Not Just Books: April 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

BioShock2_boxVideo Game: “BioShock 2”

I think I may have started playing the first BioShock years ago, but I never finished it and only remembered vague details about it being some under-water dystopia game. But when I was browsing through Half-Price Books the other weekend, I spotted this for $5 and thought, why the heck not?! And then I proceeded to binge play it for the next week, finishing it up in record (for me!) time. It was a bit gory for my personal taste, but I really enjoyed the storyline and setting for this one. I usually play open-world, Bethesda games, so it was a change going back to a story-based RPG. But this one stood out from others I’ve played with the moral choices presented throughout the game and the effect these choices have on the ending itself. I enjoyed it quite a bit and recommend it for fans of RPGs, especially those who liked games like “Mass Effect.”

scd1Netflix Show: “Santa Clarita Diet” Season 2

I think Kate featured this show around this time last year, but this time I beat her to it with season 2! I, too, absolutely had a blast when this show came out of nowhere last year with its quirky premise and all-star cast. My husband looked over as I was watching it the other day and was like “My god, they all overact!” And I was like “Don’t you come at me! This show is a JOY!” And yes, the “overacting” is part of its charm! It just goes to show how far charisma in your leads can take you. Barrymore and Olyphant definitely play up the camp, but they’re just so adorable that their quirky and expressive ways are tons of fun. This season, I feel like the two teen leads also really got a chance to shine, and I was surprised by the bizarre return of a past villain, now in a new…role?

logo-white-rktvYouTube channel: Tiny Kittens HQ

As everyone should know by now, both Kate and I love our cats, and cat memes, and cat videos, and cat accessories, and all things cats. I have not taken this love to a new and very unhealthy extreme with my discovery of Tiny Kittens HQ, a small organization in Canada that works with several large feral cat colonies, working to reduce the cat population by spaying, neutering and finding homes for these adorable cats. This month is kitten extreme, as they brought in three feral mama cats who were all expected to have kittens within weeks of each other. A warning: amidst all the kitten cuteness is the harsh reality of what life is like for neglected, feral cats and their kittens who may not be born perfectly healthy due to this life of hardship for the mothers. But most of the time it’s just tons of cuteness, and I encourage anyone who has a passion for cats and helping improve the lives of feral cats to check it out.

Kate’s Picks

50052TV Show: “The West Wing”

So okay, I didn’t watch “The West Wing” on the regular when it was originally airing. My Dad did, though, and I absorbed enough through osmosis, the occasional episode, and pop culture aptitude to know enough about it to carry on conversations with others. But when my husband discovered it was on Netflix he suggested that we do a re-watch for him and a completion watch for me. Going back into it has been a bit bittersweet given the horrific shit-show that is American Politics at the moment, but boy am I really enjoying it (even if it’s making me tear up about our own reality). I still have a serious love for Josh Lyman, as I am very much like him in my utter lack of chill and complete disdain for Congress. But really, the entire cast is wonderful, the writing is snappy, and the themes show that some things don’t really change even after twenty years.

19-ogMovie: “Best F(r)iends: Vol. 1”

Remember back when I reviewed “The Disaster Artist” and I said that I had never seen “The Room”? Well, I rectified that earlier this year, and then, totally hyped on the magic that it was and the inadvertent charm that is Tommy Wiseau, I knew that I needed to see “Best F(r)iends”. Greg Sestero, author of “Disaster Artist” and Mark in “The Room” wrote this movie specifically for him and Wiseau to star in, and…… my God. It’s…… I can’t even describe it because it’s so odd and wondrous and baffling. Sestero plays a drifter, Wiseau plays a mortician, and they get caught up in some bad stuff…. with lots of laughs? Potentially meant to be laughs but they play it so straight but SURELY they had to be intentional???? I don’t really know. I do know, however, that I was laughing so hard I was crying. “Vol. 2” is coming out in June, and I am SO. THERE.

mv5bzti0mjllmgmtogyxmi00mtczlwjimzmtnta2zmyxmde5nmrixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjkwnzewmzu-_v1_sy1000_cr006661000_al_Amazon Prime Show: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

I actually watched this in its entirety earlier this year, but during the week of Passover my husband and I were watching bits of it again and I’m mad at myself for leaving it out the first time! Taking place in the late 1950s in New York City, Midge Maisel is the perfect housewife…. But then her lout husband Joel, after a bad night doing his stand up act, decides to leave her. So what does Midge do? She breaks into stand up herself. I love the zingy and barbed dialogue and I love the characters, from Midge, to her sarcastic manager/confidant Susie, to Abe Maisel, Midge’s high strung but ultimately loving father (played by my old favorite Tony Shalhoub). But something that both my husband and I love is that it is proudly and unabashedly Jewish, and it brings to life a New York City and a culture that my father-in-law spent his childhood years in and my husband has heard many stories about. So many brisket and deli jokes. For serious laughter, lots of heart, and a very handsome Lenny Bruce character, give “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” a go.

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #29: “The Sickness”

8036147Animorphs #29: “The Sickness” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Animorphs’ alien friend Ax is in trouble. He’s come down with a virus called “yamphut”, and it’s making him very sick. The Animorphs discover the virus could be deadly–but they can’t take an “alien” to the hospital. They need to come up with a plan–or lose their friend forever.

