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

Kate’s Review: “Little Heaven”

29430791Book: “Little Heaven” by Nick Cutter

Publishing Info: Gallery Books, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: An all-new epic tale of terror and redemption set in the hinterlands of midcentury New Mexico from the acclaimed author of The Troop—which Stephen King raved “scared the hell out of me and I couldn’t put it down…old-school horror at its best.”

From electrifying horror author Nick Cutter comes a haunting new novel, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Stephen King’s It, in which a trio of mismatched mercenaries is hired by a young woman for a deceptively simple task: check in on her nephew, who may have been taken against his will to a remote New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. Shortly after they arrive, things begin to turn ominous. Stirrings in the woods and over the treetops—the brooding shape of a monolith known as the Black Rock casts its terrible pall. Paranoia and distrust grips the settlement. The escape routes are gradually cut off as events spiral towards madness. Hell—or the closest thing to it—invades Little Heaven. The remaining occupants are forced to take a stand and fight back, but whatever has cast its dark eye on Little Heaven is now marshaling its powers…and it wants them all.

Review: I have heard of Nick Cutter. This horror author gets some serious buzz from other horror authors, like Stephen King, for example. Anyone who’s good by Stephen King is usually going to be good by me. I requested Cutter’s first big break novel, “The Troop”, but when I realized that it was a parasite story, I was an immediate NOPE and sent it back to the library and on to the next person. Some time passed, and then I saw that he had another book that came out called “The Deep”. I was tempted, but then I saw a reviewer say that it was more of the same creepy themes that “The Troop” touched on, and therefore I continued my NOOOOOPE because parasites + the deep deep ocean is just not my idea of fun. But THEN I heard about “Little Heaven”. Cults in the desert? I can handle that, I told myself. I love a good cult story!!…..

And then I saw all the NOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE stuff that I’d hoped to avoid in the first two books.

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But I was invested and in it, so I powered on through. The good news is that since the themes and imagery was genuinely upsetting, this was a pretty damn scary book that messed me up pretty damn good. The bad news is that…… see the above gif.

Something that I found really interesting about this book was that it felt almost like a Western as well as a horror novel, and not just because it took place in the New Mexican desert. Outside of “No Country for Old Men” I’m not terribly acquainted with the genre, but if you have three mercenaries hired to check out a small town in the middle of nowhere, with little trust between the three of them, I feel like that just screams Western. I could be wrong, but whatever. The story follows Micah, Minerva, and Ebeneezer, three guns for hire who set out to check up on a small boy who has been taken to a compound in the middle of the desert. Cutter did a pretty good job of fleshing out all three mercenaries in terms of how they interact with each other and how they would react in the situation they find themselves in. But of Micah, Eb, and Minny, I think that Minny is the one whose motivations I understood the most, as in her heart of hearts she most wants to take out Ebeneezer because of a tragedy in her life that he unknowingly caused. In one of the many, many upsetting scenes in this book. Essentially Minerva saw her younger brother killed and devoured by a snake with no help in sight because Eb had killed their Dad. I totally got her rage and need for revenge, even when it seemed to be completely crazy and detrimental to the situation they found themselves in….. Ugh, the descriptions of a child being strangled and eaten by a snake will not leave me for awhile, I can assure you of that.

Little Heaven itself takes great influence from Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Between the physical description of Amos, the leader of this group, the fact that they started in San Francisco, and some of the rituals and proclivities they embark on, Cutter has definitely written a ‘love letter’ of sorts to the group that’s best known for drinking the Kool Aid. But while the group in Little Heaven is strange and pretty messed up on it’s own, it’s the strange demonic creatures that live in the wilderness that are the real threats in this story. And my GOD was all that just completely upsetting and disturbing as well. It got to the point where I was having a hard time reading this book in the evening because I was so freaked out by what I was reading. And while this is usually a good thing in the stories I read, it almost went a little bit too far for me. Visceral and very violent horror, especially of the body horror variety, is something that turns me off pretty quickly, and I have a hard time enjoying what I’m reading. I like being scared, but I don’t like being upset. And “Little Heaven” kind of upset me more than it scared me. The body horror violence just keeps getting worse and worse, and every once in awhile we’d be treated to some actual visuals thanks to an extremely talented illustrator…. but whose works were too good at putting what was messing me up on full display.

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Goodbye, peaceful nights. (source)

Nick Cutter does the job, but he almost does it too well when it comes to me. Add that in with an ending that felt incredibly existential and nihilistic just for the sake of nihilism, and I closed the book and felt yucky on the inside. Look, sometimes I enjoy a good nihilistic downer ending (uh, hello, “Hex”). But in the case of “Little Heaven”, so much of the pain that was heaped upon some of these characters felt undeserved, and while there were some bits of joy, overall I just felt kind of bad once it was all said and done. I know that that’s sometimes the goal of a good horror novel. But that’s so not my thing.

So I have to give “Little Heaven” a lot of credit for freaking me out and making me unable to read it at night. But it kind of made my heart hurt a bit too much along with the lots and lots of nopes that it bubbled up inside of me. I know lots of horror fans who will love it, though. You’re made of stronger stuff than I!

Rating 7: This book scared the living daylights out of me, but the ending was a bit too nihilistic for my tastes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Little Heaven” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming Books Of Note: Horror”, and “Best Picks: Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 2017”.

Find “Little Heaven” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Trap”

32813330Book: “The Trap” by Melanie Raabe (Imogen Taylor Translation)

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, 2016 (Translation)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The renowned author Linda Conrads is famous for more than just her bestselling novels. For over eleven years, she has mystified fans by never setting foot outside her home. Far-fetched, sometimes sinister rumors surround the shut-in writer, but they pale in comparison to the chilling truth: Linda is haunted by the unsolved murder of her younger sister, whom she discovered in a pool of blood twelve years ago, and by the face of the man she saw fleeing the scene.

Now plagued by panic attacks, Linda copes with debilitating anxiety by secluding herself in her house, her last safe haven. But the sanctity of this refuge is shattered when her sister’s murderer appears again–this time on her television screen. Empowered with sudden knowledge but hobbled by years of isolation, Linda resolves to use her only means of communication with the outside world–the plot of her next novel–to lay an irresistible trap for the man.

But as the plan is set in motion and the past comes rushing back, Linda’s memories of that traumatic night–and her very sanity–are called into question. Is this man really a heartless killer or merely a helpless victim?

Review: At work one night my friend Paul (and fellow librarian) was subbing with me at the desk. He told me about a book he’d read, and that he thought that I should give it a whirl. It was a German book, recently translated into English, called “The Trap”. I requested it pretty much immediately, because Paul knows my reading tastes pretty well (and movie tastes; we proceeded to have a long conversation about “The Conjuring 2”). I think that I was expecting more horror by his description, and instead found myself with another Messed Up Lady Narrator book. But hey, I was okay with it, because I had yet to read a German Messed Up Lady Narrator book!

Side note: I’VE BEEN MISUSING THE PHRASE GRIT LIT THIS ENTIRE TIME!!! I could have sworn that Grit Lit was the phrase for these female psychological thrillers, but I guess it’s more the hip new slang for Southern Gothic. Huh.

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So ignore that from before. (source)

I have some good news right off the bat. This was a Messed Up Lady Narrator Book (I need to find a good snappy phrase for this genre) that I mostly, basically, enjoyed. While it perhaps doesn’t reach the high highs of “In A Dark, Dark Wood”, it was a gripping read with a tense plot. I did get a little nervous as the book progressed, because you all know how frustrated I get with psychological thriller heroines and their issues. Linda isn’t really any exception, as she is suffering from agoraphobia and PTSD after walking in on her sister Anna’s murder scene. While the trope of ‘damaged heroine’ is firmly in place with Linda, while it is realistically and necessarily dramatic, it never really feels overdramatic. Linda is very up front with her problems, she recognizes that she is, indeed, very messed up, and she isn’t the usual absolute WORST to everyone that you sometimes see in these books. Plus, I feel like she has actually earned her messed up personality, while sometimes the trope can feel forced and cliche. I mean, a mentally ill character usually means that there are going to be moments of ‘is all of this actually happening the way I think it is?’, especially in a book like this. It happened in “The Girl on the Train”, it happened in “The Couple Next Door”, and it definitely happened in this. I don’t want to spoil anything here, because I do think that this is a good read and definitely worth your time, but I think that it would have worked better and been a bit more revelatory if Linda wasn’t so sure about everything from the get go, if maybe we hadn’t jumped in with her mid-revenge plot. Surprises ended up not being too surprising, and while I was ultimately okay with it, the stakes never felt terribly, terribly high, and I didn’t feel like I was really solving anything along with her. I like taking the journey of detection and gumshoe-ing. This book didn’t really have that element to it, or at least not enough for me.

Linda’s relationships were also something that I want to address. I had a problem with a kind of out of nowhere forced romance sub plot that arrived a bit too late for my liking. There were hints about Linda’s simmering relationship with Julian, the detective of her sister’s case, but he didn’t really show up until the last third of the book. And I think that if I was really going to buy it, I needed him to really show up and make an impression well before that, not just as an analog character in the book that she has written (yes, we do get to see excerpts from the book. They were fine. They didn’t really add or detract). But I still liked Linda’s relationship with him as a whole, just as I liked her relationships with those around her, be it her assistant or her publisher. As I said, I think that there is a stereotype in pop culture and literature that people who are mentally ill are going to be completely difficult to deal with at all times and that they are going to put people off because of it. What I liked about Linda is that she has her problems, she has this uphill battle that she is fighting, but she still has relationships and isn’t portrayed as toxic or a pariah. She has friends and people who care about her. That meant a lot to me.

And then there’s the villain character, or whom Linda is convinced is a villain, Lenzen. Linda thinks that Lenzen, an established and well respected journalist, is the man who killed her sister a decade earlier. And since we, of course, know that there is going to be some doubt about him based on the plot description alone, I was very curious as to how Raabe was going to approach him. I liked that she did do a pretty good job of making it hard to tell what his deal was. Many of the things he did in the interactions he had with Linda could be chalked up to calculated sociopathy… Or they could have just as easily been something a regular, innocent man would do. Tricky. Very tricky. I liked that I was constantly questioning him, which shows to me that Raabe made effective use of the device that she set up. And believe me, sometimes a writer can make a real mess of it.

So while it ultimately did end up feeling suspenseful throughout the book, I wasn’t really surprised by much of anything that happened. True, I had my questioning moments, but I never had a “WOW!” moment. But honestly, I prefer a well written if simple plot to one that just has twist after twist after twist. “The Trap” was a fast paced and enjoyable read, and I hope that it takes off here in the U.S. as much as it did in Germany.

Rating 7: While it didn’t necessarily enthrall me and stagger me, “The Trap” was a fun and tense read that I found entertaining and not as overwrought as other books in the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Trap” is new and isn’t on any Goodreads lists. But it would be at home on “Female Psychological Thrillers/Suspense”, and “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”.

Find “The Trap” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Without a Summer”

15793208Book: “Without a Summer” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

Review: I continue on with my reviews of this series! As I commented on in the first reviews, the books’ ties to the Jane Austen novels that the author attempts to mimic has been the difference maker between my enjoyment levels of the first two in the series. The first tried to tie it too closely to “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” leaving original characterization and plot to suffer. While the second seemed to step away completely from this format presenting readers with a completely original story and being stronger for it. This third book strikes on the perfect balance of the two with its very loose connections to “Emma” while also building on its original stories and characters.

I was most excited when picking up this book to realize that Melody was again going to play a central role to the story. Her absence was one of the few low points of the second book, in my opinion. And she was featured even more than I originally thought! Jane, back home with her husband Vincent and now recovered from her experiences and trauma dealt in the end of the last book, is realizing how alone and sad her sister is feeling. Country living just doesn’t have enough variety, particularly in the potential husband arena. So, upon receiving a commission for Jane and Vincent’s work on a glamoural for a wealthy family in London, Jane decides the change of scenery would do her sister good. And so we begin to see the set up and ties to “Emma” in this story, with Jane standing in as our poor, struggling matchmaker.

As I said, this book really seemed to hit on the formula for emulating, but not becoming bogged down by, an original Austen work. Only the loosest ties to “Emma” are visible (and three lines from the novel, for those looking closely!). Jane makes many mistakes as a matchmater, but they are of a different variety than Emma’s, both due to differences in their personality and position. Jane is a married woman, so her own romantic confusion is not involved in this. Further, Jane is a very different character than Emma. Emma is lovable for her blissful naivety. Jane is a much more earnest character and one who is used to being on the right side of most conflicts.

I actually found this to be a very interesting take on a matchmaking failure, and one that can speak to a quandary that many people can find themselves in. In many ways, Jane is a very open-minded, justice-oriented character. In the last several books, she is always on the right side of situations that deal with prejudice and injustice. So, in this way, its not surprising that she has become a bit complacent with her own perception of the world, sure that she does not fall into the same traps that other, less wary and more judgemental, people do. But alas, we can guess how this turns out! I really enjoyed this take as it is a pitfall that I think many of us can fall into, becoming falsely secure in our own perception of the world and failing to recognize that we are still susceptible towards opinions and thoughts that are convenient and not as open-minded as we may think. Vincent’s sly hints that she might be a bit off track were also great. It was a nice little wink to the maneuverings of marriage where battles must be picked carefully and opinions offered gently.

The other main storyline of this book was the complete and utter awfulness that is Vincent’s family. We’ve heard about his past some in the previous books, but here we get to meet the whole cast and man, weren’t they all just a bundle of joy. His father in particular reached truly astonishing levels of evil. There were a few scenes where they are all getting together for family gatherings, and just coming of Christmas, which can have familial challenges for some, I think we can all just count ourselves lucky that at least it wasn’t this. The snark was high with these ones.

The pacing of this book was a bit strange, I have to admit. The first half is fairly slow, with a lot of groundwork being laid, but not a lot of action coming of it. But the book did take a big, unexpected turn towards the end that really brought a new life to the story. While the resolution was very convenient, I did enjoy the tension that was brought to the story in this last third.

All in all, I think this book was a great addition to the series. I enjoyed the ties to “Emma,” but was relieved to find that the story was still also very much its own thing. The action towards the end was appreciated, and I’m excited to see where the books will go next and if we’ll see any other Jane Austen storylines! As long as its not “Northanger Abbey”…

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Rating 7: Series seems to be still going strong!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Without a Summer” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Alternate England” and “Napoleonic Novels.”

Find “Without a Summer” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “Shades of Milk and Honey” and “Glamour in Glass”

Serena’s Review “In the After”

12157407Book: “In the After” by Demitria Lunetta

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, June 2013

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

Book Description: They hear the most silent of footsteps.
They are faster than anything you’ve ever seen.
And They won’t stop chasing you…until you are dead.

Amy is watching TV when it happens, when the world is attacked by Them. These vile creatures are rapidly devouring mankind. Most of the population is overtaken, but Amy manages to escape—and even rescue “Baby,” a toddler left behind in the chaos. Marooned in Amy’s house, the girls do everything they can to survive—and avoid Them at all costs.

After years of hiding, they are miraculously rescued and taken to New Hope, a colony of survivors living in a former government research compound. While at first the colony seems like a dream with plenty of food, safety, and shelter, New Hope slowly reveals that it is far from ideal. And Amy soon realizes that unless things change, she’ll lose Baby—and much more.

Review: This is the kind of book that walks the line between Kate’s preferred genres and mine. There is definitely horror and suspense, but it’s also a post-apocalyptic story, the type which, especially in YA fiction, often falls under the all-encompassing “speculative fiction” category. Either way, it was a nice change from my usual reading, and while I can’t say that it was necessarily a “fun” read, its very lack of “fun” is what lends me to rating it more highly.

This book could easily be split into two separate books. The first is a fairly typical survival story. Strange creatures have invaded the earth and swiftly killed off the majority of the population. Our heroine, Amy, survives purely due to lucky circumstances (a fact that is refreshingly not glossed over), but over the course of years, she grows to become an expert at living in this new “After” world. There were several portions of this first part that I really enjoyed.

First is the inclusion of Baby, a toddler that Amy finds and adopts after the first month of devastation. These two’s relationship is key to the plot and it was so refreshingly new. All too often the primary relationships in these types of YA books are romantic. This, a sisterhood/parental relationship between a teenage girl who raises a toddler for several years alone, is completely unique. Further, I was very impressed with the author’s ability to portray Baby so completely. As a small child, it would have been very easy to simply gloss over her as an actual person while instead simply relying on general child attributes as fill-ins.

Second, the use of a substantial time jump is well executed. Through clever positioning of flashbacks, we see Amy’s journey through this new world and the events at each step that directed her ability to survive the many challenges of this new world, from how to survive the creatures themselves to how she evolved her approach to interacting with other survivors. Amy doesn’t just become a badass survivor out of nowhere. We see her mistakes and understand what lessons she had to learn to become who she is in the present day.

The second half of the book is a complete switch to what living in a community built in this post-apocalyptic world would be like. The horror, too, takes a sharp turn away from the monsters-in-the-night to what monsters humans can be. This part, while maybe slower than the first half, was even more horrifying to me. It was a strange reading experience because I was so frustrated, angry, and uncomfortable on Amy and Baby’s behalf throughout it all that I had a hard time enjoying reading it. In this section, you know that something awful is coming and you’re just watching these beloved characters walk towards their doom. (I wish I had read this book before we did our “Walking Dead Read Alikes” list as this would definitely have been included based purely on its similar exploration of the different ways that communities of people find to live in a world where society has fallen away.)

In the later half, there were a few twists that I felt were a bit expected. It’s definitely not a unique set up, but I don’t think that lessens the overall effect. It’s also a bit jarring to suddenly have many other characters introduced halfway through the story, and while I enjoyed many of them, I was sad to see Baby fading into the background a bit. However, I did enjoy most of these characters. I also appreciated the fact that what little romance is introduced in this part of the book is very light and never overpowers both the action/horror of the story or the primary relationship between Baby and Amy.

I also listened to this as an audiobook and I thought the reader did a very good job. Especially in the second half of the book, she made some clever choices with her general reading style that allows listeners to immediately identify flashback sequences from the other portions.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed this book and will be checking out the final book in the duology. I might need to give myself a break between the two as they are definitely not light reading, but I’ll be getting there soon, I hope. This book does end on a cliffhanger, fo sorts, so for anyone going into it, beware of that.

Rating 7: An intense ride with a unique primary relationship, though it did get a bit predictable towards the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“In the After” is included on these Goodreads lists: :Less Known Doulogies/Trilogies I Might Check Out” and “Strong Womances In YA.”

Find “In the After” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The School of Good and Evil”

16248113Book: “The School of Good and Evil” by Soman Chainani

Publication Info: HarperCollins, May 2013

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

Book Description: The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

Review: This book seemed to hit a peak a few years ago with everyone raving about it, and finally now, years later, I’ve finally gotten to it. I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction, but this one, with its fun premises and, I’ll admit, very catchy cover seemed worth checking out!

This book is a bit tricky to review, now that I’m getting to it. I finished reading the book about a week ago and am only now writing the review. And that one week, I think, has made an impact on my opinion of the book. Either way, ultimately, I did very much enjoy the story. But with the extra time, I feel there are a few things that were a bit clunky and problematic about it.

I breezed through this story, guys. I mean, fast. Its biggest strengths are the exact things that particularly appeal to me: very creative world building, character-based stories, and a strong dash of wit. I loved all the ties to fairytales in this book, both the direct reference to Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast and others, as well the way it poked fun at the generalities of these stories. In the school of Good, princesses must learn how to speak to animals and wait patiently for their princes to save them. In the school of Evil, witches must learn how to curse household items like apples and hairpins and uglify themselves to scare off heroes and heroines. The schools and their history and connection to fairytales were so much fun. Much of it was parody, but parody with heart.

There were also a lot of great characters in this story, other than just Agatha and Sophie, who I’ll get to in a moment. There was Tedros, the most popular prince in school, and son of the famed Arthur and Guenevere who struggles with his mother’s legacy and its impact on his relationship with the women around him. Sophie’s witch roommates, Hester, Dot, and Anadil are each great, particularly Hester whose badassery knows no bounds. The teachers for both school reminded me a lot of the professors from the Harry Potter novels. They are all quirky and teach particular classes. This is one area of the story that I wish there had been more of. The few classroom scenes we had were some of my favorites in the whole story.

And then there are Agatha and Sophie. There was so much I loved about these two. Their friendship is complicated not only by the fact that they are in different schools, but by the very nature of their own beings and their struggles to define themselves. Poor Agatha with her broken down self-esteem. And poor Sophie, trying so hard without realizing the huge mistakes she’s making at almost every step. Neither are simple characters, and I appreciated the time that the author gave to these two and the attention to the difficulties of growing up and recognizing the power we all hold to mold who we want to be.

Packed into this romp of a fairytale are a lot of messages, and some of them are handled better than others. As I said before, there is a lot of parody going on here. This, of course, opens the door for the parody to go unrecognized and for the more harmful aspects of some of these messages to stand as true. The author does a lot of work to speak to the fact that actions speak louder than looks, to the power of goodness and love, and many other very important points. But due to binary set-up of the story and the parallels placed between goodness/beauty and villainy/ugliness, it’s possible for some unwanted aspects to slip through. Ultimately, I feel that if the story is read in the tone that it is meant, much of this comes through very clearly. But this book might not be for everyone, due to this.

While I was able to get on board with many of these points, there was one that was a sticking point, even for me. I love stories about girls’ friendships, and at its core, that it was this is. There is a lot to be said for forgiveness and understanding in friendship, but there were a few too many times where this line was crossed far to completely to be simplified in this way. It is the same as romantic relationships, in this way: at a certain point, if you are being actively hurt by another person, that person is not your friend, even if they truly do have good feelings toward you. So, while I love the message of Agatha saving her friend through sheer will, forgiveness, and kindness, the story also, unfortunately, sets up a bad example of friendships in general. Through large portions of this story, this is not a healthy friendship. And, while we can sympathize for Sophie, it should not stand as an example that just because we (or Agatha) love a friend/boyfriend, that we should tolerate bad treatment with the hope that they will get better.

This last point is what has stuck with me through this last week of building up to this review. I sped through this book and it was wildly entertaining as I was reading. But with distance comes more clarity, and there were problematic aspects of it, as I mentioned. That said, I will definitely continue on with the series. However, I will keep my eyes open for how some parts of it are handled in the future, most notably, this friendship.

Rating 7: Really great world-building and a lot of great lessons about self-worth and self-esteem; unfortunately, lessened by some questionable portrayals of healthy friendships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The School of Good and Evil” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books About Special Schools” and “Fairy Tales in All Their Ways.”

Find “The School of Good and Evil” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Bloodbound”

20949421Book: “The Bloodbound” by Erin Lindsey

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2014

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

Book Description: A cunning and impetuous scout, Alix only wishes to serve quietly on the edges of the action. But when the king is betrayed by his own brother and left to die at the hands of attacking Oridian forces, she winds up single-handedly saving her sovereign.

Suddenly, she is head of the king’s personal guard, an honor made all the more dubious by the king’s exile from his own court. Surrounded by enemies, Alix must help him reclaim his crown, all the while attempting to repel the relentless tide of invaders led by the Priest, most feared of Oridia’s lords.

But while Alix’s king commands her duty, both he and a fellow scout lay claim to her heart. And when the time comes, she may need to choose between the two men who need her most…

Review: Another book that landed on my to-read pile quite a while ago that now I have no memory of selecting. But, luckily for me, my past self must have been on top of things, because this lesser known fantasy novel hit just the spot!

I’m going to whip through the basic review portions to devote the rest of this post to two things that I feel make this book noteworthy in the long list of fantasy fiction being published currently.

General worldbuilding: pretty typical European-centric, medieval fantasy world. The bloodbinding magic used to create super weapons is interesting, but isn’t breaking any hugely new ground. I was fairly well into the book when I started questioning whether this even was a fantasy novel given how little these magical elements were mentioned. Later, however, it did play a bigger role, but if you’re interested in complex magical systems, this is not that book.

Characters: Alix is great. She’s a competent, funny, independent character whose abilities and intelligence are never questioned. She makes mistakes and is flawed, but her character arc takes her through these struggles smoothly, never undermining the stronger aspects of her character. The dialogue, both her own and those around her, was witty and I caught myself laughing out loud several times.

So, all of that aside there were two things that I found notable about this story. First, I was dismayed to find a love triangle smack dab in the middle of my adult fantasy novel.

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What? No! (source)

As we all know, I do not appreciate most love triangles. I find them unrealistic, and they often seem to bring out the worst in all characters involved (selfish heroines, ridiculous-verging-on-abusive love interests). Now, I won’t say that I loved the inclusion of a love triangle even here. I’ve just never really been too entertained by the drama of multiple love interests. Seems like it would be stressful and, for me, it is the exact opposite of wish fulfillment. That said, this one righted many of the wrongs I’m used to seeing with love triangles. Perhaps the simple fact that the author is writing about adults and for adults makes the difference here. There are real consequences to the choices that are made. Hearts are broken. Confusion is unpleasant, not thrilling. And the relationships between all characters involved are real and priorities are rightly placed beyond the romance of it all. I still struggled with some of Alix’s internal musings about the situation, as it still seems unrealistic to me to be equally drawn to two different people. However, the author provided a decent explanation for this, if one that I still somewhat questioned in reality. Further, the reaction of the two men involved was a highlight. No silly posturing. No abusive possessiveness. Actual hurt and confusion. They are people who have real feelings involved. Further, they have lives, relationships, friendships, duties, and families outside of Alix that they rightly keep in perspective throughout all of this. I was particularly pleased with the way this love triangle resolved itself. So, all of that said, while I still don’t find love triangles particularly entertaining, this book proves that they can be told from a more realistic and appealing angle.

My second notable aspect of the story was its treatment of women. I am continually frustrated by stories that justify the maltreatment of its women characters (or, frankly, the glorification of very objectionable material) and the creation of generally very traditionally sexist societies by hand-waving it all under the claim that this is somehow “more realistic.” You’re writing a damn fantasy novel with magic, unicorns, and zombies for heaven’s sake. You’ve left “realistic” far behind, so why is this one aspect somehow imperative to the “reality” of your story? This book highlights how to create a fairly typical medieval fantasy world while leaving that all behind. It’s not preaching “woman power.” It’s not bashing anyone over the head with A MESSAGE. It’s just telling a story in a world where women simply are there in the army, are there in politics, are there representing the head of their family. No big deal. Sure, it’s mentioned that as women are not as physically strong, they’re often found as archers in the military. But this is by no means a rule, with the doors to others roles left wide open. And no one blinks an eye at any of this. This book is a perfect example and response to the aforementioned narrative that it is somehow impossible to balance this type of typical fantasy world with a more inclusive approach to women’s roles.

All said, I very much enjoyed this book. It’s not breaking any walls as far as plot, following a pretty simple plot structure. But the strong characters, entertaining dialogue, and well-represented world recommend it to anyone who enjoys traditional fantasy fare with a dash of romance.

Rating 7: A fun fantasy story, notable for a not-gag-worthy love triangle and a strong representation of a more inclusive fantasy world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bloodbound” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Female Bodyguards” and “High Fantasy” with Female Leads / protoganists.”

Find “The Bloodbound” at your library using WorldCat!