Kate’s Review: “The Deceivers”

39863259Book: “The Deceivers” by Kristen Simmons

Publishing info: Tor Teen, February 2019

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

Book Description:Pretty Little Liars meets Ocean’s 11 in this intrigue-filled contemporary drama from acclaimed author Kristen Simmons.

Welcome to Vale Hall, the school for aspiring con artists.

When Brynn Hilder is recruited to Vale, it seems like the elite academy is her chance to start over, away from her mom’s loser boyfriend and her rundown neighborhood. But she soon learns that Vale chooses students not so much for their scholastic talent as for their extracurricular activities, such as her time spent conning rich North Shore kids out of their extravagant allowances.

At first, Brynn jumps at the chance to help the school in its mission to rid the city of corrupt officials–because what could be better than giving entitled jerks what they deserve? But that’s before she meets her mark–a senator’s son–and before she discovers the school’s headmaster has secrets he’ll stop at nothing to protect. As the lines between right and wrong blur, Brynn begins to realize she’s in way over head.

Review: Thank you to Tor Books for sending me an ARC of this novel!

One of my husband’s favorite movies is “The Sting”, the classic grifter feature in which Robert Redford and Paul Newman run an elaborate con job on Robert Shaw. While I am more than happy to indulge the guy on watching an old favorite every once in awhile (lord knows he has to sit through “Purple Rain” every so often), the ‘con artist’ trope isn’t one of my favorites. So when I got an ARC of “The Deceivers” by Kristen Simmons I was a little bit hesitant. But when I saw that it takes place at an ELITE BOARDING SCHOOL for special kids (aka budding con artists), my interest had officially been piqued. Bring on the sudsy drama of boarding school brats compounded with the promise of back stabbing. That’s all in the game when it comes to con artists, right? So while “The Deceivers” was out of my wheelhouse, I was more willing to give it a go.

The first thing that struck a chord with me in this book was our protagonist, Brynn. Brynn is cut from a similar cloth to a number of YA heroines; she’s snarky, she’s scrappy, and she comes from a troubled background that has solidly placed a chip on her shoulder. Her father was murdered while working at his convenience store job, and Brynn’s mother has bounced from lout to lout ever since, leaving Brynn in a precarious, and sometimes outright dangerous, position. But through it all Brynn maintains her composure and never treads into overused plot points of devices. I like that she feels like a realistic teenage girl in a world that isn’t exactly smacking with realism, and her need to escape from this life strikes the right chords. Her motivations are clear, and while she is something of a fish out of water at Vale Academy (aka the boarding school for budding con artists, more on that whole thing in a bit), her character growth is believable and interesting.

And while the plot is based in a theme that isn’t usually my cup of tea, I did find the meat of the plot and the cogs within pretty entertaining. While Vale Academy itself feels little under cooked as of now, this is a series and there is a lot of room to grow and to bring the school history to a closer focus. There were also a good deal of plot twists that did take me by surprise, and I felt like the most important ones worked very well, especially when they changed the game and turned Brynn’s perceptions (as well as the reader’s) on their heads.

But that said, there were a number of moments and devices that didn’t quite come to fruition in satisfactory ways. Brynn went from potentially stumbling into a new educational setting with no guarantee of admission, to having the deal in the bag already without much reasoning beyond ‘because she needs to be here for the story to work’. There were moments and characters who felt like they could have had more focus on them, or at least more exploration and elaboration. On top of that, this book was nearly four hundred pages long, which felt a bit too long for the story in itself. There were repetitive aspects to the plot, mostly regarding whether or not Brynn could trust any given person at any given time, and the ultimate backstabbing that would come of that. I felt like had this been parsed down a bit more and tightened up, the plot wouldn’t have seemed to drag on as much as it did. And as I mentioned above, Vale Academy itself is still a very vague idea by the end of this book. In other books with magical and/or questionable boarding schools that I have enjoyed I’ve gotten a good feel for what the school as an institution stands for, and what the stakes are in regards to that school. But here, Vale Academy feels less like an actual place, but more of an excuse for these teenagers to be trying to trick, con, and manipulate people. Whether or not this will expand in later books, I can’t be sure, but I think that it will have to if it wants to stand out.

Overall, “The Deceivers” had a fun main character and some good twists and turns, but it dragged on a little longer than it could have. People who do like con artist stories may be more receptive to the premise than I was.

Rating 6: With a strong protagonist, “The Deceivers” has a lot of potential, but felt a bit scattered and unfocused, and a little too long.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Deceivers” is new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Popular Caper Heist Books”.

Find “The Deceivers” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Crown of Feathers”

35715518Book: “Crown of Feather” by Nicki Pau Preto

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: I had a sister, once…

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I promised her the throne would not come between us.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

Sometimes the title of queen is given. Sometimes it must be taken.

Review: As I mentioned in the Highlights post for this book, I was pretty excited about this one purely based on the phoenixes. While I love me some dragons, there have been approximately a million and a half books written about them, often including dragon riders as well, over the last several years. Obviously this has always been an appealing topic to writers and readers alike, but I have to think a certain HBO show has also had a hand in the sheer explosion of dragon books we’ve seen. But, all of that said, there are a lot more fantastical beasts out there to feature in books, so I was thrilled when I saw this cover and read the description that features riders not of dragons but of phoenixes! Add in some sister drama, and it sounded like it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, while there were a lot of good elements included, it fell a bit flat for me.

Veronyka and her older sister have been living a vagrant life almost since Veronyka can remember. And all that has kept them going has been their shared dream of finding phoenix eggs and bringing back the famed Phoenix Riders who have faded almost into myth in the midst of civil war. But when things go wrong, Veronyka finds herself alone with this dream, hiding her identity from those around her. And, of course, there is much more going on than what there seems. What is the truth behind Veronyka and her sister’s strange family history? And what role will they each play in building a new future?

Most of what I liked about this book had to do with the world-building, and, of course, the entire concept of an organization of phoenix riders. Yes, there is a lot of cross-over between this and what we’ve seen from similar dragon rider books, but the unique attributes of phoenixes (notably their regenerative proprieties) adds a new layer of intrigued to how these great birds would operate with their partners. I also liked the complicated relationship laid out between Veronyka and her sister. From the very beginning, we see the tension that lies between them. There is love, but its always tinged with just a bit more. Sometimes jealousy, sometimes anger, sometimes suspicion. As the book plays out, this relationship becomes even more important to the story, and while I was able to guess at the reveal in the end, it was still a pretty interesting concept and a great set-up for the next book.

But beyond those things, I simply had a hard time getting into this book. I was never able to slip fully into the experience and instead the process of reading it began to feel like a chore. I think there were probably a few reasons for this.

One, there is a lot of info-dumping in the first quarter to a third of the book. The story alternates between Veronyka and another character, and between the two of them, they almost end up repeating the exact same historical and cultural lessons back to back. Information provided by one character will be almost directly repeated by the other, but with a few changes in perspectives (but by no means enough to justify the repeated dump). Not only was the repetition annoying, but info-dumping on its own is always a quick way to kick me out of a reading experience. Most of this information could have been sprinkled throughout and come up in more natural ways.

Second, the story drags. There are blips of exciting action only to be followed with long chunks of very slow plot movement. The story probably could have been significantly shorter and be better for it.

Third, the characters on their own weren’t all that interesting. While I did like the complicated sisterly relationship, that aspect of the characters’ relationships would often fall to the side. And when left with Veronyka herself and the other male character, Sev, I was often simply bored. Which is really saying something, given how much I typically enjoy girls-disguised-as-boys stories.  They both simply felt pretty flat. I was also not terribly interested in the romance included in the story.

So, while the book had a lot of good things going for it (world-building, unique fantasy elements, a diverse cast of characters), I have to ding it down a few ratings simply because I didn’t enjoy reading it. And really, at its heart, that’s my main requirement for a book! Readers who have more patience than me and who are looking for a YA fantasy novel that is still pretty awesome with its handling of phoenixes, this may be the book for you! Just wasn’t for me, sadly.

Rating 6: Info-dumping and a floundering plot bogged down this book despite the cool factor that comes with having a story about girls riding around on phoenixes!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crown of Feathers” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy / Sci-fi Books With POC Leads” and “Fiction: Phoenix (Mythological Bird).”

Find “Crown of Feathers” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Caged Queen”

35843937Book: “The Caged Queen” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2018

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

Book Description: Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished—until the day a terrible accident took Essie’s life and trapped her soul in this world.

Dax—the heir to Firgaard’s throne—was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa’s people had suffered.

Roa made him a deal: she’d give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard’s rule.

Then a chance arises to right every wrong—an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.

All she has to do is kill the king.

Previously Reviewed: “The Last Namsara”

Review: As promised, I decided to give the second book in this series (more of a companion novel) a go even though I struggled through the first. That one had enough cool factors with its world-building, history, and, of course, dragons to push past my ultimate dislike of its main character. I also liked the small scenes we got for Roa in that book and was curious to see how she would be handled as a main character. Alas, I’ve now come to the conclusion that while this author has some great ideas for stories and fantasy worlds, I simply can’t stand her characters, especially when they take on a POV role.

Roa is a reluctant queen, having involved herself in the political corruption and upheaval that we read through Asha’s eyes in the first book through marriage to the heir to the throne, Dax. Doing this, not only helped secure Dax the throne, but also secured an alliance that would see peace and prosperity for her own people, often at odds with the greater realm. But she has her own history with Dax, as well, and one that has not lead her to look upon him kindly. Now, caught up once again in political maneuverings, Roa is offered a way out: kill her husband, the king.

Frankly, I feel like I could almost copy and paste my review for “The Last Namsara” into this post, make a few edits for name changes, remove the dragons and that about covers it. The strengths and weaknesses were so identical between the two! Again, the world-building, magical elements, and folktales/history that are scattered throughout the story are what stand out. It’s in these elements that we see what a strong writer the author is. Again, the fables that we hear throughout the story, and that serve as a parallel to the choices presented to Roa, are told with a beautiful, simple lyrical style that I greatly enjoyed. Really, if Ciccarelli wanted to produce a small collection of short stories and fables set in this world, I’d be all over it! She clearly has a knack for story-telling itself as an art.

Also, while we sadly had many fewer dragons in this book, I liked the other fantasy elements introduced. Most notably, Roa’s connection to her deceased sister whose spirit has been trapped in this world and who has been a steady companion for Roa for the last several years. Again, this element of Roa’s story connects to the same fables that we’re given early on in the book in very clever ways. There’s some decent exploration of loss, love, and determination in the face of impossible odds that come into play through this story line.

But, again, the characters and romance are where this story falters. In the first book, Roa is introduced as a mature, serious character. One who, of all of them, is living in the real world and is willing to make hard choices to secure an outcome that is for the betterment of her people. While Dax and Asha flit around, ruled by their emotions and indecisive to the extreme, Roa seemed to be the steadying presence that held it all together. But here…what happened to that character? In the very first chapter, we find Roa literally running away from her problems. Easily anticipated struggles of a politically arranged marriage seem to have now taken her completely by surprise, and she’s full of complaints, regrets, and indecision, all expressed through what can only be described as immature whining. Her dead, bird sister even criticizes her for it! And really, of those two, who has more of a right to complain?

And these traits continue throughout the story. Gone is the competent, mature Roa we were given in the first book. Instead, we have an insecure, indecisive character who gets herself caught up in *sigh* a love triangle where all the “challenges” presented her could be solved with one simple attempt at communication. I wouldn’t enjoy this character had I come upon her completely fresh, but it was twice as frustrating to read her this way, after being given such a different, more intriguing version of the character in the first book. What’s more, many of these struggles and character flaws are identical to the problems I had with Asha, making the characters now read as very similar people. Sure, they had different struggles and histories, but swap that out and leave the voices and ways they deal with things? You wouldn’t be able to differentiate. And when that happens, I’m forced to conclude that the author simply struggles with characterization as a whole and is stuck in her own writing hole (that, or has bought into the false idea that indecisive, whiny teen girls are the only type of protagonists YA readers are into).

Ultimately, I disliked this book even more than the first one. Some of the fantasy elements (the dragons) that helped buoy that book were more absent here, and Roa wasn’t simply a let down as a character, but a complete reversal on what we had been promised. I think there’s a third book set to be released as a companion to these two, but at this point, I feel like I’ve already read it anyways, so why bother.

Rating 4: All the same problems of the first, if even more disappointing for now being repetitive problems.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Caged Queen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 – Sequels.”

Find “The Caged Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Markswoman”

35008759Book: “Markswoman” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2018

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

Book Description: Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.

When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.

Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

Review: As I was scrolling through upcoming releases, I happened upon a book that seemed intriguing. Once I looked into it a bit further, I realized that it was in fact a sequel to this book that came out last year and somehow missed my radar. Mission in hand, I set off to the library and was able to snag an aubiobook version of the story. I knew from a few other book reviewers I follow that this was a fairly popular title last year, so I had high hopes. Sadly, the hype machine let me down once again.

Ever since tragedy struck her village and family when she was young, Kyra has been raised by an order of all-female assassins, training to become a Markswoman herself. In this land, Markswomen (and the one order of men to also take on this calling, though there is much controversy over the legitimacy of their claim) are the sole arbitrators of justice, doling out death sentences when crimes have been committed. To do this, they use specially crafted blades that they have bonded with and hold unique powers. But soon after Kyra gains her role as  Markswoman, things go wrong in her order and she finds herself alone in the world and on the run from her own kind. She meets up with a young man from the male version of the assassin order, and together they must face the growing strife overtaking the land.

There is a lot to like about this story, and I can understand why it was popular for so many readers. Most notably, the world-building is incredibly unique. The story appears to be set in some version of India and there are various references to gods that come from the Hindu religion, most notably, Kali, the Markswoman’s patron goddess of death. But on top of this fantasy version of the region, we’re also quickly given hints to an even greater past. There are references to ancient beings who once walked the earth but retreated to the skies long ago. However, they left a series of doorways that operate using some type of technology that is not understood and that can quickly transport an individual from one place to another. This science fiction element was completely unexpected and probably one of the most intriguing aspects of the entire series. I was much more interested in the history of this world and this technology than in Kyra’s story itself, which, of course, is ultimately one of my problems with the book.

Frankly, I didn’t much care for Kyra or Rustan, each coming with their own unique frustrations. We’ll start with Kyra. We meet her during her first assignment that marks her as a fully-fledged Markswoman. She immediately hits with the expected hesitation and moral questioning I’ve now come to (sadly) expect from many assassin stories. Once back at the Order, she continues to flounder in her role, being easily provoked by another girl who is still at an apprentice level to the point where Kyra walks right up to a line of behavior that would see her immediately expelled. Lastly, in a discussion with her mentor, she seems to still be confused by her own order’s purpose, wishing to use her newly-gained role to go on a revenge quest against the people who attacked her family all those years ago. All together, only a few chapters in, we’ve seen literally ZERO evidence that Kyra has the maturity, responsibility, or thoughtfulness to have earned her this promotion. She doesn’t seem to have engaged at all with the greater meaning and purpose behind her own order; she questions authority at every opportunity; she is easily pushed into poor decision making by peers who are now her lessers; she’s not even particularly skilled in any of her lessons. I came away from these chapters with literally no idea what had made Kyra special enough to have been granted an early promotion other than, of course, the necessity of it for plot purposes, the WORST kind of story structure. I found it incredibly frustrating and it ultimately irreparably damaged the character in my mind early in the book. Even when the action picks up to the point that some of these flaws fade into the background, the damage was done.

Rustan, too, has similar character issues. He’s given fewer chapters than Kyra from the get-go, leaving the character with an uphill battle. And, again, we see another assassin who is really pretty terrible at being an assassin. He ultimately spends much of the first half of the book fretting over events in a way that was both repetitive and useless. Not to mention, again, at odds with the basic concepts of any assassin order that one could imagine.

Then the two get together and the inevitable romance begins. Here, too, the book flounders and this element of the story falls into many tropes and pitfalls. We’re never given any solid reasons why these two are drawn together and really, it seems to happen over night and out of nowhere. What starts as an antagonistic relationship literally upends itself for no good reason. I’d be more mad about it if I wasn’t quite so bored by how predictable it all was.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. The world-building and story at the heart of it had so much potential. But this just made it all the more frustrating to see those things being squandered and buried beneath poor characterization and an aggressively trope-ridden romance. I had already requested the sequel book for review when I picked up this one (this is what I get for blindly trusting in the hype machine), so we’ll see how that one turns out. Hopefully improvements will be made!

Rating 5: Having a lot of good things going for it just made it all the more painful to watch this one stumble its way through.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Markswoman” is on these Goodreads lists: “South Asian YA/MG” and “Indian Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

Find “Markswoman” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Stalking Jack the Ripper”

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

Publishing Info: Jimmy Patterson, September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory: 

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

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

Kate’s Review: “Monday’s Not Coming”

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

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

 

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Cat”

176599Book: “Cat” (Fear Street #45) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Archway Paperbacks, 1997

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

Book Description: The cat came back…

Marty never liked the cat—it always got in the way at basketball practice. But he never meant to kill it.

Now Marty thinks he’s going crazy. He sees cats everywhere. He knows they want revenge.

Too bad Marty doesn’t have nine lives. Because his first one is almost over.

Had I Read This Before: No

The Plot: When we meet our protagonist Marty, right out the gate in the prologue he’s talking about how much he hates cats. So from the get go, I don’t trust him and/or despise him. I get that he’s allergic, but he also doesn’t like them because they are ‘evil looking’, and are always ‘slinking around’. But he assures us that he didn’t mean to KILL that cat even if it drove him crazy, and that he’s now paying for it.

We now jump into the story itself. Marty is on the Shadyside Tigers basketball team with his BFFs Dwayne and Barry, and Coach Griffin is being really hard of “The Three Musketeers” because they have a big game on Friday. Marty and his friends are the best players on the team, but Marty is the star, so much so that people will sit in the bleachers and watch him during practice, like Kit Morrisey, one of the prettiest girls in school and one that Marty is very obviously fixated on. Gayle Edgerton and Riki Crawford walk into the gym, which isn’t good for Marty because he went out with Riki and then ghosted her. Gayle is hoping to write a story for the school paper about Marty, Dwayne, and Barry, and how they’re best friends and star players, but before they can start the stray cat that has been living under the bleachers runs out and causes a Benny Hill-like chase scene. The cat has been supposedly living in the gym for awhile now, and to that I say ‘no way’. Stine tries to play if off as really clever and no one can catch it, and that the kids leave it food and water, but I’m telling you a live trap would do the trick so something’s going on. The chase the cat but then Coach Griffin tells them to knock it off and focus on practice. Marty is paranoid that Riki is telling Gayle all about the kind of prick he was after they went out, and is so distracted by this concern he doesn’t see the cat dart back in front of him. He trips and lands on his knee, injuring himself like a dummy. Coach Griffin says that he may not be able to play in Friday’s game, and Marty blames the cat. As his friends and Gayle and Riki help him to a seat, he tells them that he may not have actually gotten the basketball scholarship he claimed he got so he NEEDS to play (and tells Gayle she can’t write that in her story). They see the cat again, and the boys chase it up the bleachers with Gayle telling them to stop. Marty grabs it saying that this is all it’s fault, and the cat, being a cat, squirms and claws at his forehead. He stumbles towards the edge of the bleachers, and loses his balance. He drops the cat and grabs Dwayne’s hand, but the cat falls off the top and lands with a crack on the floor. Gayle proclaims that it’s dead and that Marty threw it off the bleachers, killing it. Marty protests that it was an accident (kind of like when the cat tripped you, you sonofabitch?!), but Dwayne thinks that now is the time to make jokes about ‘roadkill stew’. Gayle says that Marty is a monster, and Marty insists that he LOVES animals and that he didn’t mean to do it. All the while, Dwayne asks Gayle if she’d like to make a fur coat out of the cat and makes jokes like ‘cat got your tongue’, and MY. GOD. Riki tells Marty she thought she knew him, but she guesses not, and Marty says he isn’t sad the cat is dead but he didn’t kill it. Gayle says he won’t get away with this, and she and Riki run out of the gym. The boys toss the cat in the trash can.

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I can’t wait to watch you three fucks burn for this. (source)

At school the next day Marty is instantly shunned and snubbed by his classmates and even his teachers! Gayle has worked her magic and I am living for it. Everyone knows that he killed the cat and now he’s Public Enemy Number 1. He complains to Dwayne and Barry that Gayle as gone too far, and Dwayne continues to make nasty cat jokes. They inform Marty that Gayle is the president of the Animal Rights Club at school, and they all figure that she’s probably seen an uptick in membership because of this. Gayle even goes so far as to make flyers with his face on them as well as mutilated animals, and that may be a bit much. Marty finds Gayle and says that he thought they were friends, and Gayle informs him that they sure aren’t anymore and that he’ll be hearing from her soon. Riki tells Marty to cool it and to focus on getting his knee better for the game next week, and ALSO tells him that she DOES think he killed the cat but the playoffs are more important, so he needs to play. Marty gets so riled up at her continued berating that his scratch wound opens and he starts bleeding. After he cleans himself up he is confronted by Coach Griffin, who says that he believes that he didn’t mean to kill the cat, but that if the papers find out about this it will be a BIG problem for Marty and the team. He tells Marty to face the Animal Rights Club’s charges against him in front of the Student Court. The problem with this is that it’s packed with Gayle’s friends, so Marty doesn’t think that he will get a fair shake and that none of this is his fault. I think that someone needs to explain to Marty Intent vs Impact.

At the Student Court in the gym things seem far more official than I imagine the Discipline Committee at my high school ever was (though I never had to stand before them; my detentions were sentences that didn’t stem from a day in court). Dwayne and Barry testify, as do Riki and Gayle, and Marty thinks that Gayle is perjuring herself when she says he threw the cat over the side but you did, Blanche, you did! The ‘attorney’ for the Animal Rights Council, Jessica, asks him if he did or did not say he was going to ‘get rid of’ the cat, and he can’t deny that. But somehow he’s still found not guilty for the murder of the cat, yet guilty for animal cruelty. He’s sentenced to 30 hours of community service at the animal shelter, and I’m not sure that this is at all enforceable, but it does seem like a fair sentence. Marty is pissed, and then is horrified when he sees the cat under the bleachers, staring at him! He tells everyone that the cat is alive after all, but they don’t see the cat and tell him that he isn’t funny.

Marty is sitting on the sidelines at practice working on homework, when Jessica sits next to him. She tells him that being the prosecutor for Student Court was something she had to do for a class, and she didn’t actually want to get him into trouble. They talk and flirt, but Marty notices Riki staring at them. When they call to her she leaves, and Jessica asks what HER problem is. After practice ends she leaves, and Marty tries to study but hears cat noises. It might have been the girls behind him, but was it really? Coach tells him that he will try and get his sentence reduced, but Marty says that he should serve all of it. That night at home Marty gets a phone call, and it’s Riki, who is berating him for flirting with other girls when they aren’t even together. She saw him with Jessica, and knows that he has a thing for Kit as well. He tells her he’s sorry that it didn’t work out between them, and she yells some more and why is she still so invested in this guy who killed a cat? Get better taste!

The next night Marty goes the the basketball game. He’s benched because of his knee, but that doesn’t stop the other team from meowing at him. Eventually he and Jessica talk and she asks if he’s actually dating a girl named Lisa, and he tells her no, and she’s happy to hear it. She also tells him that once Gayle’s rally is done things will probably calm down, but he didn’t do himself any favors when he claimed he saw the cat. He insists that he DID see the cat though. That night Marty is hanging out in his room when he hears to cats yowling and fighting outside his window. He then hears a clatter against the glass, but it’s just Dwayne and Barry, the creeps. Marty climbs out his window and they tell him they’re going to The Corner, a hot hang out spot for Shadyside teens, and THE HELL IT IS! I’ve never heard of this place! If it isn’t Red Heat or Pete’s Pizza it’s NOT a hot spot. Dwayne and Barry also have questions about his cat related freak out at Student Court. Marty tells them that he saw the cat, but they are skeptical… Until they are all walking home, and a cat drops from a tree on top of Barry’s head!!! He manages to get away from it, and asks Marty if it was the cat, and Dwayne says it CAN’T be, but bitches, you are in Shadyside, it absolutely CAN be.

The next day Marty starts his community service at the animal shelter. His supervisor, Carolyn, tells him to sweep the floors and feed the animals, and call her if any animals seem to be ill or sick. As he’s sweeping, however, the animals start freaking out at him because they KNOW he’s no good. He calls Carolyn to come back and help him, but of course, when she arrives they have stopped.

At school on Monday Marty tells his idiot friends about this and they don’t really know what to say. A bigger development, however, is that Kit Morrissey, back in school after a bout with the Flu, now has HER eyes set on Marty. She asks him what happened to his knee, and he keeps things close to the vest regarding his animal cruelty and just says he hurt it at practice. They hang out at The Corner (STOP TRYING TO MAKE THE CORNER HAPPEN) and have a wonderful time together. Marty notices Riki sitting in a back booth and glaring at them both, but who cares? He accompanies Kit back to her house, but when he walks inside he sees a LOT of cats.

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Kit in 60 years from now. (source)

She says that they are all hers, and that they’re freaking out because they’re hungry. Marty knows better, and bolts.

FOR SOME REASON, Marty, Dwayne, and Barry think that stealing a bunch of rats from the biology lab and setting them loose on the Animal Rights Club is a really good way to show that Marty has been unfairly maligned. Gayle says that she’s going to get them for this, and Marty is unfazed. He has another date with Kit that day and she LOVES this prank. They hang out some more, and even arrange a date for that weekend, and Kit kisses him when he drops her off. He isn’t interested in Jessica anymore because Kit has all of his thoughts. But as he’s walking home he realizes that he’s being followed by a bunch of cats. He makes a break for it, and while they chase him and do manage to get a few swipes in, they disappear pretty fast.

Things are going fine for Marty. He and his dick friends didn’t get in trouble for the rats, and while Jessica and Riki are still mad at him that’s okay because he’s with Kit now. And even though he still gets the occasional midnight phone call with a cat meowing on the line, things could be worse! He’s even back to playing on the team, and they win a huge game! Everyone celebrates in the locker room but then they go their separate ways, and Marty is driving home when he remembers he left his books in his gym locker. So he goes back to the school, and sees Gayle sprinting across the parking lot. He goes into the dark gym, and fumbles for the light…. but when the lights come on he sees Dwayne!!! He’s dead, and it looks like he’s been clawed to death! It’s then that Marty hears another disembodied meow!

Barry thinks that Gayle is the one who killed Dwayne, but Marty knows that it had to be a cat. Kit is very understanding and empathetic, and says to call her if he needs her, even if it’s just to talk. Marty knows that he has to confront Gayle, so he goes to her house. But when she opens the door she bursts into tears. She apologizes for how she’s been acting, and says she feels so awful that he found his best friend’s body like that. He asks her why she was running from the school that night, and she explains that she had been training for gymnastics and forgot about a babysitting job she was late for. She says that if she hadn’t been in such a rush maybe she would have seen who killed Dwayne.

After the funeral Coach Griffin gives the team armbands to wear in honor of Dwayne. Marty isn’t sure that he will be as good now that Dwayne is gone, but Barry says Dwayne would have wanted them to do their best. The team promises to play as hard as they can for Dwayne. Gayle, Riki, and other kids watch them practice, amped for the big games, and once practice is over Barry asks if Marty wants to study with him, but he has a shift at the animal shelter and says he’ll come by after. Barry asks for a ride home, and Marty says sure, but hurry up. He waits for awhile but Barry doesn’t leave the gym. Marty goes back to look for him, and is worried that he’s going to find Barry dead next, but nope, Barry is preoccupied with Riki, as Marty walks in on them making out. Marty, relieved that Barry is alive AND that Riki has moved on, heads off for his shift.

Carolyn tells Marty that the new big dog, Brutus, isn’t to be trifled with because he’s violent and is going to be put to sleep. Marty is more than happy to do that, but as he’s cleaning up he realizes that he’s slowly being surrounded by cats. Someone has let them out of their cages, and they are poised to attack him. As he tries to defend himself with his broom, Carolyn walks in and all SHE sees is an animal abuser abusing more animals. She tells him to go with her to her office, and explains that she understands that he’s been through a shock, but it had to have been HIM who opened the cages. She tells him that he can come back when he feels better. So Marty goes to Barry’s house for their study session, and the door is open so he walks in. But wouldn’t you know it? Barry and Riki are in the middle of a heavy petting session instead. Marty tells them about what happened at the shelter, and they think that he’s losing it too. A nosy neighbor walks into the room, having seen the open front door, but Marty and Barry say everything is fine.

The next morning Marty is awakened by his mother, who has been crying. She tells him to come downstairs because there are cops in the living room that need to speak with him. Marty puts on some clothes, and walks to the living room. The cops tell him that Barry is dead, that he’s been clawed to pieces, AND that the nosy neighbor said that Marty was acting weird. The cops also bring up the fact that Marty killed a cat AND that he was the one to discover Dwayne’s body. But they also concede that Riki says that Marty left before she did, and that when she called Barry that night around 11:30 he was still alive, so really it seems like questioning Marty when he has an alibi is a big ol’ waste of time. They also mention that Marty had told Riki and Barry that the door was open when he arrived, but Riki swears that it was locked behind her. So perhaps the killer was in the house!!!!

School is cancelled that day, and Marty takes Kit up on her ‘call me if you need me’ offer. She is also devastated and says that if everyone was just nicer to each other things would be okay. He says that he can’t believe this all started because of the stupid cat that they all were complicit in killing (I may be embellishing his train of thought). At practice the next day Marty says that he doesn’t know if he can play with his best friends horrifically murdered, but after the team has a meeting they all decide to play for both Barry and Dwayne. Marty, overwhelmed with emotions, leaves the meeting, and runs into Gayle and Riki. They point out that two of the three Musketeers have been murdered, and Marty is the only one who is left. Does he think he could be next?

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Pretty much since he saw the cat at the Student Court, Gayle. (source)

Deciding that he needs to take his mind off of his imminent mortality, Marty goes to the shelter to burn some more community service hours. Carolyn is surprised to see him, but says that he can sweep up. She also informs him that Brutus the Evil Dog may have a stay of execution, because someone who wants a vicious guard dog may be buying him to guard his store. HOW RESPONSIBLE, I don’t see anything going wrong with that decision. Carolyn leaves and Marty starts to sweep, but, of course, the cats start freaking out. Marty calls out, asking if someone is there. And lo and behold, there is. It’s Kit! He says that he’s glad to see her and asks why she’s there, and she tells him that it’s his ‘turn’. She then raises her hand and the animals stop. She reveals to him that he killed her, and that his friends laughed. Because KIT is THE CAT! She is a shapeshifter, one of the few shapeshifters left on Earth, and that she would shift into a cat to watch him play basketball because she liked him so much, and he killed her!!! She explains that she has nine lives, natch, and that’s why she was able to come back after he killed her. Marty thinks that Kit is nuts, but then she turns into her cat form and attacks him.

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Why do you need to turn into a cat to watch him? What is the shapeshifter mythology? How as a cat do you claw teenage boys to death when before you were easily tossed over the bleachers? WTF IS THIS NONSENSE!? (source)

After Kit gets some good swipes in Marty is bleeding and dazed, but then when pulling himself up with the dog cage he sees Brutus. He lets Brutus out, and Brutus does the dirty work for him and snaps Kit’s neck in his teeth. Marty passes out.

The doctor gets him all stitched up and Marty just contends it was a cat. He doesn’t mention shapeshifters to his parents. Riki calls him after he gets home and after they talk awhile NOW Marty decides that she’s ‘terrific’. The big basketball tournament is that Friday and Marty starts out strong. But then he sees glowing eyes under the bleachers, and sees The Cat. With blood stained paws. Marty begins to scream. The End.

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The cat came back the very next day…. (source)

Body Count: I guess three, since the Cat and Kit are one and the same.

Romance Rating: 3, only because Barry and Riki had a good thing going there before he bit the dust.

Bonkers Rating: 7. Because SHAPESHIFTERS NOW?!

Fear Street Relevance: 3. Sure, Marty lives on Fear Street, but that was barely touched upon.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“Squinting hard, my eyes fell on a crumpled, still form at half court.

Oh no… not again! my mind screamed. ‘Nooooo!'”

… And then it’s just Barry’s green backpack!!! How did he mistake that for a body!?

That’s So Dated! Moments: It is said that Barry looks like ‘the dude that plays Superman on television’, and Stine HAS to be talking about Dean Cain, right?!

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When it comes to Superman I accept no substitutes. (source)

Best Quote:

“‘You idiot,’ Gayle sneered. ‘Rats are vermin. Cats are beautiful, sensitive animals.'”

Hear hear!!! A girl after my own cat loving heart!

Conclusion: While I had high hopes for “Cat” given the subject matter, I found it to be lacking on the suspense and then REALLY out of left field with the ultimate conclusion. That said, if you like cats and like hearing about them stalking dumb boys, give in a whirl. Next up is “Fear Hall: The Beginning”!