Book Club Review: “Tomorrow, When The War Began”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 with Movie Adaptations.” 

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

Book: “Tomorrow, When the War Began” by John Marsden

Publishing Info: Pan Macmillian, 1993

Where Did We Get This Book: Both from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong — their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision — run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back.

Kate’s Thoughts:

When our dear friend and co-book club member Melissa picked “Tomorrow, When The War Began” for book club, I hadn’t heard of it. In my mind I was picturing something like “A Boy and His Dog”, which is… decidedly not what this book is. I think that I hadn’t heard of it because of a few things, the most obvious being that I was younger than it’s demo when it came out in 1993, and when I did become part of the YA reading age group I had already pretty much graduated to adult novels. So suffice to say, this was a whole new experience for me.

One thing that struck me about this book was that it was pretty grim by today’s standards, so the fact that it was published in 1993 kind of boggles my mind. There are many themes in this book that seemed pretty dark and mature for a book written for teens about twenty years ago. The first thing that is striking and out in the open is the violence. Marsden isn’t gratuitous with the violence that Ellie and her friends encounter, but he isn’t unflinching with it either. It always feels very real, be it Ellie coming home to find her dogs dead or dying, or Ellie blowing up a lawnmower and in turn causing the deaths of some invading soldiers. The reactions to violence from most of the group also feels very true to life, as they don’t automatically turn into commandos right away. Ellie is definitely uncomfortable with hurting people, even if she eases into it out of necessity, and other characters in the group also have to adapt and react in their own ways.

I was also quite impressed with how Marsden so wonderfully captured the voice of a teenage girl. I by no means think that guys can’t write girl voices or vice versa, but I was a little worried that it may come off as a bit stereotypical, even if he hadn’t meant to. So I was very happy when Ellie did seem like a pretty normal, and typical teenage girl. I thought that the way she thought and approached certain situations seemed reasonable and understandable given her character, and while I was a bit irritated that there was a brief possibility of a love triangle between her, nice boy Lee, and her best friend Homer, it was quashed pretty quickly and acknowledged as displaced feelings. After all, Lee is the one that gets her going both intellectually and physically, at the end of the day. I also thought that Marsden’s approach to sex was pretty realistic too, as Ellie definitely has urges and does think about these things. While I know there are some people out there who may think that these kids would have more on their minds than their sex lives, I think that they are humans at the end of the day, and teenagers to boot.

I think that my qualms were definitely more just about the story as a whole. I like end of days dystopia kinds of stories, but this one almost felt a bit too realistic for me to be able to get super into it. A strange criticism, I know. The ending felt abrupt, and while I know and get why he wrote it the way he did, it just seemed like a fast way to wrap things up. Luckily, there are a bunch of other books in the series, so it’s not like it ended completely on a note of ambiguity…. Or maybe it does, I don’t know I haven’t read them. Overall I did enjoy reading “Tomorrow, When the War Began”, but I don’t think I’ll keep going. This was good enough as it was.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I was one of only two book club members who had already read this book. Not only that, but I had read the entire series! So all the gold stars for me! (Is self-congratulatory speech a good look??) I grew up in rural Idaho and for some reason the librarians at the tiny local library were all about Australian, teen guerilla warfare and had bought the complete series. I remember blowing through them as a kid, and have from time to time thought of them as an adult when reminscing about favorites books as a kid. But I hadn’t re-read them, so it was a treat getting to re-visit the series now as an adult.

I must say, it holds up. If anything, I’m kind of impressed with kid-Serena’s good taste (the self praise has gotten out of control! But seriously, I had many other questionable favorites as a kid, so this was a bit reassuring, really.) As Kate said, I was impressed by many things in this book, especially given when it was written. The author doesn’t shy away from the violence or trauma of the events he lays out. His characters are never given any easy outs and the variety of reactions and coping methods that the different teens fall back on seem all too realistic. Certain characters whom you might not expect to thrive under the stress rise to the occasion, while others struggle more. Moreover, there is never any criticism for these different reactions.

And, also following Kate’s lead, the author’s take on a teenage girl’s inner thought process and voice is spot on. As a kid, I never spent much time thinking about whether an author was a man or a woman (take that publishing companies that think teenagers fret about that stuff!), so when I picked it up as an adult and saw that it was a male author, I was actually a bit surprised. Especially given that the book was written in first person, an easier narrative style for many young readers and often a go-to for these type of books even now, this ability to slip into the skin of his female protagonist was really impressive. As simplistic as first person narration is, I think it can also be more challenging in specific situations like this where the author has to so completely encompass the full perspective of the character.

Specifically, there was a moment in the book where Ellie is having a conversation with one of her male friends and there is an inner line where she recognizes his tactics as typical of a teenage boy, trying to “bully” her into a relationship almost. This is so spot on! Reading it myself, I instantly recognized the type of conversation that was happening, and for an adult man to so fully capture this inner working of teenagedom from a young girl’s perspective is truly impressive.

My one complaint was that the book was a bit long on the descriptions. I don’t remember noticing this as a kid, and it may have simply been a factor of my re-read. I knew where things were going and was maybe in a rush to get there. But while there might have been a lot of text given over to these descriptions of scenes and locales, the writing was on point and really did an excellent job of painting the scene of the Australian wilderness.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to this series. I also heard from a fellow book club member that there is a follow-up series, “The Ellie Chronicles,” that I might need to check out now, too!

Kate’s Rating 7: An impressive narrative and story for what I was expecting! It wasn’t totally my jam, thematics wise, but it was a worthwhile reading experience!

Serena’s Rating 8: I greatly enjoyed returning to this series and am almost even more impressed with it now as an adult than I was the first time around as a teen.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

In due diligence to our book club theme, we watched the 2010 version of “Tomorrow, When the War Began” which is currently available on Netflix. I, for one, really enjoyed this movie. The casting was spot on, specifically the actors they got for Ellie and Homer. While they did have to leave out several parts of the book (sadly a lot of the time they spent in Hell the second go around), most of the decisions made sense and it seemed that the movie could stand alone. The biggest disappointment, probably, was the fact that several of the characters had to be narrowed down to meet the shorter screen time they were allotted, so we didn’t have as fully rounded character arcs for some of them. Again, understandable, if not a bit disappointing. And while the Australian scenery in the film was beautiful, I think Kate (and everyone at book club) will agree that the only Australian scenery that is ever needed is this:

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Hugh Jackman in “Australia”

1. This book was published in 1993, but has a lot of themes that are pretty common in today’s YA literature. Do you think that this book would be as successful if it came out today, and took place in the early 21st century instead of the late 20th?

2. What did you think of the invading army’s ‘identity’ being ambiguous? Do you think that having to know who was invading would have improved the story? Hindered it? Not made any difference?

3. How did you feel about Ellie as a character? Do you think that her voice was authentic and relatable?

4. Who was your favorite character in the book? The movie? If they were different, why?

5.  If you went on a camping trip and came back to find your homeland invaded, what 6 other people would be in your group? Would you turn to guerilla warfare? Hide?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tomorrow, When the War Began” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Australian Young Adult Books,” and “Books that should get more attention.”

Find “Tomorrow, When the War Began” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Pirate King”

9970915 Book: “Pirate King” by Laurie R. King

Publishing Info: Bantam, September 2011

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: In England’s budding silent-film industry, megalomaniac Randolph Fflytte is king. At the request of Scotland Yard, Mary Russell is dispatched to investigate rumors of criminal activities. At Lisbon rehearsals for “Pirate King”, based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, thirteen blond-haired, blue-eyed actresses meet the real buccaneers Fflytte has recruited to provide authenticity. But when the crew embarks for Morocco and the actual filming, troubles escalate.

Review: I have been reading Laurie King’s “Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes” series on and off for the past…decade?? A long time is all I know. It’s one of my favorite mystery series, and the fact that I can simply jump into the story at whatever point I left off previously (perhaps years previously) with such ease is a huge mark in its favor. All that said, when I was feeling the need for a little mystery action in my reading cycle, I knew just where to look. And King’s “Pirate King” did not disappoint!

Following the usual track for these stories, the book begins with Mary Russell being sent off on some investigation or another. This right here is one of the reasons I enjoy this series so much. The focus is well and truly on Mary Russell’s character, with Holmes firmly in the supporting role. The fact that I love the Sherlock Holmes mythos so much makes me all the more appreciative of this decision. Like the originals, told from Watson’s perspective, Holmes is a character best appreciated from a slight distance and in sprinklings of narrative brilliance. And Mary Russell, herself, is a strong lead for the series. Adventurous, witty, clever, and full of energy, it has never been a challenge picturing her as the equal and companion of our famous detective throughout the series. She drives the story, and while I always look forward to Holmes’ next appearance, I am never antsy waiting for it. Russell is a great lead on her own.

As noted in the jacket description, this mystery revolves around a silent film production featuring pirates. The film company “Fflytte films” is known for the “realism” in its production quality. So, naturally, this means that the eccentric director must hire “real” pirate actors, rent a pirate ship, load 13 flighty British actresses on board and head off for Morocco, with poor Russell trailing along attempting to solve a mystery of criminality in the production history all while arranging the administrative details of such a venture. No small task!

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, as I mentioned earlier, have always been great characters in this series. That being the case, the strength of individual novels in the series often depends on the supporting characters that are introduced. “Pirate King” has a great cast! The aforementioned eccentric director, his long-suffering cousin who is in charge of arranging the “realistic” pieces (“A pirate parrot!” “A real castle!”), the Moroccan man-of-mystery hired to play the pirate king, and, of course, the 13 actresses and their doting chaperone mothers. It is easy to see why Russell might have been hesitant to sign up for this one!

A few criticism of the book. The pacing was rather uneven. The story gets off to a slow start, at times feeling dragged down by the minutiae of the film industry and the challenges of the bloated cast of characters. While enjoyable, it’s hard to keep track of 13 teenage actress characters right off the bat! But, by a third of the way in, the story really takes off and is highly enjoyable. However, the ending is then wrapped up all too quickly. These abrupt shifts in pace were rather distracting and interrupted the flow of the story, ultimately.

My second criticism will really depend on how much of a mystery element one wants in a mystery series. This book is definitely light on the mystery itself. The investigation that Mary Russell sets out on initially is even acknowledged by herself as likely much ado about nothing. And the additional mystery that is tacked on towards the end has much less to do with an actual mystery than in character analysis. I, personally, was ok with this as I found the adventure and light-hearted tone to be a nice reprieve from the more grim and serious books that came directly previous to this in the series. But if you’re looking for a capital “M” mystery, this might not be your best choice.

All in all, “Pirate King” is another solid entry in this series. While I recommend checking out the other books in the series, especially if you like historical mysteries, it is by no means necessary to have read them all, or any, to enjoy this book.

Rating 7: Another fun adventure with Mary Russell! The pacing in the first and third act were my only holdups, and whether the mystery is compelling enough is going to be highly dependent on reader expectations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pirate King” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best British Crime/Mystery Fiction” and “Women who Solve Crimes.” 

Find “Pirate King” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “These Broken Stars”

13138635Book: “These Broken Stars” by Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, December 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Luxury spaceliner Icarus suddenly plummets from hyperspace into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive – alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a cynical war hero. Both journey across the eerie deserted terrain for help. Everything changes when they uncover the truth.  

Review: For all the proliferation of young adult fantasy novels, there is a distinct lack of young adult science fiction. I’m not quite sure why this is the case as the two genres are so often combined into one “fantasy/sci-fi” due to the vast number of similarities. Further, if there was ever a saturation point for readers, I have to think we’re reaching it with the number YA fantasy series out there right now. In this way, “These Broken Stars” stands out. Not only is it distinctly science fiction, but it is also a book that can be read as a stand alone! Both of these aspects were a refreshing change, and while there were some weak points in the story, for the most part “These Broken Stars” left me very satisfied.

Heiress and socialite Lilac LaRoux and war hero Tarver Merendsen have a typical meet-cute: plummeting towards a planet aboard a malfunctioning escape pod from an exploding spaceship. But really, the ship was called the “Icarus,” what did they expect? Why would anyone, ever, get on a ship named the “Icarus”?? There’s your first mistake. After crash landing, the two discover they are the only survivors of the wreck and must trek across an unknown planet in the hopes of discovering some means of sending a distress signal and escaping alive.

This is a solid plot. I appreciated the fact that Kaufman and Spooner didn’t pull any punches with the realities of a disaster of this magnitude. Not only do Tarver and Lilac have to deal with the challenges of their maroonment, but gruesome details of the crash and its aftermath are not shied away from. There are no easy outs. Injuries, starvation, dehydration, the confusion of a new environment, the grief and fear of a situation so fully out of one’s control: these are all painted with deft strokes. At one point, Tarver and Lilac reach the main wreck of the ship and the practicalities and horror of the situation is fully explored. Often, young adult novels can have a tendency to go easy on the realities of the story in favor of focusing on character drama. It can be very disappointing and also distracting. (Why is that character fretting between her love interests when an army is invading her kingdom?!?!) Not so, here.

And that’s not to say the characters in this do not experience their own drama. It’s only that their drama seems more grounded in the situation they find themselves in and their own biases and preconceived notions of the individual they have been forced to experience this trial alongside. The love story feels earned with its two characters going through misunderstanding, frustration, and anger, before building mutual understanding, respect, and care.

There were a few points where Tarver and Lilac fell a bit too closely into stereotypical characterizations. Or, more like, their “shocking reveal” anti-stereotypical characterizations. Of course Lilac isn’t just a socialite, but also a wiz at mechanics! However, each time I was about to roll my eyes at some overdone character moment, the authors would surprise me with a bit of realism that was enough to draw me back in. Lilac may be a wiz at mechanics, but she still struggles with her situation. So, too, Tarver, who could easily be written as the character more fully in the know and the right with his judgements of his companion, is also given flaws that make him more relatable and believable. Their physical and emotional journey is surprisingly balanced.

The mystery was also surprising. I enjoyed the reveal, and the final challenge in the third act of the story came completely out of left field. Also, while loose ends remained, the story also wrapped itself up in a way that was satisfying. Again, in young adult fiction where trilogies, cliff hangers, and dangling romantic plot lines that are drawn out through at least three books are the norm, I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated this respite.

There are two more books in this “series.” However, they each seem to focus on a new pair of individuals. This is a unique framing technique for what I’m guessing will be the larger conflict that was begun in this story. I’m curious to see how it will all pan out!

Rating 7: A solid outing for a young adult science fiction novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Broken Stars” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!” and “Space Opera Romance”.

Find “These Broken Stars” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

Book Club Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

X-Men: Days of Future PastWe are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 with Movie Adaptations.” 

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

Book: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Bryne

Publishing Info: Marvel, 1981

Where Did We Get This Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Relive the legendary first journey into the dystopian future of 2013 where Sentinels stalk the Earth and the X-Men are humanity’s only hope… until they die! Also featuring the first apperance of Alpha Flight, the return of the Wendigo, the history of Cyclops… and a demon for Christmas!?

Serena’s Thoughts:

I have a bizarrely expansive knowledge of the X-Men and a very limited list of actual comic stories that I have read featuring them. I’ve always loved the X-Men and I have strong preferences for certain characters and a fairly thorough knowledge of its history, but when it came to actually sitting down and reading them? Not so much. That made this month’s book club pick, courtesy of book club friend and fellow librarian, Alicia, a great opportunity for me to delve into the actual comics themselves.

As per the world of comics, the actual collection we read was an assortment of different issues that were combined in such a way as to provide background and further character insight into the cast most heavily featured in the prominent story line, the titular “Days of Future Past.” This being the case, a few of the actual separate issue stories were rather hit and miss for me. While I understand why they were all included, there were times in the first half of the story where I was skimming through a lot of exposition about who/what/where things are in the world of the X-Men at this specific point in time. So, too, we take a bizarre trip up to Canada at one point and fight a Wendigo?? Again, with some thought, it becomes clear why these issues were chosen, specifically the ones that introduce Kitty Pryde, but they were also a bit off putting in their disconnection to each other. I enjoyed them all, but I was very excited by the time we got to the main story arc.

“Days of Future Past” was definitely the highlight of the collection, which is only fitting. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, particularly the fact that Kitty Pryde was our protagonist. While many comics (and comic movies as this very one proves) heavily feature male heroes, it was a breath of fresh air to see this story unfold under the guidance of a young, female character. Further, at this point in time, Storm is leading the X-Men and Mystique is heading up the “Group of Evil Mutants” (yes, the villains’ team name is something stupid like that). So, woman power all around!

Storm has always been one of my favorite characters, so it was fun reading about her in this role. While she questioned her abilities in comparison to Cyclops one too many times for my liking, she did give Wolverine a lovely smackdown later on which fully made up for it. Mystique, on the other hand, is decidedly more interesting in the movie version than in the comic. This largely comes down to the fact that the movies have re-worked Mystique’s whole backstory and Jennifer Lawrence is awesome at anything she does. In the comic story, however, she does very little other than stand in the background saying things like “I’ll get you, my pretties” and then running off at the end shouting “Never mind, I meant I’ll get you next time!”

All in all, I very much enjoyed finally sitting down and reading this comic book. The art was colorful and fun and definitely felt like a trip back in time, considering when it was published and the styling used at that point. I would definitely recommend it for anyone interested in X-Men comics or for those wanting to know the basis for the movie.

Kate’s Thoughts:

Like Serena, I have a pretty good working knowledge of The X-Men universe and many of its idiosyncrasies. I haven’t read many of the comics, but I’ve seen most of the movies and I’ve read a lot about the characters and how they connect to each other. So going into “Days of Future Past,” I was familiar with all of the characters and what makes them unique. But actually reading an X-Men comic is kind of a new thing for me! I was very stoked when Alicia picked it for book club, and was totally engrossed by it once I opened it up.

I definitely think that the main arc of this story, the “Days of Future Past” arc, was the strongest of the collection, though there were others included as well. I think that my favorite one outside of the main arc was the one about Nightcrawler’s Birthday party and then his descent into Hell, mostly because I love Nightcrawler as a character. But also because book club pointed out the ridiculous pile of presents that he gets, including a glamour shot of Wolverine?

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We couldn’t agree if it was a egotistical gift from Wolverine, or if Nightcrawler asked Storm to get him a picture of Wolverine. Either option is perfect.

I also want to mention that the Canadian Wendigo looked more like a Yeti. I understand that this collection chose these comics to help bolster the characters that we focused on (specifically Kitty) or to give context, but I wasn’t used to having the lack of linear storytelling that many comics collections have now. This distracted me quite a bit, sadly, and made it hard for me to get on board fully until we got to the main event.

So let’s get back to “Days of Future Past.” Much like the movie, it’s about the X-Men trying to prevent a dystopic future by going into the past and stopping one bad moment from happening (specifically the assassination of a Senator which bolstered anti-mutant sentiments), which in turn led to large mechanical Sentinals to be created to kill mutants, and anyone with super powers (goodbye, Avengers, it was nice knowing you). The thing that I liked best about this storyline was the fabulous and amazing Kitty Pryde. I was shocked when I read this and it was HER, and not Wolverine, to go back in time and try to save the future. I loved seeing a teenage girl get the hero spotlight in this story, and really this entire collection. Kitty Pryde was given so much to do, which was a breath of fresh air. Storm was also given the spotlight to shine in, as the leader of the X-Men at this point in time. While she had her moments of self-doubt, I liked that she was supremely badass throughout the stories that we saw her in, while still being portrayed as a relatable and genuinely cool person. I do think that it was a shame that they felt a need for her self doubt to be manifested in ‘Boy, I sure wish that Cyclops was here because HE would know what to do.’ Not because I don’t want Storm to have humanizing moments, but because I didn’t really care for it being like ‘a white dude could do this better.’ Luckily, she showed herself to be very powerful and a great leader, so I will give it a pass.

I was sad to see that Mystique had such a small, two dimensional role. I know that it’s mostly the movies that gave Mystique more to do, but she has always been my favorite character in the X-Men universe, so seeing her reduced to a “I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling mutants!” caricature was hard for me. I like my Raven conflicted and filled with angst. I did, however, like that little exchange between her and Nightcrawler, given their actual connection in the mythology (and if they do it in the new X-Men movie “Apocalypse” I will be so happy).

Serena’s Rating 7: Very good, though some of the issues that were chosen to support the main story weren’t my favorite.

Kate’s Rating 7: Highly enjoyable, but the two dimensional aspect of the villains were frustrating while the additional storylines sometimes felt out of place.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

We’re still going strong with the Movie theme in our book club at the moment, so we watched the 2014 film “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. This was a strong second outing for the prequel X-Men cast featuring Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender. And as you can’t have an X-Men movie nowadays without Hugh Jackman, the biggest change to the story line was swapping out Kitty Pride for Wolverine. This switch was heavily discussed at book club, and while we all understood the reason for the change in the movie landscape (how can you NOT use Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine every chance you get??), we also mourned the loss of a strong, young, female protagonist as the story’s lead. Peter Dinklage is also a fun addition, and people are still talking about the amazing Quicksilver scene.

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The game already happened, and it didn’t end well for you, “Age of Ultron” Quicksilver! (source)

1. How do the other issues included in this collection add to the primary storyline? Did you enjoy any one particularly and why? Was there one that could have been left out?

2. Did you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?

3. How did you feel about the character of Mystique in this story? How did she compare to how you think of Mystique as she has been in the film universe, or in more recent comics?

4. There are significant character/storyline changes between the movie and the comic. Which of these changes did you appreciate and which would you have changed?

5.  How did the swap from Kitty Pryde to Wolverine affect the story? Which did you prefer? What additions or detractions did each character’s perspective bring to their version?

Reader’s Advisory:

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best of Kitty Pryde”, and “Essential X-Men”.

Find “X-Men: Days of Future Past” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Fellside”

26030697Book: “Fellside” by M.R. Carey

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

Review: My husband and I would consider ourselves ‘casual’ fans of the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black”. Casual in that we like it, but we never actually finished season 3 but will probably just dive headfirst into season 4. I’m a big enough fan that when I read about “Fellside” for the first time, my thought was ‘Oh wow, it’s like OITNB but it’s like a haunted prison or something!’ I will be the first person to admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed by M.R. Carey’s other novel, “The Girl With All The Gifts”, but given that I love me a good ghost story and the women’s prison setting sounded intriguing, I knew that “Fellside” was going to be on my list of must reads. There are a lot of things you can do with a prison setting in terms of storytelling, and I was hoping that it would be ripe with possibilities in this book. I wasn’t completely wrong, but I also found myself sort of falling into the same trap as I did with “The Girl With All The Gifts”.

I want to give a little more background to this story than the Goodreads description did. Jess Moulson is a heroin addict who has been sent to Fellside Prison because she was convicted of starting a fire that killed a little boy named Alex. While in Fellside, she starts hearing the voice of a little boy who says he is Alex. She wants to atone for what she thinks she did, but then starts to find out that maybe it wasn’t her who was responsible for Alex’s death. Meanwhile, the prison system around her is festering with corruption, and a fellow inmate named Grace is basically running the joint through intimidation and violence. So you not only get a sad and gothic ghost story, you also get the thrills and fears of a prison drama. And I really do mean gothic. One of the things that I really liked about “Fellside” is that it does ready like a gothic novel, with a protagonist who is in an isolated setting in a large new environment (which is located on the goddamn moors for crying out loud), who may or may not be haunted. In terms of giving a new twist to a gothic tale, I think that Carey did a fabulous job. I also did like the prison setting for the most part, as it gave opportunities for a lot of very disturbing, and pretty darn political, truths about prison life. The violence inside, the way that the justice system fails some people who have no business being in such a place (there is one character named Naz who was a victim of human trafficking but ended up inside because she was basically seen as more a perp than a victim, and her story ends VERY tragically), and the way that those in power don’t care or purposely abuse their power are just a few of the themes that this book touched upon.

I think that one of the problems I had with this book was that some of those side stories didn’t do much for me as a whole. I wasn’t as invested in reading about how the warden was blackmailing the prison doctor into doing his bidding. I didn’t really care about the nurse who hates Jess for being a supposed child killer and yet has to care for her as dictated by her profession. I also didn’t understand the point of having one of Jess’ lawyers be in love (but more likely savior complex lust) with her, as I think that even without his romantic attachment to her he could have wanted to help his client. I thought that some of the supernatural systems, like Alex showing Jess how to leave her body and walk through other people’s minds and dream-scapes, weren’t as intriguing as I had hoped they would be. I think that had it been limited to Alex being able to do that instead of giving Jess that ability too, I would have been more okay with it, but as it was I just found that aspect to be the weakest of the ghost storyline.

For the most part I enjoyed my experience reading “Fellside”, as it did creep me out and it did surprise me. I liked it more that “The Girl With All the Gifts”, and it has convinced me to keep picking up books by Carey when they come out. I wonder if “Orange is the New Black” would consider ever adding a supernatural storyline. I mean, obviously not, but if they DID, they should look at “Fellside” for a good how-to guide.

Rating 7: A spooky read with some very political and important themes, but some of the side stories and mythology left me feeling a bit cold.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fellside” is included on these Goodreads lists: “2016 Horror Novels”, and “Upcoming Books of Note: Horror”.

Find “Fellside” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Other Side of Midnight”

The Other Side of Midnight Book: “The Other Side of Midnight” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: NAL Trade, April 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: Audio book from the library

Book Description from Goodreads: London, 1925. Glamorous medium Gloria Sutter made her fortune helping the bereaved contact loved ones killed during the Great War. Now she’s been murdered at one of her own séances, after leaving a message requesting the help of her former friend and sole rival, Ellie Winter.

Ellie doesn’t contact the dead—at least, not anymore. She specializes in miraculously finding lost items. Still, she can’t refuse the final request of the only other true psychic she has known. Now Ellie must delve into Gloria’s secrets and plunge back into the world of hucksters, lowlifes, and fakes. Worse, she cannot shake the attentions of handsome James Hawley, a damaged war veteran who has dedicated himself to debunking psychics.

As Ellie and James uncover the sinister mysteries of Gloria’s life and death, Ellie is tormented by nightmarish visions that herald the grisly murders of those in Gloria’s circle. And as Ellie’s uneasy partnership with James turns dangerously intimate, an insidious evil force begins to undermine their quest for clues, a force determined to bury the truth, and whoever seeks to expose it…

Review: This book had many things going for it that fit into my preferences. Mystery: check. Historical time period: check. Dash of romance: check. All in all, right up my alley. And, for what it was, it met these expectations. It didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it.

Right off the bat, this book has been marketed as a gothic, ghost story. I’m not sure that’s right. This is a mystery. Yeah, there are some ghosts in it, but if you’re expecting horror, you’re going to be disappointed (also, it’s Kate’s job to read those so I don’t have deal with the nightmares!) But as a mystery novel, it does succeed. Ellie is a unique narrator and detective. She doesn’t start out with the goal of becoming an investigator and falls into the role purely from chance. But it becomes clear that she has a natural inclination, and her decisions are smart and she deals with the challenges thrown her way in a believable manner.

Often, mystery novel investigators fall into the category of “the next Sherlock Holmes.” They make wild leaps of logic, and their deductions are impossible for the reader to follow. We’re meant to just go with it and realize that we couldn’t possibly follow the thought process with our normal brains, which is what makes the author’s main character such a special investigative snowflake.Sometimes this can work. I love me a Sherlock Holmes esque character, believe me.

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Preach, Rob Lowe!

But, at other times, it comes off as lazy writing and a way for the author to avoid laying down the clues necessary for the reader to follow the mystery appropriately. This book, however, succeeds very well in this regard and provides just enough to keep the reader guessing without feeling completely lost.

I really enjoyed the psychic angle for the story. While this could fall under the category of “easy outs” like I was just ranting about a second ago, I gave this book an pass for it because of the attention given to this portion of the story. It is as much about how these different women have chosen to handle being given this gift as it is about the murder mystery. Ellie, her mother, and Gloria all handle this power in very different ways. [Insert Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.”] The isolation of this gift is fully explored, especially in the context of the time period when operating as a businesswoman alone without a husband would have been isolating on its own, psychic abilities aside. There is a fascinating bit where Gloria discusses her role as a woman in society and what it means that out of everyone, three women were given this amazing ability.

With all of these details, however, the story did feel a bit bogged down in the middle. There are frequent jumps back in time to explore Ellie’s relationship with her mother and Gloria. And while these scenes are necessary to flesh out the story, there comes a point where I just wished we could move on with the real mystery. A killer was lurking in the city! Get a move on!

I also liked the romance included in the story. It felt a bit rushed towards the end, but I was impressed by how fully the author was able to explore James’ PTSD and experiences from the war without the the ease of an omniscient third person narrator. There were moments when James edged into “protecting the little woman” territory, but I appreciated how quickly and effectively Ellie stomped down on this while remaining true to the perspective and realities of a woman living in the 1920s.

As far as the audiobook goes, I enjoyed the narrator quite a lot. They got a British narrator for the story and the inclusion of a variety of London accents helped flesh out the many characters. Full marks for the audiobook version!

Rating 7: Good mystery novel. Not doing anything super new, but the psychic angle and time period made it a very fun read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Other Side of Midnight” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Fiction set in the 1920s” and “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.”

Find “The Other Side of Midnight” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Secret Six: Villains United”

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Book: “Secret Six: Villains United” by Gail Simone, Dale Eaglesham (Ill.), and Brad Walker (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, February 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Collecting the series that led into INFINITE CRISIS! Six of justice’s deadliest enemies band together to start a revolution. Together, they want to take a stand to stop the super-heroic community from tampering with their minds and to prove how deadly they can be! But not everyone agrees to this agenda. Six rogues are recruited by the enigmatic Mockingbird, charged with opposing the Society and given assignments to thwart their rivals and even help their enemies. Who is Mockingbird? Could it be one of the six? The status quo is rocked by the Society’s formation and the revelations along the way make certain that when the Secret Six are done, nothing in the DCU will ever be the same!

Review: Remember how I screwed up when I started reading the Secret Six trades? Remember how I jumped into “Unhinged” and felt like I’d missed something, and came to understand that I had missed the entire backstory comic miniseries “Villains United”? Well guess what! I went back and read not only the prequel series, but two other prequel arcs that were included inside the collection “Secret Six: Villains United”. Let me tell you, so many things make so much more sense now. And being reintroduced to these characters in their original introductions was a bit surreal, though very helpful.

Like the summary says, the Secret Six was originally formed in opposition to Lex Luthor’s group the Secret Society of Supervillains. The recruits included Scandal Savage, Deadshot, Ragdoll, Parademon, and Cheshire. Catman joined after Luthor had his pride of lions killed. The group isn’t exactly doing this of their own volition, as Mockingbird is using blackmail as a weapon against them. Secret Six has to help their enemies as ordered by Mockingbird, and has to contend with the fact that they may all betray each other. As far as a set up series goes, I liked “Villains United” for what it was. Sometimes it felt muddled when it came to motivations, and the plot got a little bloated for a six issue arc. But the fact of the matter is that this story was far more about the characters and less about the mess that surrounded them. Finding out why each of these villains joined made me love many of them even more. I was probably biased going in, given that the team has switched up between this story and “Unhinged”. I unapologetically love the current line up, and when the line up didn’t involve them, I stubbornly refused to be on board (mainly because I just love Jeanette, and Cheshire didn’t do anything for me outside of irritate me. Yes, I know that Jeanette didn’t even get introduced until “Unhinged”, but I never said I was rational).

But I really liked Catman again. Seeing his pretty tragic backstory and seeing why he would be so resentful for his current situation shed some serious light on his character. I like that he’s a villain, but is also very conflicted about being one. I doubt that he will become a hero by any means, but he’s a breath of fresh air in how sarcastic and crabby he is, while having a good heart that he resents. I also liked seeing Scandal’s own back story, from her love story with Knockout to her broken relationship with her assassin father who is ashamed that his daughter is a lesbian, and wants her to produce an heir to their line. Deadshot is still just a snark machine who makes questionable decisions, and Ragdoll is definitely the quirky weirdo that I loved in “Unhinged”, but this time he has an adorable friendship with Parademon, who is convinced that he’s a clown that must be protected AT ALL COSTS. Their friendship even got my misty-eyed at one point, a sign of Simone’s writing skills. She does such a good job of humanizing these villains while still making them, ultimately, villains. I just wish that it hadn’t been so convoluted at times.

Just to note as well, Doomsday showed up, and I’m still not totally over “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice”, so I was both happy to see him and also suffering teary flashbacks.

Now that I’m all caught up in Secret Six I’m going to charge on through the series. Simone has a great group of characters, and a lot of heart and humor with edgy stories.

Rating 7: A good origin story with fun characters, but sometimes felt a little bloated and muddled.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Six: Villains United” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Current DC Titles”. Yep, that’s it. You can find more on my initial “Secret Six” post here.

Find “Secret Six: Villains United” at your library using WorldCat!