The Great Animorphs Re-read: Megamorphs #3 “Elfangor’s Secret”

363419Megamorphs #3: “Elfangor’s Secret”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Animorphs are given the power to pursue eighteen-year-old Henry– a human Controller who has discovered Elfangor’s Time Matrix–through time, but one Animorph must pay for this power with his life.

Narrator: Everyone!

Plot: What I remembered from this book:

  1. Tobias/Rachel kiss
  2. buc1lidogce01

The story starts out in the barn with our favorite team. But wait, is it our favorite team? Rachel’s not there, and instead Melissa is a member of the team. Jake is a burgeoning sociopath who is a hair’s breath away from turning in Cassie for being sympathetic towards her…slaves? And Ax’s opinion’s don’t matter. He’s just some dirty alien, anyways. The entire unpleasant scene is suddenly interrupted by the Drode. Everyone is back to themselves, and Rachel is once again there (turns out that in the other timeline she had been sent to some type of reform camp for being too aggressive for a woman). The Drode informs them that what they just experienced was the result of a Controller, specifically Visser Four, getting his hands on the Time Matrix that was discovered at the old construction site where they all met Elfangor. Crayak and Elfangor have once again struck a sort of deal with the Animorphs at the heart of it. They will be given a special connection to the Time Matrix that will allow them to time jump with Visser Four to try and re-capture it from him and undo his changes to history. But there’s a price: the life of one of the Animorphs.

Cassie and Marco know who the most likely casualty will be: Jake, with whom Crayak has a particular beef. But, at the same time, letting the future they so briefly experienced go forward is unacceptable. They vow to protect Jake, and the team agrees to the mission and terms. And so the time jumping commences!

Agincourt: The team find themselves in what seems like the middle ages, between two armies (French and English) that are about to go at it with horses, spears, and bows and arrows. Rachel and Cassie almost get taken out by an errant knight before they all manage to reconvene. From there, they begin looking for Visser Four. They realize that the best way to spot him will be to look for someone who is NOT covered in fleas and has terrible teeth. They finally do, just as the two armies collide. He’s in a tree aiming an arrow at the English king. Tobias manages to snag it out of the air. Rachel, Marco, and Cassie almost gets trampled in the fighting, but horse!Jake and HorkBajir!Tobias rescue them in the nick of time. Ax almost catches Visser Four and the Time Matrix in a local bell tower, but he manages to jump at the last minute.

Delaware River: It’s night, it’s cold, and it’s raining. And George Washington and co. are about to cross the Delaware. In human form, Marco and Jake end up on a boat alongside him when it all goes wrong. Visser Four had already warned the Hessians on the other side that they were coming, and a volley of bullets sprays across the boats. Jake falls, a bullet hole in his head. The team panics. Marco tries to hold onto Jake, but he falls into the river. Dolphin!Cassie tries to collect his body. Rachel insists that Ax attack the Hessians for killing Jake.  In the chaos, they all jump again.

Battle of Trafalgar: The team is on a ship. They’re all still reeling from the loss of Jake and trying to find their way. Dolphin!Cassie gives up hope and heads out to sea. Marco and Ax fight their way up from the brig. Up above, Tobias and Rachel spot Visser Four. Chimp!Rachel follows him up onto the crow’s next, but just then canons begin firing. Rachel falls, blown in half by a canon ball. Back below decks, Marco and Ax almost nab the Time Matrix again, but just miss as Visser Four sets an explosion that blows up the ship. Another jump.

Princeton: Cassie and Tobias find themselves on what appears to be the campus of Princeton. But the American flag is not flying. Washington was killed crossing the Delaware, and America doesn’t exist. Cassie is done with all the death, morphs polar bear, and lays the smack down on a passing college student when he expresses some racist opinions. Suddenly, Marco and Rachel (!) show up. The team realize that the rules of this mission were that one, and only one, of the Animorphs would die. Are they all now invulnerable? They wring more news out of the terrified student and realize that Visser Four was likely here to kill Einstein. But history has already changed so much that he miscalculated. Einstein isn’t even here. The team realizes that their plans  need to change.  History has already been too damaged by Visser Four. They need to get back the Time Matrix for themselves, change history back, maybe even get back Jake. Time jump!

D-Day: Several of the Animorphs experience the unique horror of charging the beaches and seeing hundreds of soldiers gunned down. Ax is particularly horrified by the violence. In small morphs, they are able to escape the rain of bullets. As birds from above, they see a line of tanks making their way towards the beaches. They realize that the French are on the side of the Germans, yet more proof that the timeline has been changed in crazy ways. In an attempt to get at Visser Four, HorkBajir!Tobias gets shot in the chest, but miraculously just stands right back up, confirming their theory that they can’t die. Eagle!Rachel takes out a tank with a hand grenade, but afterwards, realizing that so much is different, has a panic attack after realizing that it is no longer clear who the bad guys are. In this timeline, Hitler is just an old man driving a truck. They manage to finally nab Visser Four and the Time Matrix, but the host body is too injured to survive for long. The Yeerk makes a break for it, but Marco manages to grab it. None of them want to be the one to kill it, so Marco takes one for the team and throws the Yeerk into the fire that was the tank. With the Time Matrix now in their hands, they debate what to do. Cassie is the one to come up with the solution: she asks the man whom Visser Four had Controlled where his parents met.

The 60s: They then time travel to that point to break up the meeting, figuring that if his parents never met, then he would never exist and Visser Four would never Control him and discover the Time Matrix. While they are waiting, they discuss the horrors that they saw and that at every point in history they visited, people were senselessly killing each other. They debate whether or not they could do more to change the world, making it a more peaceful place. While they are talking, several hippies wander by and are impressed by the Time Matrix itself. Suddenly, they are back in the barn.

They realize that one of the hippies admiring the Time Matrix had been the would-be mother and that her distraction had resulted in her missing meeting the would-be father. What’s more, Jake is back, alive and well, not remembering anything after their attempted crossing of the Delaware. The world may not be better, but it seems that at least things are back to the way they were.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake gets the short straw as he is out of the story fairly early on and misses much of the action. We have some good leadership moments from him, particularly during their first time jump when Cassie, Rachel, and Marco are in the middle of the battlefield about to be trampled at any moment. Tobias is going crazy with worry about Rachel, not wanting to focus on Visser Four at all, and just go in after her. Jake reminds him that Cassie is down there too, but that just wildly going after them will not get them anywhere. His calm, even in the midst of crisis, is really highlighted.

While I like the tie-in to Jake and Crayak’s particular beef when it comes to the likelihood that Jake will be the one to die, it also lowers the stakes quite a bit. There are a few of the Animorphs who, theoretically, we might have bought as actually being killed off in this book. Rachel or Tobias are probably the most likely candidates. But with Jake, there’s never any question that he’ll be back somehow.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel is at her reckless/brave best (worst?) in this book. In their very first jump, she and Cassie end up in a tight spot with a few knights when Rachel’s go-to response of morphing elephant doesn’t turn out so well. Though I did, as always, love the Cassie/Rachel scene!

<See, Ax? Told you it was Rachel. Any time you hear a bunch of screaming and see people running, you’re going to find our girl Rachel somewhere close by.> [Tobias]
“Very funny,” Rachel said. ” They started it. Cassie: Tell them who started it!”

Later, she has a really cool scene taking out the tank with the hand grenade, though it is questionable later whether this was necessary. Mostly, she was just gungho to take out Nazis. But once she realizes that the French were teamed up with Germany in this timeline, she begins to understand that she doesn’t know whether they were the enemy or not in this scenario. It’s a really small scene, but it does highlight Rachel’s own knowledge and fear of her recklessness. She’s scared by herself in this way.

But, as I’ve pointed out in the past, she’s also, again, the first one to go into danger to try to save one of the others. This time, she’s the first to try to save Marco when he gets stuck in the middle of the battlefield in the first jump.

A Hawk’s Life: This whole book is a perfect example of why Tobias should use his Hork Bajir morph more often. He uses it to great success multiple times within this book. It doesn’t hurt that the clearly alien morph is sure to freak out any nearby people, thus clearly the way quite effectively without having to even do anything.

He also has another impressive hawk moment when he catches the arrow that Visser Four is shooting straight out of midair.

Tobias is also particularly vehement about taking out Hitler in the D-Day jump. Cassie tries to talk him down, pointing out that they don’t know who he has become in this new version of reality, but through a series of events, HorkBajir!Tobias does end up killing him, rather accidentally. As everything gets undone, it doesn’t matter one way or the other, but now Tobias can brag that he did in fact kill Hitler at one point.

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Tobias and Dean Winchester, getting it done.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie gets a lot of chapters in this book. As I discuss in Marco’s section, she and Marco have a unspoken plan to protect Jake. When they don’t succeed, Cassie succumbs to a moment of weakness and tries to flee out into the ocean in dolphin morph. Obviously this doesn’t work out, and she finds herself tugged along in the next jump anyways. It’s also nice to see her get mad and take things into her own hands when it comes to dealing with the racist guy in the Princeton jump.

She’s also the one to come up with the plan for out to set things right in the end. She’s not outright “killing” anyone, but her plan does result in the end, or more like, lack of existence, of a man’s life.

The Comic Relief: This is one of the first books where we’ve really seen a strong connection between Cassie and Marco. In the very beginning, when the Drode is laying out the situation, Marco is resistant to agreeing. It doesn’t take long for Cassie to realize why and for the two of them to come to an unspoken agreement about not letting Crayak take Jake. It’s nice seeing them both recognize the special relationship they each have with Jake. Rachel, too, has a close connection with him, but, as we’ve seen, she and Jake have a bit more of a fraught relationship than the BFF relationship that Marco has or the quasi-dating relationship of Cassie.

It’s also worth highlighting that Marco is the one to ultimately kill Visser Four. He tries to pass it off as a casual thing, but this is only marginally successful. But it does show that he is also willing to shoulder the burden when it is clear no one else is capable of it. Given their ultimate plan, though, I don’t know why this was so much of a concern. They change the timeline for the man he was Controlling, but it seems as if the Yeerk Visser Four would be alive and well back in their new timeline, so his “death” here is rather meaningless.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: After the Hessians shoot Jake, Rachel orders Ax to take them out. He tries to argue that they are innocent (at least of meaning to take out Jake specifically), but in the end, he goes for it. Throughout the rest of the story, we see this decision continue to haunt him.

On the beaches on D-day, he has a similar moment to Cassie’s where he thinks to just flee. He is horrified by the violence all around him, and struggles again to understand the duplicity of humanity, that people like his friends can exist yet throughout history humans just seem to kill each other. He is even more horrified when he learns the reasons for this particular war and what happened to the Jews.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There’s so much actual action taking place in this one, that we get a lot fewer descriptions of disgusting morphs. That said, this has to be one of the most violent books we’ve seen, made worse that it is drawing from history. Rachel’s death is probably the most gruesome. Her chimp body is literally blown in two and as she falls, she sees the remaining half of her own body still hanging from the ship’s masts. Then we switch perspectives to Tobias and get to have even more lovely descriptions of her blown apart body.

Couples Watch!: As I said, one of my big memories of this one was the Tobias/Rachel kiss. Once again they are blowing Cassie/Jake out of the water as far as relationship goals go. Tobias thought she was dead for like fifteen minutes, but the minute he sees her, he runs to her and kisses her. Cassie thinks Jake is dead for quite a long time, but when he shows back up in the barn, everyone’s kind of like “Oh, hey there!’ and Cassie casually kisses him on the cheek while talking about the philosophy of time and humanity. Romantic it is not. Seriously, what is with these two??

“Whoa,   Cassie!   That   is   so   Rachel,”   Marco   said. [Cassie in polar bear morph threatening the Princeton guy].   I   recognized   the   voice immediately. He’d come up behind us.

“Really,” Rachel said. “What are you doing? Stealing my act?”

“Rachel!”  Tobias  yelped.  And  a  millisecond  later  he  had  spun  around, grabbed her, and kissed her. Then he held her back at arm’s length.”You’re dead!”

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Four is obviously the big bad in this. But we never really get to know much about him. Throughout the book he’s seen more as a distant figure that they are chasing, and the few interactions they have with him are pretty typical Yeerk boasting.

“So. The Andalites pursue me still,” he sneered. “I was careless. I did not expect to be pursued. But I’ll be careful now. Yes. And you know what? It’s better this way. I have the power now! I have the POWER!”

More telling, when John Barryman is finally freed from the Yeerk, he is astonished and amazed that they are all just kids. He mentions how much the Animorphs are driving the Yeerks, and especially Visser Three, absolutely crazy trying to catch them. He tells them they’re heroes. Probably something they needed to hear about now.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Ax’s complete bewilderment and horror at the violence throughout human history really struck home. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching scene on the beaches when he witness a man get shot, and then sees a army doctor run up to try and help him and the doctor is shot too. All while trying to help a solder whose injuries were to dire to begin with.

Jake’s death, while not really worrying as something that will stick, is made more poignant because of Cassie and Marco’s silent agreement to protect him and how suddenly and completely they failed. In many of the other books, we see them get horrific injuries and then slowly start dying but have the time still to morph out to save themselves. Here, Jake is shot in the head. He’s dies in a second and there was absolutely nothing Cassie or Marco could have done about it. It really hits home how dangerous the war with the Yeerks is. This same thing could happen at any moment in their ongoing war, and the others would be equally helpless to stop it, and wouldn’t have a convenient time loop hole to get them out of it.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Really, the fact that they were even for a second discussing messing around with the Time Matrix more than just trying to set things right. They’ve already seen how even the smallest changes have had huge repercussions on the world. How could they ever think they could figure out this impossible puzzle in a way that wouldn’t be disastrous somehow? And it’s not like this is even their first experience with time travel! In the last megamorphs book with the dinosaurs, they saw how fragile the balance was for things to need to happen in a very specific way to get to the world they knew. Plus, you have to assume that any further messing around with time would have been put to a quick stop by either (or both!) Crayak or the Ellimist.

Favorite Quote:

There’s quite a bit of dark stuff and deep, timey-wimey musings, but, as always, Marco quips win the day:

“Oh, man, the colors, man!” A “hippie” had come up to admire the Time Matrix’s shimmering globe.

“Right, the colors, whoa! Cool! Go away. We’re trying to figure out the space-time continuum here,” Marco snapped.

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 12

I’m not going to change the score for this one. Like the other megamorphs books, this one kind of exists on the sidelines of the main plot, so there aren’t any long-lasting repercussions from their success here.

Rating: I still really enjoyed this one. I forgot about Marco and Cassie’s mini alliance, and all the details of the historical time periods they visited. I had completely forgotten how this book started out, just dropping readers into the other timeline. I was pretty confused at first since I know the last megamorphs deals with an alternate reality and I started questioning whether I had somehow gotten the order mixed up and that was this one. And, of course, I’m going to love any book with good Tobias/Rachel moments!

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Kate’s Review: “Lady Killer: Vol. 2”

30347784Book: “Lady Killer: Vol.2” by Joëlle Jones

Publishing Info: Dark Horse Comics, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The killer housewife is back! The Schuller family has moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where life carries on as usual. Josie continues to juggle Tupperware parties, her kids, and a few human heads. However, when someone from her past tails her on a hit, she may be in for more than she bargained for.

“Lady Killer is worth its weight in gold for the art alone, but the enigmatic Josie Schuller is the real appeal.”—Newsarama
“A level of violence that can only be described as Mad Men’s Betty Draper meets Dexter.”—Comic Book Resources

Review: Given that I enjoyed the first volume of “Lady Killer” by Joëlle Jones, it was a long and difficult wait for “Volume 2” to finally come out. Assassin Housewife Josie Schuller was a character that went above and beyond my expectations in the initial tale, an archetype that could have easily fallen into sex kitten kitsch lie so many other ‘badass’ women before her (Harley Quinn, anyone?). But the strength of her character lies within her complexity, and her multifaceted life and personality makes her an intriguing and fascinating protagonist, and I was excited to see where the choices she made in the previous book took her.

When we left Josie she had broken ties from the group that hired her on as an assassin. In a rather, uh, flamboyant way. Now she and her family (consisting of her husband Gene, her twin daughters Jane and Jessica, and her suspicious mother in law Mrs. Schuller) has moved to Florida, and Josie is working as a free agent assassin as well as maintaining the role of a perfect homemaker. By day she throws cocktail parties and barbecues, by night she’s killing targets. The duality of an ideal 1960s housewife and a cold blooded killer is both hysterical, but a bit barbed as well. Even hit women need to juggle it all, and have certain facades to maintain just as many women today feel a need to do so. I love seeing Josie interact with both her targets and her family. Her love and devotion to Gene is lovely to see (especially since he’s so clueless about who she is and what she is capable of), and little interactions with her daughters shows the fierce love she has for them and keeping them safe, be it from physical dangers or loutish, inappropriate men and their ‘humor’.

josie
She slits people’s throats but she’ll be damned if some creep says nasty stuff in front of her kids. (source: Dark Horse Comics)

One of the realities of Josie’s new life, however, is that by working solo she doesn’t have the support she had in the past, which makes flying under the radar more difficult. It was one thing to take out a target and have others there to clean up for you; it’s quite another to have to deal with it yourself, especially if you are a petite lady. I like that Jones was realistic in that Josie, capable assassin or not, struggled with body disposal and clean up, and had to turn to a shady character from the past, Irving, to help her with it all, as well as finding herself approached by another group that may want to strike a partnership. I like that Josie is frustrated that she needs help, and wants to continue her career on her own terms. But of course, with everyone having ulterior motives and underestimating the excellence that is Josie Schuller, nothing can come easy, and she finds herself the victim of the toxic assumptions that even though she’s a trained killer, ultimately she’s a woman, and therefore exploitable. The themes are evergreen, aren’t they?

Speaking of underestimating women, Josie isn’t immune to it. We get some background to her crabby and suspicious mother in law, Mrs. Schuller, who up until now Josie has seen as a mere thorn in her side. Turns out, Mrs. Schuller has a lot of stuff she’s been hiding, and some of her knowledge and backstory sparks off some dangers for Josie, and in turn their shared family. I am going to go into this a bit because I have a lot to say and dissect with this revelation, so consider this your warning for

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(source)

As it turns out, Mrs. Schuller used to work as a clerk for the Nazis. She’s now living a secret life in the U.S., hiding her past from those around her. I personally was uncomfortable with this revelation. While I like that it helped propel another plot line further along, it feels gross to me that this woman is pretty much getting off scott free as of now for being an honest to God Nazi. I appreciate the device of her being able to recognize ‘badness’ when she sees it, and that it means that she has some, um, skills that may come in handy down the line, but ultimately I really dislike that she is a foil to Josie. It’s a monster recognizing a ‘monster’ kind of situation, and I find it hypocritical that she wants Josie away from her son and grandchildren when she actively helped commit genocide. It’s a huge blip in what had, up until that point, been a stellar story, and sets it off kilter for me. But if we are willing to set aside the whole Nazi thing, it does show some interesting parallels between Josie and her mother in law, and how they both love their family fiercely in the face of hiding  very large and very dangerous secrets. Secrets that can’t keep sustaining themselves.The idea that Gene will forever be in the dark about Josie’s profession is a tedious one, and I was worried that we would continue to see Josie making roasts, stirring martinis, and keeping him in the dark to a laughable degree. But Jones makes a pretty ballsy decision in this volume that lays the groundwork for Josie’s perfect facade to start cracking as things become more and more out of control. We are left on a pretty big cliffhanger and potential gamechanger about this, as well as the return of someone who could REALLY mess things up for Josie’s personal life.

So Nazi storyline aside, I really enjoyed “Lady Killer: Volume 2”, and the growth and shift that Josie Schuller maneuvers within in. I had to wait so long for this volume, and I have the feeling the the next one will also be a wait. It’s one that I am more than willing to wait for, though. However impatient I may be.

Rating 8: A fun follow up with my favorite assassin housewife, Josie Schuller continues to buck gender norms and subvert expectations of 1960s womanhood! “Lady Killer: Vol. 2” keeps the fun going and I can’t wait for the story to continue.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lady Killer: Vol.2” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Graphic Novels (released in 2017)”, and should be included on “Women Creators in Comics”.

Find “Lady Killer: Vol. 2” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Song of the Current”

31450960Book: “Song of the Current” by Sarah Tolcser

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury Children’s, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the publisher!

Book Description: Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. For generations, her family has been called by the river god, who has guided their wherries on countless voyages throughout the Riverlands. At seventeen, Caro has spent years listening to the water, ready to meet her fate. But the river god hasn’t spoken her name yet—and if he hasn’t by now, there’s a chance he never will.

Caro decides to take her future into her own hands when her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate. By agreeing to deliver it in exchange for his release, Caro finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies, with dangerous pirates after the cargo—an arrogant courier with a secret—and without the river god to help her. With so much at stake, Caro must choose between the life she always wanted and the one she never could have imagined for herself.

Review: First off, a bit thanks to the publisher for sending this my way! Just in time for us all to gear up for the second in the series, “Whisper of the Tide,” to come out this June. And this was a super solid outing for a new fantasy series, so count me as on board that excitement train!

So I was one of those kids who went to summer camp. During middle school I just went to the regular camp, but then I discovered the magnificence of “themed” camps also offered through the sane organization. Specifically, sailing camp. It was a week long camp where a bunch of high schoolers and a few counselors pretty much sailed around this massive lake in northern Idaho and camped overnight at various places. So…yeah…I’m pretty much a sailing expert. Ha! Not all. But this little jaunt into memory lane is one of the reasons that I loved this book.

We’ve all read a million and one epic fantasies with dragons and magical powers A few trillion fairy tale retellings. And as much as I love both of those, it’s always nice to find a new take on the genre, and that’s what we get here. Not only does the majority of the story take place on the water, be it rivers or the ocean, but the main character’s entire life and that of her family revolves around living on and operating ships. What’s more, it is a crucial aspect of the magic system, the economy of the world, and its belief system.

I loved that the author went all in on this concept. She doesn’t hesitate to devote a decent amount of time describing ships and the skills necessary to successfully navigate them. I had a lot of fun picking out the few bits of knowledge I recognized, and it was interesting to learn even more. This may read as a bit dull to some readers, but I think if you know what you’re going to get and have an interest in sailing and ships, this sharp focus will be appreciated.

But the world-building goes beyond just detailed ship knowledge. As I said, the politics and economics of this world revolve in one way or another around the waterways. Caro’s path through this adventure is tied to the different parties involved who have an interest in what goes on out on the water. Caro’s mother and father both come from very different worlds, and I loved the very different outlook they both brought to what it means to love the water and the ships on it.

Caro, herself, was an excellent protagonist. It’s clear from the beginning that she is a skilled sailor, and as she moves through the story, she gains even more confidence in this area, all while still trying to find her exact role in this world. She’s pulled between the two opposite forces of her parents, and also is starting to suspect that she may be something altogether different than either of them would suspect. Here, the magic system was particularly interesting, including a very unique river god.

The other major player is Markos,  a young man full of arrogance and swagger, and whose lot gets thrown in with Caro’s, much to her initial displeasure. This was a perfect example of one of my much loved romances: the dislike changing to love arc. But it’s also a tough one to pull off, with many authors succeeding a bit too well at the “dislike” portion, so much so that they can’t justify the love to follow. Here, Markos’s vanity and incompetence are humorous. And while it’s easy to see why he gets under Caro’s skin, as a reader, I was just having blast reading about his foibles. And, as Caro gets to know him better, he has clear strengths, such as an unbreakable love for his family and some pretty stellar sword skills.

For me, the unique world-building and the spot-on characterization of Caro and Markos are what truly sold me on the story. It does focus quite a bit on the sailing aspect of things, so if you have zero interest in ships and how they work, this might be a struggle. But for everyone else, jump on board!

Rating 8: This book was a romp, a fast-moving adventure full of ships, magic, and high stakes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Song of the Current” is on these Goodreads lists: “Teen Pirate Books” and “Mixed Race MG, YA.”

Find “Song of the Current” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “People Like Us”

35356380Book: “People Like Us” by Dana Mele

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Kay Donovan may have skeletons in her closet, but the past is past, and she’s reinvented herself entirely. Now she’s a star soccer player whose group of gorgeous friends run their private school with effortless popularity and acerbic wit. But when a girl’s body is found in the lake, Kay’s carefully constructed life begins to topple. 

The dead girl has left Kay a computer-coded scavenger hunt, which, as it unravels, begins to implicate suspect after suspect, until Kay herself is in the crosshairs of a murder investigation. But if Kay’s finally backed into a corner, she’ll do what it takes to survive. Because at Bates Academy, the truth is something you make…not something that happened.

Review: Oh ho ho what’s this? It’s another ‘horrible kids being horrible at boarding school’ book!! My freaking weakness of a book type (or one of many). “People Like Us” by Dana Mele was one of those books that I just randomly stumbled upon on GoodReads thanks to that site’s propensity to feature books on the side of your feed that they are trying to promote. Most of the time I ignore these ads, but on occasion I’m drawn in because of tantalizing covers or large words promising great things, usually of thriller kind. Knowing full well that I was pretty much taking a gamble, I requested it. When it opened with a bunch of boarding school popular girls finding a body, I was immediately drawn in. Because who doesn’t love a bit of salacious carnage to kick off a book? But as the book kept going, it became quite clear that it was going to be something we’ve seen before without pushing many boundaries inside of the genre.

The cast of characters is a pretty standard cast list for a YA thriller/mystery. Our protagonist is Kay, a girl who came to the prep school Bates Private School with two main motivations: to pursue a soccer scholarship for college, and to run away from a trauma from her past. She has a number of secrets she keeps from her other friends in their popular crowd, just as they have secrets from each other as they rule the school and sometimes torment other students. Unfortunately, there was definitely too much of her hinging on on this tragic and secret past of hers, and while it was slowly and carefully unfolded I never really found a moment of connection to Kay. While most of her relationships with her friends are pretty one dimensional, there are a couple exceptions to this: she is attracted to and perhaps in love with her best friend Brie, but their romance has never come to fruition because the timing has always been wrong (or Kay has been misbehaving in some kind of way). And along with Brie there is Nola, a classmate who has always  been seen as weird, but may be Kay’s only hope in solving who is harassing her and targeting her friends. I really liked that Dana Mele treats Kay’s sexuality as just a fact of the story, and that all of these characters were fairly fluid in their sexual identities. But beyond that, none of them were particularly noteworthy or interesting. As Kay’s friends face their various consequences to being jerks, I never felt particularly bad for them, nor did I really feel a sweet satisfaction outside of a general ‘ha ha awful popular kids get what’s coming to them’ feeling. They weren’t likable, but they weren’t interesting enough to be fun to hate either. Too many of them were placed to either be non lethal body counts, or to make the reader wonder if they are the one who set it all up in the first place.

The mystery too was a little lackluster for me. There were plenty of red herrings the muddle the waters effectively, be it misdirection about the mystery at the forefront or the mystery of Kay’s past. But ultimately, I did kind of brush across the solution well before the solution was revealed, even if I didn’t let it stick in my mind. And by the time we did get to the solution, I didn’t feel like we’d come to a big revelation. It just kind of happened, and I felt neither positive nor negative about how it all sussed out in the end. There was one final twist that did shock me, though, which was a nice surprise given that I thought that I had everything totally figured out within that storyline. It’s the little surprises that felt rewarding in this book, but when you don’t find yourself as a ready very invested in the majority of the mystery, or the consequences that it is going to dole out of the characters.

So what made it so readable, perhaps you are wondering? Well honestly, I am always going to be a sucker for the boarding school brats being rotten to each other trope, along with the themes of the misbehaving idle rich getting what they so richly deserve. If you want a standard book within this trope and genre, “People Like Us” is going to fulfill that want and need because it is so by the book (as it were). It almost acted as a comfort read for me, in that I didn’t have to think too deeply about it and that I knew that bad people were going to have bad things happen to them. Sometimes all we want is a book that hits all the things that we want and to be able to just enjoy it for what it is, and I do have to admit that I got that from “People Like Us” when all was said and done.  

If you are looking for a YA thriller mystery that reinvents the wheel, “People Like Us” probably isn’t going to be the read for you. But if you want that familiar comfort of a genre you’ve come to really enjoy without rocking the boat, it could be a good bet.

Rating 6: A fine example of the thriller genre, especially if it takes place in a boarding school, but “People Like Us” doesn’t really do much to set itself outside the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“People Like Us” is included on the Goodreads lists “Prep School Mysteries”, and “Sapphic Boarding School Books”.

Find “People Like Us” at your library using WorldCat!

Highlights: May 2018

Okay, so after a bit of a false start that led to multiple snow storms in April (including an honest to God BLIZZARD), May is here and now, NOW, spring is finally here. We’re celebrating by exploring the outdoors, opening the windows, and anticipating a number of new books. Here are the titles we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

35842338Book: “The Surface Breaks” by Louise O’Neill

Publication Date: May 3rd, 2018

Why I’m Interested:  “Beauty and the Beast” will always be my favorite fairytale, but as a young girl, I also had a special place in my heart for “The Little Mermaid.” However, unlike “Beauty and the Beast,” that story has become a bit harder to swallow as I’ve gotten older. I mean, everything else aside…she’s sixteen!!! At least they don’t put an age on Belle! But, all of that said, I love fairytale retellings and ‘The Little Mermaid” doesn’t really have a ton of them. I’m a little wary about the “groundbreaking feminism” that this book is hyped to have (I’m now wary of much hype about anything it seems), but I’m excited to check it out and judge for myself. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, if nothing else!

36039814Book: “The Queen of Sorrow” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publication Date: May 15, 2018

Why I’m Interested: Well, this is kind of a strange pick because it’s book three in a trilogy of which I’ve only read the first, “The Queen of Blood.” But I loved that book with its original fantasy world made up of cities built in trees and deadly spirits that only the most powerful queen can control. I’m trying to avoid looking too closely at the plot description of this story, since I haven’t gotten to book two yet, but it seems that Daleina is still queen and is now beginning to go head-to-head with her old school frenemy, Merecot. Merecot was only in the first book for a very short portion, but I really loved what we got from her there. She was incredibly powerful, witty, and a bit sociopathic. But there was also a strange bond between her and Daleina. Will be a bit until I finally get to this, but it’s always nice when a trilogy/series is already finished when you’re reading it and therefore don’t have to deal with any waiting!

34739766Book: “Onyx & Ivory” by Mindee Arnett

Publication Date: May 15, 2018

Why I’m Interested: Yet another new fantasy series to start! At least I’m guessing it’s a series/trilogy, though I’d love to be proven wrong as standalone fantasy stories are rare gems. This story features Kate, a young woman attempting to live her life under the radar for two reasons. Her father was a traitor to the crown, attempting to assassinate his close friend the King, and she possesses a rare, and outlawed, magical skill to command animals. Corwin is the King’s second son. While the traditions of the land say that he and his brother are both viable heirs for the throne, Corwin has never felt worthy.  Partly due to his perceived abandonment of his childhood friend and young love, Kate, after her father’s actions and execution. But, of course, they’re thrown together once again and their futures are not what they had planned.

Kate’s Picks

36000789Book: “The Outsider” by Stephen King

Publication Date: May 22nd, 2018

Why I’m Interested: This is probably obvious from the get go, but given that Stephen King is one of my favorite authors I would be remiss to leave his newest book, “The Outsider”, unacknowledged. This one is more like the “Mr. Mercedes” canon, with more emphasis on evils of a non-supernatural kind, in which a child is murdered and someone is falsely accused for it, while the real killer continues on a spree and remains undetected. King is always going to be a priority for me and my reading list, and while he has his ups and downs, I always enjoy the journey that he takes me on. While I did like “Sleeping Beauties” enough, I’m excited to see King back on his own.

36347888Book: “Our Kind of Cruelty” by Araminta Hall

Publication Date: May 8th, 2018

Why I’m Interested: As you guys know, the Joe Goldberg Duology (please be a series!) by Caroline Kepnes is one of my favorite reads lately, potentially all time. Though a lot of that is because of the humorous voice that Joe has, it’s also the creepy stalker perspective that I enjoy. So I am very intrigued and interested in Araminta Hall’s new book “Our Kind of Cruelty”. This one involves Mike, who knows that he and Verity are meant to be together even if she doesn’t know it. So he figures that if he just keeps track of every move she makes, he’ll know the right time to ‘win’ her back. While I have a feeling it’s not going to be as ‘fun’ as “You” or “Hidden Bodies”, I’m ready to be scared by this kind of tale again.

36373481Book: “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

Publication Date: May 29th, 2018

Why I’m Interested: While it’s true that “The Lying Game” left me a bit underwhelmed, I still like Ruth Ware and her thriller writing skills and am excited about her newest book “The Death of Mrs. Westaway”. In her newest thriller, a woman named Hal is accidentally left an inheritance meant for someone else. Hal, a cold reader who scams people with tarot readings, thinks that she can probably fake her way into getting the money, and goes to claim the inheritance. But, of course, it becomes quite clear that things are very, very wrong. I’m down for a return to a gothic thriller with questionable characters and strange circumstances, and if this can return to “In a Dark Dark Wood” levels of excellence I will be completely stoked.

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

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “Furyborn”

34323570Book: “Furyborn” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley and BookishFirst

Book Description: When assassins ambush her best friend, the crown prince, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing her ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. The only people who should possess this extraordinary power are a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light and salvation and a queen of blood and destruction. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven trials to test her magic. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.

A thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a mere fairy tale to bounty hunter Eliana Ferracora. When the Undying Empire conquered her kingdom, she embraced violence to keep her family alive. Now, she believes herself untouchable–until her mother vanishes without a trace, along with countless other women in their city. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain on a dangerous mission and discovers that the evil at the heart of the empire is more terrible than she ever imagined.

As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world–and of each other.

Review: I’m pretty sure “Furyborn” wins the competition for most hyped book this spring. Everywhere I look there are lists including it as most looked forward to, rave reviews, or options to get your hands on it early. So props to the marketing team for getting this one out there. However, as has become a bit of a habit for me with much-hyped books, I had some mixed feelings on this one. Mixed though! I did enjoy this more than “The Cruel Prince” which was my last big letdown from the hype machine.

Most of the things I enjoyed in this story were also directly tied to aspects that I did not. Unlike other books, the problems I had with this story weren’t connected as much to the actual characterizations we’re given or the overall story. Both were mostly strong. But there are writing choices throughout the story that frankly sabotaged the good efforts made elsewhere.

For example, to start out. Both Rielle and Eliana are strong enough characters on their own. They live in very different worlds, and while some of their struggles are similar (trying to find their place in the world & hiding/fighting against perceptions that might set others against them and those they love), they are distinct in their own right. They each have a unique voice, always an important element in shared POV books. I personally found myself a bit more drawn to Eliana. Her story has a bit more mystery (for reasons we’ll discuss later), and as a character, I enjoyed her more morally grey worldview. However, I didn’t dislike Rielle either.

The other side of this coin, though, is the fact that both of these characters feel cut off at the knees by the alternating POVs. It’s not even a complicated problem: each POV is simply too short. The reader is being constantly bounced back and forth between each girl’s story, that one can never really settle into either character or plotline. This results in me kind of just not caring, when all is said and done. Readers need a chance to settle into a character, to really come into their world and understand their motivations and challenges. But when we’re constantly bounced back and forth between two very different stories every few pages, there is never a chance to really get that moment where you become invested. It was a fine read, but it was just that, a read. I never felt like I was really in this world. I was always just reading about it.

This problem extends to the world-building. There’s a lot that needs to happen on this front for a story that is going to try to present two very different worlds, thousands of years apart. The author essentially has to do twice the world-building to successfully pull it off. But, again, because of the quick switches between one character and the other, I never felt like I had a clear understanding of either of these worlds. There are angels in one? But the details are foggy. The other world has a empire that is set on taking over the world, but why and how? These details are all interesting on their own, but it ultimately felt like the author had bit off more than she could chew. Or, at the very least, more than could be reasonably fit in one novel that also has a lot of other things going on.

The action was fun. There is no denying that this book moves, and it was this that got me through some of the failings in my full connection to either character or the world itself. What’s more, I enjoyed that the action was very different between each girl’s storylines. Rielle’s ongoing magical trials were exciting and fast-moving. Whereas Eliana’s were caught up in politics and the violent nature of what the world has become under this ambitious empire. But, again, this same fast-moving action was also part of the reason the world-building and character development felt stunted. There simply weren’t enough pages to fit in all of this action while also developing two fully-realized characters and two fully expanded worlds.

I did  also have one major criticism of this book. I read a good article recently that questioned whether a prologue is ever necessary for a book. The author of the essay mentioned that very talented authors could pull them off (like J.K. Rowling and her prologue in the first Harry Potter book), but even then, did you need them? This book serves as a perfect example where, for me, the prologue actively damaged my perception of the story right off the bat. It’s not long, but in even those few pages, the author managed to spoil almost every single reveal that was to come throughout the rest of the book. I already new the secrets that plagued some of our characters, thus making their confusion and ultimate surprise incredibly uninteresting to read about.

Further, I feel like this prologue was meant to inspire curiosity about how one character ended up where she did. But instead, I felt spoiled for her entire plot and thus her chapters held very little interest. There was no real threat behind any of the things she confronted because I knew where she ended up. If I hadn’t already been losing interest in characters because of the quick jumps back and forth due to the POV switches, this prologue alone did enough to pretty much kill off my interest and curiosity in at least one of these two.

All of that said, there book is still a fairly strong outing in a new fantasy world. There isn’t a lack of action or story, and the characters are interesting on their own. The problems I had were all down to stylistic choices (too short of chapters between switches, an uneven balance between action and world-building, and an unnecessary and ultimately harmful prologue). I’ll probably still stick around to read the next books in the series, however.

Want to judge for yourself? Get your hands on an ARC of “Furyborn” before it comes out! Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends May 10, 2018.

Click here to enter!

Rating 6: Had some good things going for it, but the author made a few writing choices that seemed to shoot the book in the foot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Furyborn” is an upcoming title, but it it is included on this Goodreads list: “Badass YA Heroines.”

Find “Furyborn” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

35068432Book: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara

Publishing Info: Harper, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book DescriptionA masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

Review: I woke up on April 25th to a story I never thought, but I had long hoped, to see: there was an arrest in the Golden State Killer case. The Golden State Killer (GSK), aka The East Area Rapist (EARS) or The Original Night Stalker (ONS), was suspected of fifty rapes, a dozen murders, and more than 100 burglaries, all committed in California over the course of a few decades, and it was long thought that he wouldn’t be caught. As a huge true crime fan, I knew this case fairly well, thanks two big factors. The first was the podcast “My Favorite Murder”, and that led to the second: the book “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” by Michelle McNamara. McNamara was a true crime writer with the blog “True Crime Diary”, and had been doggedly pursuing The Golden State Killer (a phrase she created) at the time of her tragic death in 2016. Earlier this year “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” was released, in part to Bill Jensen, a co-investigator and investigative journalist in his own right. So when an arrest was made, the news spread like wildfire, and while the police were reluctant to give McNamara any credit outside of raising awareness, many think that that very awareness (starting with her blog and various articles she wrote) was vital to putting pressure on, which in turn led to an arrest. I read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” before Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer and seventy two year old man, was arrested for the crimes. But now that he has been, I want to shine a light on this great book, especially since the story has finally found some closure.

What stands out immediately about this book is how personal it is. While McNamara herself didn’t know anyone who was hurt or killed by GSK/EAR/ONS, an unsolved murder of a childhood neighbor always stuck with her throughout her life. As she started to learn about The Golden State Killer, she began to feel a deep sense of injustice for the victims that he left behind, and started to investigate it herself. She made connections with investigators, she dove into online groups of fellow armchair investigators, she visited locations and dug through box after box of evidence. Her almost obsessive commitment to this case is juxtaposed with the crimes themselves, and the horror that GSK/EAR/ONS brought upon his victims. But she is always sure to be respectful, and to keep the details vague enough to be respectful, but precise enough to paint a picture of just how awful these crimes were. She gives voice and context for the people that GSK/EAR/ONS raped or murdered, and always puts them at the forefront and the fact that justice eluded them and those they left behind for so long. In many true crime books (with a few exceptions, of course, like Ann Rule) the focus is primarily on the murderer, and the victims merely objects in a salacious story. But with McNamara, she wants the reader to know the victims and makes their voices the most important ones. Would this be different had DeAngelo been identified at publishing? Possibly. But I do get the sense that for McNamara, the identity was only important for justice purposes; this wouldn’t have been a story to give him any glory or to make his crimes entertainment.

As you read, McNamara instills actual terror into you. I had to stop reading this book after dark, because any noise and anything out of place sent me into a paranoid spiral. Her writing is that immersive, pulling you in and keeping you engaged. She also makes herself vulnerable by being fully aware and honest with her own obsession, and the toll that it takes on her life and her own mental health. Unlike the book that Robert Graysmith wrote about The Zodiac Killer, McNamara knew that she was treading towards obsession, and that it was deeply affecting her life. The sad fact of the matter is that when Michelle died unexpectedly in her sleep, she could have been seen as, in a way, GSK/EAR/ONS ‘s last victim. She had been having trouble sleeping, and her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) had suggested she take some Xanax and just sleep until she woke up. And she didn’t wake up, because of an undiagnosed heart condition in tandem to the Xanax and other prescriptions. The tragedy of her death lingers on the page, as there are sections with editor’s notes that explain that they were originally unfinished, or that they were pieced together by her notes or previous articles. It’s so great to see that this book and story she was so dedicated to was finished by people close to her, but the loss is still palpable.

So how does the new information about John DeAngelo affect this book? If anything, it makes it more poignant, and it certainly doesn’t diminish it. I say this because of a specific moment in the epilogue, entitled “A Letter To An Old Man”. It’s a final moment that is essentially a letter from Michelle to GSK/EAR/ONS, and it works as a powerful cap off to a wonderful book. The final paragraph is all the more powerful now. I’m going to quote part of it here to show you what I mean, a quote that’s made the rounds on social media a lot in the days after DeAngelo’s capture.

“The doorbell rings. No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly towards the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim, once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”

And as Patton Oswalt and many others have pointed out, this is exactly what happened on April 25th, 2018.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a stunning true crime book and an opus for a voice that left us far too soon. It will surely be considered one of the greats of the genre in the years to come, and Michelle McNamara will be remembered for all the good that she did in her help to bringing closure to the victims of a horrible monster. But it’s also just well written book about confronting darkness in life and in ourselves, and how to battle it as best we can.

Rating 9: A tense and well written true crime opus by a voice gone too soon, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a tribute to perseverance, and will stand the test of time as not only a true crime classic but as one that probably helped bring justice to the victims of a monster.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” is included on the Goodreads lists “My Favorite Murder Books”, and “Best True Crime”.

Find “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” at your library using WorldCat!