The Great Animorphs Re-Read: Megamorphs #4 “Back to Before”

363358Megamorphs #4: “Back to Before”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 2000

Where Did I GeAt this Book: own it!

Book Description: Jake’s finally weakened. After a grisly battle, the Drode offers the Animorphs’ leader an escape from the terrifying pressure. He’ll reverse the decision to start the Animorphs. Now, there’s no morphing, no missions, and no knowledge of the Yeerks. That is, until very strange things begin to happen and Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco and Ax are forced to confront their new reality.

Narrator: Everyone!

Plot: After a particularly horrible battle, Jake is back in his room, dreading the inevitable nightmares that are sure to come: his friends dying, all because of his own decisions. At this weak point, Crayak’s servant the Drode appears and gives Jake an out: say the words and this can all go away, Jake and the other Animorphs can go back to blissful ignorance, back before they met Elfangor in the abandoned construction lot. From there, a weird alternate reality takes over.

Summary of my feelings during the entire book.

After meeting up at the mall one evening, Cassie and Rachel spot Jake, Marco and this guy named Tobias, (they think?) heading out. We witness the same exchange that we got from Jake’s perspective way back in book #1, but this time from Cassie’s POV. They agree to head home together, but instead of going through the construction site, they take the long way around. In the sky, they see a flash of what looks like a meteorite falling. Cassie gets an odd feeling, but they all reach home safely.

Over the next few days, we check in with the rest of the crew. Tobias is living with his uncle and has quickly fallen out of hanging around with Jake and Marco, getting the sense that while nice enough to him, they’re not really looking for new friends. This leaves Tobias at the mercy of even more bullies, that is until he’s invited by another kid to a meeting of The Sharing. He sees Jake and Tom there, but doesn’t talk to them.

Cassie is having weird dreams, voices in her head and images of the ocean. She goes into the barn now and then and is having weird memories of Marco lounging on hay bales (but Marco’s never been there) and a large bird of prey up in the rafters.

Ax is under the sea, waiting for rescue. It’s been weeks, however, and no one has come. We see him captures and acquire the hammerhead shark morph that he had when the Animorphs originally met up with him back in book #4. After a period of time, he finally decides to give up waiting just as a group of Controllers make their way towards the Dome ship. He escapes as a shark, taking out a bunch of Taxxons on his way, and makes his way to the surface.

Jake is receiving increasing pressure from Tom to join The Sharing. He has nothing against it, but is more and more beginning to resent the pressure from Tom to join.

Marco and Rachel go on a school trip together where Marco flirts outrageously with her. He is happy to find that there is more to her than her looks as she wittily matches him and puts him in his place with his ridiculous come-ons. Just as things are getting interesting, Marco spots his “dead” mom and takes off after her, trying to chase her down.

Rachel has felt all her life that something is missing, and when Marco takes off after some woman who can’t possibly be his dead mother, she doesn’t think twice, leaping into action and following after. The two chase Marco’s mom around town, finally backing her into a corner in an alley, only to find that she’s called reinforcements and now it’s they who are trapped. What’s more, the reinforcements don’t shoot regular guns, but some type of strange laser beam. Rachel and Marco manage to make their escape up a fire ladder in the end. They also start quasi-dating off page.

Tobias, now being protected from the bullies by members of The Sharing, finally decides to join as a full member. He meets Jake in the hall at school and mentions this. Jake seems suspicious of the whole thing, mentioning that any group that asks individuals to give up themselves in order to be part of some whole might be a bit weird. Tobias, though, at the mercy of bullies and practically no family, decides to go through with it. At The Sharing, he and a few others go into a room to become full members. To his surprise, Vice Principal Chapman and a strange man named Mr. Visser are there. Chapman gives a pretty speech about how Tobias will now be part of something bigger than he is. Mr. Visser scoffs at the necessity of the speech, but Chapman says it usually helps. Even with the speech, Tobias starts freaking out when they lock him down to a chair. From there, he’s infested with a Yeerk. But not just any Yeerk, a Yeerk who secretly works for Visser One and there to tell Visser Three that the Council of Thirteen wishes Visser Three to proceed with Visser One’s more secretive approach to the invasion on Earth.

Ax has found himself a place to stay: the mental hospital. But after a while there, he realizes that he must do more and the only way to tell if the Yeerks are on Earth is to present them with bait they can’t resist, an Andalite. He makes his way to a TV station and projects a short video of himself.

At home, Jake and Tom both see the video. Tom freaks out and tries to sneak out of the house, but Jake sees that he has a gun with him and, suspicious, stows away in the back of the car. Tom makes his way to the TV studio. There he meets up with Chapman, Mr. Visser, and, strangely, Tobias. A small fight breaks out, and in the chaos, Tom shoots at Jake with a ray gun (though he can’t see who it is to know it’s Jake). Jake briefly sees his own hand start to change into the paw of a tiger. He freaks out and rushes back to meet up with Rachel, Cassie, and Marco in the barn.

There, Cassie confesses to the strange visions she’s been having. Before Jake can describe the alien on the video, Cassie is able to describe him herself, based on these strange “visions.” They all agree that some sort of conspiracy is going on, likely involving The Sharing since they know Tom and Tobias were involved. Cassie watches the discussion and notes that everyone is the way they “should” be: Jake is the leader, making the decision when necessary; Rachel is ready to act, now; Marco is sitting back, cautious and analyzing the situation from afar. But something is still missing.

Back with Tobias, we see the slow spiral of his thoughts as he realizes the truly terrible situation he has gotten himself into. There’s no going back, and this is his life now. He also realizes that the Yeerk in his head is a bit scared, noting that Visser Three is being too accommodating of a Yeerk who just delivered bad news. At a meeting, Visser Three confronts Controlled!Tobias and accuses the Yeerk of working for Visser One. After threatening to starve him to death, the Yeerk confesses and Controlled!Tobias is shot in the head.

The others have decided to track Tom, their only known lead. But we see how difficult their task is without morphing abilities: even following him becomes almost impossible because they can’t drive. Jake and Marco try to sneak through Tom’s things, but don’t see anything. On the TV, however, they see another broadcast from Ax, this time on all of the stations. He explains about the Yeerks, how they Control people and that Earth is under attack. Marco quickly guesses that this is what has happened to Tom and his mother. Tom confronts them with a laser gun and tries to herd them out into a waiting car, likely to be infested now themselves. Rachel shows up with a bat and takes Tom out. From there, chaos breaks out.

A Bug fighter shows up in plain sight and begins chasing them. They manage to make it a few blocks before the fighter blows up some cars. The explosion beats up Rachel and Jake, but it kills Marco. Shell-shocked, they make their way to the mall and meet up with Cassie. Ax is there as well, having holed up in Circuit City to broadcast his message. On his way out, he runs into three teenage humans who are now being chased by a bunch of Yeerks through the mall. One of them knows his name. Cassie convinces Ax that she doesn’t know what’s going on, but something’s not right and they are supposed to be friends and allies. Ax says they need to make their way to the roof to escape.

On the way there, several fights break out and Rachel comes into her own with a blaze of battle prowess. But once on the roof, she is killed by a Hork Bajir. Ax, Jake, and Cassie run towards the Blade ship that has landed on the roof. As they run, Cassie, too, is shot and killed by a laser. Jake and Ax make their way on to the Blade ship, but they run into Visser Three who is about to kill them when Cassie appears again out of nowhere and kills him. A disembodied voice complains that she was dead and that this is getting out of hand.

Ax, Cassie, and Jake fly the ship into space and are just about to take out the Yeerk Pool Ship, likely resulting in their own death as well, when it all stops. A being that calls itself the Drode and an old, grandfatherly-like creatures calling itself the Ellimist show up. The other dead Animorphs also show up. The Drode complains that the Ellimist cheated, that Cassie is an anomaly that messed with the alternate reality. He accuses the Ellimist of “stacking the deck” by selecting Cassie, a time/space anomaly, Marco, the son of Visser One’s host, Tobias, Elfangor’s son, and Ax, Elfangor’s borther, to be part of his team. The Ellimist says that his decisions came into play before the timeline change, so it was a fair deal. It’s not his fault that Cassie’s mere presence will always ruin it, grounding the timeline into the one that is meant to be. Besides, the Drode was the one to call things off in the end, just as Jake, Ax, and Cassie were about to blow up the Yeerk Pool Ship.

Through all of this, the others regain their memories. Jake is horrified that he gave in and that this was the result. The Ellimist says that things will reset to the night Jake made this decision and that none of them would remember but for Cassie who would have vague images here and there. Cassie decides that whatever she remembers she will keep to herself. She doesn’t want Jake to know he ever caved to Crayak or Tobias to know he chose to be a Controller. Rachel comments that she will be more than happy to forget dating Marco.

Time resets. Jake is in his room, dreading his nightmares. The Drode appears and temps him, just as Jake is about to answer, the Drode sighs in annoyance, says never mind, and disappears.

Our Fearless Leader: The brief scene at the beginning of this book is brutally effective, especially given how short it is. We don’t know the details of the mission, but multiple members of the Animorphs almost die. They also have to walk out on a dying human Controller that was taken out in the action. There’s nothing special about this fight, which is what makes it all the more believable that it would be the one to break Jake. It isn’t a matter of the fight itself being worse, but the accumulation.

We get some good stuff from Jake throughout the book, but some of the bigger moments are his discussion with Tobias about The Sharing and his natural fall into leadership, even in this alternate reality. The former gets at Jake’s inherent distrust of organizations that call for the loss of the individual, and it’s a brief discussion, but very interesting for what it says about him. The second is a good example of just how inevitable it was that Jake would be the one to lead this group. He’s a natural leader, able to make tough decisions quickly when they need to be made, regardless of changed circumstances. It’s also definitely for the best that Cassie is the only one who will even partially remember this whole thing. Jake has enough weight to carry and the knowledge that he ever made this choice would surely be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel, too, falls naturally into her regular role. She pines for action from the very beginning and doesn’t question motives or sanity or anything when Marco takes off after his “mother.” She acts, and she acts quickly. She’s the one that really gets them out of the alley situation, vaulting Marco up to pull down the escape ladder.

There’s also the neat scene where she comes to Jake and Marco’s rescue when they’re being carted off by Tom, and she takes him out with a bat. We get this line from Jake, and it’s the kind of scene that you can picture showing up in a movie:

I stared at my cousin. Rachel was breathing hard. But her outfit, hair, and makeup had remained perfect.

We also see what has to be a contender for one of her most bad-ass moments in the entire series during the fights that take place in the mall. At one point, the group is fighting a bunch of Hork Bajir with the few ray guns they’ve manged to get their hands on. Things aren’t looking good at one point when Rachel manages to use the decapitated head of one Hork Bajir to stab another Hork Bajir in the chest, killing him.

A Hawk’s Life: Omg, Tobias. His entire section is just heart-wrenching. What makes it all the worse is how very believable it is. Through the entire series, it’s easy to wonder what would make a person agree to be a Controller, and it’s hard to imagine any scenario where that would be a choice someone would make. But here, we see not just some random person do it, but a beloved hero we’ve followed through tons of books. Tobias’s life is terrible. His aunt and uncle are the worst kind of indifferent. One set of bullies was put off by Jake, but another group is always waiting to beat up on him next. Even his rescuers, Jake and Marco, don’t really do much to help Tobias. Sure, Jake stood up for him, but Tobias can sense their lack of interest in being friends, and he inevitably drifts away. The Sharing is perfectly positioned to prey on kids like him.

And when he’s Controlled, the situation is just worse. He sees his life before and acknowledges that it was terrible, and that while yes, there was nothing he could do at the moment to change it, all he had to do was endure. But even with these thoughts, it’s not made to seem like Tobias made a stupid, easy-to-avoid decision . His life was hard; even knowing that endurance will provide an escape at some point, the reality of what life is like for kids like this is still really tough. And then he gets shot in the head because the Yeerk inside him is caught out as a spy. Oof.

Peace, Love, and Animals: This is a great book for Cassie. Not only are her chapters fun to read (especially the first one when we experience the scene before the construction night from her POV), but her insights into the team are put to great use. Through her eyes, we see how these individuals have key characteristics that remain true, regardless of how things played out. Her visions of the future are also great, being just subtle enough to create disturbing moments for her (like her recurring vision of a hawk in the barn) and clear enough for readers to get excited about the familiarities. She never just “suddenly remembers” anything in the lazy way of writing that so easily could have happened. Instead, her small insights and visions are always just enough at any given moment to slowly push things. Her memory of Ax’s name is the biggest one. Without that name, there’s a good chance things would have gone very differently, with the team never coming together and all being killed before they could reach the Blade ship and fly it into space, creating enough of a threat to force the Drode to stop things.

And then, of course, there are passive things that Cassie caused, like Jake’s weird hand morphing incident and the much more extreme example of her essentially coming back to life just in time to kill Visser Three. Most importantly, she realizes immediately that any memory of this experience that she retains is one that she must keep to herself; it would be too damaging to the group to know, especially Tobias and Jake.

The Comic Relief: For all that Marco quickly calls out the insanity when they’re all in the barn discussing the possibility of some weird conspiracy with The Sharing, he’s also the one to really defend the idea too, nicely highlighting the strengths of Marco’s character: he can say what everyone is thinking, but do it in a way that also highlights the realities of the situation. He has several moments where he shows his smarts, especially when it comes to spying on Tom. While Rachel wants action (any action!), Marco knows that they have to be cautious. He’s the one who warns Jake to look for booby traps that Tom might have set to warn him if anyone snoops around his room. Because of this, Jake is able to see the hair placed in a door to do just that.

It’s also important that Marco spotted his mom in the beginning of this book. We know from what we saw in the beginning of this series that, while smart, Marco is a very pragmatic character and would likely be unmoved to get involved in this whole situation had he not had a good motivation. And now, like then, that motivation comes in the form of his mother. It’s interesting to think, then, that if the only thing that changed was missing that construction site meeting, then there had to have been some Animorphs-related mission in the normal reality that prevented Marco and Rachel from being at that theater and seeing Marco’s mother then, instead of on the ship in book #5.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: It’s great to get some scenes from Ax’s time in the Dome ship in the ocean before the Animorphs would have rescued him. We even get to see how he goes about acquiring the shark, which is a great little tidbit of a scene to throw to fans of the series.

It’s also interesting to see how (and what) he learns about humanity without the Animorphs to help him out. For one, it takes him a bit to even establish which living being he should be when trying to fit in on Earth. In another nice Easter egg, we see that he considered cows at first because of their physical similarities to Andalites before dismissing them as too stupid. He does settle on humans eventually and it’s also no surprise that he would then wind up in a mental hospital. More nice tidbits with references to his eating habits, having managed to once again eat cigarette butts. But this time he fixates on Oreos instead of Cinnabuns.

His plan with the TV studio is also interesting, especially his final broadcast when he transmits the entire plot to the world. It’s hard to know whether this was really a good plan, as it forces the Yeerks’ hands into all-out warfare that humanity was clearly not ready for. But Ax is operating alone, and it’s easy to see him deciding to do something like this when he’s alone on a planet and playing any type of long-game would be incredibly difficult, both in actuality and emotionally.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Tobias being infested, hands down. We’ve seen this before with Jake, but there it was kind of happening in the background and readers, like Jake, weren’t really sure what was happening. Here, we know the entire time where things are leading with Tobias’s plan to become a full member of The Sharing. And then reading about him being literally strapped down to a chair and a Yeerk climbing in his head…yikes, it’s bad.

Couples Watch!: I mean, obviously I’ve read this entire series before, so I knew this book existed way back when I started promoting the secondary Marco/Rachel ship. But c’mon, the very fact that it exists proves that that theory was a good one even from the very beginning. It’s not a hard leap to watch Marco and Rachel’s banter morph into something that could actually work. Marco makes Rachel laugh. Rachel is able to match Marco’s wit. They both leap into action together to chase Marco’s mom and are even able to quickly read each other’s minds as far as next steps with their approach to the chase and their final escape. Obviously, I still love Tobias/Rachel (and Rachel has a great moment in the end where she’s quick to reassure Tobias about his choice to become a Controller, that of course that would never happen), but the book does do a good job of presenting a legitimate alternative.

It’s also worth noting that Cassie pretty much asks Jake out (asks him to come study at least), which is more than what she’s managed to really do in main series. Non-Animorph Jake and Cassie are definitely more brave about their relationship than they end up being in reality.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: We get an interesting look behind the curtain into the world of Visser Three early in the invasion. Through Controlled!Tobias’s eyes, we see that the maneuvering between Visser One and Three had been going on long before the events of book #5. Given the small change in history, there’s no reason to think Visser Three hadn’t made this request to the Council in the normal time line as well, and that Visser One had tried to trick him out of it using a spy. We also see Visser Three sneer at Chapman’s attempts to convince Tobias that this choice is something good; Visser Three clearly sees it as a waste of time.

But, of course, the true enemy in this book is again Crayak, experienced through his minion, the Drode. The Drode has some pretty amusing lines and ways of speaking, but the scene in the very beginning when he temps Jake, really highlights how truly awful Crayak is:

“Just  one word, Jake,”  the  Drode whispered. “No …  no, two, I think.  One  must  not sacrifice good  manners.  Two words and  it  never was.  Two words and  you  know nothing,  have  no power,  no responsibility.”

“What words?”

“One is Crayak. The other is please.”

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Again, like, the entire book? We’ve seen Animorphs die before, but there is something particularly heartbreaking about watching it happen here. In the other versions, the Animorphs have all been fighting a very dangerous war for quite a while. In their own ways, they’ve all grappled with the reality that they or their friends may die at any time. And they each continue to make the choice to get up and fight again, knowing that the risk is worth it in their attempt to save humanity.

Here, they’re just kids (even younger than the Animorphs we’re used to, as around two years has probably gone by at this point). Regular kids, with no powers, no greater knowledge of this war or greater responsibility to handle it, than anyone else. Tobias gets shot in the head for simply having the wrong Yeerk Control him. Marco gets taken out by a Bug fighter the first time any of them truly understand the technology they’re up against. Rachel holds her own in a fight for a bit, but the reality is that no teenage girl can last against Hork Bajir warriors. And the others have to just watch their friends die, in no way prepared for it or accepting that this was a risk when they got up that morning. It’s shell-shocking and traumatic.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: As I said in Ax’s section, there could be some questioning of whether or not Ax’s approach was truly a wise decision. With the Andalites nowhere near, goading the Yeerks into an all-out war is a pretty risky decision. But he’s an alien kid, alone on a strange planet, we’ll cut him some slack. And, as far as it goes, with no powers and very little information, it’s pretty impressive that the remnants of the team manage to maneuver themselves into a situation where they’re essentially about to win, even if they die in the process. So much so, that they force the Drode’s hand in calling the whole thing quits.

Favorite Quote:

An obligatory section of Marco and Rachel flirting/quipping:

“Still, we should go out.  Do a movie.  Eat some burgers.  I could  make you laugh.”
“Actually,  I think the mere memory of that suggestion will  supply me with  plenty of  laughter.”

And, a longer section, but a good one given how the events of this entire book start because of Jake grappling with the challenges of being the leader and what that means:

 “Jake? What do we do?” [Rachel]

“Yeah.  What  do  we  do,  Big  Jake?”  Marco asked, half-mocking.

“What  do  you  mean,  what  do  we  do?”  Jake shot back.  “Why are you asking me?”

Marco shrugged.  “You’re the leader, man.”

“What  are  you  talking  about?  The  leader  of what? And why am I the leader?”

“Because you are,” I [Cassie] said. The words were out of  my  mouth  before  I  could think  about them.  I felt  as if…  as  if  I  was  a  judge  and  had  just passed sentence on Jake.

Marco  jerked  his  thumb  at  me.  “What  the crazy chick said:  Because you are.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 10, Animorphs 15

No change! Obviously none of this comes to pass, so the results don’t have any larger impact on the war. The Ellimist can count it as a win, though.

Rating: Sadness, this is the last Megamorphs book of the series. The Megamorphs books are a really mixed bag of experiences. The first one, I felt, was a big old swing and a miss. The concept was fun, as it’s the first book where we had multiple perspectives, but the action wasn’t really enough to support the style. It had some of the most memorable lines in the series (“Do you just hate trash cans?! Is that what it is?”), but as a whole, it’s not a great introduction into these off-shoot books.

I have a soft spot for Megamorphs #2 and #3. Both are completely hinging on the weird concepts of their stories (dinosaurs! time travel!) and it seems like readers’ appreciation of each will come down to how much fun they can have with those, albeit silly, themes. I was there for the campiness of the dinosaurs and entertained enough by the time travel (and the Tobias/Rachel kiss!) that I could turn my brain off enough to not think too hard about how it would really work.

But after all of this, the best was saved for last. This is the only one of the four that not only fully takes advantage of its split narrations (probably works so well because several members of the team, like Ax and Tobias, are completely disconnected and doing their own things for the majority of the story. And unlike amnesia!Rachel in Megamorphs #1, their actions are actually important to the story), but also has a solid concept that actually has things to say. We get a few great scenes that we missed in the early part of the series (Cassie’s perspective of their first meeting, Ax’s acquiring the shark), and the way the entire thing unfolds is as believable as it is terrifying. While, again, because of the nature of Megamorphs books, that they operate outside of the regular series, everything gets returned to normal and there is no lasting effect on the main plot, this book also seems to have enough new things to show and say that it seems like it should be required reading for the entire series.

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!

Serena’s Review: “West”

31822495Book: ” West” by Edith Pattou

Publishing Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Rose first met Charles, he was trapped in the form of a white bear. To rescue him, Rose traveled to the land that lay east of the sun and west of the moon to defeat the evil Troll Queen. Now Rose has found her happily-ever-after with Charles—until a sudden storm destroys his ship and he is presumed dead. But Rose doesn’t believe the shipwreck was an act of nature, nor does she believe Charles is truly dead. Something much more sinister is at work. With mysterious and unstoppable forces threatening the lives of the people she loves, Rose must once again set off on a perilous journey. And this time, the fate of the entire world is at stake.

Review: I read “East” forever and a day ago. It was an obvious read for me, as I love fairytale re-tellings and love “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” in particular. While I have yet to find my “one true love” version of this story (yes, this is a thing for me. For example, Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” both hold this esteemed title for their respective fairytales), I remember enjoying Pattou’s version and mentally shelving it as a “win” for this fairytale. So, when I saw that now, years later, Pattou was releasing a sequel story, it was a no-brainer to pick it up.

A few years after the events of “East” readers find Rose and her beloved Charles mostly settled into life. With a young baby boy to call their own and established lives pursuing their passions (Charles’s music), they are happy and it feels like the fantastical events of their lives are behind them. That is until Charles’ ship is struck down in a strangely powerful storm on a return journey from one of his musical expeditions. Now Rose will once again brave all to track down the love of her life who she knows, deep down, has not died but must have once again fallen into the grasp of villainy.

Reading this story so many years after “East” was an interesting experience. To be honest, I only had the vaguest memories of that book and they mostly had to do with generally liking it. But, as I said above, not loving it to the extent that I have other fairytale stories. With this book, as I read, I began to remember more and more about the original, not only its own specific take on the tale, but what exactly I liked about it, as well as what held me back.

What I liked has largely to do with a rather nebulous idea regarding writing tone. For fairtyales in particular, there’s a hard-to-pin-down style of writing that often comes hand-in-hand with this type of fantasy. It seems to be a combination of lyrical word choice, simple sentence structure, and a general approach to fantasy that leaves many things unexplained. Magical elements just exist, and it’s expected that readers can just accept them without detailed histories or systems. So, in this way, “West” definitely excels. While the story doesn’t speed along, it also reads nicely, filling its pages with the types of mini adventures and new characters that one expects to run across in fairytales.

The other thing that I remember enjoying from “East,” and that remains strong here, was the characterization of Rose herself. She’s a no-nonsense, go-getter type of heroine of the type that I always particularly enjoy. She doesn’t waffle amidst indecision or others fears (her family all try to convince her that Charles truly died in the ship wreck, as that’s how it appears in every rational sense), but instead has faith in her own abilities and feelings and takes charge of her situation. I also particularly enjoyed her knowledge of trolls to suss out suspicious instances early in the story.

However, there were also elements of this story that reminded me why I didn’t absolutely love “East” either. For one, like that book, Rose is not our only POV character. In the first book, I didn’t love this take on the story either, but I remember enjoying a few of the other POV characters enough that I was able to get on board with it. Here, I feel like there are not only even more POV characters, but that, between them, they tended to bog down Rose’s own story, rather them add nice supplements to it. On top of Rose’s own adventures, we have her brother who is always one step behind her. And her family back in her home village confronting a deadly plague. Both stories were fine, as far as it goes. But there was just too much going on between them all to ever feel truly invested in any of them. Mostly, I just wanted to focus on Rose’s journey to find Charles; I wasn’t too interested in seeing her brother just miss her time and time again. And the plague story, while interesting, just seemed like another tacked on plot that distracted from the main plot line.

In the end, I think my feelings for this book were about on par with what I felt for “East.” Perhaps a bit less so, since the whimsy of trying to track the original story in the retelling was lost in this one. But, as the books are so similar in whats on offer at their core, I think there’s a good chance that however you felt about “East” will transfer to how you feel here. And, as I know a lot of readers really loved that book, I’m sure this will also find a large number of devoted fans. For me, it was still just “kinda good.”

Rating 7: A steady sequel that aptly captures the same tone and feel of the first book, for better or worse.

Reader’s Advisory:

“West” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2018 YA Fairy Tale Retellings

Find “West” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Pact”

26061581Book: “The Dark Days Pact” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Days Club”

Review: Ok, I haven’t ranted about a cover for a long time. But man. MAN! This one deserves a good rant. Not only is this cover truly awful on its own, but when you compare it to the first book’s cover, it just gets even worse.

15993203

That cover is good. It’s not doing anything super brilliant or unique, but it’s getting the job done. We know this is a historical novel, and we get that there is some darkness involved in the story, likely fantasy-related. And then we have this new cover…The model looks ridiculous. The weird magical sword is bizarre (and hard to connect with anything in the book). And the whole thing looks like the type of book you’d scoff at in an airport. We’d all like to think that we don’t judge books by their covers, but we do. And this series was already criminally underappreciated, and I can’t imagine this change to cover art helped anything. Also, spoiler alert, it definitely DOESN’T improve with the third book. *sigh*

Lady Helen has forgone the life of marriage and respectability she had previously seen as her future. Instead, she is now a full-fledged member of the Dark Days Club, a secretive society that fights against demonic beings that lurk among the unwary. More to the point, she and her colleagues suspect that the Grand Deceiver is on the move, one of the most powerful and evil beings the Club has ever faced. But Lady Helen is also still in training, with much to learn not only about her own unique abilities, but how she is to balance her responsibilities to the society as well as her loyalties to her friends. Especially Lord Carlston, whose erratic behavior has set him smack dab in the cross hairs of the leadership in the Dark Days Club.

While this book was a bit more wishy-washy for me (not really a surprise for the dreaded “second book” in a trilogy), there were still several aspects of the series that I greatly enjoyed. For one, the pitch perfect mixture of historical regency “manners” story, flitting through ballrooms and strolls through parks with parasols, and magical adventure featuring some legitimately dark villains. Lady Helen must be given full credit as a well-drawn character who is capable of reading as believable in both these very different scenarios. What’s more, both versions of herself, socialite and powerful Reclaimer, are not two suits that fit well together. Those who know her as a well-bred lady first and foremost, question her ability to exist in an action-packed and dangerous world. Here, she rises to the occasion by learning to fight and donning an alter-ego as a young man. On the other side, her Reclaimer friends don’t see the importance or value that Helen does in maintaining a grip on her role as a woman in society. And here, she proves that a well-timed conversation with the right person can be just as valuable as pulling out a sword.

I still also very much like the world that has been imagined here. Reclaiming is a dangerous business, and we see that though Helen has great power, she still has much to learn to survive in this world. Not only that, the most successful Reclaimer must still deal with the negative side-affects of their work, which we see in Lord Carlston’s quick spiral into violence and madness. We also see that the Deceivers themselves can come with a wide variety of motives and ways of living in the world, some more destructive than others. There are also more than a few humans who prove that you don’t have to be a demonic being to be evil.

While I liked all of these general aspects, I did find myself struggling with much of the book. For having so much action and adventure, the pacing also felt very slow. This is a long book, and towards the middle I was becoming more and more tempted to skim along. This is partly due to Helen’s arc itself within the story. Yes, she is new to this world and still trying to figure out who to trust and how to align herself. But she was just so indecisive, trying to play a middle field that anyone a mile away could see as a fool’s quest from the start. She also falls victim to the unfortunate and all too common martyr complex, choosing to make incredibly stupid decisions rather than, I don’t know, communicate with her friends. And for heaven’s sake, it seems all too clear who and what the Duke of Selbourn really is. Even the most naive lady of the time would be side-eyeing a man like this so determinedly not being put off by the repeated refusals and strange revelations about his lady love.

So, while I still liked much of the story, it ultimately felt a bit too long, a bit too predictable, and a bit too clumsy with its main character. But, that said, I’m still all in for the third and final book. At the very least, I can’t wait to read about Lady Helen finally waking the hell up about some things that I’m sure most readers have already guessed.

Rating 7: Falls victim to “second novel syndrome” a bit, but still has enough going for it to pull readers in for the final story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Pact” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “YA Historical Fantasy” (though I wouldn’t classify this as YA).

Find “The Dark Days Club” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Flight of Swans”

38397799Book: “The Flight of the Swans” by Sarah McGuire

Publishing Info: Carolrhoda Books, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.

Review: Omg, I was so excited when I just randomly stumbled on this book on Edelweiss. I obviously love fairytale retellings. But I LOVE the “Six Swans” fairytale in particular. Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” is probably one of my favorite books ever and is the golden standard as far as I’m concerned for retelling this fairytale. And, frankly, in a world becoming chock-full of other fairytale retellings, there are still very few that tackle this particular tale. So, with those facts in mind, I went into this both very excited and very challenged to not simply do a comparison read with Marillier’s take.

The story follows the classic fairytale. Ryn is a young girl when the story starts out, the youngest of seven siblings with six beloved older brothers. When a sorceress bewitches the king, their father, these siblings rebel only to become caught in the crosshairs of a magical spell themselves. The brothers are all turned into swans, and Ryn is left with impossible task of remaining silent for six years while weaving six tunics out of painful nettles to free her brothers and restore their kingdom.

Long story short, I loved this  book. I loved our main character. I loved how true it remained to the original fairytale. I loved the ways that it expanded on the original fairytale. I loved the romance. I loved the magic. Review done now? Probably could be if I didn’t feel like I owed readers (and the book) at least a bit more detail.

Outside of my general love for the story, there were a few things that stood out in particular. For one, I loved the brothers in this book. Six brothers who spend most of a story as swans and off the page is always going to be a hard thing to tackle for an author. How do you make sure they each have personalities and can be differentiated from each other? While I won’t say that McGuire was completely successful here (there are still one or two brothers who I can only remember small details about), for the most part she does an excellent job of giving the brothers enough distinct traits to make each stand out. For one thing, the way the curse is laid out in this book, the brothers get to spend one night each month as humans. This gives them much more page time than other versions of the tale (Marillier’s swans only become human twice a year). With the addition of these scenes, we get to see much more of the brothers. I particularly loved Aiden, the oldest  brother, and his close relationship with Ryn. He’s probably the brother that is given the most throughout the book, and I just loved everything about him. Secondly, I very much liked Ryn’s twin brother who is the one who has the most of an arc in this book, going from a kind of bratty, young kid to a loyal brother who is the one who really understands the extent of Ryn’s sacrifice in the end.

I also loved the inclusion of particular elements of the fairytale that have been left out of other versions of the story. I always loved the part of the original tale that dealt with the swans carrying their sister across the sea to safety. This is the kind of fairytale scene that is pretty hard to adapt, being very whimsical and hard to actually picture in the real world. McGuire adapts the scene here, having the swans pull a raft carrying Ryn. It was thrilling to see this part of the tale included, and it was also one of the most shining moments for Aiden as a character, even in swan form.

I also loved the romance that builds up between Ryn and the foreign prince, Corbin. As this is a middle grade novel, I had to repeatedly remind myself to be happy with the romance I was getting. But as an example of middle grade romances, this one does very well. It’s another tough part of the story to adapt, what with the usual late entrance of the romantic interest in the fairytale itself. And the fact that our heroine can’t speak, so creating meaningful moments where readers can really buy this type of connection forming can be challenging. McGuire rises to the occasion with aplomb.

The only criticism of the book I have does have to do with my expectations and comparisons to Marillier’s version. Like I said, it was a huge challenge to not compare the two as there are so few examples of this fairytale and Marillier’s is superb. “Daughter of the Forest” is also an adult fantasy novel and has some very adult scenes in the book. It can be a tough read, but its darker moments are also what adds to the ultimate beauty and triumph of the story.

This book, as a middle grade novel, had to take a very different route. And while I can appreciate certain changes (the romance needing to be written in a different way, for one), there were also a few choices that I felt were unnecessary and needlessly removed some of the teeth from the story. For one, the aforementioned monthly transformation of the brothers. This lead to a lot of great development for these characters, but also made Ryn’s experience much easier as she regularly had the support of her brothers to tackle basic tasks, like shelter building. She was also limited to not speaking or writing, but was still able to tell others every bit of her tale as long as she mimed it or acted it out. This let her explain her situation to a lot more people, thus creating even more of a safety net for herself. Beyond this, the nettles themselves become less of a challenge. Ryn quickly finds a way of handling the viscous plants in a way that doesn’t injure her at all. Much of the power of the original story is the way the heroine perseveres through the awful trial that is this curse, and part of that trial is the combination of remaining silent while completely a very painful task. All of these choices, when put together, make Ryn’s story a bit too light, in my opinion. Yes, it is a middle grade novel, but I think the author took it a little too far here and could have kept a bit more of the original’s darkness.

But! I still absolutely loved this story. I was so pleased that is lived up to many of my expectations and even surpassed some of them. It’s also a nice alternative to point to for readers looking for a retelling of this fairytale. There are some younger readers to whom, before, I would have hesitated to hand “Daughter of the Forest” because of some of its adult themes. But now we have this! And put together, we have a version for younger readers AND a version for adults!

Rating 9: A beautiful take on a much-overlooked fairytale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Flight of Swans” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “The Wild Swans/The Six Swans Retellings.”

Find “The Flight of Swans” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #40: “The Other”

363353Animorphs #40: “The Other”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, April 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Ax and the Animorphs find new hope when they learn that he is not the only non-infected Andalite on Earth.

Narrator: Marco

Plot: I had some vague memories of this book, of the fact that it was another “more Andalites on Earth” book VERY shortly after we had just gotten done with the last “more Andalites on Earth” book. But since I really liked the last one, I had high hopes for this one. And while it doesn’t paint certain Animorphs coughAxcough in the best light, it’s a pretty good book as far as general characterization for our team and for Marco in particular.

Me towards Ax throughout this entire book.

Marco is chilling at home on one of his rare free evenings when he sees a strange video clip being highlighted on the news and immediately recognizes the blurry form as an Adalite. Sure that Ax has been caught on film and that a good percentage of Controllers also saw the clip and will be trying to find him, Marco immediately morphs osprey and flies off to find Ax and Tobias in their meadow. Once there, Ax is able to view the clip and notes that this is an entirely different Andalite, since it is missing the last half of its tail. Tobias is also able to guess at the location of the scene and he, Ax, and Marco quickly take off to check it out. Once there, Marco demorphs. Halfway through, however, a local possum starts morphing as well and they find themselves confronted with a massive, adult Andalite, notable NOT the one in the film. After a brief confrontation where the adult Andalite threatens them, smacks around Tobias, and insists they leave, they split off. But, of course, they decide to follow the new Andalite. After seeing him morph human, they are able to track him to a house in the suburbs. They decide that now is the time to call in the rest of the team.

Back with the group, Ax reports that he has heard of both the Andalites who are stranded on Earth. The large one is named Gafinilan and the injured one is named Mertil. Both have strong reputations, though Ax makes sure to get in a few digs about how Mertil is now essentially useless due to his injury. The group decides that for now it is best for just Ax and Marco to approach, not giving away their true numbers. At the house, osprey!Marco decides to try and get a closer look, but when he flies in towards the house he is zapped by a force field. Gafinilan gets on a speaker system and tells him to surrender and come in or he will shoot them. Marco and Ax demorph and approach.

After some more barbed words, Marco and Ax are invited in. On the way in, Marco notices a slight tremble in Gafinilan’s large body. Inside, he leads them to a hidden room where through mad gardening skills he has re-created an Andalite meadow. He and Ax partake in eating an Andalite herb while Marco surreptitiously acquire a  bee that is buzzing around, figuring he may need the morph later. After establishing a reluctant amount of trust, Marco and Ax agree to bring their Prince to meet with Gafinilan.

The next day, the group meets up at the mall to discuss their plan of action. It’s agreed that while Gainilan appears to be a bit of a loose canon, Jake should go ahead and meet with him. The others head out, but Rachel lingers behind with Marco. She has correctly guessed that Marco has his own plans and isn’t about to let Jake wander in without further investigation. The two team up for a spy job.

At Gafinilan’s house, Rachel sets up to provide back up support and Marco morphs bee to make his way in. He almost gets eaten by another bug on his way in, but eagle!Rachel manages to rescue him. The second trip in goes better and bee!Marco makes his way into the house. He doesn’t find Mertil. Anywhere.

After Jake scolds Marco and Rachel, the team try and figure out what game Gafinilan is playing. Ax suddenly realizes the importance of the herb he ate while visiting. It is a pain killer, and after witnessing Gafinilan’s shaking, Ax is able to guess that he has a horrible Andalite disease called Soola’s Disease. It create horrendous pain and is fatal. They figure out that Gafinilan is likely trying to meet Jake thinking that he is an adult Andalite whom Gafinilan could acquire and thus escape his disease (even though, according to Ax, this is considered a very shameful thing to do).

The next day, Jake goes in to meet with Gafinilan. After becoming frustrated when Jake refuses to “demorph” to his Andalite form, Gafinilan pulls a shredder on him and tries to force him to demorph. The other Animorphs barge in in their battle morphs. Gafinilan realizes that they all are human, except for Ax. Gafinilan finally comes clean with what is going on. He does not want to acquire Jake, agreeing with Ax that this is a shameful way out of his illness. Instead, the Yeerks have captured Mertil and are willing to exchange him for a healthy Andalite (the Yeerks don’t want Mertil since he is morph incapable and don’t want Gafinilan because of his illness). Ax is incredulous that Gafinilan would be willing to exchange one of his own people for a mere vecol, an Andalite who can’t morph. Gafinilan says that he would do anything for his friend, vecol or no.

They begin to form a plan to rescue Mertil. The Yeerks move him daily and he is well-guarded. Ax again protests that a vecol is not worth them risking their lives over. Marco finally snaps and calls Ax out on his horrible attitude. Jake says it doesn’t matter what Ax things and they will move forward with the rescue plan.

Marco, speaking from his own ruthless nature, recognizes the same trait in Gafinilan. That he would do terrible things (like turn them over) all to reach the goal of saving his friend. This leaves the Animorphs in a perilous position, trusting Gafinilan to not give them up in the middle of the mission. They move forward with the plan, however, and locate Mertil in an old train yard.

The Animorphs and Gafinilan go in for the rescue, but what started out as a surprise attack quickly devolves into the team be largely outnumbered by Yeerks. A massive fight breaks out. The team is quickly divided up, all fighting seemingly losing battles. The Yeerks attempt to drive off with Mertil in a Uhaul, but gorilla!Marco and elephant!Rachel manage to catch up with them. Gafinilan shows up too and helps rescue Mertil.

Ax again sinks to his normal low for this book with more disparaging comments about Mertil. Tobias finally snaps and calls Ax out on his inability to look past “normal.” Ax finally seems to cave and reluctantly greets Mertil saying that he will always remember the hero he was (great progress, really great).

After they escape, Gafinilan asks the Animorphs to give the two Andalites their space. Gafinilan is dying and would like to be left alone with Mertil during this time. A few days later, Marco makes his way to visit Mertil in the greenhouse. He lets Mertil know that once Gafinilan passes, he would be wiling to visit Mertil, not wanting him to just be alone. After a long silence, Mertil thanks Marco.

The Comic Relief: After the Marco’s last book which was a massive letdown, it was a relief to open this one and find myself back with the character I know and love. We again have a smart, strategic thinker who is impatient with others’ bullshit and willing to confront his own darkness.

Throughout the book, Marco repeatedly calls Ax out for his really negative attitude towards Mertil and those with disabilities. As the story progresses, these put-down become more and more harsh; but in this case, one is completely on Marco’s side of this situation. At one point towards the end, Marco chews Ax out pretty thoroughly and Rachel notes that this might be a bit hypocritical of Marco, who regularly makes some pretty inappropriate jokes. He rightly notes that there is a big difference, that that is gallows humor and that when it comes to his actions, he’s not like that at all. It’s a nice highlight of a key feature for Marco. Yes, he makes a lot of jokes, some that definitely tow the line. He’s also very cynical and suspicious. But, importantly, he owns these aspects of himself and, even more importantly, when it comes to his actions, he’s one of the most loyal members of the group. We also see, at the end of this book, that he can be very considerate, coming to visit Mertil and offering companionship. Just making sure not to tell the others that he has a heart.

We also get a return to Marco’s self-evaluation as far as his ruthlessness and direct-line method of getting from point A to point  B. He sympathizes with Gafinilan, who was willing to turn over another Andalite to save a friend. To Marco, this type of cold-hearted decision making makes sense. Gafinilan’s priority is his friend, and that rules all. It’s a very unique point of view to Marco, and it’s nice to see it used to differentiate how Marco can see, and understand, Gafinilan’s choice as compared to the others.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake has some really good lines when he first meets Gafinilan. At this point, Jake’s met his fair share of arrogant, adult Andalite leaders and isn’t having any of it. It’s always fun to see him in his element as leader of the group, fully embracing his role and even making sure that others (usually other Andalites) know that he will be the one calling the shots from here on out.

Xena, Warrior Princess: I really liked how much Rachel/Marco team up action there was in this book. Though I’ll save some of my thoughts on that for the “Couples” section since there isn’t any actual romantic couple stuff to cover for this book. But we see Rachel team up with Marco not only for the initial spy mission, but also in the end when they both are the ones to catch up with and rescue Mertil from the UHaul.

A Hawk’s Life: There are a lot of weird hints in this book about Tobias being a bit off. I can’t remember this building up towards anything in other books (at least not in a way that feels like it was intentional here), so I have to imagine it was just to lead up to the last discussion about Ax and his unpleasant attitudes when Tobias finally cracks and comes down on him. He has a nice little speech about “normal” being a word that this group, in particular, probably shouldn’t throw around. He mentions all the weirdness in his own life as good examples. Stuck as a bird. Best friend is an alien. Girlfriend is a human. Etc. But as good as his speech is, he’s also not saying anything that the others haven’t said to some extent before in this book. They all come down on Ax at one point or another. But we have to imagine that when Tobias finally speaks up, it’s more the fact that he’s Ax’s best friend than what he actually says that finally breaks through to Ax.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot in this book. She makes one really strange observation towards the middle of the book that makes you question whether she’s actually paying attention to what’s going on, though. After Marco returns from the spy mission and they’re debating whether they can trust Gafinilan, she says that he must be a good guy because of the care he’s taken of Mertil. But…we’ve just established that no one really knows where Mertil even is! Why is she so sure that Gafinilan is taking such good care of him? It’s really strange. Marco even partially notes that this is a ridiculous line of reasoning, so it can’t be excused as just a weird writing mishap. The author actually just wrote Cassie as being this out of it. I mean, we all know Cassie’s not my favorite character, but this would be really dumb, even for her. But she’s also the one to note in the end that Marco’s right, that his actions do prove more than his out-there jokes, as far as being on the right side of the disability argument.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve disliked Ax this much. And really, the other times it at least made more sense, because it was usually early in the series and he wasn’t quite on-board with his role in the team. In other stories, we’ve seen plenty of examples of the nastiness at the heart of the Andalite culture. But this is one of the few times where we’ve seen it really come out in Ax himself. And not just once, but again, and again, AND AGAIN. It never really gets better, and in fact just gets worse and worse. He tries to claim that he never said he was human, but the Animorphs (and readers, I have to think) aren’t going for it. Especially when you have another Andalite in the book who is proving that you can get past this type of backwards thinking, regardless of how instilled it is in Andalite culture. But nope! Ax is all-in, saying again and again that Mertil is completely valueless, not worth saving, and even says as much to Mertil’s face after they rescue him. Even in the end, his small step in the right direction is so tiny that it barely counts. Especially with the insult that is wedged into it as well, that all that is worth honoring/remembering about Mertil is how he was before. At this point, between the attitude towards the disabled and the idea that it is somehow “cowardly” for an Andalite like Gafinilan to try to save himself, I think we just have to admit that the Andalites as a whole are just kind of bad people. They can be on the right side of this war, but being better than a Yeerk is a low bar, and I’m not convinced they’re doing a whole lot to elevate themselves above it.

Rachel said it best as far as Ax goes in this book. Not only Ax actually making progress on his own thinking, but the sheer number of times we have to go over his bad attitude.

<Jeez, can’t we just get over this issue, please?> Rachel said.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There wasn’t really much as far as body horror, other than our usual descriptions of gross morphing. Marco rightly is concerned about morphing a bee, theorizing that it is also a hive-mind insect like the ants and might be equally horrible. Luckily, he has a better time of it here than he did then.

Couples Watch!: So, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to indulge my side-ship of Marco/Rachel. As I’ve noted so many times in the past, these two are really the members of the group who have the most in common as far as their philosophies and attitudes towards the war. We still usually see them on the same side of most arguments and they still have good banter. So, it’s nice to see here that Rachel is the only member of the group to cotton on to Marco’s plan to further investigate Gafinilan’s house before letting Jake go in. They have a nice little buddy adventure scoping it out, and it really proves how in-step they both are with the other.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three is absent from this book. I do wonder at the reasoning behind some of his choices though. I mean, from a strategic standpoint, Gafinilan and Mertil would still be strong assets on their own as Controllers, if only for their knowledge of Andalite strategy and plans. It also seems strange that Visser Three would ask him to only turn over one other Andalite or, really, even attempt this kind of trade at all. It seems more in line for him that he’d try to just set a general trap to capture all of the bandits who he’s assume are connected to these two.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Not much really, other than my general frustration at the number of times we have to hear about Ax’s horrible ideas.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: They have some good plans in this book. Their approach to Jake’s first meet-and-greet with Gafinilan is probably one of the better ones. They are all prepared in various forms of back up (Marco going in with Jake as a bug, the others waiting in the wing in their battle morphs), and Jake never flinches when Gafinilan goes off track and pulls the shredder on him. Clearly, they were expecting this and it shows with the tidy way they clean up the situation.

Favorite Quote:

One of Marco’s more lethal put-downs of Ax:

Ax interrupted,

“Okay, Ax-man,” I said, my voice a little less than steady. “I’ve been cutting you slack on this handicapped thing because you’re part of the team. But when you talk like that, like this guy is some sort of dirty, worthless thing, I have to say you’re just not one of us.”

And a nice, funny bit of dialogue when they’re going in to the train yard to rescue Meril at the end:

<Gee, Jake, have the odds ever been this bad?> I asked brightly.

<Sure,> Jake answered. <But this time we’ve got the element of surprise.>

“Andalite!”

<Oh, crap.>

Scorecard: Yeerks 10, Animorphs 15

No change! Technically this is a win for the Animorphs, but the stage remains largely unchanged by the end of it, since Mertil and Gafinilan pretty much take themselves out of the equation on both sides.

Rating: I really liked this book as a Marco book. I’m not sure about it as anything else. As I said, it was a relief to get back to a book from his narrative standpoint that wasn’t ridiculous. But man, other things about this book drove me up the wall. For one thing, Ax makes himself very, VERY unlikable in this book. And the book just keeps hitting.that.point.home. And in the end, it doesn’t even feel like he’s made progress. Beyond that, it seems to further reinforce the fact that Andalites are probably just a terrible group of beings, given what we’ve seen about their general culture. And lastly, it’s only been one book since the LAST story we’ve had dealing with new Andalites on Earth. The timing makes it feel very strange and its proximity to the last book kind of cuts the legs out of the interest of this one. After going for long in the series without anything from the Andalites, it’s a bit much to have two stories like this so close together. But, again, I liked it as a Marco book, so I came away pleased.

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!

Serena’s Review: “The Witch of Willow Hall”

37007910Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox

Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.

Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.

There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.

The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.

But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.

This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.

I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.

In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”

Find “The Witch of Willow Hall” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Dry”

38355098Book: “Dry” by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbours and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

Review: Important first note: I literally just now, starting to write this review, figured out what that cover design was. It’s a water drop being eaten up by flames from below. For the life of me I couldn’t figure it out the entire time I was reading the book, only seeing the blue portion and being like “…is it…a feather?? What does that have to do with this topic?”

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(source)

Living in southern California, Alyssa and her family have been hearing about the water shortage for a while now. But like any other news that is told too often, they have quietly gone about their lives not expecting any big changes. Sure, they’d water the lawn less and swimming pools have been banned, but life goes on. Until one day the water turns off. Completely. And in a very short period of time Alyssa comes to realize just how fragile her life and community has been. With the lack of this one crucial resource, chaos and danger quickly descend and she finds herself fighting for her life alongside her brother and a random assortment of other teenagers: the son of the prepper family next door, a teenage girl who has been living by her own laws for years, and a teenage boy with a gift for gab and his own shading dealings. Who can she trust and more importantly, where can they go if they want to survive?

Teaming up with his son, Shusterman once again proves why he is a master of dystopia fiction. What makes this book special is how very real it feels. While “Scythe” looks at a completely foreign society, there are still enough aspects of humanity to imagine this as a very true future. “Dry,” instead, feels as if it could happen tomorrow and that makes it all the more terrifying. Not only is the threat one that we can understand, but it is one that already feels like it is on our door, at least to some extent. But both “Scythe” and “Dry” rely on the very honest and true portrayals of how humanity operates in crisis. In this book, we see how very quickly “society” can devolve and makes the world we live in feel as if it is simply balancing on a very thin knife’s edge. Reacting on spectrums, we see all the extremes in reactions to how a crisis like this might play out. But what makes it all the more disturbing is the transformation of regular people into survivors who will quickly cross moral boundaries to horrific results.

I particularly the way this novel was lain out, with points of view from not only Alyssa but the other teenagers in her group. And between these sections we also saw glimpses into small moments throughout the city as people respond to this crisis. One woman’s time trapped on a freeway. A reporter who finds a way to twist the situation to her benefit. A factory manager who quickly find himself at the center of a mob. Each serves as harsh reminders of the plethora of dangers that immediately show up in a situation like this and how crucial every decision has to the one’s own survival.

Beyond these glimpses, each of the teenage characters were interesting to follow. And what made them all the better as narrators was that there was no assumption that they were all “heroic” as readers often expect from our point of view characters. Instead, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and, more importantly, their own priorities that can often run in conflict with other members of the group. While Alyssa does feel like the “main” character, I found myself much more invested in the story of her neighbor who is the son of a family of preppers. His arc felt the most fully-realized of the group. Alyssa, on the other hand, was probably one of least favorite. While she presents an important point-of-view, being the most optimistic and moral of the group, she also had an early tendency to make very bone-headed decisions when all the evidence was already against her. She had already seen the depths to which humanity had sunk and was still taking dumb risks with the idea that these same people would somehow react differently. It made her read as naive and a bit silly at times.

But the strength of this story really lies with its plotting and descriptions of the horrors brought about by an event like this. Unlike many other disaster/post-apocalyptic stories, there is no major BOOM that sets things off. Instead, it is something much more insidious and quiet. We also see how this lack of “boom” surrounding a situation like this would play against it, with too many people not treating it with the seriousness it deserves. There is a clear commentary on global warning that can be drawn from this, but both Shustermans are careful to not beat readers over the head with it too much. Instead, the discomforting “realness” of the situation does all the work for them on this point.

This story was gripping and impossible to put down. I was frantically turning pages with a feeling of growing dread. And by the last page, while this story was completed (it’s a standalone work), I was left thinking about it and, let’s be honest, mentally prepping for days. I highly recommend this for fans of post-apocalyptic stories and Shusterman’s writing in particular.

Rating 9: A horrifyingly real-feeling story about the collapse of humanity in crisis situations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dry” is a newer title so it isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Natural Disaster Fiction.”

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