Serena’s Review: “Into the Crooked Place”

INTO_THE_CROOKED_PLACE6Book: “Into the Crooked Place” by Alexandra Christo

Publishing Info: Feiwel and Friends, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The streets of Creije are for the deadly and the dreamers, and four crooks in particular know just how much magic they need up their sleeve to survive.

Tavia, a busker ready to pack up her dark-magic wares and turn her back on Creije for good. She’ll do anything to put her crimes behind her.

Wesley, the closest thing Creije has to a gangster. After growing up on streets hungry enough to swallow the weak whole, he won’t stop until he has brought the entire realm to kneel before him.

Karam, a warrior who spends her days watching over the city’s worst criminals and her nights in the fighting rings, making a deadly name for herself.

And Saxony, a resistance fighter hiding from the very people who destroyed her family, and willing to do whatever it takes to get her revenge.

Everything in their lives is going to plan, until Tavia makes a crucial mistake: she delivers a vial of dark magic—a weapon she didn’t know she had—to someone she cares about, sparking the greatest conflict in decades. Now these four magical outsiders must come together to save their home and the world, before it’s too late. But with enemies at all sides, they can trust nobody. Least of all each other.

Review: I never got around to reading Christo’s “To Kill a Kingdom,” but I heard a lot of good things about it. So when I saw she had another book coming out this fall, I was eager to jump in and see what the fuss was about. I’ll admit, I was a bit wary when reading the book description, because I think these ensemble/gang/YA fantasy stories ala “Six of Crows” have become the number one genre to regularly burn me recently. But I thought I’d still give it a go based on the recommendations for the author herself. Unfortunately, my wariness was deserved, and this book wasn’t the hit I was hoping for.

Creije is both a wondrous and dangerous place. But whether if is dangerous or wondrous depends largely on one’s own abilities. And four different individuals know that with the right combination of magic, wits, and guts, the streets are where you make a life for yourself. Each with their own role to play and their own proficiency, a simple misunderstanding will quickly draw them together in an adventure where no one can be trusted.

Confession: I read this book back in the fall closer to when it was actually published. But I had also just reviewed (rather negatively) several other books that were very similar to this (ensemble, YA fantasy novels that centered around gangs/heists) and was, frankly, too tired out to want to right up yet another review. But as I did receive this book from a publisher, I thought better late than never. Alas, all of that leads to the obvious point: this book was not my jam and was way too familiar to a million other books that I’ve read just like it.

Look, I loved “Six of Crows.” But in retrospect I’m starting to hold a serious grudge against the deluge of similar YA titles that have now flooded the market. I swear, there was a point where I read about five of these in a row and was beginning to confuse them all (there’s at least two others that I’ve read and *sigh* will get around to reviewing at some point). I mean, the genre has always had trends that come and go, but for some reason this one seems worse than others. I think its because, other than “Six of Crows,” I’ve yet to come across a version of this trope/subgenre that I’ve actually liked.

I hate love triangles (a previous trope found all too often), but I can name at least two books I’ve read in the last year that had this trope and were still good! Because the authors still managed to make it their own and add new and interesting twists to the concept. But for some reason, with these ensemble, YA gang stories…they’re all almost literally exact copies of each other. To the point that some of the staple characters could be interchanged between books with a simple name change and not much would alter. Their personalities are the same. Their relationships are the same. The general mood/banter in the group as a whole is the same. It’s just…exhausting. I don’t know if there’s just not enough to plum with this this particular subgenre or whether “Six of Crows” just set too high of a bar. But something has gone wrong here, and it needs to stop.

And look, I’ve written two entire paragraphs without even talking about this book itself. And that’s because it’s just the same as all of the others. The characters feel like bland re-imaginings of characters we’ve seen before. The dialogue was tired and familiar. The relationships were…ok, I liked that they added the relationship between the two women, but the other was super familiar and predictable. The plot did pick up about half way through the book, but it never felt like it was really coming into anything of its own. Instead, it feels like the author just cobbled together a bunch of things that have been popular in other stories and whipped this one out there as fast as she could. There’s really not much to say in reviewing this book that I haven’t said before about similar books in the past that have tried and failed at this plot.

Eventually, I guess, I’ll have to get around to reviewing the other two books like this I’ve read. One I won’t be continuing and the other I already have the sequel to (though this more a case of “not as bad as the others” than anything else). But I have to space them out so my poor readers don’t have to just re-read the same review from me over and over again. I’m sorry! I just seem to keep reading the same book over and over again, and this is the result!

Rating 5: Adds nothing to a tired and needs to be put to bed subgenre of YA fantasy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Crooked Place” isn’t on any relevant lists (other than ones having to do with the year of its publication), which I think is telling. But it probably should be on “Villain Protagonists.”

Find “Into the Crooked Place” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Glass Hotel”

45754981Book: “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts, and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass and cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Review: Though I cannot possibly imagine going back and reading it right now, I really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic book “Station Eleven”. While it’s true that it takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a super flu (no thanks right now), it is also a lovely and quiet meditation on the power of art, the ties and connections that keep us together, and humanity as a whole. When I saw that she had a new book coming out called “The Glass Hotel”, I put it on my library hold list. And when the libraries closed, it was the first book that I decided to buy to own. Honestly, Mandel should be one of my must buy authors anyway, and she once again has delivered a quiet and introspective tale, this time about Ponzi schemes, of all things. Of course, it’s about as much about Ponzi schemes as “Station Eleven” was about a pandemic. It’s merely a backdrop to something much more intimate.

We follow a few different paths in this book, and a few different timelines, realities, and narratives. They do all connect together in ways that seem more tenuous than they are, but then that’s one of Mandel’s greater talents. The three main characters, I would argue, are the half siblings Paul and Vincent, and John Alkaitis, Vincent’s eventual husband and Ponzi scheme perpetrator. All are running away from something, be it guilt, or the truth, or grief, though it could be argued that all of them are running from all three in different ways and manifestations. Though the biggest thing they’re all running from is responsibility, and all start seeing various ghosts as they do so. It’s unclear as to whether they are real or not, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. In the end, they are seen because they are the unshakeable reminders of those that these characters have hurt or wronged, so even if they aren’t ‘real’, they still very much are.

None of these characters we meet are exactly ‘good’ people, but because of their depth and their perspectives you become invested in them and their outcomes regardless of their likability. Vincent’s story, being the largest connector of all narratives, is in many ways the most engrossing and haunting, as her complicated relationship with her brother, her ill fated marriage to a criminal, and her longing for her mother (who died when Vincent was a tween, her death mysterious, and mirroring Vincent’s own disappearance later in life) drive her constant moves, shifts, and changes in lifestyle and in some ways personality. Alkaitis, too, runs from his responsibility in the wreckage of so many lives, though his running is mostly done by letting himself disappear into a ‘counterlife’ in which he was never caught, a life that bleeds in and out of his narrative, and then some. Paul’s story is perhaps the smallest of the threads, but in many ways it has some of the largest impacts on the paths that all the characters take. As his overall purpose and his role in the story slowly fell into place, I found myself astounded by the intricacies and how carefully Mandel made sure to bring it all together. And truly, it’s a wonder to behold as it all does flow and merge. By the time I had finished this novel, having read it mostly in one night and definitely staying up far too late to finish it, I just let out a long sigh, knowing that by reading it I had really experienced something remarkable. Like “Station Eleven”, “The Glass Hotel” has a lot of pain and trauma, but it almost feels muted and quiet, as those are not the points of the story. The point is resilience, no matter the cost. It’s wonderful and tragic all at once.

(and yes, this story does have connections to “Station Eleven”. But it stands so well on it’s own it’s more like Easter Eggs than an actual canonical link.)

Gosh I loved this book. It’s haunting and I know that it’s going to stick with me for a long while.

Rating 10: Phenomenal. Mandel has done it again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Hotel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Covid-19: Books to Read on Lockdown”, and “Books Unbound Podcast”.

Find “The Glass Hotel” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Glass Magician”

45046558Book: “The Glass Magician” by Caroline Stevermer

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: What if you could turn into the animal of your heart anytime you want?

With such power, you’d enter the cream of New York society, guaranteed a rich life among the Vanderbilts and Astors, movers and shakers who all have the magical talent and own the nation on the cusp of a new century.
You could. If you were a Trader.

Pity you’re not.

Thalia is a Solitaire, one of the masses who don’t have the animalistic magic. But that is not to say that she doesn’t have talent of another kind—she is a rising stage magician who uses her very human skills to dazzle audiences with amazing feats of prestidigitation. Until one night when a trick goes horribly awry…and Thalia makes a discovery that changes her entire world. And sets her on a path that could bring her riches.

Or kill her.

Review: I was intrigued by the original sounding premise of this book. Set in New York, turn-of-the-century time period, and some type of new class system that is based around one’s magical ability to turn into an animal. All sounds like cool concepts and all put together, I really had no idea what to expect from this book. Unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out to be much of anything at all, so no expectations was about right.

After inheriting her father’s magic business, Thalia has been making her living as a stage magician. Not blessed with actual magical abilities that would vault her into the upper class of New York society, she is still managing to make a name for herself by performing wondrous and dangerous tricks in her act. One night, however, a trick goes wrong and Thalia discovers there is more within her than she had ever known. Now with abilities she doesn’t know how to control and a murder added to the mix, Thalia’s life is beginning to change. Will it be for the better or for the worse?

For the pros for this book, I will say that I still liked the uniqueness of the time period during which it was set and the choice to have it take place in New York City. It’s always a breath of fresh air to find a fantasy novel that isn’t set in some generic “medieval times” setting. And even more so to find one that is set in a city that exists today. However, I do think the author left a lot on the table with regards to what all could have been done with these two elements. The other positive worth noting was the writing itself. It didn’t stand out to me in any particular way, but it was of the sort that is strong enough to get the job done without distracting the reader. And, considering that I didn’t love much about this book, I think it’s a real strength of the writing that it was strong enough that I didn’t ever really feel like just putting the book down for good.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned with the time period and the setting, it felt like the author came up with some cool, individual ideas, but didn’t spend any time really building up the world or system around them. Like, people have this magic to turn into animals and society has been built in such a way that possessing this ability puts you into an elite class. But the why or how of this is never really explained. The history of how this system came to be in place is lacking. And there is really not magic system of any kind to explain the rules, limitations, or even, to some extent, the benefits of having these abilities. The entire world that has been created depends on these magical factors, and yet we get next to nothing about what they really are. It felt like the author simply didn’t want to bother with the details of these things, instead wanting to just jump into her heroine’s own story.

