Kate’s Review: “Secret Santa”

Book: “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, November 2020

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

Book Description: The Office meets Stephen King, dressed up in holiday tinsel, in this fun, festive, and frightening horror-comedy set during the horror publishing boom of the ’80s, by New York Times best-selling satirist Andrew Shaffer.

Out of work for months, Lussi Meyer is desperate to work anywhere in publishing. Prestigious Blackwood-Patterson isn’t the perfect fit, but a bizarre set of circumstances leads to her hire and a firm mandate: Lussi must find the next horror superstar to compete with Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub. It’s the ’80s, after all, and horror is the hottest genre.

But as soon as she arrives, Lussi finds herself the target of her co-workers’ mean-spirited pranks. The hazing reaches its peak during the company’s annual Secret Santa gift exchange, when Lussi receives a demonic-looking object that she recognizes but doesn’t understand. Suddenly, her coworkers begin falling victim to a series of horrific accidents akin to a George Romero movie, and Lussi suspects that her gift is involved. With the help of her former author, the flamboyant Fabien Nightingale, Lussi must track down her anonymous Secret Santa and figure out the true meaning of the cursed object in her possession before it destroys the company—and her soul.

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

Happy Holidays, everyone! I know that it’s kind of a weird holiday season for SO MANY reasons, but I hope that everyone is making do with the circumstances and being safe as well as finding joy and togetherness. Even if that means doing it via FaceTime. In our house we’re wrapping up Hanukkah and getting ready to have a solitary Christmas, which means I’m digging into books when I’m not eating all the latkes. If you’re like me and like it when the horror genre and Yuletide combine, enjoying movies like “Gremlins”, or “Black Christmas” (more the old one. The new one was cathartic, but also SUPER hamfisted), then “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer may be the kind of book you want with your holiday cheer.

Is this a scene from “Gremlins”, or is this me stuffing my face with Christmas cookies? (source)

Shaffer is known for his satire and cheeky humor, so it’s safe to say that “Secret Santa” isn’t the scariest book you could read this time of year. Luckily, I wasn’t expecting it to be terrifying, so that worked for me, for the most part. I liked Lussi, our ambitious protagonist, as she fits the ‘ambitious woman in a man’s world’ mold in a way that adds to the story. You understand her wants and her determination to succeed in the publishing industry, especially as a young woman in the 1980s. I liked her sarcasm and her wit, and I felt that her characterization fit into the story as a whole, reflecting a snide and cutthroat time and place. The mystery as to what is going on at Blackwood-Patterson when things start to go awry is a slow build, and it reads less like a horror novel building up the dread and more like a strange whodunnit. By the time we circle back to the actual origin on what is going on (I don’t want to spoil TOO much, but do know that occultism and Nazis do enter into it. Take that as you will), the lack of scares was a little frustrating. That isn’t to say that there aren’t creepy elements involved with this tale. Let’s just say that if you don’t like dolls, you will find a lot to be scared about. But overall, the scary elements are very obviously harkening to a very specific time in horror publishing, when pulp paperbacks were the rage and strange concepts weren’t hard to come by (I seriously suggest looking into “Paperbacks from Hell” by Grady Hendrix if you want more information on this). This will work for some people, but it may leave others in the cold.

But what worked the most was that this book is clearly a love letter to 1980s horror fiction, be it paperback pulp horror novels or films that involve tiny beings that wreak havoc and gaslight those around them into thinking they are losing their minds. You can tell that Shaffer really loves the horror of this era, and the winks and nods to the genre are fun for someone like me who has an affection for it. Sometimes the 80s references in general got a little heavy handed, but you feel like you’re in on the joke, so I was able to deal with it with minimal eye rolling. This book is very clearly a love letter to a very specific kind of fiction, and I, for one, really loved seeing it all unfold. You can just feel the fun he was having writing this book, and frankly, that’s charming as hell.

“Secret Santa” is a tongue in cheek ode to horror paperbacks with a festive holiday bow placed right on top. If you’re looking for some holiday creeps, it could be the right book to have by the fire with a glass of eggnog.

Rating 7: Entertaining and sardonic, “Secret Santa” has some Christmas fun as well as some creepy moments if you don’t like dolls. It’s not terribly scary, but it has more than enough 80s horror nostalgia to make up for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Santa” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Creepy Christmas” to be sure!

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

Serena’s Review: “Knight of the Silver Circle”

Book: “Knight of the Silver Circle” by Duncan M. Hamilton

Publishing Info: Tor Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Three dragons wreak havoc throughout Mirabay–eating livestock, killing humans, and burning entire villages to ash. It was nearly impossible to kill one, using a legendary sword and the magic of the mysterious Cup; to tackle three, Guillot dal Villerauvais will need help.

The mage Solène fears having to kill again; she leaves Gill to gain greater control over her magic.

The Prince Bishop still wants Gill dead, but more than that, he wants the Cup, and he’ll do whatever he has to to get it, even sending his own daughter–a talented thief and assassin–into the dragons’ path.

As secrets mount on secrets and betrayals on betrayals, both Guillot and Solène face critical decisions that will settle not only their own fate but that of all Mirabaya.

Previously Reviewed: “Dragonslayer”

Review: While I didn’t absolutely love the first book in this series, I could still appreciate what it was trying to do and the type of approachable, sword and magic fantasy story it was telling. The characters, while fairly predictable, were also well-drawn and familiar enough that I was definitely not set against continuing with the series. On a whim, I requested this one a while back. It took a while to get to it, but here we are! Overall, while it’s still not my favorite fantasy series ever, I did like this one better than “Dragonslayer.”

