Book: “The Dollhouse Family” by Mike Carey, Peter Gross (Ill.), and Vince Locke (Ill.)
Publishing Info: DC Black Label, September 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description:Alice loves to talk to her dolls, and her dolls and dollhouse love to talk back.
When Alice is six, she is given a beautiful antique dollhouse. When things in her life get scary, Alice turns to her dolls and dollhouse for comfort. One day, they invite her to come play inside with them. As Alice’s life is turned upside down in the “big” world, she is always welcomed home to the little world inside the dollhouse; the house will even grant her a wish if she agrees to live with them!
Follow Alice through the door of the dollhouse and into the demon’s den.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this graphic novel!
Let it be said that Hill House Comics has gotten some pretty legitimate authors on board of their imprint! It’s not that surprising, as Joe Hill seems like a cool guy who knows talent when he sees it. “Basketful of Heads” was an awesome first experience for me in regards to this imprint, and when I saw that M.R. Carey was getting in on the action with “The Dollhouse Family” (though writing under his usual comic name Mike Carey) I was pleased. When Carey does straight up horror, like “Someone Like Me”, I am fully on board with his works. So I’m definitely all in to see what he can do with a creepy dollhouse!
“The Dollhouse Family” is a generation spanning family saga that wraps itself in a dark fantasy horror story, and for the most part I felt like it worked pretty well. We have a couple of paths that we’re following, and while the way they connect isn’t completely apparent at first, Carey does a really good job of building upon then until we do reach that connecting point. The first is of Alice, a young girl who inherits an old dollhouse from an estranged relative. Alice’s father is abusive and her mother is passive, and Alice finds solace in the dollhouse… especially when the dolls start talking to her, and she finds out that she can shrink down to join them inside. The other path is in the past, as a man named Joseph, while doing survey work, finds himself in a cave, and comes face to face with a mysterious woman, and a sleeping giant.
As mentioned, it isn’t totally clear how these two stories relate, but they are both interesting enough in their own rights that you will want to see how they do. After Alice makes a decision that completely shifts her life’s path, due to a suggestion by a mysterious being in the dollhouse called The Black Room, she ultimately ends up with a daughter of her own, and a fear of the dollhouse that just keeps showing up. I really liked Alice, and while the unfolding of the other timeline wasn’t as interesting to me, the world building and mythology building that Carey did with it definitely laid a foundation that made sense for where Alice and daughter Una end up. I liked the build up and the horror elements of demons, as well as cosmic/Lovecraftian body horror that gave me a serious case of the squicks.
But where this book ultimately fumbles is that for all the world building and build up, the ending is incredibly abrupt. I was reading this on my computer, and when I saw that I only had tenish pages left I was convinced that the file I had was cut off prematurely, as there was no WAY that it could all be wrapped up in ten pages. And yet, it was, and because of that it all felt SUPER rushed and unsatisfying. For all that background and foundation, the climax was way too quick, and the let down after the climax was even quicker.
The art style, though, was a good match for the tone. It felt a bit old school in its design, but the details were intricate, as intricate as that on the strange dollhouse within the story itself.
Overall, I think that “The Dollhouse Family” is probably worth it for horror comics fans just because of the things that do work. But I do wish that Carey had taken a little more time to wrap things up.
Rating 7: A creepy and well planned out horror fantasy, “The Dollhouse Family” is an entertaining comic, but resolves itself a little too quickly.
Book: “How to Break and Evil Curse” by Laura Morrison
Publishing Info: Black Spot Books, October 202
Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley
Book Description: The King of the Land of Fritillary has incurred the wrath of his ex-bestie, the evil wizard Farland Phelps. Farland curses the King’s firstborn to die if touched by sunlight, and just like that, Julianna must spend her life in the depths of a castle dungeon (emptied of prisoners and redecorated in the latest fashion, of course). A young woman of infinite resourcefulness, all she needs is a serving spoon, a loose rock in the wall, and eight years of digging, and Julianna is free to explore the city—just not while the sun is out!
Warren Kensington is a member of a seafaring traveling theater troupe and the unwitting magical cure to the curse. When the pirate ship he’s sailing on is damaged in stormy seas, he goes ashore and bumps into Julianna on the streets of the capitol. The pair accidentally set in motion a chain of events that uncovers Farland’s plans to take over the throne. Julianna, Warren, and some friends they meet along the way are the only ones who can save the monarchy.
But the farther they go along their increasingly ludicrous journey, and the more citizens they meet, the more Julianna wonders whether her dad’s throne is worth saving. From an evil and greedy wizard? Well, sure. But from the people of Fritillary who are trying to spark a revolution? The people suffering in poverty, malnutrition, and other forms of medieval-esque peasant hardship? It doesn’t take Julianna long to find that the real world is far more complicated than a black-and-white fairytale.
Review: I’m always on the look out for a good fantasy/comedy series. While most of what I consider good fantasy obviously contains comedy elements, it’s typically nothing more than some witty dialogue. Nothing that would justify an added genre to the book itself. But, of course, they exist! “The Princess Bride” is a perennial favorite. And as I just discovered in a recent review of “The Princess Will Save You” , the comedy is central to the success of that story. So I was excited to see fantasy story that was actively marketed as a comedy, finally!
Julianna has grown up in a dungeon. Well, a dungeon that her mother practiced her interior design skills on to make as comfortable as possible, but there’s no getting rid of the decidedly dungeon-ness of it all, old prisoner ghosts and all. But with a curse that dooms her to death if touched by sunlight, Julianna’s royal parents didn’t see another choice. But that hasn’t stopped Julianna from taking things into her own hands and tunneling outside the castle walls. There she meets the young man who could be her salvation, a strange mix of boy who loves music and grew up on a pirate ship. Things only get more strange from there as they set out on an adventure that may finally free Julianna from her curse.
This book was an interesting read. There were times where I was all in on it and its concept, laughing out loud and just enjoying the romp that was being laid out before me. But at other times, I found the humor and comedy elements to be almost relentless and a bit overbearing. Unlike “The Princess Will Save You” that was almost aggressively earnest and lacking witty dialogue even, this book throws itself as the comedy element, never letting a single joke slide by. It’s a tough thing to review or critique because much of it was successful. The story uses footnotes to pretty great effect and doesn’t ever take it or its own ridiculous concept too seriously. But at other times, I felt I need some sense of weight or a different emotional tone to help balance out this nonstop comedy.
The characters themselves sere all very engaging, maybe especially the villains and the backstory we get for them at the very beginning of the story. I also liked Julianna and Warren, though it was with these two main characters that I most wished for a bit more emotional depth from the book. The funny moments for them hit home, but it was hard to feel truly invested in either of their stories when everything was played for laughs.
The pacing was also a bit strange in the book. As I mentioned, the first part of the story focuses on the villains and their history with Julianna’s parents and the curse that is ultimately laid upon them. So there are a number of time jumps involved in telling this part of the story. Id din’t find it confusing or anything, but it does take a while for the story to finally settle in on our main characters. It seems to take quite a while for them to even meet.
Lastly, I do want to touch on the marketing failure with this book. From what I saw, this was being marketed as a high fantasy novel. This isn’t doing anyone any favors. Not the book, not the author, and not the readers. High fantasy is a fairly specific brand of fantasy (we’re talking “Lord of the Rings” and “ASOIAF” type fantasy). It is usually more serious, has a grand scope, and includes a lot of complicated world-building. But it is by no means the only type of fantasy, and it’s also not “better” fantasy than any other type. I think too often that seems to be the perception which then leads to publishers trying to attach that genre description to all of their new releases in the hopes of attracting more readers. But it’s not “better!” Sure, some people prefer that type of fantasy, but others actually prefer more light-hearted fantasy or want a good fantasy comedy now and then. By not properly identifying the book, you have a bunch of readers picking it up expecting the wrong thing and becoming disappointed. And then the readers who were actually looking for this type of book could be put off by the often intimidating aspects of what we expect from typical high fantasy. It’s too bad, because I feel like they almost set this book up to fail by doing this.
So, while it’s definitely not high fantasy, if you are looking for a comedy fantasy story, this might be a good one to check out. Just know that when I say comedy, I really mean it. In some ways the comedy aspect felt more prevalent than the fantasy itself.
Rating 7: A fun enough story, though missing the necessary emotional weight to balance out all of the fluff and laughs.
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description:Dracula returns…
It has been some years since Jonathan and Mina Harker survived their ordeal in Transylvania and, vanquishing Count Dracula, returned to England to try and live ordinary lives. But shadows linger long in this world of blood feud and superstition – and, the older their son Quincy gets, the deeper the shadows that lengthen at the heart of the Harkers’ marriage. Jonathan has turned back to drink; Mina finds herself isolated inside the confines of her own family; Quincy himself struggles to live up to a family of such high renown. And when a gathering of old friends leads to unexpected tragedy, the very particular wounds in the heart of the Harkers’ marriage are about to be exposed…
There is darkness both within the marriage and without – for, while Jonathan and Mina wrestle with the right way to raise a child while still recovering from the trauma of their past lives, new evil is arising on the Continent. A naturalist is bringing a new species of bat back to London; two English gentlemen, on their separate tours of the continent, find a strange quixotic love for each other, and stumble into a calamity far worse than either has imagined; and the vestiges of something thought long-ago forgotten is, finally, beginning to stir…
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
I have a very special place in my heart for Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel “Dracula”. One, I do love a good vampire story in which a vampire is the predatory menace that it ought to be. But the bigger and more personal reason is because I first read it in college in my favorite class of all time, “Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs in Literature”. The content was great, but it was my professor, Andy, who really made the class. We read many stories, “Dracula” being one, and I wrote a paper about the feminist icon that is Mina Harker. Andy and I kept in touch after my time in that class, and sadly he passed away a few years ago. I will always associate this book with him. So taking on this new ‘unofficial’ sequel, “Dracula’s Child” by J.S. Barnes was a risk. One I was willing to take because of the solid premise, but a risk nonetheless.
The structure of “Dracula’s Child” is similar to “Dracula” in that it is epistolary in nature. The plot unfolds through letters, diary entries, telegrams, and newspaper articles, and the tone and writing style is very well matched to the tone of the original. Barnes clearly worked very hard to reproduce that device, and it really does sound like the original in a lot of ways. I felt like he pretty much captured the voices of the original characters, and that he also expanded upon some of them to give them a little more complexity. We also had a fair number of threads to attend to, from the original characters to new ones whose connections to Dracula are seemingly tenuous at first, that all start to converge in a well paced and well thought out way. This made for a slow burn of a tale that is expansive, and really does hype up that if Dracula is coming back for his revenge, he’s going to be thinking BIG PICTURE. The reveals are also slowly paced, such as Mina and Jonathan’s son Quincey’s connection to The Count. And no, there was no addition of a romance between Dracula and Mina to be found in these pages. Which is probably for the best, but man, for something that went WAY off course of the original content I LOVED the chemistry between Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.
So really, Barnes achieves what he was setting out to do in regards to making you feel like this could, in fact, be a direct sequel to the original story. And for that, I really have to give him props. That couldn’t have been easy to do, and he did it. And yes, there are some really well done scares in here, from suspense to body horror to the dread of a vampire on the hunt.
But the thing that basically derailed this story from being the awesome thing that I thought it was going to be was that for the last third of the book, Mina Harker, whose presence had been strong and fierce and at the forefront, was sidelined and then made incredibly passive. Certainly by today’s standards, Mina may not seem like much of a ‘strong female character’, and I’m definitely not saying that Stoker was some progressive when it came to gender politics in the original. But for Mina as a character to have perspective chapters, to be using her wits and her shorthand to try and figure out how best to fight off Dracula, for her to be with Jonathan, Seward, Arthur, Quincey, and Van Helsing during their journey? That was huge! So in a book coming out in 2020 I had hoped that she would be doing more so as to reflect her critical role in the original as a warrior against Dracula… And while for part of this book she seemed to be, for her to be sidelined in this way was very disappointing. It was already frustrating that most other woman characters were sacrificed for man pain or to be tragic plot devices. But to do something similar, though admittedly not as final, to Mina? UNACCEPTABLE.
Mina frustration aside, “Dracula’s Child” does a pretty good job of feeling like a true follow up to “Dracula”. I’m not sure if the purists would agree, but for this person who has such a personal and protective connection to the original work, it mostly succeeds in what its trying to do.
Rating 7: With a well reproduced tone and a slow burn of a creepy story, “Dracula’s Child” is a fun sequel to a classic, but doesn’t give certain characters the credit or stories they deserve.
It’s that time of year, folks! The time of year where the days start to get shorter, the wind and leaves dance through the air, and the scary and spooky feelings of Halloween get kicked up as well! Though it’s probably going to be a very different Halloween this year than we’re used to, that isn’t going to stop the feelings of the season. Kate has her Horrorpalooza reads all in order, and Serena is breaking out the cardigans. We also have books we’re looking forward to!
Book: “Return of the Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner
Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Why I’m Interested: I’ve been a fan of Whalen Turner’s “The Queen’s Thief” series for years now. It’s been a long haul, around 20 years I think, to get to this point, but here we are, the last book in the series! Luckily, each book in this series has read well enough as a stand-alone, completely its own story arc fully and leaving the characters in places that aren’t too unstable which has made the wait time between books much more bearable. So it will be bitter sweet to finally pick this one up and know we’re truly at the end of the line. Sadly, I was remiss on putting my name on the holds list at the library, so it will probably be a bit before I get around to reading this and reviewing it. Unless I break down and buy it…we shall see!
Book: “Murder on Cold Street” by Sherry Thomas
Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Why I’m Interested: Yet another book that is continuing a much-loved series. While I did struggle a bit with the previous book in this series, I’m still a big fan of Thomas’s writing style overall and her unique take on the Sherlock Holmes story. With a return to England and a return to a good old murder mystery, I’m hopeful that this book will return to some of the strengths that originally drew me in to this series. I’m also still intrigued by where the romance between Charlotte and Lord Ingram is ultimately headed. Will we see any new developments (finally!) in this one?
Book: “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab
Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Why I’m Interested: A break to all the continuations of book series comes in the form of a new, stand-alone novel by V.E. Schwab. The story sounds super originally, following the centuries-long life of a woman cursed/blessed to live forever but to never be remembered. Until, of course, she finally meets someone who does remember. I’m really intrigued by the entire concept, and if anyone is capable of pulling it off, it’s Schwab. The last thing I read from her was her YA duology which was…ok. But she also really wowed me in the with her “Shades of Magic” trilogy and other standalone works. In a lot of ways, this book doesn’t sound anything like what she’s written before, so I’m curious to see what she’ll do with it!
Book: “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark
Publication Date: October 13, 2020
Why I’m Interested: I was a big fan of the book “Lovecraft Country” when I read it a few years ago (no I haven’t started the show yet, but I will!), and reading the description of “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark gave me some similar vibes. “Ring Shout” takes the idea of American Racism as the true horror and adds some cosmic and inter-dimensional elements as well. Three Black women are working to rid the world of Klu Kluxes, demons from another world that have been summoned by a sorcerer (D.W. Griffith, the man who brought the racist film “Birth of a Nation” to the screen), that have started amplifying the racist hate of the white people in this country. Led by the intrepid Maryse Bordeaux and her sword, these women and others hope to fight off the demons and bring justice to Black and other marginalized people before The Klan takes over. Unique concept and biting satire, a great combination.
Book: “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan
Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Why I’m Interested: True crime podcasts continue to be a big part of my entertainment life, and so I always like seeing books that take that idea and run with it. So I was, of course, very interested when I stumbled upon “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan on a ‘Fall Thrillers’ list. It follows Dee, an amateur podcast host whose show focuses on people who have gone missing, in hopes of getting information and attention that can lead to them being found. What her listeners don’t know is that she was a girl left behind in a notorious kidnapping case, where he childhood best friend was kidnapped before her eyes as hasn’t been seen since. Now, just as her podcast is getting more attention, another girl in her town is taken without a trace. Dee wants to help, but wants to keep her identity secret, and her own traumas under control. I’m sure it will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Book: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter
Publication Date: October 28, 2020
Why I’m Interested: The Halloween season wouldn’t be complete without a ghost story or two, so look no further than “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene”, a joint effort by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter. Beatrix Greene is a medium working during the first Spiritualist obsession in the 1800s. The only issue is that she’s a fraud who is just trying to make ends meet. When she’s invited to Ashbury Manor by noted scientist and skeptic James Walker, she is hesitant, but wants to make him eat his hat. James has his own motivations for wanting her to be there, potentially exposing her as a fraud not at the top of the list. But both of them are completely shocked when they and their companions find themselves in a very haunted house…. and in grave danger. What a way to top off the Halloween season!
What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!
Book Description: After narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Dames Blanches, Lou, Reid, Coco, and Ansel are on the run from coven, kingdom, and church—fugitives with nowhere to hide.
To elude the scores of witches and throngs of chasseurs at their heels, Lou and Reid need allies. Strong ones. But protection comes at a price, and the group is forced to embark on separate quests to build their forces. As Lou and Reid try to close the widening rift between them, the dastardly Morgane baits them in a lethal game of cat and mouse that threatens to destroy something worth more than any coven.
Review: Well, after enjoying the first book well enough this summer, it was kind of a given that I’d include it in my fall reading schedule. After all, I’d had a lot of success this summer with reading books that had been very popular last year and then were followed up by equally good, if not better, sequels (“The Merciful Crow” and its sequel, for example!). And, while the first book in this duology (ugh trilogy) wasn’t as strong as that one, it still caught my interest, and I had hopes the trend would continue. Alas, no. Not only did the trend decidedly not continue, but I actively disliked this book and am probably out on this (again, ugh ) dulogy-turned- trilogy.
After the dramatic events at the end of “Serpent & Dove,” Reid, Lou and their friends find themselves on the run and in need of allies. Their search is a long and arduous one, pushing them all to the limits. On top of this all, Reid and Lou are still managing the new waters of their marriage after secrets on both of their sides have now been revealed. Will they all be able to stand strong together and will they be able to outwit the powerful force amassing against them?
So, that’s a pretty junky book summary that I just wrote. And that’s because…this is a pretty junky book? Seems harsh, but I really am having a hard time coming up with any positive to say about this book. The problems start right away when I can’t write a good summary of this book because nothing happens in it. And it’s over 500 pages long! Instead of any plot to speak of, it’s made up of angst, drama, out of character actions/thoughts, and the worst case of “middle book syndrome” that I’ve ever seen. Part of the blame for this is, of course, because either the publisher or author (I’m guessing this was pushed by the publisher after the success of the first book) decided to stretch what originally envisioned as a duology into an unnecessary trilogy. And it shows. In a bad, bad way.
There is practically no action in this book until the last 40 pages. It’s just Lou, Reid and the others looking for allies, and with not much success. It’s not so much a story plot as a story plot point…a small one, at that. Definitely not one that justifies this book’s extreme length either. I mean, on one hand, it was always going to be a hard sell changing what was meant to be a duology into a trilogy kind of late in the game. But then to make the now-added middle book into a massively long middle book? The plot can’t support it. The character arcs (if there are any to speak of) can’t support it. It’s just not good storytelling.
The other major problem for me was in in the character arena and the romance. As I pointed out, this book was clearly stretched too thin on plot, and it feels the same with the characters. Their arcs no longer felt natural, but instead each character felt, at best, wildly out of character at times, and at worst, like they had been made into totally unlikable, totally different characters altogether. I struggled with Reid’s likablity in the first book. He was downright unpleasant in this one. His overly protective attitude towards Lou was in no way endearing and was often aggressively sexist in its portrayal. When he wasn’t caught up in that, it was internal angst and indecision all the live long day. Lou was a bit better, but still less likable than she was in the first. For her, much of her “arc,” such as it was, was more confusing than anything. She seemed to lose much of the personality she had in the first book and was at times almost unrecognizable.
To top a bad situation off, the book ends on a massive cliffhanger. And at this point, given how bad the rest of the book had been, this did not have the desired affect of cajoling last minute interest out of me, but instead just pissed me off more. It’s almost as if the publisher/author knew the book on its own wasn’t enough to keep most fans around, so they added this final twist as a last ditch effort. Really, the entire book seems to serve an example of publishing greed gone to far. If it had remained as a duology, with this the second and final portion, I’m sure we would have had a lot more actual plot and a lot less unnecessary character drama. The tone of the entire series could have remained consistent, and fans would have been satisfied. Instead, out of a need to squeeze the last drops out of the golden goose that was the first book, the series was stretched to a breaking point that is now losing fans. At least, they’ve lost me.
Rating 4: Supremely disappointing and barely recognizable as having come from the same author as the first book.
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description:If Shirley Jackson wrote The Shining, it might look like this deliciously unsettling horror novel from the acclaimed author of Baby Teeth.
A mother must protect her family from the unnatural forces threatening their new and improved life in a rural farmhouse.
The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They’re an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it’s his turn to pursue his passion.
But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
While usually I am perfectly fine with the winter months (even in Minnesota!), this year I am dreading it. I can handle the cold and the nutty weather, but the thought of having to be cut off from family due to COVID-19 and the inability to comfortably or safely gather outside is going to be very hard. Winter in Minnesota is already isolating in a lot of ways, and this winter it’s going to be incredibly demoralizing. But I tell myself that it could be worse. I could be totally trapped and cut off from the rest of society, and stalked by a mysterious being that wants me and my family for untoward purposes. So I guess that “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage puts some things into perspective! Seems fitting to kick off this year’s Horrorpalooza with a horror story that makes me count my blessings.
Well, horror story may be a little generous for this Gothic dark fantasy, though I do see the elements of it in there glimmering through at least a little bit. For Orla and Shaw Bennett, this new home in a remote cabin in the woods is supposed to be Shaw’s writing haven. Living in Manhattan for years before to support Orla’s dancing career has shifted now to a living situation that Shaw prefers, and his entitlement to his moment in the sun is just the first shade of something being wrong. There are definite shades of “The Shining” with Shaw and his need to stay in this place to get his career going again, even when strange things, like foot upon foot of unseasonable snow showers down and strands them with little supplies and no way out. And as their situation deteriorates, Orla is determined to save her family from whatever it is…. even as her daughter Eleanor Queen is getting closer and closer to the entity that wants them to stay. There are definite pulse pounding dramatics to be had and genuine moments of high stakes and suspense, but honestly “Wonderland” never quite got to the levels of horror or terror that I tend to associate with horror novels (outside of one moment with a bear…. and that’s all I’m going to say). I would classify “Wonderland” as more of a dark fantasy tale than horror, which means that my expectations being dashed soured me a bit to the story.
But genre aside, what really did work about “Wonderland” was both Orla and Eleanor Queen, and the mother-daughter relationship that is highlighted within its pages. Orla has put her family first from the get go, leaving her career behind to support Shaw’s aspirations and to help her children transition to a new, very different, life. Orla has strength within herself, and Eleanor Queen, too, is approaching their situation with her own inner strength. The two of them work together to try and save the family from the dark being that is holding them hostage, and even as they feel like they are losing everything, they always have each other to lean on. Eleanor Queen has a unique insight into what is going on, and she and Orla have a really powerful and touching relationship is just one aspect of this positive representation of the power of ‘female’ driven approaches. Another that really struck me was that once we do find out what exactly is going on, the origin of the conflict is unique in that Orla and Eleanor Queen have grace and empathy that we don’t usually see in stories like this. A lot of the time when supernatural entities are at play, there is some kind of vengeance motivation. “Wonderland” has a different angle. And once again, that is all I’m going to say. Regardless, it works and made the story feel more outside the box. Again, not horror. But dark fantasy to be certain.
“Wonderland” is claustrophobic and engaging, even if it isn’t too scary. But then, isolation is scaring me right now. So maybe I’m not giving it enough horror credit. Regardless, Horrorpalooza has begun, folks. Let’s make it a good one!
Rating 7: A Gothic tale that feels less horror and more mother-daughter examination, “Wonderland” has some interesting moments of dark fantasy…. but not too many scares.
Book Description: Séverin and his team members might have successfully thwarted the Fallen House, but victory came at a terrible cost — one that still haunts all of them. Desperate to make amends, Séverin pursues a dangerous lead to find a long lost artifact rumored to grant its possessor the power of God.
Their hunt lures them far from Paris, and into the icy heart of Russia where crystalline ice animals stalk forgotten mansions, broken goddesses carry deadly secrets, and a string of unsolved murders makes the crew question whether an ancient myth is a myth after all.
As hidden secrets come to the light and the ghosts of the past catch up to them, the crew will discover new dimensions of themselves. But what they find out may lead them down paths they never imagined.
A tale of love and betrayal as the crew risks their lives for one last job.
Review: I wasn’t blown away by “The Gilded Wolves,” the first in this YA fantasy trilogy. But as I liked it more than Chokshi’s other books I’ve read and the cast of characters was compelling, I decided to keep going with the series. Well, I have, and…I don’t think I liked this one any better? Maybe worse? And yet I still will probably read the third? I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader or about the trilogy itself. Me, probably a completionist. The trilogy, something about it must be intriguing enough to keep me invested.
Things have kind of fallen apart for our crew after the dramatic events at the end of “The Gilded Wolves.” Each on their own, each has been trying to make their own way in the world, feeling cut-off from the rest. But when a lead on “The Divine Lyrics,” the magical book at the heart of Severin’s (and Laila’s) quest, finally comes to light, Severin brings them back together for one last adventure. Into the heart of the north and through mysteries new and astounding, the crew must once again bring each of their unique skill sets to hand in order to pull of this last job. But, of course, nothing goes as planned and a darker price is waiting than any of them could have imagined.
So, a lot of the problems I had with the first book (and with this author in general) were still present here, unfortunately. There’s something about her style of writing that I struggle with. On one hand, there’s the turns of phrase that seem to be written more because they sound beautiful and poetic rather than the fact they convey any actual image. The titles, for example, of both of these books doesn’t seem to really connect directly to much in the story. But they sure sound pretty! Most of the time it didn’t bother me too much, but there were definitely other times when I would re-read a sentence and be like “Sure…sounds nice…but…what?” And that confusion carries over to my second struggle with the writing.
While the author does a good job with characterization for the most part and clearly has a bunch of unique fantasy ideas. She’s not lacking in imagination on either front. But when it comes to the actual description of locations, objects, and how they interact with each other…it’s just not good. There were entire locations (where the book spent a significant amount of time) that I couldn’t describe to you. There was an entire action scene that was a blur of movement, and by the end, again, I couldn’t tell you what exactly had happened. The writing looks pretty on the front of things, but it too often failed at its most basic requirement: conveying ideas clearly.
I also struggled with the plot itself. The mystery was both at times not clear at all (Severin and his cohort would jump through leaps of logic that were either impossible to follow or just totally unbelievable that anyone would connect those dots). And at other times so bizarrely obvious that I couldn’t be less impressed when AHA! the reveal finally came and Severin and his crew were just oh, so clever for putting it together.
And, sadly, on top of all of this, my favorite part of the first book, the characters, was a let-down here as well. They’re all still interesting enough, but man, this was a glum book. Severin was practically unrecognizable, and his decisions were, again, hard to buy at times. As for the rest, they all seemed to become more and more caught up with unnecessary secret keeping that served no other purpose than to stir up more drama. It was just all kind of sad and tiring.
And yet…I’m probably going to finish out the story. For one thing, this book mostly felt like a place hold and necessary vehicle for the author to get from point A to point B. So while this middle portion of the trip was a let down, I can still be hopeful that it was all to the purpose of getting us somewhere more interesting. I’m not really holding out much hope for the writing to clear up and suddenly become my cup of tea, but I do have hopes that the characters themselves will go interesting places and resolve their own story lines in compelling ways. Fans of the first book are sure to like this one. But if you were on the fence there, you’ll probably have similar feelings here. I leave it to you whether it’s worth going through it based on only the hope of a well-executed landing.
Rating 6: Fairly glum and mired in its own “middle-ness” in the trilogy.
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description:Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!
Over a year since being entrusted with Ginseng’s care, Greta still can’t chase away the cloud of mourning that hangs over the timid Tea Dragon. As she struggles to create something spectacular enough to impress a master blacksmith in search of an apprentice, she questions the true meaning of crafting, and the true meaning of caring for someone in grief. Meanwhile, Minette receives a surprise package from the monastery where she was once training to be a prophetess. Thrown into confusion about her path in life, the shy and reserved Minette finds that the more she opens her heart to others, the more clearly she can see what was always inside.
Told with the same care and charm as the previous installments of the Tea Dragon series, The Tea Dragon Tapestry welcomes old friends and new into a heartfelt story of purpose, love, and growth.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this graphic novel!
I don’t know if not being at work has made my advanced knowledge of titles a little rusty or what, but when I was perusing NetGalley for a new batch of books I saw that Katie O’Neill had written a new “Tea Dragon” book that I hadn’t heard of. So I of course immediately accessed it, counting my luck stars that once again we were going to join Greta, Minette, Hesekiel, and Erik, and all of their adorable Tea Dragons.
And then I found out that it was the last story in the series.
“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” takes us back to the characters in “The Tea Dragon Society”, as we are reunited with blacksmith Greta, tea shop apprentice Minette, tea shop owners Hesekiel and Erik, and the always adorable Tea Dragons. Everyone is a bit older, and now Greta and Minette are starting to wonder about their places in the world and what they are going to do next with their lives. All the while, the Ginseng Tea Dragon that has ended up in Greta’s care after its owner passed away hasn’t been flourishing, and Greta is worried that she will never be able to bond with it. So right off the bat, identity and grief are presented as the themes of this book. O’Neill has a real gift for taking on heavy topics and making them feel digestable and gentle for the reader, and no matter how much anxiety or conflict a character may be feeling, you never get the sense that things are going to turn out badly for anyone. While this may come off as a lack of conflict and therefore a lack of investable plot, I actually really liked the calm atmosphere of this book. I also liked that there were moments dedicated to addressing the grief of the Ginseng Tea Dragon, and that grief is natural and doesn’t have to abide by timelines, nor does it mean that a person (or Tea Dragon) is broken. It was a great way to teach the young reader demographic potentially reading this (as this is generally a Middle Grade series) that when someone you care about is dealing with it, just being there is better than trying to find a fix so YOU feel better. Important lessons that even lots of adults don’t quite get, so I loved seeing it here.
Along with some great themes, revisiting characters from both “The Tea Dragon Society” and “The Tea Dragon Festival” was such a joy. O’Neill ties the two stories together and finally brings all of the characters to one place, with Rinn and Aedhan visiting Erik and interacting with Greta and Minette, and helping them with their self reflection. It was delightful seeing Rinn all grown up, and seeing her relationship with Aedhan and how it has changed and progressed. And even with the treat of familiar faces, O’Neill still manages to bring in some new characters, and lets us get to know them and learn to love them just as much as the old. I was particularly taken with Ginseng Tea Dragon, as it had a different, and just as valid, personality to some of it’s compatriots. New favorite Tea Dragon? Very possibly.
But it’s hard to choose, of course, because the Tea Dragons REMAIN EVER SO CUTE!! The design of this story is the same unique imagery that O’Neill has had for her previous books, and I still love it and how sweet and dreamy it is. The simplicity and bright and vibrant colors really bring out such joy and bring the story to life.
While I am not ready to say goodbye to the charming and wonderful characters of this series, “The Tea Garden Tapestry” gives it the best kind of send off I could have hoped for. I am very interested in seeing what Katie O’Neill does next now that she’s leaving her Tea Dragons and those who care for them.
Rating 8: A heartwarming and sweet conclusion to a series that I have come to associate with kindness and tranquility, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” gives us one more adventure with Greta, Minette, and all the Tea Dragons.
While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!
After many Covid-related delays, the first half of “Lucifer” season 5 dropped in late August. I think it probably took me like two days to binge it? In most ways, it’s everything one would expect, which is both good and bad. The cast is, of course, still excellent and the show doesn’t hesitate to lean into the silliness of its own concept. However, the longer it has been on Netflix and the more it has dived into its own supernatural storylines, the aggressively episodic approach to much of its storytelling seems to feel more and more out of touch with where the show itself wants to go. Maybe part of that feeling has to do with the fact that season 5 has been split into two parts which further weakens the serialized elements that are present. I think the second half is set to come out sometime in early 2021, so we’ll see how that plays out. I’m still enjoying the heck out of this, either way.
Perhaps foolishly, I decided recently that I needed a new video game to immerse myself in. I’d already played through “Skyrim” a few times and with the sequel seemingly stuck in development for….forever, I turned to another super popular fantasy franchise. I still haven’t gotten around to watching the Netflix show for this game/book series, though my love of Henry Cavil is never-ending. So it will be interesting to play this game through and then compare it to that show whenever I do get around to it. I’m still barely into the main plot line, but I’m enjoying the familiar-feeling open world concept and so far the plot and dialogue have been interesting and engaging. I’m now mostly feeling guilty for starting this without my husband…
So, politics…yeah, they’ve been a thing. And whenever I feel like I’m beginning to become overwhelmed with pessimism regarding politics, my go-to is usually a re-watch of “The West Wing.” But at 7 seasons long, that’s quite the commitment, so this time around I turned instead to its predecessor and inspiration: “The American President.” Re-watching this movie, it’s so clear the connections between these two. Mostly, it’s the clever dialogue and the supremely idealistic imaging of what politics, and the White House in general, could be. The lovely romance at its heart is pretty swell, too.
I have been a huge, huge, HUGE “Bill and Ted” fan ever since I was about six years old and saw “Excellent Adventure” randomly. When I found out that they were going to make a third one with Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter coming back to play their roles of Ted and Bill, I was ecstatic that I would finally be able to see a “Bill and Ted” movie in the theater!!…. And then COVID found another way to ruin something. But I went for the VOD option at my house, and my gosh, it was everything I needed. In this long awaited third film, Bill and Ted are now middle aged, and still haven’t written the song that is supposed to bring synchronicity to the universe. When Rufus’s daughter Kelly comes to tell them that they need to do it now, they start a new time traveling adventure… But along with that, their daughters Billie and Thea go on their OWN adventure through times in hopes of helping their dads. It’s sweet, it’s wholesome, it’s everything 2020 needs to make it a little gentler. And yes…. The Grim Reaper is back.
So I watched the first few episodes of “Cobra Kai” when it premiered on YouTube a few years ago, but couldn’t justify getting YouTube Red to finish out the series. Which pained me, because I loved the continuing stories of “Karate Kid” characters Johnny and Daniel. So when I found out that Netflix got the rights to it, I was ECSTATIC. “Cobra Kai”, as I’ve mentioned on here before, follows Johnny, the bully from “Karate Kid” whose life hasn’t really gone very far, and his journey to reopen the Cobra Kai karate studio, this time attracting misfits and weirdos. Daniel, the hero from the movies, is living a GREAT life now… but is stuck in the past. When they meet up again, old rivalries start up once more. What I love most about this show is William Zabka’s new take on Johnny, and showing how a lot of his worst characteristics are and were the result of serious childhood traumas and baggage. Plus, this show is wildly funny, and the new karate students, especially the sweetheart Miguel, are charming as hell.
Will I ever get enough NXIVM content? It seems that I won’t, because even though I’ve listened to podcasts and read books about the cult, I am now obsessed with the HBO docuseries about it. “The Vow” has actual footage from the likes of Keith Raniere and his creepy minions in action, and follows former members who had deep ties to the group until they started to realize that something was very, very wrong. The most interesting aspect of this is that the footage is something you wouldn’t expect from an expose like this, but the people who made it had been documenting the group and its members before everything hit the fan and Raniere, Alison Mack, Nancy Salzman, and others were arrested for sex trafficking. It’s super interesting being able to see these primary source interviews of some very manipulative and dangerous people.
Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”
For all my complaints about the 1999 version of this story, there’s a reason I’ve seen that one a decent number of times while this is only my second viewing of this version. Sure it’s free of some of the truly upsetting changes that the 1999 version made, but it also feels strangely dull and heartless, nothing something you ever want to see from an Austen adaptation.
With the exception of Haley Atwell, I think most of the casting is wrong is film. Or, at the very least, worse than the 1999 version’s cast. There is very little chemistry between any and all of the characters up to and including our main romantic pair. Atwell, alone, manages to have good chemistry with most of those she works alongside. The rest seem to be largely working alongside each other rather than directly with one another. It’s hard to buy into any of the relationships we’re being presented with, let alone become terribly invested.
I also think the overall tone of the movie is working against our main characters. Fanny and Edmund are both serious characters. But the movie insists on making them run around and frolic like children. The grand ball scene becomes a capering picnic. And the final romantic climax is marred by our two love birds chasing each other around like little kids. There’s just something off about the whole thing that never allows the movie to feel like it has settled into what it wants to be.
It, too, changes aspects of the original story, most notably cutting out the entire Portsmouth scene (to save money on actors and locations??). This single change alone I think hurts the movie quite a lot. And strangely, like I said, that while the 1999 version arguably made bigger (and often worse) changes, the smaller, seemingly less offensive, changes made here somehow make this movie, as a whole, less engaging. Even while remaining more true to the book in many ways (the inclusion of Fanny’s brother William, for example), I would say this movie fails just as much as an adaptation of Austen’s work. And, when given the choice, I’ll still watch the 1999 version before this.
Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”
I really don’t love this version of Fanny Price. Full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of Billie Piper at the best of times, but I don’t think it’s just her acting that I don’t like here. Like the previous version of “Mansfield Park,” this one takes a similar route with Fanny by making her much more exuberant. Even more so, I’d say. We have multiple scenes of her running around through the house, chasing a dog around, playing with children. I’m sure it’s supposed to emphasize her innocence, but combined with her hair styling (loose hair is only for very young girls in this time period), all it does is serve to make Fanny seem overly child-like herself.
Other changes, like re-imagining the ball as a picnic do nothing to help with this perception. No lovely, noble dance scenes, but instead, again, children’s yard games that do nothing to help Fanny’s coming across as little girl-ish. I also don’t like the change of having her remain at Mansfield Park by herself rather than go to Portsmouth. By removing this contrast of settings, we’re left with even less to highlight the truly well-bred refinement of Fanny that is supposed to be hiding beneath her quiet nature. And, of course, the final “romantic” scene that has her and Edmund chasing each other around the house…like children.
Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
I have a bit of a “chicken or the egg” issue with Blake Ritson’s version of Edmund. I saw the 2009 “Emma” where he plays the sleazy Mr. Elton before I saw this one, so that impression was firmly in my mind the first time I saw this movie. But, on the other hand, he was cast into that role very shortly after portraying Edmund in this film in 2007. So obviously someone else saw his performance here and thought “Eh, maybe not romantic hero material…but this kind of slimy character? Perfect!”
Edmund as a character is always a tough role. His morality can come across as patronizing and preachy. He falls for the obviously wrong woman and spends most of his time with his head in the sand. And then the book itself does very little to show him coming to his sense, so any adaptation is left almost entirely on its own for how to navigate this transition.
Unfortunately for him, Ritson also had to go up against Miller’s version of the character from the 1999 movie, one of the few aspects of that movie that most fans agree was solidly good. And I just don’t think Ritson was up to the task. He’s very hard to take seriously and often comes across more as a caricature of a gentleman than anything else. Him, also, running around after Fanny during the big “romantic” scene doesn’t help this version of Edmund’s character be taken seriously.
Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
I really like Haley Atwell’s version of Mary Crawford. She has a natural easy charm that makes it much easier to buy into Edmund’s blind infatuation with her. She’s beautiful, but also brings a different type of warmth to the character that makes her very engaging. If anything, it’s almost a bit harder to see faults in this version of Mary than in others. For one thing, when Henry Crawford approaches her about his plans to woo Fanny, this Mary seems to be much more earnestly concerned for Fanny’s welfare, which endears her more to viewers.
Henry Crawford is also well-cast, having that roguish and somewhat wild look that appeals to certain women. It’s easy to see why flags go up for Fanny, and this version doesn’t hesitate from pushing the Crawford/Maria romance to its extremes, having them actually make out while practicing for the play, almost being caught by Rushworth and Julia. Again, however, the decision to have Fanny simply stay on at Mansfield Park instead of making her trip to Portsmouth doesn’t serve the story well. Crawford showing up here has much less impact that it did having him show up on the poor doorstep of Fanny’s original family. If anything, it’s even easier to see why Fanny would be unmoved by all of this. She doesn’t have the comparison of Mansfield and Portsmouth that Sir Walter mentions when hatching a plan to urge her towards Crawford in both the book and the 1999 version of the movie. Her just being lonely at Mansfield doesn’t seem like it would at all serve the same purpose. Given how little many of the family members pay attention to her anyways (and when they do, it’s just to give her orders, so in some lights, this is almost a vacation for her), it’s hard to think that the lack of “society” is really all that much for a young woman who stayed home much of the time anyways. And then, what’s more, Fanny doesn’t have an opportunity to see Crawford at his best when he’s behaving so nicely to her often rude and uncouth family in Portsmouth. Altogether, it’s no wonder she doesn’t waver here.
The biggest miss as far as villains go, however, is Mrs. Norris. This version of the character is all over the place and the movie never seems to really settle on what aspect of her personality it wants to highlight. It’s never clear exactly what her motives are, why she says/does what she says/does, or what her problem with Fanny is in the first place. Obviously, the book has plenty of time to flesh out her character, but even the 1999 version of the story was able to provide a clear image of who Mrs. Norris is. Here, she just kind of flits in and out of scenes and makes an odd comment here or there. Without having the book as a mental reference, I’m not sure if the casual viewer would have any idea what to make of her.
Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
Shocking no one, as I’ve already referenced it in both the heroine and hero sections, I don’t love the romance in this movie. I don’t think that Piper and Ritson had very good chemistry. In fact, I think they almost worked against each other in some ways. Unlike the 1999 version of this story, this movie doesn’t put nearly as much effort into establishing Edmund’s underlying feelings for Fanny. I think Jonny Lee Miller was much better at some of the smaller, more subtle facial expressions that indicated interest in Fanny along the way. And the screenplay itself wrote in more opportunities for this relationship to be brought forward. Not having a grand ball scene really doesn’t help this. I can’t remember where I read this, but some commentator once noted that the ball scenes were almost like the sex scenes for Austen romances, often the pinnacle and brimming over point for building up these relationships.
And, I really can’t express this enough…I hated, hated, the whole running after one another scene as the grand finale of this romance. It’s just so silly and juvenile. Any romantic tone is completely undercut, and it just feels anticlimactic. There is a fairly big change to Lady Bertram’s character in this scene, as she is instrumental in getting Fanny and Edmund alone, and then notes to Sir Walter that Fanny’s always been in love with Edmund and it looks like he finally noticed. There’s obviously no hint of this type of perception in the book version of the character, but it’s the kind of funny little change that I didn’t mind in this movie. If anything, it felt more “Austen-like” than anything else in this last scene. So, with everything else, I’ll take it.
It’s only a small thing, but I do like the inclusion of Fanny and Edmund waltzing at the end of this movie. It’s one of those small, throw-away moments that will appeal to history fans who will recognize that this type of dancing was just coming onto the scene around this time. It’s a nice little wink of the eye.
Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
The comedy is always the challenge for this story. The book itself is probably the least comical of all of Austen’s works and the adaptations have to come to their own decisions about what to do with a leading lady who is so aggressively earnest, quiet, and good-natured that the thought of her cracking jokes is almost unheard of. The 1999 version did a fairly decent job of getting some humor in for Fanny, but, of course, that version was also way off base with much of Fanny’s characterization (as far as it resembling the character in the book, at least) so it’s no wonder that they could make this practically original heroine funny on top of the rest. Here, Fanny is more in line with the book version, but also just more dull.
The loss of Mrs. Norris is pretty huge here. The other movie used her for comedy to great success, even if it was the “love to hate” kind of comedy. But she’s such a non-presence here that the same can’t be said. The Crawfords, too, with their limited screen time, don’t have much humor. Rushworth is still good, of course, but he also doesn’t capture the screen the same way that the previous Rushworth did. I have a harder time even remembering anything distinctive about this version where I can point to several instances of laughs from the 1999 version of the character.
Overall, the movie feels fairly joyless, for all that they’re trying to make some grand point of Fanny’s child-like wonder of life with her constant frolicking.
Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”
Really not much here, other than the usual costume connections between many of these Austen adaptations.
The actress who plays young Fanny also played a younger version of Billie Piper character in “Doctor Who.”
And, speaking of “Doctor Who,” a whole host of actors from this film have made appearances in the long-running show, including Billie Piper, Julia Joyce, Michelle Ryan and Jemma Redgrave.
Best Movie Gif/Meme:“I dearly love a laugh.”
This is the big moment where Edmund realizes his love for Fanny…about sums it up, I think. *snores*