Serena’s Review: “The Court of Miracles”

Book: “The Court of Miracles” by Kester Grant

Publishing Info: Knopf Children’s, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In the violent urban jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, the French Revolution has failed and the city is divided between merciless royalty and nine underworld criminal guilds, known as the Court of Miracles. Eponine (Nina) Thénardier is a talented cat burglar and member of the Thieves Guild. Nina’s life is midnight robberies, avoiding her father’s fists, and watching over her naïve adopted sister, Cosette (Ettie).

When Ettie attracts the eye of the Tiger–the ruthless lord of the Guild of Flesh–Nina is caught in a desperate race to keep the younger girl safe. Her vow takes her from the city’s dark underbelly to the glittering court of Louis XVII. And it also forces Nina to make a terrible choice–protect Ettie and set off a brutal war between the guilds, or forever lose her sister to the Tiger.

Review: Like every YA fantasy that has came out in the last couple of years or so, this book was marketed for fans of “Six of Crows.” Now, typically, that’s almost a warning off sign for me these days, as it seems this strategy almost always leads to disappointment when the book either turns out to be nothing like that one or, perhaps worse, way too similar. But this was also listed as an alternative history of the French Revolution and a retelling of “Les Miserables,” so I thought it was worth checking out.

After the failure of the French Revolution, the divide between the nobility and commoners has only gotten worse. In in the wake of much disorder, new points of power have risen in the form of nine crim guilds. Nina, a talented thief, works for the Thieves Guild, scraping together a life for herself and her adopted sister. But no one can stay hidden forever, even a master thief, and soon enough Nina finds herself thrust out of the comforts of her criminal underworld life and instead in a glittering and even more dangerous royal court.

Just to get it out of the way right away, I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m sure there are readers who will, but for me, it failed to deliver on any of the promises it set out for itself: It had no connection to “Six of Crows” that I could identify (other than ridiculously broad strokes in that they both deal with criminal underworlds); As a retelling of “Les Mirables” it pick and chose to such an extent that I’m not sure I would have made the connection between the two stories on my own; And as an alternative history, I found it to be wildly anachronistic and shallow in its world-building. So, yeah.

These were all issues on their own, of course, but the book isn’t helped by weak characterization and chopping storytelling. Many of the characters who were pulled from “Les Miserables” can be reduced to one trait descriptions that seem to serve as the entire foundation for their character. We’re given very little more than “This person is a revolutionary!” “This person is a thief!” Readers are either supposed to be satisfied with these bare minimums or superimpose more characterization onto these individuals from their comparative characters in the original story.

And the story itself is very choppy and includes several large time jumps. And during those time jumps, you guessed it, all the necessary character development has already occurred! Readers are just informed of the improvements in main characters without seeing any progression or natural development for themselves. Motivations are laid down in a clinical, info-dumping manner, and the story continues on.

Lastly, I really hated the “romance” in this book. I add the quotes because tehre really is no actual romance laid out. But there are so many possibilities of it that it began to feel ridiculous. I counted at least three love interests that were introduced over the course of this book. And while Nina didn’t devote any crazy amount of time towards any of them, it was still pretty annoying to be given the impression that everyone/anyone who came into contact with her was immediately attracted to her and has the potential of becoming a more serious love interest in the future. I’m so tired of this trope, and while it does seem to be slowing down in general, I’m always still disappointed when I see it pop up again.

I’m unclear who to really recommend this book to. It’s not like it was absolutely abysmal, but I also don’t think that it’s the kind of book that would appeal to the people it most seems to be trying to attract. Super fans of “Les Miserables” for sure will be disappointed. And fans of “Six of Crows” at this point know to be wary of most books that promote themselves as readalikes. I guess if you’re at all intrigued by the alternative history angle and have a fairly flexible approach to what history means, this may be worth checking out?

Rating 5: Not for me. It fails to live up to its own promotional tactics and fell into the trap of introducing too many love interests all at once.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Court of Miracles” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 YA Historical Fiction and Glittering Glamorous Fantasies.

Find “The Court of Miracles” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Clown in a Cornfield”

Book: “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Quinn Maybrook just wants to make it until graduation. She might not make it to morning.

Quinn and her father moved to tiny, boring Kettle Springs to find a fresh start. But ever since the Baypen Corn Syrup Factory shut down, Kettle Springs has cracked in half. On one side are the adults, who are desperate to make Kettle Springs great again, and on the other are the kids, who want to have fun, make prank videos, and get out of Kettle Springs as quick as they can.

Kettle Springs is caught in a battle between old and new, tradition and progress. It’s a fight that looks like it will destroy the town. Until Frendo, the Baypen mascot, a creepy clown in a pork-pie hat, goes homicidal and decides that the only way for Kettle Springs to grow back is to cull the rotten crop of kids who live there now.

Review: I am not afraid of clowns. I have friends who are, but I myself don’t really have much beef with them outside of sometimes finding them a little pointless. Even the likes of Pennywise of John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo just don’t really make me tap into my inner coulrophobic. But I do like a book that reads like a slasher story, and reading the description of “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare felt like exactly that. Throw in some Millennial resentment towards older generations that don’t quite get the road we’ve had to travel, and I was eager to dive in and see what Cesare was going to do with all of it.

“Clown in a Cornfield” is a bit of a slasher story, a bit of small town secrets story, and some ‘okay, Boomer’ memes all mixed together to create a YA horror tale. On a few levels, this works out pretty well and makes for fun reading. The very concept of a bunch of teens being slaughtered by someone wearing a clown mask is great horror fodder, but “Clown in a Cornfield” takes it a few steps further than that and works through some generational angst that is playing out in the real world. The town of Kettle Springs, the setting of this book, is having a bit of a reckoning when it comes to the older people in town versus the teenagers. The older people want Kettle Springs to stay the same, living off of good family values, hard work, and the corn syrup factory that has given the town jobs and prosperity, until recently, that is. The younger generation, specifically the teens, just want to live their lives and then move on. Cesare takes a pretty realistic conflict and pumps it full of blood and guts, and it works pretty well, with those with traditional values blaming inevitable changes in values for all the ills within the town. It could have been heavy handed, but Cesare keeps his tongue planted in cheek firmly enough that it’s a rather effective satire. I also liked a few of our main characters, namely Quinn, the new girl in town who is trying to fit in. Quinn has enough tragic backstory to give her a little bit of pathos, but also stands on her own two feet well enough that she is likable and endearing.

But that said, some of the executions of the plot points didn’t work as well for me. Besides Quinn and a couple other characters, we don’t really get to know enough about a number of the people we’re following so that it doesn’t feel like the stakes are too high when the clown Frendo (“No Country for Old Men” reference?) comes a knocking with weaponry and murderous intent. I don’t really care too much when a slasher film just has a bunch of stereotypes to act as machete fodder for a masked killer, but I think that on the page you have a little more wiggle room to give us some insight into your characters, even if it’s just a little bit. Along with that, the pacing was a little off at times, feeling a bit rushed in some places but kind of draggy in others. I bought the plot overall, as it really is just a slasher story and I know what I’m getting into there. But I think that had there been a little more focus on fleshing out some other characters and less on making super cool kills happen, it probably would have worked a little better. Especially since the satire was pretty well thought out.

Inevitable progress to traditionalists everywhere. (source)

“Clown in a Cornfield” is a pretty fun read. I think that it would have worked better as a gory limited series, but Cesare left room for a sequel, and it was good enough that I would definitely read it. If you don’t like clowns, maybe skip it? But if you’re like me, this could be a fun read for this time of year.

Rating 6: A sly premise and some fun characters keep this story afloat, though the plot is a little hasty at times and the scares feel like they’d work better on screen than on the page.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clown in a Cornfield” isn’t included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Clown Horror”. Obviously.

Find “Clown in a Cornfield” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Murder on Cold Street”

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Book: “Murder on Cold Street” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2020

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Inspector Treadles, Charlotte Holmes’s friend and collaborator, has been found locked in a room with two dead men, both of whom worked with his wife at the great manufacturing enterprise she has recently inherited.

Rumors fly. Had Inspector Treadles killed the men because they had opposed his wife’s initiatives at every turn? Had he killed in a fit of jealous rage, because he suspected Mrs. Treadles of harboring deeper feelings for one of the men? To make matters worse, he refuses to speak on his own behalf, despite the overwhelming evidence against him.

Charlotte finds herself in a case strewn with lies and secrets. But which lies are to cover up small sins, and which secrets would flay open a past better left forgotten? Not to mention, how can she concentrate on these murders, when Lord Ingram, her oldest friend and sometime lover, at last dangles before her the one thing she has always wanted?

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear” and “The Art of Theft”

Review: Overall, I’ve been enjoying Sherry Thomas’s “Lady Sherlock” series. I’ve found all of the mysteries to be appropriately complicated, and I’ve really liked the swaps and changes to staple characters that Thomas has added in. I have had some growing questions, however, as the series has continued, mostly having to do with the very slow burn romance, the use of Moriarty, and the role of Charlotte Holmes’s sister. So those were all elements I had on my eye on this go around. Kind of a mixed bag as far as results go, but I did enjoy this book quite a bit and more than the previous one, so that’s always good.

After returning from their last mystery, Charlotte Holmes and company are immediately set upon by a distraught Mrs. Treadles. Her husband, the inspector, has been arrested for a double homicide. Charlotte takes on the case, of course, but considering the locked room that Mr. Treadles is found in along with the two dead bodies, the mystery posed is quite a stumper. As she wades through the various clues, more and more questions arise with regards to the Treadles themselves, as well as with the family company over which Mrs. Treadles has recently taken operation.

To start out with the basic things I review, this book was successful in all the ways its predecessors were. The mystery itself is complicated with a wide assortment of red herrings, false clues, and various suspects, all with their own motives. Each time I thought I was beginning to piece together where things were going, I’d be pulled in a different direction and realize I’d been heading down the completely wrong path. The various motives and suspects that are introduced are all plausible, and many of them aren’t even directly laid out, leaving it to the reader to begin to piece together their own theories, never quite knowing what is going on in Charlotte Holmes’s mind.

The writing also continues to be solid and engaging. I’ve read quite a few of Thomas’s books over the years (I just finished one of her romances, which is the genre she started out in), and her writing style has always clearly unique to her and solid throughout a wide variety of genres. She has a way of writing that always seems to pull me in. It somehow manages to be completely engrossing and pull the story along quickly, even when the sentences themselves are often not incredibly action-packed and more often read in a more dry, lofty tone.

As for the concerns that have slowly been building as the series progressed, I’m happy to report that on at least one count things seem to be moving along. The romance between Charlotte and Lord Ingram seems to have finally turned a new bend. Things are obviously not resolved on this front, but I was pleased to see that the relationship itself was evolving, with Charlotte now being the one to confront her own role in this burgeoning relationship, what it has been in the past and what she wants it to be in the future. It was a nice change of pace to have Lord Ingram, for once, the more confident and secure in his decisions of the two. I’m curious to see where things will go from here!

On the other hand, however, my other two questions, those regarding the of Livia Holmes and Moriarty, were less satisfactory. Frankly, I would have preferred Livia Holmes to have been completely absent from this book. She only has a handful of chapters as it is, and her story felt wholly unconnected from the mystery and goings-on of the other characters. I think the character would be better served to show up when/if the story call for it, as, here, she felt shoe-horned in in a way that disrupted the flow of the greater plot line altogether.

In some ways, I have the same complaint/suggestion regarding Moriarty. I’d been starting to feel that the ties to Moriarty in every single mystery thus far were beginning to feel like a bit much. It’s maybe a bit of a spoiler, but the character once again is connected here, though in a very small, sideways manner. So small and so sideways, even, that I really questioned the necessity of involving him at all. It seems to be meant to continue building the tension between the inevitable clash between Charlotte and Moriarty, but honestly, here, it just felt tacked on and unnecessary. Most fans of this series are likely already fans of the original Holmes and need very little manipulation to become quickly invested in this rivalry. It also just begins to feel implausible that all of these mysteries that seem to randomly fall on Charlotte’s plate are also connected to this shadowy other character.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. I thought the mystery itself was much more compelling than what we had in the previous book, and I was excited to see some movement on the romance front. Now, alas, another year or so until the next entry. Luckily, I’ve found a YA fantasy series also written by Thomas, so that’s probably on the schedule for this winter.

Rating 9: Another great entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series, though, bizarrely, I wish for a little less Moriarty.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder on Cold Street” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Sherlock Holmes Fiction (Pastiches)” and “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.”

Find “Murder on Cold Street” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ring Shout”

49247242Book: “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark

Publishing Info: Tor.com, October 2020

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

Book Description: Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.

D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.

Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

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

I have said it many a time, the horror genre can be so effective at symbolism and social commentary wrapped up in a creepy and spooky tale. You’ve seen it with such films as “Night of the Living Dead”, “Get Out”, “Candyman”, “Dawn of the Dead”, the list goes on and on and on. Books, too, do this very well, with recent titles like “Lovecraft Country” and “The Devil in Silver” being two that come to mind for me. I always love some horror that has more to say about society than just ghosts and ghouls, and “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark is a new title that scratches that itch. Sure, it looks like it’s a book about demons, demon hunters, and black magic. But it’s also a story of the very real horrors of American Racism.

I am usually nervous when I’m about to start a novella that seems like it has a lot of distance to cover and a lot of complicated themes, as it’s hard to fit all of that into limited pages. But even though “Ring Shout” clocks in at less than two hundred pages, Clark does a great job of developing his characters, building an alternative American history with mystical themes, and hitting the metaphors out of the park with biting satire and, in some cases, dark humor. We follow Marys, Sadie, and Chef, three Black women who, in post WWI America, are fighting against demons summoned by dark sorcerer D.W. Griffith that have fed upon white people’s racism and led to a resurgence of the KKK. There are Klans, who are white racists whose hate for Black (and other non-white groups) has been amplified, and Ku Kluxes, actual demons disguised under the robes. Maryse, Sadie, and Chef, with the help from a Gulluh woman with magic and insight and other freedom fighters, are hoping to stop the end of the world fueled by racism, and Maryse may hold the key to it all. What I liked best about this story was that the three main characters are Black women, and they are given a whole lot of agency, motivation, and unique characterizations that make them all very enjoyable and fun. Maryse especially has a lot of complexity, her anger and determination pushing her forward. Clark gives all of them unique voices, but Maryse’s in particular stands out.

The social commentary has a lot to work with her. While it could have been easy to just say ‘demons are the problems behind the racism in the Jim Crow South’ (something you kind of saw in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” with vampires and chattel slavery), Clark doesn’t let racist white people off the hook here. While it’s true that the demons are part of it, those who are influenced already had hate in their hearts. That hate was just used to help the demons gain power. There is also a less obvious but just as powerful metaphor in this story through the magical system regarding these demons that Clark puts in. The only people who can see the demons in their true forms are people from marginalized groups (this is mostly Black people, but there is a Jewish character in the group fighting against the Ku Kluxes that can see them as well); white people cannot. It’s a clever way to call out white people’s ‘I don’t see color’ hypocrisy, as well as a metaphor for the microaggressions that have a blind eye turned to them even when marginalized groups who are affected by them say that they are, indeed, there. I greatly enjoyed that part of the mythos.

And Clark pulls all of this together in a cohesive and engaging story in less than two hundred pages! With some pretty gnarly Lovecraftian imagery and body horror thrown in for good measure (there’s also a nod to this extremely problematic horror icon in this story, which was super fun to see). It made for a bite sized horror treat that I was able to read and enjoy in one sitting, the perfect quick tale for this Halloween season!

“Ring Shout” is a new social commentary horror classic in the making! Treat yourself to something a little more complex this ghostly season, you won’t be disappointed.

Rating 8: Steeped in sharp and biting satire and commentary, “Ring Shout” is a story of demons, heroines, and American racism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ring Shout” is included on the Goodreads lists “Beyond Butler: Spec Fic by Authors of Color”, and “ATY 2020 – About Racism and Race Relations”.

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

Book Club Review: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext”

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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez (Ed.), José Olivarez (Ed.), and Willie Perdomo (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Haymarket Books, April 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Continent: North America

Book Description: In the dynamic tradition of the BreakBeat Poets anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT celebrates the embodied narratives of Latinidad. Poets speak from an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space. Like Hip-Hop, we honor what was, what is, and what’s next.

Kate’s Thoughts

So in the song “The Great Imposter”, there is the (much condensed down and cherry picked) line ‘Poetry, so sweet…..’. And reader, I do not feel this way towards poetry. There are a few flickers of poetry that I’ve enjoyed over the years. I love me some Poe, and Dickinson, and the poem “The Second Coming” by Yeats, as well as the occasional book in verse (Jason Reynolds in particular is a favorite of mine). But as a rule it’s really not my cup of tea. So when book club decided to do poetry with “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext”, I was hesitant. I also, however, like to be game for whatever my dear friends may pick so I got it and dove in. I’m happy to report that I did not hate it, not even a little bit. This may sound like a back handed compliment, but I assure you, it’s not.

There were actually a number of poems from this collection that I greatly enjoyed. If you look at the commonalities between the various poems and poets that I cited above, if you give me something dark, I will probably be more into it, so the poems that really struck a chord with me in this book were those that addressed hard topics, like death, sadness, and despair. I wholeheartedly admit that the optics of that are not very good within the context of this collection, but at least I can say that that’s generally what’s going to get me on board with poetry. All that said, I really liked the mission of this collection, highlighting Latinx voices within the American and Latinidad experiences. These range from the political to the tongue in cheek to the joyful to the sorrowful, and I think that it does a great job of introducing new ideas of what poetry is and what it can be for different people.

But, at the end of the day, it’s still poetry. Serena will expand on this a bit more, but I do think that it went on a bit long. This may be because the way that it was sectioned, as the darker things were all at the front of the collection as opposed to spaced out. I didn’t mind the structure, as I like things being themed and categorized, but for someone like me who has ideas as to what kind of poetry she does and doesn’t like, it made me skim more and more the further along we got. I can’t really say if this is a failing in the poets, as they probably weren’t going to resonate with me because it’s poetry, but I do think that it suffered from some bloat. I totally get why bloat would happen here, wanting to give voice and representation to so many different possibilities. But it’s still a bit bloated.

All in all, there were some things here that I really liked. I don’t think that I will look into more of the collections that The BreakBeat Poets have done, but if you do like the genre, check it out. It may resonate more with you than it did with me.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back in college, oh so long ago, it was a close call when choosing majors between English Literature or English Writing (yes, there are multiple options for important topics like English!). The main case for the English Writing route was my love for the poetry classes and professors. I ended up going the Literature route, but was one of those “loves school a bit too much” dummies who still signed up to take the Capstone course for both routes. You know, why not take the highest level course for a education route you’re not even majoring in?? Anyways, long story short, I took that class because I loved reading and writing poetry that much. All of this to say, I’m a bit of a poetry snob, and it’s not really something I’m proud of, but there it is.

With that background, I often find reading poetry for fun rather challenging. I really, really enjoy great poetry, but I’m also extremely picky about what I think constitutes great poetry. For me, it’s the culmination of topics, language choice, and some simple beauty that is hard to describe but comes across like a great painting in that you know it but have a hard time saying why it’s great. After reading this book, I’d say there were a good handful of poems that really worked for me with these criteria. But there were also a good number that didn’t.

The challenge of this collection is both its strength and what I think ultimately got in the way of its being truly great. It’s so important to highlight diverse poetry and poets, and there’s a wealth of history, stories, and experiences that the Latinx community brings to the table. Some of my favorite poems spoke to some of the expected topics like immigration challenges as well as some of the smaller experiences that we might not immediately think of, like how the continued mispronunciation of one’s name can impact one’s life.

The other side of this coin, however, is that there is JUST SO MUCH to cover. Latinx covers a huge swath of cultures and countries, some speaking to their experiences in their native lands, others speaking to their experiences as Americans with Latinx heritage. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s pretty clear that the editors were overwhelmed by trying to cover all their bases. It’s an impossible task to start out with, and one that I think ultimately bogged down this collection. There were a number of poems that just didn’t work for me. They weren’t bad, per se, but I also felt that they weren’t as powerful as some of the others. And in a collection that begins to feel bloated at around the 50% marker, weaker poems do more damage in hiding the truly good ones than any value they add on their own.

That said, I still really like the general approach of these poetry collections and am curious to look into the ones that came before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: A unique and at times quite powerful collection of voices not seen as much in poetry. But it’s still poetry, nonetheless, and therefore not really my jam.

Serena’s Rating 6: Some really great poems highlighting lesser known experiences and topics were at times hidden in a collection that was a bit over-sized.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the section structure of this collection?
  2. Did you have a favorite poem? What about it stood out to you?
  3. What topics did you feel were well addressed in this collection, and what topics did you want to have more focus?
  4. How did this poetry collection compare to other collections you have read in the past?
  5. What do you think the next BreakBeats Poetry Collection will be?

Reader’s Advisory

“The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Poetry Books By Authors of Color”, and “Stephen’s Multicultural and Anti-Racist Reading List”.

Find “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

My Year with Jane Austen: “Northanger Abbey”

Book: “Northanger Abbey”

Publication Year: 1817

Book Description: Jane Austen’s first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen’s fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

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

“Northanger Abbey” was written long before it was published, likely around 1798 or 1799. Austen then shelved the novel and didn’t even send it to a publisher until 1803 for 10 pounds. And there it languished, even though Austen has been assured it would be published soon. After six years, Austen wrote to the publisher under a pseudonym to complain. She signed it thus:

I am Gentlemen &c &c                                                                 

– MAD.

She was given the option to buy it back, but couldn’t afford to do so until several years later. At this point, Austen was concerned that the novel would be as relevant as many of the gothic novels and authors that are referenced in the book were decidedly of the time when it was originally written, now over a decade earlier. Austen was also focused on her new novel, “Persuasion.” Shortly there after, Austen passed away. The book along with her others and the copyrights to the published novels passed to her sister. After some negotiation, “Northanger Abbey” finally came to the public in December of 1817 almost twenty years after it was originally written.

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

Catherine Morland comes from a large but perfectly normal family. But adventure makes its way to her in the form of a trip to Bath with some wealthy family friends, the Allens. Once there, she is ready to view the world through the lens of her gothic novels that she loves to read. However, life seems rather ordinary, if still more exciting than her small-town. Luckily, a hero enters her world in the form of a gentleman named Mr. Tilney who is very lively and perfectly suits Catherine. Her social circle then extends further with the introduction of the Thorpe family and the eldest daughter, Isabella, who quickly becomes Catherine’s fast friend.

While Isabella’s temperament is much more lively than Catherine’s with much nonsense about hating flirting while flirting constantly herself, Catherine is happy to have a friend. Soon after, Isabella’s brother, John, comes to bath bringing with him Catherine’s own brother, James. It becomes quite clear that James has been in love with Isabella for some time (having met the family earlier that year). Catherine is informed that John is a good man more than she sees it herself, often finding him to be loud and verging on rude. Her biggest complaint comes at a ball where she is forced to uphold a commitment to dance with John at the detriment of her greater desire to dance with Mr. Tilney. She does make the acquaintance of his sister Miss Tilney and makes plans to go on a country walk with the two of them the following day.

The next morning, however, she is bombarded by James, John, and Isabella to join them on carriage rides out to visit a castle. Catherine informs them that she has previous plans, but they continue to badger her on and on. Eventually, John informs her that he saw the Tilney’s heading off in their own carriage, so they clearly meant to skip the walk based on the early morning rain. Catherine doesn’t know what to do, but eventually gives in, more in the hopes of seeing the castle than spending more time with John in his carriage. But shortly after setting off, Catherine sees the Tilneys walking down the street towards her house. John refuses to stop and let her out, however, and Catherine ends up trapped on the trip. They don’t even make it to the castle, and Catherine ends the day very upset knowing the Tilneys must be confused and hurt by her behavior.

The next day, she goes out of her way to track down the Tilneys and explain the situation. She’s so earnest and clearly upset that they both quickly forgive her. She also meets their father, General Tilney, a stately man who Catherine saw John speaking to earlier. He is extremely gracious and urges the friendship on between Catherine and his son and daughter. Soon after, they are able to schedule their walk, and Catherine grows closer with Miss Tilney and continues to enjoy greater attachment to Mr. Tilney.

Soon, Isabella approaches Catherine with exciting news: she and James are engaged! Catherine is thrilled, though confused by Isabella’s worries that she is not James’s financial equal. James quickly makes his way home and returns with glad tidings that his parents approve and will be able to give him a decent, though not large, amount of money and living in a few years. Isabella is greatly put-out, but insists she never complains. Much to Catherine’s dismay, however, she sees Isabella behaving more and more poorly by flirty with Mr. Tilney’s older brother who has also come to town. Catherine sees that this behavior hurts her brother and doesn’t know what to make of it.

She is diverted to more pleasant things when she receives an invitation to visit the Tilney’s at their home of Northanger Abbey. Catherine is thrilled, not only to be spending more time with her dear friends, but also at the prospect of wandering through such a dramatic, gothic location that is sure to hide all sorts of dreadful mysteries (per her novels, of course). Mr. Tilney laughs at her anticipations, and Catherine is happy enough to laugh at herself, too. But upon arrival, she can’t help but become intrigued by mysterious, old chests and wardrobes set up in her room. All she discovers, however, are old washing lists and the extent of her own silliness.

Life at the Abbey is ruled by the strict schedule of the General. While still very gracious to Catherine, he also has strange habits and refuses to let Eleanor show Catherine the deceased Mrs. Tilney’s rooms. Catherine begins to become more and more suspicious of the General’s relationship with the dead Mrs. Tilney. Is she even dead at all, or locked up in some drafty corner of the Abbey? Catherine decides to explore on her own, but is caught by Mr. Tilney in Mrs. Tilney’s very normal-looking rooms. He immediately figures out what Catherine was up to and chastises her for letting her imagination rule her. Catherine is extremely ashamed of herself and upset that she has lost Mr. Tilney’s respect forever. However, he goes out of his way to make her comfortable over the next few days, and Catherine comes out of the ordeal having learned a much needed lesson about sensational novels and real life.

During her visit, she receives an upsetting letter from her brother James saying that the engagement between him and Isabella is off. He hints to her behavior being increasingly concerning and notes that Catherine will soon hear news about Isabella’s upcoming attachment to the Tilney family. Both Miss and Mr. Tilney are sure that whatever poor behavior has taken part, it is very unlikely that their older brother will become engaged to someone as poor and lowly as Isabella. Sure enough, Catherine does hear from Isabella who pleads with Catherine to intercede with James on her behalf fearing there has been some sort of “misunderstanding.” Catherine is appalled and, now finally seeing Isabella for what she is, swears off the friendship forever.

Her happy visit comes to an abrupt and confusing end, however, when the General returns from a trip and insists that Catherine leave at once. She is practically forced out the very next day and sent home alone and by post. Catherine is confused and upset. Eleanor is beside herself at the poor treatment of her friend. And Mr. Tilney is from home when it all happens, so Catherine doesn’t even get to say goodbye to him. She arrives home safely, but is much out of spirits, to her parents’ great dismay.

Shortly after, however, Mr. Tilney arrives to clear matters up. He confesses that General Tilney is a bad tempered man who only wants his children to marry fortunes. He was deceived by John Thorpe into thinking that Catherine was very wealthy, hence his immediate approval of her. Later, a bitter John also exaggerated just how poor Catherine’s family was which lead to her dismissal from Northanger Abbey. Mr. Tilney proposes to Catherine, and while they are happily in love, they worry about their future, needing the General’s approval to marry. Eventually, however, Miss Tilney becomes engaged to a very rich man and insists that her father approve of Mr. Tilney and Catherine which he grudgingly does, and the two get married.

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

Catherine Morland is the quintessential heroine. For all that she’s the main character in a book that is largely a satire of the popular Gothic novels of the time, she’s still a very likable, undestandable character in her own right. She both acts her age, but is also not overly silly and dramatic. Especially against the backdrop of Isabella’s behavior, Catherine’s own nonsense is all kept well in check for the most part (silliness at the Abbey aside). It’s easy to see how both Tilney siblings would be drawn in by her earnest, naive goodness. She’s truly bewildered when coming up across the Thorpe’s and elder Tilney’s of the world, having very little ability to anticipate the foibles or meaner streaks of others. The reader easily sees through both Isabella and John, but not poor Catherine.

She does make her fair share of mistakes, but they all are of the type that seem to come from her young age rather than anything else. She also always pays a price for her poor choices. We see her get talked into the carriage ride with Isabella, James, and John. Though to be fair to her, this is only after she resists for quite a while and then is lied to. But, again, she’s so earnest in her apology to the Tilneys, so not bothered by laying all of her feelings out in the open, it’s easy to understand why she is quickly forgiven. Later, when John Thorpe tries to pull a similar move, she’s even stronger and immediately corrects the situation.

Obviously, her behavior at the Abbey is her at her worst, though even there much of her nonsense is contained to her own antics in her room. But she is discovered by Mr. Tilney in her grim imaginings of the late Mrs. Tilney and is quite chastised by him. One can only imagine how humiliating this entire situation would be. It’s a credit to both of them that they recover as well as they do. From there, one can only expect that Catherine has gotten most of her nonsense out of her system and will grow into a very proper young woman. At her heart, she’s clearly a good sort of girl. She’s definitely the most simple of Austen’s heroines, but this doesn’t make her less compelling. And, as an excuse if she even needs one, she’s definitely the heroine of the most straight-forward story. There is very little drama, confusion, or general angst that she must deal with. And thus she’s allowed her simple flaws and her vast reward at the end.

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

While it can be argued that Edmund rather deserves to be one of the more forgotten Austen heroes, what with his main love arc being with an entirely different woman than the one we’re rooting for, it’s unfortunate that Henry Tilney is routinely also falls in this lesser-known category. Unlike Edmund, Henry has his head on straight from the very beginning, and beyond that, he is probably the most likable hero we’ll find in Austen’s entire catalog. He’s definitely the best humored. We don’t have pride, or restraint, or shyness, or prior bad decisions that are haunting him, etc. etc. No, he’s gallant, funny, and likable from start to finish. The worst that can be said for him is that he probably comes to love Catherine largely due to her initial interest. And this speaks more to Austen’s clear-eyed view of how love affairs often go than to any actual flaw on Tilney’s part.

Probably one of his best moments in the book is how he handles discovering Catherine’s wild suspicions about his father. Of course, he’s been teasing her about her love for gothic novels (though admits to devouring them himself, as well), but it had to be truly shocking to see her take her imagination that far. He’s fairly frank in his assessment of her behavior and tells her so. But then…but then! Austen goes into great detail to describe the effort that Mr. Tilney puts out that evening and over the next couple of days to make Catherine feel comfortable again. It shows not only great awareness on his part, understanding how awkward and uncomfortable she must be feeling, but also just a truly kind spirit who does not hold things like this against a young Catherine.

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

For villains, we have the Thorpe siblings and Colonel Tilney himself. The Thorpes are both the more obviously rotten apples from the very start. This is where poor Catherine is truly let down by the shoddy guardianship of Mrs. Allen. Most of Mrs. Allen’s foibles are contained to silliness about clothes and not having much to say, but in overseeing her young ward’s new friends, she really drops the ball. Isabella is less obviously bad, but John Thorpe shows his colors almost immediately. He’s rude, brash, and generally unpleasant. The wildness of many of the group’s plans are also clear warning signs to any good guardian, and even Catherine goes so far as to express surprise that Mrs. Allen didn’t say anything about whether the planned carriage rides were all together proper. To her credit, Catherine is never convinced that John is quite the thing from the very start and even wonders a bit at her brother’s praise of him. And then, of course, the shock and horror of finding out that John thought she was encouraging him!

Isabella is a tougher nut to crack, and it’s easier to see how Catherine could have the wool pulled over her eyes easily by a young woman who so quickly proclaims Catherine dear to her. Up to the point where Catherine meets Isabella, it’s clear that she is quite lonely. So a firm friend with almost built-in intimacy was sure to be a great temptation. And it would take some very clear thinking to really dig through all of Isabella’s grand speeches about her own values and compare them, clear-eyed, with Isabella’s actual behavior. But Catherine is still quick to see that something is not right in Isabella’s treatment of her brother and with her flirtations with the elder Tilney. While we feel for Catherine’s distress when it all comes crashing down, the reader at least feels a good amount of smug approval at the way Isabella’s blatant scheming leaves her ultimately with nothing.

Colonel Tilney fulfills the more traditional villain role as the one to keep our hero and heroine from each other. Of course, this only after he spends a good majority of the book pushing them together. We later learn, of course, that his behavior, first at encouraging the couple and then evicting Catherine, all come from John Thorpe’s big mouth. But these are still actions of a selfish, hard-hearted man. The Mr. Tilney and Miss Tilney’s clear discomfort when around their father is the first clue, and even Catherine notes that his presence a

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

This is the most straight-forward romance in all of Austen’s books. Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl does something foolish, but boy quickly forgives her with no misunderstandings or drawn-out angst. Father tries to interceded, but boy and girl get married in the end. But it’s also a testament to the fact that a good romance story doesn’t need to be mired in drama, lack of communication, and unnecessary misunderstandings. Mr. Tilney and Catherine are sweet, likable, and the reader is invested in their relationship from the very beginning.

Of course obstacles are put in their way, but even those are few and far between and often fairly quickly dealt with. Any early misunderstandings between the two of them are quickly rectified by, shocker!, actually talking about the situation. Catherine goes out of her way to track down Mr. Tilney and explain what happened over the missed engagement for their country walk. And when Catherine is caught in her nonsense and the Abbey, Mr. Tilney is quick to go out of his way to reassure her that his attachment to her is unchanged. And, of course, after Catherine is banished from Northanger, Mr. Tilney quickly follows to make his apologies to her and her family and declare himself to Catherine. From their, being a Jane Austen novel, the rest of the couples problems are succinctly dealt with while also assuring that Eleanor Tilney also gets her own happy ending.

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

Before she shows the depths of her true character, Isabella Thorpe is good for some laughs early in the book. Unlike Catherine, the reader quite quickly picks up on the disconnect between Isabella’s statements and her actions. There is an especially funny moment when Isabella starts bemoaning two gentleman that she claims are plaguing her with their unwanted attention. But then they leave, and she essentially drags Catherine after them in a chase to catch up to them once again and regain their attention.

Mrs. Allen is also a pretty good comedic character. She doesn’t have a ton of page time, but we still get a pretty good picture of her personality. Constantly fretting about her clothes and repeating the same useless sentiments over and over again followed by no change in her actions, it’s easy to see how Catherine could be quickly taken in by the excitement of a new companion like Isabella Thorpe.

And, like I said earlier, Mr. Tilney himself is pretty funny. More than any other Austen hero, we see Tilney poking fun at Catherine as well as himself throughout the story. We also see a lovely sibling relationship between him and Eleanor Tilney, with Eleanor often stepping in to explain her brother’s ridiculousness to a bewildered Catherine. We’ve seen a lot of good sibling relationships, but Eleanor and Mr. Tilney stand out in being the most equal-seeming and essentially teamed up against the trials of their family life. Catherine really strikes gold in them both, ending up with an excellent husband and a supreme sister-in-law to boot.

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

“[I]t is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.”

I’ve always loved this quote and have used it as a touchstone in my own life at points. It’s just such straight-forward, good common sense. And a nice reminder to not let any one thing or person becoming too defining in our own life. Of course our loved ones are at the center of it all, but our happiness is not reliant on them. Happiness is entirely our own responsibility, not someone else’s, and with that in mind, why not give yourself the best chance of success by finding happiness in a wide range of things?

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

This is a quote from Mr. Tilney and one that is immediately followed by Eleanor Tilney’s continued scolding/teasing that he is misrepresenting himself to Catherine. It’s a funny comment on its own, and a good example of Mr. Tilney’s excellent sense of humor.

“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”

Another good, short quip that I always wish I could remember to pull out at just the right moment. Alas, I cannot speak well enough to quote literature at the perfect moments.

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

I’m not going to go into much as far as final thoughts for this book. Funnily enough, “Northanger Abbey” had previously been probably one of my least re-read books of Austen’s, but I’ve now read and reviewed it in some form or another twice in the last year and a half! That, and because the book itself is fairly short, is why I’m only devoting one post to reviewing this book. But for some more general thoughts from both me and Kate, check out our Bookclub Review of “Northanger Abbey.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the 2007 movie “Northanger Abbey.”

Kate’s Review: “The Dollhouse Family”

51233715Book: “The Dollhouse Family” by Mike Carey, Peter Gross (Ill.), and Vince Locke (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Black Label, September 2020

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

Book Description: Alice loves to talk to her dolls, and her dolls and dollhouse love to talk back.

When Alice is six, she is given a beautiful antique dollhouse. When things in her life get scary, Alice turns to her dolls and dollhouse for comfort. One day, they invite her to come play inside with them. As Alice’s life is turned upside down in the “big” world, she is always welcomed home to the little world inside the dollhouse; the house will even grant her a wish if she agrees to live with them!

Follow Alice through the door of the dollhouse and into the demon’s den.

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

Let it be said that Hill House Comics has gotten some pretty legitimate authors on board of their imprint! It’s not that surprising, as Joe Hill seems like a cool guy who knows talent when he sees it. “Basketful of Heads” was an awesome first experience for me in regards to this imprint, and when I saw that M.R. Carey was getting in on the action with “The Dollhouse Family” (though writing under his usual comic name Mike Carey) I was pleased. When Carey does straight up horror, like “Someone Like Me”, I am fully on board with his works. So I’m definitely all in to see what he can do with a creepy dollhouse!

“The Dollhouse Family” is a generation spanning family saga that wraps itself in a dark fantasy horror story, and for the most part I felt like it worked pretty well. We have a couple of paths that we’re following, and while the way they connect isn’t completely apparent at first, Carey does a really good job of building upon then until we do reach that connecting point. The first is of Alice, a young girl who inherits an old dollhouse from an estranged relative. Alice’s father is abusive and her mother is passive, and Alice finds solace in the dollhouse… especially when the dolls start talking to her, and she finds out that she can shrink down to join them inside. The other path is in the past, as a man named Joseph, while doing survey work, finds himself in a cave, and comes face to face with a mysterious woman, and a sleeping giant.

As mentioned, it isn’t totally clear how these two stories relate, but they are both interesting enough in their own rights that you will want to see how they do. After Alice makes a decision that completely shifts her life’s path, due to a suggestion by a mysterious being in the dollhouse called The Black Room, she ultimately ends up with a daughter of her own, and a fear of the dollhouse that just keeps showing up. I really liked Alice, and while the unfolding of the other timeline wasn’t as interesting to me, the world building and mythology building that Carey did with it definitely laid a foundation that made sense for where Alice and daughter Una end up. I liked the build up and the horror elements of demons, as well as cosmic/Lovecraftian body horror that gave me a serious case of the squicks.

But where this book ultimately fumbles is that for all the world building and build up, the ending is incredibly abrupt. I was reading this on my computer, and when I saw that I only had tenish pages left I was convinced that the file I had was cut off prematurely, as there was no WAY that it could all be wrapped up in ten pages. And yet, it was, and because of that it all felt SUPER rushed and unsatisfying. For all that background and foundation, the climax was way too quick, and the let down after the climax was even quicker.

The art style, though, was a good match for the tone. It felt a bit old school in its design, but the details were intricate, as intricate as that on the strange dollhouse within the story itself.

dollhouse-family-comic-characters
(source)

Overall, I think that “The Dollhouse Family” is probably worth it for horror comics fans just because of the things that do work. But I do wish that Carey had taken a little more time to wrap things up.

Rating 7: A creepy and well planned out horror fantasy, “The Dollhouse Family” is an entertaining comic, but resolves itself a little too quickly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dollhouse Family” is included on the Goodreads list “Haunted Dolls”.

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

Serena’s Review: “How to Break an Evil Curse”

Book: “How to Break and Evil Curse” by Laura Morrison

Publishing Info: Black Spot Books, October 202

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The King of the Land of Fritillary has incurred the wrath of his ex-bestie, the evil wizard Farland Phelps. Farland curses the King’s firstborn to die if touched by sunlight, and just like that, Julianna must spend her life in the depths of a castle dungeon (emptied of prisoners and redecorated in the latest fashion, of course). A young woman of infinite resourcefulness, all she needs is a serving spoon, a loose rock in the wall, and eight years of digging, and Julianna is free to explore the city—just not while the sun is out!

Warren Kensington is a member of a seafaring traveling theater troupe and the unwitting magical cure to the curse. When the pirate ship he’s sailing on is damaged in stormy seas, he goes ashore and bumps into Julianna on the streets of the capitol. The pair accidentally set in motion a chain of events that uncovers Farland’s plans to take over the throne. Julianna, Warren, and some friends they meet along the way are the only ones who can save the monarchy.

But the farther they go along their increasingly ludicrous journey, and the more citizens they meet, the more Julianna wonders whether her dad’s throne is worth saving. From an evil and greedy wizard? Well, sure. But from the people of Fritillary who are trying to spark a revolution? The people suffering in poverty, malnutrition, and other forms of medieval-esque peasant hardship? It doesn’t take Julianna long to find that the real world is far more complicated than a black-and-white fairytale.

Review: I’m always on the look out for a good fantasy/comedy series. While most of what I consider good fantasy obviously contains comedy elements, it’s typically nothing more than some witty dialogue. Nothing that would justify an added genre to the book itself. But, of course, they exist! “The Princess Bride” is a perennial favorite. And as I just discovered in a recent review of “The Princess Will Save You” , the comedy is central to the success of that story. So I was excited to see fantasy story that was actively marketed as a comedy, finally!

Julianna has grown up in a dungeon. Well, a dungeon that her mother practiced her interior design skills on to make as comfortable as possible, but there’s no getting rid of the decidedly dungeon-ness of it all, old prisoner ghosts and all. But with a curse that dooms her to death if touched by sunlight, Julianna’s royal parents didn’t see another choice. But that hasn’t stopped Julianna from taking things into her own hands and tunneling outside the castle walls. There she meets the young man who could be her salvation, a strange mix of boy who loves music and grew up on a pirate ship. Things only get more strange from there as they set out on an adventure that may finally free Julianna from her curse.

This book was an interesting read. There were times where I was all in on it and its concept, laughing out loud and just enjoying the romp that was being laid out before me. But at other times, I found the humor and comedy elements to be almost relentless and a bit overbearing. Unlike “The Princess Will Save You” that was almost aggressively earnest and lacking witty dialogue even, this book throws itself as the comedy element, never letting a single joke slide by. It’s a tough thing to review or critique because much of it was successful. The story uses footnotes to pretty great effect and doesn’t ever take it or its own ridiculous concept too seriously. But at other times, I felt I need some sense of weight or a different emotional tone to help balance out this nonstop comedy.

The characters themselves sere all very engaging, maybe especially the villains and the backstory we get for them at the very beginning of the story. I also liked Julianna and Warren, though it was with these two main characters that I most wished for a bit more emotional depth from the book. The funny moments for them hit home, but it was hard to feel truly invested in either of their stories when everything was played for laughs.

The pacing was also a bit strange in the book. As I mentioned, the first part of the story focuses on the villains and their history with Julianna’s parents and the curse that is ultimately laid upon them. So there are a number of time jumps involved in telling this part of the story. Id din’t find it confusing or anything, but it does take a while for the story to finally settle in on our main characters. It seems to take quite a while for them to even meet.

Lastly, I do want to touch on the marketing failure with this book. From what I saw, this was being marketed as a high fantasy novel. This isn’t doing anyone any favors. Not the book, not the author, and not the readers. High fantasy is a fairly specific brand of fantasy (we’re talking “Lord of the Rings” and “ASOIAF” type fantasy). It is usually more serious, has a grand scope, and includes a lot of complicated world-building. But it is by no means the only type of fantasy, and it’s also not “better” fantasy than any other type. I think too often that seems to be the perception which then leads to publishers trying to attach that genre description to all of their new releases in the hopes of attracting more readers. But it’s not “better!” Sure, some people prefer that type of fantasy, but others actually prefer more light-hearted fantasy or want a good fantasy comedy now and then. By not properly identifying the book, you have a bunch of readers picking it up expecting the wrong thing and becoming disappointed. And then the readers who were actually looking for this type of book could be put off by the often intimidating aspects of what we expect from typical high fantasy. It’s too bad, because I feel like they almost set this book up to fail by doing this.

So, while it’s definitely not high fantasy, if you are looking for a comedy fantasy story, this might be a good one to check out. Just know that when I say comedy, I really mean it. In some ways the comedy aspect felt more prevalent than the fantasy itself.

Rating 7: A fun enough story, though missing the necessary emotional weight to balance out all of the fluff and laughs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How to Break an Evil Curse” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet. But it should be on “Fantasy-Comedy Novels Outside of ‘Discworld.'”

Find “How to Break an Evil Curse” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Dracula’s Child”

49991647._sx318_sy475_Book: “Dracula’s Child” by J.S. Barnes

Publishing Info: Titan Books, September 2020

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

Book Description: Dracula returns…

It has been some years since Jonathan and Mina Harker survived their ordeal in Transylvania and, vanquishing Count Dracula, returned to England to try and live ordinary lives. But shadows linger long in this world of blood feud and superstition – and, the older their son Quincy gets, the deeper the shadows that lengthen at the heart of the Harkers’ marriage. Jonathan has turned back to drink; Mina finds herself isolated inside the confines of her own family; Quincy himself struggles to live up to a family of such high renown. And when a gathering of old friends leads to unexpected tragedy, the very particular wounds in the heart of the Harkers’ marriage are about to be exposed…

There is darkness both within the marriage and without – for, while Jonathan and Mina wrestle with the right way to raise a child while still recovering from the trauma of their past lives, new evil is arising on the Continent. A naturalist is bringing a new species of bat back to London; two English gentlemen, on their separate tours of the continent, find a strange quixotic love for each other, and stumble into a calamity far worse than either has imagined; and the vestiges of something thought long-ago forgotten is, finally, beginning to stir…

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

I have a very special place in my heart for Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel “Dracula”. One, I do love a good vampire story in which a vampire is the predatory menace that it ought to be. But the bigger and more personal reason is because I first read it in college in my favorite class of all time, “Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs in Literature”. The content was great, but it was my professor, Andy, who really made the class. We read many stories, “Dracula” being one, and I wrote a paper about the feminist icon that is Mina Harker. Andy and I kept in touch after my time in that class, and sadly he passed away a few years ago. I will always associate this book with him. So taking on this new ‘unofficial’ sequel, “Dracula’s Child” by J.S. Barnes was a risk. One I was willing to take because of the solid premise, but a risk nonetheless.

The structure of “Dracula’s Child” is similar to “Dracula” in that it is epistolary in nature. The plot unfolds through letters, diary entries, telegrams, and newspaper articles, and the tone and writing style is very well matched to the tone of the original. Barnes clearly worked very hard to reproduce that device, and it really does sound like the original in a lot of ways. I felt like he pretty much captured the voices of the original characters, and that he also expanded upon some of them to give them a little more complexity. We also had a fair number of threads to attend to, from the original characters to new ones whose connections to Dracula are seemingly tenuous at first, that all start to converge in a well paced and well thought out way. This made for a slow burn of a tale that is expansive, and really does hype up that if Dracula is coming back for his revenge, he’s going to be thinking BIG PICTURE. The reveals are also slowly paced, such as Mina and Jonathan’s son Quincey’s connection to The Count. And no, there was no addition of a romance between Dracula and Mina to be found in these pages. Which is probably for the best, but man, for something that went WAY off course of the original content I LOVED the chemistry between Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

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Part of me was hoping for this, and I’m not (too) ashamed. (source)

So really, Barnes achieves what he was setting out to do in regards to making you feel like this could, in fact, be a direct sequel to the original story. And for that, I really have to give him props. That couldn’t have been easy to do, and he did it. And yes, there are some really well done scares in here, from suspense to body horror to the dread of a vampire on the hunt.

But the thing that basically derailed this story from being the awesome thing that I thought it was going to be was that for the last third of the book, Mina Harker, whose presence had been strong and fierce and at the forefront, was sidelined and then made incredibly passive. Certainly by today’s standards, Mina may not seem like much of a ‘strong female character’, and I’m definitely not saying that Stoker was some progressive when it came to gender politics in the original. But for Mina as a character to have perspective chapters, to be using her wits and her shorthand to try and figure out how best to fight off Dracula, for her to be with Jonathan, Seward, Arthur, Quincey, and Van Helsing during their journey? That was huge! So in a book coming out in 2020 I had hoped that she would be doing more so as to reflect her critical role in the original as a warrior against Dracula… And while for part of this book she seemed to be, for her to be sidelined in this way was very disappointing.  It was already frustrating that most other woman characters were sacrificed for man pain or to be tragic plot devices. But to do something similar, though admittedly not as final, to Mina? UNACCEPTABLE.

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(source)

Mina frustration aside, “Dracula’s Child” does a pretty good job of feeling like a true follow up to “Dracula”. I’m not sure if the purists would agree, but for this person who has such a personal and protective connection to the original work, it mostly succeeds in what its trying to do.

Rating 7: With a well reproduced tone and a slow burn of a creepy story, “Dracula’s Child” is a fun sequel to a classic, but doesn’t give certain characters the credit or stories they deserve.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dracula’s Child” is new and not on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Epistolary Fiction”, and “Vampires That DON’T Sparkle” (snide title, but really it’s just a list without vampire romance).

Find “Dracula’s Child” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: October 2020

It’s that time of year, folks! The time of year where the days start to get shorter, the wind and leaves dance through the air, and the scary and spooky feelings of Halloween get kicked up as well! Though it’s probably going to be a very different Halloween this year than we’re used to, that isn’t going to stop the feelings of the season. Kate has her Horrorpalooza reads all in order, and Serena is breaking out the cardigans. We also have books we’re looking forward to!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Return of the Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: I’ve been a fan of Whalen Turner’s “The Queen’s Thief” series for years now. It’s been a long haul, around 20 years I think, to get to this point, but here we are, the last book in the series! Luckily, each book in this series has read well enough as a stand-alone, completely its own story arc fully and leaving the characters in places that aren’t too unstable which has made the wait time between books much more bearable. So it will be bitter sweet to finally pick this one up and know we’re truly at the end of the line. Sadly, I was remiss on putting my name on the holds list at the library, so it will probably be a bit before I get around to reading this and reviewing it. Unless I break down and buy it…we shall see!

Book: “Murder on Cold Street” by Sherry Thomas

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Yet another book that is continuing a much-loved series. While I did struggle a bit with the previous book in this series, I’m still a big fan of Thomas’s writing style overall and her unique take on the Sherlock Holmes story. With a return to England and a return to a good old murder mystery, I’m hopeful that this book will return to some of the strengths that originally drew me in to this series. I’m also still intrigued by where the romance between Charlotte and Lord Ingram is ultimately headed. Will we see any new developments (finally!) in this one?

Book: “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: A break to all the continuations of book series comes in the form of a new, stand-alone novel by V.E. Schwab. The story sounds super originally, following the centuries-long life of a woman cursed/blessed to live forever but to never be remembered. Until, of course, she finally meets someone who does remember. I’m really intrigued by the entire concept, and if anyone is capable of pulling it off, it’s Schwab. The last thing I read from her was her YA duology which was…ok. But she also really wowed me in the with her “Shades of Magic” trilogy and other standalone works. In a lot of ways, this book doesn’t sound anything like what she’s written before, so I’m curious to see what she’ll do with it!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark

Publication Date: October 13, 2020

Why I’m Interested: I was a big fan of the book “Lovecraft Country” when I read it a few years ago (no I haven’t started the show yet, but I will!), and reading the description of “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark gave me some similar vibes. “Ring Shout” takes the idea of American Racism as the true horror and adds some cosmic and inter-dimensional elements as well. Three Black women are working to rid the world of Klu Kluxes, demons from another world that have been summoned by a sorcerer (D.W. Griffith, the man who brought the racist film “Birth of a Nation” to the screen), that have started amplifying the racist hate of the white people in this country. Led by the intrepid Maryse Bordeaux and her sword, these women and others hope to fight off the demons and bring justice to Black and other marginalized people before The Klan takes over. Unique concept and biting satire, a great combination.

Book: “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: True crime podcasts continue to be a big part of my entertainment life, and so I always like seeing books that take that idea and run with it. So I was, of course, very interested when I stumbled upon “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan on a ‘Fall Thrillers’ list. It follows Dee, an amateur podcast host whose show focuses on people who have gone missing, in hopes of getting information and attention that can lead to them being found. What her listeners don’t know is that she was a girl left behind in a notorious kidnapping case, where he childhood best friend was kidnapped before her eyes as hasn’t been seen since. Now, just as her podcast is getting more attention, another girl in her town is taken without a trace. Dee wants to help, but wants to keep her identity secret, and her own traumas under control. I’m sure it will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Book: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter

Publication Date: October 28, 2020

Why I’m Interested: The Halloween season wouldn’t be complete without a ghost story or two, so look no further than “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene”, a joint effort by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter. Beatrix Greene is a medium working during the first Spiritualist obsession in the 1800s. The only issue is that she’s a fraud who is just trying to make ends meet. When she’s invited to Ashbury Manor by noted scientist and skeptic James Walker, she is hesitant, but wants to make him eat his hat. James has his own motivations for wanting her to be there, potentially exposing her as a fraud not at the top of the list. But both of them are completely shocked when they and their companions find themselves in a very haunted house…. and in grave danger. What a way to top off the Halloween season!

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!