(Listed in the order I read them)
For September and October I wanted to start setting the Halloween vibe. I chose some books that were a bit darker, perhaps a bit gory, and some mysteries.
Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass
By: Lewis Carroll
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Oh my God. The fact that someone’s brain could come up with these two stories without the help of drugs, I find hard to believe. I know there are tons of speculations about Carroll being high on Opium or LSD and… I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind. I can see the undertones of such things throughout the stories but also know it is possible for people to be this creative without help. In my particular version, the story ends with a poem that when you read only the first letter of each line it spells out: Alice Pleasance Liddell, which is the name of the young girl he befriended who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Sweet? Creepy? I don’t know, but I’m going to move off this topic and start talking about the actual stories.
First of all, these stories are so classically mid to late 1800s Brit Lit it makes me want to cry (in a good way). What I mean is, it's very conversational in tone and witty. It's also filled with interjections set off by parentheses which contain a second thought or joke (which takes a bit of getting used to). Because of the strange flow, it did take me a while to get into the book but, once I grew accustomed to it, I hardly noticed the interjections at all. This book is 90% miscommunication through word puns and 10% the game of Chess. It’s incredibly clever and a huge testament to how awfully confusing and tiring the English language can be.
These two stories are very dated, very British, and very strange - but what else do you expect from them?
Queen of Hearts
By: Colleen Oakes
Genre: YA Fantasy
My Rating: 4/5
Okay, so clearly reading Alice in Wonderland put me on a Wonderland kick. This is my second time reading this wonderful book (the first in a trilogy) about the back story to the Queen of Hearts. Essentially, it’s the story of how she became evil.
Unlike the Wonderland created by Carroll, Oakes' Wonderland is not confusing nor is it modeled after a chess board. Cheshire is a person and not a cat, the Queen of Heart's real name is Dinah, and the Mad Hatter is the Queen's younger brother Charles who is quite disturbed and spends all his time talking in riddles and making hats. There is a tyrannical king, a tree whose sap makes you insane, and giant horses called Hornhooves who have deadly spikes on their hooves. It’s glorious.
The writing is so beautiful, and the world is so thoughtfully created and described. Even the details of Dinah's clothing and the architecture of the palace are so well planned. And that cover? So aesthetic, I love it. It’s a wonderful book with an amazing cast and world. I highly recommend it.
A Samantha Mystery: The Curse of Ravenscourt
By: Sarah Masters Buckey
Genre: Middle Grade Realistic Fiction/Mystery
My Rating: 5/5
Perhaps I should first explain how American Girl books work for those who don’t know. Each American Girl is a window into a certain time period. There is a girl from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, etc. Then, each of those girls has a series of books. The core group of books all have the same names like, “Meet (insert girl’s name here)” but they also have branch off books, like this mystery, that are smaller. Then of course you can buy the doll of your favorite American Girl and all her accessories and whatnot.
Samantha is by no means my favorite American Girl. I never wanted her doll or her accessories, but she had my favorite books. I attribute this to her time period; 1904. Even as a kid I was drawn to Samantha’s Victorian-era New York world; and that hasn’t changed. One of my favorite things about American Girl books in general is how seamlessly they interweave the landscape of the time period into the narrative. This book talked about automatic cars, elevators, and telephones. The author explained these “new” inventions through the eyes of the characters so the audience is discovering them along with Samantha and her family. What I loved about this book was that it didn’t shy away from the disgusting living conditions many New Yorkers had to experience at this time, as well as the alarming gap between the poor and wealthy.
Samantha has three adopted sisters (I also love that Samantha has a “non-conventional” family with three adopted sisters and being raised by her aunt and uncle) who were orphaned and abandoned and had to take care of themselves on the streets. In this story, the girls take their rich neighbor to a sketchy apartment building. The book describes the urine-scented stairwells, the children suffering from frostbite, and even the scabs and lice on a young girl’s scalp.
