Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani (Spoilers)

Beasts and Beauty

Information

Goodreads: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
Series: None
Age Category: Marketed as Middle Grade; More Suitable as YA
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong.

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

Star Divider

Review

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales promises readers that these are stories “for a new era” and that they “understand you” and “reflect you.” The question while reading, however, is whether making the characters diverse and gender swapping some of the characters is enough to make them fully new. In many of the stories, negative gender stereotypes against women remain. And in many of the stories, there is no modernized “enlightened” moral. Rather, the “heroes” in several of the tales become the villains. It is unclear whether readers are supposed to cheer them on for taking on the role of their enemies– or not.

Ultimately, the book does a wonderful job in being dark, gritty, and somewhat depressing. Virtue does not really triumph over evil in this volume because none of the characters are that virtuous to begin with. And most of the endings are more bitter than sweet, with princesses finding themselves unloved by their husbands and many of the fairy tale characters getting divorced. Presumably this makes the stories more realistic. But most people do not read fairy tales for the realism.

Further, the content of the book really veers more towards adult or YA fiction, making this a really odd choice for the middle grade audience. Yes, tales such as “Bluebeard” have always had violence in them. But it does seem like the stories are crossing some sort of invisible line here over from MG to YA when there are (positive? neutral?) depictions of cannibalism, “happy” endings with the prince marrying two girls at once, and a lot of uncomfortable sexual overtones throughout the book. Usually this type of content is considered mature, and I am not sure what to make of a publisher marketing this content to educators, parents, and children who are likely unaware that it is in this book. Frankly, it does feel like a violation of trust because many people use age categories to find content that is developmentally appropriate for children–and this, by most people’s standards, is not probably not for the average 8-12 year old.

Below, I give my thoughts on a few of the selections from the book. To fully review the tales, however, I do spoil the endings and as well as any notable deviations from the original stories. Read on only if you do not mind being spoiled!

smaller star divider

“Bluebeard”

Not too original for a retelling. Instead of marrying and murdering girls, the titular character buys orphan boys. It’s unclear exactly what he does with them, but there does seem to be a creepy sexual undertone to this story, as with many. The story is not too remarkable, however, since the main feature is the gender swap.

“Cinderella”

I admit I had no idea what to make of this one. The original twist is that Prince Charming actually fell in love with a different girl–not Cinderella–who ends up being turned into a mouse by a witch. Now the mouse lives with Cinderella and is using Cinderella (by lying to her) in order to get into the castle for the ball. The mouse has a lot to say about the evil stepsisters, in a way that links their evilness with their ugliness. There is no clear messaging that this is wrong or that the mouse is just nasty and jealous, and probably should not be criticizing other women about their looks the way she does.

Normally, I would suggest that a book does not need a clear moral message from the narrator, but this is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a retold fairy tale in a book touting how wonderful it is that we have these updated stories that are presumably supposed to align with contemporary values. So why the woman-on-woman hate?

Additionally, the ending was unusual, to say the least. The prince ends up marrying both Cinderella and the other girl (yes, bigamy). I have to admit that I was not aware that this is something most contemporary readers would celebrate as a happy and appropriate ending.

“Hansel and Gretel”

The big twist here is that, instead of the witch trying to eat Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel team up with the witch to (apparently) eat their evil stepmother. Usually fairy tales try to have morals about how being virtuous will bring good things to a person. Are Hansel and Gretel actually the good characters here, though? Why do they get a happy ending for engaging in cannibalism? Is the point of this story something about how darkness is within us all and no one is really that good? Is that the modern twist–a belief that the world holds no light? Or are readers supposed to cheer on Hansel and Gretel for becoming like the witch readers are used to hating because, you know, killing and eating people is wrong? It’s all very unclear, but neither option seems like a good one.

“Jack and the Beanstalk”

This retelling shows how ineffective merely writing a gender-swapped ogre is in any attempt to make old stories feel less sexist. Negative gender stereotypes about women still abound here. They have, in fact, been added to the story! The ogre becomes a female who henpecks her husband. Jack’s mother, meanwhile, is understandably stressed and bitter because she married a lazy man who squandered all their wealth, and then got himself killed, and now her son seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. Somehow, however, Jack’s mother becomes the villain because Jack thinks she’s a nag. So evidently she needs to suffer so that Jack can go and be happy with a new family. Ouch.

“The Little Mermaid”

This one is one of the less imaginative retellings, largely because it is not really a story. It reads like a Tumblr-esque critique of the Disney film, with the sea witch merely running a monologue about how silly and shallow the little mermaid has to be in order to give up everything for a guy she has never even spoken to. I imagine most readers will not be particularly impressed by this one.

“Peter Pan”

This is possibly the highlight of the collection. It is told by an older Wendy, who recounts her early adventures in Neverland, and then her growing understanding of how vile Peter Pan really is. She ends up falling in love with a pirate instead. The one aspect I really didn’t like was that Wendy marries someone, but has a years-long affair with the pirate. And I guess readers are supposed to be okay with that because her husband is boring. But being boring is hardly wrong. Why are readers supposed to be disdainful of anyone who does not want to engage in deadly adventures? I so wish that the husband had been fortunate enough to marry a boring woman who would have loved him.

“Sleeping Beauty”

I was not sure what to make of this one, either. It begins with the prince waking up every morning with bleeding wounds, and he worries that he is being attacked by a demon. It seems clear that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his being gay. However, he attacks the boy who has been attacking him at night, then ends up marrying a countess. But he now he is not happy, so he locks himself in a tower, so the boy can return to…hurt him?…every night? This does make him happy. His wife gets upset that her husband has locked himself in a tower, but readers aren’t supposed to worry about her too much because she’s a gold digger (ahem, sexist stereotype!) so she deserves what she gets.

I don’t understand the link between violence and pleasure here. Also, if the wounds are supposed to be some uncomfortable metaphor for sex, like in vampire lore or something, does that mean the the prince was being raped…and then decided later to become lovers with his rapist?? Because, remember, initially the night attacks were unsolicited and not consensual. They hurt the prince and worried him. How is this an appropriate story for anyone, let alone children?

smaller star divider

Conclusion

Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with the collection. The originality of each tale varies a lot and often the author seems to rely on a gender swap alone to make a story “new,” but without removing gendered stereotypes. The content, too, is too mature for a middle-grade book. I imagine most 8-12 year olds are not developmentally ready to read a book where cannibalism is depicted as either a neutral or a laudable act, and certainly not ready for one where sex is equated with violence and where apparent rape is depicted as the prelude to romance. This is not what children should be learning about sexuality when they are at an impressionable age. That these stories are specifically marketed as updated to reflect contemporary values and sensibilities only makes many of the narrative choices stranger because it implies that readers should take the stories at face value.

Maybe read this one if you like dark tales where no one is the hero and everyone is the villain. But go in knowing that the content here is mature and that the book is not what most would typically call a middle-grade read.

2 star review

Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse

Witches of Brooklyn What the Hex

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sophie loves exploring her new powers as a witch and, even better, she’s starting to meet the other witches in town. They’re really cool women who do their best to help others! But there’s a new girl at school, and suddenly everyone seems way more interested in her than they are interested in hanging out with Sophie. Can this witch figure out how to save her friendships?

Star Divider

Review

The sequel to Witches of Brooklyn is an engaging, if not particularly memorable read. Like many middle-grade graphic novels, it focuses on the drama of changing friend groups, though with the added twist of making the protagonist a witch. Sophie, however, does not experience any real struggles with her magic in this installment, thereby lessening much of the drama and keeping the focus on her jealousy towards her friend’s infatuation with the new girl at school. What the Hex?! is a pleasant read, but not the type of story that invites rereading.

What the Hex?! attempts to intertwine two parallel stories, with only partial success. One thread follows Sophie’s anger at her friend for paying more attention to the new girl than to her. Another follows Sophie as she meets more neighborhood witches, and learns about a city corner that seems to be cursed–at least, everyone who goes by seems to meet with bad luck. Predictably, Sophie’s ability to move past her jealousy and reach out is what ultimately enables her to solve the conflict at the corner, as well.

Unfortunately, however, the magic system is somewhat undeveloped, as is the process whereby Sophie solves the problem of the curse. As a result, the ending scene feels a bit rushed or perhaps unearned. Sophie has a random idea about the corner, based on little evidence, that just happens to be right. And then all is solved by the power of friendship! I support messages of friendship, but sometimes just throwing out that love can solve everything seems a bit too facile to be believable. There needs to be work involved, as well.

In the end, I did enjoy What the Hex?!, but the story and the art do not stand out from all the similar titles. Witchy middle-grade books are trending, as are middle school friendship dramas. As are witchy friendship dramas, which is apparently now its own subgenre. What the Hex?! simply is not as strong as the titles it is competing with. And it is not really the kind of book that I see lasting.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu (ARC Review)

Tidesong by Wendy Xu instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: Tidesong
Series: None
Source: PR company for review
Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society, this is a magically heartwarming graphic novel about self-acceptance and friendship.

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

Star Divider

Review

Tidesong by Wendy Xu is a whimsical graphic novel that has the feel of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but with dragons and a setting by the sea. The result is a story that ebbs and flows with protagonist Sophie’s struggles but ultimately will feel warm and familiar and cozy to readers.

The greatest struggle, I find, for many graphic novels is to create a complex story using limited words and space, and I do think Tidesong ultimately feels a bit sparse. There’s the main conflict of Sophie’s wanting to learn magic but then getting her magic tied up with a dragon’s and needing to sort it out so she can continue to practice for her audition for the esteemed magic academy she wants to attend, and there are side plots about Sophie’s family and Sophie’s own inner turmoil. It’s simply not as developed as I’d expect it all to be if the story were told in novel form. However, I don’t think it this will be an issue for the target audience of middle grade readers. As a child, I often imagined fuller stories into the books I read and was surprised to find as an adult that many of the books I loved so much seemed so short and simple. So I think young readers will absolutely fall in love with Tidesong and its world.

And the world has a lot to offer. In a brief space, and with the help of her gorgeous illustrations, Xu brings readers to a seaside town where Sophie’s family works magic and consorts with dragons. You can practically smell the salty air on the pages. I love the idea that Sophie’s magic is tied to water and that her family has a history of special magical traditions they have passed through the ages.

Finally, Xu ensures each character in the book has an arc, from Sophie who has to deal with learning magic in ways she didn’t expect, to Lir who has to come to terms with his memory loss and family problems, to Sophie’s extended family members who need to learn to let go of the past in order to truly see the present. The journey for each of them has up and downs but is a joy for readers to watch.

Tidesong is a book that is sure to delight readers and have them hoping Xu will return to this world with a sequel.

Briana
4 stars

The Wild World Handbook: Creatures by Andrea Debbink

Information

Goodreads: The Wild World Handbook: Creatures
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Quirk Books for review
Publication Date: November 2, 2021

Official Summary

Packed with real-life tales of adventure, breathtaking illustrations, and practical tools, this handbook is an inspiring guide for the next generation of climate activists, conservationists, and nature lovers.

We share this incredible planet we call home with countless living creatures, from butterflies and falcons to koalas and dolphins. And just like us, animals everywhere are faced with the growing threat of climate change.

Featuring seven categories of creatures, this handbook offers a roadmap for change and an invitation to explore the outdoors with fascinating facts, hope-filled stories, and hands-on STEAM activities. Each chapter highlights the biographies of scientists, artists, and adventurers from diverse backgrounds who have used their passion and skills to become courageous advocates for animals around the world.

The second book in a middle-grade series for young activists and conservationists, The Wild World Handbook: Creatures empowers readers to appreciate and protect Earth’s wildlife.

Inside you will find:
• Seven incredible categories of creatures
• Fourteen inspiring biographies
• Seven kid-friendly DIY activities
• Seven fun field trips
• And much more! 

Star Divider

Review

I would not say I am an “animal person.” I like them well enough and vaguely find some cute and some interesting, but I have never been the type of person who read extensively about animals, loved zoos, or wanted to work with animals. So it was with great delight I discovered this book is FASCINATING and I read it cover to cover in two days.

Part of the book’s brilliance is the variety of information: fun facts, biographies of people who help animals, information on specific species, crafts, and learning activities you can do. I never felt like I was reading the same thing or had to slog through.

I also love the emphasis on how kids can continue to learn about animals and become helpers themselves, which is motivational. Stories of animals that HAVE gone extinct and others that have been saved help illustrate the importance of this.

The beautiful illustrations also make the book fun and compelling to read. I highly recommend this.

Briana
3 Stars

Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin by Nadia Shammas, Illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

Ms. Marvel Stretched Thin

Information

Goodreads: Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Months after receiving superpowers, Kamala Khan is trying to balance being a superhero with a being a good friend and daughter. But the stress of attending training at Avengers Tower, babysitting her nephew Malik, keeping her readers happy with fanfic updates, completing her homework, and still attending family dinners is starting to take its toll. Then a robot villain threatens to infiltrate Avengers Tower. Kamala will need to rely on her friends if she is going to defeat the threat before it is too late.

Star Divider

Review

The stress of trying to do it all has been a constant theme for Ms. Marvel, so perhaps it is no surprise that this latest spin-off (meant for younger readers) has a familiar plotline. That would not necessarily be a problem; readers new to Ms. Marvel might well find the concept original, or at least relatable. However, the plot proves a little too simplistic (and Ms. Marvel a little too conveniently oblivious) to make Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin a notable addition to Kamala Khan’s legacy.

Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin is a thin story. The main antagonist, so to speak, is Kamala’s busy social life; plenty of scenes see her rushing from Avengers training to babysitting duty to fanfic writing. A secondary–and less impressive–villain is a robot who seeks to use the internet/technology to break into Avengers tower in order to access Tony Stark’s research. The entire plot hinges, however, on one key detail; even though Kamala has witnessed a very recognizable purple and yellow robot already try to break into Stark’s computers, she does not recognize the exact same robot when it shows up at her house. No, she decides to plug it into her computer instead. To buy into this story, readers also have to believe that Ms. Marvel is really, really dense.

Vague references to areas of concern for Gen Z such as internet privacy and capitalism are vaguely scattered through the book, in an apparent homage to the original teen comics, which are very concerned with social justice and other political issues. However, other than a nod to the fact that the villain has access to the internet–and the implication that Kamala should have been more careful about what she posts online–the story does not actually explore these issues. Even Kamala ultimately gets a pass for posting sensitive information about the Avengers on her fanfic forum because, according to her friends, it is really the villain’s fault for taking advantage of it.

Ultimately Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin adds nothing new to the Ms. Marvel story, but arguably actually makes it lesser. The story makes Kamala seem unobservant and foolish, and the villain is defeated too easily to make it seem like a really impressive win. Kamala’s ultimate desire to spend more time with family and friends is, I suppose, meant to be heartwarming and laudable, but, without more room for the story to expand on Kamala’s character development, the ending seems unearned and perhaps a little too easy. All it takes for her to repair her relationship with her parents is inviting them to watch a movie with her?

I was excited to read Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin because Kamala Khan is one of my favorite superheroes. However, the book really just reignited my desire to return to the original comics.

3 Stars

The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink

The Halloween Moon

Information

Goodreads: The Halloween Moon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 20, 2021

Official Summary

Esther Gold loves Halloween more than anything in the world. So she is determined to go trick-or-treating again this year despite the fact that her parents think she is officially too old. Esther has it all planned out, from her costume to her candy-collecting strategy. But when the night rolls around, something feels . . . off.

No one is answering their door. The moon is an unnatural shade of orange. Strange children wander the streets, wearing creepy costumes that might not be costumes at all. And it seems like the only people besides Esther who are awake to see it all are her best friend, her school bully, and her grown-up next-door neighbor.

Together, this unlikely crew must find a way to lift the curse that has been placed upon their small town before it’s too late. Because someone is out to make sure Halloween never comes to an end. And even Esther doesn’t want to be trapped in this night forever.

Star Divider

Review

The Halloween Moon is the perfect book to break out for Halloween, whether you’re an actual child or a just a child at heart. With engaging characters, a wild plot, and a setting that transforms magically from Southern California to a Halloween nightmare, the story has everything you could ask for.

I’ve read mysteries and thrillers and books about witches or zombies, but I’ve never before read a book so purely about Halloween itself. The Halloween Moon, while a scary book with a plot focused on adventure and a bit of a mystery (aka WHY ARE ALL THESE SCARY THINGS HAPPENING???) is a celebration of all aspects of the holiday: costumes, scary movies, trick-or-treating, candy, decorating your yard, and more. If you want a book that will truly immerse you in the spooky season, led by a protagonist who loves the holiday deeply herself, this is it.

I love that the book starts out focused on “normal” Halloween things, like Esther’s questions over what costume she should wear to school and whether her best friend will go trick-or-treating with her, and then things begin to take a more sinister shape as Esther starts seeing actual monsters. She loves being scared, but does she love being THIS scared? Isn’t the fun of scares at Halloween knowing that it’s all fake? Esther (and friends, some of them delightfully unexpected) rise to the challenge, however, and soon are fighting to bring back normal Halloween in a fast-paced and exciting plot.

The story also grounds itself in some real-world issues, such as the antisemitism Esther faces and her fears about growing up and going to high school next year. There are times I think the narrative voice might get too in the weeds pontificating on the nature of change and whatnot, but overall it’s very thoughtful.

Truly, this is an excellent read. It will be enjoyable any time of year, but you definitely won’t regret reading it around Halloween itself.

Briana
4 stars

Friends Forever by Shannon Hale, LeUyen Pham (Illustrator)

Friends Forever by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Information

Goodreads: Friends Forever
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Shannon is in eighth grade, and life is more complicated than ever. Everything keeps changing, her classmates are starting to date each other (but nobody wants to date her!), and no matter how hard she tries, Shannon can never seem to just be happy.

As she works through her insecurities and undiagnosed depression, she worries about disappointing all the people who care about her. Is something wrong with her? Can she be the person everyone expects her to be? And who does she actually want to be?

With their signature humor, warmth, and insight, Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham have crafted another incredible love letter to their younger selves and to readers everywhere, a reminder to us all that we are enough.

Star Divider

Review

Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham return with another charming book about growing up and trying to fit in. This time, Shannon is in eighth grade and, though she has found new friends, she still lacks confidence. She thinks that, to be likable, she has to be perfect. And she has to have a boyfriend. But she quickly realizes that fame, beauty, and romance are not in her immediate future. Now she has to figure out how to like herself just the way she is. A relatable book that feels like talking to a friend.

I have enjoyed all the books in the Friends series, but this one especially feels really poignant. Shannon initially believes that leaving her old, toxic friend group will mean everything is better, but the reality is that life is never perfect. So, she starts seeking the next thing, the one thing that will make her feel safe, happy, loved, and secure. Teen magazines and the media suggest that she needs to be a certain way to have all that. But, each time she sets out to achieve a goal–to look gorgeous in the school photos, for instance–the results are never what she wanted. Part of growing up is realizing that life is not like a movie, and there is never really any final resolution, but the let-downs are hard for Shannon.

Watching Shannon grow up through the series so far has been bittersweet. She has survived hurtful friend groups, low self-esteem, and undiagnosed depression. Watching her come out on the other side, however, has been both heartwarming and inspiring. I would love to see this series continue into high school so that readers can continue to see that, although there is always a new challenge to be met in life, there are always good friends who can help us along the way.

4 stars

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (ARC Review)

Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy book cover for Instagram

Information

Goodreads: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy
Series: None (yet)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: ARC for review
Publication Date: October 12, 2021

Official Summary

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread.

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy–a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself–things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

Star Divider

Review

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy jumps into the heart of its problem from the very first page: girls in Marya’s kingdom are given no opportunities. Marya is raised to believe the shortcomings are hers, that’s she’s useless and messes everything up and gets in her brother’s way, but when she’s sent to a school for “troubled girls,” she and her friends begin questioning everything they’ve been taught and unraveling mysteries about their school and their country that have lasted centuries. The result is an immersive, engaging story that both enthralls and enrages.

I always think I’m over stories about the patriarchy and the oppression of girls. It’s an important topic and, of course, a personal one as I’m a woman, but I do get tired of reading books with “Girls aren’t allowed to do anything” as the premise. However, Ursu digs deep into history for her story, and her take on this premise is thoughtful and complex. Indeed, it’s actually very dark at times, as characters try to convince girls they are insane rather than admit they might have knowledge or talents, but Marya’s independence and optimism help readers see the light at the end of the tunnel. Readers believe that Marya will use her wits and bits of women’s knowledge and secrets that have been passed down through generations to get out of her troubles and to find fairness for girls they’ve been denied.

The plot is ever-twisting, and I’m pleased to report that while I was close with some of my predications, I was never 100% correct. Ursu keeps readers on their toes and builds a complex web of lies and clues and magic that will hold its own for readers both young and old. I was excited to find out what would happen next, what Marya and her friends would do and what they would uncover, and I kept turning page after page to find out.

The end of the book feels a bit rushed, but everything gets wrapped up, so The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy can work as a standalone. There’s doom for sequels, and I think a lot of readers will be clamoring to hear more about Marya and her friends and their next adventures, so hopefully a new book contract is in the cards for Anne Ursu.

If you like fantasy and books about tearing down the patriarchy, this will definitely appeal to you.

Briana
4 stars

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson

Information

Goodreads: Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2009

Official Summary

Based on rare archival material, obscure trial manuscripts, and interviews with relatives of the conspirators and the manhunters, CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER is a fast-paced thriller about the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth: a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic and come from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., that spring, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up.”

So begins this fast-paced thriller that tells the story of the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth and gives a day-by-day account of the wild chase to find this killer and his accomplices. Based on James Swanson’s bestselling adult book MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER, this young people’s version is an accessible look at the assassination of a president, and shows readers Abraham Lincoln the man, the father, the husband, the friend, and how his death impacted those closest to him.

Star Divider

Review

I admit I was expecting more from this book, based on the glowing reviews. I know little about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, other than that it happened at Ford’s Theatre, and that John Wilkes Booth escaped into Maryland and was subsequently shot and killed in a barn in Virginia. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, however, did not noticeably improve my understanding of the manhunt. It draws the chase in broad strokes, mainly tracing where Booth went and whom he met, but without providing many of the little details that might make history come alive. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is a serviceable first read, for those new to the tale, but readers truly interested in the matter will want to check out other books that might bring out the nuances of history more clearly.

Perhaps the lack of details is a result of the story adapted for children or maybe there simply is not as much historical evidence about the chase as one might want. Either way, once the the Booth departs from Washington, D. C. and into Maryland, the story loses much of its impetus. The author seems concerned mainly with tracing Booth’s path from one safe house to another, but the characters he meets do not get extensive background treatment, nor does the historical moment. What were the lives of these Marylanders like before and after they encountered Booth during his escape? What was happening back in Washington? What was the mood of the nation? What was the mood of Booth’s family, including the reaction of his famous brother, the actor (and Unionist) Edwin Booth? Readers receive only a glimpse.

And the nuances of the history seem to be lost in this telling, as well. Intrigued by what I had read in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I did a short internet search for Booth. Simply reading a few online articles informed me that the history may not be as straightforward as Swanson presents it. In his version, for instance, Boston Corbett shoots Booth inside the barn, says he did it to defend his men, is court-martialed for disobeying orders, but ultimately let go. He eventually goes mad and disappears from history. Wikipedia adds to this story, noting that eyewitnesses disputed Corbett’s account that Booth had been reaching for his gun; some even expressed doubt that Corbett had been the one to shoot Booth. Additionally, Corbett does exhibit unusual behavior and eventually disappear from history, but it is believed he settled in Minnesota where he perished in the Great Hinkley Fire (though this cannot be confirmed). These are small details and probably not pertinent to the overall account of what happened. It may even be that historians do not doubt that Corbett was the one to kill Booth, and so perhaps some may not feel the need to note that eyewitnesses were not entirely sure who made the shot. And yet, these little details, and the messiness they represent, are what make history interesting.

The writing style, too, leaves something to be desired. Perhaps in an attempt to sound dramatic, the book often repeats itself on the sentence level. So, for instance, the author might inform readers of something to the effect that actress Laura Keene wanted to make history that night by being present at Lincoln’s death. But then the book will say that same thing two more times, in slightly different ways. One would think that, being condensed from a longer work, this book would not need to repeat itself for content. And this does nothing for the story except make for an awkward reading experience.

Part of me suspects that this book has received so much attention mainly because of the subject matter. Lincoln’s death continues to grip, and haunt, the nation. A book about his killer would certainly be of interest to many, especially considering that there have been several conspiracy theories over the years, suggesting Booth did not really die in a barn that April night. However, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is really a surface-level treatment of the history, presenting the basic facts, but not really situating the events in the historical and political context, or even offering any historical analysis. The book is a good place to start, but curious readers will want to keep learning more.

3 Stars

Dark Waters by Katherine Arden

Information

Goodreads: Dark Waters
Series: Small Spaces #3
Source:
Library
Published:
2021

Official Summary

Having met and outsmarted the smiling man in Dead Voices but fearful of when he’ll come again, Ollie, Brian, and Coco are anxiously searching for a way to defeat him once and for all. By staying together and avoiding remote places, they’ve steered clear of him so far but their constant worry and stress is taking a toll on their lives and friendship. So when Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom plan a “fun” boat trip on Lake Champlain, the three are apprehensive to say the least. They haven’t had the best of luck on their recent trips and even worse their frenemy Phil is on the boat as well. But when a lake monster destroys their boat, they end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. This isn’t just any island though. It’s hidden from the outside world in a fog and unless everyone works together to find a way to escape, they won’t survive long.

Star Divider

Review

Dark Waters is rather a low point for the Small Spaces quartet. Under 200 pages in length, the book seems written mainly to fill up the “spring” slot in the series and to bridge the gap until the thrilling conclusion (sold to readers through a cliffhanger). The plot, which features a massive water snake, is simply not as compelling as the plots of the first two books, and it lacks heart. Fans of the series will read it because they are already invested, but Dark Waters proves a mostly forgettable read.

Regrettably, this series seems to have hit its high point with book one. Small Spaces was a pleasantly creepy, if not wholly surprising, read for the middle grade crowd. Dead Voices laid on the spook factor, even if the plot was confusing and convoluted. But Dark Waters feels like it has just given up. Although ostensibly Brian’s story, the book fails to meaningfully convey Brian’s inner life. And the premise–being stuck on a deserted island with a huge monster–just never feels scary. The children are too quick to solve problems and the actual problem–the monster–comes across as more cheesy than threatening. And the Smiling Man? Nowhere to be found.

Really, however, the book seems to exist mainly to set up the final cliffhanger. This seems to be indicated in part by just how short the story is. Probably the last 50 pages of the book are actually chapters from Small Spaces and Dead Voices. Most books put a preview of the upcoming installment, not excerpts from previous books. What can a person conclude but that these excerpts were appended to the ending so that the book looks longer than it truly is? Without these excerpts, it becomes clear that readers are buying a story that is not equal in length to the previous books. A story that is only around 180 pages. A story that barely begins before it ends.

The Small Spaces quartet began with much promise, but the books have been declining in quality as the series progresses. I will still be reading the final book, since I made it this far, but I admit that my hopes are not high.

2 star review