Kate’s Review: “Darling Rose Gold”

49223060._sy475_Book: “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Sharp Objects meets My Lovely Wife in this tightly drawn debut that peels back the layers of the most complicated of mother-daughter relationships…

For the first eighteen years of her life, Rose Gold Watts believed she was seriously ill. She was allergic to everything, used a wheelchair and practically lived at the hospital. Neighbors did all they could, holding fundraisers and offering shoulders to cry on, but no matter how many doctors, tests, or surgeries, no one could figure out what was wrong with Rose Gold.

Turns out her mom, Patty Watts, was just a really good liar.

After serving five years in prison, Patty gets out with nowhere to go and begs her daughter to take her in. The entire community is shocked when Rose Gold says yes.

Patty insists all she wants is to reconcile their differences. She says she’s forgiven Rose Gold for turning her in and testifying against her. But Rose Gold knows her mother. Patty Watts always settles a score.

Unfortunately for Patty, Rose Gold is no longer her weak little darling…

And she’s waited such a long time for her mother to come home.

Review: Thanks to Berkley for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

In college my undergrad was a Psychology BA with a focus in Abnormal Psychology. Because of this, I have a vague (if not probably outdated) working knowledge of various mental disorders, so when I first heard about the case of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard, the mother daughter duo that ended with Gypsy Rose murdering her mother Dee Dee, my mind immediately went to Munchausen By Proxy. For the unaware, Munchausen By Proxy is when a caregiver deliberately makes their charge (usually their child) ill, or hurts them in other ways. Given that Dee Dee had convinced many people that Gypsy Rose was sick in hopes of getting money and attention, and also poisoned Gypsy Rose and broke her down, making her completely dependent on her, she fits the bill to a T. When “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel both ended up in my hands in print form, and in my email box as well, I was very interested to read what I assumed was going to basically be a novelization of the Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose storym, which felt a little salacious, though honestly kinda fun too. But Wrobel has managed to create a thriller novel that definitely takes elements from that case, as well as other Munchausen By Proxy cases, without making it feel exploitative.

“Darling Rose Gold” has two differing perspectives. The first is of Patty Watts, a woman who is just getting out of prison for abusing her daughter Rose Gold. Patty convinced Rose Gold that she had a number of health issues and that she needed to be confined to a wheelchair, when it reality she was making her sick by dosing her with ipecac and only feeding her half the calories her body needed. Rose Gold testified against her, and Patty is simultaneously holding a grudge, but also desperate to be near her daughter again. Rose Gold, on the other hand, has far murkier motivations. When you have Patty who is constantly twisting the truth, and Rose Gold hiding it, it makes for two unreliable narrators and an unknown path that we are taking with them. We know that Rose Gold is up to something, but we don’t really know what. I thought that Wrobel was excellent at capturing the voice of Patty, a narcissistic sociopath, and thought that her thought processes were spot on in terms of constantly victimizing herself and incapable of believing that she could be at fault for anything. She is very much a stand in for Dee Dee Blanchard, whose toxic and abusive personality came out after her death and the facade of perfect caring mother was shattered. I was far more worried about how Rose Gold would be portrayed, as to me the ultimate victim in the case this is taking inspiration from was Gypsy Rose. If Patty is an obvious stand in for Dee Dee, Rose Gold is far different from Gypsy Rose. Which is probably a good thing. As I mentioned before, you don’t know what her plan is. But as her side of the story and motivations slowly come to light, you get a complex character who is damaged, and a little twisted. Just how twisted is the question that remains to be seen when we dive in.

The mystery is definitely about what Rose Gold is planning. You get pieces from Patty’s POV, but you also kind of have to wonder if what she is experiencing is ACTUALLY something she’s experiencing, or if her own guilt and paranoia is messing with her head. The pieces that Rose Gold gives us are built up over time, as we look at her life directly after her mother was convicted, up until her mother’s release. Wrobel, as I mentioned before, carefully shows just what kind of person this abuse has turned her into. She never paints with broad strokes when it comes to Rose Gold. She can both be a victim and also an abuser, and she can be both sympathetic and quite unsettling. I really didn’t know what she was up to for a long while, and even when I started to piece it together on my own I wasn’t completely on point with the big reveal. It’s well plotted, it’s addicting to read, and it sticks the landing for a satisfactory end without stepping into arguably controversial territory when measuring it against the real life crime that occurred. While it didn’t really blow me away, I can safely say that I was happy with how everything sussed out, and Wrobel makes a notorious story very original and new feeling.

“Darling Rose Gold” is a creepy and addictive thriller. I really enjoyed my time with it, and think that anyone who was captivated by the Dee Dee Blanchard Murder, or Munchausen By Proxy in general, would find it to be a scintilating read.

Rating 8: A frothy and unsettling thriller with inspiration from real life horrors, “Darling Rose Gold” was perhaps a little predictable, but the journey to the end was VERY fun.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darling Rose Gold” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”, and would fit in on “Munchausens and Munchausens By Proxy”.

Find “Darling Rose Gold” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Almost American Girl”

40030311._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Felicity Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

Book Description: A powerful and timely teen graphic novel memoir—perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Hey, Kiddo—about a Korean-born, non-English-speaking girl who is abruptly transplanted from Seoul to Huntsville, Alabama, and struggles with extreme culture shock and isolation, until she discovers her passion for comic arts.

For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had not heard of this book before it was picked for our book club session in March, and therefore going into it was a bit of a blind dive in. I had heard of Robin Ha’s previous book, “Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes” but I knew that this was going to be a bit different. I figured I’d read “Almost American Girl” over the course of a few days, but then I ended up devouring it in nearly one sitting. I loved it that much.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how gorgeous and unique the art was. The colors are a watercolor-esque aesthetic, and it had both a calming effect as well as really evoking the emotions that were coming off the page. Robin’s transition from her life in Korea to her sudden shift to America was emotional and very difficult, and Ha used the imagery in both the pictures themselves and the color schemes to portray all of the ups and downs of Robin’s feelings during that time. From stark reds or darkness during difficult times, or almost glowing and bright colors in times of happiness, Ha uses the artwork to her advantage in her storytelling, and I really liked it.

The story, too, was compelling and very readable. While I was absolutely interested in Robin’s story as a girl who has to completely shift from one culture to another, Ha also makes a point to show the point of view of her mother, who made the decision to take her daughter from her life in South Korea and move them to Alabama without any hint or forewarning. I thought that at first I was going to have a hard time with her mother (while still trying to recognize the cultural differences between my experience and hers), but, like Serena mentions below, Ha was very deliberate in wanting to give a full picture as to how hard she had it and why she would take such a huge risk. And, on a personal note, I think that now that I’m a mother to a daughter (who is still just a baby, mind you) I was especially moved by their relationship, through the good times and the bad.

Ha also did a very good job of showing the straddling of traditional cultural expectations, and the different expectations that the children of immigrants may have. Ha’s step family was a mixed bag of those who thought that Robin and her mother should be adhering to the traditional roles they would have had back in South Korea (even though Robin’s mother didn’t feel like she had a place in that society as an opinionated single mother), and those who wanted to just fit in in American society. That was a theme that I wasn’t really expecting from this story, and I thought Ha was very careful in making sure not to say whether these expectations were right or wrong. Well, except in the case of her step-cousin. That girl was just mean. But we also got to see Ha make connections to other Korean-American kids her age as time goes on, and how once you do find that place in a community that ‘gets it’ it can make a world of difference in one’s life.

“Almost American Girl” was a moving and wonderful graphic memoir. I am so, so glad that we read it.

Serena’s Thoughts

As I’ve said many times before, a big part of my appreciation for bookclub is how it challenges me to read outside of my typical genres. Unlike Kate, I rarely get around to graphic novels, even though I tend to enjoy them when I do  read them. I was excited, then, when I saw that we’d be reading this book next!

This book had a lot of great things going for it, from the excellent looks into a girl’s experience as an immigrant coming to the U.S., to the exploration of her mother’s life and choices, to the beautiful use of the artwork to display the myriad of emotions that Robin experiences as she adjust to her new life. I’ve read a handful of other “immigrant experience” novels and they have all had something unique to offer as no “experience” will be the same, obviously. One thing that I think this story really highlighted were the challenges of language for Robin and the impact this had on her adjustment to life in the U.S. The use of the graphic novel format was cleverly used in this instance to replace speech bubbles with nonsense jargon to highlight how difficult it was for Robin to follow along in conversations, especially when the speaker was talking quickly.

I also really liked the inclusion of the mother’s story. From the beginning, seen through Robin’s eyes, it is challenging to understand the choices Robin’s mother has made that has lead to the complete upheaval of their lives. But as the story continues, we learn more and more about Robin’s mother’s past, the challenges she faced living in Korea as a single mother, and the values she saw in coming to raise her daughter in a completely foreign and new country. And even after that one major choice was made, we see the struggle and the myriad of choices, both good and bad, that Robin’s mother faces in the U.S. while trying to make a new life here.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the last portion of the story that shows Robin briefly returning to Seoul when she’s in college and finding that she no longer fits there either. It’s an interesting look again at the differences between Korean and American culture, and touches on a side of the immigrant experience that is often skipped over. How, on returning to one’s nation of origin, many can find that they no longer fit in within that culture either.

I really enjoyed this book. I think the artwork was beautiful, and I loved the story itself. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone!

Kate’s Rating 9: An emotional and personal memoir that tackles culture, the immigrant experience, identity, and the importance of community, “Almost American Girl” was a heartfelt and moving read.

Serena’s Rating 9: Through beautiful artwork, “Almost American Girl” presents a moving story of the immigrant experience full of challenges, sorrows, and joys

Book Club Questions

  1. How does “Almost American Girl” compare to other “immigrant experience” novels that you have read?
  2. What did you think of the artwork in this book? Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?
  3. How did you react to Robin’s mother’s parts of this book? Did you feel like you understood the choices that she made?
  4. How did you find Robin’s step family and the way that they treated her and her mother?
  5. Do you think that today Robin would have had the same experience when coming to a completely new culture and country? Why or why not?
  6. How did you feel about where she ended the story in terms of where she was in her life at the time? Did that seem like a good way to wrap the story up?

Reader’s Advisory

“Almost American Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “Great Graphic Novels Released in 2020”, and would fit in on “Books and Boba Reading List”.

Find “Almost American Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by  Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, et al.

My Year with Jane Austen: “Pride and Prejudice” Part II

1886._sy475_Book: “Pride and Prejudice”

Publication Year: 1813

Book Description: The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth and her proud beau, Mr. Darcy, is a splendid performance of civilized sparring. And Jane Austen’s radiant wit sparkles as her characters dance a delicate quadrille of flirtation and intrigue, making this book the most superb comedy of manners of Regency England.

Part II – Chapters 35 – 61

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

While out walking the morning after the disastrous proposal, Elizabeth runs into Mr. Darcy once again who quickly passes off a letter to her and leaves. She reads it and discovers some shocking news. First, while she was correct about Darcy separating Jane and Mr. Bingley, she gets a better insight into his evaluation of her family’s behavior. He points to instances where all of her family, her father, mother, and three younger sisters behaved badly in public. He excludes Jane and Elizabeth, noting that they have always been perfectly proper and charming. Elizabeth is angry, but also recognizes the truth in what he says. He also points out Jane’s calm demeanor as misleading him into thinking she didn’t care much for Mr. Bingley. Again, Elizabeth is angry, but then reflects back on what Charlotte had advised months ago about Jane’s needing to show more of what she feels and concedes that perhaps for those who don’t know her, Jane might be hard to interpret.

But then the more shocking tale comes out, that of Darcy’s history with Wickham. While the first half of Wickham’s story is true, Darcy alludes to poor behavior in Wickham’s lifestyle almost from the moment of his reaching adulthood. And once Darcy’s father passed away, Wickham asked for money instead of the living. This was given and Wickham went his own way. But then when the living became vacant, he returned, presumably much in debt, and demanded the living be given to him anyways. This was refused. Later, Wickham went on to pursue Georgiana, only sixteen at the time, when she was staying with a governess and convinced her to elope with him. It was only Darcy’s surprise visit and Geogiana’s love for her brother that prevented her from not sharing the truth that prevented the elopement from happening. Darcy suspected that while Georgiana’s fortune was part of Wickham’s goal, revenge on Darcy was also part of it. He also writes that Colonel Fitzwilliam is also Georgiana’s care taker and thus knows all of these details if Elizabeth is so suspecting of him as to need to double check the truth.

Elizabeth is horrified, not only be the truth of these claims which she quickly realizes can’t be lies (it’s close to Wickham’s story, no brother would make up a story like that about his sister, and, of course, he’d not suggest she check with Fitzwilliam if it were untrue) but by her own lack of solid information to justify her prior opinions. Thinking back, she realizes that Wickham’s behavior has always been odd, sharing this information with her in the first place, having only known her for a day. And his avoidance of Darcy at the ball and the fact that once Darcy was gone from the neighborhood, suddenly the story was everywhere, even though Wickham had first claimed he’d never share it, for his supposed love of Darcy’s father. Elizabeth is miserable and is secretly relieved when she returns to the Collins’ and learns she’s missed Darcy’s leave-taking of the neighborhood.

Elizabeth heads back home. On the way, she stops in London to meet up with Jane and travel the rest of the way back with her. Jane is still obviously upset about Bingley, but Elizabeth distracts her with news of Darcy’s proposal and Wickham’s true history. Jane desperately tried to create a situation where they’re both good people, but Elizabeth claims that she now believes all goodness to be only Darcy’s. Back home, the hear that the regiment is scheduled to leave their town. Elizabeth is relieved. However, Lydia is soon asked to be the special companion of the wife of the colonel of the regiment and accompany them. Elizabeth warns her father about the evils of Lydia continuing to run about as a wild flirt, that it hurts not only Lydia’s own future respectability but she also harms her sisters by proxy. Mr. Bennett essentially pats Elizabeth on the head and says that peace will only be had at home if Lydia is allowed go. And so she does.

Elizabeth’s travels continue as she joins her Uncle and Aunt Gardner on a tour of the countryside. They eventually come into the neighborhood of Pemberley and the Gardner’s express an interest in seeing it. After learning Darcy is not at home, Elizabeth agrees. However, while they’re their, Darcy unexpectedly returns catching Elizabeth by surprise. Much awkwardness ensues, but Darcy is quick to put on the most social and friendly face that Elizabeth has ever seen from him. He is kind to her aunt and uncle and expresses a wish to introduce his sister to Elizabeth while she’s in the neighborhood. He’s so intent on this goal that he brings his sister to visit the very next day, the same day she arrives home. With her comes Mr. Bingley who fishes around for information about Jane.

The next day Elizabeth and her aunt call on Georgiana while at home. While there, Caroline needles Elizabeth about the militia leaving her town, clearing hinting about Wickham, much to Georgiana’s dismay. Later, once the guests have gone, Caroline once again begins negatively evaluating Elizabeth. She finally goads Darcy into speaking only to hear him proclaim that he thinks Elizabeth is one of the most handsome women he knows.

The next day still Elizabeth finally hears from Jane. She writes of terrible news, that Lydia has eloped to London. Worse, they’re not sure the marriage has taken place and she begs for Elizabeth and co. to return. Darcy comes upon Elizabeth right after she finishes the letter and she confesses all of it to him. He comforts her, but leaves fairly quickly; she imagines this is the last she’ll see of him given this new shame on her family.

Once home, Mr. Gardner quickly goes to London to meet up with Mr. Bennett who is already there. Eventually, however, Mr. Bennett has to return after not accomplishing much. Soon enough, though, they hear news from Mr. Gardner that Wickham and Lydia have been found, they are to married, and there will be some money leftover after it all. Mr. Bennett sees this for what it is: Wickham has been paid off handsomely to persuade him to marry Lydia, likely by Mr. Gardner himself. Mrs. Bennett insists they invite the new Wickhams to visit and they do. While there, Mr. Wickham once again starts up conversations with Elizabeth about his wrongs at the hands of Mr. Darcy. She hints enough about knowing the truth that he quickly shuts up.