After returning with a dragon’s head, Gill has re-established himself as a dragonslayer of note. Parting ways with Solene, the two are set to go about their lives again, not expecting to see one another again. But it soon becomes apparent that dragons aren’t done with them let. Three new ones begin pestering the countryside, drawing Gill out once again and now against worse odds than ever. For her part, Solene fears what is coming and is still working on gaining full control of her powers. But there may not be time as the Prince Bishop continues to make his own moves.

So, overall, this was very similar to the first book. It’s your tried and true classic fantasy story where the heroes are heroic, the mages struggle with their magic, and the bad guy does ad things. But in a lot of ways I think it also improved on the first book. For one thing, part of what I liked about the first book was the inclusion of POV chapters from the dragon’s perspective. Here we get more of that, which I still think is pretty unique, but we also dive more into dragon culture. We learn the variety of dragons out there, how some are just rampaging beasts essentially, but how others are quite intellectual and have a sort of society amongst themselves. I definitely continued to be interested in this angle of the story.

As far as Gill goes, I still think that he’s a bit of a cookie-cutter hero in that he’s almost exactly what you’d expect. In my review of the first book, I struggled with the lack of exploration into his emotional arc dealing with the loss of his family. But I was glad to see here that his struggles with alcoholism weren’t simply swept under the rug after the first book. Yes, he had success again as a dragonslayer and is largely coming into his own again as an esteemed fighter. But we still see him struggle with his past and the part of him that has dwelled in booze for so long.

I also liked that we got more from the villain of the story, the Prince Bishop. In the first book, he, too, was fairly one dimensional. Here, we see more from him and learn more about his own motives and how far he is willing to go against our heroes. It gave him enough depth to make him more of an interesting character to follow in his own right.

The writing is also still solid and Hamilton is clearly an adept storyteller. However, the series continues to feel a bit one note. And, like I said in my first review, it still seems as if it’s not bringing much new to the genre as a whole. There’s definitely an appeal and an audience for this type of book, but I also like fantasy stories that surprise me in some way or another. A good example would be Michael J. Sullivan’s “Age of Myth” series. That, too, is a fairly typical fantasy adventure story with elves, dwarves, humans, and dragons. But the story also takes several surprising turns, focusing in on characters you originally cast as side-characters and doing away with some whom you thought would be around for the long haul and occupying important roles in the story. But, all of that said, fans of classic fantasy will still likely enjoy this second entry from Hamilton.

Rating 7: Improves on the first novel, but still a bit bland to really hit home for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Knight of the Silver Circle” isn’t on any other Goodreads lists other than November 2019 Book Releases.

Find “Knight of the Silver Circle” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Superman Smashes the Klan”

Book: “Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Zoom, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The year is 1946, and the Lee family has moved from Chinatown to Downtown Metropolis. While Dr. Lee is eager to begin his new position at the Metropolis Health Department, his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, are more excited about being closer to the famous superhero Superman!

Tommy adjusts quickly to the fast pace of their new neighborhood, befriending Jimmy Olsen and joining the club baseball team, while his younger sister Roberta feels out of place when she fails to fit in with the neighborhood kids. She’s awkward, quiet, and self-conscious of how she looks different from the kids around her, so she sticks to watching people instead of talking to them.

While the Lees try to adjust to their new lives, an evil is stirring in Metropolis: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan targets the Lee family, beginning a string of terrorist attacks. They kidnap Tommy, attack the Daily Planet, and even threaten the local YMCA. But with the help of Roberta’s keen skills of observation, Superman is able to fight the Klan’s terror, while exposing those in power who support them–and Roberta and Superman learn to embrace their own unique features that set them apart. From multi-award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang comes an exciting middle grade tale featuring Superman. 

Review: Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to Superman. He’s written for Superman before, as well as creating an offshoot character Super-Man that is based in China (and that I have reviewed here on the blog). But I think that “Superman Smashes the Klan” is the Superman story of his that almost immediately caught my eye when I heard it was a thing. I had seen this bouncing around various book and comics circles, and bought it for myself as I love Yang’s work, and I am always in the mood to see a good smashing of racists and fascists. Especially these days.

“Superman Smashes the Klan” follows both Superman as he tries to come to terms with his own identity, as well as the Lee Family, a Chinese-American family that is moving from Chinatown to downtown Metropolis. Our main focuses are on charismatic and popular Tommy and his younger sister Roberta, who is a little more reserved and unsure of herself. While Tommy can seemingly easily code switch with the white kids in their new community, Roberta has a harder time reconciling her Chinese-American identity with this new environment. When the Lees become a target of the hate group The Klan of the Fiery Cross (more on this name in a bit), both Tommy and Roberta want to fight back in their own ways, while their parents are just trying to not make waves to keep themselves and their children safe. I liked how Yang not only addressed the full blown bigotry and violent racism of the Klan, but also the more subtle and systemic racism of society, mostly through Tommy and Roberta’s parents. Dr. Lee, their father, has taken a new job at the health department, and encourages his children and wife to assimilate (many a time does he tell his wife to speak English instead of Chinese), as well as wanting to fit in with his white colleagues and superiors and not be associated with other minorities. We also see Tommy playing down his Chinese identity by being self deprecating in hopes of fitting in too.

