Kate’s Review & Giveaway: “Senlin Ascends”

35271523Book: “Senlin Ascends” by Josiah Bancroft

Publishing Info: Orbit, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. Soon after arriving for his honeymoon at the Tower, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, Thomas Senlin, gets separated from his wife, Marya, in the overwhelming swarm of tourists, residents, and miscreants.

Senlin is determined to find Marya, but to do so he’ll have to navigate madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassins, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just endure.

This quiet man of letters must become a man of action. 

Review: I firstly want to thank Orbit publishing for sending me an ARC copy of “Senlin Ascends”!

For someone who used to work in a historic Victorian house in full Victorian maid’s uniform (and sometimes Victorian style undergarments), I’m surprisingly not in tune with steampunk literature. My only steps in the genre are Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comic series, and the book “The Clockwork Scarab”. But when Orbit sent me “Senlin Ascends”, it became clear quite quickly that I was going to be jumping right into the deep end of a complex and steampunky world. I will admit that I was a bit overwhelmed at first as I got to know Thomas Senlin, cautious and meek school teacher, and his excursion into a technology ridden and complex Tower of Babel. But as I read on, I got into the groove.

The first thing that struck me was how intricate and creative this alternate world is that Josiah Bancroft has created. The Tower of Babel is an imposing structure from Biblical Mythology, and Bancroft transports it to a Victorian-esque time period in a world that is similar to our own, but not quite the same. The references to Victorian societal norms and fashions within a world of steam blimps and flying ships was very fun, as were the strange puzzles and conflicts within the Tower itself as Senlin moves his way through, hoping to find his lost wife, Myra. From drug dens to maniacal plays to space piracy, Bancroft puts Senlin in a world that he, and the reader, doesn’t see coming. I enjoyed jumping from scenario to scenario, experiencing it through the eyes of someone just as uninitiated as I was. The writing itself to describe this world was lyrical and flowing, reminding me of more classical styles similar to an adventure novel by Verne or Stevenson. It was just another nod to the time that steampunk tends to function in, and it fit the story perfectly.

I also enjoyed seeing the journey of Senlin himself. He starts as a meek and pragmatic school teacher from a small town, who brings is effervescent and new bride Mayra to the Tower in hopes of a vibrant honeymoon. All he knows of the Tower is what he has read in guidebooks, which make it seem fascinating and wondrous. As he comes to realize that it is, in fact, far more dangerous than he was led to believe, he has to confront himself and his own pitfalls and weaknesses if he wants to get Mayra back. To be frank, when Senlin starts out he is naive and privileged, and his transformation to hero is a slow one. It’s one thing if you start out merely naive, but it seems that Bancroft deliberately wanted to make him earn his hero status, as Senlin starts out with maddening cowardice, whose idealism has put his wife in serious danger that he can’t quite confront. I would go so far as to say that Senlin starts out as a rather unlikable character, as he abandons people who are helping him or working with him if he can escape with his tail between his legs. But to start him out this way means that he is going to learn from his mistakes, and by learning he becomes a better, if more hardened, person more equipped to function within the corrupt tower. His rotating companions and allies all have their roles to play in his growth, and I liked meeting them and seeing how he interacted with them.

But there was a glaring issue I took with “Senlin Ascends”, and that is how women have functioned within the narrative thus far. The most important, of course, is Mayra, and while we do get a little bit more insight beyond his here and there, she is very much objectified as a victim to be saved. She disappears within the first pages, and becomes this specter of longing who is merely idealized and not explored as a person, but as an ideal. I’m hoping that she does show up more in the later books and can become more than a beautiful, missing woman in a red helmet (side note: I love the fashions described in this book, and if this is what steampunk fashion is for the most part, I’m down!). Then there was Edith, one of the first people Senlin meets in the Tower. While she has ended up in a pretty cool place by the time he meets up with her again, what we see on page is her being put through the ringer and tortured, and not really any of the triumphs that bring her to final, self actualized state. It’s great she gets there eventually, but it would have meant more to see it. There is Voleta, who is the sister of one of Senlin’s companions, who was forced into performing acrobatics for abusive and corrupt men of power, another damsel in distress. And finally there’s Iren, an insanely strong enforcer who Senlin teaches how to read. While she was intriguing in her storyline, wanting to learn to read and become more that just brute force, she was, again, a woman to be saved in some way. I am going to give all of this the benefit of the doubt for now, as this is book one in a series and there are more books for all of them to come into their own. But I had hoped that women would play more of a role in this book beyond motivation for men.

Those issues aside, I did find “Senlin Ascends” to be a compelling story with lots of really neat ideas.

Rating 7: An exciting adventure novel with an interesting protagonist. I wish that female characters weren’t relegated to victim status, but am hoping in the next book they will get more to do and be more fleshed out.

But there’s more! I am giving away a free ARC of this novel! Given the indie success of this book and the other books in the series, I’m thinking that it will make a splash in the mainstream publishing world! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only, and will be running until January 23rd!

Enter The Giveaway Here! 

Reader’s Advisory:

“Senlin Ascends” is just getting started and isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Steampunk”, and “Best Steampunk and Gaslight Works”.

Find “Senlin Ascends” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “It’s Always The Husband”

31451082Book: “It’s Always The Husband” by Michele Campbell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Kate, Aubrey, and Jenny. They first met as college roommates and soon became inseparable, even though they are as different as three women can be. Twenty years later, one of them is standing at the edge of a bridge . . and someone else is urging her to jump.

How did things come to this?

As the novel cuts back and forth between their college years and their adult years, you see the exact reasons why these women love and hate each other—but can feelings that strong lead to murder? Or will everyone assume, as is often the case, that it’s always the husband? 

Review: On the show “Major Crimes”, one of my favorite characters, Detective Lt. Provenza, has a tag line that he lives by. “It’s always the husband, it’s always the husband it’s ALWAYS the husband.” Of course, on the show it isn’t ALWAYS the husband, but it plays to the sad statistic that when a woman is murdered, the odds are that her murderer is going to be her husband or boyfriend. It probably doesn’t surprise you that when I first heard of the book “It’s Always The Husband” by Michele Campbell that this phrase was going through my head. But like on “Major Crimes”, I had a feeling going in that it would be a bit more complicated than the steadfast and all too real adage that Provenza likes to toss about.

The story is told through two time periods that tend to flip flop from one to the other. The first is twenty years in the past, when three women start their freshman year of college at a prestigious school in New England. Aubrey is the girl who got there solely on her brains, and is escaping an impoverished life back in Nevada. Jenny is a townie who has ambitions and hopes to become more than her small town expectations. And Kate is the entitled and rick party girl, who expects life to be handed to her. Their differences were stark and while I had a hard time believing that they would have been as close as the book makes them out to be (specifically Jenny; I just don’t believe that she would have put up with Kate’s bullshit), I felt like they were all well explored and fleshed out. I liked seeing how they changed and shifted in their personalities from their freshman year to the present day, when they have all gone their separate ways and established themselves. I also liked that none of them were all good, or all bad. While Kate was absolutely a wretched and toxic human being, Campbell threw in some background and plot points that humanized her. While Jenny was determined and incredibly competent, and absolutely my favorite of the three main characters, she makes stupid decisions and mistakes that I wanted to smack her upside the head for. And Aubrey is so damaged and innocent that you definitely feel sorry for her, but a dark side lingers there, and when it rears it’s ugly head you can’t help but be a bit freaked out by it. As a reader I cared about all of them in some way, and was invested in how things turned out for all of them, and who it was that ended up on that bridge. It may also be a testament to how good the narrator was on this audiobook, as she varied her voices and inflections for each character wonderfully.

The mystery itself was very well done. The clues to what happened are laid out in both the past and the present, giving hints both in actions and the characters personality traits. This book definitely kept me guessing as it went on, and I never had a complete handle on what the ultimate solution was, which I really liked. My thoughts and opinions shifted in the ways that Campbell probably wanted them to, and I didn’t even mind that I was being led about like a puppet on a string because it was so fun to be taken on this journey. It eventually becomes clear just who it is on the bridge, but even getting to that first reveal was a fun trip to take, and it was even more enticing to find out who put her in that position, and why.

I will say that there were a couple of things that I took umbrage with. For one, there is a storyline with the new Chief of police in town who is investigating the murder, Owen. He goes in completely biased, as he had a VERY short dalliance with the victim before she ends up dead, and I found myself just irritated with everything about him and his motivations. I also found it a bit hard to swallow that an unexpected dinner with a woman who didn’t even give him her real name would affect him so much, no matter how magnetic she was, and it felt like an unnecessary way to throw in some drama. There are plenty of cops who try to fit evidence to a perp as opposed to the other way around without having a personal connection to the victim, so that seemed a bit superfluous. And this book also does that thing that I just cannot stand, in that in the last page and paragraphs of the book a FINAL TWIST is revealed. Man, that made me roll my eyes super hard. But unlike other books that have implemented this strategy in my recent reading, I enjoyed this one enough for everything else that I couldn’t hold it  totally against it. Just know that it’s coming.

“It’s Always The Husband” was a sudsy and compelling thriller that I had a great time listening to. While it had some flaws, overall I greatly enjoyed it. And I think that it would truly get Provenza to rethink his usual mantra.

Rating 7: A fast paced and well plotted thriller with some great revelations and some great surprises. One plot line was a bit tedious and frustrating, but overall I enjoyed what this book had to give.

Reader’s Advisory:

“It’s Always The Husband” is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 Librarian Recommended Books”, and “Best Twists”.

Find “It’s Always The Husband” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Poison Dark and Drowning”

33629245Book: “A Poison Dark and Drowning” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: Blogging for Books

Book Description: Henrietta doesn’t need a prophecy to know that she’s in danger. She came to London to be named the chosen one, the first female sorcerer in centuries, the one who would defeat the bloodthirsty Ancients. Instead, she discovered a city ruled by secrets. And the biggest secret of all: Henrietta is not the chosen one.

Still, she must play the role in order to keep herself and Rook, her best friend and childhood love, safe. But can she truly save him? The poison in Rook’s system is transforming him into something monstrous as he begins to master dark powers of his own.

So when Henrietta finds a clue to the Ancients’ past that could turn the tide of the war, she persuades Blackwood, the mysterious Earl of Sorrow-Fell, to travel up the coast to seek out strange new weapons. And Magnus, the brave, reckless flirt who wants to win back her favor, is assigned to their mission. Together, they will face monsters, meet powerful new allies, and uncover the most devastating weapon of all: the truth.

Previously Reviewed: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”

Review: I wasn’t a huge fan of “A Shadow Bright and Burning.” It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but I had a few distinct issues with it and, perhaps worse, after reading it, I pretty much forgot about it and the fact that it was the first in a trilogy. But then “A Poison Dark and Drowning” popped up on Blogging for Books, and I thought “why the heck not?” I also requested an audiobook version from the library, since we all know how I am about needing my multiple formats. And, in this case particularly, I’m very glad I did! While this wasn’t a perfect book and several of my concerns from the first came to fruition here, this sequel is definitely an improvement on the first, increasing the stakes, expanding the setting, and, for the audiobook, read by an awesome narrator who added much needed depth and tone to Henrietta’s voice.

Opening shortly after the end of the first novel, Henrietta has settled into her new life as a sorcerer. As well as she can, that is, knowing that she is being asked to live a lie and pose as the prophesied savior. London is in a precarious point in the war against the almost all-powerful Ancients, lead by the horrifying Skinned Man, Relim. Yes, at the end of the last book they struck a crucial blow, killing one of the Ancients for the first time ever. But the protective ward around the city fell as a result, and now they all wait, exposed, wondering why Relim hasn’t yet struck. Throughout all of this, Henrietta’s focus is also drawn more close to home as her childhood friend and love, Rook, begins to succumb to the darkness that has poisoned him after being attacked in the last book.

It is clear that Cluess felt much more freed up, as it were, when she wrote this novel. It’s not even that surprising. She had a lot of ground to cover in the first book including world-building, the mysteries surrounding Henrietta’s family, and setting up not one but two magic systems. Here, with all of these factors already in place, it feels like the author was finally able to open her wings. The pacing of this story was much more active, and the magical elements fit more naturally into the storyline. Henrietta’s tale takes outside of London, onto the treacherous ocean, ruled by a monstrous spider Ancient, to a misty moor hiding a monster hunter’s house, down into the land of fairy that is ruled by the capricious and cruel Queen Mab, and through many different battles, with the Ancients themselves, as well as their creepy familiars.

Henrietta herself is also more fully fleshed out in this novel. While she still had a tendency to withhold information and lie more often than is likely wise (a pet peeve of mine with YA heroines), she’s also more sure of herself and of her own powers, specifically her magicians magic. She also barely avoids the typical “martyr complex” also all too familiar for YA heroines, and still maintains a practical head on her shoulder, even when atrocities are being committed simply to lure her out. Part of my increased appreciated for Henrietta is due to the clever and nuanced voice that the audiobook narrator managed to give the character. There were moments where she added tones of humor, exasperation, and sense to dialogue that may have read more melodramatic simply from the page. It’s one of those tricky things, in cases like this. I honestly can’t tell how much of my improved attitude towards this character comes from the way she was written (was the characterization actually stronger?) or from simply enjoying this narrator quite a bit (would I have appreciated the first book’s version of Henrietta more had I listened to the audiobook version of that one too?).  Ultimately, I do think that Henrietta’s storyline was much stronger in this book, largely freed from the angst and drama from the first book.

We also delved more deeply into Henrietta’s history and into the mystery surrounding how and why the portal that let the Ancients into this world was open 17 years ago. While I found some of this to be fairly predictable, there were enough twists and turns added to still make the reveals feel new and interesting.

The stakes were also much higher in this story. The ward is down, London is in danger, and the odds are not good. And these things aren’t simply left as passive threats. There are battles, soldiers die. Towns are destroyed, and civilians suffer. Beyond this, there are consequences, real and terrible consequences, to the choices that characters make. I was surprised and impressed by the author’s commitment to “going there” with some of these decisions. This added seriousness of tone did a lot to balance out my major, and predictable criticism of this book: a love square.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, the story is set up with Henrietta surrounded by a bunch of young men, all potential love interests in some manner or another. In that book we had Rook, Henrietta’s childhood love, and Magnus, the charming rogue. The story ended with Henrietta choosing Rook, in no little part due to the fact that Magnus turned into a jerk who was not only already engaged but let loose that he thought Henrietta was beneath him. But here, not only does Magnus get freed back up, breaking his engagement, but somehow is retconned into being much more regretful about his previous behavior. Henrietta’s heart is with Rook, however his descent into darkness and the unknowable future make their relationship challenge. And now we also add in Blackwood, the dark and brooding magicain who was slow to warn to Henrietta in the first book, but looks to be being slotted into a sort of “Mr. Darcy/bad boy” role where he’s made better by his close friendship with Henrietta, a relationship that, at first only on his side but slowly on hers as well, begins to blossom into something more.

The worst part of all of this was the fact that the book was clipping along until about halfway through with barely a reference to any romance, other than a few thoughts and concerns shot Rook’s way. And then BAM, right in the middle of the story and the action the brakes were thrown on and the story became stuck in love-triangle/square-melodrama. Thankfully, the story did kick back into the action eventually, but there were times in the middle of this section where I almost put the book down. I really don’t understand why this is considered to be necessary in YA fantasy. The story was so strong without it, and sure a dash of romance is often appreciated, but tonally, the book takes a massive swerve when it suddenly commits so much page time to these silly romantic flounderings. And ultimately, this middle section soured my opinion on all the characters involved: Henrietta, Blackwood, Rook. Magnus, bizarrely, probably comes out of all of this in the best light. And in the end, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about where things stand. Who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for? The fact that I can’t tell is the biggest problem, and ultimately, I wish Henrietta would just kick them all to the side and go have awesome adventures with Maria.

To end on a good note, Maria, a Scottish witch they pick up on their travels, was probably my favorite part of this story. Not only does she add the much needed female companion to Henrietta, but as a character herself, she’s excellent. Through her we see the horrors that the witches have suffered, alongside the magicians who we’ve heard about through Henrietta’s story, during the systematized persecution put in place after the portal was opened years ago. She has a powerful magical ability, and she wields an ax. And, best of all, the story sets her up in a pivotal role going forward. Again, Henrietta, girl, throw those boys away and hang with Maria. Rook = no personality. Blackwood = kind of a jerk with controlling tendencies. Magnus = already showed his cards as a player. Maria = besty who is the only one Henrietta is comfortable being completely truthful with. Seems pretty obvious to me.

Ultimately, I did enjoy “A Poison Dark and Drowning” more than the first. The story is given increased depth and danger, and while some of my predictions regarding the plethora of love interests did come to icky fruition, the added character of Maria makes up for it. If you like audiobooks, I do recommend checking out that version of the story as some of my increased opinion could be due to the narrator’s skillful reading.

Rating 7: Full of action and dark twisty magic, if unfortunately interrupted by silly romantic entanglements at times.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“A Poison Dark and Drowning” is fairly new and isn’t on any very relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Victorian YA Novels.”

Find “A Poison Dark and Drowning”  at your library using WorldCat.

 

Serena’s Review: “The Fifth Petal”

29741905Book: “The Fifth Petal” by Brunonia Barry

Publishing Info: Crown, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: Blogging For Books

Book Description: When a teenage boy dies suspiciously on Halloween night, Salem’s chief of police, John Rafferty wonders if there is a connection between his death and Salem’s most notorious cold case, a triple homicide dubbed “The Goddess Murders,” in which three young women, all descended from accused Salem witches, were slashed on Halloween night in 1989. He finds unexpected help in Callie Cahill, the daughter of one of the victims newly returned to town. Neither believes that the main suspect, Rose Whelan, respected local historian, is guilty of murder or witchcraft.

But exonerating Rose might mean crossing paths with a dangerous force. Were the women victims of an all-too-human vengeance, or was the devil raised in Salem that night? And if they cannot discover what truly happened, will evil rise again?

Review: This is the second book by Barry, the first being “The Lace Reader.” I haven’t read this book, and when I requested this one I didn’t know that it was connected to this first novel. However, luckily for me, this story takes place many years later and any recurring characters that appear are at a different enough point in their lives that I never felt that missing this first book had much of an impact on my views of this. And, all told, they were fairly postive

As we all know by now, Kate is the horror/thriller reader on this blog, but in the spirit of Halloween, I tried to choose one book to read that month that was at least somewhat “on theme.” Enter “The Fifth Petal,” a murder mystery with ties to relations of the women accused as witches in the Salem trials. So, yeah, about as close as I’m ever going to venture to true horror. Witches, however, are more within my realm of experience and interest, so this seemed like a good compromise.

As the story progressed, I found this connection to modern day Salem and its history to be one of the more intriguing aspects of the story. Like many people, this place, time, and horrifying event, has always held a note of fascination for me. I feel that I went into this story already knowing much of this information, but I still enjoyed the nuggets I as able to pick up here and there, especially about the modern day town.

The author’s note at the end goes into good detail about how much of it is based on truth, which made these aspects of the story even better, in hindsight. Much of layout of the town is accurate, such as the location of the hanging tree. Goes to show how much good research reflects well on a story.

The story was also very action packed and never wanted for movement. This is a good and bad thing, in my view. I whipped through this read very quickly, but at the same time, portions of the story felt muddled, trying to fit too much within a limited page count. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I feel that either slowing it down in a few parts, or simply extending the page count out a bit so each of these elements had more room to breathe, would have ultimately served the novel well. At a certain point I began to question whether all of these various plotlines were necessary.

Callie was an ok leading lady. The mystery of her lost memories was interesting, but in a lot of ways she was just kind of bland. Nothing about her really stood out to me, and she ended up reading like the typical main character at the heart of stories like this. This, too, might have been improved had the author not devoted so much time to the many, many plotlines that I referenced earlier.

I also found myself enjoying the romantic spin of the story. I don’t typically read contemporary books, or contemporary romance, specifically, but every once in a while, themes from books like that can hit the spot. This book was a good compromise in this way as well. Got my romance fix, but still got to keep my fantasy/thriller moments.

Ultimately, I enjoyed “The Fifth Petal.” It wasn’t without flaws, and it falls pretty far outside of my usual reading tastes, but it was an fun enough time. It won’t stand out to me as anything special, but for readers who enjoy thrillers and contemporary romance a bit more than me, this might be a good read for you!

Rating 7: Fairly unassuming and enjoyable. Could be improved by fewer plotlines stuffed into one story, but was a quick read, especially for those interested in the Salem Witch Trials.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Fifth Petal” is a newer book, but it is on this Goodreads list: “Fall, Halloween, New England Fiction.”

Find “The Fifth Petal” at your library using WorldCat!

More information:

About Brunonia Barry

More on The Fifth Petal”

Kate’s Review: “Fragments of the Lost”

27797316Book: “Fragments of the Lost” by Megan Miranda

Publishing Info: Crown Books for Young Readers, November 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley!

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of All the Missing Girls and The Perfect Stranger comes a suspenseful psychological mystery about one girl’s search to uncover the truth behind her ex-boyfriend’s death. Perfect for fans of We Were Liars and 13 Reasons Why . 

Jessa Whitworth knew she didn’t belong in her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room. But she couldn’t deny that she was everywhere–in his photos, his neatly folded T-shirts, even the butterfly necklace in his jeans pocket . . . the one she gave him for safe keeping on that day.

His mother asked her to pack up his things–even though she blames Jessa for his accident. How could she say no? And maybe, just maybe, it will help her work through the guilt she feels about their final moments together.

But as Jessa begins to box up the pieces of Caleb’s life, they trigger memories that make Jessa realize their past relationship may not be exactly as she remembered. And she starts to question whether she really knew Caleb at all. 

Each fragment of his life reveals a new clue that propels Jessa to search for the truth about Caleb’s accident. What really happened on the storm-swept bridge?

Review: A special thank you to Crown Books for Young Readers and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

So perhaps you all remember that I read and reviewed Megan Miranda’s novel “All the Missing Girls”, and I wasn’t very impressed with it beyond the framing of it. But I was intrigued enough by her as a writer that I knew I’d probably pick up something else she had written in the future. That book happened to be “Fragments of the Lost”, a new YA psychological thriller by her. I saw that it was available on NetGalley, and decided to request it. When I finally got to reading it, I figured that I would start it one evening and make my way through, as I did with “All the Missing Girls”. But lo and behold, I actually sat down and read it in one sitting. So you know that we’re off to a pretty good start when THAT happens.

I think that what grabbed me about this book right away was Jessa, our main character. She’s a girl who has gone through the awful trauma of losing her ex-boyfriend Caleb after his car is thought to have gone off a cliff during a rainstorm and flood. She’s believable in that she has mixed feelings about cleaning out Caleb’s room, as they had broken up before his car went off the cliff on that rainy day. She was a very down to earth and realistic person, never treading into the realm of simpering or frustrating in her emotions. Which is funny, because I fully prepared myself for her to be the kind of wreck that Nicolette was in “All the Missing Girls”, and yet it was in the YA novel that Miranda’s main character was bit more nuanced. As she cleans up Caleb’s room, we get to see their relationships through flashbacks, depending on the object that she is sorting in the moment. While it had ample chances to become schmaltzy, it never did because Jessa is that well rounded and complex of a character. As for the other characters, we really only got to see them through Jessa’s eyes, so it was harder to get a gauge of who they were. I think that you certainly can give readers a handle on other characters through a main character filter, but I didn’t feel like we completely got there with Jessa. While I really liked her, everyone else was fairly bland. Caleb was really just this enigmatic good person that we didn’t really get to know beyond this plotline, and while I did like their mutual friend Max, a sweet geeky kind of guy, he was really just there to provide support to Jessa through thick and thin, no matter what. I liked him and I liked how he interacted with her, but he was just there for the ride and showing up when needed.

The mystery was solid enough, and I liked that we were given the pieces as Jessa boxed up his room. From a pair of spare glasses to a broken fan to some sporting equipment, we learn bit by bit what Caleb was like, what his relationship with Jessa was like, and why perhaps none of it was as real as she thought it was. I think that had it stopped there, and been an examination about young love lost, the different sides of people even in relationships, and why we may never know everything about them, this would have been a pretty powerful book. But while the mystery was solid (as to what actually happened to Caleb that day), I think that it may have actually hindered an already powerful narrative. That isn’t to say that Miranda had to write a book that was solely a meditation on grief and loss, because it’s her prerogative to write a mystery and I say have at it. Hell, this mystery was interesting to follow and I liked it enough. But along with it, we started to get into areas that kind of pulled me out of the story because of how unrealistic things were. It was mostly little things, like how a library computer would probably NEVER have search history that went between sign in sessions because of privacy laws, or how it would take a whole lot more than just a fake ID to completely restart your life as a new person. These may not seem like much, but it was enough to take me out of the story even for a little while, which was distracting. There was also a sudden shift in solution in the end, and you all know how I feel about that kind of thing. When I’m told that only options A and B are going to work, I have a really hard time swallowing a sudden option C rearing it’s ugly, if not convenient head.

“Fragments of the Lost” was a twisty turny read, though, and I think that it’s one of the stronger YA thriller/mysteries that I’ve read this year. Meg Miranda should definitely write more for this audience, as she brings the nuance that is needed to write an effective whodunit.

Rating 7: A pretty interesting mystery with an engrossing parsing of clues, “Fragments of the Lost” is a tangled read with some unexpected surprises. The characterization of supporting characters could have been stronger, but I enjoyed reading it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fragments of the Lost” is pretty new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Post Death Novels”.

Find “Fragments of the Lost” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “La Belle Sauvage”

34128219Book: “La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman

Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .

Review: This is going to be such a hard review to write! Not only do I have drastically mixed opinions of this book, but there’s just no escaping the fact that there is no way I can be completely objective about this. As I was reading it, my husband looked over and asked about the strange smile on my face and the only way I could explain it (yes, he is one of those rare individuals who hasn’t read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy) was to compare it to reading a new Harry Potter book. It’s something you never thought would happen, so much so that you gave up wishing for it, and yet, one day, it arrives on your step and you’re once again back in this magical world, and more than than, you’re back to when you were a kid reading the series for the first time. The only word to describe the entire experience is “surreal.”

But. I did have qualms, and I think through these I was able to take off the nostalgia glasses long enough to be able to analyze the book as much outside of its connection to this beloved trilogy as I can. Here we go!

Set eleven or so years before the events of “The Golden Compass,” this is the story of Malcolm, an 11 year old boy whose family owns and operates an inn called the “Trout.” Malcolm is everything we expect from young heroic boys: smart, resourceful, and kind. If you look up the actual definition of “boy scout,” I’m pretty sure it would say “See the character of Malcolm from Philip Pullman’s “La Belle Sauvage.”

Other than caring for his beloved canoe (the name of which is where the title of the book comes from), his main duties in life are avoiding the acerbic teenager Alice who works as a dishwasher at the inn, and helping a group of nuns who live in a priory nearby. Until, that is, a mysterious baby girl named Lyra appears in the nuns’ care. Now, devoted to Lyra, Malcolm finds himself caught up in a cold war between two powerful parties both looking to determine Lyra’s future (or whether she should have one at all). Fleeing the disturbed man named Bonneville and his even more disturbing daemon, a three legged hyena, who have their own designs on the baby, Malcolm, Alice and Lyra flee during a massive flood, looking for safety and a future for this small, but important, girl.

First with the simple parts of my review. Obviously, Pullman is still the incredible author we all knew him to be. His writing is clear, concise, and compelling. While the story starts out slowly, this, too, that fans of this author should have been expecting. “The Golden Compass” itself isn’t known to have a bang of a start. And once the flood takes place, the action picks up to almost a frantic pace, changing dramatically into an almost “Odyssey” like tale with Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra drifting from one mystical and dangerous island to another. This aspect of the story was a complete surprise to me, and I very much enjoyed the entire sequence and the various types of magical elements that these scenes added to Lyra’s world.

Further, his main character, Malcolm, is a strong addition to the cast. This was probably the biggest challenge: how do you create a new child hero that will hold his own when compared to Lyra and Will, and notably not be the same as either of those two characters? Malcolm has much of Will’s earnestness and good will, and, if Will’s childhood hadn’t been flooded with the darkness it was, he and Malcolm may have turned into very similar boys. Malcolm is essentially the result of a good childhood and good parents. In some ways he could be read as a bit one dimensional in this goodness, but as the story progress, specifically the last half of the story, his character is tried and tested enough that I think he can avoid this accusation. Malcolm confronts real horrors and real choices, and while he holds true to his “boy scout” mentality, he is also clearly very much changed by the end of the story.

The second biggest hurdle faced by Pullman was how to handle characters we are all familiar with from the first trilogy. It would be all to easy for these known characters to overwhelm a story like this and wash out the new characters being introduced. For the most part, I think he handled this very well. The cameo appearance of many of these character were like bright jewels to run into, but at the same time, I was satisfied enough with the main story not to crave their absence. There were a few moments, like a very brief scene with Mrs. Coulter, that I felt verged a bit too close to fan service for my taste. Was it really necessary to this story that she appear on the page? But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I thought Pullman mostly avoided any pitfalls in this area.

Now, my concerns. There are two that really stand out: Bonneville as a villain and the aspects of the story caught up in him, and Alice’s character and role in this story. We’ll start with Bonneville as I think he leads nicely to my second point.

Bonneville is introduced as a criminal with a pretty nasty past, one specifically dealing with his imprisonment for some type of sexual crime that Mrs. Coulter testified against. So, we can make some assumptions there. Then, throughout this story, we see Bonneville terrorizing and coercing the women around him, notably Alice and a few of the nuns. And towards the end of the story, this culminates in a very horrible way.

Look, Bonneville himself, and his creepy hyena, were scary villains. They served their purpose as a persistent and unpredictable terror following close behind the children. But the fact that his danger is tied up in sexual violence read as strange, especially with regards to the choices made with Alice’s role in the plot, and, more importantly, with all of the work Pullman did in his first trilogy to reclaim the importance of the body and to write strong, complex female characters.

At one point, early in their flight, Alice accuses Malcolm of only bringing her along to change the diapers of Lyra. And, in the end, this is most all she does. She’s clearly a smart and competent character, but she is given very little to do in this story other than care for Lyra and wait while Malcolm saves the day (repeatedly). Which all just makes the sexual violence towards the end all the more disturbing and off putting.

I’m not sure exactly how this trilogy is planned to play out, but I read somewhere that at least one of the next books will deal with Lyra as an adult. If that’s the case, are Malcolm and Alice only the main characters here? And if that’s the case, this last violent scene plays all the worse. I’m not convinced it is necessary, other than to push Malcolm into action (won’t go into that aspect of it, just look up “fridging female characters” and you’ll get my point), and I’m worried that it will be left as is, with no real followup in subsequent stories.

Ultimately, the whole thing was just confusing to me. Why was this choice made? What purpose was it serving? And, from an author like Pullman who gave us such excellent characters as Lyra and Mary Malone, why was Alice written so simplistically and then, even worse, combined with these story choices? I honestly can’t understand it.

As I said at the top, I closed this book with some very mixed feelings. I can’t help but love the fact that there’s a new entry into this world, and I very much enjoyed Malcolm and much of the action of this story. And there’s never an argument to be had about Pullman’s mastery of writing. But some of the choices with the villain and the themes brought up with him were very unsettling. What’s more, the original trilogy simply had more to say. And very little of that philosophical underpinning can be found in this book, leaving us only with a very gruesome and largely unaddressed sexual violence theme. But, obviously, I’ll be back for the next to in the series, and hopefully some of this book’s action will be addressed there. And if not, hopefully Pullman will once again find his footing with the larger questions that made the first trilogy so fascinating.

If you’re fa fan of his first series, I don’t even need to tell you to check this out, because I’m sure you will. If you’re a new reader, I strongly recommend reading the fist trilogy before picking this up; not only is it much better, but it provides much needed context for a lot of what is presented in this book.

Rating 7: A wonderful return to a beloved world with an excellent new character in Malcolm, but one that is marred by some jarring writing decisions.

Reader’s Advisory:

“La Belle Sauvage” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Alternate History in 2017” and “Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2017.”

Find “La Belle Sauvage” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Are You Sleeping”

30753570Book: “Are You Sleeping” by Kathleen Barber

Publishing Info: Gallery Books, August 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Serial meets Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood in this inventive and twisty psychological thriller about a mega-hit podcast that reopens a murder case—and threatens to unravel the carefully constructed life of the victim’s daughter.

The only thing more dangerous than a lie…is the truth.

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future. 

Review: Like a lot of people, I was damn well obsessed with the podcast “Serial” when it aired it’s first season a few years ago. I had held off on listening to it for awhile, but then I gave in and was able to binge almost all of it over the course of a few days. As someone who has always been interested in true crime, the thought that someone may have gone to prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and that perhaps those around him may have known his innocence the whole time, I found the premise compelling. I know that some people found it ghoulish, as the podcast used the murder of Hae Min Lee as a framework for it’s investigation. Such grievances are raised in the novel “Are You Sleeping”, a debut from Kathleen Barber, and makes the reader look at it through the eyes of a murder victims family as old wounds are opened up for sensationalism and ‘entertainment’. I’ll admit I felt a little yucky with myself as I read this book. But I wasn’t just chastened; I was also sucked into the story of Josie, her twin sister Lanie, and the family that is still suffering from the fallout of the murder of the family patriarch.

The plot starts out common enough; Josie is living a happy life in New York with a genuinely good man named Caleb. But what Caleb doesn’t know is that Josie hasn’t told him about her past. Her father, Charles Berman, was shot in the head when she was a teenager, and her twin sister Lanie said that their Goth and rebellious neighbor Warren pulled the trigger. Shortly thereafter, their mother Erin ran off and joined a cult, and Josie split town as soon as she could and swore she’d never talk to her sister again, and never return. But then a popular podcast hosted by the duplicitous and fame hunger Poppy Parnell has started raising questions as to Warren’s guilt, and tragedy sweeps Josie back to her hometown, the secrets and lies she’s told her whole life starting to plague her. Pretty common fare for this kind of book. But what sets is aside from others I’ve read is that it makes use of the podcast format, as well as the social media frenzy that can come with it, to help frame the plot and the characters that we meet. It was great seeing twitter feeds, reddit posts, and transcripts from the episodes to get various pieces of the puzzle that we may not have otherwise seen, and it was kind of fun sifting through them like the reader, too, was an armchair detective. The pacing and tone was fast and tense from the starting gate, and I was basically hooked the moment that I sat down and committed to it, reading most of it in one day. The mystery itself wasn’t that hard to figure out, but it was definitely a fun ride to take even if I predicted the destination pretty early on.

That said, it wasn’t really doing much different or unique from this genre. While I definitely enjoyed it more than, say, “Every Last Lie” or “Into The Water”, it didn’t blow me away as some other thrillers this year have (“Everything You Want Me To Be”, anyone?). Josie wasn’t as large a mess as these kins of protagonists can be, which was incredibly refreshing, but Lanie was REALLY hard to take at times just because she very much WAS a huge, honking trainwreck. I’m relieved that the book wasn’t from her POV, because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t take that. None of the characters, however, really stood out as more than pretty standard players in this kind of book (the dutiful boyfriend, the ex who caused you pain, the uptight female relative). I had been hoping that there would be a little bit of experimentation with these tropes, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

But run of the mill characters and kind of easy to see ending aside, I really did have a fun time reading “Are You Sleeping”. Given that the holiday season is basically upon us and travel may be in some of your futures, I would definitely recommend this book for a long plane ride, a road trip, or just reading in the coziness of your home as the weather turns colder. But don’t let it shame you from listening to your favorite true crime podcast, okay?

Rating 7: An addictive mystery with a fun framework, but it isn’t really anything much that we haven’t seen before outside of said framework. A breezy read, maybe perfect for travel or a ready by a roaring fire.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Are You Sleeping” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sister Mysteries”, and “There’s Something Dangerous About The Boredom of Teenage Girls”.

Find “Are You Sleeping” at your library using WorldCat!