Serena’s Review: “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale”

38739033Book: “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” by Molly Larzer

Publishing Info: Fire and Ice YA, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.

This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.

With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.

Review: What? Another fairy tale retelling book review by me? Shocking, I know! It’s like I have some personal mission to read every single one that is ever published! (I don’t, but at this point, does it really make a difference?) As I have a particular fondness for fairy tales that lean in on the darkness that was inherent to many of the originals, I jumped all over this title when I saw it pop up on NetGalley. But, while the darkness and world building did deliver, I was overall left underwhelmed with this new entry to the vast world of Cinderella stories.

For the good: the story delivers on the essentials of what is laid out in the book description above. This is indeed a Cinderella story, but nicely twisted on its head so as to not simply be another rehashing of a very often rehashed story. I enjoyed the tension that was built throughout the story between Nora’s desire to uncover the truth about her family and herself alongside her realizations of the good things that have made up her life as is. As it’s mentioned in the description, the scene early in the book when she is thrown in the ash covered room plays for particularly good effect throughout, and her ongoing struggles with the fallout of this event are repeatedly hit home. She was, after all, a very young girl when it took place.

I also enjoyed much of the world-building, but here also is where my criticisms begin to come to play. The world of Colandaria sounds like an intriguing place, with an interesting magic system and a history of wars between it and its neighbors. However, none of this is fleshed out or explored in any meaningful way. Instead, details are sprinkled here and there on the periphery of Nora’s tale, but never quite enough to give me a solid sense of place or investment in the world’s effect on the plot line that was unfolding.

The plot was another stumbling block. While things do pick up towards the last third of the book, the action itself felt very stilted. It’s hard to really put my finger on what exactly the problem was. The writing is solid enough, but things seemed to simply progress from one event to another and I was just kind of…there. Every once in a while a few pages would grab me, like the aforementioned scene in the ash room, but then the book would fall back to mundane details for pages on end.

Most of my problem probably lies at the feet of Nora herself. She was simply not an engaging protagonist to follow through this story. Her arc is laid before her, but as she moved through it, her character itself wasn’t one whom I became invested in. She felt very flat, and I had a hard time pinning down any attributes to her as a person. Was she feisty? Reflective? Shy? Ambitious? I couldn’t tell you. Instead, she simply moves through the book, and we move with her. But, as we are seeing this story through her eyes, I was never sure how I felt about it because it was never clear what lens Nora was using herself.

This, in turn, colored my perceptions of the other characters. While some of them seemed to have interesting parts to them (Jack, in particular), because Nora read so flat herself, her views of these others also read as fairly flat. A story like this really lives and dies on the strength of its lead, and my lack of investment in Nora spread easily to those around her.

While I did like the twists and turns the story took, particularly the ball itself, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the romance in this. Simply put, there just wasn’t enough of it. This is a very subjective point of view, however, as I can also see how the lack of romance could be a plus for other readers. I, however, always like a solid romance plot line in my fantasy, particularly in my fairy tale retellings that are, often, inherently romantic tales on their own.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this read. There wasn’t anything bad about it, per se, but I just couldn’t seem to care. I found myself often putting the book down and having to force myself to pick it up again. If you absolutely love Cinderella stories, particularly ones with less of a romantic subplot, this may be the book for you. But, all in all, my recommendation is a solid “meh.”

Rating 5: A dull main character ultimately polluted what might have been an interesting retelling of “Cinderella.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” is a newer title so isn’t on any Goodreads lists. It should be on “Cinderella Retellings.”

Find “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Olivia Twist”

34817232Book: “Olivia Twist” by Lorie Langdon

Publishing Info: Blink/HarperCollins, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Find “Olivia Twist” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Before I Let Go”

33918883Book: “Before I Let Go” by Marieke Nijkamp

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

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

Book Description: Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated―and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets―chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…

Review: I want to extend a special thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a cold cold cold January up here in L’Etoile du Nord, and while we weren’t hit with a bomb cyclone of snow our temps were pretty low starting out the month. So whenever I read books that take place in Alaska, I usually think to myself ‘yeah, I feel that’. So the town of Lost Creek in “Before I Let Go” felt pretty darn relatable, at least in terms of climate and temperature. But Marieke Nijkamp made sure that the comparisons stopped there, as she created a community based on secrecy and lies. So when I picked this up I thought that I was getting a weird and creepy story about a town hiding things. Sadly, that wasn’t what Nijkamp gave me, and to be honest I’m not totally sure what exactly she did give me. “Before I Let Go” was a bit of a muddled mess.

