Serena’s Review: “The Winter of the Witch”

36621586Book: “The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from Edelweiss+

Book Description: Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

Previously Reviewed: “The Bear and the Nightingale” and  “The Girl in the Tower”

Review: I don’t want to write this review. Writing this review is the last step in having to acknowledge that this trilogy is truly finished and I want to keep pretending there is more to come! I mean, obviously, Arden has accomplished something incredible with this fantasy series, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from her soon. But…but…what about this world and these characters?? Ok, I’ll try to pull it together and get through this.

The story picks up almost immediately after the events of “The Girl in the Tower.” Moscow almost burned and there is chaos and confusion in the streets. Blame is going around in spades and Vasya once again finds herself in the midst of a tumultuous situation. Even escaping the immediate threats to life and limb, larger forces are moving and lines are being drawn not only between the peoples of the world but also the magical beings who inhabit the unknown.

This entire series has been such an incredible journey of womanhood for our main character. In the first book, Vasya is young, wild and confident. In the second, we see here venture out beyond her comfort zone and build even more confidence in herself and her choices, even when those fly in the face of convention; however, some of this confidence leads to mistakes. And in the third, we see her as an adult, one who has faced her own failings and will hold those scars deep inside of her, but will not be defined by them. She begins to see the greys in the world and understand the weaknesses of herself and those around her. And through her acknowledgement of those weaknesses, she finally comes into her true power and potential. It’s an incredible arc, and this final act really nails the landing. Vasya is at her best in this story. These same flaws and fears that come to the forefront finally round her out as a complete character (this isn’t to say that I didn’t adore her before), and I think now having this finale in hand, I could re-read the first two and get even more out of those portions of her journey.

The story itself almost plays as three short stories, all drawn together through Vasya herself. The first third reads as an extended ending of the second book. The middle portion deep dives into the fantastical realms of the magical beings in a way that we’ve never experienced before. And the third brings us the resolution to the larger war taking place in Rus itself. All three were fantastic, but I think I enjoyed the middle portion best. The rest of the series has largely existed in the “real world” with magical elements interacting with humanity in various ways on that front. This story takes us “through the wardrobe” essentially. There were some classic Russian fairytale characters who show up, but also an introduction to several new ones (I don’t know enough about Russian folklore to know whether these were traditional elements as well, just less known to most readers, or creations of Arden’s own). I particularly enjoyed the magical horses, of course!

At the end of the second book, I really had no idea where Arden was going with the relationship that was being set up between Vasya and the Winter King. That  book did a good job selling the idea that maybe that relationship was truly doomed, not so much in a tragic way, but in a “growing up” type of way. No spoilers for how things resolve here, but I was surprised with the direction it took, but ultimately quite pleased.

There were also a lot of surprises in store with some of the larger themes of the book and series as a whole. For the most part, we’ve had “good guys” and “bad guys” in the past books. Each story has touched on the complications of it all, but this one really tackles the idea of balance and what that truly looks like. Vasya must make sacrifices and compromises that she would never have imagined before. And readers will come to see certain characters in entirely different lights.

I could go on and on. The highest praise I can give this series is to say that I want to re-read it immediately and suspect that it will be even better a second-time around. It started out strong and got progressively stronger with each entry, a rare find in any series and a testament to the strength of the story and author.

Rating 10: January was a strong month for me; chock this one up as another shoe-in for next year’s “Top 10” list!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Winter of the Witch” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Russian Folkloric Fantasy.”

Find “The Winter of the Witch” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Kingdom of Copper”

35839460Book: “The Kingdom of Copper” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid-the unpredictable water spirits-have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

Previously Reviewed: “The City of Brass”

Review: Obviously, I was excited for this book. I’ve been patiently waiting and waiting for its release, and the second I spotted an e-copy available, I rushed to snag it. And then…I delayed reading it! Mostly because I was so excited that I wanted to ensure that I had as much uninterrupted time as possible to read major chunks of it. I’m typically fairly good about being able to pick up books and read a few pages here and there throughout the day and enjoy them as much as reading any other way. But, like every avid reader, I feel, there’s nothing like having a solid chunk of hours/days solely devoted to reading. And the cherry on top of that cake is having what is sure to be an excellent read to fill it! So I waited until my husband and I headed up north for a cabin trip and then whizzed through this book in blissful, quiet hours reading by the fire.

