Book Club Review: “Sky in the Deep”

34726469We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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

Book: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate got it from the library,

Genre Mash-Up: Fantasy and Romance

Book Description: Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Kate’s Thoughts

I went into this book with hesitance, if only because it’s described as ‘fantasy’ and you all know how I am about fantasy books. I had remembered that Serena had read it and enjoyed it, and I do have to admit that the idea of Viking based mythology was a tantalizing thought. Still, I was nervous. But it turned out that I had nothing to be nervous about, because “Sky in the Deep” ended up being a really fun read for me!

The greatest appeal of this book was Eelyn, as not only is she a fierce and strong warrior, she is also a complex character who is still a relatable teenage girl. She loves her family and she is very set in her beliefs, and when her belief system is questioned she has to reconcile that life isn’t as black and white and straightforward as she previously thought. But even in the face of these changes to her opinions and realizations of nuance, she still remained true to her self, and it didn’t feel like she strayed from her character in ways that seemed unbelievable. I also really enjoyed seeing how she had to relearn about, and learn to forgive, her brother Iri after his perceived betrayal. I felt that while her relationship and eventual romance with Fiske was an interesting dynamic, I was more invested in whether or not Eelyn would be able to reconcile with Iri.

The world that Young built also kept me interested in the story. I have very little working knowledge of Viking lore and history, so I went into this with little to no expectations. This worked in my favor in two ways: one, I had no idea of anything stood out as ‘inaccurate’ (though as a fantasy that doesn’t necessarily need to enter into it), and it was still exciting enough that it  kept me going. I liked the world building and the explanations of the different cultures and how they were similar and dissimilar, and felt like they were distinct from each other. The action sequences and conflicts were also very well written, and I found myself on the edge of my seat with worry for all the characters I liked. Investment in characters is always a huge plus!

“Sky in the Deep” was a really fun read and a great exception to my usual lukewarm feelings towards fantasy. It makes me feel like people who may not like fantasy will find things to like here!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when I heard that this book was chosen for one of our bookclub picks. Yes, I had already read it, but I had liked it the first go around and was more than happy to revisit it. On a second read-through, my feelings remain pretty much the same. The short and sweet of it: I liked the main character quite a lot, the story could be predictable at times, but the awesome action and subdued romance all hit the right marks for me.

Again, this re-read, the thing that really stood out to me was just how badass Eelyn is. This book is the epitome of showing and not telling as far as warrior skills go. All too often, readers are simply informed that the main character is “such and such incredible fighter” but we either never see it in action, or only get a brief glimpse. This could partly be due to the fact that writing good fight/battle scenes simply isn’t as easy as one would think. But Young rises to the challenge and again and again we see Eelyn’s abilities on display, both in larger battles scenes (like the ones at the beginning of the book) to the smaller skirmishes that Eelyn gets in throughout the story. What’s more, we’re free from having to read through any moral hand-wringing about all of this violence. This is the culture and world that Eelyn has grown up in. It’s brutal and bloody and it simply never occurs to her to question her own role in taking part in this. Through a modern lens, we can have our questions. But through a realistic portrayal of a character living in this world, she wouldn’t have these same thoughts.

Beyond this, one thing that did stand out more for me this re-read was just how beautiful some of the turns of phrase were. Much of the book is action, but there are a few quieter moments throughout the story that are really quite gorgeous, either in the depth of the reflections taking place (especially Eelyn’s struggles to understand her brother and his choices) or simple descriptions of a winter-y scene. The title of the book draws from one of these moments. I think these quieter moments really worked well to balance out what was otherwise a very fast-paced story.

Obviously, re-reading this, I knew what was coming when, so my original criticism of its being a bit predictable is harder to evaluate a second go-around. I do think that that thought remains true, however. Much of this probably has to do with the length of the book. It’s a standalone (yay!), but it also doesn’t have a terribly long page count on its own. Within these restrictions, plot points need to be gotten through fairly efficiently, and the manner in which this is accomplished is, yes, fairly predictable to readers familiar with this type of story.

Overall, however, I still very much enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely one worth checking out if you’re looking for a standalone story that mixes fantasy, history, and romance in an action-packed book.

Kate Rating 8: An action packed adventure with a compelling set of characters and distinct world building, “Sky in the Deep” was a fun surprise!

Serena Rating 8: I’m going to actually up my rating a point after this re-read. I think the strength of the writing as a whole stood out even more this go-around, and it deserves that edge up.

Book Club Questions

  1. This story mixes several different genres all together: fantasy, historical fiction, romance. Did one of these areas standout for you?
  2. Eelyn must grapple with a lot of prejudices and preconceptions in this book. How well do you think her growth in this area was handled?
  3. There are two primary relationships at the heart of this story: Eelyn and her brother, Iri, and Eelyn and Fiske? Were you more invested in one or the other and why?
  4. The book covers a host of dark themes and can be quite violent at times. What did you think about how these aspects of the story were handled?
  5. The story also focuses a lot on found families. Were there any notable elements in this area that stood out for you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sky in the Deep” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Vikings” and “YA Fantasy Standalones.”

Find “Sky in the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Double Review: “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust”

Books: “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized The World” by Sarah Weinman; “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood

Publishing Info: Ecco, September 2018; St. Martin’s Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: The library; I was sent an ARC from the publisher

Book Descriptions: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.


When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says. 

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of “Rust & Stardust”.

For someone who reads a whole lot for her profession and her pleasure, I have a pretty gaping hole in my literary experience when it comes to ‘the classics’. Between taking not so typical literature classes in high school and majoring in psychology, my exposure to classic books was limited, and while I’ve tried to pick up the pieces here and there I still have many left on the ‘theoretically to read’ list. So no, I have not read “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, though the notoriety of the story means that I am pretty familiar with it as a whole. I’m in no rush to read it, not for any other reason than there are so many other books out there that interest me more. But when I got an ARC of the book “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood, the fact that it was based on the very real story of Sally Horner, the girl who served as inspiration to Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s book, caught my attention. And then I heard that a nonfiction book about Sally Horner, called “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman, was also soon to be available. So I decided to bide my time, and to read the two as a pair so that I could compare and contrast the two, which each tell the same story in very different ways.

And perhaps it’s implied, but just in case, I need to give some serious content warnings for both of these books. They do, after all, involve the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of a little girl.

“The Real Lolita” is a non fiction work that juxtaposes Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle with Vladimir Nabokov trying to write “Lolita”. Weinman surmises that Nabokov, who had been having stumbling block after literary stumbling block as he tried to write what would become his most famous work, heard the sensationalized news stories surrounding the case and used it in his work. Nabokov denied this again and again, but Weinman lays out the similarities between the two cases, and the timeline that he was working within and how it wa well within the highest media furor surrounding the case. It isn’t really a criticism of Nabokov’s decision to use this story as inspiration so much as it’s an indictment of him lifting a girl’s very real pain to profit from it without giving her any credit. I appreciated that she wasn’t going after the inspiration piece, because it isn’t uncommon for creatives to take inspiration from real life horrors and to make them into a fictional work. The issue is that Nabokov was too proud to admit that he in all probability did find inspiration in this trauma victim, which is deeply problematic in and of itself, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her pain and how successful of a novel it was. Her evidence is well researched and carefully laid out, and the details that she found regarding the Horner case and what her life was like before, during, and after the ordeal gives voice to a girl whose trauma was appropriated for a novel with the subject of her inspiration twisted and misinterpreted  into a nymph-like seductress (even if that wasn’t Nabokov’s intention). It’s a book that I had a hard time reading because of the awful manipulations and abuses La Salle did to Horner, though I appreciated how frank and ‘just the facts’ Weinman was because of the horrors of the case. I also liked that she wasn’t particularly fiery in her critiques of Nabokov, but that she simply presented the evidence as it was and let it speak for itself. Weinman’s book gives this girl a voice, a voice that wasn’t afforded to her in the moment, and that has been drowned out because of time and a novel that overshadowed it.

“Rust & Stardust” is also the Sally Horner story, but it has been adapted into a work of fiction. T. Greenwood  makes it very clear in a long author’s note that she approached this story through the eyes of a fiction author, but tried to keep a good number of the details, especially in regards to Sally’s experience, realistic and plausible. The prose flows neatly and succinctly, and while it is a longer book than “The Real Lolita” I found that it felt like a quicker read just because Greenwood paced it so well. The story is pretty much what you’d expect; Sally Horner is caught by Frank LaSalle as she’s stealing a notebook from the store, and what follows is the story of Sally’s kidnapping, captivity, and return, as well as the perspectives of those in her life during her absence. While it was definitely hard to read at times, Greenwood never made it feel lurid or exploitative. The emotions were there, but were able to remain untangled from bad taste. Greenwood also gave herself some creative plot leeway (though not in regards to Sally, which was good) so that she could highlight the problematic attitudes of the post-War American culture, specifically when it comes to abuse towards girls and women. Whenever someone would raise doubts about Sally’s relationship to Frank, almost every time they were told to be quiet because the very notion of bad intentions was disgusting and inappropriate. Frank is able to get away with his predation because the people around him and Sally don’t want to face that it’s happening. Which brings me back to the criticisms of “Lolita”, in that some people, be it Nabokov’s intent or not, have romanticized the story of Humbert Humbert and the ‘nymph’ he fixates on. Greenwood doesn’t give any leeway for that because the story is Sally’s, and those who care about her.

Reading “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” has given me a larger picture of a tale I thought I knew, and in their own ways they tell the side that has been lost to time and literary critique and accolades. If you like “Lolita”, and even if you don’t like it, these books will give it more context, a context that it has probably always needed.

Ratings 8: Though the backstory to “Lolita” has been glossed over and outright ignored by some (and denied by others), “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” strive to give Sally Horner the ability to tell her story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Real Lolita” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women’s Lives”, and “Best Crime Books of 2018”.

“Rust & Stardust” is included on the Goodreads lists “#MeToo”.

Find “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Infidel”

38812871Book: “Infidel” by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Image Comics, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A haunted house story for the 21st century, INFIDEL follows an American Muslim woman and her multi-racial neighbors who move into a building haunted by entities that feed off xenophobia.

Bestselling editor Pornsak Pichetshote (Swamp Thing, Daytripper, The Unwritten) makes his comics writing debut alongside artist extraordinaire Aaron Campbell (The Shadow, James Bond: Felix Leiter), award-winning colorist and editor Jose Villarubia (Batman: Year 100, Spider-Man: Reign), and letterer / designer Jeff Powell (SCALES & SCOUNDRELS).

Review: Even though horror has almost always had stories with some kind of hidden themes within their works, I feel like as a genre people are starting to really realize the possibilities of metaphor for greater ills beyond a monster or a ghost. With books like “Lovecraft Country” and movies like “Get Out”, we are starting to see more expansion and room for not only POC characters, but also critiques of racism within our culture and society. “Infidel” by Pornsak Pichetshote is the most recent story of this kind that I have come across, and I can tell you that I was waiting very impatiently for my hold on it to be filled at my library. Given that NPR listed it on their ‘100 Greatest Horror Stories of All Time’ selection, my enthusiasm and anticipation was greater than most other books I request. It was also a lofty claim to make, and while I was open to the claim I wondered how much my own final opinion of it would line up with it.

Our story follows Aisha, a Muslim American woman who has recently moved into an apartment building with a tragedy attached to it. A few years before, a Middle Eastern man’s homemade bombs went off, killing a number of the tenants. Aisha and her friends, most of whom come from non-white backgrounds, are aware of the history, and aware of how the white tenants aren’t as welcoming to them as they are to non POCs. What Aisha and her friends don’t know is that the building is haunted by a very angry and aggressive set of ghosts. It’s Aisha that first sees the twisted and violent entities that haunt the complex, their rage focusing on her. The visual manifestations of these things are truly horrific, as they are warped and filled with rage and able to cause serious physical harm. Much like “Lovecraft Country”, racism and bigotry is the true villain of this book, with the ghosts targeting Aisha because of her Muslim faith and their association that gives them to the man whose bombs were their demise. Aisha isn’t the only one who has nasty encounters with the ghosts, as their ire holds a lot of the other characters hostage and puts them at risk as well. It starts slowly for all of them, noticing it bit by bit and making them wonder if they ACTUALLY saw something, or if it’s just a figment of their imaginations, a direct metaphor for those who are victims of racism in our day to day lives.

But the other kind of racism that Pichetshote shows in this book isn’t just the over the top obvious kind in ghost form; rather, it’s mostly micro-aggressions and fear based on ignorance and paranoia. Aisha is dating a while man named Tom, who has a daughter named Kris from a previous relationship. Kris’s mother is dead, and Kris is very connected to Aisha. Tom’s mother Leslie has just started warming up to Aisha and seems to be trying, though in the past she’s shown discomfort and flat out hostility towards Aisha and her culture. Aisha is more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, though Tom and her childhood best friend Medina are not. There are also other tenants in the buildings who are more mistrustful of Aisha because of her faith. From a neighbor who is convinced she saw Aisha committing a crime (though Aisha herself at this point is a clear victim), to a woman who is actually in Aisha’s circle of friends but still doesn’t trust her fully, it’s these interactions that left me a bit more unsettled than the ghosts that pop out of the walls. These moments are based in realism, and show how people can be influenced by fear and prejudice even if they think they are open minded and accepting.

The artwork is stunning. There is a certain jarring atmosphere that the artist, Aaron Campbell, creates, with lots of vibrant colors and use of shadows. The ghosts within the building are especially grotesque, their distorted features harkening to disease and decay. At one point Medina refers to racism as a cancer, and the entities absolutely reflect that.

05_infidel1
Literal nightmare fuel. (source)

I think that one of the few criticisms I did have about this book was that it ended a little too quickly. I realize that this was very much a mini series, as it was only five issues all together, but for it to build slowly and complexly and then to be wrapped up very fast left me a little feeling unsatisfied. There were a couple of plot points that were tossed out into the fold that sounded like it would take a lot of work to get through, only to be resolved quickly, sometimes off page. Because of this, I did close the book wanting more.

“Infidel” is an effective story with some genuine scares. I highly encourage horror fans to pick it up, but know that it may feel a bit rushed by the end. That said, I am very much looking forward to see what Pornsak Pichetshote brings us next.

Rating 8: A unsettling ghost story that takes on racism and xenophobia in our culture, “Infidel” is a graphic novel with as many real world horrors as supernatural ones.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Infidel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Against the Fascist Creep”.

Find “Infidel” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “My Sister, The Serial Killer”

38819868Book: “My Sister, The Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Satire meets slasher in this short, darkly funny hand grenade of a novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a very inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends.

“Femi makes three, you know. Three and they label you a serial killer.”

Korede is bitter. How could she not be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede’s practicality is the sisters’ saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her “missing” boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.

A kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works, is the bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day when he will realize they’re perfect for each other. But one day Ayoola shows up to the hospital uninvited and he takes notice. When he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and what she will do about it.

Sharp as nails and full of deadpan wit, Oyinkan Braithwaite has written a deliciously deadly debut that’s as fun as it is frightening. 

Review: Satire is one of my favorite forms of humor, but I think that you have to be careful in how you implement it. If you aren’t mindful, you could end up being either unfunny or flat out offensive. Some of my favorite satire usually has to deal with dark things like murder and mayhem (hence my love for Caroline Kepnes’s “Joe” books), so that means that I’m usually treading into dangerous territory. Because for every “Joe” book there are a few “Summer Is Ended And We Are Not Yet Saved”: books that try for biting commentary, but just end up with things that make me feel icky.

giphy-7
Because I don’t see the wit in a book about a religious zealot systematically murdering children in horrific ways, but THAT’S JUST ME. (source)

Luckily, “My Sister, The Serial Killer” is solidly in the first camp, and reading it was a twisted delight! Braithwaite is very skilled when it comes to creating believable, yet comical, plot points and characters that have done pretty terrible things. Our main protagonist and first person is Korede, a woman who is a hardworking nurse and who has constantly had to live in the shadow of her effervescent, and potentially psychopathic, sister Ayoola. When we meet them both, Korede is helping Ayoola dispose of the body of her most recent boyfriend. Korede is written in such a way that you feel super bad for her, but also can find humor and pathos in her exasperation about being put in this position (again). She is the only one who can see what a danger and terrible person her sister is, and while she resents her and berates her, she is also fiercely protective of her. Hence, the assisting in disposing of a body. Korede is a character that is flawed and well rounded, and also super relateable in her plight. And her running, frustrated, commentary about the inconveniences that crop up because of Ayoola’s psychopathic decisions is always amusing, which I think is the reason it works as proper satire. I didn’t find Ayoola as well rounded, but then again, all perspectives we are getting are from Korede, and as such that may be part of the point.

I also really liked the themes about sisterly loyalty, and how complicated it can be. I have a sister, so a fair amount of the feelings and complications that were between Korede and Ayoola felt very real and familiar (outside of the murdering others thing). Be it vying for attention from their mother, who sees Ayoola as the golden child, or romantic affection from Dr. Tade, a colleage of Korede’s who falls hard for Ayoola, the sisters are at odds, even if Korede is the only one who sees it. Korede loves her sister, but is jealous of her sister and scared of her sister, so while she wants to stay quiet about the multiple murders and her involvement, her resentment grows. Her only outlet is talking to a coma patient at the hospital where she is a nurse, as her reasoning is that he’s asleep so it’s not like he can rat her out (as you can imagine, this logic may be a little flawed as the story goes on…). Korede’s stark isolation because of her secrets is constantly on the page, and it simmers throughout the narrative, but it also means that her cynicism makes for some very funny moments in how she reacts to her circumstances. I found myself laughing out loud a few times while reading.

Braithwaite also gives a glimpse into the family history of Korede and Ayoola, and the abuse they and their mother had to suffer at the hands of their father, which gives some insight into how and why Korede feels the way she feels, and perhaps shows an origin of Ayoola’s instability, be it learned or innate. Getting to see their interactions throughout their entire lives really added to this book, and lifted it above just simple satire and made it a little more tragic, at least for Korede.

“My Sister, The Serial Killer” is a very fun and unique thriller that takes on the bonds of sisterhood. It accomplishes walking the line between tension and satirical romp, and I will be very interested to see what Oyinkan Braithwaite comes out with next.

Rating 8: A darkly amusing thriller about murder, rivalries, and sisterly love, “My Sister, The Serial Killer” is a wicked read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Sister, The Serial Killer” is included on the Goodreads lists “African Fiction”, and “Books in the Freezer Podcast”.

Find “My Sister, The Serial Killer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Lost Man”

39863488Book: “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Press, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland, in this stunning new standalone novel from New York Times bestseller Jane Harper.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Dark, suspenseful, and deeply atmospheric, The Lost Man is the highly anticipated next book from the bestselling and award-winning Jane Harper, author of The Dry and Force of Nature.

Review: I want to extend a thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

I was late hopping on the Jane Harper train, but now I like to think of myself as a loyal fan. Her “Aaron Falk” series has had two pretty strong installments, and given that I liked the second one more I feel/hope that the trajectory can only go up as the series goes on. What I didn’t realize was that she has also decided to write standalone novels. So when I saw that her newest book, “The Lost Man”, was available on NetGalley I assumed that I was requesting the newest Aaron Falk adventure. Once I did a little more digging I realized that it was actually a new story with whole new characters, but that was just fine by me. The description fell more in line with the kind of mystery I like anyway, less of a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘dark secrets of family badness coming to light’ kind of story.

Our location is still in Australia, this time in a small outback town in North Queensland, and our story concerns the Bright Family. Three brothers grew up in this small town, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. Cameron has been found dead, and Nathan, Bub, and the rest of the family are left to wonder why it is that Cameron ventured out into the scorching heat on his own with no supplies or transportation. From the beginning you get the feeling that there is more to the Bright family than meets the eye, and with our focus on Nathan, the oldest and one with a fair amount of baggage in his own right, the secrets start to unfold. His relationships with just about everyone in his life are filled with complications; his late father was abusive, his youngest brother Bub resents him (and he had also resented Cameron), his divorce was acrimonious and it has left his son Xander in the middle. Even his relationship with Cameron’s wife, Ilse, is a bit messy, given that Nathan had been with her first and cared for her very deeply. It hadn’t gone anywhere because of some fallout from an in the moment mistake that Nathan had to pay for dearly. Nathan is kind of a mess, but his complexity, his background, and his eagerness to do the right thing make him easy to root for. The setting is still isolating and sprawling, and the Outback itself feels like its own character. 

The mystery at the heart of “The Lost Man” is less about what happened to Cameron, though it does play a large part, and is more about what kinds of secrets Cameron and the rest of the Brights have been keeping under wraps. Nathan thinks that he knows everything there was to know about his brother, but as he digs deeper and starts to find more pieces about his life, he begins to see truths that he never wanted to see. It brings up a lot of questions and themes about family and the loyalties that we think we owe them, and how cycles and systems of abuse can take their tolls in different ways. It’s because of this focus that I found myself enjoying “The Lost Man” more than I might have enjoyed another mystery with a detective with not as much of a personal stake in the outcome. While it’s true that this isn’t another Aaron Falk story (though if you keep your eyes open you will find a connection that is buried in the narrative to Falk and his past), it’s a more powerful and gripping story because it feels more urgent. It goes to show that Harper can create characters and settings outside the story that put her on the map, and is a testament to her skills.

“The Lost Man” was very enjoyable and suspenseful read. The twists and turns weren’t severe, but they had bite to them. I’m pleased to see that Harper is able to flex beyond what could be trappings of a notable series, and while I’m excited for the next Aaron Falk novel, now I’m also excited to see what her next standalone might be!

Rating 8: A dark and tangled mystery that raises questions about family loyalty, “The Lost Man” is an engrossing and powerful standalone from Jane Harper.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lost Man” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best New Australian Fiction 2018”, and “Great New Thrillers and Suspense for 2018”.

Find “The Lost Man” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer”

36100937Book: “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” by Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Studios, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The legacy of Frankenstein’s monster collides with the sociopolitical tensions of the present-day United States.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein beseeched his creator for love and companionship, but in 2017, the monster has long discarded any notions of peace or inclusion. He has become the Destroyer, his only goal to eliminate the scourge of humanity from the planet. In this goal, he initially finds a willing partner in Dr. Baker, a descendant of the Frankenstein family who has lost her teenage son after an encounter with the police. While two scientists, Percy and Byron, initially believe they’re brought to protect Dr. Baker from the monster, they soon realize they may have to protect the world from the monster and Dr. Baker’s wrath.

Written by lauded novelist Victor LaValle (The Devil In Silver, The Ballad of Black Tom), Destroyer is a harrowing tale exploring the legacies of love, loss, and vengeance placed firmly in the tense atmosphere and current events of the modern-day United States.

Review: Victor LaValle is an author whom I greatly enjoy, as I don’t think I’ve read one thing by him that underwhelmed me. I really liked his mental institution horror story “The Devil In Silver”, I found “The Ballad of Black Tom” to be a fun deconstruction of a racist Lovecraft tale, and I REALLY liked “The Changeling” and how it made a modern day dark fairy tale out of New York City. So when my friend Tami told me that he had written a graphic novel that decided to take on “Frankenstein”, I absolutely had to read it. It was a long wait at the library, but when “Destroyer” finally came in I sat down and devoured it in one setting. Even if it ran me through the wringer and then some. I guess I never thought about how “Frankenstein” could be combined with present day socio-political themes, and yet LaValle meshed them so well that I was blown away.

The Monster has emerged from the Arctic in modern times, and his former longing of being included and understood has been thrown out the window. He is a beast that is intent on destruction of the human race, as he believes that it has wronged him, as well as everything else around it, and does not deserve to go on. In contrast, we meet a modern day descendent of Victor Frankenstein. Her name is Dr. Baker, and she, too, has her heart set on destroying the society that she has continuously wronged her. For her, though, that is mostly because she lost her son Akai after a witness mistook his little league bat for a gun, and police killed him. Her science experiment has brought Akai back from the dead, though her scientific genius has made him a wonder of modern technology as well as an undead twelve year old. It’s the perfect metaphor for the rage and despair that parents like her have felt over and over again, and her urge to destroy every part of the racist society that destroyed her life. Her rage and plotting is utterly terrifying, but damn does it make sense. I loved Dr. Baker, as you get to see her life before Akai’s death through flashbacks, including her time at a top scientific research organization (that basically fired her when she got pregnant, because heaven forbid a woman in a STEM profession want to start a family). That organization has also stolen her ideas and technology and intends to use it against her, which is another indictment of power structures stealing ideas from groups that it wrongs. LaValle does a very good job of showing how she could go from a bright eyed and enthusiastic young scientist to a revenge intent victim, and while I don’t think he ever makes it seem like her urge to kill everyone in society is correct, he makes you really understand why she’d feel that way.

Dr. Baker a great juxtaposition to The Monster, who has also decided to take a path of destruction because of his grievances. It takes those themes of science gone too far and what makes a monster and applies them to a T. Hell, the other little homages are also on point, like the names of the agents Percy and Byron, named for the two men to whom Mary Shelley first shared her vision of a Modern Prometheus. The Easter eggs are plentiful, and I had a hell of a time finding them. It’s a really fun thought exercise about what The Monster would possibly be like today if it finally left the Arctic, and boy is it bleak. I don’t know if I really like the idea of The Monster being reduced to, well, a monstrous/brainless being, because far too often has Shelley’s vision been misinterpreted from the thinking, and therefore plagued, creature of her intention. But in this case, I think that LaValle does it in a way that would be a potential foregone conclusion, and it does add to the symbolism all the more.

I really enjoyed the art work that Dietrich Smith brought to this story. It felt sufficiently comic book, but it also had bits of depth and darkness and shadow that conveyed various points of tragedy and sadness. I also liked the more abstract design of the cover (done by Micaela Dawn), though the drawing style inside was the design that I preferred. The details from the gore and the violence to the varied facial expressions are very well done.

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“Destroyer” is a superb reinterpretation of a classic story of horror and tragedy, and LaValle has once again shown his talent and retelling stories with a socially conscious lens that reflects today’s ills. It’s another update of “Frankenstein” that I think Mary Shelley would appreciate.

Rating 8: A dark and biting retelling of “Frankenstein”, “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” takes a classic story and applies it to modern social justice themes with powerful results.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Frankenstein Revisionist Novels”, and “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas”.

Find “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Once Upon a River”

40130093Book: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, December 2018

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

Book Description: A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Review: I’ve heard the name “Diane Setterfield” tossed around here and there over the last few years. Her novels, that often combine fantastical elements and historical settings, are the type that would likely appeal to me, so she’ll pop up on lists here and there that I glance through. All that said, for some reason or another, I’ve never actually taken the time to pick up one of her books. Big mistake! Apparently, I needed someone to take the choice out of my hands, so I’m very thankful for the publisher sending me a copy and giving my butt a good kick towards this excellent book and author.

There is an inn on a river. An inn where late nights are full of stories, tellers and listeners all gathering together over their beers to share new and familiar tales. Until one night, a story unfolds at their feet with the unexpected appearance of a little girl, apparently dead until…she’s not. But who is she? Where did she come from? Everyone has their own story, their own connection to this strange young girl. But what is the truth?

The very first thing that struck me is the writing tone of this book. In my opinion, any story that is going to also focus on storytelling as its subject matter must master this element first and foremost, and Setterfield accomplishes this quickly and thoroughly. From the very first few pages, one is swept into a lyrical story that reads like the best fairytales and folklore stories. The language is simple, but beautiful, and it’s easy to imagine sitting in the very same smoky inn, drinking mulled cider, while someone recounts this story aloud. The atmosphere is set incredibly, and while it only takes a few pages for the small girl to arrive, I already felt completely immersed in this world.

As the story progressed, I enjoyed the introduction of a larger cast of characters, all with their own distinctive stories and connections to the girl. In each story, we’re given just enough to begin forming assumptions and connections ourselves, but mysteries are ever present. Half of the fun of the book was attempting to weave all of these narratives together to form a complete circle.

Further, the setting was left a bit nebulous, but in this type of story, it seemed to work. It took a while for me to settle on what time period this was taking place in, which seems like it could be a criticism. But, like the best stories, a tale should be able to simply exist, without hard dates lodging it in time. Further, as the summary alludes to, there is a running question throughout the story of the fantastical. The little girl was dead. Everyone who saw her could confirm this. But then she wasn’t. Various characters come down on different sides when attempting to prescribe an explanation for this event. And readers, too, are left questioning what exactly is going on. Is there a level of fantasy being introduced here? Or is it the type of “fantasy” that we can all see in our everyday life, now, if we really look for it?

“Once Upon a River” is a beautiful story, mysterious and ever-flowing like the river that is at its heart. Fans of Setterfield’s previous books are sure to be pleased with this more recent entry. And new readers, like me, who enjoy stories about stories and lyrical writing will also come away satisfied. It’s just the kind of cozy book that is perfect to settle down with on these cold, winter nights.

Rating 8: A story that immediately draws you in with its beautiful writing and mysterious weave of intersecting tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Once Upon a River” is on these Goodreads lists: “Winter Seasonal Reads” and “Historical Fiction 2018.”

Find “Once Upon a River” at your library using WorldCat!