This book is filled with strong female characters for young girls to emulate. Though they are all kind, they are also fierce. Nellie (one of Samantha’s adopted sisters) has had to grow up very quickly in order to take care of her younger sisters and she is not afraid to speak up for herself (or get into a fight). At the end of the book, it is Nellie, Samantha and their guardian/aunt Cornelia who save the day.
As a mystery, it's written quite well. When I was younger, I remember being afraid and on the edge of my seat. Re-reading it as an adult obviously doesn’t produce quite the same effect, but it is still an interesting story. Throughout the story there are several details that add to the unease. The housekeeper has a fear of elevators and Samantha has a fear of heights. When the character is uncomfortable, the reader is uncomfortable, and uncomfortability is key in a mystery story.
In a nutshell (and without spoilers), this mystery novel takes place at a hotel-apartment complex where Samantha’s family is staying while their home in the country is being renovated. It is called Ravenscourt and rumor has it, it’s cursed. A few years before, an angry tenant put a curse on Mr. Raven and, ever since then, strange things have been happening. The service elevator is crashing, the heat keeps breaking, a stone raven falls off the top of the roof. Is it someone sabotaging Mr. Raven, or is there really a curse? And, on top of that, Aunt Cornelia has left them unexpectedly and they can’t figure out why.
It’s very well written and entertaining for any age. And, my favorite part, is that at the end of each American Girl book there is a “Looking Back. A Peek into the Past” section which talks about the real things that were going on in the world during the time period that inspired the book. This book talks about the invention of safety elevators, the superstition around the number 13, Sherlock Holmes, and the obsession with the paranormal and seances at the time.
A Tale Dark & Grimm
By: Adam Gidwitz
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
My Rating: 4.5/5
This whole series is wild. There are three books in this series (A Tale Dark and Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion) and they are all insane. The premise of these books is that the author is disappointed in how fairy tales have been watered-down over the years and he is returning them to their former gory glory with a vengeance. I had read this book before, but I had read all three so close together that I had forgotten which story lines went with which book.
This first installment in the series follows Prince Hansel and Princess Gretel past the witch’s house, into an enchanted forest, up a snowy mountain, through Hell, and back home again. However, my favorite part is when the author (as himself) interjects with humorous comments and background details. Not only does this effectively cut the tension and make it a quicker read, but it is some of the most unique storytelling I have ever seen. I feel this is the kind of narrative voice you either instantly love or instantly hate. I love it, and the only reason I gave the book 4.5 stars instead of 5 is because I wasn't as enthralled in it as I was the first time I read it - but that could be my fault.
By: Tina Fey
My Rating: 4/5
I have technically read this before but I only remembered that I liked it. I didn’t remember any anecdotes or details of her life. I didn’t even remember that she had a scar on her face, and you don’t even have to read the book to know that. But yes, even reading this for a second time, it was super enjoyable.
Tina Fey's life is the perfect meld of relatability and things that most of us can only imagine. The book is incredibly witty and often takes jokes in a direction you didn’t see coming. Sometimes the jokes can be a bit alarming and a bit “I can’t believe she just went there,” but I think that’s part of the charm. It’s clear that Tina Fey does not take herself too seriously but she does talk about serious topics such as body image and being a woman in power with both poise and hilarity.
She also includes a lot of script excerpts from 30 Rock and SNL which I find really cool because one, it makes you feel like you’ve been invited into a special club and two, the script format is incredibly easy and quick to read.
Nancy Drew: The Clue in the Crossword Cipher
By: Carolyn Keene
Genre: Middle Grade Mystery
My Rating: 4/5
In case you’re not familiar with the Nancy Drew series, it is about a young detective in the 1960s named Nancy Drew who, with her two friends Bess and George (a girl), travels the world to solve various mysteries. In this installment, we are taken on a trip to Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu. However, it’s 1967 so you’ll most likely have to wear heels on the plane, the cabin may not be pressurized, and you’ll have to lug around a camera and extra film.