While visiting, Lydia lets it slip that Mr. Darcy was at their wedding. Elizabeth quickly writes to her Aunt Gardener to get to the truth of the matter. Her aunt writes back saying Darcy did everything: located Wickham and Lydia, arranged all matters, and paid off Wickham to marry Lydia. Darcy claimed responsibility for Wickham’s bad reputation not being known and thus Lydia falling into his clutches. Her aunt also hints that they were OK with him taking such a lead because he obviously has an interest in the family…if Elizabeth knows what she means.

Shortly after Wickham and Lydia leave, Mr. Bingley unexpectedly comes back to the area, bring Mr. Darcy with him. On their visit, Mr. Bingley clearly remains interested in Jane, but Darcy in stand-off-ish. Soon enough, Mr. Bingley finally proposes to Jane. Everyone is overjoyed, but Elizabeth is worried to hear Darcy has gone back to town before she is able to thank him for what he did for her family. Not long later, Lady Catherine makes a sudden appearance. She demands a private audience with Elizabeth and proceeds to inform her that she’s heard that Elizabeth is soon to be engaged to Mr. Darcy; Lady Catherine is not pleased. The two argue, with Lady Catherine insisting that Elizabeth promise never to do such a thing and Elizabeth adamantly refusing to agree to such a ridiculous request. Lady Catherine leaves, unsatisfied.

Soon after, Mr. Darcy returns. On a walk with Elizabeth, while Jane and Bingley  wander behind them, Elizabeth finally manages to thank him for his help with Lydia. He protests and says he did it for her and again asks her to marry him. This time she agrees.

The book concludes with some shorter scenes describing Elizabeth breaking the news to her mother, writing a joyous letter to her aunt, and sharing her happiness with her sister. After the wedding, we learn that she forms a good friendship with Georgiana, and that after a year living close to the Bennett family, Jane and Bingley break down and move close to Pemberley themselves. All is well, and Mrs. Bennett ends with not one, not two, but three daughters married (though no one really wants to talk about the one…)

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Oh, Elizabeth, our beloved Austen heroine. Many people point to her as the most approachable heroine for modern readers due to her wit and independence. Alongside her, Emma is often also named, another witty, independent lady. But do you know what else both of these favorites have in common? Both of their stories revolve largely around their own personal growth. Each starts out feeling very comfortable with themselves, but over the course of the story, they both realize they have some pretty big flaws that have misled them and hurt people. And then they go on to do the personal work to improve themselves. What’s more, this personal work is directly responsible for bringing about their own happy endings. Elizabeth wouldn’t have ended up with Darcy if she didn’t acknowledge her own role in their previous bad relationship. Emma wouldn’t have ended up with Mr. Knightley if she didn’t realize that she shouldn’t play games with other people. This is what I think truly makes these two heroines people’s favorites. There’s nothing more sympathetic to a reader than a character who reflects ourselves, flaws and all. One who highlights that these flaws can be overcome, past wrongs can be made right (or at least avoided in the future), and maybe this effort will be rewarded with some hot, rich dude falling in love with you! Cuz it’s still a wish-fulfillment book, let’s be real.

For me, personally, the other big appeal of Elizabeth is her smart conversation. Particularly her come-backs to the attacks from Lady Catherine. I’m definitely one of those people who spends too much time in the shower thinking up all the smart responses I should have said in the midst of some argument. I’ve pretty much given up hope of every having the perfect response come off my tongue at the right time. But Elizabeth, she’s a master. Lady Catherine says something rude. Boom! Elizabeth has the perfect zinger in reply. One after another. It’s all very cathartic.

Poor Jane, on the other hand. First she’s in London having to endure the harsh realization that Caroline Bingley is kind of a b. Then she ends up being home without Elizabeth, her other source of sanity, when all of the Lydia nonsense first goes down. And even in the end, with her happy ending in hand, there’s a line about how the Wickhams would often over stay their welcome with the Bingleys. Ah well, there’s the price of too much niceness! It’s all well and good, but Elizabeth had several wise points about there being a line between reason and foolish goodwill. At least they eventually moved away from Netherfield and at least go some semblance of distance from the more immediate Bennett drama.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

In many ways, the reader experiences a similar sense of surprise and shock as Elizabeth does by Mr. Darcy’s about face at Pemberley. What’s more, we have even more insights into his changed behavior as we see his interactions with Caroline Bingley later. But what makes these changes feel real, and not just a facade put on to please a woman who has called him out (like perhaps the relationship between Fanny and Henry Crawford in “Mansfield Park”) are all the smaller moments they are paired with.

Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle rightly recognize the weight of the praise that comes from the housekeeper. And Mr. Bingley’s good opinion begins to reassert itself as an important testament to Darcy’s long-standing goodness, even if it was shrouded in pride before. We also see enough evidence of Darcy remaining the same in many ways, if better behaved overall. Elizabeth notes that Mr. Bingley likely got something like permission/a blessing from Darcy before pursuing Jane again. Darcy is still removed and distant in large groups. And, of course, the secrecy and rather forceful (if still good) insistence on doing everything himself with regards to Wickham.

Whenever I re-read this book, I always find myself falling into a similar camp as Elizabeth does early on with regards to Mr. Bingley: any man who can be talked out of his love for a woman based on his friends’ criticisms of her is not worth having. But then we get the letter that highlights, in particular, the fact that Bingley was convinced by others that Jane didn’t actually care for him. And then as the book continues, and as we come across Mr. Bingley again at Pemberley, all the smaller character moments for him begin to settle in again and it becomes easy to understand and forgive. From very early moments in the book, we see how, while confident in general, Mr. Bingley does look to Darcy as a source of sound judgement. We also see a lot of reminders of Bingley’s humble nature (of the extreme sort, similar to Jane) that would make him even more prone to not trusting his own opinion with regards to Jane’s feelings for him.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Wickham is by far the most famous of Austen’s villains, and for good reason. While Willoughby was potentially worse (unlike Wickham who probably did intend to marry Georgiana for her fortune and his revenge on Darcy, Willoughby seduces Brandon’s ward for nothing and then ends up abandoning her to her ruin),  we see a lot more of Wickham in this book, both before and after his character is known. But like Elizabeth, it is easy to be taken in by him at first. There are a few clues sprinkled here and there that reveal his true character, but they are of the sort that only become glaring after Darcy’s history is provided and Elizabeth reflects back.

But the letter itself is condemning in all of the worst ways. It’s impossible not to feel for Elizabeth as months-worth of preconceptions come crashing down around her, revealing unflattering aspects of her own self she hadn’t been aware of. But what is even worse is the sheer sense of sliminess that exudes from even the mention of Wickham from there on out. Lydia, on first meeting back up with Elizabeth, crows about how Wickham is freed from having to marry the unpleasantly-freckled Miss King. But Elizabeth sees this for what it was: yet another botched, mercenary attempt by Wickham to pursue a vulnerable young woman.

And, of course, his coup de gras, the elopement with Lydia. But in this re-read, what really stood out was Wickham’s behavior when he and Lydia return to the Bennett household. First off, the sheer ballsiness of returning at all! This is a family whose daughter he recently whisked away and who knows he had planned to simply abandon at a moments notice had he not been paid off! There has to be something off in the head of a person who could walk back through that door, apparently without any shame or remorse. And then, to go a step further, and start up a conversation with Elizabeth again about his past. If it ever needed to be made more clear that Wickham never truly respected or cared for Elizabeth, this conversation confirms it. If he had had any true respect for her, she would have been the one to avoid the most, let alone start up a conversation about lies that he must have suspected she already had begun to question. Even without that, any respect for her or understanding of her character would have a made it clear to him that she would not forgive and forget, even if the more silly members of the rest of her family would. This all makes it clear that his friendship with her was based on nothing more than his enjoyment in basking in her attention and growing esteem without sharing any similar respect for her.

The other villain pales in comparison to Wickham, but I have to think Lady Catherine belongs in this category. That her efforts had no effect on one party and actually encouraged the other is beside the point; her intentions were clearly villainous. Though I will say that this is one of the instances of having a “villain” who you love to hate. I’m pretty sure one of my high school friends, Hallie, loved this book almost purely for this last scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

I think it’s fairly undisputed that the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth is one of literature’s greatest love stories. Of course, many lovers of romance stories enjoy the “enemies to lovers” tropes and this is one of the early examples of it. And it still holds up as one of the best examples of it, in my opinion. Mostly because Austen wasn’t lazy about it. Both of these “enemies” had to reconcile within themselves their own failings that lead them to being enemies in the first place. And from there, we see each have to make concrete steps to self-betterment and have the grace to accept what the other is offering. Darcy makes a concentrated effort to be welcoming to the Gardners (two people he had previously scoffed at, if only in theory). And Elizabeth makes her own efforts to re-start their relationship, being open to the revised histories that she’s now hearing of him (from the housekeeper and from Georgiana). All of this leg work that is done in the middle of their romance is the part that is all too often left out of modern “enemies to lovers” stories. There, we often see two characters “hate” each other (usually for no real reason), then realize how super hot the other one is, make out for a bit, and then suddenly be in TRU LUV 4EVER. The middle section is completely skipped over. They literally go directly from enemies to lovers. It’s not only unbelievable, but nowhere near as compelling as the very human changes we see Darcy and Elizabeth go through. Not to mention, we all love that scene where Darcy shuts down Caroline with the line about Elizabeth being one of the most handsome women in his acquaintance.

All of this presents a stark departure from the romances we saw in “Sense and Sensibility.” Like the first half of the book, we have brief moments where we see our heroes experiences (the Caroline/Darcy moment that I mentioned just a bit ago). And we also see the lead up to, the actual engagement itself, and even several scenes after the fact. This is a lot more payoff than we saw between either Elinor/Edward or Marianne/Brandon.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

There’s really not a whole lot of comedy in this second half. The serious nature regarding Wickham’s past and the even more serious real time events with regards to him and Lydia overwhelm many of the comedic characters. Mrs. Bennett is still ridiculous, but beneath that is a mother who is truly worried about a lost daughter. And her nerves, in the past a largely harmless quirk, become an active burden upon a family who has more than enough on their plate without having to devote extra care to a needlessly bedridden woman. It is also harder to laugh at her nonsense when that nonsense includes the complete 180 back to adoring both Lydia and Wickham, with her fawning over the two of them during their visit, all past harms forgotten. And for her part, Lydia is so obnoxious that it’s hard to not feel viscerally uncomfortable whenever she or Wickham are on page.

Mr. Collins, too, is mostly represented in this half by the truly awful letter he writes to the Bennetts while Lydia is lost, saying that it would be better for her to be dead than their current situation. Sure, there are elements of the comedic here, but again, it’s overwhelmed by the terrible things he’s saying to those who are his family. Also, one can only imagine that he also joined in with Lady Catherine’s toxic assessment of Elizabeth’s failings as a potential Mrs. Darcy.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

There a bunch of popular quotes from this book, but I want to focus on a few that aren’t always seen on mugs and the like. Not that I don’t love those, too.

“Angry people are not always wise.”

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Very true, very insightful, and should in fact be on a mug.

“If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise – if regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, noting can be said in her defense, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, perhaps, authorize her to see the other less interesting mode of attachment.”

This is a very thoughtful little paragraph towards the end of the book. And it’s especially interesting after having just read “Sense and Sensibility.” Between that entire book’s theme and this paragraph, I think we can definitively say that Austen was skeptical to the highest degree of the romantic, sentimental “love at first sight” attitude. I suspect that had Austen been alive today, she’d be writing novels, “Northanger Abbey-like,” in response to the YA trend about ten years ago of over-the-top love at first sight found in books like “Twilight” and its ilk.

“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”

This line makes me laugh out loud every time. It’s so ridiculous and hyperbolic that in one fell swoop Lady Catherine shows all her cards as far as her poor manners and character go.

Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

This was my first favorite Jane Austen novel, as it is for many fans, I think. As I’ve re-read all of Austen’s books and gotten older, others have risen, and I’d probably have a hard time now picking an all-time favorite. But it’s easy to see the general appeal of this story. Elizabeth is by far the easiest Austen heroine to immediately love. She’s smart, independent, charming: pretty much everything every woman wants to be! And on top of it all, she has flaws that keep her grounded as a believable character, flaws of the sort that many of us likely catch ourselves struggling with every now and then.

It has a whole host of great comedic characters, with Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins likely vying for the best comedy throughout all of Austen’s works (though “Emma” does have a good number of great ones, too). The other supporting characters all offer interesting insights into the story as it goes, with Jane’s goodness (sometimes to the point of blindness) and Charlotte’s sense of practicality (sometimes to the point of foolishness).

And, of course, the romance is of the sort that still greatly appeals to people today. The “enemies to lovers” trope is everywhere and anywhere to be found. But Austen does it best! By grounding both our hero and heroine on solid foundations, their original conflicts are believable and the slow process of their growing to understand and appreciate each other is not rushed. They aren’t even on the same time line with this process, making it all the more realistic. But I think a lot of it comes down to the simple fact that many of us whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment:

“It was gratifying to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the 1995 version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Kate’s Review: “My Dark Vanessa”

44890081Book: “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

Review: Thank you to William Morrow for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

I will admit that when Serena handed me the print ARC of “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell and said it arrived for the blog and that it sounded more in my genres, at first glance I agreed. I mean, Stephen King’s blurb was on the cover, so clearly it had to be, right? But then when I read the description of the book, I was suddenly nervous. For one, it sounded more literary than horror or thriller. But hey, I can go outside my usual genres if a book really interests me, right? The bigger issue was what the plot sounded like: a woman has to contend with the fact that her illicit affair with her English teacher when she was fifteen was, in fact, abusive. Heavy stuff to be sure. But I was still very interested, especially as time went on and more buzz began to build around the novel. So I steeled myself, and finally dove in. It’s definitely not a book I’d say is within my usual genres. But I’m still glad that I read it.

“My Dark Vanessa” is a complex and very uncomfortable and upsetting novel about abuse, grooming, rape culture, and coming of age in very hard ways. It’s told through two timelines, both from the perspective of a woman named Vanessa. In 2017 she’s a woman who works at a hotel in hospitality, and is seeing her former teacher, Strane, being swept up in accusations of sexual misconduct with his female students. Vanessa, who was in an illicit relationship (I hate using that term here but am at a loss as to how else to describe it) with him that started at age fifteen, has to contend with the fallout of his downfall, and how that trauma of their ‘relationship’ has affected her after all these years. The other timeline is seeing Vanessa during the time that Strane began grooming her, and seeing how their relationship progressed. Russell is frank and unflinching in how she shows the realities of the sexual abuse that Vanessa experienced at the hands of her teacher, but is also very honest about how Vanessa herself cannot seem to view it as abuse as time goes on, even as other women are coming forward with their experiences with him. I greatly appreciated that Russell was also inclined to explore the very complex feelings that a survivor like Vanessa could feel, being groomed and manipulated for so long and therein not comfortable with seeing herself as a victim, and not wanting to expose herself in such a way. A subplot within the story is that a journalist starts pressuring Vanessa to tell her her story so that it can be put in an article, and heavily implies that Vanessa has an obligation to do so for victims everywhere. I think that it’s VERY important to make that point that victims of sexual abuse have NO obligation to open up about their experiences, and they are allowed to unpack and deal with said experiences in the way that they are most comfortable with.

(This kind of segues into some of the controversy that surrounded “My Dark Vanessa” for a hot minute before its release. HERE is a good article that sums it up. My two cents: I think that there are absolutely important questions to be asked about the publishing industry, and what stories get huge cash advances while other ones get left aside and not as promoted. But I think that it’s really gross that the discourse rose to the point where a survivor felt that the only way to move forward was to out herself as a victim of sexual abuse when she really didn’t want to. And unfortunately, abuse like this is probably more prevalent than we think, and the MOs of the abusers are probably pretty similar. Can we say that it must be plagiarism if it’s an experience that is, unfortunately, more commonplace than we’re comfortable admitting? I really don’t think so.)

I did find this book a little bit bogged down by the narrative as it went on, however, and more just in the sense that it felt longer than it probably needed to be and had some repetitive moments that could have been shaved, or at least tightened. I read it in a timely manner, but it did lag a bit at times, and I would put it down less because of the really hard content but more because of how it kind of felt like it was dragging.

And finally, content warnings abound for this book. There are scenes of rape, scenes of grooming and sexual harassment, and some really heavy and hard themes. This is not a book I would say that I ‘enjoyed’, as it’s greatly upsetting and unsettling, but I do think that Russell has crafted a story that is well done and filled with things that we should be thinking about as a society that has issues with misogyny and rape culture.

“My Dark Vanessa” was a hard read. But it’s one that I think has a lot of important points to make.

Rating 7: A deeply unsettling but engrossing novel, “My Dark Vanessa” tackles some seriously difficult themes but sometimes gets a bit bogged down within the narrative.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dark Vanessa” isn’t on any Goodreads lists that I feel really do it justice (“Hot For Teacher”? Seriously?), but I think that it would fit in on “#MeToo”, and “Sexual Assault Awareness Month”.

Find “My Dark Vanessa” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen’s Assassin”

39334176._sy475_Book: “The Queen’s Assassin” by Melissa de la Cruz

Publishing Info: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Caledon Holt is the Kingdom of Renovia’s deadliest weapon. No one alive can best him in brawn or brains, which is why he’s the Guild’s most dangerous member and the Queen’s one and only assassin. He’s also bound to the Queen by an impossible vow–to find the missing Deian Scrolls, the fount of all magical history and knowledge, stolen years ago by a nefarious sect called the Aphrasians.

Shadow has been training all her life to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunts–to become skilled enough to join the ranks of the Guild. Though magic has been forbidden since the Aphrasian uprising, Shadow has been learning to control her powers in secret, hoping that one day she’ll become an assassin as feared and revered as Caledon Holt.

When a surprise attack brings Shadow and Cal together, they’re forced to team up as assassin and apprentice to hunt down a new sinister threat to Renovia. But as Cal and Shadow grow closer, they’ll uncover a shocking web of lies and secrets that may destroy everything they hold dear. With war on the horizon and true love at risk, they’ll stop at nothing to protect each other and their kingdom in this stunning first novel in the Queen’s Secret series.

Review: Something, something, quippy and non-spoilery intro. *Sigh* But frankly, this book didn’t make any effort to be good or original, so why should I! Yes, holding myself to the standard of books that I hated is the writing goal I want to set for myself and this blog! This was a whim book request for me, even though the synopsis didn’t seem particularly inspiring. I’ve had some great results from reading random books I haven’t heard a bunch about before (see “The Bones Houses”), but it does seem that it really goes one of two ways: I’m either blown away, the surprise only adding to the fun, or I absolutely hate the book and wonder why I ever risk it. Obviously, this was the latter.

I’m not going to even bother re-summarzing this book. The book blurb does a decent enough job and as the story is so predictable, there’s nothing new I could add to my summary of the story that isn’t an out-right spoiler. So let’s jump right into it! Usually I would start with the things I liked, but I have to be honest, there was really nothing I liked about this book. Often, if I don’t like the story itself, the writing is still good. If the writing is bad, there’s a character I can enjoy. Not so, here. The best I can say was that perhaps this book missed a publishing window where it wouldn’t have been quite so bad. I still wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but perhaps some of its most trope-y plot points wouldn’t have felt quite so egregious had this been released five years ago. It sure does read like a book that has completely missed the fact that everything it is doing has been beaten into the ground already over the last several years of YA fantasy publishing. So, good points: maybe passable if existed in an alternate reality where it came out in 2015.

The plot is incredibly predictable. Read the summary again. Make a few predictions. Spoiler alert! They’re all right. The book takes itself way too seriously with these supposed surprises as well. When I wasn’t simply exhausted by the pretense of it all, I was flabbergasted that anyone, anywhere, would ever think that these “reveals” could be read in a serious light. Shadow’s (there you go, another thing to hate! That name…) entire history is obvious to any one who has even a passing familiarity with these stories. The one aspect of her tale that could even be a surprise didn’t work in the book’s favor as it then retroactively undermined much of Shadow’s own narration throughout the book. Her story is told in first person. There are certain rules to first person narration, and this “surprise” threw all those rules in a dumpster fire in pursuit of “surprises.”

Speaking of first person narration, the writing was fairly bad in this book. Mostly this was due to the choice to alternate POVs between Shadow and Caledon and, inexplicably, to switch between first and third person narration for these two characters. This type of switch is always jarring and rarely justifiable. The only books I can think of that pulled off something similar were N. K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy titles, and those books were award winners, so you know they’re already a rarity. The choice here is not only bizarre but exists for no clear reason. If the author can’t differentiate between these two characters’ voices without switching writing tenses, that speaks to a whole new problem. If it was meant to represent some greater distinction between these two, I couldn’t spot it. And in the end, all it did was interrupt any flow or rhythm that the story was trying to establish.

Even without this, the pace of this story was all over the place. In the first few chapters, a million things seemed to happen one after another, leaving the reader confused and unable to connect to anything of these events. Worst of all, Shadow’s motivations behind these actions were never clear or explained. She just did things, so that things would happen, so that she could react to those things. And then the story took a jarring halt for a good chunk, and then again with the manic pacing. This, finally, was unpredictable but in the worst way.

The romance was also cringe-worthy and full of unnecessary angst and drama. At one point, the two go undercover…as siblings. Why? Because now there can be all of this increased awkwardness when others discover them being romantic! Angst! Drama! The author’s fingerprints were all over this, and each smudgy, forced moment just made me, again, cringe. To offset this, for a book with the name “assassin” in the title, there are next to no actual assassinations. It’s just yet another example of playing to the supposed YA fantasy crowd. People like books with the word “queen” in the title. And they like assassins…so.

Like I said before, the best I can say for this book is that some of the surprises, had they come in a book published five to ten years ago, could  have maybe worked. But the poor writing with the swaps in tenses and fast/slow pacing would remain. The poor characterization would remain. The romance, such as it is, would remain. And you’d still have to take a character named “Shadow” (get it? cuz she wants to be an assassin?) seriously for an entire book. I really can’t recommend this book to anyone. The author has several other books, so perhaps her die-hard fans will enjoy this. But for everyone else, there are better things out there. My usual recommendation for those looking for a good assassination book is “Skullsworn” so check that out instead.

Rating 2: I didn’t like anything about this book. The characters and plot were tired re-hashes of things we’ve seen a million times before in YA fantasy fiction. And the writing was poor, to really put the last nail in the coffin (a coffin that was not necessary to the plot as, again, no assassinations.)

Reader’s Advisory:

This book isn’t good. You shouldn’t look for ones like it. But here’s a generic Goodreads list that it’s on: “Queen in Title.”

Find“The Queen’s Assassin” at your library using Worldcat! If you must…

Kate’s Review: “The Deep”

46371247Book: “The Deep” by Alma Katsu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2020

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

Book Description: From the acclaimed and award-winning author of The Hunger comes an eerie, psychological twist on one of the world’s most renowned tragedies, the sinking of the Titanic and the ill-fated sail of its sister ship, the Britannic.

Someone, or something, is haunting the ship. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the Titanic from the moment they set sail. The Titanic’s passengers expected to enjoy an experience befitting the much-heralded ship’s maiden voyage, but instead, amid mysterious disappearances and sudden deaths, find themselves in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone. While some of the guests and crew shrug off strange occurrences, several–including maid Annie Hebbley, guest Mark Fletcher, and millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim–are convinced there’s something more sinister going on. And then disaster strikes.

Years later, Annie, having survived that fateful night, has attempted to put her life back together by going to work as a nurse on the sixth sailing of the Britannic, newly refitted as a hospital ship to support British forces fighting World War I. When she happens across an unconscious Mark, now a soldier, she is at first thrilled and relieved to learn that he too survived the tragic night four years earlier. But soon his presence awakens deep-buried feelings and secrets, forcing her to reckon with the demons of her past–as they both discover that the terror may not yet be over.

Featuring an ensemble cast of characters and effortlessly combining the supernatural with the height of historical disaster, The Deep is an exploration of love and destiny, desire and innocence, and, above all, a quest to understand how our choices can lead us inexorably toward our doom.

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

It’s been ten years since I was working at our local Science Museum and had shifts in the Special Exhibit about the Titanic, and while I am intrigued by the story still, I’m also a tiny bit burnt out on it. This doesn’t necessarily discourage me from reading stories that are related to or based upon the maritime disaster, however, because if I love the author or the premise sounds promising I’ll happily give it a whirl. Because of this, when I heard that Alma Katsu’s newest horror novel, “The Deep”, took place on the Titanic (and also on the similarly doomed sister liner The Britannic), I immediately requested an eARC from NetGalley. Lucky for me, I was given access. Given how much I LOVED Katsu’s take on the Donner Party in “The Hunger” (as reviewed HERE), I was all in for what she could do with the Titanic.

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And I hoped it would leave out a hokey romance. (source)

Katsu has once again brought beautiful prose and an eerie supernatural twist to a well known tragedy, and I think that I liked “The Deep” even more than I did “The Hunger”. She utilizes both actual historical figures such as Madeleine Astor, Lady Duff Gordon, and W.T. Stead, as well as original characters to give an all encompassing view of what happened during the ill fated voyage, and what roles everyone played in each other’s experiences both before and after the iceberg. It is the characterizations of all these characters that “The Deep” found it’s greatest strength, and given how much I loved the other parts that says something. Katsu mostly uses the real life characters to examine the social roles that they all played at the time, to great effect. My favorite to follow was Madeleine Astor, the VERY young, pregnant wife of mogul J.J. Astor. Her age is definitely alluded to through her immaturity compared to other characters, but we also get to see how the position she was in couldn’t have been easy. She was always seen as a trophy wife and her legitimacy was questioned by Astor’s family after his death, and Katsu gets into her head and really explores the insecurities that a young wife at this time in her situation almost certainly would have had. I really looked forward to her chapters, because they always left me with such bittersweet feelings. Our original characters mostly focus on stewardess Annie, whose story is told in flashbacks on the Titanic and in the present on the Britannic, where she has become a nurse thanks to her friend Violet Jessup (an actual woman who survived BOTH sinkings). We slowly find out that something strange is afoot on the Titanic, a ghostly presence of some sort, and see through the flashbacks and the present just how it has affected Annie, and how she has affected others. Annie is clearly traumatized by the time she gets on the Britannic, but there are hints that even before she was on the Titanic that something is afoot with her. Along with her we get Mark and Caroline, a young married couple with a small child in tow. Annie is drawn to Mark, and her interest begins to feel like downright obsession over him and his daughter. There, too, is the mystery, as it seems like Mark reciprocates, but then perhaps he doesn’t. The unreliable narration that comes from multiple characters really helped the mystery at hand. I was kept guessing pretty much the entire time as to what kind of supernatural hijinks were afoot, and how it connected to our cast of characters.

And speaking of the supernatural, like in “The Hunger” Katsu perfectly balances the eerie and unsettling along with more subtle and underlying horrors of the real world. It isn’t completely clear from the get go just what we are dealing with in terms of supernatural themes, but as it’s slowly revealed we get to explore the ideas of spiritualism that were popular at the time, as well as lesser known mythologies that line up with some of our characters backgrounds and culture. This easily could have gone in a predictable fashion, as a ghostly presence on a ship like this is no doubt filled with possibilities, no matter how obvious. But instead we got a suspenseful story that combines things that go bump in the night with the horrors of gender, class, and obsession. I really, really loved how she tied it all together and how well she pulled it off.

“The Deep” is another triumph from Alma Katsu. She brings historical fiction horror to new heights, and if The Donner Party was a little too gruesome, The Titanic will be a good way to experience what she can do with the genre.

Rating 9: Haunting and chilling, “The Deep” brings new spooky life to the Titanic story, and paints a supernatural picture that is effortlessly as emotional as it is suspenseful.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Deep” is new and not yet on many Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Fiction Books About The Titanic”.

Find “The Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “It’s Not The End of the World”

504509We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Publishing Info: Macmillan, 1972

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Meet Julie” by Megan McDonald

Book Description: Can Karen keep her parents from getting a divorce? This classic novel from Judy Blume has a fresh new look.

Karen couldn’t tell Mrs. Singer why she had to take her Viking diorama out of the sixth-grade showcase. She felt like yelling, “To keep my parents from getting divorced!” But she couldn’t say it, and the whole class was looking at her anyway.

Karen’s world was ending. Her father had moved out of the house weeks before; now he was going to Las Vegas to get divorced, and her mother was pleased! She had only a few days to get the two of them together in the same room. Maybe, if she could, they would just forget about the divorce. Then the Newman family could be its old self again—maybe. But Karen knew something she didn’t know last winter: that sometimes people who shouldn’t be apart are impossible together.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, literary confession time. Before Book Club picked “It’s Not The End of the World”, I had never read anything by Judy Blume. I don’t really know how I missed that, as I was almost certainly in the target demographic of her books, and I know that various classrooms at my grade school had her books on the shelves. But this was my first experience with Blume, so I was glad that one of our members picked it! I know that Blume is a queen of kid lit, so finally reading one of her books seemed far past due. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy “It’s Not The End of the World” as much as I thought I would.

I do want to say that first and foremost, I definitely understand the significance of a book about divorce being written in 1972. Especially a book that shows how toxic and terrible an acrimonious marriage and split can be for a family, without the promise of a happy moment of Mom and Dad reuniting because they do still love each other. As the 1970s brought more lenient social mores and changing ideas of values, divorce became more commonplace, and I think it’s so important that kids going through such a thing had a book like “It’s Not The End of the World” to turn to. It’s important to be able to see yourself in the media you consume, and so kids who had to go through that having this reflection of themselves and a reassurance that it is, in fact, not the end of the world, must have been resonant. On top of that, it was very easy to read and Blume’s skills as a writer are on full display.

But all that said, I think that now that more books have been written about divorce as time has gone on, they would be better options to explore than this book. I thought that a lot of the characters were two dimensional, including Karen who seemed quite a bit younger in her voice than the twelve year old she was supposed to be. On top of that, every single adult in this book was just awful, and while I think it’s probably pretty realistic that parents going through this kind of thing won’t always be on their best behavior, they were almost flat out abusive. And it felt to me like this was almost excused by Blume, or at least written off as typical and what to expect from divorcing parents. I don’t know what the 1970s were like, but this seemed unrealistic and histrionic.

I get and appreciate “It’s Not The End of the World,” but I don’t think it holds up as well as I’m told other Blume stories do.

Serena’s Thoughts

So I’ll try to keep my half of this review from just repeating everything Kate said. But somehow, even though we grew up in completely different states and both loved books obsessively, I, too, missed the Judy Blume train. Part of this I think has to do with the fact that I was pretty solidly a genre reader from the get-go and my forays into contemporary fiction have always been few and far between, even as a kid. The only other Blume book I read was “Forever” and that was just because I was assigned it in library school (Kate and I were in this same class, but she wisely chose a different book option for this assignment.) I didn’t particularly enjoy that book. So it was with some skepticism that I started this book, knowing that I hadn’t been the target audience pretty much ever and didn’t loved my only other experience with her work. And, alas, it held true here.

Like Kate said, this book definitely had its time and place, and there’s no arguing with the general popularity of Blume’s work with many middle graders. Still today libraries circulate many copies of her more popular stories. That said, I think this one shows its age and in ways that make it particularly less approachable to modern kids reading it than others. Books dealing with how kids deal with divorce are still needed today, but this one’s approach is heavily cemented in the idea that Karen is experiencing a socially rare event, one that is distinctive enough from her peers’ experiences that she stands out. Not only are attitudes around divorce markedly different than they were in the 70s, but it is simply common enough that Karen’s situation wouldn’t have likely made her stick out in a crowd.

Beyond this, the adults in Karen’s life are almost uniformly letting her down in massive ways. So much so, that at times both parents read as cartoonish in their villainy. There are also elements in their parenting strategies that would fall under a much harsher lens than they might have at the time this was written. Like Kate said, their actions in today’s views could be seen as borderline abusive. But the parents weren’t the only one-dimensional characters. Sadly, I didn’t connect with Karen at all either. She felt largely like a stock character around whom this “afternoon special: divorce!” topic was being framed.

I see how Blume’s work can be highly readable, as I did manage to get through the book quickly. But between this book and “Forever” (a book where I had a lot of similar complaints, particularly around the flat characterization), her writing is definitely not for me. I’m hesitant to throw a beloved author for many under the bus, but…I ain’t seeing it. With this topic specifically, I think there are better books being written now that I would direct readers to before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely an important work for it’s time and honest in many ways, but now it feels a bit over the top with histrionic moments and pretty two dimensional characters.

Serena’s Rating 5: More interesting as an artifact representing a very different time period with regards to divorce than as an actual story.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book was one of the first children’s novels that had divorce as a main theme. Do you think that it holds up today?
  2. What did you think of the adults in this novel? Did you find them realistic?
  3. What were your thoughts on Val, Karen’s new friend and supposed divorce expert?
  4. Did Karen’s voice feel authentic?
  5. Do you think that “It’s Not The End of the World” is still a book that you might recommend to kids whose families are going through a divorce? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“It’s Not The End of the World” is included on the Goodreads lists “Coming of Age Stories”, and “Books for My Eleven Year Old Self”.

Find “It’s Not The End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

46207682Book: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” by K.S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: “I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of Oren-yaro, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart. Her upcoming marriage to the son of her father’s rival heralds peaceful days to come.

But his sudden departure before their reign begins fractures the kingdom beyond repair.

Years later, Talyien receives a message, urging her to attend a meeting across the sea. It’s meant to be an effort at reconciliation, but an assassination attempt leaves the queen stranded and desperate to survive in a dangerous land. With no idea who she can trust, she’s on her own as she struggles to fight her way home.

Review: I was sent an ARC of this book from the publisher. Having never heard of it, I kind of glanced at it and put it on the pile. But, after a few disappointing reads (ones that gave signs of being disappointments almost from the very first page), when I picked this one up, started reading, and looked up not long later having already somehow read ten chapters, I knew that I had finally found a read to break the spell. The rest of the book didn’t let me down!

Talyien has grown up knowing what it is to be immediately distrusted and disliked. Her father lead an unpopular revolt, and even though it ended with a marriage proposal between his daughter and the leading rival family’s son, Talyien’s people have walked a tight line ever since. When her husband of three years mysteriously walks out on the eve of the both his and her coronation, Talyien finds herself ruling alone, now disliked and distrusted more than ever. Now, years later, Queen Talyien hears from him once again, and all too soon she sees herself betrayed, cut off from all that is familiar, and left on her own to prove that she is the strong queen her father raised her to be.

The other day my husband and I happened to have a conversation about the differences between books written in third and first person. I was making the argument that first person often reads s younger, hence it often being found in YA novels. Since the narration is limited to only one point of view, the narrative has to work hard to draw in details with regards to scene and setting. The narrator is also unreliable to a certain extent as they are only able to speak to other characters’ thoughts and motivations through their own lens and perceptions. This leaves a lot of room in the narrative voice to focus on the internal emotions and thoughts of the main character, a strength in particular for YA protagonists and stories where these types of internal musings typically shine. For adult novels, these challenges and limitations are often enough to prompt many authors to stick to the more common third person perspective. All of that to say, this book was an excellent example of an adult fantasy novel turning all of the challenges of first person narration to its advantage.

Talyien has a very distinct voice right off the bat. It’s also made clear early in the book that we don’t know her entire history and that her views of those around her are formed from her own experience of the world. Her father’s history, her own experience as a disliked queen abandoned by her husband, all color her distrusting and stark outlook on humanity. At the same time, she’s incredibly brave, stubborn, and determined to do what she thinks is best for her son and her country. I’m hesitant nowadays to make “Game of Thrones” references, but in a lot of ways she reads the way I always imagined Daenerys to be. Talyien can be ruthless and goal-oriented, but, through the very personal nature of first person narration, we also see the vulnerability and self-doubt that continues to plague her. Plague her, but never stop her.

I really enjoyed the world-building in this story. It is a refreshing new world that is pulling from inspirations that are clearly no European. I’d be hesitant to place it anywhere specifically, as it is clearly a fantasy world, but details about the culture, food, and naming conventions all read as coming from Asian inspiration. I believe the author was born in the Philipines, so I imagine that was part of the backbone building up this world. Again, it is challenging to build a compelling and realistically detailed world through only the eyes of one main character who, in theory, would know much of these facts and have no reason to share them with a reader. But the narration is seamless, and as the story expanded, so did the world surrounding this story. The use of flashback also continued to add layers to our understanding of not only Talyien, but the complicated political history of her nation and its many clans.

The story doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger, per se, but all is definitely not well at the end of this book. We finally learn some of the secrets that Talyien has held so close to her chest throughout much of the book and these reveals explain much about not only her choices but her general views towards those around her and how she chooses to interact with them. There were definitely some unexpected twists to the story, and I was left not knowing how I felt about certain other characters. This speaks to the very fleshed out nature of even secondary characters. They all felt real, and real people aren’t simply good or bad.

I can’t wait to get to the next book in this series. Talyien is at a pretty low point and the stakes are incredibly high, not only for her nation, but on a very personal nature for her. Hopefully I can get my hands on the next book soon! I know the author self-published this one before Orbit picked it up, so I’m hoping they will be able to release the second one quickly! Fans looking for a refreshing new fantasy epic featuring a strong queen who doesn’t give a sheep what you think of her, this is the book for you!

Rating 8: Talyien is everything I want in my fantasy heroines and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” is on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming 2020 SFF Books with Female Leads or Co-Leads” and “Asian-Authored Books in 2020.”

Find“The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Transmetropolitan (Vol.9): The Cure”

8733231Book: “Transmetropolitan (Vol. 9): The Cure” by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, November 2003

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The forces of darkness are closing in on outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem and his merry, filthy band, but now they’ve got their own rope around the neck of corrupt President Callahan, and it’s time to start tightening the noose. TRANSMETROPOLITAN: THE CURE is the ninth volume reprinting the acclaimed series written by Warren Ellis (PLANETARY, RED) with art by Darick Robertson (The Boys). Jerusalem and his cohorts step up their investigation into Callahan’s misdeeds and turn up some startling evidence…not to mention a sole surviving witness to the President’s depravity. The problem, as always, will be getting the word out before the massive forces of the Executive Branch black out everything, and everyone, involved.

Review: I can’t believe that my re-read of “Transmetropolitan” took me this long, but I also can’t believe that it’s almost over. I’ve been reminded during my revisit that Spider Jerusalem is one of the best comic characters of the past twenty years, and that while this story is outlandish and crude it still has so much to say about the world we live in. I opened up “The Cure”, the penultimate volume, ready to be blown away by how it all turned out and totally ready to move on to the last volume, hyped and pumped up. And that didn’t QUITE happen. I am definitely ready to move on to the last and to enjoy wrapping up this series for a second time. But it didn’t hit me the way that I’d hoped it would, but honestly, that isn’t any fault of this story. It’s more the fault of the world we live in now. Somehow, “Transmetropolitan” feels, dare I say, naive.

giphy-5
I don’t understand how we ended up here. (source)

Overall I am still totally loving this story, though, so we’re definitely going to start with The Good and save the spoilery Not So Good for a bit. I like how Ellis is pulling the final threads all together as the starts to wrap up his story. Spider, Yelena, and Channon are outlaw journalists now, and as they are starting to finish up their final gambit in an effort to take down The Smiler, we’re revisiting old characters and seeing how they still have roles to play in this story. We get to see Fred Christ, the despicable and wormy leader of the Transient movement, and how this character from way back when is connected to our final storyline (and boy, was it really cathartic seeing how Spider finally got to take him down). I loved seeing Royce again, the somewhat cowardly but ultimately loyal former Editor that Spider used to work for. And what I really loved about this volume is that we once again got to see Spider at his very best, trying to protect a source, trying to make her feel comfortable, and showing the empathy that he has deep down, as any good journalist should have when it comes to some of the more complicated and sensitive stories. Channon and Yelena didn’t shine as much in this one, but since Spider’s health is really deteriorating and therefore his downfall is inevitable I am okay with letting the spotlight be on him this time around as he tries to pull out all the stops to bring down The Smiler.

So here is that part that didn’t work for me as much, and since I need to talk about nitty gritty plot points to really address it, consider this your

tenor
(source)

We end this volume with the first strike of the final battle between Spider and The Smiler, in which Spider gets the goods on The Smiler and brings out information that will start the snowball that will theoretically lead to his downfall. I’ve talked about how “Transmetropolitan” has managed to stay relevant in spite of the fact that it’s been out for almost twenty years, and that Ellis has been able to make it feel timeless in regards to our political climate. But what was that first blow of the final takedown? Spider reveals that The Smiler has been having sex with Transient sex workers. It’s used as a HUGE moment and for the first time you see The Smiler’s facade crack, and that he looks genuinely scared that this is going to be the scandal that will take his power away. There are two problems with this for me. The first is that in a world where we are to believe that society has become so degenerative and scummy, I have a hard time believing that a sex scandal like this, even if it involves people who have purposely hybrided (that’s not a word but I can’t think of better way to describe it) themselves with Alien DNA, would actually affect the greater opinion of this culture. I think it would have been more effective if the Big Reveal was somehow getting evidence that The Smiler had set up the murder of martyred Vita Severn, or even that of his own immediate family. And the next thing is that, as we now know, in our CURRENT society the President being revealed to have an affair with a sex worker DIDN’T MEAN JACK SHIT. It kind of takes away the timelessness. That isn’t “Transmetropolitan”‘s fault, and shame on me for projecting my frustrations in this regard to this book, but it did take me out of it.

That aside, I’m very excited to go on to the next and final volume of “Transmetropolitan”. I kind of remember how it ends, but the details are fuzzy. No matter how it susses out, Warren Ellis has created a fantastic world that is still relatable when you look past the very outlandish aspects of it.

Rating 7: We start to wrap up the story of Spider Jerusalem, his filthy assistants, and The City, and while the pieces of the puzzle are seamlessly coming together, it doesn’t hold up as well anymore.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Transmetropolitan (Vol.9): The Cure” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best of Cyberpunk”, and “Best of Vertigo Comics”.

Find “Transmetropolitan (Vol.9): The Cure” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Shrike & the Shadows”

51012361._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Shrike & the Shadows” by Chantal Gadoury and A.M. Wright

Publishing Info: The Parliament House Press, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Men have gone missing before.

The village of Krume is plagued by a haunted wood and a hungry witch. It’s been that way for as long as Hans and Greta can remember, though they have never seen the witch themselves; no one has.

When men start to disappear once again in the cover of night – their bloody hearts turning up on doorsteps – the village falls into frenzied madness.

Hans and Greta, two outcast orphans, find themselves facing accusations of witchcraft and are met with an ultimatum: burn at the stake, or leave the village forever.

With nowhere else to go, they abandon their only home.

As they venture into the strange forest, their path is fraught with horrific creatures, wild and vivid hallucinations, and a mysterious man tied to the witch’s past.

The Shrike is watching, just beyond the deep darkness of the woods.

Review: A lot of fairytales have been retold a million different times in a million different ways. And I, being the sucker I am for fairytale retellings, am more than happy to read the millionth and one version of many of these popular tales. That said, it’s always particularly exciting when I see a new book coming out that it tackling one of the less popular story. I’m sure I’ve read a “Hansel and Gretel” story in the past, but I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, so I immediately placed a request for this book. Unfortunately, this was not only a disappointment as far as new fairytale retellings go, but also, in my opinion, just not a very good book overall.

The village where Hans and Greta have grown up has long been haunted by an evil that claims the lives of its men, leaving their hearts on the doorsteps of the grieving families. It is under this constant threat that Greta and Hans have tried to make a life for themselves, praying each night that Hans won’t be next. But when they are driven out of the only home they’ve ever know, the two siblings find themselves alone in the very same forest in which lurks this evil force. Will they make it through this woods? And what waits on the other end?

I was really bummed to find that this book was such a miss for me. I seem to have had a recent run of either books I’ve really enjoyed or ones that have really, really not worked for me. I’m hesitant to make this comparison, but what first came to mind was that this book read like a bad fanfiction story. I say this having read and enjoyed a good amount of fanfiction, some of which with writing as good or better than many published novels I’ve read. So this is in no way a ding against fanfiction as a whole. That said, this book exemplifies several of the pitfalls that poor works of fanfiction have been known to fall into: lackluster world-building, washed out characters, and, unfortunately, over use of sex scenes and trauma, seemingly to make up for a lack of real story at its heart.

The world-building is lacking and transitions from scene to scene are awkward at best and nonexistent at worst. I’d have a hard time describing much of anything about the world in which this book takes place. In the beginning of the story we have a scene with Greta frantically searching for her brother. She runs around quite a bit, but I was completely unable to track her movements. She’s at one point in her cabin, then outside, then, I think, in a field. Shortly after that, she and Hans are in the village itself. This action takes place in the first few pages, but it is a perfect example of the lack of attention that went into setting the scenes for this story. There is no foundation upon which any of this happens, and the writing makes no effort to draw a picture in the reader’s mind.

The writing didn’t serve the story any better as far as the plot goes either. Early in the book there’s a scene depicting an attempted assault (this comes out of nowhere, by the way, and was jarring in and of itself). It’s a serious topic, but the way it is depicted is cartoonish in its villainy. The assaulter’s lines of dialogue were cringe-worthy, and the villain himself was made up of only the broadest strokes of stereotypes without any effort to delve into the seriousness of the real-life history behind the power imbalance that was being described. Again, this was only an early example, but this writing problem continued throughout.

Hans and Greta were also difficult to care about. While the writing seemed a bit better equipped to handle these two main characters, they still often felt flat at times. Hans, in particular, was very hard to sympathize with. Greta had the stronger moments of the two, but as the story was split between them, this wasn’t enough on its own to balance out Hans.

And then there’s the sex scenes. As I mentioned, there’s an attempted assault that comes out of nowhere within a few pages of the start of the book. There’s very little build up to this, and, overall, it doesn’t feel handled particularly well. I’m not in the camp that says every book that has scenes like this should have an overt trigger warning on the cover. Mostly this is because strong writing will build to an event of this nature in a way that allows readers time to decide whether to read the event or not. But with weaker writing, these scenes are a bit trickier. And from there, once our characters are in the woods, there are still numerous sex scenes. I enjoy romances here and there and am not a prude about scenes like this in my books. But the sheer volume of them was off-putting, not to mention the jarring juxtaposition of these scenes against the story’s effort to build up the horror and threat of their travels through the woods. Like I said, kind of like bad fanfiction.

I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not familiar with either of these authors, so I’m not sure if this is indicative of either of their other works. But on its own, this wasn’t a strong story. I had a hard time connecting to the characters, and the world-building was so superficial that I couldn’t describe much of the book if you asked.

Rating 4: Very disappointing, “Hansel and Gretel” deserve better.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Shrike and the Shadows” is on this Goodreads list: “Parliament House Novels.”