Serena’s Review: “And I Darken”

27190613Book: “As I Darken” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

Review: I stumbled across this book when researching new titles for our “Highlights” post for June. I think I almost did a double take with this one: a re-imaging….of Vlad the Impaler…as a brutal, hard-edged young woman. Ooookkk, then. Color me fascinated! Well, I picked it up this week, not knowing what to expect, and was blown away!

First off, I feel that this book description is misleading, this is as much Radu’s story as it is Lada’s. The chapters alternate perspectives between the two, and each brings such a different and fascinating angle/interpretation to the events they are both experiencing.

I’ll start with Lada. Now THIS is what I’m talking about when it comes to writing a compelling anti-hero! When they bill Lada as “brutal” in the first line of the book description, I was picturing the typical “faux fierceness” that is fairly common in YA protagonists (or maybe I’m still smarting after the disappointment that was “The Young Elites). But Lada is not this; she’s mean-spirited, viscous, self-centered, and completely sympathetic. A half-wild girl who yearns for the approval of a father who can’t get past the fact that she’s not the son he wanted, Lada’s arc is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. Not only are the facts of her life tragic, the powerlessness and helplessness that comes with being a woman who has been thrown into the grips of a foreign power as a royal hostage with only the limited options of a forced marriage before her, but her inner struggle is so honest, frank, and, again, heartbreaking. Her love for her brother Radu, that she can only show by ignoring him to protect him, her growing feelings for Mehmed, her friend but also the man who would prevent her from re-claiming her homeland. This is good stuff, guys!

And Radu, I had zero idea what to expect with his story! And wow, did I love his story, too! His voice is almost the complete opposite of Lada’s. He, too, struggles to find his place in the world, both admiring and loving his strong sister, but also fearing and, at times, hating her for being what he cannot. It was so hard flitting from one character to the other and seeing how each sibling made choices that seemed right to them, but would be misunderstood and hurtful to the other. Radu also brings voice to a completely separate set of struggles and conflicts, both in his conversion to Islam as well as his burgeoning feelings for Mehmed.

I loved the details of this world, the intricacies of the Ottoman Empire and its relationship to the other world powers at the time. The setting was also refreshing for not being the typical medieval European setting that is more commonly chosen. The court of the sultan, the politics, the religion, all were explored with rich detail and woven neatly into the story. This is a massive book, and yet it never dragged.There is court intrigue, assassination attempts, sieges, first loves, marriage, the list goes on! And yet, I would say this book is largely a reflective story, leaning most heavily on the characterization of its two protagonists and their complicated relationship with each other and their mutual friend, Mehmed.

For a book that I just stumbled upon, and for one with such a bizarre concept at its core, “As I Darken” was a complete surprise. It was serious, reflective, tragic story, and one that ends with a great set-up for the continued saga. I strongly recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction and are comfortable with some tampering (small things…like making Vlad a woman!)

Rating 9: I really loved this book. Lada and Radu were such compelling characters and the setting was refreshingly new and vibrant.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As I Darken” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Quality Dark Fiction” and “Best Historical Fiction.”

Find “As I Darken” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Dark Night: A True Batman Story”

30357924Book: “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This is a Batman story like no other-the harrowing and eloquent autobiographical tale of writer Paul Dini’s courageous struggle to overcome a desperate situation.

The Caped Crusader has been the all-abiding icon of justice and authority for generations. But in this surprising original graphic novel, we see Batman in a new light-as the savior who helps a discouraged man recover from a brutal attack that left him unable to face the world.

In the 1990s, legendary writer Paul Dini had a flourishing career writing the hugely popular BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and TINY TOON ADVENTURES. Walking home one evening, he was jumped and viciously beaten within an inch of his life. His recovery process was arduous, hampered by the imagined antics of the villains he was writing for television including the Joker, Harley Quinn and the Penguin. But despite how bleak his circumstances were, or perhaps because of it, Dini also always imagined the Batman at his side, chivvying him along during his darkest moments.

A gripping graphic memoir of one writer’s traumatic experience and his deep connection with his creative material, DARK NIGHT: A TRUE BATMAN STORY is an original graphic novel that will resonate profoundly with fans. Art by the incredible and talented Eduardo Risso (100 BULLETS, TRANSMETROPOLITAN).

Review: I’m a lifelong Batman fan. Superman is my favorite DC Superhero, but Batman will always have a piece of my heart because I grew up with him and all the villains that came with him. Batman pajamas, Batman sheets, Batman comics, Batman school supplies (well namely Catwoman, but still), I love Batman unabashedly even if I think that he’s kind of a lunatic. Even though I grew up with Batman, I only sporadically watched “Batman: The Animated Series”, as I think it ran opposite “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” where I grew up. Apparently to me the only hero greater than Batman was Bill Nye.

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This probably comes as a shock to no one. (source)

But of the episodes I did watch, I greatly enjoyed, and Paul Dini is one of the people to give huge thanks to for that (along with “Tiny Toons” and “Batman Beyond”). We also need to bow down and kiss his feet for creating Harley Quinn. I had no idea that Dini went through a traumatic near-death experience, as how much does the average comic fan know about those who write the stories? So when I heard that he was releasing a graphic memoir of his attack and recovery, I was definitely interested. Dini is a master storyteller, and when it comes to telling his own story it’s that much more powerful.

Not only is this a story of trauma and healing, it’s also a story of self reflection. Dini had a lot of problems even before he was attacked by two random men while walking home one night. His anxiety levels were high, his self esteem levels were low, and he had moments of depression and self mutilation even before the night he was nearly killed. The way that Dini lays his anxieties out in this comic are as various Batman villains he has written for. Poison Ivy is there to torment his conceptions about his sexual life. Scarecrow is there to freak him out about medicine and the healing aftermath of his attack. And then there is the original Big Bad himself, Joker, who is used to show Dini just wanting to turn his back on his world and self destruct. These villains are the perfect representations of all the worst fears he had at the time, and they are matched up well to those fears. And then there is the Caped Crusader himself, representing Dini’s struggle to overcome these issues and fears. I liked how Dini stayed true to the nature of all of these characters, but still was able to apply them to his own personal issues at the time. They never felt shoe horned in to fit his agenda, which I was worried about when I picked this book up. But Dini is a great writer, and he knows what he’s doing with these characters.

I think that Dini is also very brave for telling this story. He is more than willing to talk about his own flaws as well as the cruelty of others, and never makes himself out to be a sad sack perpetual victim in this. He calls himself out in the moments that he was acting foolish, and is honest about when he hit rock bottom and failed not only himself, but those around him as well. He talks about his PTSD after the fact, but the near emotional breakdown he was teetering towards even before he was attacked, stemming from a childhood of being an outsider and an adulthood of neuroses. A lot of his story really resonated with me on a personal level, and as someone with her own personal Jokers, Ivys, and Scarecrows she deals with (though not as extreme as Dini’s), seeing one of comics greatest minds open up about his demons was very, very satisfying and relatable. The message I loved most from this story was his message of “When someone hurts you, you are so much more than what they took from you.” A mentality that is very hard for victims of trauma to remember sometimes. Dini certainly had a hard time remembering. But he fought to remember.

I also need to note the artwork in this book. Eduardo Risso is no stranger to amazing artwork in the comics world, as he has done the art for “100 Bullets”, “Transmetropolitan”, and other Batman stories. He’s an Eisner Award winner as well. The art in “Dark Night” is gritty and haunting, with lots of shadows, darker or muted tones, and vibrant splashes of reds and oranges and pinks for blood and panic and mania.

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(source)

But when there is hope, and yes, there is hope, the colors are lighter, less harsh, and more vibrant and welcoming. One scene in particular, with Dini’s creation Harley Quinn, has a soft and kind feel to it that made me smile, and made me feel comfortable that there is light at the end of the tunnel for him, and for others struggling with mental illness and traumatic events. Dini takes solace in his creative works, just as many take solace in them as well. It’s a lovely concept.

“Dark Night: A True Batman Story” is incredibly brave and poignant. Dini continues to amaze, but this time it’s with his own redemptive arc rather than that of the Caped Crusader. Batman fans, I implore you to pick this up and read it. It is a testament to how important Batman, and other fictional characters, can be, especially when the night is at it’s darkest.

Rating 9: A deeply personal story that explores the importance of creative works within a healing mind and soul. This is a beautifully written memoir, with Batman at his most important.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark Night: A True Batman Story” is not on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit perfectly on “Popular Graphic Memoir Books”, and “Memoirs of Mental Illness”.

Find “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” at your library using WorldCat!

September 2016 Highlights

Happy Labor Day! The end of summer is here, and in Minnesota we are saying goodbye to the State Fair and hello to the reality of autumn heading our way. But with the new month comes our new list of Highlights of books that are coming out! Let’s see what we’re most looking forward to.

Serena’s Picks

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Book: “Vassa in the Night” by Sarah Porter

Publication Date: September 20th, 2016

Why I’m Interested: Set in a fairytale version of Brooklyn, NYC, and based on the Russian fairytale “Vassilissa the Beautiful,” this book looks right up my alley! I always love fairytale retellings and am even more intrigued by one based on a story that I’m not as familiar with. (Having read a million Cinderella retellings, I’m up for something new!) Also, it features a version of Baba Yaga as the villain. Which…I love Baba Yaga!

23203252Book: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” by Jessica Cluess

Publication Date: September 20, 2016

Why I’m Interested: Henrietta Howel (first plus: awesome name!) is the first female sorcerer in hundreds of years. Further, she is being told that she is the Chosen One who will defeat the demons terrorizing the country. Or is she really? Set in an alternative Victorian London, I’m intrigued by the concept of playing with the “chose one” mythology and, hopefully, turning it on its head. Either way, a fantasy novel set in Victorian London featuring a protagonists similar to the “Human Torch” sounds just about perfect to me!

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Book: “Magic Binds” by Ilona Andrews

Publication Date: September 20, 2016

Why I’m Interested: Another classy cover for the “Kate Daniels” series by writing duo, Ilona Andrews. *sigh* But oh well, I’ve come to expect a certain amount of cheese from my urban fantasy covers…but really, the lion staring off into the middle distance?? The last book in this series saw the rising threat of Kate’s god-like father Roland threatening not only her own peace, but the safety of her claimed territory, Atlanta. The struggle continues, but this time Roland and gone one step further, kidnapping Kate’s on-and-off friend Saiman to gain more power. This series can be a bit hit and miss, but I’m hoping for a hit with this one!

Kate’s Picks

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Book: “Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Vol.1)” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze (Ill.)

Publication Date: September 13th, 2016

Why I’m Interested: Though I’m not really a Marvel Girl, I am VERY interested by the new iteration of Black Panther. Partially because I liked him in “Captain America: Civil War,” but mostly because Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing for the character now. As someone who was deeply moved by “Between the World and Me,” I think that it’s absolutely fabulous that Coates was tapped to take on the story of Black Panther. His ruminations on race in this country will no doubt have some influence on this character, and that really excites me.

28367592Book: “The Women in the Walls” by Amy Lukavics

Publication Date: September 27th, 2016

Why I’m Interested: Lukavics’ “Daughters Unto Devils” was one of my favorite horror novels last year, as the raw and brutal story of demonic doings in the prairie land scared the piss out of me. I’m really hoping that her next one, “The Women in the Walls,” has the same atmospheric and feminist terror that her previous novel had. Especially since it will be coming out just in time for Halloween season. This one sounds more like a haunted house tale as opposed to demonic possession, but that just makes me more excited. I love a good haunted house story.

28449150Book: “And the Trees Crept In” by Dawn Kurtagich

Publication Date: September 6th, 2016

Why I’m Interested: Another haunted house story!! Honestly, when late September comes around I’m gathering a list of horror novels to read, and this one sounds like it has some promise to it. As anyone who has seen “The Evil Dead” movies knows, trees can be super horrible and creepy when they want to be, and the idea of trees moving in for the kill and surrounding a mansion really just gives me the willies. I haven’t read anything by Kurtagich, but if this one tickles my fancy I will have to seek her out some more!

What books are you guys excited for that are coming out this month? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Court of Fives”

18068907Book: “Court of Fives” by Kate Elliot

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2016

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

Book Description: Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

Review: As advertised on the cover of this book, Kate Elliott is a World Fantasy Award Finalist, which puts me to shame when I admit that before this, I hadn’t read anything by her. But after reading “Court of Fives,” I definitely will!

Jes and her sisters walk a precarious and lonely path. As the daughters of a Patron father who has been making a name for himself with militaristic achievements and their Commoner mother, a woman their father can’t legally marry, they do not fit in either world.  With such limited choices, each sister must find her own solace and way forward, and for Jes, that escape is the Fives, an intricate, Olympics-like sports competition that rests at the heart of society. But when her world begins to crumble around her, Jes must put these same skills to the real test: saving her mother’s and sisters’ lives.

This was perfect timing, as far as books go. Just coming off the amazingness that was the Summer Olympics, I was perfectly primed for a book about an awesome woman athlete kicking ass and taking names. I mean, I’m pretty sure I would have been perfectly happy with this book if it had just been scene after scene of Jes rocking it out at the Fives competition. And that was one thing I truly appreciated about this story. Jes starts out fully confident in her abilities, and then…lives up to her own word! Sure, she meets legendary athletes who help her train, and I’m sure will play more of a role in future books, but Jes is never “downgraded” by “reality” which is so often the case with stories like this. Girl starts out really good at THING, meets boy who then beats her at THING, boy and girl form competitive relationship where girl improves over the course of the book to maybe be awesome by the end. There is none of that. Jes is clearly at the top of her game throughout the story, and gains the respect and admiration of her colleagues for it.

Especially from Kal. I loved their friendship. There’s never any doubt that Jes is the superior player, but Kal is a gracious friend who doesn’t feel the need to tear her own for this, but sees her for the mentor she can be in his own quest to improve. It was a fun dynamic.

Adding to that, I really enjoyed the clashing cultures, classism, and struggle due to colonization that is on display in this book. Each culture/society is well-rounded and it was interesting watching Jes come to the “history is told by the winner” conclusion. Her struggles as a child of two worlds and the realities of the choices she has before her were also well done. There were no easy answers, and it was never forgotten that Jes, her sisters, her mother, and even her father, were constantly bound by the roles that society imposed on them.

I also really enjoyed the relationship that Jes had with her family. Her challenging relationship with a father whose choices she didn’t always understand or agree with, her mother who chose a life of scorn from outsiders to be with the man she loved, and Jes’s sisters, all dealing with the same restrictions as Jes. I particularly enjoyed the sisters, and the fact that none of them became pigeon-holed into the roles they are initially laid out in. At first I was rather dismissive of them all: you have the scholar, check; the rebel, check, and the beautiful, spoiled baby of the family, check. But each character broke from their roles in ways that surprised me.

I really enjoyed this book. There was such depth to this world and the culture, and the mores serious issues regarding classism and imperialism were balanced by fun sports moments and lots of adventure. The ending also made some brave choices, denying Jes an easy resolution and setting readers up for the sequel. My library request is already placed!

Rating 9: A complicated and challenging world, peopled with fun characters. The beginning of a trilogy that earns its follow up stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Court of Fives” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “The Games We Play” and “Best Books About Family Relationships.”

Find “Court of Fives” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies”

29429565Book: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies” by Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo (ill.), and (Laura Braga (ill.).

Publication Info: DC Comics, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The shadow of WWII looms ever larger as the Bombshells battle the Axis Powers across the globe.

In Gotham City, a quartet of copycat Batgirls are doing their part to protect the home front.

In Greece, Wonder Woman faces a battalion of the undead, led by the villainous Baroness Paula von Gunther.

In London, Stargirl and Supergirl learn a shocking-and dangerous-family secret, while Mera encounters a monstrous threat from the sea that not even she can control.

And in Berlin, Zatanna attempts to thwart the evil magic that’s been released into the world, while the Catwoman and Huntress rescue a captured Batwoman from the clutches of the Third Reich.

But the paths of these superheroines will converge as they face their greatest challenge yet. To defeat the undead tenebrae soldiers overtaking London, they’ll have to form a Justice League of their own!

Inspired by the popular DC Collectibles line, DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 2: ALLIES throws the world’s finest heroines into one of the greatest battles in history!

Review: When I originally looked into the second collection of “Bombshells” comics, it was said that it wouldn’t be published until September of this year. Which left me to have to muster up a lot of patience for it, as I loved the first collection of the series (I will link to my review of it at the end). But I put myself on the list at the library, and told myself that I was willing to wait for it. So imagine my unbound joy when, in AUGUST, I got a notification that it was ‘in transit’ to my library. August is NOT September and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy of this fact as I was at that moment.

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BEST SURPRISE OF 2016. Book wise I mean. (source)

Now I had a feeling going in that perhaps it wasn’t going to live up to the first collection. And how could it, really? The first one laid out all of the characters, set up their stories, and gave them all a lot to do, yet not so much that they were overshadowing each other. Unfortunately this time around, we got less characters, and of those characters the focus was uneven. I am VERY sad to say that there was no Harley or Ivy whatsoever!!! Given that their shenanigans in France was one of my personal highlights from the first collection, I was pretty darn disappointed. And other characters like Batwoman and Zatanna really had few things to do this time around. A lot of the attention was on Supergirl, Stargirl, Wonder Woman, and the rise of the Tenebrae Undead Army that the Axis has unleashed.

Which is still admittedly pretty damn cool.

Nazi zombies are always a fun villain to hate, and seeing them controlled by the rotten Baroness Paula von Gunther (aka one of Wonder Woman’s recurring enemies) was a DELIGHTFUL treat. I imagine that it would have been tempting to have one of DC’s more popular, MALE villains to be in charge of them, but instead Bennett went with von Gunther and I was pretty pleased by that. There are some great moments for Diana and Steve Trevor too, as poor Steve is very clearly suffering from PTSD (and a fairly sensitive and accurate depiction of it to boot) and she is his protector. But the most important character arc was that of Stargirl (whose name is Kortni in this timeline, the Russian equivalent to Courtney), a superheroine I was not terribly familiar with before these comics, but who became one of my favorites in this series. Stargirl is dealing with the insecurity of her power being relegated to her staff, and not within herself, unlike her adopted sister, Supergirl. In an effort to find out more about herself, Kortni goes to find her biological father, which in turn makes Kara feel like she too is out of place. She doesn’t know what her background is. It’s a lovely way of showing both girls feeling the same isolation in spite of each having what the other longs for. There was also a lot of really nice homages to their Russian origins, with their flashbacks being drawn in a similar style to a lot of Russian Artwork, the kind that my Mom is obsessed with and insists on having coffee table book after coffee table book on. And you can see Swamp Thing in one of these drawings. DELIGHTFUL.

We also got to see a fun new side group back in Gotham, with the rise of the Batgirls! They are a group of (pretty diverse!) teen girls who have decided to take on Batwoman’s ‘cowl’ and take out corruption back on the home front. While it sort of felt like a weird thing to shoehorn in when there were lots of other characters to see, I did enjoy that it gave us glimpses of something a bit more light hearted. Also, Tim Drake showed up in this storyline. I’m okay with this male DC character showing up, as he’s still pretty relegated to sidekick status. Love the dudes, but this is a comic to showcase the ladies!

And then, tragedy. I won’t spoil the tragedy here, but it marked the end of one large story arc, and along with that end came the loss of a character. Given my love for all of these girls, I knew that I was going to be a mess regardless of who kicked the bucket first, but by the time I got to that plot point I was pretty much a weeping mess on the couch, in awe of how bittersweet, touching, and sorrowful it was. These stories are so well written, you guys. I love all of the Bombshells and everything hurts now. I didn’t want to say goodbye. AND WHY DID THE SEND OFF HAVE TO BE SO BEAUTIFUL AND DEVASTATING?????

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Why must you hurt me in this way, Marguerite Bennett? (source)

So while “DC Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies” wasn’t as strong as “Enlisted!”, it was still pretty damn good and filled with a lot of feelings and emotions and great plot lines. It’s probably gonna be a long wait until the next trade comes out, but I have a feeling that it will be worth it. The Bombshells are hands down my favorite comic characters out there today. And it’s filled with more Girl Power than a Spice Girls Video

Rating 9: Not as strong as it’s predecessor, and it’s too bad that some characters were absent, but “DC Bombshells: Allies” was a very good follow up. Lots of great storylines wrapping up, and lots of emotions and tears on my part.

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol 2): Allies” is not on any Goodreads lists yet. BUT, if you like the “Ms. Marvel” comics this could be for you. Also, for more fun female superhero stuff, check out “The Supergirls” by Mike Madrid. It’s a great history on female superheroes.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous reviews of “DC Bombshells”: “Enlisted”.

Serena’s Review: “Crocodile on the Sandbank”

188230 Book: “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Mead Dodd, 1975

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Set in 1884. At thirty-two, strong-willed Amelia Peabody, a self-proclaimed spinster, decides to use her ample inheritance to indulge her passion, Egyptology. On her way to Egypt, Amelia encounters a young woman named Evelyn Barton-Forbes. The two become fast friends and travel on together, encountering mysteries, missing mummies, and Radcliffe Emerson, a dashing and opinionated archaeologist who doesn’t need a woman’s help — or so he thinks.

Review: I am on a constant search for new historical mystery series! There are so many of them, and yet, as my last foray into “The Anatomist’s Wife” proved, there is also a lot of variety in whats out there when balancing the mystery itself alongside any adventure/historical/romance genre elements. The “Amelia Peabody” series is one that I have heard a lot about, but have never gotten around to. I freely admit that the covers have always put me off, as well as the title of this first book which didn’t exactly spark my fancy. But, after my latest failures in this genre, I was ready to finally give it a go! Wow. Talk about cover snobbery leading me wrong! I absolutely adored this book!

 Before I start raving about the characters in this book, most notably, of course, Amelia herself, I will try and get through the standard parts of a review. For one, this book started out on a strong foot simply be being set in Egypt and featuring archaeology at the heart of its mystery. I greatly enjoyed the setting itself, and specifically Amelia’s no-nonsense, practical approach to most everything, never flustered by such things as sandy dunes and donkeys. No suitable housing situation? Why, she’ll make her abode in an emptied out tomb, nothing to worry about there!

The mystery itself was fun, if fairly ridiculous at times. But don’t take this as a negative, I laughed out lout many, many times in this book, and the romp, adventure, and questionably supernatural elements only added to what could have been a stuffy Victorian novel. But Amelia Peabody can never be stuffy, and so the mystery is not!

Amelia herself is everything I love in a narrator, witty, sarcastic, straight-forward, and, you have to imagine, slightly unreliable. She always knows best; she will take care of everything; if you don’t step in line, then you aren’t needed. All this wrapped up in a character who is, at her heart, a very caring individual, though she would never admit it! She takes in poor Evelyn under her wing, much to Evelyn’s own gratitude and, perhaps, dismay! Evelyn, herself, wasn’t a particularly interesting character, but I did enjoy the different parts of Amelia’s character that Evelyn brought out. And I always appreciate a strong female friendship in novels like these.

The romance was also lovely, being a very slow-burn, lightly emphasized affair. Emerson and Amelia are exasperated with the other right up to the point where…they’re not. But one has to imagine that with two such strong personalities, flare ups will always be inevitable.

As I mentioned earlier, I laughed more in this book than I have in quite a long time. I am so excited to pick up the next and see what adventures and villains lie in wait for Amelia next! I almost feel sorry for them, not seeing her coming!

Rating 10: I’m so excited to have found a new favorite mystery series! Amelia is amazing and I will follow her anywhere!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Crocodile on the Sandbank” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Historical Mystery” and “Fearless Females.”

Find “Crocodile on the Sandbank” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Girls”

26893819Book: “The Girls” by Emma Cline

Publishing Info: Random House, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

Review: When I was sixteen, I read “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi. It was summertime, my sister, cousin, and I were visiting my aunt in Iowa City, and I would stay up late at night to read about Charles Manson and his cult of followers. I know that I’m not the only person fascinated by this case; there have been movies, miniseries, documentaries, and many books about Manson and the horrific murders his group committed at his behest. Because of my fascination, it should come as no surprise that I was super intrigued by “The Girls” by Emma Cline. Emma Cline already sold the movie rights to this book before it was even released, which only further demonstrates how we as a culture can’t get enough of Manson. “The Girls” isn’t really about the Manson family, per se…. But it totally is, as there are numerous parallels between the plot of the book and what happened in the California desert in 1969, from characters to circumstances to settings. But instead of focusing on Manson (or Russell, as is the charismatic cult leader in the book), it instead focuses on fourteen year old Evie Boyd. Evie is a restless teenager: she is dissatisfied with school, has few friends, is confused about sex and her sexuality, and resents her divorced parents. I think that it was a very compelling idea to tell the story of this group through the eyes of one of the members, especially the member who is still an outsider. Evie was more infatuated with Suzanne, a cool and beautiful older girl who takes Evie under her wing. The girl who is very blatantly supposed to be Susan “Sexy Sadie” Atkins, the Manson Family member who stabbed pregnant Sharon Tate to death.

Evie is a very compelling narrator, whose life we see during her summer with Suzanne and Russell’s group, and then in a more modern day time. In the modern timeline she gets caught up with a couple of young adults, a sociopathic boy named Julian and his devoted and doe-eyed girlfriend Sasha. While I enjoyed the flashback parts of the story more, the present timeline was a great way to show that while we decry and denounce the blind devotion the Manson Girls had towards Charlie, we actively encourage this behavior by making girls in our culture feel like they need the romantic partners in their lives, no matter how dangerously flawed they are. Evie knows this, as her need to be with and excuse Suzanne’s actions almost led to her own destruction. Seeing Evie have this knowledge, and yet be unable to show Sasha the terrible path she could be on, was one of the more melancholic parts (of many melancholic parts) of this story.

But like I said, the parts in 1969 were definitely the strongest parts of this book, and it wasn’t even just the cult stuff that was intriguing. Evie comes from a broken home, with her father married to a much younger woman and her mother seeking solace and fulfillment in fad self help therapies and new boyfriends. Both of her parents are so concerned with their own pleasure and happiness that they see Evie as a non-priority. So of course the poor thing is desperate to find some stability, and therefore drawn into this cult. By telling Evie’s story, we get to see a humanized side to a group of women (though so many of them were actually girls) who have been painted merely and solely as violent and foolish sheep. Is there a teenage self centeredness and feeling on invincibility that has some motivation in what Evie does, and what many of these girls do? To be certain, and it would be dishonest to imply otherwise. But Evie is here to remind us that ultimately, she is still a teenage girl, and that the things that she has to go through, both at Russell’s ranch and even at home with her actual family and friend group, are tragic and unfortunate. She is desperate to find acceptance somewhere, desperate to be loved, and because of this she willingly spirals towards a very dangerous conclusion.

Cline did a great job of creating and building parallels between the actual Manson Murders and what Russell’s family does in this book. Most of the characters have their real life counterparts (Russell is Manson, Suzanne is Susan Atkins, and I’m pretty sure Evie is Diane Lake, a fourteen year old who was caught up with the Manson Family), and the murders have similar foundations in the book to real life (Russell is denied a music deal, and sends his girls to attack the house of the man who he thinks did him wrong, just to find someone else there who they kill anyway). As someone familiar with and interested in the history of Charles Manson and his followers, picking out the analogs in this book was quite a bit of fun. Cline did a lot of research and put in a lot of the details of the original murders, while putting her own story into them as well. Her writing style is also a shining star in this book, as it flows and evokes the sights and feelings of this time period with clarity and ease. She gives Evie such a realistic and sad voice, and she manages to make this book seem less exploitative and seedy than it could have been. It’s definitely sad as opposed to titillating, and the tragedy is all over the damn place, on both sides of it.

Some of the sadness kind of spills over into today and current events. Just recently, Leslie Van Houten, one of the women who participated in the LaBianca Murders in 1969, was granted parole, only to have Governor Jerry Brown overturn it. I have a lot of feelings about this. On one hand, she is indeed a murderer, participating in the horrific killings of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. On the other, she was high on LSD at the time, and has really, really turned her life around while in prison, having gotten both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and has had positive reports by the prison staff. Not to mention that it was so, so many years ago, and the point of parole is to take all of these circumstances into account. Plus, he fact that a few of the dudes in the Manson group have been granted parole (ahem, Clem Grogan and Bruce Davis, both also convicted of torture and murder) kind of makes this all the more perplexing, and makes “The Girls” feel all the more pertinent. Girls who are brainwashed into devotion to a significant other (by both society and the perpetrator, in Manson’s case) are punished when they take that devotion too far. It’s just fascinating seeing Cline’s point played out beyond the page.

“The Girls” is a fabulous debut novel. Cline does a great job of not excusing the actions of a number of violent and misguided girls, while still showing the tragedy of their circumstances.  I hope that this is just the start to a long and great career for Emma Cline, because I’m on board. “The Girls” is tense and upsetting, and a must read for people who are interested in the Manson Family, if only to see a side that perhaps hasn’t been seen yet.

Rating 9: A dark and sad story of growing up, and a really well done fictionalized account of the Manson Family, specifically the women involved.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Girls” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “The Femme Buzz: To Be a Well Read Woman Reader”.

Find “The Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

I’m also going to list some resources on The Manson Family, because there is a lot out there, but not all of it is great.

“You Must Remember This: Charles Manson’s Hollywood”: This podcast about Hollywood devoted ten episodes to Charles Manson, his Family, and Tinseltown in the late 1960s to give it all some context. It’s absolutely fabulous. Start here, and then you can find the way to the next episode at the bottom of the page.

“Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” by Vincent Bugliosi: This is the definitive book by the prosecutor of the Tate and LaBianca murders.

Flavorwire’s Charles Manson in Pop Culture Guide: A list of various Manson related materials as compiled by Flavorwire.

Biography.com’s list of the Manson Family Members: Links to Biography.com’s information about various members of the family.