The story picks up a few years after the events of “The City of Brass.” Our two main protagonists from the first book, Nahri and Ali, are both making due with a life that hasn’t gone to plan. Nahri, married through a political alliance to the heir to a throne that had been stolen from her family generations ago, has continued to learn to master her own healing abilities and navigate the unfamiliar historical and political upheaval at the heart of djinn society. Ali has made a quiet life for himself living in a small village, banished from his beloved home city. There, he has been diligently trying to hide the residual water powers that he has developed after his experience with the marid in the lake around Daevabad. Joining our main two narrators, we also have chapter perspectives from Dara, a character that is believed dead by Nahri and Ali after the events of the last book.

What struck me most forcefully in the first book was the complicated and detailed world and history that the author had built. This wasn’t simply a story of the now, it was a story of how hundreds and thousands of years shaped what is the current situation. Similar to the true history of the Middle East, nothing is so simple as what can bullet pointed with current tension points. No, you have to dig back through centuries to understand a complicated history that more and more begins to resemble an impossible knot. So, too, in this fantasy version of the region. The first book laid the foundation, but this one really dives into the bigger questions that arise in a situation like this, where wrong-doings have been being committed for centuries and no party is innocent. Where is the line between justice, revenge, pride, and simple violence? When atrocities have been committed for centuries, one people to be repressed by another, only to rise and switch the roles for a few more centuries, who’s “wrongs” outweigh the other’s? There is no easy answer, and Chakraborty does a masterful job of portraying just how challenging finding peace and resolution in situations so whetted in historical conflict can be.

And to tackle all of these complex themes, we have our main characters. Nahri continues to be the stand-out character for me in this series. Not only is she approaching this situation from an outsider’s perspective, often giving her the most healthy and balanced outlook on the situation, but she is an eminently practical and resilient character. Where other books would get bogged down in the angst and drama of an arranged marriage, Nahri has persevered. She knows where her power lies and recognizes the powerlessness of those around her as well; for everything else, she will make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. I can’t say how relieved I was to find that the book didn’t get caught up in relationship drama, as far as her arranged marriage goes. Too often I think this type of romantic drama is misidentified as action in and of its own. But here, it’s clear that Nahri’s priorities are much bigger than worrying about her political marriage. She has a proper perspective on not only her own challenges, but the challenges of her people and city.

Ali, too, was still a fantastic character. If anything, I grew to like him more and more as this book continued. He, too, has had to face the realities of his own idealistic tendencies. While he still had moments where I wanted to slap him around the side of the head (because again, Nahri sometimes seemed to be the only adult in the room), his arc was compelling. I particularly enjoyed the deeper look into his relationship with his siblings.

Dara, our new character POV, was also a fantastic addition. He operates outside of the main action of the city for the majority of the story, but through him, we can see the conflict coming that both Nahri and Ali are ignorant of. Further, Dara, more so than the other two, truly understands the horrors of the past, having lived through much of it. His wrestling with these issues felt that much more poignant for having residual PTSD, essentially, from his own actions. It was heart-breaking reading him come up against some of these same terrible choices once again.

I also can’t say enough good things about the general strength of the writing in these books. Chakraborty pens her words with a solid, confident stroke. Not only is the imagery beautiful, but the dialogue is snappy and the philosophical explorations are cleverly drawn. It’s a big task to try to address such large and complicated issues as the ones presented in this book. But to do it, while also not losing sight of her characters and presenting a compelling book that feels fast-paced throughout? Incredible! Fans of the first book are sure to be happy with this one (though I will say, you have to be patient for the Dara/Nahri) re-union! The story also leaves off with a fairly sizeable cliff-hanger, so beware of that. But don’t let that put you off!

Rating 10: Simply excellent. No second-book slump here!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Kingdom of Copper” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Kingdom of Copper” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”

36686229Book: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, August 2018

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

Book Description: Heavens to Murgatroyd! Hanna-Barbera’s very own Snagglepuss is reimagined in a brand-new series, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, by author Mark Russell (THE FLINTSTONES)!

It’s 1953. While the United States is locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the gay Southern playwright known as Snagglepuss is the toast of Broadway. But success has made him a target. As he plans for his next hit play, Snagglepuss becomes the focus of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And when powerful forces align to purge show business of its most subversive voices, no one is safe!

Written by Mark Russell, the critically acclaimed mastermind behind the award-winning PREZ VOL. 1 and THE FLINTSTONES, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, enters the Hanna-Barbera reimagined universe! Collects issues #1-6.

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

Though I feel like I watched a good amount of Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a child, one character that I don’t have specific memories of is Snagglepuss. I remember him existing, and I remember a few of his quirks (like his catch phrase ‘exit, stage left!!’ and his smooth personality), but I don’t think I ever saw a full cartoon with him as the star. But even with my passing familiarity of the character, I still knew that I ABSOLUTELY needed to read “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”. It’s not exactly an obvious premise: Snagglepuss is a closeted Southern playwright in 1950s New York during the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the Lavender Scare, and finds himself and his friends targeted for their lifestyles. Is this a story I thought I’d see Snagglepuss in? No. Is it one of the best, if not the very best, graphic novels I’ve read this year. Heavens to Murgatoyd, yes.

giphy1
No longer is my go to Snagglepuss reference a throwaway “Simpsons” joke! (source)

The thing about Snagglepuss as a character is that he was written at a time where gay characters were coded into entertainment, and they were usually portrayed as villains, buffoons, or, if people were feeling progressive, tragic victims who couldn’t survive the story if they wanted to be true to themselves. Snagglepuss is fussy, dapper, has a smarmy affectation, and acts ‘flamboyant’, so it’s probably safe to assume he was coded as gay, and meant to be laughed at. So to take this character and to give him this story is a very neat deconstruction of what the character was initially, especially since this story is set within the same general time frame that Snagglepuss first was introduced to the world (if not a little before). Mark Russell, the man responsible for other DC/Hanna-Barbera edginess like his take on “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo”, has given Snagglepuss a similar, dark treatment where people thought darkness couldn’t possibly be found. But darkness there is, as Snagglepuss finds himself caught up in the fear of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, with it’s head Gigi Allen setting her sights on him specifically. Through this backdrop we get to explore and examine the hypocrisy, corruption, prejudice, and rampant fear that had the American Government and people in an uproar. Snagglepuss himself is reluctant to become a symbol of rebellion; on the the contrary he’s perfectly content living his life as a success on Broadway, meeting up with his lover at the Stonewall Inn and basking in his fame as an intellectual elite. What I liked the most about him as our main character is that he is thrust into this role of rebellion, and his complicated feelings about it make him a well rounded character who has his OWN privileges that he hides behind when others can’t. He is a compelling iteration of the original character, and someone who can’t accept how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. 

Other familiar faces pop up in this story, from Hanna-Barbera stallwarts to actual players during the Red and Lavender Scares. We get cameos from the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, and the Rosenbergs, whose execution is one of the darker plot points within this book. At the end of the graphic novel Russell has put together a handy dandy set of notes on various people and moments he includes in the story, and I found that to be very helpful and thoughtful of him (I had never heard of the great Cornfield War between Khruschev and an American farmer. Look it up, it’s hilarious!). On the Hanna-Barbera end, Quick Draw McGraw and Squiddly Diddly play key roles and have their own forms of prejudice to contend with (Quick Draw being a closeted cop on the Stonewall beat and Squiddly being an immigrant), but the stand out is Huckleberry Hound. Huckleberry is Snagglepuss’s childhood best friend, and has become a well known Southern Gothic novelist whose marriage has fallen apart because of his sexuality. They are exact opposites, with Snagglepuss being flitty and carefree and Huckleberry being anxious and depressed. The way that their relationship grows and changes, and how they cope, or don’t cope, is one of the saddest aspects of this book, and the one that had me weeping openly of Hanna-Barbera characters. I never thought I’d see the day. But that just goes to show how excellent Russell is as a writer: he takes two dimensional cartoon characters and breathes life into them, redefining them and bringing relevant social concepts to life through them.

The artistic style that Mike Feehan brings to this story is also incredibly compelling. The characters look realistic, with Snagglepuss absolutely designed like a mountain lion in stature and gait, but not out of place within the real world they are mingling in. The animals are the right amount of anthropomorphized without feeling uncanny or eerie.

