one would expect , obsession with physical beauty is superficial and bad, is complicated by the very real implication of the beings peopling this world. Not only do they become physically less beautiful, with grey skin and red eyes, but it is mentioned that insanity also comes for those who fall too far into this “natural” state. I loved the added layers given to this, as, like I said, this could have ended up with a very simple and trite message.

Instead, much of the arc was devoted to Camellia’s growth as a character. Yes, obsession with physical beauty is discussed. But for Camellia, much of her story is that of a young woman who is just beginning to live the life that she’s dreamed of and realizing that it might be very different than she had expected. She’s a typical teenage girl in many ways, struggling with jealousy, self-care, and establishing her own boundaries. Throughout the story, we see her fight with her instincts to please those around her versus do what she knows to be right. Further, this growth comes slowly and steadily, reading as a more natural progression and thus highly relatable to teenage girls. The pressure is real, as are the consequences, and remaining true to your own judgements is never a straight forward path.

I also loved how dark this book was, and I was surprised by the quality of the villain who was presented. The same detailed and extravagant writing that goes into illustrating all of the beauty that makes up this world was put to just as good of use when drawing up the truly terrifying future that now looms by the end of this book.

All in all, I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! It was easy to read the concept and dismiss it as a kind of silly fluff-fantasy that was going to preach an all too familiar message about the “beauty within.” But nope! This is definitely one worth checking out!

Kate’s Rating 8: A sumptuous and unique tale about a gilded society and the darkness behind, and cost of, outer beauty. The characters were all well done and the world Clayton built was wonderfully crafted.

Serena’s Rating 8: A surprising read that avoids the easy and expected messages while still focusing on what’s important. Strong characters, beautiful descriptions, and villain to give you the creeps! Everything you want from YA fantasy fiction!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Belles” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Fashion Dystopia” and “YA Heroines of Colour.”

Find “The Belles” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #24: “The Suspicion”

363350Animorphs #24: “The Suspicion” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, December 1998

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks are not the only invaders of Earth. Meet the new enemy: the Helmacrons. Cassie finds their miniature spaceship and donates it to a toy drive. Big mistake. The Helmacrons are tiny, but they’re far from helpless. They have the technology to shrink other creatures to their size. And until they get their spaceship back, they’re taking hostages. The Animorphs must find a way to send these pests back into space — before it’s too late.

Narrator: Cassie

Plot: Oh man, here we go. The first introduction of the Helmacrons. I had totally forgotten that they showed up in a Cassie book, which are already not my favorites of the series.  So…yeah…

hqg-2498
(source)

At the beginning of each chapter, we get an entry from the log of the Helmacron ship, Galaxy Blaster detailing their exploits on planet Earth. Humble these guys are not.

The story opens with Cassie doing chores at home, as always, this time collecting junk to send to Goodwill. And Rachel begging her to do something about her fashion choices, as always. She’s also trying to convince Cassie to join her on a trip to the mall and then the beach, when she notices a toy space ship in Cassie’s junk pile. Cassie says she found it perched on the pump, which, coincidentally, is where she hid the blue box. Tossing it back on the junk pile, she gives in and agrees to join Rachel and enjoy the day.

Cassie hates the beach (seriously, what is wrong with this girl??), but she’s glad that Rachel is having a good time. They walk home in their swimsuits, and Cassie is mortified to see Jake waiting for them. Jake, too, is embarrassed and it’s all very twee. Cassie suddenly notices another toy aircraft perched on the pump. But it’s not the same one. Worse, it suddenly rises and flies away. Jake announces that the weekend has been cancelled, and they need to gather their forces and figure out what’s happening.

Of course, their first plan of action is to ask their resident alien, Ax. Unfortunately, Ax, rather per the usual at this point, has no ideas, so they morph seagulls to try and track down the other ship that Cassie’s dad had toted away to Goodwill. Once there, they convince the Goodwill clerk to let them in the back to search for the ship. They find it, but before they can do much, another small ship zooms into the loading bay and “attacks” Jake with two tiny laser beams. Rachel, typically, gets mad, even more so when they blow off a few strands of her hair, and takes a bat to the ship that’s flying around. But Jake insists they  back off for a bit, and they see the ship link up to the other, presumably giving it a jump start. They then hear a thought-speak voice in their head demanding they hand over the power source and they will then be allowed to live as slaves. Cassie quickly guesses that they must mean the blue box.

