Brief History and Introduction of the Great Animorphs Re-Read

57d47ba9fda568c6c4e116765cf305a8

2016 was the year I entered my 30th year of life. And with this milestone comes the right to now wax nostalgic about my own childhood. (Don’t ask who made up the rules! *coughmecough*). For me, book nostalgia cannot be discussed with out talking about K. A. Applegate’s series “The Animorphs.” It is also fitting that 2016 was the 20th anniversary of the first book’s publication in 1996. So with these justifications backing me up, I introduce the Great Animorphs Re-Read where, every other Friday, I will review each book in this long, long series. Be ready, people.

A little background about this series: “The Animorphs” was a middle grade science fiction series that was released monthly between the years 1996 and 2001. You do the math on that one! Needless to say, there are a lot of these books, including several branch-off books that serve as back stories and accompaniments to the regular run of books. To keep with this schedule, Applegate co-wrote the series with her husband Michael Grant (a young adult author in his own right), and, later in the series’ run, many of the books were ghost written (to their detriment, as I remember).

Each book is told from first person perspective from one of the Animorphs, 6 teens whose age we never really discover, though I’m guessing they start off at around 13. The series is cleverly set up in  a way that allows kid readers to imagine the story taking place in their own hometown, USA, with no direct references to town names or even the full names of the kids themselves. The five kids, and later their teen alien buddy, are given the power to change into any animal for 2 hours. With this ability, they are tasked with saving the world from a group of evil, alien parasites called Yeerks who take over the body of other lifeforms in their ongoing campaign to, essentially, conquer the universe. And Earth is next! Dun dun dun.

The series was released in what I would call the “pre Harry Potter” era of children’s publishing when it was thought that young readers would not be willing to read longer novels. Like its contemporaries, (“Goosebumps,” “Baby Sitters Club,” “Fear Street,” etc.), each book was only given around 150 pages with which to work. Unlike many of these series, however, “The Animorphs” did contain many serialized elements that encouraged, if not required, readers to read the books in order.

“The Animorphs” reached a peak in popularity in 1998 when it was picked up by Nickelodeon for a short-lived television series. It was pretty awful, if my memory serves. We will see how engrossed I become in this re-read to determine whether I want to subject myself to experiencing those episodes again!

As each book is so short, I won’t be doing a traditional review for each book. Instead, I’ll include a brief plot synopsis and then break up my review into sections based on some of the re-occurring themes of the books or just whatever amuses me! (Think section titles like “Couples Watch” where I will focus on all the tween romance found in these books! Or “Body Horror” where I come to realize how truly disgusting some of these descriptions are that I didn’t remember at all!)

These books were my all-time favorite series up until the release of Harry Potter, and I loyally saved up my allowance every month to purchase the $5 copy at my local bookstore. So, yes, I do still own all of them, though they now live in a box in storage rather than taking up so, so many shelves on my book shelf at home. But now it seems it is time to pull them out, dust them off, and see how these books hold up in the harsh light of 2017 and supposed adulthood! Look for my first post where I review #1 “The Invasion” next Friday, and then the remaining books on alternating Fridays going forward!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Scarlet”

11983940Book: “Scarlet” by A. C. Caughen

Publishing Info: Walker Childrens, February 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it from the library’s weeding cart!

Book Description: Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets – skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood’s band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know…that she is posing as a thief; that the slip of a boy who is fast with sharp knives is really a girl.

The terrible events in her past that led Scarlet to hide her real identity are in danger of being exposed when the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men once and for all. As Gisbourne closes in a put innocent lives at risk, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more – making this a fight worth dying for.

Review: I found this one on the weeded cart at my local library and snatched it up right quick! I love Robin Hood re-tellings, and this one has gotten quite a bit of positive attention in the last few years. (I only discovered after finishing it that it is the first in a trilogy. *Sigh* Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to find a nice, simple stand-alone novel in YA fiction!) The book description gives a good summary for the book and didn’t lead me astray, both with the positive aspects of the book (a female Will Scarlet!) and the negative aspects (a love triangle!).

