Kate’s Review: “The Cheerleaders”

30969755Book: “The Cheerleaders” by Kara Thomas

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2018

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

Book Description: There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook.

First there was the car accident—two girls gone after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know why he did it. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they lost.

That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But for Monica, it’s not that easy. She just wants to forget. Only, Monica’s world is starting to unravel. There are the letters in her stepdad’s desk, an unearthed, years-old cell phone, a strange new friend at school. . . . Whatever happened five years ago isn’t over. Some people in town know more than they’re saying. And somehow Monica is at the center of it all.

There are no more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe.

Review: I want to extend a special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book.

I am so, so pleased that the YA Thriller community has someone like Kara Thomas repping it these days. As you all know I’ve had a harder time with YA thrillers in the past, if only because they either aren’t gritty enough, don’t have enough interesting characters, or have predictable and spoon fed mysteries for their audience. While I understand that sometimes straight forward narratives are considered to be more ‘teen friendly’, I also think that it’s refreshing when authors don’t talk down to their teen readers and give them some serious narratives to chew on. And Kara Thomas trusts her readers enough that there is NO talking down to them. After reading her previous books “The Darkest Corners” and “Little Monsters”, I was practically chomping at the bit to read “The Cheerleaders”, her newest thriller mystery. When I finally sat down and began to read it, I pretty much devoured it all in two sittings. Thomas has done it again.

The first thing that really stood out to me about this book was our protagonist, Monica. Monica could at first glance be written off as your typical thriller heroine in novels like this: when we meet her she is in the middle of a medication induced abortion after a fling with an older man who happens to be the new soccer coach at her high school (side note: I super super appreciate the fact that Thomas has an abortion in this book and doesn’t use it as a melodramatic moment or a moment to proselytize to either side: it’s just a fact that Monica has one and that she made that choice without any hesitation). She has been having trouble coping for the past five years ever since her older sister Jen committed suicide, the fifth cheerleader in the five cheerleader deaths that have shaken the town, and has been distancing herself from everyone and succumbing to numbness. I appreciate the fact that while it’s never outwardly stated that Monica is suffering from a deep depression, Thomas makes it clear through her actions. Monica is flawed and Monica has moments where you just want to shake her, but she feels so freaking real that I just longed to hug her. I loved how intrepid she was, and think that she is one of the strongest protagonists I’ve seen in a YA thriller, or ANY thriller, in the past few years.

The mystery, too, was solid and intricate, and kept me guessing up until the end. It’s laid out in two different narratives: there’s Monica’s first person POV, and then a third person POV that follows Jen five years before in the months leading up to her death. Monica is starting to wonder if Jen actually committed suicide, and if all of the cheerleader deaths were as cut and dry as they seemed at the time. This leads her on a noire-like mystery with her own sidekick in Ginny, a neighbor that Monica has never really gotten to know in spite of the fact Ginny has always been around. The mystery surrounding the cheerleaders deaths is well paced and ever suspenseful, and Thomas doesn’t show her hand until she is good and ready to. I was once again left guessing until the end, and even though I had some small inklings of where things were going, I was mostly left surprised by the main mystery, and TOTALLY surprised by another that flits about off to the side, almost unnoticed but always present. The flashbacks to Jen’s story also give us clues that we can piece together while Monica is doing the same, and I really liked seeing Monica pick up on something that we picked up on previously, and vice versa.

And it’s gritty and bleak to be certain. Thomas doesn’t hold back in bringing up hard issues like abortion, statutory rape, violence in schools, and suicide, but they never feel like they’re exploitative, titillating, or over the top. At the same time, they they don’t feel like moments in an after school special either. Again, she trusts her readers to see nuance and darkness and be able to sort it out for themselves without any hand holding or deeper explanation. I think that it’s because of this trust that she knows how to strike the right balance in tone, and to make this book feel realistic and thrilling without having to go to any kind of extremes to send the point all the way home.

“The Cheerleaders” is another great mystery from Kara Thomas. Thriller fans, if you are reluctant to give YA thrillers a try, know that she is not going to let you down.

Rating 9: A suspenseful and well crafted mystery with realistic characters and a responsible handle on important issues, “The Cheerleaders” was a fulfilling read that kept me guessing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cheerleaders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cheerleading”, and “Best Mystery & Thriller 2018”.

