Serena’s Review: “Beastly Bones”

24001095Book: “Beastly Bones” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, September 2015

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

Book Description: In 1892, New Fiddleham, New England, things are never quite what they seem, especially when Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, R. F. Jackaby, are called upon to investigate the supernatural. First, members of a particularly vicious species of shape-shifters disguise themselves as a litter of kittens. A day later, their owner is found murdered, with a single mysterious puncture wound to her neck. Then, in nearby Gad’s Valley, dinosaur bones from a recent dig go missing, and an unidentifiable beast attacks animals and people, leaving their mangled bodies behind. Policeman Charlie Cane, exiled from New Fiddleham to the valley, calls on Abigail for help, and soon Abigail and Jackaby are on the hunt for a thief, a monster, and a murderer.

Review: While I didn’t fall in love with “Jackaby,” the first novel in this series, I was still intrigued enough by the things it had done right (an interesting protagonist, less known supernatural beings, and strong writing) to wish to continue on with the series. Granted, it took a while to get around to this, but I’m glad I finally did! This book brought the same strengths as the last and improved on some of my complaints and concerns as well.

Not long after the events of the first novel, Abigail is still feeling unsure about her role as an apprentice to the paranormal detective Jackaby. She has an established place in the household and has made good friends with the local ghost, Jenny, but she still feels like a failure in many regards, simply not having the necessary wealth of expertise to prove herself a useful assistant to Jackaby. So, when a case pops up in the nearby Gad’s Valley concerning a prehistoric dig, Abigail is excited to join up seeing this as an opportunity to put to use her knowledge of and passion for archeology and prove that she does have something to contribute to the team. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Charlie, the handsome  policeman/shape-shifter also happens to now live in this area.

As I said, this book doubles down on the strengths it had shown in the first. Many new and fantastic creatures are introduced in this book, some that have a basis in known mythology, but also several others that seem completely new. The shape-shifter kittens, for example, seem to be a unique creation of Ritter’s and one that he fully makes use of. This, too, is something that I very much appreciate about the fantasy elements in this series. Ritter doesn’t simply play lip service to the genre. Even with new creatures like these shape-shifters, Ritter takes the time to develop and extensive history for the beings and to tie them into known history (here we have ties to Darwin and Queen Victoria!) in new and interesting ways. It is clear that while Jackaby has a wealth of knowledge in the paranormal, he is by no means the only person in the world who understands that we walk the earth alongside fantastic beasts.

Another thing I enjoyed from the first book was the supporting characters. We don’t spend as much time at Jackaby’s home in this one as we did in the first, so Jenny’s page time is similarly limited. However, it is clear that Ritter is setting her, and the mystery of her death, up as a focal point for future stories. But in this book we get a whole new set of fun characters. Including a trapper who will hunt anything and who also has a fascination with the supernatural, two dueling archeologists whose snippy interactions were some of the most amusing in the entire book, and the unstoppable Nellie, an independent lady reporter who marches onto the page with her own plan and with no apologies.

The book also improved on the last in a few ways. First, one of my struggles from the first book was with Jackaby himself who I felt came across as a bit “aggressively wacky” and thus not believable as an actual person. Ritter combats this perception in a few ways. For one, Jackaby simply has a bit less page time than he did in the first and I think this was a wise choice. As a character, Jackaby is best served in brief, yet potent, doses. This method still highlights his strengths and interesting quirks, while not distracting from the story itself. Secondly, I enjoyed the more humorous take on Jackaby’s and Abilgail’s relationship,  most notably his horror at being drawn into discussions about her romantic entanglements with Charlie.

While the first book did not shy away from the darker aspects of this paranormal world, I felt like the stakes were raised in this book. In the first book, Jenny was introduced as a rather one-dimensional ghost friend for Abigail. Here we begin to see beneath the surface to what must be the true horror of being stuck in the world after death without the ability to move on. Also, the central mystery is not resolved without serious consequences. I was surprised by some of the risks that Ritter took towards the end of the novel.

Lastly, the story sets the stage for an over-arching plot which I think is an excellent decision. It would be all too easy for these books to start to feel a bit procedural with a new paranormal case that is begun and wrapped up in each book. The potential for a “big bad” whose presence can be traced throughout the series is intriguing.

As a sequel, “Beastly Bones” did everything I asked of it: reinforced the series’ strengths and improved upon its weaknesses. I’m more invested in checking out the third than I was this second book, which is always a step in the right direction!

Rating 8: It’s always fun to see a series grow in strength from a shaky start, and this book bumps the series up as an all-around fantasy recommendation for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beastly Bones” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade Historical Mysteries” and “YA Historical Fiction of 2015.”

