Serena’s Review: “Stalking Jack the Ripper”

40727470Book: “Stalking Jack the Ripper” by Kerri Maniscalco

Publishing Info: Jimmy Patterson, September 2016

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

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

Review: I’m always on the lookout for another good historical mystery series. While I have several that I’m currently following, there’s always room for more! I’d seen this title floating around in a few discussions with other fans of historical mysteries and was intrigued by not only the concept (while I’m not at Kate’s level of knowledge of famous serial killers, we all know about Jack the Ripper!), but also by the fact that it was  YA series. So off to the library I went where I was pleased to find a lovely audiobook version ready and waiting!

Ever since her mother’s death, Audrey Rose has turned to science to understand the world. Under the tutelage of her eccentric uncle, she has learned the ins and outs of anatomy and even begun conducting procedures herself. But what began as a pursuit of knowledge turns a deadly angle when a streak of murders of women hit London. Called upon for the forensic knowledge, Audrey Rose, her uncle, and his apprentice, the irritating but handsome, Thomas, are pulled into the dark and disturbing mind of a mad man. And as they begin unraveling the crimes, Audrey Rose begins to suspect that the mysterious “Jack” may be stalking them, in turn.

So, right off the bat, this is going to be a mixed review. On one hand, I genuinely enjoyed reading this book and whizzed through it quite quickly. But on the other side of things, once completed, I found myself looking back on many aspects of the storytelling with some dissatisfaction. But, as always, we shall begin with the strengths!

One of the things that intrigued me most about this book and series was the combination of a historical mystery based on a real-life crime spree and the young adult genre. I’ve mostly read adult historical mysteries in the past, and it’s pretty obvious that fantasy, and now to some extent contemporary fiction, is still dominating the YA genre. Historical mysteries/thrillers are hard to come by! And I do think the author managed to pull off the merging of all of these elements quite well. For fans of historical mysteries, there were familiar elements in the detailed depiction of the time period and the creation of a romantically-tinged buddy cop duo in Audrey Rose and Thomas. The mystery was solid enough, probably enhanced mostly by its connection to the true crimes, and it walked right up to the horror line, if not crossing it a bit towards the end in a surprisingly gruesome manner. And for YA fans, Aubrey Rose and Thomas checked most of the boxes for what readers expect from their teenage protagonists.

This horror aspect and the reveal at the end of the murderer and their motivations was also one of the strongest aspects of the book. While I felt that the identity of the murderer was telegraphed fairly early on, the motivation came as a complete surprise and the manner of its explanation and end game was particularly horrific. There was almost a cross-over with another famous story in a way that I hadn’t been expecting at all.

The writing was also snappy and quick-moving, with the dialogue between Aubrey Rose and Thomas rising to the top as often particularly enjoyable. However, here was also where I began to struggle with the story. There was something verging on anachronistic in the relationship and mode of speaking that was built up between these two. As I said, this type of buddy cop/romantic relationship is fairly standard for historical mystery fare, and often that involves a rather progressive man and woman at its heart. However, here, there were a few elements that pushed this typical pattern over some unseen line in my mind. Part of it could have to do with their age. For example, both Veronica and Amelia were independent, fully grown women when they set off on their adventures. Age, experience, and, importantly, financial and social freedom that was rarely seen in the time, allowed them to interact with others and the world in the way they did. Aubrey Rose is still quite young, not even “out” in society, and still a member of her father’s household. This then ended up rubbing up wrongly against some of her choices and ways of speaking, especially in her interactions with Thomas.

So, too, Thomas’s flirty and sarcastic way of speaking was also hampered by not only his relatively young age, but also the fact that he was supposedly raised to be a gentleman and was interacting with a young, often unchaperoned, girl. This left some of his more suggestive remarks reading not as the fun flirtation that I’m sure they were meant to portray, but instead as rather boorish and unflattering. All together, it was the kind of an odd, unhappy mixture of modern YA romance tropes on top of a historical setting that isn’t equipped to manage those tropes in the same way.

Further, while I generally enjoyed Aubrey Rose as a character, she did have her fair share of really poor decision making and thinking. And while these flaws were often made clear to her, eventually, it was still a frustrating read at times when aspects of the mystery were only too clear to readers, but Aubrey Rose, through plot necessity, was forced to remain and act clueless. In this same way, her interactions with Thomas became equally frustrating as she insisted on “misinterpreting” his flirtations throughout the entire book, even when those same flirtations became almost inappropriately obvious.

