My Year with Jane Austen: “Sanditon” [2019]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini-Series: “Sanditon”

I promise I’ll leave a positive review for one of these “extra” Jane Austen reviews that I’m doing in January. Alas, like “Emma” [2020], this is not one of them. Unlike “Emma,” however, I am more in-line with the general reception of this mini series. All and all, I think most Jane Austen fans were supremely disappointed by it, not least because of how it ends. Let’s dive into my complaints, shall we?

(NOTE: There will be spoilers in this review.)

The whole thing starts from a false premise: that there’s even a story here to adapt. Austen had only written eleven chapters of this story before her death. For reference, Emma has fifty-five chapters, so by comparison, eleven chapters is only scratching the surface of whatever story Austen had in mind. All we really get from these opening chapters is the introduction of our heroine, Charlotte, her relocation to an up-and-coming beach town called “Sanditon,” and the arrival of a potential love interest in the form of the fashionable Sidney Parker. Story-wise, it’s not much. There are the typical cast of side characters as well, but not much as far as clues to Austen’s overarching plot or themes. In most ways, she’s just finished setting the scene and not much else. It was always going to be a fool’s errand to try to expand that out into a mini series and to call it a “Jane Austen adaptation” is really pushing the limits of that term.

Perhaps in the right hands a compelling story could have been made. But sadly, this mini series ain’t that. It falls into too many traps that many modern adaptations risk and, at its heart, seems to miss the overall tone and heart that makes up all Jane Austen stories. To most fans’ chagrin, the story succumbs to the inane need of modern series to be “gritty” and “push the limits.” There are overtly sexual scenes in the very first episode (some of them even bizarrely going a very “Game of Thrones” route, none the less…). And many, if not most, of the characters introduced are supremely unlikable. For some reason, it seems that many directors and screenwriters often confuse writing a character with layers and depth with just writing supreme jerks, and we see plenty examples of it here. The romantic interest is immediately an a-hole to Charlotte, and not in the endearing, prideful “Darcy-esque” way that is the only acceptable form of this behavior in an Austen story.

Gone is the joy. Gone is the wit. And, worst of all, gone is the happy ending. It seems as if the director intentionally ended the series this way in a fit of over-confidence that the series would be picked up for a second season. Indeed, this is the only acceptable reason for ending an Austen story this way. There are plenty of historical fiction stories to be told where the happy, romantic conclusion is not a given. But those are not the stories that Austen wrote. She even said it herself, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

Every Austen fan who went into this series happily hoping to get one last shot at a new Austen story would have had this one, simple expectation: that the hero and heroine would end up together and happy at the end. Whatever happened from the start to the finish was open for exploration and interpretation. But this ending was a must. Instead, the series not only denies our hero and heroine this happiness, but it essentially resets the story by sending Charlotte back home where her future is once again limited and likely dull. I’ll be blunt: this ending is inexcusable for a Jane Austen adaption and, apart from any other stumbling blocks (of which there were many) would be enough to write this entire thing off on its own.

Unlike “Emma,” which I think I disliked for fairly subjective reasons but is sure to please many fans, this mini series really has nothing to recommend it, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps for general historical fiction fans it would be an ok watch. But any fan of Jane Austen should simply steer clear, as “Jane Austen” this is not.

Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

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

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Graceling”

Book: “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Harcourt, October 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po.

She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

Review: I read this book right around when it came out and instantly loved it. I went on to re-read it a few times in the next couple of years. But as my list of re-read favorites grew and grew, after those first few years, I never got back around to this one. So now it’s probably been about ten years since I last read it. Then when I saw that Cashore was returning to her “Graceling” world after so many years with the release of “Winterkeep” later this month, I knew that now was the time and this was the perfect excuse! So in anticipation of this new book, I will be re-reading all three of the “Graceling” books that came before, starting out with this, the first and my favorite.

In a world dotted with individuals with extraodinary powers, marked by their duel colored eyes, Katsa’s unparalleled ability to fight and kill just about anything is frightening to the extreme. Not the least of all to her. Under the thumb of her cruel uncle the king, for years, Katsa has served as his unwilling enforcer. To protect her own sanity and the safety of those she can, Katsa’s also built up an underground life of small rebellions and resistence. During one of these missions she meets Prince Po, another Graceling and one who finally opens her eyes to the opportunities before her. When the two begin to uncover a lurking darkness in the far reaches of the kingdom, they set out to unravel an increasingly malicious tangle. And while they do, they begin to discover there is more to Katsa’s Grace than just killing after all.

There’s a lot to love about this book. I but I think most people can agree that one of its biggest selling points is its main character herself. I can think of a number of books that have attempted an all-powerful, badass female character like this before and bungled it up so badly that the book becomes practically unreadable. So it’s a testament to Cashore’s ability that her main character not only avoids pulling the book down with her but actually turns out to be one of its biggest selling points.

Katsa’s biggest strengths, her seemingly endless ability to excel at practically anything, is just what makes her such a challenging character to write. She arrives on page one seemingly capable of easily handling anything that the story throws out her. So where’s the plot to go? What type of development can you give a character like this? Well, instead of physical limitations, Cashore dives deep into the psychological damage and challenges that a character with these abilities would face. Katsa’s fear of her own strength hinders her ability to trust and form friendships, probably the low hanging fruit as far as personal struggles for this type of character goes.

But Cashore goes even deeper. Because Katsa operates alone so much of the time and has a deep-seated fear, verging on hatred, for herself, her interactions with those around her can be quite toxic at times. She’s rash and prone to striking out. She also struggles to recognize the limitations of others and will push people (and horses!) past their breakingpoint. From this starting point, Cashore weaves together a beautiful character arc that focuses on themes like trust, self-acceptance, and self-control. And throughout this all, Katsa’s very brashness and inability to pick up on the most basic of social cues makes her an incredibly endearing lead character.

Beyond Katsa, the story excels in several areas. While it takes a bit to get started, once it does, there are bunch of fantastic action set-pieces and challenges that are posed to our seemingly unstoppable heroine. And the story quickly moves past the more straightforward aspect of her Grace that would just be one fight scene after another. I also really like the romance in this story. Unlike a lot of other YA books, here the romance establishes itself about halfway through the book. Of course, as any romance novel author will tell you, getting your characters together is only half of the story, and I really appreciate that Cashore left room to dive into the later stages of a romantic storyline. Things like facing losses together, going through fights, figuring out how to be a couple while also maintaining your sense of individuality, making decisions about your future.

I also really like the villain we have here. The build up to the reveal successfully creates a lot of tension that is only compounded upon once the reader discovers what is really going on. The villain is also a great foil for Katsa, being appropriately powered but not in a way that feels like their abilities were created specifically with her in mind (a failing of many archvillains, in my opinion.) My only complaint is that there isn’t more page time with this individual. But, then again, given the nature of the villain, there’s not really a very good way to include more scenes with them that doesn’t hurt the story overall.

So, given my ravings above, it’s pretty obvious that I found this book just as enjoyable ten years later as I did the first time I read it. I’m excited to read the next two books as well since, unlike this one, I never re-read either of those and remember very little about them.

Rating 10: Definitely deserves its place in the YA fantasy ranks as one of the bests.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Graceling” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Magic, Adventure, Romance.

Find “Graceling” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Concrete Rose”

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2021

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

Book Description: International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

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

Back in 2019 when Angie Thomas’s “On The Come Up” made my Favorite Read list for the year, I promised myself that even though her genre isn’t usually one I cover, I would make exception for her books. Both that one and “The Hate U Give” made my lists, so when “Concrete Rose”, her newest novel, was announced I knew that it would be the first to keep the promise. I was STUNNED when I saw that it was available for request on NetGalley, but took advantage of that and downloaded it. We were finally going to get the backstory for Maverick Carter, Starr’s compelling father in “The Hate U Give”. And I was very interested to see where that backstory went.

While her previous works have tackled social justice themes and Black girlhood, “Concrete Rose” now has a focus on that of Black boyhood, and the difficulties it can entail in a racist society. When we met Maverick in “The Hate U Give”, he is a loving father and very well respected member in his community of Garden Heights. In “Concrete Rose” he’s seventeen, he’s a member of the King Lords (the gang his father was a high ranking member of), and he’s just found out that he’s the father of a three month old baby that had previously been believed to be his best friend’s (you may remember King from THUG). It’s a lot of change and a lot of pressure, and Maverick doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend Lisa about the baby, and doesn’t want to sell weed anymore now that he is a father who needs to be there. Thomas, unsurprisingly, captures Maverick’s voice very well, as he feels like an authentic teenager who can make bad decisions, but has a lot of heart and determination. We also see the barriers that he has to face due to systemic and societal racism and the poverty that his community is dealing with. He wants to support his son, and stay in school, AND go straight so that he doesn’t end up like his own incarcerated father, but there are few opportunities, and dealing, though dangerous, feels like the only way to be successful. It’s a very empathetic look at why decisions are made to join gangs and to deal, as for Maverick, when things get really hard, it feels like the only support system he has. While I don’t think that it connected with me as much as THUG and “On the Come Up”, I do think that “Concrete Rose” will connect with other readers, especially boys who see themselves in Maverick.

In terms of being a prequel to “The Hate U Give”, “Concrete Rose” does stand well enough on its own. There are certainly a couple of references to the other book with characters and some other plot points that are mentioned, but if you go into this one without any knowledge you aren’t going to feel like you’re missing anything. I really like that Thomas decided to look more at Maverick, as he was definitely one of my favorite characters in THUG. I loved seeing Mav and Lisa’s relationship as well, as in THUG they are Starr’s parents, but in “Concrete Rose” they are a burgeoning teenage couple with ups and downs. As someone who used to dabble in fiction writing, and as someone who ALSO found herself wanting to go back and explore characters that were supposed to be supporting characters only, I definitely LOVE that we got to see Mav and Lisa go through these ups and downs with the spotlight on the two of them. Some reviews I’ve seen has questioned whether this love story needed to be explored, but so what if it didn’t ‘need’ to be? It’s a great story regardless of ‘need’.

“Concrete Rose” is another well done book by Angie Thomas, whose voice and skills are undeniable and so, so important to YA fiction right now. I’ll be curious to see what comes next. While I wouldn’t mind a whole new tale, this book proves that she could go back and explore other characters and give them rich and emotional back stories.

Rating 8: A heartfelt and emotional prequel to one of the most important YA novels of the 21st Century, “Concrete Rose” gives a great backstory to a compelling character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Concrete Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “Contemporary Books with Black Leads”.

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

Book Club Review: “Sailor Moon Eternal Edition (Vols 1 and 2)”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Sailor Moon Eternal Edition (Vols 1 & 2)” by Naoko Takeuchi

Publishing Info: Kodansha Comics, September 2018/November 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: I own them.

Genre/Format: Manga

Book Description: The guardians in sailor suits return in this definitive edition of the greatest magical girl manga of all time! Featuring an extra-large size, premium paper, and an all-new translation and cover illustrations by creator Naoko Takeuchi!

Teenager Usagi is not the best athlete, she’s never gotten good grades, and, well, she’s a bit of a crybaby. But when she meets a talking cat, she begins a journey that will teach her she has a well of great strength just beneath the surface and the heart to inspire and stand up for her friends as Sailor Moon! Experience the Sailor Moon manga as never before in these extra-long editions.

Kate’s Thoughts

Though I have read some manga here and there and have watched a fair number of anime series (I actually just started watching “Death Note” for the first time, and I’m DIGGING it!), I never go into “Sailor Moon”. I had friends in high school who liked it, but by the time I did get into anime and ‘Magical girl’ stories, I pretty much just went with “Princess Tutu” and left it at that. So when our new Book Club session started up and one of our members wanted to read the first two books in “Sailor Moon”, I figured that now was as good a time as any to read one of the most influential Magical Girl mangas.

I think that had I been in a very specific time frame when reading “Sailor Moon” for the first time (perhaps after grade school but before I entered my ‘I’m not like other girls and too cool for girly shit’ punk and Goth phase in high school) I would have probably appreciated it more than reading it now. That isn’t to say that I don’t get why “Sailor Moon” is such a phenomenon. I liked the mythology of the Sailor Scouts, and I liked how we slowly got to meet each one and the different things that they all bring to the table. I also can tell that there is a LOT of mythology we haven’t even gotten to yet, and that as Usagi and her friends/teammates go forward there will be a lot more to learn regarding their identities, how Tuxedo Mask (the mysterious love interest) fits into it all, and how Usagi will balance this with her normal life as a teenage girl. In the first volume there is a lot of this kind of set up, while the second volume there is more solid adventuring and conflict that escalates. It was also pretty neat to see that things weren’t afraid to get dark as the plot arcs went on in Volume 2, and there were some pretty high stakes involved for Usagi and the others, as well as some legitimate peril to wrangle with. But at the end of the day Usagi herself was hard to connect with because there is a lot of effort to make her super imperfect to contrast with the amazing Sailor Moon alter ego that she has inside of her. But at the end of the day, these stories are not written for me as the intended audience, and because of that this is definitely a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation, as I DEFINITELY get the appeal in theory. Just not in my own practice.

I now feel like I have a better understanding of a story that has a very firm and well earned place in pop culture. It may not be for me, but I love that it is a story for teenage, fantasy loving girls who want their own kind of power fantasy. My hat does off to that and to them.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unlike Kate, I did read a lot of magical girl fantasy right around when this was coming out. But, unlike Kate in general, I’ve never really gotten into reading Manga or graphic novels much at all. As an adult, I’ve discovered more graphic novels that I enjoy, but it’s still not a go-to type of reading for me, even within my preferred genres. And as a middle school girl, I think I just associated any/all graphic novels with comic books and filed them away under “boring boy stuff.” I went on to have a complicated relationship with “Sailor Moon” in high school due to my on again off again boyfriend’s love of the series and my suspicion that he only wanted to date me initially based on my name being the same as the Americanized version of the main character’s. I was pleased to find that on reading the series now the main character’s name has been reverted back to the original, thus reducing my flashbacks to teenage years and highschool love letters between Serena and “Tuxedo Mask” (yes, he would sign off like that!)

With that little jaunt down memory lane out of the way, I had a lot of similar impressions to Kate. I can definitely see the appeal of this story and understand how it came to have such a far-reaching fanbase. The characters are all intriguing, the magic is fun, and the story is willing to engage with some darker themes. It also has much of the drama and awkwardness that teenagers enjoy, with Sailor Moon’s teenage identity providing a stark contrast to her magical girl persona.

Like Kate said, the second volume had more to work with after the first one spent much of its time laying down the foundation for the series. But even in the second one, it was clear that the story was just scratching the surface of all the stories it wanted to tell with these characters. I was pleased to see it go a bit deeper than the first volume did.

Overall, this also wasn’t really my thing. But I think that’s probably mostly due to my age and my generally picky approach to graphic novels and Manga. I picked up a “Pride and Prejudice” Manga at ALA a few years ago, and even that wasn’t really my jam. So this one had a steep hill to climb. But I definitely see the appeal for fans of the format and fantasy lovers in general, especially teenagers.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely ground breaking and assuredly appealing to magical girl fantasy fans, but not really my cup of tea at the end of the day.

Serena’s Rating 6: Approachable and fun for those who fit its audience type; unfortunately that wasn’t me.

Book Club Questions

  1. Have you read any manga before this? If so, what manga have you read and how does it compare to “Sailor Moon”? If not, what did you think of this first foray into the format?
  2. What did you think of the structure of the story as a stream of consciousness path that Usagi is taking? Did you like learning things as she did, or do you wish there had been a more organic way to explore the mythology?
  3. Did any of the Sailor Scouts appeal to you more than the others? If so, who, and why do you think that is?
  4. What did you think of the relationship between Sailor Moon/Usagi and Tuxedo Mask?
  5. Which elements, if any, of the ‘magical girl’ genre did you find most appealing?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sailor Moon Eternal Edition” Vols 1 and 2 (in other formats) are included on the Goodreads lists “Magical Girl Manga”, and “Fandom Origins”.

Find “Sailor Moon Eternal Edition” Vols 1 and 2 at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” [2020]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Movie: “Emma” [2020]

While I didn’t get to have the “in theater” experience that I wanted to honor the release of a new version of one of my favorite Austen books, I made quite sure to watch it as soon as possible at home. I had made sure to avoid reading any reviews or commentaries about the movie, though I did have the impression that it was generally very well received by Austen fans and the general public. So I went in optimistic.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t hit home for me. It wasn’t a complete flop by any means, and there were new interpretations and takes on the story that I genuinely appreciated. I thought it was really interesting how focused the movie was on the oddness of life for the super rich in this time period. We have Emma pointing out flowers to be cut by a maid following meekly behind her. And we even have Mr. Knightley, arguably the most self-sufficient character we’re given in the entire story, sitting around being intimately dressed by servants. It’s both incredibly awkward but also humorous in just how absurd it feels.

But I also really struggled with several aspects of this film. For one, I didn’t fall in love with the cast. Anya Taylor-Joy is clearly a talented actress, but for me, she came across as too cold for Emma. Because of Emma’s repeated mistakes and blunders, her immediate charm and appeal are crucial to forming a strong attachment between the audience and the character. For me, Taylor-Joy’s version was simply too aloof and distant-feeling to really capture that immediate sense of sympathy that is necessary to make Emma a character you want to root for. I also struggled with Johnny Flynn’s Knightley, though this was mostly because he simply looked to young and to close to Emma’s age more than anything having to do with his actual acting.

From there, I mainly struggled with some strange story choices that movie made. I didn’t like the weird scene after the ball where Knightley runs after Emma, seemingly on the verge of confessing feelings (feelings that she, too, seems to be expecting to hear about when waiting at home). It doesn’t go anywhere, but the scene itself really messes with the progression of this relationship as it implies that Emma is aware of Knightley’s feelings (and returns them to some extent) much earlier in the story. Plus, Mr. Knightley may be an active sort of gentleman, but he doesn’t literally run around town chasing after a woman.

I also really didn’t like the final romantic scene with the nose bleed. This movie was largely praised for how comedic it was, but this scene highlighted just how wrong I think this approach was. Yes, “Emma” is a comedy and any good adaption will hone in on the humorous aspects of the story. But what I absolutely DON’T want is to have that humor intrude on and break up the big romantic climax of the story. The tone during this scene is all over the place and seems to be deliberately cutting the legs out from under the romance that is supposed to be the culmination of a slow build developed throughout the entire movie up to this point. It was incredibly frustrating and resulted in me ending the entire movie with a fairly sour taste in my mouth.

My husband actually really likes “Emma,” (the 2009 version, at least) so there’s a good chance I’ll end up re-watching this version with him at some point. I’m curious to see if my experience of the film will be different with my expectations set a bit lower. I don’t see it ever replacing my beloved 2009 version, but I’d like to see if I can discover what appealed to so many others with a re-watch. If you enjoyed it, please share your thoughts in the comments (or if you didn’t like it, too, of course!)

In two weeks, I’ll review “Sanditon.”

Kate’s Review: “Harrow Lake”

Book: “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis

Publishing Info: Dial Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Ebook from the library!

Book Description: Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It’s where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There’s something not right about this town.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker–she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map–and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone–or something–stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Review: Even though I generally have my finger on the pulse of upcoming horror fiction, it does happen that I miss titles here and there. Because of that, I like to see various lists of horror and thriller titles that are in the pipeline. “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis ended up being one of those titles, as I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on a YA horror list. I was rather bummed that I missed it, as the elements of a slasher movie, a secretive small town, and an urban legend check a lot of boxes for my horror fiction jollies. Luckily the wait wasn’t too long for the eBook hold list, and I got “Harrow Lake” in a timely manner.

As mentioned, “Harrow Lake” has a lot of potential when it comes to hitting many a thing that I like in horror fiction. Our protagonist, Lola, is the daughter of a notorious slasher film director, so we get a fun and extensive look into a fictional filmography of splatter gore flicks that sound like a hoot. We also have the small town of Harrow Lake that has some strange inhabitants, a reputation because of the movie Lola’s Dad filmed there (where he met her mother, who disappeared from her life when she was little). The eeriness of the town was palpable and built slowly, which was a nice way to build unease as well. The biggest factor in the strangeness is the urban legend of Mister Jitters, a being that sounds like he has chattering teeth and who keeps haunting Lola at every turn as she finds herself stranded in Harrow Lake with her maternal grandmother after her father is attacked and hospitalized. I loved the lore of Mister Jitters, the kind of small town monster story that I never got to experience as a child given my upbringing in a bustling urban area, and I thought that Ellis really captured it well. Her writing style was also interesting, giving me a good feel for the town itself and the reasons why it was the way it was.

But as the book kept going, it became pretty clear that “Harrow Lake” wasn’t living up to the potential that was oozing from its description. Lola is an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, but I didn’t really find myself connecting with her even as the story went on. It does start to make sense as to why she is the way that she is, but even that reveal and explanation didn’t quite make up for a cliched personality and uninteresting characterization. The ways that her background was slowly pulled out felt a little garbled in some ways, with the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend feeling abrupt while other ways that addressed her mental state not feeling well explored. I could see a few of the twists coming from a mile away, and there were a few plot points that built up mysteries that didn’t really pay off for me. And I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to go on and read it, but let’s just say that Mister Jitters didn’t live up to all that I had hoped for him. Ultimately the pay off wasn’t that scary, and I had gone in with high hopes of urban legend scares.

At the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in this book, and that was really too bad. It may be that this book will connect with other people who give it a try, but for me it was a bit of a miss. I could see myself trying again with Ellis as her writing style was intriguing, but this one didn’t work.

Rating 5: There was a lot of interesting potential here, but “Harrow Lake” never quite clicked with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Harrow Lake” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets“.

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

Serena’s Review: “Siege of Rage and Ruin”

Book: “Siege of Rage and Ruin” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Isoka has done the impossible–she’s captured the ghost ship Soliton.

With her crew of mages, including the love of her life Princess Meroe, Isoka returns to the empire that sent her on her deadly mission. She’s ready to hand over the ghost ship as ransom for her sister Tori’s life, but arrives to find her home city under siege. And Tori at the helm of a rebellion.

Neither Isoka’s mastery of combat magic, nor Tori’s proficiency with mind control, could have prepared them for the feelings their reunion surfaces. But they’re soon drawn back into the rebels’ fight to free the city that almost killed them.

Previously Reviewed: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” and “City of Stone and Silence”

Review: After blowing through the first two books in this trilogy last January, I had to hunker down for the long wait until January 2021 to finally get the to the release of the final book. As much as I like being current with many of the books coming out in real-time, I have to say, there’s something to be said for just waiting for a series/trilogy to be finished so you can enjoy it in one, big, binge read. Ah well. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the trilogy, I was overall quite pleased with this book and for the way the series wrapped up as a whole.

On her way back to her home city, Isoka imagines that nothing ahead can pose a bigger challenge than what she’s accomplished already. She simply needs to rescue Tori and head back to the mysterious land from which Soliton came. But Tori is no longer the innocent girl Isoka remembers. Instead, she’s a rebel leader caught up in a revolution that seems to be on the brink of failure. What’s more, she has a powerful magical ability to influence the minds and actions of others, a power she had kept hidden from Isoka for all of these years. Together, the sisters must work to re-learn the sibling they thought they knew while also saving a city that seems doomed to fall.

While I did enjoy this book and still love the heck out of Isoka as a main character, I did struggle with this one more than the first two. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, like the second book in this trilogy, Isoka now shares the narrative with Tori which essentially splits her portion in half.

Tori isn’t a bad character in her own right, but she simply can’t compete with the explosive force that is Isoka. Tori’s own story is much less sympathetic and her overall arch feels less complete. The last book saw her do some pretty terrible things and that’s never really addressed going forward. On one hand, I like the fact that the book doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that are done in revolutions, even by those fighting for the “good” side. But Tori also never seems to resolve her feelings of being “monstrous” in any real way. Isoka kind of just brushes the whole thing aside when she learns about it, and Tori just seems to get over it suddenly at the end for no apparent reason.

Isoka’s own story feels like it takes a back seat to Tori’s as this book is largely about the revolution Tori started and thus naturally falls more in her wheelhouse. I still loved Isoka’s chapters, if mostly because her voice and character feel so alive and compelling. But, like Tori, it didn’t feel like she had much of a character arc in this story. She’d already come into her own as a leader and recognized the fact that she didn’t enjoy brutal killing. So there’s nowhere really for her to go in this story.

The second challenge, beyond the lack of character arcs for our two leads, was my own personal preference for the unique, fantastical elements presented in the first two books. There was so much creativity to the fantasy aspect of the story in the first and second book, between the ship Soliton and the Harbor with its spooky leader, Prime. Here, the story of a fairly straightforward rebellion and a pretty predictable resolution just wasn’t cutting it. I really missed the fantasy aspects of the series and was disappointed that not much new was introduced. I never was very invested in Tori’s rebellion and to have this entire last book focused on that was a pretty big let-down. But this was definitely more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

The writing itself was still incredibly strong and Wexler shines with his action scenes. Isoka’s fights were as thrilling as ever and her companions were fun supporting characters. I think it’s telling of Wexler’s skill that Jack, who could easily have become gimmicky and annoying, served well in her role as comedic relief throughout. I was also pleased to see Tori’s romance plotline take a decided backseat role, as that was another aspect of the second book that I was not at all invested in.

Overall, this was definitely the weakest of the three books, but it did tie up the story well and ended in a satisfactory manner. Readers’ enjoyment of it will likely be directly tied to their interest in Tori and the storyline that was introduced with her in the second book. But I’d say that fans of the first two, regardless of preference, should definitely check this last book out.

Rating 7: Lacking the fantasy elements that I’ve come to love, but still a satisfying end to the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Siege of Rage and Ruin” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “Siege of Rage and Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Atonement”

Book: “Atonement” (Cerenia Chronicles 3) by Angela Howes

Publishing Info: Fine Tuned Editing, January 2021

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

Book Description: They stopped Absalom. They saved the city. But what if recovery isn’t quite so easy? What if there are more monsters lurking inside the city walls? What if the true monster is one of them? In the much-anticipated conclusion to the Phoebe Ray series, Phoebe, Sky, Noah, and the gang must face a new kind of villain, make amends with the past, and learn what it means to truly belong.

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

There is a song by The Who called “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which has the line ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. While I wouldn’t say that it’s an anti-revolutionary ditty, I do think that it brings up a good point of you can’t always know that those you back who have lofty promises of change can be trusted to follow through. I also kind of liken it to how the French Revolution ultimately ended up with Napoleon in charge after all was said and done. In any case, whenever you hear Roger Daltrey yell “YEAAAAAAAAH”, it’s almost guaranteed that it’s from this song, and it’s legendary.

I am so sorry, I had to use this GIF, just pretend he’s yelling YEAAAAAH! (source)

I was thinking a lot about that song as I read “Atonement” by Angela Howes, the final story in the Cerenia Chronicles. After all, at the end of the previous book, “Containment”, our protagonist Phoebe had helped end the dictatorship that was run by Absalom, and Cerenia was on the cusp of a new dawn, as the system of Ones and Twos was finally to be done away with, and Phoebe was going to help rebuild society into something better. But as we soon learn, if only it were THAT easy.

We left “Containment” with Phoebe, boyfriend Sky, ex boyfriend Noah, and her other friends and family dealing with the fallout from Abasalom, the previous leader, being thrown in prison. “Atonement” decides to focus on how Phoebe is trying to change society from within the confines of its power structure, and that is already an interesting take that I haven’t encountered in my YA dystopia literature. Phoebe is confident that she and the Council can rebuild, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be that easy, and that someone else in power likes the idea of a power grab. Our narrative focuses on Phoebe trying to keep everything together, as well as balancing out her relationships, the safety of those she loves, and trying to figure out the best way to rebuild a society that has a lot of damage and long lasting effects that can’t just be done away with so easily. I loved this focus, and I loved seeing her have to see how damn hard it is to fix things even after the corruption is gone. She has to make hard decisions that others don’t necessarily understand, and it gave her more depth and complexity.

Our perspectives expand once again from the last book to this one. While we still have the three main lines of Phoebe, Sky, and Noah, other characters like Phoebe’s sister Violet, fellow councilmember Roderick, and others have been added to the shuffle. I can’t really decide what I think about all the new perspectives, as on one hand I liked having more insight into how all of these other people are adjusting, some of them just felt a little superfluous. I was still mostly interested in Phoebe as she tries to weed out corruption, but it was Sky’s that brought the next most interesting themes, as he is clearly dealing with trauma and PTSD after the events in the previous book. Given that Sky and Phoebe are my favorite characters and I’m invested in their relationship, I was happy(?) to see that one of the central conflicts coming between them wasn’t Noah. Not that trauma is something I WANT for a couple as a hurdle, but it felt more realistic than trotting out a love triangle just for the sake of the drama.

And in terms of plot and pacing, the action and suspense in this book builds slowly and then really amps up the stakes as the story goes on. When things start to spiral, the action just increases, and I found myself very on edge about what was going to happen. There were a good number of twists thrown in too, and throw backs to previous plot points that all come back together for the grand finale. All in all, I was quite satisfied with how things shook out, for better or for worse.

“Atonement” went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and I think that it was better for it. We may not see as much dystopian fiction in YA these days, but The Cerenia Chronicles is definitely a worthy series to add to the selection.

Rating 8: A satisfying ending to an enjoyable series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Atonement” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but if you like books like “Divergent”“Matched”, or “The Testing” you will probably find this one fun as well!

“Atonement” isn’t in very many libraries as of now, but you can find it on Amazon.

Previously Reviewed:

Highlights: January 2021

Happy New Year! We have finally said goodbye to the tire fire that was 2020 and things are hopefully, HOPEFULLY, starting to trend towards the positive in the New Year (please let those not be famous last words). With new beginnings and a new feeling of hope in the air, we have our first set of Highlights for 2021!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Siege of Rage and Ruin” by Django Wexler

Publication Date: January 5, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really liked the first two books in the “Wells of Sorcery” trilogy. Perhaps the first one more than the second, but both were still favorites from my reads of last year. Beyond its compelling characters, part of what made both those books stand out so much was the wildly unique magic and world-building at the heart of the story. Each had twists and turns that took me completely by surprise. That makes it all the more exciting going into this third and final book: I honestly have no idea what to expect! Beyond a reunion between Isoka and Tori, something that should provide much of interest on its own as each of these two young women have seen and experienced so much since they were last together.

Book: “The Mask of Mirrors” by M. A. Carrick

Publication Date: January 21, 2021

Why I’m Interested: M. A. Carrick is the joint pen name for Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, both authors and anthropologists. I’m not familiar with any of Helms’ work, but I have read and enjoyed Brennan’s books. One of her titles, “Driftwood,” made it onto my Top 10 list for 2020, even! So, while I’m nervous about any book with comparisons to “Six of Crows” at this point (a million times burned and all of that), having a solid author at the helm is probably one of the few things that would get me on board. Plus the cover is lovely and *sigh* I’m a sucker for con artists and thieves (hence the million chances given to previous “Six of Crows” wanna-be novels). Fingers crossed that this one will turn out well!

Book: “Winterkeep” by Kristin Cashore

Publication Date: January 19, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Yes, you read that right, a new book in the “Graceling Realm” series! It’s been, oh, years and years, and honestly I don’t think any of Cashore’s fans expected a return to this series. Featuring a new land full of airships, telepathic foxes, and political mysteries, the story also features the return of familiar faces, mainly Bitterblue, the young queen of her land, and Giddon, her friend and advisor. I’ll just say right now that I’m way more excited about this book than I have any right to be. So much so that I have a re-read planned this month for the first three books in the series, so get ready for that!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I made a promise to myself that I would henceforth start reviewing Angie Thomas’s books on the blog after “The Hate U Give” and “On The Come Up” made my top ten lists the years they came out. And given that I loved both, I was, of course, VERY excited to read “Concrete Rose”, a prequel to “THUG” that focuses on one of the most compelling characters in that book. Maverick Carter is a teenage boy in the 90s with a hot girlfriend, a caring mother, and a potential position in the local gang The King Lords given his father’s notoriety. But when he finds out that he is the father to a three month old boy, and after the boy’s mother runs, Mav has to grow up very fast. Now he has to try and raise his son, and build a life that’s better for himself so he can be a good dad. I loved Mav in “THUG”, so seeing his backstory is sure to be a treat.

Book: “Possession” by Katie Lowe

Publication Date: January 21, 2021

Why I’m Interested: We have another thriller book with a podcast element to it, but instead of the more familiar ‘the podcast is trying to get justice out of righteousness’, we instead have a potential victim being accused years later of being a criminal. Hannah and her daughter are living a quiet life in the years after Hannah’s husband was killed by an intruder. Hannah has no memory of that night, and has rebuilt her reality. But now a popular podcast has turned its narrative on her husband’s murder, saying that the man convicted didn’t do it, and spinning an angle that leans towards Hannah. As Hannah’s friends and loved ones start turning on her, she has to try and keep it together while still hiding the deep secrets of her old life. Sounds like a fun twist on a usual trope.

Book: “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller

Publication Date: January 26, 2021

Why I’m Interested: What better way to start of 2021 than with a good old fashioned ghost story! Teenager Bram is in need of a change; a change from her reality, and a change in scenery as she tries to leave behind a scandal. This brings her to a small town where her uncle has been working to renovate an old mansion, but who has a haunted life of his own. As Bram tries to settle in, the various people in town make it hard, but what’s worse is that there are rumors of other girls who have lived in the house that Bram now resides in. Rumors of girls who died there, and whose spirits are still within the walls. Can Bram protect herself from their terrible fates? I can’t wait to find out.

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