Narrator: Cassie

Plot:

Reading the plot description, I remembered that this was the one where everyone got sick and somehow Aftran, the Yeerk Cassie has a soul-search with back in book #19 (“Serena’s RAGE book,” as I’ve come to think of it), was somehow involved. But I am happy to report…

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You know, Cassie books/T-rex attacks…the same! But no, this one was legitimately not as bad as others. (source)

The story starts out with actually a fairly long portion of the kids in real life doing real kid things. Like Cassie and Jake continuing to be ridiculous with their burgeoning relationship when it comes to school and dances. With some kicks to the butt offered by Rachel, the team all end up at the dance with the various couples all pairing up. As they dance, Rachel and Cassie notice Ax growing a sudden protuberance on his head: a stalk eye! The group rush him out of the gym, all while frantically trying to cover up his emerging Andalite bits. Ax is also delirious and mumbling incoherently.  In the hall, Ax makes a wild bolt for it just as Chapman and a teacher, Mr. Tidwell, come around the corner. Mr. Tidwell takes one look at Ax and quickly tells Chapman that Ax must have been drinking, and crab-walks Ax back towards the group. The others grab Ax away as Marco and Rachel try to convince Tidwell that Ax is just sick and they need to take him home. But as they try to get past him to the door, Ax’s tail shoots out and whacks Tidwell on the head.

Tidwell grabs Cassie and walks her back down the hall. There, he confesses that he knows Ax is an Andalite. What’s more, Mr. Tidwell is a Controller, but not just any Controller. He and the Yeerk in his head are part of the Yeerk Peace Movement organized by none other than Aftran, the Yeerk Cassie saved way back when. But Aftran has been captured and Visser Three is on his way to interrogate her personally, likely exposing all of the Animorphs in the process. For now, she’s being held in the Yeerk pool, but Tidwell insists that Cassie and her friends have to rescue her, for the sake of themselves and the entire Yeerk Peace Movement.

Cassie rejoins the group and they manage to get Ax back to Cassie’s barn. There, in a moment of clarity, Ax explains that Yamphut, a disease that infects the Tria gland in his brain and can cause it to explode. The only way to save him will be to remove the gland when his temperature goes back down. Yamphut is also contagious to humans, but in them it just presents as a common flu.

Cassie then also explains about Aftran. Marco and Rachel are particularly harsh about reminding her that it was her choice to give them all up to Aftran that lead them to being in this current situation. They decide they need to get into the Yeerk pool tonight, hopefully returning before Ax’s temperature dips to the crisis point. In the meantime, they call in Erek to hang out with Ax in the barn, projecting a hologram of an empty stall so Cassie’s parents don’t discover him.

But to get into the Yeerk pool, they now need to get past the new security system that attacks all biological life that isn’t controlled by a Yeerk. Marco has the idea to use the sewer system, reasoning that the Yeerk pool is like an entire city, so there must be plumbing connecting it to the outside world. Tobias then comes up with the idea of using an eel morph and he retrieves one from a local bait shop that he knows of. With Erek’s map of the city plumbing system in their minds, the team find themselves up in water tower, ready to use the extra force of the water to propel them where they need to go.

In eel morph, the team rush down the pipes. It’s a wild ride with them barely making all of the turns they need to. Suddenly, Jake is sucked into the wrong pipe. Forming a line, the others manage to pull him back out. But they realize that something is wrong with him, that he has come down with the same sickness. After some debate about whether they should split up, they all decide they have to abort the mission. They manage to ride the strongest currents they can find and end up getting shot out of a fire hose and into a burning building. There, they all de-morph and re-morph birds to escape. Jake, now violently sick, heads home with Cassie and Marco to help him.

The next day at school, Rachel is no where to be found. Turns out she came down with the “flu” last night as well. Mr. Tidwell catches up with Cassie in the hall. He explains how dire the situation is becoming, Visser Three has moved up his visit, and that the other Yeerk Peace Movement members can’t do much. Many of them don’t have hosts (since they are committed to finding hosts that want to team up with them) and many of the others, like Tidwell, are in bodies that can’t fight. Desperate, Cassie comes up with a new plan: they can morph Yeerks.

On the way home, Marco, too, gets sick. But he also points out the one flaw: what happens if they do save Aftran? She’ll just die of starvation. Back in the barn, Tobias says that Ax’s temperature continues to drop. He then flies off to check on the other patients, which Cassie reads as him wanting to go check on Rachel. Cassie looks around the barn for tools, mentally preparing herself for the fact that she’s going to have to do brain surgery on Ax eventually. As she gathers things, Tobias swoops back in, but he’s clearly not well and accidentally flies into a rafter, knocking himself out. He’s sick too. Cassie picks him up and puts him in a cage, figuring that her parents will think they just have one more rescued animal.

Cassie bikes to Mr. Tidwell’s house. There she puts her plan in action. Tidwell’s Yeerk comes out, Cassie acquires him, and begins the morph. In Yeerk form, she’s blind and deaf, but does have a sort of sonar. Tidwell picks her up and put her to his ear where she slithers in. She connects to his brain and regains her senses. It takes her a bit to figure out how to move Tidwell, who’s voice she can hear urging her to hurry up. She also can see all of his memories and feels ashamed that she is essentially violating his privacy.

Tidwell!Cassie then makes her way to the local McDonald’s, one of the known Yeerk pool entrances, hiding the original Yeerk on her person. She gains entrance and successfully gets past the security system. The Yeerk pool is as horrifying as ever. At the peer, she releases the Yeerk and slithers out of Tidwell’s ear herself. In the pool she is able to locate Aftran just as Visser Three arrives to collect her. She manages to demorph to human and then remorph as an osprey, the only bird morph she has that dives into water so can handle flying while wet. She grabs Aftran and barely manages to escape the pool. Conveniently, another Controller is entering up in the McDonald’s, so she is able to escape out before the security system fries her.

