Serena’s Review: “The Empire of Gold”

46033842._sy475_Book: “The Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Voyager, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

Previously Reviewed: “City of Brass” and “Kingdom of Copper”

Review: Oh man, I’ve been looking forward to this book for so long! It’s pretty funny to think that I discovered the first book in this excellent trilogy when Kate and I were accidentally trespassing early in the main room of the convention hall at ALA several years ago. I nabbed a copy before we figured out that we weren’t supposed to be there. (By the by, we had planned to go to ALA again finally this year as a reward for surviving our first year as mothers…damn you, Covid!!) Anyways, there was an even longer wait between this book and the last, a year and a half compared to the usual year, so I was really excited when I nabbed an early review copy. And, best of all, this is the perfect ending to such a great series!

The wheel of violent retribution has turned, and like so many other revolutions and wars of the past, Daevabad must suffer through it. But while tragedy and violence are nothing new to a city that throughout history has been fought over, this time is different, as much more has been lost then ever before. And Dara, Nahri, and Ali are the keys to moving forward. But to do so, they each must grapple with the truths of their past: the unknown, the forgotten, and all of the things buried deep in themselves. What they each discover will not only reshape who they are but will reshape the future of Daevabad itself.

The last book in this trilogy left off on a massive cliffhanger. Daevabad had just been horrifically invaded by Dara and Nahri’s mother who used a dastardly plan that involved mass genocide of Ali’s father and people. Nahri and Ali fled the city and somehow ended up back in Nahri’s homeland of Cairo, Egypt, the powerful ring of Suileman in their possession. The stakes were nothing if not high. And given the incredibly long history of tensions between the various daeva tribes, the shafit (their part-human progeny), and the various other magical players on the board, it was almost impossible to imagine how all of the various threads would be tied up in this final book.

And obviously I won’t spoil it for you! There are so many surprises and twists and turns to this book that completely blew me away. I had a few ideas about what could come to pass. But let me just say, I’m so pleased I wasn’t the author, as not only did none of my ideas happen, but they were all massively underwhelming compared to what we were given! This book not only tackles the tangled web of politics and horrible tribal tensions within Daevabad itself, but it expands the world out so much further than we’ve seen in previous books. We spend more time in Nahri’s Cairo. We travel down the Nile and meet crocodile kings. We get captured by pirates and end up in a wondrous jungle empire. And that’s all probably in the first half of the book, before things really go crazy!

In my past reviews for this series, I’ve talked a lot about the dark history that is laid out before us in this trilogy. And all of that is here as well, with a few extra knife twists to just make it all the more grim. But what stood out to me in this book was just how incredibly funny Chakraborty’s writing is as well. As I was reading, I found myself agian and again highlighting passages on my Kindle that made me laugh out loud. I’m sure this was present in the first two books as well. Indeed, it kind of must have to balance out said darkness. But for some reason, the casual and effortless humor really stood out here. Especially with regards to Nahri and Ali’s characterization, and their tenuous relationship.

Nahri concludes this series as probably one of my all-time favorite fantasy heroines. She never loses sight of who she is throughout this entire series, and she’s just the sort of level-headed, pragmatic, no-nonsense character that I prefer. And, like I said, she’s hilarious. But Ali is really the character to go through the biggest arc in this book. In the first book, I remember being slightly put-off when I discovered I had to give up page time with Nahri to hear about this rather ridiculously idealistic princeling. But over the course of the trilogy, Ali has really come into his own, and it’s in this last book where I really fell in love with him and his story. With the world crashing around him, Ali is forced to finally confront the balance between his ideals and the world that is before him. Not only this, but his is the story that holds the most mysteries and goes to the most unexpected places.  I really loved how both of these characters’ story turned out in the end.

Dara, on the other hand…oof. We all knew his story was tragic, and it’s more of the same here. His lows are just so much lower than anyone else’s that it’s hard to know how he gets through it. He’s half villain, half victim, but you can’t help but feel for him at every turn. Really, though, any villainous acts that he commits are so out-shown by the main villain, Manizeh that it pales in comparison. The villains have always been strong in this book, but wow, she takes the cake.

The writing and world-building is just as strong here as it was in the first two books, so there’s not much new to report here other than the fact that excellence remains excellent. It’s a testament to the strength of the author though that she managed to pull out this conclusion. Like I said before, it was almost impossible to see how she would write herself out of the seemingly inescapable corner the story was in at the end of the last book. It looked like there was no possible ending that didn’t result in death and despair for at least one of our main characters. And while we did still have some of that, I will say that I was completely and utterly satisfied with the conclusion of this story. If you’ve been gobbling up these books like I have, you’re in for a treat with this last one!

Rating 10: A feat of masterful story craft, exploding out the world while also never losing sight of the intimate moments driving its main characters. Simply excellent.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Empire of Gold” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Upcoming 2020 SFF with female leads or co-leads.”

Find “The Empire of Gold” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Glass Hotel”

45754981Book: “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts, and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass and cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Review: Though I cannot possibly imagine going back and reading it right now, I really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic book “Station Eleven”. While it’s true that it takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a super flu (no thanks right now), it is also a lovely and quiet meditation on the power of art, the ties and connections that keep us together, and humanity as a whole. When I saw that she had a new book coming out called “The Glass Hotel”, I put it on my library hold list. And when the libraries closed, it was the first book that I decided to buy to own. Honestly, Mandel should be one of my must buy authors anyway, and she once again has delivered a quiet and introspective tale, this time about Ponzi schemes, of all things. Of course, it’s about as much about Ponzi schemes as “Station Eleven” was about a pandemic. It’s merely a backdrop to something much more intimate.