Find “The Cheerleaders” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Crooked Kingdom”

22299763Book: “Crooked Kingdom” by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Orion Children’s Books, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Previously reviewed: “Six of Crows”“Six of Crows”

Review: As was established in our bookclub review of this book, I was definitely the side of our blogging duo who loved the first book. I was all the more surprised given the massive burn I’m still nursing from the author’s original Grisha trilogy that I’ve come to see as an example of how even great writing and great characters can fall prey to some unfortunate YA fantasy tropes. But “Six of Crows” seemed blessedly free of the concerns that plagued those original books, and I was so excited after reading it that I immediately ordered this, the second half of the duology. And, I’m pleased to report, that she stuck the landing on this one!

Kaz and crew are in a tight spot. While they pulled off their last crazy stunt, the reward they were promised not only wasn’t forthcoming, but the powerful merchant with whom they had bargained instead kidnapped Inej and tanked the reputation of the entire crew with the other powerful gangs that make up Ketterdam. Now, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the group must not only recover their lost member and loot, but somehow resolve a political situation has the potential the change the world for the worse.

What sold me on the fist book was the strength of this cast of characters. There are a lot of them, and it speaks to Bardugo’s abilities as an author that she was able to balance so many competing personalities and story arcs. Many of those continue into this book, though there are slight shifts in focus. While much of the first book was taken up by slowly revealing Nina and Mattias’s shared past and resolving their ongoing prejudices, here, their romance and role in each other’s lives has settled down more. The fallout of Nina’s use of the highly addictive, powerful stimulant that she used in the last book to save the team at the very end, was an important and captivating arc for her.

Jesper and Wylan, instead, received more word count and chapters than they had had in the first book. Jesper’s own past was delved into, as well as his continued confrontation with his own gambling addition and the ongoing damage that his past poor choices are wreaking on his own life and the lives of those he loves. Wylan, too, further explores his own highly toxic familial relationships and the true horror that lies at the heart of many of his father’s lies. Their relationship, together, is also given more focus, especially as Jesper begins to realize that his crush on Kaz is a dead end and that Wylan may have always been the better match for him.

Of course, for me, Inej and Kaz were my main points of interest. I enjoyed both of these two the most in the first book, and I continued to enjoy their chapters here. I do feel like they each had a bit less, ultimately, due to the increased focus on Jesper and Wylan, however, I still loved what we were given. Inej, specifically, had come to some pretty frank realizations about what she saw for herself in the future by the end of the last book. And here, it was learning how to follow through with two competing desires. She’s also confronted by a mysterious assassin who may actually be even more skilled than the Wraith herself. Kaz, too, still struggles to overcome the lasting effects of his past. His arc didn’t have as many clear points, as it was more a simple continuation of his rise as a force to be reckoned with in Ketterdam. However, his relationship with Inej and the vulnerability that is required to maintain (begin!) it, is a continual point of challenge for him.

As for the plot itself, I very much enjoyed the complicated heist that was put into effect. There were several points that were laid down here and there that later came to play in new and surprising ways. There was just enough made clear to see the building blocks of the plan, but enough was hidden from various characters to have a good number of surprises in store (this is probably another reason why we had fewer Kaz chapters than I’d like, since, by necessity of the plot remaining a mystery, the man who knows it all can’t have a lot of focus). I liked the multiple showdowns that came into play and the ways in which various crew members’ strengths were called upon at different times to solve different problems.

The story was a bit more sprawling than the close-focused mission of the first book and I both appreciated the added complication but also felt a bit more adrift in the middle when the pieces were still being put together. The goal itself was almost too ambiguous to give the action a clear focus. This resulted in some of what should have been compelling action scenes feeling a bit disjointed from the book, as it wasn’t clear until the end how they all added together to get the result.

I also really enjoyed the ending. The story definitely didn’t shy away from some grim choices, and while I know this will disappoint some readers, I felt that these decisions were necessary to reflect the true dangers of the situation at hand. Further, while broad paths were laid before each character, their stories were by no means neatly wrapped up. Instead, we saw glimpses into what could be the future, but they were left so wide-open that there’s room to imagine various outcomes for them all.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this duology. It’s hard to think of many fantasy/heist books (of course, there’s the insurmountable Megan Whalen Turner), so in many ways these stories felt like a breath of fresh air in YA fantasy fiction (is it even YA? This was a question we discussed at bookclub, and I’m not sure of the answer for books like this). If you enjoyed “Six of Crows,” or Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, or other books by Leigh Bardugo, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this duology.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crooked Kingdom” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA fantasy/sf novels with major LGBTQ Characters” and “Thieves.”

