Serena’s Review: “Honor Among Thieves”

30129657Book: “Honor Among Thieves” by Rachel Caine & Ann Aguirre

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, February 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it

Book Description: Petty criminal Zara Cole has a painful past that’s made her stronger than most, which is why she chose life in New Detroit instead of moving with her family to Mars. In her eyes, living inside a dome isn’t much better than a prison cell.

Still, when Zara commits a crime that has her running scared, jail might be exactly where she’s headed. Instead Zara is recruited into the Honors, an elite team of humans selected by the Leviathan—a race of sentient alien ships—to explore the outer reaches of the universe as their passengers.

Zara seizes the chance to flee Earth’s dangers, but when she meets Nadim, the alien ship she’s assigned, Zara starts to feel at home for the first time. But nothing could have prepared her for the dark, ominous truths that lurk behind the alluring glitter of starlight.

Review: It’s been way too long since I’ve reviewed a sci fi novel on this blog. While I love the fact that YA fantasy fiction is booming, it does make me sad that sci fi fiction seems to have been left on the sidelines for the most part. I mean, you can have just as much fun in space as you can riding around on a horse with a sword! Arguably, more. I’ve also read a few of Rachel Caine’s books in the past, and the book description for this one, of a teenage girl forming a connection with a sentient ship/alien, sounded right up my alley!

So this book was a bit of a roller coaster for me. There were things that I really enjoyed. Things that I wasn’t expecting at all that I quite liked. And other things that kind of knocked me out of the story with too many questions about plausibility and the pacing of the plot.

To start with the things I really liked: the characters. Zara is a great leading lady and the authors walk the line fairly well in keeping with the hardness that has made up her life on the street, the trauma that still exists from her childhood, while also making her sympathetic, and more importantly, believable. Her harshness is well-grounded in past events, and as the story progresses and she forms a connection with Nadim and her fellow shipmate Beatriz, we see her not only begin to open up to those around her but begin to question her own understanding of friendship and loyalty and how damaged some of her past relationships really were.

Nadim was everything I could have wanted from a sentient ship/alien. He was sufficiently “other,” with his own biological quirks and distance from human concepts of gender and other social norms. As the story unfolds, we begin to unravel the mysteries of his species and see in what ways Nadim stands out from the other Leviathan. While his relationship with Zara and Beatriz are at the core of the story, we also see glimpses into the role he plays among his own people and social hierarchies that exist there. I particularly enjoyed the parallels between the Leviathan and whales, especially their unique relationship to sound and music.

Beatriz took me completely by surprise. As you can see in the book description, there is no indication that this isn’t just a Zara/Nadim story. Instead, the Honors program is set up to send two cadets into space with their own Leviathan, and Beatriz is Zara’s crew mate. We all know how much I love sisterhood/girl friendship stories, so I was thrilled when I realized that’s what was being set up here. What’s more, Beatriz is an excellent contrast to Zara. Originally, she struggles much more with the vastness of space and the otherness of Nadim. But she also brings unique strengths to the crew with her abilities as a pilot and masterful singing voice. What made this all the more interesting was the idea that while Zara and Nadim have a special connection, it is by no means the only connection that matters. Beatriz, too, is just as much a needed and valued member of this team. It really is more of a three-way relationship than a traditional romance, with each pairing having their own specific connections to each other.

My struggles with this book had a lot to do with the first third of the story. The pacing seemed off for much of the beginning, with Zara rushing through several different set pieces and action scenes before finally landing herself with Nadim. We have her on the streets! Then she’s caught! Now she’s in a facility! Now she’s famous! Finally out to space! It all zips by in only a few chapters. I get that the authors wanted to get to the good stuff, but the story might have been served better had these things been told in flash backs. As it stands, I felt off balance for the entire first third and had a hard time really connecting to the characters and the story because it was too busy jumping from one thing to another.

My other criticism also comes from this first bit and it’s a straight out plausibility issue. Again, I get that the authors wanted to get Zara to the ship as fast as possible and for her to go through most of her character growth through her experiences there. However, the way it is set up, we’re supposed to believe that all training and preparation for the Honors takes place over a single week. And that somehow, after that, they’re ready to go out on a year-long mission and manage complicated scientific and mathematical equations during their work. The way the Honors are chosen makes this even worse. It’s not like they’re coming from a pool of candidates who have all had rigorous training up to this point and could theoretically be made ready with a short turn around. No, this is just a random draw from the entire population and Zara herself has been living on the streets for years, with no education to speak of.

I would always have a problem with this set up, and it’s just made worse by the story its serving. I LIKED the science and action in this book. It’s a true science fiction story with discussions of the equations needed to pilot in space, the knowledge of natural science needed to explore new planets, and the machinery skills necessary to maintain a ship. But with each moment when these skills were necessary for their survival or the completion of a task, I was reminded of how impossible it would be for Zara and Beatriz to have learned any of this in only one week. So each time it came up, I was thrown out of the book. Again, maybe flashbacks to a longer training time period would have helped this. All I really needed was something saying that, say, even 6 months went by with blah blah boring training blah. Great! Now I can buy it! But as it stands, I had a real problem with it.

But those things aside, I still very much enjoyed this book. It reminded me of how awesome books in space can be, and it fully capitalized on the concept of a living spaceship forming a connection to its pilots. The action was suspenseful and varied, and the mysteries about the Leviathan that were answered and that still remain are enough to keep me reading. Plus, one can hope that now that we’re through the first book, in a second outing, I’d have less problems with their skill sets since maybe they just picked things up what with their time on the ship. If you like science fiction and are able to turn your brain off a bit, this is definitely one worth checking out!

Rating 7: Plausibility issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of teenagers in space with a living ship!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Honor Among Thieves” is a newer title, so isn’t on many relevant Goodrads lists, but it is on  “Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!”

Find “Honor Among Thieves” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Final Grade”

176560Book: “Final Grade” (Fear Street #30) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1995

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

Book Description: Everyone thinks she killed her teacher

Intense, competitive, Lily Bancroft had good reasons to hate him. She lives to win, and he was about to destroy her dreams. But murder? That was going too far, even for someone as driven as Lily.

She’s innocent. But that hasn’t stopped the whispers behind her back. Or the weird phone calls late at night. Then someone else is brutally murdered and suddenly Lily is drawn into a nightmare she can’t begin to control. Will her final grade be her last?

Had I Read This Before: Yes.

The Plot: We meet our protagonist Lily Bancroft as she’s arguing with her social sciences teacher Mr. Reiner. Seems that he gave her a B on her test and she feels that she deserves an A because she just does, okay? Mr. Reiner isn’t swayed, and after having a fantasy about killing him, Lily leaves the room, angry that she may not get the A that she needs to be Valedictorian at the end of the year to get the scholarship she needs. She runs into her friend Julie and says that she could just kill Mr. Reiner, which is poor phrasing and Julie’s older brother was murdered during a grocery story robbery, but hey, Lily is a Type A personality who is very much in her feelings. Besides, both of her older sisters were Valedictorian and she needs to keep up with them in her parents eyes. They stop by the library so Julie can drop off some books, and run into Lily’s boyfriend Alex, who used to date Julie but whatever, hormones gonna hormone. They then run into Scott, the editor of the school literary magazine The Forum, who mentions the deadline they have. But Lily says she can’t go to the meeting today, she has to work at her Uncle Bob’s pharmacy that night. See, her mother had a stroke and now Lily has to bring in a second income to help make ends meet at home. Damn, I feel like the college application essay alone will get her into any school she wants with a full scholarship, but hey, that’s not my business.

As she’s starting to walk to work Graham, Julie’s cousin and Lily’s rival for Valedictorian, offers her a ride in his sea foam green Porsche. He’s a total douchebag, but Lily accepts the ride because she doesn’t want to be late to work. He then brags about his grades and asks her if she’s ready for the state trivia contest they’re both trying to get a seat on, and she grits her teeth until she gets to work and thanks him for the ride. She really wants to win that because there’s a cash prize. While at work that night Lily is trying to do her homework as well as serve customres, when all of a sudden a guy pulls a gun and holds up the place. Uncle Bob comes out of the back room and then grabs the pistol he keeps in the drawer. The robber chickens out and runs off, and the new pharmacy delivery boy Rick runs after him (like a dope). Lily calls the police and Rick comes back empty handed. When Bob points out that he could have been killed, he shrugs in a ‘macho’ manner, and oh, he’s gonna be one of THOSE characters. He asks Lily what she’s doing, and she says homework. Then he asks her out, and is only swayed when she says she has a boyfriend. He confides that he’s a drop out because he had problems in classes, and she tells him that hey, she has problems too, and tells him all about that AWFUL Mr. Reiner. He asks her out again, and she says nope.

She gets off the bus at Fear Street and starts walking home. Then someone jumps out of the bushes, but it’s just Alex. She tells him about the robbery and he’s worried about her, but he also gets frustrated when she says that she has to go inside and study instead of sitting and talking with him for a bit. But he does agree, and lets her go inside. Her father seems less concerned about the robbery and more concerned about the B grade she got on that test, so Lily is more determined than ever to study her butt off. Her room phone gets a strange call, where the person on the line says that they know her and watch her ‘all the time’. They then hang up, and Lily focuses on her work.

The next day on the bus to school Lily is exhausted, but has decided that she is just going to ask Mr. Reiner if she can do some extra credit work to boost her grade. Alex says that’s a good idea, and they get off the bus and part ways. At her locker Lily runs into Lisa Blume, who heard about the issue with Mr. Reiner and needles her a bit. Lily says that she’s going to get her A ‘one way or another’, and Lisa, being a huge gossip, is probably not the person to say that to. When Lily goes to Mr. Reiner’s classroom to propose the extra credit idea, she finds him sprawled on the floor, a ladder and a broken lightbulb on the scene. And the poor man is dead.

So while Lily does feel bad about her bad thoughts about him, and the fact that there are rumors about her maybe killing him instead of it being an accident where he fell off the ladder and died, she is pleased that she is potentially going to get a better grade now, as the substitute has given her more options to raise it. She’s playing a friendly couple of games of tennis with Alex, Julie, and Scott, and this is the one place where she isn’t competitive (much to Alex’s chagrin). After the games Scott suggests that they all hang out some more, but Lily says she has studying to do, which miffs Alex even more. As she’s walking home Graham drives up next to her and offers her a ride. She agrees, but gets mad at him when he insinuates that maybe she killed Mr. Reiner over her grade. She gets out of his car and storms off. That night she gets another weird phone call, and the caller says that he knows she got what she wanted. So now she thinks that Graham is the caller.

Maybe a day later Lily meets up with Scott to look over her essay and the covers for the forum. Scott says that her essay is great (natch!) and that she should come to the paper mill that night to watch them print out the new edition on a huge printing press. She says that sounds fun and that she’ll come by after work, and then he asks her to help pick a cover. Alex comes in and is jealous, and when Scott leaves he tells Lily he doesn’t like that Scott likes her. Lily assures him he has nothing to worry about, and he trusts her. At work that night Rick comes in and starts pestering Lily. He teases her about Mr. Reiner, and she blows up at him. He asks her out again and she says no, and he GRABS HER HAND and asks her if she’s stuck up and he only ‘wants to get to know her better’, and she tells him to knock it off. He then apologizes profusely (of course) because he ‘needs this job’ so please don’t say anything to Bob. Stine LOVES these characters, the assholes who are actually just ‘misunderstood’. It’s so 90s. I like me a good bad boy trope as well, but you are NO Bender in “The Breakfast Club”, Rick, so fuck off. Uncle Bob asks if everything is okay, and Lily says yes, saving Rick’s undeserving ass from a swift firing.

Lily goes to the paper mill after work to meets her friends, but as she enters a bunch of HUGE rolls of paper start rolling towards her a la Indiana Jones. She jumps out of the way before being crushed to death, and her friends and the night foreman Mr. Jacobson all find her. He says that he has no idea how that happened, but now they’ll have to reload and delay the printing until later that week. Graham says that Jacobson is an idiot and that HE would know how to run this place better, and fuck yourself Graham because he’s the foreman and you aren’t. I don’t care if your Dad owns this place. They all decide to go to pizza instead. But because of this Lily doesn’t get home until after 11, and the trivia contest is the next day. She gets another weird phone call. Now the voice is saying that it wants to ‘help her’.

At the trivia contest it’s Lily vs Graham, and at first she’s holding her own pretty okay. But then Graham tells her that he saw his midterm grades, and that he’s getting basically all A’s. So poor Lily gets inside her own head, and the stress and exhaustion prove to be too much, and Graham ends up winning. Lily is devastated. As she’s walking home, Rick just happens to be in the neighborhood making deliveries, and offers to walk with her. He actually acts like a decent human being as they walk, but then he says that he wondered if he could ‘help her’ somehow when it comes to cheering her up. She then asks if he’s the person who’s been calling her….. And he says he has. She freaks out on him, but he swears that he never actually waits for her to pick up and always hangs up before she does. Lily doesn’t believe him, and when there is no call that night she is further convinced that he was the caller all along. But it’s NEVER that easy on Fear Street.

The next day the midterm grades are posted for all to see. How humiliating for those who aren’t doing so well!! I don’t understand why schools would do this. It was bad enough that my school posted the names of those on the Dean’s List AND posted the name of the ‘most improved’ student for the semester. That’s not encouraging, it just opens up for your asshole classmates to be like ‘HOW BAD WERE YOU BEFORE?’ Anyway, Lily is indeed humiliated because she is number 2 behind Graham. When her friends try to comfort her at the magazine meeting, because number 2 is still pretty good and there is STILL TIME for her to get her grades back up to snuff, she yells at all of them and storms out because

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(source)

Lily leaves work early because the store is dead and Uncle Bob takes pity on her, so she goes to the paper mill to see the magazine get printed. When she arrives Mr. Jacobson has left a sign that says he’ll be back at 9:30. It’s 9:20, but Lily finds the door open. She goes in, hearing the printing press. She figures they must have started after all, so she heads towards the pressing room. She walks in and covers her ears because it’s so loud as it prints, and she gets splattered in the face with red ink that runs through the press. But wait, it’s not red ink. It’s BLOOD!! She runs around the other side and finds Graham HEAD FIRST IN THE PRESS!! She turns it off and checks to see if he’s still alive, but he’s not. She faints, and only comes to when her other friends arrive, and ask her how she got all that blood on her. I mean, there’s a bloody corpse next to her, guys, there are LOTS of ways it could have gotten on her.

The next morning at breakfast her mother asks her why she’s not eating. I ask HER why Lily hasn’t been taken straight to a therapist after seeing what she saw. Lily gets in Alex’s car to go to school (!?!?!), and he tries to comfort her. It doesn’t help that a bunch of Graham’s friends proceed to cut them off and stare at them, and Lily thinks that this is somehow all her fault, even though the police said that it was a tragic accident. When she gets to school she can’t help but gleefully think about how she is number one now. Kinda ghoulish. You get me to a sympathetic point and then knock it all down, Lily.

At the funeral Lily is really starting to lose it. She feels like people are looking at her, and when she goes to the viewing of the closed casket she hallucinates that Graham sits up and accuses her, but she gets her wits about her enough to understand that Julie is really hurting, as she just lost her brother and now her cousin is dead too. The funeral retreats to Julie’s house for refreshments (this officially isn’t the Midwest small town dynamic because it’s not in the church basement and there isn’t a spread of various bars to go with an unabashed reluctance to a bother anyone in any way), and as Lily and Scott are talking, but when Graham’s mom gives her a suspicious stink eye Lily takes that as her cue to leave. She rushes home to her empty house, and has a nice cry. As she empties out her purse looking for some tissues, she instead finds Graham’s glasses!! Suddenly there’s a bang and footsteps coming up the steps, and Scott is there! He says he was worried about her, and she tells him about the glasses. Which which Scott says that of course he knew about it, as he put them there! He wants her to know everything that he did for her to prove his love, aka killing Graham!!! He got the idea after Mr. Reiner’s freak accident with the light and slipping off the ladder. He told Graham to meet him at the printing press at nine, knowing the foreman would be on a break and then pushed him into the press so that Lily will be number one! He also was the one making the phone calls, and now they can be together forever! Lily tries to leave the room to call the cops, but he says that he’ll kill her if she leaves the room. Oh, and if she DOES try to turn him in, he’ll say that it was all her idea and that she also killed Mr. Reiner because she wanted to badly to be number 1. He grabs Graham’s glasses for collateral, and tells her that they can be together now. He leaves, and Lily doesn’t know what to do.

At the magazine meeting the next day Scott suggests that they make a special tribute issue to Graham. Lily thinks he’s demented but goes along with it. Julie is driving her to work afterwards and apologizes for being so distant lately; she’s just sad that Lily has no time for her outside of studying and Alex. Lily is relieved that Julie doesn’t blame her for Graham’s death. But then Julie, being a regular Nancy Drew, says that she isn’t convinced that Graham died in an accident, and believes that he was murdered! After all, his dad owns the paper plant, so of COURSE he knows how to use the press and not get caught in it. Julie assures Lily that she doesn’t believe the rumors and thinks that someone else killed him. Lily is scared that Scott will hurt Julie if she voices her suspicions or goes too deep. That night Scott calls Lily and tells her to break up with Adam and start dating him. Lily tries to deflect, saying people may be suspicious if she does that and may ask more questions. Then she IDIOTICALLY tells him that Julie is suspicious. He then threatens Julie, so Lily agrees to go out with him.

The night of the shitty date she has to go on, Lily runs into Alex outside her house and makes up a lame excuse about the library and studying. He gets miffed and walks off. She then meets up with Scott and has the actually pretty good idea of making it a terrible date for him so he’ll not want to do it again. She makes him drive to a town twenty miles away to see a movie, won’t hold his hand, and then makes him take her to a scary pool hall frequented by bikers and potential meth heads for dinner. Unfortunately they run into Rick, who just makes polite conversation, which gets Scott all possessive. As they leave he says that she better not be into Rick and that she better dump Alex or else. He drives her home, basically assaults her when he tries to kiss her and won’t let her go, but she squirms away and he walks her to her door. He tries to kiss her again but she ducks inside, and tries to figure out what to do…. Maybe CALL THE COPS!!! SCOTT HAS THE GLASSES!! There is EVIDENCE that he says he’s holding on to for collateral but EVIDENCE IS IN HIS POSSESSION!!!!

Lily avoids Scott okay at school that Monday, but at the magazine meeting he talks about their date in front of everyone. Including Alex. Alex, angry that Lily has been lying to him and has made time for Scott but not him, dumps her. Later that week (maybe? Time is being weird in this one), Lily is at work and Julie calls her telling her that she thinks she knows who killed Graham, because someone left a message for Graham at the paper plant the night he did. She asks Lily to meet her there the next night, because she wants to tell her in person. Lily tries to dissuade her, but when a customer comes in she has to hang up but says she will call her back. But she never gets the chance, because after a number of customers and Rick take up her time with all their bullshit, Scott comes in with a flower and an urge to make out. He starts to get grabby again (so much casual sexual harassment and assault in these books), and Lily blows up at him, saying that they won’t be together forever because Julie is figuring it all out!

 

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YOU ARE GOING TO GET ONE OF THE TWO LIKABLE PEOPLE IN THIS BOOK KILLED, IDIOT!!! (source)

So Scott says that they’re just going to have to kill her then. Ugh, SEE? She tries to get him to think that they can talk to her together and change her mind, and then SWEET KIND UNCLE BOB, in a moment if ill timed kindness, tells Lily that she can leave for the night and go have fun. Thanks, Uncle Bob! When he goes back to the back room with Rick to build some shelving, Scott tells Lily they’re going to take care of Julie now. Lily opens the drawer, hoping to grab the gun to intimidate him into stopping this whole thing, but oops, he grabs it first, and points it at her saying she better call Julie.

So they go to the paper plant, and Scott lets them in with his personal key the magazine has. Mr. Jacobson is nowhere in sight, and they wait for Julie. When she arrives, Lily screams at her to run before Scott can get the jump on her, but sweet idiotic Julie just stands there asking what’s going on. Scott confesses that he’s the one who killed Graham, but then tries to pin it on Lily as well. Julie doesn’t know what to think, but what does it matter because Scott presses her up against the press and points the gun right at her as Lily begs him to leave her alone. There’s a scuffle, and Lily almost gets the gun away from him, but to no avail. Scott aims the gun at Julie and shoots, and she falls to the floor. Lily cries over her best friend, and Scott says that they can be together now. He lets his guard down and puts the pistol in his pocket, but Lily gets the gun and aims it at him. She says that she’ll shoot him, but he calls her bluff. And he’s right, she wont’ shoot. So he embraces her…. BUT THEN JULIE STANDS UP, GRABS A LARGE METAL BAR, AND HITS HIM IN THE HEAD. He collapses, and the BFFs are reunited. Lily says she thought Julie was dead, but Julie says that nothing hit her. As they try to figure out why, Scott rallies for a moment, but then does drop dead while saying Lily’s name over and over.

So the police and medics come, as do Uncle Bob and Rick to pick them up and take them home. And turns out the gun was a starter pistol, and that’s why Julie wasn’t shot. Bob thinks real guns are too scary, and I LOVE Uncle Bob. Julie then eyes Rick and asks Lily if he’s single, and Lily says that Julie can have him because SHE needs to make sure that she keeps her grades up! After all, there’s still time to finish first, and she KNOWS that she will. THE END.

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That’s absolutely what you should be thinking about right now, Lily. (source)

Body Count: 3. I feel bad for poor Mr. Reiner. Dealing with entitled kids all day and then he dies because maintenance won’t fix the damn light in his classroom is a rough way to go.

Romance Rating: 2. Alex was okay and I felt for him, but he didn’t support Lily’s need to succeed and was more focused on his own entertainment. Scott is a sexual extortionist, and Rick is definitely toxic in his own right so JULIE DON’T DO IT DON’T GO OUT WITH HIM.

Bonkers Rating: 4. Because of the printing press death. Everything else was pretty run of the mill.

Fear Street Relevance: 3, if only because Lily lives on Fear Street and because the past two books had absolutely NOTHING to do with Fear Street so that’s no doubt shading my opinions.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“Then she realized there was an answer. An answer that had been there all along. ‘I’ll kill him’, she thought.”

…. And then it’s NEVER brought up again. EVER. She goes back to just wondering how she’s going to get out of this mess.

That’s So Dated! Moments: There’s the fact that Lily says that Julie prefers reading while most kids their age like spending their time watching MTV, and I have to assume that it was a reference to the music videos and not to shows about teen pregnancy. Also, there’s a mention of Winona Ryder’s new romantic movie. But to be fair Winona has made a comeback and I’M SO PROUD OF HER!

Best Quote:

“She moved the press. She tugged at his waist. She pulled frantically. ‘Are you alive? Graham? Are you?'”

NO HE’S NOT ALIVE, HE’S HEADFIRST IN A PRINTING PRESS!! This reminded me of the scene in “Tucker and Dale vs Evil” where that one kid jumps head first into the wood chipper and Tucker freaks the hell out, turns if off, and asks ‘hey, you okay?’

Conclusion: “Final Grade” was better than “Dead End” but that’s not really saying much. Up next is “Switched”. 

Book Club Review: “Long Way Down”

22552026We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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

Book: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Publishing Info: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, October 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns an ARC, Serena got it from the library!

A-Side Book: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Book Description: A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? 

As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually used his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator?

Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Serena’s Thoughts

Thank god for bookclub! It’s books like this that remind me how lucky I am to be in a club with such a great group of ladies who love to read and know their stuff about what’s out there. The only other Jason Reynolds book I read was for bookclub (was great), but per my norm, since he writes the type of fiction that I don’t usually pursue on my own, it’s likely I would have missed out on this great read as well.

During our meeting, there was a persistent theme of us all having read it in one sitting (most of us the very day of bookclub, my bad!) due to the story being written in verse. But this decision was so much more than a device that made the book quick to read! Reynolds masterfully binds together all the strengths that can be gleaned from versed-novels, while deftly avoiding some of the pitfalls, such as melodrama and pretentiousness.

Instead, the limited number of words created an almost claustrophobic atmosphere that mirrored Will’s journey down the elevator. From page to page, the words would be laid out differently across the page, sometimes mimicking the topic that was being discussed, such as a jagged splatter of words about an earthquake and a question mark shape drawn in words themselves. The line breaks, and even page turns, were also effective in giving weight to moments and certain words, leaving them to fall hard on the unsuspecting reader.

Beyond the style of the book, Reynolds tackles a tough and nuanced topic in his exploration of gun violence in a poor, black neighborhood. His story is a frank reveal of the limited choices and persistent cycles that exists, without casting judgement or freeing characters from the responsibility of their actions. Again, the decision to write in verse just further supported this exploration. As the number of words are limited, Reynolds’ language is precise, clear, and devastating.

My only criticism is with the very end, and even there, I’m not entirely sure how I feel. I like the ambiguousness, but I also feel like it wrapped up rather suddenly. However, I also don’t know how else a story like this could have been finished, and the ending itself speaks to the limited and challenging options available in these communities.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jason Reynolds while at ALA’s Annual Conference in 2017, and when I met him I got an ARC of “Long Way Down”. I hadn’t known what to expect from that book, but I knew that the concept sounded very intriguing to me. When I finally opened it up a couple months later I was pretty much blown away. I hadn’t expected to be as taken with the book, only because it’s written in verse and DAMN am I not a poetry fan. But I read it one sitting and said ‘wow’ as I set it down at the end. So when we did the B-Sides theme, I KNEW that I needed to pick “Long Way Down”.

Will is a character that the reader can instantly relate to, even if your circumstances don’t match his. He’s a person who has just suffered a great personal loss, and his grief, rage, and helplessness are pushing him towards making a huge mistake: shooting the man who he thinks killed his brother Shawn. As mentioned, this entire story, from his brother’s murder to the aftermath to Will’s experiences in the elevator, is told in poetry form. The poems split up the story into little segments, and you get the full span of anger and deep grief that Will is experiencing. Even though I don’t like poetry, it’s use in this book is incredibly evocative, and in some ways makes it more powerful because of the way Reynolds structures each poem. You know that Will is a boy who deeply loves his brother, and is within a community where cycles of violence can affect, and embitter, anyone.

I also really appreciate the way that Reynolds shows the different victims of gun violence in Will’s life, from his brother to his father to his uncle to a childhood friend. They all have different scenarios that led to their deaths, some because of a direct choice, and others because of sheer circumstance and randomness. The one that hits the hardest is that of Dani, a girl who was friends with Will when they were eight, and who died because of a stray bullet meant for someone else. But that isn’t to say that Reynolds makes any of the other victims less of a victim by including her, no matter what choices they may have made. As Serena mentioned above, Reynolds shows that they are all victims in one way or another, be it victims of gun violence of victims of a society that has forgotten about them. There are lots of greys in this book, and, as Serena mentioned, lots of ambiguity, and I think that given that life is filled with greys it hits the point home.

Reading “Long Way Down” for the second time cemented it as one of my favorite YA books as of late, and Jason Reynolds is a master who is telling stories that really need to be told. I can’t wait to see what else he brings to the literary world.

Serena’s Rating 10: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was beautiful and soul-crushing, and provided a clear-eyed look into the gun violence that exists in so many of our cities today.

Kate’s Rating 10: A powerful and emotional story about grief, loss, helplessness, and rage, “Long Way Down” makes the reader confront a very dark reality about life for some people living in America today.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This story was written in verse. How do you think this affected the story that was being told?
  2. Each page was laid out in a different way with a different structure. Was there a particular one that stood out to you? Why?
  3. Of the individuals that Will meets in the elevator, was there one whose story stood out for you? Why?
  4. This book tackles some challenging issues surrounding race, poverty, gun violence, and the police force. Were there any moments that stood out to you as presenting a new way of looking at these issues? Are there any aspects that you wish could have been explored more?
  5. The ending of this story is ambiguous. What do you think happens next and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Way Down” is on these Goodreads lists: “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas” and “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Long Way Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo

 

Serena’s Review: “Song of the Current”

31450960Book: “Song of the Current” by Sarah Tolcser

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury Children’s, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the publisher!

Book Description: Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. For generations, her family has been called by the river god, who has guided their wherries on countless voyages throughout the Riverlands. At seventeen, Caro has spent years listening to the water, ready to meet her fate. But the river god hasn’t spoken her name yet—and if he hasn’t by now, there’s a chance he never will.

Caro decides to take her future into her own hands when her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate. By agreeing to deliver it in exchange for his release, Caro finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies, with dangerous pirates after the cargo—an arrogant courier with a secret—and without the river god to help her. With so much at stake, Caro must choose between the life she always wanted and the one she never could have imagined for herself.

Review: First off, a bit thanks to the publisher for sending this my way! Just in time for us all to gear up for the second in the series, “Whisper of the Tide,” to come out this June. And this was a super solid outing for a new fantasy series, so count me as on board that excitement train!

So I was one of those kids who went to summer camp. During middle school I just went to the regular camp, but then I discovered the magnificence of “themed” camps also offered through the sane organization. Specifically, sailing camp. It was a week long camp where a bunch of high schoolers and a few counselors pretty much sailed around this massive lake in northern Idaho and camped overnight at various places. So…yeah…I’m pretty much a sailing expert. Ha! Not all. But this little jaunt into memory lane is one of the reasons that I loved this book.

We’ve all read a million and one epic fantasies with dragons and magical powers A few trillion fairy tale retellings. And as much as I love both of those, it’s always nice to find a new take on the genre, and that’s what we get here. Not only does the majority of the story take place on the water, be it rivers or the ocean, but the main character’s entire life and that of her family revolves around living on and operating ships. What’s more, it is a crucial aspect of the magic system, the economy of the world, and its belief system.

I loved that the author went all in on this concept. She doesn’t hesitate to devote a decent amount of time describing ships and the skills necessary to successfully navigate them. I had a lot of fun picking out the few bits of knowledge I recognized, and it was interesting to learn even more. This may read as a bit dull to some readers, but I think if you know what you’re going to get and have an interest in sailing and ships, this sharp focus will be appreciated.

But the world-building goes beyond just detailed ship knowledge. As I said, the politics and economics of this world revolve in one way or another around the waterways. Caro’s path through this adventure is tied to the different parties involved who have an interest in what goes on out on the water. Caro’s mother and father both come from very different worlds, and I loved the very different outlook they both brought to what it means to love the water and the ships on it.

Caro, herself, was an excellent protagonist. It’s clear from the beginning that she is a skilled sailor, and as she moves through the story, she gains even more confidence in this area, all while still trying to find her exact role in this world. She’s pulled between the two opposite forces of her parents, and also is starting to suspect that she may be something altogether different than either of them would suspect. Here, the magic system was particularly interesting, including a very unique river god.

The other major player is Markos,  a young man full of arrogance and swagger, and whose lot gets thrown in with Caro’s, much to her initial displeasure. This was a perfect example of one of my much loved romances: the dislike changing to love arc. But it’s also a tough one to pull off, with many authors succeeding a bit too well at the “dislike” portion, so much so that they can’t justify the love to follow. Here, Markos’s vanity and incompetence are humorous. And while it’s easy to see why he gets under Caro’s skin, as a reader, I was just having blast reading about his foibles. And, as Caro gets to know him better, he has clear strengths, such as an unbreakable love for his family and some pretty stellar sword skills.

For me, the unique world-building and the spot-on characterization of Caro and Markos are what truly sold me on the story. It does focus quite a bit on the sailing aspect of things, so if you have zero interest in ships and how they work, this might be a struggle. But for everyone else, jump on board!

Rating 8: This book was a romp, a fast-moving adventure full of ships, magic, and high stakes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Song of the Current” is on these Goodreads lists: “Teen Pirate Books” and “Mixed Race MG, YA.”

Find “Song of the Current” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “Furyborn”

34323570Book: “Furyborn” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley and BookishFirst

Book Description: When assassins ambush her best friend, the crown prince, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing her ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. The only people who should possess this extraordinary power are a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light and salvation and a queen of blood and destruction. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven trials to test her magic. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.

A thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a mere fairy tale to bounty hunter Eliana Ferracora. When the Undying Empire conquered her kingdom, she embraced violence to keep her family alive. Now, she believes herself untouchable–until her mother vanishes without a trace, along with countless other women in their city. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain on a dangerous mission and discovers that the evil at the heart of the empire is more terrible than she ever imagined.

As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world–and of each other.

Review: I’m pretty sure “Furyborn” wins the competition for most hyped book this spring. Everywhere I look there are lists including it as most looked forward to, rave reviews, or options to get your hands on it early. So props to the marketing team for getting this one out there. However, as has become a bit of a habit for me with much-hyped books, I had some mixed feelings on this one. Mixed though! I did enjoy this more than “The Cruel Prince” which was my last big letdown from the hype machine.

Most of the things I enjoyed in this story were also directly tied to aspects that I did not. Unlike other books, the problems I had with this story weren’t connected as much to the actual characterizations we’re given or the overall story. Both were mostly strong. But there are writing choices throughout the story that frankly sabotaged the good efforts made elsewhere.

For example, to start out. Both Rielle and Eliana are strong enough characters on their own. They live in very different worlds, and while some of their struggles are similar (trying to find their place in the world & hiding/fighting against perceptions that might set others against them and those they love), they are distinct in their own right. They each have a unique voice, always an important element in shared POV books. I personally found myself a bit more drawn to Eliana. Her story has a bit more mystery (for reasons we’ll discuss later), and as a character, I enjoyed her more morally grey worldview. However, I didn’t dislike Rielle either.

The other side of this coin, though, is the fact that both of these characters feel cut off at the knees by the alternating POVs. It’s not even a complicated problem: each POV is simply too short. The reader is being constantly bounced back and forth between each girl’s story, that one can never really settle into either character or plotline. This results in me kind of just not caring, when all is said and done. Readers need a chance to settle into a character, to really come into their world and understand their motivations and challenges. But when we’re constantly bounced back and forth between two very different stories every few pages, there is never a chance to really get that moment where you become invested. It was a fine read, but it was just that, a read. I never felt like I was really in this world. I was always just reading about it.

This problem extends to the world-building. There’s a lot that needs to happen on this front for a story that is going to try to present two very different worlds, thousands of years apart. The author essentially has to do twice the world-building to successfully pull it off. But, again, because of the quick switches between one character and the other, I never felt like I had a clear understanding of either of these worlds. There are angels in one? But the details are foggy. The other world has a empire that is set on taking over the world, but why and how? These details are all interesting on their own, but it ultimately felt like the author had bit off more than she could chew. Or, at the very least, more than could be reasonably fit in one novel that also has a lot of other things going on.

The action was fun. There is no denying that this book moves, and it was this that got me through some of the failings in my full connection to either character or the world itself. What’s more, I enjoyed that the action was very different between each girl’s storylines. Rielle’s ongoing magical trials were exciting and fast-moving. Whereas Eliana’s were caught up in politics and the violent nature of what the world has become under this ambitious empire. But, again, this same fast-moving action was also part of the reason the world-building and character development felt stunted. There simply weren’t enough pages to fit in all of this action while also developing two fully-realized characters and two fully expanded worlds.

I did  also have one major criticism of this book. I read a good article recently that questioned whether a prologue is ever necessary for a book. The author of the essay mentioned that very talented authors could pull them off (like J.K. Rowling and her prologue in the first Harry Potter book), but even then, did you need them? This book serves as a perfect example where, for me, the prologue actively damaged my perception of the story right off the bat. It’s not long, but in even those few pages, the author managed to spoil almost every single reveal that was to come throughout the rest of the book. I already new the secrets that plagued some of our characters, thus making their confusion and ultimate surprise incredibly uninteresting to read about.

Further, I feel like this prologue was meant to inspire curiosity about how one character ended up where she did. But instead, I felt spoiled for her entire plot and thus her chapters held very little interest. There was no real threat behind any of the things she confronted because I knew where she ended up. If I hadn’t already been losing interest in characters because of the quick jumps back and forth due to the POV switches, this prologue alone did enough to pretty much kill off my interest and curiosity in at least one of these two.

All of that said, there book is still a fairly strong outing in a new fantasy world. There isn’t a lack of action or story, and the characters are interesting on their own. The problems I had were all down to stylistic choices (too short of chapters between switches, an uneven balance between action and world-building, and an unnecessary and ultimately harmful prologue). I’ll probably still stick around to read the next books in the series, however.

Want to judge for yourself? Get your hands on an ARC of “Furyborn” before it comes out! Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends May 10, 2018.

Click here to enter!

Rating 6: Had some good things going for it, but the author made a few writing choices that seemed to shoot the book in the foot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Furyborn” is an upcoming title, but it it is included on this Goodreads list: “Badass YA Heroines.”

Find “Furyborn” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Dead End”

176579Book: “Dead End” (Fear Street #29) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1995

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

Book Description: Natalie Erickson and her friends share a terrible secret. They were all in the car that foggy night — the night someone died at the dead end. 

Now someone knows too much, and there’s danger ahead. Natalie just wants out of this nightmare. But that’s the problem with dead ends — there’s no way out!

Had I Read This Before: No.

The Plot: We open with an unnecessary prologue about how accidents happen, as told to us by the narrator of this book, Natalie. Then we cut to her at a raging party at Talia “I’m a plagiarist” Blanton’s house. There we meet Natalie’s other friends: nerdy Carlo, sexy Gillian, sweet Randee, and macho Todd. Also, there’s Natalie’s boyfriend Keith who is more interested in getting a beer than hanging out. Randee and Natalie talk about how Todd may be jealous of Carlo because of his flirtations with Gillian, and Natalie laments that Keith is boozing. Then Keith falls down the steps, cementing his place in the doghouse with his girlfriend, and then he goes to vomit. Puke and rally, Keith, it’s gonna serve you well in the future. As he vomits Todd badgers Natalie into dancing with him, and we find out that he’s a real creep who has long blond hair that’s ‘long on the top but shaved on the side’, and I can’t decide if he’s supposed to have a mullet or a fashy. Either way, yuck. Keith returns and seems to be better, but two hours later when everyone is starting to go home Natalie says she’s NOT riding with him because he’s too messed up. I like that she doesn’t want to get in a car with him, but I question that she doesn’t seem to mind him driving SO LONG AS she isn’t in the car with him. Regardless, she decides to hitch a ride with Randee, Todd, Carlo, and Gillian, with Randee driving.

While they’re driving home a major fog worthy of Carpenter rolls in. As Randee drives she has a harder and harder time seeing, and though she claims she knows where she’s going she clearly doesn’t. They turn down Fear Str- wait. River Road? What the FUCK is River Road?! How is the terrible peril not on Fear Street within a FEAR STREET BOOK?!

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(source)

Randee drives past Cedar (I guess Todd lives on that street. Whatever) right by a DEAD END sign, and then Randee loses control of the car somehow and they slam right into another car. Natalie sees someone move inside the car, but Randee throws the car into reverse and peels the hell out of there, therein committing a hit and run. When Natalie says they need to go check on the other car, Randee says that she’s grounded and isn’t supposed to be out, Gillian is the same boat, and Todd agrees that his Dad will kill him if he finds out that they hit someone. Especially since his father just got a new job in the mayor’s office and this will be a nightmare! And Carlo’s Dad is in the hospital, and Carlo doesn’t want to stress him out. So they flee the scene. You know, this sounds super familiar to me…..

OH THAT’S RIGHT, THIS IS THE PLOT TO “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER”!!! If “One Evil Summer” was vaguely lifting themes from “Summer of Fear”, this one is straight up ripping Lois Duncan’s masterpiece off. And making it SUPER lame.

The next day Natalie is awakened by the phone in her room ringing. When she answers it’s Todd, and he has some REALLY bad news: the woman in the car they hit? She’s dead. She was also the mayor’s sister, so you know that Mayor Coletti is going to be on the hunt Liam Neeson style. Natalie is more wracked with guilt than worried about her own ass, and wishes that they would have stayed, or called someone, or something, but now is going to live a life of paranoia that the next phone call will end her. Then the phone rings, but luckily it’s Keith, and he’s just calling saying that he needs to talk to her, but she brushes him off because she has bigger problems. She meets Carlo, Todd, Gillian, and Randee in the park that afternoon to reconvene and recalibrate in light of this news. Todd vacillates between bad jokes and dark brooding, and when Carlo says that they have to confess everything Randee balks and Todd threatens his life. So okay, Todd is the Barry in this story, and just as wretched. He says that if he confesses his Dad will lose his job with the Mayor and then Todd will be in serious trouble (like, outside of participating in a conspiracy and cover up of vehicular manslaughter?). Everyone (except Natalie) acknowledges that they have a lot to lose, and Todd says that he can keep an eye on things through his Dad so they can keep ahead of the investigation. They take a vow to not tell anyone about what happened, not even Keith (Natalie is fine with this). And then narrator Natalie informs us that people are going to die because of this secret. To which I say no shit.

That evening Natalie tries to take her mind off of the whole thing by writing some free form poetry. That’s her thing, you see. But for whatever reason she just isn’t feeling too poetic. Then she sees that Keith is in the doorway to her bedroom, and he tells her that her mother let him in. He says that he knows her secret, and Natalie momentarily panics, but lucky for her he’s the type that thinks of himself first because he thinks she wants to dump him for Todd. Natalie assures him that’s NOT the case, and that she’s actually kind of scared of him. Keith scoffs at that, proving that he’s also the type of guy to brush off women and their legitimate fears about toxic men, so that’s great. He then says that they still have to talk about something, but Natalie worries she’ll break the vow she made and tells him that she can’t talk right now. He then asks her if she’s going to Carlo’s uncle’s cabin for the big weekend that was coming up, and she says she forgot about it. Sadly, Keith can’t go, but says that Natalie still should. After he leaves Natalie calls Todd to see if he has any updates and he yells at her not to call him and hangs up.

We jump to Tuesday and Todd says that the mayor is OBSESSED with finding his sister’s killer. Well, no shit, asshole. Then we jump to Friday and Natalie is getting ready to go to the cabin, and Todd gives her a call. He says that they have to do something about Carlo, because he seems like he’s about to crack. He says to meet him and the others at Pete’s Pizza in fifteen minutes. When they all arrive, Gillian says that Carlo said that he was definitely going to the cops, and Todd says that maybe Carlo should have his own accident. When Natalie asks if he’s joking, he says a lame ‘yeah sure’.

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He and Barry are two sucky peas in a dickweed pod. (source)

That Saturday they’re all driving up to the cabin and talking about hunting. I smell some foreshadowing. Todd says something about how girls don’t hunt and have to wait for the men to come home with the kill, and I want him to have an accident. Randee says that she’s actually a great hunter, and Natalie says she’d rather hike. They arrive at Carlo’s uncle’s cabin and things are going okay for awhile. Natalie and Gillian tell the guys that they aren’t going to hunt for pheasants with them but will hike along instead, but Randee says that she’s in. Natalie thinks that it’s to impress Todd, and my big question is WHY. While Natalie goes back to her room to get gloves, there’s a booming noise and a scream. She runs back outside and Todd accidentally(?) shot off his rifle, scaring everyone but not hurting anyone. They all go into the woods. And I guess Natalie doesn’t like the woods because once when she was eight she got lost overnight in a forest. Oh, okay. A legitimate trauma is just kind of thrown out there like nothing. But it’s a device, because that afternoon on the hike she gets separated from the group! And as she’s stumbling through the woods, she fins a horrific sight: Carlo. He’s dead. And his head is basically gone because of the birdshot? Okay, I guess we’re doing this again.

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Trinity Taylor is not here for this BS. (source)

I do not doubt that getting shot in the face with birdshot could have deadly consequences. Hell, at point blank range I bet it could mess your face up but good, as it is intended to kill smallish animals. But to practically blow one’s head off? Do you REALLY want ammo THAT powerful if you’re trying to shoot pheasant?! I’m seriously asking, I have no clue about how any of these things work, but I DO know that Dick Cheney shot a guy in the face with birdshot and THAT guy ended up apologizing to HIM, so…..

Anyway, Carlo is dead and I feel awful for his family. His Uncle must feel terrible, as his brother is in the hospital and that brother’s son is now dead. Jesus Christ. Todd stumbles up behind Natalie and grabs her close, and says ‘don’t tell’. It’s unclear if it’s in a threatening way or a desperate way. So Uncle George has gone full catatonic and I hate this book. The next day back at home Natalie reads in the paper that it’s speculated to be an accident, and Natalie thinks that maybe Todd did it. When someone comes into her room she freaks out thinking it’s Todd but it’s just Keith, there to comfort her after hearing what happened. Natalie spills the beans on everything, and feels a weight has been lifted. But then the doorbell rings and it’s TODD. He asks if he can come in and Natalie says nah, and then she asks him if he killed Carlo. Todd goes off, saying that there’s no way that he did and the joke from Pete’s Pizza was JUST A JOKE, and he clearly wonders how much Keith knows. As he leaves he tells Natalie that he wasn’t the only person in those woods with a gun.

The next night Randee and Natalie are trying to comfort Gillian, who is sad about Carlo since they were tight. Natalie starts to wonder if Randee could have done it, but brushes it off because they’re BFFs after all. But maybe she and Todd did it together? Gillian pulls out her backpack to study, but when she opens it a nasty smell wafts up into the room, and a rotting piece of meat slides out, along with a note. It says ‘you can be close to Carlo again. In the grave. This is you. Dead Meat. If you talk.’

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This is far more panache in it’s simplicity. (source)

Gillian freaks, Randee tries to convince everyone its just a joke (in spite of the fact that Carlo is VERY dead), and Randee gets defensive for Todd. Again, WHY. Gillian says it has to be him because no one else knows, but Natalie admits that Keith knows. Gillian doesn’t think it’s him, but Randee isn’t so sure, but she’s pretty biased right, given that she wants to get with him? As Natalie is picked up be Keith she asks if he told, and says no, and that it’s been two weeks and the police have no leads so it’s going to be over soon. But omnipotent narrator Natalie tells us that isn’t the case.

At school that week Gillian and Natalie are leaving math class and Gillian says that she can’t take it anymore and is going to the police. She tells Natalie that she and Carlo had a long talk the night before the hunting trip and he told her ‘everything’, but before Natalie can find out what that means Todd and Randee show up and the talk ends. Later, Natalie and Keith are at the ice rink and are talking about this turn of events. Natalie asks Keith if Carlo said anything to him, and he says no, and asks Natalie if she knows what it was that Carlo told Gillian before he died. No such luck, and Keith gets all upset about Carlo and says he has to go, and she says she’ll get a ride from someone else, and skates awhile longer. As she’s leaving the ice rink though, Todd and Randee track her down. They say that they have to go to Gillian’s house because she’s going to tell and they have to stop her. So they drive out to Gillian’s, but when they knock on the door no one answers. Natalie suggests that they’re all asleep and Todd says it’s only ten thirty. Fun fact, when I was in high school my house was usually asleep by ten thirty but we were lame. They let themselves in, and oh no, Gillian is at the bottom of the basement steps and her head is turned all the way around. Todd surmises that it must be an accident as Randee calls the police, but Natalie thinks they did it.

That night after she gets home Natalie is convinced that they pushed Gillian down the steps and then brought her there as a warning to her. She decides to go to the police station and confess, and as she’s about to leave Randee shows up. Randee tells her that she’s decided to go to the police too, and they should take her car because it was the one that was used in the accident. Natalie isn’t sure whether to trust her, but gets in and they start driving. Though Randee gets all turned around (is it because she’s going to kill Natalie? Nah, she’s just nervous), but they eventually get to the station and fess up. They tell the police everything, the hit and run, the timing, the fog, everything. The cops have them show them the car, and then ask them if they’re playing a joke on them. Because they couldn’t have killed Mayor Coletti’s sister!! The paint left behind was blue, not green, and the tire treads don’t match. The girls are in trouble for leaving the accident scene, but are going to look into Carlo and Gillian’s deaths. Todd shows up, as Randee had told him that she was going to the police, but they assure him that they aren’t murderers, just reckless douchebags! Randee and Todd suggest that they go hang out, but Natalie isn’t interested, wanting to be alone.

She walks home in the rain, ready to tell her parents everything, when she sees Keith’s car in her driveway. She’s happy to see him and runs to him telling him she went to the police…. but then realizes that HE HAS A BLUE CAR!! AND A DENTED BUMPER AND FUNKY TIRES!! IT WAS KEITH!! He then tells her to get in the car, and he practically forces her in but says he wants to explain as they drive in the rain. He tells her that he followed her and the others the night of they party, and that he was definitely too drunk to drive (don’t drink and drive kids), and he got messed up and smashed his car into the mayor’s sister’s car, killing her. Oh, and he killed Carlo and Gillian too. He killed them because 1) he confessed to Carlo after Natalie had hung up on him the morning after, as he needed to tell SOMEONE, and Carlo was going to rat him out. Todd’s threat (that Natalie told him about vaguely) gave him the perfect out, and 2) Gillian called him and told him that Carlo told her everything, and so he started threatening her and then killed her after the meat incident. Which makes NO sense, because she adamantly said that Keith couldn’t have done it when the rotting meat fell out of her bag, so why hadn’t she just said then and there KEITH DID IT?????? This is garbage.

So now he’s giong to kill her too by driving his car off a cliff and jumping out right before, so it can be another accident. As he drives super fast in the rain, the spare tire pops on his car (the one that made the tire tracks funky), and in the surprise and confusion Natalie jumps out the passenger door, and then watches the car go off the cliff. The reason Keith couldn’t jump out she figures, is that his driver door sometimes stuck. Super convenient. Just to confirm that he’s dead, there’s an explosion, and Natalie realizes that when she stood up she grabbed onto the “Dead End” pole. She then starts the walk back to town to tell the cops. The End.

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IT EVEN ENDED UP BEING THE MAIN GIRL’S BOYFRIEND. You owe Lois Duncan SO MUCH, STINE. (source)

Body Count: 3 (4 if you count the mayor’s sister). Carlo’s death was particularly gruesome.

Romance Rating: 1. Keith turns out to be a killer and there aren’t really any other solid relationships, outside of maybe Randee and Todd and he’s a dick.

Bonkers Rating: 3, and that’s only because Carlo was practically decapitated by a birdshot blast somehow. Everything else was stolen from Lois Duncan and gets no credit.

Fear Street Relevance: 2. Not even mentioned, but it gets more points than “Truth or Dare” since at least it was in town this time.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger: 

“I started to answer. But I was interrupted by some kind of commotion. Talia, Randee, and I moved to see what the noise was about. A girl’s shrill, frightened scream rose over the music. And I stepped into the room in time to see a body come tumbling down the basement stairs.”

… And it’s just a drunken Keith tripping down the steps. Which I suppose would be a little scary, but he’s fine.

That’s So Dated! Moments: Honestly there wasn’t too much this time around, outside of references to CDs and some pretty gnarly fashion sense descriptions. I think that Stine started trying to be a bit more timeless as the books went on.

Best Quote: 

“‘Come with me. Have a beer.’ ‘No way!’ I tugged myself free. ‘You know I hate beer. It tastes like soap!'”

Conclusion: This is just a total and blatant rip off of “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. Don’t waste your time and go read Lois Duncan instead. Next up is “Final Grade”.

Book Club Review: “Challenger Deep”

18075234We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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

Book: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

A-Side Book: “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman

Book Description: A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today’s most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep “a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.”

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “Challenger Deep” a couple of years ago when it was getting a lot of press and hype for its themes of mental illness. Given that I went through some nasty battles with depression in high school and college, I was very interested to see what Neal Shusterman was going to do with it, especially since I knew that his own son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teen (and therein inspired this book). Reading it the first time was a very rewarding and somewhat personal experience, but reading it a second time gave me the chance to read it knowing what was coming and how all the symbolism was going to come together.

One of the most striking things about “Challenger Deep” is how Shusterman frames it, in that it’s a very disorienting read for the reader, giving him or her a sense of what constant disorientation may feel like for those who are struggling with mental illness. Shusterman is careful to not put any kind of mental disorder into a box, and does take care to mention that this one experience that Caden is having is not necessarily universal to all people who suffer from schizophrenia. The story is all from Caden’s perspective, but you do kind of get insight into what those who are around him may be feeling based on their reactions and the decisions that they make. The parallels between what is going on in Caden’s ‘reality’ and what is going on on ‘the ship’ was very interesting to see, and it was powerful to be able to see the glimpses of reality within the hallucinations (the captain, the figurehead, etc).

I also liked that Shusterman never felt condescending or cloying in his storytelling, and never got preachy about what Caden should or shouldn’t do, or should or shouldn’t feel. He presents a situation and lets the reader decide for themselves what conclusions to draw. He also doesn’t  wrap everything up in a neat little bow; you get the sense that things aren’t over for Caden and that he will always have these struggles. As hard as that is to accept, it’s also very realistic, as mental illness is for many people something they are going to have their entire lives, degrees of seriousness changing all the time. It’s a realistic take, but it doesn’t feel bleak or nihilistic. Given that this book is so personal for Shusterman and his family, I’m not surprised that he didn’t approach it with easy answers or cut and dry solutions. I think that it’s very important that teens can see this kind of story, so that they can either see themselves in a book, or they can gain some insight into something that those close to them may be dealing with.

“Challenger Deep” is a poignant and powerful novel, and I’m pleased that we kicked off our B-Sides Book Club Theme with it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I had never read anything by Shusterman until I picked up “Scythe” last summer. So all I knew was that I liked him as a dystopian, YA author. Tackling a tough subject like mental illness is another thing all together! But I should have had faith, as Shusterman once again blew me away with his sensitive, unflinching yet compassionate, tale.

As Kate already touched on, one of the strongest aspects of this story is the subtle manner in which Shusterman depicts the slow, almost unnoticeable, descent into confusion and paranoia that Caden slips into. The reader, too, is unsure of what is happening, not only with the events on the ship, but the timeline between one section and another. It isn’t until halfway through the story that I was able to begin to piece together these two disparate storylines. This perfectly aligns with the point at which Caden, too, begins to gain a bit of clarity, though he is by no means out of the woods.

The ship itself, obviously, is an extensive metaphorical look into the world that Caden has projected around himself. However, for readers looking to gain more insight into what loved ones experiencing mental health challenges are going through, the author also sprinkles in some shockingly simple but apt comparisons that I found incredibly insightful and helpful. In this way, the book speaks not only to an “own experience” reader looking to see themselves and their challenges on the page, but also as a perfect portal for friends and family to understand a bit better what could be going on. As Kate said, Shusterman is careful to never imply that this is by any means a road map for all mental health experiences and that even any given diagnosis is not the same for every individual experiencing it.

It is clear that Shusterman was writing from a very real place, having been the parent of a teenage boy who struggled with mental health. His son not only provided insights to help direct the creation of this story, but there are also images sprinkled throughout the story that Shusterman’s son drew in the midst of his own crisis. Every time a new image appeared, I found myself taking quite a bit of time looking at it. Most were unclear, scribble-like creations that, while not clearly depicting a scene or object, spoke quite strongly to the swirl of emotions that its creator felt. Caden’s own art and his use of it to not only express himself but what he sees in others was also a great lens through which to read his experiences. His family and friends first begin to note changes in him by the changes in his art, and Caden uses his artistic ability to get at deep truths of the other teens he meets who have their own struggles.

I absolutely adored this story, and it was a great start to our new season of bookclub!

Kate’s Rating 8: A thoughtful and personal book that sensitively and carefully addresses mental illness, “Challenger Deep” is a poignant and important read for all ages.

Serena’s Rating 8: Shusterman masterfully tackles a complex and sensitive subject, creating a masterwork that will strike chords with not only those who have experienced mental illness, but by anyone who has been touched by it in their lives.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the two narratives in this book, Caden’s reality and his time on Challenger Deep? Did you enjoy both of them, or prefer one over the other?
  2. What does “Challenger Deep” mean in this story? What parts of that narrative could you see in Caden’s ‘reality’, and in what ways did they manifest?
  3. What did you think about the drawings throughout the book? Do you think that they added to the story? Why or why not?
  4. Would you recommend this book to teens who are struggling with mental health issues? Why or why not? If not, who would you recommend this book to?
  5. By the time the story is wrapping up, it becomes clear that Caden isn’t going to have the same friends in his life coming out of his experience as he did coming in? What did you think of this? Do you think it’s realistic?

Reader’s Advisory

“Challenger Deep” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Including Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”, and “YA “Brain” Novels”.

Find “Challenger Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds