Bookclub Review: “A Brief History of Montmaray”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have gone the extra mile and created our own bookclub. 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 “Across the Decades,” we each drew a decade and had to select a book that was either published or set in that decade.

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! 

6341739Book: “A Brief History of Montmaray” by Michelle Cooper

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2009

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

Book Description: Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

Kate’s Thoughts

So as a fan of “Downton Abbey”, and as a fan of kicking the shit out of Nazis, I had high hopes that “A Brief History of Montmaray” would combine the best of both worlds. I had this vision of Mary Crawley punching an S.S. officer in the face a la “Indiana Jones” while making some snippy and cruel remark, and in my mind that was just the best damn thing that I had ever thought of in the history of ever, crossover wise.

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And she’ll never tell where the bodies are buried either. (source)

While the book did have some likable characters (the cousin Veronica, in particular) overall I was a bit disappointed that “A Brief History of Montmaray” was more focused on the dysfunctional, if quirky, royal family and the problems that they are facing in love, life, and succession. Our narrator, Sophie, is pretty good at laying out the family lines and showing how the royal family connects to each other (King John has no male heir, so the next in line should be his nephew Toby, Sophie’s older brother). Sophie, not having as much investment in the royal line to the throne, is a good choice for narrator, as she doesn’t have the pressure of being a direct heir like her brother, nor does she have the frustration of being an ineligible heir like her cousin based solely on her gender. Because of this she can present a pretty fair view of how things are supposed to work in this family. She is a fine narrator and a good lens to see these conflicts, but at the same time she isn’t as interesting as I wanted her to be. I much preferred Veronica, the incredibly intelligent and capable daughter of the King, who would make a fine queen if only Montmaray approved of female succession. She was by far the most interesting character, as she has so much more interest in her home country than Toby, the flaky rightful heir. It’s the perfect example of an unjust and sexist society that is probably really screwing itself over. Veronica is also quite well rounded, probably the most well rounded of all the characters. She is cunning and ambitious, but also loves her home and her family, so much so that she puts rightful succession above all else even though you know she is aching for it. Had the story been following Veronica’s POV, I think that I would have been able to forgive it a bit more for not focusing on the Nazi storyline, and the storyline about how Europe was in serious, serious danger at this time. I do realize that this is a series and that there were two other novels to focus on that, and that this novel was more about introducing us to this family. But to me, the family wasn’t the part that I wanted to focus on outside of Veronica. It was a bit too “I Capture The Castle” for me, a book that I recognize as being significant and a classic, but one that I also am not terribly fond of as a whole.

And yes, I’m resentful that there weren’t enough Nazis, at least not as much as the summary would suggest. True, the Germans do land on Montmaray, sending the FitzOsbourne family into turmoil for many reasons. But they are there for a moment in the middle, and then come back at the end. The rest of the book is about the family and their squabbles and scandals. And hey, I like a nice soap as much as the next person, but it all felt kind of trite compared to the things I knew were coming, even further into the series. It’s hard for me to care about awful (AWFUL) housekeepers and their stupid secrets when I know that a whole lot of awful pain is about to rain down on the rest of Europe. And maybe for me it’s still a little raw since there was recently just footage of a bunch of these guys doing the Hitler salute in D.C. But had I known that the family malarky and hoopla was going to be the focus (aka, more “Downton” and less “Indiana Jones”), my expectations would have been more in line with how it turned out, and therefore I would have been more receptive to it. As it was, I kept saying to myself “BUT WHEN ARE ALL THE NAZIS GOING TO REALLY GET THEIR COMEUPPANCE?!”

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Preferably in this kind of endgame situation. (source)

So I think that it’s fair to say that “A Brief History of Montmaray” was at a disadvantage because of misplaced expectations. It’s not necessarily the fault of Cooper, but more so how it was promoted. I loved Veronica, but that was about the only thing that I really enjoyed, and sadly that’s not really enough to keep me going.

Serena’s Thoughts

This book had been on my reading list for a while as it was well reviewed by several other blogs that I followed. And when I ended up with the 30s as my decade of choice for our bookclub theme this go-around, it seemed like a perfect time to finally get around to it!

As the historical fiction reviewer on this blog, it’s probably not a surprise that I enjoyed this book more than Kate. For the most part, the historical detail is what captures me in these stories, and I enjoy books about quirky families (ala “Anne of Green Gables” and Jane Austen novels). The addition of a bit more action than is usually found in this type of book was the extra cherry on the top for me.

I agree with Kate’s assessment of the characters themselves. Sophie was an interesting narrator and I enjoyed the transformation she goes through during this book. The combination of teenage silliness mixed with a healthy dose of self-awareness with regards to said silliness made her a very endearing teenage protagonist. Veronica, however, is the type of character I generally gravitate towards. Intelligent, snappy, and a girl who firmly has her head on her shoulders. Seriously, nothing would get done if Veronica wasn’t there. And she has by far the most challenging set of circumstances to deal with, what with the sexism involved in the rules of ascension and the terrible family life (crazy dad who hates her, abandoned by her mother).

As for the boys involved, I found myself increasingly frustrated with Simon, the set up love interest for Sophie. I couldn’t help agreeing with Veronica’s assessment of him as a bit of a self-serving prat. And while I generally liked Toby, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with his selfishness. I mean, the guy gets to go out and live in the world to go to school, make friends, be in society, and, yes, there are responsibilities to being the heir, but that’s a huge amount of privilege, too. So for him to whine to his cousin and sisters who are living in a castle that is literally falling down around them and who have no friends of any sort really just seems ridiculous and made me want to slap some sense into him.

As for the Nazi involvement: I actually really appreciated that this book didn’t go the expected route with them. There was a lot of discussion with regards to the political climate in Europe and it does a lot to remind modern readers that the Nazi party didn’t just sprout out of the ground fully formed. There were a lot of moving pieces and many years went by before it became clear just what everyone was dealing with. There were some interesting nuggets that were very…Indiana Jones-ish…and were quite fun, and another lesser used mode of introducing Nazis into the story. I do agree that the book summary can be misleading, so if you go into it expecting clashes with Nazis and said comeuppance served upon them it might not be for you. However, given the year that this is set in, and that it’s the first in a trilogy, I guess I was more prepared for delayed gratification re: Nazi destruction.

All in all, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It’s definitely more geared towards readers who enjoy slower paced historical novels. There’s a good amount of family drama, family mystery ala books like “Rebecca,” and historical detail. And, while there is action and Nazis towards the end, those aspects definitely come later and don’t take up as much page time as the rest.

Kate’s Rating 6: Though I greatly enjoyed the character of Veronica, overall the story didn’t match my expectations, and therefore didn’t grab me as I thought it would.

Serena’s Rating 8: Strong historical detail and interesting characters, though beware the lighter Nazi involvement if that’s what you were here for!

Bookclub Questions:

1.) How did we feel about Sophie as a narrator? What do you think the story would have been like if it had been told from the perspective of a different character?

2.) Montmaray is an imaginary kingdom that is meant to exist in an otherwise historically accurate version of Europe. Did it succeed in this way? Were there aspects of the historical set-up that you particularly enjoyed or found distracting?

3.) The Nazis: How did you feel about them? Their entrance into the story, their mission, and the resolution to their involvement?

4) For a first-person narrated story, it feels as if we get a good amount of detail about many of the side characters. Were there characters who stood out? What about Rebeca and Simon?

5) The book does seem to involve some supernatural elements, how did you feel about this inclusion and twist?

6.) This is the first in a trilogy. Where do you think/want the story to go from here?

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Brief History of Montmaray” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Fiction Set During WWII”, and “Best YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “A Brief History of Montmaray” at your library using WorldCat.

The Next Book Selection: Not sure yet! We’re at the switching point between one “season” and another. For our next theme, we all chose two things (“a book that’s been turned into a musical!” or “a book about animals!”) and had to draw from a hat for our own options. We’ll see what comes up!

Serena’s Review: “Vassa in the Night”

28220892Review: “Vassa in the Night” by Sarah Porter

Publishing Info: Tor, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…

Review: Another book that I had on my highlights post for Septmeber that finally showed up a week or so ago! I wasn’t familiar with the original Russian fairytale that inspired this book, so I came into it with very little idea of what it was going to be. Magic in Brooklyn and a Baba Yagga villain. Sounded awesome.

And large parts of it were! The general worldbuilding was very interesting. Your mileage with this will largely depend on how willing you are as a reader to “just go with it” as far as explanations and magic systems. There’s really no explanation for why and how magic exists in this area of the world. Further, the type of magic that is presented is much closer to the nonsense magic seen in “Alice in Wonderland” than to a more outlined and rule-bound magic like “Harry Potter.” That being the case, there is a lot of things popping up here and there with no rhyme or reason and then disappearing just as quickly. Some of these things I particularly enjoyed, like a group of swans that Vassa befriends, and a pair of sinister hands that operate as Babs’ henchmen, essentially.

Other parts felt a bit contrived, however, and as if Porter was simply trying too hard. Particularly some of her efforts to involve nonsense word-play (similar to the Fairyland books I had just read). And maybe having just come off those which were almost the perfect example of nailing this writing style, I was a bit biased against Porter’s attempts here. But I also feel that it was simply not executed well. While nonsense writing can be very insightful, this was clunky and actually confusing. At several points I had to re-read section to try and understand them and then, more often than not, came away with the conclusion that this was just another unexplained element. And while some of these unexplained magical oddities were enjoyable, it didn’t translate here. Dialogue and descriptions needs to be clear, regardless of how little you as an author are providing insights into other magical elements.

Vassa was a very strong protagonist. Her voice was unique and interesting, and I especially enjoyed her relationship with her sisters, especially her elder sister. As I’ve said, I always like sister stories! And, of course, Vassa’s primary partner in crime: Erg, the animated doll. I was both creeped out by and intrigued by Erg. I don’t think I was supposed to be as creeped out as I was, but there were certain elements of her and Vassa’s relationship that was confusing to me. Erg is definitely an intelligent individual with her own opinions, motives, and outlooks on life. So it was very strange switching from her and Vassa debating what do do about some problem or another to Vassa petting and nuzzling her the way you would a kitten. It was strange. But, as I’ve said, so was the whole book.

Ultimately, this book was stronger as a concept than it was as an actual story. There were almost too many weird things thrown in at every moment which prevented me from ever becoming fully invested in the story. I was too busy being confused by some of the writing choices and bouncing from one thing to another to really be able to draw a connecting line throughout the book or form real attachments to characters. There were random chapters inserted here or there attempting to provide some background information that only opened up more doors and left more dangling plot lines (Vassa’s father’s storyline was one of these). While this book is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to an actual dark fairytale set in an urban setting (vs. most urban fantasy which often is the usual, generic, vampires and witches and such in an in every other way normal city), it was too weighed down by its own concept to every really take off.

Rating 6: A unique concept and interesting worldbuilding places too much burden on a confusing plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Vassa in the Night” is a new book and isn’t included on many Goodreads lists. However, it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”

Find “Vassa in the Night” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Women in the Walls”

28367592Book: “The Women in the Walls” by Amy Lukavics

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Lucy Acosta’s mother died when she was three. Growing up in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods with her cold, distant father, she explored the dark hallways of the estate with her cousin, Margaret. They’re inseparable—a family.  

When her aunt Penelope, the only mother she’s ever known, tragically disappears while walking in the woods surrounding their estate, Lucy finds herself devastated and alone. Margaret has been spending a lot of time in the attic. She claims she can hear her dead mother’s voice whispering from the walls. Emotionally shut out by her father, Lucy watches helplessly as her cousin’s sanity slowly unravels. But when she begins hearing voices herself, Lucy finds herself confronting an ancient and deadly legacy that has marked the women in her family for generations.

Review: Halloween seems like it was so long ago, and yet I’m still digging into the books that I put on my list for Horrorpalooza that didn’t quite make the cut, timing wise. True, it was a long list so that’s to be expected. The next one that didn’t quite get the timing right is “The Women in the Walls” by Amy Lukavics. Lukavics wrote one of my favorite horror stories last year, “Daughters Unto Devils”. It was one of the scariest books I read last year, and it was a reminder that YA horror can have serious chops if you get the right writer. Seriously, horror fans need to check it out and how. So I was very excited when I found out that she had another one coming out, and digging into it was something I was very much looking forward to.

I think that there were a couple of mitigating factors that made this book not as engrossing as “Daughters Unto Devils” was, specifically that I was reading it during Election Week. And hey, let’s be honest, given how I felt about how that all went down, it would have taken a SERIOUSLY engrossing and charismatic read for me not to be totally distracted and brought down while reading it. But at the same time, “The Women in the Walls” just didn’t quite hook me the way that “Daughters Unto Devils” did. True, I can’t be sure if the extenuating circumstances had any blame, but as I read this book I wasn’t as scared or enthralled as I’d hoped to be. To begin, I didn’t feel as much of a connection to Lucy, or protagonist, as I wanted to. I understood her plight and sympathized for her, of course, but I didn’t feel like there was much heart to her through actions as much as her narration told me why there was heart to her. That is one of the perils of first person narration. I didn’t want Lucy to tell me that she was close with her aunt Penelope, or that she was best friends with her cousin Margaret, or that she resented her Dad because he was keeping secrets from her. I wanted to see it through action. I also just wasn’t as empathetic to her as I was probably supposed to be, and some of her character traits seemed a bit trite and just there to foster sympathy as opposed to give her actual depth.

But, the good news is that this book does have a lot of really scary and creepy moments and themes in it. Lukavics still doesn’t hold back when it comes to putting some upsetting imagery in her stories. Be it a desolate cemetery in the middle of the woods, a faded blood stain on an attic floor, or a bag full of human teeth, there were many moments where shivers were sent up my spine. She took a few old hat tropes and made them fresh and interesting, which is definitely a plus for me. She also does a very good job of building dread and letting unsettling moments slowly evolve into something that is so far beyond what you’d expected. There are definitely some parts of this book that made me squirm, and I don’t squirm that easily. So as a pro-tip, I would just suggest that if you have a thing about insects, well….. tread carefully.

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I have a thing about insects…(source)

I love that Lukavics has the guts to put some Stephen King levels of fear and shocks into her books for teens, because I think that some teens (especially seasoned horror fans) want to have scarier and grittier stories. I would have loved to have these books when I was a teen, as seeing teen girls in horror literature wasn’t something that I was used to back then because if I wanted horror, I had to go to the adult section. To be fair, YA literature wasn’t as prominent when I was that age, but even these days a lot of the teen horror is pretty tame and wouldn’t have satiated me even then. By having books like Lukavics’ available it says that this is a genre that can be for you too, ladies. Okay, soapbox moment here. Horror as a genre is still kind of a Boys Club in a lot of ways, so getting women writers in there to write books that teen girls are going to read really brings me great joy. Even if some of the stuff in this book also had me totally yucked out. I know it’s strange, but to me that’s a good thing.

So I guess that while I wasn’t as invested in this story as I had hoped I would be, I still did enjoy quite a bit about “The Women in the Walls” and what it gives to the genre as a whole. I’m definitely still considering myself a fan of Lukavics’, and I will be seeking out whatever books she puts out there. This is the kind of YA horror I want to see.

Rating 6: Though I wasn’t too fond of the main character and though it sometimes was too on the nose, I enjoyed the scary and horror moments of “The Women in the Walls” quite a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Women in the Walls” isn’t really on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on the following lists: “Haunted Houses”, and “Gothic YA”.

Find “The Women in the Walls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”

23203252Book: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: I am Henrietta Howel. The first female sorcerer. The prophesied one. Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. When she is brought to London to train with Her Majesty’s sorcerers, she meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, young men eager to test her powers and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her. As Henrietta discovers the secrets hiding behind the glamour of sorcerer life, she begins to doubt that she’s the true prophesied one. With battle looming, how much will she risk to save the city–and the one she loves?

Review: I featured this book back on one of my highlights posts, and low and behold it finally showed up on my library hold shelf! While I sped through the story and it did avoid most YA tropes that are immediate turn offs for me, I ultimately found myself slightly underwhelmed.

As the book description proves, this story is pretty typical young adult fantasy fare, right down to the special power being fire-related (why is it always fire??). I have to say, if I were an author, I’d be staying as far away as I could from anything that might leave my main character open to “girl on fire” comparisons to Katnis…but that’s just me. Further, the introduction of a million and one love interests, a secret life that she must hide, and a prophesy, completes the trope infestation. But, like I said, Cluess did do just enough to avoid falling completely into any one of these pitfalls.

Henrietta, first off, was a good narrator. She isn’t going to win any awards as the most exciting protagonists out there, but her voice was still interesting and she rarely had any “too dumb to live” moments that one sees too often. The setting, an alternate Victorian London that is under siege by a host of powerful magical entities, was creative, but also opened up the door for one of my biggest sticking points with the book.

There’s an inherent struggle when writing any book that has ties to actual history. The protagonist, especially a young woman character, needs to be true to her time, but the author still needs to create room for her to move. Too often, we have young women with ideas that are far too progressive, or who seems to too easily shuck off the constraints of her time period. So, here, I appreciated what Cluess tried to do. There are several moments where it is clear that Henrietta struggles with the mindset about women’s capabilities that is woven deep into this time period’s culture. However, ultimately, her path is just as easy, leaving the story feeling very awkward. And, while I appreciate the attempts to keep these biases realistic, there were almost too many of them, or they were awkwardly placed, undoing and often muddying the character’s own story arc.

For example, at one point, after Henrietta has already proven to herself and many around her that she is a powerful force to be dealt with, another character expresses a very misogynistic opinion to her, and she simply rolls over and agrees. Obviously, one show of force by a powerful young woman isn’t going to change the minds of everyone, but I would have liked to see the character’s own perspective on these things adjust accordingly as the book progressed and she gained more confidence in herself. A story of a young woman growing to appreciate her own strength and question what she has been told is the obvious route for a story like this, and ultimately, that’s where the narrative is going. But, as I said, these moments were still woven throughout the book in a very odd way that left me feeling off balance with regards to Henrietta’s actual character arc. It felt like the character’s growth was being sacrificed to continue the charade of her own insecurity (another one of my least favorite tropes: the character who must remain insecure just to garner compliments from those around them).

And, of course, there were the whiffs of a love triangle. The story avoids my biggest qualm with this trope, when it takes over the story in place of actual action, but it’s still there, and I don’t feel that it adds anything to the narrative itself. If it had been left out completely, I honestly feel like there would have been absolutely zero change to the story itself, and that’s never a good thing. And, due to this and my general wariness from being once burned, twice shy, it was hard to become fully invested in the many, many young men characters that surround Henrietta, as I have no idea which one will be the next love-triangle fodder in following sequels.

Ultimately, while the story was enjoyable and I was able to speed through it without any major hiccups, this book isn’t doing anything new for the genre. Almost every piece of it felt familiar and reminiscent of one or another young adult fantasy series. If you enjoy this type of story, then go ahead and read it. But if you’re looking for a new take on young adult fantasy, or are too burned out on some of these tropes (love triangles, special girl with special powers, limited world building), then you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating 6: While inoffensive, it was also slightly uncreative and had a few too many familiar pieces trying to pose as unique.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Shadow Bright and Burning” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian YA Novels” and “ParaHistorical Fiction.”

Find “A Shadow Bright and Burning” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “The Couple Next Door”

28815474Book: “The Couple Next Door” by Shari Lapena

Publishing Info: Pamela Dorman Books, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: How well do you know the couple next door? Or your husband? Or even—yourself?  

People are capable of almost anything. . . 
Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco  soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they’ve kept for years. 

What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

Review: Whenever I pick up a grit-lit thriller novel, I like to try and guess what the big messy twist is going to be. If I go off of logistics of the story and my previous knowledge of the genre, I can sometimes guess some of the twists and turns that are coming up. Barring, of course, that the author either does a really good job of concealing their twists, or brings twists out of nowhere that make little to no sense whatsoever. I can tell you that “The Couple Next Door” has a little bit of both, which flip flopped between the frustrating and the satisfying.

So even though the description is vague, I’m sure that you can guess that the terrible crime that is committed is that baby Cora disappears from her crib while Anne and Marco are at the dinner party in the adjoining home of the duplex. So the question becomes who is behind it? The police, specifically Detective Rasbach, is convinced that it has to be either Anne or Marco. I had made my own predictions about thirty pages in (as Serena can attest to, as she was there when I was spouting off my theories). I’m pretty happy to say that my predictions were pretty wrong, but that isn’t to say that this book wasn’t devoid of issues. Neither Marco nor Anne had a lot of shining moments, and I had issues with both of these characters and how they were portrayed. I’m glad that there weren’t any reckless depictions of post-partum depression, but Anne as a whole wasn’t very interesting, being an incredibly passive player in this entire thing. It’s not that I wanted her to go out and kick people’s teeth in until she found her baby, but I wanted more than her being in a constant state of victimization and having things happen to her instead of making things happen (except late, late, LATE in the game. But a bit more on that later). And then there’s Marco, who manages to make every single terrible decision a person could make in his situation, so while I know that we are probably supposed to feel a teeny bit of sympathy for him, boy I sure didn’t. One of the twists involving him was a surprise, but it made sense, and it just accentuated his stupidity even more. As for the side characters, they were fine, but they did feel like they were just the same old characters that we get in these stories: the slutty neighbor who doesn’t care who she hurts, the cold and judgmental in laws, and the hardened but nonetheless affected detective. They served their purpose, but they weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel, and when the protagonists weren’t really endearing themselves to me it was all the more glaring.

I also need to take a moment to lambast the ending. I am going to avoid giving spoilers here because I do think that this book is worth reading if you like thrillers and grit lit. But be warned, the ending is incredibly, INCREDIBLY tacked on and unnecessary. Especially given the implications that it has about other mental illnesses, as while Lapena was pretty good in her portrayal of post-partum depression she was not as great at other depictions of other disorders. When the big ‘final’ twist as referenced in the description came up, I was pretty miffed and turned off. It was out of place and aggravating. We didn’t need that one last twist. And it derailed the entire story for me.

Ridiculous twist aside, as I mentioned before other reveals and surprises made a lot of sense and did keep me on my toes. I thought that I would be able to predict a lot of it, but I found myself unable to put it down because of the need to now what was going to happen. Lapena does a very good job of parsing out her story, putting the pieces into place in a meticulous and well thought out way. I think that ultimately what I look for in a story like this is whether or not the plot keeps me guessing, and “The Couple Next Door” achieved that. If you are just looking for an entertaining thriller, and can look past the less fleshed out characterizations and ridiculous ending, “The Couple Next Door” is probably a good choice. I don’t regret reading it, I just wish that it had been a bit more.

Rating 6: The plot itself was pretty solid, but the main characters were lacking. Add in a ridiculous ending and it wasn’t what it could have been.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Couple Next Door” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Female Psychological Thriller/Suspense”, and “2016: What Women Born in the 1970s Have Read So Far This Year”.

Find “The Couple Next Door” at your library using WorldCat!

Joint Review: “Double Down”

27818091Though we do tend to read different genres, there is sometimes overlap in the books that we pick up and devour. When this happens, we decide to do a joint review, giving our thoughts through our own personal lenses of what we look for in reading material. A few weeks ago, we reviewed the first book in Gwenda Bond’s “Lois Lane” series, and now we’re back with the sequel!

Book: “Double Down” by Gwenda Bond

Publishing Info: Switch Press, May 2016

Where Did We Get this Book: The library!

Book Description: Lois Lane has settled in to her new school. She has friends, for maybe the first time in her life. She has a job that challenges her. And her friendship is growing with SmallvilleGuy, her online maybe-more-than-a-friend. But when her friend Maddy’s twin collapses in a part of town she never should’ve been in, Lois finds herself embroiled in a dangerous mystery that brings her closer to the dirty underbelly of Metropolis.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I think that a YA series is a great platform for Lois Lane to really shine. It’s pretty tempting to just make her a damsel in distress when she’s serving as a counterpart to Superman, or to just push her aside completely. So if you’re coming to this series looking for solid Lois characterization, this is going to be the series for you! If you’re coming into it looking for an original and well plotted main story that only strengthens her character, well….. Maybe not.

I think that is what frustrates me the most about this series. I read it because I want to see Lois shine more on her own, and shine she does, but at the same time I find myself wanting to get back to the scenes with SmallvilleGuy. I WANT LOIS TO STAND ON HER OWN, but in this series she isn’t completely able to do that. Sure, she is a new coming of Veronica Mars in her own way, and I love how she is written, but in terms of the mysteries that she gets to solve without Clark, they aren’t very strong. In this one we get a strange mystery involving her best friend Maddy’s twin sister Melody, and a secretive conspiracy involving the mayor’s office, the former mayor (who happens to be her friend James’s disgraced father), and human cloning. This plot line was boring and didn’t interest me at all, which isn’t good seeing as it was the main storyline of the book. However, I was definitely invested in her progressing relationship with SmallvilleGuy, and the side mystery that the two of them were working on, involving a mysterious internet handle who claims that they have knowledge of a mysterious flying man. For Lois this could mean finding out what happened to her and her father one night long ago in rural Kansas. She doesn’t know what it means for SmallvilleGuy, of course, but is glad that he’s interested too. This was a mystery I could sink my teeth into, because it puts both Lois AND Clark in a dangerous position, even though we’re only seeing it from Lois’s point of view. It legit felt like some “X-Files” malarky going on, and I was living for it. Especially since Lois fears that her father may be in on it, which I thought was a perfect plot point to introduce. Sam Lane has been contentious in various iterations, and I think to make him a potentially shady government being is a very clever direction to take him in. This storyline also set up for some potential future storylines as the series goes on. One involves a mysterious source who just signs their correspondence with ‘A’. And the other was short and sweet: while Lois and SmallvilleGuy were in a virtual reality world, being represented by their own created avatars, a mysterious, silent avatar was following them around occasionally. An avatar that looks like a bat.

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My face when the book I’m reading may be teasing an unexpected Batman arc. (source)

Damn do I love Batman and all his broody shenanigans. The thought of teenage Bruce somehow interacting with Lois Lane, even if it’s just for a little bit, really, REALLY makes me giddy.

I’ve just kind of come to terms with the fact that I am reading this series because it’s a spot on Lois portrayal that I really, really like. It’s not terribly innovative and had it been about an original plucky high school reporter I would have jumped ship awhile back, but it’s my girl Lois and she keeps it centered. She’s ambitious and whip smart without being cruel or vain, and has realistic flaws that make her interesting. I could read about this Lois Lane all day long, and I am still wanting to see more.

Serena’s Thoughts:

When I started this series, I agreed with Kate’s first thought: that YA is a great vehicle for a Lois Lane story. And, while I still am very much enjoying the novelty of getting to read a Lois Lane centric series, I’m not as sure that this is really true for me any more.

I agree with much of what Kate said regarding the central mystery of this story. The biggest failure in this book for me was this plot and its “believablility” issues. Look, we know this is based on a Superman story, so going in I have “bought in” to the world where an alien being has arrived on earth and has all of these amazing ability. But…that’s really supposed to be the only fantastical difference between this world and our own. The first book featured virtual reality; this is easy to get on board with as it feels like we’ve been one step away from this in reality for the last decade. But this book used cloning as its central plot device. And, look,  cloning is something that has actually happened in our world! It shouldn’t be so hard to believe! But the explanations, science, and plot devices behind it always felt weak, through me out of the story, and for a plot dealing with “twin bonds,” clone tanks, and a mob boss, I was surprisingly bored through a lot of it.

I also second what Kate said about the secondary mystery that Lois and SmallvilleGuy were involved in being much more interesting. There were actual stakes involved in this. I never really cared about Melody, the only connection readers have to her is that she is Maddy’s twin sister (and frankly, I’ve never particularly been super attached to Maddy herself!), but heck yeah I’m invested in sneaky government agencies trying to discover the identity of the flying man!

This is the central problem that I’m coming to see with this series. There’s just no way to balance the primary and secondary characters properly. SmallvilleGuy is firmly a secondary character. His plots are secondary, his page time is secondary, and, I’m sorry, that’s just not going to work in the long run for most readers when the series is being sold based on the strength of  Lois Lane, whom everyone knows through her connections to Clark Kent/Superman and the other classic DC characters. There is no way to write unique, original characters who are going to stand up as more interesting or more worthy of their more central roles in the plot when you have a character like SmallvilleGuy lingering on the sidelines with all of this previously established history and backstory. It’s just an impossible situation. It’s not that Maddy, Devin, James, or any of them are bad characters; they’ve just been plopped into a losing battle. I found myself almost skimming through large chunks of the story, just to get back to the Lois/SmallvilleGuy action, and this isn’t good.

Going back to what I originally said, I at first thought the idea of a YA Lois Lane book had a lot of good things going for it. But I’ve now come to realize that what I was really excited about was just the idea of a Lois Lane book all told. The YA aspect of the series is starting to feel like an anchor, rather than a boost. The action and stakes never feel like they have any true threat, which is another factor contributing to my general boredom/lack of interest in the central mystery, and you just can’t put Clark Kent on the sidelines and expect original characters to carry the show. When readers know the truth of the matter, it’s easy to start feeling impatient for Lois to get there too. And I start looking at this series, and due to it being YA, I just see a never-ending line of books before we get any kind of resolution in this area, unless Bond commits to fully re-writing history (which frankly, I’d be more than ok with!) Just get them in the same room and working together!!

So, ultimately, I found this book fairly frustrating. And largely this has to do with the fact that parts of it are so good! I love Lois herself, the characterization is spot on perfect for me.

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Oh, Lois…(source)

 

And SmallvilleGuy, too! But right there, if your two, let’s face it, MAIN characters are both so strong, it’s tough to read a series where one of them is sidelined and the other spends most of her time on plots that have very little at stake and with characters who just can’t stand up on their own. I shouldn’t be more interested in a flying bat machine that literally gets 4 sentences worth of page time than in Lois’s actual highschool friends. Can we just have a massive time jump and start writing the series from Lois’s perspective while at Daily Planet with Clark??

Serena’s Rating 6: I just love Lois and SmallvilleGuy so much that I’m finding it harder and harder to appreciate the other aspects of this series. But, of course, I’ll continue reading, because there’s no way I’m NOT supporting a “Lois Lane” series!

Kate’s Rating 7: The main plot and mystery isn’t very interesting, but Lois’s side mystery with SmallvilleGuy and the government’s hunt for the flying man has me fully invested.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Double Down” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA Superheroes (Not Comics/Graphic Novels)”, and “Fiction Featuring Lois Lane”.

Find “Double Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Winner’s Curse”

16069030Book: “The Winner’s Curse” by Marie Rutkoski

Publishing Info: Farrar Straus Giroux, March 2014

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

Book Description: As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined. 

Review: This book was somehow exactly what I expected and completely unexpected at the same time. I still can’t quite decide how I feel about it, but I’ll give it a go!

 The story starts off with a quick introduction to Kestrel, our protagonist who, as the daughter of a most-esteemed general and an astute strategist herself, is struggling against pressure to make big life decisions: join the army or get married. Beneath this all lies Kestrel’s true passion for music, specifically the piano, which is not an acceptable life path for individuals in a society where the arts are to be paid for, not to be done oneself. Cue life changing event: Kestrel finds herself drawn to a young slave, purchases him, and FEELINGS HAPPEN.

So, my summary probably gives some clues to the strengths and weaknesses of the story. The set up is pretty obvious and frankly I was a bit weary reading through the inevitable relationship build-up between Kestrel and Arin.

I was much more intrigued by the world itself. What makes the situation presented here so interesting is the recentness of things. Arin’s country was invaded and his people enslaved within his own lifetime, only 15 years ago. Often stories like these involve countries with a much more lengthy history. Kestrel’s questions regarding Arin’s previous life offer a fascinating view into what living in a conquered country would be like, for both the winners and the losers, when history has barely been written. The strengths of the book definitely lay in this area, especially with a twist that happened about 2/3 of the way through the story which really tossed the plot in a completely unexpected, and frankly, relieving direction.

The first two thirds, as I mentioned, were pretty typical and I was at times ready to put the book aside. As a character, Kestrel was…fine. She didn’t pop off the page for me, but she also didn’t fall into any traps that are often the downfall of YA heroines. Arin, for his part, had a lot less page time, but what there was from him was interesting. I did have trouble buying in to their relationship. The author did a respectable job throwing in good moments and discussions that could justify burgeoning feelings between these two. But, especially for Arin, it’s hard to imagine that years worth of resentment, fear, and anger could be overcome.

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Does Kestrel have feelings for Arin?? Does he have feelings for her??…Meh.  (source)

The twist truly does save it. I don’t want to give it away, as it was a game changer for me with the series, throwing some much needed reality onto a at times a bit cheesy romance plot. I was worried that much of the history of their various cultures and the current society they both inhabited would be too easily swept aside. Boy was I wrong. I was thrilled that the author “went there” on a lot of these issues and really forced her characters into tough situations.

While ultimately the book still came off as a bit too “light” for me, I admire the direction the author is taking this series and the ending really did pull it back from the brink. I’ll put it down on my list to follow-up with the series, but I’m also not in a super rush due to some of these criticisms.

Rating 6: Weak start, bland characters, but ultimately a decent recovery with an unexpected switch in direction towards the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Winner’s Curse” can be found on these Goodreads Lists: “Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands” and “Interracial young adult novels”

Find “The Winner’s Curse” at your library using WorldCat!