Kate’s Review: “The Invasion”

35292343Book: “The Invasion” by Peadar Ó Guilín

Publishing Info: David Pickling Books, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: After so much danger, Nessa and Anto can finally dream of a happy life. But the terrible attack on their school has created a witch-hunt for traitors — boys and girls who survived the Call only by making deals with the enemy. To the authorities, Nessa’s guilt is obvious. Her punishment is to be sent back to the nightmare of the Grey Land for the rest of her life. The Sídhe are waiting, and they have a very special fate planned for her.
 
Meanwhile, with the help of a real traitor, the enemy come pouring into Ireland at the head of a terrifying army. Every human they capture becomes a weapon. Anto and the last students of his old school must find a way to strike a blow at the invaders before they lose their lives, or even worse, their minds. But with every moment Anto is confronted with more evidence of Nessa’s guilt.

For Nessa, the thought of seeing Anto again is the only thing keeping her alive. But if she escapes, and if she can find him, surely he is duty-bound to kill her…

Review: I was so very pleasantly surprised by Peadar Ó Guilín’s novel “The Call” that when I found out that it was getting a sequel I was on pins and needles for it to be released. His take on a malevolent and violent faerie world was something that I hadn’t seen before in such brutal and disturbing fashions, and it definitely took the concept of faerie worlds and put it in a dark reality, all while making their rage somewhat understandable. I also loved our protagonists Nessa and Anto, friends and would be boyfriend and girlfriend who beat the odds when they were ‘called’, Anto being a pacifist and Nessa having a disability because of childhood polio. Plus, the concept of humans being the actual monsters at the heart of that book (in the form of violent misogynist Conor) is a theme that I always enjoy. It combined into one of my favorite reads of that year. So when “The Invasion” showed up in my holds, I waited a little bit to savor the anticipation of revisiting Nessa, Anto, and the Sídhe of the Grey World.

Perhaps I put too much anticipation into it, because ultimately, I was kinda disappointed with “The Invasion”.

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Why have your forsaken me? (source)

I do want to give “The Invasion” credit where credit is due. Ó Guilín is relentless in his portrayal of war and violence, and the price of war for those who are part of it. While Nessa and Anto think that perhaps they can live their lives out together and have a happy ending, the Irish Government has other ideas for both of them. Anto is recruited to fight against the invading Sídhe (against his will), even though he has survived the Call with a disfigured, giant arm and is a pacifist at his heart. And Nessa is assumed to be a traitor, because they don’t believe that a girl whose legs were weakened because of childhood polio could have POSSIBLY survived The Call without making a deal with the enemy, and so she is carted off to a life in prison, and then to be sent to the Grey Land as punishment. While it was a super bummer to see that these two are probably not going to get their happy ending together, I appreciated that Ó Guilín doesn’t try to sugarcoat how a reality these two are living in would actually be. He still keeps the violence and disturbing imagery and themes up to a solid eleven, and there were many times that I pretty much squirmed in my seat while reading this book. I also liked seeing Aoife have more of a role in this book. In “The Call” she is merely the mourning girlfriend to Nessa’s best friend Emma. In “The Invasion”, she is with Anto and other classmates of their old school, and she is becoming a warrior out of necessity, even though she is questioning so much. Her character arc was very satisfying to see. We also get to see more of the flora and fauna of The Grey Land itself, beyond the evil faeries. I liked Ó Guilín’s world building here and found it to be as creative as it was messed up.

But there were so many things about this book that didn’t make it feel as satisfying as I wanted it to be. As much as I appreciate that realistically Nessa and Anto are going to have obstacles, I wanted to see them together. I wanted to see them adjusting to life after The Call, but they really didn’t have much interaction outside of the two of them pining for each other. And I found myself frustrated with Anto’s storyline, Aoife aside. Yes, I appreciate Ó Guilín portraying war the way that it should be portrayed, I just didn’t care about Anto and his compatriots fighting on the front lines. ESPECIALLY since some things happen with Liz Sweeney, the mean girl from the first book who is still pretty much awful. And Nessa herself didn’t get as much credit this time around. She got some cool accolades and I did like her new adventure in The Grey Land, but I felt like she didn’t really get much to do. And she deserved so much more than she got.

Overall, “The Invasion” probably ended Nessa’s and Anto’s story realistically, wrapping it up and pretty much tying all the loose ends up as well. But it felt abrupt, and I wanted more, and not in a good way. I appreciate choosing the end that he did, but wish it had felt more like a worthy successor to “The Call”. I’ll definitely give another book by Peadar Ó Guilín a try, but I had wanted more from this.

Rating 6: A sequel that focuses on the price of war and how it tears people apart, “The Invasion” is a not as satisfying conclusion to “The Call”. While it didn’t live up to the first of the two, it was a realistic follow up.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Invasion” isn’t VERY new but isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists for some reason. But I think it would fit in on “Books About Faery”, and “Best YA Fantasy Series About The Fae”.

Find “The Invasion” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously reviewed: “The Call”

Serena’s Review: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge”

31019831 Book: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” by Lisa Jensen

Publishing Details: Candlewick Press, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: They say Château Beaumont is cursed. But servant-girl Lucie can’t believe such foolishness about handsome Jean-Loup Christian Henri LeNoir, Chevalier de Beaumont, master of the estate. But when the chevalier’s cruelty is revealed, Lucie vows to see him suffer. A wisewoman grants her wish, with a spell that transforms Jean-Loup into monstrous-looking Beast, reflecting the monster he is inside. But Beast is nothing like the chevalier. Jean-Loup would never patiently tend his roses; Jean-Loup would never attempt poetry; Jean-Loup would never express remorse for the wrong done to Lucie. Gradually, Lucie realizes that Beast is an entirely different creature from the handsome chevalier, with a heart more human than Jean-Loup’s ever was. Lucie dares to hope that noble Beast has permanently replaced the cruel Jean-Loup — until an innocent beauty arrives at Beast’s château with the power to break the spell.

Review: Oof, another challenging “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. I think I could probably write an entire PhD on the pitfalls of re-telling this fairytale. When I first saw the book description, I was excited to read a version that was seemingly focused on an entirely new character, not “Beauty” herself. And while that aspect was still interesting, the book itself was very difficult to read and I will have a hard time recommending it to others, unfortunately.

Lucie is a servant in the house of the rich lord, Jean-Loup. After a horrific event, she is the one to wish the worst on her master, resulting in him turning into a beast, and her into a sentient household item. As time passes, she begins to suspect that this new, beastly version of her master might not be the same, and when a stranger arrives on the scene, the world begins to change once again.

So this is obviously not a positive review, but there are a few things I’d like to highlight as positives for this book. One, I still very much appreciate the originality behind the concept of this story. We’ve all read a million and one versions told from various “Beauty’s” perspectives. Some are better than others, but the basic construct is the same. They all arrive on the scene, confused and scared. And slowly come to change their minds and fall in love with the Beast. Here, Lucie knows Jean-Loup before his change and her experiences with him as a Beast are from the perspective of a servant, not the traditional heroine’s role. What’s more, Lucie isn’t even the “Beauty” in this story, and that character does make an appearance and play a part in the story unfolding. It’s a very creative take on things, and I truly wish that other choice had been made that would have allowed this new version to stand well on its own.

Further, I did like the writing for the most part. The “voice” fits well with the re-telling of a fairytale. It verges on rather simplistic and “younger” sounding, but I think that, done right, this tone actually works really well for fairytales which can be unique for having a different cadence, such as this. However, the writing also directly lines up with some of my major criticisms of the book.

It is very simplistic and straight forward. As I began reading, I started thinking “Huh, ok. So this is maybe more of a middle grade version of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Great!” Mentally, I started aligning it with the words of Shannon Hale, who’s written a bunch of fairytales, many of which have a younger-sounding voice and simple story-telling technique. But alas, this comparison died a sudden, very harsh death only a few chapters into the story.

(This might be a spoiler, but it’s pretty crucial to understanding the negative reaction I’ve had to this book, so if you want to go in blind, skip the rest!)

The prologue to the story sets it up that Lucie is the one who directed the fairy to go “all in,” as it were, on the curse on Jean-Loup. So we know that something awful has to happen to inspire this level of hatred. And something awful does indeed happen, in the form of a graphic sexual assault scene.

This was shocking to see on several accounts, but not least of all is the direct contradiction that the graphic nature of this scene lays across the middle-grade nature of the writing itself. I was mentally comparing this book to Shannon Hale, of all people, based on the writing style itself. The most sweetest fairytale writer you can find! And that’s a problem. Likely, the type of reader who is going to appreciate the tone of this writing style is going to verge younger. Even for me, a fan of middle grade and YA fiction, I was distracted by the simplistic nature of this writing. So those who may truly enjoy it are going to be young. And then you get a scene that could have been straight out of “Game of Thrones.” It’s going to be tough to read for even the most hardened among us who are semi-used to running across scenes like this in adult fantasy, let alone younger readers. But, on this side of things, readers who are prepared for this type of dark scene, are likely going to be completely turned off by the young-sounding writing. So there’s a contradiction there where the writing and content are, conversely, going to turn off both options for a reader-base.

Beyond this, I have problems with the actual story line, having included a scene like this as the basis for Lucie’s hatred of Jean-Loup. For all intents and purposes, Lucie ends up as the romantic interest for the Beast, instead of Belle. The book tries to roll out the tried and true rug of “magically separated/changed selves” that would absolve the Beast of past actions, as he is now no longer truly that person. I will always struggle with this type of wand-waving. Regardless of the fact that the “reasons” that Lucie points to as evidence that these two beings are inherently different are horribly minor (like food preferences and fears of spiders), there’s always going to be an insurmountable hill, in my mind, between forgiving an attacker (a hard ask on its own) and falling in love with him. I just can’t get behind that story, and I don’t think this book did nearly enough, even, to highlight any exception that could be made.

While the latter argument could be a matter of personal preference (though I still don’t think there is a huge swath of readers out there who are just searching for that great tale highlighting a victim falling in love with her attacker), my first point about the very real conflict between writing style and content is enough for me to give this a low rating. I honestly just have a hard time really focusing in on who exactly the audience is supposed to be for this book. At the very least, I wasn’t part of it.

Rating 4: Not for me. I don’t think this is a message we want to send out, regarding victims and their attackers, and the writing style was in direct conflict with the content.

Reader’s Advisory:

Again, honestly, if you want a good “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, go read “Beauty,” (the classic, in my opinion), “Heart’s Blood,” (by may favorite author, Juliet Marillier), or “Hunted” (for a more recently published option).

Find “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Crooked Kingdom”

22299763Book: “Crooked Kingdom” by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Orion Children’s Books, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Previously reviewed: “Six of Crows”“Six of Crows”

Review: As was established in our bookclub review of this book, I was definitely the side of our blogging duo who loved the first book. I was all the more surprised given the massive burn I’m still nursing from the author’s original Grisha trilogy that I’ve come to see as an example of how even great writing and great characters can fall prey to some unfortunate YA fantasy tropes. But “Six of Crows” seemed blessedly free of the concerns that plagued those original books, and I was so excited after reading it that I immediately ordered this, the second half of the duology. And, I’m pleased to report, that she stuck the landing on this one!

Kaz and crew are in a tight spot. While they pulled off their last crazy stunt, the reward they were promised not only wasn’t forthcoming, but the powerful merchant with whom they had bargained instead kidnapped Inej and tanked the reputation of the entire crew with the other powerful gangs that make up Ketterdam. Now, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the group must not only recover their lost member and loot, but somehow resolve a political situation has the potential the change the world for the worse.

What sold me on the fist book was the strength of this cast of characters. There are a lot of them, and it speaks to Bardugo’s abilities as an author that she was able to balance so many competing personalities and story arcs. Many of those continue into this book, though there are slight shifts in focus. While much of the first book was taken up by slowly revealing Nina and Mattias’s shared past and resolving their ongoing prejudices, here, their romance and role in each other’s lives has settled down more. The fallout of Nina’s use of the highly addictive, powerful stimulant that she used in the last book to save the team at the very end, was an important and captivating arc for her.

Jesper and Wylan, instead, received more word count and chapters than they had had in the first book. Jesper’s own past was delved into, as well as his continued confrontation with his own gambling addition and the ongoing damage that his past poor choices are wreaking on his own life and the lives of those he loves. Wylan, too, further explores his own highly toxic familial relationships and the true horror that lies at the heart of many of his father’s lies. Their relationship, together, is also given more focus, especially as Jesper begins to realize that his crush on Kaz is a dead end and that Wylan may have always been the better match for him.

Of course, for me, Inej and Kaz were my main points of interest. I enjoyed both of these two the most in the first book, and I continued to enjoy their chapters here. I do feel like they each had a bit less, ultimately, due to the increased focus on Jesper and Wylan, however, I still loved what we were given. Inej, specifically, had come to some pretty frank realizations about what she saw for herself in the future by the end of the last book. And here, it was learning how to follow through with two competing desires. She’s also confronted by a mysterious assassin who may actually be even more skilled than the Wraith herself. Kaz, too, still struggles to overcome the lasting effects of his past. His arc didn’t have as many clear points, as it was more a simple continuation of his rise as a force to be reckoned with in Ketterdam. However, his relationship with Inej and the vulnerability that is required to maintain (begin!) it, is a continual point of challenge for him.

As for the plot itself, I very much enjoyed the complicated heist that was put into effect. There were several points that were laid down here and there that later came to play in new and surprising ways. There was just enough made clear to see the building blocks of the plan, but enough was hidden from various characters to have a good number of surprises in store (this is probably another reason why we had fewer Kaz chapters than I’d like, since, by necessity of the plot remaining a mystery, the man who knows it all can’t have a lot of focus). I liked the multiple showdowns that came into play and the ways in which various crew members’ strengths were called upon at different times to solve different problems.

The story was a bit more sprawling than the close-focused mission of the first book and I both appreciated the added complication but also felt a bit more adrift in the middle when the pieces were still being put together. The goal itself was almost too ambiguous to give the action a clear focus. This resulted in some of what should have been compelling action scenes feeling a bit disjointed from the book, as it wasn’t clear until the end how they all added together to get the result.

I also really enjoyed the ending. The story definitely didn’t shy away from some grim choices, and while I know this will disappoint some readers, I felt that these decisions were necessary to reflect the true dangers of the situation at hand. Further, while broad paths were laid before each character, their stories were by no means neatly wrapped up. Instead, we saw glimpses into what could be the future, but they were left so wide-open that there’s room to imagine various outcomes for them all.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this duology. It’s hard to think of many fantasy/heist books (of course, there’s the insurmountable Megan Whalen Turner), so in many ways these stories felt like a breath of fresh air in YA fantasy fiction (is it even YA? This was a question we discussed at bookclub, and I’m not sure of the answer for books like this). If you enjoyed “Six of Crows,” or Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, or other books by Leigh Bardugo, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this duology.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crooked Kingdom” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA fantasy/sf novels with major LGBTQ Characters” and “Thieves.”

Find “Crooked Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Into the Bright Unknown”

18054074Book: “Into the Bright Unknown” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, October 2017

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

Book Description: Leah Westfall, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have become rich in the California Territory, thanks to Lee’s magical ability to sense precious gold. But their fortune has made them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Lee and her friends decide they’ve had enough—they will fight back with all their power and talents. 

Lee’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter the California landscape forever. 

Previously reviewed: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” and “Like a River Glorious”

Review: This is the last in the “Gold Seer” trilogy and after the previous book which seemed to wrap up much of the story and do-away with its main villain, I wasn’t sure where this book would go from there. I was also still smarting from the pretty graphic and hard-to-read scenes that made up a good chunk of that book, so I went into this one hopeful that we’d have a return to the “Oregon Trail” adventures of the first book. What we got was probably something in-between.

Life is moving along in Glory, California. Lee and her friends have on their hands what looks to be a growing and bustling town. Except for the fact that the town charter they had paid for from the wealthy Henry Hardwick in the last book has yet to arrive. With this problem before them, a large chunk of our main characters head off to San Fransisco. What they find is a man much more villainous than they had suspected and before long, Lee and her friends have much more to deal with than just a small town charter.

With this as the last book in the trilogy, looking back, it’s hard to get a real sense for this series as a whole. The first one was a fairly straight-forward travelogue with fun call-outs to the tropes of Oregon Trail games and stories. The second took a nose dive into the worst parts of humanity and left Lee as a bit of a passive character. And this one gets the gang back together, adds a new villain, and pretty much turns into a heist story. It’s all a little strange, from that angle.

But to judge this book on its own, there were definite areas of improvement from the last book but it still didn’t manage to reclaim the highs of the first. I very much enjoyed the return of many of our familiar characters who were largely absent in the second book. In particular, Becky, who had snuck up on me in the first book as a favorite and then disappeared in the second installment. As a heist story, it makes sense to have this large cast and the book already had many of these people on hand, so it was fun seeing them all interact and plan together in a way that was intentional, rather than the hap-hazard manner in which they had been forced by circumstances on the trail to work together before.

Lee and Jefferson’s relationship was also good. I was glad to see them working together for much of this book after being separated for so much of it during the previous one. The lack of relationship drama was also a welcome relief given that all too often it seems as if authors feel the need to throw a wrench in their romances in the last book from a misguided attempt to “build tension.”

One of the strongest portions of this book, for me, was the increased focus on Lee’s abilities. There was a big shift in the end of the last book with how her gold sense operated, and it was interesting watching Lee continue to practice and explore the possible new uses of her powers. There were several moments in this book where she came up with clever ways to put this power to use, and after being mostly useless in the second book, the success of their plans ultimately did fall to Lee’s own abilities, both with her powers and her planning. I was also surprised when an arc was introduced that dealt more fully with where these abilities might have come from and what other forms of magic might exist in the world. It was a nice addition as, up to this point, it felt a little strange to have Lee be the only exception to a world that otherwise seemed magic-less and true to history.

Those were the stronger aspects of the book. However, I did still struggle with the main plot itself and the villains. It’s a weird complaint, but like the second book, the villains were almost TOO villainous. In that they all seemed evil simply…because. And while I know that money and influence could go a long way then (and still can today), it also bordered on unrealistic that some of the villains’ actions could have been overlooked for so long. A man is killed in a crowd of people at one point, and no one bats an eye. Even with prejudices in mind, I have to think that this would have lead to something more.

The heist itself was interesting enough. But it was also a bit too complicated, for my thoughts. Or, barring that, not easy enough to put together on ones own without a massive infodump at the end explaining it all. A good heist story keeps some cards hidden, but still leaves room for the reader to put things together for themselves. Here, while there were parts that I could guess, the infodump where “all was told” was still long and confusing. This could partly be due to the simple fact that no finesse was used for said infodump: characters just spilled it out in long chunks of dialogue. At the best, it was just boring. At the worst, it left me still confused but not wanting to expose myself to the boredom again in an attempt to try to understand with a second read-through.

In the end, the series never quite regained the high that was the first book and seemed to flounder around for purchase and focus in the last two books, each presenting wildly different stories both in tone and topic. If I was to recommend this series, I’d almost say to just stop with the first. The second two are not worthless, but they’re also the kind of books that I will quickly forget. But if you are still enjoying these characters and the unique combination of realistic history with small doses of magic, this book was still an improvement on the second and might be worth checking out.

Rating 6: A serviceable story with a few highs relating to Lee’s magic, but a heist that was too confusing to be truly enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Bright Unknown” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “California Gold Rush in YA & Middle Grade Fiction” and “Young Adult Books Without Insta-Love.”

Find “Into the Bright Unknown” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “What Holly Heard”

89810Book: “What Holly Heard” (Fear Street #34) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1996

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Holly Silva not only has a big mouth, but ears like satellite dishes. If there’s a rumor, juicy piece of gossip, or scandal anywhere in Shadyside High, Holly can and will dig it up and spread it like peanut butter on bananas. New inklings of romance, BFFs on the outs, cheating, fights…Holly hears it all. Once she does, it’s a short trip from her brain to the brains of Miriam and Ruth, her closest friends.

Usually Holly’s gossip doesn’t amount to anything exciting, but this time is different. Rumor has it Mei Kamata’s involved in an on-going feud…with her own mother. The cause of strife is long-haired bad boy senior Noah Brennan, the guy Mei will no longer be dating if her parents have anything to say about it. When Holly walks by the pair in the parking lot after school one day, she hears the unimaginable: Mei tells Noah she’s going to kill her mother.

Ruth and Miriam don’t exactly see this as the jaw-droppingly incredible insight into teenage female psychology that Holly does. After all, how often to kids threaten to unleash exaggerated bodily harm on their parental units? It isn’t until Mei’s mom takes a fatal tumble down the stairs of her home that the three girls realize they might know more than they should. Somebody knows what Holly heard and is taking steps to ensure none of the girls hear the wrong thing again. Steps up to and including murder.

Had I Read This Before: Yes.

The Plot: Okay, first of all, that plot description above HAS to be updated. It doesn’t read like an old school “Fear Street” summary at all. And I am not totally clear on whether or not this Holly is the same Holly from “College Weekend”, as the descriptions sound similar but I don’t remember if the last times line up. But anyway, Holly Silva runs down the hallway to her friends Miriam and Ruth with some serious hot goss. This is what she’s known for, spreading gossip and feeding off of it like an emotional vampire (and as someone who loves a great gossip sesh over brunch, I feel her on that, though I like to think that I don’t spread so much as I ‘converse’). So maybe I’m more like Miriam, as she evidently lives for this while Ruth isn’t so down. Holly’s latest dish is that Miriam’s old friend and local rich girl Mei Kamata has been having bad fights with her mother all because Mei has been dating Shadyside’s newest bad boy, Noah Brennan. Holly is especially living for this gossip because she has a serious thing for Noah and this may mean trouble in paradise. Ruth is concerned about this, reminding Holly that she does have a boyfriend, a very cool and nice guy named Gary (Ruth and Gary are neighbors and BFFs), but Holly’s eye is wandering. Just then Noah walks up to them and Holly puts on her best flirtation display. Unfortunately, Mei walks up and sees the whole thing. Miriam, trying to diffuse the tension, asks Mei if her party is still on that night (it is), and Noah is immediately drawn back to her and they leave together and she tells him that her parents won’t be home until 6 (woo woo!). Holly is immediately petulant, and when Ruth says that she has Gary Holly gets crabby and heavily implies that she’s going to try and break them up. This girl is awful. Ruth storms off, and Holly tries to say that she can’t help herself because she loves Noah so much. They then run into Miriam’s boyfriend Jed, who is on the basketball team. We are told that Jed has always been Miriam’s dream guy, but he’s been acting strange the past few weeks. He’s been moody ever since the playoff season began. When she asks him if he’s still up for the party, he says he forgot about it, and asks if they REALLY have to go. They fight and he storms off saying he’ll pick her up at eight. Holly wonders what he was putting in his bag, and Miriam is at a loss. Holly says that she’ll dig up some dirt on him for her to find out what his deal is.

Later that night Miriam, Jed, Ruth, and Miriam’s cousin Patrick (who Miriam is trying to hook up with Ruth, who seems not at all interested) are driving to the party. Jed seems back to himself, and says that the playoffs are just stressing him out since college scouts are attending. They arrive at the party at Mei’s house, and Miriam laments the friendship she had with Mei before Mei and Noah started going out. They find Holly, who is wearing a dress that doesn’t sound at all age appropriate. Jed and Gary are basketball teammates so they start talking shop, and Holly tells Miriam that her dress is ‘working’ and that Noah’s been staring at her all night. When Miriam calls her out on it, Holly claims that she feels SO BAD about it now because Mei seems SO MAD at her. Miriam lays the blame squarely on Noah, and I’m not sure THAT’S totally correct. They go find their boyfriends and start dancing with them, but the music the live bad is playing is SO POWERFUL they blow the power in the house and the lights go out. Once the breakers get flipped, the lights come back on and Holly is clinging to Noah. Mei is PISSED, even though Noah seems totally not interested in Holly at all. Miriam asks Holly what she was doing, and Holly says that she was ‘afraid’, and that she wasn’t flirting, she swears, but now Noah has ‘something to think about’.

giphy
Mei should be throwing her ass out. (source)

The next night Ruth and Miriam are in Ruth’s bedroom waiting for Holly to pick them up from the basketball game. Ruth is infuriated at Holly for acting the fool, and thinks that she’s jealous of Mei. Miriam says that no, she just really likes Noah, but I think that it’s VERY possible for those two things to go hand in hand. Ruth also says that she and Patrick didn’t really click as she tends to her two hamsters Lizzy and Tilly. She then says she likes staying at home better than parties, especially since a group of rough necks were pulling up just as they were leaving. Ruth then takes her backpack out and dumps it’s contents on the bed. One item inside it is a hammer, which she says belonged to her Dad, who died a year earlier. She is apparently using it in art class to build a loom. Miriam thinks that Ruth doesn’t like dating because she has Daddy issues, essentially. She also is still mad about how Holly treats Gary, and honestly she isn’t wrong. It’s then that Holly bursts into the room and says that she has AWESOMELY HOT GOSS! After Miriam and Ruth left the party, the roughnecks who showed up were Noah’s drunk friends! After Mei’s Mom kicked them out, the two of them got into a huge fight about Noah, and Mei was told that she’s not allowed to see him anymore. Holly, of course, is ECSTATIC. Ruth calls her out on her bullshit, and Holly says that Gary is boring (SO DUMP HIM), and Miriam begs them to stop fighting and says they should get to the game. Ruth opts to stay home because she’s obviously sick of Holly and her crap.

At the game, Jed is doing awfully. After a Waynesbridge player accidentally elbows Jed in the face, Jed full on attacks him, punching him in the face and then putting him in a choke hold! After he’s pulled off he’s thrown out of the game, and Miriam rightfully freaked out. Holly says she’ll talk to Gary about Jed to see what the scoop is. Once the game is over (the Tigers DO win, by the way, so they’re still in the playoffs), Miriam waits for Jed outside the locker room. She asks if he’s okay and he starts railing about almost getting kicked off the team (um, he probably SHOULD have been kicked off, so count your lucky stars, bucko), and how the other player meant to elbow him. Miriam says he’s been elbowed before and never did anything like that, and he asks how SHE’D like it if SHE was pushed around, and starts pushing her and twisting her fingers, and holy SHIT this is messed up. He then stops, as if pulled from a trance, and deeply and profusely apologizes to her, and she says that if he EVER lays a hand on her again they are DONE. But then they have a ‘cute’ exchange and I could just barf. When Miriam goes to find Holly in the parking lot, she finds her hiding between some parked cars, and she has some news that has actually spooked her: she overheard Mei and Noah talking, and Mei said that she could just KILL her mother, and that Noah says that he would do ‘whatever it took’ for them to be together. So OBVIOUSLY, since Holly has never heard of hyperbole in a fit of emotion, this means that Mei and Noah are going to kill Mei’s Mom! Miriam tells her she’s being ridiculous, and Holly seems to come to her senses. When Holly asks Miriam about Jed, Miriam tells her everything. And for once Holly is a GOOD person because she tells Miriam that Jed is abusive and that he’s not worth being with.

That Monday Ruth and Miriam are hanging out, when Holly comes up to them with not so hot goss, but sad news. Mei’s mother died that weekend. She was found at the bottom of the steps with a broken neck. Holly is convinced that it was murder, and no matter how much Miriam proclaims that Mei wouldn’t do that, Holly and Ruth won’t hear it. Holly thinks they should go to the police, and then when Noah walks up to them and says that Mei’s Mom is dead, and that he saw Holly at the game….. then he walks off. Okay, yeah, that’s admittedly a weird thing to say. Now Holly is convinced that he knows that she heard them and she is in danger! Seems to me that she’s REALLY making a tragedy all about her, but hey, at least she doesn’t seem into Noah anymore. She promises that she’s not going to say anything to anyone about this, and to THAT I say HA. Miriam asks if she can get a ride home from her that night, but Holly says she’s staying late to hang decorations for the victory rally post-basketball game. Miriam wonders if Noah is someone that she should be afraid of. Because you know, Noah wears leather, drinks occasionally, and has long hair, which means he’s gotta be a serial killer.

Later that night Miriam gets a phone call from Holly. She’s still at school but feeling jumpy, and she wonders if Miriam will come keep her company because she thinks she’s seeing Mei EVERYWHERE. Also, she has some news about Jed that she wants to tell her in person. Miriam says she’ll ask her Mom if she can take the car, but when she gets back on the line Holly isn’t answering her. She drives to the school, and when she goes into the gym Holly is nowhere to be seen. She goes by the door to the locker rooms thinking that maybe she went home… until she sees Holly’s scarf. When Miriam looks behind a pep rally sign, she finds Holly, dead. She freaks out and runs for the doors, but then someone grabs her. Luckily it’s just Jed, and when Miriam tells him what she saw, he goes to see for himself. He then takes her hand and says they need to go call the police. After he calls they sit in the parking lot, and he suddenly freaks out, kicking and punching Holly’s car in a fury. Miriam wonders why he’s doing this, but in his defense I don’t know how I’D react if I found the dead body of one of my friends. As they wait for the police, she realizes that it’s weird that he’s here, and she asks him why he’s at the school this late. He says that he and Gary were working out and Gary left just before Miriam started screaming. Miriam starts to suspect that maybe Mei DID do this.

The next day Ruth is dropping school work off for Miriam, who has been in bed basically since it happened. Ruth tells her that Gary is a wreck and wasn’t at school either, and neither was Mei. But Noah was, and Ruth says that he looked completely nuts. Miriam doesn’t want to talk about any of them, and Ruth says that she’s sad too even if she has a hard time showing it. There’s going to be a memorial at school the next day, and since Miriam’s Mom thinks that one day of mourning/processing time is perfectly adequate for a girl who found her best friend brutally murdered, Miriam will be there. Now Ruth is convinced that Mei and Noah killed her, but Miriam says they have no proof. And she says that if Mei DID do it, the police will be able to find proof that she did and will catch her.

anigif_enhanced-28329-1404919542-4
Tell that to John Walsh, honey. (source)

Ruth opens up her backpack to give Miriam her homework, but when she pulls her hand out both it and the notebook are covered in a red, sticky liquid. A message in blood is written on the cover: “We know you know, that’s why you die next!” Ruth says that Holly must not have kept her big mouth shut, and Miriam finally concedes that perhaps the police should be involved.

After dropping the notebook off at the police (and it wasn’t blood, of course, just paint), Miriam is feeling better now that she’s home. The police say they’ll look into Mei and Noah, and Miriam calls Jed. He says he’ll come right over, and when he arrives they start to talk about all the horrible things that have happened. Miriam says that she never thanked him for being there for her the night before,  he has a ‘murderous glare’ (as Miriam categorizes it, anyway). She decides not to tell him about Mei and Noah, lest he lose it. But then he says he doesn’t want to talk about Holly anymore because everyone is treating her like a saint but she was a bad person who treated his best friend like shit, AND he was trying to dig up dirt on HIM! She asks how he can be so cruel, and he says that it’s Holly’s fault that she was killed, and YUCK. She says that SHE was the one who asked Holly to go on a recon mission because he’s been acting different and being, you know, VIOLENT, and she’s worried about him. He says that it’s just pressure because of the playoffs, and he hasn’t talked to her and Holly about it because excuse HIM if he doesn’t want to gossip about Mei Kamata all the time. Ding ding ding, points for everybody I feel. But Miriam asks what he meant when he said that Holly was at fault for her own murder. He storms off, and she wonders what HE knows.

At school the next day Miriam doesn’t want to go to the memorial, so she ditches off to the bathroom. She’s confronted by Mei and Noah after she leaves it, and Mei asks her how she could spread the lies about her mother that Holly started, and how she could go to the police. Mei’s mother sprained her ankle the week before and it spasmed while she was at the top of the steps, that’s all. Miriam says that she doesn’t believe them, and if they didn’t kill Mei’s Mom then Miriam is being a grade A asshole right now. They also say that they didn’t kill Holly, and that Holly had a LOT of enemies because she got the dirt and spread it around the school. Miriam says that she and Mei used to be friends before NOAH came into the picture, and Mei says that while she WOULD kill for Noah, she DIDN’T. By the end of the day Miriam is totally over everything, and she sees Jed and Gary arguing, with Gary saying that he’s not covering for Jed anymore and that he knows everything that Holly knew. She waits for Gary to leave before she approaches Jed, and he apologizes again. So she asks what his problem is again, and here we go again as he gets defensive. She says that Holly knew something, and then she asks why he was at school the night she was murdered. He says that he was weight lifting, and that Gary was there, but she doesn’t believe him. He says that she can think what she wants, but he has a game to go play, and he looks less angry and more tired. They do their apology dance again.

Miriam asks Ruth to go to the game with her that night while they’re hanging out in Ruth’s room. Ruth says she’s not going anywhere where Mei and Noah are, and when Miriam expresses her doubts that Mei killed her mother, let alone Holly, Ruth says she thinks that it’s Noah who did everything. Miriam says she’s going to the game regardless because Jed needs her. When she gets to the school she sees Jed taking some kind of pill before the game, and when she asks what it was he says it’s a vitamin. They apologize to each other again, and he goes to play. While watching the game Miriam sees Noah watching her, but tries to focus on Jed. But then on the court Jed loses it again, and attacks another player, and now Miriam is convinced that HE is the one who killed Holly. She runs out, and Jed follows her. He tries to stop her from going, but she hits him in the stomach and bolts all the way to Ruth’s house.

Ruth answers the door and Miriam tells her that Jed is the killer, not Mei and Noah, and Ruth says that it couldn’t be him because there were two more murders tonight: LIZZY AND TILLY!!!!! DAMN YOU AND YOUR PET KILLING FETISH, STINE!!!! Ruth says that her Mom is working late and she was asleep on the couch when she heard a noise upstairs. When she got to her room, the hamsters were crushed to death, and they left a note: “Dead hamsters today, dead girls tomorrow.” Ruth goes to call the police, and when she comes back Miriam comforts her and asks if she wants to get dressed out of her pjs, but Ruth says that she can’t go back in her room with the dead hamsters. Miriam says that she’ll go cover them up. She can’t find anyhting to cover them with, so she goes to Ruth’s closet for a shirt, but when she opens the door, a bloody hammer falls out. The hammer that Ruth had in her backpack. Then Ruth walks into the room, and it’s clear from the look on her face that SHE KILLED THE HAMSTERS!! Ruth dives for the hammer and they start wrestling on the ground for it. Ruth wins and pulls an Annie Wilkes (kind of) and smashes Miriam in the knee cap with it. It was Ruth the whole time! Ruth killed Holly! When Miriam asks why, Ruth says it’s because Holly treated Gary like garbage and that Ruth has been in love with Gary this whole time. She had gone to the school that night to tell Holly to just dump Gary and stop leading him on, and Holly LAUGHED at her and said that once she had Noah she’d happily give Ruth Gary but not a moment sooner. In a fury she strangled her. Miriam says that Holly was a good person (I WOULDN’T GO THAT FAR. While this is certainly NOT a capital offense, and while murdering her isn’t the answer or the right thing to do, Holly really was just awful.) and that she didn’t deserve to die, and Ruth says that Holly’s endless hard on for gossip provided the perfect motive to frame Noah and Mei, and that it helped her manipulate Miriam because she, too, took the gossip very seriously. Miriam says that Jed is going to come in here any minute and Ruth says she’ll just kill him too, because he’s been acting like a loon and she will say that he killed Miriam and the hamsters, and then claim self defense. Jed does enter, and Ruth immediately cracks him with the hammer. But before Ruth can kill her, Miriam grabs the hamster cage and smashes it over her head, knocking her out.

Jed comes to and has his own confession to make. He says that it is his fault that Holly is dead, because he told Holly to wait for him in the gym that day so they could talk. See, this whole time Jed has been acting weird because he’s on STEROIDS!!! The anger, the anxiety, the mood swings, ALL steroids. The pressure for a scholarship was too much, and he started the roids in hopes it would improve her performance. Gary knew and told Holly, and Jed wanted to talk to her before she talked to Miriam. But then he got in a weird ambiguous steroid fog, and he was late meeting her. If he’d just been on time, maybe Holly wouldn’t be dead! Miriam tells him it’s not his fault, and they make up. SHe says they need to call the police, and he asks her if she is will stay with him if he promises to get off the roids. She says ‘that’s the latest gossip’. The End.

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This is my brain on this book. (source)

Body Count: 4, if you include the hamsters. And you know that I do. Godspeed, Lizzy and Tilly.

Romance Rating: 3. Holly is hoping to cheat on Gary with Noah, Jed is lost in a roid rage and may in the future pull a Chris Benoit on Miriam, and Ruth killed Holly because she loves Gary. But that said, Mei and Noah seem like they’re a pretty good fit!

Bonkers Rating: 5. The Roid Rage subplot was totally nutso to me, but otherwise it’s not much to write home about, craziness wise.

Fear Street Relevance: 2. Miriam and Holly both live on Fear Street, but none of the action actually occurs there.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“They walked away from me now, Miriam thought. But will they come back?”

…. And nope. They won’t. Outside of a moment in the gym with Noah, that was it for them in this book.

That’s So Dated! Moments: I liked that Holly’s stylish hairstyle was very much a 1990s perm.

Best Quote:

“‘I’m sorry. So sorry,’ Ruth murmured. ‘I won’t have any friends left after tonight- will I? Not even my two hamsters. My two real friends.'”

Girllllll….. that was kind of on you.

Conclusion: “What Holly Heard” was a lame duck with a strange Nancy Reagan style anti-drug subplot, and I am kind of flummoxed by it. Do better, Stine. Next up is “The Face”. 

Kate’s Review: “Dread Nation”

30223025Book: “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, April 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

Review: Zombies have been a genre trope of choice for awhile now in horror fiction. They are usually used to show that in a world of zombies, humans are still the real monsters, and that’s a theme that I enjoy no matter how often it is invoked. But the thing is, zombies are starting to feel a bit stale. With “The Walking Dead” hemorrhaging viewers and post apocalyptic horror movies choosing to go other routes, the zombie story has needed a jolt for awhile now to, uh, revive it. So that is probably why I enjoyed “Dread Nation” so much. “Dread Nation” definitely breathes new life into the zombie story, quite possibly because the zombies are not the focus, nor are they the ultimate bringer of the end of the world. Zombies pale in face of the true enemy in this book, and that enemy is racism in American society. So that means fans of “Lovecraft Country”, this might be the next  book you should add to your list.

Justina Ireland has created an alternate timeline history of America, the divergence happening during the Civil War when the Undead (or Shamblers, as they are called in this) suddenly rose from the ground. The alternate history is so rich and new, and yet so familiar, that it definitely feels like this how things would have worked out had this occurrence actually happened in American History. Jane is our protagonist, and she is a true delight as a YA historical fiction/horror/thriller heroine. She has some character similarities to other greats in the genre (Katniss Everdeen comes to mind), mainly because Jane doesn’t necessarily seek out being a leader or a rabblerouser and just wants to live life by her own rules. But unlike books like “The Hunger Games” series, which have a vague and malleable version of oppression and dystopia, the one in “Dread Nation” is right out of the history books: Jane is a black girl living in a racist society, and the injustices that she deals with are still relevant in real world American in 2018, not limited to an alternate history of this nation. Jane, like other kids of color her age, has been sent to a school to learn how to fight the zombie hordes so the white people in society don’t have to, and while she is learning to be an Attendant (a more prestigious position in some ways, as she learns not only to fight but also trains in etiquette to serve a rich white woman) it’s still a subservient place in society. Much like the modern wars of Vietnam and the Gulf Wars, it’s the minorities who are on the front lines giving up their bodies while the white elite sit by and live their lives blissfully unaffected. Jane faces systemic racism and oppression from positions of authority because of her skin, but those aren’t the only themes that still apply today. Jane’s classmate/frenemy Katherine is a white passing black girl, and while her skin means she can shield herself from racism, she doesn’t feel like she has a place in the black community or the white community. Ireland does a great job of bringing these themes (and more) to the forefront, and making them feel relevant today even though the story takes place two centuries ago.

(Note: There has been some criticism of “Dread Nation” regarding how it discusses and portrays the Native characters and themes, most prominently from Debbie Reese. While I did like the book for the most part and think that it does a good job with its portrayal of racism in America, these criticisms are important to see and think about.)

But what about the zombies, you may be asking. As a zombie aficionado (even as they start to feel a bit played out), I can say that I really liked Ireland’s take on them. The action scenes with them never failed to disappoint, and the mythology that Ireland has built around them feels fresh because this isn’t a fallen society, but a society that is trying to coexist with these things. That is a narrative that you don’t see often, and given that I’ve always wanted to see it explored more I was so happy that Ireland went in that direction with the Undead world building. I also felt like she integrated it enough into actual events in American History and changed some of the outcomes or paths in response to it that it felt believable that this is how society would have reacted. Because of this, it always does feel like Civil War Era America, even with a zombie uprising. The Undead storyline, too, finds ways to  bring forward social justice topics on race that still concern society today and back then, with science, medicine, and research being done at the expense of black lives and bodies.

“Dread Nation” was a great read that has re-energized my love for the zombie genre. Ireland has given it so much more meat, and I hope that people who read it will think about all of the things she’s trying to say, even if they just came in for the Undead.

Rating 8: A tense and unique historical fiction/horror novel, “Dread Nation” not only tinkers with the zombie story, it also uses it to examine modern issues of race and racism in America.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dread Nation” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas”, and “Zombie Apocalypse by Black Authors or w/ Black Main Characters”.

Find “Dread Nation” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Julia Defiant”

30634295Book: “Julia Defiant” by Catherine Egan

Publication Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers. June 2017

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

Book Description: Julia and a mismatched band of revolutionaries, scholars, and thieves have crossed the world searching for a witch. But for all the miles traveled, they are no closer to finding Ko Dan. No closer to undoing the terrible spell he cast that bound an ancient magic to the life of a small child. Casimir wants that magic will happily kill Theo to extract it and every moment they hunt for Ko Dan, Casimir s assassins are hunting them.

Julia can deal with danger. The thing that truly scares her lies within. Her strange ability to vanish to a place just out of sight has grown: she can now disappear so completely that it s like stepping into another world. It s a fiery, hellish world, filled with creatures who seem to recognize her and count her as one of their own.

So . . . is Julia a girl with a monster lurking inside her? Or a monster wearing the disguise of a girl? If she can use her monstrous power to save Theo, does it matter?

Previously reviewed: “Julia Vanishes”

Review: I saw that the third novel in this series was due to come out shortly, so it was a good reminder to check out this second book. Somehow the “Julia Vanishes” had slipped completely off my radar, all the more surprising for it having a few rare qualities that stand out in a sea of fantasy fiction that can be all too filled with tropes. These rarities were on display once again in this second book, and some of the quibbles I had with the first have also largely been resolved.

Several months have passed and miles have been crossed since the ending of the first book. Julia and her rather enormous cast of fellows now find themselves in a foreign land, loosely based on China, still on the search for a way to remove the magical book from the body of little Theo. Julia, in particular, is devoted to this mission in an effort to make up for her past disastrous choices with regards to Theo. But as she works towards this cause, she begins to discover more aspects of her unique vanishing ability and with these discoveries come unwelcome questions about her own history and identity.

First off, it is absolutely necessary to read the first book in this series before getting to this one. Even the several months break I had between the two lead to a longer than usual re-familiarizing period of time when I started this one. Several of the points that make this book and series so good (a large cast of characters, unique worlds, complicated histories) also make it very challenging to jump into with out refreshing oneself on the events of the past book. Beyond our cast of familiar characters, we’re also dropped into the middle of a new portion of this world with its own politics with regards to witches, its own powerful individual with whom Julia and co. must work, and new settings. After I finally felt like I had caught myself up, I greatly enjoyed this change in scenery. (It’s also noteworthy that for all of these challenges with complicated names/histories/etc., I greatly appreciated the author’s choice to trust her audience to catch up with things on their own. There were no info-dumps or clunky prologues to help with this process, but instead readers are left to put the pieces together on their own, which, with some patience, is perfectly doable.)

One of my criticisms of the first book was the fact that it felt like it had two dueling stories competing against each other, both detracting from the other. This problem has been completely handled in this book. The plotting felt much more streamlined and there was an appreciated increase in the action of the story. The book is driven by the mission to save Theo and this action is balanced by the character growth and inspection that comes through the ongoing mystery into Julia’s past and her abilities. Rather than having two plot pieces tangling together, this balance of plot and character development feel much more natural and give this book a stronger sense of natural flow.

Julia’s development is probably one of my favorite parts of this story. Her increased confidence and clever use of her vanishing powers could have opened a door for her character to lose value due to being “over powered.” But instead, the author finds ways to not only bring large questions into her magical abilities and history, but also focus in on the very human struggles that Julia is still managing. Her feelings of self-hatred with regards to her past choice to give up Theo to the enemy. Her relationship with a brother and her realization that he has lived a restricted life in an effort to support her. The ongoing fallout from her broken heart in the last book, and her realization that there are more fish in the sea.

What makes this last point stand out so well is the way the author introduces other fishes without setting any of them up as a “soul mate” or “one true love.” I loved the “Alanna” series by Tamora Pierce growing up. And I think one part that I liked then and have grown to appreciate more and more as I get older was the way that Pierce exposed Alanna to different romantic interests throughout the series until, in the end, she finally is able to recognize what is important in a partner and what she specifically needs. All to often in YA fiction, romantic interests are introduced who are A.) the protagonists first love of any kind and B.) perfect for them in every way, no questions asked. This never sits well, and I commend the author of this book for exploring a more honest take on the trials and tribulations of young love. Your first love may not be perfect for you. What’s more, your SECOND love also may not be perfect for you. But you learn things from them all. I had a hard time thinking of a similar current series that has tackled this subject as well as this book has, especially given how small a role the romantic aspects play in either book, all told.

I really enjoyed this book, even more than the first. My quibbles about the plotting where deftly handled, and this one was a quick read full of intense action sequences, strong characterization for a large cast, and solid character growth and exploration for Julia herself. Of course, as I’ve said, you have to read the first book first. But if you enjoyed that one at all, I definitely recommend this book as I think it’s even better!

Rating 8: With a realistic portrayal of the challenges of young love and an increased amount of action, “Julia Defiant” is an even better novel than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Defiant” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Defiant” at your library using WorldCat!