Back at the barn, Ax has reached his crisis and Cassie must operate. She quickly decides to have Aftran Control Ax so that she can tell Cassie from inside where exactly in Ax’s brain the Tria gland is located. Together, they are able to successfully remove the gland. Ax awakens just as Aftran exits and is horrified that he was infested. But now Cassie has another challenge: what to do with Aftran?

A few days later, the team are all recovered and walking along the beach. Out in the ocean, a humpback whale leaps before heading out to sea. They all agree that they used the blue box the right way this time. They let Aftran gain morphing powers if she agreed to trap herself in a morph. Whale!Aftran is now free.

Peace, Love, and Animals: This book definitely played to some of Cassie’s strengths. More so than most of the other characters, Cassie is probably the best character to describe what their lives are like as ordinary kids. Through her eyes, we’ve seen a lot more scenes of what school is like for the group and the various dynamics that exist between them outside of missions. Here, there were some very nice moments where Cassie was just an ordinary teenage girl, feeling awkward about her quasi-relationship with Jake and the fact that none of the girls at school know they are together (or even believe it could ever be possible!) So small moments, like her pride when they dance together, are just very sweet.

I also like the fact that we finally have circled back around to the aftermath of her decisions in book #19 when she left Aftran infest her and exposed them all. Here, she is much less confident that this was in fact the right choice. She admits that it felt right then, but the situation that they’re in now calls that all into question. There’s a very real possibility that they will all be exposed and killed simply because of that choice. Even with Aftran’s cooperation, here, Cassie sees that she is still a risk point for the group. She never outright regrets her decision in that book, but I like the fact that here she had to confront the reality of that choice a bit more head on. Also, when she is alone right before the mission, she is forced to leave Ax right before it seems like he is going to hit his crisis. She tells him that she has to save the group first, and tells Erek that if things go south, he has to just let Ax die rather than expose them. These are hard choices, but it’s nice to see Cassie confront them. Though, again, this calls into question my ongoing frustration with her character. She is completely inconsistent in her decision making and ability to prioritize individuals and her morals and the entire group/world. Sometimes she’s willing to throw everything away to make a stand on something, like quitting the team and telling Aftran their secrets, or letting the aliens re-direct the asteroid in Megamorphs #2. And at others, she’s willing to make the tough calls. I dunno. It just feels like I never know which Cassie I’m going to get.

But there’s no denying the coolness of her ability to successfully perform brain surgery on Ax. The idea of using Aftran to get a sense of things was great, but it still rested on her ability to pull it off. Without Cassie, Ax definitely would have been done for, as no other member of this group could have done what she did here.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake is out of commission very early in this book, which makes sense. In order to sow the most confusion, you have to take away calm, collected, Jake. Even in the midst of his burgeoning illness, when they’re in the pipes as eels, the others still are relieved when he manages to come to enough to tell them what to do.

Xena, Warrior Princess: It’s always fun to see Cassie and Rachel at school, and here Rachel takes things into her own hands about Cassie/Jake’s secret relationship. It also becomes clear that there is an unspoken hierarchy in leadership within the group. When it first becomes clear that Jake is getting sick, Rachel immediately steps into the leadership role. There’s some snark, but they all seem to kind of agree that this is right. And I know there’s a later book that focuses on this point, too. Other than that, she gets sick second, so doesn’t have too much to do.

A Hawk’s Life: When Ax gets sick at the school, while the others all fret about whether or not Mr. Tillman saw him, Tobias is the one clearly most worried about just Ax, forget everything else. He also gets sick, and I think it’s understood that this is because he is in human morph when Ax first comes down with it, and thus susceptible to infection.

As we’ll see in Marco’s section, he’s third in line for leadership, after Jake and Rachel. So leadership goes Jake, Rachel, Marco…? But honestly, given what we’ve seen from past books, I’d say leadership should go Jake, Tobias, Marco/Rachel, Ax, Cassie. Tobias has proven himself to be the most even-keeled of the group, he’s a good strategist (as proven in his book with the Hork Bajir valley), and he’s willing to make the tough calls (as seen in Megamorphs #2). Marco is probably the only one who would prove a problem, just because they tend to clash with Tobias not really appreciating Marco’s cynical outlook on things. But other than that, I think he’s a strong candidate for the role. I put Marco and Rachel together because, as we see in her book, this is kind of a tough role for her to fill. So Marco might make a bit more sense, simply because he’s a more level-headed player. But, it should be said, a big part of leadership is simply stepping up, unasked. Tobias has done it in the examples I gave above. And Rachel does it here, and will do it later. So it’s a tie.

The Comic Relief: Marco has some good lines in this book, and it is notable that he (along with Rachel) is the most critical about Cassie’s past decision with Aftran that lead to them being in this tough situation. He also comes up with the eel plan, which is clever, if not fully thought out. After Rachel goes down sick, Marco asks Cassie if this means that he’s now in charge.

In a nice reminder to Marco’s particular hatred of David, when they are on the beach in the end discussing their use of the blue box, we get this exchange:

“We made the right decision,” Jake said. “Better than the last time we used the blue box.”

