Kate’s Review: “The Last Astronaut”

40881567._sy475_Book: “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Book Description: Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a paperback copy of this book!

Perhaps you are all looking at the title and the primary genre of “The Last Astronaut” and are thinking to yourself ‘well hey now, isn’t Sci Fi Serena’s literary wheelhouse?’ And you’d be right. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid Science Fiction unless it meets very specific characteristics. But when I was reading about “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington, my interest was piqued. For one thing, a few of the early reviews used words like ‘terrifying’ to describe it. When you do that and throw around phrases like ‘large alien object’, something about ‘transmissions’, and ‘the future of humanity’, my mind is going to go to one place.

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Did he have the special? (source)

It turns out that “Alien” this is not, but ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing.

“The Last Astronaut” does mix some elements of horror in with sci-fi and character study, and it comes together to be an entertaining tale of slow burn suspense. We have the familiar scenario of a crew of different people with different motivations coming together for the purpose of investigating an alien object heading towards Earth, but the person at the forefront is astronaut Sally Jansen. Jansen was supposed to be the head of a mission going to Mars years before, but disaster struck and left other astronauts dead and Jansen in disgrace. Now she is hoping for redemption, and another chance at discovery. Jansen is a complex and strong protagonist, and has many layers that we slowly get to peel back as the story goes on and the stakes get higher and higher. She is competent and determined, but she is also headstrong and hard to trust, at least for the other crew members. Her actions had severe consequences for NASA and space exploration, but her talent is undeniable, even if her trauma and fall from grace is still haunting her. Her dynamic with the other crew members as they have to board the object is rife with tension, and their inherent mistrust of her makes for emotional conflict on top of the slow revealing other environmental conflict. While there were certainly other compelling characters, specifically ship scientist Parminder Rao who is elated at the prospect of alien life, this is Jansen’s story, and she is well centered and well developed.

The plot, while not as heavy on the horror as I had hoped, is still filled with suspense and tension, which made it an engrossing read for me in spite of the genre clash. The Alien Object is reminiscent of the recent space object ‘Oumuamua (and it is referenced in the book as well), but is larger and seems to have a clear path, heading straight for Earth. When the NASA crew finally encounters it in hopes of learning more, not only have they been beaten by the private company KSpace, but that the crew from the KSpace mission isn’t answering attempts at communication. And once they board the object, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that they are in way over their heads, and that this object isn’t what it seems. I really don’t want to spoil anything in this review, as the slow reveal is effectively creepy and well done. What I will say is that the alien being in “The Last Astronaut” is effective because it feels like something we haven’t really seen before. If you take elements from space horror classics like “Annihilation” and “Event Horizon”, you might be part way there, but Wellington has created a mythos that feels original, at least to this reader.

You may be wondering why this isn’t rated higher, as it seems that I liked a lot about it. And the reason is solely based on personal preference. At the end of the day, “The Last Astronaut” is still pretty heavy on the sci-fi, and it’s done in a way that didn’t really connect with me as much as I had hoped it would. I think that had the horror elements been ramped up more it would have left more of an impression, but as it was, this ultimately isn’t my genre. That said, I really do believe that sci-fi fans would probably find a lot to like about this book, as even I can appreciate the trajectory and story elements that it had. It may not achieve genre crossover as much as I thought it would, but don’t let my words discourage you from giving it a try if it has grabbed your attention!

Rating 7: While the story was more sci-fi than horror and therefore not my usual wheelhouse, I liked the originality that came with “The Last Astronaut” and its main character, and think sci-fi aficionados will find a lot to enjoy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Astronaut” is included on the Goodreads lists “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads or Co-Leads”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2019”.

Find “The Last Astronaut” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Wanderers”

32603079Book: “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

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

Book Description: A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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

I have been totally enthralled by post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my Dad handed me his copy of “The Stand” when I was thirteen years old and told me to read it. While I have a whole lot of anxieties about the potential ways that the world could end, the genre itself has always thrilled me, be it pandemic fiction, nuclear holocaust, zombies, or what have you. “The Stand” has always been the crown jewel of the genre for me, and so when I heard about “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig, and saw that comparisons to that masterpiece, I requested an eARC from NetGalley and was lucky enough to be sent one. The comparisons were apparent straight away: not only is the book a story about a devastating pandemic, it’s also a deep character study of a huge cast, AND it’s a LONG book (though at 800 pages it’s still only roughly half as long as the uncut version of “the Stand”, which is a mighty beast unto itself). Having this comparison in my head did a weird thing, where it both made me enjoy “Wanderers” more, and also made me more critical than I think I would have been had it not been there. Buckle up, everyone. A long book means a lot of dissemination.

The pacing and content of the plot immediately sucked me in. It’s told when the ‘sleepwalker’ phenomenon starts, and then slowly builds and builds until we have met the big, actual threat, which is a fungal-based disease that has already infected enough people to take out the world population. We have a number of different perspectives we follow, all of which show different group factions as society starts to panic and slowly break down. My favorite perspective, both in terms of characters and approach, was that of Benji, a former CDC scientist whose brilliance was overshadowed by a scandal. I was deeply invested and interested in the science aspect of this novel, and being able to see Benji and his colleagues, which include access to an AI called Black Swan that has been predicting numerous outcomes to the various situations, kept me enthralled and interested as the pandemic began to unfold. Benji is complex and nuanced, and his determination mixed with his anxieties, be it regarding his past, the AI aspect, or the very real catastrophe unfolding, made him very appealing as a character.

I also liked seeing other consequences and cause and effects that you might see in this society as it starts to deteriorate, and especially liked Wendig’s take on how white supremacist and other racist nationalist movements prey on fear and uncertainty. While it did feel heavy handed at times, this plot was mostly seen through Matthew, a preacher in a small town who gets caught up with a charismatic, and incredibly dangerous, militia man named Ozark Stover. While the pandemic is the main driving conflict in this book, it’s Stover, his militia, and the ideas that they hold dear (which are being elevated by a far right and opportunistic Presidential Candidate) that were the scariest by far. Matthew tries to look past the way Stover, and the other right wing groups, use the Bible to promote fear and hate, and you see Matthew fall for his own elevated hype as he becomes a ‘moderate’ voice for their radical views, which in turn promotes violence against the ‘sleepwalkers’ and those around them. Apt and timely, these parts really kept me interested and on the edge of my seat. It was probably also a little heavy handed, but given how these groups and voices just seem to be getting louder and more violent I can’t really fault the non-subtle portrayals of them as dangerous and fanatical.

That said, in terms of characterization, Benji and those in his sections were really the only people I found myself caring about in this book. I wanted to like Shana, the teenage girl whose sister was the first ‘sleepwalker’, but I found her inability to see nuance in many situations to be frustrating, and it made me not care for her too much. I also wanted to like Pete Corey, a nearly has-been rock star who gets caught up in protecting the ‘sleepwalkers’ and their companions (aka shepherds) initially just to get attention for himself before making a true connection. But unfortunately he fit the trope of ‘he’s closeted and therefore pushes everyone away and embraces a hedonistic lifestyle’, and it’s well worn, almost overdone, territory now. And while I enjoyed and was invested in the content with Matthew and Ozark, I had a very hard time with Matthew as a person, and found no one in that arc very sympathetic either. And this is where the comparisons to “The Stand” hindered this book (and given that the narrative itself makes reference to “The Stand”, I feel that the door has been opened to compare the two). Say what you will about the ending of that book, but it is hard to deny that King really knows how to write a multitude of different characters, and to give all of them complex, multifaceted things to do within their character arcs. While some characters are definitely more black and white than others in that book, for the most part you get into the head and motivations of almost every member of that ensemble, for the good and the bad. In “Wanderers”, I felt that Wendig sometimes got lost with his balancing, and because of this the characterization suffered, and therefore so did my ability to care about them.

On top of all this, the ending (and I won’t go into why or how) had a big final ‘gotcha’ twist that felt unnecessary. Sure, it was set up in a way that I could track out and map, so it didn’t feel completely out of nowhere. But when it was revealed I did kind of wonder what it added to the overall story, outside of confirming other well-worn tropes that I had thought we’d left behind.

