Kate’s Review: “Scarred”

49895887._sx318_sy475_Book: “Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult That Bound My Life” by Sarah Edmondson and Kristine Gasbarre

Publishing Info: Chronicle Prism, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In 2005, Sarah Edmondson was a young actress getting her start in Vancouver and hungry for purpose. When NXIVM, a personal and professional development company, promised to provide the tools and insight to reach her potential and make an impact, Sarah was intrigued. She would go on to become one of the cult’s most faithful (and effective) devotees. Over her twelve-year tenure, Sarah enrolled over 2,000 people and operated her own NXIVM center in Vancouver.

Of course, things were not what they seemed. As Sarah progressed up NXIVM’s “Stripe Path,” questions kept coming up about the organization’s rules and practices. Why did the organization prevent members from asking questions? Why did those who did ask questions promptly leave or disappear? These questions came to a head in 2017 when Sarah accepted an invitation from her best friend, Lauren Salzman, to join DOS, a “secret sisterhood” within NXIVM and headed to the headquarters in Albany for the initiation ceremony. Thanks to Sarah’s fearlessness as she put her life on the line, that ceremony would mark the beginning of the end of NXIVM.

In this tell-all memoir, complete with personal photographs, Sarah shares her true story from the moment she takes her first NXIVM seminar, revealing in-depth details of her time as a member, including what happened on that fateful night in Albany, and her harrowing fight to get out, help others, and heal. This is also a true story about abuses of power, the role female friendships play in cults, and how sometimes the search to be “better” can override everything else.

Review: While I didn’t watch the teen show “Smallville” on a regular basis, I watched it enough to know that I enjoyed the character of Chloe Sullivan, Clark’s BFF and fellow student journalist. Part of the charm was because of Allison Mack, who played Chloe with quirkiness and a relatable awkward bent that I really connected with back in the day. Serena watched the show regularly, however, as anything Superman is up her alley. So you know that we were texting each other like mad the night the news broke that Mack had been arrested for sex trafficking within the cult NXIVM.

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Me at the taco restaurant that night as we dished on the downfall of Chloe Sullivan. (source)

I had never heard of NXIVM, the multi level marketing organization turned psychologically and physically abusive cult, but once this news broke I wanted to know EVERYTHING. So a podcast and a lot of article perusing later, I felt like I had learned a lot about the group and Keith Raniere, its creator, and how an actress like Mack could become a right hand confidant to a charismatic sociopath. But when I found out that Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member who exposed the bizarre and disturbing ‘branding’ practices NXIVM performed on a number of women, had written a memoir about her time in the cult, I was deeply, DEEPLY interested.

Edmondson is one of the key players in the exposure of NXIVM, Raniere, Mack, and numerous others who had been brought down after the smoke cleared. A former member whose association with NXIVM was more than ten years, Edmondson finally realized how deep in she was when she found herself branded with Raniere’s and Mack’s initials. Until that point Edmondson had been, mostly, all in, but that isn’t to say that she was without some doubts before then. This memoir gives us an honest insight into her thought process while she was still with the organization and hoping to garner favor with the higher ups, and has some true introspection about why she fell in so deep and stayed so long. Her honesty and candor is definitely appreciated, and it never feels like she tries to completely deflect her own culpability and blame in regards to the role that she played. True, she emphasizes that she too was manipulated into manipulating others, which sometimes feels like a bit of a ‘I’m sorry but it’s not totally my fault’ strategy, but that said given the psychological manipulation this group deals in, I don’t doubt the manipulation at play. And besides, it does seem like she is trying to make amends by getting this story out there, and by doing her best to expose the group before the spotlight really shone down on Raniere, Mack, et al. I don’t think I can pass judgement on her at the end of the day, but others may feel differently, and that’s okay too.

In terms of NXIVM itself, as I definitely read this in part to learn some of the ins and outs of the group beyond the knowledge I already had, I feel that Edmondson (and co-author Kristine Gasbarre) set up the narrative in an effective way, and showed the way that the group can pull people in slowly and surely. One can definitely see the appeal of this multi-level marketing scheme to those who are feeling vulnerable and insecure, and how it can slowly build and build until said people are in way over their heads and allowing themselves to be branded or to be used in sexual coercion plots. It’s deeply fascinating, and terrifying, stuff. I would suggest that if you want a larger deep dive, check out the podcast “Uncovered: Escaping NXIVM”. Edmondson is not only a consultant on that, it also has a broader scope about the group as a whole, and will probably give you more comprehensive information than this memoir does.

All in all, “Scarred” is upsetting and hard to put down. Edmondson gets to tell her story on her own terms, and is another reminder about the dangers of group think and a cult of personality.

Rating 7: A disturbing and personal memoir from a former member of a cult, “Scarred” sheds some insight into NXIVM and continues to try to make amends.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scarred” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of now, but it is included on “Canadian NonFiction- Fall 2019”, and I think it would fit in on “People Who Have Left Cults or Religious Fundamentalism (Memoirs and Biographies)”.

Find “Scarred” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Bard’s Blade”

45046604Book: “The Bard’s Blade” by Brian D. Anderson

Publishing Info: Tor Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Mariyah enjoys a simple life in Vylari, a land magically sealed off from the outside world, where fear and hatred are all but unknown. There she’s a renowned wine maker and her betrothed, Lem, is a musician of rare talent. Their destiny has never been in question. Whatever life brings, they will face it together.

But destiny has a way of choosing its own path, and when a stranger crosses the wards into Vylari for the first time in centuries, the two are faced with a terrible prophecy. For beyond the borders, an ancient evil is returning, its age-old prison shattered.

The two must leave their home behind, and in doing so will face sorcerers and thieves, con-men and assassins, treachery and greed. How far down this path will they have to go to stop the rising darkness and save their home? And how much of themselves will they have to give up along the way?

Review: I requested this book based mostly on the super cool cover art. It’s walking some line between hokey 70s pulp fantasy art and the neat modern covers you see on some of Brandon Sanderson’s books. Either way, I love it. The book description itself sounded kind of meh and familiar. In some ways, it surpassed these expectations, and in other ways…the cover’s still cool.

Vylari is an idyllic land full of happy people going about simple lives. Here, Mariyah and Lem have grown up each able to focus on their own particular skills (Mariyah’s business savvy with her family’s wine business and Lem’s amazing musical talents) while focusing on the future they will soon have together as a married couple. All of this falls apart, however, when a stranger arrives and brings news of an evil that is coming, an evil that not even the magical barrier protecting Vylari can stave off, and somehow they are connected to it. Now, out in a dangerous new world, Lem and Mariyah must not only learn how to exist in a place so different than their peaceful home, but they must also discover the secrets in Lem’s past and how to prevent the evil that is coming.

This book was kind of hit and miss for me. While I did read it quickly and it was enjoyable enough, looking back on it, there’s not a lot that stands out as super unique. It checked all of the right boxes: world-building, strong characters, a good balance of action and reflection. But there was never much more given to any of these aspects to make the book really rise above the mediocre.

For me, the strongest aspect was its two main characters. Lem and Mariyah are both compelling and interesting, each approaching their time in the strange new world they find themselves in with bravery and cunning. It was particularly interesting seeing them come across aspects of life that we would take for granted but are clearly new to them. We spend only a limited amount of time in Vylari, only enough to get a general idea of how peaceful and simple it is. It’s only once we enter the greater world that readers begin to realize just how limited Vylari was. Yes, conflict and violence are almost unheard of there, but also, horses? As a reader, I just assumed things like that exist until we come across Lem, when first entering a village in the outside world, describing some strange beast with a long neck pulling a cart. From there, I always had my eyes open for other things that one would take for granted but might be new to our main characters.

I was also intrigued by the religious institution that forcibly runs much of the world outside of Vylari. Through the innocent eyes of Lem and Mariyah, we see how shocking some of the choices are that people who are ruled by ruthless leaders would make. The people in this world expect darkness and deceit. Lem and Mariyah are completely out of their element when first experiencing it.

However, while these aspects of the story were interesting enough, I was never able to become fully invested in the story. I wasn’t able to sink into it and instead was very aware of the process of reading it. It’s always hard to pin down in a review the quality in some books that leads to a reading experience like this. This makes it doubly unfortunate: I don’t have an exciting read and then I struggle to explain why the book was a bit of a miss for me. Like I mentioned earlier, I think much of the problem was simply that nothing felt super new. Lem and Mariyah, while strong enough characters, didn’t really stand out in any particular way. They weren’t annoying or problematic, they just were…people. And the idea of a world kept magically away from another was a concept I’ve run across several times in other fantasy works, and there wasn’t a whole lot here that differentiated this book from those. It’s a fine read. But not much more than that, unfortunately.

Rating 7: Nothing made me super excited. Nothing made me angry. Ultimately, nothing made me really care that much.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bard’s Blade” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Best Books 2020.”

Find“The Bard’s Blade” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Containment”

41xlqrp7yslBook: “Containment” (The Cerenia Chronicles Book 2) by Angela Howes

Publishing Info: Fine Tuned Editing, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The author provided me with a PDF copy.

Book Description: She made her choice. Now, she must live with the consequences. As Phoebe’s family and friends fight for their lives, she finds herself drawn further into the enigmatic world of the Council, caught in a struggle between lying low and inciting war. But as more allies emerge from the shadows, Phoebe must decide whether she has what it takes to lead a rebellion … especially when it could mean losing everything and everyone that matters to her.

Review: First I want to extend a special thank you to Angela Howes for reaching out and sending me a copy of this book!

YA dystopia seems to be mostly out of style, at least in the circles of YA enthusiasts that I associate with or follow. But given that I haven’t lost my interest in it, I was pretty excited when Angela Howes reached out to me with news that her second book in the Cerenia Chronicles, “Containment”, was coming out! Given that I enjoyed the first in the series, “Assignment”, I was eager to see where things were going to go for our protagonist Phoebe, her two suitors Sky and Noah, and the rest of the mild dictatorship of Cerenia. Especially since we left it on such a cliffhanger.

When we left off, Phoebe, Sky, and Noah had all achieved freedom by making it to The Jungle, where defectors and former prisoners of Cerenia have been building a rebellion. Phoebe decided to infiltrate the Cerenia Council in hopes of overthrowing the corruption. Unfortunately, Noah and Sky have ended up in captivity because of this, with Noah in prison and Sky in a Box, an almost guaranteed death sentence. The book flip flops between these three perspectives, with Phoebe hoping to outwit and influence the Council members, Sky hoping to escape his death sentence (and I mean, of course he does, mild spoiler alert but it happens pretty quick), and Noah hoping to get out of jail. Of all three perspectives, Phoebe’s was by far the most interesting. I liked watching her have to play 3D chess and having to make really difficult decisions, sometimes decisions that would be life or death, all to try and fit in in hopes of taking down corruption from the inside. I thought that her inner struggles and her ruthlessness meshed well together, and thought that it was a huge benefit to her characterization. Sometimes her calculations were cold and unnerving, and yet I believed that she would be making them. I also liked getting into Sky’s head as he has to rally the rebellion on the outside, all without knowing if he would ever see Phoebe, the love of his life again. Team Sky, all the way. His voice is fun and snarky, but he has enough sprinkles of vulnerability and self doubt that he doesn’t come off as an obnoxious trope.

But that leaves Noah’s narrative, which to me felt a bit superfluous if only because we don’t really have a reason to care about Noah. Or at least, I don’t have a reason to care about him. I mentioned before that I don’t like love triangles, but this particular point on this love triangle really doesn’t work for me, especially now. At this point, Phoebe has made her choice, and that choice is Sky. It’s also hard for me to let go of the fact that Noah was such a goddamn chickenshit in the first book that he was perfectly happy stringing along the girl he’d been matched with Darya, while having an affair with Phoebe, which put not only himself but Darya in danger. To me it feels like the love triangle has been resolved, and his backstory and characterization hasn’t been developed or built up enough for him to be a character we need to care about. Unless we’re going to get another love triangle plot in the third book, and boy oh boy am I hoping that isn’t the case.

There is indeed going to be a third book, as “Containment” ended on a cliffhanger. But with the way things ended this time, I’m even more interested to see where this goes this time around than I was last time around. I think we’re building to something that could be really unique, and I can’t wait to see what that may be.

Rating 7: The political intrigue and maneuvering is upped and the stakes continue to rise. “Containment” continues a solid dystopian narrative and explores the difficult decisions a person has to make for the greater good.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Containment” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but if you like books like “Divergent”“Matched”, or “The Testing” you will probably find this one fun as well!

“Containment” isn’t in very many libraries as of now, but you can find it on Amazon.

Previously reviewed: “Assignment”

 

Kate’s Review: “Jane Anonymous”

37650881._sy475_Book: “Jane Anonymous” by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC by the publisher via NetGalley

Book Description: Bestselling author Laurie Faria Stolarz returns with Jane Anonymous, a gripping tale of a seventeen-year-old girl’s kidnapping and her struggle to fit back into her life after she escapes.

Then, “Jane” was just your typical 17-year-old in a typical New England suburb getting ready to start her senior year. She had a part-time job she enjoyed, an awesome best friend, overbearing but loving parents, and a crush on a boy who was taking her to see her favorite band. She never would’ve imagined that in her town where nothing ever happens, a series of small coincidences would lead to a devastating turn of events that would forever change her life.

Now, it’s been three months since “Jane” escaped captivity and returned home. Three months of being that girl who was kidnapped, the girl who was held by a “monster.” Three months of writing down everything she remembered from those seven months locked up in that stark white room. But, what if everything you thought you knew―everything you thought you experienced―turned out to be a lie?

Review: Thanks to Wednesday Books and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

In so many books the involve missing people or missing women, if the missing person is found alive and is able to return home that is usually the end of the book. The investigator is a hero, the victim gets to return to their life, and the story is considered to be happy, or at least positive. But the truth of the matter is that in real life, anyone who survives a harrowing and violent experience such as that has a lot more story to live and tell after they are rescued or recovered. And “Jane Anonymous” ventures to examine that concept, that the ‘happy ending’ isn’t necessarily guaranteed, and that the fallout of the trauma isn’t easily reconciled with the joy of returning to one’s life. Is it a rough book because of it? Hell yes. But it’s a theme that I haven’t encountered as much as I have the ‘happily ever after’ conclusion in stories like these.

“Jane Anonymous” is told through two timelines. The first is Jane’s time directly before and during captivity. The second is Jane’s life in the weeks and months after she escapes, and how she is coping after her trauma. Both of them create an entire story labeled as ‘Then” and “Now”, and it’s told as though Jane is writing down her experiences as a way to try to make sense of everything. Stolarz is vague about the details of setting, as Jane not only refers to herself as Jane Anonymous, but she also says that she’s living in ‘New England Town’ so the reader can feel like this could be a number of places. We juxtapose what happened to her in captivity along with how she is functioning back in her life with the trauma of it, and it’s honest and raw and very tense. Stolarz does a very effective and believable job of conveying just how the trauma would effect a person who was held in a small room all alone for seven months, and how coming back to her old life is going to be incredibly difficult. I thought that coping mechanisms and panic attacks and PTSD symptoms were portrayed convincingly, and also thought that the strain on not only Jane’s experiences but also the experiences of those that love her was also very well done. The ‘Now’ sections were almost harder to read because the idea of being ‘home’ is so dismantled and examined, and Jane and her family are still in such turmoil. It reminded me of the book “Room”, but tackled more head on since it wasn’t through the eyes of a little kid who can’t comprehend what happened. Jane comprehends. And therefore we are forced to.

The ‘Then’ sections read more like a traditional thriller, and while it was indeed suspenseful there were parts of it that were predictable. While it’s a foregone conclusion that Jane is going to escape, Stolarz does attempt to create a tension about how she is going to do it. The thing that sustains her is Mason, the voice in the vents who says he’s also been captured by the same lunatic. As Jane and Mason cling to each other and their relationship is all that can sustain her, you see how having one person there gives Jane the strength that she needs, and seeing he determination to survive is definitely a compelling part of these sections. That said, there are a couple of twists that I called pretty early on, and I’m not sure if that’s because they weren’t hidden particularly well, or because I have just read so many books like this that I know what to look for, trope wise. That said, it wasn’t like that ruined anything for me when it came to the story. It may have been the weaker of the two time frames, but it was still highly enjoyable.

“Jane Anonymous” doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the fallout of trauma. It’s honest and upsetting, but also pulls at the heartstrings as you see a girl try to begin to heal, as hard as it may be.

Rating 7: An emotional and at times a little predictable thriller about having to rebuild your life after a horrible trauma, “Jane Anonymous” was both suspenseful and moving.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jane Anonymous” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Kidnapped!”.

Find “Jane Anonymous” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Rust Maidens”

40874196Book: “The Rust Maidens” by Gwendolyn Kiste

Publishing Info: Trepidatio Publishing, November 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Something’s happening to the girls on Denton Street.

It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.

Review: I honestly couldn’t tell you where I heard about “The Rust Maidens” if you asked me. I THINK that it was on a Goodreads list at one point, but I can’t tell you what the theme of said list would be. Probably horror, but still. All I know is that it came in for me at the library, and when I picked it up I thought to myself ‘oh yeah….’ The reason I say that I only think that it was probably on a horror list but am not certain is because “The Rust Maidens” is one of the most unique horror stories I’ve read in the past year or two, based on the themes that it decides to take on along with some good old fashioned body horror you might see in an early Cronenberg film.

“The Rust Maidens” is a tale of decay, both the decay of the human body and the decay of a once prosperous part of Americana. In Cleveland, Ohio in 1980 Phoebe is a working class teenager living in a working class neighborhood. The community has put on a face of togetherness and wholesome American values, while the livelihood of a number of the men, the mill, has been experiencing more and more uncertainty. Phoebe’s story is told during the summer of 1980, and also almost thirty years later when she has to return to the neighborhood after years of grief and guilt. Spunky and rabble rouser Phoebe of 1980 is a stark contrast to the jaded and affected Phoebe of later life, and the changes over the years, which seemed to catalyze with the Rust Maidens, are now very apparent in her old neighborhood. The fact of the matter is that “The Rust Maidens” is a story of degeneration, not just of the afflicted girls, but of the community around them, and the decay of the American Working Class once the 1980s hit. While the Rust Maidens are slowly wasting away, Denton Street and the blue collar workers who live there are facing yet another potential strike at the mill. Phoebe’s family and neighbors believe that the promise of that job will always be there for them, even as the union gets continuously beaten down and the specter of the upcoming Reagan years lingers. Decay takes on many meanings in this book, and Kiste isn’t afraid to point out that when people are scared, scapegoats are sought out. And the Rust Maidens are the perfect scapegoats. It’s fully intentional that Kiste made the neighborhood turn on a bunch of scared and ‘sick’ teenage girls, given that they had already turned on Phoebe before for daring to not conform. The aggression comes from all sides, from deadbeat boyfriends to angry old men to women who think that girls should be and act a certain way. The metaphors are real, and the feminism in this horror story is angry and apparent.

And on top of the themes, the body horror is VERY real. The descriptions of the Rust Maidens as their bodies start to change and wither away/transform is unsettling at best, and revolting at it’s worst. But on top of that, it’s also very upsetting on an emotional level to see these girls be maligned and feared, and to see how some of them react to the revulsion towards them. Being extra sensitive to such things right now, one of the Rust Maidens is a new mother, and her child whisked away from her because of her condition. She is constantly drawn to the baby, who is placed with the father and his family even though he’s a complete lout. The descriptions of the mother’s pain, even when she was starting to become something else, had me crying pretty handily, so thanks for that, Gwendolyn Kiste!

“The Rust Maidens” is a unique and fascinating horror novel. Those who like their body horror with a little bit of metaphor should check it out post haste!

Rating 7: A bleak and angry examination of decay and the expectations of teenage girls, “The Rust Maidens” serves body horror and feminism in heaping, scathing doses.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Rust Maidens” is included on the Goodreads Lists “Best First Novels: Bram Stoker Award Winners”, and “2018 Indie Horror Book Releases”.

Find “The Rust Maidens” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Good Girls Lie”

42771599Book: “Good Girls Lie” by J.T. Ellison

Publishing Info: Mira Books, December 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

Book Description: Perched atop a hill in the tiny town of Marchburg, Virginia, The Goode School is a prestigious prep school known as a Silent Ivy. The boarding school of choice for daughters of the rich and influential, it accepts only the best and the brightest. Its elite status, long-held traditions and honor code are ideal for preparing exceptional young women for brilliant futures at Ivy League universities and beyond. But a stranger has come to Goode, and this ivy has turned poisonous.

In a world where appearances are everything, as long as students pretend to follow the rules, no one questions the cruelties of the secret societies or the dubious behavior of the privileged young women who expect to get away with murder. But when a popular student is found dead, the truth cannot be ignored. Rumors suggest she was struggling with a secret that drove her to suicide.

But look closely…because there are truths and there are lies, and then there is everything that really happened.

J.T. Ellison’s pulse-pounding new novel examines the tenuous bonds of friendship, the power of lies and the desperate lengths people will go to to protect their secrets.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

The end of 2019 is upon us and on this New Years Eve we are going to close out the 2019 blog year with one of my favorite guilty pleasure genres: the soapy catty boarding school thriller! Oh how I love the juicy and scandalous tales of kids at boarding school behaving badly, and if you have an interesting mystery to boot it’s just icing on the cake. So how lucky for me that I was approved to check out “Good Girls Lie” by J.T. Ellison. Boarding school drama, secret societies, and murder are just a few of the juicy tidbits you’ll find in this novel.

Our main character is Ash, an English orphan who has been accepted to the prestigious Goode school, an all girls academy that is said to produce women who go on to the Ivy League and then find themselves in powerful jobs and totally set lives. Ash isn’t interested in making friends, as she just wants to finish school and move on with her life. It’s told from the first person perspective, and I have to say that Ellison is really good at still maintaining a sense of mystery in spite of the fact we are in Ash’s head for most of the novel (there are some other perspectives, but more on that later). We know that something went down while she was back in England, and that Ash is hiding something. Pretty standard stuff, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not entertaining. If anything, the fact that it hit a lot of familiar notes and had a number of red herrings and twists made it feel like a comfortable sweater that fit in every way I wanted it to. Ash as a main character was also a positive of this story, as I thought that she had enough mystery and relatability that I was invested in how things turned out for her, as well as worried about what she may or may not be capable of. I was genuinely questioning if I was dealing with an unreliable narrator or not, and I couldn’t wait to see how it all shook out. I also enjoyed the complicated relationship Ash had with another student at the school, Becca. Becca is a couple years older than Ash and one of the most envied, and perhaps feared, girls at Goode, and her interest in Ash is something that makes other girls jealous and curious. Their friendship is filled with a fair amount of sexual tension, and question as to whether either of them can be trusted makes the tension all the more amped, and therefore satisfying.

There was one aspect of this book that didn’t totally work for me, and that is that along with Ash’s perspective, we also occasionally get some third person perspectives from Dean Ford, the headmistress at Goode. While I think that multiple perspectives can be done well, and that you can construct more ‘ah ha!’ moments if you have the ability to see outside the first person narration, a lot of the moments that we had with Ford were more about showing her weaknesses and personal problems. I like the concept of exploring a woman who has to live up to the reputations of the many other head mistresses that the school has had (in particular, her mother, who was the previous head mistress), and how she may fixate on a new, and potentially damaged student, but the way that it was executed felt like it was fat that could have been trimmed.

“Good Girls Lie” was a boarding school thriller that hit the familiar points. Like I’ve said before, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing! If you want a read that you can just enjoy for what it is, and you like boarding school thrillers, this will be a good fit. I hope that you all have a very happy and safe New Year’s Eve, and I’ll see you in 2020!!

Rating 7: A soapy mystery with catty drama, “Good Girls Lie” was a worthy contribution to the ‘thriller at a boarding school’ genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girls Lie” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Sapphic Boarding School Books”.

Find “Good Girls Lie” at your school using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance”

44244324Book: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” by Jennieke Cohen

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Lady Victoria Aston has everything she could want: an older sister happily wed, the future of her family estate secure, and ample opportunity to while her time away in the fields around her home.

But now Vicky must marry—or find herself and her family destitute. Armed only with the wisdom she has gained from her beloved novels by Jane Austen, she enters society’s treacherous season.

Sadly, Miss Austen has little to say about Vicky’s exact circumstances: whether the roguish Mr. Carmichael is indeed a scoundrel, if her former best friend, Tom Sherborne, is out for her dowry or for her heart, or even how to fend off the attentions of the foppish Mr. Silby, he of the unfortunate fashion sensibility.

Most unfortunately of all, Vicky’s books are silent on the topic of the mysterious accidents cropping up around her…ones that could prevent her from surviving until her wedding day.

Review: “…An Austentacious Romance.” Need I say more? I’ve been debating doing a re-read of all of Jane Austen’s novels for the blog, so as a middle ground in the mean time, this was an obvious book to request. I often don’t enjoy straight re-tellings of Austen’s stories (often they are made into contemporary romances, and I just don’t care for those myself), but this one seemed to have struck on something new: a historical piece that both pulls from the themes found in Austen’s books and straight up references those books as reading material that the heroine herself is fond of. Part of this equation work, however, on the whole, this was less than I had wanted it to be.

Lady Victoria Aston has always tried to model her life around her favorite heroines, those found in Jane Austen’s works. So, when difficulties suddenly strike her family and she finds herself suddenly needing to marry well to secure their futures, she looks to these wise and witty ladies once again for guidance. But be it rogues who are much more dangerous than those found in the pages of a book or a childhood friend who has secrets of his own, Lady Vicky quickly finds that life is much more complicated than she had thought. And it’s not only the typical challenges of the marriage market that plague her, but somehow dangerous accidents seem to be cropping up everywhere as well. Is it all connected and, more importantly, what would Jane Austen do in this situation?

Obviously, for me, this is a fantastic premise for a book. Austen re-tellings are found all over the place, some successful, others…less so. But what a fun idea, to pull from common aspects found within Austen’s novels all while referencing those very books in the story itself with a main character whose story takes place in our own world and the time of Austen’s publications. It’s a fun idea, but unfortunately, it ends up being a bit too much.

The elements of the story that are not direct references to Austen’s work do end up coming across better. We have characters who definitely fall into familiar categories from Austen’s works: the rogues, the fools, the loving sisters. There are also familiar plot points, especially with regards to the romantic confusions and the family relationships. For herself, Vicky is a capable heroine. And, given the necessity of this book being read by modern readers, she’s much more proactive and involved in the action of the plot than some of Austen’s own leading ladies. If this does lend a bit of a anachronistic feeling to the story, it’s at least a familiar flaw for books in the historical romance genre.

That said, while some of the humor and romance do line up well with Austen’s own books, these lighter topics sit awkwardly next to some much darker themes. This is where the first of my complaints really came to play. I’m not saying that books in this genre can’t touch on darker themes, but handling them is a delicate thing. The book is tripping along happily and then BANG! A super dark scene is thrown at the reader. It was jarring and unexpected in a bad way. For a book that has the words “Austentacious romance” in the title,  there are some expectations laid down from the start. And while many of those were fulfilled, some of these darker bits did not lay comfortably with the rest. And after the second such instance, I was thrown out of the book enough to continue reading only warily, which resulted in my inability to fully immerse myself again in the fluffy fun of it all.

My second problem came with the Jane Austen references themselves, bizarrely enough. I’m not quite sure if ultimately I was just less enthralled with this concept as a whole once I actually started reading it, or whether this book just over-played its hand. There were simply too many of them! Almost every situation had Vicky comparing herself to one or another of Austen’s heroines.

And many of these references weren’t to well-known aspects of Austen’s works. This part, to some extent, I did enjoy as it proved that the author wasn’t just cherry picking the popular, well-known, and commonly referenced bits of Austen’s work. No, readers actually need to be familiar with many of Austen’s lesser read books, specifically “Mansfield Park” which received a lot of attention here and whose heroine, Fanny Price, often falls last on many people’s lists of favorites. But, all of that said, this does leave the book in the awkward position of only being truly appreciated by hard and fast Austen lovers, the very people who are likely to be the most critical of other books, such as this one, that are trying to emulate those beloved titles.

All told, however, there were just too many of these references for my taste. There were several moments where the comparisons did nothing to further enlighten the scene or character being contrasted in this book and only served to break up the action and distract the reader. I can’t say for certain that it would have been better without the references at all, but thinking back on it, I’m not sure it would be any worse for losing them either.

Overall, this was kind of a disappointing book for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think for the most part it delivers on what it promises. But I think the story does throw in some darker scenes that don’t mesh well with the light-hearted nature of the rest of the book and the Austen references ended up being more a distraction than anything. Reader who enjoy historical romance will still likely enjoy this book. But know that you’ll need to be familiar with more than just “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” to fully appreciate this story!

Rating 7: A neat little book that didn’t feel quite settled with itself: tonal inconsistency and an imbalance between original work and Austen references made up most of my complaints.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Regency and Jane Austen variations published in 2019.

Find “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” at your library using WorldCat!