Serena’s Review: “The Beast is an Animal”

29522966Book: “The Beast is an Animal” by Peternelle van Arsdale

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: A girl with a secret talent must save her village from the encroaching darkness in this haunting and deeply satisfying tale.

Alys was seven when the soul eaters came to her village.

These soul eaters, twin sisters who were abandoned by their father and slowly morphed into something not quite human, devour human souls. Alys, and all the other children, were spared—and they were sent to live in a neighboring village. There the devout people created a strict world where good and evil are as fundamental as the nursery rhymes children sing. Fear of the soul eaters—and of the Beast they believe guides them—rule village life. But the Beast is not what they think it is. And neither is Alys.

Inside, Alys feels connected to the soul eaters, and maybe even to the Beast itself. As she grows from a child to a teenager, she longs for the freedom of the forest. And she has a gift she can tell no one, for fear they will call her a witch. When disaster strikes, Alys finds herself on a journey to heal herself and her world. A journey that will take her through the darkest parts of the forest, where danger threatens her from the outside—and from within her own heart and soul.

Review: I am going to start this review by talking about the cover, because it is rare that I see a cover that so perfectly sets up the atmosphere of the book. Dark, yet beautiful. Indistinct, yet you feel drawn in, almost against your will. The tall dark trees, shadows, and bright red flowers all spark instinctive warning symbols in your head and that looming shape in the middle….is it a person? A creature? Or simply a strangely shaped tree stump? Whoever came up with this art design in the publishing house should be awarded major points for exactly matching book art to its source. Like this cover, “The Beast is an Animal” was beautiful, and terrifying, and I couldn’t look away.

At its core, this is a book about fear and about the horrors that a simple emotion can inflict on an individual, a family, and an entire community. Neighbors, always on the look out for witches to blame for poor weather, poor crops, posed almost a greater danger than the dark, looming forest around which many small communities exist. It is into this world that Angelina and Benedicta are born, twin sisters whose looks, down to unique birthmarks, exactly mirror the other. After a poor farming season, they, and their mother, are blamed and banished to live in the woods, and a husband/father who should have been their protector slinks away to begin his life again with a new, fresh-faced woman. Their mother doesn’t flourish. Angelina and Benedicta do, slowly being eaten away with bitterness and anger at the fear that lead to their banishment. And thus, two monsters are born.

After all of this set up, we meet Alys, our main character who throughout the book also struggles with the fear of “otherness” that floats around her. After her whole town is destroyed by the souleaters, excepting all of the children under 15, she and her fellow orphans go to live in a new town. While they do take the children in, this new community is even more stifled, building walls around their small town and forcing the children to guard it every night, all night.

We watch this story unfold over three periods of Alys’s life. First, when she is 7 and her town falls to the souleaters. Second, when she is 12 and begins to suspect that she has more in common with the souleaters and the mysterious Beast that haunts the woods. And finally, at age 15 when she must confront both the truth about herself, and the darkness that is growing in the heart of the woods.

What I loved about this book was how it plays with the topic of fear and bad/good. Are Angelina/Benedicta evil? Or were the “normal folk” who banished them? Where does the Beast fall on this spectrum? What about the community that takes in the children? While the supernatural elements were scary in their own right, it was the oppressive fear of the people themselves that made the book truly creepy. Alys, and the medicine woman who adopts her in the new town, are constantly on the look out for any hint that they are beginning to fall under suspicion for being different. The devices and tortures used against these supposed “witches” were more terrifying than the supernatural souleaters if only because we know from history that these things existed.

As I said in the beginning, what makes this story truly compelling is the atmospheric tone of the writing. It feels like a new fairytale, containing not only the darker elements that are typical to original fairytales, but also reads with a lyrical flow, combining beautiful imagery with poignant insights into the deep tragedy at the heart of the story.

Alys is a strong protagonist around which to center this story. However, Mother, the woman who adopts Alys in the new community, was the breakout character for me. She doesn’t have a lot of page time, but she provides a window into a world, and life, that Alys is trying to avoid. Mother is a midwife whose skills are depended on, but who must also constantly hide what she is doing and how she is doing it for fear that she would be labeled a witch. Her own personal tragedies, as well, must be similarly hidden. When Alys first meets her, she dislikes her, noting that she is cold and unemotional. But as the story goes on, we see that this is a coping mechanism and self-preservation tactic from a woman who has devoted herself to aiding a community of people who would as soon see her burned at the slightest sign of strangeness.

Like I said, the supernatural elements were very creepy (much more than I expected and in some ways this might have been a more “Kate book” than mine), but the descriptions of life in these walled up and fearful communities was almost unbearable to read. I was just so angry at these people! And it is this aspect that really marks this book as a success. The reader falls into the same trap as Angelina/Benedicta, and even Alys, thus making these characters all the more sympathetic, for all of their evil deeds. Fear leads to anger. And anger leads to…

I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you enjoy original fairytales and can handle a healthy dose of creepiness, this book is definitely worth checking out!

Rating 9: A beautiful, standalone dark fantasy novel. I absolutely loved it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Beast is an Animal” is newer and thus not many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Popular Dark Fairy Tales”  and “Twin Thrillers.”

Find “The Beast is an Animal” at your library using Worldcat!

Book Excerpt and Giveaway: “Eye of the Storm”

Occasionally we are approached with the opportunity to promote books that may be of interest to our readers. And occasionally in lieu of a full review of the book, we will let it speak for itself by posting an excerpt from it. So if you like what you see in one of these excerpts, we have good news! You have the chance to win a copy of it! What could be better?

31363558Book: “Eye of the Storm” by Frank Cavallo

Publishing Info: Dark Serpent/Ravenswood Publishing, August 2016

Book Description: On a research mission in one of the most remote regions of the world, former Navy SEAL Eric Slade and Dr. Anna Fayne are caught in a mysterious storm. Catapulted through a rift in space-time, they are marooned on a lost world.

Struggling to survive and desperate to find a way home, they must confront the dangers of this savage land—a dark wizard and his army of undead—a warrior queen and her horde of fierce Neanderthals that stands against him—and a legendary treasure with the power to open the gateway between worlds, or to destroy them all: the Eye of the Storm.

My Notes:

I received a paperback copy of this book in exchange for this promotional post. I want to thank Kelsey B., who sent it to me and gave our blog this opportunity.

This book is perfect for fans of Sword & Sorcery fantasy novels, with its action packed sequences and the always enjoyable use of stranding modern people in strange new worlds. My nostalgia bells were going off constantly with this book (specifically for things like “The Land that Time Forgot”), and who can resist a healthy dose of nostalgia? Red City Review gave the book 4 stars saying “Cavallo spins a fast-paced tale in his latest read…with a unique cast and setting…a flurry of twists and turns…quite a page turner, Eye of the Storm is bound to be a favorite among fantasy enthusiasts.”

This is by no means Frank Cavallo’s first book on the scene, coming in with several fantasy novels already under his belt, and another that was just released this last January, “Rites of Azathoth,” which sounds like X-Files (Scully’s character at least, as a female FBI agent is the hero of the story) meets Stephen King. For more information on the author, you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, as well on his website http://www.frankcavallo.com/.

Enter the giveaway below to try and win yourself a free copy of “Eye of the Storm” and read the excerpt below! – Serena

Click Here to Enter The Giveaway!!

Excerpt:

The halls were dusty and cold as they headed into the heart of the citadel, climbing towards the Keep by Azreth’s vague directions. Spider-webs hung like curtains along the walls. Every corridor and passage was choked with the detritus of war. A hiss seethed from somewhere in the shadows.

At the crest of a winding staircase, they found a gallery-like corridor that opened under a vaulted ceiling. Despite having stalked the ruins for hours, their torches were no lower, and they cast a reddish light upon the whole of the grand hall. The walls were plastered from floor to ceiling, in brilliant shades of violet, green and gold. Unfamiliar characters were set in relief across both sides.

They continued on, hoping to glean some direction from the strange decorations. With a few of the glyphs there were images of figures. Men and beasts, elegant in detail but difficult to see in the torch-light, cavorting as if frozen in time. Some frolicked in festival, while others looked to be at war, painted blood dripping from their swords.

Each wall had several such murals, of men and women in long white robes and gold sashes. The designs were intricate and beautiful and savage.

At the far end of the hall, looming over the entrance of an inner hold, a stone carving larger than a man’s height peered down at them. It was no human face. The features of the carving were a caricature of humanity, still as sharp as from the sculptor’s hand; like everything else uncannily preserved from the ravages of time.

    Horns like a bull’s grew from the temples. Jowls like a hound’s hung open, with rows of teeth flanked by twin fangs.

“We’re getting close,” Azreth said. “I remember this. The bust of Wrael. This is the passage into his throne chamber.”

They all studied it for a moment, but had little time to consider. A rumbling grew up, as if the walls were coming to life. The stone began to vibrate, and the floor shifted beneath them. It was no quake. The thunder was organic, the growling of a carnivore.

“You remember this too?” Slade asked.

“The beast king’s guardian,” Azreth whispered. “The basilisk.”

Spawned from the darkness, something slinked out from beneath the statue. Though at first as black as the shadow itself, it moved of its own accord. Only its crimson eyes were visible. Threya gripped her sword. The thing shrieked. Slade pulled Azreth behind him. Kerr ducked with him, even as he drew a dagger from his cloak.

A lizard-beast leaped into the firelight. It drooled from a snout like a wolf’s, but its body was lean and scaly. The monster slashed at Slade. The force of its thrust knocked him to the floor, a gash torn in his arm.

Threya’s sword whistled through the air, slicing into the basilisk’s haunches before it could strike again. Her second slash tore open its back. The beast flicked its spiked tail, climbing halfway up the wall in a momentary retreat. It eyed Threya with a burning scarlet glower.

It leaped next toward her, throwing itself upon the warrior-queen. Again, the force of its landing was too much, and she collapsed under it, leaving the beast perched on top of her. Its powerful legs pinned her arms to the floor, holding down her sword. It reared its jaws over her, spilling hot, fetid breath in her face.

Back on his feet, Slade jumped from behind and Kerr from the other side. Both plunged their blades through the creature’s torso. Slade clamped his arms around the beast’s throat as it howled, until it squealed with a weakened yelp as the leper’s dagger choked the life out of it. Azreth neared, poking at the carcass with his staff.

“We’re very close now,” the mystic said.

Serena’s Review: “The Bloodforged”

24611461Book: “The Bloodforged” by Erin Lindsey

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2015

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

Book Description: As war between Alden and Oridia intensifies, King Erik must defend his kingdom from treachery and enemies on all sides—but the greatest danger lurks closer to home…

When the war began, Lady Alix Black played a minor role, scouting at the edge of the king’s retinue in relative anonymity. Though she’s once again facing an attacking Oridian force determined to destroy all she holds dear, she is now bodyguard to the king and wife to the prince.

Still, she is unprepared for what the revival of the war will mean. Erik is willing to take drastic measures to defend his domain, even if it means sending Prince Liam into a deadly web of intrigue and traveling into the perilous wild lands of Harram himself.

Only the biggest threat to the kingdom might be one that neither Alix nor Erik could have imagined, or prepared for…

Review: This book needs one subtitle, and one subtitle only: “The Bloodforged: A Lesson in Going from Bad to Worse.” Not in quality, mind you. But the plot…phew! War and politics aren’t fun for anyone it seems!

The story picks up six months after the great battle that ended the previous book, and Alix’s kingdom is still very much at war. And not just any war, a war they are well on their way to losing. As Rig reports back from the front line (being now the General of the King’s armies), they only have a few months left unless they can secure aid from their neighboring countries. And thus Lindsey neatly separates all of our favorite main character off onto dangerous diplomatic missions where we spend a good amount of time wondering who has it worse.

First off, there is a major change in style for this book from the first. While it starts off from Alix’s perspective, it is quickly established that we will be following three other characters, primarily. Liam, who is sent to discover what is delaying the launch of a promised fleet of ships from the neighboring republic. Erik, who along with Alix, begins a treacherous trek through the mountains, home of the fierce mountain tribes, to reach their other neighbors who are also dilly dallying about committing to help. And Rig, back off to the front lines and tasked with holding the enemies at bay while reinforcements are begged for by the others. Alex, really, gets much less page time than the three others, and while at first I was frustrated by this change, I soon found myself equally invested in the tales of these three men.

Even more so than the first book, this second story in the series pushes even further away from any “fantasy” trappings. This book is largely about war tactics and political tactics. Again, it is hard to figure out which would  be more painful to have to deal with. Poor Liam, new to his role as crown prince, is completely out of his league trying to navigate the political maneuvering of a republic whose players are all focused more on re-election than in helping him uncover the mystery of the sabotaged fleet, all while fighting off attempts on his life. And poor Rig. Fighting a losing battle on the kingom’s borders, not knowing when or if help will arrive. Even worse, he discovers that there is at traitor in his midst. And then Erik and Alix, their perils are perhaps the most straightforward, but just as dangerous. Cold, hunger, snow, and wild tribesman who don’t turn a friendly eye on trespassers all present hindrances on their attempts to reach their allies across the mountains. All of these three stories were intriguing and I would have a hard time picking one as a favorite. This is a huge win for a second book in a series where our main character is pushed to the side in favor of splitting the narrative between three other characters who had largely been only secondary in the first book.

Another change is the shift in romance. Obviously, our newlyweds, Alix and Liam, are almost immediately separated which marks a rather distinct end to any expectations that this book was going to have much happy romantic fluff in it. Instead, the book shifts to focusing on those left on the outside of this relationship, most notably Erik who had given up his attachment to Alix in favor of supporting her and maintaining a relationship with his newly discovered brother. Turns out feelings don’t just disappear. Further, Liam is blissfully unaware of the admiration (crush) that one of his fellow soldiers has for him. I appreciated that both of these mini arcs were handled respectfully and honestly. Liam’s naivety was endearing and hilarious at times. And I just felt sorry for Erik much of the time as it was always clear that Alix’s heart was forever Liam’s.

One flaw of the book was the lack of resolution to a few key points. Liam’s admirer is never really confronted, and the story line just fades away completely in the end without it ever being addressed. More frustrating, the spy in Rig’s camp is not outed in this book as well. More so with this second point than the first, some of these dropped plotlines may be simply being left for the final book in the trilogy.

As I said, the magical aspects of this book were largely pushed to the background. However, it does come roaring back in the end of the book, though this does result in a big of a cliffhanger. So , be warned of that. This book does need to be read after the first one, and does end in such a way that would be unsatisfying if you’re not on board for a third book. And, like I said at the beginning, things go from bad to worse in many ways, so readers are left on tenterhooks for the fate of the realm and our favorite characters by the end. I have no idea how Lindsey is going to resolve all of these factors, but I’m excited to find out!

Rating 8: A solid sequel that surprised me in many ways!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bloodforged” is included on this Goodreads list (probably not that helpful) “Redheads”  and should be on this list (probably more helpful) “Political Fantasy.”

Find “The Bloodforged” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Bloodbound”

Emily’s Corner: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”

20170202_140222Emily and I (Serena) have been friends since the first week of freshman year of college. Other than a lost purse (I did the losing, Emily did the calming), take a wild guess as to what we bonded over? Yes, that is correct: books. And the fact that we both had plans to be English majors and would go on to coordinate our schedules to have as many similar classes as possible! All that said, Emily has agreed to be a semi-regular contributor to our blog, so keep your eyes open for posts from her in “Emily’s Corner” on random Mondays going forward!
284066Book: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami

Publishing Info: Originally published in three parts between 1994 and 1995, the English translation was published in 1997

Where Did I Get this Book: A gift from a friend in book club

Book Description: In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat.  Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.  As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria. Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.

Review: My book club did something a little different for our January read. Instead of reading the same book, we each picked out our favorite novel and did a book swap. (My pick was The Blue Castle, of course.)

The book I received was “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” by Haruki Murakami. Our book club had read his earliest work “Wind/Pinball” together, so I was delighted to receive a more recent publication. Murakami is one of those maddening geniuses who knocked it out of the park on his first try writing a novel. I had high expectations for “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and it did not disappoint.

A word on Murakami’s writing style; he takes the most mundane, ordinary situations and makes them riveting. Case in point, I started the book during Christmas break while visiting my parents. My dad asked what I was reading and I said something along the lines of “it’s about a guy and his wife, and the wife has a cat, and it goes missing, and she’s upset with the husband for not caring, so he goes to look for it, and it’s all about this tension in their marriage . . .”

Dad cut me off. “That sounds boring.”

Boring this is not! Murakami takes this story and twists it, wrenches it, in fact. It turns into this surrealist, cerebral adventure that takes on an otherworldly quality without losing its grasp on reality. It was exhausting trying to keep up and yet I couldn’t put it down.

The story twists and turns from the perspectives of the man and his search for his wife who mysteriously vanishes along with the cat, a precocious teenager so fascinated by death that she almost commits murder, bloody flashbacks to the power struggles and mind games of war-torn Manchuria, eerie sisters whose magical talents are the hub of the story, a villain who controls his victims by mentally raping and trapping them in an otherworld, and a wealthy but strange mother-son duo named after baking spices.

I get it. This sounds like an acid trip. This is not a story that you can explain by saying “and then such-and-such happened.” And for sure it is a far cry from the “man looks for lost cat” opening.

That is what is magical about Murakami; he takes you on such a slow and winding journey, where everything makes sense until it doesn’t. You look back to see how far you have come, almost unable to believe that a story about a lost cat could turn into the most violent, most beautiful, most moving thing you’ve read in years.

This book isn’t so much about the story, though it is truly a riveting story. It’s about Murakami’s way with words. He is unlike any author I’ve encountered, writing about daily activities like boiling pasta and ironing shirt collars in such a way that they become intensely beautiful rituals. Something as simple as climbing down a dry well becomes an out-of-body experience, for both the protagonist and the reader. I was gasping by the end of that chapter.

There is a horrifying torture scene, and while I normally have a very low tolerance for this sort of thing, I couldn’t help but be entranced by how Murakami achieved a level of grace and beauty in it. I was trapped between being appalled and being fascinated.

For me, Murakami’s work is about experiencing his way with words just as much as it is about getting caught up in a good story.

Rating 8: While this is one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a while, my squeamishness over the aforementioned torture scene and some terribly awkward phone sex kept this from getting a higher score. Still, this is a must-read for anyone who appreciates the cerebral/magical realism genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Magical Realism” and “Mind Twist.”

Find “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Burning World”

16148435Book: “The Burning World” by Isaac Marion

Publication Info: February 2017, Atria/Emily Bestler Books

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: R is recovering from death.

He’s learning how to breathe, how to speak, how to be human, one clumsy step at a time. He doesn’t remember his old life and he doesn’t want to. He’s building a new one with Julie.

But his old life remembers him. The plague has another host far more dangerous than the Dead. It’s coming to return the world to the good old days of stability and control and the strong eating the weak, and stopping it will require a frightening journey into the surreal wastelands of America—and the shadowy basement of R’s mind.

Review: This book came into the publishing world like a new Beyonce album: no word, and then suddenly it appears! I highlighted this book as one that I was looking forward to reading, but also with a bit of trepidation. “Warm Bodies” was such a beautiful, funny little book that opened and closed so neatly that the thought of a sequel had honestly never even crossed my mind. So, while I was excited to re-visit this world, especially in the aftermath of Julie and R’s discovery of re-animating (?) zombies back to humans, I was a bit concerned that it was going to succumb to sequel-itis and bring nothing new to the table while negatively impacting the brilliance of the original. And while there were a few rough patches, particularly in the beginning, I am pleased to report that Marion’s expansion to his world and series is well fleshed (ha!) out!.

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You can’t stop this laugh train! (source)

“The Burning World” picks up a few months after the events of “Warm Bodies,” and things aren’t going as smoothly as Julie and R had hoped re: reintroducing the zombies into society. I mean, in the movie version of the first book, the zombies and humans are literally playing baseball together and sharing umbrellas in the end. This book quickly does away with any of these happy fantasies. Turns out people aren’t quite as easy to convince that beings that used to kill and eat their brains are really just uber repressed people who need to reconnect with their feelings if only they’d give them all a chance! Even R himself, the protege of this whole zombie-transformation-movement is struggling with the reality of this transition. When he was cured, mobility, language, and most especially, memory didn’t suddenly just reappear. They’ve all had to be tediously re-learned, and when the story begins, it is clear that he’s hit a bit of a wall.

When I made my admittedly very bad pun about fleshing out the world, that is probably the most notable aspect of this book. Marion takes his rather simplistic little zombie world and really goes crazy with it. Half the appeal of “Warm Bodies” was the complete lack of importance that was given to the history of the world. Something went wrong, zombies appeared, and this is the hell everyone is now living in. No explanation necessary. Doing away with this charm was a risky move, but a challenge that Marion proves to be up to meeting. Not only do we get details into R’s own history, but through his patchy and slowly returning memories (present in flashbacks interspersed throughout the story) we see how broken the world really was. If anything, the world of “Warm  Bodies” was a step in the right direction from what had come before! Fractions and zealots fought for power, religion and business warred to control the minds of the people, and zombies were almost an after thought to the craziness.

One particularly, albeit smaller, detail that was brought to the table was the reality of what transforming from a zombie that can’t be killed by anything less than a shot to the head into a person entails. Nora’s story comes to the forefront as a nurse attempting to treat these re-emerging injuries. If you’re shot as a zombie, you don’t heal. Becoming human again doesn’t magically do away with life-ending injuries. This brought a level of seriousness to the procedure that I hadn’t expected, and one that is tied into a major plot line for Julie later in the book.

Most of the plot involves an airplane roadtrip across America. Julie’s home is invaded by a shadowy group with whom R is having strange kindlings of memories, forcing them to go on the run. Mixed in with the expanded world (which cities fell, which cities burned, which came up with their own rule of law), our heroes are faced with the constant question of what future they are running towards: one in which they fight or one in which they flee. I loved how these questions are never approached with an obvious answer. The characters on either side make valid arguments, and though as a reader I knew what the ultimate decision would be, I appreciated the fact that other survival techniques were not poo-pooed away.

So, I really did love much of the book. The expanded world, the added characters, R’s complicated history. However, there were a few setbacks. In the beginning especially, I felt as if the writing was a bit stilted and trying too hard as far as philosophical musings go. “Warm Bodies” hit just the right balance in this regard, and I felt like “The Burning World” suffered from the weight of expectations. Once the story really gets going, there’s enough of a structure to hang these existential musings upon, but in the beginning it just felt tedious and a bit forced.

Secondly, there was a strange “We” character that would show up between chapters. Even by the end of the book, I’m not sure what I was supposed to be getting from these chapters. And it’s not like there were only a few! There were pages of this stuff, and much of the same tedious philosophical ramblings would be crammed into this section with no character or story to really focus on. About midways through we meeting a zombie boy who becomes something of a character in these bits, but the whole thing still feels very strange and disconnected from the story. Presumably it’s building towards some sort of reveal in the final third book in this series, but in this one it felt like a distraction and an unwarranted break in the main plotline’s action.

And on that note, there is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of this book. Nothing intolerable, in my opinion, but it does end in a manner that requires a follow up read to really reach any type of resolution to both the story and character arcs. But, luckily, this was a strong enough sequel that I’m all in for the next and last book!

Rating 8: A solid, surprise follow up to a story that, previously to this, I had been happy enough seeing as complete!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Burning World” is newly released and thus not on many Goodreads lists, but it is on  “Zombies!” and should be on “Apocalypses and Dystopias.”

Find “The Burning World” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Ghostly Echoes”

28110857Book: “Ghostly Echoes” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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Previously Reviewed: “Jackaby” and “Beastly Bones”

Serena’s Review: “Silver on the Road”

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

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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