The story is told in a couple of ways. The main ways are through flashbacks and moments in the present. We see the relationship that Corey and Kyra had before Corey and her mother moved away, and we also see how Corey is dealing with the loss of her friend, and how the town is dealing as well. And within those two ways, we get a couple of devices. Those devices include phone conversations, written out like transcripts, and then actual letters and correspondence, with notes as to whether they were sent or not. I usually like stories that experiment with the storytelling, and these devices were fine. But there was a third device that wasn’t introduced until halfway into the book, and that was through what appeared to be either screenplay or play directions. This only happened a couple of times, and it was introduced so late that it felt less organic and far more jarring. The first time it happened I was completely thrown for a loop, and it yanked me right out of the story. If you are going to use this device, I feel like it would better serve the story if you do it far earlier than halfway into it.

I also had a hard time getting invested in the characters and the story. The description seemed to imply that this was going be a mystery a la “Twin Peaks”, with a strange town with secrets that culminate with a dead girl who died mysteriously, but I didn’t feel like it ever took the plunge with any of the themes. For example, Kyra, who is bipolar (more on that in a bit), painted to cope with her manic episodes, and it’s implied that she has a bit of a psychic or prophetic ability through her painting. So, of course the town starts to take interest in this, as they want to know what their futures hold. Which is fine, but the psychic angle isn’t explored that much at all. It’s just thrown out there as a reason for the town to latch on, and it’s never said why she has them, IF she has them, or how they manifest. So it feels less like an intriguing plot point and more like a device that could have been achieved in other ways. So what did this story want to be? A small town melodrama? A coming of age/coming home story? A supernatural mystery? I wasn’t certain. If it wanted to be all three, I don’t think they were combined well into a single narrative. While we do get to learn a fair amount about Kyra through Corey’s memories, the letters, and the town people and their recollections, I feel like we know very little about Corey, our actual protagonist. All we know is that she had a deep relationship with Kyra, and wants to find out what happened to her, an obsession that is stoked by her own guilt for leaving her in the first place.

I do have to give props on a few things though. I did think that it was neat that Nijkamp made the choices to make a number of her characters LGBTQIA, as Corey is asexual, there is a gay couple in town, and Kyra was a lesbian. One of the central conflicts that Corey is struggling with is the fact that she and Kyra had a tense moment that they never really addressed, which wasn’t so great because it definitely felt a little ‘bury your gays’ for Kyra. But I do like that Nijkamp did have some ace representation, and doesn’t portray Corey as ‘disgusted’ by intimacy, as the stereotypes can sometimes imply. It also seemed to be that Nijkamp was conscientious to be careful and respectful when writing Kyra and her bipolar disorder. There was a very important moment where Kyra expresses frustration that she is only being seen as her bipolar disorder and not as a person, and I think that with so much stigma around mental illness having characters like Kyra is important for representation.

So while I think the representation and the themes of mental illness were well achieved, overall “Before I Let Go” was a disappointment, story wise. I had higher hopes for it, and while I could see myself recommending it to some, if you are looking for the thriller this might have wanted to be, look elsewhere.

Rating 5: It had some promise and takes a responsible and realistic approach to mental illness, but I felt like it didn’t really know what it wanted to be genre wise, and because of this felt confused and muddled.

Readers Advisory:

“Before I Let Go” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA & Middle Grade Fiction Set in Alaska”, and “Mental Health Book Bingo”.

Find “Before I Let Go” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Space Between the Stars”

30981910Book: “The Space Between the Stars” by Anne Corlett

Publishing Info: Pan Macmillan , June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: All Jamie Allenby ever wanted was space. Even though she wasn’t forced to emigrate from Earth, she willingly left the overpopulated, claustrophobic planet. And when a long relationship devolved into silence and suffocating sadness, she found work on a frontier world on the edges of civilization. Then the virus hit…

Now Jamie finds herself dreadfully alone, with all that’s left of the dead. Until a garbled message from Earth gives her hope that someone from her past might still be alive.