We follow a few different paths in this book, and a few different timelines, realities, and narratives. They do all connect together in ways that seem more tenuous than they are, but then that’s one of Mandel’s greater talents. The three main characters, I would argue, are the half siblings Paul and Vincent, and John Alkaitis, Vincent’s eventual husband and Ponzi scheme perpetrator. All are running away from something, be it guilt, or the truth, or grief, though it could be argued that all of them are running from all three in different ways and manifestations. Though the biggest thing they’re all running from is responsibility, and all start seeing various ghosts as they do so. It’s unclear as to whether they are real or not, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. In the end, they are seen because they are the unshakeable reminders of those that these characters have hurt or wronged, so even if they aren’t ‘real’, they still very much are.

None of these characters we meet are exactly ‘good’ people, but because of their depth and their perspectives you become invested in them and their outcomes regardless of their likability. Vincent’s story, being the largest connector of all narratives, is in many ways the most engrossing and haunting, as her complicated relationship with her brother, her ill fated marriage to a criminal, and her longing for her mother (who died when Vincent was a tween, her death mysterious, and mirroring Vincent’s own disappearance later in life) drive her constant moves, shifts, and changes in lifestyle and in some ways personality. Alkaitis, too, runs from his responsibility in the wreckage of so many lives, though his running is mostly done by letting himself disappear into a ‘counterlife’ in which he was never caught, a life that bleeds in and out of his narrative, and then some. Paul’s story is perhaps the smallest of the threads, but in many ways it has some of the largest impacts on the paths that all the characters take. As his overall purpose and his role in the story slowly fell into place, I found myself astounded by the intricacies and how carefully Mandel made sure to bring it all together. And truly, it’s a wonder to behold as it all does flow and merge. By the time I had finished this novel, having read it mostly in one night and definitely staying up far too late to finish it, I just let out a long sigh, knowing that by reading it I had really experienced something remarkable. Like “Station Eleven”, “The Glass Hotel” has a lot of pain and trauma, but it almost feels muted and quiet, as those are not the points of the story. The point is resilience, no matter the cost. It’s wonderful and tragic all at once.

(and yes, this story does have connections to “Station Eleven”. But it stands so well on it’s own it’s more like Easter Eggs than an actual canonical link.)

Gosh I loved this book. It’s haunting and I know that it’s going to stick with me for a long while.

Rating 10: Phenomenal. Mandel has done it again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Hotel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Covid-19: Books to Read on Lockdown”, and “Books Unbound Podcast”.

Find “The Glass Hotel” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

36510722We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: We both bought it!

American Girl Book: “Josefina Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

Book Description: The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Serena’s Thoughts

I read this book for the first time last summer and raved all about it. But when it came time for me to pick my book for bookclub, I was having a hard time finding one that I felt matched up at all with the “American Girl” I had. I tossed out this book’s title and as no one else had read it, that was all the excuse I needed! Not only to pick it as my bookclub book, but to order a copy for myself for this re-read.

This second time around, I enjoyed the story just as much as the first time. I was reminded just how unique of a story this is. I haven’t read any other book about this time period and place, and I’ve especially never read anything combining it with traditional Mayan folklore and all of the fantasy elements the author threw in. While the beginning of the story definitely has a “Cinderella” vibe, it deviates from that traditional tale so quickly and so completely that it wasn’t even until this re-read that I made that connection at all.

Like my first read through, what really stood out was the writing itself and the way the use of the unique narration style was able to really draw complete, full-bodied pictures for the reader. The images of these locations and cities, both real and fairytale, all feel so vivid and colorful that it’s impossible not to be drawn in, even if one has no familiarity to base any of these visuals on. The writing is strong enough to get you there on its own.

I obviously still really enjoyed Casiopea herself. She’s a very strong protagonist and her journey of self-discovery was compelling. She learns many of the same lessons anyone who travels from home the first time does: that the world is both much larger and grand than you ever could have imagined, but it’s also still just people, going about their lives, no matter the change of scenery. This time around, I was able to focus more Hun-Kame’s story and his slow transition from godhood to humanity. I really appreciate the way the author went about this, as all of his changes were subtle and believable, something that can be hard to pull of with this type of story arc.

Overall, I still really enjoyed this book. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her, and she has a new book, “Mexican Gothic,” that’s coming out this June that I can’t wait to check out! If you want to read my full review from last summer, you can find it here.

Kate’s Thoughts

I have been interested in digging into Silvia Moreno-Garcia for a bit now. I have “Mexican Gothic” waiting for me in eARC form at the moment, so when Serena suggested that she pick “Gods of Jade and Sorrow” for book club I was wholeheartedly in favor. True, while fantasy isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, mythology is an exception to that general rule. Especially mythologies that I’m not as familiar with (though when I was in grade school we had a unit on the Mayans and the mythology associated with it. Of course, it was by no means expansive).

I quite enjoyed “Gods of Jade and Shadow”, for a few reasons. The first, like Serena mentioned, was the time and place. 1920s Mexico isn’t a setting I’ve encountered much in the books I’ve read, and while I have a working knowledge of some aspects of it thanks to reading about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the past, it’s still fairly novel. The road trip and journey that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé take together all over Mexico and into the U.S. is engaging and entertaining, and the other magical beings they encounter were fascinating and well crafted. I thought that their very important journey aligned with Casiopea’s own journey of self-actualization against a backdrop of a burgeoning freedom of society was stark and powerful.

And, like Serena, I also enjoyed Casiopea herself. She grows and changes, but always remains true to herself and her characterization. She has a lot to learn, but she also has a lot that various characters, be it Hume-Kamé or her cruel cousin Martín, could learn from her. Some of the choices that she makes when it comes to how to deal with the cruelty and viciousness of others are refreshing in that they are steeped in more empathy and compassion as opposed to revenge or evening the score.

And of course, the Mayan Mythology was great. I have vague recollections of Xibalba and the various Death Gods from my early experiences of reading up on them in grade school, and seeing them put into this story and really dug into was awesome. It also gives the feel of this story a distinctly Indigenous one, which I greatly appreciated, especially since an Own Voices author was taking on the subject matter.

Overall, I really liked “Gods of Jade and Shadow”, and I’m even more stoked to dig into Moreno-Garcia’s next works!

Kate’s Rating 8: A fun and unique coming of age story with a distinctly Indigenous voice, “Gods of Jade and Sorrow” really entertains.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this book just as much the second time around and highly recommend it for fantasy-lovers looking for a story set in a time and place not typically found in the genre.

Book Club Questions

  1. Casiopea’s story starts out as a sort of “Cinderella” tale that involves into one of self-discovery and independence gained. What stood out to about her story arc or characterization?
  2. In many ways, Casiopea and Hun-Kame’s relationship evolves from city to city as they travel. What did you make of this progression? Did you enjoy the romance in this story? What did you think of the larger balance being struct between humanity and godliness?
  3. The story takes place during the Jazz Age in Mexico and covers a lot of ground. Was there a particular location or aspect of this time/place that stood out to you?
  4. The author combined traditional Mayan words and stories with her own unique tale. Were there any aspects of the fantasy elements that stood out to you? Were you familiar with any of these terms or Mayan tales previously?
  5. The narration for this story is omniscient, allowing the author to provide a lot of detail and context for her tale as it meanders across Mexico. It also provides insights into the villain’s perspectives. What did you make of this narrative style and the balance between characters that we’re given?

Reader’s Advisory

“Gods of Jade and Shadow” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Aztec, Maya & Inca – Fiction” and “2019 Adult SFF by Authors of Color.”

Find “Gods of Jade and Shadow” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Book on the Left”

43261154._sx318_Book: “The Last Book on the Left: Stories of Murder and Mayhem from History’s Most Notorious Serial Killers” by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley, and I own it!

Book Description: An equal parts haunting and hilarious deep-dive review of history’s most notorious and cold-blooded serial killers, from the creators of the award-winning Last Podcast on the Left

Since its first show in 2010, The Last Podcast on the Left has barreled headlong into all things horror, as hosts Henry Zebrowski, Ben Kissel, and Marcus Parks cover subjects spanning Jeffrey Dahmer, werewolves, Jonestown, and supernatural phenomena. Deeply researched but with a morbidly humorous bent, the podcast has earned a dedicated and aptly cultlike following for its unique take on all things macabre.

In their first book, the guys take a deep dive into history’s most infamous serial killers, from Ted Bundy to John Wayne Gacy, exploring their origin stories, haunting habits, and perverse predilections. Featuring newly developed content alongside updated fan favorites, each profile is an exhaustive examination of the darker side of human existence. With appropriately creepy four-color illustrations throughout and a gift-worthy paper over board format, The Last Book on the Left will satisfy the bloodlust of readers everywhere.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book.

I first discovered the podcast “The Last Podcast on the Left” in early 2018. I had just left my job, I was feeling a little aimless and sad (not to mention a bit taken advantage of), and was looking for any kind of distraction. It’s not too hyperbolic to say that hosts Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski brought me the most joy I had felt since leaving that position. Not only were they very funny, the research and presentation of stories about serial killers, aliens, supernatural incidents, and other tales of the macabre was phenomenal. So I was, of course, overjoyed when they announced that they were going to release a book. And when I was approved to get an eARC from NetGalley? I could have exploded from excitement.

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I actually screamed. (source)

Now I did have my reservations. After all, while I mostly enjoyed the other podcast based book that made a splash in the book community, I was a little nervous that this would be similar in that it just wouldn’t capture the essence of the source content. Let’s be real, “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered” is a fun book, but it’s not true crime, which is the draw of the podcast to begin with. But I was foolish to doubt Parks, Zebrowski, and Kissel. “The Last Book on the Left” is everything I wanted it to be and more.

As I vaguely mentioned before, one of the things that I love the most about the podcast is that Marcus Parks, the head researcher for the show, does a fantastic job of researching and presenting the topics that they cover in each episode. And he brings the same zeal and drive to the book. This book covers a number of notorious serial killers, from Ted Bundy to BTK to Son of Sam and many more. While I’m familiar with a lot of the cases in this book, I still found myself learning new information because of the deep dives that Parks does. I also appreciated that the book made the note that while all of their subjects have been covered on the podcast, they have tried to bring new information and content to the book. How easy would it have been to do an easy copy paste job from past scripts and witty rapport (looking at you, “Lore” podcast!)? And yet Parks, Kissel, and Zebrowski want to do their very  best for their fans and for the people reading the book, and refuse to cut corners, and because of that the reading is wholly original and fresh. Throw in some really fun and darkly funny graphics and imagery, and you have a fun and informational reading experience!

And if that wasn’t enough, “The Last Book on the Left” also achieves what I thought would be the unachievable: they manage to translate the podcast format to the page without being clunky or untrue to their natures. The premise of the podcast is that Parks will tell the stories, and Kissel and Zebrowski will make commentary and banter throughout the narrative. I figured that it was going to be straight information, which was completely okay in my book. But then “The Last Book on the Left” went and surprised me. Using graphics and color coded speech bubbles, they manage to put the witty and dark humored Kissel and Zebrowski commentary throughout the narrative, using their likenesses with varying facial expressions depending on the tone of the comment. It works, it’s creative, and it’s ingenious. I found myself laughing out loud probably as much as I do during each podcast episode, and was thrilled to see that they managed to translate their wicked charm to book form.

Now I do have to admit that I’m probably wholeheartedly biased when it comes to “The Last Book on the Left”. I was pretty much guaranteed to love this book given how much I love the podcast and it’s creators. So I’m going to try to level with everyone here for a moment. Do I think that this book is going to be for anyone and everyone? Probably not. If you aren’t into true crime it’s really not for you, and I am the first to admit and acknowledge that the comedy aspects of the podcast are not going to sit well with everyone. The book tones it back a lot, but it’s still not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, as a fan of the show, I loved it. And I do think that the impeccable true crime content and research is God tier.

I loved, LOVED “The Last Book on the Left”. It was everything I hoped it would be, and it’s a true testament to the talent that these three hosts have.

Rating 10: “The Last Book on the Left” is a well researched and presented overview of a number of notorious serial killers, and manages to capture the banter and charm of the podcast and put it to the page. Well worth the wait. Hail yourselves, fellas!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Book on the Left” is included on the Goodreads list “Books of Podcasts”, and I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”.

Find “The Last Book on the Left” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood”

9516We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi

Publishing Info: Pantheon, June 2004

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Samantha Learns a Lesson” by Susan S. Adler

Book Description: Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love. 

Kate’s Thoughts

While it’s true that I read and reviewed “The Complete Persepolis” a couple years back, I really wanted to read it for book club. It was my turn for the American Girl theme, and I knew that I wanted to do “Samantha Learns a Lesson” (as Samantha has always been my favorite American Girl). So I decided that “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” would be the match up, as both are about girls from upper classes who have to learn hard social justice lessons about the lower classes in the society in which they are living.

My opinion of “Persepolis” hasn’t changed since I last addressed it here. It’s still one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, like top ten no question. But with the focus specifically on Satrapi’s childhood for this reading, mixed with the lens I had on social class, AND the current tensions the U.S. is having with Iran, this reading was all the more meaningful for me. Satrapi does a very good job of disseminating how Iran changed so fundamentally as a society in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, and addresses the complexities of those changes, showing how it isn’t a black and white, right or wrong situation. She also points out her own privileges within Iran during the Cultural Revolution. While she was a girl and her family wasn’t as socially favored as some, they had enough wealth and means that not only could she carefully rebel against societal norms with little repercussions (though some of this was pure luck), she also wasn’t part of the social class that was being used as cannon fodder during the war with Iraq. Along with all that, she also had the means to be sent away for school in Austria when it was becoming clear that being a teenage girl was becoming more and more unsafe.

I’m so pleased that we read “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” for book club! It fostered a lot of good conversation, and I will take any excuse to revisit this stunning memoir.

Serena’s Thoughts

My only previous familiarity with this book was through reading Kate’s glowing review of the complete collection. But with that strong recommendation, I was excited to finally get the excuse (more like the push, but “excuse” sounds better) to finally read it myself. And, put simply, like always, Kate was spot-on in her stamp of approval for this title!

I will admit to having only the barest understanding of the events that happened during Iran’s Cultural Revolution. I knew the end result, of course, but had very little clarity on the progression of events. In that way, this book does a fantastic job at bringing reader’s down to the street level of a topic that is often discussed, at least here in the U.S., at very global levels. Her life also offers an interesting window, coming from an educated and modern family who have many privileges at their finger tips that can help mitigate the experience.But, with those privileges, we also see the increased strain of a change that is felt quite acutely, especially for a young girl growing into her teenage years. We see the burgeoning of the obligations towards social justice weighed against the practicalities of safety and one’s own welfare.

I also loved the illustration style of this book. The choice to use only black and white colors not only parallels the movement of a society towards a more black and white way of thinking about life, but leaves the readers to focus largely on the content before them. It is not “prettied up” in anyway that could distract from the fact that this is based upon a woman’s real life experience. That said, the style of drawing is also very approachable to young readers and nicely balances out the stark color palette.

I really enjoyed this book and am so glad Kate picked it for bookclub. Like the broken record I often am, I’m yet again thankful to be part of a group of readers who expose me to books that I would likely not get around to reading on my own.

Kate’s Rating 10: An all time favorite of mine that I will happily revisit over and over.

Serena’s Rating 10: A must read for fans of graphic novels and those looking for more insights into life growing up in Iran during the Cultural Revolution.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the choice to tell her personal story in graphic form? How do you think it would have been different had it been written in a traditional narrative structure?
  2. “Persepolis: A Story of a Childhoold” is set before, during and after the Cultural Revolution in Iran. How much did you know about this historical period before reading this book?
  3. Like Samantha, Marjane is a child who has to learn some hard truths about the society she’s living in as a child. Are there any obvious differences between how Marjane experienced this period vs other Iranian children from other backgrounds may have?
  4. In an interview Satrapi said that she wanted “Persepolis” to show that Iran wasn’t only the society and culture that is shown through western lenses (that of a fundamentalist culture). Do you think she succeeded? Why or why not?
  5. Captivity and freedom are themes that are prevalent throughout the narrative. What are some of the ways they are presented within the story?
  6. How does a persons personal history interact with the history of a society or a culture they live within? How do you think your own personal history ties with the history of your country?

Reader’s Advisory

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” can be found on the Goodreads lists “Best Memoir Graphic Novels”, and “Reading Recommendations for a Young Feminist”.

Find “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Kate’s Review: “Trace of Evil”

43263388Book: “Trace of Evil” (Natalie Lockhart #1) by Alice Blanchard

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A riveting mystery that introduces a bold and audacious rookie detective assigned to hunt for a killer who is haunted by the past in this gripping murder case…

Natalie Lockhart always knew she was going to be a cop. A rookie detective on the Burning Lake police force, she was raised on the wisdom of her chief-of-police father. These cases will haunt you if you let them. Grief doesn’t come with instructions.

But the one thing her father couldn’t teach her was how to handle loss. Natalie’s beloved sister was viciously murdered as a teenager, and she carries the scars deep in her heart. Although the killer was locked up, the trace evidence never added up, and Natalie can’t help wondering―is the past really behind her?

As the newest member on the force, Natalie is tasked with finding nine missing persons who’ve vanished off the face of the earth, dubbed “the Missing Nine.” One night, while following up on a new lead, she comes across a savage crime that will change everything.

Daisy Buckner―a popular schoolteacher, wife to a cop, and newly pregnant―lies dead on her kitchen floor. As Natalie hunts for Daisy’s killer in the wake of the town’s shock, her search leads to a string of strange clues―about the Missing Nine, about Daisy’s secret life, and reviving fresh doubts about her sister’s murder.

As the investigation deepens, Natalie’s every move risks far-reaching consequences―for the victims, for the town of Burning Lake, and for herself.

Spellbinding and gripping, Trace of Evil is a novel of twisting suspense that will leave you breathless.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Awhile back one of the librarians I follow on Twitter was speaking highly of a book by an author I hadn’t heard of. He had an ARC of “Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard, and when I clicked on the description it sounded like it would be up my alley. Small town police detective, missing people, a victim with secrets, all matters that will pull me into a story on any given day. I got it from NetGalley, and opened it up, expecting all of those things but maybe not much more. And what else did I get?

Witchcraft, covens, and teenagers with secret ties to black magic rituals.

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Oh HELL YES. (source)

“Trace of Evil” has three main mysteries that make up the guts of the plot. The first is the most obvious, that of the murder of Daisy Buckner. Natalie Lockhart, our plucky but haunted protagonist, has her own personal connections to Daisy. Not only is she colleagues with Daisy’s husband, Natalie’s older sister Grace wa very close with Daisy, so Natalie’s personal investment is high. I enjoyed seeing Natalie slowly piece together various components to the murder, and how Blanchard was sure to show some of the downfalls of being a woman detective in a small town where everyone knows everything about your past. The second mystery involves a number of missing women, or the Missing Nine, that Natalie has been trying to solve since she joined the force. But along with that obsession, Natalie has her own personal mystery to try and solve; when she was a kid, a masked boy attacked her in the woods. Natalie has spent the rest of her life trying to find out who that boy was. Throw in the fact that her oldest sister Willow was the victim of a horrific murder, and you have a lady cop with a lot of emotional baggage on top of the usual caseload that she has to take on every day. But these various bits of backstory never bog Natalie down, nor does Blanchard make it an excuse to make Natalie overly prickly, overly reckless, or overly damaged. Her traumas absolutely have shaped her, but instead of taking the obvious route of ‘broken but brilliant cop’, Natalie is instead multifaceted and achingly human. I really, really like her as a protagonist (and yes, I’m already rooting for her and her colleague Luke to hook up. She’s had a thing for him since childhood, y’all, it’s great!). Blanchard also is able to take all three mysteries and to show how they are connected, even in the most superficial of ways, and really make the reader buy into the connections. This was one of those instances where I didn’t guess any of the solutions to any of the mysteries, and that left me tickled.

And yes, there is a witchcraft element that I thoroughly enjoyed, if only because I totally saw my own dabbling in Wicca within this plot point. Burning Lake, the town Natalie lives in, has a history of witchcraft and witch trials, and it has permeated a lot of the culture and turned it into a Salem-esque community. Not only did Natalie and her sisters dip their toes into it, but now Natalie’s niece and her friends have started to dabble. But, as is the case in other tales, cliques and infighting tends to lead to a misuse of the ‘magic’, and I loved seeing Blanchard bring that into this story and finding ways to not only connect it to the mystery at hand, but to also show how teen girls who feel powerless can be drawn in to the idea of magic and ritual.

I really, really loved “Trace of Evil”. My hope is that Natalie Lockhart comes back soon, because I now have a new mystery series that I fully intend to keep up with. I highly recommend this thriller to all fans of the genre, and hope that you love it as much as I did.

Rating 10: Suspenseful, detailed, engaging, and filled with great characters, “Trace of Evil” is a promising start to a new series that I thoroughly loved.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Trace of Evil” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”, and “Spellbinding Fiction”.

Find “Trace of Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ninth House”

43263680Book: “Ninth House” (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Review: I was never going to be Ivy League material and I never had the aspirations to be. The only thing that sounded at all interesting about Yale was the collection of secret societies that are scattered throughout the campus community, but even that came off as pretentious as hell to teenage me (though secretly I thought how cool to be admitted into one). Never did I consider that these secret societies would make a genuinely solid premise to a dark fantasy novel, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Leigh Bardugo. Which brings us to “Ninth House”, Bardugo’s foray from YA fantasy into adult dark fantasy, a jump that I was very interested in seeing in motion. While I haven’t really cared for Bardugo’s fantasy tales like the “Grisha” series or the “Six of Crows” duology, I liked her take on “Wonder Woman”, and LOVED her short story “Verse Chorus Verse”. It stood to reason that Bardugo would probably do something at least interesting with a dark fantasy magic story set on the Yale Campus. I went in with midlevel expectations, and those expectations were blown out of the water. I loved “Ninth House”.

Bardugo has created a fun melding of the real world and a magical environment, with Yale University as an unlikely and yet seamless backdrop. She brings in themes class, privilege, and misogyny, and stirs them into magic, ghosts, the afterlife, and the occult. It’s no surprise that these themes can blend together with little problem, but Bardugo does it in a way that really packs a punch and gets her intent across. At first glance the idea of Yale’s secret societies as magical groups could feel a bit “Harry Potter”, but the darkness is there from the get go, with histories of said groups abusing their powers and preying on the less privileged and ‘less valued’, at least in their eyes, all for a perceived ‘greater good’. It’s up to Lethe House to keep them in line, lest they start abusing their stature and powers again, though you get the impression that Lethe is more there to work as ‘fixers’ should things go wrong, as the corruption is still very much in play. The social commentary may seem a little obvious, but it’s written in such a charming and engaging way that I didn’t even care. Bardugo also creates a unique ghost system. The ghosts, or ‘Grays’ as they are called, are everywhere, though they are mostly unseen by regular people (more on that in a moment). They can also disrupt magical rituals, and that would be a bad thing to the secret societies. I loved the descriptions of the Grays, from the ones who just meander around campus, to the more sinister and scary, to one whose notorious reputation may not be earned. This one in particular was great. His name is North, he may have killed his fiancee during the Victorian Era, he’s dark and broody and I, of course, fell in love with him almost immediately.

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Is he a potential murderer? Yes. Do I care even a little bit? No. (source)

The person tying all of this together is Alex Stern, a first year student at Yale who has a dark past and a purpose for her enrollment. Stern has been able to see Grays her entire life, and a horrific encounter with one left her traumatized (quick content warning moment here: there is a scene of sexual assault in this book that was upsetting and potentially triggering). After falling into drugs to cope, Alex fell into the wrong crowd and ended up the lone survivor of a multiple murder. This is when Yale set their sights on her, her talent to see Grays incredibly valuable, valuable to offer her a full ride and a fresh start. Alex is a fish out of water at Yale, and her pluckiness and grit makes for a fun character whose determination is very easy to root for. While at first she’s perfectly happy being a member of Lethe house and getting the perks of the Ivy League, the murder of a townie girl plunges her into the very dark past of the secret societies. Add in the loss of her mentor, Darlington, and Alex has to find her footing in a strange and dangerous world. Her story is told through time jumps and a nonlinear structure, and it’s an effective way to show how Alex got to where she is, and the influences people and events from her past have shaped her. I especially liked her relationship with Darlington, a Golden Boy of Lethe whose idealistic nature and earnest personality is a fun contrast to Alex, and whose absence makes for a lingering sense of sadness over the story, for both the characters and the reader. But it also makes Alex figure things out on her own, which makes her journey and investigation a bit more empowering.

On top of all this, the story is very engaging and paced perfectly. I had a hard time putting it down, finding myself reading during my down time when I should have been taking care of various tasks around the house. Oh well! What’s a neglected laundry pile in comparison to an addictive read?

“Ninth House” was a fun and fantastic dark fantasy story with lots to love. It’s set up for another book, and I for one cannot wait to get my hands on the next one. I need to know what Alex is going to do next!

Rating 10: A fast paced and well plotted dark fantasy, “Ninth House” builds a complex world of magic and ghosts within an unlikely setting. I’ll be looking forward to the next Alex Stern adventure!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ninth House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”.

Find “Ninth House” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Starless Sea”

43575115._sy475_Book: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

Review: I had to do a double-take when I saw this book pop up on Edelweiss+. I was like, “I know that author! But…but is she finally publishing something new??” It’s been several years since “The Night Circus” was published. Long enough that I look fondly at the book on my shelf but hadn’t really thought to check up again on what the author was doing. This is not a complaint about the time taken between books. Some authors can pump them out seemingly one after another. But as it stands, Morgenstern can take all the time she wants if it means we keep seeing books like “The Night Circus” and now the wonder that is “The Starless Sea.”

Once upon a time there was a book. And in that book were stories. And in those stories were characters reading books. Too, there were doors. And through those doors more books, and characters reading those books. The story winds in and out, but this one begins with Zachary, a college graduate who once saw a door but chose not to open it. A simple moment, seemingly, until he discovers that same moment described in detail in a book he discovers in the library while conducting research. But his is only one among many stories contained with this book’s pages. And as he searches for answers, he finds that through that door that he didn’t take are a million other doors just waiting to be opened.

Books, authors, and readers have a strange, self-celebrating relationship. Readers love books. Some readers love them so much that they go out and write their own. Often about how much they love books. Other readers find those books and gain all the more pleasure from reading a book about characters who love reading books. And some readers go on to be librarians who like nothing more than stocking their shelves with books, especially those books that wax poetic about a love for reading, libraries, and, of course, books themselves. It’s all very “snake eating its own tail,” but in the best of ways possible. All of this to say: “The Starless Sea” is one of the most beautiful love letters to stories and books that I have ever read.

The book starts off slowly, with several seemingly unconnected stories coming one after another to the point that the reader may start to question whether they are reading a collection of tales or a novel. But soon enough Zachary’s story starts to come together and the pieces oh, so slowly begin to fall into place. It takes the entire book to get a full picture of what Morgenstern has accomplished here, which makes it all the more challenging to review. This is a nested-doll of a story and even now I feel that I might have missed some clues here and there.

The world itself is intricate, lush, and a bit spooky around the edges. Like Hogwarts is to many of us, the Starless Sea and its vast libraries are to readers. What reader doesn’t wish to live Zachary’s story? To open a door and find oneself part of a story? And if not that, I want to go there just to cozy up with the millions of books and the hundreds of cats wandering around (I mean, honestly, it’s like she wrote this book for me). There are details galore and half of the fun is simply wandering into the next scene alongside Zachary to see what marvels lay beneath the next. There are just enough strings holding it all together to make it feel connected and approachable. But I was still caught off guard again and again by the directions the story took in its many twists and turns.

There are two love stories at the heart of this book. One, a love that spans centuries, a story that keeps looking for its ending. And the other is Zachary’s. Each is beautiful in its way, one highlighting the testament of love over time and the other the connections that can be formed more quickly but still inspire the greatest of undertakings on each other’s behalf. Each was lovely in its own way, though given Zachary’s role in this book, his stood out all the more.

Like “The Night Circus,” this book highlights just how well-matched Morgenstern’s creativity is with her stylistic writing. In another author’s hands, some of these scenes could have come off as pretentious or grandiose, but her simple, yet delicate, manner of laying down words on a page makes them seem like just more magic to be discovered. As I said, the book builds slowly, and even towards the end when the action begins to pick up, Morgenstern still devotes a decent amount of page time to her descriptive settings and poetic observations. Readers who enjoyed her previous book will be pleased to see her talents put to work in another such story. Those looking for a faster-paced story might struggle a bit, however.

So close to the end of the year and with my “Top 10” on the mind, this was an instant winner for me. I think I would even go so far as to say that I preferred this book to “The Night Circus.” In many ways, that book now seems as if it was a primer, or simply Morgenstern testing the water, as she prepared for the tour de force that is “The Starless Sea.”

Rating 10: A love letter to stories and books that makes you wish for nothing more than to visit the Starless Sea yourself.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Starless Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books with Underground Setting” and “Scifi/Fantasy for when you are feeling down.”

Find “The Starless Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Highway of Tears”

40538634Book: “Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” by Jessica McDiarmid

Publishing Info: Atria Books, November 2019

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

Book Description: In the vein of the astonishing and eye-opening bestsellers I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and The Line Becomes a River, this stunning work of investigative journalism follows a series of unsolved disappearances and murders of Indigenous women in rural British Columbia.

Along northern Canada’s Highway 16, a yellow billboard reads GIRLS, DON’T HITCHHIKE. KILLER ON THE LOOSE. The highway is a 450-mile stretch of dirt and asphalt, surrounded by rugged wilderness and snowy mountain peaks. It is known as the Highway of Tears. It is here that at least twenty women and girls—most of them Indigenous—have vanished since 1969.

Highway of Tears explores the true story of what has happened along this troubled road. Journalist Jessica McDiarmid reassembles the lives of the victims—who they were, where they came from, who loved them, and what led them to the highway—and takes us into their families’ determined fight for the truth. The book also indicts the initial police investigation marred by incompetence and systemic racism, even as it shines a light on a larger phenomenon: more than a thousand missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada, a topic brought to international attention when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened an official inquiry into the case.

Combining hard-hitting reporting with a keen, human eye, Highway of Tears is a penetrating look at decades’ worth of tragedy and the fight to honor the victims by preserving their stories and providing them the justice they deserve.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I’m a true crime aficionado to the bone, and I have been for as long as I can remember. But I do recognize that there are problematic issues within this genre that should definitely be acknowledged and worked on. One of those issues is that the stories that usually get paid the most attention to involve pretty white women victims, and other victims, especially POC, are not as widely acknowledged. One of the most egregious examples of this is the case of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia, Canada. Highway 16 is a highway that runs a number of miles, and a number of Indigenous women have either disappeared altogether near it, or have been found murdered in the vicinity. Almost all of the cases have gone cold and unsolved, and the victims have been deprived of justice. In “Highway of Tears”, Jessica McDiarmid jumps into a deep and emotional investigation of the crimes, but also of the stories of the women who have been victimized and cast aside, and the life that they were leading before. And boy oh boy, this is one of the most emotionally wrenching true crime books I’ve ever read.

The most important aspect of this book I mentioned above. McDiarmid is very conscientious to give backgrounds and back stories to a large number of the victims, whose disappearances and murders have been happening since the 1970s and up through today. Instead of just being a number of names and a group of lumped in all together, as if their violent ends were their only defining traits, we get comprehensive stories about the various lives that these women led, and the people who were left behind to mourn their loss. I had known about the story of Alberta Williams because of the podcast “Missing and Murdered”, but as each profile and backstory was explored my heart grew heavier and heavier. She makes all of them personalized individuals, and by seeing the trauma that some experienced in life and all of their families experienced in death just shows how unjust it is that not only did they meet these horrible ends, but they haven’t gotten answers or justice.

McDiarmid doesn’t pull any punches when she talks about how the victimization of these women, and in turn their families, is a direct result of a racist system that doesn’t value these women because of their race, their place in society, and their gender. She also does a very good job of showing how the system perpetuates multiple social injustices towards the First Nations population, and how in turn these injustices create an environment where this kind of victimization is far more prevalent compared to other populations in Canada. She also pulls in colonial practices throughout Canadian history, and the direct line that these practices have to modern fallouts for Indigenous groups. From residential schools to alcoholism to poverty to many more, McDiarmid makes it VERY clear that many of these practices have consequences that are still felt today. And on top of all of that, she juxtaposes the differences in approach, attention, and outcomes between the Indigenous women who are missing and murdered, and a few cases where the victims are white women. Suffice to say, Missing White Woman Syndrome plays a huge role, and while the missing and murdered Indigenous women fade into the background, white women get lots of media attention, and lots of resources are poured into the investigations surrounding them. It’s all very upsetting, but all too true.

On top of all of this, McDiarmid has a writing style that will suck you in, and will set the scene so that you feel like you are there. I had a very hard time putting this book down, even though the topic was very upsetting and hard to read about. But McDiarmid insists that you do so, because the story is far too important and has gone unacknowledged by too many for too long. I want this to become the next “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”. I want this to be read and I want these womens’ stories to be heard and I want them to be seen as who they were. There is no closure with this story. Justice hasn’t been served. But one can only hope that if more people learn about this and speak up, perhaps more will be done.

“Highway of Tears” is a must read. One of the year’s best.

Rating 10: An incredibly powerful and evocative examination of the Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered along Highway 16 in British Columbia, “Highway of Tears” in unforgiving in its indictment of a racist society, and emotional in its profiles of many victims who have been cast aside or forgotten.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Highway of Tears” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”, and “Canadian Indigenous Books”.

Find “Highway of Tears” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Doctor Sleep”

16130549._sy475_-1Book: “Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky 12-year-old Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death.

Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”

Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival. This is an epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted fans of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon.

Review: Around the time the trailer for Mike Flanagan’s film “Doctor Sleep” dropped, I was texting back and forth with the aforementioned Blake. He told me that he had never actually picked up “Doctor Sleep”, as he’d heard it was middling at best, but wanted to know what I thought. I told him how much I loved it, but admitted that I hadn’t read it for a long time. So when he later told me that he’d picked it up and was, so far, really liking it, I decided that I needed to go back and re-read it. One, so he and I could potentially have a mini-book club over the sequel to the book that started our friendship, and two because the movie was coming out and I wanted to have the novel fresh in my memory. So I picked up “Doctor Sleep”, figuring I’d meander through it at a lazy pace… But then I ended up binging the entire thing in a couple of days. The continuing story of Danny Torrance post-Overlook once again sucked me in. 

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Poor Danny can’t escape the past. (source)

What you need to know about “Doctor Sleep” is that while it’s a sequel to “The Shining”, the tone, feel, and approach are very different. While they both take a look at addiction (though in different ways, as King was in the middle of his during “The Shining” and in recovery during “Doctor Sleep”), “The Shining” is about ghosts, an evil place, and the slow violent spiral of a husband and father because of the influence of the two. “Doctor Sleep”, however, goes in a different direction. Instead of relying mostly on the ghosts and ghouls, at its heart is a story about trauma and coming to terms with your past while finding a hopeful future. And, of course, still dealing with supernatural themes like psychic abilities and monsters. Dan Torrance is now an adult, who has tried to escape his memories of The Overlook and his abilities by falling into a bottle. Seeing Danny all grown up is a very bleak, but realistic, look at what trauma can do to a person, and how sometimes people cope in ways that are incredibly destructive to others and to themselves. You are already invested in Dan because you know he was that little boy at the Overlook, and some of the best moments of dread in this book have less to do with the visions he still has, and more to do with whether or not he is going to fall off the wagon. It just so happens that around the time he decides to fully commit to recovery, he makes a psychic connection with a newborn girl named Abra, whose Shining abilities are above and beyond his own. Abra is a fantastic new character to bring into the story, as her childhood is a reversed mirror image of what Danny went through as a child. She comes from a loving family, she easily makes friends, and her powers are accepted (albeit hush hush and not totally understood) by her parents, while Danny’s powers were cultivated and nurtured in a dark, abusive setting and a lonely childhood. You definitely get the sense that their connection isn’t pure happenstance, but that doesn’t really matter; what matters is that they are both vital to each other’s survival. Abra needs someone who understands her and understands the dangers of her powers, and Dan needs a reason to keep going and to keep his addictions at bay. King captures an authentic and very likable, yet complex, voice in Abra, and her kindness and joy radiates off of the page, just as her own inner darkness rears in relatable and believable ways. Her friendship with Dan brings out the best in both of them, and as they learn from each other and protect each other from impending dangers, you get super invested in their connection, even if you aren’t completely sure as to why it’s happening.

And let’s talk about those dangers, too. King creates a malevolent and wholly original villain group as only he can with the True Knot, a nomadic group of vampirelike beings that feed on psychic energy. They target children with The Shining, as the True Knot can achieve eternal life by extracting their abilities in ‘steam’ form. The leader of the group is Rose the Hat, a charismatic and vicious woman who kills without remorse for the good of her group. Rose the Hat is a top three King villain for me, as she is intimidating, mysterious, and alluring in every sense of the word. You see this group stalk and murder other children, and once their sights set on Abra a slow burn game of cat and mouse begins, with some unexpected surprises for all parties thrown in along the way that up the ante even more. King doesn’t rush this prolonged confrontation, and he sets the pieces into place in very intentional ways that come together seamlessly. But I think that one of the best achievements that King does, at least for me, is that he makes you kind of care about The True Knot as well, at least in some ways. You get a deep dive into who they are and how they function, and by the time things start to go down you find yourself invested, even if you know that they are monstrous and terrible. He gives them, especially Rose, complexity and nuance, and I ended up loving her when all was said and done, even if it was because of what a horrible and terrifying villain she is. 

I think that a lot of people believed that there was no way that King could write a sequel to “The Shining”. And, in some ways, I think they are right. Because “Doctor Sleep” is its own story, its own identity, and while it may be the continuing story of Danny Torrance, it doesn’t feel like a direct sequel. It feels like King achieved a lot more than that, and has expanded a world and a story in ways that only time and experience could have aided. It’s not a perfect book; there are some hiccups, and moments of cloying coincidence or sappiness, but honestly, I love this story so much that I can easily forgive these stumbles. I have high hopes going into the movie, but even if I don’t care for the adaptation, I know that I can revisit this book and find deep, deep enjoyment. “Doctor Sleep” is probably my favorite of the recent King novels. You don’t have to be a fan of “The Shining” to enjoy it.

And with that, we end Horrorpalooza 2019! I hope that everyone has a Happy Halloween and that you get all the scares. And if you don’t want the scares, all the candy!

Rating 10: A deep, emotionally wrenching, and quite creepy follow up to a classic horror story, “Doctor Sleep” examines familiar characters and themes with an eye for trauma, redemption, and hope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Doctor Sleep” is included on the Goodreads lists “Adult Books That Feature Powerful or Magic Children”, and “Creepy Halloween Reads”.

Find “Doctor Sleep” at your library using WorldCat!