Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Pact”

26061581Book: “The Dark Days Pact” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Days Club”

Review: Ok, I haven’t ranted about a cover for a long time. But man. MAN! This one deserves a good rant. Not only is this cover truly awful on its own, but when you compare it to the first book’s cover, it just gets even worse.

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That cover is good. It’s not doing anything super brilliant or unique, but it’s getting the job done. We know this is a historical novel, and we get that there is some darkness involved in the story, likely fantasy-related. And then we have this new cover…The model looks ridiculous. The weird magical sword is bizarre (and hard to connect with anything in the book). And the whole thing looks like the type of book you’d scoff at in an airport. We’d all like to think that we don’t judge books by their covers, but we do. And this series was already criminally underappreciated, and I can’t imagine this change to cover art helped anything. Also, spoiler alert, it definitely DOESN’T improve with the third book. *sigh*

Lady Helen has forgone the life of marriage and respectability she had previously seen as her future. Instead, she is now a full-fledged member of the Dark Days Club, a secretive society that fights against demonic beings that lurk among the unwary. More to the point, she and her colleagues suspect that the Grand Deceiver is on the move, one of the most powerful and evil beings the Club has ever faced. But Lady Helen is also still in training, with much to learn not only about her own unique abilities, but how she is to balance her responsibilities to the society as well as her loyalties to her friends. Especially Lord Carlston, whose erratic behavior has set him smack dab in the cross hairs of the leadership in the Dark Days Club.

While this book was a bit more wishy-washy for me (not really a surprise for the dreaded “second book” in a trilogy), there were still several aspects of the series that I greatly enjoyed. For one, the pitch perfect mixture of historical regency “manners” story, flitting through ballrooms and strolls through parks with parasols, and magical adventure featuring some legitimately dark villains. Lady Helen must be given full credit as a well-drawn character who is capable of reading as believable in both these very different scenarios. What’s more, both versions of herself, socialite and powerful Reclaimer, are not two suits that fit well together. Those who know her as a well-bred lady first and foremost, question her ability to exist in an action-packed and dangerous world. Here, she rises to the occasion by learning to fight and donning an alter-ego as a young man. On the other side, her Reclaimer friends don’t see the importance or value that Helen does in maintaining a grip on her role as a woman in society. And here, she proves that a well-timed conversation with the right person can be just as valuable as pulling out a sword.

I still also very much like the world that has been imagined here. Reclaiming is a dangerous business, and we see that though Helen has great power, she still has much to learn to survive in this world. Not only that, the most successful Reclaimer must still deal with the negative side-affects of their work, which we see in Lord Carlston’s quick spiral into violence and madness. We also see that the Deceivers themselves can come with a wide variety of motives and ways of living in the world, some more destructive than others. There are also more than a few humans who prove that you don’t have to be a demonic being to be evil.

While I liked all of these general aspects, I did find myself struggling with much of the book. For having so much action and adventure, the pacing also felt very slow. This is a long book, and towards the middle I was becoming more and more tempted to skim along. This is partly due to Helen’s arc itself within the story. Yes, she is new to this world and still trying to figure out who to trust and how to align herself. But she was just so indecisive, trying to play a middle field that anyone a mile away could see as a fool’s quest from the start. She also falls victim to the unfortunate and all too common martyr complex, choosing to make incredibly stupid decisions rather than, I don’t know, communicate with her friends. And for heaven’s sake, it seems all too clear who and what the Duke of Selbourn really is. Even the most naive lady of the time would be side-eyeing a man like this so determinedly not being put off by the repeated refusals and strange revelations about his lady love.

So, while I still liked much of the story, it ultimately felt a bit too long, a bit too predictable, and a bit too clumsy with its main character. But, that said, I’m still all in for the third and final book. At the very least, I can’t wait to read about Lady Helen finally waking the hell up about some things that I’m sure most readers have already guessed.

Rating 7: Falls victim to “second novel syndrome” a bit, but still has enough going for it to pull readers in for the final story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Pact” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “YA Historical Fantasy” (though I wouldn’t classify this as YA).

Find “The Dark Days Club” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”

38255342Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018

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

Book Description: Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness. 

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

What the hell. Let’s do ONE MORE DAY OF HORRORPALOOZA and call it even. Think of it as a late Halloween surprise. Or a birthday present for “Frankenstein”, which turned 200 this year. I was an ambitious reader as a kid, as I got it in my head in fourth grade that I could totally take on “Frankenstein”. While I know that there are absolutely kids out there who could, I was not one of those kids, and after reading a few pages I set it down and that was that… until college, when I took a class on Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs in literature. It was then that I finally read “Frankenstein” in it’s original, Mary Shelley goodness. I really enjoyed it, but I will absolutely admit that I found it very ironic that Mary Shelley, the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and independent woman in her own right, really only had Elizabeth for female representation in the OG science fiction horror story. So when I heard that Kiersten White had written “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”, a retelling of “Frankenstein” from Elizabeth’s perspective, I was stoked. Especially since White has already tackled a gender bent notorious ‘horror’ (sorta) story with her “Conqueror’s Saga”, which follows a female version of Vlad the Impaler (and which Serena adores). And if you like what she did with Lada, you will love to see this version of Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein.

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It may not be this iconic, but it comes close. (source)

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” has carved out space for women from a source material that had very little room for them to begin with. In “Frankenstein” Elizabeth is Victor Frankenstein’s devoted, and doomed, love interest/wife. The Monster strangles her on her wedding night, giving Victor man pain and guilt and more reason to hate his creation. In this book, Elizabeth has fought against being a victim her entire life, even though living during this time period made victimhood an all too familiar existence. In this tale, Elizabeth was taken in by the Frankenstein family to give their odd and antisocial son Victor some companionship, and Elizabeth knew that she would be safer with them than as an orphan or a ward in other circumstances. Her connection to Victor is purely a matter of survival, and she learns how to calculate and manipulate to keep him safe so that she too can be kept safe. It means that this Elizabeth makes some pretty tough, and sometimes nasty, decisions. But given that Elizabeth has no means to survive in this society as an woman, especially as an orphan in spite of her wealthy lineage, the reader can still understand why she makes these decisions. But Elizabeth isn’t the only woman in this book who has a story to tell. Justine is the governess for the Frankensteins, being a live in tutor for Victor’s younger brothers Ernest and William. She is a stand in mother to the boys, and Elizabeth’s closest friend, and like Elizabeth has come up from an abusive home to have a coveted position in a well to do family. But also like Elizabeth, Justine is almost always steps away from disgrace given her lower class upbringing and the inherent distrust in women, especially lower class ones, and unlike Elizabeth she doesn’t have the calculated shrewdness to stay ahead. These two are not only wonderful foils for each other, but also constant reminders that if women step out of line or are accused of such, the consequences can be grave.

The adaptation itself is also incredibly strong. This story runs parallel to the original “Frankenstein” tale, with various moments of flashbacks to Elizabeth and Victor’s childhoods with their dynamic of her trying to hide his odd obsession with death and anatomy lest it get him into trouble. She keeps him safe to keep herself safe, no matter what he does, no matter how horrible. You see the obsession that they have with each other, and you see how it grew, and the two narratives weave together seamlessly. Seeing Victor’s unethical journey through Elizabeth’s eyes, and having her own journey centered as the anchor of this tale, was very satisfying for me. We get to see huge events in the original story in a new way, and we also get to see what the fallout might have been like outside of Victor’s own culpability (William’s death, for example, sets off a huge domino effect that feels so unfair and tragic).  Like I said, I really like “Frankenstein”, but I LOVE that White wants to give Elizabeth a voice.The original point of “Frankenstein” is to make the reader question what makes a monster and what makes a man, and White portrays Victor in the way that people have pretty much come to view him in modern times. But that said, there were a few choices and plot points where it felt a little too mustache twirly. Just a few! Because of this, Victor felt more two dimensional than he needed to be, and I think that you can still get your point across while maintaining complexity. By the end he just felt like a bit of a cartoon. But that said, this IS Elizabeth’s story, and given that she was wonderful I could easily forgive that. And while I don’t want to spoil anything, I also really like what she did with The Monster, one of the true tragic figures in horror literature. At the end of the day, he too was a victim, and like Elizabeth a new voice is given to him, one that has some empowerment behind it.

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is a lovely and fantastic take on the “Frankenstein” story. I think that Mary Shelley would be happy to see what Kiersten White has done with her story, and what she has done with Elizabeth.

Rating 9: A gripping and suspenseful retelling of an old classic through a feminist lens, “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is a must for “Frankenstein” fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Gothic Retellings”, and “Homages to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein”.

Find “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Witch of Willow Hall”

37007910Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox

Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.

Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.

There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.

The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.

But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.

This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.

I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.

In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”

Find “The Witch of Willow Hall” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “The Hunger”

30285766Book: “The Hunger” by Alma Katsu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

Review: Back in college I took a super awesome Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature course called Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs. In this class we would read horror and science fiction books and texts and then put them in the context of the time period and place that they were written. When we were focusing on stories about zombies and “Night of the Living Dead”, or historical comparison was that of The Donner Party. Having had a fascination with The Donner Party since grade school. My first encounter with it was a particular Far Side comic that my mother had to explain to me….

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And it still makes me laugh. (source)

The next encounter was a TV movie called “One More Mountain”, which starred Meredith Baxter as Margaret Reed, one of the survivors of the whole ordeal. From then on I was hooked. So  back to college: I remember going to that class the day we were learning about it with a whole lot of food to share with my classmates (and trying to troll my professor, who was my very favorite and was very tolerant of my edgy, and no doubt obnoxious, sense of humor). Had that class been taught today, I think that Alma Katsu’s “The Hunger” would be the perfect text for the syllabus. Not only does it cover some very solid ground within what actually happened to that tragic wagon train, it adds a whole new element of horror and suspense by throwing in a supernatural twist.

It should be noted first and foremost that Katsu did some extensive research to write this book, even going so far as to retracing the route the Donner Party took as best she could (as the road by car doesn’t take the exact path). So she knows what she is talking about when it comes to the ultimate fates and broad stroked experiences of the people within the group. Because of this, even had there not been a supernatural element, “The Hunger” is gripping, visceral, and feels very, very real. While she may take some liberties here and there to make some of the players more vibrant (and she addresses some of this within her author’s notes), the characters are very relatable to the modern reader, many of them experiencing problems and hardships that many people still face today. Just goes to show that some things like abuse, misogyny, racism, and Othering are timeless, sadly. The details that Katsu put into this book, from the cast of players to the setting itself, were meticulous, and I was sucked into the story easily and felt like I could clearly see everyone and the settings that they found themselves as they moved west. I could picture the prairie, the mountains, and all the problems of the environment that they came to face, especially when the snow began to fall. Along with a traditional narrative, the story is also slowly unfolded through flashbacks at the end of each chapter (usually focusing on a certain character), and then letters that are written mostly by Edwin Bryant, who had gone off ahead of the Party and has possibly discovered some dark realities. The way all of these pieces come together is deeply satisfying, and Kutsu is skilled at making sure they weave together in precise ways.

The unique part of this book that really grabbed me was the horror element. We don’t really know WHAT it is that is plaguing the Donner Party as they make their way, as Katsu is sure to be vague outside of the reveal as to what the origin is (but that would be a spoiler, so I won’t go into details beyond that). But that is part of the horror in and of itself. I loved the descriptions of figures moving in the woods, and the descriptions of the body horror that some of the members start to experience. Katsu derives the supernatural element from many different sources, from folklores from around the world, to superstitions, to implications about illness and madness. What we do know is that something is following The Donner Party as it goes up into the mountains, and that it’s wreaking havoc, sometimes unknowingly. And Katsu does play with some unreliable elements to the story: is this force doing the most damage, or are the people doing far more damage to themselves because of madness, greed, and desperation? What if the absolute and worst horrors in this book are the violent and merciless people, especially once they are driven into a corner.

But there is a whole other kind of horror in this book, and that horror is the truth of what happened to The Donner Party. It isn’t just the fact that the wilderness is dangerous, especially in high stakes situations, but the actual fate of this wagon train is frightening even without the supernatural element. This group took a bad trail based on bad information, hubris, and the entitlement of Manifest Destiny, and therein ended up stranded in the mountain wilderness during winter. Then, when they started to succumb to exposure, cannibalism became the only option for some to survive. That is unsettling without the help of outside forces. I remember being unsettled during that class back in college as I realized that I no longer had the appetite for the food I so gleefully brought with me. And Katsu captures it perfectly, because even though you know what is going to happen, you still dread it.

“The Hunger” is a superb horror novel that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. If you are feeling extra daring, save it for a cold winter night, perhaps when it is snowing outside and you might be able to see strange shadows in the trees…

Rating 9: A tense and detailed historical fiction/horror novel, “The Hunger” brings a creepy twist to the already creepy true story of the Donner Party.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hunger” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “Horror Novels Set (Largely) in Winter/Snow”.

Find “The Hunger” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance”

64255Book: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 1998

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

Book Description: The prospects for the 1907 archaeological season in Egypt seem fairly dull to Amelia Peabody. Despite her adored husband’s brilliant reputation in his field, his dashing-yet-less-than-diplomatic behavior has Professor Radcliffe Emerson ignominiously demoted to examining only the most boring tombs in the Valley of the Kings — mere leftovers, really. All the Peabody Emersons profess stiff upper lips and intend to make the best of a bad situation, but this year the legendary land of the pharaohs will yield more than priceless artifacts for the Emerson expedition. For the desert guards even deeper mysteries that are wrapped in greed — and sealed by murder.

In a seedy section of Cairo, the youngest members of the expedition purchase a mint-condition papyrus of the famed Book of the Dead, the collection of magical spells and prayers designed to ward off the perils of the underworld and lead the deceased into everlasting life. But for as long as there have been graves, there have also been grave robbers — as well as those who believe tomb violators risk the wrath of gods like Thoth, the little baboon who protects the scales used to weigh such precious commodities as hearts and souls.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool”

Review: It’s been a while, but we’re back with another Amelia Peabody novel. I usually turn to these when I find myself in a reading slump, but luckily I’ve had a pretty good run on books recently. But I still found myself with a hankering for my favorite female sleuth, and so here we are!

Back in Egypt, Amelia and her family find themselves looking forward to what will likely be a long, boring season. They have been “banished,” essentially, to some of the lesser tombs in the Valley and aren’t likely to make any grand discoveries. However, adventure is sure to find them, this time in the appearance of a priceless artifact that is recovered by Ramses, Nefret, and David. But following the artifact is a wake of mayhem and murder. Determined to find out who is behind these disturbances, Amelia and co. are on the case! Matters are only muddied, however, when their extended family (Walter, Evelyn, and their daughter, Lia) arrive and previously unknown attachments are revealed.

Many of the tried and true aspects of this series that I have always enjoyed are still present. While the narration is now more broken up, with the introduction of manuscripts and letters written from the perspectives of Ramses and Nefret, we still spend much of our time with our familiar and beloved Amelia. Here, however, the story really does take a new turn with regards to our heroine and her role in these stories. Up to this point, Amelia has been a solid point of reason, sound thinking, humorous commentary, and an adventurous spirit. All of these aspects of her personality remain here, however we are also exposed to a new reality: even Amelia herself has flaws and falls prey to certain prejudices that she wasn’t even aware of in herself. While it is difficult to see our reliable main character clash up against points of view that the modern reader immediately recognizes as traps of prejudices, I loved the full exploration of how this type of latent viewpoint could exist even within the most modern and intellectual beings of the time. And, be assured, even this challenge, as unexpected as it may have been for our heroine, is one that she is up to conquering!

As these books have continued, readers become more and more invested in the goings ons and thoughts/feelings of the younger group of the Emerson party. And this is probably the first book where I felt like these sections truly came into their own. Ramses continues to struggle with his repressed feelings for Nefret. Nefret, herself, continues to run into the barriers that are set against her due to her age and sex (even by members of her own family). And David struggles to find his role in a world that would often judge him first by the color of his skin, even when strong connections exist between him and those who might judge.

The mystery itself was also enjoyable. While I was able to predict certain twists and turns, the romp was still worth the ride. Many familiar faces play a role in this mystery, wandering in and out of scenes in some unexpected ways. I was particularly pleased to see the return of a certain villain who often creates many disturbances in the Emerson clan. What’s more, the stakes in this mystery are much higher than they have been in the past. While the book is still a “feel good” mystery, there was much more darkness and tragedy than I have come to expect. I never love crying over a book, but in this instance, I felt like the sadder moments were not only well-earned but a necessary send-off to certain storylines.

The archeological portions of the story were also quite compelling. We’ve gotten so used to our meticulous and studious main characters, that reading this book and its descriptions of the mishandling of a tomb found by another excavation team, I found myself almost getting as emotionally worked up as Emerson himself!

As I’ve said, many portions of this book felt familiar, but in the best way. There are significant strides made in advancing the storylines of the younger generation, which I’m sure we’ll see continue to play out in books to come. It also takes a new approach to examining Amelia’s own character, forcing her to confront some weaknesses in her own perceptions, an aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed. As always, for fans of this series, keeping plugging along! You won’t be disappointed!

Rating 8: Continues the series’ long line of success, but adds new layers with an exploration of Amelia’s own flaws and an extra focus on the lives of Ramses, Nefret, and David.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ape Who Guards the Balance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Archaeology Thriller Books” and “Strong Female Characters Written by Female Authors.”

Find “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Hollow of Fear”

363423301Book: “The Hollow of Fear” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia”

Review: I warned you in our “Highlights” post that a review was coming quickly! Thanks to the lovely Edelweiss, I’ve had access to this title for a while but had been trying to resist reading it until closer to its publication date. Torture indeed. And at this point, after three amazing books (spoiler: I loved this one), it’s such a pleasure to find another series that I can now put full faith into the fact that I’m sure to love future titles as well. Why can’t they all just be out now though?? They should defy space and time and arrive ala Netflix binging. But enough of that, on with the review!

The fallout of the events that took place in “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” are still being felt, most largely by Lord Ingram himself whose world has crumbled after the discovery of his wife’s involvement with the criminal mastermind Moriarty. But a bad situation can always get worse and very much does with the discovery of Lady Ingram’s body on his own property. Of course, Charlotte Holmes would never watch idly as disaster befell her dear friend. But still banished from society and with a gossip-worthy connection with Lord Ingram himself, how can she involve herself in the case in a useful manner? In disguise, of course!

Oh where, oh where to start my crazed ranting! I think part of my love still comes down to the very fact that this series exists and exists as well as it does. I’ve recommended it to a few people lately, including my husband, and his and many other’s responses have often been the same. Something like “…really? but…why?” For some, this is simply because they see no reason to adapt the character once again at all and for others there is a general distrust that a series could effectively gender swap the character while also maintaining its historical setting. And really, these are both legit concerns. In the last several years, though it has been waning a bit recently, it seems the entire world was under a certain “Sherlock” fever, with a new adaptation, either written or on some screen or another, announced every other day. But to these skeptics I say a loud and resounding “nay!” There is always room for another adaptation if and when an author is truly capable of bending these classic characters into something truly new without losing the essence of said characters and stories. And that is what makes Sherry Thomas’s books so amazing.

“The Hollow of Fear” is no exception. By this point, we know that Thomas has tackled the biggest challenge: creating a new version of Sherlock that both rings true to the original but also has enough novel factors to stand alone among other adaptations. And from there, it’s just a matter of releasing said character into another plot and seeing what happens. I think what makes this story stand out in particular is the fact that it is more of a direct sequel to its predecessor than the original. The first two definitely had connected through lines, but could perhaps be read individually. Here, this story directly pulls from the events of the last and is stronger for having a more robust mystery built upon information and puzzles that have been laid down through both books now.

I also enjoyed that the story largely takes place in a small space, Lord Ingram’s estate. We jump here and there to a few places in the surrounding community, but in many ways it reads like a classic mansion mystery where a large group gathers, a murder is committed, and the culprit and method must be sought out amidst the question of how such an event could occur with so many witnesses around.

All of our favorite characters make an appearance though the amount of page time for each is switched around a bit. Here, we spend a lot more time with Charlotte’s sister, Livia and got to see her come a bit into her own, building confidence as she went. We also spend a good amount of time with Detective Treadles, and I particularly enjoyed his storyline here. In the last few books, he’s been a bit unlikable due to his feelings and prejudices about his wife, but here we see him truly have to confront these aspects of himself. In retrospect, I very much enjoy this slow transformation. I think it reads as a much more honest version of this type of change and the moments that lead him to real inner reflection in this book also ring true for what would open one’s eyes about one’s own behaviors and thoughts with regards to these types of prejudices.

Charlotte herself is of course amazing. I very much enjoyed her undercover work, and it was a fun twist to see her more fully interacting with the mystery as the story unfolded. Due to her gender and outcast status, she always had to operate a bit on the sidelines in the past books, and while that lead to some really great moments too, this was a nice change of pace from what could have become a predictable set of events.

Her relationship with Lord Ingram was also further explored, and while I still very much enjoy this building relationship, there were a few things at the end that were particular to this couple that lead me to drop my rating from a full 10. Some of the explanations for past actions I’m not sure truly made sense or were necessary in the grand scheme of things. Instead, they almost read as excuses to include certain parts of the story that were hard to work in otherwise. And then were largely reset again at the end of this book. I’m curious where things will go from here, however, as I don’t think this type of bait-and-switch will work twice, so at some point this complicated relationship is going to need to be dealt with in another way.

The mystery itself was also very good and remains one of the strongest pros of the entire series. Here there were a few moments where I thought I had guessed at crucial information and was feeling quite smug about it only to later discover that, nope, that wasn’t right at all. And while there were a few very satisfying scenes at the end where Charlotte was able to put some self-important police investigators in their place, part of that reveal also relied on one concept that felt a bit too convenient. But, again, that’s a very nit-picky criticism. Because overall, for fans of historical mysteries, this series is turning out to be a must read!

Rating 9: Sherry Thomas continues to make the difficult task of writing a new version of Sherlock Holmes seem “elementary” indeed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hollow of Fear” is a newer title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2018.”

Find “The Hollow of Fear” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”

36686229Book: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, August 2018

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

Book Description: Heavens to Murgatroyd! Hanna-Barbera’s very own Snagglepuss is reimagined in a brand-new series, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, by author Mark Russell (THE FLINTSTONES)!

It’s 1953. While the United States is locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the gay Southern playwright known as Snagglepuss is the toast of Broadway. But success has made him a target. As he plans for his next hit play, Snagglepuss becomes the focus of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And when powerful forces align to purge show business of its most subversive voices, no one is safe!

Written by Mark Russell, the critically acclaimed mastermind behind the award-winning PREZ VOL. 1 and THE FLINTSTONES, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, enters the Hanna-Barbera reimagined universe! Collects issues #1-6.

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

Though I feel like I watched a good amount of Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a child, one character that I don’t have specific memories of is Snagglepuss. I remember him existing, and I remember a few of his quirks (like his catch phrase ‘exit, stage left!!’ and his smooth personality), but I don’t think I ever saw a full cartoon with him as the star. But even with my passing familiarity of the character, I still knew that I ABSOLUTELY needed to read “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”. It’s not exactly an obvious premise: Snagglepuss is a closeted Southern playwright in 1950s New York during the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the Lavender Scare, and finds himself and his friends targeted for their lifestyles. Is this a story I thought I’d see Snagglepuss in? No. Is it one of the best, if not the very best, graphic novels I’ve read this year. Heavens to Murgatoyd, yes.

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No longer is my go to Snagglepuss reference a throwaway “Simpsons” joke! (source)

The thing about Snagglepuss as a character is that he was written at a time where gay characters were coded into entertainment, and they were usually portrayed as villains, buffoons, or, if people were feeling progressive, tragic victims who couldn’t survive the story if they wanted to be true to themselves. Snagglepuss is fussy, dapper, has a smarmy affectation, and acts ‘flamboyant’, so it’s probably safe to assume he was coded as gay, and meant to be laughed at. So to take this character and to give him this story is a very neat deconstruction of what the character was initially, especially since this story is set within the same general time frame that Snagglepuss first was introduced to the world (if not a little before). Mark Russell, the man responsible for other DC/Hanna-Barbera edginess like his take on “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo”, has given Snagglepuss a similar, dark treatment where people thought darkness couldn’t possibly be found. But darkness there is, as Snagglepuss finds himself caught up in the fear of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, with it’s head Gigi Allen setting her sights on him specifically. Through this backdrop we get to explore and examine the hypocrisy, corruption, prejudice, and rampant fear that had the American Government and people in an uproar. Snagglepuss himself is reluctant to become a symbol of rebellion; on the the contrary he’s perfectly content living his life as a success on Broadway, meeting up with his lover at the Stonewall Inn and basking in his fame as an intellectual elite. What I liked the most about him as our main character is that he is thrust into this role of rebellion, and his complicated feelings about it make him a well rounded character who has his OWN privileges that he hides behind when others can’t. He is a compelling iteration of the original character, and someone who can’t accept how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. 

Other familiar faces pop up in this story, from Hanna-Barbera stallwarts to actual players during the Red and Lavender Scares. We get cameos from the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, and the Rosenbergs, whose execution is one of the darker plot points within this book. At the end of the graphic novel Russell has put together a handy dandy set of notes on various people and moments he includes in the story, and I found that to be very helpful and thoughtful of him (I had never heard of the great Cornfield War between Khruschev and an American farmer. Look it up, it’s hilarious!). On the Hanna-Barbera end, Quick Draw McGraw and Squiddly Diddly play key roles and have their own forms of prejudice to contend with (Quick Draw being a closeted cop on the Stonewall beat and Squiddly being an immigrant), but the stand out is Huckleberry Hound. Huckleberry is Snagglepuss’s childhood best friend, and has become a well known Southern Gothic novelist whose marriage has fallen apart because of his sexuality. They are exact opposites, with Snagglepuss being flitty and carefree and Huckleberry being anxious and depressed. The way that their relationship grows and changes, and how they cope, or don’t cope, is one of the saddest aspects of this book, and the one that had me weeping openly of Hanna-Barbera characters. I never thought I’d see the day. But that just goes to show how excellent Russell is as a writer: he takes two dimensional cartoon characters and breathes life into them, redefining them and bringing relevant social concepts to life through them.

The artistic style that Mike Feehan brings to this story is also incredibly compelling. The characters look realistic, with Snagglepuss absolutely designed like a mountain lion in stature and gait, but not out of place within the real world they are mingling in. The animals are the right amount of anthropomorphized without feeling uncanny or eerie.

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(source: DC Comics)

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” feels timely because the rise of paranoia and corruption within our current administration, and the constant Othering of various groups that don’t fit into the mold that they deem as ‘true Americans’. It feels like a warning, and it makes it all the more intense and powerful of a read. But it also feels like you’re reading about familiar friends, and are learning a great deal about them that you never knew, even though they were always like this. It’s ingenious and effective, and I loved every bit of it. And it’s stories like this that make me run back to DC Comics, because this is by and large one of, if not the, best graphic novels I have read in a very long time. I have my issues with DC, but I stand by the fact that I find some of the stories they tell to be incredibly ambitious and outside the box. And, heavens to Murgatroyd, I cannot recommend “Exit Stage Left” enough.

Rating 10: This brilliant and poignant story takes a well known character and gives him depth, heart, and complexity. Snagglepuss and his friends jump off the page in a story that feels as timely as it does foreboding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” isn’t on many specifically relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it has a place on “My Country, The Enemy”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” at your library using WorldCat!