Joint Review: “Double Down”

27818091Though we do tend to read different genres, there is sometimes overlap in the books that we pick up and devour. When this happens, we decide to do a joint review, giving our thoughts through our own personal lenses of what we look for in reading material. A few weeks ago, we reviewed the first book in Gwenda Bond’s “Lois Lane” series, and now we’re back with the sequel!

Book: “Double Down” by Gwenda Bond

Publishing Info: Switch Press, May 2016

Where Did We Get this Book: The library!

Book Description: Lois Lane has settled in to her new school. She has friends, for maybe the first time in her life. She has a job that challenges her. And her friendship is growing with SmallvilleGuy, her online maybe-more-than-a-friend. But when her friend Maddy’s twin collapses in a part of town she never should’ve been in, Lois finds herself embroiled in a dangerous mystery that brings her closer to the dirty underbelly of Metropolis.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I think that a YA series is a great platform for Lois Lane to really shine. It’s pretty tempting to just make her a damsel in distress when she’s serving as a counterpart to Superman, or to just push her aside completely. So if you’re coming to this series looking for solid Lois characterization, this is going to be the series for you! If you’re coming into it looking for an original and well plotted main story that only strengthens her character, well….. Maybe not.

I think that is what frustrates me the most about this series. I read it because I want to see Lois shine more on her own, and shine she does, but at the same time I find myself wanting to get back to the scenes with SmallvilleGuy. I WANT LOIS TO STAND ON HER OWN, but in this series she isn’t completely able to do that. Sure, she is a new coming of Veronica Mars in her own way, and I love how she is written, but in terms of the mysteries that she gets to solve without Clark, they aren’t very strong. In this one we get a strange mystery involving her best friend Maddy’s twin sister Melody, and a secretive conspiracy involving the mayor’s office, the former mayor (who happens to be her friend James’s disgraced father), and human cloning. This plot line was boring and didn’t interest me at all, which isn’t good seeing as it was the main storyline of the book. However, I was definitely invested in her progressing relationship with SmallvilleGuy, and the side mystery that the two of them were working on, involving a mysterious internet handle who claims that they have knowledge of a mysterious flying man. For Lois this could mean finding out what happened to her and her father one night long ago in rural Kansas. She doesn’t know what it means for SmallvilleGuy, of course, but is glad that he’s interested too. This was a mystery I could sink my teeth into, because it puts both Lois AND Clark in a dangerous position, even though we’re only seeing it from Lois’s point of view. It legit felt like some “X-Files” malarky going on, and I was living for it. Especially since Lois fears that her father may be in on it, which I thought was a perfect plot point to introduce. Sam Lane has been contentious in various iterations, and I think to make him a potentially shady government being is a very clever direction to take him in. This storyline also set up for some potential future storylines as the series goes on. One involves a mysterious source who just signs their correspondence with ‘A’. And the other was short and sweet: while Lois and SmallvilleGuy were in a virtual reality world, being represented by their own created avatars, a mysterious, silent avatar was following them around occasionally. An avatar that looks like a bat.

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My face when the book I’m reading may be teasing an unexpected Batman arc. (source)

Damn do I love Batman and all his broody shenanigans. The thought of teenage Bruce somehow interacting with Lois Lane, even if it’s just for a little bit, really, REALLY makes me giddy.

I’ve just kind of come to terms with the fact that I am reading this series because it’s a spot on Lois portrayal that I really, really like. It’s not terribly innovative and had it been about an original plucky high school reporter I would have jumped ship awhile back, but it’s my girl Lois and she keeps it centered. She’s ambitious and whip smart without being cruel or vain, and has realistic flaws that make her interesting. I could read about this Lois Lane all day long, and I am still wanting to see more.

Serena’s Thoughts:

When I started this series, I agreed with Kate’s first thought: that YA is a great vehicle for a Lois Lane story. And, while I still am very much enjoying the novelty of getting to read a Lois Lane centric series, I’m not as sure that this is really true for me any more.

I agree with much of what Kate said regarding the central mystery of this story. The biggest failure in this book for me was this plot and its “believablility” issues. Look, we know this is based on a Superman story, so going in I have “bought in” to the world where an alien being has arrived on earth and has all of these amazing ability. But…that’s really supposed to be the only fantastical difference between this world and our own. The first book featured virtual reality; this is easy to get on board with as it feels like we’ve been one step away from this in reality for the last decade. But this book used cloning as its central plot device. And, look,  cloning is something that has actually happened in our world! It shouldn’t be so hard to believe! But the explanations, science, and plot devices behind it always felt weak, through me out of the story, and for a plot dealing with “twin bonds,” clone tanks, and a mob boss, I was surprisingly bored through a lot of it.

I also second what Kate said about the secondary mystery that Lois and SmallvilleGuy were involved in being much more interesting. There were actual stakes involved in this. I never really cared about Melody, the only connection readers have to her is that she is Maddy’s twin sister (and frankly, I’ve never particularly been super attached to Maddy herself!), but heck yeah I’m invested in sneaky government agencies trying to discover the identity of the flying man!

This is the central problem that I’m coming to see with this series. There’s just no way to balance the primary and secondary characters properly. SmallvilleGuy is firmly a secondary character. His plots are secondary, his page time is secondary, and, I’m sorry, that’s just not going to work in the long run for most readers when the series is being sold based on the strength of  Lois Lane, whom everyone knows through her connections to Clark Kent/Superman and the other classic DC characters. There is no way to write unique, original characters who are going to stand up as more interesting or more worthy of their more central roles in the plot when you have a character like SmallvilleGuy lingering on the sidelines with all of this previously established history and backstory. It’s just an impossible situation. It’s not that Maddy, Devin, James, or any of them are bad characters; they’ve just been plopped into a losing battle. I found myself almost skimming through large chunks of the story, just to get back to the Lois/SmallvilleGuy action, and this isn’t good.

Going back to what I originally said, I at first thought the idea of a YA Lois Lane book had a lot of good things going for it. But I’ve now come to realize that what I was really excited about was just the idea of a Lois Lane book all told. The YA aspect of the series is starting to feel like an anchor, rather than a boost. The action and stakes never feel like they have any true threat, which is another factor contributing to my general boredom/lack of interest in the central mystery, and you just can’t put Clark Kent on the sidelines and expect original characters to carry the show. When readers know the truth of the matter, it’s easy to start feeling impatient for Lois to get there too. And I start looking at this series, and due to it being YA, I just see a never-ending line of books before we get any kind of resolution in this area, unless Bond commits to fully re-writing history (which frankly, I’d be more than ok with!) Just get them in the same room and working together!!

So, ultimately, I found this book fairly frustrating. And largely this has to do with the fact that parts of it are so good! I love Lois herself, the characterization is spot on perfect for me.

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Oh, Lois…(source)

 

And SmallvilleGuy, too! But right there, if your two, let’s face it, MAIN characters are both so strong, it’s tough to read a series where one of them is sidelined and the other spends most of her time on plots that have very little at stake and with characters who just can’t stand up on their own. I shouldn’t be more interested in a flying bat machine that literally gets 4 sentences worth of page time than in Lois’s actual highschool friends. Can we just have a massive time jump and start writing the series from Lois’s perspective while at Daily Planet with Clark??

Serena’s Rating 6: I just love Lois and SmallvilleGuy so much that I’m finding it harder and harder to appreciate the other aspects of this series. But, of course, I’ll continue reading, because there’s no way I’m NOT supporting a “Lois Lane” series!

Kate’s Rating 7: The main plot and mystery isn’t very interesting, but Lois’s side mystery with SmallvilleGuy and the government’s hunt for the flying man has me fully invested.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Double Down” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA Superheroes (Not Comics/Graphic Novels)”, and “Fiction Featuring Lois Lane”.

Find “Double Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Mummy Case”

66534Book: “The Mummy Case” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Congdon & Weed, 1985

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Disgusted when he is denied access to the pyramids of Dahshoor and assigned to a “rubble heap,” Emerson finds his curiosity piqued when an antiquities dealer is murdered and a mummy case disappears.

Review: First off…what is this book description? No mention of Amelia at all? I got it off Goodreads and I have to imagine that it was re-written for a later re-print of the series, but whomever is responsible for it should be ashamed for so badly misrepresenting this book and the series as a whole!

So, with no build up whatsoever, I loved this book even more than the last one! Many of my favorite elements were still present, and the added characters were stronger than in the last, as well as the mystery and action being upped.

Amelia and Emerson are off on another dig, though much to their disappointment, they will be at a much less illustrious location than their fellow egyptologists who have managed to snag the much-desired pyramids of Dahshoor site. But perhaps this is for the best, since Amelia and Emerson must not only balance their dig, as well as the inevitable mysteries and deaths that Emerson claims that Amelia attracts to herself, but also their precocious son, Ramses, who is accompanying them for the first time on this trip.

Amelia remains, as ever, the darling of my reader heart and one of my favorite narrators to date. Her wit, practicality, and scathing observations of those around her are as strong as ever. And the relationship (battle?) between her and her husband is as fun as ever. So, full marks in those as carry over elements.

I have to admit that I was a bit concerned when I picked up this novel and realized that Ramses had grown to an age where he was going to be featured more strongly in the series. In the last book, he made a brief appearance in the beginning but was absent for much of the rest of the story. I was a bit worried that the humor that lies in his character (his sharp tongue, unbreakable “reasoning” for his misbehavior, etc) wouldn’t hold up under increased page time. Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed Ramses as a character! Peters struck the perfect balance between featuring him as a new element, both in the series as well as his effect on the dynamic between Amelia and Emerson, and retaining familiar aspects of the story. He doesn’t overwhelm other characters, but instead draws out some my favorite aspects from before.

I also really enjoyed the side characters in this book. Unlike the last book which heavily featured original characters (to varying levels of success), many of the characters in this book are famous archeologists of the time. It was fun reading about familiar names, especially through the lens of Amelia’s and Emerson’s views of them. I’m sure there is a lot of creative leave that was taken, but it’s fun to imagine the real life individuals with some of the bizarre traits and habits that Peters ascribes for them here.

All in all, this was a great third book in a series. While I still very much enjoyed the second book, it was exciting to pick up this one and see that it had corrected many of my few quibbles from the last and was heading in a strong direction: no longer am I concerned about Ramses’ portion of the plot! Bring on the child antics! If you enjoy historical mysteries, and especially comedic writing, I recommend this entire series. It’s not strictly necessary that you read the first two, but why not when they’re this good?

Rating 9: An excellent continuation and proof that I should be less snobby about kid characters!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mummy Case” is included on these Goodreads lists: “I shot the Pharaoh – Novels on Egyptian Myths and Mysteries”, and “The Funniest Books Ever Written (Any Genre).”

Find “The Mummy Case” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs”

Kate’s Review: “The Smaller Evil”

27774725Book: “The Smaller Evil” by Stephanie Kuehn

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: This summer my husband and I went on a few airplane trips, and on one of them we were overhearing (okay, eavesdropping on) a conversation between two people in front of us. While we only got the context of their trip from this one conversation, it sure sounded like we were sitting behind a couple of members  going to a big cult meeting. We kept hoping that they wouldn’t turn around and see us and try to sell us whatever kind of nutritional supplement pyramid scheme they had gotten themselves into, and the moment that they mentioned that at the big welcome concert they had a strict dress code of all white, we looked at each other like

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Is this going to be on the news in the near future? (source)

I’m sure it was all harmless, but I did have a few fleeting moments of thinking about Heaven’s Gate and things like that. I also thought of a book I’d requested from the library, “The Smaller Evil” by one of my favorite YA authors Stephanie Kuehn. Kuehn has written some pretty intense thrillers for teenagers, thrillers that have enough appeal that I think would be pretty tempting to adult audiences if they were willing to just give YA literature a try already. I love her debut novel “Charm and Strange”, and I have had her on my radar ever since I picked it for Book Club during our inaugural session. Kuehn writes with intensity, passion, and a searing amount of pathos, as her characters are all very messed up and very alone in the world. I’m a true sucker for that. I had pretty high hopes for “The Smaller Evil”, what with the fact that it sounded like it was going to tackle the topic of cults. Because with psychopathy, child abuse, sexual assault, and mental illness, why not add something like this to her repertoire, especially since she writes on these matters with sensitivity and eloquence.

The cult storyline itself was a bit more Lifespring than Jonestown, which was not as interesting to me as I had hoped it would be. Which probably makes me kind of monstrous but eh, I’ll own it. I had hoped that there would be some really creepy scenes with group think and herd mentality, and while Beau and his followers were by no means totally on the up and up, bordering into unhealthy, I never felt like there was much of a threat from them. This made it so I wasn’t as worried about Arman, which in turn made me not as invested in him as I probably should have been. I also had a feeling about what the big reveal or twist was going to be, and then really felt it when a reference was made to a 1960s film called “Bunny Lake is Missing”, in which a mother of a missing little girl has her sanity questioned. I did appreciate the fact that it was unclear as to whether or not the main conflict, specifically Beau’s disappearance and possible death, was an actuality, or all in Arman’s head. And I think that had I not seen “Bunny Lake Is Missing” I wouldn’t have been able to figure out just what was gong on, but since I’m a cinephile with a taste for the obscure there mystery was kind of sucked out of the story for me. But then, I don’t think that it would have been so clear to me had I never seen that movie, so that is hardly Kuehn’s fault. I just wish that the conflict with the cult had been a bit more pressing, as as it was, even without knowing the connection, I just never quite bought them as totally threatening as a whole. Misguided and saps, sure. But not dangerous, and that took some of the suspense out.

However, this made it so my focus and interest could be solely on Arman and trying to figure out what makes him tick. Like I mentioned, Kuehn does a really good job of writing mentally ill characters in a realistic and gentle way. Arman suffers from very severe anxiety from the get go, and the reader is slowly shown what has happened to him in his life that has brought him to such a precarious state. He is always on the verge of an anxiety attack, and his first instinct is to run from the issues. When we meet him he’s on his way to Evolve, the compound in the beautiful backdrop of Big Sur, California, he’s stolen a lot of money from his drug dealing stepfather. Arman is searching for a father figure, as his biologial father is a criminal and his stepdad is just as dangerous. I wholly believed that Arman would find himself mixed up with the charismatic and potentially manipulative Beau, and I never questioned the choices that he made throughout this book. His mental illness also felt very real, and his anxiety never treaded into campy territory. It also always felt real enough that one could plausibly wonder if he was just a victim of his own delusions, without portraying him as a complete ranting and raving lunatic. The only aspect of Arman that I did question was his relationships to a fellow teenage member of Evolve named Kira, and his simultaneous dalliances with the beautiful and sexually aggressive camp cook. Neither of these characters were really fleshed out enough for me to really understand their motivations when it came to Arman, and it felt a bit too bad to me that the two potential love interests were kind of relegated to the sexual awakening (the cook) and the idealized but out of reach romance (Kira). The other female character at the forefront was Mari, one of the lower ranked officials at Evolve who puts the screws to Arman when Beau disappears. This book is definitely more about Arman and his journey, and while I really liked finding out what his journey was, it was kind of a shame that the ladies didn’t have as much time to shine or grow as they could have.

Though I think that “The Smaller Evil” isn’t as strong as “Charm and Strange” or “Delicate Monsters”, even a weaker story from Kuehn is still far and away some of the best writing for Young Adults out there. I am continually impressed by the stories that she tells, and I am once again going to have to wait for her next novel to come out. I really hope I don’t have to wait too long.

Rating 8: I was expecting more cult, but “The Smaller Evil” had me questioning everything that I was reading and on the edge of my seat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Smaller Evil” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Cults, Sects, and Religious Conflict for Young Adults”, and “Can’t Wait Books of 2016”.

Find “The Smaller Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Winner’s Curse”

16069030Book: “The Winner’s Curse” by Marie Rutkoski

Publishing Info: Farrar Straus Giroux, March 2014

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

Book Description: As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined. 

Review: This book was somehow exactly what I expected and completely unexpected at the same time. I still can’t quite decide how I feel about it, but I’ll give it a go!

 The story starts off with a quick introduction to Kestrel, our protagonist who, as the daughter of a most-esteemed general and an astute strategist herself, is struggling against pressure to make big life decisions: join the army or get married. Beneath this all lies Kestrel’s true passion for music, specifically the piano, which is not an acceptable life path for individuals in a society where the arts are to be paid for, not to be done oneself. Cue life changing event: Kestrel finds herself drawn to a young slave, purchases him, and FEELINGS HAPPEN.

So, my summary probably gives some clues to the strengths and weaknesses of the story. The set up is pretty obvious and frankly I was a bit weary reading through the inevitable relationship build-up between Kestrel and Arin.

I was much more intrigued by the world itself. What makes the situation presented here so interesting is the recentness of things. Arin’s country was invaded and his people enslaved within his own lifetime, only 15 years ago. Often stories like these involve countries with a much more lengthy history. Kestrel’s questions regarding Arin’s previous life offer a fascinating view into what living in a conquered country would be like, for both the winners and the losers, when history has barely been written. The strengths of the book definitely lay in this area, especially with a twist that happened about 2/3 of the way through the story which really tossed the plot in a completely unexpected, and frankly, relieving direction.

The first two thirds, as I mentioned, were pretty typical and I was at times ready to put the book aside. As a character, Kestrel was…fine. She didn’t pop off the page for me, but she also didn’t fall into any traps that are often the downfall of YA heroines. Arin, for his part, had a lot less page time, but what there was from him was interesting. I did have trouble buying in to their relationship. The author did a respectable job throwing in good moments and discussions that could justify burgeoning feelings between these two. But, especially for Arin, it’s hard to imagine that years worth of resentment, fear, and anger could be overcome.

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Does Kestrel have feelings for Arin?? Does he have feelings for her??…Meh.  (source)

The twist truly does save it. I don’t want to give it away, as it was a game changer for me with the series, throwing some much needed reality onto a at times a bit cheesy romance plot. I was worried that much of the history of their various cultures and the current society they both inhabited would be too easily swept aside. Boy was I wrong. I was thrilled that the author “went there” on a lot of these issues and really forced her characters into tough situations.

While ultimately the book still came off as a bit too “light” for me, I admire the direction the author is taking this series and the ending really did pull it back from the brink. I’ll put it down on my list to follow-up with the series, but I’m also not in a super rush due to some of these criticisms.

Rating 6: Weak start, bland characters, but ultimately a decent recovery with an unexpected switch in direction towards the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Winner’s Curse” can be found on these Goodreads Lists: “Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands” and “Interracial young adult novels”

Find “The Winner’s Curse” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mother, Mother”

17262187Book: “Mother, Mother” by Koren Zailckas

Publishing Info: Crown, September 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Josephine Hurst has her family under control. With two beautiful daughters, a brilliantly intelligent son, a tech-guru of a husband and a historical landmark home, her life is picture perfect. She has everything she wants; all she has to do is keep it that way. But living in this matriarch’s determinedly cheerful, yet subtly controlling domain hasn’t been easy for her family, and when her oldest daughter, Rose, runs off with a mysterious boyfriend, Josephine tightens her grip, gradually turning her flawless home into a darker sort of prison.

Resentful of her sister’s newfound freedom, Violet turns to eastern philosophy, hallucinogenic drugs, and extreme fasting, eventually landing herself in the psych ward. Meanwhile, her brother Will shrinks further into a world of self-doubt. Recently diagnosed with Aspergers and epilepsy, he’s separated from the other kids around town and is homeschooled to ensure his safety. Their father, Douglas, finds resolve in the bottom of the bottle—an addict craving his own chance to escape. Josephine struggles to maintain the family’s impeccable façade, but when a violent incident leads to a visit from child protective services, the truth about the Hursts might finally be revealed.

Review: It is times like these that I thank the heavens that my mother is a wonderful, funny, awesome person who raised me well with a lot of encouragement and love. Sure, my teenage years, like most teenage years, were trying for both of us, but she and I have a very good relationship now, and I know that I am lucky for that. Because there are some people who have mothers like Josephine Hurst, and that scares the bejesus out of me. Josephine Hurst is one of the most twisted villains I have encountered in fiction this year, and like the other villains that have shook me to the core it’s because of her plausibility. She is the classic narcissist parent, who coddles and smothers and brainwashes one child (the neurotic and eager to please son Will), and torments the other (the tortured and lost Violet). I had gone into this thinking that it was going to be something kind of soapy and cartoony like either Kathleen Turner in “Serial Mom” or Marcia Cross on “Desperate Housewives”, but then when it was a really upsetting and scary book about the dangers of narcissistic parenting I was a bit taken aback. Though I suppose I should have expected something along those lines from the woman whose memoir, “Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood”, was about her tumultuous teenage years on booze. Still, how I hoped for a campy Bree Van de Kamp-Hodge revisit.

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Shady lady. (source)

I will say this much, this book was super upsetting and very terrifying to me because of how relentlessly evil Josephine was, and not in a fun way. Watching her manipulate her children and husband and wage psychological warfare against them was just hard to read. It’s told from two perspectives, that of Will, the doted on and pampered child, and that of Violet, the black sheep who Josephine psychologically abuses. The overarching mystery in this book is a pretty clever one, in that you don’t realize that it’s a mystery until about half way through, and that is of the oldest child, Rose. Rose ran away from the family shortly before the events started, and Zailckas does a very good job of slowly revealing why things may not be as they seem in not just this situation, but in many other situations in this book. We get the perspective of Violet, who resents her sister for leaving, and Will, who has been convinced that his oldest sister is basically evil, and I wanted to smack and shake both of them and protect them from this horrible woman who is raising them. I’ve seen and heard about narcissistic parents in the lives of my friends and acquaintances and family, and Josephine is written very, very convincingly. Even though I wanted to shake both Will and Violet for different reasons, I not once said to myself ‘well that just wouldn’t happen’, because Josephine was incredibly real. I definitely enjoyed the Violet sections more, but that may have been because the Will sections were a bit too disturbing to me. Will is the child who is loved and praised and coddled, but you also see just how far gone he is, and how screwed he is going to be because of his connection to his horrible and abusive mother. That said, I also think that the Violet parts showed a more well thought out character, as Violet, though she rebels against her mother with her fascination with Eastern religion and philosophy, is also completely controlled and dominated by her. Violet had the strongest voice of the three children, and I really felt for her and invested in her.

However, I kind of guessed a couple of the big twists pretty early on in the story, and I don’t know if it was because I read too much thriller fiction or because Zailckas didn’t parse out the clues in a very tricky way. I had a harder time with some of the red herrings that were thrown in, as they were only there to distract but then had no explanation or payoff. I also wish that we had a little more dichotomy between Josephine and Beryl, the mother of Violet’s friend Imogene and the positive female influence in her life. We got to see Beryl a little bit, but I wanted more juxtaposition between them. I also felt that Beryl was almost too two dimensional in her portrayal, both a compassionate maternal angel and a literal martyr, as she is suffering from terminal cancer. I think that had we seen more of her and had she had more depth it would have felt more sincere. And without giving away any spoilers, I wished for more closure than we got. I know that life doesn’t always have closure, and I know that rarely do awful people really get what they deserve. But sometimes I am desperate for it, and when it doesn’t happen the way I want it to I have a harder time accepting it.

“Mother, Mother” is a solid thriller mystery and most of the characters are well thought out. But I warn you, it is very upsetting, and it tends to have a bit more emotional baggage than it can carry. Koren Zailckas captures narcissistic personality disorder very well, and should you dare read this, be ready to feel all the ick.

Rating 7: While some of the parts are hard to read and some of the plot twists and diversions are unnecessary, “Mother, Mother” paints a haunting portrait of a horribly abusive mother and her suffering children.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mother, Mother” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Narcissistic Mothers”, and “Gillian Flynn Read Alikes”.

Find “Mother, Mother” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Revolution”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 “Across the Decades,” we each drew a decade and had to select a book that was either published or set in that decade.

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

Book: “Revolution” by Deborah Wiles

Publishing Info: Scholastic Press, May 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.
 
As she did in her groundbreaking documentary novel COUNTDOWN, award-winning author Deborah Wiles uses stories and images to tell the riveting story of a certain time and place — and of kids who, in a world where everyone is choosing sides, must figure out how to stand up for themselves and fight for what’s right.

Kate’s Thoughts

So “Revolution” is part of a series called the “Sixties Trilogy”. A chunk of our bookclub read the first in the series, “Countdown”, in our Children’s Literature class in grad school, and I was wondering if “Revolution” was going to need “Countdown” to serve as a context and foundation. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that a reader could easily skip over “Countdown” and read “Revolution” first if they so chose. While I did enjoy “Countdown” (which is about a girl living on an army base during the Cuban Missile Crisis), I actually enjoyed “Revolution” a bit more. “Revolution” takes on one of the most important and tumultuous times from the 1960s, Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Like “Countdown” this book is both a novel and a documentation of the time period through photos, quotes, and documents. There are many photos of African Americans in Mississippi and the SNCC volunteers, along with biopic sections and influential quotes and song lyrics from civil rights leaders and activists. Being able to juxtapose the actual people in the movement along with the characters in the story and their progressions was incredibly powerful, and I think that this book would be very good to use in tandem with history classes when studying this time period and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The characters are fictional, but portray two different experiences of teenagers at this time. The first, and most prominent, perspective is that of Sunny. She’s about to turn thirteen, adjusting to a new stepmom and two new step siblings, and is becoming more aware of her surroundings, specifically the tensions in her community. She yearns for adventure and to learn, and is drawn to the Freedom Righters and activists that are ‘invading’ her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. I felt that Sunny was a well written and believable tween girl, who thinks that she knows everything and that she knows what the world is like. She is close to her step brother Gillette, but resents her stepmother Annabelle, still holding out hope that her mother will eventually come back for her, even though she left her and her father Jamie when she was just a baby. This book is from Sunny’s perspective, so we explored the opinions of those around her through her eyes. We see her Meemaw who just can’t understand why the ‘negroes’ are being so ‘uppity’ when they were so ‘happy’ up until now. We see her great Uncle Vivian, who is a jolly older man who loves his grand niece, but harbors serious racist views. And we see Annabelle, who is seen as meek and weak by Sunny (or at least unapproachable), but is in actuality an activist with deep convictions and devotion to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Civil Rights Movement. Our other perspective is that of Raymond, a fourteen year old African American boy who is inspired by the galvanization of his community and the Freedom Righters who have come to his part of town. He goes from covert acts of defiance (like sneaking into the segregated swimming pool after hours) to blatant acts of rebellion, standing up for his rights in light of the Civil Rights Act, and facing violence from angry whites in the community.

I liked both of these perspectives, but I think that it’s a damn shame that the dominant perspective was that of the white girl. While Raymond did gets sections of his POV, this book was very much about Sunny and her discovering the evils of racism in 1964 Mississippi. It’s a story that’s been told before, over and over again, and I had gone in hoping that this was going to be more about the African American perspective. I was glad to see that the documentary sections of this book did have a lot of that POV, but even then there were three well drawn out bio sections of various important figures in the Civil Rights Movement, and two of them were of white people. Like, really?

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Overall, though, I did really like “Revolution”. I think that it’s a valuable resource and I feel that it was well written. I am also really really REALLY intrigued by what the final book in the trilogy will be about. I’m thinking it’s gonna be ‘Nam. Which is going to hurt like a bitch.

Serena’s Thoughts

As one of the aforementioned classmates in the Children’s Literature class that read the first book in this series, “Countdown,” I had a good understanding of what I was getting into with this book. While I liked “Countdown” well enough, what sold me on the book was the slick way the author incorporated real news articles, ads, and images from the time, creating a fictional story and a documentary style narrative side-by-side. While I wasn’t blown away by the story in that book, I was truly impressed by this take on historical novels, especially for middle grade readers.

I think here, in “Revolution,” she really comes into her own with this style. Even more so than “Countdown,” I feel like the historical documents and articles really added to the story. I was fascinated by what she chose to include, how the placement of certain items aligned with the facts of the fictional narrative, and just by the stylistic choices that were made in how, and what, was presented.

I also was more invested in the fictional story as well. I thought Sunny was a brilliant character and witnessing the events of Freedom Summer through her eyes was a very interesting choice. I especially appreciated seeing the many adults’ reactions to events as seen through Sunny’s perspective, both her stepmother who she initially dismisses but learns to appreciate, as well as her Uncle Vivian who’s love of her is unquestionable but has opinions and views that are less than praise-worthy.

I also very much enjoyed Raymond’s sections and the voice and perspective that he offered. While Sunny did get the majority of the narrative, Raymond’s portions were equally important when fleshing out the full story.

While I agree with Kate that it would have been preferable to have more from Raymond’s character, I’m going to play a bit of a devil’s advocate role here. I don’t remember if this came up with regards to this particular series and “Countdown,” but in the same Children’s Literature class, we discussed writers of different racial/cultural backgrounds writing across racial/cultural lines. There can not, and I believe, should not, be any right or wrong answer to this question, nor a hard and fast rule with regards to this. But I would surmise that the reason Sunny’s perspective was given more weight might have to do with, perhaps, a sense of imposition that could have arisen from Deborah Wiles, a white woman, writing this story primarily from the perspective of a young African American boy. I have no idea whether or not this was the case. Just goes to show how challenging it can be to be an author and write about tough subjects like these! All the more power to her, though, for tackling the subject, and discussions like this are always important.

Overall, I, too, found myself enjoying this book even more than I did the first in the series. The documentary style elements were even stronger I felt, and I was more connected to the characters in the fictional story.

Serena’s Rating 8: A really great combination of fiction and documentary. I would strongly recommend this to any middle grader with an interest in history (or to a classroom teacher who’s looking to pair some fiction with a lesson plan on this time period).

Kate’s Rating 8: Though I feel like there weren’t enough voices or perspectives from the African American POV, I did like the story and found the historical content incredibly fascinating and valuable.

Bookclub Questions:

1.) There are a lot of images/documents/quotes included in this story. Did any stand out to you? Why?

2.) Did you connect with the characters of Sunny and Raymond? With one more than the other?

3.) This book would pair well with a class that is learning about this era in time. Are there any particular issues/scenes/thoughts that are expressed that would perhaps be more challenging and need discussion when reading with children? How would you approach these discussions? Are there things that weren’t addressed?

4) What did you think of Sunny’s relationship with her stepmother Annabelle? Did Annabelle’s characterization surprise you in any way? What about her relationship with her father Jamie?

5) Did you learn anything new about Freedom Summer in this book that you hadn’t known before? Do you think that “Revolution” did a good job of bringing up new issues that some of us may not be as familiar with?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revolution” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Middle Grade Fiction Set in the 1960s”, and “Black Lives Matter: Kids”.

Find “Revolution” at your library using WorldCat.

The Next Book Selection: “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Curse of the Pharaohs”

32143Book: “The Curse of the Pharaohs” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1991

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Victorian Amelia Peabody continues to journal her Egypt adventures, toddler Ramses left in England. Husband Radcliffe Emerson’s old friend Lady Baskerville fears a curse killed her husband Sir Henry, and soon engages the attentions of American Cyrus. The will funds continued excavation. But a lady dressed in white floats, flutters, spreads fear, and more death.

Review: Now that I’ve discovered these books, I can’t stop myself! On to the next Amelia Peabody adventure, where we learn that nothing, not home, not baby, not grumpy husbands, is too much for Amelia!

This book picks up a few years after the first. Amelia and Emerson are home in England with their toddler son, Ramses (cuz, of course, that’s his name!). Right off the bat, I loved what Peters does with this new family dynamic. It is clear that Amelia loves her son dearly, but her practical, acerbic wit holds for no man or baby! I love the no-nonsense approach to parenthood that she brings to her interactions with Ramses, especially when paired with Emerson’s own approach. It’s kind of a traditional gender-swap, with Emerson cooing over the infant, while Amelia lovingly scoffs at his failures to recognize Ramses’ toddler faults. It’s all very adorable.

But, of course, disturbance must intrude on this domestic affair, and it comes with the death of Sir Henry while on a dig in Egypt. Amelia and Emerson are appealed to take over the dig and to stamp out the rumors of curses that now threatened to overrun the exhibition. Honestly, a lot of the elements in the mystery itself were similar to those found in the first book in this series: the setting, the growing body count, and the ever-present superstitious fears of the locals. Amelia and Emerson’s reactions to these elements are also similar, though in this book, they do develop a very fun competitive approach to the whole ordeal, which is as amusing as it sounds.

The cast of characters is also very expansive, which serves both as a benefit and a detriment to the story at various times. We have cartoon-ish characters (like an elderly lady who dresses up as ancient Egyptians and is convinced that Emerson is her reincarnated pharaoh lover), as well as side character with no less than three love interests! Some of these characters were fun, while others…I just couldn’t keep track of! The love interests, specifically, seemed to merge in my head and I often found myself flipping back pages trying to remember which gentleman was which. There was one, however, who is American and his overblown “American-isms” were pretty humorous, I must say. I did find myself missing Evelyn and Walter, but if this novel serves as a reference going forward, I think I must come to accept the fact that other than Amelia, Emerson, and now, likely Ramses, the supporting cast is likely to be a rotating door. Ah well.

Ultimately, I breezed through this book as quickly as the first! I was curious to see how Peters had Amelia approach the vast difference in her life, now being a wife and a mother (so many stories can struggle with these types of transitions), but overall, I was impressed and look forward to many, many more adventures with Amelia Peabody!

Rating 8: Strong follow up novel. Rated a bit less due to repeated elements in the mystery and weaker supporting characters, but still a very fun read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Curse of the Pharaohs” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Archaeology Romance, Mystery, Suspense” and “Sleuths in Silks.”

Find “The Curse of the Pharaohs” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank”