Serena’s Review: “A Curious Beginning”

28186322Book: “A Curious Beginning” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2015

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

Book Description: London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

Review: Honestly, I’m not sure how I’ve been going along all of this time with no awareness of Deanna Raybourn. After the first twenty or so pages of this book, in which I was in shock by how much I was absolutely adoring it pretty much immediately, I did some research and found that Raybourn has been around for a while, long enough to have another hugely popular series already finished! How have I missed this? As a huge fan of lady sleuth historical mysteries, especially if said lady at all resembles Amelia Peabody as far as giving a damn what others think, it’s almost like Christmas whenever I discover another series that can scratch this particular itch.

Veronica Speedwell knows she should be sad at the death of her aunt, but instead, she only sees the glorious future ahead of her, full of independence and the freedom to fully devote her life to her passion for science and butterfly hunting. Of course, her history isn’t one of being cooped up anyways, with many trips abroad full of exploration, adventure, and yes, a few liaisons, if you will. But things do not go as planned when she finds herself caught up in a murder and pursued by villains unknown. What’s more, she finds herself in the company of the mysterious and rather grumpy Stoker, a man whose past is equally curious.

Veronica Speedwell is a delight. Truly, a book like this lives and dies on the voice of its lead character, and she was absolutely wonderful. Witty, confident, and employing all of those great snooty, very British-y turns of phrase that make me super jealous of their vocabulary and diction. (I also listened to this as an audiobook, and the reader was spot on. So good in fact that I think I’m going to hold out for the audiobook versions of the next two as well).

I also really enjoyed the backstory that is given to Veronica, particularly the fact that this isn’t her first time out and about in the world. She has the actual experience to back up her confidence and claims of capability. Not only is she and established scientist, having published a few articles under an assumed name and sold rare specimens gathered from her adventures to wealthy collectors, but she has taken a firm hold on her life and choices. Men are nothing new to her, and she has established a neat system for dealing with them and her reputation: liaisons are ok abroad, damn the whispers, but once on home ground, she is willing to play by the rules. For all of these strengths, she’s also appropriately vulnerable when the plot strikes close to home. The tendency with characters like this can be an almost unrealistic level of competences and assuredness that leaves the character feeling not quite human. Veronica reacts in a believable manner to big revelations, but nothing keeps her off her stride for long!

As a secondary character, I also very much loved Stoker. And yes, he also kind of reminded me of Emerson. (But for all of these similarities between our leads, I never felt like the book strayed too close to the Amelia Peabody series). His was the perfect level of brusqueness and emotional outbursts to balance Veronica’s more cool demeanor. For all that his walls begin to come down throughout the story, by the end of the book, we still do not know his entire history, which I really liked. His character still has much room to grow, but what we do know already sets him up as an excellent, rather comedic, romantic hero.

The story itself is full of action, jumping from one adventure to another. We have a traveling circus, an eccentric collector and his family, the Tower of London, and more. And throughout it all, the mystery is solid, leaving readers equally in the dark about the motives, and even the identity, of those pursuing our main characters. While a few of these mini adventures could feel a bit tacked on, especially the traveling circus bit, I was having such fun watching our main characters play on these sets, that I didn’t even care.

My one real criticism of this book comes with the end. The way the mystery is resolved felt a bit rushed and almost too neat. Things fell into place in a very convenient manner and we have yet another example of a villain pretty much killing himself off, so that our leads’ hands won’t be bloodies. While I get that all of this kind of goes hand in hand with the type of light and fun mystery story that this is, I always wish there could be a bit more “oomph” put behind resolutions such as this. If anything, letting the story get a bit more dark when it needs to can be a nice balance to the rest of the more light plotline. It just read a bit too “PG” for me.

But this is a minor quibble, and one that has built up over time after reading endings like this again and again in mysteries such as this. On its own, “A Curious Beginning” is an absolutely delightful introduction to a new leading lady and new mystery series. Definitely check this one out if you’re a fan of lady sleuth mysteries ala Amelia Peabody!

Rating 8: An absolute romp of a story. Veronica Speedwell, welcome to the ranks of excellent lady sleuths!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Curious Beginning” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian/Regency Female Sleuths/Mysteries” and “Books with Witty Banter/Dialogue.”