In the positive arena, Scarlet is a strong protagonist for the story. The book is written from her perspective and the author made an interesting choice to word Scarlet’s narrative using the unique dialect in which Scarlet talks. I can’t speak to how historically accurate it may be, but it did align with what we traditionally think of as a “British commoner” dialect, substituting “were” for “was” and other, similar changes. At first I was put off by this, even quickly skimming further in the book to see if ever changed, but after discovering that it did not and reading on for a few more chapters, I found that I actually appreciated the added layer this writing style gave the story. Readers’ mileage may vary on this point, as it still was a bit jarring to get used to.

Further, towards the back half of the book, I did have a few questions about the authenticity of this choice given Scarlet’s own history. Some of this history was fairly easy to guess and I’m sure many readers will be looking for this outcome from the start, but there were a few added elements to the tale that added some unexpected twists to what was, largely, an expected reveal.

From the get go, I appreciated Scarlet’s spunk and often brass approach to life as an outlaw. She doesn’t let herself be pushed around by the men in her life, and from the very beginning, we are shown that she has the skills to backup her talk. Further, Scarlet discusses the challenges she went through to gain those skills as well, referencing her scarred hands that came from learning to wield her knives. Too often in YA lit readers are simply told that the heroine is a badass, but given very little evidence to back up this claim. Further, any attributes that they do have seem to just appear from nowhere ala “maybe she was born with it!” Not so with Scarlet.

Alas, there were also negatives to this story, both a few that were expected and a few unexpected. Firstly, yes, there is a love triangle between Scalet, John Little, and Rob and it is just as unfortunate as it sounds. As with many love triangles, the “true pairing” is projected from the beginning of the story, there is some event that pushes the heroine to fall into the arms of the second best option during a moment of weakness, “true pairing” dude finds out, much angst ensues, but in the end, in a complete and utter shocker to all, heroine ends up with “true pairing” guy anyways. There was absolutely nothing new in this set up.

The more unexpected negatives had to do with Rob himself. For the first half or so of the book, I really liked Rob, the author’s take on his history, and the relationship he had with his men and Scarlet. Then the love-triangle-angst-moment happened, he discovered Scarlet’s hidden past, and he went crazy saying horrible things and calling her a “whore” at one point. The whole scene and his reaction is so completely blown out of proportion that I had a hard time every getting back on board with him as a character. Love triangle confusion aside, Scarlet’s decision to keep her past a secret was completely her own to make and one that has been keeping her alive for years. She didn’t owe those around her anything more than she felt comfortable giving. His reaction to this choice is deplorable, as is the use of the word “whore.” Later in the book, he attempts to explain his maltreatment of Scarlet in these moments by saying something along the lines of “Don’t you understand? Hurting you was the best way to hurt myself!” Unpacking all the craziness in that statement is not worth my time. But all of this did add up to a very weak reaction on my part to Scarlet and Rob’s inevitable pairing at the end.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I loved Scarlet herself, and the added twists at the end of the story makes me curious to read more. However, I’m very much not on board with the current direction of her relationship with Rob, and, call me crazy, but not loving the Robin Hood character in a Robin Hood re-telling series seems like a recipe for disappointment as a reader.

Rating 5: A strong leading lady, but a predictable love triangle and rather horrid Robin Hood character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scarlet” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fictional Robin Hood” and “Kingdoms and heroines.”

Find “Scarlet” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

Serena’s Review “In the After”

12157407Book: “In the After” by Demitria Lunetta

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, June 2013

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

Book Description: They hear the most silent of footsteps.
They are faster than anything you’ve ever seen.
And They won’t stop chasing you…until you are dead.

Amy is watching TV when it happens, when the world is attacked by Them. These vile creatures are rapidly devouring mankind. Most of the population is overtaken, but Amy manages to escape—and even rescue “Baby,” a toddler left behind in the chaos. Marooned in Amy’s house, the girls do everything they can to survive—and avoid Them at all costs.

After years of hiding, they are miraculously rescued and taken to New Hope, a colony of survivors living in a former government research compound. While at first the colony seems like a dream with plenty of food, safety, and shelter, New Hope slowly reveals that it is far from ideal. And Amy soon realizes that unless things change, she’ll lose Baby—and much more.

Review: This is the kind of book that walks the line between Kate’s preferred genres and mine. There is definitely horror and suspense, but it’s also a post-apocalyptic story, the type which, especially in YA fiction, often falls under the all-encompassing “speculative fiction” category. Either way, it was a nice change from my usual reading, and while I can’t say that it was necessarily a “fun” read, its very lack of “fun” is what lends me to rating it more highly.

This book could easily be split into two separate books. The first is a fairly typical survival story. Strange creatures have invaded the earth and swiftly killed off the majority of the population. Our heroine, Amy, survives purely due to lucky circumstances (a fact that is refreshingly not glossed over), but over the course of years, she grows to become an expert at living in this new “After” world. There were several portions of this first part that I really enjoyed.

First is the inclusion of Baby, a toddler that Amy finds and adopts after the first month of devastation. These two’s relationship is key to the plot and it was so refreshingly new. All too often the primary relationships in these types of YA books are romantic. This, a sisterhood/parental relationship between a teenage girl who raises a toddler for several years alone, is completely unique. Further, I was very impressed with the author’s ability to portray Baby so completely. As a small child, it would have been very easy to simply gloss over her as an actual person while instead simply relying on general child attributes as fill-ins.

Second, the use of a substantial time jump is well executed. Through clever positioning of flashbacks, we see Amy’s journey through this new world and the events at each step that directed her ability to survive the many challenges of this new world, from how to survive the creatures themselves to how she evolved her approach to interacting with other survivors. Amy doesn’t just become a badass survivor out of nowhere. We see her mistakes and understand what lessons she had to learn to become who she is in the present day.

The second half of the book is a complete switch to what living in a community built in this post-apocalyptic world would be like. The horror, too, takes a sharp turn away from the monsters-in-the-night to what monsters humans can be. This part, while maybe slower than the first half, was even more horrifying to me. It was a strange reading experience because I was so frustrated, angry, and uncomfortable on Amy and Baby’s behalf throughout it all that I had a hard time enjoying reading it. In this section, you know that something awful is coming and you’re just watching these beloved characters walk towards their doom. (I wish I had read this book before we did our “Walking Dead Read Alikes” list as this would definitely have been included based purely on its similar exploration of the different ways that communities of people find to live in a world where society has fallen away.)

In the later half, there were a few twists that I felt were a bit expected. It’s definitely not a unique set up, but I don’t think that lessens the overall effect. It’s also a bit jarring to suddenly have many other characters introduced halfway through the story, and while I enjoyed many of them, I was sad to see Baby fading into the background a bit. However, I did enjoy most of these characters. I also appreciated the fact that what little romance is introduced in this part of the book is very light and never overpowers both the action/horror of the story or the primary relationship between Baby and Amy.

I also listened to this as an audiobook and I thought the reader did a very good job. Especially in the second half of the book, she made some clever choices with her general reading style that allows listeners to immediately identify flashback sequences from the other portions.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed this book and will be checking out the final book in the duology. I might need to give myself a break between the two as they are definitely not light reading, but I’ll be getting there soon, I hope. This book does end on a cliffhanger, fo sorts, so for anyone going into it, beware of that.

Rating 7: An intense ride with a unique primary relationship, though it did get a bit predictable towards the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“In the After” is included on these Goodreads lists: :Less Known Doulogies/Trilogies I Might Check Out” and “Strong Womances In YA.”

Find “In the After” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Ice”

6321845Book: “Ice” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.

Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back — if Cassie will agree to be his bride.

That is the beginning of Cassie’s own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her — until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.

Review: I recently read and liked “Conjured” by Sarah Beth Durst, and after putting together our list of favorite holiday reads that included a re-telling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I discovered the perfect combination of the two with “Ice!” Or…what I thought would be the perfect combination. Sigh.

The story starts out strong enough. I enjoyed the unique approach of setting the story in the modern world with Cassie and her father living in a research station in the Arctic. Cassie herself is introduced as a capable and intelligent protagonist. She conducts research herself and knows much about the Arctic environment and local wildlife. Enough to know that the polar bear tracks she’s seeing are much too large for the regular animals that roam the area.

Another plus has to do with some of the fairytale aspects and their interpretation in this story. The mythology and characters that were introduced were interesting and cleverly tied together, working well within the original fairytale mold while not feeling too tied down by it. The author struck a nice balance between incorporating these portions while also tying the story neatly into Intuit culture and folklore. I also enjoyed the more proactive role that Cassie originally takes in this tale> She makes a bargain of her own with Bear, insisting that she would only agree to marry him if she saved her mother. That said, this initial level of competence and independence on Cassie’s part only serves against the story later when she loses these exact traits in rather disturbing ways.

Most of the portions of the book that I enjoyed most arrived in the first half of the book, and I was pretty fully on board. But then…look, one of the main falling points for retellings of this story is giving the character of Bear a strong enough personality that he stands on his own and makes the slow-burn romance believable. And, while Bear does have somewhat of a personality, the story starts faltering right off that bat. Their relationship, one based on distrust and a forced situation, develops far too quickly to friendship and love. And while this is frustrating, it’s a familiar pitfall. But then…it’s the story takes a nosedive into “Breaking Dawn” territory with a forced pregnancy. Essentially, Bear magically deactivates Cassie’s birth control and then informs her of this after she’s three months pregnant. And from there on out the story just kind of died for me.

While Cassie is initially angry, she comes around to things way too easily. Bear as a romantic lead was killed for me, as this type of behavior is the epitome of abusive. Further, not only has Bear treated Cassie as the human equivalent of an incubator taking no consideration for her own choices about motherhood (she’s 18, remember!), but for the last half of the story, almost every other character she interacts with takes the same approach. Her decisions are constantly questioned with the worry that she’s “risking the baby” and it all gets to be too much. First, the fact that there is no concern expressed for Cassie herself, but only for the child, is saddening. And secondly, Cassie has already had the decision to be a parent taken out of her hands, but now her decisions for how to prioritize her life, protect those she loves, not just the baby, and operate as an individual are being questioned at every moment, as if she has no other purpose than to be pregnant. All of this was incredibly frustrating to read. And I could never get back on board with any romance between Cassie and Bear.

This was a very disappointing read for me. I have read other books by this author and really enjoyed them, so I had high expectations for this story. And the first half is so strong that it makes the large missteps of the latter half all the more frustrating for potential squandered. I really can’t recommend this book. There are much better re-tellings of this story, like “East,” the one I recommended in our “Holidays Favorites” post.

Rating 2: A strong start brought down by some really poor story decisions and an icky non-romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

Note: I don’t agree with this book’s deserving of being on these lists, quality-wise,  but hopefully there are some better ones to be found!

“Ice” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fairy Tale Retellings: Hidden Gems” and “Fractured Fairy Tales & Story Retellings.”

Find “Ice” at your library using WorldCat.

 

Kate’s Review: “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth”

28561926Book: “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Publishing Info: Random House, January 2017 (upcoming)

Where Did I Get This Book: An ARC through Random House (won on LibraryThing), for which I will give an honest review. Thank you, Random House and LibraryThing!

Book Description: In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

Review: I can hear it now. When “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is officially published, I’m going to bet that there are going to be people who grouse that it’s either unrealistic, or an unfair portrayal of teenagers. But let me tell you. I knew these kids in high school. I basically went to this high school, though mine was in the Midwest and not on the West Coast. I knew kids who were vicious and mean to those who were different to the point that it became sadistic. I knew kids who were under incredible pressure to get into good schools because it was expected of them, and that it nearly broke them. I knew kids with serious drug problems who were shielded by their wealthy parents and faced few repercussions, while kids from less advantaged backgrounds were facing expulsion for not having good enough grades. It wasn’t wealthy enough for “Cruel Intentions’… but it was a Minnesota version of ‘Cruel Intentions’.

giphy4
All Kathryn needs is a winter parka and a toque. (source)

Suffice to say, this book was kind of like a walk down memory lane, the only difference being that in MY day there was no social media to make things that much worse. Thank God. So yes. While it may not reflect the experiences of all teenagers, it sure reflects the experiences of some.

What struck me hardest about “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” was that, while it was kind of a soapy thriller grit lit novel in some ways, it really read more like a character study of a number of privileged kids, and who they turn into after one terrible, avoidable tragedy. I liked that we were given a framework, a moment that has changed the lives of a number of kids (some tragic, some sympathetic, many horrible), and we get to see how this moment has predetermined how they are going to end up, in a way. This character study is seen through the eyes of a new, young, teacher named Miss Nichols. I think that it was a good idea to have her be the thread throughout this novel, a Greek Chorus to tie all of these other stories together, to show how they connect to each other and how they affect each other. But at the same time, much of my frustration was aimed at Miss Nichols, whose decision making skills and naïveté were a bit hard to fathom at times. It was as if her desire to understand and sympathize with these kids was being punished, which felt pretty cynical. But at the same time, it was kind of refreshing that this wasn’t just another ‘how do I reach these kids?!’ kind of moment, and that these kids can’t be reached because they don’t want to be reached, and the world has convinced them that they don’t have to be. That said, GOSH I wanted to smack Miss Nichols upside the head a few times.

I was far more interested in the perspectives of the kids, because we did get to see how their various lives were being shaped and destroyed by parental coddling/expectations, their wealth, and their seeming ability to be completely untouchable. For me the two most interesting characters we examined were Abigail and Elisabeth, both struggling with their own problems of teenage girlhood. Abigail is an honors student striving for good grades so she can go to a good school, but she has also found herself tangled up in an illicit romance with a teacher, Mr. Ellison. But Abigail was also one of the main instigators of a horrendous bullying episode in eighth grade, whose participation and needling led to the overarching tragedy of the story, and the end of her most important friendship. It was pretty fascinating to get to see all these different angles of Abigail, and while I definitely felt terrible for her in some ways (she is, after all, being manipulated by a sexual predator), she is also absolutely terrible in other ways in how she treats others. Her multifaceted personality was realistic, and a bit more in depth than some of the other awful kids she surrounded herself with. Elisabeth, however, was a surprising character altogether. So much of what we saw of her at first was from the perspective of those around her, from a moment of compassion towards a bullied classmate (with a sad face emoji in the group chat he was being harassed on), to others, including adults, thinking of her as a beautiful girl who is a sex object to all the men and boys around her. But then we find out that her aloofness is hiding her painfully shy personality, and a troubled home life that has pushed her to dark places. Her perspective chapter was the one that hurt the most to read, but in turn she was also the student that I was rooting for the most. It was just so interesting that I as the reader went in with certain expectations about her based on what other characters said, only to find someone completely different, but only when I actually had to listen to/ read about her from her perspective. It was very well played.

So in all, this is an upsetting book, but I do think that there is quite a bit of truth to it. While it shows the dark and disturbing places that high schools, especially those with unlimited access to money and little consequences to their actions, it also shows that things do go on, and that life will keep going after it for those who just hang in there, and learn from their mistakes. And again, as someone who went to a school like this, I found it to be one of the most relatable books about teenagers that I’ve read this year.

Rating 8: An entertaining and addictive look into the dangers of privilege and how bad teenagers can be to each other, and how they can blindly hurt themselves as well.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is not on any lists on Goodreads yet, but I think that it would be a good fit on “The Best of Prep” and “High School Experiences”.

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is not out yet and not available on WorldCat. It is expected to be published on January 10th, 2017. Thanks again to Random House and LibraryThing for providing this ARC!

Serena’s Review: “The School of Good and Evil”

16248113Book: “The School of Good and Evil” by Soman Chainani

Publication Info: HarperCollins, May 2013

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

Book Description: The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

Review: This book seemed to hit a peak a few years ago with everyone raving about it, and finally now, years later, I’ve finally gotten to it. I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction, but this one, with its fun premises and, I’ll admit, very catchy cover seemed worth checking out!

This book is a bit tricky to review, now that I’m getting to it. I finished reading the book about a week ago and am only now writing the review. And that one week, I think, has made an impact on my opinion of the book. Either way, ultimately, I did very much enjoy the story. But with the extra time, I feel there are a few things that were a bit clunky and problematic about it.

I breezed through this story, guys. I mean, fast. Its biggest strengths are the exact things that particularly appeal to me: very creative world building, character-based stories, and a strong dash of wit. I loved all the ties to fairytales in this book, both the direct reference to Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast and others, as well the way it poked fun at the generalities of these stories. In the school of Good, princesses must learn how to speak to animals and wait patiently for their princes to save them. In the school of Evil, witches must learn how to curse household items like apples and hairpins and uglify themselves to scare off heroes and heroines. The schools and their history and connection to fairytales were so much fun. Much of it was parody, but parody with heart.

There were also a lot of great characters in this story, other than just Agatha and Sophie, who I’ll get to in a moment. There was Tedros, the most popular prince in school, and son of the famed Arthur and Guenevere who struggles with his mother’s legacy and its impact on his relationship with the women around him. Sophie’s witch roommates, Hester, Dot, and Anadil are each great, particularly Hester whose badassery knows no bounds. The teachers for both school reminded me a lot of the professors from the Harry Potter novels. They are all quirky and teach particular classes. This is one area of the story that I wish there had been more of. The few classroom scenes we had were some of my favorites in the whole story.

And then there are Agatha and Sophie. There was so much I loved about these two. Their friendship is complicated not only by the fact that they are in different schools, but by the very nature of their own beings and their struggles to define themselves. Poor Agatha with her broken down self-esteem. And poor Sophie, trying so hard without realizing the huge mistakes she’s making at almost every step. Neither are simple characters, and I appreciated the time that the author gave to these two and the attention to the difficulties of growing up and recognizing the power we all hold to mold who we want to be.

Packed into this romp of a fairytale are a lot of messages, and some of them are handled better than others. As I said before, there is a lot of parody going on here. This, of course, opens the door for the parody to go unrecognized and for the more harmful aspects of some of these messages to stand as true. The author does a lot of work to speak to the fact that actions speak louder than looks, to the power of goodness and love, and many other very important points. But due to binary set-up of the story and the parallels placed between goodness/beauty and villainy/ugliness, it’s possible for some unwanted aspects to slip through. Ultimately, I feel that if the story is read in the tone that it is meant, much of this comes through very clearly. But this book might not be for everyone, due to this.

While I was able to get on board with many of these points, there was one that was a sticking point, even for me. I love stories about girls’ friendships, and at its core, that it was this is. There is a lot to be said for forgiveness and understanding in friendship, but there were a few too many times where this line was crossed far to completely to be simplified in this way. It is the same as romantic relationships, in this way: at a certain point, if you are being actively hurt by another person, that person is not your friend, even if they truly do have good feelings toward you. So, while I love the message of Agatha saving her friend through sheer will, forgiveness, and kindness, the story also, unfortunately, sets up a bad example of friendships in general. Through large portions of this story, this is not a healthy friendship. And, while we can sympathize for Sophie, it should not stand as an example that just because we (or Agatha) love a friend/boyfriend, that we should tolerate bad treatment with the hope that they will get better.

This last point is what has stuck with me through this last week of building up to this review. I sped through this book and it was wildly entertaining as I was reading. But with distance comes more clarity, and there were problematic aspects of it, as I mentioned. That said, I will definitely continue on with the series. However, I will keep my eyes open for how some parts of it are handled in the future, most notably, this friendship.

Rating 7: Really great world-building and a lot of great lessons about self-worth and self-esteem; unfortunately, lessened by some questionable portrayals of healthy friendships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The School of Good and Evil” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books About Special Schools” and “Fairy Tales in All Their Ways.”

Find “The School of Good and Evil” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Conversion”

18667792Book: “Conversion” by Katherine Howe

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2014

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

Book Description: It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
 
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
 
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
 
Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?

Review: So I was one of those kids who went to a private prep school in St. Paul from Kindergarten up through Senior Year. Gotta say, while it definitely more than adequately prepared me for college and graduate school, at the time I was under immense, immense pressure. So when I started listening to “Conversion” by Katherine Howe, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. An ‘Upper School’ building for upper classmen. Homeroom being called ‘advisory’. A Dean of Students. I will say, however, that while I was under stress, I wasn’t going to school in a town that had a notorious history of people being falsely accused of witchcraft and then hanged. So yeah, I couldn’t say that I could totally relate to the tale that was told. In fact, I would say that beyond having the occasional moment of ‘ha, we had that too’, I didn’t really relate to the characters in “Conversion”, even if I was probably supposed to to a certain degree. While Howe definitely put in a good effort at writing teenage girls, a lot of the time it fell pretty darn flat.

I think that the first problem was Colleen herself. While I understand where Howe was trying to go with her, I found her to be incredibly naive and dense, far more dense that someone who is supposedly a legitimate contender for Harvard and neck in neck for Valedictorian at this prestigious prep school. I don’t really want to go into any spoilers here, but there are a few plot points that I feel would have been pretty damn obvious for a number of people who would have been in the situation and experiencing it first hand. I understand that to draw out suspense and story line she would have to be, but it felt like her intelligence was in conflict with the plot. And while I didn’t have as many problems with Colleen’s personality as others have, I didn’t find her to be terribly compelling as a narrator. Neither are her friends. Usually I can find a side character that keeps me going even if the protagonist isn’t too interesting, but in this one we didn’t even really get that. They are all pretty privileged girls whose problems, while mostly relatable given my high school experience, just didn’t connect to me.

Our other narrator is Anne Putnam, one of the girls in Salem Village who accused her neighbors of bewitching her. Far less sympathetic than Colleen (someone who isn’t really all that sympathetic to begin with), Anne tells her story from two perspectives: the time she was accusing people, and the time where she is gearing up to confess her sins to the rest of the town, long after the trials have finished and the fallout has left a mark. While I liked the fact that Howe clearly did a lot of research into the trials and the people involved, making them as realistic and historically accurate as possible. Sure, she took license with motivation, as we don’t know why these girls accused all of these innocent people of crimes that sealed their deaths, but I think that her theories in this story make sense. They definitely have more weight behind them than Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, though in his defense that wasn’t really about Salem. We all know that. Howe really committed to telling an accurate story. The problem is, while it is meant to serve as a juxtaposition to what is going on in Danvers in 2012, it doesn’t quite work.

And let me tell you why it doesn’t work. Howe has two stories that have similar themes (mass ‘hysteria’), but they ultimately don’t line up. Outside of being two groups of teen girls in the same geographical region, Howe throws in a couple of twists that ultimately undermine the juxtaposition that she put out there in the first place (side note: one of the solutions IS up to interpretation, I will give you that, but boy is it laid on pretty, and supernaturally, thick). I suppose that one could argue that one other connection may be a feeling of powerlessness for adolescent girls, which manifests in puritan times to the modern age, but again…. It’s undermined. I won’t say how, but it is, and that irritated me to no end.

Something that does work, though, is the modern analogs for the Witch Trials, in the form of a trial by media as opposed to a puritanical court room. The press is, of course, whipped into a frenzy about this ‘mysterious illness’ that has fallen upon these girls, and their attention on the school and the students just feeds into it and makes things much, much worse. Adding into that is the factor of rich, entitled, nasty parents who are rightfully afraid for their children, but then lash out when answers aren’t readily apparent. And then, of course, love the media attention, both for awareness an for their own egos. A few people definitely end up on the other end of their fury, and on the other end of the fallout of the mysterious illness. This was both the most interesting, and angering, plot point. Howe wrote this SO well, she has her fingers on the pulse of the nastiest parts of human nature, both in the modern time line and the past time line. These parts made me the angriest, and hey, that was a serious emotional reaction that she no doubt wanted. So she did her job. I did find myself frustrated that sometimes I think she wanted me to feel sympathy for the girls in Salem, as a being a Puritan was very hard, and being a female Puritan was even harder. The lack of power and the lack of agency was apparent. But nope. These girls condemned a number of innocent people to their deaths. I have no sympathy for that.

Finally, this was an audiobook, and the narrator was pretty good! I thought that she did a good job of making her voice sound like a teenage girl when she needed to, but also an adult when the character called for it. Her accents seemed pretty good to me, though I admittedly don’t know much about the linguistics of the Puritan era in America. Overall, I think it was more her that kept me going. Had I been reading this in print form I may have struggled.

So “Conversion” has its moments, but I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Though now I’m definitely interested to learn more about the actual people of Salem beyond what was told to me in “The Crucible”.

Rating 6: Though the historical accuracy and research was spot on, “Conversion” had too few interesting characters and too many missed opportunities.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Conversion” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Prep School Mysteries”, and “Salem”.

Find “Conversion” at your library using WorldCat!