Finally, there’s one more thing that I really need to address within this novel. This ties in with the HUGE content warning that I want to give it, AND along with that I’m going to be talking about plot points in no uncertain terms. Therefore, we are getting a

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Chuck Wendig used to write “Star Wars” content for Marvel so I had to use this. (source)

There are many characters within this book, and all of them touch upon certain themes such as bigotry, racism, white supremacy, and using religion as a weapon and how these things can all go hand in hand. Matthew, our preacher who lets his own ego get him caught up with a white supremacist movement, becomes friends with the aforementioned Ozark Stover. After Matthew stops towing the line for Stover and white supremacist Presidential Candidate Creel, Ozark beats him, tortures him, and locks him in his bunker on his property. He also violently rapes him. I had no idea that this was coming, and when it did I had to put the book down for awhile and go do something else. While I am never going to be a ‘fan’ of sexual violence in books I read, as how could one be, if I can see a reason behind it or if it’s done in a responsible way I can be more forgiving of that plot choice, even if I’m going to be upset about it. In “Wanderers”, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for it to be there outside of sensationalism. We already know that Ozark Stover is an evil motherfucker. He’s manipulative, he’s violent, he incites hatred and violent actions amongst his followers, and he’s a murderous, misogynistic white supremacist who uses religion as a way to froth up his following. WE KNOW HE IS HORRIBLE. It felt like this scene was just a ‘and how can we REALLY hit the point home that he’s a bad guy?’ when we have rounded the bases of badness MULTIPLE times. On top of that, I didn’t like the framing of it. Matthew is a piece of shit in his own way, and while I know that we were supposed to feel bad for him and see him as more ‘flawed’ than anything else, I personally couldn’t abide him. BUT ALL OF THAT SAID, making him a victim of a graphic and violent sexual assault made me feel sick, because to me it felt like a ‘and now you know why you never should have gotten tangled up with this guy in the first place’ moment, which to me is unnecessary. Like I’ve said, I am NEVER going to be fully on board with a scene like this, but I think that there are ways that it can be done with sensitivity and with responsibility. This felt like it was for shock value, and I didn’t like that.

Overall, “Wanderers” is definitely a worthy contribution to the ‘post-apocalyptic pandemic’ genre, and I think that it’s going to stand the test of time. There were aspects that I greatly enjoyed, and aspects that fell flat, but I definitely can see myself as recommending it to people who like this kind of thing. I am very curious to see what Wendig does next.

Rating 7: While the world building, pacing, and downfall of humanity ticked all my boxes, I had problems with some characterization, a final GOTCHA twist, and a scene of exploitative sexual violence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wanderers” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Books for a Pandemic”, and “This Is The End..”

Find “Wanderers” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Guardian of the Horizon”

157858Book: “Guardian of the Horizon” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Avon, March 2005

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

Book Description: Amelia Peabody and her husband Emerson, along with their son Ramses and foster daughter Nefret, are summoned back to the Lost Oasis, a hidden stronghold in the western desert whose existence they discovered many years ago (in The Last Camel Died At Noon) and have kept secret from the entire world, including their fellow Egyptologists. According to Merasen, the brother of the ruling monarch, their old friend Prince Tarek is in grave danger and needs their help, however it’s not until they retrace their steps back to the Oasis, with its strange mixture of Meroitic and Egyptian cultures, that they learn the real reason for their journey.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool” and “The Ape Who Guards the Balance”

Review: I’m again back with an Amelia Peabody mystery review! It’s so great to have a series like this in one’s back pocket whenever a solid read is needed. The fact that the audiobook version is so great is an even greater bonus! Though, while I’m still enjoying the series as a whole, this one did feel a bit weaker than some of the others.

For once the Emerson family is left without a plan for where to excavate this coming season. Of course, the problem is not long-lasting as adventure is always sure to arrive at their door, this time in the form of a young man named Merasen who claims to be from the ancient, lost city where they rescued Nefret so many years ago. Once again, they must make the perilous journey to that remote oasis, and all of Amelia’s plans cannot prepare them for what they will find. Now, caught up once again in these ancient machinations, it is up to Amelia and co. to resolve not only the many challenges that arise, but to get out alive while doing it!

Up to this point, I had been reading the books not only in chronological order, but publishing order as well. This is the first book that was written much later, but backtracks to tell a story that is wedged between other, existing books. It won’t be until I get later in the series that I will know how well it fit in with previously written material, but it’s hard to imagine how the events of this book won’t have a lasting impact on the series. The obvious explanation is that since they resolved not to talk about the Lost Oasis originally, that same silence explains the absence of references to this story.

But even with that being the case, this story hits a few crucial character beats that it feels would impact how these same characters behave going forward. By this point, Amelia and Emerson are pretty set, as far as characterization and grand arcs go. Their romance is solid, their foibles understood and managed, they tackle adventure with the easy partnership of two people who know one another inside out. And as, by this point, the reader also knows them inside out, they are like a familiar pair of shoes that fit just right. I still love them, but this book’s main emotional arc is that of Ramses, and, to a lesser extent, that of Nefret.

For the last several books, Ramses unspoken love for Nefret has only grown. By this book, the torment has gotten to the point that he has begun looking for excuses not to be around her. Of course, given the nature of the story, that can’t be allowed to happen and he ends up on this adventure with her and the rest of his family. Along the way, however, he meets another mysterious and beautiful young woman. And throughout the book, Ramses struggles to understand his feelings for both of these women. It’s a very well-done side story as Ramses’ conflicted feelings are so relatable. He has a long-lasting, unrequited and unspoken, love for Nefret, and that is not given up. But at the same time, there is now the appeal of a young woman who sees him and can return his interest. Not knowing how the rest of the series plays out, it does feel like this experience would have a lasting effect on Ramses’ approach to his feelings for Nefret, either to make them more manageable, knowing that he can develop attachment for another, or drive him to the point of coming clean to her. But, given the fact that this book was written later, I’m not sure how that would work.

Nefret, too, takes a fairly hard emotional blow in the return to the Lost City. She had been raised there as a high priestess, a role of great importance but also great isolation. Upon returning, it is impossible to avoid the crushing memories of her childhood, both its joys and pains. Her experiences are arguably the most harrowing of them all in this book. But that also brings us to one of the downsides of this book. I’ve always loved the character of Nefret, and with the events of this book, she spends most of it very changed from the young woman we’ve been following before. With Amelia and Emerson remaining so steady (lovely, yet also not incredibly interesting either), much of the interest lies in Ramses and Nefret. And when you take her off the table, too, essentially…it’s just a lot of book to hang on one character’s shoulders, even if that character is excellent in his own right.

The story also relied on a few tricks we’ve now see many times before. I enjoyed the return to the Lost City and wish the book had capitalized on the novelty of that fact more so, without resorting to pulling in characters and mysteries that we often find in the other stories that are set in more traditional settings. It felt like a lost opportunity a bit and I think a few of these familiar additions were definitely unnecessary.

I continue to enjoy this series, though some of the characters felt a bit more bland in this book than in others. I also feel that it didn’t take full advantage of its own conceit and relied too heavily on past tricks to resolve many of the conflicts. But, of course, there’s no question that I will be continuing on with the series!

Rating 7: Not my favorite book in the series as I feel like it could have done so much more than it did.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Guardian of the Horizon” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women” and “Regency and Victorian Mysteries.”

Find “Guardian of the Horizon” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Killing November”

35053980Book: “Killing November” by Adriana Mather

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s a school completely off the grid, hidden by dense forest and surrounded by traps. There’s no electricity, no internet, and an eye-for-an-eye punishment system. Classes include everything from Knife-Throwing and Poisons to the Art of Deception and Historical Analysis. And all of the students are children of the world’s most elite strategists—training to become assassins, counselors, spies, and master impersonators. Into this world walks November Adley, who quickly discovers that friends are few in a school where personal revelations are discouraged and competition is everything. When another student is murdered, all eyes turn to November, who must figure out exactly how she fits into the school’s bizarre strategy games before she is found guilty of the crime…or becomes the killer’s next victim.

Review: Adriana Mather is one of those authors whose books I am probably always going to pick up no matter what. I so enjoy the “How to Hang a Witch” series, and when I saw that Mather had a new book that started off a new one I was a little bummed that I had to wait a bit longer before she revisits Samantha and Elijah, but excited at the prospect of a new series with new characters. And, lo and behold, this new series takes place at a BOARDING SCHOOL WITH A SHADY SET UP!! Bring on the drama! I will gladly bask in all of it!

“Killing November” is definitely more focused on being a thriller and mystery that Mather’s previous series, and I think that this is both a strength and a weakness. The reason it’s a strength is because of the character of November herself. We know that her father has been involved with some espionage and secret government work, so when she awakens in a strange room and at a strange school she’s never heard of, we know that while she’s heard of shit and seen some shit in theory, she will still have some adjusting to do. November is a fun protagonist, because she’s both pragmatic in her personality (aka I completely believed her as being a bit more cynical and world weary thanks to her family background), and yet still in the dark enough that she has HUGE adjustments to make at this new, bizarre school that focuses more on combat, violence, and duplicity than your average educational institution might. November finds herself having to learn about knife throwing, poisons, and psychological warfare, without being given any kind of background, so she is the perfect stand in for the reader in terms of learning everything she can, with severe consequences if she can’t catch on fast enough. Because of this gulf between her and the other students, watching connections and friendships form was more unique than we might usually expect from a story with a similar premise, mostly because of the inherent distrust between the students based on social structures and the violent skills they’re learning. November’s closest ally is her roommate Layla, who is astute and sharp and cunning, but doesn’t hold friendships at the same value level as November, and therefore the readers, do. Because of this, watching their social interactions (along with the social interactions between November and Layla’s brother Ash, who may or may not be hiding his own motivations) was fascinating and rewarding as they slowly unfolded, in spite of the inherently distrustful setting of the school. Along with that I liked how the underlying social structures of this school worked. It’s a bit of a spoiler to go into it in too great of detail, but think of it like Hogwarts Houses, but revved up rivalries to deadly degrees. Throw in some good old fashioned blood feuds and you have for a plot line that I could sink my teeth into.

I think that the biggest drawback, however, is that while Mather is great when it comes to building these foundations and relationships, the main question of who is trying to hurt November and why didn’t pull me in as much. I cared about her as a character and wanted her to be safe, but I didn’t feel all that invested in who the killer at the school was, and why they would be going after November specifically. It wasn’t even that the ultimate solution was bare boned or too predictable; it was well plotted out and I found it to be believable as well as a surprise. It was just that ultimately, this plot wasn’t where the storytelling was richest for me. I liked the characterizations and the world building far more than the main plotline of this first book. My hope is that, should this series continue, in the next books with all the world building and November’s alliances and trustworthy cohorts established (as of now), I will be more interested in the twists and turns that are thrown into whatever adventure she and her classmates go on next.

“Killing November” has some very solid promise to be a fun new series from Adriana Mather. And while I’m still waiting for the next “How To Hang A Witch” book, I can now add the next “November” book to my list of anticipated reads!

Rating 7: With interesting characters and a compelling background story for the school, “Killing November” has promise, even if the main mystery didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped it would.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Killing November” is included on the Goodreads lists “Months of Days in the Book Title”, and “March 2019 Book Releases”.

Find “Killing November” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Northanger Abbey”

50398We 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 ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Publishing Info: John Murray, 1818

Where Did We Get This Book: eAudiobook from the library,

Book Description: Jane Austen’s first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen’s fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

Kate’s Thoughts

Unlike Serena, I am not as well versed in Jane Austen stories. I’ve read “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility”, and I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which admittedly probably doesn’t count. So when book club picked “Northanger Abbey”, I was both a bit excited but also a little apprehensive. I’m always looking to expand my ‘classics’ experience, as that’s admittedly a huge gap in my reading, but one of my biggest hangups with Austen is her writing style. But I got the audiobook from the library, and jumped in.

While I did have problems with the writing, overall I enjoyed “Northanger Abbey”! Given that I quite like Gothic novels (“Jane Eyre”, anyone?), it was kind of fun seeing a gentle satire/ribbing of the genre with Catherine Morland’s imagination running away with her. Given that Gothic novels are incredibly melodramatic it was quite amusing seeing Catherine look for the melodrama in her life, even when there really wasn’t much to be had, at least not in the ways she expected. Catherine herself is a pretty enjoyable protagonist, as she is sometimes flighty and naive, but always has a good heart in place and ultimately is good to other people. I can’t say that I was super invested in her relationship with Henry Tilney, but I did like their witty banter. I was far more invested in Catherine’s friendship with his sister Eleanor, and her frenemy relationship with the vapid and self centered Isabella (side note: Isabella and her dumbshit brother John are fun to hate as villains, and because of that I GREATLY enjoyed them and their nasty scheming). Catherine’s maneuvering through romantic and platonic relationships composed the true heart of this story, and I was definitely rooting for her.

I was also really tickled to see so much of this story took place in Bath, if only because I really enjoyed Bath when I went there. It was also neat to see that some of the tourist-y things to be done in Bath today, like visiting the pump room, were part of the tourist appeal back when this book was written! It’s funny to see how things can endure over time, whether it be a tourist attraction or the appeal of a novel.

But like I mentioned above, I did have a hard time with the writing style. I usually try to read ‘classics’ by listening to them on audiobook, as for some reason listening to the writing is easier for me to process that way. With “Northanger Abbey” this mostly worked, but I still found my mind wandering as I listened. Given that I’ve had success with this when reading other ‘classics’, I do think that had the plot been more to my liking, I may not have had as large of a problem keeping interested. This, however, is probably more a comment on my own personal hangups than the book itself.

“Northanger Abbey” hasn’t necessarily made me want to run out and read all the rest that Jane Austen has to offer, but as I slowly chip away at her work I can see why she has endured.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve read all of Jane Auten’s works, most of them twice. “Northnager Abbey,” however, is one of the few I’ve only read the one time, so I was also super excited when this was selected as a bookclub pick. Most of Austen’s other titles serve as comfort reads of some sort or another, depending on the mood I’m in and the type of romantic hero I’m craving. But for some reason I haven’t had this one in my rotation, though I do re-watch the BBC movie of it fairly regularly.

In many ways, this book is very different from Austen’s other works. It is one of her earliest writings (though it was published later, after her death), and you can see the building blocks in development with this work. Her villains are a bit more obviously “villain-y”: the Colonel with his strict meal times, Isabella with her contradictions and manipulations. The comedic characters play almost only for that, like Mrs. Allen’s obsession with clothes. And Tilney & Eleanore are simply good people all around. They all play their parts perfectly, but when compared to Austen’s other characters of the same type, one can see that these first attempts are a bit more bland and one-note. In “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, Mrs. Bennett is both a comedic character but also one that is pitiable for the situation she finds herself in, one that she is completely unable to handle (a questionable future and five daughters whose options are limited).  So, too, Mr. Darcy is both a romantic hero but also flawed man.

Catherine, as the heroine, is given the most fully fleshed out character. One of the lasting appeals of Austen’s work, I believe, is the way she captured the core of people, traits that carry on throughout the ages, regardless of many cultural or societal changes. Catherine, for instance, reads as a very believable seventeen year old girl. She’s a good person, but is prone to flights of dramatics, wishing to make her life more like the ones she reads about, seeing intrigue and mystery where there is none. She is also easily attracted to those she perceives as having more confidence than herself, like Isabella. And while never lead completely astray from the solid foundation of principles that make up her person, we see her fall under the sway of a “popular girl” who is going about life in a very different way than Catherine even understands.

As Kate mentioned, the most unique aspect of this book is the fact that it is a straight satire of the popular Gothic novels of the time. Every character choice and plot point holds in direct contrast to the dramatic events taking place in those books. Tilney is simply a good person (a very good person, given how gently he handles Catherine after she lets her imagination take her a bit too far at one point), with not flights of brooding or penchant to unnecessary dueling. Northanger Abbey itself is simply a home, most notable for being cozy and done up to the latest styles. Catherine’s family are all alive, most notably her mother, a character that even in Austen’s time was often killed off early in the story (Disney and many other YA stories still lean heavily on this trope). There are also several lines where Austen directly references other books and statements from authors that, for the curious reader, are fun rabbit holes to go down on one’s own time.

I very much enjoyed re-reading this book. The piercing take-downs of the tropes often found in Gothic fiction are on point, the story itself is sweet, and Tilney and Catherine are heroes you can’t help but root for. While the story and character portrayals are a bit more simplistic than what we see in Austen’s later work, you can clearly see the foundation that is being built in this first work.

Kate’s Rating 7: I liked the protagonist and the fun satire of Gothic novels, but the writing of the time period has never been my cup of tea.

Serena’s Rating 8: The most straight-forward of Austen’s books, this is a fun read though not as fully engaging as her other novels.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book pokes fun at common themes found in Gothic novels. Have you read any Gothic novels yourself and which of these satirical jabs did you appreciate the most?
  2. This is Austen’s first novel. If you have read her other stories, in what ways do you see her writing and characterization change between this story and her others?
  3. There is a careful balance struck between poking fun at Gothic novels but also defending novel-reading as a whole. How well do you think this balance was portrayed and what do you think Austen was ultimately trying to say?
  4. The romance between Henry and Catherine is very different from the ones in Gothic novels and even Austen’s own other works, especially with the admission later in the book that Henry’s initial interest was largely struck purely based on Catherine’s own obvious admiration. What do you think of the romance between these two? How does Henry compare to Austen’s other heroes?
  5. There is a large cast of characters who fall within the “villains” and “fools” categories. Which of them stood out to you and were they believable characters in and of themselves? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“Northanger Abbey” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books For Girls Who Belong to Another Era”, and “Fictional Crushes”.

Find “Northanger Abbey” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery”.

Serena’s Review: “An Illusion of Thieves”

39662738Book: “An Illusion of Thieves” by Cate Glass

Publication Info: Tor Books, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In Cantagna, being a sorcerer is a death sentence.

Romy escapes her hardscrabble upbringing when she becomes courtesan to the Shadow Lord, a revolutionary noble who brings laws and comforts once reserved for the wealthy to all. When her brother, Neri, is caught thieving with the aid of magic, Romy’s aristocratic influence is the only thing that can spare his life—and the price is her banishment.

Now back in Beggar’s Ring, she has just her wits and her own long-hidden sorcery to help her and Neri survive. But when a plot to overthrow the Shadow Lord and incite civil war is uncovered, only Romy knows how to stop it. To do so, she’ll have to rely on newfound allies—a swordmaster, a silversmith, and her own thieving brother. And they’ll need the very thing that could condemn them all: magic.

Review: Cover lust! I love everything about that illustration, the vibrant colors, the style, it’s all very eye-catching and definitely served its purpose as it instantly drew me in when I was browsing through NetGalley. The description helped quite a lot as well, as I can never resist a good heist story, especially if there’s a fantasy element involved! And while my hopes were not fully met, I still enjoyed this book quite a lot in the end.

For the most part, I very much enjoyed this story. Particularly, I enjoyed the detailed take on the political and economical environment in which the story took place. I’ve read a bunch of stories where magic being illegal is a central theme, but when combined with the other world-building elements twisted into the story, it still came off as a unique take. Pacing-wise, the story could read as a big slower with many of the little details getting more attention than some readers may prefer. Likewise, the main plot often takes a backseat to smaller, character-driven moments. I can enjoy both types of fantasy stories, but those looking for a grand epic might find themselves frustrated with the lower stakes of this story.

It was also an interesting read knowing that the author plans to write the series in an episodic manner. Most fantasy series typically follow a grand arc that takes place over several books, and while smaller offshoots exist here and there, the main conflict builds and resolves through all the books, linking them closely together. I can see the stage being set for a different type of read with this book, and I’m intrigued by what Glass has in mind with this type of tale.

As for the characters, I really enjoyed Romy. She was a fun narrator and it was exciting to see her so competently put her skills to work when she finds herself back on the streets, poverty-stricken and desperate. I was also surprised to find that the story is also largely Neri’s as well. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this character. His character type, that of the young, arrogant, swagger-ridden boy-o, has some natural flaws simply built in. But those same flaws are the points around which his characterization builds, so they have to be there to see any growth.

I was also surprised to find the story lacked a romantic plot line, instead focusing on the sibling relationship between Romy and Neri a its emotional crux. I confess that I typically prefer some romance in my stories, and second best is a sister-sister relationship, but I was also drawn in by the tense relationship between Romy and Neri as they learned to get along throughout the book.

Overall, this book was an entertaining read. I felt that the plot was a bit light for me and at times the author seemed to almost lose focus on her main story, caught up in the details of her world. But the interesting characters and the slowly built up trust and respect between Romy and Neri was a point in its favor. And, again, I’ll never say no to magical heist stories!

Rating 7: A fun, lighter read with a compelling brother/sister relationship at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“An Illusion of Thieves” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Popular Fantasy Heist Books.”

Find “An Illusion of Thieves” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Kingsbane”

40523458Book: “Kingsbane” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Rielle Dardenne has been anointed Sun Queen, but her trials are far from over. The Gate keeping the angels at bay is falling. To repair it, Rielle must collect the seven hidden castings of the saints. Meanwhile, to help her prince and love Audric protect Celdaria, Rielle must spy on the angel Corien—but his promises of freedom and power may prove too tempting to resist.

Centuries later, Eliana Ferracora grapples with her new reality: She is the Sun Queen, humanity’s long-awaited savior. But fear of corruption—fear of becoming another Rielle—keeps Eliana’s power dangerous and unpredictable. Hunted by all, racing against time to save her dying friend Navi, Eliana must decide how to wear a crown she never wanted—by embracing her mother’s power, or rejecting it forever.

Previously Reviewed: “Furyborn”

Review: As my review above indicates, I had some problems with the first book in this trilogy. But, as the book was so well-received, to a certain extent I know these were a lot of personal preferences, mainly having to do with the decision to include a prologue that, I felt, gave away a bit too much of the story, if read carefully. So, with that in mind, when I received an ARC in the mail from the publisher, I decided to give it a go. And, while I still struggled with aspects of the story, I also enjoyed it more than the first.

Rielle and Eliana both are thought to be the Sun Queen, though Eliana does have the dark history of her mother, Rielle’s, decent into darkness to back up her claim. But so far these titles and prophesies have brought nothing but danger and challenges, one after another. Eliana must bear the heavy load of her mother’s legacy, worrying constantly that she will follow in her footsteps, fearing her own powers. And Rielle, centuries earlier, must walk a tight line between protecting her kingdom and spying on the angels who threaten them, all while becoming increasingly intrigued by one of them, the mysterious Corien.

Having the world and writing set-up (alternating POVs from the past and the future) already established definitely helped me enjoy this book more than the first. If I worked very hard, I could even try and put the initial prologue out of my head and enjoy the story as it is. I’m particularly intrigued by the ongoing mystery of which Queen is really the Sun Queen and which is the one who turns to evil. While it feels fairly established as Rielle, I’m still on the look-out for a trick up this author’s sleeve in the eleventh hour.

As far as characters go, I still have enjoyed Eliana’s story more than Rielle’s. Part of this might have something to do with the timing of my read of this book. Frankly, I’m a bit exhausted by the “power hungry queens” in fantasy stories right now (I think the reason why is probably pretty obvious). This is definitely not the book’s fault. But timing aside, I do think that Rielle’s decision making and thirst for power made her a bit less appealing for me. At my heart, I always will prefer to the straight-forward hero character over an anti-hero. I also wasn’t a fan of the strange love triangle that was being built up between Rielle, Corien and Audric. I didn’t feel like there was enough established to really justify Rielle’s interest in Corien.

I do very much enjoy the general writing style and world-building of these books. The story feels expansive and epic, and the writing effortlessly flows between witting dialogue and engrossing descriptions of action and setting. If only the characters who populated it all were a bit better. The book is pretty long, however, and I do think some editing could have been in order to tidying it all up.

I also had some questions about the marketing of this book as YA. There are some pretty intense scenes in this book, particularly in the romance plot line between Corien and Rielle. This is by no means coming from a “the children aren’t ready for this!!” place, but more a general question about fantasy fiction and current marketing practices. It almost feels like a lot of good fantasy works are being relegated to YA regardless of that being the appropriate place for them simply because YA fantasy is booming. And look, I love that so many fantasy titles are coming out in YA. But I’m also starting to feel like there is an equal and growing lack of fantasy coming out in adult fiction for the very same reason.

I would place good money on the fact that several titles are pitched to publishers as adult fantasy fiction and then are sent back with the note “Great! But let’s make the protagonists teenagers so we can market it to YA, since that’s where this stuff sells!” It’s too bad, because a lot of adults want to read good fantasy fiction (again, look at the recent epic fantasy TV show that just concluded. Clearly, there is an adult interest in these types of stories). And books like this read as if they could just as easily, and perhaps more appropriately, be marketed as adult fantasy. Teenagers can pick up an adult fantasy novel just as easily as an adult can pick up a YA fantasy title. So maybe we can try giving each their due based on the story itself, and not marketing tactics. A girl can dream.

Having the characters and world set up in the first book, overall I felt as if I could sink more fully into this read and enjoy it. I still had some struggles, but some of that can be laid at the feet of the timing of my read more than any real flaw on the book’s part. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, and those who may have had middling feelings might want to check it out as well, as I do think everything was strengthened, if not perfected, in this sequel.

Rating  7: An overall improvement on the first book!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kingsbane” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on: “Books Marketed as Young adult that might be New Adult, Adult Fiction.”

Find “Furyborn” at your library using WorldCat!