“Would have been hard to do any worse,” Marco said.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Poor Ax. It’s never really explained how he was exposed to this disease, but it seems kind of like the Andalite version of appendicitis. Some gland becomes painful and if it bursts, bad things follow. Of course, the tension must be raised by placing this gland in his brain. And then, in the midst of fever dreams, he’s the only one who can even marginally explain what is going on. Beyond that, he’s still a kid! Imagine some teenage boy trying to tell a doctor how to operate on him for appendicitis! Ax is also completely horrified when he discovers Aftran in his head immediately after waking up; he even goes so far as to say he wishes Cassie had just let him die. Cassie does a good job slapping some sense in him, but I don’t remember if Ax ever refers to this in future books. But it seems like something I’d want to hear his thoughts on.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Cassie morphing the Yeerk was particularly bad. She describes it as first having a layer of mucus ooze out of her pores until it covers her entire body, and then rest of her just kinds of melts away. But…mucus….all over body…I mean, I guess the process of morphing Yeerks should be one of the worst, and if that was the goal, then well done! Also, the process of infesting Mr. Tillman. Obviously the Yeerk instincts are fine with this, but I imagine there’s a pretty disturbing element to the thought of climbing into another human’s head through their ear, when you’re a human yourself only in morph.

Couples Watch!: Cassie has a very real teenage girl moment when she’s dancing with Jake, reveling in the fact that the other girls will now see that shy, animal-poop-covered Cassie is the one who gets to be with fairly popular Jake. Cassie also acknowledges the fairly official relationship status between Rachel and Tobias, hoping that they can get away to dance, too. And then later, she knows that it is really Rachel, not “the others,” that Tobias wants to check on when he flies off.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three makes his token appearance towards the end, and it has to be one of the shortest cameo’s we’ve gotten from him one of these. He does make a very good point about osprey!Cassie’s escape while being shotat my multiple Controllers at the end:

<Would it be asking too much for one of you to actually hit something?!!> I heard Visser Three roar.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Not much! We all knew Ax was never in any real danger at this point, so while it was a good motivation for events, it didn’t have a lot of emotional impact. The scene of whale!Aftran was probably the most emotional bit of the book.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: There were some clever plans here, mostly Cassie coming up with the idea to use Yeerks as a morph to get into the pool, and then getting Aftran to help with the brain surgery. But man, that eel morph plan was not well thought out. I mean, it’s a cool idea and props to Marco for having the creativity to come up with it, but what was the end game there? How exactly were they going to get out, and with Aftran in toe none the less?? Even Cassie’s plan failed to have an exit strategy, and the fact that she wasn’t shot is pretty unbelievable.

Favorite Quote:

Mandatory Rachel/Marco banter:

“I just had a thought,” Marco said.
“I’ll buy you a card to commemorate the moment.” Rachel, of course.

In the very beginning, when Marco and the others are discussing just going to the dance like regular kids:

“Oh, man,” Marco moaned.

“What?”

“Every time we try to do something nice and normal it ends up turning out nasty and weird,” he said. “Every single time.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 12

No change! It’s a big win for the Animorphs to just survive this situation, but as far as actual damage goes, there’s not a big change. The Yeerk Peace Movement is a good thing to now have, and maybe indirectly through Cassie and Aftran, the Animorphs are responsible for it, but not much.

Rating: For the most part I did enjoy this book. I really liked the follow-up on the Aftran situation and the introduction of the Yeerk Peace Movement. Cassie, too, has some good moments in this story. I do wonder at these choices to continue to give Cassie books where she is isolated from the rest of the team for some reason or another. She simply doesn’t have the strongest voice of the group. Her narration is usually pretty straightforward and not very nuanced. She’s simply not as interesting to read about as say Marco, Ax or Tobias. So it’s strange that she seems to routinely get books where she’s all by herself and much of the story’s appeal (or lack there of) is left to her characterization. Obviously this is a story that had to belong to Cassie, and if it was the only example of her as an isolated character in these books, then fine. But this is like the 3rd book where she’s mostly on her own for a lot of it, and it’s just not the best.

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: “The Woman in the Window”

34848682Book: “The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

Publishing Info: William Morrow, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.

Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.

What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.

Review: We have another runaway hit that I’m tackling this time around. Remember my apprehension about “The Wife Between Us”? I felt the same apprehension about “The Woman in the Window”. It’s not that I don’t trust the general public to know a good book when they see it, it’s that I’ve  been burned far too many times to think that my tastes line up with theirs in all things. So going into it I hoped that I would have a similar experience to “The Wife Between Us” and would enjoy myself as much as the hype implied I would. And plus, it’s basically an homage to “Rear Window”, one of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies, so my hopes were raised all the higher by that. Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelley, and Raymond Burr were big shoes to fill to be certain.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Thelma Ritter SOME KIND of shout out. (source)

Lord knows others have tried to update the classic voyeur thriller before, but I think that “The Woman in the Window” did it in a way that made it feel fresh and unique. For one, Anna is a far more complex and damaged character than Jimmy Stewart’s Jeffries was (though that’s kind of a prerequisite for this kind of book). Her agoraphobia and alcoholism, combined with her severe depression and loneliness make her quite a bit more sympathetic as she lives vicariously through those who she sees across the way from her building. You don’t know why she is this way, but as she talks to her ex husband and daughter who no longer live with her bits and pieces to that puzzle are slowly given to you. You also don’t know why they no longer live there with her, but that too slowly comes to light as Anna starts paying a bit more attention to her new neighbors, the Russells. They practically mirror what Anna would consider a happy family, something that she has lost, so her fixation is understandable, if not a bit creepy. These small insights to her life came at a parsed out pace, and I had a good time trying to figure out just what was going on with her. There was a strange quasi-romantic subplot with her and a tenant she has rented a space out to in the large empty home, and it felt a little bit unnecessary and kind of yucky given how unstable that she is in her emotional state and personal life.

