Serena’s Review: “Princess Academy”

85990 Book: “Princess Academy” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury, April 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.

Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.

Review: I was trained as a public librarian with an emphasis on young adult and children’s services. Bizarrely, this resulted in a high exposure to young adult titles, children’s stories, and pictures books with only a few books scattered in between that could be rightly categorized as “middle grade.” My definition for this group is books that are enjoyed by readers aged 10-13. Therefore, in an attempt to self-educate myself and to stay up to date with this segment of readers, I’ve been slowly working my way through Shannon Hale’s collection of works. She’s a well-known and respected middle grade author and I’ve enjoyed her other titles. “Princess Academy” is also a Newbery Honor Book, which further speaks to her prowess in this genre, and all in all, I can see why its praises have been so loudly sung.

Right off the bat, I was skeptical of this book’s premises. The title alone seems to imply that what we have here is a story about a bunch of girls vying for a prince’s attention and I’ve been burned by this before (side-eyeing “The Selection”). But I was relieved and surprised to discover that “Princess Academy” was so much more than that!

One of the most important aspects of this book, for me, was its depictions of friendship and family. The set-up is primed for catty-girl-drama, and while Miri does struggle with her relationship with some of the girls, the reader is presented with honest depictions of fully fleshed out teenage girls. Personalities may clash, but it is never reduced to silliness. If anything, it is depicted as the typical growing-up process that all children face. Lessons like diplomacy, sensitivity, and empathy are all in play.

Another of my favorite themes of this book was its emphasis on learning. Miri and her fellow academy girls come from a very poor village where education is completely lacking. In this way, the princess academy is presented as important in the most basic way: it is not only a tool by which to prepare a princess, but a unique opportunity to be taken advantage of by a group of girls who otherwise would have had very few options. Miri’s growing realization of the size of the world and all of the knowledge that exists is wonderful to follow. And, while the book does use this gained education as a plot tool, there is a clear emphasis on the fact that Miri realizes her own love of learning purely for its own merit. This is a great message for a middle grade novel.

There were also some fun elements of mystery within the story, including Miri’s friend Britta’s hidden past and the slow reveal of powers of her humble home. All of this is tied up neatly in simple, yet lovely, language. And, while the story does have sequels, it can also be read as a stand-alone book. All of this said, the book is firmly set in the category of middle grade. The writing style and language use is simple and the story is straightforward. However, if you enjoy middle grade novels, this book is definitely worth checking out!

Rating 8: Very strong middle grade novel highlighting great themes of friendship and learning!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Princess Academy” is included on this Goodreads list: “Best Princess Tales” and “Newbery Medal Honor Books.”

Find “Princess Academy” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Lovecraft Country”

25109947Book: “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff

Publishing Info: Harper, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

Review: As a fan of horror literature, it’s no surprise that I do have a fondness for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Last year my husband got me the complete annotated Lovecraft for our anniversary, and it sits on my shelf in it’s huge and daunting glory. Cthulhu is also one of the most badass literary monsters out there. But here is the thing about Lovecraft: He was an unrepentant racist and white supremacist. People can trot out the ‘man of his time’ argument, but that doesn’t matter at the end of the day. I don’t think that there is a problem enjoying his works and his writing, but to deny that other side of him is inherently dishonest and problematic.

And that brings us to “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff. Ruff takes the works of Lovecraft and pays homage to them while simultaneously exploring and exposing American racism. He splits this book into multiple parts that all have their own little twists on Lovecraft stories or Lovecraft themes, and while they could probably stand alone, they all combine into an overarching narrative. While all of these stories have magical elements, from a haunted house to a magical cult of sorcerers to a magic elixir, all of these elements are connected to race. The haunted house does house a ghost, but the creaks and bumps in the night may also be the neighbors who are angry that a black woman has moved in. The sorcerer cult hopes to use Atticus as a vessel, as his ancestor was a slave who was raped by her master and started his recent familial line. The magical elixir gives a black woman the ability to turn white when it would be beneficial to her. They all reek of Lovecraft, but are so much more.

Our protagonists, led by Atticus Turner, are all members of an African American family in Jim Crow Era America, but their hardship and experiences of violent racism are by no means limited to the Deep South. Atticus has his uncle’s “Safe Negro Travel Guide” (based on “The Green Book”) to tell him what areas are or aren’t safe for him and George to be in, but that doesn’t keep him immune or safe from non-magical threats such as racist cops and locals who threaten or even give chase to them. It was pretty clear from the get go that the greatest threats in this book were not going to be Cthulhus or ancient ones, but White America and the hatred and bigotry that it stewed in during the time period of the novel. On the cover of this book, designed to look like a pulp novel, there are a number of things that show you just what you’re getting into. The blurb that sticks out says ‘America’s Demons Exposed!’, and right below it there are images of ghostly figures that look a whole lot like the Klan. This book is less about Lovecrafts works, and more about Lovecrafts thoughts, thoughts that were shared by people in all parts of America. And I think that Ruff did a great job of using this theme to talk about the ugliness that still haunts us today, even though we as a country are so uncomfortable thinking and facing that. America’s demons indeed.

And plus there were definitely some really creepy parts in this book. My favorite section was that of the Haunted House, “Dreams of the Which House” (a play on Lovecraft’s “Dreams in a Witch House” in both title and theme). The story concerns Letitia, Atticus’ childhood friend who had accompanied him on his road trip. She is looking to buy a house, and the one that Letitia settles on is in an all white neighborhood. It’s also very cheap because it’s haunted. So when Letitia is spending time in this house, there are strange and scary things that the ghost does. But then, there is an even bigger threat from the neighbors, who have started to harass Letitia just as much as a ghost might. I liked this one the best because I liked Letitia, I liked how she interacted with the ghost, and I liked how she made a stand in her house against ghost and Klan alike. Ruff also did a very good job of addressing racism in housing and property rights in this chapter, and microaggressions faced in day to day living (with Letitia and Atticus both being assumed to be ‘the help’ in her own home by white characters).

And I should say that while I think that Ruff did a good job, my perspective is that of a white woman, so if there are issues that POC have with this interpretation of racial oppression and bigotry, please do let me know.

“Lovecraft Country” is a book that I hope Lovecraft fans will read. I hope that many people will read it, as it explores themes that we simply can’t ignore.

Rating 8: A very well done horror story on both supernatural and realistic levels.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Lovecraft Country” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Quality Dark Fiction”, and “Best Weird Fiction Books”.

Find “Lovecraft Country” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”

26118005Book: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description from Goodreads: Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade, when they bonded over a shared love of E.T., roller-skating parties, and scratch-and-sniff stickers. But when they arrive at high school, things change. Gretchen begins to act…different. And as the strange coincidences and bizarre behavior start to pile up, Abby realizes there’s only one possible explanation: Gretchen, her favorite person in the world, has a demon living inside her. And Abby is not about to let anyone or anything come between her and her best friend. With help from some unlikely allies, Abby embarks on a quest to save Gretchen. But is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?

Review: As a child who was born in 1984, I have vague memories of the 1980s and the cultural amazements that this decade had to offer. Much of my pop culture influences from my early years were solidly 1980s fodder, as my favorite childhood movies were “Ghostbusters” and “Bill and Ted”, I have memories of my nanny subsisting on a soundtrack of Madonna and Prince, and definitely remember a lot of shades of neon in the wardrobes of those around me. I also remember washing my Mom’s car in our driveway using a rag with Reagan’s face on it, because ‘we like wiping mud onto Reagan’s face’, as my Dad put it one day. So I have enough awareness of the decade to have at least a little bit of nostalgia for it. This means, of course, that when I heard about “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” I practically jumped out of my skin in pure, unadulterated excitement. A horror novel that drips of 1980s nostalgia?

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All this needs for maximum excitement is some Ecto-Cooler and some push pops! (source)

True, sometimes the 80s factor was laid on pretty thick, but the good news is that our protagonists, Abby and Gretchen, stand well enough on their own that they aren’t 80s stereotypes walking around on the pages. Hendrix did a really good job of creating a believable and complex girl friendship, so well that I was kind of surprised by it. Not to say that a guy can’t write this kind of thing, but it felt pretty true to life, ups and downs and all, without feeling like it was pandering to the audience. Abby is a girl from a lower income family (during a time when greed was so good) who is desperate to live the upper class life that Gretchen has, even if it’s vicariously and even if Gretchen’s parents are pretty wretched people most of the time. Gretchen’s family life is very representative of this egomaniacal Reagan’s America, and the setting of Charleston, South Carolina adds the racist and sexist and repressive attitudes of Dixie into this already gross recipe. The tension of the hierarchical culture is always present, as Abby is at a prestigious private school on scholarship, surrounded by rich kids (and administrators) who act like friends, but always see Abby as The Other because of her family income. The privilege reeks off of the kids in this school, and Hendrix brings it up through various situations and scenes that not only show the monetary privilege, but racial privilege as well. This is not an idyllic Charleston by any stretch of the imagination, as racism, misogyny, and Satanic Panic are always beneath the surface.

To me I was incredibly fascinated with Gretchen’s possession, and the ways that it manifested. For one, Gretchen’s place in society is one that a stereotypical exorcism story may not place her in. Instead of the daughter of a single parent whoring around actress a la “The Exorcist”, Gretchen’s parents are no doubt the kind of people that William Peter Blatty thought to be the ideal parents. They are conservative, they are religious, and they are strict to be sure that Gretchen has no improper influences in their home. One scene that stuck out in my mind was when Abby and Gretchen were caught listening to Madonna, and when Gretchen’s mother catches them she beats her daughter pretty violently with a hairbrush. A very, very interesting choice of family for a demon to target, in my opinion. It was as if Hendrix took that old chestnut exorcism story theme of ‘if you accept God and Jesus into your life, bad things won’t happen to you’, and spits in it’s face. Bold move, Hendrix, and I feel like it paid off. It was also a cool choice to make Abby, the girl whose family isn’t religious and doesn’t necessarily believe in this stuff, the person to cling hard to the possession theory. Satanic Panic was prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s, where lots of otherwise rational people believed that Satanists were conspiring against the country, so Abby was a good representation of that. I also liked that I was left questioning just what was going on in this story. Hendrix threw enough red herrings and misdirections in there that I was questioning what was the product of a demonic possession, and what was the product of trauma, or really just the fallout of mean girls doing mean things to each other.

And since it wouldn’t be a horror story without some horrific moments, I am happy to report that there are a fair number of decent scares in “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”. Hendrix is pretty solid and taking a concept that could be seen as light hearted and tongue in cheek, and then make it into something very unsettling and disturbing. While I’m not really one to be scared by possession stories in general, there were some moments in here that had me on the edge of my seat, just as there were moments that really grossed me out. One moment in particular. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that a certain fad diet urban legend was used to the most disgusting degree as a means of demonic torment towards a frenemy of Gretchen’s and Abby’s….

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What has been read can never be un-read…. (source)

There were some things about this book that made me a bit uncomfortable. I understand that Hendrix was setting a place and time and doing so with certain attitudes. But some of the casually thrown about racist and sexist and homophobic things thrown around, while no doubt prevalent to 1988 in Charleston, made my modern sensibilities very uncomfortable. I get what he was trying to do, but I also think that it sometimes fell flat and came off as tone deaf. I cringed a bit more than I wanted to at times.

Overall, however, I tore through “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” and greatly enjoyed the ride. It isn’t for the squeamish at times, but those with an affection for the 1980s and strong girl friendships may want to give it a try. Just…. you know, prepare yourself.

Rating 8: A fun and scary book that puts a very complex and real girl friendship at the center. Sometimes it felt a bit fumbling when it came to social issues, but overall it was a good read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming Books of Note: Horror”, and “Book Titles That Give You No Choice But To Check Out The Books”. I would also say that if you liked this, give “The Exorcist” a try if you haven’t already. Lots of influence comes from it, obviously.

Find “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Oryx and Crake”

46756Book: “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood

Publishing Info: Anchor, March 2004

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

Book Description from Goodreads: Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.

Review: Margaret Atwood is a master of dystopian fiction. And that is why I read her books rarely. Want to sink deeply into existential malaise? Wallow in the realization that many of these “dystonian” constructs seem frighteningly close to the truth? Oh boy, get ready! And while this is a glum start to a review, the fact that she is able to tap so directly into these dark themes is simply an example of her expertise in action.

“Oryx and Crake” drops readers off right in the middle of the action…er…inaction. A man who calls himself “Snowman” is seemingly the last human alive on a very clearly climate-impacted earth. Surrounded by bizarre hybrids species such as Rachunks (raccoon/skunks) and Wolvogs (wolf/dogs), he spends his days sleeping in a tree, scrounging for food, and acting as a sort of prophet to the “Children of Crake” a humanoid species that he shares his beach with.

A beginning like this is definitely challenging. Atwood starts her story in the middle and leaves readers to trust that the answer to an overwhelming number of initial questions will come. The story does become clear slowly throughout the book using extended flashback as Snowman thinks of his life before when he was known as Jimmy and had a brilliant friend named Crake and a mysterious lover named Oryx. Through these flashbacks and what seems like the slow decay of Snowman’s sanity given his isolation, important facts and connections can be gleaned and fit together forming a complex puzzle that is incredible once you reach the end. However, while I loved this tactic, some readers may be frustrated with the amount of trust and patience that is required early on in the story.

The main focus of the story is the life of Jimmy/Snowman. Knowing the end result, it is fascinating reading about his life unfolding and spotting the signs that things would not end well. And right here is what I’m talking about! The mad science of this society that comes across as horrific to an omniscient reader who knows the outcome can also be easily seen as a natural progression of a society gone wild with its own power of creation. What’s more, in the moment, lacking this foreknowledge, these advancements would seem as nothing more than the logical next step in society. And it’s terrifying, the ease with which one can imagine these things as all too plausible in the near future! Atwood pulls no punches in her critiques of society, science, and the pitfalls of humanity’s relationship with nature, science, and, perhaps most importantly, with itself.

As a character, Jimmy is the everyman of the story. As the son of two scientists, Jimmy’s life is one of privilege given the state of society. He grows up in a “compound,” one of the elaborate campuses that private companies create to house their most prized goods: the brilliant scientists they hire. Outside these communities lie the “Pleblands” where the average members of society make their living. I wish we had heard more about this outside world. As I said, Jimmy starts life in a very privileged position and this start is enough to successfully carry him through a life inside the more cozy world of these compounds, even though he doesn’t possess the brilliance of his parents or genius best friend, Crake. That being the case, we see very little of this outside world. It seems to still run like current society, with a hierarchy of wealth within its boundaries as well, though more plagued by crime, disease, and, obviously, poverty, than the compounds.

The second member of the three main characters is Oryx, the love interest for Jimmy and Crake, though this is a very small part of the story, as far as I could tell. The book description plays  it up in a way that I don’t think rings true at all. Of the three characters, her life story is the most tragic and she is the most ambiguous. It is clear that Jimmy never fully understands her, so we as readers glimpsing her only through Jimmy’s own perceptions never see a clear picture either. While I enjoyed hearing her story and seeing different aspects of society through her life, as a character she was probably the weakest. Her storyline did not seem as integral to the plot overall.

And Crake. Jimmy has a better understanding of him, but an understanding that is constantly distorted through rose colored glasses of childhood friendship. Again, knowing the outcome and in combination with Snowman’s more cynical thought process in the present, the story of Crake is one of simmering horror.

“Oryx and Crake” is the first in a trilogy, however, it reads well as a stand alone novel. I will most likely continue the series (again, once I’ve given myself a rest from the dread that Atwood so effortlessly dredges up), but I am satisfied with the story as it stands now, as well. Her writing is strong, the characters intricate, and, as always, this book definitely reads as a cautionary tale for humanity.

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Agent Smith had it right, according to this book!

Rating 8: Dark, but great.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Oryx and Crake” is included on the Goodreads list “Smart Apocalyptic and Dystopian Fiction” and “Science Fiction Books by Female Authors”.

Find “Oryx and Crake” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Secret Six (Vol.4): Cat’s in the Cradle”

8616116Book: “Secret Six (Vol.4): Cat’s in the Cradle” by Gail Simone, Jim Calafiore (Ill.), R.B. Silva (Ill.), and Alexandre Palamaro (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, January 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Gail Simone’s fan-favorite team of rogues and bad guys returns in an all-new collection that pits one team member against the whole group.This volume finds Thomas Blake – a.k.a. Catman – heading to Africa to find the three men who kidnapped his long lost son. Catman leaves a trail of destruction in his wake that threatens to destroy the Secret Six once and for all.

Review: As I am sure it was clear in my previous review of the series “Secret Six”, I was worried that the story was starting to become stagnant and repetitive. I knew that I still liked it enough to keep going, but I was starting to fret that things weren’t going keep my interest. But when I picked up “Cat’s in the Cradle”, I was immediately pulled back into the story, because the focus was, very clearly, going to be on Catman.

The thing about Catman is that of the entire group, he is the one who is the most morally ambiguous. He has been labeled a villain, and tries to wear that label with pride, but there is something in him that makes him tread towards goodness at times. We finally got some more insight into his past, and why he is the way he is. Spoilers: it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Along with being a story about underdogs and misfits, “Cats in the Cradle” explores the story of fathers and sons. The title alone, clearly taken from Harry Chapin’s song about a father and son relationship that is beyond broken, let’s you know what is in store. Catman finds out that his son with Cheshire has been kidnapped, and while he goes looking for the baby, he thinks about his own relationship with his father, who was abusive and violent.

I liked that Catman didn’t all of a sudden become a no fault hero in his son’s time of need. In fact, he was actually willing to sacrifice his son for his team, and then take bloody awful revenge later (perhaps it’s more fair to say he gambled with the baby’s life, as he was almost totally convinced that the kidnappers would balk). It was nice to see that in a moment where betrayal seemed inevitable, Simone made Catman find another way. I also liked seeing his past, and seeing just why it is that he’s so afraid of being a Dad, and knows that he can’t really be one because of the choices he’s made. I got very misty-eyed at the end. Okay fine, I cried.

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Accurate portrayal. (source)

It was also nice to see that while the team split up because of Catman’s decision (with Bane and Jeanette leaving the group), there weren’t any hard feelings between anyone. I was thinking that when the team split there would be a whole lot of drama, and yet they seem to be perfectly amicable and understanding. It was a nice choice, and not the obvious one.

And this volume marked the return of the funny and unique side stories! The first one involved the Six as prey in a ‘most dangerous game’-like situation, where a compound of wealthy men with Presidential aliases think that they can hunt the Six and live to tell about it….. I’m sure you can guess how well that goes. The other story was an alternate universe story of the Six, which took place in the Old West. It had some steamy scenes with Jeanette and Deadshot (yes please!) and some cute and fun moments with Ragdoll as a puppeteer. But then…. Well, it ended very dark. And I’m very worried that the ending is a hint as to what is to come in the last two volumes. It served as a reminder that these guys aren’t heroes, they’re villains. And villains aren’t known for winning in stories like this…

I am very pleased that the Six are going strong. I can’t wait to dig into Volume 5, “The Reptile Brain”. If they can keep up the momentum, I feel like this series is going to stick the landing. We can only hope.

Rating 8: The Secret Six are back on track, with new character development and some very dark themes. But the humor and the heart is always present.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Six (Vol.4): Cat’s in the Cradle” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Diverse Heroes in Graphic Novels/Comic Books”, and “Swancon 2013 Reading List”.

Find “Secret Six (Vol.4): Cat’s in the Cradle” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous reviews of “Secret Six”: “Villains United”,  “Unhinged“, “Depths”, “Danse Macabre”.

 

Book Club Review: “Tomorrow, When The War Began”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

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: “Tomorrow, When the War Began” by John Marsden

Publishing Info: Pan Macmillian, 1993

Where Did We Get This Book: Both from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong — their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision — run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back.

Kate’s Thoughts:

When our dear friend and co-book club member Melissa picked “Tomorrow, When The War Began” for book club, I hadn’t heard of it. In my mind I was picturing something like “A Boy and His Dog”, which is… decidedly not what this book is. I think that I hadn’t heard of it because of a few things, the most obvious being that I was younger than it’s demo when it came out in 1993, and when I did become part of the YA reading age group I had already pretty much graduated to adult novels. So suffice to say, this was a whole new experience for me.

One thing that struck me about this book was that it was pretty grim by today’s standards, so the fact that it was published in 1993 kind of boggles my mind. There are many themes in this book that seemed pretty dark and mature for a book written for teens about twenty years ago. The first thing that is striking and out in the open is the violence. Marsden isn’t gratuitous with the violence that Ellie and her friends encounter, but he isn’t unflinching with it either. It always feels very real, be it Ellie coming home to find her dogs dead or dying, or Ellie blowing up a lawnmower and in turn causing the deaths of some invading soldiers. The reactions to violence from most of the group also feels very true to life, as they don’t automatically turn into commandos right away. Ellie is definitely uncomfortable with hurting people, even if she eases into it out of necessity, and other characters in the group also have to adapt and react in their own ways.

I was also quite impressed with how Marsden so wonderfully captured the voice of a teenage girl. I by no means think that guys can’t write girl voices or vice versa, but I was a little worried that it may come off as a bit stereotypical, even if he hadn’t meant to. So I was very happy when Ellie did seem like a pretty normal, and typical teenage girl. I thought that the way she thought and approached certain situations seemed reasonable and understandable given her character, and while I was a bit irritated that there was a brief possibility of a love triangle between her, nice boy Lee, and her best friend Homer, it was quashed pretty quickly and acknowledged as displaced feelings. After all, Lee is the one that gets her going both intellectually and physically, at the end of the day. I also thought that Marsden’s approach to sex was pretty realistic too, as Ellie definitely has urges and does think about these things. While I know there are some people out there who may think that these kids would have more on their minds than their sex lives, I think that they are humans at the end of the day, and teenagers to boot.

I think that my qualms were definitely more just about the story as a whole. I like end of days dystopia kinds of stories, but this one almost felt a bit too realistic for me to be able to get super into it. A strange criticism, I know. The ending felt abrupt, and while I know and get why he wrote it the way he did, it just seemed like a fast way to wrap things up. Luckily, there are a bunch of other books in the series, so it’s not like it ended completely on a note of ambiguity…. Or maybe it does, I don’t know I haven’t read them. Overall I did enjoy reading “Tomorrow, When the War Began”, but I don’t think I’ll keep going. This was good enough as it was.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I was one of only two book club members who had already read this book. Not only that, but I had read the entire series! So all the gold stars for me! (Is self-congratulatory speech a good look??) I grew up in rural Idaho and for some reason the librarians at the tiny local library were all about Australian, teen guerilla warfare and had bought the complete series. I remember blowing through them as a kid, and have from time to time thought of them as an adult when reminscing about favorites books as a kid. But I hadn’t re-read them, so it was a treat getting to re-visit the series now as an adult.

I must say, it holds up. If anything, I’m kind of impressed with kid-Serena’s good taste (the self praise has gotten out of control! But seriously, I had many other questionable favorites as a kid, so this was a bit reassuring, really.) As Kate said, I was impressed by many things in this book, especially given when it was written. The author doesn’t shy away from the violence or trauma of the events he lays out. His characters are never given any easy outs and the variety of reactions and coping methods that the different teens fall back on seem all too realistic. Certain characters whom you might not expect to thrive under the stress rise to the occasion, while others struggle more. Moreover, there is never any criticism for these different reactions.

And, also following Kate’s lead, the author’s take on a teenage girl’s inner thought process and voice is spot on. As a kid, I never spent much time thinking about whether an author was a man or a woman (take that publishing companies that think teenagers fret about that stuff!), so when I picked it up as an adult and saw that it was a male author, I was actually a bit surprised. Especially given that the book was written in first person, an easier narrative style for many young readers and often a go-to for these type of books even now, this ability to slip into the skin of his female protagonist was really impressive. As simplistic as first person narration is, I think it can also be more challenging in specific situations like this where the author has to so completely encompass the full perspective of the character.

Specifically, there was a moment in the book where Ellie is having a conversation with one of her male friends and there is an inner line where she recognizes his tactics as typical of a teenage boy, trying to “bully” her into a relationship almost. This is so spot on! Reading it myself, I instantly recognized the type of conversation that was happening, and for an adult man to so fully capture this inner working of teenagedom from a young girl’s perspective is truly impressive.

My one complaint was that the book was a bit long on the descriptions. I don’t remember noticing this as a kid, and it may have simply been a factor of my re-read. I knew where things were going and was maybe in a rush to get there. But while there might have been a lot of text given over to these descriptions of scenes and locales, the writing was on point and really did an excellent job of painting the scene of the Australian wilderness.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to this series. I also heard from a fellow book club member that there is a follow-up series, “The Ellie Chronicles,” that I might need to check out now, too!

Kate’s Rating 7: An impressive narrative and story for what I was expecting! It wasn’t totally my jam, thematics wise, but it was a worthwhile reading experience!

Serena’s Rating 8: I greatly enjoyed returning to this series and am almost even more impressed with it now as an adult than I was the first time around as a teen.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

In due diligence to our book club theme, we watched the 2010 version of “Tomorrow, When the War Began” which is currently available on Netflix. I, for one, really enjoyed this movie. The casting was spot on, specifically the actors they got for Ellie and Homer. While they did have to leave out several parts of the book (sadly a lot of the time they spent in Hell the second go around), most of the decisions made sense and it seemed that the movie could stand alone. The biggest disappointment, probably, was the fact that several of the characters had to be narrowed down to meet the shorter screen time they were allotted, so we didn’t have as fully rounded character arcs for some of them. Again, understandable, if not a bit disappointing. And while the Australian scenery in the film was beautiful, I think Kate (and everyone at book club) will agree that the only Australian scenery that is ever needed is this:

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Hugh Jackman in “Australia”

1. This book was published in 1993, but has a lot of themes that are pretty common in today’s YA literature. Do you think that this book would be as successful if it came out today, and took place in the early 21st century instead of the late 20th?

2. What did you think of the invading army’s ‘identity’ being ambiguous? Do you think that having to know who was invading would have improved the story? Hindered it? Not made any difference?

3. How did you feel about Ellie as a character? Do you think that her voice was authentic and relatable?

4. Who was your favorite character in the book? The movie? If they were different, why?

5.  If you went on a camping trip and came back to find your homeland invaded, what 6 other people would be in your group? Would you turn to guerilla warfare? Hide?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tomorrow, When the War Began” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Australian Young Adult Books,” and “Books that should get more attention.”

Find “Tomorrow, When the War Began” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Hidden Bodies”

23492288Book: “Hidden Bodies” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Atria/ Emily Bestler Books, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Joe Goldberg is no stranger to hiding bodies. In the past ten years, this thirty-something has buried four of them, collateral damage in his quest for love. Now he’s heading west to Los Angeles, the city of second chances, determined to put his past behind him.

In Hollywood, Joe blends in effortlessly with the other young upstarts. He eats guac, works in a bookstore, and flirts with a journalist neighbor. But while others seem fixated on their own reflections, Joe can’t stop looking over his shoulder. The problem with hidden bodies is that they don’t always stay that way. They re-emerge, like dark thoughts, multiplying and threatening to destroy what Joe wants most: true love. And when he finds it in a darkened room in Soho House, he’s more desperate than ever to keep his secrets buried. He doesn’t want to hurt his new girlfriend—he wants to be with her forever. But if she ever finds out what he’s done, he may not have a choice…

Review: Joe Goldberg has sort of kind of unexpectedly become one of my favorite recent literary narrators. Trust me, I’m shocked too. This is a guy who (oh man will there be spoilers in this review) has killed multiple people, stalked multiple women, and murdered his supposed true love Beck from his first book, “You”. This guy is a predator who targets women all because of his delusions of true love and romance….. And I kind of love him. Which makes me feel yucky.

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(source)

In “Hidden Bodies”, Joe has taken up with Amy, the girl he met in “You” when she tried to commit credit card fraud at his store and he was instantly smitten with her. What the Goodreads description fails to mention is that Joe is going to L.A. because Amy tricks him and rips him off of a whole lot of cash, and he is going not to try and make a fresh start, but for good old fashioned revenge against her. I’m ashamed to say that I was totally on board for Joe tracking her down and making her pay, as what does that say about me?! I think that it says more about Kepnes as a writer, as Joe is a horrible person, but she writes him in a way that is so funny and so entertaining that you just want to see what he does and how he’s going to survive in a city of phony people and platitudes when he thinks so highly of himself. Spoiler alert: the results are both unsettling and incredibly funny.

This book drops the framework of being in the quasi second person, and it’s better for it. Joe is now his own being, and he can do so much more with this range that has opened up for him. This story reminds me quite a bit of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” series, as Ripley, too, was a sociopathic protagonist who you couldn’t help but follow willingly into violence and cruelty. In L.A. Joe shines even more, and Kepnes uses him as a strange Greek Chorus to point out the absurdity of the culture. Joe is a psychopath living in an L.A. that is portrayed as pure sociopathy, and the fact that they do not really mix well until he embraces it is darkly delightful. Joe does embrace it when he meets Love, an heiress to a grocery fortune who is kind, loving, and born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She is different from Beck and Amy in that while those two were trying to make it and rife with insecurity, Love has already made it thanks to her parents’ money and fully secure within herself. She is a striking contrast to her twin brother Forty, who is everything that is wrong with L.A. privilege and excess. Seeing Joe interact with these two people was far more interesting than a repeat of “You”, which I was worried “Hidden Bodies” would be, and it made him more of a “Dexter”-like avenger as he takes out the very worst of what L.A. has to offer. Is this a bit strange rooting for a man who is taking out human trash? Kind of? Does it validate Joe’s stalker actions towards Beck in “You”? I don’t think it does. Joe is still absolutely creepy and repugnant, but why not let a creep take out a few other creeps along the way?

Like with “You” there were a few plot points that felt a bit forced or convenient. There were times that Joe probably should have gotten caught, or at least had some culpability thrown his way, but external circumstances fixed that. I rarely like a deus ex machina solution, and there were moments in this that felt that way. I saw that it was more trying to show that sometimes luck is just on people’s side, like in the movie “Matchpoint” (as Joe loves Woody Allen movies), but it still frustrated me. But one big twist, which I won’t spoil here, was very intriguing, and involved Joe’s girlfriend Love. Love was a unique character in that she always exceeded my expectations. While Beck was pretty two dimensional, at least how Joe saw her, Love is very clearly a complex and hard to read foil for Joe. I am very, very interested in where her character goes, especially with some of the progressions we saw with her.

That is to say, if this series keeps going. It ended on a note that could very easily go either way for Joe. I really do hope that we get to see more of him, and that Kepnes treats us to another book about Joe Goldberg and the terrible, yet enthralling, deeds that he does. “Hidden Bodies” was very fun, and I’m ready for more.

Rating 8: A great follow up to “You” and Joe Goldberg remains fiendishly fun. There were some deus ex machina moments, but ultimately I hope that this series continues.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hidden Bodies” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Dark Humor”, and while it’s not on this list it would feel right at home on “I Like Serial Killers”.

Find “Hidden Bodies” at your library using WorldCat!