Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, September 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:Fashion editor Anya St. Clair is on the verge of greatness. Her wardrobe is to die for. Her social media is killer. And her career path is littered with the bodies of anyone who got in her way. She’s worked hard to get where she is, but she doesn’t have everything.
Not like Sarah Taft. Anya’s obsession sits one desk away. Beautiful, stylish, and rich, she was born to be a fashion world icon. From her beach-wave blonde hair to her on-trend nail art, she’s a walking editorial spread. And Anya wants to be her friend. Her best friend. Her only friend.
But when Sarah becomes her top competition for a promotion, Anya’s plan to win her friendship goes into overdrive. In order to beat Sarah…she’ll have to become her. Friendly competition may turn fatal, but as they say in fashion: One day you’re in, and the next day you’re dead.
Review: Even though on any given day you will probably find me lounging around my house in leggings and an oversized Sex Pistols tee shirt, I do have a certain pleasure for various aspects of the fashion industry. I used to watch “Project Runway” fairly religiously, loved the fashion shoots on old school “America’s Next Top Model”, and still enjoy seeing whatever nutty campaigns the likes of Gucci, Chanel, and Versace have going on at any given time. But it’s really an acknowledged fact that the fashion industry as a whole can be incredibly toxic and dehumanizing, so my enjoyment is probably fairly problematic. But toxic and dehumanizing means that it is ripe for the picking when it comes to satire, and that is where Amina Akhtar comes in. Akhtar used to be a fashion writer and editor, having been on the staff of such powerhouses and Vogue and Elle, but has now settled into the life of a novel writer. Her experiences I’m sure inspired her to write the deliciously named “#FashionVictim”. Just hearing about this book made me giggle with pleasure. Fashionistas resorting to murder to get ahead? I can’t get on board fast enough.
Our main character is Anya St. Clair, a fashion writer and associate editor who is at a prestigious fashion magazine called La Vie, who starts a killing spree in hopes of making it to the top. She’s obsessive and deranged, and her object of obsession is her colleague Sarah, the entirely unlikable poster child of the privileged fashion darling. Anya isn’t likable by any stretch of the imagination, but then, no one in this book is. After all, if you’re going to do a satire of the fashion industry, everyone needs to live up to the highest of stereotypes, so screeching and vapid bitches, both of the female and male persuasion, is the way to go. Anya is outwardly a perfect fit for this world, but in her mind lies a true maniac who idolizes Sarah yet despises her for the praise and accolades she has heaped upon her. Her inner monologue is frenzied and at times very funny, with delusions and intrusive thoughts intermingling with “Law and Order: SVU” trivia. Her drawn out massacre of those around her and those who get between her and what she wants (be it a promotion or the coveted BFF friendship with Sarah) is violent and jarring, but also has moments of gallows humor that you can’t help but laugh at, even if it feels kind of wrong to do so. “#FashionVictim” achieves the satirical levels that I’ve seen other books attempt, yet falter on. It digs its heels into the mess and violence, but at always feels like a nudge and a wink to the reader because the characters are such caricatures. And really, isn’t the fashion industry itself brutal and unforgiving in its own ways, pitting women against other women to do incredibly destructive things? Perhaps not murder. But destructive nonetheless.
But I think that as much as this is satire and a fun read, it doesn’t quite have the teeth that it could have had to really drive the point home. I think that because “#FashionVictim” is so over the top, you can say ‘oh, this is just a book, this could never happen in real life’. And while though the reader is in on the joke, I think that it could have been FAR more effective had it gone for a little bit of realism to go along with the satire. By being so out there and laughably ridiculous, it made it so that by the end I was less unsettled, and more ‘ha, what a romp’. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but it did make to so that it never quite made it to ‘great’ satire levels, and I think that it really could have gotten there had it not limited itself in such a way. I know that you’re all probably sick of my constant comparisons to “You”, but I think that kind of satire is stupendous BECAUSE you can see it happening in real life. While I don’t always need my satire to be based in realism, I do think that “#FashionVictim” could have had that extra oomph if it had stepped back just a little bit.
“#FashionVictim” was definitely a fun read, and I absolutely want to see what Amina Akhtar comes out with next. Go in expecting some bloody satire, but don’t expect to walk away totally creeped out.
Rating 6: Fun and dripping with satire, “#FashionVictim” was a breezy read, though I wish it had a little more creepy bite.
Book Description: Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom in the North, raised in privilege but shielded from politics as her brother prepares to step up to the throne. Halfway around the world, Athan Dakar, the youngest son of a ruthless general, is a fighter pilot longing for a life away from the front lines. When Athan’s mother is shot and killed, his father is convinced it’s the work of his old rival, the Queen of Etania—Aurelia’s mother. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder, he devises a plot to overthrow the Queen, a plot which sends Athan undercover to Etania to gain intel from her children.
Athan’s mission becomes complicated when he finds himself falling for the girl he’s been tasked with spying upon. Aurelia feels the same attraction, all the while desperately seeking to stop the war threatening to break between the Southern territory and the old Northern kingdoms that control it—a war in which Athan’s father is determined to play a role. As diplomatic ties manage to just barely hold, the two teens struggle to remain loyal to their families and each other as they learn that war is not as black and white as they’ve been raised to believe.
Review: I’m pretty sure I came across this book just by browsing through NetGalley one day and being intrigued by its rather simple cover. The fact that I couldn’t really guess what it was about based on the cover was mystery enough (this is a fun little game if you’re a book lover and have too much time on your hands: the match the cover with the general synopsis game). Then I read the description and became even more intrigued. Spies, and royalty, and…wait…fighter pilots? One of these does not go with the other!
The world is teetering on the brink, torn between a past that was ruled by a council of kings and queens who all regarded royal blood as the necessary component in leadership in their various countries, and a new world that, built on the back of technology, would suggest that leadership and charisma, regardless of the birthright of the one who carries these traits, are all that is needed. If the people follow you, your family history means nothing. Aurelia and Athan each come from opposing sides of this political stand-off. Aurelia has grown up a princess, confident in her place in the world, if still struggling to find a path forward that will fulfill her. Athan has had his life’s plan laid before his feet by his ambitious military leader father since the day he can remember. Neither fully understands the complicated history and political environment they have been thrust into, but in each other, they find a kinship that is as unexpected as it will be challenging.
This book took my so happily by surprise! Even with the book description, I had very little idea what I was getting into (part of the appeal, of course), so I turned to page one with a bit of hesitation. But immediately I was drawn in. For one, the writing in this is so solid. The very first chapter had me convinced that I had made the right choice in picking this one up. It’s one of those parts of reviewing books that I find most challenging: how to explain exactly what it was about the writing style that appealed to me.
For one, the book is a shared dual narrative between Aurelia and Athan. The challenge here, of course, is to effectively differentiate the voice between two characters who should read very differently. And right away, this is expertly handled. I think I ended up preferring Athan’s narrative style, but this potentially could have to do with his story being the one with the larger scale view of happenings in mind. Aurelia spends much of her time much more out of the loop. But either way, their voices were immediately distinct and their characteristics informed the way they spoke about and looked at the events unfolding around them.
