Book: “Turning Darkness Into Light” by Marie Brennan
Publishing Info: Tor Books, August 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.
When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.
Review: The “Lady Trent” series has been on my TBR pile for quite a while. But as I’ve heard good things about the audiobook, I’ve been stubbornly waiting to catch it when its available at the library in this format. So far, no success. But not to be put off by little things like reading the first series first, I still decided to go ahead and request an early copy of the new standalone novel set a generation after the first series. And, while there were probably a lot of references and aspects to the story that would have meant more had I read things in order, I still ended up loving this book!
Audrey has quite a distinguished family name to uphold. And she believes that she may finally found her opportunity to stake her own place in history when a collector comes across a rare set of tablets that could possess the secret history and great fabled story of the Draconian people. Translating a tale like this would not only put quite the feather in the cap of the historian who completed it, but the story itself could have greater ramifications on the future of the Draconian people. What this future may be is of great interest to several parties, all who have their own designs on the tablets and what they may say. Soon enough, Audrey finds herself at the heart of several conspiracies and must work to find the way out of this maze of history, language, and story.
Like I said, I really enjoyed this story. Obviously, I feel like I probably missed a lot of the backstory and world building that preceded this standalone in the main series, but even without that prior knowledge, I felt like the world and history were approachable. And what a clever, unique world it is! The Draconian people were incredibly intriguing and I’m sure what I got here was only a small taste of what you see of them in the first book. It’s not often that you come across what feels like an entirely new fantasy being, and the Draconians definitely are that, being a strange mixture of humanoid and dragon.
I really liked the exploration of the concept of history and story that is at the heart of this book. They are both one and the same and very different, each only partially understandable by a “modern” reader or historian approaching something that is thousands of years old. But not only do we the challenges of understanding histories and stories that are far removed from the times and people they describe, but we see how powerful they can still be to a modern people The Draconians are still looking for a place in this world, having just come out of hiding after being away undiscovered for centuries. There is a lot of discussion over how having a defining story is at the heart of being recognized as an individual and respected people. And what values are shown at the heart of that story are paramount for a how a people define themselves and how others regard them as well. It can aid or hurt, depending on interpretation and how it connects with established (or only theorized) history.
I also really liked Audrey as a character. You can see her struggling under the weight of expectation, coming from such a famous family. But she’s brave, independent, and willing to take on the challenges before her to make her own way. She’s also young, impulsive, and sometimes lets her bravery carry her into situations she had better have avoided. I also really enjoyed how the traces of a romance are weaved into this. It’s not at all what I’m used to finding, and, technically, it’s probably better to approach this story with no expectation of romance, given what it is, in the end.
The story is also presented in a unique, multi-media fashion. It plays out through a series of diary entries, letters, and news reports. It’s a tough medium to work with in the most ordinary of stories, but it’s even more impressive in a fantasy world where there is a lot of world building that would be common to the writers of these letters and thus would read as strange for them to be spelling out in these types of media formats. But while there are one or two weird, info-dumpy passages, for the most part, I think it was really successful.
I really have very few complaints about this book. Any confusion of world building is probably on me for reading it in the wrong order. And while the multi-media format had a few sticky bits, overall I think it worked really well. I was definitely left wishing there were more books telling Audrey’s story going for. But at the very least, I now know that I should get a move on with reading the original series! Fans of that original are sure to like this. And for the brave (or those who are lazy with their TBR pile like me), this is still a fun read, even with out that background knowledge.
Rating 9: A creative, new book that highlights just how intertwined and important history and storytelling are.
Twenty years ago, she washed up on shore in a rowboat with a gash to the head after an overnight at Camp Macaw. No one was ever charged with a crime.
Now, the MacAllister children are all grown up. After their parents die suddenly, they return to Camp to read the will and decide what to do with the prime real estate it’s sitting on. Ryan, the oldest, wants to sell. Margo, the family’s center, hasn’t made up her mind. Mary has her own horse farm to run, and believes in leaving well-enough alone. Kate and Liddie—the twins—have opposing views. And Sean Booth, the family groundskeeper, just hopes he still has a home when all is said and done.
But then the will is read and they learn that it’s much more complicated than a simple vote. Until they unravel the mystery of what happened to Amanda, they can’t move forward. Any one of them could have done it, and all of them are hiding key pieces of the puzzle. Will they work together to solve the mystery, or will their suspicions and secrets finally tear the family apart?
Review: We are at the end of August already! Summer flew by so fast, and what perfect way to end this season than with a book that was the perfect summer read in tone, plot, and setting. “I’ll Never Tell” by Catherine McKenzie is the tantalizing (to me) combination of a mystery, a dysfunctional family, and a summer camp backdrop, and I it ended up purchasing it on Audible because I just couldn’t wait for the holds lists at both library systems I frequent. Once again, a perfect stew of a book for me and my tastes, on paper anyway.
“I’ll Never Tell” is told from multiple perspectives in two different times. The modern day is split up between the distant and damaged MacAllister siblings. whose parents were the owners of Camp Macaw, and Sean, the groundskeeper who has always been in the periphery of the siblings. The past is told through the eyes of Amanda Holmes, the girl whose lifeless body washed up in a canoe two decades prior, and whose attack remains unsolved. Hers is the only first person perspective, those those of the MacAllisters and Sean are definitely third person yet possibly unreliable. I liked the structure of this overall, though sometimes I felt that McKenzie couldn’t quite keep all the balls up in the air. Some characters felt more well fleshed out than others, as while I definitely felt like I got a sense for people like Margot, the pragmatic middle child, and Ryan, the temperamental oldest and black sheep, others like Mary, the closed off horse fiend, felt closed off. They all served their purposes in how they added clues and perspectives to the overall picture, and their stories laid out against Amanda’s night before she was attacked did come together to create a well done tapestry of a narrative structure and reveal.
I also did enjoy the mystery at the heart of this story, as to who was the one who attacked Amanda. While it’s true that I did mostly guess the solution to the mystery fairly early on, certainly earlier than I should have, getting there was still a fun journey because I liked learning about the characters as a whole. All of this said, this read more like a family drama than a thriller mystery, which might not have been the tone that McKenzie was going for. There were other smaller mysteries at hand as well, and all of those were plotted out well enough that there were still some surprises in store for me, even if the biggest one didn’t pan out that way. For what it’s worth, I definitely tended to listen to this story beyond my time in the car, which doesn’t happen all that often with audiobooks. I did need to know what was going to happen next.
I did take issue with some of the characters, however, specifically Ryan. I understand that there is more to him than his ‘black sheep spoiled oldest son’ persona, and I appreciated that McKenzie didn’t make him completely two dimensional and obvious in the part that he played. However, I felt that too much time was spent trying to redeem him when I didn’t think that he was at ALL redeemable. Complex I will happily give you. But I have little patience for the ‘woe is me, the privileged straight white male’ character arc. Do I concede that things weren’t totally black and white in his characterization? Absolutely. But given how he treats a few of his siblings, and given how he has ‘anger issues’ that end up coming off as totally justified in some ways, and GIVEN that he had a pretty cushy life free of consequences when compared to other characters, his whole ‘I have it hard too pity me’ act felt forced and trite. I did feel bad for him, but I think that there was a little too much effort put into redemption when other characters weren’t given the same treatment, and probably deserved it as much as he did.
“I’ll Never Tell” was a pretty good mystery, and a nice tone for a summer read. While I had expected a little bit more from it, I enjoyed it for what it was, even though I found some character choices dubious. If you are looking for one last summer read, this could be a good contender to make the transition into the fall!
Rating 6: The mystery was compelling and many of the characters were pretty well established, but “I’ll Never Tell” had a couple of unexamined issues that I couldn’t totally overlook.
Book Description: Burn brightly. Love fiercely. For all else is dust.
Every child of Glasnith learns the last words of Aillira, the god-gifted mortal whose doomed love affair sparked a war of gods and men, and Lira of clan Stone knows the story better than most. As a descendant of Aillira and god-gifted in her own right, she has the power to read people’s souls, to see someone’s true essence with only a touch of her hand.
When a golden-haired warrior washes up on the shores of her homeland–one of the fearful marauders from the land of the Frozen Sun–Lira helps the wounded man instead of turning him in. After reading his soul, she realizes Reyker is different than his brethren who attack the coasts of Glasnith. He confides in her that he’s been cursed with what his people call battle-madness, forced to fight for the warlord known as the Dragon, a powerful tyrant determined to reignite the ancient war that Aillira started.
