Kate’s Review: “Take Your Medicine”

38492306Book: “Take Your Medicine” by Hannah Carmack

Publishing Info: NineStar Press, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an ARC from the author.

Book Description: Alice “Al” Liddell is from Echola, Alabama. She leads the life of a normal teen until the day she’s diagnosed with vasovagal syncope – a fainting disorder which causes her to lose consciousness whenever she feels emotions too strongly.

Her mother, the “Queen of Hearts,” is the best cardiothoracic surgeon this side of the Mason-Dixon Line and a bit of a local hero. Yet, even with all her skill she is unable to cure her daughter of her ailment, leading Al into the world of backwater witchcraft.

Along the way she meets a wacky cast of characters and learns to accept her new normal.

Take Your Medicine is a southern gothic retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Review: I want to extend a very special thanks to Hannah Carmack, who was kind enough to provide me with an ARC of this novella! Keep your eyes out for a guest post from Hannah that I will be posting next week!

So maybe you’re asking yourself ‘Fantasy? Isn’t that Serena’s wheelhouse?’ And yes, this is true, but I do enjoy a fantasy story every now and again! I especially like stories that make reference to “Alice in Wonderland”, as that is one of my childhood favorites. With its nonsense adventures and kooky characters, that book has had a place in my heart for a long, long time. So when Hannah Carmack asked if we would read her book “Take Your Medicine,” I kind of jumped all over it. It had been since I’d played “American McGee’s Alice” in high school that I’d encountered an adaptation of Alice that I’ve really, deeply enjoyed.

Don’t EVER speak to me about this whole train wreck. (source)

So “Take Your Medicine” was a breath of fresh air for this Alice fiend. What I liked the most about it is that while it’s not a direct adaptation of the Alice story, it takes great influence from it and peppers homages throughout the narrative. Alice ‘Al’ Liddell is not a girl from the English countryside who falls into an alternate world of Wonderland; she is a teenager living in Alabama who has been dealing with vasovagal syncope her entire life. VVS causes her to have fainting spells in moments of stress or high emotion. The ‘Wonderland’ she encounters is near her rural home, and it involves some teenage witches named Rabbit and Kat, and her own mother, a surgeon known as the Queen of Hearts. What I loved the most about Rabbit and Kat is that while they are analogs for the White Rabbit and The Cheshire Cat, Carmack was very clever in her homages. It wasn’t like Rabbit was constantly checking her watch and freaking out about time, nor was Kat grinning like a fiend all day long. Instead the similarities were more based in subtleties, like Alice being drawn to Rabbit and attracted to her, and Kat being hard to read, motivation wise. And while I was worried that Al’s Mom, being the Queen of Hearts stand in, was going to be cruel and controlling, she was definitely more loving and understanding than I expected. Her strictness and control was born of out love for her daughter, and I thought that was a poignant choice. I loved looking for the other Wonderland characters within those that Al encounters throughout the novella.

The setting is just excellent. I love a good Southern Gothic novel, with sweeping and haunting vistas in backwoods and swamps in the American South. Moving an “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation from England to the American South works so well, because the landscapes and environments are dreamy and mysterious in their own right. I could totally imagine the characters walking through the backwoods, with the heat and the sounds of birds and insects permeating my imagination. I loved the descriptions, from Rabbit and Kat’s trailer to Al’s mother’s rose garden to a backwater dance party. They always felt very surreal and whimsical, and I was completely drawn into it, as I was in Wonderland so many years ago and so many times before.

Finally, as someone who is a big believer in the importance of diversity and representation in literature, especially juvenile and young adult literature, I was VERY pleased to see the diverse cast of characters in this book. Not only is Al a POC character who is living with a chronic illness, she is also exploring her own sexuality and her attraction to Rabbit. Carmack herself lives with an auto-immune disease, and so her story and the character of Al lends a voice to other teens who are living with chronic illnesses. Within the diverse books movement the Own Voices movement is super important, so I love that this book is out there removing stigma or confusion about what it can be like to live with a chronic illness.

“Take Your Medicine” was a highly enjoyable novella that did a spot on job of adapting “Alice in Wonderland”. I completely recommend that if you like the Alice stories you should go and get your hands on this novella.

Rating 8: A unique and sweet retelling of an old favorite. The fun characters and the diverse  cast made for a very enjoyable read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Take Your Medicine” is new and not on any relevant Goodreads lists yet. But I think that it would fit in on “Best Retellings of Alice in Wonderland”, and “Best Southern Gothic Novels for YA”.

Find “Take Your Medicine” at both NineStar Press and Amazon.com.

Serena’s Review: “Rosemarked”

29346927Book: “Rosemarked” by Livia Blackburne

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, November 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: A healer who cannot be healed . . .

When Zivah falls prey to the deadly rose plague, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she fully succumbs. Now she’s destined to live her last days in isolation, cut off from her people and unable to practice her art—until a threat to her village creates a need that only she can fill.

A soldier shattered by war . . .

Broken by torture at the hands of the Amparan Empire, Dineas thirsts for revenge against his captors. Now escaped and reunited with his tribe, he’ll do anything to free them from Amparan rule—even if it means undertaking a plan that risks not only his life but his very self.

Thrust together on a high-stakes mission to spy on the capital, the two couldn’t be more different: Zivah, deeply committed to her vow of healing, and Dineas, yearning for vengeance. But as they grow closer, they must find common ground to protect those they love. And amidst the constant fear of discovery, the two grapple with a mutual attraction that could break both of their carefully guarded hearts.

Review: I was very excited to receive a copy of this book in the mail for review. I had seen it bouncing around on a few review sites, but generally it seemed to land fairly unnoticed. Which, now having read it, is quite a shame! “Rosemarked” is a powerfully simple story of invasion and colonization, hope in the face of loss, and the resilience of two characters who are set with an impossible task.

Zivah, a young healer, finds herself with the unwelcome task of caring for a troop of Amparan soldieres who fall ill with the dreaded rose plague while passing through her home. While her people have arranged a peaceful treaty with these forces, their lands is still regularly plundered and their people harmed. But Zivah knows her duty. She saves as many as she can, including the commander of the guard, but finds herself now cursed with the plague herself, doomed to die in a few years when the fever returns. But her life is not over. She finds herself drawn into a plan to infiltrate the Amparan capital to better learn what their plans are for her homeland. Now, alongside Dineas, a young solder who only recently escaped the dungeons of the city he now marches back towards and who still carries mental and emotional scars from this time, Zivah has a chance to use her knowledge of poisons and healing to save her people.

The story is told with alternating view points between Zivah and Dineas. This worked particularly well due to the vast differences in not only their personalities, but also in their life experiences and how these have shaped their worldviews. As a healer, Zivah struggles with her new reality, doomed to a short life in which even her vast knowledge cannot save her. Further, as she is highly contagious, her entire vocation has been lost to her. In this new mission, she is asked to bend and manipulate her own oaths as a healer to do no harm. What is “harm” when the balance is between individuals and nations? Where is the line when using her knowledge of herb lore and poisons?