Find “Beastly Bones” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously Reviewed: “Jackaby”

Book Club Review: “The Neverending Story”

27712We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the 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 “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a book that has been translated from a different language” 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 Neverending Story” by Michael Ende

Publishing Info: Thienemann Verlag, 1979

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it,

Book Description: This epic work of the imagination has captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide since it was first published more than a decade ago. Its special story within a story is an irresistible invitation for readers to become part of the book itself. And now this modern classic and bibliophile’s dream is available in hardcover again.

The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place–by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic–and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the courage to face unspeakable foes and the mysteries of his own heart.

Readers, too, can travel to the wondrous, unforgettable world of Fantastica if they will just turn the page….

Kate’s Thoughts

We are finally back to our book club, which means that we are finally back to our book club posts! This time around, the theme was pretty fun; we each came up with two themes that we put into a hat, and then whichever suggestions you drew, you had to pick what theme you wanted to do. One of the suggestions I got was “A book translated from another language.” It was in that moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do: “The Neverending Story.” I had grown up watching the movie (and its first sequel, “Neverending Story 2”), and I’m pretty sure that I wore out the video cassette of it that we had. What can I say, eight year old Kate had a pretty serious thing for the movie’s version of Atreyu.

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To  girl me this was SO BADASS!!! (source)

But it took me awhile to actually read the book. The first time was when I was in middle school. I’ve re-read it a few times since then, but it had been awhile. And I knew that going into it I would probably expose myself to criticism and having to rethink one of my favorite books from childhood. But that was actually good for me, in the end.

There are a number of themes that can be found in this book. Sure, there is the usual ‘hero’s cycle’ theme that both Atreyu the warrior and Bastian Balthazar Bux go through. But along with that we get the themes of childhood, broken innocence, grief, and imagination. The book is split into two distinct parts: the first is Bastian acting as a (not actually) passive part of a fantasy story at hand, where the world of Fantastica is falling apart because their leader, the Childlike Empress, is dying. But it’s also because The Nothing is tearing apart the very fabric of its world. But then the second half is about how Bastian, seen as the savior of Fantastica, is taken to a world that is not his own, and is corrupted by the power he is given to save it. While they could easily read as two distinct books, as far as Bastian’s journey goes it comes full circle. I had forgotten that Bastian was such a little punk for the second half of the book, as most of my fond memories come from Atreyu’s journey. But I think that it was a very interesting choice for Ende to make the hero we’re meant to relate to and root for from the get go the one that we’re rooting against by the end. But along with that theme is the ever permeating spectre of grief that haunts the story. Fantastica is falling apart and losing itself, many of its inhabitants dying (including Atreyu’s faithful horse Artax, and don’t even think of telling me that this isn’t one of the saddest moments in movie history, jerks!). But along with that is the fact that Bastian’s mother has recently passed away, leaving Bastian feeling empty and his father lost in his own sadness, and unable to care for his child. Of course Bastian wants to run away from his life; a land of luck dragons and magic and Childlike Empresses has got to be better than the reality he’s living. Even if that land is hard and imperfect as we soon realize it is. Bastian learns that the strongest thing that a person can have is not power, but love, and that his love is needed in his own world, no matter how hard that world is. And Ende created a wonderful cast of characters to help the reader explore these themes, from the brave and loyal Atreyu to the kind and optimistic Falkor the Luck Dragon. God I love Falkor.

There are, of course, some things that left me feeling a bit cringy as I read it. As much as I really, really do love Atreyu, and think that he’s a great character and a wonderful hero for the first half of the book, it complete smacks of European cluelessness that he is clearly based on American Indian Indigenous cultures and merely in a superficial way. While he is himself a complex and well rounded character, the only things we really know about his people and culture is that 1) they hunt buffalo, and 2) they have mystical rights of passage that involve hunting these buffalo, as well as spiritual dreams/connections to said buffalo. It reeked of the ‘Indian as mystic’ trope that is far too prevalent in popular culture and literature. It’s also pretty disconcerting that there are very few women in this book, and the ones that are there are not terribly fleshed out. The Childlike Empress is wise and mysterious, but we know little about her outside of her purity and goodness. The various females Atreyu meets on his journey are just there to give him some info or advice. And then there’s Xayide. She is literally an evil sorceress who is just there to fuck things up for Bastian and turn him against his friends. Not exactly empowering.

All that said, however, I still really enjoyed going back and reading “The Neverending Story.” I think that as an old school fantasy novel it still holds up pretty well, the characters still very beloved and the story still entertaining and wondrous.

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when Kate picked this book as her bookclub choice. I feel like my experience of this story is the same as Kate’s which is the same as many girls our age: it all began with a strong crush on Atreyu from the movie. I mean, c’mon, let’s admit that we all loved him!

atreyu
(source)

However, I never made it past the movie version of the story (though I, too, wore out my VHS copy of the film). I did know that the movie only focused on the first half of the book and while I did watch the sequel film once (I remember that they re-cast Atreyu and I’m pretty sure kid!Serena saw that as an unforgivable crime and never looked back), I have no memory of the story. So I was especially curious to get the second half of the book.