Find “Crooked Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Time I Lied”

36750068Book: “The Last Time I Liked” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton Books, July 2018

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

Book Description: In the new novel from the bestselling author of Final Girls, The Last Time I Lied follows a young woman as she returns to her childhood summer camp to uncover the truth about a tragedy that happened there fifteen years ago.

Two Truths and a Lie. The girls played it all the time in their tiny cabin at Camp Nightingale. Vivian, Natalie, Allison, and first-time camper Emma Davis, the youngest of the group. The games ended when Emma sleepily watched the others sneak out of the cabin in the dead of night. The last she–or anyone–saw of them was Vivian closing the cabin door behind her, hushing Emma with a finger pressed to her lips.

Now a rising star in the New York art scene, Emma turns her past into paintings–massive canvases filled with dark leaves and gnarled branches that cover ghostly shapes in white dresses. The paintings catch the attention of Francesca Harris-White, the socialite and wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale. When Francesca implores her to return to the newly reopened camp as a painting instructor, Emma sees an opportunity to try to find out what really happened to her friends.

Yet it’s immediately clear that all is not right at Camp Nightingale. Already haunted by memories from fifteen years ago, Emma discovers a security camera pointed directly at her cabin, mounting mistrust from Francesca and, most disturbing of all, cryptic clues Vivian left behind about the camp’s twisted origins. As she digs deeper, Emma finds herself sorting through lies from the past while facing threats from both man and nature in the present. And the closer she gets to the truth about Camp Nightingale, the more she realizes it may come at a deadly price.

Review: I want to extend a thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

If you remember, last year I was very excited about a book called “Final Girls” by Riley Sager. Sager kind of came out of nowhere with that book, an homage to the Final Girl trope from horror movies. So you can be sure that when I saw that he had a new one called “The Last Time I Lied” I was going to need to get my hands on it ASAP. The moment I sat down and started it, I was immediately sucked in and had a hard time putting it down, just like “Final Girls” the summer before. So thank you, Riley Sager, for taking me in and refusing to let me go until I found out what happened. AND for making it take place at a summer camp with a scandalous past. Because now I get to use “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Sleepaway Camp” references while I gush about this awesome mystery thriller, as is tradition when dealing with a story about summer camp.

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Me as I think of all the GIFs I could use… (source)

If “Final Girls” was a homage to slasher films, “The Last Time I Lied” is one to Nancy Drew. There are teenage and adult female detectives alike trying to figure out mysteries from missing people, to a mysterious village that may have disappeared, to rumors of a once operational mental asylum. Granted, these mysteries are a bit more amped up in stakes than Nancy Drew ever was, but the parallels are certainly there. This story is told in two separate narratives (this is a really popular narrative form I’m realizing). There is the present day, where our protagonist Emma is a damaged adult who is haunted by her one summer at Camp Nightingale, and thirteen year old Emma while she is attending the camp during that fateful summer where her bunkmates Vivian, Natalie, and Allison disappeared. We see what a mess present day Emma is, and as we explore both timelines we not only get clues about what may have happened to the girls, but what has happened to Emma as well in the years after. Sager did a great job of using this plot structure to its full effect, as there were clues to all the various mysteries across both timelines, some obvious and some not so obvious. As you all know I liked trying to guess what is happening as I read along (more like I can’t help it), and I’m pleased to say that in “The Last Time I Lied” I was pretty much caught unawares, and the moments that I did guess part of a solution, I was missing vital pieces. Sager is even good at pulling off a last moment epilogue twist without supremely pissing me off, and THAT, as you know, is a feat that few an accomplish. I think that Sager did it so well because he knows that you have to set up a foundation for it, and definitely put it all in there even if I didn’t notice it. So when I got to the end I was definitely enthralled.

But on top of an excellent mystery, Sager also writes great characters who feel very real. Emma is such an interesting protagonist because she could fit the usual tropes of ‘damaged woman has to confront her dark past’ that we so often see in these stories, but she rises above them in almost every way. She’s a mess, but she’s not unlikable; on the contrary, she’s very easy to root for. She’s also realistic in how she behaves both as an adult and as a teenager. I found out about halfway through this book that Sager is a man (Riley Sager is a pen name, and the identity behind it was kept close to the vest for “Final Girls”), and I was surprised if only because DAMN does he know how to write teenage girls. I related hard core to thirteen year old Emma, with her shyness, insecurities, and awkward crush on Theo, the oldest son of the camp director, Franny. In fact, every teenage girl that Sager wrote reminded me of girls I knew in my teenage years. It’s a serious talent to know how to genuinely channel the minds and ways of teenagers, and Sager has proven that he has that talent.