Cassie tries to speak to them calmly and peaceably, saying she’s sure they don’t mean to be threatening. They correct her; they very much DO mean to be threatening. They shoot her with their tiny lasers and blow back out of the door. Jake has Tobias follow them, suspecting they are heading back to the farm and the blue box. They morph  birds and discuss the bizarreness of the entire situation as they fly back. On the way, they see Tobias up ahead being attacked by the Helmacron ship. Against Tobias’s much smaller size, the ship could actually do some damage and it looks like they are trying to shoot at his eyes. Rachel is pissed and quickly attacks, followed by the others. They managed to fight them off, but the Helmacrons zip away even faster towards the farm.

They manage to intercept the Helmacrons again just as they are beginning to pull up the blue box with a tractor beam. But their bird morphs aren’t made for endurance flying, and the fight takes it out of them. Cassie demorphs as quickly as she can and chases the Helmacrons and the blue box they are towing into the barn. The Helmacrons issue more threats while Cassie tries to talk them down. Then they shrink her. Tobias flies in after her and they get him too. Marco, too, comes in and gets hit by the ray, but manages to yell over his shoulder to warn the others away before he gets too small. They do, and Jake informs them that the other Helmacron ship took off after Rachel hit it with a brick.

Cassie, Tobias, and Marco stop shrinking, but are now tiny, about the size of a small fly. Strangely, Tobias is still around the same size as each of them, rather than proportionally being smaller. (Part of me feels like this would be just as weird as the rest. From Cassie and Marco’s perspective, Tobias is now a MASSIVE bird.) Ax and Jake try to convince the Helacrons to give back the box and reverse the shrinking, pointing out that as “primitive” as they may think it is, Rachel’s brick did pretty good work of their other ship. They manage to snag the blue box, but both ships still escape, leaving Marco, Tobias, and Cassie in their tiny forms.

Ax theorizes that the Helmacrons used the power of the blue box to shrink the others. Cassie and Marco can’t be heard by the others, their voices too small, but Tobias can still thought-speak with them. Cassie tries to morph to see if that will reverse it, but when she tries to go osprey, she shrinks even further and quickly reverses her morph.

Cassie’s dad shows up and isn’t impressed by Jake and Rachel’s story of looking for Cassie. He’s even less impressed by human!Ax. After kicking them all out of the barn, he begins walking around and manages to bury tiny!Cassie under a tablespoon of dirt he kicks up. Cassie and Marco discover that, similar to ants, they have increased strength for their size, easily moving massive, to them, pieces of dirt. As they debate what to do next, the Helmacrons arrive, and now that they, too, are small, those laser beams are much more of a threat. Luckily, the Helmacrons get caught up in a bit of inter-ship politicking, debating who gets to capture Cassie, Marco, and Tobias, until the other Animrophs show up in towering, gigantic cockroach morphs. Ax has come in a wolf spider morph and is even more terrifying than the others. But they quickly realize the mistake of this when the Helmacrons cripple and seriously injure spider!Ax using the lasers from their ship. Worse, he can’t demorph to heal himself without crushing Marco, Cassie, and Tobias. Cassie insists that they surrender and escape later.

She and Marco let themselves be taken onto the Helmacron ship, and the aliens bring them to their leader. Thing is, the captain is very, very dead. Worse, it looks ritualistic, the Helmacron captain chained to the floor and speared with several swords. Once again Marco puts Cassie to shame in the “make things up” category, reminiscent of their time on the Area 51-like base. Cassie is still a terrible liar. The Helmacrons put a stop to Marco’s display of “groveling” and insist they tell them where the blue box is. They turn on their view screen and Cassie sees the others, safe back in their regular forms, with tiny!Tobias sitting on Rachel’s shoulder. Cassie and Marco claim that none of their friends know where it is, but the “other one” does. The Helmacrons reveal that their sensors can tell who has morphing capabilities, so they will find this “other one.” Cassie quickly comes up with a plan.

“There’s no point trying to hide him from the Helmacrons, Marco,” I said. “There is only one other morph-capable creature on Earth. And the Helmacrons are just going to have to destroy him.”

Suddenly, the light went on in Marco’s head. “Visser Three?”

I nodded, feeling very pleased with myself. “Visser Three.”

It turns out the Helmacrons already know about the Yeerks, and for some reason this causes a division in their ranks, with one group attacking and killing a few of the others. Cassie and Marco also learn that all of the Helmacrons they have met so far have been females when a much smaller, more docile being enters and is addressed as a male. He explains that the captain must be dead because how else could they ensure she would never make any mistakes? He informs them that they are now slaves who must obey the female Helmacrons, and then leaves.

Shortly after, they are lead back to another bridge where the Helmacrons pull up a view screen showing the Blade ship. They can sense Visser Three in a Bug Fighter that is heading back to Earth and follow it. They watch the Bug Fighter descend into an abandoned restaurant that opens its ceiling to let the ship in as a limo pulls up in front of it. Visser Three climbs in in his human morph. The Helmacrons chase after the car, firing at it with their mini lasers. Human!Visser Three roles down the window and spots the tiny ship; it is clear he recognizes what they are. The Helmacrons shoot him in the face with their lasers and another Controller pops out of the sunroof and starts shooting at their ship with a gun, a huge weapon against their small size.

The fighting continues and the Helmacrons veer into the other lane, almost getting hit by on-coming traffic. Cassie and Marco have had enough and decide to get the heck out of there. Their only option is to get even smaller and morph flies. (On this, you’d think they’d have some concerns about their Z-space mass considering what happened in Ax’s book with the mosquito morph. Yes, the passing ship was what pulled them through, but having it happen at all, you’d think it at least would be thought of when they’re now morphing something even tinier.) Once morphed, they are too tiny for the Helmacrons to catch, but they also can’t get anywhere, being too small to cover any distance. As they try to hide, the ship starts to come apart and they realize that a Yeerk Dracon beam must have hit it. Completely disoriented with no way of knowing where they are or how far up they are or anything, they decide to try and slowly demorph and get a sense of things. They find themselves on someone’s head, specifically Chapman’s.

Just then, Tobias shows up. He informs them that Rachel managed to smash the other ship with a tire iron and Jake clamped it in a vice in Cassie’s barn. He says they have things figured out, that the Helmacrons gave them their leaders to hold hostage. Cassie and Marco immediately freak out, knowing that all their friends have are dead Helmacrons. Worse, Tobias tells them that they’re currently at a meeting of the Sharing where Visser Three is doing show and tell with the destroyed Helmacron ship he hit with the Dracon beam. And Ax is there too, outside with the blue box in an attempt to get the Helmacrons to come with them and unshrink the others. Cassie and Marco quickly realize that the Helmacrons are planning on letting the Yeerks and Animorphs duke it out while they escape with the blue box. Just as they think of this, they see the remaining Helmacron ship appear, towing the blue box with them, and aim its lasers at an unhappy Visser Three, shrinking him, too.

Chaos erupts. Visser Three is shrinking, screaming at the Yeerks to grab the blue box. The other Animorphs show up in morph, also trying to get the blue box. And all the while, the Helmacrons blather on about their own power and might. Cassie and Marco can’t tell what’s going except for what they hear through thought-speak. Rachel gets hit by the shrinking ray and the others are still trying to nab the box. Cassie tells Marco to moprh, that they need to get even smaller and have the ability to thought-speak with the others. She calls to Tobias to come pick them up and he nabs skunk!Cassie and mole!Marco in his talons. Cassie has figured out that if, when they morph smaller, they get relatively smaller to their current size, than if they morph bigger, the same thing should apply. They land on the the Helmacron ship, and Cassie has them all morph bigger: Tobias to his human form, and her to her humpback whale form. This way, they will weigh down the ship, essentially disabling it.

Her plan works and the ship begins to sink under her weight, but as it does, a Controller reaches out and grabs the ship. Ax manages to cut off the Controller’s hand with his tale and grab the ship himself. They learn that Jake and Rachel, along with Visser Three and several Controllers, have all been shrunk and are currently having a standoff on one of Ax’s legs. Ax runs away, carrying the ship and blue box. Through this all, they overhear Jake and Rachel fighting Visser Three in some new alien morph along with all of the other shrunken Controllers. Cassie tells Ax to morph a bird, carry the ship and  blue box in his talons, and fly to the Gardens.

But as he morphs, the way his body melds leaves everyone all together: Cassie, Marco and Tobias, but now also tiger!Jake, grizzly!Rachel, Visser Three and the rest of the shrunken Controllers. Quickly, Cassie and Marco morph their battle morphs so the Yeerks don’t see them as humans. They prepare to do battle,  but then the Helmacrons show up and they all unanimously decide that they should be dealt with first. But before they can do anything, Ax informs them that they have arrived at the Gardens and Cassie tells them all to jump off bird!Ax.

They leap and land on something furry. Cassie quickly begins demorphing, explaining that she thought that maybe a newly acquired animal wouldn’t be affected by the shrinking (something something original DNA was shrunk but not new DNA). And for their new morph she’s chosen an anteater. Visser Three shows up and quickly sees what they’re doing, but the Animorphs are all well on their way to becoming regular-sized anteaters. Once morphed, anteater!Cassie quickly nabs a few dozen Helmcrons with her sticky tongue. Cassie begs them to surrender, not wanting to kill them, and Visser Three, who has also morphed an anteater, sneers at her.

<Sentimental Andalite fool,> Visser Three said. He had copied our trick. He had also morphed the anteater. <You can’t kill a Helmacron. They’re a fungible species. Kill one and its mind, if you can call it a mind, is absorbed into another. They never die. Even when they’re dead, they’re not dead. But when it comes to Andalites . . .>

His tongue flits out and nabs tiny!Tobias as he tries to fly away. But before he can do anything, normal-sized!Ax presses his tail blade to anteater!Visser Three’s throat. The three-way stalemate ends with the Animorphs getting control of the shrinking ray and using it to unshrink everyone, letting the Yeerks go. Visser Three is willing to concede that being shrunk again is unappealing, and it’s best to fight another day. They also convince the male Helmacrons that they should fight back against the females, and presumably they all get so caught up in this that they…leave?? The end.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Poor Cassie. It’s really not her fault that she got stuck with this stinker of a book. That said, I don’t think the book is improved by having Cassie as a narrator. For all that I don’t agree with all of Cassie’s approaches to the war, she is at her best when she is given complicated moral plot lines that allow her to fully explore her unique view on conflict. Without that, her voice is probably just the most bland of all the narrators and thus doesn’t add a lot to a story that desperately, DESPERATELY needs a strong narrator to improve it. Further, this is the first book we’ve gotten from Cassie since the whole David ordeal and it’s jarring to have that not really mentioned. Cassie was the mastermind behind that whole plan and also the one, other than Rachel, who presumably would be most broken up by the role she had to play. So it feels like a huge missed opportunity to have her very next book be relegated to, essentially, a filler story. Tobias’s made sense, he had big things of his own to deal with and also was the least involved with the David mess. But Cassie? No way we shouldn’t be hearing all about how conflicted and torn up she is about a plan that she came up with that doomed a human boy to life as a rat.

And beyond that, like I said, Cassie’s voice alone doesn’t have a lot of uniquely interesting aspects to it, other than her POV on moral issues. So when we’re given a bonkers story line like this, Cassie just kind of …goes with it. And it doesn’t help. Sure, she once again comes up with a good animal morph to solve the current problem, but the end of this story was so full of contrivances and wild leaps of logic that it’s hard to even give her much credit for that. It’s all just kind of bad, and Cassie’s narration isn’t strong enough to distract us from that fact.

Our Fearless Leader: Both Cassie and Marco bemoan the loss of Jake’s decision-making skills when they’re on board the Helmacron ship. It’s a good moment to really highlight how dependent the rest of them are on Jake to make important calls in the midst of chaos. But other than that, Jake kind of just does his thing through most of this book. Cassie talks about how cute she thinks he his, and there’s some fun awkwardness at the beginning when Jake sees her in a swimsuit and becomes extremely stammer-y.

Xena, Warrior Princess: As always my favorite parts of Cassie books are the interactions between her and Rachel. Their friendship is awesome, and through Cassie’s books we see a very unique side of Rachel, the more human, normal, teenage girl side that is our best view of what Rachel must have been like before the Yeerk invasion. The story is nicely bookended by Rachel’s teasing Cassie about her changing opinion on whether or not she likes the beach based on whether or not Jake will be there. Rachel also has some pretty funny  moments taking on the Helmacrons with various objects: a brick, a tire iron, a bat. If you need someone to hit things, Rachel’s your girl.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias is one of the early ones to be shrunk, which is purely for convenience’s sake since tiny!Cassie and Marco can’t be heard using their regular speaking voices. For all of that, he STILL somehow ends up pushed to the side during the majority of the story. Most notably, he isn’t captured and brought on the Helmacron ship with Cassie and Marco.

The Comic Relief: I found myself wishing that this had been a Marco book throughout the entire read. Not only does Marco share in almost all the action with Cassie, but his is the exact sort of narration style that could have possibly saved this dumper fire of a story line. Sure, we get plenty of quips from him throughout, and that’s a huge saving grace, but it would have been so much better had he just had the narration to himself. If you’re going to do nonsense, put it in the hands of your most smart ass character and call it good. Marco is also probably the smartest of the Animorphs (not including Ax, but even there, it’s mostly book smarts), so he would have also been a good pick to be able to make the same leaps of logic that Cassie does. Give Cassie a book that somehow forces her to address the whole David thing, then give this book to Marco. Done! I fixed it!

E.T./Ax Phone Home: So apparently the Andalites haven’t heard of the Helmacrons but the Yeerks have? This seems suspicious, but I’ll just explain it as Ax having not hearde of the Helmacrons, probably because he was sleeping through class. During their first moments with the shrinking ray in the barn, Ax spends a good amount of time “explaining” the science behind it all. It played for comedic value, but then when the story moved on to Marco and Cassie morphing even smaller, and then morphing bigger, and then morphing regular sized, it all got super confusing. I was both too bored to want to understand the “science” of it, but then also very annoyed and confused whenever they were able to twist the shrinking thing to their advantage. It was just dumb. Also, we get another Ax’s-tailblade-to-Visser-Three’s-throat stand off. I should really have a tally for these.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Right after Cassie is shrunk, Jake ends up on the ground next to her and she gets a close-up view of his face and we have this description:

His eyes were like brown-and-white swimming pools, huge globes that looked as if they might pop and drain down like runny Jell-0. I stared up, transfixed by this face I had always found attractive. And I found myself staring at a zit bigger than I was.

Couples Watch!: Ok, look, this is why I prefer Tobias/Rachel’s romance to Cassie/Jake’s. Remember in the last book where we got that beautiful line from Tobias about the sight of Rachel in the sunlight making his heart ache? Well, here, the first time Cassie sees Jake, we get a line about how she “likes” him, “you know, like.” And sure, this is how kids talk, but the two of them have been saying not only a variation of this, but THIS EXACT LINE, “you know, like,”  for forever now! Given the fact that they’re all living in a constant state of warfare and tragedy, they’ve all matured way past their ages, and this is shown in Rachel and Tobias’s more serious relationship. They simply don’t have the time to be tip-toeing around things. And neither do Jake and Cassie! They might not have the bird problem that Tobias and Rachel do, but they still have the same life or death stakes every day and you’d think that at some point that would push them past some of this silliness. Regardless of what is likely an over-analysis of all of this on my part, I’m simply bored of hearing them say how much they “you know, like” each other. We do get some funny moments with the whole beach/swimsuit thing, but I still enjoyed Tobias and Rachel’s small, but more earnest, moments throughout the book when either of the other ended up in danger.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl:  So Visser Three does appear in this, but we’ve again got the campy, silly Visser Three ala Cassie book #9 when he gets defeated by skunk stink. The last scene where there is a three way standoff was essentially resolved in three sentences, all summarizing what happened but not detailing any actual action. This has to be because it is completely unbelievable that Visser Three would simply walk away in this situation. Especially because the blue box was SITTING RIGHT THERE!. The whole thing was nonsense. And the fact that Visser Three did in fact know about the Helmacrons before all of this and yet was still just as clueless as the Animorphs about how the shrinking thing actually works, etc. was another glaring hole.

The Helmacrons are technically the villains of this piece, but it’s clear that they were mostly written for comedic value. And, on their own, they were pretty amusing. I thought their power structure with the dead captain was pretty interesting, and their on-going infighting and complete delusions about their own abilities played for some good laughs.

<Do you think to terrify us with your pitiful morphs? We are Helmacron warriors!> They were yelling this as they hustled away at top speed.

But, again, that ending. Nothing we’ve seen so far would indicate that the Helmcrons, for all that they get easily caught up in in-fighting, would so easily just wander off, leaving the blue box behind.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Can I cry at the sheer nosedive in quality the books took between the last four and this one? Cuz that’s all I have for this right now.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Everything. It was all bad plans on everyone’s part. The fact that Ax took the blue box to a Sharing meeting and then somehow (off screen notably!) loses it to the tiny Helmacron ship. Cassie and Marco’s completely nonsensical decision making while on board the ship (“We should stay!” “We should leave!” “Morph small!” “Oh no, we’re too small!”). The entire end of the book! Again, the blue box was sitting out in the open, Visser Three and a bunch of Controllers were there, and the Animorphs decided that now was the time to play fair and unshrink them, just trusting that they’d walk away. Sheer stupidity that only succeeds because it has to for the books to continue.

Favorite Quote: Right after Marco, Cassie and Tobias have been shrunk in the barn and the Helmacrons are poised to shrink whomever walks in next:

“I’m coming in,” Jake said decisively. “No!” Marco yelled in a voice that already sounded like someone breathing helium. “No, Jake and Ax, do not come in!” Then, as an afterthought, he said, “Rachel, you could come in.” <Marco!> Tobias chided. “Hey, the Wicked Witch gets to be full size and I’m down here singing, ‘We represent the Lollipop Guild?’ I don’t think so.”

And Rachel gets a similar jab back later:

“Okay, I’ve had enough of this battle of the alien egos here. I’m counting to three. Then I’m throwing this brick. You little insects either fix my friends . . . and Marco, too … or you get bricked.”

And:

Rachel said it first. “Oh, come on. Like we don’t have enough problem aliens?”

Preach it. No one needs any more of the Helmacrons.

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 10

I’m taking away a point from the Animorphs due to the sheer stupidity at the end, bringing Visser Three and a bunch of Controllers back to their real size while the blue box is sitting out in the open.

Rating: I think it’s pretty clear at this point that I didn’t love this book. Cassie books are never my favorites, but this one failed to even play to her strengths and instead left her with a story line that could have only been saved (maybe) if someone like Marco had been narrating it. The Helmacrons had their fun moments, but the whole plot was muddled and confusing, and the end just made me mad. It was lazy writing all around, and it was only made worse for having come right after four of probably the strongest books in the series. Ugh, and now I just have to dread the return of the Helmacrons, because I know it happens, even if I can’t remember the details.

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

Kate’s Review: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who Is Oracle?”

31383619Book: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?” by Julie Benson, Shawna Benson, Claire Roe (Ill.), and Roge Antonio (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A part of DC Universe: Rebirth!

The Birds of Prey prowl the street of Gotham once again! The sisterly, crime-fighting trio–Batgirl, Black Canary, and Huntress–get the band back together in the aftermath of DC Universe: Rebirth, but they’re not reconnecting for nostalgia’s sake. A mysterious new criminal operative called Oracle has declared war on Gotham. Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl, and a.k.a. cyber-superhero Oracle in a previous guise, takes exception to someone smearing her legacy. Writing duo and sisters Julie and Shawna Benson, along with breakout artist Claire Roe, reunite the femme fatale crew in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, Volume 1: Who Is Oracle?!

Review: So okay, my last foray into the “DC: Rebirth” world left me feeling a bit cold. Batwoman deserved so much more than that. So when I saw that my library had “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who Is Oracle?”, I was hopeful that another series near and dear to my heart would get some better treatment within the “Rebirth” series. I’ve been feeling kind of meh towards it as a whole, between Batwoman’s progression and the whole ‘let’s take Alan Moore’s characters and put them into this new series even though he no doubt hates that‘ thing (and I could rant forever, but I shan’t). But I’m willing to give it a chance, as a DC fan through and through. So thank goodness that “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey” feels so, so right.

This is yet another origin story for the Birds of Prey, but Julie and Shawna Benson do a good job of starting from partial scratch without dismissing the original intent of the group. See, originally the Birds of Prey had Barbara Gordon as Oracle at it’s center, and that’s important because that was when Barbara was still wheelchair bound. When she was Oracle, she was arguable they most important member of the Bat Family, and also was great representation for those who have disabilities. Then Barbara’s paralysis was ret-conned so she could be Batgirl again, leaving Oracle behind. In this telling, Babs and Dinah “Black Canary” Lance formed the team when Barbara was still Oracle, but then disbanded shortly thereafter. It is NOW that they are coming back together that we are introduced to the other member of the band, Huntress, who is the other best known member of this team through the years and versions. But the motivations for them are darker this time around. Barbara is angry that someone calling themselves ‘Oracle’ has started sending her messages in a game of cat and mouse. And Huntress has her own personal vendetta that brings her into the fold.

It is definitely darker than other iterations of the Birds of Prey, but I feel that as a reboot, it works pretty well. I like that the motivations aren’t built out of pure nobility, and that Barbara’s relationship with her alter ego Oracle is complicated as hell. I personally love Oracle and I love that after Alan Moore (him again!) basically tried to destroy Batgirl in “The Killing Joke” when Joker shot her in the spine, Barbara Gordon came back more powerful and more essential than she had been before. But I also think it’s important to remember that Barbara turned into Oracle because of the horrifically traumatic experience of being shot. Barbara’s link to Oracle is a double edged sword, and I think that this series has done a pretty good job of addressing that thus far. I also like that Huntress is given some pretty brutal traits in this narrative, as Huntress has always been a bit wild but this story gives that wildness a reason and a very rough origin. There is also a stark contrast between her brutality and her Catholic faith, which has been touched upon a bit and I hope we see more of it. And then there is my girl Black Canary, one of my favorite members of the DC Universe with her snark, sarcasm, and determination built from abandonment. We get a bit of her backstory and motivation as well, and I like that she gets to do a bit more than be the sassy and brassy lead singer of a punk band (I had such high hopes for that series). Plus there’s a panel of her going to town on a plate of nachos and I felt such a kindred connection to her in that moment. The Benson Sisters are giving these girls some good stuff to work with, and I couldn’t be happier.

Plus, the art is super fun. It does a good job of being dark and dour, as well as putting splashes of color to give it a bit of spunk.

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(source)

I will admit that the eventual reveal about Oracle left me a little cold. I’ve mentioned before that I have my OWN opinions on who should fill the Oracle role now that Barbara is back in the cowl. But I’m going to be open-minded and stick it out to see where this goes. This is a series that has it’s talons in me, no question.

“Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who Is Oracle?” is a very strong start to a series that I am very excited to follow. I’m finally invested in a “Rebirth” arc storyline, which has let me breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to the future of DC.

Rating 8: Grittier than the “Batgirl” comics, “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who is Oracle?” gives some complex and kickass ladies some dark things to do. Also, Black Canary is the very best and it’s great to see her again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it would definitely fit in on “Kickass Women in Superhero Comics”.

Find “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?” at your library using WorldCat!