The Great Animorphs Re-Read #42: “The Journey”

363389Animorphs #42: “The Journey”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, June 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Helmacrons need more power to escape the earth’s atmosphere, so they have returned to demand the morphing cube. When Rachel tries to destroy their ship, the tiny egomaniacs bail — right into Marco’s left nostril. And the other Animorphs have to get them out before the little aliens do some real damage.

Narrator: Rachel & Marco

Plot: We all know the story: a frizzle-haired teacher, a class of students, and a magical school bus that goes anywhere and makes even the most ridiculous things seem fun and cool. Sure, many of their adventures were legitimately cool on their own; who wouldn’t enjoy traveling to all of the planets! But some of them…definitely could have gone another way. And Animorphs is here to prove how!

I mean, I could get worked up. But like the Atlantis book, it’s just so wacky that why even bother?

The story starts off in the normal way: the team returning from yet another battle. But as they demorph in an alley, they are temporarily blinded by the flash of a camera. Some kid has taken a picture of them mid-morph! They chase after him, but he disappears into an apartment complex. The team sets up a state-out and agrees to meet up at Cassie’s barn the next day to discuss next steps.

And from there, it all goes haywire with the sudden reappearance of the Helmacrons. All together in Cassie’s barn, the tiny Helmacron ship reappears and, predictably, is again after the blue box that Cassie has hidden there. Rachel and Marco both lunge to grab the ship before it can get to the box, and in the process, Marco hits his head and falls to the ground. From there, Tobias gets to witness the truly terrible image of a group of Helmacrons marching straight up Marco’s nose.

Now the team is in a real pickle. The Helmacrons have their tiny lasers on them, and there’s a real concern over the amount of damage they could do to Marco if they should start firing inside of his body. So naturally, the only thing to be done is to go in after them! Jake strictly instructs Marco to lay low and not to morph, not knowing how morphing could affect them while inside Marco’s body. They use the Helmacrons’ ship to shrink themselves down to size, and Marco uses a bit of straw to deposit them in his nose.

Insert lovely scenes about snot and walking through snot and burying oneself in snot to avoid a sneeze. Lovely stuff. They eventually come upon the Helmacrons but quickly notice something is wrong: the Animorphs are much, much smaller than even the Helmacrons. They realize that they had been set up and fallen into the trap. Luckily, the Helmacrons are engaged in a bit of a civil war between the genders and aren’t making too much progress with whatever their plan is either. After a few mishaps, the Animorphs and the Helmacrons all end up falling down Marco’s throat and end up in his stomach.

Meanwhile, Marco is getting bored of waiting. He can’t speak to the team, and for some reason Ax is just not updating him on what’s going on. Restless, he decides to go check out the kid’s apartment and try and get a hold of the camera and film. Breaking in doesn’t go as planned and he ends up being bitten by the kid’s pit bull.

In Marco’s stomach, the team struggles to survive being eaten away by the acid, an all too familiar scenario for poor Rachel and Tobias. Cassie morphs a whale at one point and the team huddles on top of her to try and gather their bearings. From there, they witness several Helmacrons die in the acid themselves, but the others manage to slice a whole in Marco’s stomach and make their way out into his blood stream. The team figures that they must be capable of breathing “under water” and determine that the best way to follow would be in shark morph. They morph sharks and all struggle at first with the madness that their close proximity with blood inspires in the sharks’ minds. They follow the Helmacrons out into the arteries. Along the way, Cassie shares “body facts” about what they’re seeing.

Back in Marco’s perspective, things are not going well. He has begun to feel strange, reckless and anxious. He decides to go back to the kid’s apartment once more and try again to get the camera. Once there, he decides that he needs to morph a cockroach. He proceeds to morph.

Inside Marco, the others realize that Marco is morphing and frantically wonder what is going on that would force him to take such a reckless action. They all manage to survive the morph, and immediately thought speak to Marco asking him why he felt the need to risk their lives morphing. Marco responds in a very petulant manner and Rachel begins to wonder what is going on. She knows that it’s not a great situation for Marco, but that he’s never stupid, and morphing with them in his body was stupid.

They finally catch up with the Helmacrons, but they won’t be reasoned with and start firing their guns. Marco goes still. The others are convinced that he has been killed by the internal damage. They manage to get a hold of the laser guns from the Helmacrons and force them to give in. They cut a hole in cockroach!Marco and make their way out. Outside his body, Cassie begins to theorize that it seems strange that Marco would have died as a cockroach, since they are practically unkillable. The team takes turns trying to wake him up before the two hour deadlines expires. At the last minute, he comes to. He morphs a gull, the team climbs on, still holding the Helmacrons hostage, and Marco grabs the camera in his beak on the way out.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Like the Atlantis book was for Jake, and the first Helmacrons book was for Cassie, these books that veer all the way into crazyland tend to be rather dud-like as far as any real character growth goes. But, on the other hand, the last several Rachel books have been more damaging to her character than anything, so maybe I should count this as a lucky miss that there’s practically nothing worth discussing for her here. Sure, there are a couple of moments where we see her dive head first into the action, but even those instances are pretty restrained and not too notable. Towards the end, there are a couple of moments that reflect the deeper understanding of Marco’s character that she has gained from being an Animorph with him. Before, I imagine, he was just her cousin Jake’s annoying friend. Now, she knows him well enough to notice that his defensive and weirdly aggressive responses to why he morphed when Jake had expressly told him not to were out of character for him. She notes that while he can be annoying, he is anything but stupid, and morphing in this instance was stupid. It not only risked the other Animorphs’ lives, but Marco’s own.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake has a few comical moments when he tries to mimic the Helmacrons’ grandiose way of speaking in an attempt to convince them to leave Marco and give up their quest for the blue box. He also shows how comfortable he has become giving members of the team orders, noting in the end that he still needs to talk to Marco about why exactly Marco disobeyed a direct order. This is definitely the type of comment that we’d not expect to hear from early-series Jake who was still struggling to accept his role as a leader, especially when it comes to laying down laws on his best friend.

A Hawk’s Life: Not much from Tobias in this book, which is always a bummer on its own, but is worse in Rachel books where we stand a better chance of getting more from him.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie plays the role of “Ms. Frizzle” in this book and is pretty much giving them a tour of Marco’s insides throughout the story. At one point, she is so caught up in this role that she is essentially evaluating the state of Marco’s immune system instead of paying attention to anything else that is going on. It’s pretty bizarre, frankly. But with a book like this, which is essentially setting out to accomplish exactly the same thing that the Magic School Bus episode was, to teach kids about the body’s inner workings, we would need a character like this along the way, and Cassie makes the most sense. She’s also the one to realize that Marco is likely not dead in the end, noting how difficult it is to truly kill a cockroach.

The Comic Relief: This is a strange book in that it’s another one where we get weird insert of POV chapters from another character’s point of view. Rachel is one of my favorite characters and, not only do I think she gets short-changed in a lot of books, other than Jake, she has potentially the most interesting arc throughout the series to follow. So with that in mind, it’s a bit unfortunate to see one of her books divided between her and another character. But, if I was going to have to pick that character, Marco’s always a good choice. Of course, he’s also weirdly written for most of this as he is suffering from rabies-induced mania for much of it. Even without Rachel noting Marco’s strange behavior, fans of the series, especially this late in the game, are sure to raise an eyebrow at much of the out-of-character decision making we see from Marco here.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Also not much from Ax. On and off, he serves as a communication point to Marco as one of the few members of group who can use thought-speak. But…yeah, other than that.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Really, most of this book. Unlike the cartoon-y take we get from Magic School Bus, this book tears that cutesy band-aid off right away with overly disgusting descriptions of the Animorphs having to bury themselves in snot to avoid getting sneezed out. It’s pretty disgusting and vaults this book up next to the “Andalite toilet” book as far as catering to middle grade body humor goes. I did not enjoy a return to this level of “entertainment.”

Couples Watch!: Ugh, practically nothing! There was literally one line where Tobias privately thought-spoke to Rachel when they were in Marco’s stomach telling her to morph quickly when she was stuck in the stomach acid. Which can also be attributed to the fact that the two of them already had a close encounter with potentially being digested back in Megamorphs #2. So yeah, as far as romance goes, a pretty big let down here. It’s all the more sad to see knowing how close we are getting to the end.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: No Visser Three in this book! The Animorphs note a few times that they can’t be sure that the Helmacrons aren’t working with the Yeerks, so this is meant to add another level of urgency to their mission, though I’m never quite sure their reasoning makes sense.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Again, I cry at the return of childish body-humor as a form of entertainment. Just…no.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Kind of the whole thing? I don’t understand what the Helmacrons’ endgame was. How was getting the Animorphs to follow them into Marco really going to accomplish anything? I’m not convinced that all of the Animorphs going in after them was wise, rather than just a few of them. And why oh why the group then chooses to keep Marco completely out of the loop the entire time is beyond strange. Ax should have been updating him the entire time and then when they all morph sharks, they definitely should have been letting him know what was going on. You could make the case that Marco wouldn’t have felt compelled to go after the camera in the first place had he been more in the loop with what the others were up to. Beyond that, I’m pretty skeptical of the whole rabies subplot. How exactly did someone’s pet pitbull end up with rabies? It’s pretty rare for that disease to be found in household pets since most are vaccinated and then rarely would come into contact with the wild animals that would need to give it to them in the first place. And there’s no mention of the fact that, hey, some kid and his family are now LIVING WITH A RABID ANIMAL! And Rachel thinks it’s more important to let Marco question his own sanity for another night than, I don’t know, warn this poor family about this life-threatening situation.

Favorite Quote:

TRUTH:

“You know,” Jake said thoughtfully. “I think this is the most disgusting mission we’ve ever done.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 11, Animorphs 15

No change!

Rating: All in all, a pretty “meh” book. It didn’t enrage me, but I also kind of buzzed through it, not caring at all what was going on. I didn’t enjoy the return of body humor and I was sad to see another book where Rachel doesn’t really have much character progression. For all that we hear about her deteriorating mindset from other characters in their books, it’s a real shame that we don’t see more of it from Rachel herself and how she is coping with these changes. The potential here is gold and it’s so, so wasted. Plus, the whole story was stock full of ridiculous scenarios that don’t make much sense. From the very beginning, it’s clear that this is just a “concept” book that derived from a wacky idea. There’s no good reason for the Helmacrons to be back, or for them to take the actions they do, or for them to give up in the end really and agree to leave. If I think about it too much, I could probably get frustrated with the laziness, but as it is, I’m happy enough just letting this one slide back into cool indifference, lost to memory eventually.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

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It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

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#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Magic Triumphs”

Magic_Triumphs.inddBook: “Magic Triumphs” by Ilona Andrews

Publishing Info: Ace, August 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Kate has come a long way from her origins as a loner taking care of paranormal problems in post-Shift Atlanta. She’s made friends and enemies. She’s found love and started a family with Curran Lennart, the former Beast Lord. But her magic is too strong for the power players of the world to let her be.

Kate and her father, Roland, currently have an uneasy truce, but when he starts testing her defenses again, she knows that sooner or later, a confrontation is inevitable. The Witch Oracle has begun seeing visions of blood, fire, and human bones. And when a mysterious box is delivered to Kate’s doorstep, a threat of war from the ancient enemy who nearly destroyed her family, she knows their time is up.

Kate Daniels sees no other choice but to combine forces with the unlikeliest of allies. She knows betrayal is inevitable. She knows she may not survive the coming battle. But she has to try.

For her child.

For Atlanta.

For the world.

Previously Reviewed: “Kate Daniels Series” and  “Magic Shifts” and “Magic Binds”

Review: It’s kind of a rare and strange thing to reach the end of an urban fantasy series. For some reason, it seems that urban fantasy in particular tends to draw forth series that go on and on. This has obvious pros and cons, but I tend to think that every story must come to an end, and I’d rather that happen on the author’s own terms than any outside factor. And, ideally, before the creativity of the world begins to leak out, something that occurs all too often with long-running series in any genre. So, it was with mixed emotions that I picked up “Magic Triumphs.”

There have really been only two urban fantasy series that I’ve followed for the last several years, the Kate Daniels series and the Mercy Thompson/Alpha and Omega series. My most recent review was from a book in the latter, and oof, it was rough and in many ways serves as a perfect example of the concerns I listed above about long-running series. With that warning in mind, I was pleased to discover that the Kate Daniels books would end with this one, but also…now what do I read as far as urban fantasy? Ah well, a problem for another day.

“Magic Triumphs” opens over a year after the events in “Magic Binds.” Kate and Curran have had their son, Conlan, and he is about a year old at this point. The rest of their lives are going as expected: continuously shoring up allies and points of strength in preparation for the ultimate show-down with Kate’s father Roland that they know could come at any time. And here, of course, it does. But not only that. Of course not only that! A new, mysterious and powerful force has attacked Atlanta, and now Kate and co. have to balance a war on two fronts.

This book was facing a pretty big challenge for me right off the bat: introducing a child character. This is completely a personal preference thing, but I often find child characters in books to have several problems. They’re often annoyingly “precocious” or “twee” and they have the tendency to re-focus all of the story’s action or the main character’s attention to them. Obviously, a new addition like this will impact the story and the main character’s relationships with everyone around them. But all too often I feel like authors somehow end up losing much of what made up the original characterization of their protagonists under this new force and drive.

Luckily, that is not the case here. While Conlan is definitely a new focal point for Kate and Curran and a huge motivation in the decisions they each make, all of the aspects of these characters that we’ve grown to know and love were still present. Kate kicks ass and takes names, but also, adorably, frets about minor issues with her son, constantly dragging him to the Pack doctor for check-ups. Curran is still protective and supportive, with his own plans on how to get his small family through the trials ahead.

There are also all of the many, many, MANY familiar faces sprinkled throughout this book. Honestly, I don’t think I had a full grasp on exactly who everyone was. The cast is so large and some characters have only had large roles in various books throughout the ten book series that I couldn’t quite pin down some of them. But, as far as it goes, Andrews gives readers enough information to catch you up on who is who and why they are important, so I was able to pretty easily just go with the flow for some of this unknowing.

I did like the addition of the new big bad that was introduced in this story. I was pretty surprised that the book even went this route, honestly. The series has been building to the show-down with Roland for books and books now, so I fully expected that to be the primary focus of this story. That made it all the more surprising when that aspect of the story took a back seat through much of it. I was sorry not to get more page time between Kate and her power-mad father, but given the situation that had been built up over the entire series, there weren’t that many options for resolving it that would have made sense, so this new addition and focus seemed to help. There were several other surprises in store throughout the book, including some hidden plans of Curran’s, an introduction to a new group of magical beings, and some pretty disgusting magical threats.

My one critique of the book comes down to pacing. The story starts off fairly slowly, taking quite a while to even get to the point where the main characters even know what they’re dealing with. And then once they do, there is very little page time left to really deal with the fallout of this situation. This then leads to a rather rushed ending and what felt like a bit of a truncated last battle and ultimate resolution. Like I said, the series has been building to this moment, so I wish there had been just a bit more given to it, be that increased page time or maybe just a bit more “oomf” put into the proceedings.

In the end, however, I was very satisfied with the conclusion to this series. I was sad to see these characters go, but I was glad they were able to go out on a high note. For fans of the series, this final chapters is definitely worth getting your hands on.

Rating 8: A bitter-sweet goodbye to what turned out to be an excellent urban fantasy series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Magic Triumphs” is on these Goodreads lists: “NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance” and “Sci-Fi/Fantasy with Healthy Relationships.”

Find “Magic Triumphs” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review (and Mini Brief History): “Aliens: The Original Comics Series”

33161041Book: “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” by Mark Verdheim, Den Beauvais (Ill.), Sam Kieth (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dark Horse Books, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In 1986, James Cameron’s “Aliens” brought to theaters the horrors of a new kind of war against a terrifying enemy. Long before Alien3 was even a glint in director David Fincher’s eye, Dark Horse Comics was already crafting a terrifying post-Aliens continuity for Ripley, Hicks, and Newt. 

Earth is overrun by xenomorphs with no hope of saving it for humanity. But that doesn’t mean just leaving it to the Aliens. Ripley has a plan to capture, from what they believe is the Alien homeworld, a “Queen Mother”–a super queen that rules multiple nests–and bring it back to Earth. There the Queen Mother will command the xenomorphs to gather where they can all be destroyed by nuclear bombs.

Collects Aliens: Nightmare Asylum #1-#4 and Aliens: Earth War #1-#4. Includes cover art for all issues.

Review: Even though Science Fiction isn’t really my preferred genre, if there is an excellent horror theme to it I’m assuredly going to be game. So it most likely isn’t shocking that I love both the movies “Alien” and “Aliens”. Not only does it have a solidly excellent female protagonist (Ellen Ripley for LIFE!), it also has a very scary adversary in the Xenomorph, a creature that is essentially a giant parasitic space bug that you COULD fight, but you have significantly better odds if you just run away. The first two movies in the “Alien” franchise are awesome, and while I love them both my heart probably belongs to “Aliens” the most. Not only does Ripley get to kick more butt, but she picks up a rag tag group of friends along the way, specifically the Colonial Marine Corporal Hicks, the android Bishop, and the orphan Newt, a girl saved from an overrun colony. “Aliens” ends with the Alien Queen vanquished, and Ripley looking forward to taking her life back with her new found family in the wake of the one she lost while drifting in space post “Alien”.

…. And then “Alien 3” happened, and it completely trashed that perfect ending by crashing the ship, killing off Hicks, Newt, and Bishop, and throwing Ripley into a new clusterfuck of a PRISON COLONY SETTING because apparently she doesn’t get ANY breaks whatsoever.

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How I feel about the “Alien” franchise post “Aliens”, if I’m being honest. (source)

What does this have to do with “Aliens: Nightmare Asylum and Earth War” you may ask? More than you’d think. SO, after “Aliens” came out, Dark Horse created two mini series set within the “Alien” universe, focusing on Hicks, Newt, and Ripley a few years after the action in “Aliens”. But when David Fincher’s dark for the sake of dark “Alien 3” came out, Dark Horse decided that it had to be retconned because HEAVEN FOR FUCKING BID THAT HICKS AND NEWT REMAIN ALIVE IN COMIC FORM. So Dark Horse went back and changed the names of Hicks and Newt to Wilkes and Billie, and they were SOMEHOW not Hicks and Newt in spite of the fact they were CLEARLY Hicks and Newt, and re-released the two series with a brand new ‘now agreeing with film continuity!’ seal of approval. Given how “Alien 3” ended and what happened to Ripley, what with her DYING, I don’t understand why the comics decided to change Hicks and Newt to fit THEIR deaths, but let Ripley come back unaffected. But whatever, what do I know? Happily, in 2017 Dark Horse went back and righted this wrong, and both “Nightmare Asylum” and “Earth War” were re-released in a hard cover collection with Hicks and Newt back in tact. And now that this “Short Brief History” has concluded, let’s get to the review.

I’ll start with “Nightmare Asylum”. Ripley wasn’t seen much in this story, but I was surprisingly okay with this because it gave Hicks and Newt some time to shine. Set a fewish years down the line from “Aliens”, Newt is now a young woman, and has been living as a surrogate daughter/sister/friend to Hicks. They have been floating in space, as Earth has been taken over by the Xenomorphs and they escaped by the skin of their teeth (along with an android named Butler with whom Newt has been in a relationship). But unfortunately they run afoul a crazed General named Spears, who has gone full General Kurtz and thinks that he can make an army of Xenomorphs to fight against the Xenomorphs on Earth, namely by torturing and trying to condition an Alien Queen to make her control her brood lest he destroy her eggs. And while Ripley is nowhere to be seen for the most part, I REALLY enjoyed “Nightmare Asylum”, if only because Hicks and Newt (her in particular) had some fantastic story lines and moments of riveting action. Given that I have ALL the love for both Hicks and Newt, I am a-okay with the focus being on the two of them. For Newt it’s because she has taken on the role of the determined and scrappy Ripley character, and it shows how she has gone from scared orphan girl to be saved to an adult who is out to save the world. For Hicks it’s his continued journey of being a tough and competent soldier who is more than happy to let the tough ladies around him take the reins. He had the utmost respect for Ripley and trusted her, and  he has the same respect for Newt. And also, Hicks was played by Michael Biehn, who was foxy as HELL in the role, so yes, my libido has SOME influence over my affinity.

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AM I WRONG?! (source)

But I also REALLY liked the main plot with the crazed General trying to use the Xenomorphs to his own ends. Any “Alien” fan worth their salt is going to know that this is a TERRIBLE idea, but it feels original enough that it could totally fit within the hubris that we see so often in this universe. And with new but familiar protagonists coming in to deal with it it doesn’t feel like just another instance of  ‘Ripley is right AGAIN and why doesn’t anyone listen to her?’. Ripley can be right til the cows come home, but admittedly it would get a bit old. And yes, Ripley DOES show up, right at the end, so it doesn’t feel like she’s been forgotten or thrown to the side. One note I do have, though: I didn’t like that there were so many sexualized drawings of Newt. Sure, she’s an adult in this story arc, but was it REALLY necessary to have multiple shots of her in skimpy underwear and spread legs?

“Earth War” was next, and that one brings Ripley more into the fold. As she, Hicks, and Newt (along with other brave fighters) gather together to try and take Earth back, Ripley also has to contend with her leaving Newt and Hicks behind after “Aliens”. I liked the device that was used in this case, as it doesn’t feel too cheap (like “Alien 3” did, and no I will NOT shut up about how much I hate that movie) and also feels wrenching. To Ripley Newt was sort of seen as a stand in for her daughter, who died while Ripley was in hypersleep out in space, and so it was important to give a GOOD explanation as to why Ripley would have disappeared after “Aliens”. “Earth War” absolutely achieves that. But I think that the reason I found it to be the weaker of the two, in SPITE of Ripley’s presence, is that it feels very rushed. While the smaller story of “Nightmare Asylum” works in four issues, trying to cram a reunion for Ripley and her friends, information as to where she was that whole time, AND a battle to take Earth back from the Xenomorphs in the same number feels VERY rushed. Plus, I think that for me there was a HUGE disconnect from the artwork between the two, and I much preferred Den Beauvais:

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(source)

Versus that of Sam Kieth:

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(source)

I generally like Kieth (I REALLY like his work on “Sandman”), but I didn’t feel like it fit in as well with the content at hand. Which means I was taken out of it a bit more than I would have liked.

All that said. this collection is FINALLY back the way it is supposed to be, and I am SO happy that I finally got to read it. “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” gives “Alien” fans the stories that we’ve always deserved, and it gives Ripley, Hicks, and Newt a lot to do without getting dour or unnecessarily bleak. I greatly enjoyed this series as a whole.

Rating 9: The “Alien” continuation that we deserve to have, “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” is action packed, powerful, and a shining light on favorite characters from the first two movies.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Aliens: The Original Comics Series” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Supernatural (Not Superhero) Comics”.

Find “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Shadow Cipher”

18806245We 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: “The Shadow Cipher” by Laura Ruby

Publishing Info: Walden Pond Press, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobooks from the library!

Genre Mash-up: Science Fiction and Mystery

Book Description: It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.

Serena’s Thoughts

I don’t read much middle grade fiction. Yes, technically the Animorphs started out as a middle grade series, but I’m pretty sure most of us can agree that it pretty quickly veers into YA territory with the gruesome and serious nature of much of it. And there are a few examples of MG fiction (even some recently, like “A Flight of Swans”) that do appeal to me, but by and large, it’s just not my jam. With this in mind, it’s really hard for me to review this book objectively, since much of it simply didn’t connect with me as I’m just not the correct reader for this book. So, with the criticisms to come, keep in mind that this book may still very well appeal to many actual middle grade readers and plenty of adults who like to read this age level of fiction. I can definitely see how it might!

To start with some pros, however, I did like the general concept of the story, how simply adding two brilliant inventors into a time period could effect all of history that follows. It’s an extreme example of the butterfly effect. I was also very much into the opening chapter of the book that was set in the 1800s and seemed to be presenting a sort of “steam punk” like world. This portion of the story also featured adult protagonists, so that also probably had something to do with my preference for it.

I also liked the diversity of the main cast of characters and a look into what life would be like growing up in a huge city such as New York. I grew up in a tiny rural town, so the idea of running around a massive city on my own at age 13 is hard to comprehend.

But, those pros aside, this book just didn’t hit the mark for me. For one thing, I struggled with the mash up of science fiction technologies alongside other elements of the world that were unchanged. There seemed to be a really random assortment of new inventions that would simply pop up here and there. And yet, in other parts of life, that same advancement was no where to be seen. It made it feel less like a naturally developed world, but instead a collection of weird concepts, none connecting to another in any fundamental way.

I also thought the book was incredibly slow and the urgency was lacking. This is a long book for a middle grade title, and much of the middle of it just felt like a slog. Not only did it take a while to even get into solving the mysteries, but once there, the sense of urgency never seemed to connect with the actual situation. I was left feeling kind of cold and uninterested about it all. If you’re going to have a book that revolves around solving mysteries, it really needs to revolve around those things, and this just didn’t feel like that. I also really didn’t like that, going in, I knew the mystery wasn’t going to resolve, as this is the first book in a series. All of the mystery series that I read and enjoy will feature the same cast of characters, but the mysteries themselves are solved in each book, with maybe one or two other through-lines as far as the stories go. I just don’t like books where the mystery itself is left unresolved at the end.

So, yeah. This book wasn’t for me. That said, all of my complaints are very subjective and revolve around my own reading preferences. Nothing in the book is actually truly objectionable. The characters are solid, the world is interesting, and the mysteries are clever. If you like middle grade fiction, this book may very well work for you. But if middle grade books are more hit and miss for you, I would skip this one.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read Laura Ruby’s “Bone Gap” a few years back, and while I understood how people would love it as much as they did, I found it to be ‘pretty okay’ at best. So when “The Shadow Cipher” (not “York”; I’m going to touch on that in a bit) was our book club selection, I was hesitantly optimistic that I’d get another read that was ‘pretty okay’. The problem is, “The Shadow Cipher” had a number of things working against it for me, and because of that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.

But first I want to address the things that I did like, because there were a few stand out aspects: The first is that, like Serena mentioned above, I liked the diversity of and the somewhat unique issues that faced our main characters. One of the biggest threats in this story is that Theo and Tessa Biedermann could lose their home because of a real estate developer’s greed. Gentrification is absolutely a huge problem in large urban cities, especially in our version of New York City, so I appreciated that Ruby brought this issue up within this story, and showed the faces of those who bear the negative brunt of ‘progress’. She addressed it in a way that felt tangible to a middle grade audience, and yet didn’t feel TOO heavy handed or spoon fed to them. What we see are children who are afraid of losing their home, which shows a very human cost to the ever changing landscape of real estate in regards to the less privileged. I also enjoyed the alternate world aspect of this book. I’m a huge sucker for stories that are KIND OF in our world, but wax poetic on how the world could have turned out if one thing had been different. While I’m not totally certain that Ruby completely reconciled the science fiction/steampunk concepts with her world, I liked seeing the effort made.

But, like Serena, I too had a hard time with the pacing and seeming lack of urgency within this story. In other similar tales like “The Westing Game,” the puzzle that the characters are trying to solve is usually at the forefront and very much the driven focus of the novel. When a new piece is solved, it is on to the next. In “The Shadow Cipher,” it felt like it was slowly flitting from place to place. I feel that with their home on the line these kids would be far more rushed (I think about “The Goonies” and how they are so scared about losing their homes that they go on a crazy whirlwind of a treasure hunt that always feels like it’s moving).

My final criticism is probably far more petty and pedantic than it needs to be, and has less to do with the story itself. Look at that cover, folks. If you saw that cover, what would YOU think the title of this book is? The confusing graphic design made me unreasonably annoyed. I know that doesn’t have much to do with the book itself, but it really frustrated me and we had a long discussion about it during book club.

Overall, “The Shadow Cipher” really wasn’t my kind of book, and while I don’t think that it should necessarily turn readers away if they think it sounds like their kind of book, be warned that it may be a long read.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not objectively bad, but definitely not for me. The world-building didn’t come together in the way I would have liked, and the story itself lacked a sense of urgency.

Kate’s Rating 5: Though the characters were fine and I liked the alternate universe angle, “The Shadow Cipher” was too slow for the kind of mystery it was and just didn’t appeal to me.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you find the alternative timeline in this book believable and well conceived?
  2. In this alternate version of our world, there are small changes that are mentioned in the culture of society (such as the superhero movie “Storm 2”). What do you think about these small changes and do you think that Ruby was trying to say something with them?
  3. “The Shadow Cipher” is similar to other books with themes of kids trying to solve a puzzle such as “The Westing Game” and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” How do you think that it compares to other books in the genre?
  4. This book is generally for older middle grade and YA readers, but it covers fairly topical social justice subjects like social disparity and gentrification. Do you think the target audience will make connections about what Ruby is trying to say?
  5. What did you think of Tess, Theo, and Jaime as our protagonists? Were they believable characters?
  6. This is the first in a series. Do you think you’ll move on to the next book? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Shadow Cipher” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books with Cityscapes”, and “Exploring YA Fantasy and Sci-Fi”.

Find “The Shadow Cipher” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Julia Unbound”

30634302Book: “Julia Unbound” by Catherine Egan

Publishing Info: Alfred A Knopf, 2018

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

Book Description: Julia has been ensnared in so many different webs, it’s hard to see how she’ll ever break free. She must do Casimir’s bidding in order to save the life of her brother. She must work against Casimir to save the lives of most everyone else she knows.

Casimir demands that Julia use her vanishing skills to act as a spy at court and ensure that a malleable prince is installed on the throne of Frayne. But Julia is secretly acting as a double agent, passing information to the revolutionaries and witches who want a rebel princess to rule.

Beyond these deadly entanglements, Julia is also desperately seeking the truth about herself: How is it she can vanish? Is she some form of monster? Is her life her own?

With every move she makes, Julia finds herself tangled ever tighter. Should she try to save her country? Her brother? A beloved child? Can she even save herself?

Previously Reviewed: “Julia Vanishes” and “Julia Defiant”

Review: I have thoroughly enjoyed this very under-the-radar fantasy series. I knew very little about the book when I picked up the first one, but was quickly taken in by its unique world and a truly strong and complicated main character. The second book then impressed me even more by proving that not all YA series must rely on a “one true pairing!” romance as the emotional core of its story. The stakes were left higher than ever, so I was anxious to discover how things would be wrapped up in this, the third and final book. And I couldn’t be more pleased!

Back in Frayne, several weeks after the events of “Julia Defiant,” finds Julia up against a literal countdown to disaster. Not only is her beloved brother in the grips of the nefarious Casimir, but the political upheaval between the dying King and his cohort of witch hunters and the witches themselves seems to be coming to a head. And at the center of it all, a small child who has been left in Julia’s care and who holds the most powerful magic of all within him. A tangled web has been spun around her like a noose, and it’s slowly tightening.

This book did everything you want to see in a trilogy. Most especially, it took the strengths that had been established in the first two books and seemed to almost perfect them, all while wrapping up a complicated story and resolving the character conflicts that had been left over.

Throughout the series, I’ve liked the complicated world that has been built. Here, the conflict has expanded out to a city-wide, even nation-wide, level as the witches have finally found a rally point in a new heir to the throne who will look with a more friendly eye on their kind and hopefully reduce the persecution they have been living through during the past several decades. But Julia and co. are quick discover that no cause is perfect and that methods can matter just as much as the lofty goals behind them. Through this lens, the story explores topics such as domestic terrorism and political balance. Those who start out as heroes are questioned and those who have been presented as nothing more than villains are given expanded histories. This all leads to delicious conflicts that Julia must navigate. Her extraordinary power makes her a valuable ally to all groups involved, but she is beholden to no one and must come to her own decisions and walk her own path.

I’ve loved Julia as a character from the beginning, and this book really solidifies her as a unique heroine. As I mentioned in my review of the second book, I’ve really appreciated the author’s approach that has allowed non-romantic relationships to come to the forefront as the driving emotional force behind Julia’s choices. Rather than a “one true love,” Julia fights for her brother and the small boy under her care. She also fights for herself. She knows the power she possesses is rare and valuable to those around her. She knows that others will likely try to use her and manipulate her into aligning herself with their own pet causes. But Julia is her own woman.

We get to learn much more about Julia’s own history and abilities. Questions were raised in the second book that serve as a central plot point here. And the answers were surprising and satisfying. She also forms a brief, new romantic relationship. But like the ones that came before, she sees these relationships for what they are: meaningful, but not THE MEANING. There is a particular line that comes in the story where another independent woman, when asked if she needs help before setting out on a mission, responds with “You would only slow me down.” Julia takes this short phrase to heart, setting it as a goal: to be a strong woman who is simply slowed down by others, free to choose her own paths and complete her own goals. It was a refreshing new take on a YA heroine, and I loved her use of this phrase as a personal mantra.

I honestly can’t say enough good things about this book and series. My one complaint, perhaps, is that events are quickly wrapped up in the end. But even that flaw barely registered in my general enjoyment of the book as a whole. As I’ve said, this book has flown mostly under the radar, and it’s such a shame! In a genre that is flooded by novels that often follow fairly tried and true (and increasingly predictable) paths with tried and true (and increasingly predictable) heroines, this series stands alone as presenting something different. Read these books! Read them now!

Rating 9: An excellent finale to an excellent series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Unbound” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Defiant” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Leave No Trace”

38355245Book: “Leave No Trace” by Mindy Mejia

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: A friend lent me a copy!

Book Description: From the author of the “compelling” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis) and critically acclaimed Everything You Want Me to Be, a riveting and suspenseful thriller about the mysterious disappearance of a boy and his stunning return ten years later.

There is a place in Minnesota with hundreds of miles of glacial lakes and untouched forests called the Boundary Waters. Ten years ago a man and his son trekked into this wilderness and never returned.

Search teams found their campsite ravaged by what looked like a bear. They were presumed dead until a decade later…the son appeared. Discovered while ransacking an outfitter store, he was violent and uncommunicative and sent to a psychiatric facility. Maya Stark, the assistant language therapist, is charged with making a connection with their high-profile patient. No matter how she tries, however, he refuses to answer questions about his father or the last ten years of his life.

But Maya, who was abandoned by her own mother, has secrets, too. And as she’s drawn closer to this enigmatic boy who is no longer a boy, she’ll risk everything to reunite him with his father who has disappeared from the known world.

Review: As a Minnesota girl straight down to my bones, I am always a bit tickled to see a book take place in my home state. I think that that was part of the appeal of Mindy Mejia’s “Everything You Want Me To Be”, because along with the stellar mystery and twists and turns it had a familiarity to it that I greatly appreciated. Mejia is also a Minnesota Native, and seeing local authors make good is always gratifying. Her newest book, “Leave No Trace”, is another book set in Minnesota, this time in the northern part of the state as opposed to the farm belt. But it, too, serves us a mystery with lies, deceptions, and people with secrets from their pasts they’d rather keep buried.

The setting itself is one of the most powerful aspects of this book, and I don’t think that I say that solely as a Minnesota girl. Mejia does a great job of conveying the very setting and culture of Northern Minnesota, from the harbor town Duluth, where Lake Superior is an ever intimidating and daunting presence, to Ely, where the wilderness is just on the cusp of a small town, to the Boundary Waters, where the wilderness is vast and isolating. These various settings felt like characters in and of themselves, and I loved the imagery that Mejia put on the page. I lived in Duluth for almost a year, and she really captures that town and what it’s like to be on a Great Lake, especially one as temperamental as Superior. No matter where the characters were, the setting was well described, and the players interacted with their surroundings or made reference to their surroundings in realistic ways. The mystery itself kept me going, as I pretty much sat down one morning and read well into the afternoon until I had turned the last page. It really did suck me in, and there were things that I didn’t see coming and red herrings that had me fooled. Place and plot were, for the most part, strong.

But it was the characters that I had a harder time with, be it in terms of their conception and characterization, or the choices that they made. Maya didn’t work as well for me as a protagonist, as while we got background on her and why she might do the things that she did I found some of her choices (and the consequences of said choices) far fetched. I also didn’t think that we really got enough of her through showing rather than telling, and she made a shift in character once one piece of her backstory was revealed that didn’t feel believable. I also found it very hard to believe that some of her, shall we say, poorer choices didn’t have the consequences that they really should have. I don’t want to spoil anything here just because it is a fun read, but there were a couple of things she does that would have had far greater reaching issues than the ones that panned out. Lucas, too, had some problems, and that was really just that he didn’t really flesh out beyond the two dimensional hermit he was introduced as. I didn’t really believe his character progression with Maya either, and I didn’t buy their instant connection because of parental loss issues. ALSO, the heat between them was SO unethical that I was quite uncomfortable by all of it. He’s a patient who is going through a huge trauma (in this case being separated from his father AND having to acclimate to a new life outside of the Boundary Waters), so for this romance to be presented in a complicated skewing towards positive light was not settling well for me. And finally, the end itself felt a little too neat and tidy, and it went very fast in the wrap up, with a time jump and everything. I wish that things had gone a bit longer, or that we’d been able to see some of the difficult things that got swept away because of the time jump epilogue.

So while “Leave No Trace” didn’t live up to “Everything You Want Me To Be”, the Minnesota origins and settings of Mindy Mejia are still going to pull me back to whatever it is she writes next.

Rating 6: Though it’s fun to see a Minnesota setting was well portrayed, “Leave No Trace” had characters that I didn’t care for and didn’t have as many thrills as I wanted from it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Leave No Trace” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “A Walk in the Woods”, and “Trees, Woods, Forests”.

Find “Leave No Trace” at your library using WorldCat!