But let’s start with the first half! Right off that bat I was horrified…by the fact that the magical land is called “Fantastica” and I’ve known it as “Fantasia” all along! What is this change?? Cuz now I’m all mixed up about it since I’ve known it as “Fantasia” my whole life only now to discover that this was a change from the original! This was a major internal conflict for me throughout the book. But on a more serious note, I very much enjoyed this first half and how true to the book the movie really did stay in this part. There were changes here and there, some that I preferred in the movie (I think the tension was greater in the movie with the First Gate sphynxs than the way they were described to work in the book) and some that I preferred in the book (man, somehow Artax’s death CAN be even more traumatic!)

I very much the extra insight (though its still very minimal) with regards to the relationship between the Childlike Empress and the land of Fantasia itself. While still confusing and never fully explained, I felt like the connection between her, The Nothing, and the land of Fantasia (I just now realized that I’ve been typing Fantasia instead of Fantastica this whole time! See?! It’s hard!) is a better lain out in the book. I also really liked the character of Atreyu. He was heroic in the movie, but here we see even more how impossible his task was when it was given to him and how brave he would have to be to move forward with so little hope of success.

Bastian on the other hand…Look, I never really liked him in the movie and I didn’t really like him here. Though, I will say that I liked him better in the first half of the book than I did in the movie that covered this portion. Here he’s a bit bumbling, but he picks up on what is going on in a more willing way. Maybe it was just the kid actor in the movie, but I never really liked Bastian there. Kid-me always got very annoyed by the way he reacted to the realization that he was in the book. He got angry instead of inspired, and as a kid who always wanted to live in a book, too, I was never impressed by him.

But then we get to the second half and now I feel completely justified in my initial dislike of him as a kid. Maybe that actor was just channeling this portion of the character all along and was simply done a diservice by only portraying the first half’s version who is supposed to be the more sympathetic of the two. I had a harder time with this portion and I can see why the movie stuck to the first half of the book. It’s just always going to be a bit of a hard sell when you main character turns into a real brat. As Kate mentioned, there are some lovely themes of grief and love throughout this all, but I’m still a bit biased towards the first half. Though this is honestly probably due to the movie’s lasting influence on me. Oh well!

Kate already covered a few of the problematic issues of the book, so I won’t go into them myself. They were distracting, but I wouldn’t say anything was overly offensive to a point that it affected my reading of the story. Just a bit unfortunate, ultimately.

All told, I very much enjoyed this book! While I enjoyed the first half more than the second, it was an interesting read altogether. I imagine especially for the time the “metaness” of the story itself was particularly interesting, and, even now when this approach has been explored in other books (“The Princess Bride” comes to mind a bit), it still has some fresh takes on a story-within-a-story.

Kate’s Rating 9: Though it is certainly not perfect and has some flaws that I had a hard time overlooking, “The Neverending Story” is still a fun and wondrous fantasy book with lots of deep and meaningful themes and lovely characters.

Serena’s Rating 8: I second what Kate said! One point lower for me as I did find myself struggling a bit at times with my increasing dislike of Bastian, but still a thoroughly enjoyable read!

Book Club Questions:

1) What do you think about the world of Fantastica and how it’s influenced by our world? Is the thought of readers having influence on stories a theme that you enjoyed?

2)Ende clearly took some influence from American Indian cultures/stereotypes when he created the character of Atreyu. How do you feel about him as a character throughout this story? What do you think of his portrayal?

3)Bastian starts out the story as a passive character who is merely reading a book, but finds out that he has the ability to influence the world of Fantastica. What did you think of his journey from the beginning of the story to the end?

4)In this book there is the constant spectre of devastation, grief, and loss, be it the destruction of Fantastica by the Nothing to the loss of Bastian’s mother. What do you think Ende was trying to say about these feelings of despair and grief within human nature?

5)There are many instances within this book where Ende would hint at other stories and adventures of certain characters, but would say ‘but that’s another story and shall be told another time’. Which of these stories would you most want to learn about?

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Neverending Story” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Doors, Portals, Gates”, and “Quests”.

Find “The Neverending Story” at your library using WorldCat!

The next book club book is “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”!

Kate’s Review: “The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate”

29244734Book: “The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate” by Jonathan Maberry

Publishing Info: Imprint, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: How did Fox Mulder become a believer? How did Dana Scully become a skeptic? The X-Files Origins has the answers in this young adult origin story.