As Lira and Reyker form a bond forbidden by both their clans, the wrath of the Dragon falls upon them and all of Glasnith, and Lira finds herself facing the same tragic fate as her ancestor. The battle for Lira’s life, for Reyker’s soul, and for their peoples’ freedom has only just begun.
Review: Our fairly recent re-read of “Sky in the Deep” for bookclub reminded me just how much I enjoyed Vikings stories. Pair that with “The Wolf in the Whale,” another story that I read this year that partially featured Vikings and had a good romance at its heart, and I was ready and raring to go for more of the same. This made it an easy decision to request a copy of “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” for review. But while it did have elements of what I was looking for, it also seemed to be a bit too off the mark at times for me to fully enjoy.
Lira and Reyker had met years before, though one remembers it as a half-believed nightmare, and the other as a strange encounter with a wild young girl who inspired him to break his own codes of warfare. When they meet again, it is under very different, and yet oddly similar circumstances. Now an adult, Lira holds an incredible power to see the truth of person’s being through a mere touch. It is an ability that has garnered her respect, but also makes her a valuable tool for her tribe, offering her limited option for her future. Reyker has continued on the path set before him so long ago, as a member of Viking marauding crew that has taken down countless villages. Now, Lira’s tribe is the next and the two are thrown together once again, natural enemies, but with a connection that neither can deny.
As I said in my introduction, this book didn’t quite connect for me. But there were a few pros that I want to start out by highlighting. For one, the writing itself was strong. There was one blurb I read before starting it that mentioned a comparison to Juliet Marillier’s work. Given that this story description sounds just like something that author would write herself and the fact that she’s one of my favorite authors, I had high hopes on that front. And there, at least, it didn’t disappoint. The writing it lyrical, smooth, and feels as if it is a fairytale in the making. At the same time, the action, dialogue, and character moments all read as natural and alluring. There were several turns of phrase that popped off the page for me. While I’m not sure I would quite put it at the level of Marillier’s work, I can definitely see where the comparison came from.
The other stand-out was Lira herself. I really liked her voice and the way her character moved throughout the storyline presented her. She rose to the challenges presented to her, but never lost sight of herself or her unique gifts. Early in the book there is a big emphasis placed on Lira’s limited life choices, due to her unique powers, and I enjoyed the way that Lira approached the responsibility of her gift as well as the confines it put on the paths before her. While I do wish that a bit more was done with her gift itself, Lira, as a character, was another point of favor for this story.
Where the book let me down, however, was with the plot itself and the romance. The plot felt meandering and full of too many ideas all at once. A few chapters would focus on one thing. Then a new event would pop up and suddenly take over. It felt almost like a bunch of mini stories all crammed together, losing sight of any connecting tissue that would pull them all together. There was also a lot of repetitive planning, action, escapes, but then failures. The story literally couldn’t escape its own restrictions and it felt like it, like our characters, was simply floundering around in captivity.
I also didn’t love the romance. And this is where the comparison to Marillier hurt the book for me. If there’s anything that Marillier excels at, other than beautiful prose, it’s amazing romances. So I went into this perhaps with my expectations too high. But, on top of that, Reyker and Lira are both strong characters on their own. And the build up to their romance is intriguing, especially given that they don’t share a common language. But then they kiss, and it’s all downhill from there as they immediately fall into all-consuming love for each other. I wish this could have been drawn out a bit more or progressed in a more natural way. Perhaps I would have been less disappointed with it had Lira and Reyker on their own been less compelling. But as it was, they were both strong characters who deserved an equally strong romance.
I think this book had a lot of promise, and the writing and strong characters get it a long way down the road to success. But the plot seemed to circle back on its self a bit too much and the romance was underwhelming. This is the first in a series, however, so these things could be improved in the sequel. Fans of historical fantasy would probably enjoy this; just keep your expectations in check better than I did.
Rating 6: A solid attempt, but it read as a bit too bland for what I was wanting and missed some opportunities a long the way to take advantage of the strengths it had going for it.
Where Did I Get This Book: An eBook from the library!
Book Description:Once upon a time, in the Kingdom of Delain, King Roland is murdered and his son and heir, Peter, is framed for the crime. Peter and his loyal friends must battle an evil wizard and Peter’s usurper brother, Thomas, for the throne. Imprisoned in a tower, Peter conceives an escape plan that will take him years to execute before taking on Flagg, the powerful sorcerer who has masterminded this coup.
Review:I’m sure that this has been brought up before, but one of my favorite literary characters of all time is Stephen King’s Randall Flagg, the villainous but charismatic demon from multiple works in the Stephen King Universe. It probably goes Gandalf, Anne Shirley, and then Flagg (and what a group that is!). But for loving Flagg so much, I hadn’t read many books that have his presence outside of “The Stand”. “The Dark Tower” series is an endeavor I plan to take on eventually, but given its vastness the commitment is terrifying. So after needing a SERIOUS palate cleanser post “Game of Thrones” and all the bad storytelling havoc it wrought, I wanted a fantasy novel to make me feel better. Even though fantasy isn’t really my cup of tea outside of a few exceptions, I felt that King could potentially give me the fantasy story I needed, so I picked up “The Eyes of the Dragon”. And who is the villain within the story? A magician named FLAGG!!!
I think I knew that he was in this book on some level, but in the moment it was a pleasant surprise. So I dove into the audiobook of “The Eyes of the Dragon”, and was not let down by King and his fantasy storytelling.
“The Eyes of the Dragon” is admittedly pretty basic fantasy with a clear hero, a clear villain, and a cut and dry conflict that has high, deadly stakes. It takes place in the kingdom of Delain, a medieval-esque world with kings, lords, and peasants. King Roland is a mediocre but passable ruler, and his court magician Flagg is biding his time and hoping to seize power so that he can cause chaos throughout the realm (as is his prerogative in most everything he does). He therein poisons the king and frames the oldest and more noble son, Peter, for his murder, so that he can put Thomas, the younger and more malleable son, in a puppet rule. Peter then has to prove his innocence and get his throne back. Very basic fantasy tropes that are now well worn, so much so that a lot of modern fantasy, I’d bet, would never dare do something so simplistic. But it’s the simplicity that I liked most while I was listening to “The Eyes of the Dragon” (more on that format choice in a bit). I can’t tell you if it was because I was gun shy after being so let down by “Game of Thrones”, or the fact that the fantasy stories I have enjoyed most in the past have been pretty cut and dry. Whatever it was, having a clear hero and a clear villain, especially a villain that I already love, was a literary comfort. The strength of this story really does come from its characters, which should be no surprise given that King is the one who created them. While none of them are particularly complex, they were still characters that I could easily root for, and against, and in some cases feel a deep, deep pity for. And while a lot of the fantasy themes and elements are things we’ve seen before (including a serious lack of female characters outside of the badass Naomi and her dog Friskie), I still feel like King implemented them in effective ways, from creating creative poisons, unique lore, and a kingdom whose culture, economy, and power structure felt well developed and fleshed out. This version of Flagg is also interesting in that he’s still malevolent, but he is lacking the charm that he oozed in “The Stand”. But that, too, still works because in “The Stand” his main goal is to recruit a number of modern day, Earthly psychopaths and degenerates, whereas in Delain he is the foreboding and all knowing court magician who has the ear of kings. It shows the chameleon-like personality shifts that he has throughout the various King works he appears in, and I REALLY liked that.
I also really want to focus on the narrator of the audiobook, who is none other than Bronson “Balki” Pinchot. While most of us probably think of Pinchot as a flamboyant character actor who plays over the top comedic characters (more often than not with odd European accents), he is phenomenal as our book narrator. He has differing voices for all of the characters, he isn’t afraid to emote in the ways that the characters are emoting, even if that means he’s legitimately screaming at the top of his lungs, and he provides the proper pacing and beats for every moment. I knew that he had dramatic acting chops from a few things I’d seen him in, but goddamn he knocks this story out of the park on every level.
Overall, “The Eyes of the Dragon” was a comfort read of a fantasy novel that I needed in that moment. While I’m still a bit intimidated to take on “The Dark Tower”, it gives me an idea of how King approaches his fantasy stories. And I am always happy to see my man Flagg show up, no matter in what form it may be.
Rating 8: A satisfying and fun dive into fantasy, “The Eyes of the Dragon” is a different work from Stephen King, but one that I enjoyed quite a bit.
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!
