Not Just Books: November 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:

Movie: “The Aeronauts”

My husband and I celebrated our anniversary recently, and so we were looking for a good movie to watch on our “date night” at home (damn you Covid). This was one that I’d on my list for a while, and it seemed like a good fit. Inspired by a true story, it’s the tale of a scientist and an aeronaut who set out to study the patterns of the weather and attempt to rise to the highest elevation achieved in a balloon at the time. Of course, things don’t go to plan, and I can testify to this being a bit more stressful than I had anticipated. But it was also beautiful to look at an Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are excellent in everything they’re in. It’s a lovely little movie, and one I highly recommend.

Netflix Show: “Away”

I really like movies and shows about space. They can be pretty hit and miss, but the ones that are good are often very good. This made it a no-brainer for me to check out “Away” when it dropped on Netflix. Telling the story of a group of astronauts setting off on the first mission to Mars, the show is a gripping tale of family, exploration, and the struggles we all bring with us, even out into space. The acting was all solid, and I really enjoyed Hillary Swank’s performance. Some of the space stuff…was, eh. I feel like there were times where the show definitely veered into the unnecessarily dramatic. Real astronauts are incredibly professional and put that above almost everything. Some of the early events of this show definitely had me raising my eyebrows. But, hey, it’s still a space show, so I enjoyed it overall.

TV Show: “Documentary Now!”

My husband and I are becoming more and more pathetic on our general bedtime. We can blame the kids, age, whatever, but it’s still a fact. It’s gotten to the point that if it’s even close to 9, we feel hesitant about starting up another 40-60 minute episode of whatever show we’re watching. But we also don’t want to be in bed before 9! What to do? Start watching a 20 minute parody show of course! I hadn’t heard of this show before, but Aaron had. It’s basically mocking our current obsession with documentaries and the different ways they’re filmed. We’ve only watched a handful at this point, but they’re pretty good. If you’ve seen the original documentary or documentary series that a particular episode is mocking, it’s all the better. I’ve particularly enjoyed the one about professional bowling and the one about a famous chef who is know for his beans and rice. If you’re looking for a way for fill 20 minutes or so, this is definitely worth checking out!

Kate’s Picks:

Video Game: “Blair Witch”

As someone who is a huge, HUGE fan of “The Blair Witch Project”, when I heard that they were coming out with a video game called “Blair Witch” I was super interested. Unfortunately it was right around the time I had my kid, and I didn’t have much time for video games. But this past Halloween season I was reminded that I still hadn’t tried this game, so I got it for my Switch. You play as Ellis, a man suffering from PTSD who is in a not so good place, and who joins a search party for a missing boy in the woods outside Burkitsville. Using your dog Bullet and various items, you find clues about the missing boy… but as the game goes on, you find yourself lost in the woods hunted by something. I wasn’t able to REALLY pick it up and concentrate until recently, and boy oh boy is it freaky.

Disney+ Show: “The Mandalorian”

If you asked me if I was a “Star Wars” fan, I’d probably say ‘kinda’. I like the original trilogy, as well as a few of the (previously canon and now non-canon) Expanded Universe books. I also don’t really like Westerns. So because of those, I held off on “The Mandalorian” for awhile, and now I’m regretting not diving in sooner. A nameless Mandalorian (bounty hunter group that Boba Fett belonged to as well) has adventures in bounty hunting across the galaxy, and after rescuing a baby from Yoda’s species (or Baby Yoda as he is called) he has found a new purpose. It’s a sci-fi meets wandering gunslinger tale, and it works really, really well. I’ve always liked the Mandalorian mythology, and this show is very ‘Mad Max’ in the sense that it’s also very much about the people he helps in each episode (and soooo many guest stars!). I’m hooked. And Season 2’s premiere ended with a HUGE moment that made me gasp.

Film/TV Franchise: “The Purge”

So my anxiety was off the charts going into Election Night at the beginning of the month, and for whatever reason I decided to alleviate those anxieties by watching a bunch of “The Purge” content. I watched “The Purge” TV show Season 2, I watched “The Purge: Election Year” (on Election Night itself!), and then as we waited for counts I watched “The First Purge” and “The Purge: Anarchy”. While it may look like this franchise is another foray into torture porn horror or other splatter punk genres, it is also a deeply interesting satire of American society and the violence that runs deeply within it (and those who benefit from that violence, and are the main victims of it on a systemic level). And hey. It’s not too audacious to say that I see a LOT of similarities between the New Founding Fathers of America, the evil far right party in the “Purge” universe, and the current GOP. Sorry not sorry.

Serena’s Review: “The Luckiest Lady in London”

Book: “The Luckiest Lady in London” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley Sensation, November 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix himself almost believes this golden image. But underneath is a damaged soul soothed only by public adulation.

Louisa Cantwell needs to marry well to support her sisters. She does not, however, want Lord Wrenworth—though he seems inexplicably interested in her. She mistrusts his outward perfection and the praise he garners everywhere he goes. But when he is the only man to propose at the end of the London season, she reluctantly accepts.

Louisa does not understand her husband’s mysterious purposes, but she cannot deny the pleasure her body takes in his touch. Nor can she deny the pull this magnetic man exerts upon her. But does she dare to fall in love with a man so full of dark secrets, anyone of which could devastate her, if she were to get any closer?

Review: Yes, this is what it looks like. I’m reviewing a straight up historical romance novel. Pretty outside of my typical genres, but I’ve loved everything by Sherry Thomas that I’ve read, and I knew that she had started out as a historical romance author. So I wanted to go back and see what some of her earlier work was like when she was primarily publishing in this genre. I found this one kind of on a whim, and overall, I liked it pretty well and can definitely see the foundations of the traits in Thomas’s writing that I like in her other genres of writing.

Going into her first season, Louisa has one goal and one goal only: snag a rich husband to help support her family. She knows she’s not the most beautiful woman in society nor the most rich, but she’s made a study of how to succeed in London society. So with surgical precision, she goes to work. What she doesn’t expect is to draw the attention of “The Perfect Gentleman,” a Lord Wrenworth that ladies have been trying to capture for years. But she distrusts this outward appearance of perfect and is more than bewildered when his is the only proposal she receives after months in society. Now going into a marriage where the attraction is clear but the motives less so, Louisa must uncover the truth of Lord Wrenworth and discover just how “perfect” this man could be.

I feel like even if I didn’t know Thomas was the author of this book, I would have been able to guess. She has a certain way of writing her characters that is very distinctive. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it…Many of her heroes and heroines are very level-headed, have an analytical approach to life, and coolly asses those around them. There are very few emotional outbursts, and the ones they do have, are often shrouded in cold wit more than anything else. And yet, for these traits being fairly universal in the books I’ve read, all of her characters have still felt unique and new.

I really liked Louisa in this book. Her approach to a London season has many elements that I can see were drawn upon when creating Charlotte Holmes. She tackles the entire thing like a scientific experiment. The right dress here, the correct, bland smile there, some clearly targeted prospects who meet her criteria, regardless of personal looks or charm. And yet, we also see Louisa rattled by Lord Wrenworth. But even here, she rises to the challenge in some very unexpected ways. She doesn’t understand her own attraction to him, but she refuses to be shamed by it or let him use it against her. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Lord Wrenworth is more your typical romance hero. Perfect on the outside with all the brooding issues on the inside that come out at the worst times. I liked the backstory that Thomas gives for him, as I think it goes further to explain his lapses than other romantic heroes I’ve read in the past. But he still falls into the same pitfalls that often frustrate me with this genre. Just get over yourself! And quit hurting the woman you can’t admit you love for whatever reason!

Most of the typical romance beats are hit here, so what mostly stood out for me was Thomas’s strong writing. But I can also see has she’s grown as an author since producing this. The ending is fairly abrupt and the reconciliation seems to come out of nowhere a bit. I was happy enough with the conclusion, but still smarting a bit on Louisa’s behalf. If you like historical romances, this is probably worth checking out. But I wasn’t enamored enough that I feel the need to make my way through all of Thomas’s other romance novels.

Rating 7: Good for what it is with especially strong characters, but still follows a fairly standard romance plotline.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Luckiest Lady in London” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Historical Romances – Married Couples and Lords, Dukes, Rakes…Oh My!.

Find “The Luckiest Lady in London” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “These Violent Delights”

Book: “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from a librarian friend.

Book Description: Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery. A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

Review: Confession time! I don’t really care for Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Even as a teen when I was even more emotional than I am now (shocker!), it never really connected with me. Well, that’s not totally true. I do enjoy Baz Lurhmann’s take on the story, but that’s because it’s SO DAMN OVER THE TOP.

That and John Leguizamo as Tybalt. I mean my GOD. (source)

But I am someone who is open minded to tinkering with the classics, so when I heard about “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong it caught my eye. If you take the “Romeo and Juliet” story, set it in 1920s Shanghai, involve two gangs, and have a Juliet who is nobody’s fool, you will almost certainly get my attention. And if you toss a monster into it as well? YA GOT ME.

“These Violent Delights” follows Juliette Cai and Roma Montogrov, two young adults who are heirs to their family gangs, but have a tumultuous and star crossed past. While it’s third person, we do get to alternate between their third person perspectives, seeing their sides of their ultimate falling out, and how hurt, and angry, they both are about it. I was more invested in Juliet’s perspectives, mostly because I felt that Gong really fleshed out her characterization in fascinating ways, not just making her be a love lorn and somewhat passive character. This Juliette is a calculating higher up of a violent gang, and uses her knowledge of Shanghai and her culture along with her Western education to make chess moves in the ongoing conflicts. Through her we also got to see the colonial and imperialist issues that were facing Shanghai at the time, with Western interests establishing themselves via merchants after a number of treaties after warfare. Gong addresses a number of the issues of Western influence and manipulation within this narrative, and having Juliette there to parse it out for the reader was a great device (I was so ignorant about a lot of this that I found that to be the most intriguing aspect of this story). It was also pretty cool to see not just Juliette but her cousins Rosalind and Kathleen using their wits and their own strengths as women to try to keep the Scarlet Gang in control, especially after things in the main storyline go to hell (more on that in a bit).

Roma, however, is part of a Russian family that relocated to Shanghai and that has tried to claim its own stake in the power pie. His conflicts were more family based, and seeing him (and his heavies Marshall and Benedikt, who were GREAT and WONDERFUL and I would totally read a book just about them) try to reconcile his love for Juliette and his loyalty to his family (some of which is forced upon him) wasn’t as interesting as Juliette’s journey. But all of that said, because of these conflicts that both have, some known, some unspoken, their romance is far easier to invest in than their inspirations in the original play. The two characters (as well as the side characters) harken back enough to be adaptations, but stand on their own and breathe new life into the story.

As for the main conflict, that being a monster that is infecting people in Shanghai with an illness that makes them commit suicide, it was a bit out of left field but I liked it enough. I enjoyed watching Roma and Juliette try to solve the mystery, and how the story still followed beats of the original play in subtle ways. This is where more Imperialist issues come into play, and while a less skilled author may have stumbled into some heavy handed moments, for the most part Gong pulls it off that keeps the story flowing and making good points. It did go on a little long for my taste, but a lot had to be covered for world building, as this is the first in a series. Which I will definitely be following, as the cliffhanger was searing with DELICIOUS, DELICIOUS PAIN.

Let’s call this a visual hint on where we leave off. But it has some tweaking I loved. (source)

“These Violent Delights” is a creative and fun historical fiction fantasy romance thriller (whew!) , and has me fully invested in a “Romeo and Juliet” story. Can’t wait to see where we go next.

Rating 7: A creative and unique retelling of a classic tragedy, “These Violent Delights” goes on a LITTLE long, but breathes some new life into “Romeo and Juliet”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Violent Delights” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”, and would fit in on “Romeo and Juliet Retellings”.

Find “These Violent Delights” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Fable”

Book: “Fable” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For seventeen-year-old Fable, the daughter of the most powerful trader in the Narrows, the sea is the only home she has ever known. It’s been four years since the night she watched her mother drown during an unforgiving storm. The next day her father abandoned her on a legendary island filled with thieves and little food. To survive she must keep to herself, learn to trust no one, and rely on the unique skills her mother taught her. The only thing that keeps her going is the goal of getting off the island, finding her father, and demanding her rightful place beside him and his crew. To do so Fable enlists the help of a young trader named West to get her off the island and across the Narrows to her father.

But her father’s rivalries and the dangers of his trading enterprise have only multiplied since she last saw him, and Fable soon finds that West isn’t who he seems. Together, they will have to survive more than the treacherous storms that haunt the Narrows if they’re going to stay alive.

Review: Pirate stories definitely had their day in the sun in the YA publishing world. It hits its peak probably about 2 years ago I’d say and has noticeably tapered off since then. During its peak, I think I only read one duology in this subgenre that I really liked (“Song of the Current”). Many of the others couldn’t quite strike on the right tone, in my opinion, too often falling into angsty, drama traps that didn’t befit the dangerous but cavalier nature of what I was looking for in a pirate story. But I’ve liked Adrienne Young’s work in the past, so I was happy to pick up her most recent book and see if she could crack the code!

