The Great Animorphs Re-Read #36: “The Mutation”

363360Animorphs #36: “The Mutation”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, December 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Morphing into killer whales, the Animorphs discover a whole new world where humans with gills exist in the deep waters below.

Narrator: Jake

Plot: Ah, yes, the Atlantis book. It’s at this point in the series where I very distinctly remember switching to this attitude:

Why rage against what is? Of course, Atlantis! Why NOT Atlantis?!

Jake gets the always dreaded late night phone call to meet in Cassie’s barn. There he finds her and several of the Hork Bajir from the free valley along with another Hork Bajir that is clearly dying despite all of Cassie’s best efforts. The Jara Hamee and Toby report that this is one of 50 Hork Bajir that were experimented on by the Yeerks in a search to create a being that could thrive underwater in order to again pursue the Pemalite ship. The experiments went horribly wrong and all of the Hork Bajir died, including, shortly following, the one in the barn. When these experiments failed, the Yeerks turned to creating a new specialized ship called the Sea Blade and they will be launching it soon.

The Animorphs jump into action and conduct their usual airborne stakeout of the Yeerk pool. When they see a large, cloaked ship emerge, they know this is it and pursue it to the ocean where they all morph orca whales (because of course The Gardens recently got an orca). They follow the ship down and eventually decide they have to attack it and destroy it and the only real way is brute force. They start going after it only to be quickly spotted and shot at by the ship’s powerful laser weapons. The group takes a lot of damage with various members, including Jake, needing to demorph and remorph several times. Finally, their only option is to all ram the ship at once. The massive blow works, crippling the ship, and it starts to sink. The group follow it to make sure it’s really destroyed, but instead see it come to rest outside of a large, underwater cave where a bizarre set of beings emerge and pull the ship inside.

Jake decides they need to follow the ship, still set on the original mission to make sure the Sea Blade is completely destroyed. They all morph hammerhead shark and head into the cave. At the back of the cave, they pass through some type of force field masquerading as a dead end. Behind this field, they come out in a bizarre ship graveyard. The space is massive and is filled with various ships from throughout the centuries, old sailing ships to more recent Russian subs. But what is really horrifying is when the examine the ships more closely, they see stuffed, dead humans displayed as if they were mannequins in a museum. They continue through the massive cave and through another entrance. Past this door they discover Atlantis.

<We come here chasing Yeerks and we end up with this?> Cassie wondered. <Is this good luck or bad luck?>

<It’s our luck,> Rachel said dryly.

The city has clearly been constructed over centuries, with the bottom layer made up of older materials and the upper with more recent steel and such. The Animorphs decide to morph birds to get a better look. They find the Sea Blade and see the Hork Bajir on board being lead away be a group of underwater beings. The Atlantians look like humans, but with larger eyes and gills in their necks. They’re armed with a variety of weapons, from bow and arrows to handguns. As they continue their search, they begin to hear what sounds like the captured Hork Bajir screaming in pain. They decide that it might be best to leave.

When they land to demorph, however, they are captured, all but Tobias who remained in the air. In their human (and Andalite form), they are brought into the city and presented to a woman who is their queen. She identifies herself as Queen Soca and that her people are called the Nartec. She invites them to tour her city and join her for a banquet, though it is clear that these are orders and not invitations.

At the banquet, the group hears the history of the Nartec people. Long ago, their city began sinking below the water. Eventually the walls they built bent inwards and formed a cave which protected them as the city fully submerged. Below water, they found glowing rocks to provide light and their people quickly adapted to their new life. Ax theorizes in private thought-speak that the rocks that are currently lighting the area are radioactive and that it is this that helped mutate the people into beings who could survive underwater. Queen Soca then goes into her plan to use the Sea Blade to attack the world above. She then dismisses them to continue their “tour.”

The group now knows that they cannot simply flee. While the Sea Blade alone could only do limited damage, there is a good chance that the Nartec people also have access to a plethora of missiles (potentially even nukes) that have sunk over the years. They also discuss why Queen Soca would be wanting to attack the surface people now of all times. Ax again theorizes that the Nartecs are perhaps going extinct due to a lack of biogentic diversity. He suspects they are very inbred and have had to breed with past ship wrekc victims to keep their people alive.

They also suspect that Visser Three is lurking around somewhere, which prevents them from immediately morphing and trying to escape. As the tour continues, they eventually end up at the Nartec hospital. Jake is suspicious about this and tries to refuse to go in. The group is surrounded, however, and soon sedated using tranquilizers. He and the others wake up face down on operating tables. They are informed that their DNA will be harvested to help the genetic cause and then they will be mummified and added to their collection. Under heavy sedation, the team struggles to move until suddenly another Nartec enters and begins taking out his fellows. Nartec!Tobias rescues the group and they all morph their battle morphs and head towards the Sea Blade.

On board the ship, Ax struggles to get through the security protocols. As he works, the Nartecs assemble outside and begin attacking the ship. They fire canons at it and blow a whole in the back end. They also begin squeezing their way through the door. The Animorphs try to hold them back, but start to become overrun through sheer numbers. Luckily (?), Visser Three shows up in a morph that has super-hot skin and can incinerate things. He starts taking out the Nartec’s himself and proposes they strike a deal: they work together and get out of this hellhole. Jake publicly agrees, but privately instructs gorilla!Marco to go to the back of the ship and try to hold the hull hole shut. Marco won’t be able to hold it against the full force of the ocean, but it should work for a bit, and Jake suspects that Visser Three doesn’t know the ship is damaged.

Visser Three gives them access to the ship’s controls, and Ax takes over as pilot with Rachel on weapons. They blow their way through to the next cavern with the museum of ships. There Jake tells Marco to let the hull go and the ship quickly begins filling with water. The Animorphs all escape and re-morph to sharks. They spot Visser Three escaping as well. They make their way out of the last cavern and return to shore. They are horrified by what the Nartec people, especially by their desecration of the dead, but, of course, the fight with the Yeerks comes first.

Our Fearless Leader: For the narrator of the book, Jake goes through very little personal growth or exploration in this book. It’s primarily focused on the action of the story. And look, when you’re going to try to sell a “Atlantis is real!!!” storyline, I get not wanting to cram in a lot more. But it’s always disappointing, too, when we miss out on these character building moments. And typically, Jake, Marco and Rachel often have the best in this area, so missing it from him is even worse.

What we do get is a lot of evidence of how far Jake has grown as a leader. In the beginning of the mission, he evaluates the group and where they are at with the new plan. He notes that with most missions, at least half of the group is having some issue or another (here, Cassie seems to be in it for the wrong reasons, Marco is rather indifferent, and Tobias is also potentially more emotionally invested than is good, while Ax and Rachel are behaving normally). It’s a good example of him quickly identifying where each member of the group is at, and also an interesting reminder of the group dynamics. Thinking back on it, this seems pretty right: it usually is about 50% of the group who has some particular struggle with any given mission with the other 50% behaving mostly normally. Ax and Tobias probably fall in the normal group more often than the others, but the stats are generally the same.

Then, throughout the story, we get the usual Jake stuff with his concerns that he is risking his friends’ lives for nothing or made the wrong choice. However, we never see any outward expression of this. He doesn’t have any freeze up or spirals of anxiety like we’ve seen in the past. Instead, at the very end of the book we get this:

My own mistakes would keep me awake at night for a while to come. But I’d been in charge for a while, now. I’d gotten past thinking I would always be right. It’s a war, I reminded myself. You did what you could, Jake. You tried to do what’s right. You tried not to make it any worse than it had to be. And you got everyone home alive.

This is a very mature outlook on things, and the first time we’ve really seen this settling of Jake’s thoughts regarding his role as leader.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Other than her usual gung-ho-ness, Rachel doesn’t have too many moments that stand out in this book, other than a scene at the very end. When they’re on the Sea Blade fighting off the masses of Nartecs, there’s a pretty badass image of Rachel standing in the doorway alone, using one Nartec as a body shield and taking out tons of others with a single paw. It’s a pretty neat image of the absolute warrior that she is.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias to the rescue! It’s often confusing why he stays in hawk morph some of the times he does (another example comes at the end of this book when they’re all fighting on the Sea Blade. I HAVE to think that another morph would have been better against the Nartecs than staying in his hawk form). But arc of this story goes to show why it’s also a good thing for him to remain as a bird. As such, he doesn’t get caught with the others and is able to acquire a Nartec morph and rescue them in the end. From his experience as a Nartec, he’s also able to report that the Nartecs are misrepresenting their own strength and that the Nartec giving them a tour is one of the few stronger ones that is able to walk on land for long periods of time. Most of the Nartecs, like the one he morphed, are only strong in water and don’t do well on land for long.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie has a very strong reaction to losing the Hork Bajir in the beginning of the story. She even has to be strong enough to advocate for letting the Hork Bajir die rather than prolong his suffering with extra measures, which is Jake’s knee-jerk reaction when he sees him start to fade. But she then takes these feelings to a very blood-thristy and un-Cassie-like level which leads to Jake placing her on his “problem” list. This reaction seems in line with Cassie, both with the stronger aspects of her personality and weaker ones. She is incredibly empathetic and, especially being the one who is tasked with healing others, it is not surprising that the death would hit her hard. But she then quickly succumbs to a revenge attitude which is another example of her moral weakness (in that her much vaunted “morality” often falls away at convenient (for her) moments.) Marco even calls her out on this poor attitude:

“What they did to the Hork-Bajir was evil,” she said.”Over the line. Way over the line. We need to teach them a lesson.”

Marco said what I was thinking. “Hey, we don’t teach lessons. And we don’t do revenge. Besides, everything the Yeerks do is over the line. We stop them. That’s what we do.”

The Comic Relief: Marco is fairly reluctant throughout this entire mission. In some ways, it seems that this falls in line with his general and ongoing frustration with the Chee’s inability to manage some of their problems, like the ship. After the events of “Visser,” it is clear that Marco has an eye on the bigger picture and partially sees this mission as not worth their time. But he doesn’t push Jake too far and agrees when it comes down to it that he will follow Jake’s lead. We don’t get to see him holding the ship together in his gorilla morph, but we have to imagine that that was one of his cooler feats of strength.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax is the one to put together most of the pieces that make up the mystery of the Nartec people. He figures out how they could have adapted so quickly to life under water (the radiation) and is also able to figure out what is now suddenly driving their desperation to attack the surface world (their slow extinction). The Nartec queen also calls him the other Animorphs “pet” at one point, which he doesn’t take well.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Stuffed, mummified people is pretty horrifying. But what really sets it off is that when the group finally makes it back to the Sea Blade, it is already set up with the stuffed bodies of the Hork Bajir. They had just been alive and the team had heard their screams, and now here they are, stuffed and mimed to be performing functions on the ship. It’s pretty bad.

Couples Watch!: Jake gives Cassie a hug after the Hork Bajir dies in the barn and calls her his girlfriend at another point in the story. Rachel and Tobias also comment on their worry about each other when they are reunited after Tobias rescues them from the Nartec hospital.

<I’m glad you’re okay, Tobias,> Rachel said. <I hate it when you don’t get taken prisoner with us.>

<Yeah, well, I was worried about you, too.>

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: There was a noticeable difference in the way Visser Three’s dialogue was written in this one. He was much more savvy and well-spoken than his usual, corny, rage-induced mania. It’s always a bit strange when readers can notice changes in characterization like this that come down to different authors writing differently. Though his plan to find the Pemalite ship to prove a big point to the Council of Thirteen about his worth seems right in line. It’s also always interesting when we see the Animorphs have to work alongside the Yeerks, and this was a fun example of them taking advantage of the private vs. public thought speak modes to outwardly agree to Visser Three’s plan while also plotting against him.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The beginning where the Hork Bajir dies is definitely cry worthy. The story doesn’t pull back on the anguish of the Hork Bajir and the sadness of Jara Hamee as he watches his friend die.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: It’s not really a plan, but they sure are determined to make sure the Sea Blade is good and destroyed. It seemed like there were a lot of opportunities where some good old fashioned sneaking would have worked better than what they were up to. Jake’s plan at the end to trick Visser Three about the damaged ship was probably the best plan in the whole book.

Favorite Quote: A good burn by Visser Three:

<One can always count on two things from Andalites: That they will adopt a sanctimonious moral posture. And that when it serves their purpose, they will quickly abandon that posture.>

And for some reason, we’re doubling down again on the weirdness of whales morphs and their “special knowledge.” It’s just as stupid this time as it was the first time. This just doesn’t seem right. Again, getting into the fact that the “orca” here is just the remnants of instinct. Its body is Jake’s body made up of his cells changed to orca cells. There IS NO ORCA. Ugh, I hate it when the story goes down this kind of nonsensical “but are we any better than the  Yeerks??” hand-wank path. Luckily, it’s never touched on again, which just makes it all the more unnecessary to include at all.

I had encountered intelligence in a morph before. But there was something new here. New for me, at least. The orca was aware. Of me. Of something, someone directing its behavior. It knew, in some incomplete, simplistic way, that it was being controlled.

Scorecard: Yeerks 8, Animorphs 15

A point for the Animorphs! While it wasn’t the biggest mission ever, destroying the Sea Blade was their prime objective and they completed that, thus at least further delaying the Yeerks’ attempt to recover the Pemalite ship.

Rating: There was no where else to really put this bit, but there was a really strange portion of the book that briefly discussed the Nartecs using captured sailors as “breeding stock.” Cassie even goes so far as to say that that may end up being their fate as well. And then Rachel makes a joke about Marco finally getting a girlfriend. It was….very strange, seeing that in a middle grade/young adult book. I mean, if you actually think about what they’re saying there, that’s serious stuff and really seriously horrifying stuff. I get that the book was using the genetic issues as a motive for the Nartec wanting to attack the surface, but to get into the details of breeding stock and to even bring it up with relation to the Animorphs themselves (who are CHILDREN) is pretty messed up. It’s tough, because one of the things I like best about this series is that it takes a serious look at war and its effects on soldiers. But this was a story about freaking Atlantis for pete’s sake. I think if we’re that far down the nonsense path, we can maybe leave out the speculation about the rape of young kids in this go around.

Other than that, this book was enjoyable enough. I had to make sure not to let my mind turn on at any point, but the action itself was fun. I do wish there had been a bit more development for Jake’s character as I always feel like it’s a missed opportunity in Jake/Rachel/Marco books if they don’t add some good character angle.

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: “Supergirl: Being Super”

35531016Book: “Supergirl: Being Super” by Mariko Tamaki, Joelle Jones (Ill).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: She’s super-strong. She can fly. She crash-landed on Earth in a rocket ship. But for Kara Danvers, winning the next track meet, celebrating her 16th birthday and surviving her latest mega-zit are her top concerns. And with the help of her best friends and her kinda-infuriating-but-totally-loving adoptive parents, she just might be able to put her troubling dreams–shattered glimpses of another world–behind her.

Until an earthquake shatters her small town of Midvale…and uncovers secrets about her past she thought would always stay buried.

Now Kara’s incredible powers are kicking into high gear, and people she trusted are revealing creepy ulterior motives. The time has come for her to choose between the world where she was born and the only world she’s ever known. Will she find a way to save her town and be super, or will she crash and burn?

Caldecott Honor and Eisner Award-winning writer Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer) and Eisner Award-nominated artist Joëlle Jones (Lady Killer) combine forces for this incredible coming-of-age tale! This is the Girl of Steel as you’ve never seen her before.

Review: Kara Danvers, aka Supergirl, has recently had something of a pop culture renaissance. The success of the CW show “Supergirl” has had a huge hand in that, as it has brought Kara to the forefront for the past few years. I enjoy “Supergirl” for the most part, and I think that it does do Kara justice, but what we didn’t get from that show was Supergirl’s teenage years, instead putting her solidly in her early twenties when it began. I think that part of the appeal of Supergirl initially was that she is a teenager, and therefore has the usual trials and tribulations that a teenage girl would have (though back when she was first created a lot of that was steeped in sexism of the time). So while I’ve enjoyed the TV version of Kara, and the “Bombshells” version of her as well, I was really hoping to get a new take on a teenage Kara eventually. And my hopes were answered thanks to Eisner Award Winner Mariko Tamaki, who wrote the mini series “Supergirl: Being Super”.

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Exactly. (source)

Mariko Tamaki has been at the graphic novel game for awhile, with one of her more notable books being “This One Summer”. This story is about early teenage girls spending the summer at a cabin, and focuses on coming of age themes as well as learning about some sad truths about the world. It’s a quiet and emotional story, and therefore Tamaki is the perfect person to helm a Supergirl origin story. This version of Kara has loving family and good friends, but her powers have been kept secret from most people in her life. While she understands why they need to be kept secret, we’re told in bits and pieces the cost of hiding her identity from those around her has had in her life. Life is hard enough when you’re a teenager trying to find yourself, it’s even harder when you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know why you are the way you are, and you have to keep it inside. Much like “This One Summer”, “Supergirl: Being Super” has a lot of heartbreaking and poignant themes and moments, with Kara going through loss and and identity crisis at the heart of the story. After a horrific trauma happens to her and the rest of the town, and someone close to her dies, Kara begins to spiral. The pain that she is going through, as well as seeing her parents trying to help her get through it while letting her know her pain is valid and real, led to many a teary eyed moment as I read this book. Kara is flawed and angsty, but she is also bright and friendly and very real, and I loved the arc that she followed in this story.

Tamaki also created a lovely cast of characters to be in Kara’s life. From her parents to her mentors and her friends, the supporting characters are all well rounded and add depth and vibrancy to the story. The two who I would argue are the most important are her two best friends, Liz and Dolly. They are all on the track team together, and their conversations and interactions were all very true to life and familiar to me, as someone who was a teenage girl once. Additionally, I liked that while they are all best friends with similar interests, they are also pretty different as well, having their own unique personalities that contribute different things. And even the antagonists in this book (and there are a few) are so well structured and characterized that the reader can see where they are coming from, and why they do the things that they do, even if they are ultimately terrible things.

And do not worry. Krypton plays a large role in this story too, even if Kara is well beyond her time on that doomed planet. It isn’t a Superman or Supergirl story unless Krypton is involved, and Tamaki made it feel fresh and original.

The artwork is done by Joelle Jones, who I have reviewed here for her “Ladykiller” series. I love Jones’s artwork and style, and I think that she brings such vibrant detail to these characters, as well as making them all so original and unique.

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(source)

I cannot recommend “Supergirl: Being Super” enough. I love the story that Tamaki and Jones have given Kara, and while I know that there are no official plans for Tamaki to continue the story I am holding out hope that DC will beg her to come back and give us more.

Rating 9: A wonderful and fresh origin story for Supergirl, “Supergirl: Being Super” is a great story for fans of Supergirl of all ages.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Supergirl: Being Super” is (maddeningly) not included on many Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Comics and Graphic Novels by Women”, and “Comics for Teen Girls (that are not Japanese Manga)”.

Find “Supergirl: Being Super” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Lies You Never Told Me”

36547961Book: “Lies You Never Told Me” by Jennifer Donaldson

Publishing Info: Razorbill, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Gabe and Elyse have never met. But they both have something to hide.

Quiet, shy Elyse can’t believe it when she’s cast as the lead in her Portland high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Her best friend, Brynn, is usually the star, and Elyse isn’t sure she’s up to the task. But when someone at rehearsals starts to catch her eye–someone she knows she absolutely shouldn’t be with–she can’t help but be pulled into the spotlight.

Austin native Gabe is contemplating the unthinkable–breaking up with Sasha, his headstrong, popular girlfriend. She’s not going to let him slip through her fingers, though, and when rumors start to circulate around school, he knows she has the power to change his life forever.

Gabe and Elyse both make the mistake of falling for the wrong person, and falling hard. Told in parallel narratives, this twisty, shocking story shows how one bad choice can lead to a spiral of unforeseen consequences that not everyone will survive.

Review: Whaaaat? A thriller review by Serena and not Kate?! That’s right, people! Buckle up and get ready for a good look at what it’s like for a fantasy reader to read a YA thriller! Spoiler alert: probably not that different, though much more naive as far as predicting twists. I’m sure Kate would have figured this one out, but oh well!

The story is told in dueling, first-person narratives. In one, we follow the story of Gabe, a teenage boy who, after being involved in a car accident and rescued by a mysterious girl, finds himself struggling to escape the clutches of his mean-girl girlfriend, Sasha, to pursue this new savior girl. The other narrative follows Elyse who on a whim auditions for a role in “Romeo and Juliet” and quickly finds herself entangled in a complicated web revolving around a person she knows she should avoid.

Both stories were engaging, however I did find myself more pulled into Elyse’s plot. Her struggles and circumstances were a bit more relatable to the average reader, while Gabe’s story could verge a bit into the unbelievable, particularly where his ex-girlfriend Sasha was involved. It was a bit hard to believe that she had so little oversight in her life that she could pull off some of the very unbalanced stunts she did.

The story is told in first-person, which I thought worked fairly well for the story. At times it did make the writing feel a bit too simple, and I found myself wanting a little more depth in the descriptions of scenes. This is a typical limitation of this writing tense, however, so it wasn’t overly distracting, just not my preferred type. And I do think that keeping it in first-person allowed readers to more fully identify with the mental and emotional struggles that Elyse and Gabe go through.

I also very much liked the diversity of the cast. Gabe is Mexican American and his sister has Down Syndrome. I especially loved the relationship between Gabe and his sister, and it was great to see a relationship like that portrayed on the page. The story also tackled several other topics such as poverty, addiction, and, of course, abusive romantic relationships.

As I’ve said, I haven’t read too many thrillers. So, while I know that there will some twist coming, I wasn’t able to spot this one. Maybe fans more familiar with the genre would have had an easier time of it, but I was genuinely surprised. Specifically, I was left wondering throughout most of the book how Elyse’s and Gabe’s storylines were tied together, and it was exciting to finally find out in the end. However, as surprising as it was, it also had an affect on how I viewed the rest of the story in the end, and I’m not sure it was a change for the better.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed “Lies You Never Told Me” even though it falls outside of my usual genre preferences. I’m sure it will be a hit for regular thriller fans as well!

Rating 7: While thrillers are probably never going to be my favorite, I found this book a compulsive read and a fun reminder of what this genre has to offer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lies You Never Told Me” is on these Goodreads lists: “Secrets and Lies” and “2018 YA Mysteries.”

Find “Lies You Never Told Me” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”

36426163Book: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” by Tess Sharpe (Ed.), and Jessica Spotswood (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth.

History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations.

Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.

A bruja’s traditional love spell has unexpected results. A witch’s healing hands begin to take life instead of giving it when she ignores her attraction to a fellow witch. In a terrifying future, women are captured by a cabal of men crying witchcraft and the one true witch among them must fight to free them all. In a desolate past, three orphaned sisters prophesize for a murderous king. Somewhere in the present, a teen girl just wants to kiss a boy without causing a hurricane.

From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog numerous times, I am a huge fan of witches and witchcraft in my stories. Basically, if there is a witch, I want to read it. So imagine how genuinely thrilled I was when I heard about “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”, a short stories collection edited by Tess Sharpe. Not only is it a collection of witch stories, it has a feminist centered theme of witchcraft. On top of THAT, there are also DIVERSE stories involving these witches, from authors like Zoraida Córdova, Robin Talley, Brandy Colbert, and more! My goodness did the description of this book get me in a witchy mood, and make me want to break out “The Craft”/relive my 8th grade Wicca phase.

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Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of YA feminist witch fiction…. (source)

There are some really great stories in here, and I want to give them credit where credit is due. I will talk about my favorites and what it is about them that made them stand out.

(NOTE: Yes, this book originally had 16 stories in it, but after Tristina Wright was accused of sexual harassment her story was removed from the final product. My ARC had her story, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in the final work I skipped it completely.)

“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia

A young witch named Luna has garnered a social media following because of her posts about star charts, fate, and magic. One evening she starts a conversation with a science minded girl who is very much a skeptic. As they start to chat over messages, Luna realizes that she’s starting to fall for her spirited intellectual nemesis. In terms of just sweet and calm stories, “Starsong” fit the bill. The first reason is that it feels very relatable with the social media bent that it had as it’s base. I liked the idea of a teen witch giving guidance to her followers and coming into herself in a medium she is comfortable with. And while I’m not so much into the romance genre in general, this one was super charming and didn’t feel overwrought or melodramatic as these two girls get to know each other and start to feel the first pangs of attraction. It’s just super cute, and since it’s the first story in the collection you get to ease into it with an upbeat first course.

“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley

This one felt the most like the kind of witch story that I wanted from this collection, and it’s probably my favorite of the lot. A town has been long haunted by the urban legend of Stone Mary, a witch who was murdered a couple centuries prior and has supposedly put a curse on the town. Now there are legends and myths surrounding the gravesite of Stone Mary, a popular spot for teens to goof off at. Wendy is a descendent of Mary, and her family has long had an unspoken stigma about them because of the family line she is a part of. When she starts to start a romance with a new girl in town, she just wants to be seen as normal, but her lineage may have more of an effect on her relationship than she could have imagined. From the ghostly legend of Stone Mary to the actual real life consequences of small town small mindedness, Talley delivers a strong, somewhat bittersweet, story about what it’s like to be an outsider. The Mary legend is tragic and upsetting, and Wendy’s present day obstacles feel real and very much placed in Othering, be it because of her lineage, or because of her sexuality. There is also something of a twist that took me by surprise, and I think that it gave the story a little more depth. As someone who has memories of urban legends regarding graveyards (specifically the Black Angel in my aunt’s home of Iowa City), “The Legend of Stone Mary” was a treat in all regards.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of the darkest and saddest stories in the book (though just wait, we’ll be getting to the other one), but I didn’t expect any less from Nova Ren Suma. A coven of witches, brought together by trauma and pain, are preparing to bring in another member to their group as the same trauma is about to befall her. Suma is one of those authors who knows how to make the darkness in humanity twisted and blistering, but still present it in a bittersweet way. This story definitely has some strong implications in regards to sexual assault, so I have to give it a trigger warning, but the eeriness and the sadness is written in a flowing and haunting prose that I greatly enjoyed. While a large number of these books had very feminist roots, this one felt like a riot act towards those who do women wrong, and how victims can find their own voices and power by finding each other and coming together to support one another. This is also one of the shorter stories in the collection, though it packs a huge emotional punch that had me enthralled the entire time reading it.

“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May

This is the last story in the collection, and boy oh boy is it a strong note to end it on. Women accused of witchcraft are taken to a forest work camp and are made to ‘repent’ for their actions, though they are not witches, but victims of society. Shamed and silenced, abused and mistreated, a group of women come together to support, endure, and find their voices again. This story absolutely weaves together the idea of witch hunts and trials and applies it to modern social mores such as rape culture and misogyny, and it brings forth a powerful read that struck hard and hit home. Especially given the current social climate, where sexual abusers in the highest offices of Government get off without consequence and someone can be sentenced to THREE MONTHS for rape (AND STILL FEEL LIKE THE CONVICTION WAS TOO HARSH), “Why They Watch Us Burn” strikes a chord. It’s angry, it’s raw, but it’s also hopeful.

Another positive is this book is chock full of Own Voices authors and a lot of great diversity in it’s characters. Not only are a number of the witches in these stories LGBTQIA+, there is also a wide range of racial representation, with varying cultures having a huge influence on the types of witches that these characters are. The witches in our stories need not be wholly influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology alone, and “Toil and Trouble” takes cues from all around the world.

And yet, if you take the collection’s stories as a whole, a large number of them didn’t really stand out to me. None of them were BAD, per se, but they were either a bit muddled, or a little too bland for my tastes. Some of the stories felt stilted and dragging, and with others I found my eyes glazing over (and I’ll admit it’s probably because of the high emphases on romance in those ones). So because of that, “Toil and Trouble” wasn’t the consistently satisfying collection that I expected it to be. The stories that were good were VERY good, but I wanted more of them to be as appealing to me as the four that I mentioned.

But in terms of important, diverse, and feminist anthologies, “Toil and Trouble” is absolutely noteworthy. The stories I mentioned are worth a look by themselves, and you may find more value in the ones I struggled with. And hey, Halloween isn’t too far away. This is the perfect read for the upcoming Season of the Witch.

Rating 6: While the strong stories in this collection are very strong and the representation is top notch, “Toil and Trouble” didn’t have the consistent strength across all of its tales of witches and witchery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Anthologies”, and “2018 Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy”.

Find “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” at your library using WorldCat!

Not Just Books: August 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

mv5bndvkyju0mzctmwrmzi00ntkxltgwzwetowvhyjzlyjllymu4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynta4nzy1mzy-_v1_TV Show: “Friends”

This is a definite guilty pleasure for me! I was late to this bandwagon (and probably just too young to be interested), so I watched this originally sometime during college and blazed through it. I don’t even typically watch sitcoms, but the amazing chemistry between every single member of the cast is truly what made this show stand out to me. And so, this month which has been filled with more exhaustion and illnesses than should be allowed in summer, this was a natural choice when I just need some comfort TV watching. Sure, some of the jokes don’t age well, but I don’t care, I’ll give it a pass all day long and have no regrets! And it took several episodes for me to re-gain my deafness to the laugh track. What a weird thing that existed?! And watching comedies now without it and going back to it? Very bizarre! But I’ve still been enjoy the heck out of it. #ChandlerAndMonicaAreTheBestCouple!

mv5bytdhnwmwytmtnzq3oc00odzjlwi0yzqtyjvlodziowvlytjlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynta4nzy1mzy-_v1_sy1000_cr007071000_al_TV Show: “Luther”

This one comes with a massive caveat: DO NOT WATCH PAST THE SECOND SEASON! But those first two, quite good! Of course, the main reason for me to tune in was Idris Elba, cuz, duh. But I’m also a fan of detective mysteries and the fact that it’s a BBC production just made it all the more appealing. Plus, when the police don’t have guns, the action is much more fun to watch than you see in the typical America-based crime stories. Luther is an interesting character himself, living just on the line between good cop and slightly crooked (as far as doing what is morally right, but maybe not legally right), which added a lot of interesting depth to the story telling. And then season three happened…my husband and I were watching it and honestly started wondering whether the writers were drunk when they were scripting it? It’s hot trash, especially if you’re at all familiar with crime investigations. The disbelief is impossible to suspend. But those first two seasons, go for those!

28354-default-lLocation: Boundary Waters

Before said exhaustion/illness set in, my husband and I got in one more great summer vacation. This time we stayed in Minnesota but headed north to the Boundary Waters, a gorgeous natural wilderness that is part of the Superior National Forest. It’s made up of tons of lakes that you can canoe through, then pack up your canoe and portage (hike) over to the next lake, and thus and so criss-cross your way to some of the remote camping locations. We went for a three night trip and it was an absolute blast. I’ve grown up loving to hike and camp, but I had never been on a lake canoe trip like this, so it was definitely a unique experience. I’m sure we’ll be going again in summers to come!

Kate’s Picks

mr-mercedes-poster-mr-mercedes-tv-series-40549124-182-268TV Show: “Mr. Mercedes”

When I heard that they had turned the “Bill Hodges” Trilogy (all reviewed here) into a TV series, I was excited. When I heard that Brendan Gleeson was playing Bill, the retired cop trying to solve that one last case, I was ecstatic! But when I found out that it was on Direct TV, my heart sank, because I knew I’d have to wait. But I waited, and when it came out on DVD I got it from the library, and plowed through it. The first thing to love is the casting. Brendan Gleeson aside, you have Mary Louise Parker as his love interest Janey, Justine Lupe as my girl Holly Gibney, and a sinister and creepy Harry Treadaway as the villainous Brady Hartsfield. But this show also does a great job of showing the ins, outs, and quirks of small town life, making it feel grounded and focused in spite of all the upsetting and scary moments.

shawntaker“Sport”: Professional Wrestling

Back when my husband was a little kid, he LOVED pro-wrestling. Recently he started up watching the ‘big’ matches like the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania, and what started as me keeping him company has turned into a full on enjoyment, especially of old school matches. I like the soapiness, I like the characterizations that are so over the top and entertaining, and I like the actual acrobatics that some of these guys and gals do. Add in a local bar that serves excellent Mexican food AND shows vintage wrestling on the TVs, and you have a new mindless and fun past time for me and him. Sometimes we are on opposing sides (I’m team Undertaker and he’s team Shawn Michaels, so that match was contentious), but it’s really fun just taking in the dramatics and enjoying the show together.

mv5bmjmzmdyxnza3mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwndazndq4ntm-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Hulu Show: “Castle Rock”

We got our second Stephen King show on here, and let me tell you, “Castle Rock” is phenomenal. I had been on pins and needles waiting for this show to come out, and once it did it immediately hooked me. Henry Deaver returns to his hometown of Castle Rock, Maine (one seen many times in King lore), after the warden at Shawshank Prison committed suicide and a mysterious man was found caged in an abandoned cellblock. The man specifically asked for Henry. And this man may or may not be a demon, whose captivity kept possibly Castle Rock safe. The cast is phenomenal, with some King favorites, like Bill Skarsgård, Melanie Lynskey, and the amazing Sissy Spacek, and the King Easter Eggs are plentiful and fun to spot. Plus, the mystery itself is compelling. Who is The Kid, what is his deal, and what does Henry Deaver’s past have to do with it? It’s addictive, it’s chilling, and it’s SO very Stephen King (what with a prolonged act of violence playing out to the tunes of Roy Orbison). King fans should watch it, but so should fans of thrilling, mysterious plots.

Serena’s Review: “Prisoner of the Crown”

38089433Book: “Prisoner of the Crown” by Jeffe Kennedy

Publishing Info: Rebel Base Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.

But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…

Review: I picked up this book purely based on the description, not having read anything by the author before or realizing that this was an offshoot of another series. While neither of these things proved to be too great of an obstacle when jumping into this book, I would warn future readers to pay a bit more attention to that book description than I did: monster husband and horrors of life, indeed. It was a bit more and also less than what I was expecting.

Jenna’s childhood was idyllic, but the future before her is anything but. She’s always known what her life’s purpose was, to be the first wife of a powerful husband whom she is meant to serve and provide children. But when she learns that her to-be-husband is a man with a reputation for having his young wives die off on him, she suddenly begins to see this role in a new light. Trained to please, Jenna is unprepared in every way to deal with her new reality, but knows that she must now find an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed to save herself and potentially much more than that.

For the positives, I liked Jenna, overall, as a character. Much of the book is devoted to her slow realization of what her life will be like going forward and what it means to have power in this world. Given the nature of her childhood, its limitations and the forced ignorance that was thrust upon her, Jenna is often naive and frightened, sometimes making very poor decisions. But as the story is told from the perspective of some future Jenna who is recounting her tale, these bouts of ridiculous moments are clearly set up to provide a point of change: she must start out truly struggling to learn to gather what power she can in this world. That doesn’t mean that actually reading through some of these aspects of her character change weren’t a bit cringe-worthy, but I appreciated the reality added to the story that Jenna wouldn’t simply suddenly become POWERFUL WOMAN after what her childhood had been.

That said, while much attention was given to this slow-burn characterization on Jenna’s part, I had troubles with the story as far as world-building and pacing goes. It was one of those strange mixes of a book where the story was too short to truly feel as if the world-building had been flushed out but also read incredibly slowly. Perhaps this world-building wouldn’t have been an issue had I read the other series, but a general criticism for books like this is that they should still be capable of supporting their world on their own, unreliant on a reader’s knowledge of a different series. As for the pacing, it wasn’t until almost 75% of the way through the book before I felt like the action was really beginning to pick up.

And while I liked the slow development of Jenna’s character over that first 75% of the book, I also very much struggled with the subject matter. This book doesn’t shy away from the monstrosity that is Jenna’s husband and the humiliation and objectification that Jenna undergoes at his hands. This is where my biggest issue with the book lay. I wasn’t quite clear on what the author was trying to do with this story. Obviously some level of criticism about the violent patriarchy that makes up this world was present, but it also felt almost a bit too close to torture porn at other time for any seriousness of its message to really get through. The tone was a bit strange, with a fantasy romp somehow being tied into a Margret Atwood-type dystopia ala “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Personally, for me, the violence and misogynism was a bit too much and started to feel as if it was being sensationalized.

I’m still curious about where Jenna’s story will go after this book, and have hopes that a sequel might not include as many cringe-worthy scenes. But I’m also not dying to get my hands on it. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. If you’ve read other books by this author, particularly the “Twelve Kingdoms” series, you might want to check this out, but I also give a strong warning to the casual reader about the darkness that this includes and the fact that it was a bit of a slower read.

Rating 5: Didn’t absolutely hate it, but made me incredibly uncomfortable at times and didn’t do enough to justify the use of that discomfort in a meaningful way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prisoner of the Crown” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on something like “The Grimdarks.”

Find “Prisoner of the Crown” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “Vox”

37796866Book: “Vox” by Christina Dalcher

Publishing Info: Berkley, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial–this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end. 

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Review: A special thanks to Berkley Publishing and NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

People keep asking me if I have watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” yet, and as of now I still haven’t. I know that it’s supposed to be super super good, and I know that a number of my friends really love it, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it because it really just feels ‘too real’ right now. So I will admit that when I was sent the book “Vox” by Christina Dalcher from Bentley, I also had that moment of cringe, not because I doubted that it was good, but because I felt that it would touch on a raw nerve. Perhaps a few years ago I would have said that the idea of the American Government stripping women of all rights, and limiting their daily speech to 100 words total, as preposterous. Now? I’m not as certain about it. But I did eventually decide that it was time to buckle down and read it, and once I did, as terrifying as the themes were, I had a hard time putting it down.

The first big win of this book is that Dalcher creates a fairly realistic pathway for how American Society can change it’s societal values and ideals in such a drastic way in such a comparatively short amount of time. Our protagonist, Jean, is in her early forties, and she can trace the origins of this super right wing group, The Pure Movement, within her lifetime dating back towards her college years. Through flashbacks involving Jean and other people in her life, mostly her old friend and feminist advocate Jackie, we can see how a woman who became a renowned expert in neuroscience eventually ended up as a housewife with no rights and a counter on her hand to track her words. Dalcher presents a slow take over of right wing politics and ideals, and the apathy of ‘that will never happen here’ that does nothing until it is far too late. Dalcher also presents a fairly realistic progression of how Jean’s family is affected by the law, and how the men in her life betray her in different ways even though they also ‘love’ her (I hate putting that in quotations, but I feel like I have to). Be it her husband Patrick, who is a flunky to the government who doesn’t REALLY believe in the law, but does nothing to stop it, or her son Steven, who at seventeen is drinking the Kool Aid of The Pure Movement and becoming a traitor to his mother and general decency.

d8b2afb044495e7f49faddae3a8580b5-sound-of-music-movie-soldiers
I was consistently picturing THIS motherfucker whenever Steven was on page. (source)

Because of these things the plot was gripping and engrossing. I was horrified by the things that the Pure Movement does in this book (be it to women, LGBTQIA people, or other marginalized groups), but Jean was so compelling and so easy to root for that I kept reading, needing to know if she was going to overcome the persecution, if not completely overthrow it.

There were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. I did feel that the pacing was a bit off by the end, as I felt that I suddenly wrapped up very quickly. There were a couple of inconsistencies within the ending that felt like they went against a few of the characters and their personalities, and while I do believe that some people can change their minds about certain things (I’m trying so hard to be vague), to go from one side of opinion to an opinion on the other VERY extreme side felt uncharacteristic and hard to swallow. I can’t really divulge much more without spoiling anything vital, but just trust me when I say it was a leap. That and I feel that some characters who did nasty things got too easy of a pass. I’m kind of over giving people who do crappy and disturbing and oppressive things the benefit of the doubt, so while I like me a redemption arc to a point, I’m not sure that I can stomach one that gives something of a pass to bigots, even if they were slowly brainwashed. 

Still and all, “Vox” is an entertaining read that give enough darkness to feel allegorical, but enough hope that you don’t want to just crawl into a hole and never come back out. I think that this could be a hot read come Fall, and think that anyone frustrated or scared may be able to work out some feelings by trying it out!

Rating 7: A gripping and addicting thriller that feels all too real at the moment, “Vox” was a disturbing, and somewhat cathartic, read about women being silenced by their own government and those who fight back.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Vox” is included on the Goodreads lists “Patriarchal Dystopias”, and “Best Books To Read When You Need A Reminder of Why Feminism Is Important”.

Find “Vox” at your library using WorldCat!