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 12.08.25 PM
(source: DC Comics)

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” feels timely because the rise of paranoia and corruption within our current administration, and the constant Othering of various groups that don’t fit into the mold that they deem as ‘true Americans’. It feels like a warning, and it makes it all the more intense and powerful of a read. But it also feels like you’re reading about familiar friends, and are learning a great deal about them that you never knew, even though they were always like this. It’s ingenious and effective, and I loved every bit of it. And it’s stories like this that make me run back to DC Comics, because this is by and large one of, if not the, best graphic novels I have read in a very long time. I have my issues with DC, but I stand by the fact that I find some of the stories they tell to be incredibly ambitious and outside the box. And, heavens to Murgatroyd, I cannot recommend “Exit Stage Left” enough.

Rating 10: This brilliant and poignant story takes a well known character and gives him depth, heart, and complexity. Snagglepuss and his friends jump off the page in a story that feels as timely as it does foreboding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” isn’t on many specifically relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it has a place on “My Country, The Enemy”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Sadie”

34810320Book: “Sadie” by Courtney Summers

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2018

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

Book Description: Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water. 

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meagre clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this novel!

I fully admit to being a huge fan of true crime, even though I sometimes have a hard time reconciling the sometimes inevitably exploitative nature of it. Even if books, TV shows, podcasts, and the like do raise awareness when it comes to various crimes, especially murder, it also turns other people’s potential pain into entertainment to make money off of. I’m no role model, as I ultimately consume SO MUCH true crime stuff it borders on the obsessive. But it isn’t lost on me that there is something dark and a bit voyeuristic about listening to and reading stories about murder. So I knew that “Sadie” by Courtney Summers was going to be, at the very least, an interesting read. What I didn’t know was that it was going to be a phenomenal one.

I first want to start with how the narrative is laid out. There are two alternating storylines that we are following: There is the transcript of the podcast “The Girls”, hosted by a well meaning man named West McCray, and then there is the first person perspective of Sadie herself, as she goes on her lonely mission to hunt down the man that she thinks killed her sister Mattie. The podcast transcript feels very much like other breakaway true crime podcasts that involve an investigative elements like “Serial” or “S-Town”, as West is tracking down Sadie in ‘real time’ and finding his narrative as he goes. Given that I love these kinds of podcasts, I knew that I was going to be picky as hell with how Summers did it, but she pulls it off in spite of the fact a podcast is, in itself, an audio experience. But ultimately, West doesn’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle, so for much of the time we are a couple steps ahead of him. We get to see him slowly piece Sadie’s actions together, and see how he could frame the story in a way that can have many themes that his audience would take interest in: poverty, addiction, violence towards women, and familial loyalty all play a part in “The Girls” as West interviews and gets to know the people in Sadie’s life and those that she interacts with. Audience members (aka the reader) can see the big picture that came together to impact Sadie and Mattie’s life, and West gets to remain detached as well as interested, controlling the narrative as best he can and guiding his audience to feel sympathy for Sadie and the culture (poverty stricken and forgotten) that she comes from, while still maintaining the safety and comfort of their own lives.

Sadie, on the other hand, does not have that luxury. Her parts of the story are dark, grim, and filled with despair as this nineteen year old is trying to hunt down the man she thinks killed the only person in the world she loved with all of her heart. Sadie doesn’t care that their mother, Claire, is a victim of a society that gives little to no support to single mothers who live in poverty and with addiction. Sadie doesn’t care that she herself has been victimized by society that is steeped in misogyny and makes victims out of women of all ages. Sadie just knows that Mattie is dead, and that she is going to kill the man she believes did it. Sadie’s story is at times so hard to read because Summers doesn’t sugar coat or gloss over the violence and hardships that she encounters, but that makes it all the stronger. While West makes Sadie’s story a commodity, we SEE her story, and we see how bad it is. While West certainly has his heart in the right place, you can see the exploitation at the heart of it because you see everything Sadie goes through in her own words. But then Sadie is also unreliable in her own ways, and sometimes what she says doesn’t necessarily line up with later revealed realities. The ways that the two narratives serve to both confirm and also upend each other never ceased to catch me off guard, and I liked that it also emphasized the various struggles that victims of domestic violence face when their abusers can hide behind a mask and trick even those closest to the victims.