Find “A Curious Beginning” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Wife Between Us”

34189556Book: “The Wife Between Us” by Greer Hendrix and Sarah Pekkanen

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A novel of suspense that explores the complexities of marriage and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.

When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous wife and her obsession with her replacement.
You will assume you are reading about a woman about to enter a new marriage with the man she loves.
You will assume the first wife was a disaster and that the husband was well rid of her.
You will assume you know the motives, the history, the anatomy of the relationships.
Assume nothing.

Discover the next blockbuster novel of suspense, and get ready for the read of your life.

Review: The super hyped heavy hitter thrillers are the ones that scare me the most. Not in terms of content, mind you; in terms of my fears to even give them a try. I’ve been burned by a number of them in the past. I was marginally impressed by “Girl on the Train”. Mary Kubica’s recent works have left me a bit cold. I flat out hated “Gone Girl” and “Behind Her Eyes”. So when “The Wife Between Us” was available at work, I felt a tug to check it out, but also the nagging ‘what if you don’t like it?’ apprehension. But I did take a chance on this one, steeling myself for potential, sullen disappointment, so much so that I kind of let it sit for a bit, knowing I could renew it and just delay the potential inevitable disappointment. But I can safely say that when I did pick it up, I had a very, very hard time putting it down. Praise be, “The Wife Between Us” lived up to the hype that made me very hesitant!

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TAKE THAT, HORRIBLE STREAK OF ANNOYING THRILLER BLOCKBUSTERS! (source)

The dual narrative device isn’t really new to the thriller genre. Many books use it, including a number that I’ve reviewed on this blog. But given that this book was written by two women, the voices that each character, Nellie and Vanessa, have are incredibly unique and feel totally separate. Nellie’s story is told in the third person, as the new younger woman that this man Richard is about to marry, while Vanessa is in the first person, the ex wife who hears about this new marriage and is intent on stopping it. I tend to feel that when a book promises that ‘this book isn’t what you think it’s going to be’, I’m going to go in looking for hints and clues as to why that is. But with Nellie and Vanessa and the perspectives they each give to the overall story, while I was looking for clues I wasn’t distracted by my personal search. In fact, when we get to the first big reveal, I actually said ‘wait, WHAT?!’, and had to go back and look for clues because I was so totally caught off guard. The thriller genre seems to be stepping it’s game up, as this isn’t the only book that has done that lately (but more on that another time). I also liked that neither Nellie nor Vanessa were very stereotypical, even if they appeared to be at first. As the stories progressed, you saw a whole lot of growth in both these narratives, and I ended up really liking and feeling for both of them.

While Nellie and Vanessa were refreshing and kind of new for the genre, there were some familiar traps that the plot itself fell into. I’m not going to spoil it, as this is a fun book and shouldn’t be spoiled for those who want to read it. But while I didn’t call one of the super big twists, the other one was fairly obvious from the get go. It’s a device and a twist theme that I’m honestly losing my patience with, as we’ve seen it so often now that it’s long past stale and definitely overused and overdone. And then (and I can’t tell you how ridiculous this moment was), in the last few pages, yet ANOTHER twist was thrown in for good measure that harkened back to a long lost plot point. And the biggest grievance I had with this one was that not only did it fall right in the last few pages, it was revealed in a way that didn’t actually have ANY bearing on how anything turned out!! So I don’t know what I find more frustrating, that it was a quick ‘gotcha!’ reveal a la “Into the Water”, or that it didn’t even go anywhere or change anything. It just felt tacked on, and tacked on in a way that was incredibly superfluous and unimportant to anything.

But given that I picked “The Wife Between Us” up and didn’t put it down, reading it in one sitting, it clearly had a serious hold on me, which is what a good thriller ultimately needs to do to be effective. This is one that, in my opinion, deserves the hype that it’s getting.

Rating 8: A thriller that kept me entranced with a couple of unique and interesting narratives, “The Wife Between Us” had few pitfalls and lots of really good curve balls.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wife Between Us” is included on the Goodreads lists “Chilling New York Novels”, and “Unique Narrators”.

Find “The Wife Between Us” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Walk on Earth a Stranger”

17564519Book: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, September 2015

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

Book Description: Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

Review: I always love it when I can find a book that crosses several of my preferred genres. This time it is fantasy and historical fiction. What’s more, the period of history is unique and I don’t think I’ve ever run across a book quite like this! There are a million and one fantasy novels set in Victorian England, a handful during the Regency period, and tons and tons set in some made-up world that pulls loosely from medieval history. But fantasy on the Oregon Trail? Haven’t heard of that! Let’s dive in!

