Kate’s Reviews: “Here and Gone”

32336395Book: “Here and Gone” by Haylen Beck

Publishing Info: Crown Publishing Group, June 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Here and Gone is a gripping, wonderfully tense suspense thriller about a mother’s desperate fight to recover her stolen children from corrupt authorities.

It begins with a woman fleeing through Arizona with her kids in tow, trying to escape an abusive marriage. When she’s pulled over by an unsettling local sheriff, things soon go awry and she is taken into custody. Only when she gets to the station, her kids are gone. And then the cops start saying they never saw any kids with her, that if they’re gone than she must have done something with them… 

Meanwhile, halfway across the country a man hears the frenzied news reports about the missing kids, which are eerily similar to events in his own past. As the clock ticks down on the search for the lost children, he too is drawn into the desperate fight for their return.

Review: Though I never saw the movie “Flightplan”, the concept of it caught my interest. A woman and her daughter get on a plane, her daughter disappears, and then when she reports it the flight crew tell her that she never had a daughter with her. I would assume that part of the movie is spent making the viewer question whether Jodie Foster is insane or not (if I am wrong, tell me!). It’s a trope that has been used before, sometimes very effectively and other times…. not. But while I was thinking that “Here and Gone” was going to be this trope all over again, effectiveness to be determined, it’s established pretty early on that this is not one of those stories. And frankly, I was relieved. Instead of wondering whether Audra was going to end up being yet another unstable and messed up protagonist in a “Girl on the Train”-esque mystery, we get corruption in a small town and the dark web. And to that I say ‘hell YES’.

What I really liked about “Here and Gone” is that since right away we know that Audra’s children, Sean and Louise, do exist, we don’t have to worry about trying to solve a mystery on top of another mystery. In fact, I was really just along for the ride of trying to see how Audra was going to escape custody of a corrupt sheriff, and how she was going to save her children from being sold into sex trafficking (yes, it went there). I wasn’t worried about some crazy reveal about Audra’s mental state, and while there were still a couple questions that had to be definitively answered I pretty much was able to sit back, relax, and let it all play out. Because of this, I found myself incredibly engrossed in this book, picking it up one night and then finishing it up the very next night in a marathon reading session. Beck knows how to sustain the tension in this book, even when jumping from character to character, time period to time period.

While none of his characters are super intricate and complex, they all have just enough defining characteristics that I always believed the choices that they made. Audra as a protagonist was especially fun to follow, as she is a scrappy dame who has completely pulled herself from victimization to empowerment, and not in a way that seemed cheesy or laid on too thick. We get the past with her husband and we see how it all happened, but we also saw that she believably has made a new life for herself, and left the despair of abuse and addiction behind her. Not once are we manipulated into thinking that oh, she may slip up in her sobriety, or oh, she may have to be victimized again to get her children back. In her steadfastness she was fun to follow. The secondary protagonist is Danny, a man whose daughter was taken under similar circumstances. When he sees the news reports of a woman who may have murdered her children but insists they were with her when the cops pulled her over, he thinks of his wife, and how their daughter disappeared in similar fashion. His wife committed suicide shortly thereafter. His backstory was a nice juxtaposition to Audra’s showing just how grave this situation really is. Beck also made a point to show cause and effect of the slow death of small town America, built up with promises of an American Dream only to find themselves in poverty when industry has left them. The town filled with a corrupt police force is dying because of a now defunct mining community, and as poverty sets in, greed and entitlement (as well as tragedy) drives our antagonists to do the unthinkable. It was far more interesting than the scenario I thought we were going into, and I think that because it was so straight forward, I was more hooked than I would have been had I been waiting for a twist. I should also note that Haylen Beck is a pen name for Irish writer Stuart Neville, and while he may be based in Northern Ireland I think he did a bang up job of writing about Small Town Americana.

Sure, it’s not a perfect book. There are some things that seem to fit together a little to perfectly, and sometimes I had to suspend some of my disbelief in how some scenarios shook out, or how lucky some things ended up being. But as far as fun thrillers go, this one was very engaging and would be a great pick for a plane or a beach read as summer starts to wind down.

Rating 8: A fast paced and suspenseful thriller that was hard to put down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Here and Gone” is new and isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Child Abduction”. 

