Serena’s Review: “The Witch of Willow Hall”

37007910Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox

Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.

Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.

There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.

The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.

But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.

This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.

I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.

In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”

Find “The Witch of Willow Hall” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “You May Now Kill The Bride”

35603814Book: “You May Now Kill The Bride” (Return to Fear Street #1) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Two sisters, divided by time. Each with a terrible resentment she can barely contain.

Two Fear family weddings, decades apart… Each bride will find that the ancient curse that haunts the Fears LIVES ON. It feeds off the evil that courses through their blood. It takes its toll in unexpected ways, and allows dark history to repeat itself.

In this all-new Fear Street story, family ties bind sisters together—till DEATH do they part.

Review: In time for Halloween, this week I am doing something a little different. Instead of reviewing a classic “Fear Street” book, I’m taking on the first book in R.L. Stine’s newest “Fear Street” series, “Return to Fear Street”! Just to make a note right off the bat: I am not going to treat “You May Now Kill The Bride”, or any other future “Return to Fear Street” books, like I’m treating my retro “Fear Street” re-read. Stine is approaching these books differently than he did back in the day, and therefore I am going to approach them like I would any other non-“Fear Street” novel.

“Fear Street” is back, guys, and for the most part it is not the “Fear Street” you remember from your youth. This is something of a second comeback for “Fear Street”, as before HarperTeen picked it up St. Martin’s Press did with books like “Party Games” and “The Lost Girl”. I’m not completely certain why a second reboot with a new publisher happened, but “You May Now Kill The Bride” is the inaugural novel. Now that publishers and authors know that teens are able/willing to read books that are more than one hundred and twenty pages long, and that have complex characters, “Fear Street” has to up it’s game. And “You May Now Kill The Bride” accepts that challenge, repackaging “Fear Street” for a modern teen audience.

There are two narratives in this book: the first is the story of Ruth-Ann and Rebecca Fear, two sisters in the 1920s who are part of the illustrious and wealthy Fear Family. Ruth-Ann is jealous of her beautiful and popular older sister, who is about to get married to the man that Ruth-Ann loves. As you can imagine, the wedding has disastrous results, all because of a family curse that the Fears have upon them. The second narrative is about Harmony and Marissa Fear, two sisters in modern times who are having similar problems. Marissa is about to get married to her high school sweetheart Doug, and while Harmony isn’t in love with Doug, she and Marissa have been at odds ever since Harmony messed up Marissa’s relationship with a different guy named Aiden. In a really horrific way, I should mention. The similarities don’t end there, however: not only is Harmony a witch, like Ruth-Ann was (seems that all Fears have the ability to be), but Marissa’s wedding is going to be at the same lodge that Rebecca’s wedding was. While this does sound like a pretty standard “Fear Street” tale (and in a lot of ways, it is, but more on that later), Stine has reworked the old set ups and tropes, and has improved upon the long trotted out formulas of the past.

The pacing is far more drawn out in “You May Now Kill The Bride”. Stine isn’t in any hurry to get to the action points, and he lets the characters slowly explore the scenes they are in just as he lets the exposition flow at it’s leisure. “You May Now Kill The Bride” isn’t rushing to get to action moments or cliffhangers, so when these moments do arrive they have more oomph. There is also more complexity to the plot, and the threads that exist between the 1920s story and the modern story take a lot more time to come together, with the hints and puzzle pieces being dropped throughout both timelines. Stine trusts his audience a bit more to be able to parse out the nuance and the implications, and because he trusts his readers, the book rarely feels like it’s being spoon fed. He also has a pretty good grasp on the fact that people like me, former “Fear Street” junkies turned horror aficionados, are probably going to pick this up, so little nods, winks, and references are dropped throughout the book. The one that actually made me shriek out was a character who was staying at the lodge, and what room was he in? Room 237.

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I love feeling in on the joke, sir. (source)

That isn’t to say that it doesn’t fall into familiar “Fear Street” traps. While I think that the characters are definitely more rounded in this book than previous characters have been, and while I did enjoy how Harmony was complex and sometimes morally ambiguous, there are still obvious and beaten down tropes in others. There’s the loutish uncle character we’ve seen before, the familiar sparring sister relationship, the clueless parents. And there are a number of huge plot holes, and confusing moments that I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around. There are even still some kind of dumb cliffhangers at the end of various chapters (though he has definitely toned it down from the past). But these weaknesses are kind of just what you have to expect to come with the territory when it comes to “Fear Street”, and in some, odd ways it vaguely adds to the charm of this reboot, if only because it feels familiar and comforting that some things never change.

I didn’t really go in expecting much from “You May Now Kill The Bride”, and I ended up enjoying it. If this is what “Fear Street” is going to be for this new generation of teenagers, I am very excited for the kind of horror fans it is going to nurture.

And with that, Horrorpalooza has come to an end! From me to you, I am hoping that you all have a FABULOUS Halloween tomorrow!

Rating 7: Solid for a new “Fear Street” novel, “You May Now Kill The Bride” is a new return to an old favorite series that exceeded many of my expectations. It’s fun, it’s creative, and it’s giving a new feel to an old favorite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You May Now Kill The Bride” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should quite obviously be on “Best Fear Street Books”, and, for funsies, “Books With a Wedding Theme”.

Find “You May Now Kill The Bride” at your library using WorldCat!

Not Just Books: October 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

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Video Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition

I love Skyrim. It’s probably my favorite video game up to this point. But, sadly, I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel as far as how much is left of that game (I’ve been drawing it out foreeevver at this point). So, I started looking around to find something similar, and this game popped up. I haven’t played either of the two to come before it, but I thought, why the heck not, and jumped in on this, the third. For one the word “dragon” was in the title. And for two, the graphics and general fantasy setting seemed very similar to Skyrim. But, of course, they are very different games. This is the first game of this sort that I’ve played where part of the game is learning the tactical and strategic management of a party of characters other than your main story character. It’s taken some getting used to and patience, but I think I’m finally getting there. There’s also an overwhelming amount of quests and things to do, but that’s probably for the best. I need something to tide me over for the likely YEARS remaining before the next Elder Scrolls releases anyways.

mv5bmjaynzkxotu5mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtk1otyznjm-_v1_sy1000_sx800_al_TV Show: “Supernatural”

What would fall be without a return to the world of “Supernatural?” Honestly, with the start of season 14, I really don’t know! I’ve been watching this show since college and that’s way longer ago than I would like to think about. But, of course, we’re back and with Dean now possessed by the archangel Michael, the question remains: will this last for 2 episodes or will they stretch it out to a full 3?? After 14 seasons, fans of the show know one solid truth: the heart of this series is Dean and Sam together. Any fiddling with that recipe has lead to disaster, so it’s not a matter of if Dean will be rescued; it’s not even a question of when. Instead, it’s just how quickly will the show manage to resolve this current hiccup before returning us to our usual, brotherly love programming?

mv5bmje2mdiwmdu5ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtkxntgznjm-_v1_Movie: “Free Solo”

A few years ago, my husband and I struck on a bizarre movie fixation that we shared: fascinating/horrifying documentaries about mountaineering/climbing. There’s some hard-to-pin down thrill about the combination of wonder at the gorgeous cinematography, terror of heights, and shared judgement over the sanity of the individuals involved that makes for a great movie-going experience. So for our anniversary this year (yes, this is how much we enjoy these types of films), we decided to check out “Free Solo,” the documentary following the build-up to and experience of Alex Honnold becoming the first man to climb the El Capitan Wall without ropes. It’s terrifying, people! During several portions of the movie you could look around the theater and literally see the entire crowd squirming in their seats (and this was a sold out theater, so that should also speak to the quality of the film.) Knowing the end result does practically nothing to diminish this discomfort. Honnold was also a surprisingly charming and witty individual. Though, yes, we still left the theater questioning his sanity.

Kate’s Picks

mv5bmtu4nza4mdewnf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtqxodyznjm-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Netflix Show: “The Haunting of Hill House”

As a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s original novel, and the fabulous 1963 film adaptation (we are NOT going to talk about the 1999 abomination), I was a little skeptical when I saw the trailer for “The Haunting of Hill House”. Who were all these people, and what did ANY of them have to do with a paranormal investigation into an old haunted mansion? And while “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix is a very loose adaptation of the book it comes from, I really, REALLY enjoyed what was done with it. Instead of trying to recreate the entire story from the book, the show creates a new set of characters who take traits from the original ones. This time it’s a family that has been haunted by a traumatic living experience in this house, and how they have all fallen apart because of it. It’s not only pretty dang scary, it’s also one of the most emotional shows that I’ve seen in a long time.

220px-halloween_28201829_posterFilm: “Halloween” (2018)

I first saw the original John Carpenter “Halloween” during my freshman year in high school. While the people I was watching with weren’t as affected as I was, I was completely taken in by the tension and dread surrounding the story. Michael Myers was sufficiently terrifying and Jamie Lee Curtis was the perfect heroine as Laurie Strode. The rest of the series (outside of “Halloween H20”) didn’t really do much for me. So when I found out that the new film “Halloween” was going to retcon everything after the first one, I was excited. Instead of being the long stalked sister, in “Halloween” (2018) she is a tough, traumatized mother and grandmother who is waiting for Michael to come for her. Because she’s ready for him this time. This movie not only got back to the nitty gritty of the terror and suspense of the original, it showcases Curtis as the powerhouse she always as been, as well as introducing other lady characters who are here to take care of business. It is the sequel that “Halloween” has always deserved.

chilling-adventures-sabrina-netflixNetflix Show: “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”

I had been waiting for this to come out for a long time, and now it’s here. Given how much I loved the comics, I was pretty excited to see what Netflix did with “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”. And while it didn’t go AS dark as the comics did, I think that there are a lot of things to like about this show. The cast is pretty great, with Kiernan Shipka playing the titular teen witch, but I thought that the real MVPs were Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis, who play Aunts Zelda and Hilda. While both of them could be two dimensional caricatures (Zelda as the stern true believer and Hilda as the bubbly optimist), they each give the aunts depth and nuance. While there are some moments that come off a little cringey (some of the optics weren’t totally well thought out), overall I think that “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is an entertaining and fun tale about witches and the mortals they care about.

 

Serena’s Review: “Dry”

38355098Book: “Dry” by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbours and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

Review: Important first note: I literally just now, starting to write this review, figured out what that cover design was. It’s a water drop being eaten up by flames from below. For the life of me I couldn’t figure it out the entire time I was reading the book, only seeing the blue portion and being like “…is it…a feather?? What does that have to do with this topic?”

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(source)

Living in southern California, Alyssa and her family have been hearing about the water shortage for a while now. But like any other news that is told too often, they have quietly gone about their lives not expecting any big changes. Sure, they’d water the lawn less and swimming pools have been banned, but life goes on. Until one day the water turns off. Completely. And in a very short period of time Alyssa comes to realize just how fragile her life and community has been. With the lack of this one crucial resource, chaos and danger quickly descend and she finds herself fighting for her life alongside her brother and a random assortment of other teenagers: the son of the prepper family next door, a teenage girl who has been living by her own laws for years, and a teenage boy with a gift for gab and his own shading dealings. Who can she trust and more importantly, where can they go if they want to survive?

Teaming up with his son, Shusterman once again proves why he is a master of dystopia fiction. What makes this book special is how very real it feels. While “Scythe” looks at a completely foreign society, there are still enough aspects of humanity to imagine this as a very true future. “Dry,” instead, feels as if it could happen tomorrow and that makes it all the more terrifying. Not only is the threat one that we can understand, but it is one that already feels like it is on our door, at least to some extent. But both “Scythe” and “Dry” rely on the very honest and true portrayals of how humanity operates in crisis. In this book, we see how very quickly “society” can devolve and makes the world we live in feel as if it is simply balancing on a very thin knife’s edge. Reacting on spectrums, we see all the extremes in reactions to how a crisis like this might play out. But what makes it all the more disturbing is the transformation of regular people into survivors who will quickly cross moral boundaries to horrific results.

I particularly the way this novel was lain out, with points of view from not only Alyssa but the other teenagers in her group. And between these sections we also saw glimpses into small moments throughout the city as people respond to this crisis. One woman’s time trapped on a freeway. A reporter who finds a way to twist the situation to her benefit. A factory manager who quickly find himself at the center of a mob. Each serves as harsh reminders of the plethora of dangers that immediately show up in a situation like this and how crucial every decision has to the one’s own survival.

Beyond these glimpses, each of the teenage characters were interesting to follow. And what made them all the better as narrators was that there was no assumption that they were all “heroic” as readers often expect from our point of view characters. Instead, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and, more importantly, their own priorities that can often run in conflict with other members of the group. While Alyssa does feel like the “main” character, I found myself much more invested in the story of her neighbor who is the son of a family of preppers. His arc felt the most fully-realized of the group. Alyssa, on the other hand, was probably one of least favorite. While she presents an important point-of-view, being the most optimistic and moral of the group, she also had an early tendency to make very bone-headed decisions when all the evidence was already against her. She had already seen the depths to which humanity had sunk and was still taking dumb risks with the idea that these same people would somehow react differently. It made her read as naive and a bit silly at times.

But the strength of this story really lies with its plotting and descriptions of the horrors brought about by an event like this. Unlike many other disaster/post-apocalyptic stories, there is no major BOOM that sets things off. Instead, it is something much more insidious and quiet. We also see how this lack of “boom” surrounding a situation like this would play against it, with too many people not treating it with the seriousness it deserves. There is a clear commentary on global warning that can be drawn from this, but both Shustermans are careful to not beat readers over the head with it too much. Instead, the discomforting “realness” of the situation does all the work for them on this point.

This story was gripping and impossible to put down. I was frantically turning pages with a feeling of growing dread. And by the last page, while this story was completed (it’s a standalone work), I was left thinking about it and, let’s be honest, mentally prepping for days. I highly recommend this for fans of post-apocalyptic stories and Shusterman’s writing in particular.

Rating 9: A horrifyingly real-feeling story about the collapse of humanity in crisis situations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dry” is a newer title so it isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Natural Disaster Fiction.”

Find “The Dead Zone” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories”

34550918Book: “Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories” by Brian Coldrick

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A twisted figure crawling out of a tunnel. A giggling crowd of masked watchers. A reassembling corpse. What could be behind you, just waiting for you to turn around? Behind You is an illustration series, a comic with no panels, where each piece is essentially a separate story. Each tale is one image and one piece of text; an unsuspecting victim with someone, or something, behind them. Entries range from the amusingly weird to the genuinely unsettling. Inspired by spooky films, books, myths, and internet tall tales, Behind You is full of scary set-ups but leaves lots of blanks for the reader to fill in with their own narrative. Includes an Introduction by New York Times Best-Seller Joe Hill.

Review: Halloween is next week, readers, and that means that this year’s Horrorpalooza will be coming to an end after the next “Fear Street” post. While you’ll still be getting an influx of horror stories in the coming weeks, given that I have plenty of reading I haven’t even addressed yet, I wanted to save one of the most unique and fun horror reads for the week before the highest of high holidays in my mind. And “Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories” is absolutely unique, and one of the most creative horror reads I’ve read in a long while. Brian Coldrick’s stories got their start on Tumblr, and though I left that platform long ago I will say that you can find some really awesome blogs and websites on there that showcase some really great art and creativity, and “Behind You” is a great example of that.

Coldrick’s stories are minimalist in some ways, and yet very detailed in others. They are one frame and one image (they move on Tumblr, and alas they do not on the pages of this book), and that image tells a story that can range from simply unnerving to full blown nightmare fuel. The image also gives the reader a lot of leeway to create their own context and background. Is this person waiting in an alley meeting a friend? A lover? Family? Who used to live in this house and why is it that there are all these twisted silhouettes on the walls? I like the freedom that this gave me, and it also made it so I would linger on the page a bit longer than I might have were I just reading a single panel that had all the answers. It reminds me of a visual version of the classic Hemingway minimal story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, as in such little space you get such vibrant and clear cut stories.

The design of the panels in this book also really elevated the stories, and I liked the wide range of stories that these single panels told. There are numerous protagonists and antagonists, and they all seem pretty original and unique in their designs. The style reminds me of a mix between Edward Gorey and a New Yorker cartoon, and that lends both a creep factor and kind of a cute quirkiness as well. Given that this book is a collection of various narratives, all separate from each other (except for a running panel of a figure being followed by a ghost that pops up occasionally throughout), there isn’t much to say in terms of content. So instead, I will include a few of the panels so they can speak for themselves.

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(source)
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This is my personal favorite (source)

I do think that there is something lost when the images don’t move, like a number of them do on the Tumblr blog. There are a few that could work either way, but some really are more effective with slight and uncanny movements. That said, I do think that there is something to be said for just being able to sit down and page through a bound copy of these panels and stories. I think there’s something a little more tactile in that, especially if you are wanting to sit down on a creepy autumn night and give yourself a case of the willies.

“Behind You” was an enjoyable read for an autumn night, and I think that the best way to experience it would be with a cup of cocoa, bundled up in a blanket, and trying not to notice the shadows outside or on the walls of your home.

Rating 8: A quick and creepy read with stories told in a unique way, “Behind You” is a great book to pick up this Halloween!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Behind You” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists (perhaps due to it’s uniqueness?), but I think that it would fit in on “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Most Terrifying Short Stories”.

Find “Behind You” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “Muse of Nightmares”

25446343Book: “Muse of Nightmares” by Laini Taylor

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

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she’s capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel’s near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Previously Reviewed: “Strange the Dreamer”

Review: While I loved “Strange the Dreamer” with its unique world, beautiful prose, and well-drawn characters, it did commit one of the biggest sins in the book: ending on a horrible cliff-hanger! Why?! Why would you do this?! But, unlike certain other books that Kate and I reviewed recently, cough”Career of Evil”cough, there was only a short, year-long wait before the follow up story was released. I guess that makes it ok. Doesn’t hurt that the sequel was a blast to read on its own, even after tackling the immediate issue left by the cliffhanger.

Lazlo has discovered that he is a God. And not only any ole God, but one of the most rare and powerful with the ability to manipulate the strange blue metal that makes up the godspawns’ home. But power isn’t everything, and Sarai is still dead, even if her being has mostly been saved in the form of one of Minya’s ghosts. And Minya has her own plans for life going forward, ones that distinctly feature revenge and the use of Lazlo’s abilities to achieve it. However, soon, thoughts of revenge begin to subside when all involved realize how small their scope of past events has really been and how much more is truly at stake.

One of the strongest points of all of Taylor’s books is her lyrical manner of writing. That talent is put to good use here and the beautiful imagery continues. However, the topic and storyline of this book is much more action-oriented and in many ways darker in theme. While the first book spent much of its time establishing Strange as a dreamer and exploring Sarai’s abilities, painting lush landscapes with words. Here, Taylor’s gorgeous prose instead speaks to the pain and heartache that is at the core of so many of our characters and how they approach the world they now find themselves in.

Lazlo and Sarai, our main characters from the first book, largely subside into the background in this one, which came as a complete surprise to me. I don’t want to misrepresent the book, as they still narrate a large portion of the story and their romance is still heavily focused upon. However, for me, I found other characters quickly rising to the forefront of my interest.

Minya, in particular, comes to mind. We briefly explored her experiences in the first book, but here we learn that we had only scraped the surface. Not only are past events expanded upon, but we learn more about her own motivations and the mysteries of her being. Why has she remained a child? What drives the seemingly bottomless well of darkness within her and how does her power truly work? There were several great reveals with this character and in many ways I think she has a greater depth of character built for her than Lazlo and Sarai who have a tendency to fall into the rather generic hero category. We know what to expect from them: they’re good people who want to do good things. Minya is much more complicated, and in that way, I found her much more interesting.

There are also two sisters whose stories are introduced. They live in a far away world, and it is only slowly revealed throughout the story how these disconnected bits make up the history of Lazlo and Sarai’s world. I, of course, love stories about sisterhood, so I was all over this arc of a deep bond that drives two sisters to achieve the impossible. And even here, nothing is made simple, easy, or predictable. There is tragedy, confusion, anger, and, of course, a boundless love and loyalty.

This takes me to a few of my criticisms for the book. As I said, other characters (Minya, the sisters, Thyon Fane, etc.) largely took over my interest in this book and while I still enjoyed Lazlo and Sarai, I was much less intrigued by their romance in this go-around. So much of the first book was devoted to establishing their connection that I guess I would have just been fine mostly leaving it at that. I’m guessing this will be an unpopular opinion, as I know many fans of Taylor’s work read her for the beautiful romances. And I still enjoyed it. But given the depth and scope of the larger topics at hand (topics such as revenge, forgiveness, self-identity and discovery), reading more scenes of their ongoing romance taking place in mystical dream-scapes just seemed to interrupt the flow and left me anxious to return to the more serious subjects at hand.

From there, I also continued to struggle to connect to the other godspawn. There were a few whiffs of dialogue here and there that rang a bit too “twee” or “pixy dream girl” esque from these areas. As a fan of Taylor’s writing, I could recognize some of these beats from characters who filled similar roles in her other books, but that recognition just made them fall all the more flat here, as I was never able to fully understand Ruby, Sparrow or Feral as unique characters in their own right.

But, to end on a positive note, for fans of Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series, there are some really incredible tie-ins to be found in this book that took my completely by surprise. Readers by no means need to be familiar with that series, but it’s a great connection for those of us who have read those books.

I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of this book, and now I want to give it away to you! The giveaway ends on October 31 and is open to US residents only.

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Rating 8: “Muse of Nightmares” expands upon its predecessor by leaps and bounds, exploring complicated and deep topics of revenge, loyalty, and self-created identity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Muse of Nightmares” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Quality YA Paranormal Romance Novels” and “Consider it NA.”

Find “Muse of Nightmares” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Hunger”

30285766Book: “The Hunger” by Alma Katsu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

Review: Back in college I took a super awesome Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature course called Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs. In this class we would read horror and science fiction books and texts and then put them in the context of the time period and place that they were written. When we were focusing on stories about zombies and “Night of the Living Dead”, or historical comparison was that of The Donner Party. Having had a fascination with The Donner Party since grade school. My first encounter with it was a particular Far Side comic that my mother had to explain to me….

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And it still makes me laugh. (source)

The next encounter was a TV movie called “One More Mountain”, which starred Meredith Baxter as Margaret Reed, one of the survivors of the whole ordeal. From then on I was hooked. So  back to college: I remember going to that class the day we were learning about it with a whole lot of food to share with my classmates (and trying to troll my professor, who was my very favorite and was very tolerant of my edgy, and no doubt obnoxious, sense of humor). Had that class been taught today, I think that Alma Katsu’s “The Hunger” would be the perfect text for the syllabus. Not only does it cover some very solid ground within what actually happened to that tragic wagon train, it adds a whole new element of horror and suspense by throwing in a supernatural twist.

It should be noted first and foremost that Katsu did some extensive research to write this book, even going so far as to retracing the route the Donner Party took as best she could (as the road by car doesn’t take the exact path). So she knows what she is talking about when it comes to the ultimate fates and broad stroked experiences of the people within the group. Because of this, even had there not been a supernatural element, “The Hunger” is gripping, visceral, and feels very, very real. While she may take some liberties here and there to make some of the players more vibrant (and she addresses some of this within her author’s notes), the characters are very relatable to the modern reader, many of them experiencing problems and hardships that many people still face today. Just goes to show that some things like abuse, misogyny, racism, and Othering are timeless, sadly. The details that Katsu put into this book, from the cast of players to the setting itself, were meticulous, and I was sucked into the story easily and felt like I could clearly see everyone and the settings that they found themselves as they moved west. I could picture the prairie, the mountains, and all the problems of the environment that they came to face, especially when the snow began to fall. Along with a traditional narrative, the story is also slowly unfolded through flashbacks at the end of each chapter (usually focusing on a certain character), and then letters that are written mostly by Edwin Bryant, who had gone off ahead of the Party and has possibly discovered some dark realities. The way all of these pieces come together is deeply satisfying, and Kutsu is skilled at making sure they weave together in precise ways.

The unique part of this book that really grabbed me was the horror element. We don’t really know WHAT it is that is plaguing the Donner Party as they make their way, as Katsu is sure to be vague outside of the reveal as to what the origin is (but that would be a spoiler, so I won’t go into details beyond that). But that is part of the horror in and of itself. I loved the descriptions of figures moving in the woods, and the descriptions of the body horror that some of the members start to experience. Katsu derives the supernatural element from many different sources, from folklores from around the world, to superstitions, to implications about illness and madness. What we do know is that something is following The Donner Party as it goes up into the mountains, and that it’s wreaking havoc, sometimes unknowingly. And Katsu does play with some unreliable elements to the story: is this force doing the most damage, or are the people doing far more damage to themselves because of madness, greed, and desperation? What if the absolute and worst horrors in this book are the violent and merciless people, especially once they are driven into a corner.

But there is a whole other kind of horror in this book, and that horror is the truth of what happened to The Donner Party. It isn’t just the fact that the wilderness is dangerous, especially in high stakes situations, but the actual fate of this wagon train is frightening even without the supernatural element. This group took a bad trail based on bad information, hubris, and the entitlement of Manifest Destiny, and therein ended up stranded in the mountain wilderness during winter. Then, when they started to succumb to exposure, cannibalism became the only option for some to survive. That is unsettling without the help of outside forces. I remember being unsettled during that class back in college as I realized that I no longer had the appetite for the food I so gleefully brought with me. And Katsu captures it perfectly, because even though you know what is going to happen, you still dread it.

“The Hunger” is a superb horror novel that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. If you are feeling extra daring, save it for a cold winter night, perhaps when it is snowing outside and you might be able to see strange shadows in the trees…

Rating 9: A tense and detailed historical fiction/horror novel, “The Hunger” brings a creepy twist to the already creepy true story of the Donner Party.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hunger” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “Horror Novels Set (Largely) in Winter/Snow”.

Find “The Hunger” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “S.T.A.G.S.”

35248505We 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 ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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: “S.T.A.G.S.” by M.A. Bennett

Publishing Info: Penguin Teen, January 2018

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

Genre Mash-Up: “Satire” and “School Story”

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Greer, a scholarship girl at a prestigious private school, St Aidan the Great School (known as STAGS), soon realizes that the school is full of snobs and spoilt rich brats, many of whom come from aristocratic families who have attended the institute throughout the centuries. She’s immediately ignored by her classmates. All the teachers are referred to as Friars (even the female ones), but the real driving force behind the school is a group of prefects known as the Medievals, whose leader, Henry de Warlencourt, Greer finds both strangely intriguing as well as attractive. The Medievals are all good-looking, clever and everyone wants to be among their circle of friends. Greer is therefore surprised when she receives an invitation from Henry to spend a long weekend with him and his friends at his family house in the Lake District, especially when she learns that two other “outsiders” have also been invited: Shafeen and Chanel. As the weekend unfolds, Greer comes to the chilling realization that she and two other “losers” were invited only because they were chosen to become prey in a mad game of manhunt.

Kate’s Thoughts

Yes, I did read and review this back at the beginning of the year. But when my genre mash-up came up in our Book Club drawing, I thought that perhaps “S.T.A.G.S.” should get a revisit through the lens of pure satire as opposed to teenage thriller. I thought that it was really just going to meet the requirements for our book club, but then something  happened that brought it into a new focus: Brett Kavanaugh was nominated and confirmed for the Supreme Court, in spite of the fact that he was accused of attempted rape by a classmate from high school (not to mention a whole slew of other issues), with many people saying that his Yale credentials and good background meant that he couldn’t POSSIBLY be a sexual predator. All of a sudden, a book about privileged wealthy kids at a private school stepping on the less fortunate, all because they CAN, felt incredibly, incredibly relevant, and it caused my opinions of this book to evolve a bit.

So re-reading “S.T.A.G.S.” with these events in mind made it a sobering experience. This time, seeing Greer, Chanel, and Shafeen have to contend with the Medievals and their cat and mouse nonsense made me look a bit deeper into how this could be satirical as opposed to straight up survival YA popcorn. Seeing the action unfold again with a different lens made it a more chilling read, and my eyes were more eager to spot the little moments, be it when Greer is more willing to believe her rich, white counterparts over Shafeen in spite of damning evidence of wrongdoing, or presumptions that both Greer AND Nel have about Shafeen based on his heritage.

As satire I do think that it can be heavy handed at times, but over all I think that it works effectively. High school is always ripe for the picking when it comes to satirical possibilities, though it’s not as often you see it unfold in full on violence, though that’s probably more due to actual violence in schools being far too prevalent as opposed to creators not thinking about it. “S.T.A.G.S.” manages to tread a good line in making the points it wants to make, while still managing to mostly punch up. I enjoyed reading it again with these themes in mind.

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited to read this book when Kate said it would be our next bookclub pick. While not falling in my typical genre of reads, I had had it on my own personal reading list for a while. I like survival stories in general (though I’m often overtaken with judgement about plausibility and stupid choices, but that’s half the fun!) and I remember one of my favorite projects in highschool English had to do with re-creating scenes and a map (which I hand drew and was very proud of) for “The Most Dangerous Game.” So yes, in many ways this was right up my alley.

As Kate discussed, this also came at a pretty rough period in American politics so many of its themes struck a more somber note than they may have reading outside of the current environment. I liked a lot of the more up-front points being made about uber wealth and privilege as well as some of the more subtle comments that Kate alluded to. I would be curious to see how this story read in Great Britain which has a much longer history and different understanding of the type of class system on display here. American readers simply don’t have this type of background to layer onto our reading of this story and, even while I still was able to appreciate many of its larger point, I feel like some of these shades of criticism and even comprehension were lost on U.S. readers.

I very much liked our main character Greer. There were a few moments here and there  where her plethora of cultural references could have been a bit much, but over all, I was so involved in the story and on-board with her character that I don’t think these distracted overly much. And there were a few key ones that really struck home with how a fan of media (movies, books, etc) would relate a new situation/scene to something they’ve read or seen in a film. And while there were definite moments where I wanted to shake her out of some of her more stupid decisions, overall she read as a very realistic protagonist. For the most part, she is clever and discerning, so her moments of weakness read as very believable. I mean, c’mon, it IS an unbelievable situation! Doubting their suspicions only makes sense.

My one criticism of the book had to do with the violence and introduction of the story. No, it wasn’t too much for a young adult novel. If anything, it felt too PG. I kept waiting for something truly terrible (in a life-ending way) to happen, but instead, all of the action and violence felt a bit toothless. In particular, there is one event that Greer references right in the beginning of the book, so the entire story is building towards it, supposedly. And then we get there and…it is not at all that thing. And even after the event, Greer insists on referring to it as her original concept, and I was just like “but…but…IT’S NOT THAT!” I don’t think this would have annoyed me so much if it hadn’t been for the fact that readers are teased about this event for the entire story. And then when this misdirection is combined with the relatively tame action of the story, it just felt like a bit of a let down.

But overall, I still very much enjoyed this book and it was a nice excuse to venture outside of my typical reading boundaries.

Kate’s Rating 8: “S.T.A.G.S.” held up pretty well the second time through, and reading it this time I was more in tune with the satirical elements about the haves subjugating the have nots, and how systems (as well as the compliance of other have nots) help them escape consequences.

Serena’s Rating 8: A stellar main character makes up for a few weaknesses as far as plotting and action.

Book Club Questions

  1. I picked “S.T.A.G.S.” for this book club choice because my theme was satire meets a school story. Do you think that the satire (of the wealthy privileged literally hunting the less fortunate) is effective?
  2. One of the biggest themes in this book is about privilege, and how those with it exploit and victimize those that don’t. How did Shafeen, Greer, and Nel’s interactions with the medievals and each other come off? So you think that these three had some privileges that others didn’t?
  3. What do you think Bennett was trying to say with Greer’s hesitance to believe that the Medievals were up to no good in spite of the evidence presented to her? Why do you think that she was more susceptible to believe the best of them as opposed to Nel and Shafeen (outside of her crush on Henry, that is)?
  4. Shafeen made up a story about feeding at a tiger’s tit to take the attention off of Nel, but tells Greer that he doesn’t live in a palace but is actually from a bustling city (though he does have royal roots). Why do you think he made up a story like that instead of telling a true story from his youth.
  5. What did you make of the Medievals rejection of technology and their categories of Medieval vs Savage? Do you think that Henry had a point about the ills of the internet?
  6. At the end it is revealed that even though Greer, Shafeen, and Nel have become the new prefects/medievals, the Abbot has been shielding and continuing the violence without their knowledge. What did you think of that revelation?

Reader’s Advisory

“S.T.A.G.S.” is new and not included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Let The (Deadly) Games Begin!”, and  “Boarding Schools, Camps, and Private Academies”.

Find “S.T.A.G.S.” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”.

Joint Review: “Strike”

91rfsozxewl-_sy445_This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. This past week we’ve reviewed all four books in the series thus far, and now we move on to the BBC Show “Strike”. We’re going to review “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, “The Silkworm”, and “Career of Evil”. All three series can be found for purchase on Amazon, and in the U.S. “Strike” is known as “C.B. Strike” and is shown on Cinemax.

81gwbabcevl-_sy500_Series 1: “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

Kate’s Thoughts: I’ll admit that the first thing I noticed about this series was how damn gorgeous Tom Burke is. Cormoran Strike in the books is described as being kind of an awkward looking dude. I mean, his hair is described as ‘pube-like’ for God’s sake, and his gait is lumbering and he is a large guy. When you look at Tom Burke, he doesn’t really fit that, so perhaps the casting felt a little bit more on the “Hollywood Awkward” side. Am I complaining? Hell NO I’m not, because

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(source)

But my thirst aside, I really was impressed by our first dive into a TV adaptation of the “Strike” books. “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the one that not only has to pull together a mystery with all its twists and turns, it also has to introduce us as the audience to our main characters and get us to invest in them. And, just like in the book, you start to love the characters right away. Burke and Holliday Grainger, who plays Robin, have a sparkling chemistry right off the bat, with Strike and Robin quipping and bantering their way through the Lula Landry case. The mystery itself was well paced, and the additional third episode (as opposed to the seemingly usual two) made it so the mystery could be given the proper amount of screen time without butting into the exposition needed to flesh out the characters within this first foray into the world they live and operate in. Everyone did a fabulous job with their characters, and the tension was well placed without feeling overwrought.

Serena’s Thoughts: First things first: I completely agree on the hotness of Tom Burke not aligning with the character as described in the books; I also agree that I don’t care in the least. But as for our other main character, Holliday Grainger (can we take a moment to highlight the weirdness that it must be to be an actress with the last name of Grainger playing a character written by J.K. Rowling who has been compared to an adult Hermione?) is almost pitch-perfect for how I imagined Robin. Everything about her look and portrayal of the character line up perfectly with how I read Robin: beautiful, looks sweet enough that others easily underestimate her, all while masking hidden depths of smarts and capability. As Kate said, the two actors also have great chemistry, and it takes practically no time at all to be fully bought into following them as both a potential romantic couple and as crime-solving partners.

I also liked the way the mystery was lain out. This first series was given three full episodes, one more than the following two which must condense more complicated mysteries into a shorter run time. But I think it balances this extended time well with introducing our main characters and fleshing out the characters at the heart of the Lula Landry case.

Lastly, there’s also the fun game of “spot the British actor” to be played with this entire series. And now, knowing what we do about “Lethal White,” I think the pay off for their casting of Charlotte in particular with payoff well down the road.

912eqsfqanl-_sy500_Series 2: “The Silkworm”

Kate’s Thoughts: I was a bit worried when I saw that they had condensed the length of “The Silkworm” into two episodes as opposed to three, but my worries were immediately alleviated by the time we got into the nitty gritty of the story. This show did a good job of setting up the premise of the plot right in the very first scene, in which a suicide of a mystery woman plays out in a rather disturbing and upsetting way. This doesn’t become apparent as to its relevance until a little further into the story, but I really liked how it set the scene to tell us that we’re getting into something a bit more dour than “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”

We got to see a bit more of the interactions between various suspects and important players outside of their time with Cormoran and Robin, and what I liked the most about that was that it made it feel almost more sinister. We can see bitterness and sour grapes when their defenses are down, and it made for a more intriguing follow through. I will admit that I hadn’t re-read/skimmed the book before watching this adaptation, and while I KNEW who the culprit was, I still liked seeing all of the potential red herrings being laid out. It felt a bit like an Agatha Christie cast of characters, who all have motive but aren’t all guilty (“Murder on the Orient Express” notwithstanding). Each character was brought to life by fantastic performances especially from Lia Williams as Liz Tassel, Quine’s old friend and colleague.

And I’d be completely out of character to not mention the adorableness is that Cormoran and Robin. Burke and Grainger still have awesome chemistry, and their banter and interactions are really just the BEST. I also love that their body language exudes the friendly tension between them. Be it a knowing look from Cormoran or a glance to the side from Robin, they clearly are well matched in these roles. They really do bring the joy of these characters from page to screen. Plus, Kerr Logan plays Matthew like a complete lunkhead who is easy to hate, which is EXACTLY how I want to see him. All in all “The Silkworm” was well done even with the shortened adaptation, and it made for a truly enjoyable ‘whodunnit’.

Serena’s Thoughts: I, too, had my concerns when I saw the shortened run time. However, I was more concerned for how “Career of Evil” would fare, which we’ll get to shortly. As it turned out, I felt like the show did a good job of condensing a complicated mystery into only two hours without leaving the story feeling rushed or unrealized.

Instead, there was even the inclusion of some favorite scenes from the book that weren’t even strictly necessary for this story, like Robin’s badass driving skills. However, growing up in the country, I will say that the method they used to try and highlight her ability here was a bit lackluster since anyone who has driven off pavement even a little could recognize how little skill it really takes to pull off what she was doing here. Whereas, in the book, her quick reaction to a sudden crash ahead was much more visceral and true to the abilities of a very talented driver. That being said though, I liked that the show didn’t cut out moments like this that really help build up our characters as more than just your run-of-the-mill British detectives.

I, too, hadn’t re-read the book before watching this, so it was fun piecing together the clues presented on the show with my vague memories of who the killer was and how they pulled it off. I also very much enjoyed the scenes that dealt with Quine’s wife and daughter who has special needs. Amidst a large cast of suspects, all of whom are very unlikeable, and a murder victim who himself isn’t the best guy, it was nice to see this strong bond between mother and daughter. Some of the strongest emotions in the show dealt with the fallout and challenges that came with Quine’s wife being arrested as a suspect, leaving her daughter in the care of strangers.

91gyxi7ouml-_sy445_Series 3: “Career of Evil”

Kate’s Thoughts: If I referred to “The Silkworm” as channeling Agatha Christie, “Career of Evil” goes into straight up Jo Nesbø territory: it’s bleak, it’s creepy, and it’s black as night. I was happy to see that the show didn’t shy away from the grim themes of the book, from sexual abuse to spousal abuse to child predators, but while it did tackle said themes it never made them feel seedy, and never made the viewer feel voyeuristic. I enjoyed seeing some of the parallels that the show drew between the Shacklewell Ripper and Jack the Ripper (it was especially eerie seeing the first victim lit up against a backdrop of an illuminated ‘Whitechapel’ sign. Shivers), and while the show couldn’t really do the perspective of the killer as much as the book could, there was still the tension of their ‘hunt’ through the moments we did get.

This was also very much Holliday Grainger’s time to shine. Robin goes through it in this book for many reasons, and boy did Grainger really portray the pain, determination, and near frenzy that Robin experiences within the narrative. I’m not like Serena in the sense that Grainger was exactly what I imagined when I first read Robin (not to say that she’s bad of course), but in “Career of Evil” she absolutely nails the character and claims her as her own. It also becomes quite clear in this performance that Robin is destined for so much more than what those around her expect of her, and I think that Grainger nailed that aspect of her character. I also MUST mention the casting decision for Shanker. Y’all, it’s Ben Crompton, aka Eddison Tollett, Lord Commander of The Night’s Watch on “Game of Thrones”, and he is EXCELLENT as the snarky and morally ambiguous pal of Strike and Robin.

“Career of Evil” was another great adaptation, and I have high hopes that “Lethal White” will be another exercise in excellence. So how long do we have to wait on that one, BBC?

Serena’s Thoughts: Like I said above, I was more concerned about the truncated length of this season because of the added portion of the killer’s perspective that we had in the book. And, as Kate said, while that had to be adjusted here, I was still, overall, pleased with how they managed to keep elements of that storyline intact.

This story was by far the most dark of all the mysteries so far. But I feel like the show did a good job of not shying away from the gruesome aspects of the crimes involved while avoiding reveling or glorifying in its own darkness. We still got a good look into the dark psyches of all the potential killers and their own terrible histories with violence towards women. And, as Kate said, Grainger really came into her own with her nuanced and layered portrayal of Robin’s reaction to these crimes.

My one criticism for this season (and kind of the entire run of series so far) is that without background knowledge of the books, there are a few scenes here and there that are ultimately left dangling. In this season, for example, we have a brief flashback to Charlotte mentioning a pregnancy to Cormoron. Fans of the book will recognize this moment as part of what lead to Cormoron’s eventual, final split with Charlotte. But if you’re only watching the show, this scene goes unexplained and disconnected to any of the events leading up to it or following it. Instead, it kind of just dangles there, weirdly out of sync with the rest of the plot.

Hopefully, whenever they get around to “Lethal White,” showrunners will again extend the run time so that some of these loose threads are given the proper attention. Not to mention, that book is almost twice as long as the others, so you sure as heck need more than two episodes to properly cover it! Never fear, Kate and I will be all over it the moment it drops and a review will be sure to follow!

Joint Review: “Lethal White”

40774524This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. So this week, Monday through Thursday will be devoted to our joint reviews of all four books now released in the series. And to round out the week, on Friday we’ll be joint reviewing the BBC series “Strike” that has covered the first three books in the series so far. Today we review the recently released “Lethal White.”

Book: “Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, September 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it from the library.

Book Description: When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott—once his assistant, now a partner in the agency—set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been—Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that.

Serena’s Thoughts

I pre-ordered this book the second I saw that that was even an option. As much as I love the library, I’ve done my time on miles-long holds lists for popular titles, so for this one I said, NOT TODAY! And then the second it arrived on my doorstep, I informed my husband that I was going to take a bath (while reading) and then make dinner (while reading) and then sit on the couch the rest of the night (reading). No surprise, but he found other things to do that evening. And then I sped through this book in only a matter of days (which says something, since, like the Harry Potter series, book four came with a massive jump in word count.)

This book starts out with a time jump. After briefly touching on the events of the cliffhanger left in book three, we find ourselves one year later following Robin and Stirke as they go about their business. Largely disconnected from each other. Business is booming, however, so each are busy with cases. But all of these come to a stop when Strike is visited by a strange young man reporting a crime that took place long ago. From their, the mystery quickly spirals out to include a group of wealthy elitists and the political fields on which they now operate.

Here the mystery gives us a bit of a break from the darker tones seen in both the second and, even more so, the third book. But with this change comes the most complicated mystery and expansive list of players we’ve seen yet. Galbraith takes full advantage of the extended wordcount to introduce an intricate web of characters who all criss-cross with each other throughout lives full of dark corners and hidden secrets that none want to reveal to our two detectives. What’s more, the initial mystery that is given, that of a child’s potential murder years ago, is quickly padded out with several other mysteries, including even a new death that takes place in the present. I had no chance whatsoever to put all of these pieces together, so about halfway through the story I just gave up trying and let myself enjoy the ride.

Robin and Strike’s relationship also takes on a new role in this story. While leading up to this one, we’ve seen them build up their trust, friendship, and maybe even more, the events of the third book struck a blow and both are still reeling, not quite sure of the other or their partnership. Again, the extended wordcount allows Galbraith to devote a good chunk of time to each character’s perspectives on how they came to be where they are and how each is dealing with the challenges of their roles. Robin, especially, is still recovering from the events of the third book and her attack. I really appreciated the fact that her recovery and the on-going side-effects from something like this were not just swept under the rug, but instead presented as lasting and needing of attention to recover from.

Also, Matthew is the worst. It must be said once again and once again with feeling! MATTHEW IS THE WORST! And actually, this would probably be the one factor that holds me back from giving this book a full 10 star rating. At this point in the series, four books in, readers have a very clear idea of who Matthew is and what he is (and is not) capable of. With that being the case, his continuing presence in the story starts to verge away from “a character who is fun to hate” and more towards “a character whose ongoing involvement is starting to damage the characters around him.” Notably, Robin.

I love Robin; this has been well-documented. And I even have more reason than some to understand her ongoing difficulties with dislodging herself from a toxic person in her life. But at a certain point, this begins to feel like a bit too much and makes me question Robin’s own strength of character. I’m pleased to report that these concerns are calmed by the end, but I did find myself more frustrated with this aspect of the story than I have been in the past.

Kate’s Thoughts

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Actual footage of me outside the library door on release day. (source)

It felt like forever, but the most recent Cormoran Strike book, “Lethal White”, finally arrived this year after a three year hiatus, and let me tell you, was I ever so ready for it. Hell, I went to my old library, you know, the one that has the ‘new items that don’t circulate’ wall, stalked outside the door before it opened, and grabbed it for myself the day it came out (much to my old boss’s chagrin: she is ALSO very invested in this series and hoped that she could get dibs at the required fifteen minute wait; I dashed that hope BUT WELL). Given that “Career of Evil” kind of ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, I was more than ready to pick up where we left off. Oh, and I was looking forward to the mystery as well, because while it may seem like I read this series solely for the relationship between Cormoran and Robin, that simply isn’t true. At least not totally.

Galbraith does a great job of jumping right into it, so great that it didn’t feel like it was a clunky return at all in spite of the gap. We drop right in at the end of the last book and see how that all susses out, and then there’s a time jump so we can put our focus on the mystery at hand. While the time jump was frustrating in the sense of trying to get some pay off for the emotional fallout of said cliffhanger, it makes sense so that the attention is on Cormoran and Robin’s next case. And once again, Galbraith has created a compelling mystery to try and untangle, this one focusing on political leaders in Parliament, blackmail, and the possibility of a murdered child. While I think that some authors may have had a hard time tying it all together, Galbraith makes it seem easy. The book is the longest yet, coming in at 650some pages, but the mystery itself doesn’t feel bloated or drawn out. Seeing Cormoran and Robin tackle a very complicated case with the idle and dysfunctional rich, aggrieved and angry leftists, and a mentally ill man kept me on the edge of my seat, and kept me guessing most of the time, and rarely did I call what twists and turns would be coming up next.

Okay, mild spoilers here now: It’s also fun following Cormoran and Robin, as their detective dynamic is always a treat. And while it is strained a bit at first given her marriage to Matthew (a marriage she STILL went through with in spite of his general awfulness AND a moment between Robin and Strike that was VERY heavy), they fall into step and remind me what I love about their partnership. Cormoran and Robin still trust each others judgment and work well with each other, even though things are a little awkward given their unresolved feelings and now complicated relationship.

And let’s talk about the various relationship complications in this book. While I am still very much for the slow burn agony and ecstasy of the Cormoran and Robin “will they or won’t they” dynamic, I’m starting to lose some patience with various obstacles thrown in their way. For the life of me, I was NOT sold on Robin going through with her marriage to Matthew after the revelations in previous books (god AWFUL revelations that show how toxic and manipulative he is). I don’t feel that Galbraith gave us enough of a reason for Robin to try and give the marriage a go, and felt that it was just kind of thrown in there to prolong the will they, won’t they tension between Cormoran and Robin. On top of that, if you guys remember Cormoran’s manipulative and spoiled ex Charlotte from other books, she makes her first drawn out in person appearance in “Lethal White.” This, too, concerns me, as I worry that Galbraith is starting to lay the dominoes that could potentially cause more unnecessary drama down the line. I understand not wanting to show your hand too soon for getting two characters together (and really, it WAS satisfying when Ron and Hermione did FINALLY get together in book seven), but Cormoran and Robin may be treading towards unbelievable character flaws if this keeps going in the way it seems to be. All that said, I STILL LOVE THEM AS A FRIENDSHIP AND I STILL ROOT FOR THEM AS A ROMANTIC COUPLE.

Overall, “Lethal White” is a triumphant return to a series that I greatly enjoy. I really hope that we don’t have to wait another three years for the next one. Put “Fantastic Beasts” on the back burner until you have this one all done, Galbraith!!

Serena’s Rating 9: The best in the series so far, benefiting from a more complicated mystery and extended time devoted to the development of our main characters.

Kate’s Rating 9: My favorite entry yet, “Lethal White” was a most triumphant return to an excellent series. Galbraith is in top form in this one, and hopefully we’ll see more of Cormoran and Robin soon.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lethal White” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads list. But it should be on “Best Crime & Mystery Books.”

Find “Lethal White” at your library using WorldCat!