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Almost as much talent as THESE GUYS! (source)

In fact, all of the characters are given moments to shine and feel like fleshed out individuals. From Emma’s friend Marc (acting as a faraway Nancy Drew in his own right) to high strung camp counselor Mindy, all of his characters are given moments of humanity and expression, and it makes it so you don’t want ANY of them to be the culprits of the eventual stalking that Emma becomes victim of, and perhaps something even more sinister as well.

“The Last Time I Lied” was an awesome mystery thriller, and Riley Sager is one of the best in the business. If you haven’t already checked out his work, this book could be the place to start. Just be sure that any fond memories of camp you may have are kept safe and far far away. And if you have bad memories of camp, well, perhaps this can give you the perspective of ‘it could have been worse’.

Rating 9: A thrilling and exciting mystery from a stellar voice in horror thrillers, “The Last Time I Lied” kept me guessing, kept me going, and lived up to my high expectations and then some.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Time I Lied” is fairly new and not on any Goodreads lists yet. But I would definitely put it on “Boarding, Private Schools, and Camps”, and “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”.

Find “The Last Time I Lied” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Cabin at the End of the World”

36381091Book: “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay

Publishing Info: William Morrow, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: A friend let me borrow it!

Book Description: The Bram Stoker Award-winning author of A Head Full of Ghosts adds an inventive twist to the home invasion horror story in a heart-palpitating novel of psychological suspense that recalls Stephen King’s Misery, Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, and Jack Ketchum’s cult hit The Girl Next Door.

Seven-year-old Wen and her parents, Eric and Andrew, are vacationing at a remote cabin on a quiet New Hampshire lake. Their closest neighbors are more than two miles in either direction along a rutted dirt road.

One afternoon, as Wen catches grasshoppers in the front yard, a stranger unexpectedly appears in the driveway. Leonard is the largest man Wen has ever seen but he is young, friendly, and he wins her over almost instantly. Leonard and Wen talk and play until Leonard abruptly apologizes and tells Wen, “None of what’s going to happen is your fault”. Three more strangers then arrive at the cabin carrying unidentifiable, menacing objects. As Wen sprints inside to warn her parents, Leonard calls out: “Your dads won’t want to let us in, Wen. But they have to. We need your help to save the world.”

Thus begins an unbearably tense, gripping tale of paranoia, sacrifice, apocalypse, and survival that escalates to a shattering conclusion, one in which the fate of a loving family and quite possibly all of humanity are entwined. The Cabin at the End of the World is a masterpiece of terror and suspense from the fantastically fertile imagination of Paul Tremblay.

Review: Paul Tremblay, you fucked me up again.

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Though I don’t know what I expected because it always comes to this. (source)

I knew that this was going to happen, because he has done this twice before. First with “A Head Full of Ghosts”, a book about a family dealing with a teenage girl’s possible possession, and then with “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock”, a book about a family dealing with a boy’s disappearance. Now he came for me and his readers with “The Cabin at the End of the World”, a book about a family dealing with the threat of a home invasion and an impossible choice they may have to make. As you can see, Paul Tremblay likes to put families through the ringer, and that makes his books not only all the more scary, but it also makes them deeply emotional reads with characters whose pain you feel in the very pits of your stomach. The emotional connection to the characters is one of the things that sets Tremblay above many other horror authors today, and has him up there with Joe Hill, Stephen King, and Caroline Kepnes when it comes to horror and thriller fiction. CLAIM YOUR RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE OF AGONY, YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD.

This time our family is comprised of Wen and her fathers Eric and Andrew. Wen is an eight year old trans-racial adoptee who is generally happy with her two dads, but has a nagging identity crisis that she can’t quite shake. Eric is an anxious person who has a healthy but somewhat hidden Catholic Faith, and he loves his husband and daughter even though he’s always worrying about her. Andrew is the more easy going of the pair, though a past trauma is always in the back of his mind even as he tries to be as pragmatic and logical as possible. So when they are cornered by a doomsday cult during their cabin weekend, a group of people who all came together by shared visions of the end of the world, they are suddenly forced into a dangerous situation that none of them are at all equipped for. The intruders believe that to prevent the end of days, this family needs to sacrifice one of it’s own. Eric, Andrew, and Wen are all complex characters who make realistic decisions based on who they are as people, from an eight year old child to a man consumed by nerves to a man trying to keep complete zen control of himself. I liked that while we didn’t see much interaction in the present outside of the home invasion, we are told through flashbacks and little hints and interactions just how much they mean to each other. I also appreciated that Tremblay did address the complex intricacies for families with transracial adoptees. While Eric and Andrew definitely do their very best to help Wen connect to her heritage (as she was adopted from China), there are still hints and references to her feeling out of place in her surroundings. It’s a narrative that isn’t seen much in adoption stories, and it was refreshing to show her multilayered feelings on her adoption and life with Eric and Andrew. Eric and Andrew were also well explored in their relationship and their own anxieties about parenting and living as gay men in a world where there is still stigma, no matter how much progress has been made. It was especially interesting exploring Andrew, who encourages Eric to be more relaxed but is still affected by a hate crime that was committed against him years before.

And the antagonistic group itself has some depth and complexity. Leonard, the leader of the doomsday group, takes no joy in the task he thinks he is sent to do. You can tell that he is pained by his ‘mission’, but he is also blinded by his own zealotry and it means that he can’t see the pain that he is causing. There is certainly an ambiguity there with him and his followers/fellow members; Tremblay makes sure to leave a lot of ambiguity about whether the world is actually coming to an end or not, and lets the reader decide if the signs that Leonard is seeing are real, or just coincidences as Andrew believes. But in the same token, it’s hard to know what the greater horror would be: that the end of the world may be coming, and only a terrible sacrifice can stop it…. Or that Leonard and his followers are just out of their minds, and that all of the suffering and torment that falls upon Eric, Andrew, and Wen is just for nothing. The story line and plot is tense as hell, and it wound me up as each new development happened. The brutality that Leonard and his group brings is unrelenting, but never feels tasteless of exploitative. You can see the motivations and fears on both sides, and as some characters begin to question what they are  believing on both sides, the reader also begins to wonder just what is real and what is not. I loved that. Even if it messed me up. Don’t go into this book looking for straight up answers and conclusions: it is more a meditation on faith, family, and zealotry than your run of the mill end of the world tale. And I closed the book and just had to stare at the ceiling for a bit.

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And I mean this in the BEST way possible. (source)

Paul Tremblay is one of our best horror writers out there because he can find the horror in the extreme, and the horror in the all too ordinary. He taps into fears of loss and injustice, and the unknown, and his words will linger with you long after you close the book. He can terrify and devastate you, and if you are anything like me you will look forward to it every single time. “The Cabin at the End of the World” was well worth the wait.

Rating 9: Paul Tremblay has created another disturbing and heart wrenching tale of family, faith, paranoia, and love that scared me and made me cry. “The Cabin at the End of the World” is another winner from a horror maestro.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cabin at the End of the World” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “This Is The End….”, and “A Walk in the Woods”.

Find “The Cabin at the End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Perilous Undertaking”

30008834Book: “A Perilous Undertaking” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, January 2017

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

Book Description: London, 1887. At the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task–saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Ramsforth, accused of the brutal murder of his mistress, Artemisia, will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if the real killer is not found.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural-historian colleague, Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed…

Previously reviewed: “A Curious Beginning”

Review: I’ve finally gotten around to writing a review for the second book in this series! Confession: I read this several months ago…But! There have been several more recent releases that I’ve read between then and now that I wanted to get in nearer their publication date, so here we hare. #blogproblems. Anyways, all of that to say, the delay in this had nothing to do with reservations about the series or this book in general, because turns out, I liked this one just as much as the first, maybe even more!

Veronica Speedwell and Stoker have finally settled into a routine and are excited to set out on their first expedition with their wealthy patron. That is until he trips on a tortoise and has to cancel the whole thing, leaving Veronica and Stoker at a loss with how to fill their time. Wouldn’t it be nice if a mystery would fall on their doorstep right about now? And lo and behold, one does! This time with a murder in a close knit of artist friends and a speculation that the man found covered in blood at her feet may be innocent after all. Now it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to not only get to the bottom of all the shenanigans that this group has been getting up to over the years, but also to unravel a complicated knot of possible relationships and motives to hopefully save the life of an innocent man. Or is he?