Find “Here and Gone” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Saint Death”

31145190Book: “Saint Death” by Marcus Sedgwick

Publishing Info: Roaring Book Press, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In a shack on the outskirts of the border city of Juarez, a teenage boy is visited by a long-lost friend.

Arturo scrapes together a living working odd jobs and staying out of sight. His friend Faustino has joined one of the city’s violent drug gangs. Now Faustino is in trouble: he’s stolen money from the narcos to smuggle his girlfriend and her baby into the U.S., and he wants Arturo’s help getting it back before they kill him for what he’s done.

Review: One of the greatest discoveries that our book club helped me make was Marcus Sedgwick. When we read “Midwinterblood” I was completely enthralled by it, it’s dark fantasy/horrorscape sucking me in and twisting me all around. When we went to ALA in 2014, one of my greatest moments was meeting Mr. Sedgwick at a book signing (and a coffee klatch!), and getting to talk a little bit about the movie “The Wicker Man” with him, as “Midwinterblood” definitely took influence from it (and I’m talking about the original “Wicker Man”, not the one with Nicholas Cage in a bear suit). So now I do my best to read any Marcus Sedgwick books that cross my path. While none have quite lived up to “Midwinterblood”, Sedgwick has become one of my favorite YA authors. And that brings me to his newest YA novel, “Saint Death”. And amazingly, I think it’s his darkest one yet.

I will admit that I was a little hesitant to pick this one up when I first heard about it. After all, the subject of life for Mexicans in the border towns, especially Juarez, is a difficult and painful one. American corporate interests and consumption of illegal drugs has led to massive poverty, and lots of gang warfare between various Cartels. So yeah, my teeth got set a little bit on edge when I found out that a British man was going to tell a story set with this backdrop. I’m still not totally certain if I think it’s his story to tell. BUT, that said, I think that Sedgwick did take it on a portray it in a sensitive and responsible way. It’s pretty clear that he did some massive research on his own, and asked for input from those who may be more familiar with the realities of this situation. And besides, “Saint Death” pulls no punches in postulating where some of the blame can be laid for the violence, corruption, and poverty that is seen in Juarez. American corporations exploit NAFTA to profit off of factories across the border that make them richer but barely pay anything to the workers, and the American consumption of illegal drugs fuels the Cartels. Throw in the topics of undocumented immigration and closed borders, as well as some climate change to boot, and you have yourself a very political book that makes it’s readers question how culpable they are through Capitalist ideals and the supposed free market.

But even without the frank and brutal politics, the characters in “Saint Death” really kept me interested and invested. Arturo and Faustino both make terrible decisions in this book, decisions that may have baffled and frustrated me. But at the same time, because of how well written they both were, I not only believed that they would make them, but I also understood exactly why they were making them. Though it’s Faustino whose choice to steal money to save his girlfriend and baby sets our story in motion, it’s ultimately Arturo whose story we follow. His journey to try to get one thousand dollars for his friend is a short one, and only takes place over a couple of days, but so much happens and he grows and changes so much you really see how his circumstances have completely changed him and the course of his entire life. Even if we spend a comparatively short time with Arturo, Sedgwick does a great job of getting you attached to him. I felt completely tensed up as he got deeper and deeper into Faustino’s mess, especially because of the impending sense of doom that lingers throughout the pages. In part this is because of the presence of Santa Muerte, a folk saint that the people in Arturo’s community have come to worship, including Faustino. While Arturo goes in not believing in Santa Muerte, she is in the pages, given her own perspective points and waxing about the human race as a whole. I loved this device, as it was a great way to tie in the global politics to Arturo’s story.

Finally, while I don’t want to spoil anything about this book and the places it goes, I need to address one thing in vaguest terms possible. Remember all those times I’ve said that I hate last minute twists that feel like a cheap way to try and shock the readers one last time? Well, this book did that. But it did it SO WELL that it achieved what those kind of twists are supposed to achieve! When I got to that quick and fleeting passage that changed SO MUCH, I literally gasped out loud and yelled

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(source)

Now THAT is how you pull off the end page twist. I salute you, Mr. Sedgwick!

“Saint Death” is a difficult book to read, but I think that it’s a pretty important one. I’m impressed that Sedgwick trusts his YA readers to be able to take on these topics and think critically about them, and hope that more authors follow his lead. Just be sure to steel yourself for something very dark, as important as it may be.

Rating 8: A tense and politically relevant thriller that raises a lot of questions about politics, capitalism, and American social values, and how they affect people living in Mexican border towns.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint Death” is pretty new still and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is, however, on “2017 Titles By/For/About Latinx”, and I think it would fit in on “Books for Fans of BREAKING BAD”.

Find “Saint Death” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

3682Book: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray

Publication Info: Simon and Schuster, December 2013

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

Book Description: A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy—jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order.

Review: You may be wondering…a book about snarky popular girls? Why is Serena reviewing this and not Kate, the keeper of snarky girls’ clubs? Well, after I started this book, I found out that Kate did in fact read this book before we started this blog, and I’m now just playing catch up. But, in many ways, this book also sounded like something that would be up my alley. I love historical books, and especially those that fall into the very specific “fantasy of manners” category that often mixes Regency/Victorian fiction with magical worlds and systems. So, while the snarky girls did get on my nerves at points, these other elements that are more typical of my usual reading wares were definitely working in its favor.

The story starts out with us meeting Gemma, a spoiled and rather bratty teenage girl living in India with her parents and dreaming of London. After tragedy strikes and her mother dies in the midst of some strange dark magic, Gemma finds her “dreams” coming true, but not in the ways she would expect. Yes, she’s now in England. But being the new girl isn’t all that she thought it would be, and not only is she set apart by this status, but she’s hiding a dark secret of her burgeoning magical abilities. All too quickly, things begin to spiral out of control and now Gemma needs to not only manage learning her own powers, but finding a way to keep her new friends safe in the process.

While I found myself wanting to smack each of these girls up side the head at one point or another, I loved the clear-eyed look at the harsh realities that were forced upon Victorian young ladies. Each girl has her own struggles to overcome. The beauty who is being essentially sold to the highest bidder in a marriage of convenience. The powerful, popular girl whose charm and magnetic personality allows her to reign over the school but whose control over her self and her decisions doesn’t translate to a life where she has been abandoned by her mother and ignored by her father. The orphan, attending school on a scholarship and whose dreams of beauty and singing are being squashed beneath the realities of an almost unavoidable future as a governess. And Gemma, herself, who is being told again and again by the men around her to keep her head down, be a good girl, and definitely don’t learn anything more about her own magical abilities.

Each of these girls was distinct, and each responded differently to the sudden power and freedom they discover in Gemma’s abilities and the mystical Order, a group of magical women that existed for centuries before coming to a mysterious and tragic end a few decades ago. I loved the slow reveal of the Order and the truth behind the girls who had been at the center of its downfall. There were plenty of surprises, and some that, while I was able to guess the result, were just as delicious in the telling.

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I was pretty much picturing scenes from “Practical Magic” throughout this entire book. (source)

My few qualms with the story are purely personal preference. There’s a reason why Kate is the queen of the snarky girls groups and I’m not. At various points in the story, but especially towards the last third, I would get increasingly frustrated with the nonsense of these girls. While the tenuous balance of their friendships read as true of teenage girls, even if I found it annoying at times, it was the complete lack of thought that went into some of their actions towards the end that really got to me. The author did a good job of building up the desperation, frustration, and fear of the future that drove these actions, but I still had a hard time with the complete idiocy that made up some of these decisions, given the information they had about past events. However, this last third was saved by some good action sequences, and a realistic bout of consequences for everything that occurred.

My last point will be that there was the seemingly required romance sub plot in this story. And when I say sub plot, I mean sub sub plot. It was barely there to the point that whenever it was referenced, it almost felt like it was coming out of the blue. The boy in question was rarely involved in the action of the story, would be absent for large chunks of time, and really had no relationship building with Gemma, leaving any feelings she had for him based purely on physical appearance. Luckily, the relationship doesn’t develop much, which felt on par with the above mentioned limitations, but I was left wondering whether it needed to be included at all. I’m guessing that more will come of this in the next few books, which may, in retrospect, make this element read better a second go-around.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. I loved the setting of a Victorian boarding school, with the strict boundaries set before these girls as the force upon which the freedoms and power of the magical elements worked against. While I can only hope that in future books the girls wisen up a bit, and maybe snap at each other a bit less, I’m definitely interested enough to continue with the series.

Rating 8: While my tolerance for bratty girls may be rather low, I still loved the magic and the Victorian setting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Great and Terrible Beauty” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain” and “Fantasy of Manners.”

Find “A Great and Terrible Beauty” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Gwendy’s Button Box”

34430839Book: “Gwendy’s Button Box” by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Publishing Info: Cemetery Dance Publications, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

Journey back to Castle Rock again in this chilling new novella by Stephen King, bestselling author of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, and Richard Chizmar, award-winning author of A Long December. This book will be a Cemetery Dance Publications exclusive with no other editions currently planned anywhere in the world!

Review: One of my favorite things about Stephen King (and there are so, so many things to love about this man, in my opinion) is that he likes to make references to his past works within his books. It makes it feel like his stories exist in their own universe, and it makes it fun to try and spot references as you read his books. He also brings some characters from some books into other books. For example, in his Science Fiction/Suspense book “11/22/63”, his main character travels back in time to stop the Kennedy Assassination… and makes a detour in Derry, Maine, the infected town in “It”. We even got to see some of the characters from “It” in that book, even though they were definitely just treats for his readers. But the character that he does this the most with is Randall Flagg, aka The Man in Black, aka The Walkin’ Dude, aka Walter O’Dim. Flagg is mostly seen in “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” Series, but every once in awhile he’ll show up in other King works. It’s rumored that he’s He Who Walks Behind The Rows in “The Children of the Corn”, and Raymond Fiegler in “Hearts in Atlantis”. I’m always on the look out for Flagg to come back, as he’s one of my favorite villains of all time.

And in “Gwendy’s Button Box”, the new novella by King and Richard Chizmar, it’s very possible that he has.

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M-O-O-N that spells ELATED! (source)

Gwendy is a typical awkward pre-teen girl. Teased by her peers and living a less than ideal home life, she’s taken it upon herself to slim down before she starts high school. She does this by running up a very steep set of stairs every day in her hometown of Castle Rock, Maine. And it’s on one of these days that she meets Richard Farris, a mysterious stranger wearing a black hat and coat. The Initials R.F. tell us right away that this is very likely to be Flagg, as does his appearance due to his penchant for wearing black. Oh, and the fact he gives her a magical box covered in buttons, and tells her that it is her responsibility at this moment to keep this box safe. While he doesn’t say it outright, he implies that pressing the buttons could have dire consequences for the world around her. It’s such a terrifying and fascinating concept to hold such a small yet powerful thing in your hands, and Gwendy is the one who is going to be the keeper of that responsibility. At least for now. This is Flagg at a more benign level, as he feels less destructive and more impish, almost like a mentor to Gwendy. The Box rewards her with beautiful chocolate animals, antique coins, and a boost of self esteem. While it didn’t feel like the Randall Flagg that I know and love, this potentially kinder, gentler Randall was pretty fun to read and rather ‘aw’ inducing. After all, how kind and gentle could he be truly if he knows that this box could potentially spell doom for mankind if it falls into the wrong hands?

I think that King and Chizmar did a very good job of writing Gwendy. Even though this is a novella and doesn’t have many pages to delve into her psyche, I felt that she was a realistic and relatable pre-teen girl. She isn’t too popular, she is unsure of herself, and she is happy to take the highs of this box and it’s responsibilities, but reluctant and scared of the lows. I enjoyed that as I was reading this book it was hard to know if there was a cause and effect going on, at least part of the time. When Gwendy pushes one of the buttons, shortly thereafter the Jonestown Massacre happens. Is that coincidence? Or did Gwendy cause it? It’s philosophical tension at it’s finest, making the reader question if she has any affect on the world, or if Richard Farris (aka Randall Flagg) is merely toying with her. She struggles with the knowledge that she has this thing that could potentially be destructive, and yet lives for the perks that it may be giving her. I also think that King and Chizmar did a good job of capturing adolescence as a whole, even if a magical button box wasn’t there. Gwendy makes friends, loses others, finds first love and has to deal with cruel and bad people who are in her life, and it always felt so real and bittersweet watching her go through her teenage years, button box or not.

King and Chizmar created a pretty cohesive book. It’s hard enough to pull off a novella, to hit all the points that you want to hit, and I imagine that doing it with another person is harder still. But it never felt like I was reading two competing voices in this book. It sounds like they created a system that worked for the two of them, and I have to say that I was very impressed with what they came up with. It has that undercurrent of thriller, wondering if Gwendy is going to keep hitting buttons and cause a catastrophe. But it also has that coming of age feel as Gwendy learns about herself and life. Given that King and his son Owen just wrote another book together, I see this as a positive sign that King has the ability to adapt, or at least tweak, his writing to mesh with another person’s.

“Gwendy’s Button Box” was a quick and very satisfying read. We get a nice taste of a return of The Walkin’ Dude, but we also get a heroine grounded in realism, and an existential crisis that kept this reader on the edge of her seat.

Rating 8: Filled with ambiguity and philosophical horror, “Gwendy’s Button Box” doesn’t only bring us back to Castle Rock, it may bring back The Man In Black. King and Chizmar work well to make a cohesive story between two voices.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gwendy’s Button Box” is fairly new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is, however, on “Best Books to Read In Summer”, and I think that it would fit in on “Weird and Freaky Books”, partially because Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” is on that list and this book is super similar.

Find “Gwendy’s Button Box” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Princess of Thorns”

18782855Book: “Princess of Thorns” by Stacey Jay

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2014

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

Book Description: Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?

Review: I picked up this audiobook in a spur of the moment panic brought about by previously requested audiobooks not being ready at the library and a long, traffic-filled commute staring me down. This book had been hanging out for so long on my to-read list that I have completely forgotten how it go there and (an even worse habit!) I had begun to assume that because I hadn’t gotten to it in so long, I must not really have been that interested in the first place. Reading the description, some type of bizarre fairytale re-telling about the Sleeping Beauty’s daughter it sounded like something that would be right up my alley, so why hadn’t I gotten to it?! Ah, the mysteries of life, and one that burned me in the end here for ignoring such a delightful story for so long.

Just as the description suggests, this is indeed a fairytale type re-telling, if by “re-telling” you mean “tragic post script to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ story that, depending on the translation, is already pretty horrifying.” The prince who wakes up the Sleeping Beauty is indeed a jerkwad of the “hide your multiple wives” variety. And things only get worse when an Ogre prophesy puts her two children at risk, leading to her imprisonment and some truly terrible forced choices. The story then picks up 17 years later following Aurora who is now working off a tight deadline to rescue her brother from the Ogre Queen and raise an army to save her kingdom. All with the help of Niklaas, a seemingly shallow prince who is hell-bent on marrying a princess.

Niklaas was one of the most surprising elements of this story. Based on the cover, the book description, and, let’s be honest, the tons of YA fairytales that have come before it, I went into this assuming that Aurora would be our one and only POV character. So color me surprised when Niklaas shows up and steals away half the story for his own! And I couldn’t be more happy about it. Niklaas brings his own fairytale to the book, this time a twisted version of the “Seven Swans” story, and his own personality to the page. His is one of my favorite character types to stumble upon. Witty, but flawed. Self-aware, but delusional about how he comes across to others. He’s the type of character you should hate (as Aurora first does as well) for all of his egotism and blatantly stereotypical and demeaning opinions about women. But he’s so charming and hilarious that you end up loving him anyways, gleefully waiting for the inevitable slap to the face that will knock him out of his narrow way of thinking. He was a perfect foil to the more impulsive (reckless!) Aurora, and a humorous balance to her own more straight-laced approach to the trials and tribulations they find themselves in.

Aurora, herself, was also a great character. Not only did we have Niklaas showing up as one of my favorite types of romantic leads (the kind that exist as more than a romantic lead in the first place), but with Aurora I had another favorite trope: girls disguised as boys. The biggest challenge with this approach is balancing the friendship/romance between the two main characters in a believable way. For Aurora’s perspective, it is easier, as she is in on the sham the entire time. So for her, it was most enjoyable simply watching her slowly realize that for all of his foibles, Niklaas might be a good guy. But for Niklaas, it’s harder. His relationships with Aurora starts out purely platonic, with him believing that she is her younger brother. Their friendship and camaraderie during this period was great, and I was beyond pleased with the way the author transitioned this relationship once the secret comes out (this is NOT a spoiler, cuz…obviously). Particularly, I loved that the challenges of this reveal weren’t hand-waved away. Not only does Niklaas have to come to terms with the new reality he’s living, but also that he’s been actively lied to for weeks. Full points for the author in her handling of this entire storyline.

Beyond these two, the most surprising part of this story was the inclusion of a handful of story chapters from the POV of the Ogre Queen herself. Initially I was rather put off by this as I had been having a grand ole time romping around in the woods with Niklaas and boy!Aurora. But the Ogre Queen’s chapters, and the character herself, brought a necessary level of severity to a story that could have easily slipped into pure silly escapism (though there’s a healthy dose of that, for which I was glad as well). For the few number of pages she’s allotted, the Ogre Queen’s transformation and story arc was probably the most compelling. Her story was unique and completely unexpected, probably bring the only truly “new” portions to this fairytale from the long lists of marks that are almost always hit in these types of books.

My only frustrations came towards the end. Throughout the story, Aurora’s character is pushed to grow and adapt from her particular brand of bravery that often revealed itself in foolhardy decision making with results that could have been prevented if a bit more thought had gone into them. With all of the build up, I went into the final act ready for her to complete this arc. And…in a way she does? But not really. She ultimately makes all the wrong choices and is only saved by the courage and sacrifice of those around her. There’s a very brief moment where she does confront this reality and make one good decision that does have major ramifications. But only after making ALL OF THE WRONG decisions up to that point, with only luck leaving her this one last opportunity to make it right. She does pay a steep price, but I ultimately felt that her arc was left rather incomplete in this area. Did she really learn a lesson here? Was it really satisfying that everything ended up aces for her out of pure luck? I wasn’t completely satisfied on either account.

But let’s not end on that note! Even with those frustrations, this book was completely and utterly a joy to read! It may have hit me at just the right moment when I needed a bit of humor, romance, and adventure without too many complicated strings attached. But as a beach read, I think it’s perfect, so make sure to grab a copy before you head off on vacay this summer!

Rating 8: Pure fun! If only brought down a few points by a bit too much luck in the end for my taste.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Princess of Thorns” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Disguised as Boys” and “Fairy Tale Retellings: Hidden Gems.”

Find “Princess of Thorns” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “This Savage Song”

23299512Book: “This Savage Song” by Victoria Schwab

Publication Info: Greenwillow Books, July 2016

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

Book Description: There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

Review: After reading and loving Victoria Schwab’s “Darker Shade of Magic” series, I decided to go ahead and check out her young adult offerings. And while I still prefer her adult fantasy trilogy (though this was a very high bar so most books should be excused from not reaching the same highs, even those by the same author), I very much enjoyed this first book in what will be a completed duology once the final book comes out one week from now.

Schwab herself described this book as “Romeo and Juliet” but with monsters and without romance, and since my biggest problem with “Romeo and Juliet” wanna-be stories is the often trite romantic flounderings of the protagonists, I was excited to see how she would pull this off. I mean, what even is a “Romeo and Juliet” story without romantic nonsense? Turns out its pretty much a gang war in a city that has been taken over by demons of its own creation.

The world building was strong, right out of the gate, from the equally hellish northside and southside of the city and their various approaches to life in a now monster-filled world, to the monsters themselves. Born from human acts of hatred and violence, the city is plagued by three types of beasts. The Corsai, a viscous shadow-like creature that lurks in the dark places of the world only to emerge at night and shred its victims. The Malchai who resemble skeleton-thin humans and drink blood, similar to vampires in all but their ability to walk during the day. And the Sunnai, most rare and least understood of the monsters who can steal a soul with their song. Years ago, with the sudden appearance of these monsters, the city’s population sank into warfare only creating a tenuous peace after a massive disaster took out several city blocks. Since then, the city has been split, north and south, with one side fighting against the monsters and enforcing a strict rule of law for those committing crimes (and creating more monsters in the process), and the other ruled by a gang lord who has managed to rope the monsters into some semblance of control and requires his citizens pay for protection. These are the two sides from which our main characters come. Kate, the daughter of said gang lord, eager to prove herself stronger than the mother who attempted to flee the city so many years ago only to meet a tragic end. And August, a Sunnai, and adopted son of the fighters’ leader, who wishes he weren’t a monster and who struggles to find his role in this war.

Both Kate and August were intriguing, complicated characters. Each struggles with their own tenuous understanding of family, from Kate’s complicated relationship with a father who has distanced himself from her throughout her entire life, to August’s role, alongside his “brother” and “sister,” the only other two Sunnai, who all have been adopted by the leader of the resistance. Not only do the two not fully understand the war that they’ve inherited and the people who have already been fighting it, but each struggles with their own understanding of what is and what is not “monstrous” in this world.

August’s Sunnai abilities were particularly interesting, both the connection to his music and his own limitations. The Corsai and Malchai are fairly clearly described early in the book, while the Sunnai remain mysterious, even while having chapters featuring a Sunnai himself. This exploration of what it means to be a monster and what it means to be a Sunnai specifically was very compelling. All three Sunnai, August, his brother, and his sister, are all different in their abilities, their philosophy on the use of those abilities, and the arc they travel throughout the story.

Throughout all of this detailed world and character-building, Schwab manages to insert an action-packed plot full of danger and mystery. Every time that it felt like the plot was reaching a crescendo (ha!), she would wisely pull back for a quiet, character-driven moment. It was this delicate balance between action, adventure, and quite frankly, a lot of violence, with these these slow, beautiful, character introspections that really made this book stand out.

The only thing I will say as a negative was that while I loved Kate and August as characters in their own right, they didn’t jump off the page the same way that Lila and Kel did. There were a few scenes that read a bit flat, a few instances where I felt that Kate and August were slow to pick up the clues that were laid before them, and just a few missteps with dialogue that rang a bit forced. But, really, take all of these criticisms with a gigantic grain of salt. Again, see the overly high expectations that were set by the “Shades of Magic” series. For fans of young adult fantasy who are looking for a completely unique magical setting and two main characters who are blessedly free (so far) of romantic entanglements, definitely check out “This Savage Song.”

Rating 8: A great new YA fantasy, blessedly free of love triangles and any romance at all, really!

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Savage Song” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Feuding Families” and “Unique special abilities/superpowers.”

Find “This Savage Song” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Inquisitor’s Tale”

29358517We 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 a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

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: “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog” by Adam Gidwitz, Hatem Aly (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Beloved bestselling author Adam Gidwitz makes his long awaited return with his first new world since his hilarious and critically acclaimed Grimm series. Featuring manuscript illuminations throughout by illustrator Hatem Aly and filled with Adam’s trademark style and humor, The Inquisitor’s Tale is bold storytelling that’s richly researched and adventure-packed.

Beautifully illustrated throughout! Includes a detailed historical note and bibliography.

Kate’s Thoughts

Guess who has never read “The Canterbury Tales”? Me! Guess who isn’t really into Medieval Fiction? Also me! And guess who knows little to nothing about religion and the philosophy of it beyond the most basic tenants of Judaism and United Church of Christ Christianity? This girl! So I feel like all of these factors combine (as well as some spates of bathroom humor, one of the few types of humor that doesn’t especially appeal to me) to make “The Inquisitor’s Tale” a book that isn’t written for me. So yes, while I understand the praise for this book and the appeal of it, and understand why it works so well as a children’s book and does so much more than other children’s books, I never really got into it myself.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t anything I liked about it. I liked that it asked some pretty deep philosophical questions that you usually don’t see in children’s literature. I feel like Gidwitz doesn’t patronize to his audience, and that he knows that these are hard questions to wrap minds around regardless of what age you are. What makes a Saint? How can some people say that they hold certain values and beliefs, and not realize that they are perpetuating cruelty towards others, especially those that they claim to care about? What are ways that stories can be told and passed on, and how can these stories be changed based on the storyteller? I also liked that Gidwitz had three very different protagonists to show different walks of life and different experiences that would have been common during this time period. You have Jeanne, the peasant girl who can see parts of the future, who has to function in a society where women and peasants hold no value. You have William, a boy raised to be a monk who is both of African and Muslim descent, and stands out among those around him. And there’s Jacob, a Jewish boy in a France where King Louis persecutes the Jews as heretics. Seeing all these kids come together (along with Jeanne’s resurrected dog Gwenforte) and try to understand each other is a great message.

I also had a very hard time reading about the anti-Semitism in this book, be it villages being burnt to the ground, Jews being humiliated and threatened with violence, and Talmuds being burnt. I know that it was the reality of the time period, but for whatever reason I really struggled with it and had to set the book down a number of times and calm down before I could continue reading. I appreciate that Gidwitz was being honest about this time period, of course, and I really liked the extensive historical notes that he put in the back of the book, and yet I wasn’t really on board for the ‘Louis was a complex person who thought he was doing what was right, no matter how wrong it was’ stuff. Because at the end of the day, no matter how noble Louis thought he was being, it WAS wrong. And I have less and less time for those kinds of explanations these days.

My personal issues with this book shouldn’t necessarily reflect this book. It just wasn’t for me, but I definitely see how it would be an appealing read for other people.

Serena’s Thoughts

From the other side of the spectrum, I have read “The Canterbury Tales!” I am into Medieval fiction (at least as far as the fact that much fantasy is set in some type of medieval-like world)! And I was raised Lutheran, so at least the Christian theological philosophy was fairly familiar to me! So I think Kate is right, there are some factors going in that if you have as a reader you’re perhaps more likely to immediately engage with the book. However, massive caveat in this whole theory is that this is a middle school children’s book and let’s be real, how many kids have read “Canterbury Tales” or have a strong understanding of religious philosophy??

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Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (source)

So, while I did enjoy the story more than Kate did, I do have to agree with her on a few of the downsides of the book. Most notably the potty humor and, for me, the suspension of disbelief in a few parts.

But first the pros! Since by an large I did very much enjoy this book. I won’t repeat what Kate said about the great diversity of the cast, except for one extra note. I really appreciated the close up look at exclusion/inclusion that the narrator took with these three children. Yes, they are all in this together. And yes, they are all friends. But at various points throughout the book, even with the friendships that have formed from their shared experiences, they each have to confront the sense of “otherness” that comes from their own unique walk of life. For William,  he’s a black boy with two white children. For Jeanne, she’s a girl with two boys. For Jacob, he’s a Jewish boy with two Christian children. I loved the various triangles that were made up and the constant shift that was in play from situation to situation with each of their “ins” or “outs” becoming a strength or something that made them stand out as different. I felt that this was a really important message for a book like this: privilege comes in all shapes and forms and at any given moment any single person can be on the in or the out, so we must all be aware and kind.

I’ll also throw in a few good words for the illustrations! I loved the metacommentary of the way the book was illustrated, mimicking the images that monks would draw into the margins of their transcribing work. Some would align with the action of the story while others were intentionally obtuse (a fact that is noted in the beginning of the story, that the illustrator would draw what came to him, with some images existing without connection to the story or explanation).

The ties to “The Canterbury Tales” were also fun, with the story being told by various narrators. I loved the way this element of the book came to life towards the last third, drawing these outside forces into the story itself. There were a few very clever twists with this that I don’t want to spoil! That said, as I mentioned above, I doubt any kid reading this will have read “The Canterbury Tales” and I don’t think there is anything missing for it. It’s more just a fun plug for those English nerds out there who have plowed through that thing and all of its incomprehensible Old English.

But I also agree with a few of the down points that Kate mentioned, notably the potty humor. This is purely a personal preference thing, as I know many kids (and adults!) love this type of humor. But there was one side plot that really lost me as it focused almost entirely on these types of jokes. Secondly, there were a few points in the story where my suspension of disbelief was called into question. We’re dealing with magical children, so for the most part I was ready to just go with this. But there were a few scenes, notably a fight scene where William beats up a bunch of bandits with a donkey leg, that pushed me out of the story a bit wondering how much of the “real world” this story was supposed to be set in.

Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this book. It is a tough read in parts like Kate mentioned. Serious issues are tackled and the persecution and tragedy of the time period weren’t glossed over. I appreciated this fact, but it does make for some sad happenings. But ultimately I would recommend this book to middle schoolers and adults. It’s one of those rare children’s books that can equally appeal to adults.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong middle school story set in a unique time period with a lot to say about history, religion, and inclusiveness.

Kate’s Rating 6: I see the value and I understand the praise, but I had a harder time with this book than I would have liked.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is told from multiple perspectives when a group of people gather in a pub to recall the story of the three kids. Did you have a favorite perspective voice?
  2. The illustrations in this book are similar to that of illuminated texts that are seen throughout history in religious works. Have you ever encountered this kind of illustration before? What did you think of the illustrations?
  3. King Louis IX was an actual person in history, as was his mother Blanche, as were other people mentioned in this book. What did you think of using real people in this fictional story?
  4. Each of the main characters comes from a different walk of life, has their own set of challenges to overcome, and their own magical powers. Did one of these characters stand out more to you? Why?
  5. This story tackles a lot of big questions about religion and diversity. Did any of these points stand out to you as particularly strong? Could any have been improved upon or weren’t fully realized?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Inquisitor’s Tale” is included on the Goodreads lists “Newbery Medal Honor Books”, and “Bravewriter Boomerangs”.

Find “The Inquisitor’s Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making”.