I’ve labeled this as a mystery, as it SORT of is (between who killed Mattie and what happened to Sadie), but ultimately the mystery isn’t the point of this story. The point is female rage, and Summers does a masterful job of keeping it grounded in reality and never treading towards melodrama or overcompensating. Too often with YA books do we see authors feeling a need to spell everything out, or take things to extremes that feel unrealistic. Everything in “Sadie” feels real, and because of that it kicks you in the guy repeatedly, and doesn’t try to placate to the need for a happy ending or absolute closure. I really hope that this book gets noticed by readers, because it is easily one of the best YA novels I’ve read in recent memory.

“Sadie” is another perfect example of why adults shouldn’t turn their nose up at YA, just as it is a perfect example of a YA author trusting her audience. This is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time, and I cannot recommend it enough for it’s relevance and it’s power. Go read it.

Rating 10: A gut wrenching and engrossing novel that cuts to the bone, “Sadie” is a story about victimization, revenge, and how the lines can blur between investigative journalism, entertainment, and advocacy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sadie” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Missing Persons”, and “If You Love Veronica Mars…- YA Books”.

Find “Sadie” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Spinning Silver”

36896898Book: “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss!

Book Description: Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

Review: I was so excited when I saw that this book was coming out! “Uprooted” is one of my favorite more recent fairytale novels, and part of the reason I loved it was that it was a stand alone book. So to see that Novik was releasing yet another fairytale that would likely also be a standalone made my day. I was even more excited when I realized that it looked to be a reinterpretation of “Rumpelstiltskin” which has been, by far, one of the more underutilized fairytales in the midst of this retellings resurgence. And all of my wildest hopes and dreams have come true! I absolutely adored this book and my hardback copy is already pre-ordered.

Miryem’s life has been one filled with strained relationships. Her grandfather, a wealthy money lender, has struggled to watch his daughter’s family slowly slip into poverty as his son-in-law, Miryem’s father, has failed to make an earning as a moneylender himself. What’s more, Miryem, a decisive and strong-willed young woman, has never understood her father’s struggles to collect. After being pushed to far, with her mother’s health at risk, Miryem finally takes over the business, to her father’s shame and sadness, as this is by no means a “proper” task for a young lady. But Miryem excels. Far too well even, as she draws the attention of the magical beings who wander the winter woods looting and raiding villages for gold. And who could be more valuable than a woman you seems to turn anything she touches to gold? Now tangled in a complicated world of fairy rules and wars, Miryem will need to  draw on all the strength she has to save not only herself but perhaps even her country.

It’s no secret that I love fairytales, be they original or retellings. But as I’ve had a string of bad luck with “Beauty and the Beast” retellings (oof, there’s another one coming, folks, so look forward to that!), I have been hankering for a more original tale, unbound from conventions that all too often skew what could have been a good story. What’s more, Novik has already proven herself as being able to masterfully take the bare bones of a fairytale and make it something that only marginally resembles the original. And this held true for “Spinning Silver,” as well. While there are the barest tinges of the original “Rumplestilskin” tale before the story quickly (I’m talking a few chapters in) swerves into new and uncharted territory. And much better territory, when it comes down to it.

For one thing, given the description above and my own false assumption that it would follow the standard set by “Uprooted,” I went into this book fully expecting it to be Miryem’s tale following her struggles to turn rooms of silver into gold. And for the first several chapters, that’s what I got. But then a new character was introduced, a young woman from the same village whose home life is terrible and who is looking for a way out for her and her young brothers. Ok, now we have two. A few chapters more and yet another new character comes in, this time a young woman who is the disappointingly plain heiress to a father who has high hopes of rising his family’s position in the nobility. And that’s only the first three and the three who would turn out to be the more traditional lead characters for a book like this! But Novik doesn’t stop there and we get even more chapters from characters like the younger brothers, the nurse maid to the heiress, and even the villain himself at one point.

As has been documented on this blog several times before, I typically prefer books with only one narrator. I can handle two. But, like all silly reading “rules,” an exception was bound to come along, and that exception came here. While I did have favorites, Miryem herself, of course, as well as the heiress who played a much bigger role than I had expected at first, I enjoyed ALL of these characters. Not only did they all contribute important view changes on what became a very twisty plot, but each had a distinct voice, a “must” for any multiple POV book, and the point where I usually have criticisms for same-ness. They also all experienced clear character growth as the story progressed, though the amount of this was tied to the varied amount of page time each was given. Miryem’s sense of responsibility warred with the pride that lead her to become entangled in fairy wars. The peasant girl with the bad home life grew to have an appreciation for what family should mean. And the heiress found her own power in a world that had already written her off.

It also takes a lot of plot to provide ample room for movement and growth for a book with a cast of characters as large as this. And, again, Novik met this challenge head-on. The story slowly builds with several seemingly disparate through lines following each of these characters. But as the book continues, steadily these lines get woven together until by about halfway through the book the complicated network of intrigue is coming together. The players have been established and it is now up to several young women, all of whom are hugely out of their depth with creatures of magic and power surrounding them, to come together and save a country that is more and more plagued by long-lasting winters.

The magical elements were also surprising and unique. With the “Rumpelstilskin” parallel presented right at the get-go, I fully expected to see plenty of struggles regarding turning various things into gold. But that was only a small part of the fantasy world Novik created here. For one thing, the villain came completely out of left-field and was appropriately threatening and devious. Further, Miryem is not the only one to encounter and wield power in this story, and I was thrilled to see small references to other fairytales sprinkled here and there throughout the story.

The book also surprised me with a careful look at the anti-Sematism that Miryem, her family, and her people experienced throughout this book. While the story is set in a fantasy world, the challenging tension that is balanced between the Jewish people, their neighbors, and their roles in finance and banking was all too familiar to real-life history. Through Miryem, we see the struggles her family has faced with these prejudices, but also the important role her religion and culture holds in her life. Through other characters, we see their own biases and prejudices challenged and changed. It’s a nice added commentary in an otherwise purely fantastical tale.

Like “Uprooted,” the romance is understated in this story and isn’t a driving force for any of its characters. While I could have liked a bit more of it, I was quite pleased with what we did get, and, again, surprised that it wasn’t limited to our primary main character.

All in all, I absolutely loved this book. If you liked “Uprooted,” or like fairytales, or like fantasy, or just like good books, get your hands on this one!

Rating 10: Should I have been surprised? No. Was I thrilled? Yes. I can pretty much guarantee this will make my “Top Ten” list in December.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spinning Silver” is on these Goodreads lists: “All that Glitters: Rumpelstiltskin Retellings” and “Upcoming 2018 Sci-Fi/Fantasy With Female Leads or Co-Leads.”

Find “Spinning Silver” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Providence”

35226186Book: “Providence” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Lenny, June 2018

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

Book Description: A propulsive new thriller about the obsessive nature of love when an intensifying relationship between best friends is disrupted by a kidnapping.

Growing up as best friends in small-town New Hampshire, Jon and Chloe are the only ones who truly understand each other, though they can never find the words to tell one another the depth of their feelings. When Jon is finally ready to confess his feelings, he’s suddenly kidnapped by his substitute teacher who is obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft and has a plot to save humanity.

Mourning the disappearance of Jon and facing the reality he may never return, Chloe tries to navigate the rites of entering young adulthood and “fit in” with the popular crowd, but thoughts of Jon are never far away. 

When Jon finally escapes, he discovers he now has an uncontrollable power that endangers anyone he has intense feelings for. He runs away to protect Chloe and find the answers to his new identity–but he’s soon being tracked by a detective who is fascinated by a series of vigilante killings that appear connected. 

Whisking us on a journey through New England and crashing these characters’ lives together in the most unexpected ways, Kepnes explores the complex relationship between love and identity, unrequited passion and obsession, self-preservation and self-destruction, and how the lines are often blurred between the two.