Lee’s life isn’t perfect, but she has a loving family, a loyal friend, and a steady life filled with honest work. But she also has a secret, and one that she and her family have had to hide her entire life: she can sense gold. A gift that should make them rich, instead forces the small family to live in fear of their neighbors. And these fears are realized in the worst way when tragedy strikes. Now, disguised as a boy, Lee flees West, hoping that in a land said to be dripping in gold, her unique skill will go less noticed and she can lose those those who pursue her.

As I said, the book is set up to mix fantasy elements along with a historical setting. But let me just say now, the fantasy elements of this story are so minor that they might as well be non-existent. Lee’s gift serves as a driving force for much of the action, and motivation for her secrecy and the villain’s plots, but other than a few moments here or there, this “magic” plays almost no part in the story. Instead, what we get is essentially a novelized version of the game “The Oregon Trail.” This is not a complaint!

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The dreaded screen of my childhood.

Once Lee is forced out of her home and onto the road, the story is very episodic in the way that it plays out. There are mini events (a robbery, a trip down the river on a raft, illness) all spaced between jumps in time during which she continues to travel. I very much enjoyed this style of writing, but I will warn that it could be read as slow and plodding for those less interested in the day-to-day life of a wagon trip such as this.

And when I compared it to “The Oregon Trail” I wasn’t exaggerating. The same locations are visited, like Independence Rock. There are the required discussions about provisions and wagon weight (should we bring that extra wagon axel??). There are measles attacks, complete with terrible characters leaving behind measles blankets. A stampede, as well as a show of the terrible over-hunting of bison that took place, wastefully leaving behind hundreds of carcasses that couldn’t be carried. I mean, all it needed was someone to die from a snake bite. Again, I enjoyed all of this as I haven’t really read many novels about traveling the Oregon Trail. But it definitely wasn’t providing anything unique in these areas, either, I will admit.

Lee’s own story is one of learning to balance maintaining her secret and also growing to trust those around her. I also always love stories where girls dress up as boys, and through Lee’s own experiences, it is starkly clear the differences in freedoms she is allowed traveling the trail in this guise. What’s more, we’re spared any of the silly “I have a crush on this guy but he doesn’t know I’m a girl!!” angst by the fact that her best friend, Jefferson knew her before she took up trouser-wearing. Jefferson is also half Native American, and between him and a freed African American shop owner Lee also befriends, the story does a good job of acknowledging and addressing the prejudices faced by these groups during this time.

For the most part, the other characters largely served in fairly stock roles. You have the leader of the wagon train, various families with different foibles, the doctor (who has his own secrets), and the family that Lee has signed on with as a helping hand. The wife in this family group was probably the most interesting secondary character presented (other than Jefferson). I really disliked her when she first showed up, but through out the story the author continued to reveal layers of her story that, by the end, left her as probably the most complex character in the party.

Like I said, the magical elements were pretty non-existent, so your enjoyment of this book solidly lies on how much you want to read a novel version of “The Oregon Trail.” But I do feel that Lee herself was a solid narrator, and if you can get by some of the distracting “old timey” elements of the way she’s written to speak/think, she’s a fun character to follow through a story like this. I’m also pretty intrigued by what will happen now that they’ve arrived in California (spoilers??) and the author will have done away with the Oregon trail happenings!

Rating 8: Light on the fantasy, but heavy on the Oregon Trail goodness!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Walk on Earth a Stranger” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Girls disguised as Boys” and “California Gold Rush Fiction.”

Find “Walk the Earth a Stranger” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Broken Girls”

35533431Book: “The Broken Girls” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2018

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

Book Description: The “clever and wonderfully chilling” (Fiona Barton) suspense novel from the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare…

Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . . 

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

Review: First I want to say a special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

I have a deep appreciation for an unsettling Gothic horror story, and while the genre is a bit less common these days (if I’m totally wrong on this, PLEASE send me some titles! I love Gothic horror!) when I find a good one that just makes it all the more special. So when you take a historical fiction that has a boarding school setting AND throw in a restless ghost to boot, I am going to be so there and so ready. It was really just icing on the cake that “The Broken Girls” by Simone St. James not only had these plot points, but also a modern day thriller with a body found in a well and a woman who can’t let go of her sister’s murder. Fun fact: I was lucky enough to have my initial review selected as the official LibraryReads.org blurb for the book. Not to toot my own horn or anything. But the reason I was so inspired in my initial review was because this book really took me in and creeped me out for lots of reasons.

The dual narratives of 1950s and 2010s each give us pieces to a puzzle that is rooted in the mistreatment and abuses of women. Idlewood  School was an all too common place where unwanted or inconvenient girls were sent to live out their adolescence, be it because they were the children of mistresses of powerful people, mentally ill, or orphans with few other places to go. They all have the similarity in that their lives are basically valued as worthless, and few, if anyone,would miss them if they were to disappear. Which one girl does. The modern story is of Fiona, a reporter whose older sister was murdered near the property in the 1990s, and who still harbors an obsession about why this happened and it could have been prevented. And always settled above both is the ever present legend of Mary Hand, a teenage girl who died on the property shortly after giving bitrh to an illegitimate child whose body ended up in the garden. While all of the victims in this story are painted in broad brush strokes by those who live to tell the tales, be it a missing girl, a murdered girl, or a ghost girl, as the story progresses you learn so much about them, giving them more depth and showing a number of tragedies that you can’t disconnect yourself from. I was more interested in the Fiona storyline as she digs deep into the history of Idlewood and tries to find some answers to give herself peace, but I did like going back to the 1950s and seeing the group of friends of Kate, Sonia, Cece, and Roberta. The way that St.James ties it all together is worth it in the end, and I’m being deliberately vague because i think that you have to go in without any hints to really enjoy it.

I also really liked the supernatural and gothic aspects! I mean, come on! A boarding school in the middle of the Vermont Countryside? May as well be the moors! You get the sense of isolation and foreboding whenever the school and it’s grounds are described, and I could totally see why it could get lost in the wilderness even tough everyone knows that it is out there. St. James did a great job of crafting the perfect ghost story to take place there as well, harkening back to books like “The Woman in Black” and “The Haunting of Hill House” and creating a genuine tragedy that sets off a deeply creepy and fear inducing haunting. It’s also important to note that even the haunting has it’s secrets, and that while there are truths to the legend, like I would imagine most ghost stories and their origins, things aren’t always what they seem, and St. James really makes the reader feel like there is something realistic at the heart of it, a realism that keeps to the themes of gender discrimination and misogyny.

“The Broken Girls” is a dark and poignant novel that fans of Gothic horror really ought to check out. Not only does it effectively address still all too relevant themes of our culture,  I was definitely side eyeing every bump in the night right after finishing it.

Rating 8: A haunting gothic tale that brings up relevant societal issues, “The Broken Girls” is an effective and chilling mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Broken Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Mystery 2018”, and “Most Anticipated Mysteries 2018”.

Find “The Broken Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Your One & Only”

33413958Book: “Your One & Only” by Adrianne Finlay

Publishing Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, February 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First

Book Description: Jack is a walking fossil. The only human among a sea of clones. It’s been hundreds of years since humanity died off in the slow plague, leaving the clones behind to carry on human existence. Over time they’ve perfected their genes, moving further away from the imperfections of humanity. But if they really are perfect, why did they create Jack?

While Jack longs for acceptance, Althea-310 struggles with the feeling that she’s different from her sisters. Her fascination with Jack doesn’t help. As Althea and Jack’s connection grows stronger, so does the threat to their lives. What will happen if they do the unthinkable and fall in love?

Review: There have been a few YA clone books released over the last five years or so to varying degrees of success. Somehow I’ve not read any of them, even though the concept of clones has always intrigued me.

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I liked “The Island,” I don’t care what you say!! (source)

So I was excited when I received “Your One & Only” from Bookish First, a story set sometime in the future in a city populated only by clones. Althea310, one of 9 varieties of clones, is shocked and disturbed when her teacher introduces a new class member, a boy named Jack who is strange and frightening. He’s not a clone, but instead a member of an extinct species: humans.

Jack’s introduction doesn’t go well, with several of the other clone groups reacting with fear, suspicion, and even anger. The story jumps forward in time a few years at a time, and at every point, we see the stark divide between Jack, the sole human in this insular world, and the clones that have created him and people it. The clones exist in an orderly system comprised of “generations” for each of the 9 prototypes, with 10 clones in each group. These groups, like the Altheas that Althea310 is a part of, are able to commune with each other, sharing thoughts and feelings through some sort of telephatic connection. To them, Jack’s inability to commune and the fact that his doesn’t have 9 other brothers makes him seem terribly alone and, in a way, unreal, like a chair or piece of equipment. They feel nothing from him, so how can he himself feel anything?

The creative and detailed world-building was one of the strongest aspects of this book. The world of the clones is incredibly well thought out, with their society structured around their system of orderly reproduction (via growth of new clones), life (during which each of the clone types possess a unique talent, like aptitude towards science or leadership), and death. Their only fear is falling out of alignment with their fellow clones, an unclear process but one which ultimately results in the clone needing to be exterminated as they are seen as no longer functional.

Throughout the story, we are given increasing glimpses into the history of this society. What exactly happened to the rest of the world? Who were the founders who served as the source DNA for these 9 clone types and what was their goal with creating them? We also begin to see that something isn’t quite right with the clones and the way their lives, seemingly so peaceful and orderly, are playing out.

With the story alternating between Jack and Althea310, we begin peeling back this world. Jack’s story is heartbreaking to the extreme. He is essentially an experiment that is being conducted by the clones, and his life is one of isolation, loneliness, and the feeling that he can never belong in this world. Through his eyes, we see the great degree of difference that exists between him, a “natural” human, and the clones. The best example come in the form of his love for music and playing the guitar. To the clones, this “music” is jarring noise and they can’t comprehend of his reasons for doing it.

Althea310, on the other hand, gives us a closer look into what it means to be a clone, how the communing works, and her own views on her society, especially once she begins to question things when more exposed to Jack and his differences.

The story does an excellent job of exploring large subjects, like empathy, family, and what it takes to be “human.” A tender love story is laid out next to a building sense of horror and dread as the story picks up speed towards the end heading towards what must be a catastrophic collision of views. When the curtain is finally fully pulled back, what is left is both tragic and horrific. But, for all of this, the story is one of hope and resilience.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read but manages to pack in tons of world-building and two solid lead characters, all while creating a suspenseful plot and exploring complicated aspects of humanity. If you enjoy science fiction and dystopian fiction, definitely give “Your One & Only” a go!

Rating 8: Jam packed with heart, you’ll be left thinking about this book for many days after!

“Your One & Only” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Best Sci-Fi/Futuristic Romance” and “Genetics in Science Fiction.”

Find “Your One & Only” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Clueless: Senior Year”

34623127Book: “Clueless: Senior Year” by Amber Benson, Sarah Kuhn, Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM!Box, August 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Haven’t got your hands on the newest installment of this 90’s teen phenomenon? As if!

Your favorite girls from Beverly Hills are back in an all-new adventure! It’s senior year and Cher, Dionne, and Tai find themselves in a bit of a crisis of self… Where are they meant to go, and what are they meant to DO after high school? Luckily they have all year—and each other’s help—to figure it out!

Review: One of my all time favorite movies is “Clueless”. When I first saw it in fifth grade (my mom brought it home for us to watch together), I was immediately drawn to Cher Horowitz, our well meaning but flawed protagonist. I wanted to be her, wanted to live her life and be as clever and kind as she was. As an adult I still aspire to live up to her standards, so when I saw that a new graphic novel about Cher and her friends was coming out, I really could have only one reaction.

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(source)

The story picks up shortly after the movie ends. Cher, Dionne, and Tai are starting their senior year of high school, and Ms. Geist challenges them and the other students in her class to determine what their post high school goals are by the end of the year, and to figure out what they want to be in the world. After this, we follow not just Cher, but also her best friends on a journey of self discovery that was both incredibly charming and completely empowering. In spite of my excitement over this book, I was also nervous because I hold this movie so close to my heart (and “Emma” as well, the Jane Austen book that it takes inspiration from). I was worried that it was going to perhaps rehash the movie in some way, or throw in drama for drama’s sake. But I am very happy to report that Amber Benson and Sarah Kuhn absolutely did justice to the film and it’s characters.

I first want to talk about the characters and the arcs themselves. I worship Cher Horowitz, but it’s important to remember that even though she gets her life together at the end of the movie, she’s still a teenager who is going to have moments of stumble along with moments of triumph. I was very worried about her relationship with Josh, the Mr. Knightley analog who is played by Paul Rudd in the movie. Cher and Josh are perfect together, but happy bliss usually means no conflict. And hey, I am aware that stories need conflict (even if that’s an easy grab for conflict). But I am happy to report that while I do wish that Josh had been around a bit more (but that’s all I will say), Benson and Kuhn took their relationship on a trajectory that felt realistic for the characters, but didn’t completely decimate the lovely romance that lives at the heart of it. And it was done in a way that we got to focus on Cher learning how to define herself without  basing it all on Josh and his needs. But the thing that caught me the most off guard in the best way possible was that we got similar treatments for both Dionne and Tai, Cher’s partners in crime but sidekick status only in the film. Dionne starts to suss out what it is she wants to be outside of a good friend and girlfriend, and gets interested in civics within the high school by running for class president. And Tai has a tough decision to make when she is accepted to art school, but a family tragedy makes her second guess what her priorities should be. This enabled them to move from “The Best Friend” (Dionne) and “The Ditzy One” (Tai) and become well rounded, three dimensional characters just like Cher. The justice given to these ladies was so, so satisfying.

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The power of female friendship at the forefront! (source)

A number of tributes to the movie are sprinkled throughout the comic, which varied from being absolutely adorable to kind of ham fisted and distracting. The not so good were the kind of glaring references that didn’t feel like they really belonged (yes yes, Cher does wear Alaia in the movie during the robbery scene, but referencing Alaia in the way this graphic novel did was kind of awkward), or were misused completely. But smaller Easter eggs were far more entertaining (Dionne’s campaign signs saying that Murray is ‘toe-up’, for instance), and I liked seeing them. I was also a bit sad that so many classic characters from the movie were missing. Mel, Christian, Lucy, Mr. Hall, and Elton were no where to be seen, and given that I love ALL of the side characters in the movie I was sad when none of those arguably important faces could even muster a cameo.

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AS AN UNAPOLOGETIC ELTON STAN I FEEL VERY ATTACKED THAT WE WERE DEPRIVED OF HIM. (source)

I really liked the artwork for this book too. Not only did Siobhan Keenan really capture the styles and imagery from the movie, be it through outfits, faces, or background, she brought a fun and bubblegum pinache to the illustrations. With some potential manga influences as well just for funzies.

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(source)

Bottom line is that if you like “Clueless” the movie, this graphic novel will never meet your standards of perfection. But it comes pretty close, and does a great job of carrying on the stories of these excellent teenage girls. I would say that it definitely improves upon the characters of Dionne and Tai, which is so excellent to see. Definitely check it out. If you miss it, I assure you, you’ll be totally buggin’.

Rating 8: A fun follow up to one of my very favorite movies! The nostalgia is great, and the characters are all fleshed out with a lot of positive girl power messages.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clueless: Senior Year” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Black Girl Comics”, and I think that it should also be on “Girls Read Comics”.

Find “Clueless: Senior Year” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen of Blood”

25036395Book: “The Queen of Blood” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA 2017

Book Description: An idealistic young student and a banished warrior become allies in a battle to save their realm in this first book of a mesmerizing epic fantasy series, filled with political intrigue, violent magic, malevolent spirits, and thrilling adventure

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms.

With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . . before it’s bathed in blood.

Review: This is another book that I snagged after getting to meet the author waaaaaay back at ALA 2017. Seriously, this is how long it takes me sometimes to get to books, even ones that I know are going to be amazing! Book scheduling, I tell you! There are trials and tribulations there. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about! Anyways, I’ve read a few other books by Sarah Beth Durst, and while some of them have been misses, overall, I enjoy her writing style and her strong female characters. When I heard her speak about this book, I was struck by the completely original fantasy world setting and another heroine who sounded bad ass but also real and flawed.

In Daleina and Ven’s world, everything around them is made up of spirits set on destroying them. Air, water, fire, ice, tree, and earth, all wanting nothing more than to create with abandon and destroy humanity. The people’s everyday existence is one fraught with a balancing act that is delicate and completely dependent on the strength of the land’s Queen, the only person with the power to hold this malicious, wild strength in check. And when a 10-year-old Daleina’s tree-top village is destroyed, and only her small family is saved by her own  burgeoning powers, Daleina’s life changes forever. Now she must work to prove her worth and her ability to become a Queen’s heir, one of many powerful young women who must be ready at a moment’s notice to step into the role as Queen should anything ever happen to their ruler. Alongside her, Ven, a disgraced champion, will work to stave off a looming disaster that has been slowly revealing itself over the years when the Queen’s power seems to slip, as happened with the destruction of Daleina’s beloved home.

As I remembered hearing when Durst spoke at ALA, there are quite a few things that make “The Queen of Blood” standout in the vast expanse of “Queen of something” books that proliferate fantasy fiction nowadays. First off, as I stated, is the world-building. I loved the exploration of this world that we get through this story. The entire civilization seems to live in the trees, with only brief time spent on the ground (it’s more dangerous on the ground level). The Queen, and to a lesser extent, the other young women who train as heirs, all have control over the spirits and, through them, are able to manipulate the vegetation and trees to grow into elaborate structures and bridges. For long distances, a terrifying, but thrilling-sounding, wire system is set up for travelers to hook onto and speed through the trees.

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I was pretty much picturing Lothlorian from “Lord of the Rings” the entire time.

The spirits themselves were equally beautiful and terrifying sounding. There were the expected descriptions of several spirits looking vaguely human-like, beautiful, and wispy. But there were others made up of animal aspects, or simply the elements themselves. There was one particular earth spirit that sounded especially terrifying, and another bird-like air spirit that sounded pretty awesome. But beautiful or otherwise, it was endlessly clear that all of them were wild, capricious, and only just contained from unleashing disaster on everything around them.

The other unique portion of the story is the way that it unfolds, both as a story and with its characters. The book begins when Daleina is only ten years old and concludes when she is near her 20s. To manage this, there are several significant time jumps ranging from only a few months to up to five years. But all of these jumps are done with care and each time, the characters and story are re-introduced with such precision and detail that it’s not jarring at all. I actually really loved this entire concept, as we got to experience Daleina and Ven’s entire existence over this fraught period of time. Particularly for Daleina and her schooling. Through these jumps in time, we get to see Daleina’s entire progress from completely untrained young girl to soon-to-be heir and grown woman. We see the steps of her process, but never linger too long on the ins and outs of her day-to-day life. It’s a difficult balance to strike: getting enough information in each glimpse to never lose sight of characterization and story, but also not getting too bogged down in any particular period of her life.

The characters, too, were both unique. Daleina, as the main character, was particularly well-rounded. She is the opposite of the “special snowflake/chosen one” and it is made clear that all of the accomplishments that she makes are through sheer determination and hard work. The hard work and training, in particular, are over and beyond what the other students must put in as Daleina doesn’t have the natural control or power over the spirits that the others do. I especially loved that the author never stepped back from this. Daleina never suddenly powers up or “discovers” some new unique thing about herself. She continues plowing forward in the face of many telling her that she can’t, and even in the face of her own understanding of her limited abilities comparative to her peers. Further, while she must work to find her own strengths, she doesn’t mope or become jealous of those around her. Instead, the story is made up of Daleina forming strong and powerful friendships with the other women around her.

Ven, our secondary lead character, was also quite a unique character to find in a book like this. For a story that seems to largely read like YA fantasy, Ven is a middle aged man who meets a young Daleina when he is already at the height of his skills. Throughout the story, and his own disgrace and redemption, Ven’s story is one of a mentor and grown man who is having to confront the realities of those he has always esteemed. Given his age and role in Daleina’s life, there is never a hint of romance (thank god), and instead a strong, steady mentorship bond is built and explored. I was there for all of this!

Throughout this all, Durst never backs down from the harsh realities and consequences of the world she’s built and the story she is telling. The action is built on true danger and violence, and no character is safe from the fallout of these fights with the spirits. The last third, in particular, took some pretty crazy and brave turns, as far as storytelling goes. I was honestly shocked by the follow-through on some decisions (in a good way!) and the ending was definitely not what I expected.

This book, and series, seems to have been skating along largely unnoticed and that’s such a shame! Durst has built an extraordinary world and peopled it with compelling and flawed characters whom you can’t help but root for. I strongly recommend it for any fans of fantasy fiction!

Rating: I loved it! The storytelling is bold and riveting, taking surprising twist and turns and committing to the tale that is unfolding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of Blood” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “YA Female Rulers” and “Gender Is No Object” Second-World Fantasy.”

Find “The Queen of Blood” at your library using WorldCat!