The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate will explore the teen years of Dana Scully, the beloved character depicted in the cult-favorite TV show The X-Files. Her story is set in the spring of 1979, when serial murder, the occult, and government conspiracy were highlighted in the news.

The book will follow Scully as she experiences life-changing events that set her on the path to becoming an FBI agent.

Review: Who is one of my very favorite TV queens? Who is one of the TV characters that I love for her inspirational strength, her smarts, her snark, and her perseverance? Who is up there in my personal hall of fame of badass ladies on the small screen?

Dana. Freakin’. Scully.

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You rang, fives? (source)

So the very moment that I discovered that both Mulder and Scully of “The X-Files” fame got their own origin stories, I knew that I’d save Scully for second. I wanted to savor her. I wanted to bask in her story and her background. Jonathan Maberry had a huge character to take on, and I really wanted him to do her justice. And it took me a little while, but eventually I decided that Maberry did.

This story, since again we don’t get much background in the description, finds Dana as a fifteen year old adjusting to a new life in Maryland. She’s close with her sister Melissa, and trying to fit in in school, even though she knows she’s more introverted and reserved than her sister and her peers. And she’s also been having dreams, visions of violence and carnage. She’s seeing an ‘angel’ in her dreams, an angel who is killing. As teenagers in the area keep dying in accidents, Scully can’t shake the feeling that they are connected to the dreams that she doesn’t understand. What she doesn’t know is that she may be in a more dangerous situation than she realizes.

So this book takes the “Scully is a psychic’ theory and totally runs with it. There have been hints at her intuitive abilities throughout the series (in “Beyond the Sea” she sees a vision of her father right before his death; “Irresistible” finds Scully kidnapped, and she sees her kidnapper’s face shifting into different iterations of evil), but it was never truly confirmed. But I liked that Maberry decided to take this theory and give it a lot of life in her background. I was kind of wondering how he would make it believable that she could have psychic visions in her youth, and then have such a skeptical foundation in the series when it starts. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that he pulls it off, and that I really liked how he did it. And seeing Dana react and manage these very scary visions was fascinating to watch. I think that she is still very much within her character, even as a fifteen year old. She feels younger and perhaps less secure in herself, but still feels like Dana Scully, even when in a situation that is so not something you’d think she’d be in. I sort of liked the mystery that she had to solve, because it’s foundation was a good harkening to her faith, her abilities, and her ultimate road to skepticism. I had a feeling I knew what was going on from the get go, so it wasn’t terribly surprising in it’s completion. But it wasn’t about the mystery itself for me. It was about how Dana was going to solve it with her strengths and wits.

I really enjoyed seeing the Scully family as well. In the series you get to know a few of her family members, specifically her sister Melissa and her mother Margaret, though you also get some solid and touching insight into Dana’s relationship with her Dad. You know that she was close to him in a lot of ways, from her reaction to his death in Season 1, to their nicknames for each other (Ahab and Starbuck!), to her seeing him in other visions as the series went on. In “Devil’s Advocate” we see how that close relationship is also a bit strained, and that Captain Scully was a bit more closed off from his family than maybe we realized. There were many moments between Dana and Captain Scully that made me misty eyed, as well as a wonderful scene with them reading from their favorite book “Moby Dick”. Whenever he called her Starbuck, I practically began to cry. I also loved seeing Dana and Melissa close and partners in crime, because their relationship on the show, while loving, was a bit contentious because they were so different. Having Melissa and Dana go to a New Age coffee shop and store for yoga and advice from local New Age practitioners just tickled me completely. Maberry also made an interesting choice of taking one of the Men in Black from the original series (the Red Haired Man), and gave him a role in a side plot. This was kind of a weaker part of this book for me, just because it took away from the main plot. In the Mulder book the surveillance parts involving X and Cigarette Smoking Man felt like a foregone conclusion; Mulder’s life had been intertwined with Cigarette Smoking Man since the beginning. Scully having this surveillance stuff in her life just felt… odd. Yes, later in life that aspect was there. I just had a harder time swallowing it in her youth.

I generally liked the new characters that Maberry created to interact with Scully, be it Corinda the New Age guru (her shop also makes an appearance in the Mulder book “Agent of Chaos”), or Scully’s love interest Ethan. Like in “Agent of Chaos” I was skeptical that a love interest had to happen in this book, since we know that he’s not going to be around ultimately, but Ethan was an okay addition. He was really there to give Scully some support from someone who was more like her, which I appreciated. Her relationship with him was also a good platform to show some of the casual sexism that Dana, as a fifteen year old girl in the late 1970s, could run into, even from someone who really does care about her. Seeing her push back against that was very gratifying, and seeing Ethan try to learn from it was refreshing and a good message to modern teens who may read this. While Ethan wasn’t as strong of an original character as Phoebe was in “Agent of Chaos”, I liked having him there for Dana to bounce more down to Earth ideas off of and help her find her voice. I liked that their partnership was it’s own thing, not just a predecessor to her eventual partnership with Mulder.

“The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate”, showcased my girl Scully. I know that we probably won’t get anymore teen books about Scully and Mulder, just because it would feel a bit absurd to take it too far with their backgrounds, but I really enjoyed how Scully was showcased in this one. It did a good job of speculating how she became the person she was when “The X-Files” started.

Rating 8: While the mystery itself wasn’t as entertaining as it could have been, the character study of Dana Scully as a questioning teenager was incredibly effective, and very well done.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate” is fairly new and not on any Goodreads lists yet. But I think it would fit in on “X-Files Related Books”, and “YA Novels about Psychic Abilities”.

Find “The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Magic Binds”

17333174Book: “Magic Binds” by Illona Andrews

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Kate and the former Beast Lord Curran Lennart are finally making their relationship official. But there are some steep obstacles standing in the way of their walk to the altar…

Kate’s father, Roland, has kidnapped the demigod Saiman and is slowly bleeding him dry in his never-ending bid for power. A Witch Oracle has predicted that if Kate marries the man she loves, Atlanta will burn and she will lose him forever. And the only person Kate can ask for help is long dead.

The odds are impossible. The future is grim. But Kate Daniels has never been one to play by the rules…

Review: From all accounts, the Kate Daniels series is set to be a ten book run. And this, the 9th, definitely feels like it is the setup for a grand finale, hitting all the right notes by growing the conflict with Roland, raising the psychological stakes for our heroine, and setting up a clear end game for the story as a whole.

The last few books were a bit middling, if I’m honest. As I said in my last review of this series, with Roland on the scene any other “big bad” feels superficial and like a place-holder whose only purpose is to delay the big eventual show-down between Kate and her father. In this book, we’ve arrived at that show-down. Or, at least, to the initial skirmishes that lead up to it.

For a series that started out fairly firmly rooted in the urban fantasy/romance genre, I feel like the story has really come into its own as a family drama. And what a dysfunctional, all-powerful, ego-maniacal family it is! While Curran still plays his role, his and Kate’s relationship has felt steady and well-defined for some time now. And I really appreciate that after the one stumble with relationship shenanigans a few books ago, Andrews hasn’t felt the need to fiddle with this aspect much. Instead, the focus has shifted to Kate’s growing understanding and relationship (?) with her remaining family, in whatever form they may now be.

Kate’s aunt, the “City Eater,” who was killed off a few books ago makes a refreshing re-appearance. That character was brilliant the first time around, both as a legitimately threatening enemy for Kate, but almost more importantly as another bridge into Kate’s family history. Here, this secondary role is even more strongly focused in upon. Kate is feeling the repercussions of her claim on Atlanta, an action that has triggered a well of power and family ambition. Not only do we get Kate’s aunt back with all of her amazing snark, but we even get to meet whatever remains of Kate’s grandma, a powerful being whom Roland has trapped to serve as an energy source to power his massive prison. There’s a lot of focus on the extensive history of Kate’s family with some beautiful looks back to what their world had been like. These flashes, combined with some quiet moments between Roland and Kate, served to much better flesh out Roland’s character and motivations.

Roland himself was great as always. Here we really begin to see the pay-off of taking this long (several books worth of time) to fully flesh out a villain. Roland is so many things all at once: loving father, murdering sociopath, sympathetic hero, misguided maniac. The reader both despises him, but also understands him. With Kate herself struggling with the “Dark Side,” for lack of a better word, it is easy to see Roland’s own fall from hero to villain. His relationship with Kate is so tragic, and yet Andrews saves the book from melancholy with trademark wit. At one point Roland is both threatening to end Kate while also being offended on her behalf about the “shameful lack of feasting” that is planned for her wedding. It’s lovely.

There are few short mini-adventures in this story, and those were the weaker points for me. They were fun enough and we run into a few interesting new creatures (a spunky pegasus is a high point), but given the added depth that we were seeing in the other parts of the book, these adventures also felt a bit too simplistic.

My only other quibble was with the very end of the story, and it was an event that had been literally prophesied from the very beginning of the book, if not the book before even. And really, this quibble is only a personal choice as *spoiler warning* not typically being a fan of pregnancy storylines in fantasy is purely on me.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. It actually might be one of my favorites in the series. The stakes are higher, the personal conflict is greater, the backstory is richer, and the characters have all come into their own.

Rating 8: A great penultimate story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Magic Binds” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Vamp’s, Were’s, Sorcerer’s/Witches & Elves “  and “Girl with a Sword and an Animal Friend.”

Find “Magic Binds” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Kate Daniels Series” and  “Magic Shifts”

 

Kate’s Review: “The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos”

29244700Book: “The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos” by Kami Garcia

Publishing Info: Imprint, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: How did Fox Mulder become a believer? How did Dana Scully become a skeptic? The X-Files Origins has the answers.

The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos explores the teen years of Fox Mulder, the beloved character depicted in the cult-favorite TV show The X-Files. His story is set in the spring of 1979, when serial murder, the occult, and government conspiracy were highlighted in the news.

The book will follow Mulder as he experiences life-changing events that set him on the path to becoming an FBI agent.

Review: When I was growing up, my family had three different Family TV nights as time went on. The first one was “Lois and Clark”. The last one, up until the end of high school, was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. And the middle one, the one that I have the fondest memories of, was “The X-Files”. I started watching “The X-Files” with my Dad when I was in fifth grade. I was both terrified and enthralled by it, and I loved both Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigated the weird and unexplained happenings of potential supernatural malarky and/or government conspiracies with aliens. The revival last year was enough to keep me sated for a bit, though I was definitely left wanting more. And since it looked to be awhile before we were going to get more, imagine my delight when I found out that two books about teenaged Mulder and Scully were coming out. I started with the one about Mulder, “Agent of Chaos”, which was written by YA heavyweight Kami Garcia. I started with this one because while I’m probably more like Mulder, I have a deep, deep love for Scully, and want to savor her and save her for last. So off we go into teenage Mulder in 1979. It’s like “That 70s Show”, but far more insidious.

To give a bit more description than the one above: Fox Mulder, a seventeen year old living in Washington D.C., is still feeling the pain of his sister Samantha’s abduction from a few years prior. His family has been shattered, and he is trying to adjust to his new life with his Dad, as his Mom is still back on Martha’s Vineyard. His best friend Phoebe is back on the island, but he’s made a new friend in Gimble, the nerdy son of an unbalanced former Air Force Major. When children in the area start disappearing, Mulder is reminded of Samantha’s abduction, and decides that he and his friends need to try and solve this case. This was so wonderfully Mulder, convinced so deeply of something and so entrenched in his belief of it, that he would throw everything he has into trying to figure it out. I also appreciated that this harkened back to the greatest tragedy of Mulder’s life, the disappearance of his younger sister. Though we all know now what did end up happening to her (and while this truth is touched upon in this book ever so briefly), the sadness and pain revived right away, and quite effectively (side note: anyone who thinks that “Closure” is a sappy episode of “The X-Files” can seriously bite me). It was a pretty obvious idea to make Mulder’s story about Samantha at it’s heart, but at the same time Garcia did it in such a delicate way that it was masterful and touching.

We got to see some old favorites in this tale otuside of Mulder. While I kind of had a feeling that The Cigarette Smoking Man was going to make an appearance, because how could he not, I was very pleasantly surprised to see X, a ‘man in black’ and FBI operative from the series, play a fairly large role in this story as well. But along with these old characters, Garcia created some very fun new characters to act as foils for Mulder. The first is Gimble, Mulder’s best friend in D.C. who is a D & D playing Trekkie. Gimble served us some very appreciated, if not sometimes awkward, comic relief. But even he has a bit more tragedy to him, as his father is a mentally unbalanced man who believes in all kinds of conspiracy theories due to his former involvement with the Government. The Major, as he calls himself, was the weakest part for me in this book, as it seemed a bit too on the nose to have Mulder bond with a man who is both brilliant, and yet bogged down by lunacy and paranoia. Plus, it was just hard to watch The Major interact with Gimble, because MAN that has to be a hard way to grow up. Granted, the government conspiracy stuff was always my least favorite part about the show, so to have it kind of leak in here, while totally understandable, wasn’t really for me. But by far my favorite new character was Phoebe, Mulder’s best friend and sort of love interest. So sure, it’s clear that Mulder and Phoebe are not at all end game, given that his real true love is Scully. But I liked that Garcia took a risk and put a capable, smart, supportive yet no nonsense girl into this for Mulder to have as a foil. Because why couldn’t Mulder have two great loves of his life? Phoebe is the anchor that Mulder has always needed in his life, serving the Scully role and keeping him in check. Plus, her love of all things geek made her very relatable, and kind of refreshing. The girl’s first appearance has her hair done up in Princess Leia buns for God’s sake!

Overall this was a fun origin story that I think did justice to Fox Mulder. I can’t say if hardcore “X-Files” fans will like it, but this pretty big fan quite enjoyed the journey it took me on. I really can’t wait to read the one about teenage Dana Scully now.

Rating 8: A fun little origin story to give one of my favorite TV characters. Though I sometimes felt that parts of it were a bit too over the top, seeing Mulder, X, and The Cigarette Smoking Man doing things again was a delight, and reliving the sadness of Samantha Mulder was tragically beautiful.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos” is pretty new and not on any Goodreads lists. But I think it would fit in at “X-Files Related Books”, and “Government Agencies Dealing with Paranormal”.

Find “The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Club”

15993203Book: “The Dark Days Club” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, January 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: London, April 1812. On the eve of eighteen-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall’s presentation to the queen, one of her family’s housemaids disappears-and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his lingering eyes? And will her intelligence and headstrong curiosity wind up leading them into a death trap?

Review: I always love it when I can find cross-genre novels that mix two of my favorite things. In this case, we have Regency era historical fiction and dark fantasy. Getting right down to it, I loved this book! And it served as an example of something that I had never been quite able to put my finger on when it came to my frustrations with other similar stories.

Lady Helen, a young woman just now entering into her first season as a lady of society, has worked her whole life to shake of the scandal of the death of her treacherous mother. Or…at least so she’s been forced to do by her Uncle, the man who controls her vast fortune and, along with her more kindly Aunt, has housed her since her parents’ deaths. But, of course, something dreadful must happen to set our protagonist on the path to becoming a heroine (line paraphrased from “Northanger Abbey” cuz why the heck not, it’s spot on in this case!). She runs astray of the even more scandalous Lord Carlton, a man rumored to have murdered his wife, though no body was ever found, and she discovers that she inherited from her mother a set of powers that belong to those destined to fight the demons that walk among them, disguised as average people.

Getting back to my point earlier, this book excelled in something that I had never been able to quite put my finger on when I attempted to explain why certain historical fantasies failed to hit the mark. What it gets down to is this: obvious extensive research done by the author. This book isn’t a paper thin veneer of a historical fantasy, it’s a thoroughly researched tale that combines the detailed aspects of this time period’s culture alongside its fantastical elements, never letting the magic and adventure wash away its historical foundation.

As one bookclub member and I discussed, this is the kind of book that you can read and come away from with an assortment of little tidbits about the time period that you wouldn’t have know before. For example, a gentleman who asks a lady for the last dance in the first set before the supper period is expected to walk that lady to her seat and sit near her. Thus, this gentlemen is expressing an even more active interest in the lady by requesting this particular dance! Fun Regency fact! So, in summary, this book fully embraces the historical aspects of its story, instead of simply appropriating convenient aspects for the sake of fitting into a popular genre than immediately discarding them in lieu of all the fantasy action, as too many have done before it.

Lady Helen herself is also very true to her time. While she is extremely intelligent and often frustrated by her Uncle’s very unfortunate views on a woman’s place, she’s also been raised to be a lady and a wife, and, if not thrilled about this prospect, accepts that this is the direction her life is headed. And, when suddenly presented with this demon-hunting alternative, she’s rightly wary. She’s been trained to run a household, converse with society, and manage other domestic duties. All notably free of risk of bodily harm and death. So when she’s told she’s a demon hunter and that said demon hunters face constant danger and often lead a life where their duties lead to eventual madness, she’s not jumping in head first. I really appreciated the fact that a primary arc of this story is simply Lady Helen fully coming to realize the choices before her and making realistic decisions with the knowledge that she’s given. At times it was frustrating as a reader, since we all know where things will end up, but it was also a very good character study of how a Regency era lady would struggle with these realizations, her own intelligence and curiosity be damned.

The fantasy elements were also much more dark than I was expecting. There are your run of the mill demons, and then you have the ones here who infect every layer of society, taking advantage of and feeding upon the worst aspects of humanity. There were several scenes that were straight up gruesome.

One last note on the historical accuracy of the books. The author included a very good afterward where she discussed the research that went into this book. It was fun to see how diligently she tried to incorporate the real life politics and goings-on of the time within the story. The newspapers that were referenced were real papers, the murders that take place really did happen (if, perhaps, not caused by demons). I always appreciate hearing about how an author approaches their work, and this was a particularly interesting example.

Rating 8:  A great example of well-researched historical fiction that doesn’t become overwhelmed by its fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Club” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Regency Fantasy” and “Mysterious London.”

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Kate’s Review: “American Heiress”

28007903Book: “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” by Jeffrey Toobin

Publishing Info: Doubleday, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”

The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing — the Hearst family trying to secure Patty’s release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty’s year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” entered the lexicon.

The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors’ crusade. Or did she?

Review: I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my usual stomping grounds were also in upper middle class areas. One of those neighborhoods was one that I could bike to, to hit the local Barnes and Noble, get a Starbucks mocha, and maybe go see a movie. This neighborhood also happened to be the same neighborhood that Sara Jane Olson, aka Kathy Soliah of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was found in after decades on the lam. My parents, both former anti-war protestors and pinko liberals of the 1960s and 70s, were pretty stunned, and when they explained who Soliah and the SLA were, I was stunned too. It was around this time that I was first introduced to the story of Patty Hearst, the heiress to the Hearst Fortune who was kidnapped by the SLA, only to join up with them. Sure, Hearst has kind of entered the pop cultural zeitgeist after all these years, that famous ‘Tania Picture’ pretty recognizable to even those who don’t necessarily know the significance of it. Hell, I had this picture on my bedroom door in high school (in vague protest of local gun legislation, but I digress). But outside of knowing the very basics of the case, I knew very little about Patty Hearst outside of this photograph. So when “American Heiress” ended up at my library, I decided it was time to learn more.

Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker, tells a comprehensive and detailed story not only about Patty and her kidnapping, but the crimes that the SLA committed before, during, and after, the trials and scrutiny that Patty faced, and the social and political climate of the United States in the 1970s. Gone were the idealistic days of the 1960s, and the 1970s was a time of much anger and frustration, as well as uncertainty. Nixon had recently been exposed for his corruption with the Watergate Scandal, gas prices were astronomical, and tensions were high. The Symbionese Liberation Army fancied itself a revolutionary group, but was less akin to peaceful protest and discourse, and more interested in bombs and murder (including the assassination of school superintendent Marcus Foster). Toobin does a great job of profiling our main players in the SLA, and his profiles are expansive and in depth. He also does a very good job of profiling Patty and her life pre-kidnapping. She was a student at Berkeley, engaged to an older man, and already feeling a little bit unappreciated and approaching a stagnancy. His descriptions of all these factors, as well as explanations of various societal events and views, all mix together to bring the reader right into this setting. I could almost feel the tension in the air.

What I also liked was that Toobin was pretty good at presenting a lot of this neutrally and seemingly without a conclusion he wanted the reader to draw. That may be in part to the fact that Patty Hearst didn’t have anything to do with this book, and declined to work with him on it. Because of that, Toobin has to work with other sources. He still managed to present a well thought out analysis of many factors within this crime. One of the biggest turns of the crime was the fact that Patty ‘joined’ her captors and began to commit crimes with them, releasing propaganda images and films denouncing her former life. She was eventually tried and convicted, in spite of the defense’s arguments that she was suffering from Stolkholm Syndrome. Eventually she was pardoned by President Carter. Toobin has really set out just to tell the story as it was, and how the SLA could have influenced her choices to cooperate. While the SLA didn’t have the competence to actually systematically brainwash her, it was, in a way, their short sightedness in their plan that may have led to her cooperation. They kidnapped her with no plan, and were constantly threatening her life and waffling with what to do with her. Because of this, through a need to survive and adapt, it could be argued that Hearst decided that to save herself, be it consciously or not, she needed to become one of them. But not once does Toobin go so far as to suggest that there is no responsibility there. After all, he also points out that she was angry with her parents for how they seemingly handled her kidnapping, and felt that they had turned their back on her. And by the end, I don’t really know where I fall in the argument. I jumped between ‘If she wasn’t a Hearst, or a white woman, or rich, she would have been in prison for far longer than eighteen months’, and ‘this poor girl was a complete victim and was completely railroaded!’. I still don’t really know where I stand, but I appreciate that. It shows that Toobin knows that it’s almost too complex for any solid answers to come out of it, especially after all this time. Honestly, it’s a combination of all those things. She was certainly a victim. But many victims don’t get the luxury of being seen as one.

The book is a little dense, so I hard a slower time getting through it, but in it’s density we get a whole lot of really interesting facts. I had no idea that so many familiar names were involved in this case. This runs the gamut from perhaps obvious people, like Ronald Reagan who was the Governor of California of the time (who said some pretty wretched things about poor minorities in relation to this case, surprise surprise), to the less obvious like Desi Arnaz (who was a family friend of Patty’s parents and whisked them away on a vacation to help them take their mind off of things). While sometimes this book could get a little off track with these things, I found it all pretty engrossing.

I think that true crime fans would like this book, but so would history buffs, and possibly even people interested in psychology and sociology. Patty Hearst is still around, making public appearances here and there, be it at the Westminster Dog Show or on TV. I don’t think anyone can really know everything about her outside of her, and she isn’t going to address it anytime soon. Nor should she have to. That said, Jeffrey Toobin does a great job of postulating and assessing various factors in her kidnapping fairly and in an insightful way. “American Heiress” was a good read, and I’m happy I know more about the poor girl whose chilling photo was on my bedroom door.

Rating 8: An in depth and interesting book about a notorious crime that never goes for sensation or salaciousness, “American Heiress” looks at the Patty Hearst Kidnapping through many lenses.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Heiress” has not been out long, and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It can be found on “Fresh Air 2016”, but I think it would also fit in on “California True Crime”.

Find “American Heiress” at your library using WorldCat!