In this story, a young lady from Peru named Carla presents Nancy with an old wooden plaque that has been in her family for generations. They believe it is a treasure map, but they must figure out the fading crossword etched into the back in order to follow it. Meanwhile, El Gato, a drug smuggler, is after the plaque as well. This book wasn’t as clue-based as some of the other Nancy Drew stories. Instead, it mostly focused on the different places they visited and all the ways El Gato tried to stop their progress. The sleuthing side took a back seat throughout most of the book and sort of conveniently fell in to place towards the end.
In general, the Nancy Drew books are written very simplistically (you could make a drinking game out of how many times something is described as “attractive”) yet never fail to capture the imagination. Although they were written in the 1960s, for the most part, they have aged well. However, I find it interesting to see the cultural changes that have occurred. For example, Nancy is pretty, thin, and blonde with blue eyes. Her father is a lawyer, and her boyfriend was the football star in high school. In the 1960s, these were the characters the publishing world thought people wanted to read about. Thankfully, that is changing, but I still think it makes Nancy Drew books an important part of contemporary American literature history. Also, Nancy and George were really mean to Bess about her weight. She is described as overweight when first introduced and throughout the entire book they are telling her to stop eating or chastising her when she eats too much. George even calls her her “fat cousin” at one point. To her face! I don’t remember them being so blunt about Bess’s eating habits in the other Nancy Drew stories and the whole time I just kept thinking, “oh my God! Leave Bess alone!”
The Dark Decent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
By: Kiersten White
Genre: YA SciFi? Horror? Fantasy? All of the Above?
My Rating: 5/5
I haven't finished this book yet and originally wasn’t going to include it because of that; but I really want to talk about it and I think it’s a great read for this time of year. The reason I haven’t finished it is because it is so intense. It’s not too gory or scary, but all the characters are so serious and obsessed with their personal interests (and their interests are strange) that it becomes… just…intense! I was binge reading it in order to get it done by the end of October, and I just needed a break.
This book is very unique. Basically, the main character Elizabeth was sold to the Frankenstein family to be their son Victor’s friend (yes, that Victor Frankenstein). She is the only person who can calm Victor down when he throws fits and they quickly develop a very unhealthy and co-dependent relationship. After Victor’s mother dies he becomes obsessed with cheating death. He moves away to the city to go to university where he embarks on his journey of creating Frankenstein’s Monster. He stops responding to any of the family’s letters, so Elizabeth and the family’s governess Justine travel to the city to find Victor and solve the mystery of what happened to him and what he has created. However, it's once they find him and return home that things get real crazy.
It took me a while to get into the writing style. Not only does this story start in the middle of the action, but it starts in the middle of the story. Each chapter is split in half. Half of it is written in italics and features a flashback scene and then the other half is the current story. I didn’t like this constant interruption at first but once both stories started to pick up and the flashbacks became helpful to explain the characters current motives, I liked it.
I don’t think you need to know much about Frankenstein or be a fan of it to understand or like this book. I “read” Frankenstein in high school and only remembered that Frankenstein is the name of the doctor (Victor) not the monster, and the monster doesn’t like fire. Also that the monster is made out of dead body parts that have been re-animated; but that’s common knowledge. What I do know about is the history behind Frankenstein and the author, Mary Shelley, herself. Mary Shelley’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft and Wollstonecraft is one of my favorite women in history. She was one of the original feminists in the mid/late 1700s and wrote this amazing work called A Vindication of the Rights of Women which is a snarky and sarcastic plea to the men in charge begging them to let women be educated so that the men do not have to talk with "idiot wives" all day. She died while giving birth to Mary Shelley and legend has it that the guilt and fascination with that lead Shelley to create the story of Frankenstein. What I liked about The Dark Decent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is that it incorporated some of these aspects. There is a character named Mary, the main character Elizabeth is named after her mother who died in childbirth just as Shelley was named after Wollstonecraft, and Victor becomes especially obsessed with reversing death after the death of his mother similar to Mary Shelley and the creation of the original story.
And there we have it. I’ve decided I want to get a little gimmicky for next month so I have dubbed November as "Nonfiction November!" Get ready for a lot of memoirs.