Kate’s Reviews: “Everything Is Teeth”

26109143Book: “Everything Is Teeth” by Evie Wyle and Joe Sumner (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Johnathan Cape, August 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From the award-winning author of All The Birds, Singing, a deeply moving graphic memoir about family, love, loss, and the irresistible forces that, like sharks, course through life unseen, ready to emerge at any moment.

Ever since she was a little girl, passing her summers in the brutal heat of coastal New South Wales, Evie Wyld has been captivated by sharks—by their innate ruthlessness, stealth, and immeasurable power. Young Evie would listen intently as farmers and fishermen told stories about being alone on the water at dusk; she would lose herself in books about legendary shark attacks, mesmerized by the photos of the victims. And even though she returned to London at the end of each summer, Australia’s sharks never released their hold on her imagination. Now, in this quietly penetrating narrative of personal memories, beautifully rendered by illustrator Joe Sumner, Evie Wyld lends her exceptional voice to the telling of a story all her own.

Review: When I was four years old, I discovered sharks. We were on a family trip out to California to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousin. They lived in San Jose, but we would take many family trips to the ocean up and down the coastline between San Francisco and Monterey. This meant that there was a lot of driving to be had, and ya gotta find ways to spend the time. My parents bought my cousin, who is a few years older than me, a cassette tape and accompanying book about sharks. It was short and informational, but it did have some kind of creepy music to go with it. Because “Jaws”, probably. Turns out, it was too much for my cousin, who thought that it was way too scary to listen to. My parents, not wanting to waste the thing, gave it to me, four year old Kate, thinking that maybe I’d be able to handle it. And I guess I pulled a full Raffi on them, insisting they play it over, and over, and OVER again the entire trip… And then more when we got back home to Minnesota. And thus, my lifelong love of sharks was born.

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Actual image of my Dad having to listen to that tape for the 63rd time. (source)

So the graphic memoir “Everything is Teeth” by Evie Wyld is so incredibly relatable for me that it was kind of uncanny. Evie Wyld grew up in England and spent family trips in Australia, and she first found her love for sharks when her older brother was given a set of shark jaws for the holidays. She then started reading books about sharks, and shark attacks, her first celebrity crush being Rodney Fox, famed shark attack survivor and conservationist (another thing I can relate to, because I TOO loved Rodney Fox during my most fevered obsession time). But this memoir is a bit different from other graphic memoirs that I’ve read in the past, as instead of having a full linear narrative it’s more a collection of snapshots into her childhood, framed through the shark obsession. But the shark obsession and the anxieties that go with it, of course, speak to deeper childhood fears and worries, from isolation to familial loss. The irrational fear of sharks served as a tangible fear to stand in for the ones that Wyld couldn’t quite articulate at the time, and as a child who was also riddled with anxieties about just about everything, this, too, was a familiar thing to me as I read it.

You don’t get the events in her childhood spoon-fed to you, you have to surmise what is going on. During a viewing of “Jaws”, she recounts how her loving yet somewhat detached father drank glass after glass of wine. After being unable to sleep one Australian night, she and her mother go for a night swim in the pool, as her mother was dealing with one of her regular bouts of insomnia. When her older brother would come home from school bloodied and beaten up, he would come to Evie and ask her to tell him shark stories. We learn about Evie’s family and their pretty common issues, but always with the context of the love of, and fear of, sharks. It’s a quiet story that ultimately unwinds to show how these intangible fears ultimately become tangible as time goes on, and that a fear of sharks disguises a fear of loss that eventually most everyone will experience in their life. It is ultimately a sweet, and sad, story about a girl who comes of age like many do, and her childhood interest in sharks that shapes her along the way, and I found it just as powerful as some of the graphic memoirs I’ve read that deal with childhood trauma or tragedy. There is no specific trauma or tragedy here; it’s just bits of her life, some parts sad, some parts not, all parts incredibly real.

I also liked that even the bits that were sad or upsetting were still muted, letting the reader figure out why. There is a scene where Evie’s Dad takes her to a shark attack museum, thinking that she will enjoy it. What they find is a spectacle, with graphic photos of shark attack victims with no context (just showing Rodney Fox’s wounds, not his calm demeanor or how he persevered), broad brush strokes painting sharks as mindless man eaters, and a stuffed and shabby white pointer, which is Australian terminology for great white, that is decaying on it’s platform. Child Evie is awash with nausea and discomfort, and while it’s never explained why, the reader is as well. Wyld never has to tell you it’s wrong; you just know that it is.

Joe Sumner did the illustrations for this graphic novel, and I really loved his style. He has a huge range from the flat out cartoonish (Evie and her family members), to the more realistic (stills from “Jaws” and pictures of shark attack survivors in the aftermath), to the hyperrealistic that I could have sworn were photographs (almost all the sharks in this book).

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(source)

I was completely struck by this art style and how effective it was.

“Everything Is Teeth” is a very subdued read, but it’s one that struck a chord with me. If you are looking for a graphic memoir that isn’t necessarily steeped in tragedy and trauma, but still packs an emotional punch, it may be the one for you.

Rating 9: A quiet, resonant, and somewhat haunting graphic memoir about growing up, loss, and sharks. The illustrations are great and the story is compelling and relatable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Everything Is Teeth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women Creators in Comics”, and “Comics for Teen Girls (That Are Not Japanese Manga)”.  Side note: I’m hoping that this list isn’t intended to diss manga, because there’s nothing wrong with it.

Find “Everything is Teeth” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Scythe”

28954189Book: “Scythe” by Neil Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Giveaway from ALA 2017!

Book Description: Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Review: Confession: I had never really heard of Neal Shusterman before attending the YA Coffee Klatch at ALA with Kate and hearing her get excited cuz apparently he’s a big deal. So big miss for me! What’s worse is the day before I had walked by a line where he was signing this book and passed it up, not knowing who he was! But after hearing from Kate that he was quite good and hearing his own synopsis for “Scythe” when he came around our table, I tool the time to seek out a copy of his book later that day. Alas, no signature, but these are the trials.

Shusterman described his book as growing from the question “What would happen if the world solved all of its problems? What would people do in a true Utopia?” “Scythe” is his answer to that question. There are so many interesting concepts presented in this book that I don’t even know where to start!

First off, the basic premise of the story is incredibly original and ripe for exploration. Immortality has been reached, but for reasons only briefly touched upon in this book, space exploration was a failure, so humanity is stuck with the world it has. This being the case, overpopulation is a real concern. To solve this problem, the Scythe organization came into existence. Their task is to randomly (emphasis on random) cull the population by killing a certain number of people per year. The family of this person is then granted immunity from culling for the next year. There are so many interesting ideas packed into this seemingly straightforward concept that I can’t begin to cover them all: the methods by which Scythes choose their victims, the methods by which they kill them, the combination of hero worship and fear they inspire in the population, the punishment for defying being chosen to die, and the fact that the odds are incredibly low that you will be chosen, though Scythes are a visible presence in the world. So much great stuff!

As mentioned in the synopsis, the central conflict of the story revolves around our two protagonists, Citra and Rowan who have both been chosen to be apprentices to a Scythe. The story alternates between these two and each character was well-drawn and presented a unique reason for why they were selected and how they approach the challenges of killing people for a living. Essentially, neither wanted the job, and that’s why they have it. Through their eyes, the layers of the Scythedom are peeled away and we begin to see that for all of its advancement, when left to their own devices for long enough, even the most well-intentioned organization begins to grow rot. There are deviations and factions of the Scythedom, all fighting for control and to shape the direction of the future. Should Scythes remain on the periphery of society, chosen for their distaste of their work but equipped with a strong sense of moral obligation? Or should a “new guard” take over, one that relishes in its task and in the glory that is allowed to all Scythes?

All of this and I still haven’t touched on half of the creative and unique world-building aspects of this book. There is the Thunderhead, a rare example of a benign A.I., that essentially runs society. There’s Rowan’s friend who loves “splatting,” jumping off high places only to inevitably be brought back to life each time. There’s Citra’s and Rowan’s training, and there are the well-drawn Scythe elders who alternatively take them under their wing, or force them forward down paths they wish not to tread. Throughout it all, Citra and Rowan form a tenuous alliance, each experiencing very different paths through their year of apprenticeship. The final act was tension filled, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see how the many conflicts laid out throughout the story would be wrapped up. The end was satisfying, but did its job and left me all too eager for the next!

I honestly can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story that was so totally engrossing, perfectly balancing an action-packed plot, complicated characters with clear story arcs, and fully realized world-building. Definitely check this one out of you are interested in sci-fi or dystopian fiction!

Rating 9: One of the most unique and creative reads of the year so far!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scythe” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fiction Books About Grief, Death and Loss” and “Grim Reaper Books.”

Find “Scythe” at your library using WorldCat

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Strange Practice”

32452160Book: “Strange Practice” by Vivian Shaw

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Greta Helsing inherited the family’s highly specialized, and highly peculiar, medical practice. In her consulting rooms, Dr. Helsing treats the undead for a host of ills – vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s been groomed for since childhood.

Until a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human and undead Londoners alike. As terror takes hold of the city, Greta must use her unusual skills to stop the cult if she hopes to save her practice, and her life.

Review: First off, thanks to Orbit for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for a review! I read the description for it, and was pretty much like “Yep, gotta read that!” As a lover of urban fantasy, it’s been a distressing few years recently. Many of my favorite series (“Mercy Thompson” and “Kate Daniels”) are beginning to show their age and are likely (perhaps hopefully) going to wrap up soon. Beyond these, many of my other forays into the genre have yielded middling returns. Either these books stray too closely to tropes already well-established in staple series in the genre to trigger any sense of originality and interest, or…they’re just kind of bland? Not so with “Strange Practice!” Shaw has expertly introduced a new leading lady with a unique perspective on her urban fantasy world and lifestyle, and I was digging it the entire way.

Greta Helsing is a doctor for the strange and unusual, the monstrous and the arcane. It is a family practice after her family decided to turn away from the hunting business and re-focus in on the helping side of things. Right here we have such a unique take on urban fantasy that I was immediately completely sold on. Not only is Greta a great character on her own, but her perspective as a doctor presented readers with an entirely new lens through which to view the supernatural world. How do mummies get by with their rotting bodies? What about sunburns for vampires? Do any of these creatures suffer from mental illnesses? Cuz living forever could have some major psychological implications. Not only was there a plethora of creativity in this area, but Greta remained true to this focus throughout the story, even when the evil monks showed up and the action really got started.

A big frustration of mine with urban fantasy is when the heroes or heroines sillyly jump beyond their own abilities, somehow thinking (and for plot convenience, accurately thinking) that they can play on the same field as magical beings who have million times the magical power as they. Suddenly the author is forced to create loop hole after loop hole to keep their protagonist up and moving instead of simply being hand-swiped away in the first minute. With this in mind, it was refreshing that Greta’s entire perspective on her situation was always rooted firmly in her position as a doctor. Even more so, in that she realizes the unique service she provides to her clients and understands the importance of staying safe, not only for her own sake, but for those who would suffer without access to medical care. As I said, refreshing, and when she does end up in the action (cuz of course, she must), she plays a believable, yet important, role. See?! It is possible to keep your heroine grounded while also staying true to the action of your story!!

Beyond Greta, I was surprised to discover that we had several other point of view characters as well. I always wish there was some way for these book descriptions to hint at this possibility, as it always feels like a bit of a side-swipe to be set up as if the book is from one protagonist’s point of view, and then end up with a handful of others. But alas. With this story, it is of no matter since I thoroughly enjoyed the perspectives these other creatures brought. We had a vampire and a vampyre (the distinction having to do with the type of blood they require), a demon, and even a few chapters from the viewpoint of the nefarious schemers. There was quite a lot of unique world-building and monster “history” that was brought in with all of these characters, and the many other supernatural beings who made appearances.

I particularly liked the tone of the story. Dark, witty, and full of literary allusions that were great fun to spot. There as a nice balance struck between the horror aspects and the vampire-friendship-fluff. On one page there would be murder and mayhem, and on the next, a vampire shopping spree! And never once does the story get swept away by its own concept. It would have been all too easy for the humor of the story to have veered into the silly, but Shaw walks the perfect line. Lastly, the setting of London for this story gave it an extra dash of depth, as, like the city itself, the timeless aspects of these creatures that are steeped in history and meaning must now adapt to exist alongside the speed and change of the modern world.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, and are hankering for a new series to follow, I can’t recommend enough that you check out “Strange Practice!”

Rating 9: An excellent new entry into what was beginning to feel like a tired genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Strange Practice” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Monster Books” and “Urban Fantasy – London”

Find “Strange Practice” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Reviews: “Final Girls”

32796253Book: “Final Girls” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: A free ARC provided by Net Galley.

Book Description: Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past. 

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

Review: First and foremost, I want to extend a sincere thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. It means a lot and I greatly appreciate the generosity,

You all know my deep deep love for horror movies, and that I have a serious guilty-ish pleasure for the slasher film genre. There are so many things about it that are kind of grotesque and trite, but I really do enjoy a slash ’em up kind of flick like “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, or “Scream”. I think that my love for that subgenre stems from my time as an awkward teenager who was a bit more cautious and shy than some of her lady friends. Because of this, I really related to the “Final Girl” trope that those movies almost always trot out: the virginal good girl who triumphs over evil and is the only one who can vanquish the bloodthirsty villain. The movie “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” did a great job of deconstructing the concept of the Final Girl, as did the movie “Final Girls”, and I’ve been aching to read a book about it as well. When Lauren Beukes “Survivors’ Club” didn’t quite get there, my only hope left was “Final Girls” by Riley Sager, and BOY am I THRILLED to say that this book nailed it and gave me everything I needed.

The very scenarios given in this book as the mass killings that the Final Girls endured are so textbook 80s slasher film that I was living a Dayglow glittered fever dream. You have the college kids in a cabin in the woods, the sorority house massacre, and the isolated motel ambush with a killer who is wearing a sack on his head! PERFECTION. But even beyond setting up the perfect slasher scenarios, Sager also painted pictures of how an actual ‘Final Girl’ might endure after the trauma. As much as we love the idea of Nancy Thmpson or Laurie Strode going on to live happy lives, in the real world the consequences would be far more long lasting. Quincy is a complete mess whose outward appearance is a lie to the pain underneath. She has her baking blog and her true blue fiance, but she is addicted to Xanax and unable to let go of Coop, the cop who saved her all those years ago from a killer in the woods. She has distanced herself from other survivors of violent massacres, Lisa and Sam, because while the media loves to lump them together, she just wants to be herself and to live her life. I really loved Quincy for her full damaged self.

The thing that surprised me the most about this book was that it wasn’t the meta and self referential homage that I was expecting it to be, even though it’s set up was one hundred percent spot on for such a novel. Instead there was a serious mystery here, specifically involving Sam. After Lisa, the original and perhaps most ‘with it’ Final Girl is found dead of an apparent suicide, Quincy is approached by the second, Sam, who had been off the grid for years. The mystery at the heart of this book is about Sam’s experiences, as well as Quincy’s. Though I went in thinking that it would be about the two of them teaming up to find a killer, it turned out to be something much different. And then it superseded my expectations AGAIN when it also became a question about Quincy and her experience at a cabin in the woods. The movies like to portray these Final Girl types as innocents caught up in a whirlwind of circumstance, the ultimate Madonnas who are better than the Whores that surround them and therefore they get to live. But Sager poses that perhaps it’s more interesting if they are just complex, well rounded people instead of just a trope, and questions whether being innocent is the absolute only thing you can be to deserve to survive something as brutal as a slasher killer.

I truly enjoyed this book as a fan of the slasher genre, even if it wasn’t the self satisfied wink fest I thought it was going to be. Fans of this genre really need to go out and get their hands on “Final Girls”. Quincy has every right to stand with Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and all those other badass women who take out those who wish them ill, and she can do it while still being damaged.

Rating 9: A great mystery with some excellent character studies, “Final Girls” goes beyond a meta romp for slasher horror fans and is a fabulous and suspenseful summer read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Final Girls” is new and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists as of yet. But I think that it would fit in on “Best Female Driven Mysteries”, and “Popular Slasher Books”.

Find “Final Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Skullsworn”

29939037Book: “Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, April 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer–she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one you love / who will not come again.”

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love…and ending it on the edge of her sword.

Review: Readers first met Pyrre in Staveley’s debut trilogy, “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne,” the badass assassin whose religious order, the Skullsworn, worship the deity of death, Anashael. When I heard that he was writing a spin-off (prequel?) that centered around this character’s origin story, essentially, I was a bit skeptical. Sure, Pyrre was great in her supporting role, but she at times came across as unbeatable, and thus having no conflict, and, while we got into a few of the details of her religion in those first books, it also seemed like its seemingly callous philosophy would present a challenge to creating a sympathetic main character. But, lo and behold, this book blew me away, setting all of those concerns to rest and reminding me just how much I’ve been craving good, standalone fantasy fiction.

Death is at the center of the story. And if that sounds morbid, well, Pyrre, and Staveley, have much to say on the subject. We meet Pyrre at the cusp of her journey to become a full priestess of Anashael, wherein she must complete her final trial, killing ten types of individuals all listed in an ancient song of the order. She has a specific number of days to complete this, all overseen by two witnesses, the grumbly, but deadly Kossal, and the bright, complicated Ela. To do this, she returns to her childhood home of Dumbang.

Having already been introduced to this world, I was particularly thrilled with the setting of Dumbang for this story, a confusing maze of swamp, floating islands, and deadly creatures. The culture, history, and city itself all tied neatly into the greater world we are already familiar with, but were so unique that they stood alone as a completely new slice of this world. Reading this story, I could almost feel the heavy presence of this city, its beauty, its mystery, and the foreboding sense that people are treading where they should not. It perfectly mirrors the philosophy that Pyrre and the Skullsworn abide by: that death is inevitable and, in many ways, the most merciful part of life. Not something to be feared, but to be lived alongside.

The story itself is so compelling, mixing action with adventure, comedy with heartbreak, and neatly tying together the pieces of Pyrre’s life to perfectly illustrate how she came to be who she is and how she will continue to grow into the woman we meet in later stories. Kossal and Ela are great characters off whom Pyrre bounces, challenging her, and the reader, to expand her thinking on what it means to worship Anashael and to live a full life. Ela, specifically, was brilliant, jumping off the page and stealing every scene she was in. At first I was concerned that she was going to fall into a fairly established character type, all smooth sexuality and arrogant charm. But as the story continued, I began to have greater and greater hopes for her as a character and her ultimate role in the story. All of which were ultimately met, much to my joy and relief.

Bizarrely, Run Lan Lac, the man who Pyrre seeks out with the goal to love and to kill, was one of the weaker characters for me. But, given the overall commentary on love and death, upon further reflection, I’ve almost come to feel that this might have been intentional? He plays his role, and I was glad to see that his character remained true throughout all the revelations of the story.

Towards the end, the plot takes a massive leap out into the greater mythology of the world. And, while I have read the original trilogy which lent these reveals some interesting added perspectives, the story itself remained contained within its own pages, and I feel that it is still approachable for new readers even with this more expansive later plotline.

I can’t say enough about the strength of Staveley’s writing. As I said earlier, there were so many challenges he gave himself with the premise of this story. A main character who worships death and kills people with few qualms who must be made into a sympathetic and appealing leading lady. A new setting with a complex history that must still fit within the constraints of a previously built world. Multiple religions with a variety of gods, some familiar from previous  books, some new. All while trying to create a standalone novel that is approachable to new readers, but also familiar and appropriately laying the groundwork for a character known to readers of the original series. He not only does all of this, but the book was laugh-out-loud funny at parts and had me on the brink of tears at others. Staveley is quickly climbing the ranks of “must read” fantasy authors.

Rating 9: The epitome of setting tough writing goals and then  blowing them all out of the water!

Reader’s Advisory

“Skullsworn” is a newer title and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Book with Heroes/Heroines Who are Assassins.”

Find “Skullsworn” at your library using WorldCat

 

Serena’s Review: “A Conspiracy of Kings”

6527841Book: “A Conspiracy of Kings” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers, March 2010

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

Book Description: Sophos, under the guidance of yet another tutor, practices his swordplay and strategizes escape scenarios should his father’s villa come under attack. How would he save his mother? His sisters? Himself? Could he reach the horses in time? Where would he go? But nothing prepares him for the day armed men, silent as thieves, swarm the villa courtyard ready to kill, to capture, to kidnap. Sophos, the heir to the throne of Sounis, disappears without a trace.

In Attolia, Eugenides, the new and unlikely king, has never stopped wondering what happened to Sophos. Nor has the Queen of Eddis. They send spies. They pay informants. They appeal to the gods. But as time goes by, it becomes less and less certain that they will ever see their friend alive again.

Across the small peninsula battles are fought, bribes are offered, and conspiracies are set in motion. Darkening the horizon, the Mede Empire threatens, always, from across the sea. And Sophos, anonymous and alone, bides his time. Sophos, drawing on his memories of Gen, Pol, the Magus and Eddis, sets out on an adventure that will change all of their lives forever.

Review: After blazing through the first three books in this series last fall, I decided I needed to pump the brakes so I could stand the wait until the fifth book’s publication this spring. Delayed gratification and all of that. But by now the next book has dropped, I’m on the waiting list at my library, and it’s time to finally catch up with the last book in the series to this point.

One thing that I have commented about in all of the previous books in this series, is the way the author plays where her narrator and narrative method. For a series that has such a strong character as Gen, it’s a brave choice to focus the story on periphery characters and leave your star player benched, essentially, for large chunks of the story. Here, she takes an even bolder risk by throwing the story into the hands of Sophos, a character who played a large role in the plot of the first book “The Thief” but has been entirely absent, apart from random asides, throughout the rest of the series.  He was an interesting enough character there, but it is always hard to tell how truly compelling any character is on their own when they’re working of the character of Gen who seems to draw out the best parts of many characters. So if you’d asked me whether I was interested in an entire book seen through his eyes and regarding his struggles with family and kingship, I’d probably have been like “…meh?” But, as usual, I should never have doubted!

One of the few things I remembered about Sophos as a character was his crippling insecurity. Here, after the events of “The Thief” and back in his home country under a new tutor, we can see why he struggles with this. His father is completely disappointed in him as a son and heir and never misses an opportunity to rub this fact in. So in many ways this is a story of self-discovery and self-confidence, all wrapped beneath an action packed plot. After Sophos’ family is attacked and he is sold into slavery, he finds himself completely alone in the world, and, for the first time, anonymous. How can he escape his current situation and re-claim his throne? And, more importantly, does he even want to?

As I mentioned earlier, Whalen Turned doesn’t just change up narrators between books, but she also changes the way she tells the story. Here, very early on, it is clear that Sophos is relating his experience to a listener, but it is not clear who that listener was. This plot device was both interesting and endlessly frustrating as I kept coming up with guesses for who he was talking to and the purpose of telling the story the way he was.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that yes, he eventually does meet up with Gen, Attolia, and, most importantly Eddis again. As leaders of their own countries, each are valuable allies for the displaced Sophos. But much has happened since he last left them, most importantly the upstart theif Gen is now King of Attolia. And Eddis…he’s not quite sure where he stands with her. I loved seeing all of these characters through the eyes of Sophos who has been gone for much of the series and missed the progression of change that we the readers have had time to come to terms with. Further, all three rulers have different approaches to what it means to lead a country and how they go about it. I loved the insights they each provided Sophos as he began to realize the depth of the decisions before him.

The only thing that knocks this book down from a perfect score is the complicated politics of the regions. And I even hesitate to mention it because this aspect of the series is also one that makes it stand out and has been one of the draws for me as a reader. And it still is here. However, there were times when the plans and actions of the characters were confusing to me and I had to re-read portions to fully understand how everyone knew what when. But, like I said, I’d rather things be more complicated than be spoon-fed the plot, so take this “criticism” how you will.

Surprising no one, I loved this book. And surprising no one, all the doubts I had going in where laid fully to rest. I will now go back to obsessively refreshing my library hold account page to see if the line of people before me is dwindling for the next book “Thick as Thieves.”

Rating 9: Another great entry in a great series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conspiracy of Kings” is on these Goodreads lists: “Political themed YA fiction” and “Royalty.”

Find “A Conspiracy of Kings” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Thief” and “The Queen of Attolia” and “The King of Attolia”

Kate’s Review: “The River At Night”

29430686Book: “The River At Night” by Erica Ferencik

Publishing Info: Gallery/Scout Press, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A high-stakes drama set against the harsh beauty of the Maine wilderness, charting the journey of four friends as they fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident, The River at Night is a nonstop and unforgettable thriller by a stunning new voice in fiction.

Winifred Allen needs a vacation.

Stifled by a soul-crushing job, devastated by the death of her beloved brother, and lonely after the end of a fifteen-year marriage, Wini is feeling vulnerable. So when her three best friends insist on a high-octane getaway for their annual girls’ trip, she signs on, despite her misgivings.

What starts out as an invigorating hiking and rafting excursion in the remote Allagash Wilderness soon becomes an all-too-real nightmare: A freak accident leaves the women stranded, separating them from their raft and everything they need to survive. When night descends, a fire on the mountainside lures them to a ramshackle camp that appears to be their lifeline. But as Wini and her friends grasp the true intent of their supposed saviors, long buried secrets emerge and lifelong allegiances are put to the test. To survive, Wini must reach beyond the world she knows to harness an inner strength she never knew she possessed.

With intimately observed characters, visceral prose, and pacing as ruthless as the river itself, The River at Night is a dark exploration of creatures—both friend and foe—that you won’t soon forget.

Review: As I have mentioned before, I have some serious guilty pleasures (though I don’t REALLY believe in guilty pleasures when it comes to reading) when it comes to the books that I stack up on my nightstand. One of those guilty pleasures is wilderness survival horror/thriller. I am not an outdoorsy person by any stretch of the imagination beyond the occasional hike or walk, and so I love stories that involve people getting messed up by wilderness. Seriously, I think that I’m so scared of nature that I love seeing fictional people finding terror in the woods, or on the open ocean, or in the mountains, or whatever. This is the girl who freaked out about the Nutty Putty Cave Incident, made her entire book club listen to a long rant about it, and then watched “The Descent” a few times in a row as personal therapy, because she LOVES that movie due to the wilderness survival theme. So yeah. When I found a book that kind of sounds like “The Descent” exists, but takes out the cave, replaces it with a river, and replaces monsters with tangible real life horrors… Oh, I was so there.

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Me leaving the library with my copy. (source)

“The River At Night” even seems like “The Descent” in it’s premise, at least a little bit. A group of ladyfriends go on a trip that involves adrenaline pumping extreme sports, with one of them recovering from a serious loss in her life while the others don’t really know how to approach her about it. Winifred is our protagonist, and she is still reeling from her divorce and the death of her brother Marcus. Her friends Pia, Sandra, and Rachel have always been her travel companions, on out-there and intense adventures (thanks to Pia, a true free spirit with no fear), and while Wini has reservations, the thought of white water rafting in the Maine Wilderness sounds… fun? I will be the first to admit that these four women are all pretty two dimensional caricatures, with the self involved adrenaline junkie (Pia), the tightly wound recovering addict (Rachel), the quiet sweetheart with a troubled home life (Sandra), and the wounded but determined wallflower (Wini). And I will also be the first to admit that some of the situations they found themselves in were a bit convenient, and cliche, and a little bit farfetched.

But guess what? I didn’t care because DAMN was “The River At Night” a fun as hell read!!!!

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Cliche, shmiche, I’m just here to be entertained. (source)

“The River At Night” has just the right amount of suspense, as well as the right amount of relationship tension, that I had a hard time putting it down once I was completely absorbed by it. I had thoughts on where things were going to go, plot wise, but I was kept guessing for a lot of the big reveals. Ferencik did a really good job of building up the tension and setting the scene, and I felt like I could very easily and plainly see the Maine Wilderness as I made my way through the story.

I also really did like Wini as a protagonist. She is, of course, the character we get to know the best, and I felt like I understood her motivations in every choice that she made. I felt for her and I really did connect to the undercurrent of pain that she was fighting against, be it the end of her marriage or the loss of her brother, who was mute, and never really fit in outside of when he was with her. Her guilt in both of these losses was never overdone, but it was always present, like a very sad elephant in the room. It was pretty refreshing that Wini and her friends were all women who were encroaching upon middle age, an age range that we don’t really get to see much when it comes to women in books such as these. The way that they interacted with each other was pretty believable in terms of how sometimes friendships can be rife with tension, especially friendships that have gone on for so long and have seen so much. I believed every single action and choice that each of the characters made, and while I liked some more than others (Rachel was just the absolute worst and Pia was also pretty insufferable) I think that each of them added a unique piece to the whole of the story.

On top of that there were very sweet moments involving Wini and a character who is introduced a little more than halfway through the story. I don’t want to give any of it away, but just know that I thought that it was very touching for a book that had a slew of moments where I thought I was going to fall of my seat because of the ratcheted up tension. It was nice to see some legitimate moments of tenderness, even if some of the circumstances were a bit hard to swallow, realism wise. I absolutely found myself a bit teary eyed at a few of these moments, especially when Wini was thinking about Marcus and how she felt she failed him.

Realistic or not, “The River At Night” was an unsettling and adrenaline pumping survival thriller that captured my attention for a full evening. Thriller fans, MAKE NOTE. This will be a great book for the upcoming summer months to take along on a vacation.

Rating 9: Super fun, pushing all my guilty pleasure buttons, and suspenseful as all get out. I really enjoyed “The River At Night” and think that any fan of a nature survival thriller should check it out ASAP.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The River At Night” is, for whatever reason, not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “Best Wilderness Survival Books”.

Find “The River At Night” at your library using WorldCat!