In the end, it was a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed what the author was attempting to do, and I think she should be applauded for managing to merge so many genres together. However, this same merging of genres also let the author and the book down at times when tropes from each didn’t play well together. But, as I said, I also whizzed through this book quite quickly, so I still plan on checking out the next in the series. We’ll evaluate again from there! Fans of historical mysteries may want to check this series out, but if you’re not a fan of YA fiction to some extent, you may be frustrated by some of those elements.

Rating 6: A fast-paced, fun read, just try not to think about it too much afterwards though or you may become frustrated.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Stalking Jack the Ripper” isn’t on many Goodreads lists for some reason, but it is on  “YA Fiction set in the 1880s.”

Find “Stalking Jack the Ripper” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monday’s Not Coming”

35068534Book: “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, May 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Review: Tiffany D. Jackson, as you may recall, blew me away with her debut novel “Allegedly” back at the beginning of 2017. The story of Mary and her haunted past of being convicted of killing a baby was raw and unforgiving, and I knew that I absolutely needed to follow Jackson in her writing career because of her ability to weave modern themes of injustice into her stories. I thought that I was going to be ready for “Monday’s Not Coming”. I thought that I was going to be able to brace myself and handle whatever it was she threw at me given the gut punch that was “Allegedly”. And I was wrong, but wrong in the best way possible.

Jackson’s story about a missing girl and her determined best friend once again takes relevant social issues and applies them to a gritty and dark mystery. Claudia always comes off as a realistic teenage girl, her insecurities and her joys and her sadness and worry all culminating in ways that feel incredibly honest. Intense friendships in your childhood can be both magical and damaging, as while you have that person who may know you best, you also run the risk of relying too much on them, and the complicated center of that is very present as Claudia looks for Monday. I both wanted to shake Claudia and hug her as the story went on, as she makes so many bad decisions, but those decisions are rooted in very true to life realities. She wants to find her best friend, but there is only so much she can do on her own, so when those around her either can’t help or won’t help her powerlessness is painful and palpable. There is a sub theme in this book about her learning differences as well, which was a really refreshing theme to address. Perhaps it’s because I have a litany of diagnoses in this regard, but I loved how it made Claudia all the more well rounded, but never made her seem ‘special’ or used as a device to make her pitiable. Jackson just had it be part of her story, and connected it to why she was so reliant on Monday and how her disappearance is made all the worse for Claudia.

The story is told in a couple of different timelines, labeled as ‘The Before’, ‘The After’, and ‘Before The Before’, and while at some points it felt hard to follow it eventually becomes very clear as to how they all fit together. It adds another mysterious undercurrent to the centered ‘what happened to Monday’ aspect of this book, and while on audiobook it felt confusing at times (with no easy ability to go back and forth to remind myself which timeline I was in) I liked how it constructed the narrative. The clues about where Monday is are to be found in all of the timelines, and while I was pretty certain I knew how things were going to end up, I did find myself wavering in my deductions and speculations, enough so that it felt like every reveal was new and interesting. The mystery, too, is a very powerful way for Jackson to address an all too familiar reality when it comes to missing black girls in our society, in that they don’t get nearly as much attention as their white counterparts. Claudia is one of the few people actually trying to get to the bottom of where Monday is, and the fact that a missing teenage girl is so easily swept under the rug reminds us that there are still many racial disparities that need to be addressed in our society. So, too, is the very prevalent social issue of gentrification addressed in this story, as Monday’s family lives in a poorer part of town that is being bought up by real estate developers who want to bring in wealthier (i.e. white) tenants. This stress is just another factor that makes people more likely to look away from the situation at hand. I will say that with two kind of big reveals it felt a LITTLE bit overrun with twists, but ultimately I wasn’t upset with the two just because I bought them for the most part. I think that had this been written by a less talented author I may have been less forgiving, but as it is it didn’t hinder my overall enjoyment.

I should also note that the woman who narrated this, Imani Parks, did a wonderful job. Her voices were varied and she pulled out the right emotions from all of them. While I mentioned before that the audiobook format made it harder to keep track of the various timelines, I don’t think that I lost anything by listening to it as opposed to reading it.

“Monday’s Not Coming” was another emotional and wrenching novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. I was crying in the car as I listened to it, so if you do pick it up, make sure to have tissues on hand. Can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Rating 9: An emotional mystery with all too relevant themes, “Monday’s Not Coming” is another gut punch of a novel by the talented Tiffany D. Jackson.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monday’s Not Coming” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2018”, and “YA Missing Persons”.

Find “Monday’s Not Coming” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Two Can Keep A Secret”

38225791Book: “Two Can Keep A Secret” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2019

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

Book Description: Echo Ridge is small-town America. Ellery’s never been there, but she’s heard all about it. Her aunt went missing there at age seventeen. And only five years ago, a homecoming queen put the town on the map when she was killed. Now Ellery has to move there to live with a grandmother she barely knows.

The town is picture-perfect, but it’s hiding secrets. And before school even begins for Ellery, someone’s declared open season on homecoming, promising to make it as dangerous as it was five years ago. Then, almost as if to prove it, another girl goes missing.

Ellery knows all about secrets. Her mother has them; her grandmother does too. And the longer she’s in Echo Ridge, the clearer it becomes that everyone there is hiding something. The thing is, secrets are dangerous–and most people aren’t good at keeping them. Which is why in Echo Ridge, it’s safest to keep your secrets to yourself.

Review: Thank you so much to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I know that I probably over reference “Twin Peaks” in my blog posts, but given that for me it’s the pinnacle of storytelling it’s a standard that I can’t help but hold certain types of stories to. Basically, if you are writing a book about a small town with seedy secrets, I’m going to immediately start chanting in my head about magicians longing to see and stuff of that nature. If a book doesn’t live up to those (probably unfair) expectations, woe be unto the author and the universe they create. But when they do?

giphy-4
(source)

And that brings me to Karen M. McManus’s newest YA mystery thriller “Two Can Keep A Secret”. Given my enjoyment of her previous book, “One of Us Is Lying”, I was excited and nervous to read her follow up to a stellar debut. The good news is that I liked “Two Can Keep A Secret” even more than “One of Us Is Lying”!

Once again, McManus has a compelling hook and likable characters that immediately pull the reader in. While on the surface our cast seems to fill various tropes of the genre (the cynical new girl, the misunderstood outsider, the manipulative and popular bitch), McManus writes them all in such a way that they feel fresh and unique. Our main two perspectives are Ellery, a true crime obsessed teen who has just moved to her mother’s home town of Echo Park, and Malcolm, the younger brother of a former golden boy. Both have outside connections to tragedy in this small town, as Ellery’s aunt disappeared when she and Ellery’s mom were teens, and Malcolm’s brother fell from grace after his girlfriend was murdered and he was the prime suspect. While it may have been easy to follow ever explored formulas for both our main characters, Ellery and Malcolm both surprised me with their depth. They both have moments of triumph and moments that were less than flattering, but at all times they felt like realistic teens who are trying to move past painful realities and traumas. While the supporting cast didn’t have as much time to shine as these two, when they were on the page they, too, felt like real teens with lives they were navigating as best they could. I especially liked Ezra, Ellery’s twin brother, whose love and loyalty to his sister was a good way to counterbalance the ever so tempting ‘all alone new kid’ plot line. It was also a thoughtful way to show how different people can approach and process a shared pain, as the twins have to navigate moving to a new place after their mother Sadie ends up rehab.

There are multiple mysteries tied up in “Two Can Keep A Secret”, but McManus juggles them with ease so they never feel overwhelming. Echo Park is a town filled with secrets, from who killed Lacey the Homecoming Queen, to the disappearance of Sadie’s twin sister Sarah (which, understandably, has possibly contributed to her mental problems), to secret familial connections that no one wants to talk about. The various tragedies at the center of this story were where the book most reminded me of “Twin Peaks”, and I think that’s in part due to how well McManus laid out this town and those who inhabit it. While there were some answers I was able to discern on my own before their reveals, for the most part I was left guessing and theorizing up until the answer was given. I greatly enjoyed the many different mysteries, from the tragic to the sudsy. They were all satisfying from start to finish, and McManus did a superb job of making sure all of her threads were pulled together by the end of the book.

“Two Can Keep A Secret” was a fun and suspenseful mystery, and it solidifies Karen M. McManus as a talented thriller author. Readers of thrillers, no matter their age, will almost assuredly find something to like here. And if you like the less surreal aspects of “Twin Peaks”, this book could be a good fit for you as well!

Rating 9: A fabulous follow up to a great debut, “Two Can Keep A Secret” is a tantalizing mystery with fun characters and many satisfying twists and turns. Fans of thrillers should check it out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Two Can Keep A Secret” is included on the Goodreads lists “Secrets and Lies”, and “Mystery Thriller 2019”.

Find “Two Can Keep A Secret” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review and Giveaway: “An Anonymous Girl”

39863515Book: “An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description: Seeking women ages 18–32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. 

When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr. Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money, and leave. But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr. Shields may know what she’s thinking…and what she’s hiding. As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what in her life is real, and what is one of Dr. Shields’ manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly. 

Review: I want to extend a very special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of this novel!

In my younger years I was deeply fascinated with psychology, specifically of the abnormal type. During my undergraduate program I was especially taken with the various unethical studies that were conducted in the name of ‘science’. While studies of these natures could never get past an IRB today, I think about the Milgram Experiment (where a subject thought that they were giving people violent electric shocks and were told to keep going no matter what) and The Zimbardo Prison Experiment (where students were separated into prisoner and guard roles in a faux prison setting, and horrific abuse began almost instantly), and wonder just how these things were ever thought to be okay. Because of this lingering fascination, when I saw the new book “An Anonymous Girl”, written by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen of “The Wife Between Us” fame, was about unethical psych subjects I was excited to read it. I really enjoyed “The Wife Between Us”, so my expectations were set pretty high for their newest work.

“An Anonymous Girl” has a similar narrative structure to “The Wife Between Us”, with dual narrators who have distinct voices and their own takes on unreliability. The first and more prominent of the two is Jess, a make up artist who is living a meager and somewhat unfulfilling existence. She used to have dreams of making it on Broadway as a make up artist, but has since stalled out and settled for a job that sends her to private appointments around New York City. Her past is a bit hidden at first, though you know she’s sending money to her family to help care for her younger sister, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child. Jess is a narrator whose motivations are always laid out and clear, and while she has a tendency to make questionable to poor decisions, she’s written in a way that makes you totally believe why she would make said decisions. The other narrator is Dr. Shields, and she is a bit more muddled in her motivations. The mystery of the novel is just what Dr. Shields is doing with the experiment that Jess volunteers for, and as her intent is slowly revealed her character’s layers are peeled back to show a dark mind at work, far darker than Jess’s. Both characters are interesting enough that I was invested in figuring out just what Dr. Shields wanted with Jess, and how far Jess would be pushed within the ‘experiment’ she was participating in. I kept thinking back to Milgram and how the subjects would sally forth, no matter how uncomfortable they were, because they thought that they had to.

The mystery sustained itself as long as it wanted to, laying out various hints towards both womens’ overall story arcs and their pasts. But eventually the narrative shifts from a mysterious question of intrigue to a pins and needles cat and mouse game. And it is that shift where “An Anonymous Girl” stumbled a little bit for me. Once we found out what it was that Dr. Shields was trying to accomplish, the reveal was a bit disappointing if only because it’s something we have seen many times before within this genre. I’m not going to spoil it here because I do think that getting there and the ensuing predator and prey dynamic is worth the read. But I will say that I went in hoping for a send of of unethical experiments of the past, where the likes of Milgram and Zimbardo were doing awful things in the name of science and learning about human nature. And what is very much not the case here at the end of the day.

“An Anonymous Girl” is a strong follow up to Hendricks’s and Pekkanen’s previous hit. While I do wish it had thought outside the box a little more, it was still an enjoyable thriller that serves the genre well. And I have some good news for you! I am going to give my ARC away so a lucky winner can read it for themselves! This giveaway runs through January 14 and is open to U.S. Residents only.

Click Here To Enter The Giveaway!

Rating 7: A suspenseful and engrossing thriller that mostly kept me on my toes, “An Anonymous Girl” was enjoyable, though I wish it hadn’t fallen on some old reliable plot points of the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“An Anonymous Girl” is including on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “Chilling New York Novels”.

Find “An Anonymous Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bring Me Back”

35857495Book: “Bring Me Back” by B.A. Paris

Publishing Info: St Martin’s Press, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was given a copy by the publisher.

Book Description: Finn and Layla are young, in love, and on vacation. They’re driving along the highway when Finn decides to stop at a service station to use the restroom. He hops out of the car, locks the doors behind him, and goes inside. When he returns Layla is gone—never to be seen again. That is the story Finn told to the police. But it is not the whole story.

Ten years later Finn is engaged to Layla’s sister, Ellen. Their shared grief over what happened to Layla drew them close and now they intend to remain together. Still, there’s something about Ellen that Finn has never fully understood. His heart wants to believe that she is the one for him…even though a sixth sense tells him not to trust her.

Then, not long before he and Ellen are to be married, Finn gets a phone call. Someone from his past has seen Layla—hiding in plain sight. There are other odd occurrences: Long-lost items from Layla’s past that keep turning up around Finn and Ellen’s house. Emails from strangers who seem to know too much. Secret messages, clues, warnings. If Layla is alive—and on Finn’s trail—what does she want? And how much does she know?

A tour de force of psychological suspense, Bring Me Back will have you questioning everything and everyone until its stunning climax.

Review: Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of this book!

Every once in awhile my book pile gets out of control. Okay, more than every once in awhile. It’s always teetering on the edge, and it does start to get to be too big. But earlier this year it was SO big that I felt a need to make two separate piles on my nightstand. My husband would taunt me saying that it was too much, TOO MUCH, but I told him that I had a system and that it was fool proof. Unfortunately, the second pile fell a bit to the wayside, as it was filled with non-library books and non- ARCs, which I deemed not as big of a priority… Until I looked at it a few months later and realized that one of the ARCs, “Bring Me Back” by B.A. Paris, had been sitting in that pile the whole time.

giphy7
My system! How could my system FAIL me so?! (source)

Kicking myself, I threw it on the regular pile, and when I finally, FINALLY, sat down to read it I promised myself that I would check these two piles a bit more frequently from now on, as I had missed out on a read I had been looking forward to.

And then… THEN. I finished it and wished that I hadn’t let the anticipation build. Because I did not care for “Bring Me Back”. And to fully explain my frustrations with this book, I’m going to give this a big ol’ SPOILER ALERT. If you still want to read this book, by all means have at it, and skip the bulk of this review because you’ll find nothing but sadness here.

For one thing, none of the characters are very likable or sympathetic. We get this book in two narratives: Finn and Layla. Finn is creepy as hell and has moments of toxicity and violence towards women in his life, be it verbal or physical. He is the epitome of ‘broken fellow who is deathly obsessed with one woman’, but unlike in books with similar characters (HELLO, JOE GOLDBERG) there are no interesting or complex or SATIRICAL things about his personality. He’s just a mess. We eventually find out that that Layla didn’t just ‘disappear while he was in the toilet’ while at that roadside stop; she’d confessed that she’d slept with someone else and he DRAGGED HER out of the car in a rage.

Then there’s Layla. Her parts are a little more understandable in their muddledness, given how her character enters into all of this. But my biggest problem with her is that, in SPITE of the fact that Finn is the goddamn worst and that she runs away with him in a fear that he’ll kill her, SHE STILL WANTS HIM BACK. And I kept waiting and waiting for a reveal, or a twist, or something that I had missed. But nope. She just wants him back, and wants Ellen out of the way. I really hated that aspect of this book, and while I know that there are a lot of complicated factors that enter into abusive relationships when it comes to how abusers can control and keep sway over their victims, but this seemed far fetched and really seemed to sweep Finn’s violence under the rug (as Layla repeatedly says that she KNOWS he’d never ACTUALLY hurt her, as if dragging her out of a car in a rage isn’t damaging).

But the biggest frustration for me was the end. The other B.A. Paris book I’ve read is “The Breakdown”, and if you recall I was very ‘meh’ on it until the last third of the book, when it did a surprising and well pulled off twist that pretty much saved the read for me. Going into “Bring Me Back” I hoped that it would get to the point a little faster than “The Breakdown”, but then it did the other extreme and about a fourth of the way in I figured out what one of the big reveals was. It is set up from pretty early on that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He talks about having moments of rage that he can’t control, talks about moments where he’s had minor black outs, and talks about his obsessive love for Layla. So from the get go I was saying ‘Layla is dead, Finn killed her, and now the guilt is resurfacing and he’s made a split personality a la Norman Bates’. I’m not quite right. The end is far more ludicrous. Turn back, y’all, if you really don’t want to know. The whole time, Ellen WAS Layla. Finn had been with Layla thinking that she was Ellen, because she has been wearing concealer, lost some weight, and tinted her eyebrows and changed her hair, along with other minor physical tweaks. Also, she took on all of Ellen’s mannerisms. I just CANNOT suspend my disbelief to this point, guys! Paris tries to make it all work, with other ‘changes’ that Layla made being brought up, and the fact that before Layla had disappeared Finn had never met Ellen (P.S.:Ellen is dead, y’all: their father killed her) so he didn’t have a frame of reference. But it really, really didn’t work for me. On top of all of this, the big reveal happens in the form of a long winded letter, a literal telling as opposed to showing faux pas being laid out on the page.

There were a couple of things that I liked about this book. Mainly a couple of side characters named Ruby and Harry. They are both meant to be red herrings, but I liked Ruby’s kind personality and I liked Harry’s tolerance of other people’s BS. They both seemed like supportive friends at the end of the day. It was also a quick read, and while I was having a hard time with everything, it did keep me going and I didn’t find myself slogging as I went through. It’s fast paced to be sure, and clocking in at less that 300 pages it could be a way to spend an afternoon during this holiday season if you find yourself with time off.

So it’s another book that pulls out Ranganathan’s Law 3.

ranganathanfaith

“Bring Me Back” wasn’t the book for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the book for you.

Rating 3: With a twist that was easy to guess and an incredibly improbable ending that felt way too far fetched, “Bring Me Back” really didn’t work for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bring Me Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Matryoshka/Nesting Dolls”, and “OMG Where Did That Come From?!”.

Find “Bring Me Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

giphy5
It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

giphy6
#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Shadow Cipher”

18806245We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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

Book: “The Shadow Cipher” by Laura Ruby

Publishing Info: Walden Pond Press, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobooks from the library!

Genre Mash-up: Science Fiction and Mystery

Book Description: It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.

Serena’s Thoughts

I don’t read much middle grade fiction. Yes, technically the Animorphs started out as a middle grade series, but I’m pretty sure most of us can agree that it pretty quickly veers into YA territory with the gruesome and serious nature of much of it. And there are a few examples of MG fiction (even some recently, like “A Flight of Swans”) that do appeal to me, but by and large, it’s just not my jam. With this in mind, it’s really hard for me to review this book objectively, since much of it simply didn’t connect with me as I’m just not the correct reader for this book. So, with the criticisms to come, keep in mind that this book may still very well appeal to many actual middle grade readers and plenty of adults who like to read this age level of fiction. I can definitely see how it might!

To start with some pros, however, I did like the general concept of the story, how simply adding two brilliant inventors into a time period could effect all of history that follows. It’s an extreme example of the butterfly effect. I was also very much into the opening chapter of the book that was set in the 1800s and seemed to be presenting a sort of “steam punk” like world. This portion of the story also featured adult protagonists, so that also probably had something to do with my preference for it.

I also liked the diversity of the main cast of characters and a look into what life would be like growing up in a huge city such as New York. I grew up in a tiny rural town, so the idea of running around a massive city on my own at age 13 is hard to comprehend.

But, those pros aside, this book just didn’t hit the mark for me. For one thing, I struggled with the mash up of science fiction technologies alongside other elements of the world that were unchanged. There seemed to be a really random assortment of new inventions that would simply pop up here and there. And yet, in other parts of life, that same advancement was no where to be seen. It made it feel less like a naturally developed world, but instead a collection of weird concepts, none connecting to another in any fundamental way.

I also thought the book was incredibly slow and the urgency was lacking. This is a long book for a middle grade title, and much of the middle of it just felt like a slog. Not only did it take a while to even get into solving the mysteries, but once there, the sense of urgency never seemed to connect with the actual situation. I was left feeling kind of cold and uninterested about it all. If you’re going to have a book that revolves around solving mysteries, it really needs to revolve around those things, and this just didn’t feel like that. I also really didn’t like that, going in, I knew the mystery wasn’t going to resolve, as this is the first book in a series. All of the mystery series that I read and enjoy will feature the same cast of characters, but the mysteries themselves are solved in each book, with maybe one or two other through-lines as far as the stories go. I just don’t like books where the mystery itself is left unresolved at the end.

So, yeah. This book wasn’t for me. That said, all of my complaints are very subjective and revolve around my own reading preferences. Nothing in the book is actually truly objectionable. The characters are solid, the world is interesting, and the mysteries are clever. If you like middle grade fiction, this book may very well work for you. But if middle grade books are more hit and miss for you, I would skip this one.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read Laura Ruby’s “Bone Gap” a few years back, and while I understood how people would love it as much as they did, I found it to be ‘pretty okay’ at best. So when “The Shadow Cipher” (not “York”; I’m going to touch on that in a bit) was our book club selection, I was hesitantly optimistic that I’d get another read that was ‘pretty okay’. The problem is, “The Shadow Cipher” had a number of things working against it for me, and because of that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.

But first I want to address the things that I did like, because there were a few stand out aspects: The first is that, like Serena mentioned above, I liked the diversity of and the somewhat unique issues that faced our main characters. One of the biggest threats in this story is that Theo and Tessa Biedermann could lose their home because of a real estate developer’s greed. Gentrification is absolutely a huge problem in large urban cities, especially in our version of New York City, so I appreciated that Ruby brought this issue up within this story, and showed the faces of those who bear the negative brunt of ‘progress’. She addressed it in a way that felt tangible to a middle grade audience, and yet didn’t feel TOO heavy handed or spoon fed to them. What we see are children who are afraid of losing their home, which shows a very human cost to the ever changing landscape of real estate in regards to the less privileged. I also enjoyed the alternate world aspect of this book. I’m a huge sucker for stories that are KIND OF in our world, but wax poetic on how the world could have turned out if one thing had been different. While I’m not totally certain that Ruby completely reconciled the science fiction/steampunk concepts with her world, I liked seeing the effort made.

But, like Serena, I too had a hard time with the pacing and seeming lack of urgency within this story. In other similar tales like “The Westing Game,” the puzzle that the characters are trying to solve is usually at the forefront and very much the driven focus of the novel. When a new piece is solved, it is on to the next. In “The Shadow Cipher,” it felt like it was slowly flitting from place to place. I feel that with their home on the line these kids would be far more rushed (I think about “The Goonies” and how they are so scared about losing their homes that they go on a crazy whirlwind of a treasure hunt that always feels like it’s moving).

My final criticism is probably far more petty and pedantic than it needs to be, and has less to do with the story itself. Look at that cover, folks. If you saw that cover, what would YOU think the title of this book is? The confusing graphic design made me unreasonably annoyed. I know that doesn’t have much to do with the book itself, but it really frustrated me and we had a long discussion about it during book club.

Overall, “The Shadow Cipher” really wasn’t my kind of book, and while I don’t think that it should necessarily turn readers away if they think it sounds like their kind of book, be warned that it may be a long read.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not objectively bad, but definitely not for me. The world-building didn’t come together in the way I would have liked, and the story itself lacked a sense of urgency.

Kate’s Rating 5: Though the characters were fine and I liked the alternate universe angle, “The Shadow Cipher” was too slow for the kind of mystery it was and just didn’t appeal to me.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you find the alternative timeline in this book believable and well conceived?
  2. In this alternate version of our world, there are small changes that are mentioned in the culture of society (such as the superhero movie “Storm 2”). What do you think about these small changes and do you think that Ruby was trying to say something with them?
  3. “The Shadow Cipher” is similar to other books with themes of kids trying to solve a puzzle such as “The Westing Game” and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” How do you think that it compares to other books in the genre?
  4. This book is generally for older middle grade and YA readers, but it covers fairly topical social justice subjects like social disparity and gentrification. Do you think the target audience will make connections about what Ruby is trying to say?
  5. What did you think of Tess, Theo, and Jaime as our protagonists? Were they believable characters?
  6. This is the first in a series. Do you think you’ll move on to the next book? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Shadow Cipher” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books with Cityscapes”, and “Exploring YA Fantasy and Sci-Fi”.

Find “The Shadow Cipher” at your library using WorldCat!