Soon Jamie finds other survivors, and their ragtag group will travel through the vast reaches of space, drawn to the promise of a new beginning on Earth. But their dream will pit them against those desperately clinging to the old ways. And Jamie’s own journey home will help her close the distance between who she has become and who she is meant to be…

Review: It’s been a while since I’ve read and reviewed a sci-fi novel for the blog, so when I was looking for what to pick up next, I decided that now was a good time to fit this book into the reading list. Unfortunately, what I got was less sci-fi and more interpersonal drama, of the kind that I don’t particularly enjoy.

Looking at the book description, there were several things that intrigued me with this story. Not only is this set on another world in a time when space exploration and colonization is fairly common place, but the author throws in a nice humanity-ending virus to the works. I love survival stories, the more extreme the better. And how do you get more “out there” than strand your protagonist on a world light-years away, potentially the only one alive on this planet and with no way of contacting Earth? So, you see, the premise was awesome.

And the story starts out upholding this premise. We jump right into the action with Jamie waking up, alone, sick and confused. Even more creepy, the disease that she has survived kills its victims by essentially incinerating them. All around her is floating the dust of her peers, all that remains of them. Unfortunately, the story goes off the rails almost right away.

In only a matter of pages Jamie meets up with a few other survivors on her planet, something that seems statistically bizarre. There is a lot of detail about the rates of survival at the beginning to really show how deadly this disease was supposed to be, but then it’s immediately undercut by the fact that Jaime finds others quickly and easily. They all simply meet up in town. And, look at that, in a few days they also get a call from a passing ship and they meet up with a handful of other survivors and are off the planet in only a few chapters.  So, nope on the “sole survivor” bit of this story!

Things like this always just frustrate the hell out of me. Part of it was a marketing failure for this book. My expectations weren’t properly managed so I went in expecting one thing and got another. But then the author also actively misleads readers in the first few pages with all the discussion about how deadly this virus is and the fear that Jamie lives with for the first few days (few pages) when she thinks she’s alone and the odds aren’t in her favor. But, of course, the odds mean nothing.

From here, the story shows its cards for what the author was really wanting to write: a character study for Jamie as she deals with the past trauma of her divorce and a miscarriage (all happening several years ago and which she was fleeing when she moved to a planet on the edge of the galaxy). And, while this isn’t the type of story that I typically enjoy, I might have been able to get on board if Jamie herself hadn’t been such an incredibly unlikable character.

She spends much of her time feelings sorry for herself, contradicting her own thought processes, and going off on the other survivors around her. The plot conveniences are sprinkled throughout to further fan the flames of her inner struggles. The other characters who surround her are perfectly primed to present Jamie with worldviews and opinions that challenge her own. But none of this leads to any deeper reflection on being the survivors in a depleted universe, but instead present opportunities for Jamie to come across as judgemental and hypocritical. And most of all, self-involved. She’s the main character, so yes the story is her story. But this is a main character who thinks she’s the main character or something. It’s all about her feelings, her pain, her loss, all the time.

Beyond this, her decisions and opinions were all over the place. In one chapter she’s condemning a character for not doing something, and in the next she’s getting in their face for doing that same thing and risking them all. These types of inconsistencies only made Jamie a harder character with whom to sympathize.

It became abundantly clear that the author was wanting to write a “women’s fiction” book and added space because…? I’m not sure? This book could have taken place on any location on Earth, separated by a continent or something, and Jaime could have gone through the same emotional path elsewhere. The fact that there were sci-fi moments sprinkled here and there only made it more challenging when the book again dove into Jamie’s inner arc.

There were a few interesting side characters who accompanied Jamie on this journey, but, again, all they did was make me wish to follow their stories instead of the one I had. So, in conclusion, this book mostly did a good job making me wish it was a completely different book. One that more closely followed the book description and marketing it was given (sci-fi, survival story) and that followed a more relatable and sympathetic main character. Perhaps for fans of more contemporary reads, women’s fiction in particular, this may be more of a hit. But for fans of sci-fi, beware. You’re mostly getting “whining in space” with this one.

Rating 5: Jamie may be one of the few survivors in this universe, but she wasn’t one I cared about.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Space Between the Stars” is on this Goodreads list: “Stories of Survival.”

Find “The Space Between the Stars” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Outcast (Vol.4): Under Devil’s Wing”

31808199Book: “Outcast (Vol.4): Under Devil’s Wing” by Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Image Comics, Februaru 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Answers are given and secrets are revealed as Kyle Barnes and Sidney have a conversation that will change EVERYTHING. Kyle has never been in more danger. 
THE WALKING DEAD creator ROBERT KIRKMAN’S latest horror hit is now a Cinemax TV show. Collects OUTCAST BY KIRKMAN & AZACETA #19-24.

Review: It’s been awhile since I picked up the “Outcast” series. Almost exactly a year, as a matter of fact, and though it was awhile from the past volume I had high hopes that I would easily fall back into it. Especially since I had overall really quite enjoyed the previous collections, and like the variety and creativity that Kirkman has brought to what could have been a typical possession story. So after reminding myself where we left off in the last volume, I came back to Kyle, Anderson, and Sidney ready for more. But unfortunately, the bloom has kind of come off the rose for me when it comes to “Outcast”.

I am fully willing to admit that perhaps I let too much time pass between readings. A year is a very long time to leave a storyline hanging, especially one that moves at a slow and meticulous pace such as this one. But as I was reading through with the promise of ‘answers given’ and ‘secrets revealed’, I felt like I was once again just kind of waiting for an explanation that didn’t really come to fruition. One of the biggest complaints that people seem to have with this comic is the steadily parsed out pace that it takes, and up until now that hadn’t really bothered me. But I think that when it does move slow like this, you really do need to start giving people more to keep coming back for, be it answers, or explanations. We’re getting a lot more questions thrown at us instead. And implications of a conspiracy that seems to be far more in depth than we as readers could have ever imagined, but I was more frustrated by this revelation than compelled by it.

I will say that I did enjoy getting background on Sidney, our resident ‘demon’ and main antagonist. By getting this background, we did get a little insight into who these possessions can affect their hosts, sometimes in more positive ways than we may think. Sidney is by no means a good person, but we find out that before he started housing his ‘companion’ he was leading a very violent and destructive life. Once he was ‘possessed’ (if one can even call it that. We’re definitely moving away from Biblical thoughts of demonic possession), some of those more violent urges were, according to him, quelled. It definitely twists the thought that demonic possessions can only make a person worse; and it definitely makes the readers start to wonder just what is going on, and what kind of role ‘outcasts’ play in this world. There is a particular scene between him and Anderson that might be a hint as to what exactly Kyle is dealing with here, but it’s still wrapped in vagueness and secrecy.

The other significant storyline in this was that now Amber, Kyle’s daughter, may be in some sort of danger from the group that Sidney has formed. Now that we are past the ‘Kyle tried to kill her’ storyline, as Allison knows the truth of all that, I’m hoping that we’ll get a bit more from Kyle’s daughter, and that perhaps there are some shared abilities between him and her. I still contend that this series needs to give the women a bit more to do, so if we could give Amber and Allison more than just be held on a pedestal for Kyle to worry about, that would be great.

Also, not enough Megan and Mark. I wanted more than just a few pages of them, as I sitll find them to be some of the more compelling characters in this series.

My plan for “Outcast” going forward is to pick up the next volume ASAP and see if it can jumpstart my interest. As of now, I could see myself letting it fall to the wayside again because of how slow it continues to move, but my hope is that given where some things ended up in this volume, the next one will have some major moments in it.

Rating 5: I feel like my interest in this series is waning. We are still being tantalized with the promise of explanations, and yet have little to show for it. While it was cool seeing a Sidney centered arc, I’m losing patience in how slow this slow burn is.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Outcast (Vol.4): Under Devil’s Wing” is not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Angels and Demons”, and “Cancel Your Plans… Hellz a Poppin’!”

Find “Outcast (Vol.4): Under Devil’s Wing” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

 

Book Club Review: “Every You, Every Me”

9972838We 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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Every You, Every Me” by David Levithan

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2011

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 700s (The Arts)

Book Description: In this high school-set psychological tale, a tormented teen named Evan starts to discover a series of unnerving photographs—some of which feature him. Someone is stalking him . . . messing with him . . . threatening him. Worse, ever since his best friend Ariel has been gone, he’s been unable to sleep, spending night after night torturing himself for his role in her absence. And as crazy as it sounds, Evan’s starting to believe it’s Ariel that’s behind all of this, punishing him. But the more Evan starts to unravel the mystery, the more his paranoia and insomnia amplify, and the more he starts to unravel himself. Creatively told with black-and-white photos interspersed between the text so the reader can see the photos that are so unnerving to Evan, Every You, Every Me is a one-of-a-kind departure from a one-of-a-kind author.

Kate’s Thoughts

“Every You, Every Me” was my choice for Book Club this time around, and it was my gut reaction when I got the 700s (aka The ARTS!) of the Dewey Call Numbers. I knew that this book was written by David Levithan, but that the photos that were interspersed throughout the book were taken by Jonathan Farmer and given to Levithan as he was writing the story. Levithan wouldn’t know what the next photo would be, and then would have to fit it into the narrative. The concept of this was a fascinating one to me, and I thought that the photos angle fit into the Dewey theme. I haven’t had a lot of luck with ‘concept’ novels such as these, as I was one of those folks who didn’t absolutely adore “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and decided to give a hard pass to the “Asylum” series. But my reasoning was that hey, it’s David Levithan.

That said, this wasn’t the thrilling mystery with appropriate and aching teen pathos that I had hoped it would be. There was a great idea here, and glimmers of that idea shined through from time to time, but all in all I felt that “Every You, Every Me” never quite evolved beyond a concept. Evan is our narrator, and he is telling this story through stream of consciousness diary entries and through the photos that he is receiving from an anonymous source. He is set up as an unreliable narrator from the jump, with parts of his diary entries crossed out (but not enough that the reader can’t read the redacted thoughts). It was a little heavy on the crossing out, but I felt that it was a fairly effective way of showing his personal struggles instead of him literally saying ‘I AM CONFLICTED ABOUT ALL OF THIS AND DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL OR WHAT ROLE I PLAYED’. Evan himself was both interesting and maddening. Maddening in that goodness gracious was he the epitome of emo teen angst kid, so much so that our book club joked about how much My Chemical Romance and Evanescence would be on his iPod.

Fun Fact, a playlist of his favorite songs was officially created by our book club member Anita. See the bottom of this post to access it.

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(source)

But along with Evan being so hopelessly angsty, he was also very fascinating as a character, mostly because I felt that Levithan did a VERY good job of portraying the mind of someone who has gone through a very upsetting trauma. No deep spoilers here, but what I will say is that Evan has lost his closest friend Ariel, and he thinks that it is all his fault. While Evan is the narrator and protagonist, this story is really about the mysterious Ariel; who she was, how she was, and where she has gone (which is the main mystery of this book). They have a deep and codependent friendship, and the more you learn about Ariel and how she treated Evan, the more, I think, you get to understand why he is so, so warped and moody in this whole thing. I definitely found Evan to be more sympathetic as time went on, but also stopped caring about what happened to Ariel and who is harassing Evan BECAUSE my opinions of Ariel changed so much. Which is a bit callous of me, within the context of the book, but the sheer manipulation within that relationship just made me uncomfortable and angry and uncaring towards her endgame.

The ending, though. Again, I don’t want to go into deep deep spoilers here, but it felt so tacked on and so clunky that it kind of threw the book off kilter for me. I know that it kind of harkens back to one of the bigger themes in this book (i.e. no one really knows every side of a person), but it almost felt a bit TOO unrealistic in how it all played out. I’m fine with a huge twist coming through, but I want at least SOME groundwork for that twist to be laid out.

So while I was kind of disappointed with “Every You, Every Me”, I did like the characterization that Levithan created for his main players. The concept is unique enough that I would say pick it up just to see how this neat writing exercise turned out, but don’t expect to be super blown away by it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have read a few David Levithan books before this one and have mostly enjoyed them. He is particularly strong at writing believably complex teenage protagonists who are not only relatable to teens themselves, but also to adult readers. Other than this knowledge of the author, all I knew about this book was a vague understanding of it being a concept book with the photographs being sent to him as he wrote the book. I, like Kate, have never particularly loved the concept books I’ve read in the past. Too often I feel that the author ends up relying on the images to depict much of the drama of their story, thus paying less attention to, or becoming simply lazy with, their own written descriptions. Powerful writing doesn’t need the support of photographs, and while they can serve as a nice backdrop, I don’t love the idea of a story becoming dependent on them.

For the most part, I think that Levithan walked a nice line with the art in this book. The photographs were interesting and he managed to (mostly) tie them in nicely with the overarching plot of the book. There’s a great theme of what it means to know someone that runs throughout the story, and this concept ties neatly with a conversation that seems to always swirl around the small glimpses of a person that are caught in specific photographs. I loved this idea, that like photographs, we’re only ever seeing small glimpses of an entire person. And that another person (another photograph) will see/capture an entirely different side of that individual. These themes were probably my favorite part of this book.

Other than this, I did struggle with the story. Evan is not the type of narrator that typically appeals to me. He’s conflicted and self-questioning to the point that his angst and confusion are more off-putting than sympathetic. I wanted to shake him at multiple times during the story, and frankly had a hard time taking him seriously. As we learn the truth behind his concerns, I could better understand his reasons for feeling the way he does. But that doesn’t wave away the execution of those feelings that presents him as a whiny, overly emotional teen boy who is hard to invest oneself in.

Further, I was not a fan of the crossing out text tool that was used so much in this book. Not only did it negatively play into the already annoyingly self-involved angst machine that was Evan, but at many points in the story the basic function of cross out text seemed to be misunderstood. In some ways, yes, it makes sense for a story like this with a semi-unreliable narrator like Evan to cross out some parts of the text and through these reconsidered aspects of his writing, get a better understanding of his thoughts and character. But at times, especially towards the end of the book, huge sections of the story were crossed out and the format was being used more to indicate a flashback than to highlight a questioned thought of Evan’s. I think the format read as a bit pretentious, and by the end of the story, I was so distracted by it and how it was being used that it was actively throwing me out of the story.

I also agree with Kate about the ending. Without spoiling anything, the explanation of the photographs seemed to come out of left field and a lot of hand waving and hoop jumping was done to explain portions of the mystery. It felt tacked on and unearned.

Lastly, as this entire mystery revolves around Ariel, we learn a lot about her and need to understand the role that she played to all of these friends, specifically Evan, who are all so distressed by her loss. And, like the character of Evan, I couldn’t really get behind the appeal of Ariel. At Book Club, we all had a bit too much fun coming up with all the crazy explanations for why all of these characters seemed so obsessed with Ariel. None of our explanations were favorable to her.

Ultimately, I think this book touched on some very important themes, specifically those having to do with the fact that people are made up of multitudes and that no one person can ever fully know another. But the execution was shoddy with the crossed out text, and Ariel and Evan were pretty unlikable all around. Add to that the fact that this isn’t a favorite genre of mine (no fault of the book’s), and I didn’t end up loving this one. Alas, they can’t all be winners!

Kate’s Rating 6: A fascinating premise with some interesting things to say about trauma and loss, but ultimately a bit underwhelming. Add in a clunky solution and you have an okay book, when it could have been a great one.

Serena’s Rating 5: Good themes were bogged down by the restrictions of the concept art, an angst-fest leading character, and a dud of an ending.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the device of the photographs that was used in this book? Did you feel that Levithan did a good job of incorporating the random photos he received into this story? Do you think this story needed the photos to feel fully realized?
  2. Evan is our protagonist, and his relationship with Ariel is the crux of this book. What did you think of him as a narrator? How did you feel about him at the end vs at the beginning?
  3. One of the big mysteries of this book is where Ariel is and what happened to her. Were you invested in this mystery, and invested in Ariel as a character?
  4. Another theme of this book is that people tend to have different sides of them that they present to different people. Could you relate to this concept? Do you have different sides of yourself that different people see?
  5. SPOILERS: Let’s talk about the ending. What did you think of the reveal of Dawn, Ariel’s secret best friend that Evan and Jack didn’t know about, being the one sending the photos?
  6. This is what one might call a concept novel, using photos to drive and tell a story as they are presented. What are your opinions on this kind of book (similar to Miss Peregrine, or Asylum, etc)? Did EVERY YOU EVERY ME confirm those feelings, or buck them (in whichever way that may be)?

Reader’s Advisory

“Every You, Every Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Involving Mental Health Issues (2000s-Present)”, and “YA Books With Pictures”.

Find “Every You, Every Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

And now…. the aforementioned playlist! Thanks to Katie, Alicia, and Anita who helped compile the list, and to Anita for putting it together!

 

Serena’s Review: “City of Lies”

342865371Book: “City of Lies” by Victoria Thompson

Publishing Info: Berkley, November 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Like most women, Elizabeth Miles assumes many roles; unlike most, hers have made her a woman on the run. Living on the edge of society, Elizabeth uses her guile to relieve so-called respectable men of their ill-gotten gains. But brutal and greedy entrepreneur Oscar Thornton is out for blood. He’s lost a great deal of money and is not going to forgive a woman for outwitting him. With his thugs hot on her trail, Elizabeth seizes the moment to blend in with a group of women who have an agenda of their own.

She never expects to like or understand these privileged women, but she soon comes to respect their intentions, forming an unlikely bond with the wealthy matriarch of the group whose son Gabriel is the rarest of species—an honest man in a dishonest world. She knows she’s playing a risky game, and her deception could be revealed at any moment, possibly even by sharp-eyed Gabriel. Nor has she been forgotten by Thornton, who’s biding his time within this gilded orbit, waiting to strike. Elizabeth must draw on her wits and every last ounce of courage she possesses to keep her new life from being cut short by this vicious shadow from her past.

Review: Victoria Thompson is a very prolific mystery author, with another long-running steampunk series, that somehow I’ve completely missed! But, as nice as it is to discover a new author with a long-running series, it’s also a bit intimidating to look at as a whole. With that in mind, I was thrilled to learn that she was starting a new series just this fall. Problem solved: get in at the beginning of this series and have another series to happily follow for years to come! Or at least that was the plan. Unfortunately, you also have to enjoy the first book for this long-game plan to really work. And while there are pieces that I enjoyed here and there, “City of Lies” just didn’t do it for me.

The story starts off well enough with readers meeting Elizabeth Miles in the midst of a complicated con. These first few chapters started off so promising. This entire con, and the role that Elizabeth plays within it, is smart, snappy, and intriguing. She is presented as an independent and wily woman making her way through the world in maybe not the most ethical manner, but one that is definitely interesting to read about. And then the con goes wrong and she finds herself on the run, and suddenly caught up with a group of women protestors. And right away, the book went off the tracks for me.

While those first few chapters were short, they did a lot to convince me that Elizabeth was a heroine who was canny and had managed to make a life for herself in a way that is only accessible to the brave and street smart. But once she’s on the run, I immediately began questioning all of her decisions. Was getting arrested (and then shipped far, far away to another prison), really the best way to avoid goons chasing her down the street? I mean, I’ve seen “The Bourne Identity” probably more times than I should admit, so I’m all for the “get lost in the protestors” method of evasion. But notably, “go to prison and then buy into a hunger strike” is never a part of his plans. And if Bourne’s not doing it, neither should you!

Part of the problem was that I never became very interested in the women that Elizabeth meets here. I had to repeatedly page back to remind myself what was distinctive about each of them. And while, obviously, their protest movement is historically important, it just read as…blah. Which almost seems like a feat in and of itself.

leslie-knope-warrior
What I’m saying is Leslie Knope did it better. (source)

I was also not digging the romance. This book seems to walk the line between many different genres (historical, mystery, romance), but isn’t fully committing to the common expectations of any of them. The romance was too chaste. The history was too plan. The con/mystery element fell to the way side (also the original book description on Goodreads is completely misleading , referencing Elizabeth chasing down a killer in D.C., which isn’t right at all).

While Thompson’s writing seems solid, this book simply didn’t seem to have much new to say or offer for any of the genres that it covers. And Elizabeth, who started strong, quickly fell into a character rife with confusion and unclear motivations. As I haven’t read Thompson’s other series, I can’t say if some of these complaints may just be that her writing style and storytelling choices just aren’t for me or whether this is an outlier from her previous  books. Maybe some time I’ll pick up one of those and see, but this book lands solidly in the middle of the road for me. I didn’t hate it, but I also won’t remember it. For fans of Thompson, however, and perhaps those who like more chaste historical romances, this might be worth checking out?

Rating 5: In one word: bland.

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Lies” is a new title and not on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Most Anticipated Historical Mysteries for 2017.”

Find “City of Lies” at your library using WorldCat!