Serena’s Review: “The Last Namsara”

32667458Book: “The Last Namsara” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, October 2017

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

Book Description: In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

These are the legends that Asha, daughter of the king of Firgaard, has grown up learning in hushed whispers, drawn to the forbidden figures of the past. But it isn’t until she becomes the fiercest, most feared dragon slayer in the land that she takes on the role of the next Iskari—a lonely destiny that leaves her feeling more like a weapon than a girl.

Asha conquers each dragon and brings its head to the king, but no kill can free her from the shackles that await at home: her betrothal to the cruel commandant, a man who holds the truth about her nature in his palm. When she’s offered the chance to gain her freedom in exchange for the life of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard, she finds that there may be more truth to the ancient stories than she ever could have expected. With the help of a secret friend—a slave boy from her betrothed’s household—Asha must shed the layers of her Iskari bondage and open her heart to love, light, and a truth that has been kept from her.

Review: This book came out a bit ago, but it’s been lingering around on my audiobook holds list for a while. So when I was looking for a next book to listen to and saw that it was available, it seemed like fate had finally decreed that now was the time! And, really, a book about dragons? ANY time is THE time as far as I’m concerned! But, while the dragons themselves were, of course, awesome, I didn’t end up loving this book as much as I had hoped.

Asha has grown up as a princess, but one who has been shunned by the general public for an accident she caused when young. To make repayment for this error, she has made it her life’s mission to hunt down the dragons that, through breaking her trust, scarred her face and terrorized her city, killing many. With an unwanted wedding swiftly approaching, Asha begins to slowly uncover secrets at the heart of her society and its history that may change everything. But can a cursed girl still be a savior?

So, while this book ultimately wasn’t all that I hoped it would be, there were still some pretty cool elements involved. And first and foremost of those was the world-building and history at the heart of the story. This book doesn’t just plop you don’t in some generic fantasy setting with dragons and call it day. No, instead there is a detailed history that is carefully laid out before readers in interludes between chapters. Not only is this an actual history of events that lead to the society and cultural situation that Asha finds herself living in during this book, but there is folklore and legends incorporated as well, all neatly tying larger themes together. I think I ended up enjoying these interludes more than the actual story itself. They provided a lot of depth to the world itself and crucial layers to the complicated social dynamics taking place, but the writing style seemed also best served by this type of storytelling. Many of these sections had a certain fairytale-like ring to them that I truly enjoyed.

I also loved the dragons. It took a while for them to really show up, and, of course, I was happy when we inevitably got past the “dragons are evil and I must hunt them” stage of things, which we all saw coming from the start. There was a really nice connection again between storytelling and the dragons, and I thought this concept was both unique and played well to the author’s obvious strengths in this area.

But, while it did have those strengths, I had a hard time really connecting with the story and instead found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Asha herself and the pacing of the story over all. We’re told quite a lot about how badass Asha is, but again and again, the story felt like it was building to a moment where we would actually SEE this badassery come out to play only to have the story pull back at the last minute. Not only did this damage Asha as a character (it became increasingly hard to believe what we were being sold as far as her abilities when she continuously chose the cautious and inactive route), but it really hurt the pacing of the story itself. The tension would be racketed up, all of the players would be in place for conflict, and then Asha would just give up, pass out, not engage, whatever and the whole thing would deflate like a sad balloon. This happened again and again and AGAIN.

Asha was never a driving force in this story. Instead, almost all of the action that takes place to move the plot ahead was done by the characters around her. There was truly only once instance in the very end where we saw her make an active choice, one that wasn’t forced upon her, and by that point it was too little too late. It also takes waaaaaay too long for Asha to figure out certain secrets and reveals that are made very obvious to readers from the beginning. This kind of drawn out “suspense” does nothing but annoy readers who have already guessed and make the protagonist seem like an idiot for not figuring it out, too.

But, again, the dragons were super cool. I also liked that the book was written as a stand alone story, so Asha’s tale is now complete. The author has a companion novel featuring a few of the other characters who were present in this book, so I might check that out. Like I said, the storytelling and writing were strong enough, it was just Asha herself and the pacing that failed. Perhaps with a new tale to tell and new characters at its heart, everything will click together in a second go-around. If you like stories with dragons, this might be worth checking out, but I recommend it with cautions due to the main character and the story’s struggle with pacing.

Rating 5: Half of a positive rating for the dragons/history/world-building and half of a negative rating for Asha/poor pacing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Namsara” is on these Goodreads lists: “Dragons” and “ADULT Fantasy books with stong female leads and a romantic SUBplot.”

Find “The Last Namsara” at your library using WorldCat.

Book Club Review: “The Shadow Cipher”

18806245We 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 ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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: “The Shadow Cipher” by Laura Ruby

Publishing Info: Walden Pond Press, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobooks from the library!

Genre Mash-up: Science Fiction and Mystery

Book Description: It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.

Serena’s Thoughts

I don’t read much middle grade fiction. Yes, technically the Animorphs started out as a middle grade series, but I’m pretty sure most of us can agree that it pretty quickly veers into YA territory with the gruesome and serious nature of much of it. And there are a few examples of MG fiction (even some recently, like “A Flight of Swans”) that do appeal to me, but by and large, it’s just not my jam. With this in mind, it’s really hard for me to review this book objectively, since much of it simply didn’t connect with me as I’m just not the correct reader for this book. So, with the criticisms to come, keep in mind that this book may still very well appeal to many actual middle grade readers and plenty of adults who like to read this age level of fiction. I can definitely see how it might!

To start with some pros, however, I did like the general concept of the story, how simply adding two brilliant inventors into a time period could effect all of history that follows. It’s an extreme example of the butterfly effect. I was also very much into the opening chapter of the book that was set in the 1800s and seemed to be presenting a sort of “steam punk” like world. This portion of the story also featured adult protagonists, so that also probably had something to do with my preference for it.

I also liked the diversity of the main cast of characters and a look into what life would be like growing up in a huge city such as New York. I grew up in a tiny rural town, so the idea of running around a massive city on my own at age 13 is hard to comprehend.

But, those pros aside, this book just didn’t hit the mark for me. For one thing, I struggled with the mash up of science fiction technologies alongside other elements of the world that were unchanged. There seemed to be a really random assortment of new inventions that would simply pop up here and there. And yet, in other parts of life, that same advancement was no where to be seen. It made it feel less like a naturally developed world, but instead a collection of weird concepts, none connecting to another in any fundamental way.

I also thought the book was incredibly slow and the urgency was lacking. This is a long book for a middle grade title, and much of the middle of it just felt like a slog. Not only did it take a while to even get into solving the mysteries, but once there, the sense of urgency never seemed to connect with the actual situation. I was left feeling kind of cold and uninterested about it all. If you’re going to have a book that revolves around solving mysteries, it really needs to revolve around those things, and this just didn’t feel like that. I also really didn’t like that, going in, I knew the mystery wasn’t going to resolve, as this is the first book in a series. All of the mystery series that I read and enjoy will feature the same cast of characters, but the mysteries themselves are solved in each book, with maybe one or two other through-lines as far as the stories go. I just don’t like books where the mystery itself is left unresolved at the end.

So, yeah. This book wasn’t for me. That said, all of my complaints are very subjective and revolve around my own reading preferences. Nothing in the book is actually truly objectionable. The characters are solid, the world is interesting, and the mysteries are clever. If you like middle grade fiction, this book may very well work for you. But if middle grade books are more hit and miss for you, I would skip this one.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read Laura Ruby’s “Bone Gap” a few years back, and while I understood how people would love it as much as they did, I found it to be ‘pretty okay’ at best. So when “The Shadow Cipher” (not “York”; I’m going to touch on that in a bit) was our book club selection, I was hesitantly optimistic that I’d get another read that was ‘pretty okay’. The problem is, “The Shadow Cipher” had a number of things working against it for me, and because of that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.

But first I want to address the things that I did like, because there were a few stand out aspects: The first is that, like Serena mentioned above, I liked the diversity of and the somewhat unique issues that faced our main characters. One of the biggest threats in this story is that Theo and Tessa Biedermann could lose their home because of a real estate developer’s greed. Gentrification is absolutely a huge problem in large urban cities, especially in our version of New York City, so I appreciated that Ruby brought this issue up within this story, and showed the faces of those who bear the negative brunt of ‘progress’. She addressed it in a way that felt tangible to a middle grade audience, and yet didn’t feel TOO heavy handed or spoon fed to them. What we see are children who are afraid of losing their home, which shows a very human cost to the ever changing landscape of real estate in regards to the less privileged. I also enjoyed the alternate world aspect of this book. I’m a huge sucker for stories that are KIND OF in our world, but wax poetic on how the world could have turned out if one thing had been different. While I’m not totally certain that Ruby completely reconciled the science fiction/steampunk concepts with her world, I liked seeing the effort made.

But, like Serena, I too had a hard time with the pacing and seeming lack of urgency within this story. In other similar tales like “The Westing Game,” the puzzle that the characters are trying to solve is usually at the forefront and very much the driven focus of the novel. When a new piece is solved, it is on to the next. In “The Shadow Cipher,” it felt like it was slowly flitting from place to place. I feel that with their home on the line these kids would be far more rushed (I think about “The Goonies” and how they are so scared about losing their homes that they go on a crazy whirlwind of a treasure hunt that always feels like it’s moving).

My final criticism is probably far more petty and pedantic than it needs to be, and has less to do with the story itself. Look at that cover, folks. If you saw that cover, what would YOU think the title of this book is? The confusing graphic design made me unreasonably annoyed. I know that doesn’t have much to do with the book itself, but it really frustrated me and we had a long discussion about it during book club.

Overall, “The Shadow Cipher” really wasn’t my kind of book, and while I don’t think that it should necessarily turn readers away if they think it sounds like their kind of book, be warned that it may be a long read.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not objectively bad, but definitely not for me. The world-building didn’t come together in the way I would have liked, and the story itself lacked a sense of urgency.

Kate’s Rating 5: Though the characters were fine and I liked the alternate universe angle, “The Shadow Cipher” was too slow for the kind of mystery it was and just didn’t appeal to me.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you find the alternative timeline in this book believable and well conceived?
  2. In this alternate version of our world, there are small changes that are mentioned in the culture of society (such as the superhero movie “Storm 2”). What do you think about these small changes and do you think that Ruby was trying to say something with them?
  3. “The Shadow Cipher” is similar to other books with themes of kids trying to solve a puzzle such as “The Westing Game” and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” How do you think that it compares to other books in the genre?
  4. This book is generally for older middle grade and YA readers, but it covers fairly topical social justice subjects like social disparity and gentrification. Do you think the target audience will make connections about what Ruby is trying to say?
  5. What did you think of Tess, Theo, and Jaime as our protagonists? Were they believable characters?
  6. This is the first in a series. Do you think you’ll move on to the next book? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Shadow Cipher” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books with Cityscapes”, and “Exploring YA Fantasy and Sci-Fi”.

Find “The Shadow Cipher” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Witch of Willow Hall”

37007910Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox

Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.

Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.

There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.

The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.

But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.

This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.

I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.

In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”

Find “The Witch of Willow Hall” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Nights”

21524446We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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

Book: “A Thousand Nights” by E. K. Johnston

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”

Book Description: Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?

There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.

For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.

By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.

I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.

It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.

I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.

All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.

I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.

Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.

Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.

Book Club Questions

  1. This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
  2. Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
  3. The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
  4. There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
  5. There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Nights” is on these Goodreads lists: “Scheherazade” and “Desert and Djinni.”

Find “A Thousand Nights” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Damsel”

36260155Book: “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: when the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon, or what horrors she has faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Ama comes with Emory back to the kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.

Review: Oof, this is going to be a tricky one. Even now, starting out this review, I’m not really sure if my thoughts and feelings on this book are fully formed. I guess we’ll just see where the words take me!

The description of this book lays out a fairly typically fantasy story: a princess is rescued from a dragon by a handsome prince. But something is not right. She doesn’t remember her time before the rescue and the prince may not be what he seems. However, this is as it always has been. Damsels being rescued, going on to be Queens and mothers of princes themselves.

Between the book description that, while fairly typical, does lay the groundwork for some type of subversion of this typical fairtyale storyline, and the beautiful, flowery cover art, I went into this book with a certain set of expectations. While I didn’t expect it to play out along typical lines (I was fairly sure that she wouldn’t end up with said prince, for example), I wasn’t prepared for the level of darkness that was introduced in this book and I do have some qualms about certain topics’ sudden appearances.

But the book did have some steady points in its favor, and I want to cover those before I get into the parts that gave me pause. For one, the writing is excellent and I immediately felt drawn into the story. Ama herself doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters and yet I was still fully invested, which speaks again to the strength of the writing. And once Ama is introduced, she was a very cheer-worthy heroine. I was immediately drawn to her story and felt the same fears, confusion, and bewilderment that she experiences. The reader, too, doesn’t know her history, so while she looks for answers, we’re right there with her. But this same attachment to her made other parts of the book incredibly hard to read.

As I said, the description sets the story up to be a subversion of the traditional tale, however, I was not prepared for how completely dark and mature some of the themes and topics became in this book. The beautiful cover, light and fluffy, also belied these dark and heavy themes. I could probably write an entire post on its own discussing my complicated feelings about trigger warnings for books (I generally feel that this idea has been taken too far given the obviousness of the fact that there are a million people out there with a million life experiences and no novel can anticipate all of their reactions to any given story), but this book does serve as an example of why some type of warning might be necessary for certain topics.

Nothing about the description, cover, or classification (YA) of this book would give an indication that this book would dive so heavily into topics that can be very hard for many readers, regardless of their age. Specifically for this book, the topic of sexual assault. And this is by no means the only dark subject matter introduced. There are some tough scenes dealing with animal cruelty and a weird moment in the end that verges on bestiality? I’m not even sure how to qualify that scene. I’m a librarian, so I am by no means saying that these topics shouldn’t appear in books or even that there is a reading level that should be maintained for exposure to them (that is between any given reader and his/her parents, depending). But I do think that more needs to be done to prep readers in what they are picking up. With its cover and light description, I could see middle grade readers thinking this would be a good read for them and then being very taken off guard with the graphic nature of the tale.

I also struggled with the ending of the story. While Ama’s own tale comes to a satisfying conclusion, it is a very brief scene that I’m not convinced fully balances out all of the awfulness that happened before. What’s more, the world that is set up is one where this type of abuse has been happening forever and is by no means limited to the Damsels, though theirs is a unique version of it. So while Ama gets her revenge in the end, there is really no resolution for the world itself and the other women living in it. This heavily dampened any feelings of satisfaction that came from her act of defiance.

In the end, while I did enjoy aspects of the book, I’m not convinced that the darker topics were completely earned or necessary (at least not as the many times they’re repeated throughout the story). And my larger concern is that the book does nothing to warn readers what they are getting when they pick it up. We all know I love dark fairytales, but if a story is going to get this dark, more needs to be done with the marketing to prep unsuspecting readers. I’m not sure what the real answer to that is, but I know that this book was shocking for me to read, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to others without giving them some fair warnings of its subject matter.

Rating 5: I have to give this book a middle-of-the-road rating. I liked Ama and the writing was strong, but the book was incredibly dark and I’m not sure its graphic nature was either necessary or resolved in the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Damsel” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”

Find “The Reluctant Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Prisoner of the Crown”

38089433Book: “Prisoner of the Crown” by Jeffe Kennedy

Publishing Info: Rebel Base Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.

But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…

Review: I picked up this book purely based on the description, not having read anything by the author before or realizing that this was an offshoot of another series. While neither of these things proved to be too great of an obstacle when jumping into this book, I would warn future readers to pay a bit more attention to that book description than I did: monster husband and horrors of life, indeed. It was a bit more and also less than what I was expecting.

Jenna’s childhood was idyllic, but the future before her is anything but. She’s always known what her life’s purpose was, to be the first wife of a powerful husband whom she is meant to serve and provide children. But when she learns that her to-be-husband is a man with a reputation for having his young wives die off on him, she suddenly begins to see this role in a new light. Trained to please, Jenna is unprepared in every way to deal with her new reality, but knows that she must now find an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed to save herself and potentially much more than that.

For the positives, I liked Jenna, overall, as a character. Much of the book is devoted to her slow realization of what her life will be like going forward and what it means to have power in this world. Given the nature of her childhood, its limitations and the forced ignorance that was thrust upon her, Jenna is often naive and frightened, sometimes making very poor decisions. But as the story is told from the perspective of some future Jenna who is recounting her tale, these bouts of ridiculous moments are clearly set up to provide a point of change: she must start out truly struggling to learn to gather what power she can in this world. That doesn’t mean that actually reading through some of these aspects of her character change weren’t a bit cringe-worthy, but I appreciated the reality added to the story that Jenna wouldn’t simply suddenly become POWERFUL WOMAN after what her childhood had been.

That said, while much attention was given to this slow-burn characterization on Jenna’s part, I had troubles with the story as far as world-building and pacing goes. It was one of those strange mixes of a book where the story was too short to truly feel as if the world-building had been flushed out but also read incredibly slowly. Perhaps this world-building wouldn’t have been an issue had I read the other series, but a general criticism for books like this is that they should still be capable of supporting their world on their own, unreliant on a reader’s knowledge of a different series. As for the pacing, it wasn’t until almost 75% of the way through the book before I felt like the action was really beginning to pick up.

And while I liked the slow development of Jenna’s character over that first 75% of the book, I also very much struggled with the subject matter. This book doesn’t shy away from the monstrosity that is Jenna’s husband and the humiliation and objectification that Jenna undergoes at his hands. This is where my biggest issue with the book lay. I wasn’t quite clear on what the author was trying to do with this story. Obviously some level of criticism about the violent patriarchy that makes up this world was present, but it also felt almost a bit too close to torture porn at other time for any seriousness of its message to really get through. The tone was a bit strange, with a fantasy romp somehow being tied into a Margret Atwood-type dystopia ala “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Personally, for me, the violence and misogynism was a bit too much and started to feel as if it was being sensationalized.

I’m still curious about where Jenna’s story will go after this book, and have hopes that a sequel might not include as many cringe-worthy scenes. But I’m also not dying to get my hands on it. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. If you’ve read other books by this author, particularly the “Twelve Kingdoms” series, you might want to check this out, but I also give a strong warning to the casual reader about the darkness that this includes and the fact that it was a bit of a slower read.

Rating 5: Didn’t absolutely hate it, but made me incredibly uncomfortable at times and didn’t do enough to justify the use of that discomfort in a meaningful way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prisoner of the Crown” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on something like “The Grimdarks.”

Find “Prisoner of the Crown” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “The Elizas”

35297385Book: “The Elizas” by Sara Shepard

Publishing Info: Atria Books, April 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When debut novelist Eliza Fontaine is found at the bottom of a hotel pool, her family at first assumes that it’s just another failed suicide attempt. But Eliza swears she was pushed, and her rescuer is the only witness.

Desperate to find out who attacked her, Eliza takes it upon herself to investigate. But as the publication date for her novel draws closer, Eliza finds more questions than answers. Like why are her editor, agent, and family mixing up events from her novel with events from her life? Her novel is completely fictional, isn’t it?

The deeper Eliza goes into her investigation while struggling with memory loss, the closer her life starts to resemble her novel until the line between reality and fiction starts to blur and she can no longer tell where her protagonist’s life ends and hers begins.

Review: This may come as a surprise to you guys given my predilection for soapy and thrilling mysteries, but I never actually read the “Pretty Little Liars” series by Sara Shepard.

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Shocking, I know! (source)

I DID read the first book in her series “The Lying Game”, but didn’t feel a need to go on for five more books and instead opted to spoil myself thanks to wikis and Internet sleuthing. I think that knowing that there were LOTS of books in each series didn’t bode well, as in my experience having a thriller series with a long drawn out mystery sprinkled with OTHER mysteries isn’t as sustainable as I usually like to see. But since I DO like soap in my mysteries, I was interested in her new adult standalone “The Elizas”. I figured that maybe I could get some fun suds but not have to worry about going on and on and on long past the point of believability and my waning interest. Nor harm in trying, right?

Meh. Wrong, kind of. “The Elizas” on the whole failed to really suck me in, mostly because it falls into too many traps and tropes that we have seen all too many times before in the genre. My first big quibble was with Eliza Fontaine herself, our hot mess of a protagonist. Hot mess protagonists are kind of par for the course with this kind of book, as them being messes and screwed up lends to the unreliability that is needed for this kind of mystery. But as you all know, I have LONG lost my patience with this kind of protagonist, and Eliza checks all the boxes that turn me off. She’s struggles with addiction issues. She has fraught relationships with her family and her friends. She’s managed to be successful with her writing, but as fame and fortune try to fall into her lap she starts to unravel, and may self sabotage her success and happiness. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator because of these things combined with other things. And on. And on. I am willing to give these hot mess protagonists a pass if there is something about them that is relatable or likable, but Eliza is pretty blah, her only redeeming features based in her odd relationship with Desmond, the man who rescued her from her fall in the pool. But even that relationship didn’t quite work because they were thrown together, but you don’t know WHY they are together. Sure, there are some cute quirks that Shepard added in, like their fondness of donning Halloween masks and sitting on the apartment balcony, but even THAT is treading into ridiculously quirky territory. Desmond himself is a bit too quirky too, but at least this time it’s a guy who is fitting the manic pixie dream girl role, so I was more okay with it than I might have been.

The mystery itself was okay in theory. The big questions of the book are 1) who pushed Eliza into the pool (or did she do it herself?), and 2) why is Eliza having these memory lapses. I’m one hundred percent on board with both of those questions, as they add some fun layers to plot points that may have been seen before.  The narrative is told through Eliza’s POV and through excerpts from her novel, “The Dots”, which makes this an epistolary thriller, a thriller genre that I generally like. “The Dots” is about a girl named Dot and her aunt Dorothy, and Dot’s childhood illness (which mirrors Eliza’s own medical history). I actually enjoyed those sections because I enjoyed seeing the relationship between Dot and Dorothy as it went from “Auntie Mame” to disturbing and sour, and found myself excited when we got to another “Dots” section. But the problem with this is that the proof is in the pudding because of the plot summary: “The Dots” gives away a whole lot of the mysteries surrounding Eliza! Whenever a question came up in Eliza’s life, we’d get a plot point in “The Dots” that would at least partly give away the solution. And even though Shepard tries to parse these moments out slowly and evenly between the two, by the time we got to some of the big reveals in Eliza’s story, they were already spoiled because of “The Dots”! Because of this, I didn’t feel terribly invested in finding out confirmation in Eliza’s side of things. And in turn, this book ended up being more of a slog than I wanted it to be. Eliza herself wasn’t likable enough for me to invest, so if the mystery can’t even give me what I need, what is the point?

So outside of an enjoyable side story and a kind of cute relationship, “The Elizas” was a disappointment, showing its cards too early. I will probably give Shepard another chance if she writes another adult standalone mystery, but I’ll have more managed expectations if I do. And they probably won’t be too high.

Rating 5: While there were some elements that worked, overall “The Elizas” didn’t impress me the way I had hoped it would.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Elizas” is fairly new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists yet. But I think that it would fit in on “Borderline Personality Disorder, Insanity, and Related Issues”.

Find “The Elizas” at your library using WorldCat!