And as I mentioned earlier, Superman himself is dealing with his own identity crisis in this story, as he has been downplaying some of his powers that make it more clear that he isn’t just a very strong or gifted human. Specifically, he hasn’t allowed himself to really fly after an incident in his childhood where he lost control of that ability for a moment, and some people in Smallville nearly turned on him because they thought he was possessed. I LOVED this for two reasons. The first is that initially in the comics Superman couldn’t fly, he just could jump really, really high and far. It was genius for Yang to incorporate this character change into the story in this way. But the other reason is that it’s a great way to show kids who are reading this book that Superman, a strong, nearly perfect, ideal of a superhero, ALSO has struggles with his own identity, and that he too is from a group that could easily be Othered and discriminated against because he’s different.

I do want to talk about The Klan of the Fiery Cross as well. What I didn’t realize until we got to the super helpful author’s note at the end is that this is based on a story arc from the Superman Radio Show from the 1940s! That story was pretty similar, a Chinese-American family moves into a white neighborhood, and the Klan of the Fiery Cross (at the time the KKK was a powerful group after its second wave post “Birth of a Nation” with many members, and the radio show didn’t want to get sued for using their actual name) targets them, and Superman saves the day. Yang, of course, expands upon this within this new story, and it works very, very well. We see the Klan for the hate filled racists that they are, but he also touches on how some people who are really just looking for power and money will latch on to racist and fascist movements in hopes of getting the power and clout they crave (sounds familiar). You’d think that it would be hard to break this down in a kids book, but Yang does it and makes it super understandable for the audience the book has been written for.

And finally, the art work. Gurihiru has some clear manga influences and styles, and it works for the story. I also loved the use of colors and the character designs, be it body designs or period appropriate clothing.

“Superman Smashes the Klan” is a fast paced and charming story that has a lot to say without getting heavy handed or too bogged down. Yang’s story telling talents match perfectly with the story at hand, and fans of Superman should definitely read it!

Rating 9: An action-filled screed against racism that is filled with empathy and hope, “Superman Smashes The Klan” is no doubt an exciting read for children and adults alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Superman Smashes the Klan” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle School Social Justice”, and “Paper Lantern Writers: Best Own Voices Historical Fiction”.

Find “Superman Smashes the Klan” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “I Will Always Write Back”

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: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Continent: Africa

Book Description: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it.
Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Well when we started our “Around the World” Series for Book Club, we thought that it would outlast quarantine and that it would be a fun way to pass that time. The reality is that we’re in an even worse place than we were back when we started once this session ended. But even if we have more COVID times ahead of us where we have to meet virtually, I’m glad that we did our “Around the World” cycle, as we got to read books that I may not have read otherwise. Our last book was “I Will Always Write Back”, a dual memoir by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, two pen pals whose friendship became so much more.

I went into this book with a very rudimentary knowledge of Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s regime, and with the unease that we may have been starting a ‘white savior’ narrative. But “I Will Always Write Back”, I think, did a good job of walking that line without crossing it, and I think that the main reason for that is because we got both Caitlin’s perspective, that of a teenage white American living in a comfortable economic situation, and Martin’s, who is a Black Zimbabwean who was living in abject poverty. Getting to hear Martin’s side of the story in his own words and getting his perspectives and experiences really helped keep it away from centering Caitlin’s journey in the narrative, which was good. Martin’s chapters were the ones that I most looked forward to, as while Caitlin was relatable (we are the same age, so I was doing and experiencing similar teenage America girl things that she was in this book), I wasn’t as interested in her story. I think that there could have been a little more introspection on her part at times, but then again, she was a teenager and young adult through the crux of it, so maybe throwing that in would have felt out of place. Luckily Martin’s sections gave the reader a lot to think about, and I feel like I got more from this story from him.

I was interested in seeing their friendship grow and change, however, and liked seeing the two of them interact with each other. You can feel the love and care they have for each other within this books pages, and seeing the two of them have each other’s backs was absolutely uplifting. Given that any pen pal situation that I had in grade school completely floundered, the fact that they kept this friendship going and changed each other’s lives so much is a lovely story in and of itself. This is the kind of book that I would recommend to teens who are wanting to start looking at cross cultural themes and issues, as I think it’s a good introduction to the idea of reaching out to others who may not have the exact same life as you, but could have very similar goals and dreams that you have.

Kate’s Rating 7: An undeniably uplifting memoir about friendship and cross cultural connection, “I Will Always Write Back” has heart and earnestness, though not as much introspection as I was hoping for.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were some of your reactions to the comparisons and contrasts when it came to the lives that Caitlin and Martin were living when they started their correspondence?
  2. Were you knowledgable about the history and the cultural and societal situation of Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule?
  3. Do you think that teenagers today would relate to the teenage voices of the people in this book who were teens twenty years ago?
  4. As the book goes on, we learn that Caitlin and her family help Martin out in many ways. How do you think this changed and affected their friendship?
  5. Recently there has been criticism of publishers elevating and publishing ‘white savior’ narratives in books and the publishing industry. Do you think that “I Will Always Write Back” could be considered a white savior narrative? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“I Will Always Write Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Must Read Memoirs”, and “Southern Africa”.

Find “I Will Always Write Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition Vols. 1 &2

Serena’s Review: “Truly, Devious”

Book: “Truly, Devious” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder. 

Review: As is probably pretty evident by now, Kate is the true crime aficionado on our blog. I’ve casually looked into a few cases based on her recommendations, but my penchant for mysteries often falls into the historical, detective fiction more than anything. I also don’t read too many contemporary YA novels. So in a lot of ways, this book didn’t really meet many of my usual criteria for picking a new book. But it had fabulous ratings on Goodreads and happened to show up on my audiobook list right when I was between reads. And here we are!

Stevie Bell is shocked when she’s accepted into the exclusive, expensive private school of Ellingham Academy. It’s most highschoolers’ dream, but only accepts a handful of applicants per year. At that, they don’t even specify what they’re looking for! But apparently Stevie interest in and proficiency with true crime investigations hit some mark. What’s more, Ellingham Academy itself is the location of one of history’s most notorious unsolved crimes, the abduction of the founders wife and infant daughter. The only clue was an enigmatic riddle that has been poured over and pondered now for decades. But Stevie Bell is determined that once she’s on the grounds, she will solve this cold case. What she doesn’t expect is for this cold case to suddenly warm up with a new murder and the return of “Truly, Devious.”

So there were things I enjoyed about this book, and there were things I didn’t. Before I even get to the things I didn’t, I’ll just say again that this book has really high ratings on Goodreads, so there’s a fairly decent chance that most of the things that didn’t work for me were due to the fact that the book was way outside my usual genres of choice. But on to the good!

For one thing, I was not expecting the format that this book is told from. It’s not simply Stevie’s story while at Ellingham trying to solve this cold case. Instead, the story is told in alternating chapters between the present, which follows Stevie as she works a new murder as well, and the past, where we see various characters’ perspectives on the events that lead up to and during the abduction of Mr. Ellingham’s wife and infant daughter. I really enjoyed these chapters in the past. They really helped bring to life this cold case and avoided what otherwise would have had to be a pretty info-dumpy style of writing to give the reader the same information that Stevie would have already had. It also leaves readers free to begin making their own connections and theories, outside the influence of Stevie’s own thoughts on the mystery.

I also really liked Stevie herself. She’s your typical highschooler, in many ways, but I liked the way the story incorporated her struggles with anxiety and the differences she feels between herself and her parents. She deals with a lot of the fears and challenges that any new student comes across at a new school, but it’s made all the more interesting by the eccentric friends she meets there. The way Ellingham is described, it’s definitely the kind of school I would have loved to attend as a highschooler myself!

My problems with the book, however, also come from the modern timeline of the book. I wasn’t into the romance at all. I felt like it came out of nowhere but was also so entirely predictable that it landed flat immediately. The book tries to insert some more tension and mystery towards the end, but I just didn’t care enough about this couple to have any strong feelings about the drama or reveals. I also thought that the modern mystery was fairly predictable. The motive and history of the victim were especially obvious which just undermined Stevie’s own prowess as a burgeoning detective.

Lastly, I wasn’t expecting this book to not solve the mystery of the cold case. So there’s definitely a cliff-hanger sort of ending as far as that goes. If this book was up your alley, maybe this wouldn’t bother you as much. But for me, who enjoyed it for the most part but wasn’t in love by any means, I was just annoyed that I’d be forced to continue reading to get more answers to the one part of the book that really intrigued me. As it is, we’ll see if I get around to it or not. I’m guessing it will be a similar story, that if I do read it, it will be more a matter of happy chance than anything else. Fans of contemporary mysteries and true crime, however, will likely really like this. Just a bit too far out of my genres of choice to really hit home for me.

Rating 7: A tale of two stories: one of the past, which was excellent, and one of the future, which was more meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Truly, Devious” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries and Dark Academia.

Find “Truly, Devious” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “This Is Not a Ghost Story”

Book: “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, November 2020

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

Book Description: I am not welcome. Somehow I know that. Something doesn’t want me here.

Daffodil Franklin has plans for a quiet summer before her freshman year at college, and luckily, she’s found the job that can give her just that: housesitting a mansionfor a wealthy couple.

But as the summer progresses and shadows lengthen, Daffodil comes to realize the house is more than it appears. The spacious home seems to close in on her, and as she takes the long road into town, she feels eyes on her the entire way, and something tugging her back.

What Daffodil doesn’t yet realize is that her job comes with a steep price. The house has a long-ago grudge it needs to settle . . . and Daffodil is the key to settling it.

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

I love haunting and eerie ghost stories of the Gothic variety, though I will admit that I sometimes find them to be predictable. The genre itself has such specific building blocks to it that a little bit of a road map is in place from the get go, which is perfectly okay. Because of this, I thought that I knew where “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes was going to go when I picked it up. I was still excited to read it, mind you, but my overconfident ass thought that it wouldn’t have much new to say. But lo and behold, this story took me by surprise in all the best ways possible.

While the set up definitely seems run of the mill (money strapped college student agrees to house sit an isolated home, strange things start happening), Portes has created a Gothic ghost story that feels unique and fresh specifically because of how she has chosen to tell it. Daffodil, our first person protagonist, has a stream of consciousness and anxious voice in her narration, and as she tells the reader what is happening to her in this house and in the town around it, we have a slow build up of dread in the way that Daffodil would be experiencing it. As she tries to write off strange occurrences as they happen, we see the panic rise and rise until she is unable to deny that something very bad is happening, which I REALLY liked. From things that could very easily be explainable to the absolutely disturbing, Daffodil’s stream of consciousness builds the tension and also becomes VERY relatable as the story goes on. And all along she is cracking wise, making funny observations, and generally cracking me up, which helped cut the tension but didn’t ruin it. But along with the present bad things happening inside the house and on the grounds, we also get a slow unfolding of Daffodil’s past, and why her anxiety and unease is ever present. Most of this involves a love story with her high school boyfriend Zander, someone that she had always felt was out of her league but who loved her very much. Their high school romance felt real, and as it runs its course in her memories and unfolds in tragic ways, you see a whole other side to Daffodil that makes her all the more endearing.

In terms of scares and plotting, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” has some elements that are old hat, and some reveals that didn’t quite catch me by surprise in the way that they were probably supposed to do. But Portes still manages to write these elements and reveals in a way that made them enjoyable, and they still felt pretty fresh and convincing. I worry that if I say too much we’ll start getting into spoiler territory, but I do want to mention two aspects that worked really well for me. The first is the uncanny creepiness, of things going missing or ending up in places that don’t make sense. The other is the slow building unease with the people on and around the property, from a construction worker on the guest house named Mike to a nosy and stuffy neighbor named Penelope. We think one thing about them at first, but Portes picks away at our perceptions of them and makes them suspenseful in their own way (though I will say that Daffodil does the thing that MANY women do when it comes to men who may be threatening: she second guesses herself and her instincts. THIS was so well done that it felt like a GREAT way to show the target audience that no, your instincts should probably be listened to).

So while it may not have shocked me or really scared me too much, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” was an enjoyable and poignant ghostly tale of trauma, forgiveness, and the things that haunt us. Fans of Gothic horror should definitely check it out!

Rating 8: A haunting, bittersweet, and sardonically funny Gothic tale, “This Is Not a Ghost Story” will keep you guessing, and will stay with you.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is Not a Ghost Story” is new and not on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Modern Gothic”, and “Not the Normal Paranormal”.

Find “This Is Not a Ghost Story” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Victory of Eagles”

Book: “Victory of Eagles” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, August 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: It is a grim time for the dragon Temeraire. On the heels of his mission to Africa, seeking the cure for a deadly contagion, he has been removed from military service – and his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to death for treason. For Britain, conditions are grimmer still: Napoleon’s resurgent forces have breached the Channel and successfully invaded English soil. Napoleon’s prime objective: the occupation of London.

Separated by their own government and threatened at every turn by Napoleon’s forces, Laurence and Temeraire must struggle to find each other amid the turmoil of war and to aid the resistance against the invasion before Napoleon’s foothold on England’s shores can become a stranglehold.

If only they can be reunited, master and dragon might rally Britain’s scattered forces and take the fight to the enemy as never before – for king and country, and for their own liberty. But can the French aggressors be well and truly routed, or will a treacherous alliance deliver Britain into the hands of her would-be conquerors?

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon” and “Throne of Jade” and “Black Powder War” and “Empire of Ivory”

Review: It’s so nice to have a long-running series that one can return to every once in a while. It’s fun to discover new books, of course, but with the fantastic new stories also comes the chance of having to slog through something that isn’t a good fit. Not only do I love Novik’s “Temeraire” series, but I also particularly enjoy the audiobook version of the series and the narrator who reads it. So, when waiting on a few of my holds at the library to come through, I thought it was about time to re-visit this series.

Things are not going well for Temeraire and Laurence. After sharing the cure to the deadly dragon disease with their enemies in France, Temeraire has been banished to the north where he is to remain the rest of his days, and Laurence has been sentenced to death as a traitor. But when Napoleon lands on English shores, Britain quickly realizes that it can’t lose one of its best dragons and dragon captains. But Temeraire is no longer interested in blinding following orders. After seeing the advancements back in his native land, he’s sure that England can do better with its treatment of its own dragons, and Temeraire is prepared to go to great lengths to see that it is so.

This book was a bit different than others in the series in that, for a large part of it, we’re following the separate stories of Temeraire and Laurence. But as the series has progressed, Temeraire has become more and more of a character in his own right, with thoughts and opinions of his own that sometimes differ from Laurence’s own. So it also makes sense that at some point we would begin to follow him as his own character with his own arc. And I really liked what we got from him here! Aside from his obvious anxiety over Laurence’s situation, we see Temeraire begin to actively pursue a new role for dragons in England’s society and military, something he’s been discussing for the last several books since their trip to China.

In an interesting twist, while Temeraire is in the north, we see that it isn’t only the humans of England who are set in their ways. He has to convince the dragons, too, that change is in their own best interest. As the story continues, we see Temeraire’s vision turn more and more into a reality, but with that comes challenges of its own. I liked how this wasn’t simply done easily, and Temeraire himself, while knowing the direction he wants things to move, hasn’t thought out the details of what dragons serving in the military under their own command would really look like.

Laurence’s own story is also interesting. We see the fall-out of his and Temeraire’s decision, not only in his initial imprisonment, but in the different ways those around him view what he did. For many, it is seen as out-right treason with very little sympathy for the reasoning behind it. Others might understand, but they still can’t behave the same way around Laurence. It’s all painful to hear about, especially because of how honorable we know Laurence to be. But it’s also very realistic of what a situation like that would look like.

I also really liked how this alternative history is really leaning into the “alternative” aspect of it all. Napoleon actually lands on English soil in this version of history and makes significant inroads in an occupation. Much of the story is highlighting how desperate the English situation really is, and Laurence and Temeraire are clearly fighting on the underdog’s side of this war all of a sudden.

In the end, this was another solid entry in the “Temeraire” series. I really enjoyed the continued exploration of what reform for the dragons would look like in this situation. And how far Novik is willing to play with history in her alternative world is always surprising and a joy. For those who have been reading this series, this is more of the same: good stuff all around!

Rating 8: Veers into some surprising new territory but never loses sight of what we’re there for: Temeraire and Laurence and their lovely friendship!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Victory of Eagles” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Alternate History Novels and Stories and Best Book With or About Dragons.

Find “Victory of Eagles” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Good Girls”

Book: “The Good Girls” by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, December 2020

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

Book Description: The troublemaker. The overachiever. The cheer captain. The dead girl.

Like every high school in America, Jefferson-Lorne High contains all of the above. After the shocking murder of senior Emma Baines, three of her classmates are at the top of the suspect list: Claude, the notorious partier; Avery, the head cheerleader; and Gwen, the would-be valedictorian. Everyone has a label, whether they like it or not–and Emma was always known as a good girl. But appearances are never what they seem. And the truth behind what really happened to Emma may just be lying in plain sight. As long-buried secrets come to light, the clock is ticking to find Emma’s killer–before another good girl goes down.

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

I am not too proud to admit that while I was an outcast and a weirdo in high school, I was not without my own faults when it came to judging other people, especially girls. It takes a lot of time and effort to try and unlearn the malignant lessons that society teaches you when it comes to how girls are supposed to be and act, and even as a woman in her mid thirties I’m STILL learning. I wish that I had read books at that age that would have helped the process along a bit. The good news is that girls these days can pick up books like “The Good Girls” and get some pretty good insight into how to reject internalized misogyny and rape culture! What I thought was going to be a YA thriller turned into something that had more value than I anticipated when it comes to theme and message.

The strongest aspect of “The Good Girls” is how Bartlett examines the damage that rape culture and misogyny wreaks upon young women no matter what their ‘social standing’ is, and how the damage can manifest in different ways. I think that one of the more popular ways to address it in teen fiction these days is to give a perspective to an ‘outcast’ character who is seen as promiscuous or ‘bad news’ in other ways. We do get that here with Claude the party girl and (deceased) Lizzy the addict, but we also see how it can still be damaging to girls who are seen as ‘good’ or ‘successful’, like cheer captain Avery and ‘good girl’ Emma. I think it’s especially important for this kind of ‘representation’ (for lack of a better term) in YA literature, as those who aren’t targeted in the more obvious ways may be less able to recognize it. I also liked that this book addresses that sometimes people in authority positions, because of their own biases, can stumble and fail when it comes to protecting those who are victimized. Or, even worse, use their position of authority to intimidate others into silence, or perpetuate abuse themselves. I thought that “The Good Girls” tackled these themes really well.

All of that said, in terms of mystery and thrills, “The Good Girls” missed the mark for me. While the characterizations were valuable and felt pretty realistic, they also managed to not work outside the box of the tropes that they fit into. I liked all of the main characters well enough, but none of them felt that different from other iterations of the boxes that they fell into. And when it comes to the mystery of who pushed Emma into the river, and what actually happened to Lizzy and how the two connect, I didn’t find myself raring to find the answer or terribly shocked by how it all played out. Even the smaller mysteries that add into the larger parts didn’t really surprise me, and I called a couple of the reveals pretty early on. Admittedly a couple caught me by surprise, but even then I wasn’t wowed. It just feels pretty run of the mill when it comes to the story itself. Not bad by any means. But also not unique. And at the end of the day, valuable message and explorations aside, I read “The Good Girls” because I was looking for a thriller, which it didn’t really provide.

I think that if you go into “The Good Girls” looking for a character study on the effect of misogyny and rape culture on girls from all kinds of labels, you will find something interesting, and certainly something with an important message that could help YA readers. But in terms of mystery and thrills, it isn’t really anything new.

Rating 6: I really liked the themes that take on rape culture and misogyny, but the story itself didn’t feel much different from other stories that have similar characters and plot points.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Good Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Mysteries and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”.

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

Highlights: December 2020

Happy holidays everyone! Tis the season of dark, and cold, and snow. But also of twinkle lights, warm fires, and lots of tasty, tasty treats. Given the need to be socially distanced so much more, the treats are really coming in strong. Add lots of time at home which turns into tons of baking. Mix in the fact that we don’t have as many gatherings during which to share the treats. And it all results in us sitting in front of our fires stuffing an entire batch of fudge down our own gullets. While reading a good book, of course! Here are the titles we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks:

Book: “The Bitterwine Oath” by Hannah West

Publication Date: December 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: In a lot of ways, this looks more like a Kate book than one for me. But every once in a while I’m tempted into the darker side of fantasy where there’s a lot of cross-over with horror. This story focuses on an a small town in Texas that has an urban legend about a group of wronged women who murder 12 men every 50 years. Horrifying as that is on its own, there are rumors of the supernatural and magical tied up with it. Now 18-yaer-old Natalie Colter will find herself not only caught up in this mysterious coven-like group, but even recruited to join. It all sounds very witchy and interesting. The cover is also super creepy. We’ll see how I do!

Book: “A Wolf for a Spell” by Karah Sutton

Publication Date: December 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Would it be too shallow to just say because the cover is so, so pretty?? I mean, that’s not the only reason. But lookit!! That has to be one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen for a book in a long, long time. Even if the book turns out not to be great, I’d be tempted to buy it just to display on my shelf. In this Russian fairytale, Zima is a young wolf who has been taught to never trust humans. But when she needs help from the notorious witch, Baba Yaga, Zima finds her life turned upside down! Almost literally! After a spell goes wrong, Zima finds herself in Baba Yaga’s body and teaming up with even more humans in grand adventure to defeat an evil tsar. The whole story sounds very endearing. Now just to get my hands on a copy…

Book: “The Artic Fury” by Greer Macallister

Publication Date: December 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: To round out my genres for the month, here’s an interesting-sounding historical fiction novel featuring a group of women explorers who set off on an expedition into the artic. Things don’t go to plan, however, and the story is told from two timelines: one the expedition itself, and the second, a trial during which the leader of the expedition must account for the events that took place on this dangerous mission. I love survival stories in general, and the promise of a fateful adventure into the frozen Artic sounds super exciting. Plus, what better to read about in dark, cold December than a bunch of people hiking away somewhere even darker and colder?

Kate’s Picks:

Book: “The Good Girls” by Claire Elizabeth Bartlett

Publication Date: December 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Small town scandals and the fight against Patriarchy is always going to pull me in, so when I read the description of “The Good Girls” by Claire Elizabeth Bartlett I was officially interested. After a well liked teenage girl appears to be murdered in a viral video, the suspicion focuses in on the town party girl, as well as her academic rival. But not all is what it seems as partier, perfectionist, and cheerleader all have their motives, their secrets, and their own pains and frustrations they have to face due to their reputations. As someone who loves a twisty mystery with simmering rage, this definitely is on my list.

Book: “Admission” by Julie Buxbaum

Publication Date: December 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: While I wasn’t all that interested in the College Admissions Scandal that rocked the celebrity world recently, I do have to admit that it is a very juicy story in terms of exposing the rich for misdeeds and schadenfreude when they are caught. So since I love me some hot goss, “Admission” by Julie Buxbaum is probably going to be a guilty pleasure read for me when I get to it. Wealthy and privileged Chloe has everything going for her: a hot boyfriend, a mother whose celebrity is on the rise, and admission to her number one pick for college. But when it’s exposed that her mother bribed the school to get her admitted, Chloe has to face some hard truths about how much in life she has actually earned, as well as the scandal that explodes around her. Sounds like an entertaining read to be certain.

Book: “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini

Publication Date: December 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: It sounds like this book has just about everything: A privileged girl running away from private school scandal, a handsome but mysterious boy who seems free spirited but could be something darker, and a body in the woods! Magdalena is hoping to escape a scandal at her school, and flees to her isolated family home. It’s in the woods near home that she meets Bo, a charismatic and handsome stranger who entices her and entrances her with his personality and love of life. But then a mutilated body shows up, throwing a wrench into Magdalena’s hopes of a quiet and scandal free existence. It sounds strange and mysterious, so I’m obviously IN.

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

My Year with Jane Austen: “Persuasion” [1995]

Movie: “Persuasion”

Release Year: 1995

Actors: Anne Elliot – Amanda Root

Captain Wentworth – Ciaran Hinds

Mr. Elliot – Samuel West

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

My mom always loved “Persuasion,” and as this was the most recent adaptation she had, we all watched it quite a bit as kids. But as an adult, the 2007 version came out, and for better or worse, that’s been my go-to over the years. I hadn’t actually re-watched this one for who knows how long. So it was interesting watching it again after all of this time, after having re-read the book so recently, and with having a very clear memory of the 2007 version in my head the entire time.

Overall, I think it’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the book. I think it particularly shines with its casting of our two main characters. But I think it also struggles the most with casting for almost every other character. Other than the Crofts (I particularly liked the actress who played Mrs. Croft), I felt like almost everyone was miscast in one way or another. The Musgrove girls both felt more bland, less lively, and not as engaging as they are described as being in the book. Sir Walter’s vanity seems to be mainly reflected in this penchant for wearing weirdly flowerly suits, but the actor himself wasn’t very good looking. Elizabeth was not only not as good looking as one would expect her to be, but her characterization seemed all wrong, with her having temper flare-ups all over the place that weren’t reflective of anything in the book. Captain Benwick seemed cast as a more bumbling, comical figure than the angsty, emo-ish man the book describes. It was all very odd and off-putting. But at least Anne and Captain Wentworth were good!

The movie is definitely dated feeling, but overall I liked the scenery and sets. There were a few strange camera angles and shots that I don’t think added much, but overall, I think it was pretty well-done. Having now watched it after all of these years, I think I can appreciate it more than I did as a kid (but that’s also just my general greater appreciation for the story “Persuasion” tells), but, in the end, I’m pretty sure I’ll still end up preferring the 2007 version.

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

As I said, I like the two main characters’ casting the most of anyone in the movie. That said, however, I don’t find even them to be pitch perfect as we’ve seen other actors do for past adaptations. Amanda Root is fairly good, overall, but I do think she comes across a bit to mousy and reserved, especially in the first half of the movie. I’ve made a lot of comparisons between Anne Elliot and Fanny Price in these reviews, and I have another one here: Root’s Anne initially comes across as more like Fanny than Anne. I do like how the movie shows this change cove over here. Not only do they make adjustments to her costuming and and hairstyle to emphasize her “renewed bloom,” but we see her standing up for herself more with her father and even in the face of Wentworth’s rudeness at the concert. But, initially, I think they erred too far into the mousy, reserved-ness of it all. She also simply looks older than she should be. I mean, I get that 27 was considered past prime in those days, but still…it’s only 27!

Root is definitely at her best during the conversation regarding men, women, and who loves longest. I liked her delivery and the entire conversation and scene played out very well. She also does an excellent job with her reaction to the letter and the sudden meeting with Wentworth later. (Notably, these last scenes are also the weaker/weirder ones from the 2007 version.)

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

As a kid, part of my problem with this movie was that I just couldn’t get behind Ciaran Hinds as a romantic hero. My other comparisons at this point were Hugh Grant from “Sense and Sensibility” and, most importantly, Colin Firth from “Pride and Prejudice.” I still don’t particularly finds Hinds that good looking (plus I can’t stop seeing him as the “King Beyond the Wall” from “Game of Thrones” now). But I will say that this was one of my biggest surprises when re-watching it now. He really manages to lay on the charm in the first half of the movie, neatly capturing Wentworth’s charisma in a way that I hadn’t remembered. He also has the rough and tumble looks of an active Navy captain which I think fits the part particularly well.

I do think he overplayed the part a bit at the concert, however. I’m not sure if this was really Hinds fault though, as the lines were pretty harsh on their own. This is already Wentworth at his most petty (to have this kind of momentary tantrum over the barest hint of Anne being pursued by another man, after Wentworth has supposedly come to his senses about things). But in the movie they really play it up. Wentworth is almost aggressively rude to Anne, and one almost has to wonder at her ability to continue after him when he’s like this.

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

They make some strange choices with Elizabeth here. Not only does the actress they cast not really fit the physical description of Elizabeth as a poised, beautiful woman, even in her *gasp* upper 20s, but they revamp her entire personality. She is initially portrayed as lazy and silly, eating candies while they discuss the future of the estate. And then when we meet her again at Bath, she as full-on anger flare ups at unexpected moments, yelling at Anne and generally making a scene. Not only does this not hold true to the book, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves. Anne’s being ignored, forgotten, and taken advantage of are all there in the book and here. There’s no reason to add her being the victim of her sister’s verbal abuse to the list. Plus it again undermines the respected role that she and her father are supposed to have in society. We, the readers/viewers, are getting behind the scenes information, but there’s never meant to be any reason to suspect that the Elliots don’t move smoothly through society. And it’s hard to imagine that anyone who behaves as Elizabeth does here would get a pass with that.

The movie also makes a change with Mr. Elliot. Here, when Mrs. Smith relays her inside information on his motives, Mr. Elliot is in fact broke and that’s why he’s so concerned with retaining his role as heir to the family estate. It’s a fairly understandable change, as his obsession with the role of titles is a bit harder to fully convey to modern audiences. Going broke is easy to get on board with. The actor they cast here also doesn’t really sit right with me. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this casting, but he’s also simply not very memorable. The moments in Lyme where he admires Anne barely strike any sort of note, and if you weren’t familiar with the story, I’m not sure would even come across as anything. It isn’t helped that Wentworth’s reaction to the first meeting is barely recognizable as a reaction at all.

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

I thought the romance was pretty good in this adaption. I especially liked some of the small moments in the first half, like the way the handled Wentworth quickly giving up his seat at the piano when he saw Anne approaching, and his move to make sure Anne had a ride home with the Crofts after the long walk. They also add some stilted lines in the carriage ride back home after Louisa’s fall that hint at Wentworth’s slow realization of Anne’s true character and his own silliness.

The movie does make an odd choice with regards to the conversation between the two regarding Benwick’s quick engagement to Louisa. In the book, it’s Wentworth’s statements during this conversation at this first meeting in Bath that first give Anne hope. It also gives her the courage and motivation to approach him so directly at the concert that evening. Here, her sudden confidence and willingness to pursue him don’t really feel based in any actual change. It’s like she just suddenly decided to go after him, without ever having had any hints of a change of heart on his behalf. And then he gets so rude when leaving, it’s very strange.

The movie also adds a scene where Wentworth approaches Anne later with a message from the Crofts about giving up their rental of Kellynch Hall if/when she becomes engaged to Mr. Elliot. It’s an interesting addition (so interesting, in fact, that the 2007 version of the story also included a scene like this), but it also doesn’t seem to really go anywhere. Anne stumbles through the exchange, not being as clear with her position with Mr. Elliot as she could/should be. And then it leads into a strange, brief exchange where Wentworth and Lady Russell exchange harsh words.

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

There are a few good comedic moments in this movie. For one thing, I like that they included a funny set of cut-scenes at the Musgroves’ showing a revolving group of characters all confiding their complaints about others to Anne. It’s a small moment in the book, but I’m glad they were able to fit it in here.

For her part, Mary is is hitting all the right notes in her role. She plays up the sickness angle well in the beginning, and then we get a really funny little moment during the walk. Anne and Mary stay behind to wait for Charles and Henrietta to visit the Hayters. They are each sitting on a log, but Mary complains that her side is wet. She gets up to wander around a bit, and then returns and causally informs Anne that it’d probably be best if she moved over into the wet spot so that she, Mary, could have Anne’s seat. And Anne just silently does it.

This adaptation also includes the final scene at the Elliot’s party, after Anne and Wentworth have reconciled and gotten engaged. It’s a rather strange little scene, and I think a bit unrealistic in that Captain Wentworth just strides in and, in front of everyone, announces that he and Anne are to be married and they’d like Sir Walter’s blessing. But it does lead to the funny line of Sir Walter looking completely bewildered and blurting out “Anne? But whatever for?”

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

This movie was originally made for TV and aired on the BBC. because of that, it had a low budget and used natural lighting throughout and even re-used the final shot of Captain Wentworth’s ship from the movie “The Bounty.” The movie was later released theatrically.

The actress who played Lady Russell passed away 5 months after the movie was released on TV and only a few days after its theatrical release. On a weird side note, I thought the actresses who played Lady Russell and Mrs. Croft looked too alike. They were both styled the same and had similar hair colors, cuts, and general face shapes. I was actually confused in the first scene with the Crofts viewing Anne’s home because I couldn’t figure out why Lady Russell was walking around with the Colonel.

Victoria Hamilton, who plays Henrietta here, goes on to play Maria in the 1999 version of “Mansfield Park.” I think she was much better cast in that role than this, though this one is also very minor and she has hardly any lines.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

I guess he can be fairly attractive…

In two weeks, I’ll review the 2007 version of “Persuasion.”

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