Review: I wish to extend a thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

You all know that I love me some Joe Goldberg from the “You” series by Caroline Kepnes. I love how sinister, creepy, and yet hilarious Joe is, as an obsessive stalker and serial killer who takes us into his mind and judges others in both deadly, and incredibly superficial ways. So when I heard that Kepnes had a new book coming out, this one called “Providence”, I figured that it would be similar in tone and execution. True, it wasn’t about Joe and his ongoing adventures in murder, but it was billed as a thriller with Lovecraftian themes. I went in with some very clear expectations of how this book was going to go down, expectations that were not met. But they weren’t met in the best way possible, because “Providence” is my first perfect 10 of 2018.

giphy
This was me as I finished this book. So many happy and sad tears. (source)

“Providence” has sort of framed itself as a dark fantasy thriller, but at its heart it is a story about love and what love can do to a person, be it good or bad. Our three narratives we follow are from the perspectives of Jon, Chloe, and Eggs. I’ll start with Jon and Chloe since they are the heart of the book. Their deep and intense friendship really propels this book, as they truly and totally get and understand each other, even when others may not. So when they are split up because of Jon’s kidnapping, and then the dangerous ‘powers’ he is left with afterwards, the injustice of it all just hits you right in the gut. Their love definitely treads the line between obsession and devotion, but I always found both of them giving equally and taking equally so it was never a problem for me. I also loved seeing their own personal journeys in the novel, from Jon trying to survive and figure out how to reverse his deadly powers without drawing too much attention to himself, or harming others. His captor experimented on him, and driven by an obsession with Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” Jon now is completely toxic to those he physically encounters. His slow realization that he is toxic was so upsetting, and the lengths that he goes to try to reverse it all because of Chloe is so heartbreaking that I just felt my heart breaking for him every step of the way. Chloe, too, has her own difficult road she’s travelling, as she knows that she should forget about Jon (as she’s under the impression that he wants nothing to do with her) but just can’t get him out of her head or her heart. Things become all the more complicated when she turns to her high school boyfriend in hopes that he can help her forget about Jon. It doesn’t help that said boyfriend was also one of Jon’s main tormentors, and has always resented her attachment to her long lost friend.

Eggs is the third perspective in this book that I was prepared to find underwhelming. After all, juggling three perspectives and doing them all justice is hard enough as it is, and when you add in the obsessive detective trope it can come off as old hat and unoriginal. But Eggs also had such a rich narrative that I found myself juts as compelled by his sections. They way that he approaches Jon as a threat, and gets fed stories and perceptions that don’t match the actual realities of what happened, just adds to the dread for Jon and also the injustice of it all. But Eggs is no villain. He’s a man who is trying to find sense in senselessness, his motivation partially being because he can’t find the sense in his only child’s autism. This whole aspect of his background, as a father who loves his son but can’t connect with him and therefore stays away from him, gave his backstory the same level of sadness that Jon and Chloe each had. They are all looking for solutions, and none of them can find any.

But there is always hope in “Providence”. The goodness of the protagonists is always apparent and all of their hearts are in the right places, even if they sometimes make mistakes that hurt others and themselves. They are all written in such a way that I completely believed all of the choices that they made, and I understood their motivations. I was rooting for all of them, even if my rooting came in direct conflict with what each of them wanted and needed from each other. Caroline Kepnes had already convinced me that she knew how to write a darkly funny thriller novel with an entertaining monster for a protagonist. Now I know that she can also write people filled with goodness, even if their circumstances may hinder it once in awhile.

I loved “Providence”. It’s my first 10 rating of 2018, and I can see myself revisiting it again and again as I do with the Joe Goldberg series. Caroline Kepnes is amazing, and I continue to be in awe of her story telling abilities.

Rating 10: A powerful and bittersweet thriller about love, friendship, obsession, and fate, “Providence” is not only entertaining and engaging, it’s also touching and emotional.

Readers Advisory:

“Providence” is brand new and not on many GoodReads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Counter-Lovecraft”, and “Star-Crossed Lovers”.

Find “Providence” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Long Way Down”

22552026We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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

Book: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Publishing Info: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, October 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns an ARC, Serena got it from the library!

A-Side Book: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Book Description: A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? 

As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually used his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator?

Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Serena’s Thoughts

Thank god for bookclub! It’s books like this that remind me how lucky I am to be in a club with such a great group of ladies who love to read and know their stuff about what’s out there. The only other Jason Reynolds book I read was for bookclub (was great), but per my norm, since he writes the type of fiction that I don’t usually pursue on my own, it’s likely I would have missed out on this great read as well.

During our meeting, there was a persistent theme of us all having read it in one sitting (most of us the very day of bookclub, my bad!) due to the story being written in verse. But this decision was so much more than a device that made the book quick to read! Reynolds masterfully binds together all the strengths that can be gleaned from versed-novels, while deftly avoiding some of the pitfalls, such as melodrama and pretentiousness.

