The Great Animorphs Re-Read #39: “The Hidden”

363357Animorphs #39: “The Hidden”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, March 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks plan to use the Helmacron ship they have repaired to capture the Andalites and track down Elfangor’s blue cube–the cube that gives Cassie, and the other animorphs the ability to morph.

Narrator: Cassie

Plot: I had zero memory of this book when I picked it up again. I think if you had asked me whether there was an Animorphs cover with Cassie morphing a buffalo, I wouldn’t have been entirely sure you were even serious. That’s how fully I’d forgotten this book.

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Except when I’m busy getting mad about the mechanics of the blue box and morphing being thrown out the window…

Erek shows up at Cassie’s barn with bad news: the Yeerks have discovered how to use the Helmacrons’ morphing tracker and are even now on their way towards the blue box that emits a low level morphing energy. Cassie quickly nabs the cube and hops a ride to The Gardens with her mother. There, the others in seagull morph show up and they try to decide what to do, since any morphing will draw the attention of the Yeerks. Before they can form a plan, helicopters begin circling the area and Cassie makes a break for it, hiding in a van that is exiting the park. Inside she confronts a cape buffalo. She acquires it to keep it calm, but chaos suddenly erupts when the van is intercepted by the Yeerks, including Chapman and Visser Three. She morphs the buffalo and barges out of the van. The real buffalo attacks the Controllers and head butts Chapman. Cassie is able to escape into the nearby woods, with the real buffalo trailing behind.

Back as a girl in the woods, she witnesses something horrific: the buffalo must have touched the blue box and acquired Chapman when he headbutted him. He wildly morphs and demorphs partially between his true buffalo body and the human Chapman form. By morphing the buffalo again herself, Cassie is able to get the buffalo to mimic her actions and return to its true form as well. The others arrive and are caught up to speed on the horror of the situation. What’s worse, the buffalo has now witnessed Cassie morphing, so if the Yeerks capture or infest it, the Animorphs’ secret will be out.

The helicopters are still circling, so they morph wolves and take off once again, leaving the buffalo behind. They hide in a cave and continue to discuss what to do not only about the tracker, but about the buffalo. They all know that the buffalo can’t be left alive, though Cassie is hesitant to kill it, now that it has human DNA in its system.  As for the tracker, the challenge will be getting to it when it’s up in a helicopter. So they decide to go with the tried and true method of dropping something heavy on the bad guys over water. But before they can move on this plan, they hear the buffalo in distress. Knowing they can’t let the Yeerks capture it, they head off.

They find the buffalo surrounded by Controllers with Visser Three himself yelling at the “Andalite” to reveal himself and tell the Visser where the cube is. The buffalo manages to acquire the Visser and begins morphing him. The group uses this as a distraction to escape (sorry, but I just can’t help but interrupt myself…didn’t they JUST say they were there to rescue the buffalo? And then immediately ditch said buffalo to escape the situation they willingly put themselves in in the first place? Ugh.) As they run off, they see the Andalite!buffalo and Visser Three go at it with their tail blades. The Andalite!buffalo gets in a lucky shot and knocks out Visser Three and then comes running after them.

The group decides that the majority of them will continue on to the ocean, but that Cassie will stay behind with the buffalo to distract the following Yeerks. She manages to get the buffalo to again demorph into its natural state before the Yeerks show up once again. She takes off, buffalo following, and jumps off a minor cliff to escape. They both crash to the bottom and are horribly injured. Cassie demorphs and gets the buffalo to also morph human to heal its own injuries. She then catches up with the group again.

The others wonder at how the buffalo managed to survive the fall and Cassie tells a white lie that the buffalo simply mimicked her morphing, leaving out that she was actively trying to save it. In human form, the buffalo begins mimicking their speaking patterns. Cassie insists that it is learning, but the others push back saying that it is only mimicking and that she is making too much out of this. As they are talking, Cassie brushes an ant off of the cube that she is holding. She finally gets the buffalo to morph back to buffalo and then they have to leave it behind once again when they hear the helicopters approaching.

As the others continue forward, Cassie begins to demorph again to put the plan in action. But before she can get far, she sees something truly nightmare-inducing: an ant morphing into a version of Cassie herself. She realizes that the ant that had crawled on the box and her hand earlier must have acquired morphing abilities and her own DNA. The Cassie!ant goes crazy half way through morph and attacks her with gigantic pincers. The buffalo shows up and attacks the Cassie!ant, but the ant begins demorphing. Cassie rushes over and stomps everything in sight. She then quickly begins morphing the osprey, finally ready to put their plan into action. As she gets ready to leave, the Yeerks show up and kill the buffalo with a Dracon beam.

Osprey!Cassie flies out to sea where the Yeerks are now shooting down at the rest of the Animorphs in dolphin morph. Gaining altitude, Cassie positions herself directly above the helicopter and begins to demorph. But it goes wrong and she loses her wings too quickly and begins to fall too fast. She makes it back to human and is partially through her whale morph when she realizes that she won’t be big enough when she hits the helicopter and will likely be cut to pieces by the blades. What’s worse, the helicopter pilot looks up and spots her, veering out of her line of descent. Luckily for everyone, a rogue seagull gets sucked into the engine and the helicopter blows up, destroying the Helmacron sensor within it. Cassie is badly burnt, but wakes up again in the ocean in her human form and surrounded by her friends. They call it a success and head home.

Peace, Love, and Animals: This is one of the better Cassie books as far as characterization of Cassie herself goes. The book is a hot mess in every other way, but her sympathy and struggle with how to resolve the buffalo situation is a very sympathetic cause. Any animal lover would understand just how difficult this situation would be. Though, that being said, her nonsense about the human DNA part of it is just that: nonsense. And what makes that worse is not only does this line of thought just seem ridiculous and undermines Cassie’s character as a rational, thoughtful being, but it was completely unnecessary. As an animal lover myself, the idea of having to kill an innocent animal, especially one that has bounded with you and trusts you, is just agonizing. We don’t need any silly other justifications to explain Cassie’s hesitancy.

The one question I do have about her handling of this situation is the balance between her repeatedly saying that she understand the buffalo can’t be allowed to live but then her willingness to essentially draw out its torment. We’ve seen some really good examples in the past of Cassie knowing that sometimes the harder choice is the right one, specifically when she was trying to save the Hork Bajir the Yeerks had experimented on back in the Atlantis book and knows that in the end it is best to let him die then to keep trying to fix the unfixable. That was an excellent scene that highlighted that mercy some times comes in strange forms. But here, the poor buffalo is repeatedly being abandoned by the Animorphs, drawn into battles with the Yeerks to protect the Animorphs, lead of a cliff to plummet to a painful end, and then finally killed by the Yeerks. It’s a tough situation, but it would have been another good opportunity to highlight this particular strength of Cassie’s, had she realized that this ongoing torment was not actually better.

Our Fearless Leader: At one point in the story, Cassie is upset with Jake for “not trusting her to do what is right.” But….really? I mean, for better or worse, Cassie has a long history of not necessarily doing the “right” thing objectively, even if she feels it is right for herself and her moral code. From a team leader perspective, I can absolutely understand Jake not trusting Cassie to do the “right” thing. Girl let herself be infested by a Yeerk! She asked Jake to outright murder a  Controller on her behalf! Just a few books ago, she was all set to go on a mission purely based on revenge! She lost the right to feel miffed about casual distrust like this quite a while ago. And really, at this point, after being in Jake’s head, we know that some level of casual distrust goes out to all of the Animorphs at various times, it’s just one of the struggles of being a leader. Jake knows the weaknesses of them all, and thus can’t always trust them to do the right thing in specific scenarios that play to those weaknesses.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Along with Marco, Rachel is quite clear from the very beginning that the buffalo will have to go. She also firmly tells Cassie to stop making more out of the human DNA thing than it deserves, which, thank you!

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias has practically nothing. I mean, you could probably count his lines of dialogue on one hand.

The Comic Relief: As expected, Marco is not very sentimental about the fact that the buffalo can’t be left alive. He and Rachel both team up on this position right away, and there’s really no arguing with their reasoning. The case could maybe be made for getting the buffalo to acquire some similar animal, morph that animal, and then get itself stuck in that form and then have Cassie “adopt” it at her farm. Seems like something that Cassie or even Tobias would think of, but we can say that they were all too frazzled from the constant running to really think of this solution.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has a running joke with Marco where he’s trying to still understand humor. He even joins in the fun with what he thinks are good jokes only to be met with silence and thus concluding that humor is over-rated. So there’s some good dialogue bits with that, but not much else for him in this book.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: I mean, the entire concept of this book is pretty horrifying, but I will reserve the honor of this section for the Cassie!ant. It just had to be ants, didn’t it? It’s not like the poor Animorphs haven’t suffered enough trauma at the hands (pincers?) of ants already, but now one has to go and partially morph Cassie and then almost bite her arm off with its ginormous pincers. Then Cassie gets to watch the buffalo start tramping something that looks just like her to death. Though, I will note that apparently human DNA is only morally impactful in mammals, since she had zero concerns about stomping all over that ant once it was small again, human DNA or no human DNA.

Couples Watch!:  Not much really. After Cassie’s fall from the sky, Jake remarks privately to her how glad he is that she is ok and since she’s in human form, she has to respond out loud, cluing in everyone as to what’s going on. Marco teases them some, but she says she doesn’t care since everyone knows how much Jake and Cassie “like” each other. This might just be my age speaking, but it gets more and more uncomfortable as the series progresses to hear about these relationships in terms of “liking” each other, especially when the “love” word  has been thrown around. It just doesn’t ring true to the level of maturing and closeness that has built after fighting a war like this for as long as they have. I get that its done for the age-level of the audience, but I still find it weird. I honestly don’t think teens would have been weirded out if the writers had just gotten over it and said “love” already.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: So, Visser Three loses a tailblade fight to a buffalo….there’s just no getting around that fact. A mammal, in a completely foreign body, with a very low-level of intelligence, somehow managed to knock him out cold pretty quickly. I’m not sure who this is worse for, Visser Three and his ego, or all of the others (including Ax!) who have failed to take Visser Three down themselves in a fight! It’s not a good look for any of them that’s for sure. Also, I’ll add, this is yet another supremely unbelievable element of the book, so even talking about this in any verging-on-serious manner is pretty pointless. But the fact remains: it’s now canon that a buffalo is a better tailblade fighter than Ax.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Ok, as dumb as the whole buffalo morphing plot was, I have to admit that there was a good amount of tearing up in this book for me. I’m a sucker for animals and I particularly have a hard time with descriptions of animals suffering and not understanding why. So all of the scenes of the Animorphs running off and the poor buffalo trying to follow behind just really got to me. And then it goes and saves them several times and just casually gets blown up, right after Cassie is saying goodbye and doesn’t know what else to do but tell it that it has been good, one of the few words it seems to understand.

<l have to go now,> I said, knowing it couldn’t understand me. <Thank you for saving my life.>

The buffalo’s ears twitched. And then I knew what to say.

<You are good,> I said softly. Its ears came forward and it made a soft, almost friendly sound.

So stupidity aside, they definitely got me invested in this buffalo storyline in the end and there may, MAY, have been some tears.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Oh man, this entire book, again was full of terrible plans. But two big ones come to mind. 1.) They keep insisting that the buffalo can’t be allowed to be captured by the Yeerks, even going so far as to run back towards danger to “rescue” it at one point. And then they repeatedly abandon it and leave it behind to potentially be captured. And their “rescue” attempt was the worst example of it. They literally run back to it, find themselves surrounded, and then immediately use the buffalo itself as a distraction to bail, leaving it behind once again. What was the point of even going back if this was the plan?? And like I said, that was just the worst example. They leave the buffalo behind at least 4-5 times, any of which could have resulted in its capture by the Yeerks. 2.) The “anvil” plan with whale!Cassie. I mean, this was implausible enough the first time it showed up in Megamorphs #1 and in no way deserved a second showing. Not only am I getting sick and tired of this “wash and repeat” attitude towards past plot devices, but this one in particular was rather hard to swallow the first time and is even dumber here. At least it didn’t work, which is shouldn’t have for all the reason we saw here, mainly that it’s pretty easy for a helicopter pilot to become aware of a whale plummeting towards them and move out of the way. Luckily, a convenient sea gull was just where the author wanted it.

Favorite Quote:

<He should trust me to do the right thing,> I said. <He does, or he would’ve made somebody else carry the cube. That’s why he put me back here. While you do the right thing, I do the necessary thing. Get it?> [said Rachel]

(Inset long rant about the difference between doing the the right vs. necessary thing. It’s a nice distinction that Rachel is drawing here, but I’m pretty sure Jake’s version of it was not trusting Cassie to do the right OR necessary thing.)

Scorecard: Yeerks 10, Animorphs 15

I’m going to give a point to the Yeerks just because they were the only ones with the semblance of a clever plan here with the idea to use the Helmacron ship this way. The Animorphs only survived this out of sheer luck, with the Yeerks taking care of the buffalo and a random seagull sacrificing its life for the cause.

Rating: I liked this book as far as Cassie’s characterization goes. I hated this book for its bizarre ret-conning of the blue box. And I couldn’t care less about this book for the fact that I honestly couldn’t even remember the order of events during the middle third since all it was was running around randomly stopping/splitting up/getting attacked by Yeerks and repeat.

But man, that blue box thing. That’s pretty out of line as far as completely disregarding past precedent for a pretty important artifact. Not only does the box thing itself make zero sense (it’s not like David suddenly had morphing abilities after just touching the box), but the fact that animals would then be able to acquire DNA and morph?? In every book, EVERY BOOK, we hear the Animorphs talk about having to concentrate to both acquire DNA initially and then to morph. There is no way the buffalo, let alone the ant, would be able to do anything like this. It’s so stupid and there’s no getting around the fact that the majority of this book is hanging on this idiotic concept.

Then add in the fact that we have yet another repeated story that involves essentially just re-writing a previous book. The entire Megamorphs #1 book was about some Yeerk controlled thing tracking morphing and then ends with whale!Cassie crashing it into the sea. And here, YET AGAIN, we have the Yeerks tracking morphing and whale!Cassie trying to crash it into the sea. Like I said in the Marco book that did this, at least mix and match. At least TRY to pretend you’re doing something original. Or…maybe don’t, if what you consider original is ret-conning the blue box and pretending that ants/buffalo are capable of the intelligence required to morph.

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: “The Dead Zone”

28254557Book: “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Viking Press, 1979

Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!

Book Description: When Johnny Smith was six-years-old, head trauma caused by a bad ice-skating accident left him with a nasty bruise on his forehead and, from time to time, those hunches…infrequent but accurate snippets of things to come. But it isn’t until Johnny’s a grown man—now having survived a horrifying auto injury that plunged him into a coma lasting four-and-a-half years—that his special abilities really push to the force. Johnny Smith comes back from the void with an extraordinary gift that becomes his life’s curse…presenting visions of what was and what will be for the innocent and guilty alike. But when he encounters a ruthlessly ambitious and amoral man who promises a terrifying fate for all humanity, Johnny must find a way to prevent a harrowing predestination from becoming reality.

Review: During the Great Stephen King Binge of Eighth Grade, I hit a lot of classic King stories that have endured the test of time. But interestingly enough, one of the titles I skipped during that time was “The Dead Zone”, King’s fifth book (not including a few he wrote under Richard Bachman), and therefore still SUPER early in his writing career. It’s also one of his first books in Castle Rock, now a staple setting for a lot of the King Mythology. Looking back I have no idea why I skipped it; it’s about a man who becomes a psychic after an accident and has to deal with having horrible visions as well as deal with how his new powers affects his relationships. Perhaps at the time it sounded too tame, but now I know that psychics are some of my favorite tropes in dark fantasy/horror/what have you. Suffice to say, I decided to give it a go, and now I am sorta kicking myself for waiting so long to pick it up. Because not only does “The Dead Zone” include one of my favorite tropes of all time, it also has a villain that feels incredibly relevant to today: a malignantly narcissistic politician who garners a fervent following in spite of (because of?) his brash, callous, and cruel nature and false promises.

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That’s a political hellscape that sounds AWFULLY familiar… (source)

John Smith is our protagonist, a humble and serious school teacher who, after a car accident that leaves him in a coma for years, suddenly gains the power to touch someone or something, and get an impression about the past, or the future. King writes John in the way that I think most people would be if they gained this power: unhappy with the burden of it, but also unable to make himself ignore it should the consequences be grave and also potentially malleable. While this is a fairly standard recipe for modern ‘psychic who wants to be normal’ characters, John was probably one of the earlier iterations of the now familiar trope, and I enjoyed watching his character have to grapple with the responsibility. While it may feel a little old hat now, when this book was published in 1980 I wonder if the idea of ‘reluctant psychic’ was as prevalent as it is now. King really emphasizes the pitfalls of this gift, be it because of people who will harangue you as a fraud, or the people who will be desperate for you to give them answers to things that may not have easy, or wanted, solutions. Multiple times John has to weigh the pros and cons of telling people what he has seen, and King makes it clear that the emotional exhaustion and fallout oftentimes takes serious tolls on him. There are multiple moments in the story where I felt so badly for John, because he gains very little from this gift, even when it does positive things. In fact, if he does predict an outcome, usually those he helps are then completely terrified of him because of his supernatural abilities.

But I think that while John is a perfectly fine person to follow, I believe that the greatest strengths in this novel are the supporting cast of characters, in particular John’s old girlfriend Sarah, and the villain of the piece, Greg Stillson. Sarah and John are very tragic in a muted way, as while John survived the crash and eventually did wake up, Sarah, assuming he never would, moved on with her life. She has a husband and a child by the time John wakes up, and while she never stopped loving him she thought that she could never actually be with him. When confronted with the reality of what COULD have been is desperately sad. But at the same time, Sarah isn’t mired down by her sadness. I like that she takes the agency and little control she does have over the situation and is able to find closure in some ways (though admittedly I did roll my eyes a little bit at one aspect…. It felt weird and schmaltzy, but no spoilers here). She is a very steadfast character who feels deeper than just the old girlfriend who has lingering regrets. However, the strongest supporting character is assuredly Greg Stillson, the aforementioned politician whose power comes from a slowly growing cult of personality. Stillson and John spend much of the novel separate, but while we see John’s eventual rise as a reluctant psychic, we see Stillson’s rise in the political world (gains made mostly through violence, extortion, and intimidation). While I was at first wondering just where Stillson was going to come into all of this (as I went into this book with very little knowledge about it), King does a great job of carefully and slowly bringing them together at the most critical time in the novel. By the time John and Stillson do meet on the page, you have been given enough info about both of them that you know it’s the meeting of two powerhouses in their varying ways. Stillson scares the hell out of me, if only because Stillson feels like our reality…. Except there was no reluctant psychic to step in and stop his mad reign.

I listened to this on audio, and oddly enough it was read by James Franco. My guess is this was recorded around the time he was starring in “11/22/63” and the tie in was too good to pass up, but while it was odd to hear him at first he did a pretty okay job with the material. He varied his voices appropriately and emoted enough without feeling over the top. He’s no Will Patton, but I was overall satisfied with how he did (though, hilariously, one of the characters calls for a Polish accent, and so I just kept imagining Franco as Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” whenever the Polish Neurologist was around).

“The Dead Zone” was a dark and unsettling novel, but it is SO classic King that my nostalgia meter was off the charts. While it felt a little too real at times, I greatly, greatly enjoyed finally reading it.

Rating 8: A classic King book with a newly relevant feel, “The Dead Zone” is an unsettling read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead Zone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Theological Weird Fiction”, and “Conspiracy Fiction”.

Find “The Dead Zone” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance”

64255Book: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 1998

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

Book Description: The prospects for the 1907 archaeological season in Egypt seem fairly dull to Amelia Peabody. Despite her adored husband’s brilliant reputation in his field, his dashing-yet-less-than-diplomatic behavior has Professor Radcliffe Emerson ignominiously demoted to examining only the most boring tombs in the Valley of the Kings — mere leftovers, really. All the Peabody Emersons profess stiff upper lips and intend to make the best of a bad situation, but this year the legendary land of the pharaohs will yield more than priceless artifacts for the Emerson expedition. For the desert guards even deeper mysteries that are wrapped in greed — and sealed by murder.

In a seedy section of Cairo, the youngest members of the expedition purchase a mint-condition papyrus of the famed Book of the Dead, the collection of magical spells and prayers designed to ward off the perils of the underworld and lead the deceased into everlasting life. But for as long as there have been graves, there have also been grave robbers — as well as those who believe tomb violators risk the wrath of gods like Thoth, the little baboon who protects the scales used to weigh such precious commodities as hearts and souls.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool”

Review: It’s been a while, but we’re back with another Amelia Peabody novel. I usually turn to these when I find myself in a reading slump, but luckily I’ve had a pretty good run on books recently. But I still found myself with a hankering for my favorite female sleuth, and so here we are!

Back in Egypt, Amelia and her family find themselves looking forward to what will likely be a long, boring season. They have been “banished,” essentially, to some of the lesser tombs in the Valley and aren’t likely to make any grand discoveries. However, adventure is sure to find them, this time in the appearance of a priceless artifact that is recovered by Ramses, Nefret, and David. But following the artifact is a wake of mayhem and murder. Determined to find out who is behind these disturbances, Amelia and co. are on the case! Matters are only muddied, however, when their extended family (Walter, Evelyn, and their daughter, Lia) arrive and previously unknown attachments are revealed.

Many of the tried and true aspects of this series that I have always enjoyed are still present. While the narration is now more broken up, with the introduction of manuscripts and letters written from the perspectives of Ramses and Nefret, we still spend much of our time with our familiar and beloved Amelia. Here, however, the story really does take a new turn with regards to our heroine and her role in these stories. Up to this point, Amelia has been a solid point of reason, sound thinking, humorous commentary, and an adventurous spirit. All of these aspects of her personality remain here, however we are also exposed to a new reality: even Amelia herself has flaws and falls prey to certain prejudices that she wasn’t even aware of in herself. While it is difficult to see our reliable main character clash up against points of view that the modern reader immediately recognizes as traps of prejudices, I loved the full exploration of how this type of latent viewpoint could exist even within the most modern and intellectual beings of the time. And, be assured, even this challenge, as unexpected as it may have been for our heroine, is one that she is up to conquering!

As these books have continued, readers become more and more invested in the goings ons and thoughts/feelings of the younger group of the Emerson party. And this is probably the first book where I felt like these sections truly came into their own. Ramses continues to struggle with his repressed feelings for Nefret. Nefret, herself, continues to run into the barriers that are set against her due to her age and sex (even by members of her own family). And David struggles to find his role in a world that would often judge him first by the color of his skin, even when strong connections exist between him and those who might judge.

The mystery itself was also enjoyable. While I was able to predict certain twists and turns, the romp was still worth the ride. Many familiar faces play a role in this mystery, wandering in and out of scenes in some unexpected ways. I was particularly pleased to see the return of a certain villain who often creates many disturbances in the Emerson clan. What’s more, the stakes in this mystery are much higher than they have been in the past. While the book is still a “feel good” mystery, there was much more darkness and tragedy than I have come to expect. I never love crying over a book, but in this instance, I felt like the sadder moments were not only well-earned but a necessary send-off to certain storylines.

The archeological portions of the story were also quite compelling. We’ve gotten so used to our meticulous and studious main characters, that reading this book and its descriptions of the mishandling of a tomb found by another excavation team, I found myself almost getting as emotionally worked up as Emerson himself!

As I’ve said, many portions of this book felt familiar, but in the best way. There are significant strides made in advancing the storylines of the younger generation, which I’m sure we’ll see continue to play out in books to come. It also takes a new approach to examining Amelia’s own character, forcing her to confront some weaknesses in her own perceptions, an aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed. As always, for fans of this series, keeping plugging along! You won’t be disappointed!

Rating 8: Continues the series’ long line of success, but adds new layers with an exploration of Amelia’s own flaws and an extra focus on the lives of Ramses, Nefret, and David.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ape Who Guards the Balance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Archaeology Thriller Books” and “Strong Female Characters Written by Female Authors.”

Find “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Elm”

39720991Book: “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

Publishing Info: Viking, October 2018

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

Book Description: Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

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

I first read Tana French with her first “Dublin Murder Squad” novel “In The Woods” around the time it came out. I liked it enough, but didn’t really move on until I read “Faithful Place” a few years later. I like French’s style, and I like her characters, but the mysteries themselves never really intrigued me as much as I wanted them to. But when I read about her newest novel, “The Witch Elm”, I was immediately interested in the premise. A man returns to a childhood family home and while he’s there a skull is found in a wych elm. Given that it sounds a little like the ‘who put Bella in the wych elm?’ crime, I wanted to see what French would do with it given her prowess for eeriness and dark characterizations.

“The Witch Elm” is a mystery about how this skeleton got into this tree, as well as how our main character Toby is connected to it. But ultimately it is more a story about family, memory, and how our perceptions of reality can change. Toby is an unreliable narrator not in that he is deliberately hiding facts from the reader, but in that he has gaps in his memory because of time and because of a traumatic brain injury sustained at the start of the book. French did a very good job of integrating the burglary and attack into the plot without making it feel purely plot driven, as there was a slow build up to it and then a sustained period of immediate consequences after that lingered well before the main drive of the plot at Toby’s Uncle Hugo’s home. And since Toby is constantly questioning his own memory, and his potential culpability in regards to the body in the tree, the reader also has to wonder whether or not we are following an innocent bystander caught up in a murder, or the murderer himself. But French is also very adept at presenting other characters who could also have a hand in murder, for many realistic and believable reasons. I quite enjoyed the mystery and seeing where it was going to go next.

I also very much enjoyed the family dynamic that Toby had with those around him, from his Uncle Hugo to his cousins Susanna and Leon. While the relationship with Susanna and Leon was a bit strained, be it because of their potential to be suspects to their differing views on how they should be dealing with their uncle to baggage from the past, it felt very real for a family with various dysfunctions. And Toby’s relationship with Hugo is quite lovely, as Hugo is dying of a brain tumor and Toby, having his own medical set backs and problems with cognition, really connects with him. They all did feel like a real family with it’s ups and downs, and this aspect of the book was probably the strongest for me.

I think that the main quibbles I had were with the length of the story. It takes a little bit of time to get started, for one thing, and while I understand why it does (as mentioned above, French is careful to make the attack and break in feel like more than just a device to get Toby’s mind foggy), I felt like it dragged its feet a bit. I found myself tempted to skip ahead to the family estate, and while I didn’t do that I do think that it took just a little too long to get all of the set up into place. And then it went on a bit longer than it had to, with a tacked on moment at the end that didn’t feel lit it needed to be there. I don’t wish to spoil it so I won’t say what it is here, but a new moment of conflict with very dire consequences happens well after we’ve found out the solution to the Wych Elm mystery at hand. And I didn’t quite understand why it had to happen at all. It felt unnecessary and it didn’t add much to the plot.

But all that said, Tana French is still an author who knows how to write an atmospheric mystery with some fascinating characters. “The Witch Elm” was a fun detour from her “Dublin Murder Squad” series, and I will be very curious to see if she is going to write more stand alone novels down the line, because this one stood on it’s own two feet pretty handily.

Rating 7: While there was a compelling mystery and family story at it’s heart, “The Witch Elm” took a bit too long to get going, and lagged longer than it had to.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch Elm” is included on the Goodreads lists “Autumn Seasonal Reads”, and I think it would fit in on “Popular Family Secrets Books”.

Find “The Witch Elm” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Nights”

21524446We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “A Thousand Nights” by E. K. Johnston

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”

Book Description: Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?

There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.

For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.

By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.

I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.

It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.

I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.

All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.

I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.

Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.

Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.

Book Club Questions

  1. This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
  2. Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
  3. The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
  4. There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
  5. There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Nights” is on these Goodreads lists: “Scheherazade” and “Desert and Djinni.”

Find “A Thousand Nights” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Damsel”

36260155Book: “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: when the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon, or what horrors she has faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Ama comes with Emory back to the kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.

Review: Oof, this is going to be a tricky one. Even now, starting out this review, I’m not really sure if my thoughts and feelings on this book are fully formed. I guess we’ll just see where the words take me!

The description of this book lays out a fairly typically fantasy story: a princess is rescued from a dragon by a handsome prince. But something is not right. She doesn’t remember her time before the rescue and the prince may not be what he seems. However, this is as it always has been. Damsels being rescued, going on to be Queens and mothers of princes themselves.

Between the book description that, while fairly typical, does lay the groundwork for some type of subversion of this typical fairtyale storyline, and the beautiful, flowery cover art, I went into this book with a certain set of expectations. While I didn’t expect it to play out along typical lines (I was fairly sure that she wouldn’t end up with said prince, for example), I wasn’t prepared for the level of darkness that was introduced in this book and I do have some qualms about certain topics’ sudden appearances.

But the book did have some steady points in its favor, and I want to cover those before I get into the parts that gave me pause. For one, the writing is excellent and I immediately felt drawn into the story. Ama herself doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters and yet I was still fully invested, which speaks again to the strength of the writing. And once Ama is introduced, she was a very cheer-worthy heroine. I was immediately drawn to her story and felt the same fears, confusion, and bewilderment that she experiences. The reader, too, doesn’t know her history, so while she looks for answers, we’re right there with her. But this same attachment to her made other parts of the book incredibly hard to read.

As I said, the description sets the story up to be a subversion of the traditional tale, however, I was not prepared for how completely dark and mature some of the themes and topics became in this book. The beautiful cover, light and fluffy, also belied these dark and heavy themes. I could probably write an entire post on its own discussing my complicated feelings about trigger warnings for books (I generally feel that this idea has been taken too far given the obviousness of the fact that there are a million people out there with a million life experiences and no novel can anticipate all of their reactions to any given story), but this book does serve as an example of why some type of warning might be necessary for certain topics.

Nothing about the description, cover, or classification (YA) of this book would give an indication that this book would dive so heavily into topics that can be very hard for many readers, regardless of their age. Specifically for this book, the topic of sexual assault. And this is by no means the only dark subject matter introduced. There are some tough scenes dealing with animal cruelty and a weird moment in the end that verges on bestiality? I’m not even sure how to qualify that scene. I’m a librarian, so I am by no means saying that these topics shouldn’t appear in books or even that there is a reading level that should be maintained for exposure to them (that is between any given reader and his/her parents, depending). But I do think that more needs to be done to prep readers in what they are picking up. With its cover and light description, I could see middle grade readers thinking this would be a good read for them and then being very taken off guard with the graphic nature of the tale.

I also struggled with the ending of the story. While Ama’s own tale comes to a satisfying conclusion, it is a very brief scene that I’m not convinced fully balances out all of the awfulness that happened before. What’s more, the world that is set up is one where this type of abuse has been happening forever and is by no means limited to the Damsels, though theirs is a unique version of it. So while Ama gets her revenge in the end, there is really no resolution for the world itself and the other women living in it. This heavily dampened any feelings of satisfaction that came from her act of defiance.

In the end, while I did enjoy aspects of the book, I’m not convinced that the darker topics were completely earned or necessary (at least not as the many times they’re repeated throughout the story). And my larger concern is that the book does nothing to warn readers what they are getting when they pick it up. We all know I love dark fairytales, but if a story is going to get this dark, more needs to be done with the marketing to prep unsuspecting readers. I’m not sure what the real answer to that is, but I know that this book was shocking for me to read, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to others without giving them some fair warnings of its subject matter.

Rating 5: I have to give this book a middle-of-the-road rating. I liked Ama and the writing was strong, but the book was incredibly dark and I’m not sure its graphic nature was either necessary or resolved in the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Damsel” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”

Find “The Reluctant Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Broken Things”

37859646Book: “Broken Things” by Lauren Oliver

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from Edelweiss.

Book Description: It’s been five years since Summer Marks was brutally murdered in the woods. 

Everyone thinks Mia and Brynn killed their best friend. That driven by their obsession with a novel called The Way into Lovelorn the three girls had imagined themselves into the magical world where their fantasies became twisted, even deadly.

The only thing is: they didn’t do it. 

On the anniversary of Summer’s death, a seemingly insignificant discovery resurrects the mystery and pulls Mia and Brynn back together once again. But as the lines begin to blur between past and present and fiction and reality, the girls must confront what really happened in the woods all those years ago—no matter how monstrous.

Review: I want to say thank you to Edelweiss for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Horrorpalooza has officially begun!!! As you all know, the month of October is where I try to do all horror/upsetting thriller, all the time, and kicking off with the new Lauren Oliver is a great way to begin! Lauren Oliver has written some pretty stellar YA novels in multiple genres, but I think that her mind bending thrillers are her best. I especially liked the book “Vanishing Girls”, a book about two sisters with lots of problems. So when I saw that she had a new book coming out called “Broken Things”, I was intrigued, and when the plot sounded like it was inspired by the Slender Man Stabbing I had to have it. Oliver has always done a good job of making creepy atmospheres as well as creating damaged but interesting protagonists, so I had pretty high hopes for this book. And the good news is that “Broken Things” is another strong showing from Oliver.

This story is told through two perspectives in two different timelines. The first perspective is Brynn, the sardonic sarcastic girl of the friend group. After they were never charged with Summer’s murder, she left town, and has been in a seemingly fragile mental state, hopping in and out of rehab. The other is Mia, the quieter, kinder one of the group, who never left town but had her life be torn apart by her mother’s mental illness and the rumors that always plagued her. Both girls are very different characters, but Oliver does a good job of writing both of them and making their motivations known and understood. While Brynn’s story was the one that I liked the best of the two, I felt that Mia had the most character growth, so there was something to really enjoy through both POVs. Brynn and Mia are also equally complex, as Brynn was potentially in love with Summer back when she was alive, and Mia had a crush on Summer’s then boyfriend, turned fellow suspect. Their romantic entanglements, however, are not the main focus of their storylines, as the big relationship is the one between the two of them as they learn to trust each other again. I greatly enjoyed seeing them try to bridge that gap, especially since there might have been problems even before Summer died. And through their perspectives I felt like I got a good look into what Summer was like, and that she was just as well rounded as they were in spite of the fact that she didn’t have much in terms of her own perspectives.

The timelines are in the present, and what happened leading up to Summer’s death from the time they met her until the night that she died. Both timelines and both perspectives slowly and carefully lay out all of the pieces of the puzzle, and Oliver reveals them at her own pace in their own due time. While we knew everything that was going on in these character’s minds, and the various clues that each of them had, the two timelines and two perspectives made it so that we got to watch them bring it all together. It rarely felt like it was lagging or dragging as Brynn and Mia tackle the mystery, both of Summer’s death and also what Summer was actually like outside of being painted as a symbol of purity taken before her time. While I did guess a couple of things before their reveals, overall there were plenty of gasp worthy moments that took be by surprise. The journey of getting to the solution was lots of fun, with a lot of twisted and dark moments that made for a tense and eerie atmosphere.

I also liked the glimpses we got into the fantasy world of Lovelorn. Like the Slender Man Stabbing, the girls in question had become obsessed with a fantasy world that they believed, to a point, was real. While it may have been easy to just make up a slapdash version of Slender Man for this story, Oliver made a whole new world that had some unique elements. While it wasn’t the focus, we got enough tastes of this fantasy world that I felt like I knew it almost as well as Brynn, Mia, and Summer did. If Lauren Oliver wanted to write a couple of Lovelorn books, I would probably read them, and that’s coming from me, whose tastes in fantasy are VERY particular.

“Broken Things” is another tantalizing and thrilling book by Lauren Oliver, and she continues to show that there can be some well done crossovers between age groups when it comes to thrillers. Adults and teens alike will enjoy “Broken Things”.

Rating 9: An engrossing and thrilling mystery with complex and dark characters, “Broken Things” is a triumphant return to the teen thriller genre for Lauren Oliver.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Broken Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Buzz Books 2018 – Young Adult Fall/Winter”, and “2018 YA Mysteries”.

Find “Broken Things” at your library using WorldCat!