The last four years of Fable’s life have been a mad scramble for survival. Abandoned on a island made up of thieves and murderers, every day is a danger. But Fable is driven: she will earn her way onto a ship and track down her powerful sea trader father and reclaim what is hers. But getting off the island is only the least of her struggles, she soon realizes. Alongside West, a secretive ship’s captain with mysteries of his own, and his ragtag crew who don’t trust Fable farther than they can throw her, Fable makes her way back out onto the ocean where storms are only the tip of the iceberg as far as dangers go.

This is what I like in a pirate story! The action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and death could be right around the corner for practically anyone, and that’s just life. Fable’s story starts out with the loss of her mother, but from there on out, Young doesn’t let up on the gas. These pirates have teeth and they’re not afraid to use them. The world-building sets up a nautical trade war where different factions vie for power using whatever methods they have at their disposal.

To live in this world, Fable is equally ruthless and accepting of living life on the edge of a knife. While her arch includes self-discovery, she also begins her journey from a solid foundation of trusting her own judgement, determinedly facing down challenges before her, and pursuing goals single-mindedly. Rather predictably, perhaps, many of her lessons come from learning the value of others, be they crew members, friends, or lovers. But even in the midst of these learning moments, I liked how practical and sure-footed Fable felt. She meets hardship and disappointment head-on and is a character that is easy to root for.

I also really liked the world Young created here. The various trading organizations, the tensions between captains, ships, and their crews, and the small dash of magic here and there that roots the entire thing in a fantasy setting. There’s just enough magic to make it feel “other,” but it’s also very recognizable as a “Pirates of the Caribbean” type place and culture. Could perhaps have dealt with a bit more humor and gallows humor to really fit that pirate stereotype, but it walks pretty close to the line.

The side characters were all interesting enough but weren’t breaking any boundaries, really. Most of them fell into fairly predictable roles, and their initial feelings and their changes of heart towards Fable all follow a paint-by-numbers format. The romance is also nothing special. I didn’t dislike West by any means or the romance as a whole, but there simply wasn’t much new there. West’s original motives and interest in Fable are left fairly unexplained. He seems to just kind of fall for her offscreen. And her own feelings develop in the usual way. The minute West shows up, you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get here. I am curious to see what the second book will do with this, though. There’s less of a format for continued love stories than there is for their initial set-up.

Overall, I really liked this book. It didn’t blow me out of the water, but it also presented a solid pirate story of the sort I couldn’t seem to find even at the peak of the subgenre’s popularity. The story does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so be aware of that going in. I think the next book is slated to come out this very spring, though, so the wait is short for those who want to dive into this now and not worry about being strung along for years and years. If you like pirate stories or are a fan of Young’s past work, this book is definitely worth checking out.

Rating 8: A solid main character and interesting new world make up for the fairly predictable romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fable” is on these Goodreads lists: Nautical Tales and Most Exciting Upcoming YA Books.

Find “Fable” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Surrender Your Sons”

45154800Book: “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass

Publishing Info: Flux, September 2020

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

Book Description: Connor Major’s summer break is turning into a nightmare.

His SAT scores bombed, the old man he delivers meals to died, and when he came out to his religious zealot mother, she had him kidnapped and shipped off to a secluded island. His final destination: Nightlight Ministries, a conversion therapy camp that will be his new home until he “changes.”

But Connor’s troubles are only beginning. At Nightlight, everyone has something to hide from the campers to the “converted” staff and cagey camp director, and it quickly becomes clear that no one is safe. Connor plans to escape and bring the other kidnapped teens with him. But first, he’s exposing the camp’s horrible truths for what they are— and taking this place down. 

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

Let’s give some high praise to the 1990s cult lesbian dramedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” starring literal goddess on Earth Natasha Lyonne. Natasha plays Megan, a naive cheerleader who is sent to a conversion therapy camp because her parents are convinced she’s gay. There the very idea of conversion therapy is lampooned and satirized, and Lyonne is able to discover and accept herself, as well as her eventual love for camp bad girl Graham (played by 90s Goth Queen Clea Duvall). It’s great. It’s very 1990s. It has RuPaul as a counselor. It’s witty and big hearted. It makes fun of conversion therapy and how ridiculous the concept is, and hits that point home hard.


But I do think that one aspect that gets a little lost in this movie is just how truly horrifying and evil conversion therapy is. Children are traumatized, abused, and tortured because of their sexuality and/or gender identity, and parents willingly send their children to this kind of treatment that can be incredibly damaging. “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass sends conversion therapy to another extreme (though honestly, probably not too unrealistic), and produces both a rightfully horrifying story…. as well as, ultimately, an uplifting one at its heart.

Adam Sass starts this book off with a content warning and contextualization of the content in this book, noting that while it very much is a story of queer pain, he isn’t promoting that kind of thing and is trying to handle it as best he can. Normally these kinds of spoon fed disclaimers rub me the wrong way, as I think that a work should speak for itself and a reader should have their own interpretations, but in the case of “Surrender Your Sons” I think that it’s probably a good idea. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is damaging and all too present, and this book could absolutely be triggering for the intended audience. But heavy and upsetting content is necessary in this tale as our protagonist, Connor Major, is kidnapped and taken to a conversion therapy camp in the Costa Rican jungle. The things that Connor and his ‘campmates’ go through are horrifying, ranging from physical abuse to mental abuse to emotional abuse, it really runs the gamut, and it is a VERY hard and emotional read. It really needs to be hit home that conversion therapy is torture, plain and simple. Connor is a very relatable, realistic, and in some ways incredibly funny main character, and his sharp wit helps make this story a little easier to handle in its unflinching portrayals of conversion therapy. I really loved Connor’s voice, and I also liked how Sass slowly built him up and fleshed him out as his life is thrown into turmoil. It never felt unrealistic or unearned, and his voice still felt true to him as he evolved. I also really appreciated that Sass points out that the act of ‘coming out’ is still very dangerous for some people. Connor is pressured to come out to his religious zealot of a mother by his boyfriend Ario, who says that coming out will set him free. I do think that there is a well intentioned belief that coming out means that you get to speak your truth, and that that in itself is the best thing that you can do for your own happiness. For some people that’s absolutely true. But for people like Connor, coming out puts a target on one’s back, and Sass did a really good job of bringing up how complicated it can be.

And with these themes we also get a well plotted and interesting mystery thriller! Connor soon discovers that the recently deceased man he was doing Meals on Wheels for, Ricky, has a connection to the Nightlight program, and to it’s leader, The Reverend. It never feels like this mystery is tossed in for good measure, as Sass lays out the clues in a deliberate and careful way. As Connor and his fellow campers begin to investigate, the stakes get higher and higher, and they may need to start plotting a revolt and escape not just because they are being tortured for their sexualities and gender identities, but because they may now know too much. Mixed in with the mystery are the backstories of some of the higher ups at the camp, and how some of them were campers there at one point, which therein leads to the very sad reality that sometimes people who suffer from trauma and abuse end up abusing and traumatizing others later in life. Sass is sure to never excuse the actions of these characters, he does grant them a little bit of empathy, and hammers the point that conversion therapy is truly horrendous because of many unforeseen consequences and outcomes even beyond the violent and abusive root of it.

“Surrender Your Sons” is by no means an easy read, but I think that it’s one that brings up very important conversations. After all, conversion therapy, while perhaps falling out of favor, is still legal in many states in the U.S. Hopefully the more light that is shed on the practice, the more states will ban it until it’s no longer legal anywhere.

Rating 8: An emotionally gut wrenching and suspenseful thriller, “Surrender Your Sons” explores the evils of conversion therapy, the dark side of families when they don’t accept their children for being themselves, and the strength we sometimes have to find within ourselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Surrender Your Sons” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Fiction Set on an Island”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

Find “Surrender Your Sons” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Booksgiving: Books We’re Thankful For

There are many things to be thankful for, family, friends, experiences in life and challenges faced. But here at the Library Ladies we do tend to focus on one thing: books. So going into this season of thanksgiving, here is a list of some of the books that played an important part in our lives and for which we are thankful.

Serena’s Picks:

Book(s): “Song of the Lioness” quartet by Tamora Pierce

Why I’m Thankful: There are a lot of reasons why I’m thankful for reading this series as a middle school girl. There’s the obvious strong heroine who is making her way in a man’s world, proving her metal and taking names, of course. But there are also quite a few books that tackle this subject. What made this series stand out is how it also drew in other important aspects of Alanna’s life as a woman into the story. Always good at the fighting part, Alanna has more to learn about valuing her feminine side, learning the powerful magic of weaving and working with string. She also learns the crucial lesson that first love, while powerful, is not always the be-all, end-all of romance, and not to allow herself to be blinded by this first sweep of emotion. She goes on to have several romantic relationships before finally finding the one man who is right for her. As a young woman going through the angst of teenage years, this was a crucial lesson for me and one that is often missed in YA books today which often present the very trope-y, very silly “one true love” story as beginning and ending with the first guy the protagonist thinks is cute at age 16.

Book: “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman

Why I’m Thankful: Between the book and the movie, I feel like “The Princess Bride” is the story that just keeps giving. It’s the ultimate comfort read book for me and was one of the first books I read that really showed what good comedy writing looks like. I have yet to find a fantasy comedy that even comes close (though I have read some other good ones). Goldman set a pretty high bar! Of course, it’s not just funny. It’s a high adventure fantasy where the action seems non-stop. Add on top of that the clever meta commentary of Goldman writing the book as if he is editing a dry, historical tome written by another author. Whenever times are tough, this is a book I’m thankful to have in my arsenal for re-reads.

Book(s): “Oz” series by L. Frank Baum

Why I’m Thankful: My family always read books together before bedtime. I think a lot of families do this, but my parents were super dedicated, and we were still doing it in junior high, I’m pretty sure. It was a really nice time, and we all enjoyed it. Of course, reading every night for so long, we had to have a bunch of books to get through. The “Oz” books were probably one of the first long series that we made it through with 14 books in total. Only a few of them stand out in my memory, but I do remember enjoying them all as we read them. I have a long list of books that I’m planning on reading to Will, and this series is right up there near the top! Not only do I hope that he enjoys them too, but I’m excited to revisit so many of the stories that I don’t remember as well.

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “Carrie” by Stephen King

Why I’m Thankful: It too me awhile in my younger elementary and high school years to find my people. As someone who went to the same institution from Kindergarten through senior year who was a misfit (and surrounded by a class of people who were notoriously awful), I was fairly bullied and lonely for a long time. So reading “Carrie” in middle school was INCREDIBLY cathartic for me. The story of a bullied teenage girl who finds out she has supernatural powers that empower her was something to strive for, and while I definitely knew the whole ‘and then she kills everyone at the Prom’ plot point, that was merely incidental (aaaand the cathartic part). But it was Stephen King’s rather authentic and wholly relatable teenage girl characters, Carrie and nice girl Sue Snell, that really spoke to me in the text. Plus, this was the second King book I’d ever read, and it solidified my love for the man.

Book: “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and David Gibbons (Ill.)

Why I’m Thankful: When I was a kid, I dabbled in comics on and off, but was more inclined to watch the movie or TV versions of my favorite DC superheroes and superheroines. Once I got to college, I did pick up graphic novels like “Maus”, “The Crow”, and “Bone”, but it wasn’t really my wheelhouse. And then I read “Watchmen” and everything changed. I was blown away by the intricate and dark storyline, the compelling and sometimes unsettling characters impressed,(Rorschach is a fave, even though he is a MONSTER in a lot of ways), and the inversion of superhero tropes and themes blew me away. I mean, when the big reveal about Ozymandias’s plan happened, I literally gasped in the middle of the library I was taking a work break in. It’s one of my very favorite books, and I credit “Watchmen” with my current love of graphic novels.

Book(s): “The Baby-Sitters Club” by Ann M. Martin

Why I’m Thankful: Soooo along with the scares of “Fear Street”, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, and “Goosebumps”, the other big series that I loved as a kid was “The Baby-Sitters Club”. And I think that it was this series that made me a compulsive reader, as I was always wanting to get my hands on the next in the series (unlike “Fear Street” or “Goosebumps”, where I skipped around based on plot). The stories of a group of middle school girls running a business, navigating friendships, and growing up were aspirational for me, as at the time I didn’t really have the ideal group of girl friends that the books presented. Mary-Anne was my favorite, but I wished I was as cool as Stacey, and all of them made me want to be a good babysitter (and I was, during the few babysitting jobs I had as time went on). “The Baby-Sitters Club” will always have a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to see how it continues to shape and change as time goes on (and for when my own daughter gets to be the age where she could read them)!

What books are you most thankful for? Let us know in the comments!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Persuasion” Part II

Book: “Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Publication Year: 1818

Book Description: Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?

Part II – Chapters 15 – End

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

In Bath, Anne is reunited with her father, Elizabeth, and Lady Russell. She is dismayed to see that Mrs. Clay remains with them and appears to be going nowhere anytime soon. She’s also clearly risen in the estimation of Sir Walter who comments much less on her freckled face. In other developments, she hears that Mr. Elliot is also in Bath and has completely reconciled with the family who are all delighted with him. Anne is confused by his sudden interest in being on good terms with people he’s ignored for years, but, upon meeting with him again, can’t help but acknowledge that he is quite charming. He also is delighted to discover that Anne is the very woman he was so interested in when in Lyme, and he quickly becomes a frequent visitor of hers. Lady Russell begins to hope for an eventual union between the two.

While in Bath, Anne reconnects with an old school friend who has fallen on hard times. Widowed and ill with very little money, Mrs. Smith is practically bed-ridden but still presents a optimistic face to the world and is a breath of fresh air to Anne in her reasonableness. Mrs. Smith is also a good source of information, as her nurse seems to know the goings-on of everyone in the city.

Eventually, Anne hears news of the Musgroves. Louisa is mostly recovered, and in a shocking turn of events, has become engaged to Benwick. Anne can’t imagine a bigger mismatch, but is also extremely relieved and happy to know that Captain Wentworth is still single, even if it means nothing to her, practically speaking. One by one, various parties begin making their way to Bath as well. First the Crofts come, followed shortly by Captain Wentworth himself.

Anne runs into him unexpectedly in a shop where she is waiting for Mr. Elliot to escort her home through the rain. She immediately notices that Captain Wentworth seems much more self-conscious and uncomfortable. They have a brief discussion about Louisa and Benwick in which Captain Wentworth makes some surprising (and pleasing) speeches about how first loves to superior women can never be gotten over, that Louisa is sweet, but nothing to Benwick’s first fiancé. Anne is confused but pleased, seeing hints that he may be talking about more than Benwick and Louisa and more of himself and her. Mr. Elliot arrives, however, and whisks her away.

They meet again at a music concert where Anne goes out of her way to approach Captain Wentworth. Her family publicly shuns him however, not acknowledging that they know him. He seems more stilted than he had in the shop, though Anne makes efforts throughout the night to make herself approachable. She isn’t helped by Mr. Elliot who continues to try to dominate her time and attention.

Soon after, she is called to visit Mrs. Smith. At first, Mrs. Smith is eager praise Mr. Elliot, hinting that she has a favor she’d ask Anne to speak to him about. Anne is bewildered to learn that it is generally understood that she will soon become engaged to Mr. Elliot. She insists to Mrs. Smith that it isn’t so. Mrs. Smith then lays out her true feelings about Mr. Elliot. Not only did he lead Mrs. Smith’s late husband into ruin, but he wrote and spoke horribly of the Elliots the entire time. Mrs. Smith believes that he is only now making an effort because he has suddenly learned to value the rank that will be bestowed on him with Sir Walter’s death and fears any upsets in the form of Mrs. Clay getting her claws in Sir Walter and providing an alternative heir. For her part, Mrs. Smith’s own finances are largely in ruin because a piece of property her husband owned is not accessible to her without the executor of her husband’s will, Mr. Elliot, who so far has refused to even speak to Mrs. Smith about it. Anne is horrified to learn all of this, but also not completely surprised as she never fully trusted Mr. Elliot’s strange motives to reconcile with her family.

The Musgroves also come to Bath to buy wedding clothes for Henrietta. This causes concern for Sir Walter and Elizabeth, as they aren’t very proud of Mary’s lower connections. One morning, Anne goes to visit the Crofts where she finds Captain Wentworth as well as Captain Harville. Captain Wentworth sits down to write a letter while Anne and Captain Harville stand nearby. The two get into a debate about lost love and men and women. Anne insists that women love longest, when all other hope is lost. Captain Harville points to poetry and books as proof of women’s fickleness but Anne argues that those are all written by men. Throughout this discussion, she gets the sense that Captain Wentworth is eagerly listening. Eventually, the party begins to break up and everyone leaves the room while Anne waits behind. Captain Wentworth rushes back in and quickly passes off a letter to Anne.

The letter is a proclamation of love, love that has lasted this entire time. He confesses to being angry and proud, and that he confused this anger for no longer being attached. But that he came to see that she was the most superior woman he has ever known, and can’t go on any longer, especially not hearing her discuss how men’s feelings fade faster. He goes on to say that he will come to a dinner at her family’s house to which he’s been invited and there, all it will take is a look from her to have his answer one way or another.

Mr. Musgrove returns to walk Anne back home. On the way, they meet with Captain Wentworth. Mr. Musgrove asks if Wentworth can take her the rest of the way as he has business elsewhere. The two walk together and confess their feelings for each other. Over the next few days, the news is broken to the family and to Lady Russell. Anne’s family now sees more value in Captain Wentworth since he’s made is fortune and has become popular in society. Lady Russell also is more determined to like him. He also intercedes on Mrs. Smith’s behalf and sees her land restored to her and her financial situation made right. For his part, Mr. Elliot runs of to London with Mrs. Clay: his best bet of preventing a marriage between her and Sir Walter is to take her on himself, though Anne suspects she may have the right of him and become mistress of Sir Walter’s home and fortune one way or another, through the father or the nephew heir.

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

Anne really comes into her own in this second half. She stands up to everyone around her to some degree or another and makes an effort to put herself forward to Captain Wentworth in a way that likely encouraged him to act more quickly than he would have on his own. She’s also the only one to continuously suspect Mr. Elliot’s sudden interest in her family.

To her family, she refuses to give up her acquaintance with Mrs. Smith, standing her ground in the face of her father’s anger. She also doesn’t worry about their disapproval when she approaches Captain Wentworth at the concert. For Lady Russell’s part, Anne is briefly tempted by her paintings of a life with Mr. Elliott, but she also points out her concerns with him and is not swayed by her overly much.

As for Captain Wentworth, though it’s not stated in the text explicitly, one has to imagine the near miss with Louisa inspired Anne somewhat to put herself more forward. The fact that, when they first meet when waiting out the rain, he is so clearly more discomposed than he was before, of course helps. And then makes that interesting speech about past loves. But Anne doesn’t let it rest there and goes out of her way to speak to him at the concert and to maneuver her seating arrangement to be more available to be approached (I think most of women can sympathize with tactics like this!)

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

I really like that we get so much information on Captain Wentworth’s thoughts and feelings here in the end. Throughout the book, not only does he not speak to Anne directly often at all, we really hear very little from him. We hear a lot about him, but not directly from him. Like Anne, we’re left trying to piece together what his actions reflect about his inner emotions.

But here at the end, not only do we get his entire letter detailing his emotions throughout, but Austen goes into even more detail later about what he’s been up to while Anne has been in Bath. Captain Wentworth admits that his pride almost got the better of him in the end. He let himself be too free with Louisa Musgrove in an attempt to prove (mostly to himself, one has to think) that he was over Anne. Not only did this leave Anne open to being poached by the likes of Mr. Elliot (as he began to see and worry about at Lyme), but he comes to realize that his actions almost spoke for him, with an engagement being expected to the point of it being dishonorable if he didn’t. We hear about how he took himself away in the hopes to weaken the connection and then set off for Bath once it was clear he as free.

But all of that, still, and he was almost set back again by the such a small thing as a meeting or two’s worth of jealousy over Mr. Elliot. Captain Wentworth is clearly an honorable, good man, but I think it’s pretty clear that Anne will be the more steady, sure-footed of the two. Wentworth is, to some extent at least, ruled by the emotion of the moment. Not only did he not spend the time to work out Anne’s true motives at 19 (something that was definitely possible if he hadn’t been brooding and resentful), but he continued to let his emotions get the better of him even after he had the fortune her family wanted. One has to assume that when she turned him down she gave some explanation. He admits, here at the end, that he did them both a disservice by giving in to resentment all of these years and losing them both much happiness in the meantime.

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

Mr. Elliot is revealed to be the true villain of this story. It’s not such a shock as Anne, like Fanny, is firmly established at this point as the best judge of character in the book, and she’s always skeptical of Mr. Elliot’s motives. But, in a strange twist, his true villainy is really directed at any of our main characters. Instead, poor Mrs. Smith seems to be the one who suffers the most. Sure, Sir Walter gets some insults thrown at him in a letter and Elizabeth didn’t come off super well in that initial flirtation, but really, neither of them have it too bad. Sir Walter largely deserves criticism and isn’t ever made aware of the letter, and Elizabeth’s ego seems fine too. But poor Mrs. Smith! Not only to have her husband lead astray throughout the marriage, but then to be fooled by Mr. Elliot into thinking he was their friend altogether and have him abandon her in her time of need after her husband’s death!

As for the current circumstances, Mr. Elliot seems to be genuinely interested in Anne to some degree (as much as he is capable of at least). And his abandonment of the family once again is probably not any bigger of a shock the second go-around. Indeed, one would think that Sir Walter and Elizabeth would be more hurt by Mrs. Clay’s defection than anyone’s! And, in the end, it kind of seems like these two deserve each other and no real harm is done to anyone, especially after Captain Wentworth and Anne can help restore Mrs. Smith.

For her part, we see Lady Russell and Anne’s family come around on Captain Wentworth. Sir Walter and Elizabeth will probably always be a trial, but it seems like there is hope that with a concentrated effort on both Lady Russell’s and Captain Wentworth’s part, that they will get along well enough in the end. They both love Anne, which is what they have going for them.

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

This second half of the book is much more romantic than the first. It’s clear to the reader (and even Anne pretty quickly) that Wentworth has finally come to his senses and gotten over himself and is interested in re-connecting. He, himself, attributes it to noticing Mr. Elliot stare at Anne at Lyme and realizing that he could still lose her if he continues playing games. That, and the fact that he realizes that he is seen as half-engaged to Louisa already and only narrowly misses that bullet by the lucky chance of Benwick interceding.

His speech about Harville’s sister, Louisa, and Benwick’s change in attachment is pretty revealing, and it’s a credit to Anne that she understands him fully. None of this silly drama of miscommunication. She’s picking up what he’s laying down. Instead, any remaining drama comes from him when he gets jealous of Mr. Elliot and becomes cold again at the musical concert. Anne has to make a lot of effort there to engage him and then it still doesn’t seem like he was going to take any action soon until he overheard her conversation with Captain Harville while writing the letter. I think the general understanding is that they would have gotten there eventually, though, either way. But it’s nice to see Anne putting out this much effort to encourage him, proving to him that she is just as capable as pursuing what she wants as others, even if she is still very humble and willing to put others before herself.

We again don’t see the actual proposal or exchange of declarations of love between the two, a staple move of Austen’s at this point. But I think that Captain Wentworth’s letter probably goes down as the most romantic “speech” we have in all of Austen’s works. Darcy has his moments, yes, but the letter wins over by sheer length. It’s the longest and most extensive declaration of feelings that we see from any of our heroes. And, not only does Anne deserve this level of romance, but us readers do, too! If you look at the book as a whole, we probably have the least dialogue between our hero and heroine as we’ve seen in all the books. And probably by a lot, at that! So it’s nice to finally have this nice, long love letter at the end to shore up all those romantic pinings.

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

Again, not a lot of comedy in this second half. Most of the humor probably comes from how obsequious Sir Walter and Elizabeth are towards the Dalrymples when they come to town. Anne looks on with pity at their antics, and in a shared moment, she and Mr. Elliot discuss the lack of true interest these high and mighty relatives deserve based on their own merit. There are some good lines about the definition of “good company,” but here we also see the first ideas of Mr. Elliot caring more for rank than Anne does or than he had previously in life.

Really, other than that I can’t think of any comedy bits. The Musgroves show up and Mary has a few funny lines here and there, mostly at Anne’s expense (that see, Benwick is marrying Louisa, of course he was never interested in Anne!) We also see Sir Walter and Elizabeth having to properly balance their obsession with keeping up a good face for the Dalrymples but still include these lesser relatives they have through Mary’s marriage to the Musgroves. No need to acknowledge the fact that the Musgroves are much nicer, more entertaining people on the whole!

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

This good one from Anne in the discussion about loving longest between men or women:

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

And, of course, the classic romantic line from this book. I’m pretty sure this line would still work today. If some man said “you piece my soul” to you…c’mon, we’d all fall for that.

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.”

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

“Persuasion” is probably the book that’s went through the biggest change in my estimation as a reader from the first time I read to my re-reads as an adult. “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” were always favorites. “Mansfield Park” was always a bit more of a struggle and “Sense and Sensibility” and “Northanger Abbey” were always solidly in the middle. “Persuasion” originally was lower down. The lack of interaction between the romantic characters was a detriment, and, on the face of things, Anne had similarities to Fanny as being a bit too reserved and shrinking to immediately appeal to my teenage self. But as an adult, it’s risen to be one of my favorites, pretty much equal with with “Pride and Prejudice” and maybe even above “Emma.”

I don’t think this change is even all that surprising. Anne is an older, more mature heroine, and much of her story surrounds the changes in her perspective on life and love that has come through a decade of adult life. Without having gone through my 20s myself when I originally read it, I didn’t really connect to this arc in the same way I do now. Beyond that, the story of lasting love over a decade of separation now appears as the most romantic of all the romances we’ve seen in the books. Having gone through the ups and downs of romantic pitfalls, false starts, etc., this sure, steady love appeals in a way I couldn’t understand when first reading it.

It’s also probably the most serious of Austen’s books other than “Mansfield Park.” But I think, overall, this one feels much more settled in its overall tone. “Mansfield Park” had odd breaks in the “action,” for lack of a better word, to hear long speeches from various characters on topics that weren’t directly tied to anything outwards of themselves.

For another thing, this book is shorter which I think works better for this type of more serious story. Anne is also a more engaging heroine than Fanny is, which helps carry the story. Not to mention that Captain Wentworth is a more romantic hero than Edmund. Unlike Edmund, his flirtation with Louisa is pretty obviously a shallow, reactionary thing from the very start. We don’t get any silly proclamations of “not imagining any other woman as his wife” either. Instead, much better, we have grand romantic statements of Wentworth’s having loved “none but her.” Much more appealing.

Overall, this was a great book to end this re-read on. I was particularly looking forward to re-visiting it, and it didn’t let me down. Now for reviews of two movie adaptations and, I think, a last “bonus” review of a few other Austen adaptations/spin-offs that didn’t directly fit into the review series as I had it originally planned.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.5): A Game of You”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.5): A Game of You” by Neil Gaiman, Shawn McManus (Ill.), Colleen Doran (Ill.), Bryan Talbot (Ill.), George Pratt (Ill.), Stan Woch (Ill.), & Dick Giordano (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1992

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Volume Five of New York Times best selling author Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed creation THE SANDMAN collects one of the series’ most beloved storylines.Take an apartment house, add in a drag queen, a lesbian couple, some talking animals, a talking severed head, a confused heroine and the deadly Cuckoo. Stir vigorously with a hurricane and Morpheus himself and you get this fifth installment of the SANDMAN series. This story stars Barbie, who first makes an appearance in THE DOLL’S HOUSE and now finds herself a princess in a vivid dreamworld.

Review: Since “The Sandman” series has now slipped mostly into full fantasy, we got a small break from it during Horrorpalooza. But now we’re back in, and I have revisited “A Game of You”, a collection that has been both lauded as a fan favorite, and also been criticized in more recent years. I honestly had NO memory of this collection on this re-read, which didn’t really bode well for how well I connected to it the first time around. But I was happy to go back in, as it’s always kind of fun to see Gaiman tinker with other characters and build upon past stories and plot points that didn’t seem relevant in the moment. And oof. Going back was uncomfortable.

I will start with what I did like about “A Game of You”. In this story, instead of having a focus on Morpheus or any of the Endless, we focus on the character of Barbie, one of the side characters in “The Doll’s House”. She and Ken were other residents in the house that Rose Walker lived in, and functioned as a cheeky nod to Barbie dolls. By the end of that arc things weren’t going so well for them. Now Barbie is living in New York City in an apartment complex with a number of quirky neighbors, including a lesbian couple and a trans woman named Wanda (the description says ‘drag queen’, but that’s not accurate. Wanda is trans and we are going to talk about her a LOT in a bit). Barbie finds herself going into a dreamscape in which she is a princess of a kingdom that is being threatened by a malevolent entity known as The Cuckoo, and while she is unconscious, her neighbors want to help bring her back. Gaiman builds a whole new fantasy world, and even within the limited scope of this arc I felt like I got a sense of what kind of place this was. I liked seeing Barbie get a bit of her own agency in this tale, though I do admit that the severe lack of Morpheus outside of a couple moments was a little disappointing. I liked that Gaiman wanted to give other characters within his massive world some spotlight. But I thought that Morpheus really should have bad a bigger part to play. This could have been its own story very easily if you took Morpheus out.

The bigger issue is one of those moments where “The Sandman” hasn’t aged as well as time has gone on, and that is with the character of Wanda. It is clear that Gaiman wrote Wanda with the very best of intentions. For the early 90s, even having a trans character who has her own side plot, a multi faceted personality, and a sympathetic and very relatable characterization was HUGE for trans representation. Like, I can’t imagine that any other author, comics or not, with a big name project would have given Wanda the kind of story that Gaiman gives her. In 1993, Wanda is an important character. But in 2020, Wanda’s characterization is incredibly dated, with tropes, stereotypes, and harmful thematics galore. There was a lot of misgendering, there were many moments of ‘are you a boy or a girl’, and there was a fixation on her genitalia that really didn’t sit well with me. What was hardest to stomach was a moment regarding magic that undercut her identity (essentially there was moon magic that Wanda couldn’t participate in because, at the end of the day, she isn’t seen as a TRUE woman). Throw in some ‘bury your LGBTQIA’ things, and it just felt harmful and tone deaf for 2020. Again, I don’t believe that Gaiman’s intentions were anything other than good, given that just recently he signed his name to an open letter by authors in support of trans and non binary people. But as time has gone on, the portrayal is problematic at best, bordering on offensive.

I think that when I eventually re-read “The Sandman” in the future (as I’m sure I will), I probably will skip “A Game of You”. As of now, it doesn’t seem like later plot points will build upon it (that said I could be wrong; I just don’t remember), and the stereotypes were just too much.

Rating 5: With a complete side track of the story and some well intentioned representation feeling cringe in the decades after it was first written, “A Game of You” didn’t live up to the past collections.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.5): A Game of You” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythic Fiction Comics”, and “Best Books Concerning Dreams”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.5): A Game of You” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Deadly Curious”

Book: “Deadly Curious” by Cindy Anstey

Publishing Info: Swoon Reads, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: 1834. Sophia Thompson wants nothing more than to be one of the famed Bow Street Runners, London’s most elite corps of detectives. Never mind that a woman has never before joined their ranks–and certainly never mind that her reclusive family has forbidden her from pursuing such an unladylike goal.

She gets the chance to prove her capabilities when an urgent letter arrives from her frantic cousin Daphne, begging Sophia to come look into the suspicious death of Daphne’s brother.

As Sophia begins to unravel the tangled threads of the case–with the help of a charming young policeman–she soon realizes that the murderer may be even closer to her family than she ever suspected.

Review: I’m fairly predictable in the types of books I’ll select when I have no previous knowledge of a series or author. If it has a pretty cover, is a historical fiction mystery novel, and features an intrepid female detective, there’s a fairly decent chance I’ll pick it up. This method has lead me to some of my favorite series, sure, but it’s also not a very surefire way of finding quality books. Alas, here is proof of the failures of this particular approach to book selection.

With no marriage prospects on the horizon, Sophia Thompson has set her mind on an alternative path, namely becoming a Bow Street Runner and investigator herself. Of course, she’ll need to solve some actual mysteries for this plan to move forward. Luckily (?) a mystery finds her in the murder of her cousin, a case she’s begged to solve by her frantic, beloved cousin Daphne. But she won’t be alone. A down and out current Bow Street Runner, Jeremy, has also been sent to the solve the case with the warning that if he can’t manage it, he need not return. Between these three, will they be able to solve this deadly curious case?

I really struggled with this book. Honestly, it was half a page away from being a DNF for me. Not because it was overtly offensive in any way, but because it was just so…nothing. It had all the pieces of being a YA historical mystery, but they were the most flat, cardboard versions of these tropes that I’ve come across in a long while. I’m really struggling to come up with many pros to really point to before diving into my complaints. I guess the cover is still pretty. But now I just view that as yet another negative as it draws in unsuspecting readers who are looking for a quality story and are likely going to be disappointed by the shallow work on display.

The characters were all supremely disappointing. We immediately learn that Sophia’s supposed interest in being a detective has come about after reading one, that’s right, one!, book on the topic. Based on this, she feels her self perfectly capable of not only solving this murder but joining an entire organization dedicated to this career. The naivete is astounding to the point of being comical. It would be more comical, in fact, if it wasn’t quite so sad that the story expects us to take this, and Sophia herself, seriously. It doesn’t help matter that the mystery itself is incredibly simplistic. When the reader can figure out the murder long before the supposed detective, it’s never a good sign. Even less for for a wanna-be as sad as Sophia. In the end, it felt like the answer came through sheer luck than any deductive abilities on her part, providing the last nail in the coffin of my interest in her story.

Jeremy isn’t any better. Did he even have a character arc or personality to speak of? Not that I remember. Mostly his good looks and fine eyes were elaborated upon by Sophia, solidifying his role as “generic love interest” right from the start. Here, too, the book had very little new to offer and the characters trotted obediently through the standard set pieces expected of a romance such as this.

The writing was also weak in my opinion. There were anachronisms all over the place (something that I can look past if the characters and story are strong). And there were numerous jumps in time, scene, and logic that left me confused. Simple elements like the timeline of the murder itself were often garbled, and I felt like I had missed something. The style of writing was also fairly generic, and I struggled to feel truly invested in anything that was going on. It felt utilitarian and bland.

This book wasn’t for me. It felt like the author simply cobbled together basic plots and characters from other popular works in the genre and spun out a book as quickly as possible. There was such a lack of passion to the story that it’s hard to feel like anyone really cared overly much about this book. There are numerous better examples of this type of story out there, so I suggest reading those instead of spending any time on this.

Rating 5: Mediocre to the extreme.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deadly Curious” is on these Goodreads lists: Georgian Era in YA & Middle Grade Fiction and Profiles in Silhouette.

Find “Deadly Curious” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Those Who Prey”

Book: “Those Who Prey” by Jennifer Moffett

Publishing Info: Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, November 2020

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

Book Description: Sadie meets The Girls in this riveting debut psychological thriller about a lonely college freshman seduced into joining a cult—and her desperate attempt to escape before it’s too late.

College life isn’t what Emily expected. She expected to spend freshman year strolling through the ivy-covered campus with new friends, finally feeling like she belonged. Instead, she walks the campus alone, still not having found her place or her people so far away from home. But then the Kingdom finds her.

The Kingdom, an exclusive on-campus group, offers everything Emily expected of college and more: acceptance, friends, a potential boyfriend, and a chance to spend the summer in Italy on a mission trip. But the trip is not what she thought it would be. Emily and the others are stripped of their passports and money. They’re cut off from their families back home. The Kingdom’s practices become increasingly manipulative and dangerous.

And someone ends up dead.

At times unsettling and always riveting, Those Who Prey looks at the allure of cult life, while questioning just how far we’re willing to go to find where we belong.

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

Back when I was at the University of Minnesota for my undergrad, between classes I’d spend time in the student union, usually getting a bagel for lunch in the food area where a number of student groups had set up tables trying to find new members. The table that always made me uncomfortable was a far right Evangelical Christian group whose name I can’t remember, as they always had the same rotation of about five people who had interesting signs and information on display. Around Halloween it was about devil worship. At Christmas it was how Santa=Satan. Sometimes it would be pamphlets on the sins of homosexuality or sex. I never saw them talking to anyone, but I did think about how they could probably influence a lonely student or two who hadn’t adjusted to college life yet, who just wanted a connection as they sought out a bagel. As I read “Those Who Prey” by Jennifer Moffett, I kept having flashbacks to that table, and one specific girl with whom I made eye contact on more than one occasion, and how my disgust at the time didn’t see the blatant predatory behavior of the group I was constantly passing as I went for my lunch.

So creepy as I looked back. (source)

“Those Who Prey” is part coming of age story, part thriller, and Moffett is able to pull out the best of both genres to make a genuinely disturbing tale about identity and manipulation. Our protagonist, Emily, reads like a very realistic college freshman who has found herself in a new environment, and who hasn’t quite found her place. Moffett slowly reveals aspects of her background and personality that make her ripe for the picking when it comes to Kingdom, an on campus Christian group that brings her into their organization with promise of friendhip and salvation (and love, as it is the charming Josh who first compels her). I thought that Moffett really did her due diligence to show how the average student who may be isolated and lonely could be so easily taken in with a group like this, and really demonstrated the frog in the boiling water aspect of how Kingdom, and real life campus cult groups, depend upon.

By the time Emily gets to Italy on her ‘mission’, and things really take a turn, the groundwork has been laid out seamlessly. Moffett clearly did her homework about these groups and what they do to get their members, and what they then put them through. While most of the other characters weren’t really given deep dives, as it’s through Emily’s perspective, you still got a sense as to how many of them, especially the ones you wouldn’t expect, would be trapped in this situation. It felt real, and therefore VERY unsettling. We also start to see a mystery unfold involving Kara, the member who has been assigned to Emily, who doesn’t seem as invested in the program as other people are. Kara’s plot line is what gave this story a mystery element to throw in with the creepy cult vibe, and while I kind of guessed what her deal was pretty early on, there were still plenty of puzzle pieces that I wasn’t working out until Moffett was ready for me to do so. I needed to know what Kara’s deal was, I needed to know what Kingdom had in store for their members, and I NEEDED to know if Emily was going to get out. All of this kept me totally ensnared, which was great.

“Those Who Prey” is creepy and all too realistic. I heard that some of these groups have rebranded a bit in hopes of still bringing in members. Hopefully some people who read this book will see the similarities and steer clear, no matter how lonely they may feel while living on campus.

Rating 8: A suspenseful coming of age thriller, “Those Who Prey” kept me on the edge of my seat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Those Who Prey” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “Going to College”.

Find “Those Who Prey” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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