From a more basic level, the writing is varied and complex. This is the weird part of evaluating writing where one feels tempted to start talking about the extent of the vocabulary used or the sentence structure. Again, not too sexy of a topic for book review material. But these are the kinds of things that you know when you see them, that make a book immediately pop out from the very first few pages.
All of this emphasis on writing is very important for a book like this. It’s a longer title and, as far as action goes, it’s a slow read. There’s a lot of complicated political and military tactics that are discussed, hidden, and revealed throughout the story. Our main characters are often only aware of the tip of the iceberg of it all, and that is felt by the reader. Schemes only become clear in the very end, and even then, one is never quite sure they have a finger on who all the players are in all of this. I believe there will be a map in the final version, but without that as well, the complicated geographical relationships between the various countries could also be overwhelming. To sum up: there’s a lot of talking and thinking in this book. Without strong writing, it could come across as pretty dull. But for me, it all came together perfectly.
This is also a strange book to assign to a genre. It’s technically referred to as a YA title and fantasy. But that said, I feel like this could easily be new adult or simply adult fiction; and any fantasy involved has to do with it being a made-up world. There aren’t any dragons or spells flying around here. Instead, the fascinating mixture of a completely invented world and history with very familiar, WWII level technology was refreshingly new.
There is, of course, a romance at the heart of the story. And I really enjoyed how this played out as well. Aurelia and Athan don’t simply fall instantly in love and all of their differences fade away. They come from different worlds, with different parental figures who have imparted very different lessons on their children. Throughout the story, no easy answers are provided and instead a slow sense of dread builds to what will be an inevitable clash.
As I said, this book took my completely by surprise. Luckily for me, it hit a lot of the tick boxes I look for in a story, but I can also see how the very unknown nature of it could leave other readers cold. If you go in with your typical YA/fantasy expectations in place, there’s a good chance this will feel like a slower, less interesting read. But for those looking for a more complicated, politically-focused story with a hard look at warfare and nationalism (with a dash of young love added in), this will be the perfect book for you!
Rating 9: Complicated and well-written, this book will appeal to fans of “Game of Thrones” who would be ok without all the dragons/white walkers stuff.
Book: “Fear Hall: The Beginning” (Fear Hall #1) by R.L. Stine
Publishing Info: Turtleback books, January 1997
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:Dear Readers:
Come with me to Fear Hall. That’s the creepy college dorm built years ago by the cursed Fear family.
Hope and her roommates live in Fear Hall. Hope’s boyfriend lives there, too. They’re all good students and best friends. Everything is going great…until one of them becomes a murderer!
Now Hope is about to find out that life at Fear Hall can be a real scream!
I hope you’ll join me for Fear Hall. This story has so many scares, it took me two books to tell it all!
P.S. You’ll never believe what I came up with for the next book…
Had I Read This Before: No
The Plot: I first want to note that I was taken aback by the sudden design change in the cover. At first I thought it was just because of the new location of Fear Hall, thinking that a college off shoot story may need to stand out from the usual Shadyside malarky. However, the last two books in the Original “Fear Street” series have the same design, even though right after the Fear Hall books the next two go back to the original, better known template. What was the purpose here? What was the motivation? Why the switch up, then rescinded switch up, back to a switch up?
Regardless, we find ourselves not in Shadyside, but at Ivy State. We haven’t heard of Ivy State yet, at least to to my recollection, but this is a college with big enough connections to Shadyside that the Fear Family gave enough money to get a dorm named after them. And that is where Hope, our first narrator, lives, on the 13th Floor of Fear Hall with her roommates Angel, Eden, and Jasmine. Here is the run down about all of the roommates. Hope is plain and ‘chubby’, Angel is thin and a boy magnet, Eden wears plaid and isn’t interested in things Other Girls™ are (but is loud and likes letter writing to her Mom), and Jasmine is shy and intelligent. Hope says that they are all super close because they’ve known each other for a few years even before this, their freshman year. They are a happy rag tag bunch in 13-B, which is why Hope is sad to tell us about the night that the ‘troubles started’.
Hope is awakened in the middle of the night by her boyfriend Darryl. He has beer of his breath, natch, and Hope asks him what he’s doing because boys aren’t allowed on this floor at this time of night. He tells her that he’s in trouble and that he did something terrible. Seems that he followed Hope earlier that night and saw her out with some guy named Brendan. She tells him that it wasn’t her out with Brendan, it was Angel, and he proceeds to grab her and scream at her about lying to him. Oh. He’s one of those guys. She keeps insisting that it was Angel who was out with Brendan, but Darryl continues to shake her and yell at her that she’s lying. Hope also lets the readers know that she LOVES Darryl so much and is so happy he’s at Ivy State with her, and that he saved her from a real creep named Mark. The only downside is that he’s just a little possessive. And by a little I mean he doesn’t even like other guys looking at her. He tells her that he ‘carved’ Brendan. Hope screams, and Angel, Eden, and Jasmine wake up. They demand to know why Darryl is there and he tells them what he saw. But Angel confirms that she was out with Brendan and had borrowed Hope’s outfit. Darryl has the gall to not only tell them that he’s pretty sure he killed Brendan, but that THEY HAVE TO HELP HIM COVER IT UP. Angel tells him that they’re going to call the motherfucking cops on his ass and Eden says that they aren’t going to help him.
Darryl shoves Angel and threatens her, and before she can scream there’s a knocking on the door. Hope thinks that it’s the police already (in spite of the fact no one has called yet) and she shoves Darryl in her closet. She answers the door, but it’s not the fuzz, it’s Melanie from across the hallway. She is one of the ‘3 M’s’ that lives across the hall, the others being Margie and Mary, and Hope hates them because they’re preppy and went to private schools and is convinced that they hate the girls in 13-B because they are all public school girls. This seems like it may be projecting. Melanie says she heard some loud noises and wanted to make sure that everything was okay, and Hope says that it’s just her and her friends having way too much fun. And Melanie, being the bitch that she is, is hesitant and concerned and asks Hope if she’s sure that everything is okay. Oh wait, that’s actually a really nice and considerate thing to do, isn’t it? She says that Mary is still out and was waiting up for her, and is about to go back to her dorm when there’s a scream. Mary comes tearing down the hallway, saying she saw a dead boy outside. Basically everyone in the dorm hear the commotion and runs outside, and indeed it’s Brendan, his body all cut up/’carved’ (what an awkward phrase!). Melanie asks Hope if she was out with Brendan that night, and Hope gets REALLY defensive and says NO and maybe Melanie needs to get her eyes checked!!! Zing. As everyone else freaks out the sound of sirens start up, and Hope rushes back to her dorm room. She finds Darryl still in her room, and he tells her not to go out with another guy or he may kill someone again. He stumbles out.
Now it’s from Jasmine’s POV! We see her at her diner job at the Campus Corner. It’s a tough job but she likes it, and for some reason this segues into the fact her mother was always mean to her and gave her the nickname ‘fish’ because of her personality being like a cold fish. Sheesh. She wishes she could be as outgoing and cool as her roommates. She also notices the 3 M’s in a booth, talking in low tones and looking at her. She can hear them talking about Brendan, and how sad they all are, and by the time Jasmine does approach them she outright asks them why they’re all staring at her. I have a feeling this probably reflects worse on Jasmine than it does them, but the 3 M’s are gracious enough to say that they just hoped Jasmine would notice them and come take their orders. Shortly thereafter Eden and Angel walk in and take a seat, and Jasmine joins them on her break. They all agree that Darryl needs to be locked up, but that Hope isn’t going to let them call the police, as if they can’t just call the police of their own volition. As they discuss what the should do, the 3 M’s stare at them. Jasmine feels self conscious and says they can talk about it at home. At the end of her shift her boss Marty asks her if she’s okay, and she says yes, and heads for home. But on the way home she’s surprised by Darryl (gross). He asks her if she’s going to keep her mouth shut and she says yes, but tells him that he needs to get help. He in turn tells her that he’s not going to kill anyone again, ‘unless [he] has to’. I, for one, do not find this comforting.
Now it’s an Eden section! I’m excited for this because I feel like Eden is the one I am going to relate to the most! She’s writing a letter home to her Mom, and Hope makes a snarky comment about it. She then asks Eden and Jasmine if she ever told them what her nickname was, bestowed upon her by her mother. Jasmine takes this as a Bad Mom Pissing Contest and brings up ‘fish’ again, but Hope says that her mom used to call her ‘buttertubs’, and then goes on to tell a story of how her mom once made her eat four bowls of ice cream in front of some of Hope’s school friends, and then smashed her face into the ice cream carton afterwards. I think Hope wins. She then says she wants to go out, and Eden, leaving her letter to her nurturing and well adjusted mom behind, accompanies her to the Blue Tavern for pizza.
And when we arrive Stine emphasizes not once, not twice, but thrice times that YOU CAN GET BEER HERE. This is NOT Pete’s Pizza, esteemed readers! Eden and Hope order a pie before sitting down, and two guys in a booth across from them start making eyes at them. Eden is into it, but Hope is clearly uncomfortable and says they should leave. Eden asks her what the issue is, and Hope tells her Darryl is the issue. Eden asks if he’s followed them here, and Hope says he’s close by. Eden feels a hand on her shoulder, but when she turns around it’s just the cute guys from the table across from them. They ask if they can join, and Eden hesitates, mentioning that her friend may not be comfortable. They ask ‘what friend?’, and when Eden looks over she sees Hope is gone! She’s at first worried Darryl came in and grabbed her, but then assures herself she would have noticed such a commotion, and decides Hope must have just slipped off. She invites the guys to eat her pizza with her, and they introduce themselves as Dave and Gideon. They all chat and eat pizza, and when she tells them that she lives in Fear Hall, and they think that’s so cool since it’s rumored to be haunted. They ask her if she knew anything about the recent murder there, and Eden takes that as he cue to leave and to check on Hope.
Eden gets back to 13-B, but unfortunately Darryl is there, and he holds up the letter Eden was writing to her Mom, where she mentioned the murder. He demands to know if she was going to tell on him, and she tries to snatch it away but he grabs her and violently holds her in his grasp. There’s a knocking on the door again, and Darryl lets Eden go and runs into the bathroom, Hope right behind him, and they slam the door to hide. Angel wakes up briefly, and Jasmine sleeps through it all (I don’t see how!), and Eden goes to the door, opening it a crack. It’s Melanie and Mary of the 3 M’s, checking to see if everything is okay again. Hope is so catty about them, but they seem like concerned neighbors more than anything else. Eden says that it was the radio, and when it’s pointed out that the radio isn’t on she says she turned it off when they knocked. Melanie and Mary say that they’re all really freaked out, and Eden agrees that she and her roommates are freaked out too, and a moment of awkward silence happens before they tell Eden they are trying to organize a safety meeting for the dorm so they can figure out how to keep themselves safe. I have a suggestion that’s pretty proactive, and that is for Eden to just call the damn cops already! She says that she and her roommates will come to the meeting, and the 2 of 3 M’s give her another look and then say goodnight. Eden thinks that they are strange.
On the way to class the next day Eden runs into Dave from the pizza parlor, and he asks her out for coffee after her class. She says yes! But when she gets to class something weird happens. The professor doesn’t have her name on his class roster, but he does have Hope’s, even though Hope isn’t in that class. He says that she has to suss it out with the Dean, and MY question is how this just became a problem now?
Eden has to leave the class, and she wonders if she’s going crazy because of all this Darryl stress. She goes back into the building from whence she came and goes to a pay phone bank, intent on calling the cops, but before she can Hope taps her on the shoulder. Eden asks her if she’s taking any history classes that semester, and Hope says no, so Eden is definitely convinced the professor had the wrong class roster. Hope asks her who she was calling, and Eden tells her that she was going to call the police because Darryl is a straight up violent criminal. Hope begs Eden to wait a little bit longer, as if Hope could possibly do ANYTHING to quell that psychotic goon of a boyfriend of hers, and Eden agrees.
That night Eden goes on a date with Dave. She’s wearing one of Hope’s outfits since her closest is usually more Seattle Grunge couture, and the date is going well. She and Dave are walking around campus and the 3 M’s see them from across the courtyard, and mistake her for Hope. Eden says she’s just wearing Hope’s clothes, but she’s Eden, and asks Dave if she and Hope even look alike. He says he’s never met Hope, so how would be know? Gideon sneaks up on them and nearly gives Eden a heart attack, and then Dave suggests that he and Eden go to the driving range for the end of their date. Oh, how romantic. But Eden is game. They go to the driving range right before closing, and they are the only two there, the area lit up by big lights. But just as Dave’s about to show Eden how to do the perfect drive, Darryl shows up, grabs a club, and BEATS HIM TO DEATH RIGHT OUT IN THE OPEN. Eden, covered in blood, runs away, screaming.
Now it’s back to Hope’s POV. She is comforting Eden, who is reeling and sobbing about the horrific trauma she just experienced, and Hope says that she wants to tell Eden a story. She goes on to tell her about how when she was still living at home her mother deliberately bought her clothes that were far too small for her, because she liked watching Hope try to squeeze into them and end up humiliated about the bad fit. But Darryl never cared that she was overweight, and that is why she could NEVER turn in the guy who has violently murdered two innocent people. Because she doesn’t think that anyone else will see past her weight.
ARE. YOU. FUCKING. KIDDING. ME.
First of all, the highest size that Stine ever puts Hope at is a ten, which isn’t considered plus size at all. And even if she WAS overweight what the hell kind of fucked up message is it to give the readers that overweight people should be glad to get whatever kind of love they can, even if it’s from abusive, violent psychopaths? It would be one thing if this kind of mindset was at all pushed back against, but instead of that Eden instead falls asleep as Hope comforts her, which in turn leads to Darryl showing up and saying that now Hope can ‘strangle’ Eden. Hope is shocked, and he back paddles really fast but tells her that he can explain what happened. Hope gives him the platform to do so, but then he says that there is no explanation, but that Eden saw everything and what if she tells? Well GEE, ASSHOLE, maybe you shouldn’t have slaughtered her date right in front of her!!! Hope tells him that he has to leave, but before he does he throws a few good threats toward Eden for good measure.
The next day the news breaks the story about Dave, and when Eden wakes up she wants to call the police. Hope begs her not to, but Eden, rightfully so, tells her that she’s not protecting Darryl anymore no matter WHAT Hope wants. So Hope, in a moment of panic, smashes her in the head with Angel’s hair dryer. She doesn’t kill her, but she does stun her, and while Eden is in a daze Hope ties her up, gags her, and throws her in the clothes closet. After she takes in a few breaths, she turns and sees Melanie in the doorway. She thinks she’s been caught and tries to calculate if she could do the same thing to Melanie, but luckily Melanie is just there to remind her about the campus safety meeting. After she leaves Hope’s paranoia gets the best of her, and she decides to has to tell Darryl he has to run away. But when she gets to the quad, she sees police officers taking Darryl away! She thinks that maybe she could make up an alibi for him, but remembers she still has to get dressed. She runs back to her room, and remembers as well that she threw Eden in her closet. But then, maybe she didn’t, because Eden suddenly sits up in her bed, with no memory of what Hope did! Hope is thrown for a moment, but then remembers Darryl, and goes to the window to see if she can see if he and the cops are still there. The cops are gone, but Darryl is standing below, glaring up at her.
Back to Jasmine’s POV. She is running to work, as she’s very late and doesn’t want to get in trouble. WHen she arrives, twenty minutes past her start time, her boss Marty asks to speak with her. He tells her that he needs someone who is more responsible, and that he has to let her go. She says that she won’t be late again, and he says that it’s one thing to be late, it’s quite another to not show up like she did yesterday. Jasmine is confused, she doesn’t think that she was working yesterday, and when he asks her where she was she doesn’t remember. He gives her her last paycheck, and she leaves, distraught that she can’t remember anything about the day before. And yes, this clinches my suspicions. Jasmine goes to the cafeteria to try and remember what happened the day before, but alas and alack she runs into Darryl. He tells her that Hope said he should leave, but he REFUSES to go! He also tells Jasmine that he was so mad at Hope for suggesting it, and he ‘hurt’ her.
And now we’re back to HOPE’S POV. Jasmine returns to the room to find Hope sobbing on her bed. Jasmine asks her what Darryl did, if he hit her or anything like that, but Hope informs her it’s worse, MUCH worse. He called her a fat cow, and that she’d rather be beat up than called that. Okay, I’m not going touch any of that with a ten foot pole. She tells Jasmine that she should go to the safety meeting and tell everyone what Darryl has done, and as she spirals out of mental control she suddenly screams her head off, and runs out of their room and down the hall, with Melanie calling after her. HOO boy.
Now it’s ANGEL’S POV? We haven’t gotten this yet! Angel is making out with a boy named B.J. in a car, because YAS GIRL. Apparently she just saw in at the coffee shop and one thing led to another and now they’re here. They are suddenly interrupted by, you guessed it, Darryl, and as she starts to scream at Darryl to leave them alone, Darryl throws out the usual generic threats. B.J. gets freaked out and leaves Angel alone with Darryl…
Now it’s Hope’s POV again. She’s returning to the dorm around 11 after her ‘moment’, and runs into Melanie in the elevator. Melanie says she’s sorry she missed her at the meeting, and Melanie says that they still have no leads. They part ways, and Hope goes into her dorm. Eventually Angel, Eden, and Jasmine return, and they tell Hope that they NEED to do something about Darryl, and HALLELUJAH, Hope finally, FINALLY, agrees with them! Eden calls the police and tells them everything, and they tell her they will arrive in ten minutes. Which will be ten minutes too late, because DARRYL CLIMBS THROUGH THE FIRE ESCAPE! And he heard everything, of course, and he takes it about as well as one might expect. So he attacks Eden, pulls a Bane Breaking the Bat move, and then throws her out the window! Hope screams in shock that Darryl killed her friend, as if this wasn’t a completely foreseeable conclusion given his past behavior, and Darryl nods and jumps back onto the fire escape and scampers off into the night. Jasmine and Angel are screaming, and then there’s a pounding on the door as the police announce their presence. The three remaining roommates climb onto the fire escape as well, hiding from the cops as they come in, but Hope overhears them talking to Melanie as she comes to investigate. They tell her that a girl named Eden called them, and Melanie says that no girl named Eden lives in this room. It’s just one girl named Hope, no roommates besides her! Hope listens to the 3 M’s talk to the police, and apparently not only does she live alone, but there is no boy’s floor that Darryl lives in in Fear Hall. It’s an all girls dorm! The police say that it sounds like a dangerous ‘looney’ (real professional guys) may be on the loose. Hope is offended by all of this, and she says to Angel and Jasmine that the 3 M’s won’t get away with saying all this bad shit about her. They agree. Then Darryl appears at Hope’s beck and call as well, and they agree that the 3 M’s have to die. So this whole time this was a quasi split personality psychosis kind of deal, but it wouldn’t be ACTUAL dissociative identity disorder because for that to be the case there would have to be a main personality that didn’t know that there were other personalities! We are left with the cops seeing Hope on the fire escape! TO BE CONTINUED!!
Body Count: 2. And I’m still not over the use of ‘carved’ as a descriptor in the first instance.
Romance Rating: 0. Darryl is literally killing any boy that he sees Hope interact with, and if that doesn’t say unromantic I don’t know what does. Of course, given that Darryl doesn’t even exist it kind of makes it a non-relevant category.
Bonkers Rating: 5, just because the GIANT TWIST is so old hat and lazy that I’m not impressed by it.
Fear Street Relevance: 7, as Fear Hall is named after the Fear Family.
Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:
“A grin spread over his face. A grin of triumph. And that’s when I decided to kill him.”
…. Except she instantly clarifies that she didn’t REALLY want to kill him, just get him out of her life. I wouldn’t blame Eden if she did kill Darryl though.
That’s So Dated! Moments: Hope refers to J. Crew as ‘preppy’ clothes, and I don’t think that that label is REALLY seen as a status symbol anymore, at least not among young preps.
“‘Someone told me a story about Ollie [the night guard at Fear Hall]. They said he died thirty years ago. But his ghost refused to leave Fear Hall. He takes his guard post every night, even though he’s dead!'”
… Honestly I’d rather read that book that the conclusion to this.
Conclusion: “Fear Hall: The Beginning” was lazy and paint by numbers, and the big reveal at the end didn’t get me very hyped to move on in the series. And yet, in spite of that, next up is “Fear Hall: The Conclusion”.
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!
I think we can all relate to the ordeal that is picking a new show to watch. Especially when it is a joint watch between you and someone else. My husband and I mostly have the same tastes, but that doesn’t seem to make it much easier. After we mourned the last episode of “The Great British Bake Off,” we were in it again. Until, out of nowhere, by husband was like “hey, what about this show? I think it’s about super heroes?” And, like a dummy, had never even heard of it! And thus began a new happy reign of Netflix watching. I also haven’t read the comic that this was originally based upon, but one of my favorite things about this adaptation is that there are multiple points in every episode where I can clearly see a scene that had to have been pulled directly from the pages. It’s artsy without getting lost in its concept. Funny, heart-breaking, and still has us guessing as to where everything is leading! I can’t speak for how faithful it is to the original material, but whatever it is we’re getting here, I’m thoroughly enjoying it!
Again, after the loss of our beloved “Fallout 4,” my husband and I have struggled to really find a good replacement video game that can eat up months of our time. Neither of us really grew up with a lot of gaming, so it takes us both a bit to really get a feel for a new game and how to best play it. That being the case, we like to find the largest games we can that will help off-set our slow-learning. Bethesda games have been perfect for that reason. But we heard through the grapevine that “Red Dead Redemption II” was not only an excellent open world game (our favorite type) but also had an even larger map than “Fallout 4.” So, on a spur of the moment whim, we went out and nabbed this game last weekend. And…yeah, that’s been our life ever since. I think we could agree that while some of the complicated menuing systems leave something to be desired, and that it definitely took us even longer than usual to feel up to speed, now that we’re in it…this game is worth the time and effort. There’s just tons to do! And while my husband can be overly trigger happy (we waste half our money paying off bounties on our head, I feel), I spend most of my time bonding with our horse and figuring out how many horses we can have at one time. So we’re both happy!
Lest it be thought that I do nothing but read, and then watch TV or play video games, here is something new! I’ve owned this game for…forever. As evidenced by the state of the box itself. It’s literally taped together in places and the cards are…”worn” is a kind word for the state of them, I think. But for some reason, we just hadn’t played it for quite a while. Until we had house guests a few months ago and played like 8 games over the entire weekend. And then ever since, my husband and I have worked out a variation to make it 2-player and have played it several times again each week for the past month. I think we have all of the routes memorized at this point. Probably time to look for the European option!
Part “Groundhog Day”, part time and space theory, “Russian Doll” is a dark comedy/thriller/science fiction puzzle that completely blew me away. I’ve loved Natasha Lyonne since I was in high school, and seeing her in a starring role with so much material to work with is a real joy. Lyonne plays Nadia, a woman who is a bit of an emotional train wreck, who dies when she’s hit by a car after her 36th birthday party. Then she wakes up at the party again…. Only to die again, only to wake up again. And again. And again. This show is a brain teaser with slick and interesting writing, fun characters, and a lot of mysteries, but it isn’t until episode three that a plot twist brings the show from good writing to GREAT writing. “Russian Doll” is addictive and fabulous.
While I’m usually content to re-listen to episodes of “My Favorite Murder” and “Last Podcast on the Left”, I’m always on the lookout for new podcasts of the true crime variety. Wondery Network has consistently put out deep dive and fascinating series, such as “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death”, and their newest series, “Over My Dead Body”, as captivated me as well. It’s the story of the marriage of Dan Merkel and Wendi Adelson, which ended with divorce, acrimony, and murder. I went in with very little knowledge of the case at it’s center, and I think that it’s good to go in blind because the reveals are meticulous and, quite frankly, nuts. Wondery has always been a great network for gripping and responsible podcasting, and now that I’m hooked on “Over My Dead Body” whenever a new episode drops I make it a priority to listen as soon as possible.
While I appreciate that “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” opted to end the show on a high note before it ran out of ideas/became too wacky to remain tenable, I was very sad to see it end. As it is, the outlandish characters and storylines hadn’t yet overstayed their welcome, so when my husband and I sat down to watch the final episodes we were pretty bummed out. But, in pure Kimmy fashion, the entire cast is able to give us a fine farewell, and to bring some bittersweet, and still hilarious, closure to a series that properly balanced darkness with light. While this show wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, the character growth and the biting satire were top notch. The final episodes feel a bit quick, but over all I was happy to see where all of my beloved characters, Kimmy and Titus especially, ended up.
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, September 2000
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: Things were already really weird. Fighting aliens. Battling to save Earth. And still trying to be normal. Marco, the other Animorphs, and Ax are almost used to it. Almost. But things are changing. The Yeerk invastion of Earth started out passively. Secretly. But now, everything seems to be stepped up. Even Marco’s father is talking about some top secret project at his job. Something about developing Zero-space…
Marco doesn’t even know whether his father is a Controller. But he does know he’s not going to let the Yeerks win this one. They’ve already got his mother. And Marco will do anything it takes to save his father. Anything…
Plot: I had honestly forgotten that this was one of the first big game changer books in the end game line up of this series. For one, I think the previous Cassie book being so incredibly not relevant to the overarching plot serves as a pretty big distraction. You read that one and are left feeling like “yep, here we are, still in the middle of filler land!” Then you pick up this one and…
It’s just an average evening at home for Marco: making frozen pizza for the family, accepting Nora as part of said family, avoiding any and all views of displays of affection between Nora and his father. Then his father starts up on the dinner conversation and low and behold, his company is just a few short steps away from creating a zero space communicator. Marco recognizes this for the potential disaster it is. He immediately calls Jake and the group meets up at Cassie’s barn.
At the barn, Marco says that he tested his father and doesn’t believe him to be a Controller yet, but that they’ll need to keep him under surveillance. The group agrees, and Jake sends Tobias and Ax out on first watch: it is clear that Jake thinks Marco is too invested. Back home, in the middle of the night, Marco wakes up to a phone call. He picks it up and overhears a man from his Dad’s work saying that a co-worker’s wife has died and that he should come in for some support. Marco is quick to realize that this is a ploy, calls Rachel for back-up, and sets off after his father.
He barely makes it in time, seeing through a window that his father is bound and held by two Hork Bajir who are preparing to dunk him into a mini Yeerk pool. Without thinking, Marco barges in to save his father. Rachel shows up as back up and they make their escape. Rachel retreats to tell the others what has happened and gorilla!Marco and his father speed away in a car. After they get a ways away, Marco’s dad begins questioning everything and Marco reveals who he is and what he can do with morphing. They stop at a run-down diner and Marco tells him everything.
He allows his dad to call home, but when his dad almost reveals to Nora where they are, Marco disconnects the call, angry that his father clearly hasn’t listened to anything he said. Marco does a quick breeze through of his morphs to finally convince his dad that what he’s said is true. He also reveals that his mom is alive and is Visser One. Marco’s dad struggles not only to accept that his son is now giving him orders (like the fact that Marco has decided to stow him away with the Chee for now) and with the fact that his first wife is alive, but he also loves Nora.
Marco takes him to the King’s house where his Dad gets even more of an eye-opener on just how weird Marco’s world is. But he’s also distracted by the amazing technology on display. Erek and the other Chee go out in disguise as Marco and his dad, knowing that if they both are seen as missing that Marco will be under suspicion and through him, all of his friends. Marco takes off back to the barn to meet up with the rest of the Animorphs.
Once there, it is clear that none of them technically approve of what he’s done, but they also know that they wouldn’t have done anything differently had they been in that position. They also realize that the fact that Marco’s dad knows how to build a zero space communicator is a huge win. Marco and Ax return to the Chee and recruit Marco’s dad into helping Ax build it.
The next day, cockroach!Marco watches himself die. Erek and Mr. King, posing as Marco and his dad, are “killed” by a force of Yeerks who storm Marco’s home. Nora, now clearly infested, stands outside and watches. Once it is done, Marco realizes that life as he knew it is over, not stopping to even take anything from his room.
Back with the Chee, Ax and Marco’s dad have made progress on the communicator, enough to have discovered that Visser One has been convicted of treason and is being held in the Yeerk Pool for execution by starvation. Visser Three will be promoted to Visser One and his plans for all out destruction are imminent. They decide to rescue Marco’s mom and eventually set up his mother and father for life in the free Hork Bajir valley.
To get into the Yeerk Pool, the Animorphs need to steal a Bug fighter. The security has been upped once again and no living thing can make it through the entrance tunnel, but the shields of a Bug fighter will do the trick. They lure a ship into the forest claiming to be a forest service worker who “captured a strange, bladed monster” and quickly take over the ship. But the ship is a new version and one that Ax has trouble handling. Luckily, there is an auto pilot system installed that can take over if the pilot seems “erratic.” After a bumpy ride, the team, now all in Hork Bajir morphs, find themselves in the Yeerk Pool entrance tunnel that is accessed through a holographic sunken ship under the ocean.
They make their way to the Yeerk Pool only to discover that Visser One has been tied to a pier in the middle of the pool and is clearly at the last stages of her starvation. They head back to the ship, thinking to use it to grab Visser One. On the way, things go sideways and they are discovered. They rush back to the ship and end up having to blast their way back into the Yeerk Pool. Marco and Rachel jump out to grab Visser One, but the others are forced to retreat in the ship, leaving them exposed.
An elite force of Hork Bajir show up who are clearly more skilled at fighting. They manage to grab Eva and make their way back to the edge of the pool. Rachel is badly injured in the fight and Visser One makes a break for it, escaping out of Eva’s ear. Marco is left trying to save his mother (who is violently struggling to kill Visser One before she makes it to the pool) and helping Rachel. Eva manages to nab Visser One and with the help of Marco, they kill her. Visser Three shows up and morphs a huge, fanged winged alien that comes after them. But the other Animorphs in the Bug fighter are able to badly injure him and rescue Marco, Cassie, and Eva. However, the ship is shot and lands in the pool.
With Eva’s extra knowledge of how the ship operates, they manage to overhear the engine corp enough to get the ship up again, boiling a large portion of the Yeerk pool in the process. They finally manage to escape.
Marco sets up his mother and father at the free Hork Bajir colony. They have a happy reunion though later Marco’s father approaches him about Nora’s fate. Marco plants the suspicion that Nora was always a Controller and had been put in his path to monitor his work. Marco himself sets up camp living with the Chee at the Kings’ household, making trips to the Hork Bajir colony every once in a while.
Later, on the beach, the team finally use the zero space communicator they made to contact the Andalites. Jake is the one to speak and when asked who is on the other line, he says “This is Earth.”
The Comic Relief: This is a huge book for Marco. Everything kind of comes to a head all at once and he ends up being the first one of the group to have his cover blown. The speed at which it all falls apart is also a great example of how precariously balanced their charade has been this entire time. One little event and BAM! Marco’s entire life is up-ended and he has to fake his own death, and his father’s, and let his step mom get infested.
Obviously Marco struggles a lot with the action at the heart of the story. But on the emotional side of things, he is most struck by the realization that his dad truly loves Nora and what that means for his father to go through all of this. It’s a hard hit for Marco who, up to this point, it seems, always believed that while his dad cared for Nora, what he felt for her wasn’t the same as what he felt for Marco’s mother. To realize that one can feel that kind of love more than once and that a parent has moved on to another, it’s a hard hit for Marco.
He also questions whether he could have done more to save her and whether his own shock at his father’s feelings at all impacted his decision to not try to get back to their house to rescue her.
In the end, when he finally has his family reunited at the free Hork Bajir valley, we see that this joy, what he always wished for, has been tinged by the realities of adulthood, time, and what love looks like. His father is happy to be with his mother, but he’s also going to grieve Nora.
Our Fearless Leader: Early in the book, Marco notes that Jake is a fair leader when he asks for Marco’s input on the situation with his father. But at the same time, he catches himself wishing that Jake would just make the call, taking the weight of the decision off of Marco. It’s a nice moment to highlight how much the team members depend on Jake to shoulder this weight. Throughout the rest of the book, Jake pretty effectively highlights his hard-won ability to calmly and effectively roll with all of the punches that are thrown at them.
He’s also the one at the end to speak via the zero space communicator. He initially waves towards Ax to do it, but Ax rightly recognizes that Jake needs to be seen as the leader from the very beginning, so Jake ends up with the great closing line.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel ends up teaming up with Marco several times in this book. She’s the one he calls when he sees his dad taking off in the middle of the night, and she’s also the one to end up on the pier with him at the end. Some of it is necessity (she’s the one available by phone and the one with the power morph at the pool), but at this point it’s also clearly more than coincidence that these two work well together.
We also get a great moment from her that highlights that she’s more than just the tank of the team. When they’re in the barn discussing how useful (or not) the zero space communicator would be (especially considering how often the Andalites have ignored the plight of Earth in the past, so who’s to say contacting them again is even worth it), she’s the one to draw their attention to its abilities to spy on Yeerk communications. Marco is frustrated that he didn’t see this himself. And as a reader, it is surprising, as this is exactly the kind of thing that we expect to see from his character. But it’s a nice reminder that Rachel has brains, too, and Marco isn’t the only one who can evaluate situations effectively.
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t have a whole lot in this book. But he does contribute when it comes to Eva/Visser One’s experience with torture. The others all say that she will gain nothing from revealing their secrets, but Tobias is quick to correct them that, when under extreme suffering, one will do almost anything if they think there’s a chance to stop the pain. Another lovely reminder of poor Tobias’s sucky life. This is what he gets to be now: the guy with all the insights into torture experiences!
Peace, Love, and Animals: There are few quick moments from Cassie that are all kind of neat for her character. In the beginning, Marco notices Jake shooting a quick glance to Cassie before assigning Ax and Tobias to watch Marco’s dad. Marco realizes that in that quick look, Cassie was able to convey to Jake that she thought Marco was too close to it and shouldn’t be trusted to guard his own father.
Later, she’s also the one to quickly speak up for saving Marco’s mom. She knows that after everything the team went through for his dad, that Marco can’t ask them to take on a suicide mission back into the pool for his mom. So she does it for him, coming up with a good excuse for why it’s necessary. Marco is incredibly thankful for this.
And then, towards the end, when they end up boiling the Yeerk pool, we see her turn away from the window and the destruction, another reminder that, of them all, she struggles the most with moments like this where the destruction doesn’t come from battles, but from other choices.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has some definite struggles coming to grips with the fact that humanity might have figured out zero space, and way faster than the Andalites did, relatively speaking to their own technological time lines. He also proves himself capable of giving Marco a run for his money on the bad driving front. Though, to be fair, the Bug fighter seems pretty advanced and Marco should have at least gone through driver’s ed at this point…It did lead to some fairly comical lines from Ax though:
<You should always wear the safety restraints,> Ax scolded, struggling futilely to get four humans and an angry bird off him.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Marco definitely knew the right morph to effectively traumatize his father quickly: always, always go ant, if your goal is utter horror. Marco’s poor father, to see that, then followed by the bird, and then have your son threaten lobster morph on you…yikes. But, I have to say, of all the ridiculous cover morphs we’ve seen, it’s pretty dumb that the one that ended up using the ant morph was from the book where this morph literally gets about two sentences. Marco doesn’t even make it fully ant! It’s pretty silly.
Couples Watch!: Man, you really have to feel for Marco’s dad in this one. His wife who died years ago, who he mourned, is now back in his life. His new wife, who he legitimately loved, is now essentially dead in her own way. What’s more, his son has now planted the idea that the woman he loved may have never even been real in the first place. I don’t think relationship drama gets worse than this.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three only makes a brief appearance with yet another of his super sweet alien morphs that lasts a hot second before immediately getting taken down by the Animorphs. You’d think he’d at least learn to stop per-emptively bragging about his morphs’ badass abilities every time he tries out a new one, given his past failure rate. More importantly, the fact that Visser Three will now be Visser One is the crucial news of this story. After “Visser,” the Animorphs have a much clearer idea of what Visser Three’s vision of the Earth invasion looks like, and it’s a lot less of the subtlety and a lot more of this:
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Towards the very end of the book, Marco makes the decision to plant the idea that Nora was maybe always a Controller and had been put in his dad’s life to spy on his work. It’s a really dark moment, more so for the fact that’s it’s not clear whether this was the right or wrong call, to either Marco or the reader. Marco’s thought is that this idea will give his dad a sense of peace, that he didn’t simply abandon his wife to a life of infestation or that he cheated in some way on Eva, since Nora was a spy all along. But…is that really a comfort? His feelings for Nora were real, and with this idea, he’s now left with the thought that their whole relationship was a sham. And Eva is going to tell him, too, about the fact that that one “blissful year” that he remembers with her before she died, yeah, she was Controlled then too. So now poor Marco’s dad has two wives, both of whom were creating sham relationships with him for some portion of their time together. I kind of think this lie is just easier for Marco than for his dad. It’s a rough little moment, but I can’t also say he was completely wrong to have thought it might help.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: As you’ll see with my scorecard below, given the Animorphs’ past experiences with the Andalites, being able to contact them doesn’t seem like that great of a thing. They’ve been routinely dismissed by the Andaites and have heard through enough grapevines for it to be pretty believable that the Andalite fleet isn’t anywhere nearby and doesn’t even think of Earth as a priority. So, it’s not that it’s a bad plan to contact them, but all of the past stuff does kind of undercut what could have been a really cool moment at the end of the book.
Favorite Quote: There’s a great moment between Marco and his dad right after Marco has told him the truth, where it really gets hit home how swapped their roles now are:
“Dad, of course you’re my father,” I said, fighting an onslaught of emotion. And it would be so nice to have someone make decisions for me again, I added silently. “I love you. I respect you. But I’ve been fighting this war for a long time. I’ve been on more missions, in more fights, and seen more terrible things than you can imagine. This is my fight. My war. Me and my friends, we know what’s going on. You don’t.”
And with that, the son will now be the one making the decisions and fighting the battles. What’s always been is now just in the open. And for a more humorous addition to Marco’s dad’s life lessons:
“Dad, just a suggestion, but when you’re dealing with the Animorphs, never say it can’t get any weirder. It always does.”
Scorecard: Yeerks 12, Animorphs 15
I’m giving this one to the Yeerks. Not only was this the first time they successfully flushed out one of our main characters into having to fake his own death and go into hiding, but Visser Three somehow at last maneuvered Visser One into death penalty for treason and is about to get a big promotion and his all-out invasion protocol approved. The Animorphs do make contact with the Andalites in the end, but they’ve manged that before to rather disappointing results. So at this point, the Yeerks are making much more progress towards their own agenda while the Animorphs are forced to go into partial hiding and react.
Rating: This book is excellent. It’s truly the beginning of the end and it kind of just hits you out of nowhere. Like I said earlier, the fact that Cassie’s previous book was such a nothing story, really works in the series’ favor at this point, since you never see any of this coming. And then, I imagine for first time readers, as the story is going along, you just kind of keep waiting for the magical reset button that we’ve seen so often in the past to come into play and put everything back in place by the end. There have been some pretty crazy plots and ploys used to do this in the past, so it’s hard to believe as the story keeps going and going that yes, this is really going to end in a completely different place than any of the other books: Marco is in hiding, his dad knows about them, his mother has been saved, Visser Three is going to become Visser One, and the Animorphs reach out to the Andalites. It’s a lot to take in! But it definitely serves as a much-needed jump start to a series that was starting to feel like it was floundering for the last…many books now.
I also can’t leave this without noting the fact that they make a reference to “Independence Day” early in the book and then proceed to essentially rip off the entire third act of that movie with the Bug fighter/auto pilot charade. There’s even a line in this portion that is the Animorphs commenting on just how big the invasion force looks, exactly like Jeff Goldblum’s line about the aliens in that movie. I love that movie and I love these books, so I’m not mad about it. If only Jake’s epic last line had been more of a speech. You know the kind. Made to rousing music? In the misty night? Via a megaphone?
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!
Books: “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized The World” by Sarah Weinman; “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood
Publishing Info: Ecco, September 2018; St. Martin’s Press, August 2018
Where Did I Get These Books: The library; I was sent an ARC from the publisher
Book Descriptions: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.
Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.
Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.
When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says.
This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.
Review: I want to extend a special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of “Rust & Stardust”.
For someone who reads a whole lot for her profession and her pleasure, I have a pretty gaping hole in my literary experience when it comes to ‘the classics’. Between taking not so typical literature classes in high school and majoring in psychology, my exposure to classic books was limited, and while I’ve tried to pick up the pieces here and there I still have many left on the ‘theoretically to read’ list. So no, I have not read “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, though the notoriety of the story means that I am pretty familiar with it as a whole. I’m in no rush to read it, not for any other reason than there are so many other books out there that interest me more. But when I got an ARC of the book “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood, the fact that it was based on the very real story of Sally Horner, the girl who served as inspiration to Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s book, caught my attention. And then I heard that a nonfiction book about Sally Horner, called “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman, was also soon to be available. So I decided to bide my time, and to read the two as a pair so that I could compare and contrast the two, which each tell the same story in very different ways.
And perhaps it’s implied, but just in case, I need to give some serious content warnings for both of these books. They do, after all, involve the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of a little girl.
“The Real Lolita” is a non fiction work that juxtaposes Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle with Vladimir Nabokov trying to write “Lolita”. Weinman surmises that Nabokov, who had been having stumbling block after literary stumbling block as he tried to write what would become his most famous work, heard the sensationalized news stories surrounding the case and used it in his work. Nabokov denied this again and again, but Weinman lays out the similarities between the two cases, and the timeline that he was working within and how it wa well within the highest media furor surrounding the case. It isn’t really a criticism of Nabokov’s decision to use this story as inspiration so much as it’s an indictment of him lifting a girl’s very real pain to profit from it without giving her any credit. I appreciated that she wasn’t going after the inspiration piece, because it isn’t uncommon for creatives to take inspiration from real life horrors and to make them into a fictional work. The issue is that Nabokov was too proud to admit that he in all probability did find inspiration in this trauma victim, which is deeply problematic in and of itself, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her pain and how successful of a novel it was. Her evidence is well researched and carefully laid out, and the details that she found regarding the Horner case and what her life was like before, during, and after the ordeal gives voice to a girl whose trauma was appropriated for a novel with the subject of her inspiration twisted and misinterpreted into a nymph-like seductress (even if that wasn’t Nabokov’s intention). It’s a book that I had a hard time reading because of the awful manipulations and abuses La Salle did to Horner, though I appreciated how frank and ‘just the facts’ Weinman was because of the horrors of the case. I also liked that she wasn’t particularly fiery in her critiques of Nabokov, but that she simply presented the evidence as it was and let it speak for itself. Weinman’s book gives this girl a voice, a voice that wasn’t afforded to her in the moment, and that has been drowned out because of time and a novel that overshadowed it.
“Rust & Stardust” is also the Sally Horner story, but it has been adapted into a work of fiction. T. Greenwood makes it very clear in a long author’s note that she approached this story through the eyes of a fiction author, but tried to keep a good number of the details, especially in regards to Sally’s experience, realistic and plausible. The prose flows neatly and succinctly, and while it is a longer book than “The Real Lolita” I found that it felt like a quicker read just because Greenwood paced it so well. The story is pretty much what you’d expect; Sally Horner is caught by Frank LaSalle as she’s stealing a notebook from the store, and what follows is the story of Sally’s kidnapping, captivity, and return, as well as the perspectives of those in her life during her absence. While it was definitely hard to read at times, Greenwood never made it feel lurid or exploitative. The emotions were there, but were able to remain untangled from bad taste. Greenwood also gave herself some creative plot leeway (though not in regards to Sally, which was good) so that she could highlight the problematic attitudes of the post-War American culture, specifically when it comes to abuse towards girls and women. Whenever someone would raise doubts about Sally’s relationship to Frank, almost every time they were told to be quiet because the very notion of bad intentions was disgusting and inappropriate. Frank is able to get away with his predation because the people around him and Sally don’t want to face that it’s happening. Which brings me back to the criticisms of “Lolita”, in that some people, be it Nabokov’s intent or not, have romanticized the story of Humbert Humbert and the ‘nymph’ he fixates on. Greenwood doesn’t give any leeway for that because the story is Sally’s, and those who care about her.
Reading “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” has given me a larger picture of a tale I thought I knew, and in their own ways they tell the side that has been lost to time and literary critique and accolades. If you like “Lolita”, and even if you don’t like it, these books will give it more context, a context that it has probably always needed.
Ratings 8: Though the backstory to “Lolita” has been glossed over and outright ignored by some (and denied by others), “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” strive to give Sally Horner the ability to tell her story.
These are the words Keralie Corrington lives by as the preeminent dipper in the Concord, the central area uniting the four quadrants of Quadara. She steals under the guidance of her mentor Mackiel, who runs a black market selling their bounty to buyers desperate for what they can’t get in their own quarter. For in the nation of Quadara, each quarter is strictly divided from the other. Four queens rule together, one from each region:
Toria: the intellectual quarter that values education and ambition Ludia: the pleasure quarter that values celebration, passion, and entertainment Archia: the agricultural quarter that values simplicity and nature Eonia: the futurist quarter that values technology, stoicism and harmonious community
When Keralie intercepts a comm disk coming from the House of Concord, what seems like a standard job goes horribly wrong. Upon watching the comm disks, Keralie sees all four queens murdered in four brutal ways. Hoping that discovering the intended recipient will reveal the culprit – information that is bound to be valuable bartering material with the palace – Keralie teams up with Varin Bollt, the Eonist messenger she stole from, to complete Varin’s original job and see where it takes them.
Review: There are definitely some staple fantasy tropes that are sure to draw me in: dragons, women disguised as men, sisterhood, fairytale elements, etc. etc. Included in these is “thieves as protagonists.” While nothing has ever topped Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, I’m still always on the lookout for a new favorite take on this theme. Not only does “Four Dead Queens” meet that criteria, but it was given an extra boost in that it’s a stand-alone novel. Rare, indeed, in this YA fantasy climate! But while there were definitely some good elements and legitimate surprises to be had in the story, in the end I was left feeling a bit flat after getting through this book.
Keralie is just your typical thief, happy to continue her life of petty crime and freedom. The politics and greater movements of the complicated city that she calls home, made up of four quadrants each ruled by its own queen, exist largely outside of her life and she’s fine with that. Until, that is, one of her jobs goes side-ways and she finds herself caught up in a murder mystery that is greater than could be imagined. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, all four queens have been brutally murdered. And now Keralie and the mark she hit that lead her into all of this mess find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy that goes further than they could have ever imagined.
I really liked the complicated world-building that was constructed for this story. The four quadrants and the various cultures and philosophical approaches they take were well-established and interesting. The world felt “lived in” and fully realized in a way that I think is fairly impressive given the fact that there have been, again, a sort of over-abundance of this type of world-building in YA fantasy in the past (ascribing generic traits to regions/cultures and calling your world good). Given the fast-paced nature of the book and the fact that it was a stand-alone, I was pleased to see a decent avoidance of info-dumping to convey this type of background information. Could more have been done? Yes. But it’s hard to both rant about how there aren’t enough stand-alone novels out there and then ding the ones that do come out too heavily for having a restricted word count within which to do their work. So I’ll give that a pass here.
As I mentioned, the story was fast-paced. The action starts from the very first page and there is very little let-up as the mystery unfolds. I was able to guess at a few things here and there, but there were also a surprising number of twists and turns that I failed to see coming. That said, the fast-paced nature of the story could also work against the plot as well. Time itself didn’t feel very well delineated or established. Some of the action felt like it was all happening at once and then a bit later I would realize that no, several days had actually taken place. Again, kind of a weird complaint, but the fact that I was buzzing through the book as quickly as I was almost worked against it. I couldn’t quite settle in, at times. So while I didn’t guess some of the reveals, I’m not sure whether this was because they were truly surprising or because I was so off-balance by the speed of the book that I didn’t have time to think about it.
I also only felt marginally attached to our main characters. While Keralie had many of the traits that I like to see in my thief protagonists, she also felt a bit like a cardboard cut-out of everything we’ve come to expect from a character like this. The romance, also, was incredibly dull and uninteresting to me.
Like I said, I’m always really excited to come across a stand-alone fantasy novel. But they are, by their nature, very different things than books that are setting up, or continuing, a series. Much needs to be done with fewer words and fewer pages. That being the case, I often find myself wishing that authors would choose to simply leave somethings out when they go the stand-alone route. You simply can’t fit in every standard YA fantasy trope that usually takes place over a trilogy or series into one, single book. Does there have to be a romance at its heart? Does the world-building need to be simplified or the action condensed to a few big scenes? Simply put, this book felt like it was trying to mash every fantasy expectation we have into one book and the word count simply couldn’t support it. Luckily, the fast-moving plot largely distracted from this as I was reading. But looking back, I do find it disappointing. If you’re looking for more of a “beach read” fantasy story, however, the past, hard-hitting action of this book might be just the ticket!
Rating 6: Had a lot of good bones in all the places that mattered, but never felt fully fleshed out in a way that is necessary for me to fully buy-in.