Joint Review: “Jane Steele”

25938397Though we do tend to read different genres, there is sometimes overlap in the books that we pick up and devour. When this happens, we decide to do a joint review, giving our thoughts through our own personal lenses of what we look for in reading material. 

Book: “Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye

Publishing Info: G.P. Putman’s Sons, March 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!;

Book Description: “Reader, I murdered him.”

A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement.  Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess.
 
Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognito, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents—the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sardar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend. As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past?
 
A satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies, by a writer who Matthew Pearl calls “superstar-caliber” and whose previous works Gillian Flynn declared “spectacular,” Jane Steele is a brilliant and deeply absorbing book inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I didn’t discover “Jane Eyre” until a couple years ago, but when I did I immediately fell in love with it. I loved Jane, I loved Rochester, I loved the broody star-crossed romance between them, and I loved how brassy and spitfire Jane was. It has now become one of my very favorite “classic” novels, and I am always on the look out for a good interpretation of it, or a good retelling. I can say, safely, that this search hasn’t always borne the best kind of fruit. One that stands out in particular was the book “Jane Eyre Laid Bare” by Eve Sinclair, and boy was THAT a huge miss for me. Essentially it was “Jane Eyre” but with erotic sex scenes sprinkled throughout, and that doesn’t really offend me on paper. What offends me is that it ends after she leaves Thornfield Hall the first time, and it made Rochester into a submissive slave for his dominatrix crazy wife in the attic, who wants Jane as her new sub.

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I want my Jane and Rochester romance brooding, but not creepy. (source)

Luckily, “Jane Steele” is a much better interpretation of the source material. It isn’t so much a retelling of “Jane Eyre,” as much as it is an homage to the themes of it. Jane Steele is certainly an orphan girl with a cruel aunt, who goes to a boarding school, and ends up as governess to a girl in a sweeping mansion on the moors… But she’s also a fan of “Jane Eyre” the novel. Oh, and she’s a serial killer, though I would argue that in most cases she is completely justified in what she is doing, so to try and paint it as such seems a bit dishonest. In fact, I think that was my biggest frustration with the book, in that I thought it was going to be about a crazy version of Jane who kills mercilessly. But it wasn’t. But ultimately, that was okay.

I liked Jane Steele as a narrator and protagonist quite a bit. True, I sometimes found the winking at the reader airs about her to be a bit much, but overall I found her to be well rounded and I found her to be a good proxy for the original Jane. Her hardships at home and at school always felt very real, talking about the way that women during the time period were mistreated and abused in a very realistic way. In fact, up until we got to the stuff at Highgate House, where Charles Thornfield (the Rochester Proxy) lived, which also happened to be her childhood home, I was totally on board with this book. Regretfully, it was when she started the part I was most anticipating that it started to lose a bit of its luster for me. Charles was fine. I really liked his butler/friend Sardar, who is Sikh. Charles and Sardar fought together during the Sikh Wars, and I really liked that Faye didn’t just ignore the British imperialism that was going on at the time and the consequences it had for those that it was conquering. Unfortunately, Sardar and his deep and complex friendships with Charles and Jane aside, Jane and Charles didn’t have the oomph and chemistry that Jane Eyre and Rochester Proxies NEED TO HAVE. They need to smolder, and Jane and Charles didn’t do that for me.

The murder scenes are rightfully gruesome though! I liked seeing Jane Steele going out there and perpetrating various crimes of revenge. I think that had some of these cases addressed been a bit more shades of grey it would have given the story more literary clout.  On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a power fantasy of women getting revenge on those who have abused them or abused other women. Sometimes that can be satisfying, too. The villains in this book are almost always White Men with Too Much Power, and given that British imperialism during the time period that “Jane Eyre” was written in was very much the name of the game, it was very nice to see that turned on it’s head.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed “Jane Steele.” As far as homages to “Jane Eyre” go, this one is a true winner.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I remember growing up and hearing over and over again that “Jane Eyre” was my mother’s favorite book. It was a yearly read for her. Around middle school, I discovered Jane Austen, another favorite of my mother’s and an author who was often mentioned in conjunction with her raves of “Jane Eyre.” So, after finishing all of Austen’s works, it was a natural jump to this. Unfortunately, this jump might have been my first mistake. Having come off the witty, light, and comedic notes that Jane Austen is known for, “Jane Eyre”‘s much darker, angsty tone didn’t sit quite right for me. I found the tone of the book glum, and while I like Jane Eyre as a character, I thought that Rochester was generally a jerk towards her and that she could do better. I thought this even before getting to the “hidden crazy wife in the attic” part. Now, as an adult, I have re-read it and appreciated it more. But, while I can completely see how this book became a favorite for Kate (whose love of brooding men knows no limit!), it still never hits quite the right notes for me, especially in the romance department. All that said, I still enjoyed it and was very intrigued by the concept of this book. Bizarrely, I assumed that making Jane Eyre a serial killer might actually lighted up the original tale, and in some ways, I think this was right. I mean, what a crazy idea! But it works!

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this novel. The language was seamless and appropriate to the time. I think this is often one of the greatest challenges of retellings of classic novels. Authors attempt to mimic speech patterns and language choices and either wildly miss the mark or come across as trying too hard. So, too, it is too easy to superimpose modern sensibilities on historical time periods, thus completely undermining aspects of society and worldviews that are imperative to the original story. In both of these ways, “Jane Steele” was a success. The challenges Jane faced were realistic and appropriate to the time. And while reacting with murder was certainly not the common approach, her motivations and methods were believable.

As Kate mentioned, one problem with this concept was the way the book was advertised: “Jane Eyre as a serial killer!” as well as the way Jane Steele refers to herself as a murderer throughout the book. Perhaps this has to do, again, with modern perspectives looking in on these situations, but I, like Kate, found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Jane’s inability to accurately assess the context behind many of her supposed murders. Unfortunately, for me, this problem also undermined an important moment in the conclusion of the novel. The build up and resolution didn’t seem to fit. But, on the other hand, this could just be a case of an unreliable narrator, and in many ways it’s understandable. Just slightly frustrating for the reader.

I actually really enjoyed Jane’s time at Highgate House. Perhaps because I wasn’t fully on board with Jane/Rochester in the original, the changes to the type of relationship and interactions between Jane and Charles didn’t bother me as much. If anything, for me it was still too similar. I don’t know, brooders aren’t my type!

I definitely agree with Kate, however, that a strength of the book was its secondary characters and the backstory for Charles and Sardar with the Sikh Wars. Their history was complicated and interesting, and their child ward was much more engaging than Adele was in the original.

I enjoyed the call backs to “Jane Eyre,” particularly when Jane Steele called the character out on choices that I, too, found questionable in that book. However, I also agree with Kate here that some of these winking nods could also interrupt the novel and be slightly jarring in tone. I like where the author was going with it, but at certain points, it felt like she was trapped by her own idea a bit.

All in all, I very much enjoyed “Jane Steele.” As a fan of historical novels, this book landed well. As I first mentioned, the biggest challenges (the language and the adherence to the structures of society in that time period) were handled aptly. And while I did have a few criticisms, I would highly recommend this book to fans of “Jane Eyre.” You don’t have to have read the original, but I guarantee a basic knowledge of that book will improve your reading enjoyment of this.

Kate’s Rating 8: A tense and fun read, with lots of “Jane Eyre” love to go around. I just wish the romance was stronger.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong retelling that doesn’t fall into the common traps for historical retellings. The unreliable narrator was both a plus and a negative, however.

Reader’s Advisory

“Jane Steele” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Derivatives of Jane Eyre”, and “Female Anti-Heroines”.

Fine “Jane Steele” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Welcome to Night Vale”

25270656Book: “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Publishing Info: HarperAudio, October 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Description: Night Vale is a small desert town where all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard are actually true. It is here that the lives of two women, with two mysteries, will converge. Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked ‘KING CITY’ by a mysterious man in a tan jacket. She can’t seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City before she herself unravels. Diane Crayton’s son, Josh, is moody and also a shape shifter. And lately Diane’s started to see her son’s father everywhere she goes, looking the same as the day he left years earlier. Josh, looking different every time Diane sees him, shows a stronger and stronger interest in his estranged father, leading to a disaster Diane can see coming, even as she is helpless to prevent it. Diane’s search to reconnect with her son and Jackie’s search for her former routine life collide as they find themselves coming back to two words: ‘KING CITY’. It is King City that holds the key to both of their mysteries, and their futures …if they can ever find it.

Review: In the summer of 2013 I discovered a quirky and strange little podcast called “Welcome to Night Vale”. This is going to sound incredibly hipster of me, but I got into it right before it exploded in popularity on the Internet and across geek fandoms everywhere. I followed it for awhile, as it really is my kind of story. It’s kind of like “Lake Wobegon” meets “Twin Peaks” meets “X-Files” meets “Parks and Rec”. The premise is that it’s a radio show of community updates run by a man named Cecil Palmer, and the community has black helicopters, monsters for librarians, floating cats, and hooded figures congregating in the local dog park, which may or may not transport you to another dimension. So it’s weird. Like, VERY weird. But it also has a lot of heart. I kind of lost interest after the StrexCorp storyline wrapped up, but I do still have a fondness for the universe and decided to give the book a try. I initially got it in print from the library…. But after perusing it, I was like ‘oh… Maybe not’.

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My thoughts: “Oh God, was it always like this? Was it always this aggressively quirky? Did I LIKE this?!” (source)

After having a crisis of faith in a podcast I had fond memories of, I returned the book and vowed never to speak of it again. But then I saw, months later, that the audiobook was available to download, and that Cecil Baldwin, the voice actor for Cecil Palmer and main voice of the show, was reading the book. So I decided to give it a try that way. And THAT, my friends, made ALL the difference.

So yeah, “Welcome to Night Vale” is weird, and is aggressively quirky, and yeah, it probably has a smug sense of satisfaction about itself and how clever it is. But Cecil Baldwin as Cecil Palmer just makes it so damn charming and makes the town so damn lovable that he really, REALLY saves the story. And he does the same for the book when he reads it. I think that as a book this kind of set up just doesn’t really totally work, so it makes sense to give it the pacing that an audiobook can provide because this is it’s home format. You need to listen to “Welcome to Night Vale”, just like you listen to the podcast. I can’t explain why. But you just do.

“Welcome to Night Vale” also happens to have a lot of heart buried in it’s creepy and strange and uncanny-esque premise, and the book has the same thing going for it. Though it isn’t in community radio format (sadly, though Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos DO make appearances), it does have strange anecdotes and oddities in a narrative sense. In the book we follow two women, Jackie and Diane. Jackie is perpetually nineteen, but she is also trying to find herself just like many nineteen year olds are. Her struggles are both strange, as she has a piece of paper permanently attached to her hand, but she wants to know who she is, as she cannot seem to remember. And then there’s Diane, whose son in a shapeshifter, sure. But their relationship is so damn spot on in it’s portrayal of a single mother dealing with a teenage son who is growing up and apart from her. It is the very parts of these characters that make them human that make the aggressive quirkiness easy to swallow. Even if “Welcome to Night Vale” is goofy and very, very strange, if you look past that, the characters are people with very real, touching problems. And I also really liked the relationship between Jackie and Diane, who are united in their need to know what King City is, but are still very different and aren’t always going to get along because of that.

But buyer beware. I think that unless you have a working knowledge of this podcast and the world that it has set up, this book will be very confusing and probably maddening to you. It’s working on the premise that you know what the scoop is with Night Vale, and it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand in the strangeness. It just leaps into the narrative full throttle. The podcast was always weird, but kind of gradually worked it’s way to where the story is now, and the book just goes into it. Which kind of makes me have to ask this question, if you jumped in and were surprised or indignant that it didn’t make sense to you:

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(source)

That would be like me jumping in the middle of a “Halo” novelization series and wondering why it was that I don’t understand what was happening. Those books aren’t written for me because I am not a “Halo” fan, and sadly, this book isn’t written for you because you are not a “Night Vale” fan. This book can’t stand alone, guys. It just can’t. You need to know this mythology. Which isn’t exactly a great thing for this book, in all honesty. The point, I would imagine, was to try and branch out to other people outside of the built in listener base. And this book probably won’t do that.

I thought it was fun enough. I’m not necessarily clamoring back to the podcast in a game of catch up, but I do still love Cecil Palmer the character and Cecil Baldwin the voice. “Welcome To Night Vale”, if listened to, should be a fun little bonus for the podcast. But a stand alone book it is not.

Rating 7: This will probably be fun for fans of the podcast, but I don’t think that there is any way that a layman could enjoy this book. If you haven’t listened to the show, this is NOT for you. Either jump into the podcast, or leave it be. Also, it only worked for me when I listened to it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Welcome to Night Vale” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists as of now. I’m not surprised. So instead, here is a link to a blog that has some read-alikes, and hell, here is the damn podcast. You really should start here.

Find “Welcome to Night Vale” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “I Know What You Did Last Summer”

47763Book: “I Know What You Did Last Summer” by Lois Duncan

Publishing Info: Laurel Leaf, April 1999 (first published October 1973 by Little Brown)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It was only an accident — but it would change their lives forever. Last summer, four terrified friends made a desperate pact to conceal a shocking secret. But some secrets don’t stay buried, and someone has learned the truth. Someone bent on revenge. This summer, the horror is only beginning….

Review: Last month, the literary world lost a great YA thriller legend. Lois Duncan passed away at age 82, and I felt a deep, serious sadness. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Duncan was considered the queen of YA horror and thriller stories, and won numerous awards for the books that she wrote, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which honors an author who has contributed significantly to YA literature. While she has written numerous books, perhaps her most famous is “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. Most people probably think of the movie version that came out in 1997. After the success of “Scream”, Kevin Williamson wrote a new teen slasher flick based on Duncan’s book, which proved to be another hit with audiences. Hey, I will fully admit that the only reason I read this book for the first time in seventh grade was because my parents wouldn’t let me see the movie. But here’s the thing: Duncan hated the movie and what it did with her source material. Fact is, Duncan’s daughter was murdered when she was eighteen, so taking her book about personal responsibility and morality and turning it into a flick where teens are brutally killed by a guy with a hook? Didn’t sit too well. And while the film version is okay (if not a bit disrespectful), it’s a true shame because the book is phenomenal.

For the unfamiliar, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” follows four teens: Julie, Ray, Barry, and Helen. The summer after Barry and Ray’s senior year, the four went on a picnic in the mountains to celebrate the boys graduation. But on the way back, they accidentally hit a young boy on his bike. Barry, the driver, sped away from the scene, and after a vote of 3-1 (Julie being the dissenting vote) they decided not to go back, but to leave an anonymous tip on a pay phone. When they found out that the boy died en route to the hospital, Julie cut herself off from all of them…. Until the next summer, when she gets a strange anonymous note. All it says is ‘I know what you did last summer’. So she seeks out Helen (a local tv celebrity now somehow. It was the 70s.), Barry (a big man on campus and still a douche), and Ray (back from California and pining for her) so they can try and solve who is stalking them. There are no hooks. There are no twists about the man they hit actually surviving and having previously murdered someone. These are four kids who killed a child, and ran from the responsibility of it all.

Pretty heavy stuff for teens to read, and pretty dark for 1973 as well! But that is one of the many reasons that this book is far more compelling then the movie that was made of it. Our four protagonists (with the exception of Barry, I would argue) are all young adults that are, at the heart of them, okay people who made a terrible mistake, and Duncan writes them as such. The book is less focused on them being stalked, and more on the horrible thing that they did. True, there are some pretty creepy things that their stalker is doing in this book, and the big reveal is one of the best twists that I have ever seen in YA literature (and really can only work in book form). But at it’s heart, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” is less about chills and thrills, and more about doing the right thing, no matter how hard and scary that it is. Unlike in the movie, where the characters are arguably pretty much objects that have terrible things happen to them, Duncan has written some very complex characters that you do fear for and care about. I think that Helen is probably the greatest accomplishment in characterization. Even though she is constantly praised for her beauty, and even though she is a local celebrity because of her TV status at the news station, her self esteem is crippled because of her past body issues and being treated like crap by Barry. She starts out as someone who is easily manipulated by him and wounded by his cruelty, but as the book goes on and she finds herself the victim of someone who is potentially worse than he is, she realizes that she deserves better and is a much better person than Barry makes her out to be. I love Helen. I love that Helen figures out that she is strong, strong enough to move on from him, and strong enough to face the consequences of her past actions. Duncan knew how to write well rounded female characters, even in 1973.

The one sad thing about recent editions of this book, and other Duncan books, is that she updated them to be in present day. I don’t know if that was her own decision, or the publishing company’s decision, but it just feeds into that so untrue myth that teens can only empathize and relate to characters who are just like them and the society they live in. It’s really unfortunate, as Duncan’s books, while a tiny bit dated, ultimately stand the test of time without the unnecessary time and technology changes. I just regret that I lost my copy of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” from my middle school years, and now you can only really find the new, updated versions. And this saddens me.

I am going to miss Lois Duncan and everything she brought to the YA literature world. If you haven’t read “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, you should definitely do so. While it’s not necessary to find an old copy, I strongly suggest that you do over the new editions. But regardless, just read it.

Rating 10: One of my favorite teen thrillers that many teen thrillers owe a serious debt to.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Teen Sceams”, and “Bring On the Creepy!”.

Find “I Know What You Did Last Summer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Don’t You Cry”

27821486Book: “Don’t You Cry” by Mary Kubica

Publishing Info: MIRA, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: In downtown Chicago, a young woman named Esther Vaughan disappears from her apartment without a trace. A haunting letter addressed to My Dearest is found among her possessions, leaving her friend and roommate Quinn Collins to wonder where Esther is and whether or not she’s the person Quinn thought she knew. 

Meanwhile, in a small Michigan harbor town an hour outside Chicago, a mysterious woman appears in the quiet coffee shop where eighteen-year-old Alex Gallo works as a dishwasher. He is immediately drawn to her charm and beauty, but what starts as an innocent crush quickly spirals into something far more dark and sinister than he ever expected.  

As Quinn searches for answers about Esther, and Alex is drawn further under Pearl’s spell, master of suspense Mary Kubica takes readers on a taut and twisted thrill ride that builds to a stunning conclusion and shows that no matter how fast and far we run, the past always catches up with us in the end. 

Review: I don’t know about you guys, but I have a guilty pleasure love for the movie “Single White Female”. While it never really scared me so much (the only time I’ve lived with a stranger was in the dorms, and my friend Megan is the bee’s knees), I did enjoy how creepy it was. So when I heard about “Don’t You Cry” by Mary Kubica, and saw it described as “‘Single While Female’ on steroids”, well. I mean, come on. Let’s do this. The fact that it was written by Kubica was just the icing on the cake, as I read her previous novel “Pretty Baby” earlier this year and found it truly addictive. Her first person POVs in that were well done and very unreliable, making it a book filled with unpredictable (but yeah, sometimes predictable) twists and turns. The good news is that “Don’t You Cry” follows a similar structure of expectations, as it was definitely creepy and caught me off guard a number of times. The not as good news is that sometimes in an effort to throw the reader off the scent, it made some characters farfetched and treading into mixed up territory.

There are two different perspectives in this book that alternate between chapters. First there is Quinn, the roommate of the missing Esther, and then there is Alex, a teenager in a small town who leads a lonely life until a mysterious stranger arrives. I’m going to start with Alex, as I found his parts to be the weaker of the two. I understand why he was used, for the most part, and seeing him get close to ‘Pearl’ (as he calls the mysterious stranger) was a unique way to present some of the missing puzzle pieces in the mystery at hand. But at the same time, Alex felt like an odd choice of character to plant in this role. He didn’t really have any connection to the rest of the mystery, he felt more like a hapless bystander who was just there out of convenience for later plot points. While I know I was supposed to feel bad for him, he never really got past a superficial characterization of ‘the loner boy who has no one who loves him and aches for affection’. I like this trope just fine if it is properly explored, but in this case it wasn’t, and he just kind of bored me. His hardships were more just there not because it made his character interesting, but because it made some of the late game choices he made plausible. And that didn’t really fly for me.

But then there is Quinn’s side of the story. This was definitely the stronger of the two perspectives, and the one that I most wanted to be reading. But there is a problem with this side too. I know that the whole point of the thriller genre is to make the reader question what is genuine and who the true threats are. Kubica did a really good job of this in her book “Pretty Baby”, as in that book one of the narrators slowly descended into madness. It was written in such a way that it was like the frog in the slow boil. I’m going to be a little spoilery here, because it doesn’t really take away from the overall mystery, because I need to address this issue. Quinn, to me, seemed a bit unhinged and nuts. There were things that she did that just seemed very off and obsessive, and I was fairly convinced that she was going to be the end game antagonist. But lo and behold, she wasn’t. And I can’t help but feel like she was still just a little too nuts to be someone that we are ultimately supposed to be rooting for. I don’t know if I was just assuming that she was insane and therefore just saw that in everything, or if Kubica did too much in trying to red herring her. I appreciate trying to mislead the reader, but I think that it went a little too far with Quinn.

The mystery itself was pretty well done. I had no idea what was going on and when I thought I’d figured something out, it turned out I hadn’t. I was turning the pages very quickly during the climax, eager to see how it all fell into place, and looking back through the narrative the keys to the mystery were sprinkled throughout expertly.

Rating 7: The mystery was pretty strong and kept me guessing, but the characters were either too flat, or overly suspicious.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t You Cry” is included on these Goodreads lists: “2016 Must Reads”, and “Most Anticipated Mysteries 2016”.

Find “Don’t You Cry” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Tomorrow, When The War Began”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

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

Book: “Tomorrow, When the War Began” by John Marsden

Publishing Info: Pan Macmillian, 1993

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

Book Description from Goodreads: When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong — their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision — run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back.

Kate’s Thoughts:

When our dear friend and co-book club member Melissa picked “Tomorrow, When The War Began” for book club, I hadn’t heard of it. In my mind I was picturing something like “A Boy and His Dog”, which is… decidedly not what this book is. I think that I hadn’t heard of it because of a few things, the most obvious being that I was younger than it’s demo when it came out in 1993, and when I did become part of the YA reading age group I had already pretty much graduated to adult novels. So suffice to say, this was a whole new experience for me.

One thing that struck me about this book was that it was pretty grim by today’s standards, so the fact that it was published in 1993 kind of boggles my mind. There are many themes in this book that seemed pretty dark and mature for a book written for teens about twenty years ago. The first thing that is striking and out in the open is the violence. Marsden isn’t gratuitous with the violence that Ellie and her friends encounter, but he isn’t unflinching with it either. It always feels very real, be it Ellie coming home to find her dogs dead or dying, or Ellie blowing up a lawnmower and in turn causing the deaths of some invading soldiers. The reactions to violence from most of the group also feels very true to life, as they don’t automatically turn into commandos right away. Ellie is definitely uncomfortable with hurting people, even if she eases into it out of necessity, and other characters in the group also have to adapt and react in their own ways.

I was also quite impressed with how Marsden so wonderfully captured the voice of a teenage girl. I by no means think that guys can’t write girl voices or vice versa, but I was a little worried that it may come off as a bit stereotypical, even if he hadn’t meant to. So I was very happy when Ellie did seem like a pretty normal, and typical teenage girl. I thought that the way she thought and approached certain situations seemed reasonable and understandable given her character, and while I was a bit irritated that there was a brief possibility of a love triangle between her, nice boy Lee, and her best friend Homer, it was quashed pretty quickly and acknowledged as displaced feelings. After all, Lee is the one that gets her going both intellectually and physically, at the end of the day. I also thought that Marsden’s approach to sex was pretty realistic too, as Ellie definitely has urges and does think about these things. While I know there are some people out there who may think that these kids would have more on their minds than their sex lives, I think that they are humans at the end of the day, and teenagers to boot.

I think that my qualms were definitely more just about the story as a whole. I like end of days dystopia kinds of stories, but this one almost felt a bit too realistic for me to be able to get super into it. A strange criticism, I know. The ending felt abrupt, and while I know and get why he wrote it the way he did, it just seemed like a fast way to wrap things up. Luckily, there are a bunch of other books in the series, so it’s not like it ended completely on a note of ambiguity…. Or maybe it does, I don’t know I haven’t read them. Overall I did enjoy reading “Tomorrow, When the War Began”, but I don’t think I’ll keep going. This was good enough as it was.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I was one of only two book club members who had already read this book. Not only that, but I had read the entire series! So all the gold stars for me! (Is self-congratulatory speech a good look??) I grew up in rural Idaho and for some reason the librarians at the tiny local library were all about Australian, teen guerilla warfare and had bought the complete series. I remember blowing through them as a kid, and have from time to time thought of them as an adult when reminscing about favorites books as a kid. But I hadn’t re-read them, so it was a treat getting to re-visit the series now as an adult.

I must say, it holds up. If anything, I’m kind of impressed with kid-Serena’s good taste (the self praise has gotten out of control! But seriously, I had many other questionable favorites as a kid, so this was a bit reassuring, really.) As Kate said, I was impressed by many things in this book, especially given when it was written. The author doesn’t shy away from the violence or trauma of the events he lays out. His characters are never given any easy outs and the variety of reactions and coping methods that the different teens fall back on seem all too realistic. Certain characters whom you might not expect to thrive under the stress rise to the occasion, while others struggle more. Moreover, there is never any criticism for these different reactions.

And, also following Kate’s lead, the author’s take on a teenage girl’s inner thought process and voice is spot on. As a kid, I never spent much time thinking about whether an author was a man or a woman (take that publishing companies that think teenagers fret about that stuff!), so when I picked it up as an adult and saw that it was a male author, I was actually a bit surprised. Especially given that the book was written in first person, an easier narrative style for many young readers and often a go-to for these type of books even now, this ability to slip into the skin of his female protagonist was really impressive. As simplistic as first person narration is, I think it can also be more challenging in specific situations like this where the author has to so completely encompass the full perspective of the character.

Specifically, there was a moment in the book where Ellie is having a conversation with one of her male friends and there is an inner line where she recognizes his tactics as typical of a teenage boy, trying to “bully” her into a relationship almost. This is so spot on! Reading it myself, I instantly recognized the type of conversation that was happening, and for an adult man to so fully capture this inner working of teenagedom from a young girl’s perspective is truly impressive.

My one complaint was that the book was a bit long on the descriptions. I don’t remember noticing this as a kid, and it may have simply been a factor of my re-read. I knew where things were going and was maybe in a rush to get there. But while there might have been a lot of text given over to these descriptions of scenes and locales, the writing was on point and really did an excellent job of painting the scene of the Australian wilderness.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to this series. I also heard from a fellow book club member that there is a follow-up series, “The Ellie Chronicles,” that I might need to check out now, too!

Kate’s Rating 7: An impressive narrative and story for what I was expecting! It wasn’t totally my jam, thematics wise, but it was a worthwhile reading experience!

Serena’s Rating 8: I greatly enjoyed returning to this series and am almost even more impressed with it now as an adult than I was the first time around as a teen.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

In due diligence to our book club theme, we watched the 2010 version of “Tomorrow, When the War Began” which is currently available on Netflix. I, for one, really enjoyed this movie. The casting was spot on, specifically the actors they got for Ellie and Homer. While they did have to leave out several parts of the book (sadly a lot of the time they spent in Hell the second go around), most of the decisions made sense and it seemed that the movie could stand alone. The biggest disappointment, probably, was the fact that several of the characters had to be narrowed down to meet the shorter screen time they were allotted, so we didn’t have as fully rounded character arcs for some of them. Again, understandable, if not a bit disappointing. And while the Australian scenery in the film was beautiful, I think Kate (and everyone at book club) will agree that the only Australian scenery that is ever needed is this:

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Hugh Jackman in “Australia”

1. This book was published in 1993, but has a lot of themes that are pretty common in today’s YA literature. Do you think that this book would be as successful if it came out today, and took place in the early 21st century instead of the late 20th?

2. What did you think of the invading army’s ‘identity’ being ambiguous? Do you think that having to know who was invading would have improved the story? Hindered it? Not made any difference?

3. How did you feel about Ellie as a character? Do you think that her voice was authentic and relatable?

4. Who was your favorite character in the book? The movie? If they were different, why?

5.  If you went on a camping trip and came back to find your homeland invaded, what 6 other people would be in your group? Would you turn to guerilla warfare? Hide?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tomorrow, When the War Began” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Australian Young Adult Books,” and “Books that should get more attention.”

Find “Tomorrow, When the War Began” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Hidden Bodies”

23492288Book: “Hidden Bodies” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Atria/ Emily Bestler Books, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Joe Goldberg is no stranger to hiding bodies. In the past ten years, this thirty-something has buried four of them, collateral damage in his quest for love. Now he’s heading west to Los Angeles, the city of second chances, determined to put his past behind him.

In Hollywood, Joe blends in effortlessly with the other young upstarts. He eats guac, works in a bookstore, and flirts with a journalist neighbor. But while others seem fixated on their own reflections, Joe can’t stop looking over his shoulder. The problem with hidden bodies is that they don’t always stay that way. They re-emerge, like dark thoughts, multiplying and threatening to destroy what Joe wants most: true love. And when he finds it in a darkened room in Soho House, he’s more desperate than ever to keep his secrets buried. He doesn’t want to hurt his new girlfriend—he wants to be with her forever. But if she ever finds out what he’s done, he may not have a choice…

Review: Joe Goldberg has sort of kind of unexpectedly become one of my favorite recent literary narrators. Trust me, I’m shocked too. This is a guy who (oh man will there be spoilers in this review) has killed multiple people, stalked multiple women, and murdered his supposed true love Beck from his first book, “You”. This guy is a predator who targets women all because of his delusions of true love and romance….. And I kind of love him. Which makes me feel yucky.

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(source)

In “Hidden Bodies”, Joe has taken up with Amy, the girl he met in “You” when she tried to commit credit card fraud at his store and he was instantly smitten with her. What the Goodreads description fails to mention is that Joe is going to L.A. because Amy tricks him and rips him off of a whole lot of cash, and he is going not to try and make a fresh start, but for good old fashioned revenge against her. I’m ashamed to say that I was totally on board for Joe tracking her down and making her pay, as what does that say about me?! I think that it says more about Kepnes as a writer, as Joe is a horrible person, but she writes him in a way that is so funny and so entertaining that you just want to see what he does and how he’s going to survive in a city of phony people and platitudes when he thinks so highly of himself. Spoiler alert: the results are both unsettling and incredibly funny.

This book drops the framework of being in the quasi second person, and it’s better for it. Joe is now his own being, and he can do so much more with this range that has opened up for him. This story reminds me quite a bit of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” series, as Ripley, too, was a sociopathic protagonist who you couldn’t help but follow willingly into violence and cruelty. In L.A. Joe shines even more, and Kepnes uses him as a strange Greek Chorus to point out the absurdity of the culture. Joe is a psychopath living in an L.A. that is portrayed as pure sociopathy, and the fact that they do not really mix well until he embraces it is darkly delightful. Joe does embrace it when he meets Love, an heiress to a grocery fortune who is kind, loving, and born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She is different from Beck and Amy in that while those two were trying to make it and rife with insecurity, Love has already made it thanks to her parents’ money and fully secure within herself. She is a striking contrast to her twin brother Forty, who is everything that is wrong with L.A. privilege and excess. Seeing Joe interact with these two people was far more interesting than a repeat of “You”, which I was worried “Hidden Bodies” would be, and it made him more of a “Dexter”-like avenger as he takes out the very worst of what L.A. has to offer. Is this a bit strange rooting for a man who is taking out human trash? Kind of? Does it validate Joe’s stalker actions towards Beck in “You”? I don’t think it does. Joe is still absolutely creepy and repugnant, but why not let a creep take out a few other creeps along the way?

Like with “You” there were a few plot points that felt a bit forced or convenient. There were times that Joe probably should have gotten caught, or at least had some culpability thrown his way, but external circumstances fixed that. I rarely like a deus ex machina solution, and there were moments in this that felt that way. I saw that it was more trying to show that sometimes luck is just on people’s side, like in the movie “Matchpoint” (as Joe loves Woody Allen movies), but it still frustrated me. But one big twist, which I won’t spoil here, was very intriguing, and involved Joe’s girlfriend Love. Love was a unique character in that she always exceeded my expectations. While Beck was pretty two dimensional, at least how Joe saw her, Love is very clearly a complex and hard to read foil for Joe. I am very, very interested in where her character goes, especially with some of the progressions we saw with her.

That is to say, if this series keeps going. It ended on a note that could very easily go either way for Joe. I really do hope that we get to see more of him, and that Kepnes treats us to another book about Joe Goldberg and the terrible, yet enthralling, deeds that he does. “Hidden Bodies” was very fun, and I’m ready for more.

Rating 8: A great follow up to “You” and Joe Goldberg remains fiendishly fun. There were some deus ex machina moments, but ultimately I hope that this series continues.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hidden Bodies” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Dark Humor”, and while it’s not on this list it would feel right at home on “I Like Serial Killers”.

Find “Hidden Bodies” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Daddy Dearest”

28223107Book: “Daddy Dearest” by Paul Southern

Publishing Info: Self Published. Available on Amazon and Smashwords, June 2016.

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a free ARC edition of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Description from Goodreads: An estranged father’s weekend with his beloved five-year-old daughter turns into a nightmare when she gets into the lift of a city centre tower block and goes down without him. She vanishes without a trace. It sets off a race against time, and a nationwide manhunt, to find her. As the police investigation closes in, suspicion falls on those closest to her – with devastating consequences. Daddy Dearest is a terrifying story of love, obsession and psychological meltdown.

Review: I thought I had this book all figured out when I read the description. What is it that Han Solo says? “Don’t get cocky”? I got cocky. I never should have assumed that I knew everything going into this book, because it ended up making me feel very sheepish indeed. I went in with preconceived notions, and “Daddy Dearest” proved me wrong. I like being proved wrong, folks, especially if it works out in my favor, ultimately. I think that part of it is that I’ve read so many thrillers as of late that have big crazy outlandish twists, I am always on the lookout for curves and swerves, and while “Daddy Dearest” does have some twists and turns, I didn’t guess any of them. So BRA-VO, Paul Southern.

I feel that while I would like to keep some of the major plot points tucked away, there are themes that I want to address in this review that could be seen as spoiler-y. So fair warning.

At it’s heart, “Daddy Dearest” is a character study of a man who is grappling with a lot of stress and problems in his personal life. Our unnamed narrator and his unnamed daughter have a pretty decent relationship, one that seemed fairly realistic given the circumstances. He’s divorced from her mother, she only seems him every once in awhile, and he is clearly quite terrified of losing her. While this manifests in a fear of her getting caught in an elevator (or lift in the book, as it takes place in the U.K.), the fear is far broader than that. When she disappears behind those doors, it makes all of his fears a reality, as it seems that she has disappeared from his life without any way to get her back. Our Narrator is an interesting conundrum in and of himself, as while he loves his (also unnamed) daughter very much it becomes clear from early on that he does not like, or at least respect, women as a whole. I honestly had a hard time with some of the ways that he would describe women in this book, and how he would interact with them as well. It took some time to peel back the layers of our narrator, and the more we peeled back the more disturbing he became. At first, when I went in thinking that Our Narrator was going to be a heroic type trying to save his daughter from some unknown threat, I thought that the writing was very sexist and was having a hard time with it. As I kept going, however, it slowly became apparent that all was not as it seemed, and I have to say that it was achieved in a clever and satisfying way. I can’t say that I liked Our Narrator, but I was very invested in how things shook out for him and his missing daughter.

Sometimes when I was reading it I would get tripped up over some of the phrasing. While the story itself was pretty well done and kept me interested, there were times that the writing felt a little choppy or awkward. There were a number of times that I would get hung up on a sentence because of the language that was chosen to convey it. It doesn’t break the book, but it did take me out of the story whenever it did happen. I usually saw what their effect was supposed to be, but mostly they just didn’t quite bring me to where they were meant to. There were also a couple of tangential moves in the story that were a little bit confusing for me, and even after trying to go back and discern what had happened, I was still left scratching my head. I also did, ultimately, have a hard time wrapping my head around the women characters in this book. I know that we were seeing them through the eyes of Our Narrator, who has a lot of contempt for women in general, but I had a hard time understanding the motivations of those who were present, at least when it came to having a relationship with him. This was the most apparent with Our Narrator’s ex-wife. Sure, we know that she got out of the marriage, but I never really understood why she got in it in the first place. I should mention that it’s a first person narrator who is unreliable at best, so this could be me nit picking, but I wanted to see some idea as to why she would have had associated with this man, much less had a child with him!

I was pleasantly surprised by “Daddy Dearest”. I think that if you are a fan of thrillers and can overlook some fumbling writing quirks, this may be one to check out. It definitely left me guessing, which is really what one wants in a book like this.

Rating 6: Though the writing is a bit clunky at times and some of the characters a little flat, the plot is well paced and did keep me guessing. A solid mystery with some good twists.

Reader’s Advisory:

As of this writing “Daddy Dearest” is not on any lists on Goodreads. However, I think that you will find similar stories on “Popular Unreliable Narrator Books”, and “Popular Missing Persons Books”.

Though “Daddy Dearest” is not available on WorldCat as of this writing, you can find it on Amazon and Smashwords on June 1st.