Kate’s Review: “Lady Killer: Vol. 2”

30347784Book: “Lady Killer: Vol.2” by Joëlle Jones

Publishing Info: Dark Horse Comics, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The killer housewife is back! The Schuller family has moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where life carries on as usual. Josie continues to juggle Tupperware parties, her kids, and a few human heads. However, when someone from her past tails her on a hit, she may be in for more than she bargained for.

“Lady Killer is worth its weight in gold for the art alone, but the enigmatic Josie Schuller is the real appeal.”—Newsarama
“A level of violence that can only be described as Mad Men’s Betty Draper meets Dexter.”—Comic Book Resources

Review: Given that I enjoyed the first volume of “Lady Killer” by Joëlle Jones, it was a long and difficult wait for “Volume 2” to finally come out. Assassin Housewife Josie Schuller was a character that went above and beyond my expectations in the initial tale, an archetype that could have easily fallen into sex kitten kitsch lie so many other ‘badass’ women before her (Harley Quinn, anyone?). But the strength of her character lies within her complexity, and her multifaceted life and personality makes her an intriguing and fascinating protagonist, and I was excited to see where the choices she made in the previous book took her.

When we left Josie she had broken ties from the group that hired her on as an assassin. In a rather, uh, flamboyant way. Now she and her family (consisting of her husband Gene, her twin daughters Jane and Jessica, and her suspicious mother in law Mrs. Schuller) has moved to Florida, and Josie is working as a free agent assassin as well as maintaining the role of a perfect homemaker. By day she throws cocktail parties and barbecues, by night she’s killing targets. The duality of an ideal 1960s housewife and a cold blooded killer is both hysterical, but a bit barbed as well. Even hit women need to juggle it all, and have certain facades to maintain just as many women today feel a need to do so. I love seeing Josie interact with both her targets and her family. Her love and devotion to Gene is lovely to see (especially since he’s so clueless about who she is and what she is capable of), and little interactions with her daughters shows the fierce love she has for them and keeping them safe, be it from physical dangers or loutish, inappropriate men and their ‘humor’.

josie
She slits people’s throats but she’ll be damned if some creep says nasty stuff in front of her kids. (source: Dark Horse Comics)

One of the realities of Josie’s new life, however, is that by working solo she doesn’t have the support she had in the past, which makes flying under the radar more difficult. It was one thing to take out a target and have others there to clean up for you; it’s quite another to have to deal with it yourself, especially if you are a petite lady. I like that Jones was realistic in that Josie, capable assassin or not, struggled with body disposal and clean up, and had to turn to a shady character from the past, Irving, to help her with it all, as well as finding herself approached by another group that may want to strike a partnership. I like that Josie is frustrated that she needs help, and wants to continue her career on her own terms. But of course, with everyone having ulterior motives and underestimating the excellence that is Josie Schuller, nothing can come easy, and she finds herself the victim of the toxic assumptions that even though she’s a trained killer, ultimately she’s a woman, and therefore exploitable. The themes are evergreen, aren’t they?

Speaking of underestimating women, Josie isn’t immune to it. We get some background to her crabby and suspicious mother in law, Mrs. Schuller, who up until now Josie has seen as a mere thorn in her side. Turns out, Mrs. Schuller has a lot of stuff she’s been hiding, and some of her knowledge and backstory sparks off some dangers for Josie, and in turn their shared family. I am going to go into this a bit because I have a lot to say and dissect with this revelation, so consider this your warning for

giphy5
(source)

As it turns out, Mrs. Schuller used to work as a clerk for the Nazis. She’s now living a secret life in the U.S., hiding her past from those around her. I personally was uncomfortable with this revelation. While I like that it helped propel another plot line further along, it feels gross to me that this woman is pretty much getting off scott free as of now for being an honest to God Nazi. I appreciate the device of her being able to recognize ‘badness’ when she sees it, and that it means that she has some, um, skills that may come in handy down the line, but ultimately I really dislike that she is a foil to Josie. It’s a monster recognizing a ‘monster’ kind of situation, and I find it hypocritical that she wants Josie away from her son and grandchildren when she actively helped commit genocide. It’s a huge blip in what had, up until that point, been a stellar story, and sets it off kilter for me. But if we are willing to set aside the whole Nazi thing, it does show some interesting parallels between Josie and her mother in law, and how they both love their family fiercely in the face of hiding  very large and very dangerous secrets. Secrets that can’t keep sustaining themselves.The idea that Gene will forever be in the dark about Josie’s profession is a tedious one, and I was worried that we would continue to see Josie making roasts, stirring martinis, and keeping him in the dark to a laughable degree. But Jones makes a pretty ballsy decision in this volume that lays the groundwork for Josie’s perfect facade to start cracking as things become more and more out of control. We are left on a pretty big cliffhanger and potential gamechanger about this, as well as the return of someone who could REALLY mess things up for Josie’s personal life.

So Nazi storyline aside, I really enjoyed “Lady Killer: Volume 2”, and the growth and shift that Josie Schuller maneuvers within in. I had to wait so long for this volume, and I have the feeling the the next one will also be a wait. It’s one that I am more than willing to wait for, though. However impatient I may be.

Rating 8: A fun follow up with my favorite assassin housewife, Josie Schuller continues to buck gender norms and subvert expectations of 1960s womanhood! “Lady Killer: Vol. 2” keeps the fun going and I can’t wait for the story to continue.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lady Killer: Vol.2” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Graphic Novels (released in 2017)”, and should be included on “Women Creators in Comics”.

Find “Lady Killer: Vol. 2” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Curious Beginning”

28186322Book: “A Curious Beginning” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2015

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

Book Description: London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

Review: Honestly, I’m not sure how I’ve been going along all of this time with no awareness of Deanna Raybourn. After the first twenty or so pages of this book, in which I was in shock by how much I was absolutely adoring it pretty much immediately, I did some research and found that Raybourn has been around for a while, long enough to have another hugely popular series already finished! How have I missed this? As a huge fan of lady sleuth historical mysteries, especially if said lady at all resembles Amelia Peabody as far as giving a damn what others think, it’s almost like Christmas whenever I discover another series that can scratch this particular itch.

Veronica Speedwell knows she should be sad at the death of her aunt, but instead, she only sees the glorious future ahead of her, full of independence and the freedom to fully devote her life to her passion for science and butterfly hunting. Of course, her history isn’t one of being cooped up anyways, with many trips abroad full of exploration, adventure, and yes, a few liaisons, if you will. But things do not go as planned when she finds herself caught up in a murder and pursued by villains unknown. What’s more, she finds herself in the company of the mysterious and rather grumpy Stoker, a man whose past is equally curious.

Veronica Speedwell is a delight. Truly, a book like this lives and dies on the voice of its lead character, and she was absolutely wonderful. Witty, confident, and employing all of those great snooty, very British-y turns of phrase that make me super jealous of their vocabulary and diction. (I also listened to this as an audiobook, and the reader was spot on. So good in fact that I think I’m going to hold out for the audiobook versions of the next two as well).

I also really enjoyed the backstory that is given to Veronica, particularly the fact that this isn’t her first time out and about in the world. She has the actual experience to back up her confidence and claims of capability. Not only is she and established scientist, having published a few articles under an assumed name and sold rare specimens gathered from her adventures to wealthy collectors, but she has taken a firm hold on her life and choices. Men are nothing new to her, and she has established a neat system for dealing with them and her reputation: liaisons are ok abroad, damn the whispers, but once on home ground, she is willing to play by the rules. For all of these strengths, she’s also appropriately vulnerable when the plot strikes close to home. The tendency with characters like this can be an almost unrealistic level of competences and assuredness that leaves the character feeling not quite human. Veronica reacts in a believable manner to big revelations, but nothing keeps her off her stride for long!

As a secondary character, I also very much loved Stoker. And yes, he also kind of reminded me of Emerson. (But for all of these similarities between our leads, I never felt like the book strayed too close to the Amelia Peabody series). His was the perfect level of brusqueness and emotional outbursts to balance Veronica’s more cool demeanor. For all that his walls begin to come down throughout the story, by the end of the book, we still do not know his entire history, which I really liked. His character still has much room to grow, but what we do know already sets him up as an excellent, rather comedic, romantic hero.

The story itself is full of action, jumping from one adventure to another. We have a traveling circus, an eccentric collector and his family, the Tower of London, and more. And throughout it all, the mystery is solid, leaving readers equally in the dark about the motives, and even the identity, of those pursuing our main characters. While a few of these mini adventures could feel a bit tacked on, especially the traveling circus bit, I was having such fun watching our main characters play on these sets, that I didn’t even care.

My one real criticism of this book comes with the end. The way the mystery is resolved felt a bit rushed and almost too neat. Things fell into place in a very convenient manner and we have yet another example of a villain pretty much killing himself off, so that our leads’ hands won’t be bloodies. While I get that all of this kind of goes hand in hand with the type of light and fun mystery story that this is, I always wish there could be a bit more “oomph” put behind resolutions such as this. If anything, letting the story get a bit more dark when it needs to can be a nice balance to the rest of the more light plotline. It just read a bit too “PG” for me.

But this is a minor quibble, and one that has built up over time after reading endings like this again and again in mysteries such as this. On its own, “A Curious Beginning” is an absolutely delightful introduction to a new leading lady and new mystery series. Definitely check this one out if you’re a fan of lady sleuth mysteries ala Amelia Peabody!

Rating 8: An absolute romp of a story. Veronica Speedwell, welcome to the ranks of excellent lady sleuths!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Curious Beginning” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian/Regency Female Sleuths/Mysteries” and “Books with Witty Banter/Dialogue.”

Find “A Curious Beginning” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Walk on Earth a Stranger”

17564519Book: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, September 2015

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

Book Description: Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

Review: I always love it when I can find a book that crosses several of my preferred genres. This time it is fantasy and historical fiction. What’s more, the period of history is unique and I don’t think I’ve ever run across a book quite like this! There are a million and one fantasy novels set in Victorian England, a handful during the Regency period, and tons and tons set in some made-up world that pulls loosely from medieval history. But fantasy on the Oregon Trail? Haven’t heard of that! Let’s dive in!

Lee’s life isn’t perfect, but she has a loving family, a loyal friend, and a steady life filled with honest work. But she also has a secret, and one that she and her family have had to hide her entire life: she can sense gold. A gift that should make them rich, instead forces the small family to live in fear of their neighbors. And these fears are realized in the worst way when tragedy strikes. Now, disguised as a boy, Lee flees West, hoping that in a land said to be dripping in gold, her unique skill will go less noticed and she can lose those those who pursue her.

As I said, the book is set up to mix fantasy elements along with a historical setting. But let me just say now, the fantasy elements of this story are so minor that they might as well be non-existent. Lee’s gift serves as a driving force for much of the action, and motivation for her secrecy and the villain’s plots, but other than a few moments here or there, this “magic” plays almost no part in the story. Instead, what we get is essentially a novelized version of the game “The Oregon Trail.” This is not a complaint!

oregontrail
The dreaded screen of my childhood.

Once Lee is forced out of her home and onto the road, the story is very episodic in the way that it plays out. There are mini events (a robbery, a trip down the river on a raft, illness) all spaced between jumps in time during which she continues to travel. I very much enjoyed this style of writing, but I will warn that it could be read as slow and plodding for those less interested in the day-to-day life of a wagon trip such as this.

And when I compared it to “The Oregon Trail” I wasn’t exaggerating. The same locations are visited, like Independence Rock. There are the required discussions about provisions and wagon weight (should we bring that extra wagon axel??). There are measles attacks, complete with terrible characters leaving behind measles blankets. A stampede, as well as a show of the terrible over-hunting of bison that took place, wastefully leaving behind hundreds of carcasses that couldn’t be carried. I mean, all it needed was someone to die from a snake bite. Again, I enjoyed all of this as I haven’t really read many novels about traveling the Oregon Trail. But it definitely wasn’t providing anything unique in these areas, either, I will admit.

Lee’s own story is one of learning to balance maintaining her secret and also growing to trust those around her. I also always love stories where girls dress up as boys, and through Lee’s own experiences, it is starkly clear the differences in freedoms she is allowed traveling the trail in this guise. What’s more, we’re spared any of the silly “I have a crush on this guy but he doesn’t know I’m a girl!!” angst by the fact that her best friend, Jefferson knew her before she took up trouser-wearing. Jefferson is also half Native American, and between him and a freed African American shop owner Lee also befriends, the story does a good job of acknowledging and addressing the prejudices faced by these groups during this time.

For the most part, the other characters largely served in fairly stock roles. You have the leader of the wagon train, various families with different foibles, the doctor (who has his own secrets), and the family that Lee has signed on with as a helping hand. The wife in this family group was probably the most interesting secondary character presented (other than Jefferson). I really disliked her when she first showed up, but through out the story the author continued to reveal layers of her story that, by the end, left her as probably the most complex character in the party.

Like I said, the magical elements were pretty non-existent, so your enjoyment of this book solidly lies on how much you want to read a novel version of “The Oregon Trail.” But I do feel that Lee herself was a solid narrator, and if you can get by some of the distracting “old timey” elements of the way she’s written to speak/think, she’s a fun character to follow through a story like this. I’m also pretty intrigued by what will happen now that they’ve arrived in California (spoilers??) and the author will have done away with the Oregon trail happenings!

Rating 8: Light on the fantasy, but heavy on the Oregon Trail goodness!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Walk on Earth a Stranger” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Girls disguised as Boys” and “California Gold Rush Fiction.”

Find “Walk the Earth a Stranger” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Sky in the Deep”

34726469Book: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Review: I immediately requested this book when I strayed upon it on NetGalley. For one, I live in Minnesota, so it’s almost obligatory that I read any YA novel about Vikings. But that aside, the Viking things alone would be enough regardless of geography simply because it sounded like a breath of fresh air. I mean, I love fairytales and royalty fantasy fiction as much as the next person, but there’s been A LOT of those published recently. But a young woman Viking? Sign me up!

Eelyn is a warrior. Her father is a warrior, her brother was a warrior, before dying tragically several years ago, and her entire society is built around a strict rotation of warring and preparing to war with their rival clan, the Riki. But, as the book description above states, things go very wrong when she catches sight of her should-be dead brother battling against her clan alongside a fellow Riki warrior. Now, captured, alone, and surrounded by the enemy, Eelyn struggles to understand a brother she no longer knows and a people who seemingly frighteningly similar to her own.

The first thing I loved about this book was the author’s willingness to live in the world she built. Unlike other books, *cough*”The Cruel Prince”*cough*, Eelyn is a warrior and we SEE her fight. She kills people, and she doesn’t make apologies for it. This is her world, so why would she question these ways? Again and again, even as the battle lines move and the enemies change, we see Eelyn’s skills and why she is respected as a fighter. Further, there is never any mention of her gender playing any role in things. For one thing, she’s by no means unique for being a female warrior. Her best friend fights alongside her, and they have a practiced, methodical way of moving across a battlefield that only comes through much repetition and trust. So, too, in the Riki camp, women are just as likely to take up an axe or sword as the men. It was refreshing how free of comment this book was on this premise.

The action scenes in particular stood out. They are sprinkled throughout the story, successfully picking back up the pace just when things were on the verge of becoming a bit slow. The battles were also given a good amount of page time, with many details about the use of the land in strategy and the actual fights taking place. I was all over this, but it does mean you have to be a fan of battle scenes and sword/axe fighting to enjoy this book.

The storyline itself was fairly predictable. We all know going in that it’s going to be a pretty tried and true version of a main character learning that those she’s always hated might not be all that bad and oh look, here’s a convenient OTHER that they can both band up with against and she will be the point of connection between them. However, for all of that, I feel like the story was managed well and saved from too much predictability by the honest and challenging inner struggles that Eelyn goes through, particularly with her feelings towards a brother who she mourned but now finds alive and well, living with her enemy.

Eelyn is not a perfect person, and it is her imperfections that save what could have been a pretty typical story. Her anger, resentment, and prejudices do not go quickly or easily away. Even by the end of the book, it is still clear that she struggles to accept what her brother chose, and she is quick to understand and sympathize with her people’s distrust when she proposes banding together.

I did enjoy the romance as well, though it did progress a bit quickly for my taste. The book is fairly short, however, so this was maybe a bit unavoidable. What really made it was how free this plotline was from any grand romantic gestures or flowery, angsty prose. Fiske was an example of one of my more favorite romantic heroes: silent and steady. Between his solid presence, and the fact that most of the emotional stakes of the book were still tied up between Eelyn and her feelings towards her brother, the romantic plotline served as an understated but sweet portion of the book.

Again, given the shortness of the book, things did progress quite quickly throughout the entire story. I could have done with several more chapters of Eelyn’s time in the Riki village and a slower arc for her coming to understand these people. However, the writing was beautiful, particularly the descriptions of winter in the deep forest. And the action is appropriately violent and exciting. If you’re a fan of historical fiction and are looking for a quick, standalone read, I definitely recommend checking out “Sky in the Deep!”

Rating 7: A breath of fresh air in YA fiction, where the female warrior is appropriately badass and the action carries readers through what could be a slightly predictable story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sky in the Deep” is a new title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it is on “2018 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “Sky in the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Broken Girls”

35533431Book: “The Broken Girls” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2018

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

Book Description: The “clever and wonderfully chilling” (Fiona Barton) suspense novel from the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare…

Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . . 

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

Review: First I want to say a special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

I have a deep appreciation for an unsettling Gothic horror story, and while the genre is a bit less common these days (if I’m totally wrong on this, PLEASE send me some titles! I love Gothic horror!) when I find a good one that just makes it all the more special. So when you take a historical fiction that has a boarding school setting AND throw in a restless ghost to boot, I am going to be so there and so ready. It was really just icing on the cake that “The Broken Girls” by Simone St. James not only had these plot points, but also a modern day thriller with a body found in a well and a woman who can’t let go of her sister’s murder. Fun fact: I was lucky enough to have my initial review selected as the official LibraryReads.org blurb for the book. Not to toot my own horn or anything. But the reason I was so inspired in my initial review was because this book really took me in and creeped me out for lots of reasons.

The dual narratives of 1950s and 2010s each give us pieces to a puzzle that is rooted in the mistreatment and abuses of women. Idlewood  School was an all too common place where unwanted or inconvenient girls were sent to live out their adolescence, be it because they were the children of mistresses of powerful people, mentally ill, or orphans with few other places to go. They all have the similarity in that their lives are basically valued as worthless, and few, if anyone,would miss them if they were to disappear. Which one girl does. The modern story is of Fiona, a reporter whose older sister was murdered near the property in the 1990s, and who still harbors an obsession about why this happened and it could have been prevented. And always settled above both is the ever present legend of Mary Hand, a teenage girl who died on the property shortly after giving bitrh to an illegitimate child whose body ended up in the garden. While all of the victims in this story are painted in broad brush strokes by those who live to tell the tales, be it a missing girl, a murdered girl, or a ghost girl, as the story progresses you learn so much about them, giving them more depth and showing a number of tragedies that you can’t disconnect yourself from. I was more interested in the Fiona storyline as she digs deep into the history of Idlewood and tries to find some answers to give herself peace, but I did like going back to the 1950s and seeing the group of friends of Kate, Sonia, Cece, and Roberta. The way that St.James ties it all together is worth it in the end, and I’m being deliberately vague because i think that you have to go in without any hints to really enjoy it.

I also really liked the supernatural and gothic aspects! I mean, come on! A boarding school in the middle of the Vermont Countryside? May as well be the moors! You get the sense of isolation and foreboding whenever the school and it’s grounds are described, and I could totally see why it could get lost in the wilderness even tough everyone knows that it is out there. St. James did a great job of crafting the perfect ghost story to take place there as well, harkening back to books like “The Woman in Black” and “The Haunting of Hill House” and creating a genuine tragedy that sets off a deeply creepy and fear inducing haunting. It’s also important to note that even the haunting has it’s secrets, and that while there are truths to the legend, like I would imagine most ghost stories and their origins, things aren’t always what they seem, and St. James really makes the reader feel like there is something realistic at the heart of it, a realism that keeps to the themes of gender discrimination and misogyny.

“The Broken Girls” is a dark and poignant novel that fans of Gothic horror really ought to check out. Not only does it effectively address still all too relevant themes of our culture,  I was definitely side eyeing every bump in the night right after finishing it.

Rating 8: A haunting gothic tale that brings up relevant societal issues, “The Broken Girls” is an effective and chilling mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Broken Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Mystery 2018”, and “Most Anticipated Mysteries 2018”.

Find “The Broken Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Olivia Twist”

34817232Book: “Olivia Twist” by Lorie Langdon

Publishing Info: Blink/HarperCollins, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Olivia Brownlow is no damsel in distress. Born in a workhouse and raised as a boy among thieving London street gangs, she is as tough and cunning as they come. When she is taken in by her uncle after a caper gone wrong, her life goes from fighting and stealing on the streets to lavish dinners and soirees as a debutante in high society. But she can’t seem to escape her past … or forget the teeming slums where children just like her still scrabble to survive.

Jack MacCarron rose from his place in London’s East End to become the adopted “nephew” of a society matron. Little does society know that MacCarron is a false name for a boy once known among London gangs as the Artful Dodger, and that he and his “aunt” are robbing them blind every chance they get. When Jack encounters Olivia Brownlow in places he least expects, his curiosity is piqued. Why is a society girl helping a bunch of homeless orphan thieves? Even more intriguing, why does she remind him so much of someone he once knew? Jack finds himself wondering if going legit and risking it all might be worth it for love.

Review: I’ve only read the original “Oliver Twist” once and it was quite a while ago, so I was intrigued when I ran across this gender-swapped retelling of the classic tale. However, in the end, I felt a bit misled by the book description and had a few problems with the characterization of our leading lady.

Olivia grew up on the streets and it is only through a chance of luck that she now finds herself leading the life of a society lady. But even here, amidst the gossip and sparkle, she can’t escape her past. Especially when said pasts presents itself polished up in a dashing suit and shooting her wicked grins. Jack MacCarron is more than he seems, and his history with a younger “Oliver” is only the start of what will tie these two’s future together.

What I did enjoy about this book was the writing style and historical setting. I’m particularly prone to enjoying books featuring lords and ladies circulating around ball rooms and snarking wittily at each other. The story was also quite fast paced, jumping into the action mere pages into the story. Olivia and Jack are introduced to each other very quickly, and through some well-placed flashbacks, readers are able to begin putting together their history. What also makes this fun is Olivia’s extra knowledge of their shared past, as she was only known to Jack then as a young boy named Oliver. From what I can remember from the original book, the author also does a good job at tying together the two stories in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.

However, I had a lot of trouble with a few aspects of the book. My biggest problem was not being able to suspend my disbelief about the situation that our two main lead characters find themselves in. Somehow, magically almost, both are raised on the streets but then easily slip into lives as gentry after only a few years. What’s more, they are welcomed in with very little struggle or gossip. Part of my problem with this could be the same fast-paced-ness that I praised above. In the very first chapters we’re introduced to Olivia, a lady now living the life of a society woman. But then in some quick flashbacks, we see the abject poverty and limits of the world she grew up in until she was a pre-teen. And yet, there was no evidence of this in her current manner as a lady.

I don’t want to go all “My Fair Lady” on this, but…really? Not only would I have found Olivia’s story that much more compelling had her arc included more about the ongoing struggles she had to face living this life full of politics and rules, but it was frankly unbelievable to see her navigate the ins and outs of a society that was notorious for confusing and strict rules of conduct. Many other historical fiction works set in this time narrate on and on the challenges that even women who grew up to this life encountered when living life in public society. To simply buy that Olivia, a woman who grew up without an education, without parents, and, what’s more, as a boy, would be able to simply fall into this role was just too much to swallow. The same goes for Jack, to a certain extent, but as the rules are less strict for men of the time, I was able to let this go a bit more.

My second major criticism comes with the first line of the book description and the reality we are given. Right there, in the very first sentence of the summary, we’re told that we’ll be getting a character who is not a damsel in distress. The reality is exactly the opposite. In the first few pages, we get a very unfortunate reference to the “beauty leads to rape” myth when a man instructs a midwife to raise Olivia as a boy since if she turns out to have the looks of her mother, her life will be more rough. That alone is pretty bad. But as the story goes on, Olivia repeatedly makes terrible decisions, finds herself threatened with attack and assault, only to be saved by Jack. This happened repeatedly. Not only do I never appreciate repeated threats of sexual assault as a driving force in any story, but to combine that with the first chapter’s reference to it being at all affected by a woman’s beauty and the fact that we were promised the exact opposite of a damsel in distress in the book summary, makes the whole thing very upsetting.

This all added up to a fairly disappointing read for me. The romance and chemistry between the two leads was charming, and I still enjoyed many aspects of the historical setting. But I couldn’t get past the suspension of disbelief issue or my increasing dismay with regards to the use of assault as a plot point and Olivia’s role as a repeated victim in need of rescue. I do think this book will still appeal to many other readers, perhaps those looking for a bit more of a fluffy romance read, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me.

Rating 5:  The intriguing concept and strong romantic chemistry weren’t enough to distract me from an unbelievable leading damsel who too often found herself in distress.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Olivia Twist” is a new title and so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “Olivia Twist” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Prince and the Dressmaker”

34506912Book: “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2018

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

Book Description: Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

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

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! While the hubby and I are pretty low key when it comes to the holiday, I do enjoy the little bits of romance that I see here and there. Given the holiday, it’s an appropriate time for me to talk about one of the cuter romances that I’ve read as of late! Before I saw it on NetGalley, I hadn’t heard of “The Prince and the Dressmaker”, and I requested it on a whim. I sat down one day thinking I’d at least start it, and then ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

Jen Wang has created a very gentle and quiet story about friendship and identity with “The Prince and the Dressmaker”. Within it’s pages we meet Frances, a quiet but ambitious dressmaker, and Sebastian, a Belgian Prince who also likes to dress in womens clothing and become Lady Crystallia. While Sebastian’s gender identity is kept vague, I am going to refer to them with they/them pronouns and as gender non-conforming/non-binary. I liked how Frances and Sebastian both interacted with each other and how they found a mutual understanding and respect within their Prince/Dressmaker relationship. Their friendship is sweet and simple, and I loved how it progressed as the story went on. While it did ultimately end in romance (Spoiler alert I guess?), I think that Wang approached it in a way that didn’t feel schmaltzy or in a way that negated the friendly, non romantic intimacy that had existed between the two of them at the start. I also feel that it’s important to have representation of more non-binary and gender non-conforming characters in stories, especially in positive, non-tragic ways, so Sebastian’s story arc was a story that I was happy to see. I will, however, say that as a cis straight woman the lens through which I approached this book and the story it tells is probably not the same as someone who would identify in other ways, and therefore I’m not sure that I can gauge whether or not it’s a good representation.

Frances’ story arc was the weaker of the two character progressions, but I still found it to be one that was engaging. She wants to become a designer, but as a woman (and a lower class one at that) she has very little agency and control over her life. She sees this arrangement with Sebastian as a way to get her work out there, and then finds herself in a place of power that she cannot speak of, lest it betray Sebastian’s secret. I also enjoyed her quiet but strong willed personality. Her strength may not be loud, but it is there nonetheless, and her moments of triumph were undoubtedly satisfying. And I don’t know why it struck me, but I loved that her hair is purple. Her entire character design just struck me as resonant for some reason. Possibly because I, too, like to wear my hair in a side braid and have thick eyebrows. Her expressions and facial designs really get her emotions across, so even though she was a bit more soft spoken I felt like I always knew what she was feeling.

The art, too, was fabulous. It fit the mood of the story well, simplistic and soft but popping off the page. There seemed to be some influence from manga and anime, but Wang also has made a mark of her own with the design. The imagery also harkens back to the time period of the regency (I think?) era. The fashion styles are absolutely gorgeous and delightful, with lots of colors used for Lady Crystallia’s dresses that just made me smile.

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(source)

Overall, I found “The Prince and the Dressmaker” to be a calm and charming story with a complex and heartfelt relationship at the heart of it. If you are looking for something to read this Valentine’s Day, seek this one out.

Rating 8: A gentle and sweet graphic novel about identity and friendship. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of the depiction of non-binary gender identity, the story had complex and likable characters and a lovely central relationship.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Prince and the Dressmaker” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”, and “2018 Books by Authors of Color/Native Authors”.

Find “The Prince and the Dressmaker” at your library using WorldCat!