Instead, the limited number of words created an almost claustrophobic atmosphere that mirrored Will’s journey down the elevator. From page to page, the words would be laid out differently across the page, sometimes mimicking the topic that was being discussed, such as a jagged splatter of words about an earthquake and a question mark shape drawn in words themselves. The line breaks, and even page turns, were also effective in giving weight to moments and certain words, leaving them to fall hard on the unsuspecting reader.

Beyond the style of the book, Reynolds tackles a tough and nuanced topic in his exploration of gun violence in a poor, black neighborhood. His story is a frank reveal of the limited choices and persistent cycles that exists, without casting judgement or freeing characters from the responsibility of their actions. Again, the decision to write in verse just further supported this exploration. As the number of words are limited, Reynolds’ language is precise, clear, and devastating.

My only criticism is with the very end, and even there, I’m not entirely sure how I feel. I like the ambiguousness, but I also feel like it wrapped up rather suddenly. However, I also don’t know how else a story like this could have been finished, and the ending itself speaks to the limited and challenging options available in these communities.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jason Reynolds while at ALA’s Annual Conference in 2017, and when I met him I got an ARC of “Long Way Down”. I hadn’t known what to expect from that book, but I knew that the concept sounded very intriguing to me. When I finally opened it up a couple months later I was pretty much blown away. I hadn’t expected to be as taken with the book, only because it’s written in verse and DAMN am I not a poetry fan. But I read it one sitting and said ‘wow’ as I set it down at the end. So when we did the B-Sides theme, I KNEW that I needed to pick “Long Way Down”.

Will is a character that the reader can instantly relate to, even if your circumstances don’t match his. He’s a person who has just suffered a great personal loss, and his grief, rage, and helplessness are pushing him towards making a huge mistake: shooting the man who he thinks killed his brother Shawn. As mentioned, this entire story, from his brother’s murder to the aftermath to Will’s experiences in the elevator, is told in poetry form. The poems split up the story into little segments, and you get the full span of anger and deep grief that Will is experiencing. Even though I don’t like poetry, it’s use in this book is incredibly evocative, and in some ways makes it more powerful because of the way Reynolds structures each poem. You know that Will is a boy who deeply loves his brother, and is within a community where cycles of violence can affect, and embitter, anyone.

I also really appreciate the way that Reynolds shows the different victims of gun violence in Will’s life, from his brother to his father to his uncle to a childhood friend. They all have different scenarios that led to their deaths, some because of a direct choice, and others because of sheer circumstance and randomness. The one that hits the hardest is that of Dani, a girl who was friends with Will when they were eight, and who died because of a stray bullet meant for someone else. But that isn’t to say that Reynolds makes any of the other victims less of a victim by including her, no matter what choices they may have made. As Serena mentioned above, Reynolds shows that they are all victims in one way or another, be it victims of gun violence of victims of a society that has forgotten about them. There are lots of greys in this book, and, as Serena mentioned, lots of ambiguity, and I think that given that life is filled with greys it hits the point home.

Reading “Long Way Down” for the second time cemented it as one of my favorite YA books as of late, and Jason Reynolds is a master who is telling stories that really need to be told. I can’t wait to see what else he brings to the literary world.

Serena’s Rating 10: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was beautiful and soul-crushing, and provided a clear-eyed look into the gun violence that exists in so many of our cities today.

Kate’s Rating 10: A powerful and emotional story about grief, loss, helplessness, and rage, “Long Way Down” makes the reader confront a very dark reality about life for some people living in America today.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This story was written in verse. How do you think this affected the story that was being told?
  2. Each page was laid out in a different way with a different structure. Was there a particular one that stood out to you? Why?
  3. Of the individuals that Will meets in the elevator, was there one whose story stood out for you? Why?
  4. This book tackles some challenging issues surrounding race, poverty, gun violence, and the police force. Were there any moments that stood out to you as presenting a new way of looking at these issues? Are there any aspects that you wish could have been explored more?
  5. The ending of this story is ambiguous. What do you think happens next and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Way Down” is on these Goodreads lists: “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas” and “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Long Way Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo