Kate’s Review: “Inspection”

41058632Book: “Inspection” by Josh Malerman

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, March 2019

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

Book Description: Boys are being trained at one school for geniuses, girls at another. And neither knows the other exists–until now. The innovative author of Bird Box invites you into a tantalizing world of secrets and lies.

J is a student at a school deep in a forest far away from the rest of the world.

J is one of only twenty-six students, who think of their enigmatic school’s founder as their father. And his fellow peers are the only family J has ever had. The students are being trained to be prodigies of art, science, and athletics, but their life at the school is all they know–and all they are allowed to know.

But J is beginning to suspect that there is something out there, beyond the pines, that the founder does not want him to see, and he’s beginning to ask questions. What is the real purpose of this place? Why can the students never leave? And what secrets is their father hiding from them?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the forest, in a school very much like J’s, a girl named K is asking the same questions. J has never seen a girl, and K has never seen a boy. As K and J work to investigate the secrets of their two strange schools, they come to discover something even more mysterious: each other.

In Inspection, the masterful author of Bird Box crafts a sinister and evocative gender equality anthem that will have readers guessing until the final page.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I am going to sound like an insufferable hipster for a moment, so bear with me; I liked “Bird Box” before it was cool. A few years before Netflix dropped their thriller hit, I read the book it was based on, written by Josh Malerman. I know the reception of the film was hit or miss, but I legitimately think that the book is terrifying. It kept me on the edge of my seat, and I could barely put it down even as it stressed me out. So when I saw the new book by Malerman was available for request on NetGalley, it caught my eye. And when I found out it took place at a boarding school with malevolent intentions… Well….

giphy-10
(source)

While evil or mysterious boarding schools have been done before, Malerman leans into the concept and makes it feel wholly original. We first see it from the perspective of an experiment that involves all boys, in which the man heading the experiment, who refers to himself as D.A.D., has taken twenty four boys at birth and raised them isolated from modern society with no knowledge of the female gender. The hypothesis (and trust me, I will absoLUTEly be addressing this later) is that if they are not distracted by women/sexuality/attraction, they can reach their full potential as the next great thinkers and scientists of the world. Malerman covers pretty much all of his bases in this regard, accounting for the need for space, control, and isolation, and did it in ways that felt as realistic as they could be in a story like this. We follow one of the subjects, J, as he and the others start to reach puberty, and we see how he is starting to question his place at this school, and the world that is being presented to them. I liked J quite a bit, and appreciated that Malerman gave him the right amount of rebellious nuance and a believable curiosity, along with a fear and anxiety about his questions, and his fear of being ‘spoiled rotten’ and sent to The Corner, a place where two boys who questions, A and Z, never returned from. I also appreciated that Malerman took into account other aspects of this experiment that I never would have thought of, specifically the role that propaganda would have to play. I thought it was genius to have a specific propagandist on staff, a failed writer named Warren who writes morality tales for the boys that will help keep them in line and under control. It never occurred to me that propaganda would need to play a role in this kind of situation, but this subplot was so, so intriguing, especially as the propagandist starts to question his own culpability.

It’s at the halfway point that “Inspection” really grabbed me. That was when we switched to another boarding school, this one with twenty four girls. This is where Malerman made this story truly all his own. D.A.D.’s wife, who calls herself M.O.M., naturally, is running the same experiment, this time with girls, in hopes of unlocking creative potential. In this part of the story we meet K, the girl who is at the top of the class, but has potentially seen something that she shouldn’t have. Her journey is far less hesitant than J’s, and I loved seeing her creative thinking, as opposed to J’s more rigid thinking, help bring her to conclusions about her situation in a different way. And by the time the two stories converge (though I don’t want to spoil anything here), that is when this story shifts from a vaguely dystopic thriller into a full blown horror novel. While in some ways it felt a little late for the horror elements to arrive, I was so enthralled by the rest of it that I didn’t mind it.

There was one aspect of this story that I couldn’t quite swallow, and that is based within the premise that D.A.D. and M.O.M. have for their awful experiment. They both believe that by isolating the genders, they will be able to unlock the full potential of their subjects, as to them sexuality and attraction are the distractors that keep humans from the highest intellectual levels. This story takes place in a modern-ish time or perhaps a very near future. As two scientists, I don’t understand how they didn’t think about as to whether, within twenty four boys and twenty four girls, there may be the possibility of subjects who were attracted to the same gender. Given the odds, you’d think you’d get at least one, if we’re being conservative in our estimates. I wasn’t sure if Malerman was trying to say that D.A.D. and M.O.M. were so corrupted by their devious and unethical thinking that they would also be biased against LGBTQIA+ people as part of their experiment, or if such a development would immediately call for The Corner, or whether he just didn’t think of it at all. Because it doesn’t come up. And to me, it’s a pretty big question that probably should have been addressed.

That aside, I quite enjoyed “Inspection” in all of it’s creepy and unsettling glory. Malerman continues to surprise and shock me in the best ways, and my hope is that he just keeps getting more attention as time goes on.

Rating 8: A propulsive and then eerie thriller/horror novel, “Inspection” is another triumph from Josh Malerman.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Inspection” is a new book and isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Evil Schools – Public, Private, and University”.

Find “Inspection” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Sherwood”

38734256Book: “Sherwood” by Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.

Review: As I mentioned in my brief description of this book in our “Highlights” post for March, I was a big fan of Spooner’s wholly unique take on “Beauty in the Beast” in her YA novel “Hunted.” Now, obviously these two stories aren’t connected, but it is clear by the stylization of the cover art that we’re meant to make associations between the two: both feature a strong, independent female main character and both are reinterpreting a story in which that character had varying levels of agency. I’m definitely not one of those readers who subscribes to the whole “Stockholm syndrome” group fret about Belle/Beauty’s role in her story, but there’s no denying that “Hunted” gave this character a bunch more to do. And here, we have a legitimate side character in Marian being firmly placed in the lead role of the classic Robin Hood tale. It was great to see this book live up to the expectations I had placed on it given my feelings for “Hunted.”

Marian has made the best out of a bad situation: she loves her bow, fighting, and generally running wild and has very little interest or skill in the more “womanly” arts. Luckily for her, her childhood friend Robin has always been her partner in crime in these pursuits, and their engagement seems an obvious route to making the  best of out of an inevitable situation. That is, until he rides off to the Crusades and news reaches her of his death. Devastated by the loss, Marian still sees herself as responsible for the livelihood of the people living on both her own and Robin’s land and when the Sheriff’s taxes rise beyond reason, she finds herself donning not only male garb, but the persona of her deceased fiance, Robin of Locksley. Now, pursued by the Sheriff’s right hand man, a man whose desire to catch “Robin” is only matched in his wish to marry Marian, Marian must lead a double life, and one that can only have a catastrophic end.

I really enjoyed this version of Robin Hood. While I’ve read a fair share of stories that insert a female character as a stand-in for Robin, typically Robin himself is still present in the story, often the love interest. That being the case so much of the time, I truly didn’t trust the book description or the first chapter that laid out the concept that Robin died while at the Crusades. It was probably up until about half way through the book before I really let myself trust that he wasn’t going to just pop up. Not that I have a problem with the Robin character typically, but even by a quarter into the story, Marian herself and the way her story was unfolding was already so intriguing that any addition of the more famous Robin could have only detracted from her. Plus, as I said, in those past versions, even a Robin relegated to a love interest role often rubbed up wrong against what the author was trying to do with the actual main character who was supposedly supposed to be taking on the primary role in the action.

Marian was an excellent lead. Her grief for Robin’s death is real, and I appreciate that this wasn’t glossed over. Instead, we see how his loss affects throughout the entire story, first as a hindrance and further on as a motivation. Over time, she also has to re-assess what she knew about the man she was to marry. We, the readers, get a few extra glimpses into past moments between the two, and it is here, too, that we see small, but very important, differences being laid out between who this Marian and this Robin are compared to what we expect from the typical versions of the story. We also see the foundation for how Marian came to possess the skills necessary to take on the role she does here.

Wisely, Spooner leans in heavily to Marian’s skill with a bow, a talent that, while unusual, wouldn’t fall completely out of the realm of something a lady might have learned. Marian is also described as being exceptionally tall. But that aside, it could still have read as unbelievable for her disguise as a man to be fully bought by those around her had the author not carefully crafted every interaction that “Robin” goes into in a way that plays to hiding Marian’s identity. Indeed, Marian herself is written to understand the limitations of her disguise and to use every advantage she has to work within it, instead of breaking past it in ways that could have read as unbelievable and strange.

I also really enjoyed how many of the secondary characters came into play. Several familiar faces show up throughout the story, and each was given a few extra flares to make them stand out from the usual versions of the characters we’ve seen in other books. But I also really enjoyed the addition of unique characters (or at least vastly expanded upon versions of them). Marian’s father, maid, and horse master all were expanded upon quite a bit and I loved them all.

The most notable new addition, of course, is Guy of Gisbourne who is presented as both the villain and the love interest of the story. Again, because I was expecting Robin to pop back up at any moment, it took me a while to really figure out his role in the story. Thinking back, I tend to attribute this to an intentional decision on the author’s part as well, and not only my own skepticism of how the story was originally presented. Marian herself takes a long time to understand Gisbourne, what motivates him, where his moral compass points, and how he truly feels about her. Her own confusion translates perfectly to the reader. This is both a good and a bad thing. I love slow burn romances, and this is definitely that. But at times I think the book was almost too successful at selling me on Marian’s dislike of Gisbourne and his own coldness as a character. There are a few moments that are meant to show their gradual warming to each other, and they do work, for the most part, but I’m not sure it was ultimately enough. At a certain point, it did feel a bit like some type of authorial-driven light switch was just flicked in Marian’s head because it needed to be, rather than because it was earned.

So, too, her past relationship with Robin was also a bit strained. We only see a few glimpses here and there of their childhood and teenage friendship, but the scenes are all so strongly written and their connection so well established that it almost worked against the burgeoning romance with Gisbourne in a way that I don’t think was intended. I liked the idea of what we’re being told with regards to Robin/Marian/Gisbourne: that people are not always who we initially think they are and that love can present itself in very different ways with different people, and that these ebbs and flows don’t undermine one relationship or the other. But I’m just not sure the reader can actually see this message play out, so much as just be on the receiving end of being told.

Ultimately, I almost think it says even more positive things about the story that the downside I can mention has to do with romance and yet that downside in no way tanks the entire story for me. We all know that if you don’t get the romance right for me, often that can lead to my very much not enjoying a story. And here, it’s not that the romance was wrong, necessarily, just that I felt it was the weakest part of the story. But Marian herself, the reimagining of how the Robin Hood story would play out with her at its heart, the action, and the new characters all provided enough of a counter balance to my questions about the romance to lead me to viewing it with still a very positive light. Fans of Robin Hood re-tellings should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A bit muddled in the romance department, but an awesome female Robin Hood saves the day in the end!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sherwood” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Female Robin Hood” and “YA Modern Retellings.”

Find “Sherwood” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Internment”

38167114Book: “Internment” by Samira Ahmed

Publishing Info: Little, Brown. March 2019

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

Book Description: Rebellions are built on hope.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.

Review: I want to extend a thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

One of the vivid horrible memories I have in the wake of the Trump election (and there are many, believe me) is that one of Trump’s PAC supporters, Carl Higbie, said that Trump’s idea to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries had a ‘precedent’ because of Japanese American citizen registries during WWII. Given that those registries led to the unconstitutional and horrific internment of American Citizens, this statement was quite frightening (and given the detention of families at the border and how horrific that practice is, in some ways internment is already present on our soil). Fast forward to a couple years later, when a controversy surrounded the upcoming release of a novel called “American Heart”. The author, Laura Moriarty, had wanted to write a ‘what if’ book that was about Muslim Internment camps in America during a Trump-esque executive administration. But it was from the perspective of a white teenage girl who basically has to be taught why it’s wrong to imprison people for their beliefs and culture, and to be shown the humanity and worth of their lives. It’s a story structure that is pretty problematic in that it dehumanizes a marginalized group so that a non-marginalized group an learn a lesson. And that is where “Internment” by Samira Ahmed comes in. The premise is similar: it is a what if scenario in which Muslim Americans have been put on lists and had laws passed to limit their rights in the wake of a far right administration taking power. But this one is from the perspective of a teenage Muslim American girl named Layla, whose life is uprooted when she and her family are taken to an internment camp.

The power and resonance within “Internment” is the timeliness of it all. From the Muslim Travel Ban in this country to the rise in hate crimes against Muslims, the future that Ahmed is painting doesn’t necessarily feel farfetched. While Ahmed doesn’t use specific names, it is very clear that this takes place a couple years after the 2016 election, and she paints a picture of how these policies could easily turn into the policies that we seen within this story. The escalation that is set up, both before Mobius Camp itself comes into play and during the time spent there, is chilling and real, and Ahmed does a good job of drawing comparisons to different internment policies of the past. Not only is the escalation seem based in a probable truth, the power structure of the camp itself also feels very true to life. The camp director abuses his power and uses power plays to harass, intimidate, and commit violence against the inmates. There are Muslim families who have been appointed as leaders of blocks, whose compliance wtih the policy gives them benefits at the expense of other prisoners. And the actions and conditions of the camp has been suppressed from the outside world, so the public doesn’t know just what is going on inside the walls. This all felt VERY real and familiar.

Layla herself is a bit of a mixed bag. For the most part I really liked her as our main character. She feels like a very typical teenage girl in a lot of ways; she is trying to assert her independence from her parents, she is very committed to her Jewish boyfriend David, and is interested in geek culture. Her rebelliousness feels very true to her character, and I completely believe her as a young person who wants to fight back against her oppression while her parents are more investing in using silence and compliance in hopes of keeping her safe. My frustrations of her more had to do with her motivations sometimes feeling like they shifted depending on what they needed to be for the plot at the moment. She would rail against her parents for their complacency one moment, then seem to understand their point of view another moment, only to rail against them again. Her tentative trust of one of the guards, Jake, felt like it grew too quickly for her character as we’d seen her up until that point. To me her motivations were muddled. It very well could be that this is trying to show how a traumatic period can affect a person’s psyche and the way they think, so I can’t completely tear Layla down for seeming inconsistent within her characterization.

And as we sometimes tend to see in YA fiction that hopes to make pertinent points within a broader social and political context, sometimes the messages felt a little too spoon fed to the audience. Be it a speech awkwardly plunked down in a conversational setting, or an offhand remark that doesn’t quite fit the greater conversation at hand but has a point to make, we occasionally see these moments within the narrative. I realize that this book is for a young adult audience, and that sometimes people tend to think that teens need to have things spelled out for them. But I wish that authors would trust their audiences more, in that they are able to read between the lines and parse out the lessons in more ‘show rather than tell’ fashions. Trust teens to get nuance!

All in all, I thought “Internment” was an effective and charged read. It paints a grim picture of where our current political climate could possibly lead, and what could happen if we don’t speak out and rise up against it.

Rating 7: With relevant and pertinent themes but a sometimes clunky execution, “Internment” is a frightening read that asks ‘what if’ when it comes to our current political climate.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Internment” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lady Lit-Female Authors”, and “2019 Books by Authors of Color”.

Find “Internment” at your library using WorldCat!

St. Patrick’s Day/Irish Themed Books!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The day everyone wears green and likes to claim some loose, loose connection to Ireland to justify a night out on the town. We here at The Library Ladies like to use any/all holidays for a completely different purpose: as a loose, loose excuse to create random, themed booklists. So here are a few books that have some (remember “loose”) connection to Ireland or St. Patrick’s Day!

13928Book: “Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, February 2002

Juliet Marillier is one of my (Serena’s) favorite authors. Her writing flows off the page in a beautiful, lyrical style, often combined with a fairytale-like feel. She often has a whole host of books that are set in a historical, fantasy-based version of Ireland. I could make an entire list on this theme all written by her. But my favorite of her works is still her first story, “Daughter of the Forest” that is a re-telling of the “Seven Swans” fairytale. I consider it the definitive version of this fairytale, even, that’s how good it is. Throughout the story, we see how important Sorcha’s homeland is to her identity and the beautiful descriptions of its deep forests and quiet lakes is simply one more reason to check out this fantastic tale.

249747Book: “Artemis Fowl” by Eoin Colfer

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, April 2003

Just in time for the growing hype about the movie version of this beloved middle grade book, “Artemis Fowl” is also a perfect fit for this list given the location of Fowl Manor on the outskirts of Dublin. Not to mention the host of fairies who live below ground and work for the LEPrecon Unit. Artemis Fowl himself is a 12-year old genius who gets on the wrong side of said fairies when he takes one of them hostage in a ploy to regain his family’s lost wealth. He’s the kind of precocious protagonist who manages to be both frustrating and root-for-worthy at the same time. If you somehow missed this one, best check it out now before the movie hits screens! There are also a bunch more in the series, so you could potentially have quite a reading list on your hands.

300932Book: “Lion of Ireland” by Morgan Llywelyn

Publishing Info: Forge, March 2002

This is a historical fiction novel that attempts to novelize the story of Brian Boru, a 12th son who grew up to be one of the greatest king’s of Ireland. In many ways, his is also thought to be a story that lay behind the legend of King Arthur. Set in the 19th century and drawing from the scant information that is known about the man himself, Llywelyn attempts to novelize the life Brian, documenting his rise to power and his ability to gain the loyalty and love of a people. The story is long, but full of action and romance. Readers in the mood for a historical story that is at least partially based on a real-life person, look no further than “Lion of Ireland.”

873783Book: “The Hounds of The Morrigan” by Pat O’Shea

Publishing Info: Oxford University Press, 1985

When you take two siblings, a Goddess of Death, and some hell hounds with a tenacious streak, you get the fantasy book “The Hounds of The Morrigan”. This YA adventure is set in Galway, and takes Irish and Celtic mythology and brings it to the 1980s. When ten year old Pidge finds an old manuscript, he unwittingly releases the vicious serpent Olc-Glas. Now that Olc-Glas is free, he gains the attention of The Morrigan, the Irish goddess of death and destruction, and she wants to join forces with the snake to cause mass chaos. Pidge and his sister Brigit are the only ones who can find a magic stone that can destroy Olc-Glas and hopefully save the world, but The Morrigan has sent her Hell Hounds to hunt the siblings down. Taking classic mythology and giving it a 20th Century twist, “The Hounds of The Morrigan” is a fun adventure with an Irish twist!

7093952Book Series: “The Dublin Murder Squad Books” by Tana French (“In The Woods”, “The Likeness”, “Faithful Place”, “Broken Harbor”, “The Secret Place”, “The Trespasser”)

Publishing Info: Penguin Books, 2007-2016

Tana French is a name you probably know if you are a big mystery/crime procedural fan, and her most popular books are those in “The Dublin Murder Squad” Series. The first in the series, “In The Woods”, concerns a detective who suffered a childhood trauma that he hasn’t quite let go. When a new case involving a murdered girl happens in the same woods of his trauma, he has to try to keep his past at bay. The next book in the series follows another member of the Murder Squad, and the book after that follows another one, etcetera etcetera. The books have a devoted following, and the peripheral connections are fun to see within high tension and sometimes very upsetting mysteries.

15926229Book: “Making Sense of The Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland” by David McKittrick and David McVea

Publishing Info: Penguin, October 2001

During the latter part of the 20th Century, Northern Ireland was caught in a struggle between those who wanted Northern Ireland to stay with the U.K. and those who wanted Northern Ireland to join The Republic of Ireland, and while it wasn’t technically religious in nature it tended to split along Protestant and Catholic lines. The conflicts had many instances of violence, with bombings, kidnappings, riots, and targeted violence coming from both sides. It’s a complex and dark time in Irish history, and “Making Sense of The Troubles” is considered to be a comprehensive and even handed account of the decades long conflict. It’s a dark book to finish the list with, but given how The Troubles are still in living memory, it’s an important read nonetheless.

Do you have any favorite stories set in Ireland? Share yours with us in the comments below!

Serena’s Review: “The Bird King”

40642333Book: “The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson

Publishing Info: Grove Press, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!

Book Description: Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.

Hassan has a secret–he can draw maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

Review: I read an excerpt of this on Bookish First and found myself immediately connecting to the beautiful writing that was popping on the page. I placed my request was thrilled when I received a copy. While it was a slower read, ultimately, than I had been expecting, that same strength in writing and the unexpected depth of thought given to the historical events, religious interactions, and cultures of the time period ultimately drew me in.

Fatima and her friend Hassan have built a quiet life for themselves in the circumstances they have found themselves in: she a concubine to the sultan and he a mapmaker. But Hassan is much more than your ordinary mapmaker and possess the incredible gift of not only drawing up intricate maps of the places he’s never been, but also, through these maps, interrupting the weave of reality itself. But when Hassan suddenly falls under the eyes of those who would see his gift as more of a threat than a blessing, he and Fatima must go on the run, seeking out a mystical island as their one port of harbor for a safe life going forward.

I haven’t read too many books set in this time period or within these combinations of cultures. The book is tackling a lot: the persecution under the Spanish Inquisition, the clashes between religious forces taking place in that time, plus a healthy dose of magic realism to differentiate it from a purely historical fiction work. But I think it is this last portion, the interweaving of the fantastical elements that really made this book sing for me. There are a lot of big ideas being tossed around throughout the story, but many of these are explored from a bit of an angle, with the author approaching them almost from the side, using fairytale-like elements to draw readers into a deceptively complicated, real-world issue. Metaphor and stylized writing are also used to great effect to, again, almost backwards-walk readers into topics that can get pretty dicey pretty quickly. Of course, I’m always going to love anything that reads like a fairytale, but I appreciate it all the more when an author is able to use this writing style to get at deeper topics that can often be challenging to get across.

I also very much liked the two main characters in Fatima and Hassan. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to feel about Fatima, but as the story progressed, I found myself becoming more and more invested in their platonic friendship and love. It’s a rare read to find a story that focuses on this type of strong relationship, one that isn’t based on romantic love (Hassan is gay, another factor that leads to his persecution), but that still highlights the extent to which each party will go for the other. The fact that they aren’t romantically involved never feels like it detracts from what they would do for each other, and, instead, in some ways it feels that their bond is even stronger by being freed from that element. It’s a unique relationship to see explored so thoroughly in this type of book.

I will say, however, that the story is pretty slow going. It takes quite a bit for them to even get started on their journey, and then once they do, it doesn’t speed up much. There’s a lot of travel, camping, small moments of action, and then more travel and camping. The writing was still captivating, which was enough to get me through these slower elements, but I can see how this could be off-putting to many readers, especially ones who may not be as interested in the greater themes being explored at the heart of the story. I do think more could have been done to tighten up this middle portion of the book, as the fact that it ultimately worked for me seems to speak more to my own preference than to the general quality of the story structure.

Overall, “The Bird King” was a surprisingly deep and satisfying read for me. There were, however, some stumbling blocks with the pacing and writing speed, which is what knocks it back a few points for me. It’s a lengthy story, and while it is trying to cover a lot of different things, I do think it could have been tightened up to increase its general appeal. If you like historical fiction blended with magical realism, especially dealing with a unique set of characters and a time period that isn’t often explored in this way, definitely give “The Bird King” a try. Just know that you might need to push through in the beginning before really getting to the good stuff.

Rating 7: A beautifully written story that covers a complicated time with two wonderful characters at its heart. Only lowered by being a bit too slow for my taste.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bird King” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Fiction – Spain / Portugal” and “Muslim/Islamic Fiction.”

Find “The Bird King” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Will Haunt You”

42175979Book: “Will Haunt You” by Brian Kirk

Publishing Info: Flame Tree Press, March 2019

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

Book Description: You don’t read the book. It reads you.

Rumors of a deadly book have been floating around the dark corners of the deep web. A disturbing tale about a mysterious figure who preys on those who read the book and subjects them to a world of personalized terror. Jesse Wheeler–former guitarist of the heavy metal group The Rising Dead–was quick to discount the ominous folklore associated with the book. It takes more than some urban legend to frighten him. Hell, reality is scary enough. Seven years ago his greatest responsibility was the nightly guitar solo. Then one night when Jesse was blackout drunk, he accidentally injured his son, leaving him permanently disabled. Dreams of being a rock star died when he destroyed his son’s future. Now he cuts radio jingles and fights to stay clean. But Jesse is wrong.

The legend is real–and tonight he will become the protagonist in an elaborate scheme specifically tailored to prey on his fears and resurrect the ghosts from his past. Jesse is not the only one in danger, however.

By reading the book, you have volunteered to participate in the author’s deadly game, with every page drawing you closer to your own personalized nightmare.

The real horror doesn’t begin until you reach the end. That’s when the evil comes for you.

Review: I want to extend a thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

“Weird” horror is a genre that, when done right, I find completely engrossing and effective. The best example of this that comes to mind is, of course, the classic “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski, in which a haunted house story is told through multiple layers of narration and formats. Weird horror ought to unsettle the reader in the same way the situation should be unsettling the protagonist, but it’s a fine line to walk. If you go too weird it can be confusing and frustrating. If you don’t go weird enough you may not have the intended impact. When I read about “Will Haunt You” by Brian Kirk, I was especially intrigued by the idea of a cursed Internet book that brings pain and suffering to those who read it. Frankly it sounds like a mix of “The Ring” and the amazing Creepypasta “Ben Drowned”, and with that amalgamation solidly in my mind I was every excited to read “Will Haunt You”. I wasn’t thinking about the trappings that can come with Weird horror, and perhaps I should have been.

The premise and ideas are absolutely solid. Jesse Wheeler is our main character, and his backstory and present are ripe for the picking when it comes to conflict. Once a metal musician on the rise, he is now married and has a son who is disabled. It was Jesse’s actions that led to the accident that caused the disability, and so Jesse’s guilt, mixed with the longing for his younger years, has turned him into a tormented former shell of himself. He is the perfect person to become victim to a devious book; he’s struggling to keep it together and has nothing to lose, so of course he isn’t daunted by internet folklore. That in and of itself is a solid premise to a novel, and Jesse’s flaws and strengths are on full display throughout the story to be explored and picked apart. As a character study, “Will Haunt You” is well done and interesting. If this was a book that was solely about an aging man who has to face his guilt and his culpability towards his family’s various struggles, I would be down.

But, as this is, it is a horror novel, and for me “Will Haunt You” fell squarely in the first of the two problems Weird horror can run into: It was very confusing for me and hard to follow. We are thrown into various scenarios and situations with very visceral and graphic moments, and we are introduced to characters who may or may not be reliable, but instead of feeling tight and on point it always felt like it never quite came together. I do wonder if this disorienting narrative was meant to make the reader feel the disorientation that Jesse felt, and therein made the reading experience all the more three dimensional, but instead of feeling scared in my confusion I just felt frustrated. Eventually I think I was able to get my mind wrapped around all of the pieces of the puzzle, but it took so long that it felt like it was too little, too late. I am considering going back and reading the tie in ‘haunted book’, “Obsidio”, because I feel like part of the fun of these ‘cursed media’ stories is the cursed media itself, and we didn’t really get that here, just the fallout from it. And yes, you can find it online. Given that I haven’t read it yet, I can’t say as to whether or not it’s inclusion would have made “Will Haunt You” more satisfying, but I can’t imagine that it would hurt.

All in all, “Will Haunt You” had some very well done moments when it came to character study, but the horror aspects didn’t do anything for me. As Weird fiction it didn’t work the way I wanted it to.

Rating 5: While the characterization was spot on and the protagonist was complex and interesting, the horror aspect of “Will Haunt You” didn’t work for me and left me confused and frustrated.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Will Haunt You” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would have a place on “Surreal Horror”.

Find “Will Haunt You” at your library using WorldCat (but as of now it appears limited).

Serena’s Review: “A Dangerous Collaboration”

30518319Book: “A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: a copy from the publisher!

Book Description: Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell is whisked off to a remote island off the tip of Cornwall when her natural historian colleague Stoker’s brother calls in a favor. On the pretext of wanting a companion to accompany him to Lord Malcolm Romilly’s house party, Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée–much to Stoker’s chagrin. But upon arriving, it becomes clear that the party is not as innocent as it had seemed. Every invited guest has a connection to Romilly’s wife, Rosamund, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago, and a dramatic dinner proves she is very much on her husband’s mind.

As spectral figures, ghostly music, and mysterious threats begin to plague the partygoers, Veronica enlists Stoker’s help to discover the host’s true motivations. And as they investigate, it becomes clear that there are numerous mysteries surrounding the Romilly estate, and every person present has a motive to kill Rosamund…

Previously reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” and “A Treacherous Curse”

Review: It was a long wait for this book. This is always the challenge when I find a new series to love! On one hand, yay, a reliable series that I can depend on to deliver both excellent characters and a fun story. But on the other hand, the dreadful count-down of days and months until the next one in the series finally arrives. But this count-down was blessedly cut a bit shorter than I had expected when I received a review copy from the publisher, and I was able to begin reveling in it a few weeks early!

Veronica is unsure, for the first time in her life. At the end of the last book, she and Stoker were on the brink of…something. And that “something” is more terrifying to her than any of the murderers and mysteries she’s come across over the last few years. Throwing herself into her work, she begins a campaign of denial and avoidance, before, upon finally returning to London, she ultimately finds herself caught up in yet another mystery. This one taking place on a remote island inhabited by a small village and its possibly haunted castle. Now, in the midst of this emotional turmoil, Veronica and Stoker are once again on the case to unravel the disappearance of a bride on her wedding day several years ago. Where did she go and why? And did she even make it off the island alive?

I really loved this book. It’s not a surprise given my feelings over the first three, but by the end of the last book, I was starting to have a few questions about where the series was ultimately headed. This book not only answered those concerns, but also flipped the scrip on a few aspects of the characters that was surprisingly refreshing. Yes, the basic equation at the heart of these stories has always been strong, but it was such a thrill to find in this book that the story could push past that and offer up even more.

For one, we see a new side of Veronica herself. She’s still her usual supremely self-assured and confident self, willing to take her own life in her hands, make decisions and follow through on them, regardless of the opinion of others. But we also get to see how these same traits can be failings. Her own self-assuredness works against her here, and she’s forced to confront some harsh realities about the very real fears that still exist within her. Her justifications and modes of operation suddenly take on a new light under these reflections and we see her have to confront and grow through some of these before-unknown personal hindrances.

In this same area, we see Stoker come more into his own, becoming more self-assured about what he wants and how to best interact with those around him. Up to this point, Veronica has been the more self-aware character, so it was refreshing to see that turned on its head here, where of the two, Stoker is the one with a firmer grasp on himself and the choices before him.

I also greatly enjoyed the mystery at the heart of this story. There’s a very “Jane Eyre-esque” feel to the whole thing, with a healthy dose of the Victorian obsession with the supernatural and gothic noir. The setting of the story could, at times, be legitimately creepy, something that also felt new to the series. Up to this point, the books have been fun, but comfortably so. This book was also a blast, but there were definitely a few spooks around corners, here. And not all of the secrets and potentially supernatural events are fully resolved at the end, leaving a nice hint of mysticism and mystery left behind, shrouded on the desolate island.

I was so satisfied with this book. It perfectly hit upon any of the possible burgeoning concerns I had been developing after the last book, and upped its game as far as the mystery went, leaving me with some legitimate chills at times. In some ways, it feels like the series could have been wrapped up entirely with this one, but I see that another one is slated for publication in the next year or so. So, alas, I return to my torment of a wait.

Rating 9: Even better than the last one!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Dangerous Collaboration” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain.”

Find “A Dangerous Collaboration” at your library using WorldCat.