Man, I’m just enjoying the heck out of these books! Veronica is such a hoot, and she’s even better in this book, now having found a new pursuit at which to aim her talents and intelligence. Stoker plays the reluctant side kick in front of Veronica’s unparalleled enthusiasm, and it sets a great tone for the series going forward. Further, in the midst of the mystery itself, we get some nice added building blocks to both of our main characters. Veronica is still reeling from the revelations about her parentage that she discovered in the last book. It’s not something that can simply be shrugged off, and specific elements of this mystery bring some of these lingering feelings to a head. Stoker, too, is still managing reconciling his complicated history with his past wife with his growing attachment (mostly just partnership, at this point) with another strong-willed woman.

The mystery itself also plays to both of these characters strengths and there were some fun swaps in gender roles that played for a lot of good comedic value. Stoker, for example, ends up being the distraction for fawning admirers while Veronica sneaks around hunting for clues. The pair also find themselves caught up in an underground…um…risque club? Stoker, of course, is horrified. Veronica is curious and enthusiastic. Which leads to even more horror on Stoker’s part.

The cast of possible suspects was large and I enjoyed many of the secondary characters that were introduced through the artists’ group. However, like the first book, I did find the ending a bit rushed and was able to predict the correct villain and their motivation fairly early on. But for me this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the story. The writing is swift and sure, balancing excellent comedic dialogue with a never-faltering first person narrator.

One last criticism may be that I feel like the relationship between Veronica and Stoker might be moving a bit slowly, but this might just be due to the mental comparisons I can’t help but draw  between this series and the Amelia Peabody series. They are very alike, both with the historical setting and the general temperaments of the two leads. And with that one, we’ve seen how successfully the series moved forward even after the two main characters got married in the very first book. Here, it feels like the author might be shying back a bit out of fear that the romantic suspense is what is driving the story. I don’t believe it is, and I’ve seen how well characters like these can flourish, even if the initial romance has been resolved happily early on. But I just received the third book from the library today, so we’ll see how things progress there.

All told, I enjoyed this second novel just as much as the first. Having already been introduced to these characters and had the partnership between Veronica and Stoker already built, I might even say this was the stronger outing of the two. If you enjoyed the first book, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: No second book slump to be seen here!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Perilous Undertaking” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain” and “Lady detectives.”

Find “A Perilous Undertaking”  at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “My Plain Jane”

363010231Book: “My Plain Jane” by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: You may think you know the story. After a miserable childhood, penniless orphan Jane Eyre embarks on a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. There, she meets one dark, brooding Mr. Rochester. Despite their significant age gap (!) and his uneven temper (!!), they fall in love—and, Reader, she marries him. (!!!)

Or does she?

Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions, in which all is not as it seems, a certain gentleman is hiding more than skeletons in his closets, and one orphan Jane Eyre, aspiring author Charlotte Brontë, and supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood are about to be drawn together on the most epic ghost hunt this side of Wuthering Heights.

Previously reviewed: “My Lady Jane”

Review: I picked up the first book in this series (?) pretty much on a self dare: how could the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey  somehow be turned into a fantasy/comedy YA story and NOT be terrible? Well, I was definitely proven wrong, so when I saw this book coming out, I did nothing more than glance at it, see that it was somehow a Jane Eyre retelling, and instantly request it. Seriously, I didn’t even read the actual book description, because I was surprised as heck that there were two other narrators when I actually started reading, even though it states it right there in the blurb. Anyways, long story short, I loved this book.

Jane Eyre is working as a teacher at the orphanage/school where she was raised, alongside her friend Charlotte Bronte. Their quiet, but not so happy, lives are interrupted with the arrival of ghost hunter extraordinaire, Alexander Blackwell, who sees in Jane a powerful addition to the supernatural services organization for which he works. Jane doesn’t see it the same way and flees to be a certain governess at a certain dark and creepy house with a certain brooding gentleman in residence. Charlotte, on the other hand, is all too willing to prove that she, too, has what it takes to hunt ghosts and gets herself involved, like all good heroines do.

It’s really hard to blurb this book as so much of the plot is caught up in the twists that the authors are constantly lobbing into what is a very well known classic tale of tragic love. And man, I don’t want to ruin the surprises that are in store! In many ways, I enjoyed this book even more than the first book. Other than her terrible end, I didn’t really know anything about the history behind the original Lady Jane Grey and, from what I do know, the story veered from that path pretty early on to allow for our leading lady to have a proactive role, rather than sitting alone and doomed on a throne for a few days.

But here, I am very familiar with the original plot line of “Jane Eyre” so watching the story unfold in a completely unexpected way, artfully tying in characters and events that mirror those from the original but who show up and do things that I would never have guessed was an utter delight. For all that we gain two additional characters, one of whom is the author of the original book in question, it was truly impressive how closely these authors managed to tie it all together with that story. They also neatly explored some of the criticisms that can be thrown at the door of the original, as well.

As characters go, I actually ended up enjoying Charlotte and Alexander more than Jane herself. Charlotte has the go-getter gumption that I like in my leading ladies, and Alexander was appropriately put off but also endeared by her, which I like in my romantic heroes. This all left poor Jane to still have to fulfill the role of the one who falls in love with the very brooding, slightly suspicious Mr. Rochester. Yes, things don’t all turn out as they do in the book, but given the dueling goals of retelling the story while also criticizing some of the peculiarities of its romance, this left Jane in the awkward position of having to mimic some of the foibles (at least they are presented as foibles in this view of the story) of the original Jane as well. But, don’t get me wrong, the book takes a massive turn halfway through the story, and in the latter half Jane gives it as good as she got.

I’m sure this was true of the first book as well, but what stood out to me the most in this one was the bunches of fun I was having simply spotting references to other pop culture memes and moments. I know that “Ready Player One” has come under a lot of fire (I don’t think deserved, save it for the second book!) for being nothing but a loose plot full of 80s references. And while I had fun with that book and those nods, I’m not a pop culture aficionado like Kate, especially not about the 80s, so I’m sure I missed the majority of the more subtle Easter eggs.  Not so here! These are the kind of references that I can get behind. We have “The Princess Bride,” “Harry Potter, ” “Ghostbusters,” “Lord of the Rings” and so many more! They were everywhere, and what made this even better was how artfully they were sewn into the story itself. It never felt like they were shoehorned in, but instead each reference came about in a natural and often very subtle way.

I again loved the way that the authors wove supernatural events into this story. Yes, it’s probably a bit easier to sell a ghost story with actual ghosts for “Jane Eyre” than shapeshifters in a real historical event like with the first book, but there are still a million ways this thing could have gotten away from them. Instead, the entire production felt tightly controlled and masterfully directed the entire time. The characters each had distinct and interesting character arcs, the magic was well thought out and integral to the story itself, and the original “Jane Eyre” was deftly retold and lampooned at the same time. I zipped through this book in one day! If you enjoyed “My Lady Jane” or are up for a good comedy version of “Jane Eyre,” than I definitely recommend checking out “My Plain Jane.”

Rating 9: Adding comedy, magic, and bucket loads of literary references only improves this retelling of “Jane Eyre.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Plain Jane” is on these Goodreads lists: “Derivatives of Jane Eyre” and “Brontës in Fiction.”

Find “My Plain Jane” at the library using Worldcat!

 

Book Club Review: “Six of Crows”

23006119We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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

Book: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Company, September 2015

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

A-Side Book: “Shadow and Bone”

Book Description: Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Serena’s Thoughts

This book is probably one of the perfect diverging points for Kate and my own differing book tastes. I’m pretty sure that everything I love about these genres are the same things that turn off Kate, so be ready for some whiplash in our opinions!

It’s no secret that I love fantasy. Pretty much any fantasy, but high fantasy (rather than, say, urban fantasy) is definitely my preferred type. After all, that’s the primary genre that I cover on this blog. But I also love heist stories. I don’t read many heist books, because frankly most of the ones I’ve tried fall into the worst category of “beach reads” where the writing and plotting is so simplistic that I just can’t acknowledge it as worth my time to read. But I do love heist movies (though even I have my doubts about this new “Oceans 11” reboot…). So reading this book description, I was all over this!

I did have a few points of hesitancy, however, going in. I don’t typically prefer books with multiple narrators, let alone five. And I’ve been burned by Bardugo in the past. While I liked the first book in her “Grisha” series, my rage boiled over in the second and I don’t think I even finished the third. So, I was excited, but hesitant.

All for nothing! I had a blast with this book! Set in the same world and a few years (?) after the events in the last book of the “Grisha” trilogy, our team is made up of a ragtag group of individuals all with complicated pasts and motivations that lead them to be involved in what everyone says is an impossible mission.

I very much enjoyed the world building in this story. It’s been a few years since I read the other two books, but for the most part this world and history is presented in such a way that prior knowledge of it was not necessary. If anything, I think my half reading of the first trilogy almost made it worse, as I could sort of remember things here and there and was never quite sure whether something new was being introduced or whether I should be remembering it from before. In that respect, it might even be easier to read this book with zero knowledge of the original trilogy. All of that said, this story takes place in two new and distinct locations: the gang-riddled streets of Ketterdam and the Ice Court where the people of the north capture and exterminate Grisha, as they see their magic as contrary to the natural world. Bardugo does an excellent job in painting clear and brilliant scenes on which to work her stories. I particularly liked the Ice Court itself, and the complex inner workings that the team had to overcome to break in and out.

As for the characters, Bardugo masterfully juggled a very full cast, somehow managing to weave together a very action-packed story while also slowly revealing the complicated and often dark histories of each individual character on this journey. I had a few favorites, but I ultimately enjoyed them all. I would say that Jesper was probably my least favorite, due to the fact that he had the least developed back story of the group and, for plot reasons, had to be kept in the dark about certain events. I enjoyed Inej the most, as her character type (silent, deadly, masterfully proficient at what she does best) is one of my favorites. But I think that Nina and Matthias, as a pair, had the most compelling journey in this story. Raised in very different cultures and with very different views on the world, they both have to confront prejudices and the darker side of their own beings.

I had a few quibbles of plausibility here and there, as far as the heist itself goes. But for the most part, I was having such a blast that I didn’t have time to pause and really think about the viability of some of their more outrageous plans. Bardugo is particularly effective with her dialogue, and with a cast of 6+ characters, there were ample opportunities for this strength to shine and overcast any weaker plot points. Over all, I greatly enjoyed this book and have the second one sitting on my shelf ready to read!

Kate’s Thoughts

Say it with me folks: I don’t like heist stories, I don’t like high fantasy, and while I read “Shadow and Bone” in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I didn’t particularly care for it and never went back to that trilogy. So yeah, going into “Six of Crows” I wasn’t terribly stoked. But I like to think that I’m a good sport and something of a trooper, and given that I really liked other works by Bardugo (specifically “Wonder Woman: Warbringer”, and the short story “Verse Chorus Verse”), I had a little bit of hope that I would enjoy at least parts of it.

Turns out I was right on both counts. So, yay?

For not liking heists or high fantasy, there were plenty of things that I did find likable in this book. As Serena mentioned, Bardugo has a knack for world building, and while I remember very little from her Grishaverse I greatly enjoyed seeing aspects of it popping up in this book, even if it was in a different time and place. The Dutch influence in Ketterdam is a fun thing to watch as well, with references to various familiar landmark types and certain words clearly being derived from the Dutch language. Bardugo has a clear world idea, and in some ways she expands upon it in this book (as far as I know) with how Grishas (or witches) are viewed, and how this society functions in a more poverty stricken and corrupt society.

Bardugo also has a talent for characterization and dialog, and I ended up really enjoying a number of the characters. While in book club the solid consensus seemed to list Inej as a favorite, I myself greatly, GREATLY enjoyed Nina and her morally grey, duplicitous yet empathetic ways. Like Serena I was quite intrigued by her relationship with Matthias, and how they both have a deep connection but deep resentment and mistrust because of past actions. Whenever the story was focused on her, it had my rapt attention.

But, at the end of the day, Serena knows me very well: “Six of Crows” manages to run with a number of story themes that I don’t care for, mostly heists and high fantasy. And because of that, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, and as much as others have. I am not a good judge for how good this story is because this is not a book that was written with me in mind, and it’s not quite strong enough (outside of a few aspects I did like) to rise above my preferences and prove me wrong. It’s no one’s fault. It just didn’t do it for me as a whole.

Serena’s Rating 9: Strong dialogue and a great cast of characters added to what was already a thrilling heist story.

Kate’s Rating 6: While the characters compelled me and the dialog was snappy, the story line and themes didn’t interest me.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This story is set in the same world as Bardugo’s original “Grisha” trilogy. How did reading that trilogy before (or not reading it) affect your experience with this book?
  2. This book is made up of a large cast of characters. Which ones stood out to you as particularly interesting? Were there any that you felt less connected to?
  3. Through Nina and Matthias’s story arc, this book confronts some challenging themes regarding prejudice and persecution. What moments stood out to you in this area? Do you think this could have been explored even further?
  4. The heist itself is made up of several moving pieces and changed throughout the story. Did any parts of it strike you as particularly surprising or fun to read about? Did you have questions about any parts of it?
  5. There are a lot of surprises revealed throughout the story. Which ones took you by surprise and which ones could you predict?
  6. The story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Where do you think it will go from here?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Six of Crows” is on these Goodreads lists: “Villain Protagonist” and “Speculative Fiction Heist/Caper Stories.”

Find “Six of Crows” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente