Book Club Review: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a Short Story Collection” challenge.

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

24561496Book: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” by Ellen Oh (Editor)

Publishing Info: Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: the library!

Book Description: Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

Kate’s Thoughts

The “We Need Diverse Books” movement is one that I have been following for a bit now. Basically, it’s goal is to promote, publish, and highlight books by diverse authors, and tell stories of many different viewpoints and experiences, especially in children’s and young adult literature. When our dear friend and fellow librarian Alicia picked the short stories collection “Flying Lessons” for our book club, I threw it on my request list and got it almost immediately. I also happened to read it during the first attempt this administration made on implementing a travel ban into this country. So yeah, this felt like a very pertinent read, especially since the hope is that diverse books will build empathy to other experiences.

Like most short stories collection, it had some highs and lows. But luckily, it was mostly highs! I really liked the varied authors that contributed to this, and how they all offered so many different kinds of stories without feeling like a box was getting checked off. I expected no less from Ellen Oh, one of the instrumental members of We Need Diverse Books. I will focus on my two favorites.

“Sol Painting, Inc” by Meg Medina: I love the other books by Medina that I’ve read (“Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass”; “Burn, Baby, Burn”), and I was very excited to see that she had a story in this collection. She does a great job of showing one snippet of a day in the life of Merci, Roli, and Mr. Sol, who are Latinx and have a family painting business. While Mr. Sol and and younger sister Merci really love this business, so much so that Merci wants to open her own home improvement empire someday, the elder brother, Roli, is starting to feel embarrassed by it, and would prefer to focus on science things. Medina does a great job of showing the discomfort that Roli has surrounded by his very white peers in a very white space when they go to paint the high school gym, in exchange for tuition for Merci. This story also feels very real in Merci’s voice, as she is the narrator. She doesn’t understand her brother’s self loathing or her father’s self sacrificing. This is probably the saddest story in the bunch, but it was my favorite.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin: Lin takes us back in time to long ago China. It follows the story of Lingsi, a servant girl who is also educated, as it was her mother’s dying wish and her mistress, fearful of being cursed with bad luck, agreed. Lingsi and her house are traveling to try and find a wife for the only son of the family, a cruel and idiotic lout. But as they are traveling, they are attacked by pirates, and Lingsi finds herself in a very surprising situation. I loved Lin’s story telling in this one, as I could totally see everything and hear everything with perfect clarity. It was also neat seeing a surprising feminist twist within this story. No spoilers here. But let’s just say that there is a history of female pirates during this time period. This story was fun and definitely satisfying.

I really liked “Flying Lessons”, and I think that it’s a great collection of short stories that all kids will love.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m always a bit hesitant about short story collections for a few reasons. First is the same reason that Kate laid out earlier and is true to a certain extent with this one: there can be a variety in quality from one story to another which can be an off-putting reading experience. Secondly, writing a short story is a completely different beast than writing a novel, a fact that I think many authors tend to forget and that then leads to questionable short story collections. Publishers simply paste all the big author names together on one title and think it’s a clear win, with no understanding that many of the skills and traits that make an author successful as a novelist may not carry over to a short story collection.

So, with all of this in mind, I was hesitant about this book, especially as it was often marketed and sold on the fame of the authors’ works it included. But, while there were a few misses, I was happy with the collection as a hole and there were a few stories that particularly stuck out. Kate already discussed two of my favorites, but I’ll throw in a third.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist: This story follows Isaiah Dunn, a young boy coping with the death of his father and with his mother’s subsequent fall into alcoholism. Just with that short description, you know going in that this was one of the heavier titles in the book. But this story was so incredibly powerful for it! Grief itself is a huge subject, but the story also touches on so many other factors that all get swirled together in a the life-changing impact that comes with the loss of a parent. The trying economic situation of the family, the mother’s coping method, and the hope that can be found amidst it all is beautifully illustrated in this tale. I particularly appreciated the rather meta use of the power of stories that is brought to being in this story after Isaiah finds a old book of his father’s stories. Isaiah’s voice is also particularly strong, effectively portraying the innocence of childhood but never short-changing his ability to deeply understand the world around him.

As Kate said, there were a few weaker stories included, but even these would likely be well-received by the middle grade target audience of this book. All in all, I greatly enjoyed this collection and its ability to tell important stories without falling under the weight of too much “agenda.”

Kate’s Rating 8: A fun, touching, and varied collection of stories from some of the best children’s and YA authors out there.

Serena’s Rating 8: What else should we have expected from this strong collection of children’s/YA authors? Its strength lies largely in the variety of stories included, both in tone and subject matter.

Book Club Questions:

1.) What was your favorite story in the collection? Why?

2.) Were there any stories that didn’t work for you as well?

3.) This book sets out to present a very diverse collection of stories. Are there any perspectives that you felt were missing?

4.) Were you familiar with any of these authors before? Did any of them have particular writing strengths that appealed to you?

5.) A lot of thought goes into the order in which stories are arrange din a short story collection. Were there any changes you would make to this line up and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flying Lessons and Other Stories” is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 YA/MG Books With POC Leads”, and “YA Short Stories and Collections”.

Find “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ghostly Echoes”

28110857Book: “Ghostly Echoes” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, August 2016

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

Book Description: Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly lady of 926 Augur Lane, has enlisted the investigative services of her fellow residents to solve a decade-old murder—her own. Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, Detective R. F. Jackaby, dive into the cold case, starting with a search for Jenny’s fiancé, who went missing the night she died. But when a new, gruesome murder closely mirrors the events of ten years prior, Abigail and Jackaby realize that Jenny’s case isn’t so cold after all, and her killer may be far more dangerous than they suspected.

Fantasy and folklore mix with mad science as Abigail’s race to unravel the mystery leads her across the cold cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England, down to the mythical underworld, and deep into her colleagues’ grim histories to battle the most deadly foe she has ever faced.

Review: Trekking right along with my read through of the Jackaby series, “Ghostly Echoes” starts off basically right where “Beastly Bones” leaves off. Jenny, the local friendly ghost whose murder has went unsolved for a decade, has finally decided to take things into her own hands. Literally. She actually learns how to pick up things. But this is an important step, and one that coincides with the return of murders that seem to match the M.O. of her own assailant many years ago.

This book represents an interesting turning point in the series so far. Up to this point, the books have been largely stand-alone novels. Sure, a few things will be referenced here and there, but very few plot lines carry through directly from one book to the other. However, in the last book, Ritter laid the groundwork for a “big bad” to best all “big bads.” And one who had been operating in the background all along. Here, we find this is very true, with the plot lines from not only its direct prequel, “Beastly Bones,” but also from the first book in the series, “Jackaby,” being tied together to a larger mystery.

However, this book was very hit and miss for me, tonally. Ritter was essentially wanting to have his cake and eat it too with this one. The larger plot line and mystery were intriguing. Both Jenny’s burgeoning abilities to operate in the real world, the murders that seem so similar to her own, and the clues that begin to point to a strange organization that is operating with its own nefarious agenda were interesting. There was a lot to get through just with this main story line.

But Ritter had also to pay off the set-up he had built with the previous two books where readers expect to find wit, strange beasts, and madcap adventures. All of these bits, while good, seemed to fit in strangely with the more serious tone of this book. I found myself getting pulled one way and the other when the book would veer back and forth between the main story and the smaller interactions that, while important to the overall plot, felt more light and oddly out of line with the rest of the story.

As I mentioned in my last review of the series, the story is at its best when the character of Jackaby is used sparingly. He did have more page time in this story than the last, but this book also did a lot of work building up his past and making him into a more three dimensional character with deeper inner struggles than the simple “wacky Doctor-like” character he has been presented as for the last two books. I was happy to see him becoming more of a character than a plot point.

Towards the end, Ritter did seem to find his footing a bit better, sending Abigail off on an adventure of her own. However, Abigail probably was the least served character by this change of pace to the series. As I mentioned above, Jackaby’s past and character are fleshed out more fully. Jenny becomes an actual character in her own right beyond simply being a friendly ghost and friend to Abigail. But Abby herself? Largely it just feels like she was there to narrate the story to us. And while she does get her own action, it is only that: action. There didn’t feel like there was a lot of character development for her in this book, which I sadly missed. Also Charlie! He was barely there!

So, in conclusion, this book was a bit of a mixed bag. I very much liked the added depth that was given to the greater story line that now pulls through all the books in the series. And Jackaby himself is a more intriguing character now that it has been revealed that he is more than just a quirky, gimmick. But my favorite character, and the main character of the series, was left dangling a bit. And tonally, the book was a bit all over the place, teetering between a more serious larger plot line, and the expected wackiness established in the first two books.

The next and final book comes out this summer, however, and I am still excited to see how Ritter wraps up this all up!

Rating 7: Some imbalanced highs and lows make for a mixed bag read, but still a strong series overall!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghostly Echoes” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade Historical Mysteries”and should be on this list “YA Mythology Challenge.”

Find “Ghostly Echoes” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously Reviewed: “Jackaby” and “Beastly Bones”

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Missing”

176576Book: “Missing” (Fear Street #4) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: POCKET BOOKS, 1990

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

Book Description: “Please help…Our parents are missing!”
What would you do if your parents didn’t come home, didn’t call, left no note? At first, Mark and Cara Burroughs aren’t terribly alarmed. Their parents have stayed out late before. But then other things start to go wrong. Mark’s girlfriend Gena breaks up with him and suddenly disappears. The police don’t seem at all interested in finding Mark and Cara’s parents. And their mysterious cousin who boards with them seems to be spying on their every move!
When murder strikes, Mark and Cara learn their terror is only beginning. Someone wants them to disappear too! But why? The answer lies deep in the Fear Street Woods. But will they live long enough to find it?

Had I Read This Before: Yes.

The Plot: Okay, I have VIVID memories of reading this one at the clothing store where we would get my grade school uniforms. I totally hid in a sales rack while my mother tried to find some pants that maybe wouldn’t completely wear out in the knees (this is still a curse that I have to bear when it comes to my pants).

Cara and Mark Burroughs have just moved to Shadyside with their parents, and have taken up residence on Fear Street. Their new friends find that weird, and Cara and Mark don’t exactly disagree, but it’s not strange enough that they can’t throw a rocking party because no one will come. Mark is the innocent and popular one, Cara is the cynical one who is 2edgy4you. One of the people at this aforementioned party is Gena, Mark’s new girlfriend who is, by all accounts, super sexy. His parents aren’t thrilled about him dating her for some reason, but Cara thinks she’s fine…. Outside of the fact she takes Mark’s attention away from her (once again, getting a Lannister Vibe from this sibling pair). Cara has noticed that even though it’s pretty late at night, their parents have yet to come home. A policeman knocks on their door, and while at first Cara thinks he’s there to tell them something awful has happened to their folks, he says his name is Captain Farraday and is just there asking around about a burglary. He gives her his card in case they think of anything. After he leaves, the party starts to wind down, as cops are total buzzkills. As Cara and Mark clean up they start to worry more about their parents, and try to call them. But the house phone is dead.

Cara and Mark are surprised by their distant cousin Roger, who apparently lives in the attic. He also is wondering where the folks are, but says he’s retiring for the night. Cara and Mark decide to see if they can find a note in their parents’ room. The rumpled bedding makes Cara think something terrible must have happened, but Mark dispels her of that notion pretty quickly. Roger pops up, saying he’s looking for a note, but acts strange enough to make Cara and Mark suspicious. The sudden appearance of a parked grey van outside doesn’t help matters. And then Cara finds a white stone monkey head in the sheets of the bed. How odd. What’s even odder is after they go to bed, they’re awakened by legit howling outside, and see Roger going to that strange van and climbing inside, but not leaving (why he is howling is never explained, by the way). Mark tries to find something of relevance in Roger’s room, but is caught and slinks off to bed. The monkey head continues to haunt him.

The next day, still no Mom and Dad. Mark and Cara decide to look around Roger’s room, and find a gun! Totally spooked, they decide that maybe they could call their parents at work, but the phone is still dead. They go to a neighbor, who says her phone is working just fine. When they call the phone company, they are told there shouldn’t be a problem. So now they decide to cut school and go to their parents’ office. They think they may need to catch a ride, since their folks have the car…. But when they get to the garage they find the car! Their folks never took it! So they drive to their parents’ present employers (after confronting the people in the van. Who act casual. And by casual I mean not at all casual). They get to this firm (which apparently makes stuff for the military but just lets two strangers in willy nilly), but no one seems to have heard of their parents. However, the CEO, Mr. Burroughs, will happily speak with them! Huh. He tells them that no one by their parents names have ever worked there.

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The plot thickens. (source)

Cara and Mark regroup. They go to school to try and have a normal day. Mark calls Roger, and the phones are working again. Roger says not to worry and he’ll see him at home. But Gena wasn’t at school, which is odd to Mark. He goes hom  and calls her…. and then she promptly dumps him. When Cara gets home they talk about this (Mark more weeps about it), and Cara thinks it’s weird since they were so close and cuddly the night before. Cara tells him to pull himself together because she’s calling Farraday to see if he can help them find their parents. He says that he’ll see if he can hunt them down, but on the line Cara hears a click. Roger must have been listening in on them! She and Mark go up to confront him. But he confronts them about their snooping in his room, and says that of COURSE he has a pistol, it was a gift from his father! Cara and Mark are suspicious, but drop it.

Cara decides to follow Roger when he goes out, and Mark says he’ll hang out at home in case Mom and Dad come back. But then Gena calls! And she sounds like she’s in trouble! So Mark decides to cut through the Fear Street woods to find her!…. and then promptly falls into a man made ditch trap thing. Meanwhile, Cara follows Roger to a diner, and sees him talking to the man in the van!!! Roger, however, catches her and says this is his faculty advisor, but no one really believes that. Cara leaves, and realizes a car is following her. BACK IN THE WOODS, Mark is in a pit, and a crazy dog jumps in and attacks him. Mark snaps it’s neck (holy SHIT), and sees that on it’s collar there’s a white monkey head!! So someone trained this dog to attack people, and it has the same monkey head he found at home. But Gena comes first, and he runs to her house. Instead of knocking on the door he decides to climb a trellis…. And falls. Good one, Mark.

Cara realizes that it was Captain Farraday following her, saying he’s following up, and he drives her home. On the way she tells him everything about Roger, and he says he’ll figure out what’s going on. When she gets home she finds Mark missing and no note. Mark is still trying to see Gena, and he does manage to get into her window, but is then confronted by her Dad, Dr. Rawlings. He tells Mark Gena was so upset she took off to visit a cousin upstate. After a quick study sesh, Cara decides to see if Roger’s gun is still there. It isn’t.

The next day after school they catch up with everything they found out the night before (and find out the phone is dead again). Conveniently, they remember that their parents had a friend named Wally at work, and they decide to go visit him. He says that he hasn’t seen them either, but in the work directory their parents names ARE LISTED! Which means Mr. Marcus lied to them! BUT WHY?!?! They race back to the house, hoping Farraday will have contacted them, but instead they find Roger DEAD!!!! BY BOW AND ARROW (oh yeah, Mark is an archer)!! AND FARRADAY IS THERE AND THINKS MARK DID IT!! And THEN they Guy from the Van comes in waving his gun around, and Farraday shoots HIM!! He says he’s going to go call for backup, and they see him talk to someone on the phone. Mark and Cara go to get some water But then… Cara remembers!! THE PHONE IS DEAD!! THERE IS NO WAY FARRADAY CALLED FOR BACKUP.

They try to play it cool but Mark bungles it, and Farraday pulls Roger’s missing gun on them. Farraday tells them that he isn’t a cop. He USED to be a cop, and is now looking for their folks, and where are they? Cara and Mark don’t know, and Farraday is going to shoot them. But then GENA ARRIVES WITH HER OWN GUN!! She gets Cara and Mark away from Farraday and takes them into the woods, saying that her Dad tried to get her out of the way, and that there’s a ‘meeting’ that they have to stop. She gets them some robes from her house so they can fit in to whatever it is they are about to experience. In her house there are people in robes and white monkey masks. They follow the group and come to a clearing in Fear Street Woods, and see A MILITIA/CULT MEETING IN WHICH THEIR PARENTS ARE ABOUT TO BE MURDERED BY MARCUS, WHO IS THE LEADER.

Yup, now THIS is the batshit “Fear Street” malarkey I wanted to share with you all. Just think of how fun this entire re-read is going to be.

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(source)

Mark throws his own little monkey head and disrupts the murdering. Their Dad gets free and pulls a gun on Marcus, identifying himself as FBI, and they are all under arrest. Yes, this whole time Cara and Mark’s parents have been undercover FBI agents. Marcus and Gena’s Dad were part of this group they’d been tracking. Farraday is just a crooked cop they put away on a previous case. Now their cover is blown and they will have to move again.

Gena comes to see Mark one last time before she moves to live with her mother. They promise they will write each other. She gives him a note with her new address, and a the words ‘can you keep a secret? I love you.’

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Jesus this was a doozie. (source)

Body Count: 3, being poor poor rookie Agent Roger, his van friend, and a guard dog.

Romance Rating: 7. Hear me out. Mark’s and Gena’s relationship was admittedly silly, but unlike other romances in these books it also seemed pretty genuine. That note at the end actually made me smile. And she saved his butt!!!

Bonkers Rating: 9! A crazy cult/militia group in the woods?! AH-mazing.

Fear Street Relevance: 10! Not only do Cara and Mark live on Fear Street, but the showdown is in the woods behind their house. Ya earned this, R.L.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“Then I saw their beds and cried out again. It was obvious that something terrible had happened….”

… And it turns out their parents’ bed was just unmade. Jesus, Cara.

That’s So Dated! Moment: Cara and Mark’s parents are described as ‘computer mainframe specialists’, who travel from place to place installing computer systems for companies. And it can take weeks, or months, or even YEARS. Boy it just REEKS of late 80s techno babble to me.

Best Quote:

“We were both feeling pretty miserable. She found a box of cornflakes in the cabinet, but there was no milk. So we poured a bottle of Coke on it instead.”

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You can’t call a friend for a ride to the store? (source)

So there’s clearly a reason that this book stuck with me from all those years ago. It was nuts, and genuinely creepy at parts. I know that the thought of my parents just up and disappearing is still upsetting to me to this day. Next up is “The Wrong Number!”.

Kate’s Review: “To Catch a Killer”

29939266Book: “To Catch a Killer” by Sheryl Scarborough

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Erin Blake has one of those names. A name that, like Natalee Holloway or Elizabeth Smart, is inextricably linked to a grisly crime. As a toddler, Erin survived for three days alongside the corpse of her murdered mother, and the case—which remains unsolved—fascinated a nation. Her father’s identity unknown, Erin was taken in by her mother’s best friend and has become a relatively normal teen in spite of the looming questions about her past.

Fourteen years later, Erin is once again at the center of a brutal homicide when she finds the body of her biology teacher. When questioned by the police, Erin tells almost the whole truth, but never voices her suspicions that her mother’s killer has struck again in order to protect the casework she’s secretly doing on her own.

Inspired by her uncle, an FBI agent, Erin has ramped up her forensic hobby into a full-blown cold-case investigation. This new murder makes her certain she’s close to the truth, but when all the evidence starts to point the authorities straight to Erin, she turns to her longtime crush (and fellow suspect) Journey Michaels to help her crack the case before it’s too late.

Review: Back in the mid 2000s, the world was introduced to the character of Dexter Morgan in the book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”, which in turn became a hit television series. In this book/TV series, the premise is that Dexter, a forensics lab employee in Miami, is a murderous psychopath, his psychopathy put into place when he witnessed his mother brutally murdered when he was a toddler and was left in a storage locker with her body for a couple of days. In “To Catch A Killer” similar circumstances just leaves Erin with some mild PTSD and a deep interest in forensics. Now I don’t know which situation is more true to life, and my guess is that for a lot of people it would be more a happy medium between the two. But that said, I’m less inclined to believe Scarborough’s scenario than Dexter’s.

Honestly, there were a few things in “To Catch A Killer” that I had a hard time stomaching. For one thing, it felt to me like many of the characters weren’t terribly well thought out. First of all, there’s Erin. I liked Erin enough, actually, she had a solid voice and some pretty fun snappy moments. But like I mentioned above, I just have a hard time thinking that a person who went through that kind of trauma would have more issues than a fascination with forensics and some pretty remote and just mentioned in passing PTSD symptoms. Oh, and a hard time trusting boys, leading to a dating drought in her life. While I did appreciate her quirks and her interests (as I too was a fan of “Natural Born Killers” when I was a teenager), I was never quite buying how together she was, especially since it made it sound like Rachel, her guardian, never really wanted to discuss the murder with her, or even talk about her mother at all. Along with Erin feeling a bit unrealistic, her friends were broad templates of the ‘awesome best friends’ without ever really having much depth added to them. Spam especially, who is the ‘cool gamer girl with the funky sense of style’ trope, and never really moves beyond it. Lysa also functions as a loyal but pragmatic sidekick, there to be a voice of reason and to temper down Spam’s spitfire. I did enjoy that the three of them have their own “Cheater Check” service, where they offer up their forensic investigative services to catch cheating boyfriends and girlfriends, so it wasn’t just Erin who was a science minded lady. I’ll always support girls having science minded role models in fiction. And then there’s Journey, the love interest/potential suspect. Erin knows that he couldn’t have done it, which takes on an interesting angle that could have been explored. While it may be a sort of trite angle, without it Journey is a bit watered down. He has a tragic backstory as well involving his father, but it never really elicited much emotion from me. These teens never felt like they were real teens, but a broad idea of what teenagers act like.

The mystery of ‘who killed Miss P/Erin’s Mom’ is the bigger theme of this book, and the smaller one is ‘who is Erin’s Dad’. Within the first few chapters I had pretty clearly figured out the answers to both questions, and while many red herrings were thrown at me, I ended up being right in the end. I think that had I enjoyed the journey of getting to the conclusion, had I enjoyed the characters and enjoyed how they pieced things together, I would have liked this book more overall. I don’t necessarily read books like this just for the mystery, but for the detection and the investigation. The only parts that I really enjoyed involved Erin’s uncle Victor, Rachel’s brother. He’s an FBI Agent who has written a number of books about crime investigations, and I did enjoy it when he and Erin interacted and geeked out over forensics. These scenes were both fun because of the well researched science that was involved, and because the chemistry between Erin and Victor did feel genuine. Their moments of science and tech geekery were really fun ways to introduce this kind of stuff to the reader, and I really can appreciate that.

I think that overall “To Catch A Killer” had promise, but it just wasn’t the book for me. Perhaps someone super into forensics would enjoy it more, but it didn’t quite stand on it’s own when it wasn’t talking about that stuff.

Rating 4: While it had scenes and moments of cool science and a pretty solid (if not at times unrealistic) main character, “To Catch A Killer” didn’t stand up underneath all it wanted to do.

Reader’s Advisory:

“To Catch a Killer” is fairly new and not on many specific lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Forensics: If It Doesn’t Walk, We Bring Out The Chalk”, and  “Forensic Fiction”.

Find “To Catch a Killer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The FitzOsbornes at War”

13414810Book: “The Fitzosbornes at War” by Michelle Cooper

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Sophie FitzOsborne and the royal family of Montmaray escaped their remote island home when the Nazis attacked. But as war breaks out in England and around the world, nowhere is safe. Sophie fills her journal with tales of a life during wartime. Blackouts and the Blitz. Dancing in nightclubs with soliders on leave. And endlessly waiting for news of her brother Toby, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory.

But even as bombs rain down on London, hope springs up, and love blooms for this most endearing princess. And when the Allies begin to drive their way across Europe, the FitzOsbornes take heart—maybe, just maybe, there will be a way to liberate Montmaray as well.

Review: I’m back for the final book in the Montmaray trilogy, and boy, am I sad to see it go! And sad for tons of other reasons cuz the story has now progressed to the point where this book is pretty much entirely made up of World War II. But, while it’s not the most perky of the series, it is definitely my favorite, so let’s get down to it!

As this series has progressed, so has the stakes. Looking back on the first book, it now seems like such a fluff pot (though of the very good variety) full of oddball characters, a bizarre little island country, and a madcap adventure at the end. The second book, with the FitzOsbornes forced away from their Nazi-invaded home, raised the stakes, though was still largely comprised of social outings and kerfuffles with their strict Aunt whose primary goal in life was marrying off her young relatives. But here, in the last book in the series, the tone is very different.

This book takes place over the longest segment of time of the three stories, covering 1939-1944. And it’s a haul for our main characters with one challenge after another. Even more so than the previous two books, it is clear just how much research Cooper put into this story. Beyond our fictional main characters and a few of their associates, most of the happenings in this book are lifted directly from the history books. And where many other authors have focused on the more dramatic events of this time period, Cooper focuses Sophie’s story on the day-to-day struggle of surviving in a war-torn country for so many years.

As an American, we have a tendency to view WWII through our own lens: one that is viewed from a more comfortable oceans-apart distance and one that is much shorter, as was our involvement. So it is a stark reminder to read a book like this that truly focuses in on life in London and just how long British citizens were living in this horrible reality. Through Sophie’s eyes we see her initial terror when the bombing starts, but then as the years go by, we see how, overtime, even the most horrific things can become one’s norm and how this change in oneself can affect  day-to-day decision making as well as one’s larger world view. This is the quieter side of the war: the hours spent in shelters every day, the constant change to the city with whole blocks disappearing over night, the sense of never knowing whether one will make it to the next day, the long lines for food, and the struggle to remain connected to the regular parts of life throughout it all.

Cooper doesn’t take any easy outs to the harsh truths of what it would be like to live through this time period. This book is fully of tragedy and hopelessness, but through it all, Sophie and Veronica still find moments of strength, beauty and even romance. Sophie truly grows up through this book, and her maturation is handled so subtly, that by the end of the book, you can’t pinpoint any one moment where this change was obvious.

I greatly enjoyed this book and series as a whole. It’s always exciting to find a series that grows in strength as it continues. For a series that started out with what could have been a rather ridiculous premise (a fictional island country with a family growing up in a crumbling castle), I would strongly recommend these books for any history buffs. The books provide a unique view on a very well-known time period (focusing on the daily life of those at home rather than the more common stories of those fighting in the war itself) and touch on many small details that you may or may not be aware of (for example, there’s even discussion of a spy scandal that went on in the American Embassy in the early part of the war). The author’s note truly hits home just how many historical facts are crammed into this novel. While the book is listed as young adult, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to adult historical fiction fans either!

Rating 9: An excellent end to an excellent series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The FitzOsbornes at War” is included in these Goodreads lists: “World War II England”  and “YA set in the 1940s.”

Find “The FitzOsbornes at War” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “A Brief History of Montmaray” and “The FitzOsbornes in Exile”

 

 

 

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Overnight” (Fear Street #3)

656729Book: “The Overnight” (Fear Street #3) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1989

Where Did I Get This Book: Interlibrary Loan from the library!

Book Description: “Nothing bad will happen,” Della O’Connor assures her friends in the Outdoors Club. So what if their advisor can’t go on the overnight to Fear Island—won’t it be more fun with no adults around?

But it’s no fun at all when Della gets lost in the woods, and the dangerous stranger appears, whispering threats, driving her to a violent act.

Suddenly all of her friends are involved, prisoners in a conspiracy of silence, trying to conceal the terrible truth. But someone saw what Della did. And he’s threatening them all, forcing them back to Fear Island to find the evidence they forgot to bury…

Had I Read This Before: No (I’m starting to wonder if I read more standalones and “Super Chillers” rather than the original “Fear Street” series).

The Plot: As if the teens of Shadyside didn’t have enough problems and woes on their plates, we now have to factor in the possibility of leaving the more populated parts of the town and go straight into a remote location where mischief and mayhem (and in all probability MURDER) can wreak havoc. That’s right guys, “The Overnight” doesn’t just take us into Fear Woods! It takes us to the not until just now mentioned Fear Island, which is in the middle of the lake within Fear Woods! That is where the Shadyside High Outdoor Club is planning on taking their overnight this year. Our protagonist is Della, one of the members of the aforementioned club, along with her innocent and sheltered bestie Maia, her (as of very recently) ex-boyfriend Gary, the preppy and awkward Pete, the obnoxious class clown Ricky, and the town bicycle Suki (who is my favorite character in the “Fear Street” series because her physical description makes it sound like R.L. Stine has watched “Return of the Living Dead” a few too many times). At their meeting (where Della is moping about Gary and Suki being so close now), their faculty advisor, Mr. Abner, tells them that he won’t be able to escort them to Fear Island that weekend, as he has just heard of a family emergency and has to leave RIGHT NOW. The Outdoors club is disappointed, until Suki suggests that they all go anyway, just unsupervised. Maia is SHOCKED that she would even suggest such a thing, but Della thinks it will be fun and convinces her to go, because what could possibly happen?

While Della is packing that Saturday, we get some exposition about Fear Island. It’s either an old research facility that is now inhabited by mutants, or the site of an Indian Burial ground (ugh, goddammit, this friggin’ trope). Obviously a destination for camping fun. Pete picks Della up, his obvious crush flying over her head, and they meet the others at the lake, where Gary and Suki are already chumming up pretty heavily. After a close call involving Maia’s parents and Ricky acting like a moron in the boats, they get to the island and decide to play a round of ZAP tag. Which pretty much sounds like paint ball, but the guns spray liquid paint instead of pellets. Girls vs Boys, of course. After Suki (and her punk rocky boy crazy attitude) pisses Della off, Della goes off on her own. And suddenly, a strange man approaches her. Her first thought, instead of ‘hm, strange man acting funny in the woods, I should be careful’, is ‘ooh, hottie alert!’, and she starts to flirt with him. He tells her that he’s studying the trees in the woods, but can’t keep his story straight, and yet no warning bells are going off for Della yet. After she prods him a bit more he attacks her. He says some gobbledy gook about communication and something about an old man, and Della gets herself free from his grasp long enough that she can shoot him with the ZAP gun. A chase begins, he catches her at the top of a ravine, and she shoves him down it. And then she realizes that it looks like he’s dead. So while trying to cover him up with leaves, the others find her and the mass freak out begins. Mostly by Maia, who isn’t as concerned that a crazy man tried to murder and do God knows what else to her best friend, but that her parents will find out that she was on an unsupervised trip!! Really, bitch? They decide that instead of going to the police (when it’s pretty clearly self defense here!), they should just leave him there to rot because who will find him? They complete their camping trip so as not to raise suspicions, and outside of some weird noises in the night they sleep fine.

The next day they leave the island and go back to their lives. The day after that Maia is freaking out that her parents are going to find out about all this (still not about the dead guy), so Della goes to reassure her and suffer some guilt tripping from her friend. This is just too much. For being best friends Maia is pretty much the goddamn worst. When Della returns home, however, she finds a note in her mailbox, which contains some jewelry that the dead man was wearing, and a note that says ‘I KNOW WHAT YOU DID’.

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Hm, I’ve seen this movie… (source)

The Outdoors club meets to discuss this turn of events (as Gary also got a note). Both Dell and Gary are missing their wallets, so that’s how whoever this is must have found them. Pete arrives fashionably late, and shows them a newspaper clipping about a recent burglary and murder, where an old man was murdered, possibly for money that he may have had, and there are pictures of the suspects (I guess? I don’t know how they would have figured that out, but okay). ONE OF THE SUSPECTS IS THE DEAD GUY! So maybe the person stalking them is his partner! Maia freaks out about her parents again, Della FINALLY tells her to SHUT THE HELL UP, and they are all surprised when Della’s mom comes home with a gentleman caller, which pretty much breaks up the meeting. Though Pete has time to ask Della on a date. Which she accepts.

Pete and Della go dancing at some teenage dance club, but while they’re driving home they are nearly run off the road by a strange car. They maneuver their way out of it, and see the strange car crash into a tree. When they look to see who was driving, the driver has already skedaddled. AT WHAT POINT DO YOU JUST GO TO THE POLICE?! They go back to school on Monday and at Outdoors Club tell the others about this (Maia is still freaking out. She’s clearly the weak link, guys). Mr. Abner returns and has great news!! The family crisis is over and he can finally take them all to Fear Island THIS COMING WEEKEND!! Della and Ricky try to play it cool by feigning interest, but everyone else tries to make excuses. Mr. Abner, acting less like a teacher and more like a child, guilts them about how he’s made special time to do this. Dude, really? They say they will let him know in a couple days. Most of them want to bail… But then Ricky tells them he’s missing a ZAP gun, which must still be on the island with the body. Somehow this could tie him to the crime, I guess, and he says that if it does he’s taking all of them down with him. So they agree that they will go back to Fear Island this weekend to get the evidence.

The Outdoors Club doesn’t even try to pretend that they are having a good time, so poor Mr. Abner must really be feeling like he’s stuck with a bunch of ingrates as he leads them across the lake and to the camp. Once they’re settled Pete and Della try to go get the gun, but Abner, convinced they’re going to go bang, says they can’t leave his sight. He says he’ll go get it (because at camp they won’t get into shenanigans I guess), but is soon knocked out by the CREEPY GUY, who runs off into the night. The Club makes a decision: Ricky, Gary, and Suki go for help,Della goes to get the gun, and Pete and Maia will stay with Abner (because Maia would rather have someone with her instead of letting Pete go with Della, the little wretch). Della goes to get the gun, but finds that the body is missing! And in a scene very reminiscent of “Robocop”, Della finds herself face to face with the man she thought she killed. Turns out she hadn’t. Apparently he has a ‘very faint pulse’ and that’s why she thought he was dead. He is then mad that she left him for dead, and tries to kill her again, as unlike her fake gun, he has a real one!…. But then Pete shows up and shoots him with the ZAP gun, getting paint in his eyes. They run back to camp with the guy chasing them, but the others have arrived with the police, who have also nabbed his partner.

The book ends with Pete picking Della up for a date, and in an attempt at comedy he brings a folded up tent in his car. Good one, Pete. Let’s remind her of all the trauma she’s gone through. But then they opt to eat marshmallows and watch movies all night instead. The end.

Body Count: Zero! Can you believe it?! I feel ripped off, in all honesty.

Romance Rating: 6. Not much, but okay, I admit it, I liked Pete! He and Della worked and made sense. And I was happy that there wasn’t any kind of love triangle either between them and Gary.

Bonkers Rating: 3. The twists were pretty standard, and felt like a run of the mill thriller. I was hoping that it would be MR. ABNER THE WHOLE TIME, but then it wasn’t. Meh.

Fear Street Relevance: 4. I am calling a cheat on this because while it took place on Fear Island, Fear Island wasn’t established as a place within this universe until it was convenient!!

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“The canoes!” Della said. They were gone. “Oh no!” Maia cried. “We’re trapped here!”

…. And then it was just that Ricky hid them like a douche.

That’s So Dated! Moment: Sadly there were few and far between super dated moments in this book! Though at one point Della’s shoes were described as white Reebok hightops, and I totally had a pair of those!

Best Quote:

“Knock it off, Suki,” Gary warned. “Stop picking on Ricky.” “Ricky’s picking on ME by existing,” Suki muttered.

I freaking love Suki Thomas.

I expected more from you, “Fear Street”. This just felt like “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. So maybe Kevin Williamson stole that idea from this. Regardless, it wasn’t one of the better stories in the series. Hopefully “Missing”, the next on the list, will be better.

Kate’s Review: “Tiny Pretty Things”

18710209Book: “Tiny Pretty Things” by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, May 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

Review: I honestly couldn’t tell you what it is, but there is something about the “Drama and mean girl bitchery happening at a boarding school/organization for some kind of art form” trope that I am a complete and total sucker for. It doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be about ballet (after all the movie “Fame” isn’t strictly about that art form and I LOVE it), but it’s just an added bonus if it is. “Center Stage” is by no means a good movie, but if I stumble upon it on the TV I am guaranteed to watch it. “Black Swan” messed me up real good and I could have taken even MORE mental anguish and paranoia from it. Because the competition of being the best within the strict and narrow world of ballet makes people do AWFUL THINGS, according to this trope, and I live for it.

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HERE. FOR. THIS. (source)

So of course “Tiny Pretty Things” was going to appeal to me. The fact that it has an underlying mystery is really just a bonus, I would have picked it up regardless. But “Tiny Pretty Things” also surprised me in a lot of pleasant ways. In a book that could have easily been about a bunch of spoiled and rich white girls (as the ballet world and culture is disproportionately white), authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton instead represented a rather diverse cast of characters, and the struggles they all face trying to fit into the ballet box. And they do this seamlessly, weaving these everyday moments of frustration or microaggressions against them into the bigger picture, so their struggles are just a natural, and yet exposed, part of their day to day realities. And there are a LOT of themes here, and since I want to break them all down, we’re going to have a lot to talk about.

One of the themes this book talks about is discrimination in the ballet world, both racial and sexual orientation. Gigi, being the only black student at the school, is always being put in the ‘Other’ role by those around her, be it fellow dancers or even the administrators. Her talents and merits are always being picked apart by those around her, and there is always a question of how much she deserves the roles that she’s getting. June, too, isn’t immune to such treatment, even if it’s to a different extent. Her biracial ethnicity has left her without a group, and since she has never known who her father is she is feeling even more like she has never known her true identity. And while they aren’t given many perspective moments, it’s mentioned that there are a number of the Korean dancers at this school who are absolutely fantastic at dance… but never get lead roles, and rarely get solos, because they just don’t ‘fit’ the part. Not only are racial biases spoken of, but so are those of sexuality and the idea of masculine and feminine ideals. There are two GLBT characters in this book, and while neither of them have perspective chapters, you do get to learn a bit about them through the other girls eyes. William is gay, and is definitely one of the best male dancers at the school. But again, because he doesn’t meet the physical (and yes, sexual preference) ideal of how a male ballerina should be, he too is denied lead roles. And Sei-Jin, June’s enemy, is a closeted lesbian. She torments June but is also terrified that June will tell the world that she’s a lesbian, therein ruining her chances, in her mind, at stardom. I really appreciated that this was touched on in this book when it easily could have just been ignored.

Along with discrimination there is the obsession with perfection and how far you go to achieve it. Be it the eating disorders that June and another girl named Liz are living with, or the Adderall addiction that Bette has, the competition runs all of these girls completely ragged. And this is why even Bette, mean awful HORRIBLE Bette, is a character that I can’t completely hate. She is certainly entitled and spoiled and bordering on psychopathic, but it is because this is all she has been raised to know, even since she was a little girl. She has seen her perfect older sister rise into prominency in the ballet world, and now their emotionally abusive and alcoholic mother wants both of her daughters to be stars. So Bette, who has been raised to be a star, is driven to the extremes beyond her Adderall addiction to achieve this perfection, and starts to spiral into madness when it just can’t quite be achieved. I really liked that this story addresses the fact that these CHILDREN are being completely put through the ringer, and that most of them aren’t going to make it in the ways that they are being pushed to do so.

Which leads us into the mystery of this book (as yes, there is indeed a mystery). Since Gigi is new and black and doing phenomenally well, someone starts harassing her and tormenting her. And while it very well could be Bette (and some of it is Bette because she’s the worst), some of these pranks and taunts are downright violent. While I may have a pretty good idea as to who it is (this is the first in a duology, so it hasn’t been revealed yet), I’m not quite certain. And I love the fact that I’m not quite certain! There are other little mysteries in this book that are a bit more obvious(such as the identity of June’s father, which I won’t spoil here, but it’s really not too hard to figure out), and while that’s fine, the mystery in itself is pretty run of the mill. The joy and power of this book isn’t in the mystery, though there are lots of pretty amazingly over the top moments of drama that surround it. The joy is definitely in the complex issues that Charaipotra and Clayton put in here, as well as, yes, the juicy juicy drama. Whenever a book about ballerinas ends up with one of said ballerinas getting glass shards left in her ballet shoes, you KNOW that I’m going to be a total sucker for it.

I really really enjoyed “Tiny Pretty Things” and will certainly be picking up “Shiny Broken Pieces” as soon as possible. It’s definitely soapy and dramatic, but it uses this premise to talk about other, very relevant problems within the ballet culture. So it’s a double win for me. Definitely pick it up if you want something fun, light, but thoughtful.

Rating 9: Steeped with soapy and sudsy drama, but also taking on some pretty relevant issues within the ballet world, “Tiny Pretty Things” is both a trashy mystery romp and a relevant commentary. A perfect quick read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tiny Pretty Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Diverse Books by Diverse Authors”, and “Hell Is A Teenage Girl”.

Find “Tiny Pretty Things” at your library using WorldCat!