Serena’s Review: “Ghostly Echoes”

28110857Book: “Ghostly Echoes” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, August 2016

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

Book Description: Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly lady of 926 Augur Lane, has enlisted the investigative services of her fellow residents to solve a decade-old murder—her own. Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, Detective R. F. Jackaby, dive into the cold case, starting with a search for Jenny’s fiancé, who went missing the night she died. But when a new, gruesome murder closely mirrors the events of ten years prior, Abigail and Jackaby realize that Jenny’s case isn’t so cold after all, and her killer may be far more dangerous than they suspected.

Fantasy and folklore mix with mad science as Abigail’s race to unravel the mystery leads her across the cold cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England, down to the mythical underworld, and deep into her colleagues’ grim histories to battle the most deadly foe she has ever faced.

Review: Trekking right along with my read through of the Jackaby series, “Ghostly Echoes” starts off basically right where “Beastly Bones” leaves off. Jenny, the local friendly ghost whose murder has went unsolved for a decade, has finally decided to take things into her own hands. Literally. She actually learns how to pick up things. But this is an important step, and one that coincides with the return of murders that seem to match the M.O. of her own assailant many years ago.

This book represents an interesting turning point in the series so far. Up to this point, the books have been largely stand-alone novels. Sure, a few things will be referenced here and there, but very few plot lines carry through directly from one book to the other. However, in the last book, Ritter laid the groundwork for a “big bad” to best all “big bads.” And one who had been operating in the background all along. Here, we find this is very true, with the plot lines from not only its direct prequel, “Beastly Bones,” but also from the first book in the series, “Jackaby,” being tied together to a larger mystery.

However, this book was very hit and miss for me, tonally. Ritter was essentially wanting to have his cake and eat it too with this one. The larger plot line and mystery were intriguing. Both Jenny’s burgeoning abilities to operate in the real world, the murders that seem so similar to her own, and the clues that begin to point to a strange organization that is operating with its own nefarious agenda were interesting. There was a lot to get through just with this main story line.

But Ritter had also to pay off the set-up he had built with the previous two books where readers expect to find wit, strange beasts, and madcap adventures. All of these bits, while good, seemed to fit in strangely with the more serious tone of this book. I found myself getting pulled one way and the other when the book would veer back and forth between the main story and the smaller interactions that, while important to the overall plot, felt more light and oddly out of line with the rest of the story.

As I mentioned in my last review of the series, the story is at its best when the character of Jackaby is used sparingly. He did have more page time in this story than the last, but this book also did a lot of work building up his past and making him into a more three dimensional character with deeper inner struggles than the simple “wacky Doctor-like” character he has been presented as for the last two books. I was happy to see him becoming more of a character than a plot point.

Towards the end, Ritter did seem to find his footing a bit better, sending Abigail off on an adventure of her own. However, Abigail probably was the least served character by this change of pace to the series. As I mentioned above, Jackaby’s past and character are fleshed out more fully. Jenny becomes an actual character in her own right beyond simply being a friendly ghost and friend to Abigail. But Abby herself? Largely it just feels like she was there to narrate the story to us. And while she does get her own action, it is only that: action. There didn’t feel like there was a lot of character development for her in this book, which I sadly missed. Also Charlie! He was barely there!

So, in conclusion, this book was a bit of a mixed bag. I very much liked the added depth that was given to the greater story line that now pulls through all the books in the series. And Jackaby himself is a more intriguing character now that it has been revealed that he is more than just a quirky, gimmick. But my favorite character, and the main character of the series, was left dangling a bit. And tonally, the book was a bit all over the place, teetering between a more serious larger plot line, and the expected wackiness established in the first two books.

The next and final book comes out this summer, however, and I am still excited to see how Ritter wraps up this all up!

Rating 7: Some imbalanced highs and lows make for a mixed bag read, but still a strong series overall!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghostly Echoes” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade Historical Mysteries”and should be on this list “YA Mythology Challenge.”

Find “Ghostly Echoes” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously Reviewed: “Jackaby” and “Beastly Bones”

Serena’s Review: “Silver on the Road”

20748097Book: “Silver on the Road” by Laura Anne Gilman

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in. Inadvertently trained by him to see the clues in and manipulations of human desire, Izzy is raised to be his left hand and travel the circuitous road through the territory. As we all know, where there is magic there is power and chaos…and death.

Review: You know you read a lot of a specific genre when you begin to recognize cover art artists! So, while I would like to say that I first looked at this book based on its amazing premise, the truth is that the cover artist has also done covers for some of my other favorite fantasy reads, so those books just immediately leap out at me whenever I’m browsing through lists. But, books are not their covers and all of that, so the unique premise was ultimately what landed this one for me as worth checking out. And, while there were a few frustrations here and there, all told, I very much enjoyed this book as a refreshing change of pace for fantasy fiction.

Honestly, with so much of urban fantasy and historical fantasy starting to feel tired and weighed down by too many tropes, it’s shocking that the concept of alternative Western fantasy hasn’t struck home more fully. What an untapped setting and part of history! And this alternative American Wild West was really the major strength of the book.

In this version of history, the West (essentially anything that would have been gained in the Louisiana Purchase in true history) is literally wild, kept in check only by the mysterious and half-fabled Devil who rules the Territory. The true essence and character of the Devil is never fully explored, whether he is the actual Devil from a Biblical sense, or whether this is a name he has acquired from magic-fearing folk who don’t know what else to call him. At a certain point, I simply began associating him with the type of Devil character you hear/read about in folk tales (like the  Devil in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”)

But this is a good example of the type of “go with it” mentality that is necessary for this book. There are many questions raised and very few answers given. This could be frustrating at times, particularly when I got to the end and realized some of them would be left unanswered completely. But with the world-building itself, it was easier to simply stop trying to over-analyze and simply enjoy immersing oneself in it instead.

Izzy, a young woman who has worked at a tavern alongside the Devil her whole life, is recruited by him to travel the Territory as his Left Hand. Here, too, there was not a lot of clarification. Izzy is simply set out into the world alongside Gabriel, a travel-worn companion who knows the hidden paths and pitfalls of the Territory and who has stuck his own mysterious bargain with the Devil (more unanswered questions!). What she can do, how she can do it, and even when she should do it are all unknowns to her and us.

I very much enjoyed these two characters and their expedition, however. This is a very slow burn novel, and much of the page time is spent with these two on the road, basically wandering from one place to another. Only towards the very end of the book do the small plot points that have been stumbled upon really begin to come together to form any type of unified conflict and arc. For those looking for a more tight story with a more natural progression of learned information, this book may be a struggle. I was able to attach myself strongly enough to the character development of Izzy and Gabriel that most of this was ok by me. I also, personally, very much enjoy hiking and discovering new parts of the world around bends in roads. So, for me, the meandering approach to storytelling that was largely just a roadtrip on a horse was appealing.

I very much enjoyed this book. However, for some it may read as slow and the unanswered questions could be frustrating. I had a fairly laid back approach to this, knowing there was a sequel that was just published, but even I found myself frustrated at times. Izzy’s powers are so undefined, even at the end, that while I know that progress was made in this book (a conflict was resolved and all), it still felt like Izzy herself had very far to go. And Gabriel’s past is still very much a large question mark. But I’m on board enough to want to read the next one where hopefully some of this will be answered!

Rating 8: What could be a slow, frustrating read, was saved by a truly unique setting in a fantastical, alternative American West.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silver on the Road” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Fantastic American West” and “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Find “Silver on the Road” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Transmetropolitan (Vol.5): Lonely City”

7599985Book: “Transmetropolitan (Vol.5): Lonely City” by Warren Ellis and Rodney Ramos (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo Comics, July 2001

Where Did I Get This Book: I own in!

Book Description: Continuing the acclaimed tale of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Spider Jerusalem, this fifth installment has the no-holds-barred investigative reporter delving into the city’s police corruption. Living in an anti-utopian future, Spider continues his quest to expose society’s injustices as he focuses his attention on those sworn to protect and serve. But even more so than usual, he will learn that his dedication to the truth can come at a high physical cost, especially when dealing with the riot police. Featuring an introduction by actor Patrick Stewart.

Review: I really have to pat Warren Ellis on the back, because boy has this re-read of “Transmetropolitan” felt so relevant and timeless. I’m now halfway through the volumes, and every time I pick one up I say to myself “Boy, this sure feels like the stuff that’s going on in today’s world of politics and government.” The journey of Spider, Channon, and Yelena continues to be absurd and over the top in a lot of ways, be it the cyber punk setting or the various side characters and plots that involve genetic mutants, crazy technology, and a crazed society. But at the very heart of it, there is always truth and relatable heart. And “Lonely City” is no exception, as it tackles the question of the Free Press, and Police Brutality. Like I said. Familiar.

It’s kind of funny how these stories are so over the top, and yet there is that grain of truth to them. It starts out innocently enough, this collection, with Spider and his Filthy Assistants deciding to take on a Senator who is caught up in a potential sex scandal. It’s a move that they’ve done before, and how they usually operated when The Beast was President. It’s humorous and it’s fun watching them pursue this guy relentlessly, knowing that he’s going to expose corruption and hypocrisy, all because of a new invention called a G-Reader, which can read genome structures and genetic code on any individual. For Spider he can read where this Senator has been, based on what he left behind on a number of prostitutes. But the G-Reader is also used by a gang of thugs to read the genetic make-up of someone who they then beat to death (because Lockwood, the victim, had modified his genome in a way that is considered ‘perverse’. It’s hard to explain in full here so just think of it as a hate crime). The same machine used in two totally different ways, the ups and downs of technology. Spider, Channon, and Yelena decide to take on the story of Lockwood, and why the police are being so cagey about it.

And what happens next is yet again an example of me completely forgetting parts of this series that are now blowing me away.

Ellis does a great job of portraying a corrupt system from top to bottom, from the White House to the precinct house. Because when Spider, Channon, and Yelena find themselves the targets of a dangerous plot (which I won’t spoil here), and hope to expose just how far it goes….. they are stymied by the White House, who makes Spider’s paper crush the story. Up until this point, Spider has always had the Truth to rely on, and his ability to move that truth from his screen to the masses of the public. Even under The Beast such truths were not suppressed, making Spider an enemy, yes, but an enemy with a voice. Now, however, he doesn’t even have that. And once again, we leave this collection on a bit of an “Empire Strikes Back” kind of moment. A moment that, after certain news outlets have been shut out of White House Press briefings in retaliation for the stories they run with, feels all too resonant and really hit me in the gut as I turned the last page.

Spider’s character is slowly evolving as well. He still has that cocky and manic swagger about him, confident in his role as truth teller and remaining both a Greek Chorus and Shakespearean Fool to the story. But he’s also starting to crack. The Smiler has a very tiny role in this one, but even if he makes no appearance his power and influence is everywhere. This world that Spider lives in is changing, and it’s changing for the absolute worse. And he’s finding himself more and more powerless to fight against it.

I also wanted to note, just for funsies, that the introduction to this volume (at least the copy I have) was written by Patrick Stewart! Apparently he’s a “Transmetropolitan” fan, which really made me smile. But he also completely sums up exactly what it is about this series that I love.

“I know this City, I have read The Word, I have listened to these politicians, I have smelt the stink of greed, I have thrown things at the TV, I have wondered what future there is for Truth and Beauty. I have wanted to go and live on the top of a Yorkshire moor… Warren, tell Spider to stay healthy and keep writing the column.”

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(source)

“Transmetropolitan” continues to strive for that truth and beauty, even when it gets super dark. That’s what I love about this series.

Rating 8: This definitely has it’s moments of fun and humor, but also has some good and chilling commentary on the importance of the free press in a corrupt society. “Transmetropolitan” continues to feel all too familiar and real in today’s political climate!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Transmetropolitan (Vol.5): Lonely City” can be found on the Goodreads lists “Bibles for the Revolution”, and “Books That Make You Vomit With Joy”(?).

Find “Transmetropolitan (Vol.5): Lonely City” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:“Transmetropolitan (Vol.1): Back on the Street”, “Transmetropolitan (Vol.2): Lust for Life”, “Transmetropolitan (Vol.3): Year of the Bastard”, “Transmetropolitan (Vol.4): The New Scum”.

Kate’s Review: “The Roanoke Girls”

30689335Book: “The Roanoke Girls” by Amy Engel

Publishing Info: Crown, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Description: Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.

After her mother’s suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother’s mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran fast and far away.

Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing. Did she run too? Or something worse? Unable to resist his pleas, Lane returns to help search, and to ease her guilt at having left Allegra behind. Her homecoming may mean a second chance with the boyfriend whose heart she broke that long ago summer. But it also means facing the devastating secret that made her flee, one she may not be strong enough to run from again.

As it weaves between Lane s first Roanoke summer and her return, The Roanoke Girls shocks and tantalizes, twisting its way through revelation after mesmerizing revelation, exploring the secrets families keep and the fierce and terrible love that both binds them together and rips them apart.

Review: I don’t know what I was expecting when I requested this book from Librarything for a free giveaway (one again, a big thank you to both Librarything and Penguin Random House for sending me this book!). Reading the description it makes “The Roanoke Girls” sound like a pretty typical, run of the mill “Thriller with a Messed Up Female Protagonist”. Secrets happen, you can’t go home again, etcetera. While you can probably surmise what that big secret is if you read the description and have a working knowledge of the genre, I was not prepared for what I was picking up. Pretty early on the big underlying secret is revealed, but it was how Engel handled it that I was most interested in. And it was in the way she handled it that I was most impressed by this book.

Though I won’t go into many spoilers here, I am definitely going to say that this book carries some serious trigger warnings with it, regarding rape and sexual abuse.

Lane, our main character, seemingly falls into the usual trap of ‘messed up female protagonist’ of a story like this. She harbors secrets, she left town and hoped to never return (with many secrets under her belt), and she comes back reluctantly due to a mystery (being the disappearance of her cousin Allegra). Hell, she even runs into Cooper, her old boyfriend who, of course, still lives in this small town and still carries a brightly burning torch for her. She even has an ex-husband that she cheated on, therein ruining their marriage because she felt like she didn’t deserve him. But while these are, yes, certainly tropes that are all too familiar, the way that Engel writes Lane, and the things that Lane has had to endure, almost make it that I can forgive how familiar they are. Lane is by far one of the most damaged protagonists that I’ve seen in this genre, but Engel never makes her victimhood, or any of the victimhood portrayed in this book, seem tantalizing. Therefore, I never felt that it was exploitative in how it portrayed the abuse. I kind of try to measure it on a “Flowers in the Attic” kind of scale when it comes to that kind of thing. And this never felt like “Flowers in the Attic”.  And Lane’s portrayal felt genuine to me, as did Allegra’s. While they both made terrible decisions, and while sometimes they could be absolutely terrible to each other and others, I never felt like there was any judgment that Engel was throwing at them. They always came off as complex and broken, so therefore their behavior was more tragic than maddening (as I sometimes feel in books of this genre).

This story is told through three different ways to varying degrees. The majority of it is from Lane’s perspective, shifting from her summer in Kansas in the past to her return to the family farm in the present. The mystery of Allegra can be pieced together in both of these time periods, as much of what Lane sees and refers to will eventually come back to her present disappearance. The mystery itself wasn’t really all that interesting to me, as I had it pretty well figured out fairly early on. True, Engel tried to toss a couple of red herrings at the reader, making us question who the culprit was, or if there was even a culprit at all, but it’s all laid out if you’re looking for it. Part of that is because of this third perspective, that of every Roanoke Girl. There are little intermittent chapters from a different Roanoke Girl’s perspective, which are there to really emphasize how far reaching and how damaging the ‘big family secret’ is. I was a bit torn about having this all out in the open, because at first I was thinking that it kind of takes away the secrecy. But then it occurred to me that the mystery isn’t what the family secret is. That would almost be too lurid if it was the big reveal. The mystery is about how deep it has affected Lane, and if she was able to get away before it totally consumed her. The sexual abuse is no secret, to anyone, really, not even the characters. The people who are privy to it are either warped by it so they think it’s normal, or they are more inclined to blame the Roanoke Girls, or see them as tainted goods because this is the culture that we live in. The isolation is just as physical as it is emotional, as Lane has no one to turn to. So ultimately I am glad that Engel didn’t treat it like some big twist reveal. Because that would have felt like it was perpetuating it, somehow.

“The Roanoke Girls” was definitely a rough read for a lot of reasons, but I found it to be worthwhile as well. I definitely want people to approach it with caution, because it’s very upsetting. But I do think that it makes the reader think about how we view victims of prolonged sexual abuse in our current cultural climate.

Rating 8: Though it’s incredibly dark and upsetting, “The Roanoke Girls” pushes the envelope and boundaries of the usual genre conventions, and brings up legitimate questions about how our culture views and treats victims.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Roanoke Girls” has not come out yet and is on very few Goodreads lists. However, it is on “Books About Rape and Rape Culture”, and I think it would fit in on “Family Secrets”.

Though it is not out yet, you will soon be able to find “The Roanoke Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

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!

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(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!