Every once in a while I remember that I also have Amazon Prime for shows to watch other than just Netflix. And while browsing recently, I decided to check out “The Widow” on a whim. It’s the story of one woman’s search to get answers behind her husband’s seeming death several years earlier. When she thinks she spots him on video footage, her trek through the dangers of central Africa uncover more secrets than she could ever have imagined. I really enjoyed this how. It told a compact and compelling story with enough mystery to keep me wondering right up to the end. One warning, however: watching this as a new mom with a little baby made some aspects of this show incredibly hard to watch. The story definitely delves into some dark places, so all around, be prepared for a gripping, but tough, story.
I’ve watched most if not all of the live action superhero movies that came out in the last 20 years or so. But as much of a fan as I am of comic movies brought to life in this way, I’ve never really delved into the animated versions (other than kiddy cartoons as a kid). But there was a while there where I couldn’t seem to stop hearing people gush over “Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse.” I mean, I was hearing things like it was the best Spiderman ever and other supremely high praise. So I checked it out. And yup, it’s pretty amazing. Fans of Spiderman overall will definitely love it as it brings in so many aspects of the different Spidermen/women who have had their own runs. And at the heart of it you still have the story of what it means to be a superhero, but told in a new and refreshing way, with just enough self-deprecating humor about the “with great strength…” yada yada stuff. If you’re like me and don’t check out animated films too often, definitely make an exception for this one!
Aziz Ansari has had a challenging go of things in the last few years. I’m not going to get into the whole thing, but a quick internet search will catch you up if you missed it somehow. But that being the case, I was really curious what he would come up with for his first real appearance since events went down. And I thought it was really good. He had a really narrow tight rope to walk with this show, addressing his history, his take on things, and how he has come out of it as a person. All while avoiding the plethora of landmines of things that can go wrong with this type of rebuilding procedure. People will have different reactions and will want different things from a person whose gone through something like this, but for me, I thought it was a very honest, compelling look at his experience. And then he tied it into some larger points about “right now” that I found not only humorous but also almost “too true.” It’s definitely a different performance and different Aziz than we’re used to seeing. But I think that’s not only understandable, but almost the only option. Had he come out trying to be just as he was before, it would have felt dishonest and caricaturish. As it was, it feels as we are getting more of an insight into the “real” Aziz, and I think it’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you were a fans of his before all of this.
I’ve been downright obsessed with the true crime/supernatural/alien podcast “Last Podcast on the Left” for about a year and a half now, so when I had the chance to go see them in person, I obviously leapt at it. My friend Mark and I went together, and while we had no idea what to expect, we knew it was going to be a treat. Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski bring their dark humored, irreverent, and sometimes crude style to the stage, and give fun and informative presentations on various topics. Cryptids, aliens, conspiracies, and more are covered at their show, and I was laughing hysterically the entire time. What I like about these guys is that while they are definitely pushing envelopes and sometimes taking it to gross extremes, at the heart of their show (podcast and live both) are three guys who like to share knowledge, make statements about society, and entertain people. I haven’t gone to many podcast live shows, but this was by and large the most impressed I’ve been. Hail Yourselves, everyone!
Our favorite lady wrestlers are back, and they are now performing in Las Vegas!! I had been waiting so long for “GLOW” to return to Netflix, and while I had to wait a little longer for my husband to get home from out of town, it was worth the wait. “GLOW” continues to showcase complex and interesting female characters, and shows how they function and try to make it in the wrestling world in the 1980s. This season things get a little heavier, dealing with eating disorders, the mental load of trying to have a career and a child, and having to live up to the standards of doing incredibly physical performances every night with little to no breaks or support. Alison Brie, Marc Maron, and Betty Gilpin continue to showcase their wide and deep emotional ranges. But it’s Chris Lowell’s Bash Howard who really stole the show this season, as he tries to live a normal married relationship with Rhonda, in spite of the fact that his attractions are more towards men. I love everyone on this show, and I’m already waiting anxiously for the next season!
I didn’t watch the first season of “The Terror”, as while I heard it was really good I had tried to read the book and just wasn’t that into it. But when I saw that season two was going to take place during the Japanese-American Internment during World War II, that got my attention. “The Terror: Infamy” focuses on the Nakayama family, Japanese Americans who see their community turn on them after Pearl Harbor, and are then sent to an internment camp, like more that 100,000 Japanese Americans during this time period. But along with the all too realistic (and frankly, timely) horrors of government sanctioned imprisonment based on bigotry and fear, there is also the fact that some kind of spirit is haunting the Nakayama family. The first scene of the series involves a woman dressing in a beautiful kimono, walking down a dock, and then killing herself. And given her strange bodily contortions right beforehand, something is amiss. “The Terror: Infamy” strikes a balance between the real horrors of the world, and the cultural ghost stories that can be reflections of said horrors.
What non book things have you been enjoying this month? Let us know in the comments!
Book Description: This is it! Yeerk ships are pouring in from all ends of the galaxy. An all-out war for the planet has finally begun. The winner will control Earth. The loser will perish. The President of the United States is a Controller, and the Animorphs have been forced to rally their own military force of 5,000. Will this be enough to defeat the seemingly endless onslaught of Yeerks? Rachel has always prepared for the final battle. But is she too eager? It’s her moment…and this time there will be no compromise!
Plot: I again don’t have a quippy intro for this book. I will say that while I remember the major events at the beginning and end, I had very little memory of the details in between. Pretty sure it’s because as a kid I was completely traumatized by both of those events and blocked out the rest of the book.
Rachel is on the Blade ship. She knows what she has to do, and she’s afraid. But there was a reason she was picked for this mission and so she continues. She demorphs and remorphs grizzly, raining terror down on the Blade ship crew. But with all of the Yeerks having morphing abilities, she is critically injured, just shy of her mission. Tobias, watching through the view screen from the Pool ship, navigates a now-blinded Rachel to cobra!Tom who she finally kills. She demorphs to her vulnerable human self. Looking back at her friends on the other ship, she tells Tobias she loves him and is killed with one blow by a polar bear!Yeerk. The Blade ships speeds away, lost to space.
Back on the main ship, the Animorphs are all in various states of shock. Toby arrives to let them know that the remaining Yeerks want to surrender. Cassie and Marco manage to prod Jake back into action who meets with the Yeerks’ temporary leader who says they will surrender if given the ability to morph into another form permanently. Jake agrees, though Ax reminds him that the Andalites may feel differently and now that they’ve lost their blue box with the Blade ship, they don’t have many options.
Jake orders Ax to open a communication portal to the Andalite fleet and one to the public channel on the Andalite home world. He also forces Visser One to leave Alloran and be trapped in a carrying case. The Andalite commander is gruff as expected, distrustful that the whole thing isn’t a Yeerk trick. But with the Andalite world viewing them, they have to agree to meet peaceably. Once on the Pool ship, the Andalite War Prince informs Jake that they absolutely will not abide by the deals Jake has struck with the surrendered Yeerks and Taxxons. With nothing left to bargain, they are in a bind, until Ax steps up and calls a challenge. He needs the support of a Prince to do this, however, but Alloran throws his weight behind him.
The other Animorphs learn that a challenge allows a soldier to confront a leadership decision that they feel is against the common interests of the Andalite people as a whole. The consequences are dire if the judging is ruled against them. But it is also noted that the Andalites are wary and conservative when it comes to these things, so a challenge is only likely to go forward fully if the Andalite leadership think they have a strong case to win. Turns out they don’t think this, and the Animorphs are given 4 morphing cubes to fulfill the peace agreements with the Yeerks and Taxxons.
They then land in D.C. and the truth comes out to everyone. Speeches are made, and at some point Tobias flies off. A few days later, the Andalites bring in the body of a human girl they found floating in space. It’s Rachel. There is a massive funeral held for her and a monument built. Tobias shows up and flies away with the ashes.
One year later. Tobias has not been seen since Rachel’s funeral. Ax has been made a Prince and is the diplomat between Earth and the Andalites. Marco has found fame as the one Animorph who is capable of talking about the war experience in a way the public appreciates (Jake is too weighed down by it all still and Cassie moralizes too much about the ethics of fighting defensively). Cassie is helping work with the free Hork Bajir as they are set up in Yellowstone. She also helped the Taxxons all morphs large snakes and be relocated to the rain forest. Jake is struggling with depression and PTSD. Marco, who has been spying on him in his spare time, thinks that he hasn’t morphed since the war ended but has been heading to Rachel’s monument and spending a lot of time just sitting there, staring off. They theorize that he might be hoping Tobias will show up.
It all comes to a head at the trial for Visser One. Jake is called onto the stand and crumbles after the defense attorney calls him a war criminal and mass murderer himself for what he did to the Yeerks in the pool he flushed into space. When a break is called, the other three Animorphs capture Jake and dump him into the freezing ocean, forcing him to morph dolphin. He finally releases a bit and plays in the water. Back on shore, the other three confront him. Cassie tells him that they are all complicit and have had to come up with ways to manage it, and that the victim is not the same as the perpetrator. Marco says it doesn’t matter how vicious Jake’s thoughts were when flushing the Yeerks, he was still operating as a victim defending his home. Jake is unsure about any of this, but begins to work through it somewhat. The trial ends and Visser One is sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.
Two years after this. Cassie has moved into a subcabinet role with the federal government and continues to work with the free Hork Bajir. She has also begun dating someone, knowing that her relationship with Jake is over. Marco is thriving in his fame, though also showing signs of boredom (morphing lobster to retrieve keys from the bottom of his pool). And Jake has written a book (Marco and Cassie did earlier as well) which he sees as a way of bringing in the stories of the “lost Animorphs,” Rachel and Tobias, more. He’s also secretly training a select group of military personnel from a bunch of different governments to deal with the increasing terrorism that has come from aliens showing up on earth (all sorts of conspiracies, ranging from religious fanaticism to species-ism, etc.) Ax has been patrolling the galaxy as the Prince of his own ship. He comes across a strange, abandoned space craft and leads a crew aboard.
Jake is approached secretly by a group from the Andalite high command. They report that an Andalite has returned from Ax’s ship. The ship had been destroyed and Ax is missing. When he boarded the strange vessel, they found animal DNA and polar bear hairs. Jake immediately connects this with the Yeerk who killed Rachel on the Blade ship. The Blade ship itself then appeared in the wreckage and destroyed the Andalite vessel and shot away. The sole Andalite survivor claims that he heard a fragment of thought speak from Ax and all he said was “Jake.” But Ax has gone missing in a part of space that is home to a hostile race of aliens with whom the Andalites have agreed to not interact; they leave the Andalites alone if the Andalites leave them alone. Enter in humans and a stolen Yeerk craft.
Jake first approaches Cassie. But he’s come to tell her that she’s off the hook. She’s serving an important role, helping the free Hork Bajir, and she’s created a new life for herself. Instead, he knows that she must know where Tobias is and wants directions. He then finds Tobias in a meadow. He’s been camped out for years, living a solitary life as a hawk and mourning Rachel. Tobias’s first instinct is to blow off Jake, but when he hears that Ax is missing, he signs on. Marco is the last to be approached. He points out what’s really going on for Jake: that this is the life line that Jake was waiting for. And that Jake has been internalizing and doubting his every decision that was made during the war with the Yeerks and that this is dangerous. He points out that the only reason they won, 6 kids against an alien empire, is because Jake didn’t flinch and made the reckless, brave, and ruthless decisions. If he tries to fight a “perfect” fight or correct past wrongs, that’s what will get them all killed this go around. Jake doesn’t seem to have an answer for this, but Marco signs on anyways.
Jake enlists two of his students to round out their numbers and they steal the Yeerk ship (it has been oddly modified for humans and stashed with supplies; the Andalites’ work though they will never claim it). They name the ship “Rachel” and head off into space. It’s a long journey, and they’re out there for 6 months before they finally are approached by the Blade ship itself.
The polar bear!Controller opens the communication portal to them. They claim to be Yeerk refugees who have been looking for the Blade ship for the past 3 years. The leader seems to be falling for it, but says he has to check with with The One who is running things now. His image goes blurry and he seems to be suddenly spiced together with a bunch of other beings, including one that looks like Ax. A new voice emerges and he says he knows who they are and that Jake should reveal himself. He says that he has “absorbed” Ax and that they are next. Their ship clearly out-powers the Rachel, so Jake looks at Marco and asks if he’s ready for a reckless decision. He then orders them to ram the Blade ship. THE END.
Our Fearless Leader: While this is technically a book featuring all of the characters as narrators, at its core, this is a Jake book. Which is really only right and necessary, all things considered. He has had the biggest arc throughout the series, and he’s the one to come out of this all with the greatest burden. And we really see all stages of things for Jake as this book plays out.
The initial moments after Rachel’s death, you can tell that things are a bit surreal for Jake. Marco and Cassie have to pull him back into things and we see Jake’s amazing leadership on display once again when he deals with the Andalites (though Marco also has to keep pushing him through it to some extent, as the exhaustion of finally winning is also setting in).
And then afterwards…Through the other characters we see how far Jake falls. It’s an excellent portrayal of depression and PTSD, especially given how little page time is devoted to it. He withdrawn, doesn’t morph, doesn’t keep in touch with his friends. And then during the trial for Visser One, he is almost overpowered with flashbacks after being called a war criminal and mass murder himself. Even after he morphs dolphin and talks to his friends, it’s clear that the burden hasn’t been lifted. He’s again more capable of shouldering it, but it’s still there and he’s still just able to keep moving.
During the next two years, we see him settle in somewhat with the new role teaching others to morph. He also notes that writing his autobiography is helpful as he feels able to give a better voice to Rachel and Tobias, the two Animorphs that public knows little about. But the most striking thing is the notable difference that even the reader can perceive between the Jake we see throughout most of the book, and the Jake who seems to re-emerge after he’s given the mission to find Ax. Cassie and Marco both note that it’s a lifeline for Jake, to be called back to war. For all the talk about Rachel’s inability to live without it, it’s pretty clear that it was a family trait (Cassie even remarks that he has a smirk just like Rachel’s). And then it’s incredibly gratifying to see him back in his element on the Rachel making the typical, foolishly brave, quintessential Animorphs game call to ram the Blade ship.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Man, these first Rachel chapters are just as rough as I remember. Let’s face it, I think I probably cried even more this go around than as a kid. Sorry, not sorry. The parts about how she knows that this was the role she was born to play, and yet even so, she’s scared. And then when blinded how she asks Tobias for help, and he at first confuses it for help out of the situation. But then realizes that she just wants help to finish, to kill Tom before she goes out. And her last moments looking back at her friends, telling Tobias that she loves him.
The replay of the scene with the Ellimist is just as striking a second go-around. Like I said when I re-read “The Ellimist Chronicles,” I’m not sure whether kid-me put two-and-two together that it was Rachel, but on this re-read I clearly knew it was her. So the first read of that scene, it’s powerful knowing that it’s Rachel. But this one is all the stronger as it plays out immediately after this ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice. I’m can’t help it, I have to quote it again. This has to be one of the best quotes in the entire series:
“Answer this, Ellimist: Did I .. . did I make a difference? My life, and my .. . my death . . . was I worth it? Did my life really matter?”
“Yes,” he said. “You were brave. You were strong. You were good. You mattered.”
“Yeah. Okay, then. Okay, then.”
A Hawk’s Life: Probably one of my biggest critiques of this book is the lack of Tobias chapters. I think we get only one at the very end when Jake comes looking for him. This is a shame on so many fronts. The first being that Tobias arguably has the most solid collection of books in the series out of all of the characters, so there’s clearly something particularly compelling about him and his narrative. And then second, we never get to see his immediate reaction and feelings to Rachel’s death. We know he demorphs to be human when she sees him the last time and so that he can cry. We know he takes her ashes. And we know that to some extent he’s kept up with Cassie enough for her to know how to direct Jake to him. But by the time we actually hear from him, it’s been three years. It’s good stuff, but I feel like even one more chapter, perhaps set during the “one year after” section would have rounded it out a bit better.
Also, in the re-read, I caught a very dark line that I didn’t notice before. When they’re all at Rachel’s funeral, Cassie mentions looking to the sky to see if Tobias was there, noting that “if he was still alive, he’d come.” What. If he was still alive?! In one throw away line it seems to be saying that at least Cassie thought that there was a chance Tobias would return to his semi-suicidal ways and off himself after Rachel’s death. This is so, so dark. And I didn’t even notice it the first time around. But there is is. IF he was still alive.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Marco considers himself and Cassie as the two “survivors” of the war. Ax is pulled back away. Jake doesn’t seem to recover. Tobias disappears. And Rachel died. These two are the only ones who seem to thrive and find places for themselves in the world. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that Cassie’s is a more stable, healthy version of a life. She is able to use her fame to further the cause of the free Hork Bajir, the Yeerk rebels, and the Taxxons. She ties this all together with her love of animals and conservation by helping set up homes for them in Yellowstone and the rain forest. She’s healthy enough to recognize that her relationship with Jake is doomed and to move on to find a new, seemingly solid, relationship. She even goes to school to pursue her dream of being a veterinarian. All this adds up to Jake making the call for her to stay behind. She immediately offers to go with him, but also doesn’t fight him much on staying back. He notes that she is needed; that the free Hork Bajir was their only clear win and she needed to protect it.
It’s all well and good, and it makes sense. But again, I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed by her role. All and all, she felt too passive in this last book. We only get a few lines about the loss of Rachel, and Cassie being her best friend, I would have liked more from her with this. And then her relationship with Jake just…fades away. I get why Jake wouldn’t call her; he’s falling apart. But Cassie, the girl who gave up the morphing cube to “save” Jake…she just lets him fade away completely? To the point that she’s asking Marco how he’s doing?? And Marco is the one who has been morphing and spying on him? It seems out of character that she would step back this far.
And, even if I just said how it makes sense for her to stay behind, a part of me still wishes that she would have went. That as an adult she would have recognized more than ever the important role that she played and how needed she is as a member of the team to balance the others out. And, like Applegate says in her afterword, she wanted the Animorphs to go out as they came in: fighting. I wanted that for all of the Animorphs, no matter how much sense it made for Cassie to stay behind.
The Comic Relief: Marco ends up with quite a few chapters, almost serving as the primary narrator it seems after the war is over. But amidst all of the glam, cars (nice call back here, that he buys a bunch of fancy cars), TV shows, and such, it was great to finally see a return to the clever Marco of old. In the first negotiations with the Andalites, for example, he’s the one to keep pushing Jake through, knowing that if they come off as weak in this exchange, humanity will always be under the thumb of the Andalites going forward. It’s nice to see a return to his good comedic lines too:
“I guess we won, Ax.”
“Shouldn’t someone be singing ‘God Bless America’?”
And as I pointed out in Cassie’s section, it is Marco who keeps an eye on Jake and works to keep up his friendship with him. Spying on Jake seems exactly up his alley. He’s also the one not to mince words when Jake finally approaches him at the end. He’s quick to tell Jake that the public has it wrong: Marco was the tactician of the group, not Jake. What Jake had going for him was his determination, bravery, and willingness to just move forward with the options he had, not second guessing himself. Marco is pretty frank about the fact that Jake’s habit now of looking back on the war and over-analyzing all of his mistakes is the trait that will get the group killed going forward.
I think Marco’s life after the war is one of the more interesting representations. On the surface, it could seem very shallow, silly, and almost like a caricature of the character. But at one point in his narrative, Marco himself says that he expects the reader is waiting for him to say his life was meaningless and he was just filling a hole with all of these superficial things. But no, he says he was happy. I think this is a good balance to Jake, Cassie, and Ax. They all show different ways of coming out of the war. And Marco’s makes sense. One of the reasons he was successful with his strategies and ruthlessness was his ability to compartmentalize things. That same trait it seems could allow him to come out of a war like this and be able to hop into a celebrity life like this and enjoy it. Everything is in its own tidy box. Though we do see, after three years, that he is at least somewhat bored, what with morphing lobster for no really good reason. And it’s not like that was a favorite morph of his or anything.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Without paging back through my book, I seem to remember only one chapter from Ax’s perspective as well, which is a shame. We don’t get anything from him immediately after Rachel’s death when he is negotiating with the Andalites or during the trial for Visser One, both of which seem like huge missed opportunities. I really liked the concept of the “challenge” and the way it played out, especially with Alloran stepping in to support them. It would have been great to get into Ax’s head during all of that. There’s a bit where they Andalites go off to confer and it seems like that would have been a perfect place to cut to Ax so that we could see some of his reflections on everything.
And then the one chapter we do get is many years later when he’s operating his own ship. It’s pretty brief even then. Though it was particularly nice to see how his experiences on Earth changed him as a commander. He regularly explains why he makes the decisions he does, something that Andalite Princes don’t do, but is clearly a reflection of his time fighting a war in a more democratic, small team where their missions were always discussed. We also see him lead the boarding mission, wanting to take a more active role in the missions he assigns.
As for the end, I’ve got to say, it doesn’t look too good for Ax. We don’t know much about The One, but I can’t imagine it’s ever a good thing to be “absorbed” into another being. Regardless of the outcome of the ship ramming, it seems like there is a fairly decent chance that poor Ax-man is out of it for good.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: For all that it’s the last book, there isn’t necessarily a lot of body horror in this book. I mean, definitely don’t think too hard about Rachel’s death and the fact that she was flushed into space (also don’t think about the odds of her body being found). It’s not so much body horror, but the fact that Arbron gets killed by poachers down in the rain forest is almost too real. Of course that’s what happened. Never underestimate the stupidity and cruelty of people. There’s a throwaway line about how maybe Arbron was relieved. And, maybe. But I really doubt that being killed by a poacher looking for bragging rights is anyone’s preferred way to go.
Couples Watch!: For me, it seemed like Jake and Cassie’s relationship was doomed ever since she gave up the blue box. There was a weird moment in Jake’s next book where he mentioned getting married after the war is over, but, to me, that read more out of character than anything at that point. Even if Jake forgave her, that moment was pivotal and not something that could be simply brushed past easily.
To go even further back though for Cassie, the writing was probably on the wall for her ever since she went to Australia and caught herself being drawn to a nice, regular boy. Understandably, as the war became more intense, Jake became more and more singularly focused and was bearing a greater load on his shoulders than ever before. It seemed like he simply didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be there for Cassie, too. And in some ways, Cassie herself seemed to recognize this and her decision with the blue box could be read as a last, frantic attempt to save the Jake she knows she’s already losing (not just romantically, but Jake is slowly turning into a different person than the boy she had a crush on in the beginning of the series).
I won’t rehash how strange I found it that Cassie just let Jake slip away after the war ended, but I do like that they showed a healthy end to that relationship, at least for her. That Cassie knew when to let him go and move forward herself. However, she does make a mention of the challenge it must be to be the boyfriend to come after Jake, pretty much having to compete with a guy who, in the public’s eye, is a combination of George Washington and Batman.
And then there’s Tobias and Rachel. Their last moments are about as tragic as you can imagine, especially the asking for help line.
<Rachel!> Tobias cried.
<Help me, Tobias,> I pleaded.
<l can’t. . . I . . .>
He didn’t understand. <Help me get him. Help me get him!>
And the fact that Tobias morphs human so that’s the last version of him that Rachel sees and so that he can cry. And her telling him she loves him. And then he steals her urn and disappears. And man, it’s all just a lot of sadness. These two have definitely had the more stable relationship throughout the series. They seemed to “be together” much earlier than Jake and Cassie. And then that “togetherness” was pretty solid. Cassie and Jake were pretty much tip-toeing around each other the entire time. Not to get super nerdy and everything, but it’s kind of like how in “Friends” Rachel and Ross were set up as the major romance of the show. But then after season after season of drama and will they/won’t they, the Monica/Chandler relationship, with all of its solid, normalcy kind of ended up overshadowing it at the end. I think Jake and Cassie were set up to be the big romance, but in the end, I think Rachel and Tobias were. You can’t beat the tragedy, sweetness, and uniqueness of it.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: We don’t have a whole lot from our villains in this book given that, well, they all lose pretty early on. Visser One had a few good quips, but we didn’t get to hear anything from him during his trial. I’m pretty sure I would definitely have been down for an entire book of the trial of Visser One.
Tom’s death is also pretty quick in the coming and the event itself and the after effects are, rightly, much more focused on Rachel and her death. He only really showed up as a player in the last few books, so it’s not a huge loss really. Though you do have to question his decision to morph cobra there in the last fight. Kind of opened himself up for an easy take-down. Rachel was already on her way out, why even chance it with a morph that can be killed pretty easily by an even 90% out of it grizzly bear? She didn’t even need her eye sight to pull it off! But they did talk again about the difference between the Animorphs who are familiar with their morphs and the strengths that go with that knowledge as compared to the Yeerks who still don’t have much experience, so maybe that’s all it was.
The One, again, shows up only briefly at the end. I have mixed feelings on this. As a kid, I was pretty mad through this entire book over Rachel dying so didn’t spend too much time thinking about the rest of the story. The description of The One is terrifying for sure and definitely sets up a compelling new villain. But it’s almost too good. After an entire book filled with depressing scenes about Jake’s downfall, the loss of Rachel, Tobias’s potentially suicidal depression, Cassie pretty much checking out of the story, and Marco doing his own thing, the brief few chapters at the end where they’re teamed up again are so thrilling that you’re just left kind wanting more there at the end. You build the reader right back up, and then bam, the end. And there are just so many mysteries. Who is The One? Is Ax dead? Do they survive the ramming of the ship? One mystery, sure. But that many made it more frustrating than I would have liked for the end of the series.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Wow, so the entire book? Obviously, Rachel’s death is the worst of it. I do find it kind of funny that the tag line on the cover and the book description itself is trying to be all secretive about which Animorph dies. But then you open the cover and…bam!
Yeah, not too subtle there. Plus, anyone who had read the previous book knew which one it would be. Anyone who read “The Ellimist Chronicles” and Megamorphs #4 closely knew who it would be.
Obviously, the one line about Tobias being potentially suicidal again is pretty bad. Marco and Cassie both address why this loss was so much worse for him than anyone else. Marco says:
I knew why Jake had sent Rachel to Tom. I agreed with his thinking. But then, I wasn’t in love with Rachel. I wasn’t some lonely kid trapped in a hawk’s body, half in one world, half in another with only Rachel’s love tying me to my humanity.
And Cassie says to Jake when he’s asking to find Tobias:
“He doesn’t hate you, Jake. He never did. His heart was broken, that’s all. And you know, Tobias never had anyone. No one before Rachel. No mother, really, no father he could ever know. Rachel was the first and only person who ever loved Tobias.”
When you really think about Tobias’s story over all, there’s really no competing for sadness. He had it the worst before. He had it the worst during. And he has it the worst in the end, losing the one person who grounded him and spiraling so far down that, while he doesn’t kill himself, he retreats completely from humanity, essentially killing his human side in the process. Those three years couldn’t have been good. The one strange thing about this is the lack of any mention of his mother, Loren. I can see how since the relationship is so new and Tobias isn’t one to form bonds quickly or easily, he might still have retreated from humanity. But I find it surprising that there’s no talk from Cassie of Loren trying to find Tobias and bring him back from the brink.
And Jake’s entire arc is sad, too. Even at the end, both Cassie and Marco don’t see his return to action as a good sign. Cassie notes that Jake seems almost like Rachel, which from Cassie’s perspective isn’t a good thing as she always worried that Rachel needed the war too much. And here, it’s like Jake, too, has gotten back his drug of choice. Marco, too, sees the problems with Jake’s renewed energy and knows that Jake will try to use this new fight as a way to correct the mistakes he sees in the past. But Marco knows that this return to action will just be more of the same, the same burdens falling on Jake’s shoulders, the same impossible decisions with no “right” answers.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, not to undermine what Rachel did and all…but what exactly was the plan here? I get that Erek kind of threw a wrench in things by depowering the dracon cannons, but it seemed like a lot of fuss was already made about how the Pool ship couldn’t really stand up to a major fighter like the Blade ship. So, was Rachel somehow supposed to take out Tom and destroy the ship? Were they hoping that the loss of Tom would make the rest of the Yeerks aboard suddenly surrender? It’s clear that things didn’t go to plan, but I’m not sure really what that plan even was. Jake knew the cannons had been depowered before telling Rachel to go for it and reveal herself. Were they just going to blow it up with her in it as Plan A? And then Plan B was a single Animorph somehow taking out the entire Blade ship from within? Tom was a factor, for sure, but either Jake had built him up into more than he was and expected the others to wilt under the loss of their leader, or it was really just personal, at the heart of things, and there wasn’t really a solid plan behind any of it.
On this re-read, I do really like the plan to ram the ship at the end. It ties in perfectly with that pretty major speech Marco gave Jake about why the Animorphs won the war and why Jake succeeded as a leader. And then there is a nice symmetry to Elfangor ramming ships and the fact that there is a precedent for characters surviving maneuvers like this, so readers aren’t left to assume that they all just died. We’ve been hearing about how indestructible cockroach morphs are for about 50 books…just saying.
Favorite Quote: There are a ton of really great quotes. It was hard not to just pepper them all throughout the review, and I still ended up including a bunch. But I think the one I want to highlight is this one:
The six of us stood there contemplating our dangerous-looking new home, set against the sunrise over Earth.
“So what do we call her?” Marco wondered.
<She’s beautiful,> Tobias said. <She’s beautiful and dangerous and exciting.>
I turned in surprise to look at Tobias. He stared back at me with his eternally fierce hawk’s gaze. Marco laughed, realizing what we were thinking.
“She would love it. A scary, deadly, cool looking Yeerk ship on a doomed, suicidal, crazy mission that no one can ever know about? She would love it.”
So it was that we went aboard the Rachel.
Scorecard: Yeerks 16, Animorphs 21
Obviously the Animorphs win this one. But I think the bigger win in this book isn’t so much the destruction of the Yeerks (that was pretty well covered in the last book), but the way that Jake and the rest set up humanity as a equal voice on the intergalactic playing board. The negotiation scene with the Andalites was crucial and the fact that a bunch of traumatized teens were able to manage it and put Earth in a strong position is pretty impressive. Jake notes that had that not gone well, humans could have very well ended up as second class citizens on their own planet.
This is the final score of the series. The Animorphs win, but the Yeerks held their own pretty well, too. (No reason to point out the fact that they may have won some of these points based more on my irritation at the idiocy of the Animorphs than on them actually winning a battle in a particular book.)
Rating: Well, we made it. 54 regular books, 4 megamorphs, 4 chronicles. I’m pretty sure if I did a word count for these reviews, I would find that I have written a literal novel about this series over the last 2 years or so. But what a blast it’s been! I found out that some of the opinions I held as a child remained the same. And some changed.
Things that stayed the same include my eternal love for Rachel and Tobias, as separate characters and as a couple. My struggles with Cassie as a character and several of her books and decisions. The fact that the series had a definite trough in the last third of the series, with a few notable exceptions. And that I cried way more often than is appropriate for a middle grade series.
Things that changed included my deeper appreciation for Marco as a character. I always thought of him as the funny guy, but failed to remember how supremely clever and with it he was. Of them all, in this read I think I identified with his approach to the war the most.
While most of my opinions on Cassie stayed the same, there were definite books and moments for her that I had forgotten were so good and important. So she’s now a mixed bag character for me.
My appreciation for the war story at its heart and the deep, sympathetic, and really tough to read look at the experiences of soldiers fighting a war day in and day out and what life can be like when that war ends.
I still really wish Rachel had lived, just because she was one of my favorite characters and no one likes it when their favorite character dies. But I can now appreciate the huge impact her death has on the reality of the story.
And, most of all, my appreciation for the way the book ended. I was really pissed about that as a kid. While I wish there weren’t quite as many threads dangling there, I think it was an awesome way to tie things up, ultimately. There’s also plenty of evidence to make you think they live through it to fight another day. You have the fact that major characters have done the same thing in the past and lived through it, so the author has set the stage for that ending. And then the fact that in this very book Marco talks about how they won by not hesitating and making crazy decisions like this. Jake’s order to ram the ship is a triumphant return to the Animorphs who win and the Animorphs who live.
I really loved reviewing this series and I’m not sure what I will use to fill the hole in my reading that will now open up (not to mention the blog itself…) now that they’re gone. I’m so appreciative of those who have read along and still love talking about this series, twenty years later. Thanks for coming along on this journey! Also, if you have some “read alike” suggestions, leave them in the comments. That ending, while cool, definitely left me craving more!
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!
Book: “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (Ill.)
Publishing Info: First Second Books, March 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:Amanda can’t figure out what’s so exciting about kissing. It’s just a lot of teeth clanking, germ swapping, closing of eyes so you can’t see that godzilla-sized zit just inches from your own hormonal monstrosity. All of her seven kisses had been horrible in different ways, but nothing compared to the awfulness that followed Kiss Number Eight. An exploration of sexuality, family, and faith, Kiss Number Eight is a coming-of-age tale filled with humor and hope.
Review: It may seem like I’m doing a LOT of graphic novels lately, but in my defense I neglected this format a lot this summer. This occurred to me when I was requesting books for a teen graphic novel display, and one of the books I stumbled upon was “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw. After requesting it for work, I requested it for myself. I hadn’t looked too much into it when I requested it; I knew that it had LGBTQIA+ themes, and I knew that it was about a teen girl figuring out her sexuality. But what I didn’t expect was how emotional “Kiss Number 8” was going to be, and how hard it would be to read at times because of the themes.
And to note, I will have to address some vague spoilers in this review to fully discuss my opinions. I’ll do my best to keep it general.
“Kiss Number 8” takes place in 2004, a time that doesn’t seem to distant to me but is actually fifteen years ago. As I was reading this book, it served as a reminder of how many things have changed in terms of societies views on sexuality, and yet how far we still have to go. Amanda is written as a pretty typical teenage girl of this time and place, and up until this point she can count on a number of things: she has a fantastic relationship with her father, she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother, and her best friends Cat and Laura are always going to be there for her, even if they don’t particularly like each other. You get a great glimpse into Amanda’s life through snippets of scenes, and by the time the main plots start to kick in you already know who she is and what her reality is. Venable does a good job of showing rather than telling when it comes to how Amanda feels about those in her life, especially her growing infatuation with Cat, whose care free and somewhat selfish personality is apparent to everyone BUT Amanda. I also liked the slow unraveling and reveal of the other main plot line: a mysterious phone call to her father, and a mysterious letter that he tries to hide from her. Venable does a really good job of making the reader think it’s going to be one thing, but then piece by piece shows that it’s something completely different, something that connects to Amanda’s present emotional situation with Cat and goes even further back into how people have to hide their identities from others.
I also thought that Venable did a good job of portraying realistic, and at times very flawed, characters. As I mentioned earlier, Amanda is a pretty normal teenage girl, but along with that comes a cruel streak towards those who care about her, especially her mother and Laura. She makes bad decisions in moments of great emotion, and it ends up hurting people, who in turn react poorly and hurt her back. But you never get the sense that she is a bad person when she does these things, rather that she is in a great deal of pain and dealing with confusion about herself and a life she thought she had all sorted out. The fallout from these choices always felt real, and sometimes that meant that it was painful to read. But again, Amanda doesn’t ever come off as a bad person, just a person who is still learning. In fact, most of the characters are given a certain amount of grace when they screw up, and aren’t painted as being one dimensional or cardboard cut outs of tropes…. Even when they don’t necessarily deserve it. Because to me, with how some of the characters did end up reacting to Amanda’s identity, and the identities of others within the story, I didn’t want them to be given a pass, realistic or not. Not when they caused to much pain.
And that is a good segue into difficult moments that I had with “Kiss Number 8”, specifically with how a number of the characters were when it comes to LGBT issues. There is a LOT of homophobia and transphobia in this book, and while it’s all written within the context of the story, and doesn’t feel like it’s excused or glossed over, it could still be triggering for readers who are in those communities. While Amanda was a lived experience of learning about herself and her sexuality, I feel like the ball was dropped a bit more with the trans characters in the narrative. They were more used as lessons for Amanda to learn, and their voices and experiences were put in the context of a cis girl realizing that they too are human beings who deserve respect and dignity. That isn’t to say that I thought Venable was malicious in her portrayal, but it does show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to how trans characters are portrayed within the stories we read. That said, I am a cis straight woman, so if my assessment is off kilter to anyone please do let me know. I, too, am still learning.
I have nothing but good things to say about Crenshaw’s artwork. The characters are cartoony and fun, and their designs remind me of other popular teen graphic works like “Drama” and “This One Summer”, but the style is still unique and feels new and fresh. And even with the more ‘cartoony’ drawings, the emotional weight of the various situations still came through loud and clear.
Uncomfortable and clunky aspects aside, I enjoyed “Kiss Number 8”. It’s an honest and emotional book that kept me reading, and reminded me that there is still so much progress to be made, even if we’ve come so far.
Rating 8: A bittersweet and emotional story about finding one’s identity, “Kiss Number 8” has complex characters and relevant themes. We’ve come so far with stories like this, but we still have a ways to go.
Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the publisher
Book Description: England 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different . . .
Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands – the marshy landscape of the south coast.
Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.
Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.
Review: Philippa Gregory was probably one of the authors I associate most strongly with my first experiences reading historical fiction as a teenager. With a few exceptions, up to that point I read fantasy/sci-fi and really that was it. But I whizzed through “The Other Boleyn Girl” and was hooked on a new genre from there on out. I read a good number of Gregory’s works over the years, and enjoyed many them. However, after a bit, I was ready to move on from her tried and true political, royal scheming stories that were starting to feel a bit stale to me. So I was excited when I heard about “Tidelands” and saw that we would be getting something outside of that wheelhouse with a story about a poor widow who comes under suspicion as a witch.
Alinor is a woman between worlds. Her husband is missing, so she is not a widow. So she’s still a wife but one without a provider, left to live independently with all of the challenges that come with it, but none of the securities that come with being a widow (mostly having to do with a woman’s honor and all of that fun stuff). But her and her children’s lives change when she runs across a priest attempting to find safety out on the ever-changing and dangerous tidelands. New opportunities are now opening before her, but with these changes come new dangers, and the watchful and suspicious eyes of neighbors are always watching.
It was nice to return to a historical fiction novel that wasn’t also a mystery. Looking back over what I’ve read the last year or so, almost all of my historical reading has been a combination of the two genres. Gregory has always impressed with her detailed descriptions of life in the time period in which her stories take place and the historical accuracy of the political and cultural experiences of those living then. This book in particular delved into the brewing tensions between the new church and the old, the new king and the old. I didn’t know a whole lot about the parties and beliefs at play here, but I enjoyed learning more about it throughout this novel. I especially enjoyed the way that Gregory approached it through Alinor’s eyes, as a common woman who has lived an isolated life away from much of the drama that is gripping the nation.
But with these details also comes a fairly slowly moving plot. The story takes a long time to get going and, thinking back on it, I’m not sure it ever even did, other than a very brief section near the end. Much of it revolves around Alinor’s romantic plot line, and even that moved at a fairly glacial speed. Once I accepted that that was what the story would be, I was better able to settle in, being now less focused on desperately trying to locate a plot. But even then, the story felt out of balance. It’s one thing to not have a strong plot in favor of focusing on characters and their relationships, but I was also never strongly attached to any of those either.
I also had hoped for a bit more from the fantastical elements teased in the description. I wasn’t expecting a fantasy, of course, but I had hoped for more on the witch front. Again, it took a long time to get there, and then it felt pretty rushed. The ending itself seemed to come out of nowhere and just kind of…end. It wrapped up in only a few pages, leaving several subplots unexplained and with an abrupt shift in characters’ lives, with little build up or exploration provided. This is the first in a series, so there’s room to expand on these things from here. But even with a series, each book should feel self-contained and have a natural beginning, middle, and end. Here, the end felt slapped on because the book needed to end, nothing more.
Overall, this was a bit of a lackluster read for me. While I liked many of Gregory’s early books, this one reminded me why I had stopped keeping up with her works. There is nothing technically wrong with it, but the story never grabbed me, the characters were not especially likable, and I felt like the historical details, while accurate and reflective of Gregory’s strong research, overwhelmed what little story there was left. Fans of her later work may very well enjoy this book, but it wasn’t really for me, sadly.
Rating 6: A bit too slow, a bit too detailed, and a bit off the mark at the end.
In the peaceful seaside town of Cape Bonita, wicked secrets and lies are hidden just beneath the surface. But all it takes is one tragedy for them to be exposed.
The most popular girls in school are turning up dead, and Penelope Malone is terrified she’s next. All the victims so far have been linked to Penelope—and to a boy from her physics class. The one she’s never really noticed before, with the rumored dark past and a brooding stare that cuts right through her.
There’s something he isn’t telling her. But there’s something she’s not telling him, either.
Everyone has secrets, and theirs might get them killed.
Review: I strive to go through my Kindle every once in awhile and see what books I’ve purchased that I haven’t read yet. I’ll be honest, I mostly use my Kindle for the eARCs that I receive, but every once in awhile I do get ebooks for it. As I was scrolling through my library I was reminded that about a year back I bought “Pretty Dead Girls” by Monica Murphy. It had shown up on my twitter feed, as a popular YA twitter account was singing its praises. There are so many things that should have worked in this narrative, at least for me. You have a climbing body count. You have popular mean girls who may be the top suspects. You have a local bad boy who may be misunderstood, MY KRYPTONITE! These are the ingredients for a stew that would normally set my tastes aflame. But by the time I had finished “Pretty Dead Girls”, I was left disappointed and wanting a whole lot more.
As I always try to do, I will start with what did work for me, and that is the aforementioned bad boy Cass. This is in all likelihood due to the fact that he seems to have been written to fit each and every trope that I love to see in a misunderstood outsider; there are rumors about him at school, he has a tragic back story, he dresses all in black and freaks people out, but at the end of the day he’s a genuinely good person who shows the protagonist (Penelope) what real love and loyalty is. Is it an overdone trope? For sure. My inevitable reaction to the character when he shows up?
But even this doesn’t quite work in the broader context of the book. Because Cass’s relationships with other characters feel at times forced, and at other times a bit problematic. While I wanted to like him and Penelope and their budding relationship, I didn’t like that his ‘bad boy’ persona/plot device pushed him into almost psychopathic territory. For example, at one point he drives like a maniac that scares the hell out of Penelope, and it’s played off as ‘sexy and daring’, as well as used as a way for Penelope to perhaps question as to whether or not he is the mysterious killer. It feels lumped in and a bit lazy, and while I know that in real life bad boys are probably not going to be good dating choices, this is fiction, dammit! And these things, in the words of the drag queen Valentina, do not make sense with my fantasy! Especially since that wasn’t the overall point that was trying to be made.
On top of that, other characters never really move outside of their tropey boxes. Penelope is likable enough, but she doesn’t experience much growth outside of realizing that her friends are jerks and that Cass isn’t what he seems. Penelope’s main nemesis Courtney is the prototypical mean queen bee who also has some private pain. The other characters are pretty much relegated to being there as potential suspects, or eventual body count padding. I was hoping that we would get more growth from every one, but they basically remained two dimensional and static.
This could have been brushed aside and/or justified by myself as a reader had the plot been able to carry the weight, but as it was I wasn’t really invested in the mystery of ‘who is the killer and who is going to be next?’. The characters who did die (with the exception of one, but I won’t spoil it here) weren’t really characters that held emotional weight when they were killed. And while the identity of the killer was played up, with first person perspectives from the mystery person to boot, by the time it was revealed whodunnit, the solution fell flat due to a lack of real motive building and characterization before they were ‘unmasked’. It just felt like a ‘gotcha!’ that wasn’t earned.
I was disappointed because I had high hopes for “Pretty Dead Girls”. But it just goes to show that sometimes the perfect ingredients aren’t going to combine to make a well done final product. While I think that it would work for other readers, it didn’t work for me.
Rating 4: While the premise had a lot of potential, I was underwhelmed by “Pretty Dead Girls”. Not even a romance between a brooding bad boy and uptight good girl could save it.
Both of us like to listen to some of our books as audiobooks. And as any fan of this format of reading knows, the narrator really makes or breaks the story. There have been ok-ish books that have been greatly aided by the clever performance of a great reader. And then other quality books that have felt bogged down by a narrator who just doesn’t seem to quite fit with the story they’re trying to tell. Throughout the years, we’ve each identified some clear favorites, and so that’s what we’re bring you today!
Barbara Rosenblat has been a long time favorite of mine. She’s pretty much a long time favorite of most audiobook readers and is one of the more sought after narrators out there, especially due to her wide range of accents that the can seemingly effortlessly apply to any work. I first came across in a read of one of Kathy Reichs “Temperance Brennan” series. I’ve read those on and off, but have always enjoyed them more in audiobook format as Rosenblat’s superb narration can add some flare to some criminal mystery elements that could be a bit dry for my usual mystery reading preferences. The other obvious favorite read by Rosenblat is the “Amelia Peabody” series. I read the first several as print books before, due to lack of availability at the library of the next one in print, I looked up the audiobook version on a whim and discovered Rosenblat narrated these, too! That sealed the deal. Even if I had to go back to reading a print version of this series, I don’t think I could do it without hearing Rosenblat’s pitch perfect rendition of Amelia Peabody’s voice. This series, character, and narrator is the perfect blend that comes from many great things coming together to make something that is,together, beyond reproach.
Tim Gerard Reynolds
Tim Gerard Reynolds is also a well-known, much-awarded audiobook narrator. And as he narrates a bunch of fantasy and sci-fi titles, I’ve run across him a number of times. There is an added challenge when narrating fantasy/sci-fi titles in that many of these works include completely fictionalized words, names, peoples, and worlds. This leaves a lot of creative interpretation at the hands of the narrator. Obviously, the author knows how certain words should be pronounced, but many readers are left to their own devices to succeed, or not succeed, in matching these expectations when reading from a print book. As an audiobook, readers fully experience the world and these words as they’re meant to be presented. On top of that, there is a lot of room for creativity in the voice work of characters who are from worlds and cultures that don’t exist. Reynolds is an expert at all of these things, making the most extreme fantasy setting and people jump off the page, seemingly fully formed and as common place in their idioms and voices as anyone on our good, ole, normal Earth. Each character has a distinct voice, and I’m particularly pleased with the way he interprets women’s voices. The “Age of Myth” and its fellow books have a huge cast of female characters, and Reynolds provides an excellent voice for them all, never falling into any of the pitfalls that can occur when trying to narrate for the opposite gender. He’s also excellent with action, and I particularly enjoy his work in the “Red Rising” series, a group of books full of intense, sci-fi actions scenes.
Simon Vance is an audiobook narrator whom I had actually forgotten I enjoyed so much until I ran across him again in my read of Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series. I’ve read a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay in my day, many of them audiobooks. And while I remember particularly enjoying them as audiobooks, it’s been years since I’ve listened to one, so couldn’t remember who narrated them specifically. But when I started listening to the first “Temeraire” book, “His Majesty’s Dragon,” it all came back with the first sound of Vance, clear, melodious British voice. While many of Gavriel Kay’s books are fantasy, they also have a feeling of a historical fiction work. And obviously, so too with the “Temeraire” series. Vance voice perfectly bridges these two genres, in a sense grounding the more fantastical elements of a story into a world that feels believable as set in our own world. Novik’s sotry is one of dragons fighting during the Napoleonic Wars. Nothing could sound more far-fetched. But with her own brilliant world-building, paired with Vance’s smooth, proper voice, it suddenly feels completely believable that a gentleman would go to war on the back of a massive dragon. Now that I’ve rediscovered his voice work, I’m eager to dive back into several of Gavriel Kay’s books that I’ve been meaning to get to, all, of course, narrated by Vance.
Some people will always see Santino Fontana as his various Broadway characters. Others will always see him as Prince Hans in the Disney movie “Frozen”. For me, Fontana is always, ALWAYS going to be the voice of Joe Goldberg in Caroline Kepnes’s “You” books. Fontana brings the creepy and yet hilarious Joe to life through his dark and yet endearing performance, capturing all angles of one of my favorite literary villains, and characters, of all time. His delivery is versatile for the characters in the books, and his timing is spot on, finding the proper beats to build suspense and find the humor. “You” and “Hidden Bodies” are my go to audiobooks when I need something familiar and comforting(?) to listen to, and while part of that is the narrative, the other part is Fontana. Fontana is not only an avid voiceover artist, he’s recently won a Tony for his leading performance in Broadway’s “Tootsie”, and he is going to be the audiobook narrator for Stephen King’s upcoming “The Institute”! So, that may have to be an audiobook read for me as well!
I first heard Will Patton perform an audiobook when I checked out “Doctor Sleep”. My main points of reference for him were movies like “Remember the Titans” and “The Mothman Prophecies” (and many, many more), but didn’t know what to expect from him doing an audiobook. But my goodness, he completely blew my mind. Patton’s strengths are that he knows how to completely transform his tone, cadence, and vocalizations for each and every character, and not only does he modify his voice when they are talking, he also does so for the entire section that is focusing on said character. Whenever I find out that he is going to be doing the voice work on an audiobook I’ve checked out, I get that much more excited for it. He emotes perfectly, and I have to say that his interpretation of Rose the Hat in “Doctor Sleep” is still one of my favorite performances from an audiobook, bar none. His versatility is on display when he’s an audiobook narrator, and if you find yourself with something read by him, get hyped.
Anika Noni Rose
This is an example of how a not so positive reading experience can be transformed by the person who is reading it. I tried to read a print copy of “Shadowshaper” by Daniel José Older, but just couldn’t get into it. My pickiness about fantasy strikes again. But one day I was looking at the books that were available for audio download, and saw that “Shadowshaper” was narrated by Anika Noni Rose. Given that I really like Rose, thanks to her turns in “Dreamgirls”, “The Princess and the Frog”, and “Everything, Everything”, I was intrigued to see how that would go. I was so happy with her performance, I listened to the entirety of “Shadowshaper” and am planning on going into “Shadowhouse Fall” as well. Rose has always been an expressive actress, and not only do we get her personality on the page, in “Shadowshaper” we get to hear her stellar singing voice. I truly believe that I wouldn’t have enjoyed “Shadowshaper” had it not been for her, and it just goes to show that sometimes what you need to enjoy a novel is a different reading medium.
Do you guys have any favorite audiobook narrators? Let us know who they are in the comments!