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.

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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.

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(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.

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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 Car 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

 

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Defiant Heir”

35921536Book: “The Defiant Heir” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war. But before an invasion can begin, they must call a rare gathering of all seventeen lords to decide a course of action. Lady Amalia Cornaro knows that this Conclave might be her only chance to stifle the growing flames of war, and she is ready to make any sacrifice if it means saving Raverra from destruction.

Amalia and Zaira must go behind enemy lines, using every ounce of wit and cunning they have, to sway Vaskandar from war. Or else it will all come down to swords and fire.

Previously reviewed: “The Tethered Mage”

Review: I was so excited when I received an ARC for this sequel! “The Tethered Mage” came out of nowhere last fall and quickly became one of my favorite reads for the year, so I was so excited to see what antics (troubles?) Amalia and Zaira would get themselves into this time. So much so, that I brought this book along with me on vacation, which was probably not the best choice since it actively distracted me from all of the “real vacationing” I was apparently supposed to be doing. It’s a lenghty book, and yet, somehow, I zipped right through it!

After the events of the last book, Amalia has proven herself a capable heir to her mother, La Contessa, and finds herself further enmeshed in the difficult and morally challenging workings of her country’s ongoing conflicts with their dangerous neighbors to the north. Zaira, too, while still straining against the restrictions of her new life, is also beginning to develop some type of feelings (oh no!) for the Falconers and Falcons around her. As the Witch Lords continue to make threatening moves against Raverra, Amalia and Zaira once again find themselves in the middle of the action. But this time they’re also in the middle of an enemy nation with only the hope of help from a Witch Lord himself who claims to be courting Amalia, but seems to also be hiding plans of his own.

This book does everything a good sequel should do. The stakes are raised in literally every aspect of the story. Plot and action? Well, not only is there a threatening volcano looming over the country ready to blow at any minute, but we get to meet the Witch Lords themselves in all of their terrifying glory! Magic? Said Witch Lords are super creepy with a complex magic system of their own that ties their powers to each other and the land they rule. Characters? Not only does Amalia’s and Zaira’s relationship remain the solid focus of character growth, but it continues to build, even when hindered by the morally challenging nature of their bond. Beyond their bond, both Amalia and Zaira have relationships of their own to deal with.

Zaira continues to struggle with vulnerability and trust, drawn to a fellow Falcon, but also lashing out in the way of a trapped animal who has been hurt too many times to recognize a kind hand being offered. I loved the exploration of Zaira’s growth. After the last book, we know the price that Zaira has paid with past experiences of becoming close to others and the tragic results that occurred. Her distrust is not only of others and their intentions, but mostly of herself. For all of this, she is not let off the hook by those around her when she takes it too far and truly hurts those who care for her. Zaira’s story was full of tenderness, heartbreak, and ultimately, hope.

For her own part, as the primary protagonist, Amalia’s own experiences and relationships are exponentially increased in this book. I still love the relationship that has been built between her and her powerful mother which is still a breath of fresh air in a book world full of orphans or evil step mothers. But in this book, the more important relationships are those driven by her relations from her father’s side, both her maternal grandmother who rules a vassal state in Raverra, as well as the line through her grandfather that reaches back to the Witch Lords themselves. Further, after deciding in the last book that she must remain single and detached in order to pursue political connections through courtship, there is an ongoing tension and struggle with her beloved Marcello. Especially when a certain charming and mysterious Witch Lord arrives on the scene and proposes a courtship, something that Amalia recognizes as incredibly powerful and useful in this time of trouble between their nations.

Amalia is not only the heart of these books, but her strong characterization is the glue that holds it all together. I keep using the word “refreshing” but it is truly how I feel about both of these books, mostly due to the way that Amalia is written. She has strong female friendships. She loves Marcello deeply, but is aware of her own role in the world and her duty. And while this pains her incredibly, she doesn’t shy away from the sacrifices that this life requires of her. Throughout this book, her realization of what it really means to be a Cornaro becomes strikingly clear. Through her, the story engages with many challenging topics, including sacrifice of individuals for the good of the whole, political compromise, and what it looks like to work within a system that is made up of people, with their own faults and agendas.

Beyond the characters, I loved the action of this book. Much of it takes place across the borer in the domain of the Witch Lords. In the last book, we only heard loosely about them and had only the horrid Ruven with his ability to control human flesh as an example of their abilities. Here, we are exposed to them all in their full power and we begin to realize the true challenge that Amalia and co. are up against. Further, (again, refreshing!) Amalia is still an unpowered young woman. Her strengths lie purely in her ability to maneuver through political situations, her bookworm-ish knowledge of magic, and her own ability to speak well and convincingly. And in a kingdom that values the ability to wield magic above all else, this skill set is even a harder one to put to use effectively.

The story doesn’t shy away from the gruesome and heartbreaking aspects of a looming war. There is a lot of death, and the Witch Lords and their power over their land is an effectively horrifying threat. I was a bit concerned with the entrance of said Witch Lord suitor, that we might be getting a love triangle. But I very much enjoyed the direction that this aspect of the story went. Again, Amalia as a character is written to handle the challenges and temptations of all of this in probably the most realistic manner I’ve read, as far as “love triangles lite” go.

I really loved the first book in this series, so it says a lot that I came away from this one knowing without a doubt that I loved it even more. Both of these books are must reads for any fan of fantasy fiction featuring strong women characters!

Now it your turn to get your hands on this brilliant sequel! I have an ARC copy up for grabs! Giveaway runs through March 27, 2018 and is open to US entrants only.

Click here to enter!

Rating 10: Absolutely brilliant! Heart-breaking and grounded, this series has given us not only one, but two new heroines to root for!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Defiant Heir ” is a new book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Best Fantasy World.”

Find “The Defiant Heir” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Disaster Artist”

17404078Book: “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room”, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, October 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it on audiobook!

Book Description: From the actor who lived through the most improbable Hollywood success story, with an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer, comes the inspiring, fascinating and laugh-out-loud story of a mysteriously wealthy outsider who sundered every road block in the Hollywood system to achieve success on his own terms—the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly).

In 2003, an independent film called The Room—written, produced, directed, and starring a very rich social misfit of indeterminate age and origin named Tommy Wiseau—made its disastrous debut in Los Angeles. Described by one reviewer as “like getting stabbed in the head,” the $6 million film earned a grand total of $1,800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. Now in its tenth anniversary year, The Room is an international phenomenon to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thousands of fans wait in line for hours to attend screenings complete with costumes, audience rituals, merchandising, and thousands of plastic spoons.

Readers need not have seen The Room to appreciate its costar Greg Sestero’s account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and interpersonal relationships to achieve the dream only he could love. While it does unravel mysteries for fans, The Disaster Artist is more than just an hilarious story about cinematic hubris: It is ultimately a surprisingly inspiring tour de force that reads like a page-turning novel, an open-hearted portrait of a supremely enigmatic man who will capture your heart.

Review: As a bad movie connoisseur, it will probably come as a huge surprise to people that I have not actually seen “The Room” in it’s entirety. My first experience with “The Room” was while at a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as they were advertising a special screening of this piece of cinematic napalm. I’ve seen plenty of clips online. I’ve seen lots of references to it, gifs, parodies. And I had heard of the book “The Disaster Artist”, written by Greg Sestero. Sestero was one of the stars in the movie, and decided to write a memoir about the making of it, as well of his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the man behind the film. With the new movie out based on this book, I felt that before I saw it, I needed to read the original memoir to get the full effect. So I got my hands on the audiobook, read by Sestero himself.

And it was more surreal than I ever could have imagined in the history of surrealness.

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No, Mark, that’s a compliment!! (source)

Okay, for the super uninitiated, “The Room” is a nonsensical, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted vanity project written, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. I would say go watch it, but… HERE, see some scenes for yourself. Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in the movie, had known Wiseau for some time before he was emotionally manipulated asked to appear in the film by him. The memoir he’s written takes two different timelines and juxtaposes them into the narrative: the actual making of “The Room”, and his strange friendship with Wiseau, from it’s inception in an acting class to the moment Wiseau decided he was going to make his own movie after success eluded him. I had heard plenty of stories about the bizarre antics of Tommy Wiseau on and off the set, but none of prepared me for the ‘what the FUCK’-ness that was this memoir. I walked away from it thinking that either Sestero has the patience of a saint, or has found himself totally within the clutches of an incredibly toxic friendship and doesn’t know up from down anymore. I really hope it’s the former.

So many of the stories in this book read like they should be fiction, and yet I have no doubt in my mind that they absolutely occurred the way that Sestero said they did. They are just too outlandish and random to have not. Be it a moment where Wiseau reads a key code to Sestero telling him it’s very complicated, only for it to be ‘1234’ (and written down because Wiseau ‘can never remember it’), to descriptions of Sestero coming home to find Wiseau hanging upside down from a pull up bar and just kind of lingering in stasis, to Wiseau telling Sestero to meet him in downtown San Francisco, only to surprise him by saying they are running The Bay to Breakers Race THAT VERY MOMENT (poor Sestero was only wearing sandals), the anecdotes are stranger than fiction. And laugh out loud funny. I had it on my phone as I was setting up for work one morning, and one of my coworkers needed to know why I was laughing so hard. And, of course, the descriptions of the antics on the set itself were mind boggling in their hilarity. Wiseau would take hours upon hours to get a seven second line correct; he would perform his suicide scene, and then writhe around and moan in spite of the fact his character had just eaten a gun; he would insist upon green screens for simple shots that end up looking out of place at best, ridiculous at worst. And he had a knack for getting the absolute worst performances from his players. In the moment it had to be absolutely maddening; but Sestero tells it in such a way that the humor is always there, and it is entertaining as hell.

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What a story indeed. (source)

But along with that, Sestero does a great job of capturing the darker and more poignant sides to Wiseau and their complicated friendship. Behind the oddities and eccentricities, there is definitely a dark side to Tommy, one that is hard to completely understand, if only because he is so private with his past and his personal life. He is desperate for friends, he is desperate to be loved and admired, and he latches onto Sestero out of what appears to be sheer loneliness. Unfortunately, like most of the time, this makes for a very tempestuous, and unhealthy, friendship. Wiseau could switch from being supportive and whimsical, to threatening and abusive should he think that Sestero, or anyone, was crossing him. Hell, “The Room” itself seems to be a reflection of how Wiseau sees himself in the world, as the one truly pure person who is taken advantage of by the people he loves. Wiseau insisted that Sestero play Mark, the best friend of Johnny (played by Wiseau), who betrays Johnny by having an affair with Lisa, Johnny’s fiancee. When you look at that in the context of a deep resentment that Wiseau potentially had for Sestero due to his perceived ‘success’ in Hollywood pre-“The Room” (booking a few roles here and there is success in this case), the casting makes perfect sense. There were moments where I felt deeply uncomfortable about the toxic nature of their friendship, as in some ways it hit a nerve. I’ve been in Sestero’s shoes before, as I’ve been in the position of having a friend who is so completely draining and yet you don’t know how to extricate yourself from them. One review I read thought that Sestero either had to be lying, or downplaying his own ‘leech’ status to Tommy (who provided him with an apartment at a reduced rate), because how could he continue to put up with the abusive nature of their friendship for so long if there wasn’t something in it for him? To that reviewer, I say that it is far more realistic than one would think. To Sestero’s credit, this could have been a complete hatchet job towards an unstable and narcissistic asshole. But instead, by giving some insight into what sort of (potential) experiences Wiseau went through in his early life, he writes of him in such a way that while you are repelled by some of his actions, you also understand why he acts in certain ways. I don’t feel that Sestero ever makes excuses for it, either, as he is VERY clear when Wiseau goes over the line against him and others. But he’s made peace with this relationship, and shows the good with the bad.

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Patience. Of. A. Saint. (source)

As mentioned previously, I listened to this book, and Sestero reads it himself. I HIGHLY recommend it. At first he sounded a little bit wooden and I wasn’t totally sure… but the moment that he started imitating Wiseau, well, that sold it for me. It’s pretty much the perfect imitation as only a friend can do.

“The Disaster Artist” was easily one of the most bizarre and entertaining books that I’ve read. It says a lot about the need for acceptance, the desperation for fame, and how sometimes being just off the wall wacko can pay off, even if it’s in ways you never intended.

Rating 10: A hilarious, outlandish, and at times incredibly pathos ridden and disturbing romp about dreaming of stardom, acceptance, and success… no matter how you define it or achieve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Disaster Artist” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books ABOUT Movies”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “The Disaster Artist” at your library using WorldCat! And here is the link to the Audiobook version because TRUST ME.