Dineas, too, has a powerful arc throughout the story. After his time in prison, he is too broken to return to the capital as he is, not able to put on the performance necessary to convince the Amparan soldiers that he is one of them. Instead, Zivah uses a complicated potion to take away his memories. With this act, the story ultimately ends up with three characters: Zivah, original Dineas, and the Dineas who has no memory. This new Dineas, freed from his memories of torture and hatred, forms a close relationship with the healer who “saves” him. However, as their mission continues, the old Dineas must be brought forth routinely to report on what new Dineas has seen. This leads to much inner confusion and tension as he imposes his own memories, fears, and prejudices onto the actions and emotions of a self who has been freed of his difficult past. Both versions of Dineas’ are soldiers to the core. But through their two perspectives, one jaded and one naive, they each struggle with the harsh realities of warfare and the knowledge that soldiers on either side of any war are ultimately people themselves, with their own loves and lives.

The rose plague plays a large part in this story, not only through the massive impact it has on shaping Zivah’s now shortened life, but in the portrayal of this world as a whole. The plague kills the majority of those it touches. A small few recover but are doomed to live solitary lives in plague villages, waiting for the return of the fever that will claim them. And an even smaller number recover completely, the rose-colored marks on their skin browning, resulting in their being known as “umbertouched.” Through Zivah’s eyes, we see the half-life that those left with this in-between portion of life are forced to live. Cut off from society, the rosemarked are shuffled out of sight into grimy, lawless colonies, similar to a leper colony. They can not interact with loved ones, for fear of passing on the disease. And they have no future, living only on borrowed time. What’s worse, for the majority of them, society prefers to pretend they simply no longer exist. Zivah, and all the others she meets who are rosemarked, are living life in a very different want than the average person. They know their time is limited, and with this in mind, their mental calculus of risk and reward is very different.

Also, for a fantasy novel, there was practically no magic in this story. Really, other than the fact that it is set in a made-up world that is pestered by a fictional plague, this book could read as historical fiction. I quite enjoyed the lack of magic in this story, and the slow, methodical way the plot plays out. The story is simple and straightforward, relying heavily on the strength of its two central characters and their individual arcs throughout the book. For some readers, this may read as a bit slow and dull.  But for readers who enjoy character-focused stories and who can appreciate a fantasy novel with very little magic, “Rosemarked” is definitely a book worth checking out! It’s the first in a duology, with the second, “Umbertouched” set to release next fall.

Rating 7: A character-driven story that perhaps lacks depth, but still touches on important topics of vocation, one’s role in the world, and the horrible decisions that ongoing warfare brings upon a people.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rosemarked” is a newer title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it should be on “Best Fiction Books About Diseases or Viruses.”

Find “Rosemarked” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The First Evil”

107928Book: “The First Evil ” (Fear Street Cheerleaders #1) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1992

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

Book Description: “Give Me a D-I-E!”

Newcomers Corky and Bobbi Corcoran want more than anything to make the cheerleading squad at Shadyside High. But as soon as the Corcoran sisters are named to the team, terrible things happen to the cheerleaders.

The horror starts with a mysterious accident near the Fear Street cemetery. Soon after, piercing screams echo through the empty school halls. And then the ghastly murders begin…

Can Corky and Bobbi stop the killer before the entire cheerleading squad is destroyed?

Had I Read It Before: No.

The Plot: Oh man guys!!! The infamous “Cheerleaders” series!!! I never read them because I was so anti girly girl things I immediately wrote these books off as dumb just because they had cheerleaders in them. How wrong I was! Now as an adult I know that cheerleader stories bring the BEST kind of drama!!!

You know what the GIF theme for this review is going to be!! (source)

Bobbi and Corky Corcoran are sisters/BFFs, and when we first meet them they are putting a toy rat outside their little brother Sean’s door because he’s terrified of them. They then go join their parents for breakfast, and we get some exposition right out the gate. The Corcoran Family has just moved to Fear Street, and both Bobbi and Corky are already making jokes about their house being haunted and someone being murdered in Bobbi’s room. Bobbi and Corky are not twins, but apparently they look like it with their ‘lively green eyes, creamy, pale skin, and high cheekbones like models’. Oh boy. Bobbi is older but shorter, Corky is younger and lanky, blah blah blah, and poor Sean, recently freaked out by the fake rat, joins them and is inconsequential. We find out that cheerleader tryouts are that day, as Mrs. Corcoran has VERY strong feelings that her girls should be cheerleaders because they were just the best back at their old school, practically carrying the rest of the team to finals. Bobbi and Corky don’t know if they will be allowed to try out since the team has already been picked and it’s up to the cheerleaders, but since it’s clear their mother’s affection is based on their cheer status they better hope an exception is made. Apparently their alliance due to a stage mother only have certain limits, as Bobbi plays her own trick on Corky and pretends she’s dead just for a little bit. Ah, sibling love.

Now we meet Jennifer Daly, cheer captain and all around perfect girl who is described by Stine has having ‘full, sensual lips’. Huh. Jennifer is super slim and super nice, and her best friend/assistant Captain Kimmy Bass is….. not. She’s frenetic and ‘chunky’, so I guess she’s probably going to be the mean one. Kimmy is the one who doesn’t want Bobbi and Corky to try out, as the team has been built already, but Jennifer thinks that the Corcorans are SO good that they would be an asset. Miss Green, Cheer advisor, agrees, and Bobbi and Corky are told they can try out. The Corcorans do a routine that involves the chant ‘first and ten, do it again!’ and ‘Go Tigers!’, and I don’t know what all these movies are that Stine is describing but apparently it’s awesome because they are totally on the team now! Of course, Miss Green points out, that means that they have to cut someone. Jennifer targets the Frosh, Ronnie, to be bumped down to alternate, and Kimmy is livid at the injustice of it all. Kimmy, Ronnie, and some chick named Debra all convene in the locker room and bitch about how unfair it all is. Kimmy then gets burned in the shower, which is an excuse to 1) have a cliffhanter chapter ending, 2) mention Simmons, the stoner handyman who also drives the team bus, and 3) show off Kimmy’s necklace that has a megaphone pendant. Checkov’s pendant…..

A few weeks later the team is on the bus heading to a game in a huge rain storm! Bobbi and Corky have been pretty much accepted by everyone but Kimmy and Debra, and so many peppy cheers are flung in the bus. But oh no! Corky realizes that she and Bobbi left the fire batons at home! Annoyed by their irresponsibility by blinded by dreams of State Championships, Jennifer says that they can detour to Fear Street to get them. But the storm is super bad, and for some reason Simmons seems to lean into the storm and drive fast. As they are going down Fear Street, and after he inexplicably opens the doors to the bus, Simmons loses control! Probably too much reefer. The bus crashes, leaving all the girls in a heap. Bobbi, Corky, and the others manage to get out, and realize the bus crashed right smack dab into Fear Street Cemetery. They realize Jennifer is missing, and Bobbi remembers that right before they crashed, she had flown out the side door of the bus that was mysteriously open! They find her sprawled across the tombstone that belongs to Sarah Fear, who died in the 1800s. And she’s dead. An ambulance arrives and EMTs are immediately at Jennifer’s side. They pronounce her head, but then SURPRISE! She opens her eyes and it’s some kind of miracle! They load her into the ambulance, and Kimmy makes it VERY clear that she blames Bobbi and Corky for forgetting the fire batons and causing this detour.

I promise it won’t just be SNL cheerleaders, but this was too good. (source)

So the bad news is that Jennifer has been paralyzed and can’t walk anymore. This means that the squad needs a new captain, and Kimmy is convinced that she has it in the bag since she was assistant captain. Miss Green is holding a huge pep rally to make the announcement. Jennifer makes a speech about how grateful she is, and then Miss Green takes the stage and says that she’s so proud of the fighting spirit her cheerleaders have, and that she’s made her decision on who will replace Jennifer as captain, with Jennifer’s input. Kimmy is thrilled….. until Miss Green names Bobbi Corcoran!! So, okay, we are supposed to probably think that Kimmy is a poor sport in all of this, but I’m super empathetic to her. I’ve MULTIPLE times been in a situation where I have worked my butt off, paid my dues, been pretty damn good at something, and then instead of being rewarded (be it promotion or a starring role in a school play), a brand new person with not as much experience and work done but perhaps a tiny bit more pizzaz has been rewarded instead. I’ve been there. It FUCKING sucks. So I gotta be me, which means I gotta be Team Kimmy here, even if Bobbi is one of our main characters. Kimmy, abjectly humiliated, breaks from the celebration routine and runs out of the gym sobbing.

Bobbi is the new belle of the Shadyside High Social Hierarchy Ball, and is having many congratulations thrust upon her. Not only are a bunch of plebs she doesn’t know fawning over her, she is approached by CHIP CHASNER, quarterback for the Shadyside Tigers football team!!! If that doesn’t sound like royalty waiting to happen, I don’t know what does! They flirt a little bit, and he asks if she’s seeing anyone. She says no, and tosses the question back, and he gets a LITTLE skittish but says that he isn’t seeing anyone anymore, and suggests they go out for pizza after practice. Bobbi says yes, and it walking on cloud nine when she meets up with Jennifer at Jennifer’s home in North Hills. Apparently they were BFFs now, and I again feel for Kimmy because she and Jennifer were besties before now. Jennifer tells Bobbi she talked to Kimmy, and Kimmy will stay on the team, but she’s not happy about it. Bobbi, obtuse to the weird politics at play here, is relieved that Kimmy is coming back even though Kimmy hates her now, and Jennifer says that she better get used to it. Changing the subject, Bobbi tells Jennifer that Chip asked hr out on a date. And then Jennifer notifies her that until VERY recently, Chip was Kimmy’s boyfriend. Fucking Bobbi.

At cheer practice awhile later, Bobbi is having a hard time with her new captainly duties. The girls are out of step, Kimmy is still shooting daggers at her, and their routine of “Steam Heat” is a serious dud. Side bar: “Steam Heat” is from “The Pajama Game” and I remember watching that movie over and over and OVER as a kid. Doris Day for the win, bitches. Bobbi dismisses them for a dinner break before the game, and is bummed that only Corky is trying hard. Bobbi tells Corky she’ll meet her at home because she has to get her stuff. But while she’s in the hallway, suddenly all the lockers start opening and slamming shut. As she runs through a sea of lockers, a girl’s scream starts up too. Bobbi runs back to the front hallway of the school, it all stops. When she gets home and tells Corky, Corky thinks it must be the stress making her nuts. At the game things are going pretty okay, but then Chip has a weird episode where he totally freezes instead of throwing a ball, and gets creamed by the other team. He doesn’t return for the second half, and Bobbi is so distracted the cheers are lackluster and the Tigers lose. She meets him after game and asks what happened, and Chip confides that he doesn’t really know. He says that it felt like he was dead, and he didnt’ really have control of his faculties and doesn’t know why he didn’t throw the ball. They kiss, but he’s pretty shaken up.

At school, Kimmy confronts Bobbi about Chip. Kimmy makes it sound like she still thinks that she and Chip are dating, and Bobbi mocks that HE asked HER out.


A catfight ensues. Miss Green breaks it up and reminds them that they have a new routine they have to work on together. Kimmy reattaches her necklace (foreshadowing?), and refuses to apologize. When Miss Green threatens them with team suspension, they change their tune. Bobbi then starts to explain part of the routine, or has Corky do it since she technically created it. It’s long and complicated and the only thing relevant to this review is that it involves Kimmy dropping and Bobbi catching her. So when they go to run through it, all is well….. until suddenly Bobbi can’t move, just like Chip! And then Kimmy thuds to the floor and smacks her face on the wood, as well as her arm. The other girls say that Bobbi didn’t even TRY to catch Kimmy, and Bobbi runs away. Chip catches her in the hallway, and she tells him the same thing that happened to him happened to her. He’s skeptical, though, as HIS is a muscle thing, or so his doctors say. What a dingus.

That night Bobbi is talking to Jennifer at Jennifer’s house, telling her about what happened at practice. Jennifer tells her that she heard Kimmy’s wrist is broken, but will heal. They talk and Jennifer doesn’t do much to assuage Bobbi’s guilt. As Bobbi is leaving, she looks back through the curtains, and sees the shape of someone walking around the house. But Jennifer is the only one home! Is Jennifer walking?! She walks back up to the house and opens the door, but Jennifer is indeed in her wheelchair. Bobbi is convinced that she is cracking up, but goes home and talks to Corky about it, who is skeptical. Bobbi calls her a traitor, and they fight with Corky thinking about how much she hates Bobbi. And we are informed that this is the last night that Corky will ever spend with her sister. Aw shit.

At practice the next day, its official that Bobbi has no control over the squad anymore, as they all refuse to practice until Miss Green shows up. When Miss Green does, she asks to see Bobbi in her office, and then asks her to step down from the squad after the accident the day before. She’s lost the confidence of the team, and that just won’t do. Bobbi, devastated, goes to the showers to try and calm down. As she’s showering, though, the water suddenly gets VERY hot, and it won’t drain! The steam and the hot water are too much, and Bobbi is suddenly overcome. When Corky arrives, fashionably late, she finds Kimmy’s pendant necklace on the floor of the locker room, but no one else is to be found. She goes into the shower room and finds her sister, dead on the floor.

Some time later, Corky is walking through Fear Street Cemetery, reminiscing. She ends up at the grave of Sarah Fear, and a number of other Fears who died the same year as she did. She thinks about the bus crash, and her sister, and the funeral, and it’s all very sad. She talks to Bobbi’s grave, telling her that Kimmy made captain and everyone expected her to freak out, but she doesn’t care about anything anymore now that Bobbi is dead. The police said that Bobbi died of a seizure or something, but Corky doesn’t buy it. And in that moment, she realizes that she has Kimmy’s pendant, and that KIMMY had every reason to want Bobbi dead. She runs to Kimmy’s house and confronts her and the other cheerleaders about finding the pendant, putting her at the scene of the crime. Kimmy tells her that she hasn’t had her pendant in weeks, and in fact she had given it to Jennifer before Bobbi died! Debra confirms this, and Kimmy says that while she resented Bobbi, she wouldn’t kill her, and that Jennifer couldn’t have either. But Corky points out that Jennifer NEVER changed in the locker rooms anymore, so how did the necklace get there? She goes to confront Jennifer.

Corky gets to Jennifer’s house and it looks like no one is home. She stakes out the place, and sees Jennifer drive up in her car. She decides to follow her, and follows her all the way to the cemetery. She watches as Jennifer STEPS OUT OF THE CAR and WALKS into the cemetery. Corky continues to follow, and watches her dance through the headstones like Linda in “Evil Dead 2”. Corky confronts her by Sarah Fear’s grave, asking what the hell is going on, and Jennifer tells her that she is NOT Jennifer, and makes a dirt tornado from the grave that surrounds them both in a suck zone like HELL. She says that Jennifer is dead, and that she died WEEKS ago when she landed on Sarah Fear’s grave. This evil spirit inhabited Sarah Fear’s body, and was waiting for a new one to inhabit, and now Jennifer’s enemies will pay the price! Corky looks into the grave and see’s Sarah Fear’s body all wormy and bug ridden and the spirit says that Corky is going to  end up in there too. The spirit shoves her in (as the other cheerleaders are coming to help), but Corky is a CHEERLEADER, and does a bunch of cheer moves to save herself and pull herself out of the grave as the dirt tornado starts to settle back into the pit. Corky and the spirit struggle, and the spirit starts to blow nasty air in Corky’s face, but as Corky turns it around it starts to vacate Jennifer’s body and falls back into the grave, the coffin lid shutting and trapping it inside. They all look at Jennifer’s corpse, and it has deteriorated as it would have when she originally died.

When Corky gets home, feeling good in the fact she vanquished the spirit that killed her sister, she suddenly realizes that there’s a pennant that wasn’t there before. And it says Jennifer’s name on it. And Corky starts to scream. The end.


Body Count: 2. I liked the curveball of killing one of the POV characters!

Romance Rating: 2. There wasn’t really much in this one, except that creep Chip dumping Kimmy for Bobbi and then not even really mourning Bobbi’s death. Punk.

Bonkers Rating: 8. Mean cheerleaders, possession, a the very CONCEPT of Jennifer’s body going from ‘alive’ to WORM FEAST the moment the First Evil left her, oh MAN was this stellar on the crazy scale!

Fear Street Relevance: 10! This gets a perfect 10! Bobbi and Corky live on Fear Street,  the bus crashes into the cemetery, and the ghost that had also possessed Sarah FRIGGIN’ Fear is the villain!

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

” ‘Let’s give them something to stare at,’ Bobbi replied, grinning. ‘Break a leg,’ Corky said.”

…. Well, that’s not even a cliffhanger. That’s just a sister wishing the other sister good luck!! You’re losing your touch, Stine!!

That’s So Dated! Moments: One of the characters is told that she looks like ‘movie star Julia Roberts’, and I suppose in 1992 that would have been an age appropriate comparison. Also the stoner bus driver ALWAYS has his Walkman tape player attached to his ears.

Best Quote:

” ‘Fear Street,’ one of the policemen had said grimly, shaking his head. ‘Fear Street…..'”

If that isn’t a “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” moment, I don’t know what is.

Conclusion: “The First Evil” was bonkers and bananas and the cheerleader drama gave me all the things I needed!! I can’t wait to move on to “The Second Evil”!

Highlights: March 2018

In like a lion, out like a lamb! That’s what they say about March. Up here in Minnesota it’s still a bit hard to know if it’s going to be brisk and temperate, or cold and snowy. But with each day we move closer to Spring, so we have that going for us! And since it’s a new month, that means we have some new books we’re looking forward to!

Serena’s Picks

36194120Book: “Burn Bright” by Patricia Briggs

Publication Date: March 6, 2018

Why I’m Interested: While I haven’t quite loved the “Alpha & Omega” offshoot as much as the original “Mercy Thompson” series, I still never turn down an opportunity to read a new Briggs novel! I don’t really ready a lot of urban fantasy, having had a pretty hit/miss history with the genre. However, Briggs’ world of paranormal beings and snappy heroines always seems to hit the spot. Anna herself can be a bit too perfect at times, but let’s be real, I’m here for Charles, her hunky werewolf husband! It looks as if this book will take place during the events of the last Mercy Thompson book which found Mercy and Co. running around Europe. Which means….what shenanigans were being gotten into back home? We shall find out!

35297394Book: “The Wicked Deep” by Shea Ernshaw

Publication Date: March 6, 2018

Why I’m Interested: The book description lists one for fans of “Practical Magic” and “Hocus Pocus.” So…yeah, I’m there. From the description, it also sounds quite a lot like it’s drawn inspirations from sirens, with three witches who were drowned many centuries ago, returning to lure boys to their deaths in the sea each summer. Of course, we have our heroine, a local girl. And our hero, a poor unsuspecting boy who wanders into the wrong town during the wrong part of the year. This book could either be fantastic or trope-ridden. I have hopes for the former, but whenever there are descriptions of “weak-willed” girls being temptresses, I’m also a bit hesitant about what exactly we’re getting at.

33918881Book: “The Heart Forger” by Rin Chupeco

Publication Date: March 20, 2018

Why I’m Interested: Really, Kate and I are both interested! We both read and enjoyed “The Bone Witch,” and I’m so excited to get to this book! The first one didn’t exactly end on a cliff hanger, but there is still a significant jump in time between the main narrative of Tea’s life as an Asha, and her older self’s reflections and actions. What happened between these periods of time?!? I have to know! The author has also found the magical equation where I both dread and look forward to events to come, knowing the outcomes, at least to some extent. The world-building and magical system are intricate and intriguing, and Tea pretty much has a pet dragon, so that’s pretty awesome.

Kate’s Picks

35533431Book: “The Broken Girls” by Simone St. James

Publication Date: March 20, 2018

Why I’m Interested: I am a huge fan of Gothic fiction, and I am always excited to see new tellings of this genre that have been updated for a more modern time. “The Broken Girls” has narratives that take place in and around an old school in the middle of the Eastern U.S. countryside. This is the place that parents would send their daughters that they didn’t want to deal with, and since they’re seen as ‘broken’ no one really cared when one went missing. But when a body is found in a well on the property, a modern day reporter (still haunted by her older sister’s murder years earlier) becomes invested in the outcome. It sounds haunting and timely given the way abuse and harassment towards women has been in the news.

35857495Book: “Bring Me Back” by B.A. Paris

Publication Date: March 8, 2018

Why I’m Interested: While “The Breakdown” was a bit of a slog at first, it completely changed the game in the last fourth, and blew me away. Then and there I knew that I was going to assuredly read anything else that B.A. Paris came out with next. This one involves a husband who leaves his wife in the car while he goes to get gas on a French vacation, and when he comes back she’s gone, never to be seen again. A few years later, he and his new wife (who is his former sister in law) find an object that may be connected to the woman they both loved. This just sounds creepy and paranoia inducing, and I am definitely expecting it be totally knocked off my feet by this in the end. At least I’m hoping to be.

34728667Book: “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeymi

Publication Date: March 6, 2018

Why I’m Interested: Not only does this sound like it’s going to be some mythology based fantasy with dark themes, it’s also a diverse title in a genre that has a serious need of more diversity!! I do admit that this could have the potential for teetering a bit too towards high fantasy for me, but I am totally willing to give it a go because it sounds action packed and unique in a lot of ways. And plus it sounds like there’s some business about reaping souls, and oh goodness gracious is that right up my alley. I also saw an excellent video of Adeymi unwrapping her first copy of this book, and her pure unadulturated joy made me all the more excited to read this book.

The Great Animorphs Re-read #25: “The Extreme”

Animorphs #25: “The Extreme” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, January 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It’s time for the Animorphs to acquire some cold-weather morphs. The Yeerks are at it again, and they’re causing trouble near one of the coldest places on earth: The North Pole.

Narrator: Marco

Plot: So, all I remember about this one is that somehow, someway they end up at the north pole. And they were very cold. And that was much of the story.

The Animorphs in this book. And also me, reading this book. Um, spoilers? It wasn’t my favorite. (source)

The story opens with the usual listing of what’s really happening, we can’t tell you our names, etc etc. But, more importantly, Marco has a date. With Marian. The hottest girl in school. But unfortunately the date is for a trip to the orchestra. Worse, Marco discovers about halfway through that he is thoroughly not  into the orchestra. So much so that he falls asleep and Marian ditches him. At school, as he is regaling Cassie with the tale of his terrible date, when Erek, the friendly Chee, shows up. Never a good sign. He informs them that the Yeerks are trying to set up a Kandrona ray broadcast system using satellites which would allow them to turn any ordinary swimming pool into a  Yeerk pool.

The Animorphs all meet up with Erek at Cassie’s barn to discuss their plan. The Chee don’t know the location of the Yeerk base that is working on this project, but they do know Visser Three plans on visiting it soon and the location of his new feeding pasture. The plan is obvious: they need to hitch a ride with Visser Three from this pasture on the way to the site. But they still don’t know the location of the base, so to deal with what might be a prolonged absence, Erek and three of his Chee friends agree to pose as Marco, Jake, Cassie, and Rachel while they’re gone.

The next day they fly to Visser Three’s meadow, spot him, and one-by-one land in the woods surrounding him. They then morph fly, and Marco notes that they waste half an hour trying to find each other in the meadow cuz fly senses aren’t that great. Per Ax’s knowledge, the decide that the best way to intercept Visser Three without him seeing is to fly up beneath him and try and land on his underbelly. They all manage to land, and Visser Three boards his ship. As they get ready to depart, they overhear some bad news: the flight time will be 3.5 hours long.

As they contemplate what to do, the Bug Fighter lands in the Blade ship. They overhear Visser Three ask if all of the Venbar are on board, and Ax becomes very excited, only to then say he must has misunderstood. Time passes, and they wait, still on Visser Three’s belly while he works on his computer in his personal cabin. Marco passes the time by telling terrible jokes, but eventually they decide they need to do something to allow them to demorph. Ax, using his best Visser Three impression, yells out for guards to come into the cabin. He does this a few times, each time resulting in Visser Three becoming more irate at being interrupted. Finally, he becomes so mad that he charges out of his room and the Animorphs bail off him.  They quickly demorph and try to remorph, but Marco highlights how exhausting the entire process is, comparing it to a 200 yard dash. Everyone gets through but for Ax and Marco when a Taxxon barges into the room. Ax takes it out with his tail blade, but now they have a problem as it will be clear that something else happened here.

All now back to flies, they buzz out of the room. They plan to head to the storage bay, hoping it will be empty, when Visser Three returns, sees the Taxxon, and calls for guards. They manage to make it, but Cassie notes that the Yeerks know about their bug morphs and could flood the place with insecticides, so they all demorph. Marco quickly notices a long line of tall cylinders each containing some type of new alien, ones with silver bodies slashed with streaks of red and blue. They’re all frozen. Hesitantly, Ax says they look like Venbar, but that they have been extinct for thousands of years. The most notable thing about them was the fact that they lived on an ice moon in below freezing temperatures.

They feel the ship landing. Marco wonders why Visser Three would land, knowing the “Andalite bandits” are trapped on his ship. They morph their battle morphs. As they land, three of the bay doors  open: they are surrounded by Hork Bajir warriors and Visser Three himself. Marco realizes that the fourth door hasn’t been opened, and that’s the door to the outdoors. They guess that Visser Three won’t fire lasers in the room for fear of hitting the canisters, so Marco goes for the control panel to the door outside while Rachel slams into the nearest canister. As he frantically tries to pry open the door, tiger!Jake is overwhelmed by Hork Bajir, and wolf!Cassie is thrown past him, obviously injured. Rachel finally mages to break open a canister, releasing the freezing mist that freezes any body part of the Hork Bajir it touches. Marco gets the door open, and they all bail. Visser Three calls for the ship to take off, but the manage to jump out when it is only 20 feet up. The Blade ship, following Visser Three’s orders, continues to rise.

They land on ice in the freezing air. Quickly, those who are injured try to demorph and remorph. Gorilla!Marco’s skin sticks and peels off on the ice. Tobias spots a base or town in the distance, and tries to morph himself, his hawk body not handling the cold. But before he can, he collapses. Rachel grabs him and curls herself around him as she re-morphs grizzly. Above them, the Blade ship heads for the base. Still, they know they need to get out of there. They take off running, but don’t get very far before Ax starts to stumble. Without good cold weather morphs, Jake tells Ax and Tobias to morph fleas and hide in Rachel’s fur. The remaining four continue to run. Throughout it all, the cold bites and hits them all hard. Marco begins to become confused and disoriented.

They find a cave and do an assessment. None of their morphs are equipped for this level of cold, but wolf!Cassie and grizzly!Rachel are managing. Marco slumps to the floor, his thoughts becoming muddled. The others frantically try to get him to demorph, and he only comes to when grizzly!Rachel punches him in the face. They decide that the wolf morph is best, so the other three join Cassie in that form. Cassie says they may be able to use the wolf morph to survive, but they’re barely functional and will need to avoid fights. Looking out of the cave, they spot a pair of the Venbar sliding around on their ski-like feet. They realize that the Venbar are using echo-location to find where they are. The Venbar turn towards them and fire canon like weapons, bringing down the cave walls around them. The Animorphs take off, running along the shoreline of the half-frozen ocean.

After running for almost their allotted two hours, the manage to lose the Venbar and proceed circling each other as they, one-by-one, demorph and remorph. They continue on their way, desperately looking for shelter as it begins to get dark. Behind them, every once in a while, they get a whiff of the Venbar still following them. Suddenly they get a new scent: a polar bear. They continue to run, with the polar bear meandering to their side, but eventually they decide they need to stop for the night and dig themselves a snow lair. Overnight, they continue their miserable rotation of demorphing and remorphing.

As they wait through the night, Ax tells the history of the Venbar, how they were wiped out by another race called The Five, who then also disappeared to history. He theorizes that the  Yeerks have been able to retrieve some frozen DNA from Venbar corpses and combined it with other DNA and used it to grow the Venbar now chasing them. Even more disturbing, Ax suggests that it is likely human DNA that was used as a patch.

The night is terrible, and only the morphing ability which restores them to full health each time, saves them from freezing to death. Morning comes, and outside they spot the polar bear out on the ice fishing for seals. Starving, they do what they have to and gorge themselves on the remainders of the bear’s leftover seal. After eating they spot a pair of baby seals, ideal cold-weather morphs. Cassie and Marco morph dolphin and quickly nab one of the babies for the others to acquire. They all morph seal and relish in finally being warm.

Suddenly the Venbar turn up and start shooting. As they all flop towards the sea, they realize that the Venbar must have seen them morphing and now know the truth about them. They now have two choices, not allow the Venbar to return to the Yeerk base or destroy the Yeerk base itself. As they swim towards the base, a pair of orca whales attack. Chaos ensues, but the Animorphs manage to get back on top of the ice and demoprh into less-appealing meals. But as they’re standing on the ice, they realize that an Inuit man has been watching them from his boat. He asks whether they are animal spirits.

“My grandfather used to talk about animal spirits all the time. I just thought he was crazy.” He spun his finger around his ear in that universal gesture of insanity. “But I always told him, ‘Yeah, that’s right, Grandpa.’ “

What follows is a very bizarre scene with the Inuit guy (Derek) thinking the Animorphs are animal spirits, handing them seal skins to wear, and discussing how mad he is at the “Star Trek guys” who are shooting the seals with lasers. Turns out he knows quite a lot about the Yeerk base and the space ships he’s seen there. Also doesn’t seem to think much of conversing with an alien (Ax) and a talking bird (Tobias.) What’s more, Derek has been following around Nanook (the polar bear) for days and can lead the Animorphs back to him. Grizzly!Rachel and gorilla!Marco go in together to try and subdue the polar bear and manage to pin it to the ice so the others can acquire it. After this action, Derek just takes off and they all morph the polar bear.

They make their way back to the base once again, just as a storm winds up. Darkness begins to fall and they sneak up on the base. The Venbar are working away on building the satellite, but they don’t see Visser Three’s Blade ship anywhere. They slowly sneak towards the base, until a woman finally spots them and raises the alarm. Another Controller shouts to program the Venbar to attack quadrupeds. The Venbar attack, nearly taking out Jake and Tobias, but also opening a convenient “door” in the wall of the hanger that the rest pile through. Ahead of them, they see what remains of the Venbar that went through the wall: it was a biological computer. In the warmth, the Venbar chasing them desolve, but they follow their programming and continue to come in. Boarding a Bug fighter, the Animorphs watch as all of the Venber destroy themselves. They demorph. Ax takes the flight controls and Marco covers the guns. This isn’t the first time they’ve been in a Bug fighter, and it helps them fly this one now. Using the ship, they destroy the satellite and the entire base.

As they turn to fly away, the see the Blade ship moving to intercept. They fly as far as they can south, then set the ship to auto-destruct and fly away as birds. It takes them two more days to finally get home, flying and hiding out on trains and trucks. Back home, Marco luxuriates in a lot of hot showers.

The Comic Relief: Well, this was a dud for a Marco book. Up to this point, Marco books have been some of my favorites. Not only is his internal voice one of the strongest, but he has a good point of sustained drama and emotional tension with the situation with his mother as Visser One. Here, not only did we get none of that, but the story itself didn’t play to Marco’s particular narration strengths. In fact, this book wouldn’t have played well to ANY of their narrative strengths. There was simply no heart to it. Marco’s telling of this story could have been anyone’s telling of this story: it was cold and it sucked. The end. The one real moment of “Marco-ness” we got, other than some of the jokes in the beginning about his date, was when they were realizing they would need to eat a seal to live:

If I had to be the jerk in this situation, that was fine. I was used to it. I was usually the first one to state the obvious, no matter how ugly it was. Just call me Mr. Ruthless.

This was a pretty good character beat, and in line with what we know about Marco. Too bad it came from such a nothing moment.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake comes up with his usual good plans, remains the steady leader they need, and notably has a few self-sacrificial moments. When they first end up in the cold, Jake lasts the longest in his tiger morph, never complaining even though he was suffering as much as the others. When they attack the base in the end, he fights off the Venbar with Tobias as back up telling the other to go on without him. They are small moments, but good ones to show how well Jake holds up even under the most strange of circumstances.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Early in the book, when they’re first escaping the Blade ship amidst all of the freezing gas, grizzly!Rachel walks into the mist to save an unconscious wolf!Cassie, and when she walks out…she leaves a foot behind. First of all, yes, this is another great example of Rachel always being the first to sacrifice herself to save her friends, braving anything to get to them. But also…WHAT IS WITH RACHEL LOSING PAWS IN HER BEAR MORPH! I swear, this is at least the third time it’s happened. First, in book #7 when they attack the skyscraper with the Kandrona. Second, in Megamorphs #1 when she has amnesia. And now again, here!! And I can’t remember if she also lost a paw during the jungle craziness in Jake’s book #11? Either way, this seems to happen to her a lot!

Also, Rachel…and polar bears…and now all of the sobbing.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias, with Ax, ends up spending the majority of this book in flea morph. Which just raises the question about why more of them didn’t do this. Have maybe two of them stay as wolves for the two hours, the rest go flea, and then alternate. Seems like this would limit the time each member would actually need to spend in the freezing cold.

In the beginning of the book when they’re all in battle morphs on the Blade ship, it’s starting to feel more and more ridiculous that Tobias’s “battle morph” is his original hawk body. I mean, really? It made sense when he couldn’t morph, but now that he can it’s just crazy that he wouldn’t use something with more fire power in moments like this. Particularly after this book, he’ll have a polar bear morph to use and yet he’ll continue with the hawk. It’s just weird.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Early in the book, when they’re all morphing on the Blade ship, there’s a mention to Cassie demorphing from her fly morph in a matter of seconds. This seems like an error (I’m going to start blaming ghost writers for everything, now that that’s at thing.) Yes, it is referenced that Cassie morphs more quickly, but I don’t think that it went down from 3-4 minutes to her being able to do it in a matter of seconds? But maybe I’m wrong.

She also has this to say in the face of Marco’s skepticism about whether or not she’d be on board for eating seals:

Do you guys think I’d put an animal’s life over yours? Or mine, come to think of it?”
“I don’t know,” I started to say.
“You don’t know? When did you start thinking I was some kind of fanatic? We’re freezing, we’re starving, and I’m going to go all tree-hugging, never-eat-anything-with-a-face on you?”

It is a nice sentiment, and it does make sense for her. But there have been books in the past where she seems to have this EXACT thought! I can never quite get a feel for where her moral lines really are. They seem to change quite a lot from one situation to another with little explanation. It makes her unpredictable and also a bit less real seeming, as if her character is just there to present whatever moral lesson is needed in whatever moment.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax recognizes the name “Venbar” when they hear Visser Three mention it on the Blade ship, but then doesn’t inform the others about it until much later. Presumably to build tension in the story, but it mostly just reads as false. Jake would immediately call him on it and get him to explain. Later, when he does explain, this turns out to be a subject that he did pay attention to in school, and he is able to give a pretty thorough history of the species.

The best part for Ax (and arguably the entire book) is the running gag joke between him and Marco about Ax’s tendency to refer to time as “your minutes.” Two examples:

“Ax, I really think you can just deal with the fact that they aren’t our minutes. They are everyone’s minutes.”


“About twenty minutes,” Ax replied. “Of your minutes,” he added, with what I swear was deliberate provocation.

It’s a joke that has come up repeatedly throughout the series, but they really go all-in on it in this book, and it plays pretty well. Especially in a book that really is a snooze fest in most other ways.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment:  There were actually quite a few disgusting moments in this book. Marco’s bird morph early on describes his fingers growing back out of his shoulder blades and twitching around back there. Ick. And then when the Taxxon walks in on them in the Blade ship and Ax swipes it with his tail blade, we get a lovely description of it eating its other half. And then later, the description of the polar bear hunting the seal pulls no punches. It catches the seal through a hole, but the seal won’t fit back up, so…shredded seal. Very gross.

Couples Watch!: At one point, Marco blatantly calls Tobias and Rachel’s relationship out, when flea!Tobias is, according to Marco “all nice and warm in his honey’s back fur.” Rachel is shocked, but Marco shrugs the whole thing off, noting that it’s not like it’s a big secret. More examples of the fact that Tobias and Rachel’s relationship seems to be more of an accepted thing than Cassie and Jake’s ongoing awkward flirt-fest.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl:  First thing of note: when they’re on the Blade ship in Visser Three’s quarter, he has a collection of torture equipment on his walls. Cuz of course he does.

Second, it seems like a huge miss that he let the Blade ship even get close to landing when he was trying to trap the Animorphs in the loading bay. How many times have they escaped him by jumping out of windows? You’d think he’d learn his lesson on this by now.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The baby seals of the dead mommy seal the polar bear kills!! Though the moment does, again, provide Cassie an opportunity to highlight her inconsistencies. Because here she says a very nice bit about how you can’t feel bad for the deaths of baby seals without feeling bad for the deaths of baby polar bears and baby whales who would die without hunting them. Right, yes, that makes sense Cassie! Tell me again about the part where Tobias was terrible for killing a baby skunk? I WILL harp on this until the last! #NeverForget #NeverForgive

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: 

Basically this:

We had a plan. The four fateful words that usually end up meaning a lot of yelling, screaming, mayhem, and madness.

Most of their plans were fine here. I mean, there’s no way they could have known about ending up in the north pole, so I’ll give them a pass on this. I still think they could have managed the cold better with more people going flea, but who knows, the psychological bit about being more alone in the cold for the one or two who had to remain as wolves might have been even harder.

Favorite Quote:

“No, no, no votes,” I said. “Jake decides. Then if it goes bad we can all blame him.”

They’re all pretty good about not blaming Jake for decisions, but as we’ve seen in other books, there is a distinct element of panic when he’s not around to make calls for them.

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 11

For all that I thought the book was a dud, and the fact that the majority of their time is spent shivering in caves, they do manage to take out the satellite Kandrona system that would have turned all pools of water in Yeerk pools. This is a pretty major win. Too bad it’s couched within this story.

Rating: Not great. I remember liking this book more the first time around. Probably because as a kid, adventures in the north pole sounded exciting enough for me. In this re-read though, I was majorly bored for much of the time. Which is really surprising for a Marco book, as he is usually able to salvage other duds of story lines purely on his strength as a narrator. But, really, no narrator is going to make hours of sitting around freezing entertaining to read about. Beyond this, I’m more bummed that we didn’t get more pages devoted to their return journey! It took days! They had to have run up against some adventures there, and it’s really the first time we’ve seen them run into a major time issue with their missions. So it seems like a huge missed opportunity. Remember, they’re still kids, for all of this war stuff. And now they have to “Homeward Bound” it all the way back to their city!

I also question the use of the Inuit man who shows up. I don’t quite know how to feel about it. It kind of walks the line on some offensive stereotypes about animal spirits, but I don’t think it crosses it. It also seems strange that the Animorphs wave it off so easily that he knows the truth about them being humans. The guy has clearly been snooping around the Yeerk base since he knows all about it. Chances are good he’s going to get caught one of these days and infested. So it seems like a weird inconsistency that this was swept aside. Further, the whole point of meeting him was so that he could lead them back to the polar bear. As they’ve run into the polar bear multiple times on their own already, there’s absolutely no point of this! They could just run into him again, since he’s nearby. Just remove the guy altogether and you lose any question marks about representation or inconsistencies with their secret.

All in all, this was my least favorite Marco book yet. I did still like some parts of it, but overall, it was pretty boring, giving me too much time to fixate on little things.

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

Kate’s Review: “Friend Request”

33785151Book: “Friend Request” by Laura Marshall

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Maria Weston wants to be friends. But Maria Weston is dead. Isn’t she?

1989. When Louise first notices the new girl who has mysteriously transferred late into their senior year, Maria seems to be everything the girls Louise hangs out with aren’t. Authentic. Funny. Brash. Within just a few days, Maria and Louise are on their way to becoming fast friends.

2016. Louise receives a heart-stopping email: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook. Long-buried memories quickly rise to the surface: those first days of their budding friendship; cruel decisions made and dark secrets kept; the night that would change all their lives forever.

Louise has always known that if the truth ever came out, she could stand to lose everything. Her job. Her son. Her freedom. Maria’s sudden reappearance threatens it all, and forces Louise to reconnect with everyone she’d severed ties with to escape the past. But as she tries to piece together exactly what happened that night, Louise discovers there’s more to the story than she ever knew. To keep her secret, Louise must first uncover the whole truth, before what’s known to Maria–or whoever’s pretending to be her–is known to all.

Review: I joined Facebook back in the day when it was still reserved for college students and your networks were categorized by what school you were going to! Why I had friends from the U of MN to Berkeley to some school out in England (who this person was, I don’t remember, but I remember being super smug about it)! But as it’s grown and changed it has become not only about keeping in touch with people in your life, but also about putting your entire life on display for everyone to see if you so choose. I know and accept the problematic aspects of Facebook, but at the same time I do check it multiple times a day, almost as a reflex.

To those who have unplugged, I salute you.(source)

I think that one of the main ‘thrill’ or ‘chill’ factors of “Friend Request” is that it is supposed to make you feel like social media like Facebook makes you all the more vulnerable and unsafe in this fast and cutthroat techy world. After all, you can’t see who is on the other side of the computer screen when you interact with them. So when Louise starts getting mysterious messages from long forgotten (and long thought dead) Maria Weston, these fears come to life on the page. What I liked about Louise is that while she’s definitely a protagonist you see a lot in these kinds of stories, the ‘woman with a dark past’ trope to be sure, her personal moral dilemmas and inability to really know just what she was actually dealing with made for an interesting enough and solid mystery. A former mean girl turned repentant single mother, Louise is still wracked with guilt about what she and her friend Sophie put poor nonconformist Maria through before she disappeared, and it has basically stalled her life and stunted her self worth. She’s your usual unreliable narrator, but it’s hard to tell if she’s unreliable because she’s deceptive or because she’s warped her entire view of herself. The only person who knows her dark secret is her ex-husband Sam, a boy from those days who assured her that he loves her in spite of her involvement. Louise was a mess, but she wasn’t an unlikable mess. I was rooting for her the entire time. By showing who she was in high school and juxtaposing who she has become, I feel like we got not only insight into her mind and character, but also some small insights into those in her life that play large parts in this story.

The mystery itself had a lot of balls it was trying to keep up in the air all at once. The main mystery, of course, is who sent Louise this friend request and the messages, but then a number of other bits branch out of it. The list of suspects if a large one (Maria’s brother? A mysterious man that Sophie has been dating? Maria herself?), and they all come with their own baggage. I will admit that I found myself fooled a couple of times, which is always a plus in books like this, but as it all came together there wasn’t really anything that really stood out or blew me away. In fact, I felt that a couple of the solutions that did come to fruition were a little too out of the blue, even if they did have some pretty good build up and solid groundwork laid out beforehand. I don’t know, I just don’t know how many times we can have similar solutions play out in these books. I was more interested in the questions that this book did raise about the ways we make ourselves vulnerable through our social media. I do my best to keep privacy filters pretty high on my Facebook, and to keep my posts on other social media vague and unspecific, but this story did make me think a bit about what I do put out there even when I think I’m being guarded.

“Friend Request” was a quick and fast read that I enjoyed in the moment, even if it didn’t stand out too much from others in the genre. I think that if you have travel coming up for Spring Break this would be the perfect yarn to take with you for a long flight or the pool or beach. It just may not leave much of an impression.

Rating 6: A by the book thriller with some fair questions about the social media age.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Friend Request” is not included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Books Involving Stalking”, and “Fiction Involving the Internet”.

Find “Friend Request” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Olivia Twist”

34817232Book: “Olivia Twist” by Lorie Langdon

Publishing Info: Blink/HarperCollins, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Olivia Brownlow is no damsel in distress. Born in a workhouse and raised as a boy among thieving London street gangs, she is as tough and cunning as they come. When she is taken in by her uncle after a caper gone wrong, her life goes from fighting and stealing on the streets to lavish dinners and soirees as a debutante in high society. But she can’t seem to escape her past … or forget the teeming slums where children just like her still scrabble to survive.

Jack MacCarron rose from his place in London’s East End to become the adopted “nephew” of a society matron. Little does society know that MacCarron is a false name for a boy once known among London gangs as the Artful Dodger, and that he and his “aunt” are robbing them blind every chance they get. When Jack encounters Olivia Brownlow in places he least expects, his curiosity is piqued. Why is a society girl helping a bunch of homeless orphan thieves? Even more intriguing, why does she remind him so much of someone he once knew? Jack finds himself wondering if going legit and risking it all might be worth it for love.

Review: I’ve only read the original “Oliver Twist” once and it was quite a while ago, so I was intrigued when I ran across this gender-swapped retelling of the classic tale. However, in the end, I felt a bit misled by the book description and had a few problems with the characterization of our leading lady.

Olivia grew up on the streets and it is only through a chance of luck that she now finds herself leading the life of a society lady. But even here, amidst the gossip and sparkle, she can’t escape her past. Especially when said pasts presents itself polished up in a dashing suit and shooting her wicked grins. Jack MacCarron is more than he seems, and his history with a younger “Oliver” is only the start of what will tie these two’s future together.

What I did enjoy about this book was the writing style and historical setting. I’m particularly prone to enjoying books featuring lords and ladies circulating around ball rooms and snarking wittily at each other. The story was also quite fast paced, jumping into the action mere pages into the story. Olivia and Jack are introduced to each other very quickly, and through some well-placed flashbacks, readers are able to begin putting together their history. What also makes this fun is Olivia’s extra knowledge of their shared past, as she was only known to Jack then as a young boy named Oliver. From what I can remember from the original book, the author also does a good job at tying together the two stories in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.

However, I had a lot of trouble with a few aspects of the book. My biggest problem was not being able to suspend my disbelief about the situation that our two main lead characters find themselves in. Somehow, magically almost, both are raised on the streets but then easily slip into lives as gentry after only a few years. What’s more, they are welcomed in with very little struggle or gossip. Part of my problem with this could be the same fast-paced-ness that I praised above. In the very first chapters we’re introduced to Olivia, a lady now living the life of a society woman. But then in some quick flashbacks, we see the abject poverty and limits of the world she grew up in until she was a pre-teen. And yet, there was no evidence of this in her current manner as a lady.

I don’t want to go all “My Fair Lady” on this, but…really? Not only would I have found Olivia’s story that much more compelling had her arc included more about the ongoing struggles she had to face living this life full of politics and rules, but it was frankly unbelievable to see her navigate the ins and outs of a society that was notorious for confusing and strict rules of conduct. Many other historical fiction works set in this time narrate on and on the challenges that even women who grew up to this life encountered when living life in public society. To simply buy that Olivia, a woman who grew up without an education, without parents, and, what’s more, as a boy, would be able to simply fall into this role was just too much to swallow. The same goes for Jack, to a certain extent, but as the rules are less strict for men of the time, I was able to let this go a bit more.

My second major criticism comes with the first line of the book description and the reality we are given. Right there, in the very first sentence of the summary, we’re told that we’ll be getting a character who is not a damsel in distress. The reality is exactly the opposite. In the first few pages, we get a very unfortunate reference to the “beauty leads to rape” myth when a man instructs a midwife to raise Olivia as a boy since if she turns out to have the looks of her mother, her life will be more rough. That alone is pretty bad. But as the story goes on, Olivia repeatedly makes terrible decisions, finds herself threatened with attack and assault, only to be saved by Jack. This happened repeatedly. Not only do I never appreciate repeated threats of sexual assault as a driving force in any story, but to combine that with the first chapter’s reference to it being at all affected by a woman’s beauty and the fact that we were promised the exact opposite of a damsel in distress in the book summary, makes the whole thing very upsetting.

This all added up to a fairly disappointing read for me. The romance and chemistry between the two leads was charming, and I still enjoyed many aspects of the historical setting. But I couldn’t get past the suspension of disbelief issue or my increasing dismay with regards to the use of assault as a plot point and Olivia’s role as a repeated victim in need of rescue. I do think this book will still appeal to many other readers, perhaps those looking for a bit more of a fluffy romance read, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me.

Rating 5:  The intriguing concept and strong romantic chemistry weren’t enough to distract me from an unbelievable leading damsel who too often found herself in distress.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Olivia Twist” is a new title and so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “Olivia Twist” at your library using WorldCat!