The mysteries within the book, the biggee being as to whether or not Anna witnessed Mrs. Russell being murdered, were more of a mixed bag. There were a couple of twists that I did see coming, even if I didn’t seem their complete relevance, while there were others that caught be totally by surprise. One of those surprises worked VERY well, so much so that I actually said ‘wait WHAT?’ and had to page back to confirm that it had, in fact, been set up pretty much perfectly (and looking back I’m kind of ashamed that I didn’t see it sooner, but Finn was GREAT at misdirection, I guess, because I fell for it). The other one, however, did kind of fall into that familiar pitfall of being too much of a twist a bit too late into the game. It’s not as bad as some of the other ones in terms of placement, but when it was finally revealed I just kind of snorted and grinned and bore it through until the end. I think that ultimately the biggest strength of this book is Anna and trying to understand her as a person, which does tie into the overall mystery. After all, with all of the problems that Anna has, the reader doesn’t really know what to believe as fact and fiction/fabrication.

The other aspect I really enjoyed about this book was the number of thriller movies that are mentioned or paid tribute too. It’s not just “Rear Window” that we see bits of, but “Vertigo”, “Double Indemnity”, and others that I have enjoyed since I was a kid. And knowing a few of the plot points to those movies helped me figure out some of the plot twists, so if you too are a junkie of black and white thrillers and mysteries, that may help you out when reading this book if you like to solve as you go.

So while the mystery had some problems, I did really enjoy “The Woman in the Window” and think that the popularity it has garnered is well deserved. I pretty much devoured it in one day and didn’t want to put it down for anything, and honestly, that’s what I am really looking for in a thriller. It you want to be snapped up by a novel, this could be a pretty good bet.

Rating 7: A thriller that kept me on my toes and kept me wondering, “The Woman in the Window” was a fun read. While one twist shocked me, another was a bit meh, but the story overall really sucked me in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Woman in the Window” is included on the Goodreads lists “Chilling New York Novels”, and “2018: Let The Reading Begin!”.

Find “The Woman in the Window” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Queen of the Tearling”

22864842Book: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

Publishing Info: Harper, July 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut—the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom’s haunted past . . . or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Review: I know, I know. How have I not read this one already? But I’ve been burned by the hype machine before, so sometimes I just like to, you know, wait and see. And, also, I have a massive TBR list and some these slip on through! But while I was on vacation a few weeks ago, I was in the bookstore (cuz obviously this is what one does when one is on vacation: check out the Barnes and Noble in THIS new town!!). And while I was browsing I ran across this book and was like “why the heck not?” So here we are.

Kelsea has lived a remote life, kept away from all of society and trained up by a reclusive couple. But the day has come when all of that changes, and Kelsea must set out with stranger to reclaim her throne. But while she knows her goal, she doesn’t know the secrets of the past, her own or that of her kingdom’s. Now, not knowing who to trust, Kelsea must set a new course for herself and her kingdom.

So let’s just get it out there. I had very mixed feelings about this book. It started out, I was loving it. Then there were a couple of characterization bits that I hated with a passion. Then more story, liked that. Then BAM! Oops, didn’t know what was really going on the entire time, so dislike that. It was all over the place, really.

It’s hard even to say things that I liked because while I liked parts of them, there were other parts I very much didn’t like. But let’s start with the plot. I loved the beginning of this book and the mysteries that were set up for Kelsea. The logic behind why so much was kept from her never quite sat right, but as it wasn’t a new conceit, I was happy enough going with it (just don’t think too hard about how “prepared” someone could be if they’ve never even interacted with anyone but the couple who raised them..).

The writing was solid, and I, personally, can enjoy a slower moving plot, which this definitely was. Much of this book was essentially a travelogue, but I was all there for it. Give me an epic quest book any day of the week!

Kelsea herself was also a sympathetic character. Until she wasn’t. I really don’t understand why we keep getting characters like this, who have very unhealthy ideas about beauty standards. Here, Kelsea makes the terrible comment about the only thing worse than being ugly (Kelsea of course doesn’t think she is beautiful at all) is being ugly and thinking you’re beautiful. Cuz yes, how dare you have good self-esteem if you’re not conventionally beautiful! It was terrible. But again, this was one particularly bad moment within an entire book. Much of the rest of the time, I found Kelsea to be a compelling and interesting heroine.

The world building was where things got batty. For a good chunk of this book, the world is presented as a fairly standard other-world, Medieval Age, fantasy novel, of the type we’re all familiar with. But nope! Out of nowhere comes the reveal that this is actually some type of dystonian world set in the future after things went really wrong? This seems like it could be a cool idea on paper, but in reality, it kind of just pissed me off. For one, I didn’t like being caught by surprise by it. It wasn’t the type of reveal that added to the story, but instead made me start questioning all of the things I had been completely on board with before it happened. Now suddenly that Medieval Age type setting seems kind of dumb and how the heck would that even happen? Maybe if the author had introduced this concept at the beginning of the story, it would have been less jarring. But, for me, I didn’t appreciate the bait and switch of it all and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

I did enjoy the villain, and again, much of the story of Kelsea’s travels. But, as I said, I had some fairly big problems, too: the fixation on beauty (whether one has it or not, whether it leads to rape, etc) and, ultimately, the world-building itself after the reveal that this is in some future time. I’m betting that people’s appreciation of this book must have lived and died on how that switch was received. Given the general popularity of this book, I must be in the minority in finding it jarring. But I know that people love this book, so I’m looking to re-home my book with a giveaway! The giveaway is open to US residents only  and ends May 1.

Click here to enter!

Rating 6: Had some really good stuff going for it, but burned me a few too many times with weird character beats and an unappreciated bait and switch with the world itself.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Queen of the Tearling” is on these Goodreads lists: “NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance” and “Best Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”

Find “The Queen of the Tearling” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Source Codes”

34662772Book: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol. 2): Source Codes” by Julie Benson, Shauna Benson, Roge Antonio (Ill.), and Claire Roe (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, December 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The origin of the new Oracle—the super-hacker who has become an invaluable ally to the Birds of Prey—is revealed in the newest collection of BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY!

Oracle’s connection to the mastermind known as Calculator causes stain on his relationship with Batgirl, Black Canary and the Huntress. Black Canary goes undercover to discover the secrets of the woman called Blackbird, who can unlock any super-being’s true potential. But Blackbird doesn’t just enhance powers—she takes them for herself, making her an army of one who threatens the Birds of Prey’s biggest secrets. Can guest stars Green Arrow and Nightwing turn the tide against this incredible new foe? Or will they be Blackbird’s newest victims?

Gotham City’s greatest super-team is a force to be reckoned with in BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY VOL. 2: SOURCE CODE! From writers Shawna Benson and Julie Benson (TV’s The 100) and artists Roge Antonio (NIGHTWING) and Claire Roe (WONDER WOMAN). Collects issues #7-13.

Review: It’s funny coming off of the Cameron Stewart “Batgirl” Series and jumping into the new “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey” series, if only because the same character is interpreted in such different ways. As much as I did like the more quirky and insecure Batgirl that Stewart created, a self assured and assertive Batgirl is more in line with what I am looking for in Barbara, and the Benson Sisters are really delivering in that regard. When we left off, Batgirl, Huntress, and Black Canary had reformed the Birds of Prey, with a new Oracle by the name of Gus. Gus is a hacker who seems to be a HUGE fan on Batgirl and her adventures, and is capable with the computer. Of course, is anything ever that easy in Gotham? Rarely. So along with the new faces in this series, we also get to see some old ones, faces that I was VERY happy to see when all was said and done!

The first thing that really struck me with this volume was that while Batgirl is the leader of this rag tag group of kick ass ladies, it definitely gives a lot of time to her compatriots. We saw a lot of Huntress and her backstory in the previous volume, but this time some of the attention and shine was focused on Black Canary, aka Dinah Lance. You all know how I feel about her so I will spare you yet another screed on her excellence, but it was nice seeing her get some meaty plot points this time around. Not only does have a lot of opportunities to show off her entire repertoire of fight skills, she also has moments of emotional growth and pathos. It’s easy to forget that of the Birds, she is the only ‘metahuman’, aka person with supernatural powers. Even though she’s a member of the team, she is the Other, and while Babs and Helena may see past this, Dinah is always aware of it. When other metahumans are being targeted and manipulated by a mysterious villain named Blackbird, Dinah takes it upon herself to go forth, undercover, and try to take her down. I loved this storyline because Dinah not only had a lot to do, but we got to see some of her insecurities, and she moved beyond being the sarcastic badass that she usually is within these stories. Also? ALSO????…… Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, shows up, and his main purpose is to look on at Dinah lovingly. There is a moment where he is encouraged to think about what he loves most in this world as his motivation, and he repeats ‘Dinah’ over and over and over again. As a gigantic Dinah/Oliver shipper, this turn of events was quite excellent.

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(source)

But it’s not just Oliver that makes an appearance I wasn’t expecting! Because two of my very best lady anti-heroes of DC also decided to drop in for fun, Catwoman and Poison Ivy! And these appearances harken back to older Birds of Prey realities, in some ways, as while Catwoman has always been a potential ally to the heroes and heroines of Gotham (if you’re willing to risk a future backstab), Poison Ivy has been in the Birds of Prey rotation in past iterations of the team. For her to come back and have a role, and hints at future interactions, is great not only for nostalgia, but also for the concept of girl power. DC has been KILLING IT in the girl power departments, as between this series and “DC Bombshells” ladies are taking charge and getting shit done.

And finally, we are now seeing some hints about Gus, our new Oracle. I was open minded about Gus as a member of the team (in spite of the fact I was hoping that Frankie was going to be Oracle), though it was obvious at the end of the last collection that he was perhaps hiding something. All of that comes out in the open in this collection, and while I don’t want to spoil TOO much, I do feel like it should be stated that one of the major components involves mental illness. I’m always worried that in stories, particularly in comics or more adventure-y tales, mental illness can be used in an irresponsible way to either bring in conflict or to give excuses for bad or violent behavior. But when it comes to Gus’s issues, it is made clear by her partners that not only is he still one of the team, but that he isn’t broken and that they will try to support and understand him in any way that the can. So not only do we have a character who has a disability, we have other characters who are willing to break down the stigma and still treat him as an equal. It was very heartening to see.

But sadly, it was recently announced that “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey” was cancelled by DC. So my love and enjoyment of this series has an expiration date. With this information, I’m considering just stopping my reading journey with these characters right here. It wraps up in a way that was personally satisfying to me, and knowing that it’s going to end (and with rumors of some questionable plot twists that make my blood boil) makes me feel like I should quit while I’m ahead. DC, as per usual, you are really, REALLY making it difficult to be a fan of yours (AND YES I’M STILL PISSED AS HELL THAT YOU CANCELLED BOMBSHELLS!!!!)! I swear, the moment they kill Catwoman to give Bruce some man pain (AND I WOULDN’T PUT IT PAST THEM!), I am OUT, so help me GOD!!!

For now, I’m just happy that I did get to spend some fun arcs with some great chicks who kick serious ass. “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey”, you burned brightly, and did justice to characters that I love.

Rating 8: A highly enjoyable return to this series with a lot of fun cameos, “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol. 2): Source Codes” gave us a healthy bit of nostalgia as well as some very compelling and new insights into our characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.2): Source Code” is still kind of new and not on many Goodreads lists, but it is included on “DC Universe: Rebirth Collections”.

Find “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.2): Source Code” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously reviewed: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?”

Book Club Review: “Challenger Deep”

18075234We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

A-Side Book: “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman

Book Description: A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today’s most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep “a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.”

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “Challenger Deep” a couple of years ago when it was getting a lot of press and hype for its themes of mental illness. Given that I went through some nasty battles with depression in high school and college, I was very interested to see what Neal Shusterman was going to do with it, especially since I knew that his own son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teen (and therein inspired this book). Reading it the first time was a very rewarding and somewhat personal experience, but reading it a second time gave me the chance to read it knowing what was coming and how all the symbolism was going to come together.

One of the most striking things about “Challenger Deep” is how Shusterman frames it, in that it’s a very disorienting read for the reader, giving him or her a sense of what constant disorientation may feel like for those who are struggling with mental illness. Shusterman is careful to not put any kind of mental disorder into a box, and does take care to mention that this one experience that Caden is having is not necessarily universal to all people who suffer from schizophrenia. The story is all from Caden’s perspective, but you do kind of get insight into what those who are around him may be feeling based on their reactions and the decisions that they make. The parallels between what is going on in Caden’s ‘reality’ and what is going on on ‘the ship’ was very interesting to see, and it was powerful to be able to see the glimpses of reality within the hallucinations (the captain, the figurehead, etc).

I also liked that Shusterman never felt condescending or cloying in his storytelling, and never got preachy about what Caden should or shouldn’t do, or should or shouldn’t feel. He presents a situation and lets the reader decide for themselves what conclusions to draw. He also doesn’t  wrap everything up in a neat little bow; you get the sense that things aren’t over for Caden and that he will always have these struggles. As hard as that is to accept, it’s also very realistic, as mental illness is for many people something they are going to have their entire lives, degrees of seriousness changing all the time. It’s a realistic take, but it doesn’t feel bleak or nihilistic. Given that this book is so personal for Shusterman and his family, I’m not surprised that he didn’t approach it with easy answers or cut and dry solutions. I think that it’s very important that teens can see this kind of story, so that they can either see themselves in a book, or they can gain some insight into something that those close to them may be dealing with.

“Challenger Deep” is a poignant and powerful novel, and I’m pleased that we kicked off our B-Sides Book Club Theme with it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I had never read anything by Shusterman until I picked up “Scythe” last summer. So all I knew was that I liked him as a dystopian, YA author. Tackling a tough subject like mental illness is another thing all together! But I should have had faith, as Shusterman once again blew me away with his sensitive, unflinching yet compassionate, tale.

As Kate already touched on, one of the strongest aspects of this story is the subtle manner in which Shusterman depicts the slow, almost unnoticeable, descent into confusion and paranoia that Caden slips into. The reader, too, is unsure of what is happening, not only with the events on the ship, but the timeline between one section and another. It isn’t until halfway through the story that I was able to begin to piece together these two disparate storylines. This perfectly aligns with the point at which Caden, too, begins to gain a bit of clarity, though he is by no means out of the woods.

The ship itself, obviously, is an extensive metaphorical look into the world that Caden has projected around himself. However, for readers looking to gain more insight into what loved ones experiencing mental health challenges are going through, the author also sprinkles in some shockingly simple but apt comparisons that I found incredibly insightful and helpful. In this way, the book speaks not only to an “own experience” reader looking to see themselves and their challenges on the page, but also as a perfect portal for friends and family to understand a bit better what could be going on. As Kate said, Shusterman is careful to never imply that this is by any means a road map for all mental health experiences and that even any given diagnosis is not the same for every individual experiencing it.

It is clear that Shusterman was writing from a very real place, having been the parent of a teenage boy who struggled with mental health. His son not only provided insights to help direct the creation of this story, but there are also images sprinkled throughout the story that Shusterman’s son drew in the midst of his own crisis. Every time a new image appeared, I found myself taking quite a bit of time looking at it. Most were unclear, scribble-like creations that, while not clearly depicting a scene or object, spoke quite strongly to the swirl of emotions that its creator felt. Caden’s own art and his use of it to not only express himself but what he sees in others was also a great lens through which to read his experiences. His family and friends first begin to note changes in him by the changes in his art, and Caden uses his artistic ability to get at deep truths of the other teens he meets who have their own struggles.

I absolutely adored this story, and it was a great start to our new season of bookclub!

Kate’s Rating 8: A thoughtful and personal book that sensitively and carefully addresses mental illness, “Challenger Deep” is a poignant and important read for all ages.

Serena’s Rating 8: Shusterman masterfully tackles a complex and sensitive subject, creating a masterwork that will strike chords with not only those who have experienced mental illness, but by anyone who has been touched by it in their lives.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the two narratives in this book, Caden’s reality and his time on Challenger Deep? Did you enjoy both of them, or prefer one over the other?
  2. What does “Challenger Deep” mean in this story? What parts of that narrative could you see in Caden’s ‘reality’, and in what ways did they manifest?
  3. What did you think about the drawings throughout the book? Do you think that they added to the story? Why or why not?
  4. Would you recommend this book to teens who are struggling with mental health issues? Why or why not? If not, who would you recommend this book to?
  5. By the time the story is wrapping up, it becomes clear that Caden isn’t going to have the same friends in his life coming out of his experience as he did coming in? What did you think of this? Do you think it’s realistic?

Reader’s Advisory

“Challenger Deep” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Including Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”, and “YA “Brain” Novels”.

Find “Challenger Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Serena’s Review: “A Curious Beginning”

28186322Book: “A Curious Beginning” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2015

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

Book Description: London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

Review: Honestly, I’m not sure how I’ve been going along all of this time with no awareness of Deanna Raybourn. After the first twenty or so pages of this book, in which I was in shock by how much I was absolutely adoring it pretty much immediately, I did some research and found that Raybourn has been around for a while, long enough to have another hugely popular series already finished! How have I missed this? As a huge fan of lady sleuth historical mysteries, especially if said lady at all resembles Amelia Peabody as far as giving a damn what others think, it’s almost like Christmas whenever I discover another series that can scratch this particular itch.

Veronica Speedwell knows she should be sad at the death of her aunt, but instead, she only sees the glorious future ahead of her, full of independence and the freedom to fully devote her life to her passion for science and butterfly hunting. Of course, her history isn’t one of being cooped up anyways, with many trips abroad full of exploration, adventure, and yes, a few liaisons, if you will. But things do not go as planned when she finds herself caught up in a murder and pursued by villains unknown. What’s more, she finds herself in the company of the mysterious and rather grumpy Stoker, a man whose past is equally curious.

Veronica Speedwell is a delight. Truly, a book like this lives and dies on the voice of its lead character, and she was absolutely wonderful. Witty, confident, and employing all of those great snooty, very British-y turns of phrase that make me super jealous of their vocabulary and diction. (I also listened to this as an audiobook, and the reader was spot on. So good in fact that I think I’m going to hold out for the audiobook versions of the next two as well).

I also really enjoyed the backstory that is given to Veronica, particularly the fact that this isn’t her first time out and about in the world. She has the actual experience to back up her confidence and claims of capability. Not only is she and established scientist, having published a few articles under an assumed name and sold rare specimens gathered from her adventures to wealthy collectors, but she has taken a firm hold on her life and choices. Men are nothing new to her, and she has established a neat system for dealing with them and her reputation: liaisons are ok abroad, damn the whispers, but once on home ground, she is willing to play by the rules. For all of these strengths, she’s also appropriately vulnerable when the plot strikes close to home. The tendency with characters like this can be an almost unrealistic level of competences and assuredness that leaves the character feeling not quite human. Veronica reacts in a believable manner to big revelations, but nothing keeps her off her stride for long!

As a secondary character, I also very much loved Stoker. And yes, he also kind of reminded me of Emerson. (But for all of these similarities between our leads, I never felt like the book strayed too close to the Amelia Peabody series). His was the perfect level of brusqueness and emotional outbursts to balance Veronica’s more cool demeanor. For all that his walls begin to come down throughout the story, by the end of the book, we still do not know his entire history, which I really liked. His character still has much room to grow, but what we do know already sets him up as an excellent, rather comedic, romantic hero.

The story itself is full of action, jumping from one adventure to another. We have a traveling circus, an eccentric collector and his family, the Tower of London, and more. And throughout it all, the mystery is solid, leaving readers equally in the dark about the motives, and even the identity, of those pursuing our main characters. While a few of these mini adventures could feel a bit tacked on, especially the traveling circus bit, I was having such fun watching our main characters play on these sets, that I didn’t even care.

My one real criticism of this book comes with the end. The way the mystery is resolved felt a bit rushed and almost too neat. Things fell into place in a very convenient manner and we have yet another example of a villain pretty much killing himself off, so that our leads’ hands won’t be bloodies. While I get that all of this kind of goes hand in hand with the type of light and fun mystery story that this is, I always wish there could be a bit more “oomph” put behind resolutions such as this. If anything, letting the story get a bit more dark when it needs to can be a nice balance to the rest of the more light plotline. It just read a bit too “PG” for me.

But this is a minor quibble, and one that has built up over time after reading endings like this again and again in mysteries such as this. On its own, “A Curious Beginning” is an absolutely delightful introduction to a new leading lady and new mystery series. Definitely check this one out if you’re a fan of lady sleuth mysteries ala Amelia Peabody!

Rating 8: An absolute romp of a story. Veronica Speedwell, welcome to the ranks of excellent lady sleuths!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Curious Beginning” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian/Regency Female Sleuths/Mysteries” and “Books with Witty Banter/Dialogue.”

Find “A Curious Beginning” at your library using WorldCat!