Kate’s Review: “Stargazing”

40864836Book: “Stargazing” by Jen Wang

Publishing Info: First Second, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Moon is everything Christine isn’t. She’s confident, impulsive, artistic . . . and though they both grew up in the same Chinese-American suburb, Moon is somehow unlike anyone Christine has ever known.

When Moon’s family moves in next door to Christine’s, Moon goes from unlikely friend to best friend―maybe even the perfect friend. The girls share their favorite music videos, paint their toenails when Christine’s strict parents aren’t around, and make plans to enter the school talent show together. Moon even tells Christine her deepest secret: that she sometimes has visions of celestial beings who speak to her from the stars. Who reassure her that earth isn’t where she really belongs.

But when they’re least expecting it, catastrophe strikes. After relying on Moon for everything, can Christine find it in herself to be the friend Moon needs?

New York Times–bestselling author-illustrator Jen Wang draws on her childhood to paint a deeply personal yet wholly relatable friendship story that’s at turns joyful, heart-wrenching, and full of hope.

Review: Back in 2018 I read the incredibly sweet graphic novel “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang. It was one of my Valentine’s Day ready books, and I was very eager to see what Wang was going to come out with next. Though I was a little late to the party with “Stargazing”, Wang’s newest graphic novel, once I did manage to get a copy to read I was eager to start. Much like her previous book, I devoured “Stargazing” in an afternoon, completely taken in by another sweet, gentle, and sometimes bittersweet story about identity and friendship.

Our main characters are Christine and Moon, unlikely friends who are both Chinese American girls with very different personalities and experiences. Christine is diligent and reserved, and feels the pressure to excel at her schoolwork and extracurriculars. Her parents are loving and supportive, and also want Christine to be connected to her culture, be it through Chinese language classes or through the church community. So it’s not terribly surprising that Christine is drawn to Moon, who is more of a free spirit and whose mother is doing her best to raise Moon on her own. Moon and Christine are perfectly suited foils for each other, as Moon loosens Christine up and Christine helps Moon adjust to a new community. Wang is very talented at showing how their friendship blossoms, and how it becomes multi-faceted and complex as time goes on. Christine envies Moon for her joyful and gregarious personality, but it’s clear that not everything is perfect for Moon and that she has some issues that go beyond usual childhood ups and downs. Eventually we get a reveal as to what is going on with her, which was a little out of left field and probably could have used a little more time dedicated to it if I’m being honest, but that isn’t really the main focus of the story. The focus is the two girls and how they change each other’s lives, and how great true friendship can be, even if it’s a little difficult to navigate when things get complicated. I liked both Christine and Moon a lot, for their strengths and weaknesses, and found them both relatable in a lot of ways, from Moon’s artistic bent to Christine’s nervousness about what others may think about her. She also does a really good job of showing the small rebellions that kids that age like to partake in, from Christine sneaking nail polish to Moon sneaking out of Chinese language class to make faces in the window. It was little things like that that I thought made this story all the more charming.

But the less obvious yet really on point (at least to me) theme of this book was that of identity, and how there isn’t one way to be part of a culture. Both Christine and Moon are Chinese American, but come from very different experiences. Christine’s parents are deeply involved in her life, and very focused on Christine’s academic and extracurricular schedules, thinking that she should leave distractions behind in order to succeed. Moon is a latchkey kid due to her mother’s need to work to support the two of them, and she doesn’t speak Chinese or have as much deep experience with various aspects of that part of her identity. But Wang doesn’t show either of these as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in regards to how these girls grow up and live their lives. If anything, the message is clear that both Christine and Moon are examples of what it’s like to be Chinese American girls, and that both experiences are perfectly normal.

On top of that, I’m still totally tickled by Wang’s drawing style. Her characters and panels are still seemingly influenced by manga or other similar styles, and yet the overall style is unique to Wang. I loved the little details that she puts in there, from a mild change of facial expression to the incredibly tantalizing images of food to the celestial beings that Moon is convinced she is seeing in her day to day life.

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(source)

“Stargazing” is a quick and cute graphic novel that is aimed towards kids, but can be enjoyed by adults as well. If you’re looking for something fast and sweet and a little bittersweet as well, this might be a good fit!

Rating 8: A cute and pathos filled examination of friendship, culture, and childhood, “Stargazing” is a sweet graphic novel that shows the power of childhood relationships and all the ups and downs that come with them.

Readers Advisory:

“Stargazing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Asian MG/YA 2019”, and “NPR’s Favorite Books of 2019”.

Find “Stargazing” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Jade City”

43587154._sy475_Book: “Jade City” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.

The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.

When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Review: This book has been on my TBR list for quite a long time. It received tons of praise when it first came out, but somehow I still missed the action. But when I saw that its sequel had come out recently, I knew that now was the time to get on board. So off to the audiobook library I went, and here we go! Another great fantasy trilogy to get caught up in!

Jade is what makes Kekon special, but also dangerous. Granting incredible abilities to those trained and predisposed to use it, controlling and possessing jade has forged the future of the small island nation. Now, run by several gangs made up of jade-enhanced warriors, Kekon sits in a precarious place in a world that wants what it has. To determine this future, however, each gang must continually prove its strength. The Kaul family, the head of one such gang, finds itself at an important crossroads as the reigns of power have been handed down to the next generation. Each of the three Kaul siblings have chosen very different paths, but each will soon learn that they all have an important role to play if the future of their family, gang, and nation are to be secured.

Having not read any  books that feature gangs prominently (at least that I can think of off the top of my head), most of my mental comparisons for this book came from movies like “The Godfather” and “Gangs of New York.” Which, again, each of which I’ve only seen once. All of this clearly highlights my lack of familiarly with the genre. But that aside, I think this was an exemplary take on a gang drama featuring a unique fantasy world that flowed together seamlessly.

The world-building was thorough and detailed, laying out a complete history of Kekon and how the abilities of jade warriors have shaped its trajectory. Now, in the modern world, we see how this power influences economic and political decisions, all while still being steeped in ancient tradition and rituals that weave their way throughout the country’s society and culture. The gangs themselves that primarily use and manage this jade are much more than the criminal enterprises we often associate with that term. Instead, they are acknowledged players on the world stage, even if their operations on the ground level still incorporate many of the aspects of crime lords: rigid territories, monitored petty crime, and a tightrope walk between peace and violence breaking out on the streets.

To make a story about a gang family really work you have to have strong main characters at the heart, and that’s definitely one of the biggest strengths of this book. The story centers around the three Kaul children, Lan, Hilo, and Shae. We also get several chapters from an adopted son, Anden, who is still in training to be a Green bone (a jade warrior). Each had their strengths, but I particularly enjoyed Hilo and Shae, together and separately. Hilo, as Horn of the gang, is essentially the enforcer, a role that suits him well with his charming personality disguising a brutal strength as a fighter. Shae, on the other hand, is the family member who got away, starting a new life for herself in a foreign country. But slowly, throughout this book, she realizes that one can’t simply cut family out of one’s life, and we see her clever mind and knowledge of politics and economics come more into play. She and Hilo naturally clash with their very different approaches to problem solving, and it’s the kind of fraught relationship that’s thrilling to follow. The reader is privy to both of their thoughts, so depending on whose mind you’re in currently, it’s easy to sympathize with one position over another. Until you switch, and then oh yes, maybe this one of the two has the rights of it.

This a detailed and thoughtful story, taking its time to fully develop its world, the players, and the various histories that were at play to create the situation the Kaul clan currently find themselves in. There were a couple of surprises along the way and some good action scenes towards the end, but go into it expecting an immersive, slow read. It was very clear that this was the first book in a series, and that it was setting the stage for larger conflicts to come. I already have my copy of “Jade War” on hand, so I’m excited to see where things go from here! If you enjoy urban fantasy, specifically ones set in unique worlds with political maneuverings at their heart, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A fully realized urban fantasy that feels like one is only scraping the tip of the iceberg on what is sure to be an excellent series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jade City” is on these Goodreads lists: “Diverse Fantasy and Science Fiction Settings” and “2018 Sci-Fi Award Nominees.”

Find “Jade City” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monster, She Wrote”

44594661Book: “Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. Meet the female authors who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales. And find out why their own stories are equally intriguing.

Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein; but have you heard of Margaret Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier? Have you read the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era? Or the stories of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, whose writing influenced H.P. Lovecraft? Monster, She Wrote shares the stories of women past and present who invented horror, speculative, and weird fiction and made it great. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V.C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Coltor, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). And each profile includes a curated reading list so you can seek out the spine-chilling tales that interest you the most.

Review: Even though horror is hands down my favorite literary genre (or genre of any kind of consumable media), that doesn’t exclude it from my general lack of experience with ‘the classics’. Sure, I’ve read books like “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Turn of the Screw”, but in general I have kept my horror experiences fairly solidly in the 20th century and beyond. On top of that, a lot of what I’ve read has been fairly male dominated. So when I saw that “Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” was a book that was coming out, I decided that I needed to educate myself about horror classics, specifically those written by women, and to expand my ‘to-read’ list to fit the recommendations made within this book.

And boy are there many recommendations! “Monster, She Wrote” gives us a list of female authors of horror and speculative fiction, gives a comprehensive but succinct biography of each of them, and explains the importance and significance of a few of their works, or at the very least gives us the plot and lets us suss out the significance for ourselves. Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson are sure to cast a wide net throughout the genres, covering a number of different authors and subgenres within the genres. Each section is divided based on the subgenres, which I liked because it made is so I could give extra focus on the kinds of stories that really tickle my fancy and to hone in on the authors that perfected the stories. While they, of course, cover some of the heavy hitters like Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, they also are sure to bring in diverse perspectives, including women like Toni Morrison and Helen Oyeymi, so that the texts discussed and recommended aren’t incredibly white in nature (side note, I loved that “Beloved” was included in this book and Morrison by association. It’s one of my favorite books and at it’s heart it is, indeed, a very effective ghost story). I also got to learn about a number of authors who I had either only heard of in passing, or had never heard of, and because of this I now have added people like Edith Wharton and Anne Radcliffe to my list of ‘must reads’, as well as modern voices like Oyeymi (I will be talking to my Mom so I can borrow her copy of “Boy, Snow, Bird”). Finally, at the end of each biography we get a handy dandy list of books to try out, split into three categories, labeled ‘Not To Be Missed’, ‘Also Try’, and ‘Related Work’. These suggestions are stories by the authors themselves, as well as other stories and tales by different people whose themes are either direct call backs or similar in tone. How great to have a curated and well put together list of suggestions!

It’s also important to note that throughout all of these biographies and personal histories of these women authors, there are hints and senses of the difficulties and obstacles that many of them faced or face as women living at their respective times in their respective societies. These hardships could be due to gender, class, or race, and Kröger and Anderson, while never focusing on it, absolutely acknowledge it and make the reader realize that women voices in the genre have been very important and formative, and yet have been downplayed or, in some cases, almost forgotten (there were a few instances in which an author’s ‘Not To Be Missed’ work was noted as being out of print. How incredibly upsetting).

Any horror or speculative fiction fan ought to do themselves a favor and read “Monster, She Wrote”. You will undoubtedly get some new reading ideas, or gain new appreciation for authors you already love, or authors you have yet to discover.

Rating 8: And informative and expansive history of significant female voices in horror and speculative fiction, “Monster, She Wrote” has a lot of reading ideas and a lot of fun and interesting facts about an array of authors.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monster, She Wrote” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of now (why?), but it is included on “Best Books About Genre Fiction”.

Find “Monster, She Wrote” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “A Christmas Carol”

5327We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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

Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Publishing Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Kirsten’s Surprise” by Janet Shaw

Book Description: The celebrated P.J. Lynch captures the spirit of Dickens’s beloved tale in a richly illustrated unabridged edition.

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge opens on a Christmas Eve as cold as Scrooge’s own heart. That night, he receives three ghostly visitors: the terrifying spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Each takes him on a heart-stopping journey, yielding glimpses of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the horrifying spectres of Want and Ignorance, even Scrooge’s painfully hopeful younger self. Will Scrooge’s heart be opened? Can he reverse the miserable future he is forced to see?

Now in an unabridged edition gloriously illustrated by the award-winning P.J. Lynch, this story’s message of love and goodwill, mercy and self-redemption resonates as keenly as ever.

Kate’s Thoughts

It’s just me again this time around, as Serena was unable to make book club this session. But I’m going to do my best to bring in some deep thoughts about a Christmas classic that has been part of the Western zeitgeist for generations. We read “A Christmas Carol” along with “Kirsten’s Surprise” because of the obvious Christmas theme, and honestly, this is going to be a fun cycle of reads because of the connections we make between the American Girl books and the other books we read. This was my second time reading Dickens, as I read “A Tale of Two Cities” in high school, and while I could have sworn that I read “A Christmas Carol” at some point I realized as I was reading that I was probably just creating a memory from the countless, COUNTLESS adaptations I’ve seen over the years. Going in and reading the original text was a fun way to get into the holiday spirit, reading wise.

For anyone who may not know, “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday ghost story in which a bitter selfish man is visited by three (technically four) ghosts to learn about the true meaning of Christmas, and to realize he has to change his dickish ways. I’m so familiar with the story I figured that reading it was going to be just par for the course, but I really enjoyed reading this story in it’s own, original words. The ghosts are sufficiently spooky, the pathos is (for the most part, but we’ll get there later) definitely heartwrenching, and the messages of benevolence and charity resonate throughout the years. Ebenezer Scrooge is a complex character whose journey of self reflection and redemption is old hat, but even though I know the story and know how it was going to go I did like seeing him change. Dickens may have been a little ‘on the nose’ by today’s standards when it comes to Scrooge’s reactions as his journey goes on (lots of head hanging, guys), but it is still satisfying to see him realize that he can change and should change for the good of others and for the good of himself.

The greater metaphors that Dickens was going for in the text, specifically Tiny Tim representing the oppressed and downtrodden in England’s lower classes at the time and the references to child labor, are admittedly pretty well played out these days. I myself don’t really care for Tiny Tim, thinking he’s saccharine and cloying (except for Calvin in “Scrooged”, he is ADORABLE and it probably help that he doesn’t talk), but having the context of what Tiny Tim actually is supposed to be was helpful. Because the symbolism is better in the original text, and doesn’t manifest as a sweet faced but constantly coughing/limping/wise beyond his years child, I appreciated Tim more in the book than I usually do. The setting of the Industrial Revolution and knowing how friggin’ AWFUL that was for the lower class in hindsight made me appreciate these messages all the more. Even beyond Tim there are references to children having to go get jobs and not knowing if and when they will see their loved ones come Christmastime, and gosh if that didn’t just make this book a little sadder.

And finally, the ghosts are great. From Marley to Past, Present, and Yet To Come, Dickens made well characterized and freaky spirits that would have perfectly fit into the ‘telling ghost stories at Christmas’ aesthetic that was so popular during this time period. We should bring that back, quite frankly.

I enjoyed reading “A Christmas Carol”. It was a lovely way to get into the holiday spirit!! If you haven’t read it and have a few hours during this holiday season, it is worth the read.

Rating 8: An enduring Christmas classic.

Book Club Questions

  1. There have been many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” over the years. Which one is your favorite, and why? How faithful of an adaptation was it compared to the original text?
  2. Scrooge has a very clear transformation in this book, and on the page it is made evident from the get go when he feels bad and when he should feel bad for his actions. Do you think there could have been more nuance in his change, or did you appreciate the blatant moments of him realizing he was wrong throughout the story?
  3. “A Christmas Carol” was one of the first Christmas stories to leave a country or pastoral setting to take place in an urban setting. Do you think that the story would have worked as well if it took place in the country instead of London? Why or why not?
  4. What are your thoughts on Tiny Tim? Is he still an effective character as time has gone on?
  5. Why do you think this story has endured for so long and resonated with so many people?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Christmas Carol” is included on the Goodreads lists “Favorite Christmas Books”, and “Ghost Stories”.

Find “A Christmas Carol” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

Serena’s Review: “Realm of Ash”

43192642._sy475_Book: “Realm of Ash” by Tasha Suri

Publication Info: Orbit, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: The Ambhan Empire is crumbling. A terrible war of succession hovers on the horizon. The only hope for peace lies in the mysterious realm of ash, where mortals can find what they seek in the echoes of their ancestors’ dreams. But to walk there requires a steep price.

Arwa is determined to make the journey. Widowed by a brutal massacre, she’s pledged service to the royal family and will see that pledge through to the end. She never expected to be joined by Zahir, the disgraced, illegitimate prince who has turned to forbidden magic in a desperate bid to save those he loves.

Together, they’ll walk the bloody path of their shared past. And it will call into question everything they’ve ever believed…including whether the Empire is worth saving at all.

Previously Reviewed: “Empire of Sand”

Review: While I had some struggles with “Empire of Sand,” I was intrigued enough by the world-building and fantasy elements presented in that first book to be pleased when I was sent a copy of its sequel. I hadn’t looked into this book before hand, but was happy to find that it wasn’t a direct sequel and instead picked up the story years later following Arwa. I was even more happy when I closed the book and could look back with satisfaction on a sequel that I felt surpassed its predecessor.

All of Arwa’s carefully crafted plans for life, that of a good nobleman’s wife who is loyal to family and the Empire, crash around her in tragedy and death. Now, a young widow with secrets swirling around her, Arwa looks to re-orient her life in service of some larger purpose. To do this, she is asked to work along side the illegitimate prince, a young man who has risked much in his own quest to save all he cares for. But in their theorizing and study, Arwa and Zahir begin to question all that they have learned and must decide what truths shall guide them going forward.

I re-read my review for “Empire of Sand” before writing this review, and it was an interesting experience. For one, I had forgotten much of that book, which I guess makes sense considering one of my biggest complaints had to do with my coming away from it with a very “meh” attitude. It’s no wonder that I forgot many of the details if that was what I thought at the time! (I’ll just add here that given that I remembered so little of the first book, it’s safe to say that while reading that one can add elements to the enjoyment of this book, it’s by no means necessary for understanding it or becoming engaged in the story its trying to tell.) But it was also noting the other things that I noted in that book and how they directly correlated with why this one was a stronger read for me.

For one, while I did like Mehr and had few complaints with her, even in my review I noted that I enjoyed her interactions with Arwa. Being the much younger sister with no real memories of their mother, Arwa was less in the position to straddled worlds than Mehr and also had a closer relationship with their stepmother. I was very happy to discover that it was her story we were reading here. While Arwa has the same mixed heritage as Mehr, she was raised as a traditional daughter of the Empire. Her mother and her now long-lost sister and the heritage and culture they both represented have been largely missing from Arwa’s life for some time. But when the tragedy that kills her husband spares her own life, we see Arwa begin taking steps down her own path to self-discovery. It’s an interesting one, too, given that she begins her arc from a completely different position than Arwa. Her original goal is to nothing more than serve the Empire. When she discovers truths about her own people and the Empire itself, she begins to see her own life and those around her through very different eyes.

One of the main challenges I referenced in my review of the first book was in the awkward position it put itself in with needing to straddle the lines between adult fantasy and YA. Much of the pacing and detailed world building fell more inline with the former, but some of the character beats were strikingly familiar to those found in many YA fantasies of the time. This book had a few moments that were similar…why do these character have to immediately feel heart flutters or having unwilling attractions to the romantic interest in the very first meeting?? I’ll never understand why this is done or felt to be needed. For a book that takes such time setting up its world, cultures, and political motivations, the author is clearly trusting readers to stick around for the ride. But when the romance comes along, what? They think readers are going to bounce if the heroine isn’t immediately noting some level of attraction?

But! That little side-vent aside, I found that this book seemed much more settled as a straight-up fantasy, not dedicated to YA. Arwa is a bit older and is a widowed young woman to boot. While her first marriage was not a love match, she’s still not an idealistic teen raging against the world, but a young woman who has lived in the world (though this, too, was limited by the conservative nature of her marriage). Overall, it felt like there were noticeably fewer beats that hailed from YA fantasy, and the book felt more comfortable in its own skin.

The pacing was still rather slow, however. But here, too, much of the work laid down in the first book helped make these depictions feel more natural as they were only laying more on top of a foundation that had already been built. I particularly enjoyed the added fantasy elements and the court politics that come to play.

In the end, I came away from this book much more satisfied than I had with the first. As a whole, it felt more complete and self-assured. I found Arwa’s arc to be more compelling with its exploration of grief and new love, ostracization  and self-acceptance. Fans of the first book are sure to be pleased with this one. And, while made stronger by being read after that book, I think it can still be an approachable read for new fantasy-loving readers as well. And, of course, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of the book!

Rating 8: A stronger outing than the first and a heroine who is equally, if not more, compelling!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Realm of Ash” is on this Goodreads lists: “2019 Adult SFF by Authors of Color.”

Find “Realm of Ash” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “American Fire”

32191677Book: “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse

Publishing Info: Liveright, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn’t lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America – a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review: True crime is a genre that is known for a focus on the more horrific crimes that can be committed. You will usually find stories of murder, kidnapping, and missing people, and I’ll admit that those are the kinds of stories that float my boat the most. But there is a very large swath of topics that can be covered in the genre, and for the people who are interested in the recent true crime boom but not interested in the blood and gore, I have good news for you. “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse may be the perfect true crime book to check out. Because not only does it address relevant social issues, and focus on a crazy and obsessive romance, it has a shit ton of fires and arson that are incredibly nuts in their origins and motives.

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Buckle up, buttercups, it’s about to get weird. (source)

Hesse doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the perpetrators of the 60+ arsons that were set in Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Given that she initially wrote articles for the Washington Post about these fires, the identities of Charles Smith and Tonya Bundick were already out there for all to see if you had followed Hesse’s writings. But that doesn’t make “American Fire” any less compelling. On the contrary, it’s almost more fascinating to be told the backgrounds of Smith and Bundick, the ways that the investigation unfolded for those who had to fight and solve the arsons, and to explore the economic and social circumstances that Accomack County was in when the arsons occurred. What you end up taking away is a smorgasbord of both maddening and upsetting circumstances that came together to create a vortex where these fires terrified and fascinated a community already on its knees. We get to see the relationship between Smith and Bundick come to fruition, and by learning about their backgrounds (from the menial and petty crimes that Smith had already committed to Bundick’s past relationships, be they romantic of familial) we see the context of how these two people found each other, clung to each other, and did completely outlandish acts (like ARSON) together. Hesse compares and contrasts them with other criminal romances, and tries to figure out how their codependence and passion could take such a strange and destructive turn. I thought that she gave them a pretty fair shake, in that she never excuses their actions, but paints a picture that leaves it so the reader can get inside their heads and potentially empathize, at least a little bit. And let me tell you, it’s one crazy ride that reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film, which is only buoyed by Hesse’s writing style and how gifted she is a narrative non-fiction.

But what’s even more interesting is how Hesse peels back the layers of Accomack County itself, and gives us an idea of what it was like in 2012. The arsons were all committed in buildings that were long abandoned, and given that it was 60+ buildings it goes to show that, like other rural parts of America during this time, the economic downturn really hit this area hard. With corporate agriculture and big box stores moving in and pushing independent businesses and their owners out, and with the general nosedive the economy took during the Recession, Accomack County was already going through something bleak, and its residents were in dire straights even before the fires began. The fires became a literal hell scape in a lot of ways, though they also piqued the interests of those in the communities as to who could be doing it. It’s an interesting prelude to what has become such a hot topic as of late, because of the cultural shift that seems to have happened with the 2016 election and how these communities and their grievances have been connected to it. Accomack County feels like a ghost of itself in this book, a place that has been left behind in some ways, and I couldn’t help but think of present day and how it feels like everything is burning to the ground and the inevitable tie our political climate now has to the idea of the forgotten rural areas. It just struck a lot of nerves for me as I read it. And I think that was part of the point that Hesse was trying to make.

“American Fire” might be the perfect true crime book for those who want to give the genre a try, but are reluctant to read something that has too much violence or nihilism. It’s a bizarre tale to be sure, but it has a lot of resonance that I didn’t expect from a book about two lovers who burn shit to the ground. But then one should expect the unexpected when it comes to this book.

Rating 8: A fascinating and a little bonkers tale of romance, fires, and a shifting American culture that reads stranger than fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Middle America – NonFiction”, and “Murderino Reading List”.

Find “American Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Burned House”

48575470._sy475_Book: “The Burned House” (Jonny Roberts #2) by Alexander Lound

Publishing Info: Self Published, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The author sent me an eARC

Book Description: Nearly a year after learning that he can speak to the dead, Jonny Roberts has spent much of his time working with his new medium friend, Aaron. Whether it’s reconnecting loved ones with dead relatives, or helping spirits to cross over, Jonny has been happy to help.

That is, until a young boy is found dead, his body impaled with floorboards, sharpened into knife points; and in the same house where a family died seven years earlier, in a tragic fire.

Suspecting that the event might be down to the supernatural, Aaron and Jonny soon investigate. But when the spirit makes it clear that it doesn’t intend to stop at the boy, they begin to wonder if this might be their most dangerous case yet…

Review: Thank you to Alexander Lound for approaching our blog and sending me an eARC of this book!

Halloween has long passed, but there’s always time for a ghost story as far as I’m concerned. So when Alexander Lound emailed me asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing the second book in the Jonny Roberts series, “The Burned House”, there was really only one way I could answer.

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Honestly I’m halfway convinced that all of my reactions to anything could be summed up by one of the Rose siblings. (source)

If you recall, I enjoyed the first in the series, “The Spirit in the Crypt” as I found it to be an engaging ghost story with likable characters and high stakes. Teenage medium Jonny Roberts is a fun protagonist, and I was eager to see where things went next for him and his girlfriend Cassy, as well as his medium mentor Aaron. Now that we’ve established Jonny as a full fledged medium, that meant that he’d have to delve deeper into his powers, and with that could mean upped stakes and higher tension. And boy oh boy did we go in both those directions.

In “The Burned House”, Jonny has started to come into his own as a medium, helping Aaron with various spirit cases, and while he and his girlfriend Cassy are still happy and in love, the tension with his ‘profession’ has started to come to the surface. And in this story, there is reason to believe that Cassy’s hesitance may be right, as Jonny and Aaron are soon entangled in the death of a boy, whose body was found in a house in which a family burned to death a few years prior. It soon becomes clear that it’s the work of an angry spirit, and the only insight they have is from the surviving family member, a teenage girl named Megan. Jonny, of course, wants to help, but the good intentions he has involve more and more risk. The story is basically Jonny potentially biting off more than he can chew, and how that threatens not only his life, but his relationships. I liked that Lound showed how someone with his abilities would potentially have a lot of difficulties with relationships with ‘normal’ people, and that you can understand why both he AND Cassy have legitimate reasons to feel the way they do about his new calling. It also means that we get some deliciously angsty scenes with teenagers. And as a teenager who was in love with her boyfriend and had to deal with some problems that felt earth shattering at the time, these scenes felt very, very true to life.

The mystery and motivation behind the angry spirit was well plotted out and fun to get through. I cracked the code early on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was easy to crack. I’ve just been reading these kinds of stories for years, so I know what to look for. And even though I guessed the outcome early, I still enjoyed the journey that we took to get to said outcome. Lound really does up the stakes this time around, with the looming threat of injury and death at the hands of an angry spirit a very real issue. And we don’t pussyfoot around what all of this could mean for Jonny and his friends; on the contrary, there is a very significant loss in this book, one that I didn’t see coming, and one that was a bit of a bummer. But no spoilers here. I just want to hit the point home that we are starting to see the consequences that Jonny has to contend with because he has decided to pursue being a medium.

“The Burned House” was a thrilling and fun follow up to “The Spirit in the Crypt”. It checks all of my favorite boxes of a ghost story and medium story, and I’m eager to see where Jonny Roberts goes next!

Rating 8: Another satisfying YA ghost story, “The Burned House” continues the adventures of Jonny Roberts, and shows the upped stakes that being a medium means, both physically and emotionally.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Burned House” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Novels and Psychic Abilities”, and “Young Adult Ghost Stories”.

“The Burned House” isn’t available on WorldCat as of now, but it will be available for purchase this week. For more information, go to Alexander Lound’s WEBSITE.

Previously Reviewed: “The Spirit in the Crypt”