But there, too, I had problems. Thalia is an interesting enough character on her own, but the book simply didn’t have enough story for her. The entire book feels made up of either Thalia struggling to learn to control her new abilities or making small bits of progress solving a murder mystery. I was pretty surprised, actually, when the murder mystery aspect of it became apparent since there wasn’t any hint of that in the general description. But I’m all for historical murder mysteries, so this should have been a benefit to the story. Instead, again, it felt like only the most basic aspects of this part of the story were really explored. Things all come way too easily to Thalia, with people often behaving against their own best interest or out of character to help her on her way.

To make up page time for the lack of world-building, magic system, or complications in the murder mystery, we instead spend an incredible amount of time just in Thalia’s mind exploring her feelings. I don’t have a problem with books that center largely around the introspective thoughts of a main character, but there just has to be more to the story itself to support this. I also didn’t love the romance we were given. It felt forced and lacked chemistry.

I also have to spend a moment on that cover. Yikes. It’s the kind of thing that immediately attracts the eye (indeed, I clicked on it in NetGalley just because of the swan motif), but the more you look at it, the worse it gets. It’s all kinds of creepy with the teeth and eyes, and I’m not sure it really represents well the book we have. Instead, if I had noticed these details when choosing the book off the shelf, I think I would have most likely put it back just due to how unnerving I find it all.

Overall, I wasn’t impressed with this book. It felt like the author had some really neat ideas at the very core of it, but didn’t spend enough time to fully develop anything. The writing was strong enough, but there wasn’t enough story to go around.

Rating 6: Lack luster and thin, this book didn’t hold up to the promises of its premise.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Magician” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant lists. Bizarrely (and inaccurately) it is on “Historical Fiction 2020.”

Find “The Glass Magician” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Something Is Killing the Children (Vol. 1)”

52757827._sx318_sy475_Book: “Something Is Killing the Children (Vol.1)” by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera (Ill.).

Publishing Info: BOOM!Studios, May 2020

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

Book Description: When children begin to go missing in the town of Archer’s Peak, all hope seems lost until a mysterious woman arrives to reveal that terrifying creatures are behind the chaos – and that she alone will destroy them, no matter the cost.

IT’S THE MONSTERS WHO SHOULD BE AFRAID.

When the children of Archer’s Peak—a sleepy town in the heart of America—begin to go missing, everything seems hopeless. Most children never return, but the ones that do have terrible stories—impossible details of terrifying creatures that live in the shadows. Their only hope of finding and eliminating the threat is the arrival of a mysterious stranger, one who believes the children and claims to be the only one who sees what they can see. 

Her name is Erica Slaughter. She kills monsters. That is all she does, and she bears the cost because it must be done.

GLAAD Award-winning writer James Tynion IV (The Woods, Batman: Detective Comics) teams with artist Werther Dell’Edera (Briggs Land) for an all-new story about staring into the abyss.

Collects Something is Killing the Children #1-5.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

It’s been awhile since I tackled a straight up horror comic, so when I saw “Something Is Killing the Children (Vol.1)” I was immediately interested in reading it. I am vaguely familiar with James Tynion IV, as we read one of his comics for our book club a few years ago, but I hadn’t sought him out otherwise. I went into “Something Is Killing the Children” with my expectations of what I remembered from his other comic, but those expectations were tossed out the window almost immediately. “Something Is Killing the Children” doesn’t hold back, and it jumps almost immediately into the darkness that surrounds it.

And I should probably throw content warnings out there, because this comic doesn’t shy away from a lot of gore, gore involving children.

The plot is straightforward enough, with terrible things happening in a small town and a mysterious stranger coming to fight the evil that’s hiding in the shadows. Standard stuff, but I was still immersed because I’m a sucker for small towns with dark undertones. We mostly follow our monster hunter Erica Slaughter, but we also get to see the perspective of James, one of the teens who was attacked but spared, and therefore under suspicion from the other people in town. Throw in a couple others, like the brother of a missing girl, and the police officer on the case, though theirs are not as interesting as Erica’s and James’s. That said, we do get to have a number of sides of the plot through all these strings, and we slowly learn about the monsters that are plaguing the town, and also about the town and its inhabitants. A world and a mythos is being built slowly, and this volume was very much setting up dominoes that are undoubtedly going to fall as the story goes on. I like seeing these moments of building blocks being set in place, and I liked learning what we did about the mythology of the monsters, and those who hunt them. And they are genuinely scary. And super disturbing. That content warning I gave is no joke.

Plot aside, I also am very much intrigued by our protagonist, the mysterious Erica Slaughter. We know that she’s a monster hunter, and we know that she is part of some kind of group that goes out to take care of these things, but outside of that she is a mystery. She’s jaded, she’s determined, and she’s cold as ice, even though we see glimmers of empathy for James and his situation. She isn’t afraid to use violence if she needs to, but it’s also hinted at that this life is starting to make her weary. As someone who was a huge “Buffy” fan back in the day, she reminds me a LOT of Faith Lehane, but without the sarcasm, and just the potential damage and baggage she’s carrying. So I, of course, am so in love with her that it hurts, and I want to know EVERYTHING about her. But Tynion is keeping that close to the vest for now, which just makes me want to dive into the next arc even more, because we need more female characters that remind me of Faith Lehane.

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Queen. (source)

I really liked the artwork too, as it’s visceral and intense, which matches the story very well. I’m unfamiliar with Werther Dell’Edera, but his style works very well with the plot at hand. The reds are VERY red, and while other colors are muted a bit it serves for a powerful contrast that makes the violence all the more horrific.

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(source)

My one complaint is less to do with the story itself, and more to do with the formatting. The way that this book downloaded through NetGalley only would load one page at a time, so reading it on my screen was difficult when more creative styles layered one panel over multiple pages. I’m sure that this could be tweaked and adjusted on other eReaders and in other platforms, but it goes to show that sometimes designs with one format in mind don’t translate as well to others.

Overall, I was completely taken with “Something Is Killing the Children (Vol.1)”. I will absolutely be on the lookout for the next in the trade collection, and I can’t say that I will be terribly patient as I wait.

Rating 8: A scary horror comic with a lot of interesting potential, “Something Is Killing The Children (Vol.1)” has set up a creepy and intriguing world of monsters and monster hunters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Something Is Killing the Children (Vol.1)” is included on the Goodreads list “North American Supernatural Realism”.

Find “Something Is Killing the Children (Vol.1)” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: May 2020

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!

Serena’s Picks

mv5bnzuxzjrlymetmtvkoc00ymu3ltlmmtktnwy4m2i3ztvjowmxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdm2ndm2mq4040._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Amazon Prime Show: “Making the Cut”

As I’ve highlighted “Project Runway” in the past, it’s clear I have a thing for reality fashion competitions. I held out for quite a while on the more recent seasons of “Project Runway” due to Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn leaving the show. But the pair left to create their own show teamed up with Amazon. Overall, I like it. But I do think that it probably released at an unfortunate time with all the C19 stuff going around. The show definitely errs towards the more expensive side of fashion and the budget is clearly over the top. It makes it all read a bit strange in the current times, but that’s hardly the shows fault. I’m not sure how I feel about all of the music choices, as well, as I often think it’s kind of distracting. But Heidi and Tim are as charming as ever, and the contestants are enjoyable. It still feels as if the show is finding its footing, so I’ll be curious to see if it’s renewed for a second season and if/how it would be tweaked for that. My main takeaway is that I now think Naomi Campbell should be a judge on ALL the fashion TV series.

OneSheet (Page 1)Move: “Son of Rambow”

My husband suggested this movie the other night when we were browsing around trying to find something to watch. It’s been kind of tough lately as neither of us have been in the mood for anything too dark or heavy. He had watched this movie back when it came out, but I had never heard about it. It’s a very sweet, quirky British comedy about two boys growing up in the 80s and making a home movie called, obviously, “Son of Rambow.” The child actors are very good, and there’s a hilarious French kid who kind of steals the show at times. Overall, it was just the kind of heart-warming movie we both needed, and I highly recommend it as a family movie if you’re looking for something of that sort.

mv5bntu5m2zjnwitmjgwyi00zmmwlwiynmitmwjhogi5y2y4otfjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtawmzm3ndi3._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Web Series: “Some Good News”

John Krasinski is charming as heck, so it’s no surprise that his web series “Some Good News” took off like wildfire. It was one of those perfect marriages of a good idea, great time, and a perfect host to pull it off. It seems a simple enough idea, but there’s no denying about appealing the idea of a show that features only happy and uplifting stories is in a time when you can barely open a web browser without being bombarded by travesty. It doesn’t hurt that Krasinski has a whole host of celebrity friends he can call upon to pop in for surprise visits. As a perennial fan of “The Office,” the few episodes that included visits from random cast members were some of my favorites. But there’s stuff in there for everyone. In fact, the show ended up being so popular that Krasinski sold it to CBS All Access where it will continue to live. We’ll see how well it holds up in that format and over time, but I’m happy enough with it even as a flash-in-the-pan event that came at just the right time.

Kate’s Picks

cad0ee8eb3fd943d3c588bf372f3a5eaTV Show: “The Sopranos”

Since I have been spending more time at home due to the pandemic (though let’s be honest, with an infant at home I wasn’t really going out during the week anyway), I decided that I needed to start tackling shows that were on my TV Bucket List. The first on the list was “The Sopranos”, the show that is credited with being one of the shows that ushered in our current Golden Age of TV. For those who may not know, it follows Mafia Capo Tony Soprano as he navigates his work with the Mob, and the various dysfunctions within his family life. He does this by going into therapy to treat his anxiety attacks and depression. Is it dark? Absolutely. Is it fantastic? Also absolutely. I am glad that I am finally able to experience this show.

mv5botgxode5yjmtmje2oc00ytu5lwfmntgtztc5zjrkngm4zgjmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjq0mdqxotm40._v1_Netflix Show: “Giri/Haji”

Another show that involves organized crime, but this time it’s the Yakuza, and we’re on the side of law enforcement. Kind of. Inspector Mori Kenzo, a detective in Tokyo, is dealing with the loss of his brother Yuto, who was in the Yakuza and assumed dead by his family. But when a murder of a nephew of a high ranking Yakuza officer happens in London, gang leaders tell Kenzo they think it was Yuto, and a gang war looms on the horizon. Kenzo goes to London to try and find his brother, and meets a DC named Sarah, and a sex worker named Rodney, both of whom may be able to help him. This suspenseful and gripping show really had me hooked, and the themes of family, loyalty, and duty all came together to make it all the more high stakes.

the_queen_1968_movie_posterFilm: “The Queen”

No, not the Helen Mirren one! The documentary that shed light and insight into the drag pageant world! “The Queen” follows a drag pageant in New York with a focus on the Mistress of Ceremonies, Sabrina, as she organizes it. We also get to meet and get to know some of the contestants, such as Sabrina’s protege Rachel Harlow, and the now infamous Crystal LaBeija (whose completely appropriate rant about her final placement in the pageant and the inherent racial bias in the drag scene is LEGENDARY). There are also some really interesting looks at the social lens of drag in the 1960s, and how race and gender was received as well as moments of political candor (one contestant talks about trying to enlist in the military, but being turned away for being ‘too feminine’). Honestly, I came for Crystal LaBeija, but enjoyed the entire thing.

What have you been enjoying over the last month?

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” Part I

6969Book: “Emma”

Publication Year: 1815

Book Description: Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen’s most captivating and vivid characters. Beautiful, spoilt, vain and irrepressibly witty, Emma organizes the lives of the inhabitants of her sleepy little village and plays matchmaker with devastating effect.

Note: Yes, this is out of order. I blame the quarantine and general craziness of watching over a one-year-old, but I finished reading “Emma” about a week or two ago, and only then realized that I had skipped “Mansfield Park.” I probably could have banged “Mansfield Park” out in this last week, but I didn’t want to rush my read of that rather hefty book. And then when I would finally get to “Emma,” around July, I’d be several months removed from my actual read through. So, I think this is better than doggedly sticking to my original order. It is what it is!

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

Jane Austen wrote “Emma” between early 1814 and the spring of 1815. Once she was ready to publish, she decided to switch publishers and went with the well-known London publisher, John Murray. It is thought that she hoped to get a better copyright deal with this publisher and had been put off her previous editor after he refused to publish a second run of “Mansfield Park.” After originally being offered a fixed copyright price for “Emma, “Mansfield Park,” and “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen opted to go with a commission option instead for both, taking on printing and advertising prices. “Emma” had an original first-run of 2,000 copies, Austen’s largest first-run to date.

The book also included dedicated to the Prince of Wales. A fan of her previous books, her identity had been made know to the Prince Regent and his librarian dropped the not-so-subtle comment that she was free to dedicate any future books to him, a hint Austen didn’t feel she could ignore even though she didn’t personally care for Prince Regent

The book was met with middling success at the time, but has grown to be one of her most popular titles with modern audiences. And, despite the author’s fear that readers would not like Emma herself, many fans have connected strongly with the character, faults and all.  (source)

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” – Jane Austen

Part I – Volume 1, Chapter 1 – Volume 2, Chapters 11

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

Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy second daughter of the eccentric Mr. Woodhouse. Her family and their good family friend, Mr. Knightley, share the role as the most prominent families in their small community. A new family group is about to come on the scene, however, with the marriage of Emma’s good friend and former governess to Mr. Weston. Though sad to see her friend go, Emma takes credit for the match herself. Mr. Knightley scoffs at this idea, but Emma is sure of her own abilities.

The marriage also brings up a new topic of gossip, that Mr. Weston’s son, a young man who grew up with his aunt after the death of Mr. Weston’s first wife when the son was young, will likely have to come to visit finally. Mr. Frank Churchill has been long looked for, but due to the sickly and ill-spirited nature of his guardian aunt, he’s never actually visited his original home. But it comes to nothing, and he doesn’t come. Mr. Knightly is the only one to raise an eyebrow at what he sees as poor behavior of an independent man who must know what is due his father on the occasion of a wedding.

To make up for the loss of Mrs. Weston’s daily presence, Emma makes a friend of Harriet Smith, a young boarder at a nearby school. Her parentage is not known, but Emma sees her as a great project. She is dismayed, however, to find that Harriet has already formed a connection with a local farmer family, the Martins, and in particular with the son, Mr. Martin. To ward off the evil of Harriet marrying below what Emma has in mind for her, Emma sets her eyes on Mr. Eldon, the local parson as a better marriage option for Harriet.

Soon enough, however, it comes to a head when Harriet shows Emma a letter from Mr. Martin in which he asks her to marry him. Emma deftly maneuvers Harriet to what she deems the appropriate response: a resounding no. When Mr. Knightly hears of this, he is appalled and he and Emma fight. He says that she is playing with people like they are dolls and that Harriet had a happy future ahead of her with Mr. Martin. Now, Mr. Knightley worries she will look too high and be disappointed by the lack of men who will want to risk a marriage with a girl whose family is unknown. Emma counters that Harriet is beautiful and pleasant, two qualities that are the most important to men, seemingly. And that since Harriet associates with gentleman’s daughters, it is only right to assume that Harriet is a gentleman’s daughter as well. Mr. Knightley also warns that if Emma is thinking of Mr. Elton instead, he’s not all that and it will come to nothing. The two part in unhappy spirits.

Over the next several months, Emma makes great work to throw Mr. Elton and Harriet together, thinking she sees many signs of attachment. He praises, almost to a ridiculous degree, a painting that Emma does of Harriet. And later contributes a riddle to Harriet and Emma’s collection of romantic ditties. The riddle itself makes out the word “courtship,” and though Emma is confused by his references to Harriet’s “ready wit,” she still sees this as a good sign.

Around Christmas, Emma’s older sister and her family, who is married to Mr. Knightley’s younger brother and lives in London, come to visit. They entire group is invited to a party at the Weston’s; Mr. Elton and Harriet are invited, as well. Harriet, however, comes down with a bad cold and has to miss the party. On delivering the news to Mr. Elton, Emma is confused by his seeming lack of real concern for her friend. John Knightley, on seeing the exchange, warns Emma that Mr. Elton seems particularly interested in her. Emma scoffs at the idea. But at the party itself, where Mr. Elton makes a nuisance of himself trying to ingratiate himself with her, Emma is forced to begin to worry about her plans for him and Harriet.

She ends up in a carriage alone with him on the ride home, and her entire plan crashes down around her when he proposes to her. She is appalled, but soon learns that all of the signs she had thought were directed to Harriet were instead meant for her. Worse, Elton reveals himself as an arrogant, rather scheming man who looks down on Harriet for being too much below him but doesn’t seem to equate the situation with himself and Emma, an equally un-equal match. Emma sees it for what it is: he’s only in love enough to see the his gains in a marriage with her. She turns in down soundly. The next day she learns that he has left Highbury, and Emma has to break the terrible news to Harriet.

Around this time, Highbury gains a new person in the form of Jane Fairfax, the niece of Mrs. and Miss Bates. While Miss Bates is rather silly and prone to talking excessively, Emma knows it is her duty to call on Jane. She finds Jane to be too reserved to appeal as a potential close friend and is content not putting much effort into the relationship. Shortly after, Mr. Churchill finally arrives on the scene and Emma is much more struck by his charming, open disposition. The two quickly form a friendship, and it is clear the Westons would like nothing more than an even greater attachment in the future.

As they all circulate within each others’ circles and through various dinners and parties, Emma and Mr. Churchill find great amusement in coming up with scandalous histories for Jane Fairfax that would explain her shutting herself up with her less appealing relatives. Jane receives a piano as gift from an anonymous giver and this only adds to Emma and Mr. Churchill’s fun, trying to guess who would have given her such a great gift. Mrs. Weston suspects Mr. Knightley, but Emma laughs at this and says Mr. Knightley would never do anything in secret.

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

It is easy for readers to understand why Austen was worried fans might not connect with her character. For one thing, Emma is anything but an underdog, very unlike previous Austen heroines. She is wealthy, charming, beautiful, and has no material concerns before her, with a future secured by an independent income and a beloved place in a loving family and happy neighborhood where she is highly esteemed. What she says to Harriet, that a lack of income is all that makes spinsterhood so abhorrent, isn’t quite true in that she is underselling many of the other privileges that make up her existence. On top of that income, she has friends in Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. She is highly valued as a connection to the general public of Highbury. And, of course, she is loved above anything by her father. Compared to Austen’s other heroines so far who have all been held back by finances to some extent, and by family members in other ways, Emma is sitting pretty.

But it’s also easy to see how this very distinction is one of the things that makes Emma such a popular character to modern audiences. Marriage is by no means the goal and, in many ways, Emma herself sees it as more a hindrance than anything. Instead, she’s fully independent and takes joy in the various roles she plays in her community. Her love story is purely based on the joys of a long friendship discovered to be more with no aspects of gratitude, luck, or necessity sprinkled on top to lessen the romance for modern readers who like their love stories to be “pure” like this. Even “Pride and Prejudice,” the most romantic of the previous three books, has a few pretty straightforward lines about Elizabeth feeling a lot of gratitude towards Darcy for taking any interest in her. Joined with the rest of the romance, this is fine. But to modern audiences, again, there is something appealing about Emma’s story having zero strings attached to it other than mutual affection and love. Neither Knightly or Emma need the other, and it is easy enough to see them living out the rest of their lives single and happy.

The other obvious turn-off is Emma’s meddling, the main focus of the entire story. But I think Austen under-estimated how many good qualities Emma has and how much they balance out much of her nonsense. Beyond which, I think many readers like their main characters to have flaws that they overcome throughout the story. Elizabeth Bennet, the other most beloved Austen heroine, definitely has a story arc that involves her overcoming a personal shortcoming. Emma’s flaw hurts more people than Elizabeth’s, however. But like I said, we see important moments that help counterbalance this. Particularly in the way she truly loves and cares for her father, putting forth a lot of effort to fill his days with activities and people he enjoys and attempting to keep family gatherings cordial and not upsetting for him. We also see enough of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston to know they are sensible, kind people and that if they can vouch for Emma’s worth as a friend, there is more to her than the blatant meddling we also see.

This first half, of course, sees Emma commit probably her biggest sin: persuading Harriet to turn down Robert Martin. Beyond that, we see the pain that is caused by her major error with Mr. Elton and the lasting hurt it inflicts on Harriet who falls into a fairly deep depression for several months over his “loss.” But we also spend a lot of time in Emma’s head and do see that she is genuinely distressed over the way this situation unfolds. If still not distressed enough not continue in her ways to some extent throughout the rest of the book.

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

I love Mr. Knightley; he’s one of my favorite Austen heroes. But, I’ll be honest and say that after watching the 2009 “Emma” with Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, I have a very hard time not simply picturing him and his performance for all of the Knightley portions. But beyond that, I do always like romantic heroes like his character, those who are stable, reliable, and always there for the heroine, even when she doesn’t know she needs him.

There are none of the dramatics of Mr. Darcy, and none of the indecisive weirdness of feelings for other women, like Edward Ferrars or Edmund. (Technically, I should have read “Mansfield Park” before this, so Edmund gets thrown in the list of Austen heroes who came before Knightley, even if we haven’t covered him in this reread, yet.) No, Mr. Knightley is that long friend of Emma’s who has always been there. He clearly cares about her welfare, worrying to Mrs. Weston about Emma’s friendships and future. And he understands her family, seeming to be pleased to spend quiet evenings at her home with her and her father.

He also is completely spot-on with his views on people. Unlike Emma, we’ll see in the second half that Mr. Knightley is the true match-spotter in the neighborhood when he catches on to the Jane/Frank thing before anyone. But in this half, we see that he values hard-workers like Mr. Martin and sees him as a good match for Harriet. Unlike Emma, Knightley is aware of the precarious situation that Harriet is in and sees all the good in her marrying Mr. Martin. He also is spot-on with his estimation of Mr. Elton, a fact that Emma herself will have to admit to later on in the book.

We also see Mr. Knightley make an effort to befriend and care for Jane, understanding the strains that must be on her living 24/7 in the Bates’ house. He is empathetic and kind, sending his carriage to bring that household to local parties when he knows they’d have to walk anyways. Emma sees all of this and appreciates it in the sense that “of course, that’s what he’d do!” but doesn’t really stop to think how rare of qualities all of these are and how much they should not be taken for granted.

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

In many ways, Emma herself is the biggest villain in this first half. We see the entire arc of Harriet’s tragic love story play out, all at the hands of Emma. And while we do believe that she was honestly confused by Mr. Elton’s behavior, truly thought she was doing right by Harriet, and felt terribly once the truth came out, there’s no denying the real harm done here. We know how it turns out for Harriet in the end, but things could have went a very different way and followed the dark path Mr. Knightley laid out in which Harriet ends up at the boarding house forever, a spinster living her days at the mercy of others. Turning down the genuinely nice-sound Mr. Martin could have had lasting consequences, and it is clear that, coming form her own privileged position, Emma has not thought about these dangers to her friend whatsoever.

Further, Harriet suffers for quite some time after the loss of Mr. Elton. We know enough about her character to see that she doesn’t have the same resources of self that Emma has, and therefore it is very difficult for her to move past the depression of finding herself not preferred by Mr. Elton. Emma had her fully convinced of a happy future with him, and its loss is felt wholly by poor Harriet.

The other main villain would be Mr. Elton himself at this point. Villain is probably too strong of a word for him, but he still fits best in this category. As readers, we take more heed of Mr. Knightley’s warning about Mr. Elton and his search for a wealthy wife, so it’s less of a surprise when he fully exposes himself. It’s also easier to see how ridiculous and over-the-top Mr. Elton is from the very start. To her credit, Emma sees much of this too, but figures that he’s just so in love with Harriet that his senses aren’t quite right. She’s even more horrified when she realizes that these obnoxious flirtations had been meant to attract her, not Harriet. And, of course, Mr. Elton doesn’t make himself look very good in proposal scene itself. He’s cruel to Harriet and clearly not really in love with Emma at all. Again, knowing how it turns out, and with future Mr. Knightley’s words in our heads, that “Emma chose better for [Elton] than he did for himself,” we know that Mr. Elton will create a punishment of his own by marrying the obnoxious Mrs. Elton.

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

Other than poor Harriet’s tragedies, there is really no romance in this first half. Knowing the outcome and knowing the secret hearts of characters who aren’t even aware of themselves, it’s easy enough to see romantic tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley, but there really isn’t anything on the page itself to justify it. There fight is the sort that could be had between any good friends, and the compliments that Mr. Knightley pays Emma when speaking to Mrs. Weston about his concerns about Emma and Harriet’s friendship are, again, of the sort that don’t really raise eyebrows. Mrs. Weston herself doesn’t bat an eyelash at it.

There are other small indicators here and there for Mr. Knightley’s attachment. His dislike of Frank Churchill from the very start is a pretty clear sign, before Frank is even on the scene in person. But, at the same time, Mr. Knightley seems to also be the only one objectively seeing some of the fairly questionable missteps in Frank’s behavior, all the way from the start when Frank failed to visit the new Mrs. Weston. So, it’s kind of half and half to see his dislike as motivated by the knowledge that many people are matchmaking Emma and Frank in their heads or to see it as just another example of Mr. Knightley’s good sense about people and their behavior.

One small moment that stood out was when many of the main characters are gathered at the Bates’ to view Jane’s new piano. Miss Bates sees Knightley riding by and asks him up. Once he hears that Emma is there, he seems to be about to come up, but makes a quick about-face when he hears that Frank is also there. Emma is the temptation, but Frank is the deterrent, especially when Frank is around Emma herself.

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

Mr. Woodhouse is just the kind of lovable fool that Austen does best. His concerns and worries about health add the perfect levity needed to some of Emma’s more serious failings. Not to mention, he’s a main source of good in showing Emma’s loving side. There are bunch of small lines thrown in here and there about some of his worries: his concern about the cake at the wedding and dismay at the doctor’s children eating much of it, his worry about the hassle of his driver having to get a carriage ready for this and that small trip, endless frets about the temperature. As a reader, it’s very amusing. But we also see how it could be trying for family members, especially in-laws. During their visit, we see that Emma’s brother-in-law, John Knightley often struggles to deal with Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities. Mr. Woodhouse is clearly not aware of how intrusive some of his “concerns” can be into the choices of another person’s family. But we also get to see a lovely example of Emma and Mr. Knightley working in tandem to keep their respective family members polite and to avoid familial conflict.

The other main source of comedy comes from Miss Bates. Austen doesn’t hesitate to devote paragraphs and paragraphs to the dialogue for this character so that readers can truly understand what it would be like to be the listening party, trapped in a one-sided “conversation” with Miss Bates. She’s clearly well-meaning, but man, it can be exhausting just reading her unfiltered, scattered speeches. While Emma clearly over-steps later in the book and could do better in general with regards to Miss Bates, it’s also easy enough to sympathize with her desire to avoid getting trapped in long visits with Miss Bates.

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

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School – not of a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems.

This quote stood out to me as yet another example of Austen’s wit striking on aspects of life that still hold true today. Having worked for many years in academia, the line about “refined nonsense” in the way that colleges and universities try to sell themselves is spot on.

“And till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after…”

While wrong overall, Emma does makes some good points in her argument with Mr. Knightley about Harriet’s future prospects. This then leads, of course, to a general favorite quote when Mr. Knightley comments that it might be better to be without wits than misapply them as Emma does here.

“I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.”

Again, this is a rather wise line being used in service of a poor scheme overall on Emma’s part. And I think there is a bunch of wiggle room to be made with the word “doubt.” But, in general, if there are doubts, that at least is a sign that more thought needs to be given before the “yes.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Emma” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

Kate’s Review: “The Herd”

51015832._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Herd” by Andrea Bartz

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The name of the elite, women-only coworking space stretches across the wall behind the check-in desk: THE HERD, the H-E-R always in purple. In-the-know New Yorkers crawl over each other to apply for membership to this community that prides itself on mentorship and empowerment. Among the hopefuls is Katie Bradley, who’s just returned from the Midwest after a stint of book research blew up in her face. Luckily, Katie has an in, thanks to her sister Hana, an original Herder and the best friend of Eleanor Walsh, its charismatic founder.

As head of PR, Hana is working around the clock in preparation for a huge announcement from Eleanor—one that would change the trajectory of The Herd forever.

Then, on the night of the glitzy Herd news conference, Eleanor vanishes without a trace. Everybody has a theory about what made Eleanor run, but when the police suggest foul play, everyone is a suspect.

Review: I really do like the idea of intersectional feminist spaces in which any person identifying as female can be a part of it, and therein have a support system at work that may feel less intimidating. But at the same time, that concept is rich for conflict, at least in the mind of someone who likes to read soapy thrillers. So it’s a logical conclusion that I would be drawn to “The Herd” by Andrea Bartz, a book about a pro-feminist work space whose founder goes missing right before a huge publicity move, and the women around her who may have secrets. I went in hoping for a fun and easy read, and I am pleased to announce that “The Herd” delivers.

This book is told through two perspectives. The first is of Katie, a journalist and burgeoning author who has just returned from an exhausting and disastrous assignment in her home state of Michigan. She connects with her sister Hana, who is the publicist for Eleanor Walsh the founder of a pro-feminist and woman identified only work space called The Herd. The other perspective is Hana’s, who has worked hard to get where she is and wants The Herd to succeed for her own benefit as well as Eleanor’s. Both women have their own secrets and baggage that are weighing them down, secrets that they are keeping from each other. Katie wants to join The Herd, but has ulterior motives in doing so. Hana is trying to keep the big reveal of the big publicity reveal together. Meanwhile, someone has been vandalizing the inside of the offices with misogynistic language, and then when Eleanor disappears things just get murkier. Katie and Hana, along with other founder Mikki, come together to try to find their fearless leader, but it turns out that Eleanor has secrets of her own. The mystery of what happened to Eleanor slowly unfolds through Katie and Hana’s eyes, and overall I thought that it was a well plotted out puzzle. I was taken along by the twists and turns, and as the list of potential outcomes and potential suspects grew the more muddled, in a good way, it became. And by the time we were getting to the climax, I had a hard time putting it down, staying up far too late to finish it.

But it was the relationship between Katie and Hana that made this story stand out from other thriller mysteries that have similar themes. You slowly learn that their sisterly relationship is filled with tension and angst, as Katie was a biological miracle child and Hana was the adopted, and then neglected, one. Hana resents that Katie has an effortless and non-dramatic relationship with their mother, who is dying of cancer, while Katie resents that Hana has well connected and close friends like Eleanor and Mikki. Their resentments felt real and relatable, and Bartz brings in the complications that trans-racial adoptees can sometimes feel towards their adopted families. Bartz probably didn’t examine this as deeply as she could have, but there were other mentions of how Hana always felt like an outsider or an Other, not only at home but even in her tight knit group of friends while at Harvard and while they were in charge of an intersectional and feminist company. There are also closer looks taken at whether or not capitalistic interests and actual social justice, be it through gendered or racial lenses, can actually coexist in a company like The Herd. After all, Eleanor might have taken some steps to get to the position of a feminist leader that would go against various things that she supposedly stood for, all in pursuit of a corporate dream. And while it’s pointed out that women may be more scrutinized than men for such things, ultimately the question of whether that justifies anything is raised.

“The Herd” is a fun thriller that will be a great way to pass the time this summer. It has a little bit more bite than I was expecting, and it should be on the lists of fans of women-centric thrillers.

Rating 8: An addictive and soapy thriller mystery, “The Herd” has claws and they hooked right into me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Herd” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2020”.

Find “The Herd” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!