Kate’s Review: “Into the Water”

33151805Book: “Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book DescriptionA single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.

Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.

With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.

Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.

Review: A couple years ago I got the book “The Girl on the Train” from my library, a spoil of war known as the ‘New Items Wall’. I had been waiting for it to be up for the allotted amount of time employees have to wait before it’s up for grabs, and as soon as that time was up I grabbed it and claimed it as my own. It didn’t take me long to read it. I found it pretty okay. I was entertained, even if I guessed the big twist long before the reveal was meant to happen. Though it’s gotten a bit of backlash as of late, I knew that anything else that Paula Hawkins wrote would get a lot of attention, and that I would be interested in reading it. So enter “Into the Water”, the newest book by Paula Hawkins. Like “The Girl on the Train”, I had to wait for this one to pass the time limit. And then I grabbed it for myself.

When “Into the Water” took me in, it took me in pretty hard. The book is told through multiple perspectives, each of them slowly giving tiny pieces of the overall puzzle as to what exactly happened to the two dead ladies who drowned in the local pond. The first is Katie, a teenage girl who jumped to her death from the cliff above the drowning pool. The second is Nel, a single mother whose daughter, Lena, was best friends with Katie. No one knows what happened to Nel. She was writing a book about the large number of women who died in the drowning pool over the years, either by suicide, witch craft trial, or straight up murder. Various perspectives include the eyes of Jules, Nel’s sister, Lena, Nel’s daughter, Sean, a detective and a man with his own connection to the pool, and Erin, Sean’s partner on the force. These four voices were the strongest of the bunch, as others either felt overdramatic (the mother of Katie was especially grating, even though I did feel sympathy for her), superfluous (a local psychic who has her own beef with Sean’s family), or just downright yucky (Mark, a teacher who may have had an improper relationship with one of his students). While they all added their own important pieces, it was hard to keep track of all of them at times at first. You add in chapters from Nel’s book about the other women who died in the drowning pool and you get a lot of information to process as you are paging through quickly because it’s so enthralling.

I had a few theories about what was going on this book, and unlike “The Girl on the Train” I wasn’t totally convinced about what had happened very early one. While I liked that it kept me guessing pretty well, I did take issue with the fact that this book is the kind of story that likes to keep yanking the rug out from under you. I am okay with twists and turns, but I get really sore when a solution is presented, a conclusion is presumed, and then in the last paragraph, NAY, the last SENTENCE, the solution is completely thrown out the window and a new reality is set in place. That’s not clever to me, that’s not inventive or an ‘ah ha!’ moment. That’s a cop out, and I am not impressed with cop outs.

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(source)

I think that I need to just start to accept the fact that while I am definitely going to keep up with Paula Hawkins books in the future, I’m going to have to accept that for me it’s going to be less about the solution and more about the journey getting there. I would definitely say that “Into the Water” kept me entertained and captivated well until the final pages were turned, but on the other side of the coin the ending was a huge let down. What I will say is that Hawkins knows how to construct a mystery and a thriller, and just because the endings have disappointed me it doesn’t mean that I will completely overlook the experience as a whole.

Rating 6: Incredibly engrossing and addictive, but with a dud of an ending, “Into the Water” kept me going but left me frustrated.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Water” is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 Crime Books You’re Excited For!”, and “2017 Suspense and Thrillers”.

Find “Into the Water” at your local library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Inquisitor’s Tale”

29358517We 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 “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

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: “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog” by Adam Gidwitz, Hatem Aly (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Beloved bestselling author Adam Gidwitz makes his long awaited return with his first new world since his hilarious and critically acclaimed Grimm series. Featuring manuscript illuminations throughout by illustrator Hatem Aly and filled with Adam’s trademark style and humor, The Inquisitor’s Tale is bold storytelling that’s richly researched and adventure-packed.

Beautifully illustrated throughout! Includes a detailed historical note and bibliography.

Kate’s Thoughts

Guess who has never read “The Canterbury Tales”? Me! Guess who isn’t really into Medieval Fiction? Also me! And guess who knows little to nothing about religion and the philosophy of it beyond the most basic tenants of Judaism and United Church of Christ Christianity? This girl! So I feel like all of these factors combine (as well as some spates of bathroom humor, one of the few types of humor that doesn’t especially appeal to me) to make “The Inquisitor’s Tale” a book that isn’t written for me. So yes, while I understand the praise for this book and the appeal of it, and understand why it works so well as a children’s book and does so much more than other children’s books, I never really got into it myself.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t anything I liked about it. I liked that it asked some pretty deep philosophical questions that you usually don’t see in children’s literature. I feel like Gidwitz doesn’t patronize to his audience, and that he knows that these are hard questions to wrap minds around regardless of what age you are. What makes a Saint? How can some people say that they hold certain values and beliefs, and not realize that they are perpetuating cruelty towards others, especially those that they claim to care about? What are ways that stories can be told and passed on, and how can these stories be changed based on the storyteller? I also liked that Gidwitz had three very different protagonists to show different walks of life and different experiences that would have been common during this time period. You have Jeanne, the peasant girl who can see parts of the future, who has to function in a society where women and peasants hold no value. You have William, a boy raised to be a monk who is both of African and Muslim descent, and stands out among those around him. And there’s Jacob, a Jewish boy in a France where King Louis persecutes the Jews as heretics. Seeing all these kids come together (along with Jeanne’s resurrected dog Gwenforte) and try to understand each other is a great message.

I also had a very hard time reading about the anti-Semitism in this book, be it villages being burnt to the ground, Jews being humiliated and threatened with violence, and Talmuds being burnt. I know that it was the reality of the time period, but for whatever reason I really struggled with it and had to set the book down a number of times and calm down before I could continue reading. I appreciate that Gidwitz was being honest about this time period, of course, and I really liked the extensive historical notes that he put in the back of the book, and yet I wasn’t really on board for the ‘Louis was a complex person who thought he was doing what was right, no matter how wrong it was’ stuff. Because at the end of the day, no matter how noble Louis thought he was being, it WAS wrong. And I have less and less time for those kinds of explanations these days.

My personal issues with this book shouldn’t necessarily reflect this book. It just wasn’t for me, but I definitely see how it would be an appealing read for other people.

Serena’s Thoughts

From the other side of the spectrum, I have read “The Canterbury Tales!” I am into Medieval fiction (at least as far as the fact that much fantasy is set in some type of medieval-like world)! And I was raised Lutheran, so at least the Christian theological philosophy was fairly familiar to me! So I think Kate is right, there are some factors going in that if you have as a reader you’re perhaps more likely to immediately engage with the book. However, massive caveat in this whole theory is that this is a middle school children’s book and let’s be real, how many kids have read “Canterbury Tales” or have a strong understanding of religious philosophy??

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Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (source)

So, while I did enjoy the story more than Kate did, I do have to agree with her on a few of the downsides of the book. Most notably the potty humor and, for me, the suspension of disbelief in a few parts.

But first the pros! Since by an large I did very much enjoy this book. I won’t repeat what Kate said about the great diversity of the cast, except for one extra note. I really appreciated the close up look at exclusion/inclusion that the narrator took with these three children. Yes, they are all in this together. And yes, they are all friends. But at various points throughout the book, even with the friendships that have formed from their shared experiences, they each have to confront the sense of “otherness” that comes from their own unique walk of life. For William,  he’s a black boy with two white children. For Jeanne, she’s a girl with two boys. For Jacob, he’s a Jewish boy with two Christian children. I loved the various triangles that were made up and the constant shift that was in play from situation to situation with each of their “ins” or “outs” becoming a strength or something that made them stand out as different. I felt that this was a really important message for a book like this: privilege comes in all shapes and forms and at any given moment any single person can be on the in or the out, so we must all be aware and kind.

I’ll also throw in a few good words for the illustrations! I loved the metacommentary of the way the book was illustrated, mimicking the images that monks would draw into the margins of their transcribing work. Some would align with the action of the story while others were intentionally obtuse (a fact that is noted in the beginning of the story, that the illustrator would draw what came to him, with some images existing without connection to the story or explanation).

The ties to “The Canterbury Tales” were also fun, with the story being told by various narrators. I loved the way this element of the book came to life towards the last third, drawing these outside forces into the story itself. There were a few very clever twists with this that I don’t want to spoil! That said, as I mentioned above, I doubt any kid reading this will have read “The Canterbury Tales” and I don’t think there is anything missing for it. It’s more just a fun plug for those English nerds out there who have plowed through that thing and all of its incomprehensible Old English.

But I also agree with a few of the down points that Kate mentioned, notably the potty humor. This is purely a personal preference thing, as I know many kids (and adults!) love this type of humor. But there was one side plot that really lost me as it focused almost entirely on these types of jokes. Secondly, there were a few points in the story where my suspension of disbelief was called into question. We’re dealing with magical children, so for the most part I was ready to just go with this. But there were a few scenes, notably a fight scene where William beats up a bunch of bandits with a donkey leg, that pushed me out of the story a bit wondering how much of the “real world” this story was supposed to be set in.

Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this book. It is a tough read in parts like Kate mentioned. Serious issues are tackled and the persecution and tragedy of the time period weren’t glossed over. I appreciated this fact, but it does make for some sad happenings. But ultimately I would recommend this book to middle schoolers and adults. It’s one of those rare children’s books that can equally appeal to adults.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong middle school story set in a unique time period with a lot to say about history, religion, and inclusiveness.

Kate’s Rating 6: I see the value and I understand the praise, but I had a harder time with this book than I would have liked.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is told from multiple perspectives when a group of people gather in a pub to recall the story of the three kids. Did you have a favorite perspective voice?
  2. The illustrations in this book are similar to that of illuminated texts that are seen throughout history in religious works. Have you ever encountered this kind of illustration before? What did you think of the illustrations?
  3. King Louis IX was an actual person in history, as was his mother Blanche, as were other people mentioned in this book. What did you think of using real people in this fictional story?
  4. Each of the main characters comes from a different walk of life, has their own set of challenges to overcome, and their own magical powers. Did one of these characters stand out more to you? Why?
  5. This story tackles a lot of big questions about religion and diversity. Did any of these points stand out to you as particularly strong? Could any have been improved upon or weren’t fully realized?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Inquisitor’s Tale” is included on the Goodreads lists “Newbery Medal Honor Books”, and “Bravewriter Boomerangs”.

Find “The Inquisitor’s Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making”.

 

Serena’s Review: “The Valiant”

30375703Book: “The Valiant” by Lesley Livingston

Publishing Info: Razorbill, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Fallon is the daughter of a proud Celtic king, the sister of the legendary warrior Sorcha, and the sworn enemy of Julius Caesar.

When Fallon was a child, Caesar’s armies invaded her homeland, and her beloved sister was killed in battle.

Now, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Fallon is eager to follow in her sister’s footsteps and earn her place in the fearsome Cantii war band. She never gets the chance.

Fallon is captured and sold to an elite training school for female gladiators—owned by none other than Julius Caesar. In a cruel twist of fate, the man who destroyed Fallon’s family might be her only hope of survival.

Now Fallon must overcome vicious rivalries and deadly fights—in and out of the arena. And perhaps the most dangerous threat of all: her forbidden yet irresistible feelings for Cai, a young Roman soldier.

Review: If you read the above description and thought to yourself “that sounds a lot like the movie ‘Gladiator’ but with a teenage girl instead of Russel Crowe,” well….you wouldn’t be wrong. Your mileage for whether or not that is a good or bad thing will depend on your opinion of that movie. I thought it was quite enjoyable, but I love overly dramatic action movies myself. So with that in mind, and firmly stifling any inner thoughts about historical accuracy, I was excited when this book arrived on the hold shelf at my library last week and jumped right in. And…it was kind of what I expected, there were things I enjoyed, but ultimately I wasn’t blown over by the book as a whole.

First to the pros! This book is non stop action, almost from the very first page where we meet Fallon attempting to execute a dangerous, yet flashy, spear throw from a precarious balance point on a racing chariot. The scene is set. Fallon is a no-holds-barred warrior princess, and I am happy to report that she sticks to these guns throughout the book. We are not simply told that she is an excellent fighter, we see it proven to us time and again.

With break neck speed, the novel rushes through our introductions to Fallon, her father, who is still devastated by the loss of his eldest daughter, Sorcha (who was a brilliant fighter in her own right and essentially raised Fallon and taught her everything she knows), and setting the stage that was Fallon’s life so far. And with equal swiftness, that rug is swept out from Fallon’s, and our, feet, and she’s off to Rome, a captured slave destined for the gladiatorial arenas. Lots of training, fighting, and political drama thus ensues.

And for the most part, I very much enjoyed this fast paced style. The book never sets out to present an in-depth character study of Fallon or historical analysis of her homeland (Britain) and its relationship with the conquering Rome. The book is meant to be full of fight scenes, and full of fight scenes it is. Character development does fall to the wayside with this approach, though Fallon remains true to her original characterization throughout, which was a relief.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction of Elka, a fellow slave-turned-gladiatrix (yes, that is what the female gladiators are called and I cringed every time it came up). Elka is badassery defined. And she also turns into a true and steady friend for Fallon. About halfway through the book, she sadly begins to fade into the background, but whenever she reappeared, I was reminded of how much color she added to the story. Fallon herself was a steady character, but her steadiness also read as a bit one-note at times. Elka’s more electric presence helped reinforce Fallon herself.

Most of my qualms came in the form of the romance. *sigh* All too often that is the case for me, and I was sorry to see it happen here as well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the romance. But it is never built up. Cai, a Roman soldier, is given no unique traits and seems to, out of nowhere, fall in love with Fallon. And she with him. The amount of time they know each other is minuscule. The natural biases they would have against each other would seemingly be insurmountable, both based on the strife between their countries and the fact that he is a soldier who has probably been trained from birth to look down on slaves and she is a warrior whose father’s spirit was broken by Roman soldiers. It just seems like it should have been more difficult, or at least taken longer and be given more attention for a true-feeling relationship to develop. I simply didn’t care about Cai or this relationship. Elka’s and Fallon’s relationship is much better developed. And frankly, I would have been more than happy to have a book that is already largely focused on the sisterly bonds that can be formed between women and the power this can give them to have based its primary relationships on these only with no need to add romance into the mix at all.

There were also a few “surprises” that weren’t surprises at all if you are familiar with the genre. I was able to quite easily predict the most major twist, and also understand the character motivations that were later revealed, thus making Fallon’s shock and struggle to understand these same points a bit tiresome to plow through.

So, while I did enjoy the action, and Fallon was a decent lead character (if made better by supporting characters like Elka), the story was a bit too predictable and the romance way too tepid for me to completely fall in love with this book. I’ll mark the second one as a “to read” but I don’t feel any anxiety in the wait for its release. However, if you want a strong YA female warrior book and don’t mind a few stale aspects, this might be worth checking out!

Rating 6: Strong action and a likeable heroine weren’t enough to make this book completely engrossing, but it accomplishes its main goal and was a quick read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Valiant” is a newly released book so isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it has themes fitting of “Best Historical Fiction About Ancient Rome” and “Young Adult Female Fighters.”

Find “The Valiant” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Silence Fallen”

30687916Book: “Silence Fallen” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace Books, March 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: e-galley from NetGalley

Book Description: Attacked and abducted in her home territory, Mercy finds herself in the clutches of the most powerful vampire in the world, taken as a weapon to use against alpha werewolf Adam and the ruler of the Tri-Cities vampires. In coyote form, Mercy escapes only to find herself without money, without clothing, and alone in the heart of Europe…

Unable to contact Adam and the rest of the pack, Mercy has allies to find and enemies to fight, and she needs to figure out which is which. Ancient powers stir, and Mercy must be her agile best to avoid causing a war between vampires and werewolves, and between werewolves and werewolves. And in the heart of the ancient city of Prague, old ghosts rise…

Review: The tenth book in the Mercy Thompson series sees our intrepid heroine off on her own, kidnapped to another country. While the series is beginning to show its age, I still very much enjoy these characters, and choosing to set the story in a new location added a new dimension to a familiar story.

Mercy Thompson remains my one of two favorite urban fantasy heroines (right up there with Kate Daniels), and, as the series has progressed, she has been the primary draw for my returning to the series. As I mentioned earlier, this is the 10th book, and with a long-running series like this, its not surprising that story arcs can begin to feel familiar and the cast of characters begins to be unmanageably large. Briggs uses a clever trick to side-step both of these issues by setting this book in Europe after Mercy is kidnapped by a powerful Italian vampire. Suddenly we’re in a new location and the cast of characters involved is greatly reduced to only Mercy herself and Adam and the select few others he brings along on his “rescue” mission (the term “rescue” always requires quotes when it comes to Mercy as she is typically as capable of getting herself out of trouble as she is at getting herself into it, though she gets a pass on that last part in this one as her kidnapping was clearly not of her own volition). We’ve had a few other books where we’ve swapped viewpoints between Mercy and Adam, and here that format is utilized once again.

Mercy’s storyline is fairly straight forward. Escape her kidnappers, travel across Europe, somehow land in even more hot water, and learn more about her shapeshifter heritage and how her unique powers to see and talk with ghosts could mean even more than she had previously known. The first bit is pretty par for the course. At this point there really isn’t much tension that can be built around Mercy’s original dilemma. We’ve seen her kidnapped or in the clutches of a much more powerful being one too many times to be really intimidated by this setting, and, smartly, Briggs moves past this fairly quickly.

One of the remaining mysteries in this series is Mercy’s background as a child of Coyote, a powerful Native American spirit, and what gifts this has bestowed upon her. My favorite parts of this story revolved around the added depth that was given to this topic and the introduction of a much more vast and expansive history for Coyote’s influence and work in the greater world. Briggs also introduced a new creature with the Golem of Prague, a powerful being whose mysteries Mercy must unlock to save herself and the city.

Adam’s storyline was much more…political. While I enjoyed seeing a few of my favorite characters back (Stephan has been absent quite a lot in the last several books), it was also disappointing to find that much of his story arc ultimately served very little purpose. The larger dynamics that take place within the vampire seethes worldwide was interesting, but Briggs sets up the Italian vampire lord as one of the most powerful supernatural beings in the world and then…it all kind of comes to nothing? There were a few exciting moments, but much of this arc was taken up with carefully worded negotiations and power plays, but very little action. And in the end, the reader is kind of left wondering what was the point of it all?

There was also a neat twist towards the end that I didn’t see coming. However, it also threw a few things into question. Adam’s perspective makes up half of the story, and we know that he would be informed of this particular secret, but when we’re reading his earlier sections, it reads as if he is unaware of this. I know that this is to keep the reader in the dark, but it doesn’t ring true that Adam would think/act this way knowing the truth that we later find out. When it was revealed, I found it to be very jarring and had to go back and re-read several section to both now further appreciate what was going on and to confirm that yes, it was weird that this was written this way in the first place given Adam’s knowledge of it the whole time. This seems like a small quibble for what was actually a very neat reveal. But I wish there had been a way to neaten it up so that that same fun reveal wasn’t undercut by what had come before.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed Mercy’s story line, but I was left underwhelmed by Adam’s. I still loved reading chapters from his perspective, but the arc he was given wasn’t strong. For an Alpha werewolf, he was given very little actual action, and the end results of his storyline didn’t feel worth the time it was given throughout the book. In the end, I’m not quite sure why it was even necessary to split this book into two parts. The ending would have needed to be changed, but it feels like very little tweaking would have been necessary to focus this story in on the more interesting arc and do away with the overly extended political maneuvering all together. Especially given that, by the end, things simply felt re-set and I was still left questioning the point of it all.

Rating 6: The original strengths of these books (its main characters) are still going strong, but the series is beginning to fray at the edges.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silence Fallen” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Bad Bitches of Urban Fantasy “ and “Native American Paranormal.”

Find “Silence Fallen” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous reviewed: “Mercy Thompson series review” and “Fire Touched”

Kate’s Review: “Good As Gone”

29975458Book: “Good As Gone” by Amy Gentry

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Thirteen-year-old Julie Whitaker was kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, witnessed only by her younger sister. Her family was shattered, but managed to stick together, hoping against hope that Julie is still alive. And then one night: the doorbell rings. A young woman who appears to be Julie is finally, miraculously, home safe. The family is ecstatic—but Anna, Julie’s mother, has whispers of doubts.  She hates to face them. She cannot avoid them. When she is contacted by a former detective turned private eye, she begins a torturous search for the truth about the woman she desperately hopes is her daughter.

Propulsive and suspenseful, Good as Gone will appeal to fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and keep readers guessing until the final pages.

Review: So back in the day there was a “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” episode called “Stranger” in which a girl who disappeared a number of years prior came back to her family, but it turned out that she wasn’t actually the girl who had disappeared. She was an imposter, and it turned out that the reason the sister was so skeptical and cruel towards her was because SHE HERSELF HAD KILLED THE MISSING GIRL ALL THOSE YEARS AGO. WHAT A TWIST.  God I love “SVU”. This is run of the mill nonsense on that show and I come back for it seventeen years in.

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I can’t even deny this. (source)

This episode is based on the real life case of Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who disappeared at age 13 in 1994. His family was reunited with a man saying that he was Barclay years later… But it turned out he was a fraud named Frédéric Bourdin, a French man who conned many people using false identities. If I’m being honest, when I picked up the book “Good As Gone”, I half expected that to be the case (well maybe not so far as the sister doing the deed in the first place. That’s Grade A SVU malarky right there). But instead of detached and procedural methodical Benson/Stabler realness, I got a book that was actually a bit more twisty and turny, and one that attempts at genuine emotional connection along with the mystery it puts forth.

It’s established right away that Julie may or may not actually be who she says she is. We see these mysterious deceptions through the eyes of Anna, the mother, and through ‘Julie’ herself. I kind of liked that the mystery itself wasn’t based on whether Julie was actually Julie, and that the mystery was whether or not Anna was going to figure it all out. And really, this book is more about the tragedy and trauma that a family has to endure when one of their children disappears, and how everyone copes should they suddenly come back. I think that a lot of the time we only hear about the family being reunited, but rarely do we hear about how hard it can be for everyone to readjust when so much has changed. “Room” certainly takes that theme on, and honestly, “Room” does it better. While it’s good that Gentry did make it clear that the damage is far reaching in this family, and that a potential reappearance isn’t going to just fix everything, I think that the problem for me is that, outside of younger sister Jane, I didn’t really connect to any of the characters in this book. Anna, while I have no doubt her actions are in step with how a person would react in her situation, was so cold and cruel to Jane and sometimes Tom, her husband, I just couldn’t quite get behind her completely. While I don’t doubt that the emotional trauma of losing a child is going to make anyone act in ways that aren’t always healthy, Anna didn’t grab at my sympathy heartstrings so much as put me completely off.

‘Julie”s sections were interesting, going backwards from her ending up on the family doorstep and marching back through time, showing how she got there and the experiences she had to go through. While I know this was done to humanize her and to better understand her psyche, I found myself tempted to skim through these parts. It was a neat way to explain who she was, I will fully admit that, but since she herself didn’t do much for me I wasn’t as invested as others may be. We’re meant to have a lot of mixed feelings about her, and unfortunately it was hard to recover from deep suspicion. And like Anna, I just didn’t quite feel myself attaching to her as a character, even when I saw her going through really horrible and terrible things. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to me if she was who she said she was. The moments I liked best were between her and Jane, the younger sister who always blamed herself for letting a man walk out the door with her older sister as she hid in the closet. Jane was by far the character who intrigued me most, as she has basically been emotionally neglected by her parents because she’s the child who was left behind. Her own guilt festers and manifests in self imposed isolation, and her mother’s veiled resentment throws a wall between them that neither really can push through. It really did make me think about what it must be like for the kids who are left behind in stories like this, and how they handle it.I think that had this book had some perspective chapters from Jane I probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit more.

And on top of everything, the ending (which I’ll leave a mystery for everyone so as not to spoil anything) felt so haphazardly thrown together, with a number of things tied up neatly in a number of bows, that I had a hard time swallowing it. Some things were just too conveniently explained away, and other things were not really addressed as much as I wanted them to be.

“Good As Gone” has all the elements that it needs to make a great book, but the execution left a little to be desired for me. So instead of a great read, it was a fine one. I think that it’s worth your time if you like this genre, but it may leave readers as satisfied as they wish to be.

Rating 6: Yeah, it surprised me a bit here and there, and I liked the overall focus. But I didn’t really connect with any of the characters. I wasn’t really invested in whether the girl claiming to be Julie was actually Julie, and I wasn’t completely satisfied with how it all shook out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good As Gone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Female Psychological Thrillers/Suspense”, and “Thrillers You Must Read!”.

Find “Good As Gone” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”

16054808We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the 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 “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a Maud Hart Lovelace award winner” challenge.

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: “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” by Chris Grabenstein

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, January 2013

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Kyle Keeley is the class clown, popular with most kids, (if not the teachers), and an ardent fan of all games: board games, word games, and particularly video games. His hero, Luigi Lemoncello, the most notorious and creative gamemaker in the world, just so happens to be the genius behind the building of the new town library.

Lucky Kyle wins a coveted spot to be one of the first 12 kids in the library for an overnight of fun, food, and lots and lots of games. But when morning comes, the doors remain locked. Kyle and the other winners must solve every clue and every secret puzzle to find the hidden escape route. And the stakes are very high.

In this cross between “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “A Night in the Museum,” Agatha Award winner Chris Grabenstein uses rib-tickling humor to create the perfect tale for his quirky characters. Old fans and new readers will become enthralled with the crafty twists and turns of this ultimate library experience.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am a pretty big fan of both “The Westing Game” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, so when our book club compatriot Katie picked “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”, I was pretty interested. The comparisons were made pretty starkly between this book and those classics, so I went in with highish, if not tentative, hopes. BIG SHOES TO FILL, MR. LEMONCELLO!

Overall, I did basically like this book, though most of that is probably because I’m a librarian and this book reads like a Valentine to the profession. While the characters themselves are fairly stock and two dimensional (Kyle is the imperfect but charming protagonist, Mr. Lemoncello is basically Willy Wonka, Charles is the priggish and snooty nemesis, etc), the little literary touches are great. There are multiple books referenced in this story, many more than I would have expected for the target audience of this book (middle grade and elementary school age), but I liked that Grabenstein was referencing Fyodor Dostoyevsky along with Arthur Conan Doyle. This book is filled with many puzzles and riddles as well, seeing as Mr. Lemoncello is an expert game maker, whose newest game is figuring out how to escape from the new library in town. But not only are the clues distributed in puzzles and riddles, to even get to the puzzles and riddles the characters have to utilize the library and its resources! What did I say about a Valentine to my profession???? From teaching about the Dewey Decimal system to the different functions of the public library, this is a pretty good introduction about how kids, inside and outside the story alike, can use the library to get the information they’re looking for.

This was a quick read that I was able to get through in an afternoon. I definitely see how kids would find it a fun read, but I do kind of wonder how well it would crossover to adults if they aren’t library-oriented. And while it’s true that there doesn’t have to be crossover from kid’s books to adult books, I always think it’s nice when a story can be appealing to all ages. I think that sometimes it did feel less like an homage to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Westing Game,” and teetered towards just kind of copying it and its themes. However, I did like that in this book teamwork and friendship definitely play more prevalent themes than they do in the previous books. I like that asking for help and partnership wasn’t derided or dismissed.

Overall I found this to be a fun and quick read, and I enjoyed it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve had a bit of a hard time knowing how to start this review or really work out what I think about this book. On one had, there’s no denying the appeal as a librarian to a book that is essentially a massive love letter to the profession. And for middle graders, the puzzles, games, and adventures are sure to please. But…I was still a bit “so so” on the book overall, and I think maybe it’s a case of what Kate said, this book not being written for adults and perhaps not crossing over as well as others of its kind. But maybe it’s also a bit of “author’s agenda is showing?”

If I wanted a guide to the wonders of the library in novel format, I wouldn’t look any further than this book. As an introduction to the library and to all the different ways a library can be a marvelous place for learning, for fun, and for so many others things, this book is spot on. But it’s almost too spot on. If that was the book’s goal, essentially to just be something that public libraries hand out to get kids interested in the library, than sure. But the novel portion of it seemed to be lacking, in my opinion.

Most of the children characters felt too much like stock characters with very little development or character growth. And the plot/adventures were a bit too close to set up of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And in the midst of all the library love, the narrative sometimes seemed to take a nose dive into the twee.

So, this all sounds pretty negative, and I don’t really mean it that way. For a middle grade reader, I’m sure this book would be a massive hit. And as a librarian, I can never complain about finding a good novel to brainwash the kiddies into loving the library as much as I do. But as an adult reader and book critic, this one was a bit too sugary sweet for me and the “teach kids about the library” agenda was a bit too on the nose.

I did enjoy all the book name dropping, as Kate mentioned as well, and I applaud the author for bringing in titles/authors that most middle graders will need to follow up on on their own. Hopefully using the newly discovered wonder that is the library!

Kate’s Rating 7: A fun and quick read that promotes librarianship. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s cute for what it is.

Serena’s Rating 6: Same. A fun, quick read that is in love with the library. But it didn’t translate as well for me, as an adult reader.

Book Club Questions:

1.) This book has several similarities to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Does it stand on its own, in your opinion?

2.) This book works very hard to teach children about the library. Of all the lessons, what do you think the book most successfully taught kids who are reading this book?

3.) What were a few of your favorite book references? What other works would you have included?

4.) Is there any character growth you would have liked to see added to any of the characters?

5.) This book is a hit with young readers. But as Kate and I have expressed, more of a challenge for older readers. Is there a way to make this more appealing for adults? Should this even be a concern?

The author has also provided this great reading guide for the book for kids, so if you read this with a group of children, this is a really fun, helpful resource! Here it is!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books about Books and Libraries”, and “The Games We Play”.

Find “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” at your library using WorldCat!

The Next Book Club Book Is “Beauty” by Robin McKinley

Serena’s Review: “The Paper Magician”

20727654Book: “The Paper Magician” by Charlie N. Holmberg

Publishing Info: 47North, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic… forever.

Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined — animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.

An Excisioner — a practitioner of dark, flesh magic — invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

Review: I was very excited when this book showed up for me at the library. The description sounded like something that hit all of my book preferences, and, even better, it’s the first in a completed trilogy! There’s nothing like finding a good series that you can read all at once. Nowadays, I feel like I’m constantly stuck in a waiting game for the next book to be published in the million and one series that I am following all at once! So the ability to truly binge read something from start to finish is an opportunity that I very much value. However, while I did like portions of this book and will ultimately most likely continue the series, I’m also not invested enough to binge it either, which is too bad.

The set up, as mentioned above, is exactly what I like: a spunky heroine set in past period in time where magic is an established element of society. I also always enjoy the apprenticeship angle that is often found in these stories. And while I was recently relieved to find a lack of romance in “Jackaby,” I was warned ahead of time with this one that that was where we would be going, so I had already bought in to this formula. All this in its favor, the book was still very hit and miss for me.

A definite hit was the magic system that the author has created where magicians must “bond” with a type of material. Ceony has dreamed of bonding to metal, a powerful element that would allow her to create and manipulate powerful machines and weapons. But instead she gets assigned to paper, an element that has long been scorned and neglected, resulting in a deficit of this type of magician. I loved the description of this magic system. There was the more expected paper magic (like origami birds that come to life), but also some very creative takes on what one can accomplish with this type of material. At one point Ceony creates a perfect paper fan that is capable of producing massive forces of wind. There’s also a really interesting idea that has to do with bringing to life images read off paper, like scenes from a book brought to shadowy life. And while some of these things seem frivolous (we are likely to judge them similarly to Ceony herself), the author does a great job throughout the latter half of the story really pushing the boundaries of our expectations. There’s an especially interesting twist on the “story reading” magic towards the end that is probably the biggest hook for me to continue the series all together.

Ceony herself is a perfectly fine protagonist. We don’t get a lot from her, really. Through a few flashbacks, we see a bit of what has gone before in her life, but there are as many questions left unanswered as those that are resolved. In particular, there are several references to her fear of water that never get fully explored. And while I’m all for leaving clues for future stories, these felt a bit to roughly placed and stood out in an awkward way.

This is even more noticeable by the strange shift the book takes about halfway through to become a story completely comprised of flashback scenes. The method the author uses to get us to this place is interesting, but I’m not sure this flashback portion is ever quite earned. We’ve barely met Ceony and have had only a few scenes with her mentor, Thane. So, not only do we lose out on any growth in their relationships (all of these scenes take place in a type of alternative dimension where Thane is largely only present as re-incarnations of his past self), but we’re stuck reading half a book’s worth of a deep dive into a character we barely care about. Perhaps if this had happened in a second book in a series it would have played better. But in a book that’s only 220 pages long, we’re not given enough to begin with to sustain this type of ploy.

To end on a good note, I did enjoy the fact that Ceony was left to operate on her own throughout much of this book with only the company of her paper dog, Fennel. Let’s be honest, the dog was probably my favorite character and the only one that ever truly elicited an actual emotion from me!

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Even the Punisher breaks if you threaten the dog! (source)

I will probably continue the series, just based on the strength and uniqueness of the magic system. But I do have some questions as far as the actual quality of the writing (at points it felt very bland and stilted) as well as some of the story arc decisions (like the choice to sink the last half of the story into a flashback sequence for a character who has literally only had about 15 pages of time prior to this).

Rating 6: Very much a “fine” novel. I’m more invested in Fennel, however, than either Ceony or Thane.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Paper Magician” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Dueling Magicians”and “Female Apprentices Romance.”

Find “The Paper Magician” at your library using Worldcat!