Kate’s Review: “Aquicorn Cove”

36482829Book: “Aquicorn Cove” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Lana and her father return to their seaside hometown to help clear the debris of a storm, the last thing she expects is to discover a colony of Aquicorns—magical seahorse-like residents of the coral reef. As she explores the damaged town and the fabled undersea palace, Lana learns that while she cannot always count on adults to be the guardians she needs, she herself is capable of finding the strength to protect both the ocean, and her own happiness.

Review: When I saw that Katie O’Neill had another graphic novel coming out, I knew, I KNEW, that I had to read it. I loved “The Tea Dragon Society” so very much, and gentle and vibrant cuteness was something that I was needing after a stressful couple of weeks. While aquatic mythical creatures may not catch my attention as much as dragons do (unless it’s a sea serpent, as those are basically water dragons if we’re being honest), the cover alone had me screeching with joy. A girl riding some kind of weird water unicorn Pegasus thing?!

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The contrast of this with the horror graphics on my stack was striking. (source)

But the thing that I noticed about “Aquicorn Cove” from the get go is that there is a far more bittersweet undercurrent running through this story than there was with “The Tea Dragon Society”. While the imagery is just as cute and serene as the imagery in that book, the premise here is a bit darker. Lana is a girl whose mother was killed during a violent ocean storm, and that is why she and her father left their hometown in the first place. They are coming back to visit her maternal Aunt Mae as well as clean up the wreckage after another bad storm. Lana has a genuine connection to the ocean like Mae and her mother did, even though being back is painful for her and her father. When she finds an injured baby aquicorn she wants to nurse back to health, her love of the ocean has a tangible element it can attach to. Mae, too, has a connection to the sea, given that she is a fisherwoman and she makes her living because of it, but there is always going to be the painful reminder that the thing she loves took her sister away. They are both coping with the trauma of the loss, but they cope in different ways.

The Aquicorn society that Mae and Lana interact with has it’s own issues that it brings to the story. Aure, the head of the community, has struck up a long time friendship with Mae, as they have helped each other in various ways. Mae has taken objects and products from Aquicorn Cove and has helped her own community thrive. But the give and take relationship has started to crumble, as Aure thinks that the cost for her community has started to become far too great. O’Neill has found a relatable and easy way to show kids the importance of giving back to the environment, and while you understand Mae’s need and want to keep her community alive, you see the cost it has to Aure’s and the reef. There was one panel that is especially relevant where, when pushed back on by Aure, Mae says that her community shouldn’t have to change it’s ways because ‘this is how it’s always been’, and THAT struck a chord. Mae is never presented as a bad person, per se, just someone who is unable to see the consequences that her actions have for others.

The other big theme in this story is the importance of ocean conservation, and how it can be a matter of life and death not only for sea creatures, but for the human communities that live on the seashore. Aquicorn Cove’s reef is sick and starting to die, and without the protection of the reef that can help buffer the strength of ocean storms, the severity on land is becoming more and more devastating. Climate change scientists postulate that storms will become worse and worse as time goes on, and with more of these natural buffers dying off or disappearing the costs and the losses will be higher. At the end of the book O’Neill listed a number of ocean conservation resources, as well as information for the readers on what they can do to help restore the tenuous ecosystems. What I liked about this section was that it was easy to understand for kids, and while O’Neill did simplify it she never made it seem like she was talking down to her readers. She really hits home that we may feel like in our smallness we can’t make a difference, but how we can connect to our community, which can connect to other communities, and how that can help amplify our voices for change. The message was loud and clear, and I really liked it.

And yes, let’s look at how sweet the drawings are.

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EEEEE!!! (Source: Oni Press)
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It’s just so charming. (source: Oni Press)

The gentle design and all around charming style made the art pop and had me smiling from ear to ear.

“Aquicorn Cove” is another lovely graphic novel by Katie O’Neill, and with it’s important messages and themes it stands out from the crowd.

Rating 7: A cute graphic novel with a resonant message, “Aquicorn Cove” is a sweet story that brings out cute sea creatures and talks about the importance of our oceans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Aquicorn Cove” is included on the Goodreads lists “Tween Graphic Novels”, and “Comics and Graphic Novels by Women”.

Find “Aquicorn Cove” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Internment”

38167114Book: “Internment” by Samira Ahmed

Publishing Info: Little, Brown. March 2019

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

Book Description: Rebellions are built on hope.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.

Review: I want to extend a thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

One of the vivid horrible memories I have in the wake of the Trump election (and there are many, believe me) is that one of Trump’s PAC supporters, Carl Higbie, said that Trump’s idea to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries had a ‘precedent’ because of Japanese American citizen registries during WWII. Given that those registries led to the unconstitutional and horrific internment of American Citizens, this statement was quite frightening (and given the detention of families at the border and how horrific that practice is, in some ways internment is already present on our soil). Fast forward to a couple years later, when a controversy surrounded the upcoming release of a novel called “American Heart”. The author, Laura Moriarty, had wanted to write a ‘what if’ book that was about Muslim Internment camps in America during a Trump-esque executive administration. But it was from the perspective of a white teenage girl who basically has to be taught why it’s wrong to imprison people for their beliefs and culture, and to be shown the humanity and worth of their lives. It’s a story structure that is pretty problematic in that it dehumanizes a marginalized group so that a non-marginalized group an learn a lesson. And that is where “Internment” by Samira Ahmed comes in. The premise is similar: it is a what if scenario in which Muslim Americans have been put on lists and had laws passed to limit their rights in the wake of a far right administration taking power. But this one is from the perspective of a teenage Muslim American girl named Layla, whose life is uprooted when she and her family are taken to an internment camp.

The power and resonance within “Internment” is the timeliness of it all. From the Muslim Travel Ban in this country to the rise in hate crimes against Muslims, the future that Ahmed is painting doesn’t necessarily feel farfetched. While Ahmed doesn’t use specific names, it is very clear that this takes place a couple years after the 2016 election, and she paints a picture of how these policies could easily turn into the policies that we seen within this story. The escalation that is set up, both before Mobius Camp itself comes into play and during the time spent there, is chilling and real, and Ahmed does a good job of drawing comparisons to different internment policies of the past. Not only is the escalation seem based in a probable truth, the power structure of the camp itself also feels very true to life. The camp director abuses his power and uses power plays to harass, intimidate, and commit violence against the inmates. There are Muslim families who have been appointed as leaders of blocks, whose compliance wtih the policy gives them benefits at the expense of other prisoners. And the actions and conditions of the camp has been suppressed from the outside world, so the public doesn’t know just what is going on inside the walls. This all felt VERY real and familiar.

Layla herself is a bit of a mixed bag. For the most part I really liked her as our main character. She feels like a very typical teenage girl in a lot of ways; she is trying to assert her independence from her parents, she is very committed to her Jewish boyfriend David, and is interested in geek culture. Her rebelliousness feels very true to her character, and I completely believe her as a young person who wants to fight back against her oppression while her parents are more investing in using silence and compliance in hopes of keeping her safe. My frustrations of her more had to do with her motivations sometimes feeling like they shifted depending on what they needed to be for the plot at the moment. She would rail against her parents for their complacency one moment, then seem to understand their point of view another moment, only to rail against them again. Her tentative trust of one of the guards, Jake, felt like it grew too quickly for her character as we’d seen her up until that point. To me her motivations were muddled. It very well could be that this is trying to show how a traumatic period can affect a person’s psyche and the way they think, so I can’t completely tear Layla down for seeming inconsistent within her characterization.

And as we sometimes tend to see in YA fiction that hopes to make pertinent points within a broader social and political context, sometimes the messages felt a little too spoon fed to the audience. Be it a speech awkwardly plunked down in a conversational setting, or an offhand remark that doesn’t quite fit the greater conversation at hand but has a point to make, we occasionally see these moments within the narrative. I realize that this book is for a young adult audience, and that sometimes people tend to think that teens need to have things spelled out for them. But I wish that authors would trust their audiences more, in that they are able to read between the lines and parse out the lessons in more ‘show rather than tell’ fashions. Trust teens to get nuance!

All in all, I thought “Internment” was an effective and charged read. It paints a grim picture of where our current political climate could possibly lead, and what could happen if we don’t speak out and rise up against it.

Rating 7: With relevant and pertinent themes but a sometimes clunky execution, “Internment” is a frightening read that asks ‘what if’ when it comes to our current political climate.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Internment” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lady Lit-Female Authors”, and “2019 Books by Authors of Color”.

Find “Internment” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Bird King”

40642333Book: “The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson

Publishing Info: Grove Press, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!

Book Description: Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.

Hassan has a secret–he can draw maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

Review: I read an excerpt of this on Bookish First and found myself immediately connecting to the beautiful writing that was popping on the page. I placed my request was thrilled when I received a copy. While it was a slower read, ultimately, than I had been expecting, that same strength in writing and the unexpected depth of thought given to the historical events, religious interactions, and cultures of the time period ultimately drew me in.

Fatima and her friend Hassan have built a quiet life for themselves in the circumstances they have found themselves in: she a concubine to the sultan and he a mapmaker. But Hassan is much more than your ordinary mapmaker and possess the incredible gift of not only drawing up intricate maps of the places he’s never been, but also, through these maps, interrupting the weave of reality itself. But when Hassan suddenly falls under the eyes of those who would see his gift as more of a threat than a blessing, he and Fatima must go on the run, seeking out a mystical island as their one port of harbor for a safe life going forward.

I haven’t read too many books set in this time period or within these combinations of cultures. The book is tackling a lot: the persecution under the Spanish Inquisition, the clashes between religious forces taking place in that time, plus a healthy dose of magic realism to differentiate it from a purely historical fiction work. But I think it is this last portion, the interweaving of the fantastical elements that really made this book sing for me. There are a lot of big ideas being tossed around throughout the story, but many of these are explored from a bit of an angle, with the author approaching them almost from the side, using fairytale-like elements to draw readers into a deceptively complicated, real-world issue. Metaphor and stylized writing are also used to great effect to, again, almost backwards-walk readers into topics that can get pretty dicey pretty quickly. Of course, I’m always going to love anything that reads like a fairytale, but I appreciate it all the more when an author is able to use this writing style to get at deeper topics that can often be challenging to get across.

I also very much liked the two main characters in Fatima and Hassan. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to feel about Fatima, but as the story progressed, I found myself becoming more and more invested in their platonic friendship and love. It’s a rare read to find a story that focuses on this type of strong relationship, one that isn’t based on romantic love (Hassan is gay, another factor that leads to his persecution), but that still highlights the extent to which each party will go for the other. The fact that they aren’t romantically involved never feels like it detracts from what they would do for each other, and, instead, in some ways it feels that their bond is even stronger by being freed from that element. It’s a unique relationship to see explored so thoroughly in this type of book.

I will say, however, that the story is pretty slow going. It takes quite a bit for them to even get started on their journey, and then once they do, it doesn’t speed up much. There’s a lot of travel, camping, small moments of action, and then more travel and camping. The writing was still captivating, which was enough to get me through these slower elements, but I can see how this could be off-putting to many readers, especially ones who may not be as interested in the greater themes being explored at the heart of the story. I do think more could have been done to tighten up this middle portion of the book, as the fact that it ultimately worked for me seems to speak more to my own preference than to the general quality of the story structure.

Overall, “The Bird King” was a surprisingly deep and satisfying read for me. There were, however, some stumbling blocks with the pacing and writing speed, which is what knocks it back a few points for me. It’s a lengthy story, and while it is trying to cover a lot of different things, I do think it could have been tightened up to increase its general appeal. If you like historical fiction blended with magical realism, especially dealing with a unique set of characters and a time period that isn’t often explored in this way, definitely give “The Bird King” a try. Just know that you might need to push through in the beginning before really getting to the good stuff.

Rating 7: A beautifully written story that covers a complicated time with two wonderful characters at its heart. Only lowered by being a bit too slow for my taste.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bird King” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Fiction – Spain / Portugal” and “Muslim/Islamic Fiction.”

Find “The Bird King” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Cross Her Heart”

37486235Book: “Cross Her Heart” by Sarah Pinborough

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Lisa lives for her daughter Ava, her job, and her best friend Marilyn, but when a handsome client shows an interest in her, Lisa starts daydreaming about sharing her life with him too. Maybe she’s ready now. Maybe she can trust again. Maybe it’s time to let her terrifying secret past go. Then her daughter rescues a boy from drowning and their pictures are all over the news for everyone to see. Lisa’s world explodes, and she finds everything she has built threatened. Not knowing whom she can trust, it’s up to her to face her past to save what she holds dear.

Review: After being burned so badly by “Behind Her Eyes”, I will admit that I was shocked to find myself picking up the newest Sarah Pinborough novel “Cross Her Heart”. But I so enjoyed “13 Minutes” I wanted to give her books another chance, in case “Behind Her Eyes” was a fluke. So it’s good news, bad news time. The bad news is that “Cross Her Heart” didn’t live up to “13 Minutes”. But the good news is that it blew “Behind Her Eyes” out of the freaking water!

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I knew my instincts about Pinborough were right! (source)

The story is laid out in a couple of different view points over a couple of different time frames. Pinborough keeps the ultimate plot pretty close to the vest until we get about half way through, and since that’s part of the mystery I’m going to do my very best to review without giving anything away. If I DO have to give a spoiler, though, I will make it very clear. Our main perspectives are Lisa, a nervous single mother who does her best to blend in as she hides from a traumatic past; Ava, Lisa’s teenage daughter who is corresponding with a mysterious older man online; and Marilyn, Lisa’s colleague and close friend who has some secrets of her own. While Ava and Marilyn’s issues are pretty clear cut from the get go, it’s Lisa’s who brings in the most intrigue. Pinborough slowly lays out the pieces of a mystery with a very well constructed conclusion, and she did it in such a way that she kept this reader guessing up until the first big reveal. Going back and looking at the set up confirmed that Pinborough knows how to set up a magic trick of a reveal, with deceptions and distractions. I was pretty well invested in how it all turned out by the time we got to that moment, wanting to see what was going to happen next. The characters themselves are pretty standard fare for this kind of book, and the story itself doesn’t really reinvent any wheels or break any either. It was just a fun and solid mystery overall that kept me guessing.

All that said, it did find itself close to derailing a couple of times. While the initial twist and some of the curve balls that come after felt pretty well executed, there were some things within the narrative henceforth that I didn’t quite buy. So here is where a big ol SPOILER alert is going to come in, even if I keep it vague. There is a moment where a character is revealed to have been masquerading as two different people, who are two very different ages. While I normally am willing to suspend my disbelief about these kinds of things, I do find it kind of laughable that we are to believe that a person could simultaneously be middle aged, and yet pass for someone who is a teenager, especially if they are interacting on more than a superficial basis with their peers. It was a moment where Pinborough didn’t quite convince me, and because of that i was taken out of the story and just snorted out a ‘yeah SURE’ before going on. Plus, there was one final twist that I saw coming about ten miles away. I am not certain if it was meant to be a big surprise once our characters are made privy to it, or if we were supposed to have figured it out before they did, but with the emphasis on the shocked reactions I’m thinking it’s the former. And it just wasn’t that surprising.

But when comparing it to “Behind Her Eyes”, I enjoyed “Cross Her Heart” far, far more. I don’t know if it’s merely by comparison, but even if it is, it was an altogether enjoyable read. If you were disappointed with Pinborough’s last runaway hit, don’t necessarily pass “Cross Her Heart” by! You may be surprised!

Rating 7: A quick and fast paced read that was quite the improvement over her previous work, “Cross Her Heart” is a standard mystery without too many surprises (and one ridiculous twist). Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cross Her Heart” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2018”.

Find “Cross Her Heart” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Freefall”

39855088Book: “Freefall” by Jessica  Barry

Publishing Info: Harper, January 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description: A propulsive debut novel with the intensity of Luckiest Girl Alive and Before the Fall, about a young woman determined to survive and a mother determined to find her.
When your life is a lie, the truth can kill you

When her fiancé’s private plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies, Allison Carpenter miraculously survives. But the fight for her life is just beginning. For years, Allison has been living with a terrible secret, a shocking truth that powerful men will kill to keep buried. If they know she’s alive, they will come for her. She must make it home.

In the small community of Owl Creek, Maine, Maggie Carpenter learns that her only child is presumed dead. But authorities have not recovered her body—giving Maggie a shred of hope. She, too, harbors a shameful secret: she hasn’t communicated with her daughter in two years, since a family tragedy drove Allison away. Maggie doesn’t know anything about her daughter’s life now—not even that she was engaged to wealthy pharmaceutical CEO Ben Gardner, or why she was on a private plane.

As Allison struggles across the treacherous mountain wilderness, Maggie embarks on a desperate search for answers. Immersing herself in Allison’s life, she discovers a sleek socialite hiding dark secrets. What was Allison running from—and can Maggie uncover the truth in time to save her?

Told from the perspectives of a mother and daughter separated by distance but united by an unbreakable bond, Freefall is a riveting debut novel about two tenacious women overcoming unimaginable obstacles to protect themselves and those they love.

Review: Thank you to Harper for sending me an ARC of this book!

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog that I greatly enjoy wilderness survival fiction, so when “Freefall” by Jessica Barry was sent to us I was pretty interested in the premise. I’ve also had some luck with emotional dramas involving mother/daughter relationships in the past few months, and when I realized that the most prevalent theme in “Freefall was going to be the broken relationship of a mother and daughter I was all the more on board.

“Freefall” is told in two different perspectives between an estranged relationship of a mother and daughter. Allison has left her mother Maggie behind after feeling betrayed by her, and reinvented herself in the lap of luxury thanks to her engagement to a pharmaceutical CEO. Maggie is living alone in small town Maine, still mourning her husband’s death and missing her daughter. Allison’s perspective is more action and suspense driven, as the private plane she was in has crashed in the mountains, leaving her the only survivor in a vast wilderness. Barry slowly reveals that Allison isn’t only in danger because of her current situation, but because of something she discovered long before she got on the plane. As that all starts to unfold, mostly through flashbacks, we see a greater danger to her, and her mother, than we anticipated. I liked the slow burn of the conspiracy, and while I wasn’t as invested in Allison’s angst and how she got to where she was when we met her, I enjoyed seeing all of those pieces come together.

The other narrative is that of Maggie, Allison’s mother who has been told her daughter died in the plane crash. Maggie’s narrative goes at a slower pace than Allison’s, though through her research into her daughter’s life we are given more pieces to the puzzle. The estrangement between the two women makes it so we can follow Maggie as she goes through her discoveries in an organic and realistic way, and as the over arching conspiracy unfolds because of her research and Allison’s flashbacks, I was happy to see a complex and interesting conflict at the center of everything. I don’t really want to spoil it here, but just know that it harkens to old school conspiracies where whistleblowers find out something damning and then they end up with targets on their backs. The other part of these sections that laid some compelling groundwork is the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, and how past hurts can throw familial links off.

But I will admit that as I was reading, it felt slow at times. Even though I liked a number of aspects of the plot, I think that the pacing was a little off just because of the time jumps in Allison’s chapters, and the mother/daughter angst in Maggie’s. I found myself skimming more than once, just wanting to get back to the action at the heart of the novel. Because of this, “Freefall” didn’t ever graduate from ‘pretty good’ thriller to ‘great’ thriller. I will be interested to see what Barry comes out with next, though, which shows that there was enough in “Freefall” to make me think her future writings have promise.

“Freefall” is a fun conspiracy thriller with a healthy dose of familial drama, and it may be a good read for those who are looking for those themes in their reading adventures.

Rating 7: Though I liked the conspiracy angle and the wilderness survival aspects, “Freefall” moved a little too slowly for me to become completely hooked by its two storylines.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Freefall” is still pretty new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Conspiracy Fiction”, and “Mother-Daughter Novels”.

Find “Freefall” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review and Giveaway: “An Anonymous Girl”

39863515Book: “An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description: Seeking women ages 18–32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. 

When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr. Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money, and leave. But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr. Shields may know what she’s thinking…and what she’s hiding. As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what in her life is real, and what is one of Dr. Shields’ manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly. 

Review: I want to extend a very special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of this novel!

In my younger years I was deeply fascinated with psychology, specifically of the abnormal type. During my undergraduate program I was especially taken with the various unethical studies that were conducted in the name of ‘science’. While studies of these natures could never get past an IRB today, I think about the Milgram Experiment (where a subject thought that they were giving people violent electric shocks and were told to keep going no matter what) and The Zimbardo Prison Experiment (where students were separated into prisoner and guard roles in a faux prison setting, and horrific abuse began almost instantly), and wonder just how these things were ever thought to be okay. Because of this lingering fascination, when I saw the new book “An Anonymous Girl”, written by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen of “The Wife Between Us” fame, was about unethical psych subjects I was excited to read it. I really enjoyed “The Wife Between Us”, so my expectations were set pretty high for their newest work.

“An Anonymous Girl” has a similar narrative structure to “The Wife Between Us”, with dual narrators who have distinct voices and their own takes on unreliability. The first and more prominent of the two is Jess, a make up artist who is living a meager and somewhat unfulfilling existence. She used to have dreams of making it on Broadway as a make up artist, but has since stalled out and settled for a job that sends her to private appointments around New York City. Her past is a bit hidden at first, though you know she’s sending money to her family to help care for her younger sister, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child. Jess is a narrator whose motivations are always laid out and clear, and while she has a tendency to make questionable to poor decisions, she’s written in a way that makes you totally believe why she would make said decisions. The other narrator is Dr. Shields, and she is a bit more muddled in her motivations. The mystery of the novel is just what Dr. Shields is doing with the experiment that Jess volunteers for, and as her intent is slowly revealed her character’s layers are peeled back to show a dark mind at work, far darker than Jess’s. Both characters are interesting enough that I was invested in figuring out just what Dr. Shields wanted with Jess, and how far Jess would be pushed within the ‘experiment’ she was participating in. I kept thinking back to Milgram and how the subjects would sally forth, no matter how uncomfortable they were, because they thought that they had to.

The mystery sustained itself as long as it wanted to, laying out various hints towards both womens’ overall story arcs and their pasts. But eventually the narrative shifts from a mysterious question of intrigue to a pins and needles cat and mouse game. And it is that shift where “An Anonymous Girl” stumbled a little bit for me. Once we found out what it was that Dr. Shields was trying to accomplish, the reveal was a bit disappointing if only because it’s something we have seen many times before within this genre. I’m not going to spoil it here because I do think that getting there and the ensuing predator and prey dynamic is worth the read. But I will say that I went in hoping for a send of of unethical experiments of the past, where the likes of Milgram and Zimbardo were doing awful things in the name of science and learning about human nature. And what is very much not the case here at the end of the day.

“An Anonymous Girl” is a strong follow up to Hendricks’s and Pekkanen’s previous hit. While I do wish it had thought outside the box a little more, it was still an enjoyable thriller that serves the genre well. And I have some good news for you! I am going to give my ARC away so a lucky winner can read it for themselves! This giveaway runs through January 14 and is open to U.S. Residents only.

Click Here To Enter The Giveaway!

Rating 7: A suspenseful and engrossing thriller that mostly kept me on my toes, “An Anonymous Girl” was enjoyable, though I wish it hadn’t fallen on some old reliable plot points of the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“An Anonymous Girl” is including on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “Chilling New York Novels”.

Find “An Anonymous Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”

7108001We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, March 2010

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it,

Genre Mash-up: True Crime and Speculative Fiction (a doozy to be sure)

Book Description: Indiana, 1818. Moonlight falls through the dense woods that surround a one-room cabin, where a nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln kneels at his suffering mother’s bedside. She’s been stricken with something the old-timers call “Milk Sickness.”

“My baby boy…” she whispers before dying.

Only later will the grieving Abe learn that his mother’s fatal affliction was actually the work of a vampire.

When the truth becomes known to young Lincoln, he writes in his journal, “henceforth my life shall be one of rigorous study and devotion. I shall become a master of mind and body. And this mastery shall have but one purpose…” Gifted with his legendary height, strength, and skill with an ax, Abe sets out on a path of vengeance that will lead him all the way to the White House.

While Abraham Lincoln is widely lauded for saving a Union and freeing millions of slaves, his valiant fight against the forces of the undead has remained in the shadows for hundreds of years. That is, until Seth Grahame-Smith stumbled upon The Secret Journal of Abraham Lincoln, and became the first living person to lay eyes on it in more than 140 years.

Using the journal as his guide and writing in the grand biographical style of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, Seth has reconstructed the true life story of our greatest president for the first time-all while revealing the hidden history behind the Civil War and uncovering the role vampires played in the birth, growth, and near-death of our nation.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read this book when it came out in 2010, having been taken in by the concept of taking one of the country’s past and most beloved Presidents and making him a vampire hunter. I mean, it sounds ridiculous, and yet I was so enamored with the idea that I got my hands on this book and then spent almost all of my free time devouring it. I was very much into vampire mythology in my younger years, and I had grown weary of vampires as love interests and yearned for them to be scary again. And while “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” didn’t make them scary, per se, at least they were antagonistic to a degree. So I read it, loved it, and it had been sitting on my shelf ever since.

Re-reading it for book club was something that excited and scared me. I had such happy memories of this book, and I was afraid that revisiting it eight years later was going to be disillusioning. I’m pleased to say that my fond memories weren’t totally tainted by the re-read, but going back and looking at it critically was something that, while necessary, was a bit bittersweet. But I’ll start with the things that did still work for me. As a person who really likes American History, especially during the Victorian Era (as yes, much of Lincoln’s life was during the Victorian Era), I love how Seth Grahame-Smith uses diary entries, letters, historical documents, and footnotes to tell this alternate history where Lincoln fought and killed vampires. I greatly enjoy the various connections that he makes between world events that have enough ambiguity that they could have a vampiric element, one of my favorite examples being the Colony of Roanoke. I always had a fun time seeing various other historic figures, from Edgar Allan Poe to Marie Laveau, play into the story. Easter Eggs like this are my bread and butter.

But the biggest problem that I had with it this time around that I wasn’t really thinking about the first time I read it was that one of the biggest plot devices in this book is the Civil War. Namely, the practice of chattel slavery. In this book, one of the big plot points is that vampires were working directly with the Southern elites in order to keep slavery around, as it directly benefited both of them (the humans in terms of money, the vampires in terms of food). When I first read this book I thought that it was a clever way to show an evil and yet symbiotic relationship, but looking at it again now it just makes me uncomfortable. Slavery in this country was an evil practice, and the repercussions of it are still seen and felt today because of generational trauma, lingering systemic racism, and marginalization towards African Americans in this country. To flippantly say ‘and also, VAMPIRES!’ just feel uncomfortable, and a little too cheeky at the expense of very real pain and injustice.

That said, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is overall a bit of crazy stupid fun, and it’s written in a way that history buffs and vampire fans alike will probably find it enjoyable. It didn’t fully stand the test of time, but there were still plenty of moments that made me grin.

Serena’s Thoughts

I had not read this book before, but I’m pretty sure I saw the movie at some point (though my super vague memories of it or what I even thought of it at the time might say more than anything). I think at the time I was still in a huff about “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and mentally sorted this book into the same category and wrote it off. That said, I was pleased when it was picked for bookclub as I generally try to avoid tendencies like the one I used for this book: judging it without reading it. I was even more pleased to find that I enjoyed it! (Though, it must be acknolwedged that this was always going to be an easier sell then trying to convince me that Elizabeth Bennett killing zombies is something I should take seriously).

What I enjoyed most about the book what its historical aspects and the stylization of the way the story is told through letter and other historical documents. These were all used to great affect and very much sold the concept of telling a story that could be wedged in alongside the version of true history that we are more or less familiar with. One’s own knowledge of the actual history of the time period also goes along way as, like Kate mentioned, there were nice references to other happenings of the time that would reward diligent readers. Not an extreme history buff myself, I can’t even be sure I knew exactly where some of these lines between fiction and true history were being drawn.

The story itself was also the kind of semi-campy fun that simply makes for an enjoyable read, and I think if approached in this way, it is best appreciated. As Kate also referred to, a closer examination of the work can lead to potential discomfort with superimposing layers of vampire nonsense over a truly challenging time in American history. I, for one, was generally ok with this aspect of the story as I think the point of the book was to do just that: make up a nonsensical version of a traumatic period of history and essentially make a satire out of it by highlighting just how truly horrible it was! The addition of vampires merely underscores the fact that, while they are fantasy creations, the true human players in this existed. Plus, the Civil War has, deservedly, garnered a huge wealth of books that cover its history in a more serious, thoughtful tone. And I don’t expect every book set in this time period to do the same thing, which I think does a disservice to the creativity of tactics that can used in criticizing events such as these.

Overall, I enjoyed this read. It wasn’t the type of book that I likely would have picked up on my own, and while fun enough, it also didn’t neatly fit into my wheelhouse and I came away with it pleased, but not feeling as if I had been really missing anything by not reading it before now.

Kate’s Rating 8: While it didn’t hold up as well from when I first read it, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is still a bit of silly fun that entertained me as person who likes horror and history.

Serena’s Rating 7: I liked it; I didn’t love it.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you expect from a book that brings a vampire and supernatural spin to an actual person and an actual time in history? Did you feel that the author integrated the two ideas well?
  2. Were there any characters or moments from history you especially liked seeing in this book? Were there any that you could have done without, or felt didn’t work as well?
  3. What were your thoughts on the character of Henry? Did you feel that you got a good impression of him as a character?
  4. What did you think of the theme of vampires and slavery in this book? Did you think that it was a good metaphor, or do you think that it was inappropriate to use it as a plot point?
  5. What did you think of the ending? Did you fee like the revelation at the end fit with the rest of the story and the themes given Lincoln’s relationship and opinions towards vampires?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is included on the Goodreads lists “The Monster Mash”, and “Vampire Mashups”.

Find “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” at your library using WorldCat!