Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper

While learning forensic science in Victorian London, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has the chance to investigate Jack the Ripper only to realize the famous killer’s identity might be a little too close for comfort. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco (3.5/5)

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco came out in September 2016, and I read it on November 23, 2016. It was a quick, fun read.


Audrey Rose Wadsworth is a woman ahead of her time. We meet Wadsworth in Victorian London just as the Jack the Ripper murders begin. After the loss of her mother turns her father into a bit of a despot, Wadsworth chooses to skirt convention and learn forensic sciences and is apprenticing under her doctor uncle. Here Wadsworth meets Thomas Cresswell – sarcastic, arrogant, brilliant, handsome – and who clearly delights in picking at Wadsworth. When the murders begin, Wadsworth, Cresswell, and her uncle are allowed to forensically examine the victims and as they investigate Wadsworth realizes that many of the victims have ties to her family. Wadsworth is connected to Jack the Ripper – the struggle is that there are too many suspects, and no way to stop the murders. AND she has to keep her good name, attend teas, and try not to get disowned by her father in the process.

This is weirdly a blend of Jack the Ripper mythology, a little bit Sherlock Holmes, and the story of Frankenstein all rolled into one. It’s curious that at the end of the novel, Wadsworth is headed to Romania. I’m hoping we get a unique telling of the Dracula story in the next book.

This is going to be difficult to review because it’s EXACTLY the kind of stuff I love, but 90% of it has been done before – an intrepid or unexpected investigator solving the Jack the Ripper murders, a Victorian woman bucking societal expectations. Everything felt familiar while I was reading it – like I was somehow reading many books at once that I’d read before and also watching Penny Dreadful. I don’t intend this as an insult – it was all the best parts of the best books, woven perfectly together into a ferocious story (I totally almost made a Frankenstein’s monster joke there about stitching together parts and restrained myself; you should appreciate that.) It’s familiar territory with some new landmarks. And Wadsworth and Cresswell are an addicting couple to follow.

Maniscalco’s biggest skill is her sensory detail – touch and scent particularly play a large role in setting her scenes well. I can’t always clearly envision what things look like, but her level of detail let’s me imagine how they feel, and how I would feel if I was there.

There’s somewhat of an attempt by other readers to make Cresswell a Sherlock – extraordinarily honed observations kills, a sociopath who struggles with emotions, who is cold and unfeeling excepting his attachment to his partner. I think that is such an inaccurate and incomplete vision of Cresswell. On the page, he is more than that, he is emotional and attached and shares his feelings. He is absolutely arrogant but it feels like a cover-up. It’s his shield in order to survive and that is very different than Sherlock. Sherlock doesn’t care what is  conventional, where Cresswell overtly bucks it and knows he’s doing it. Knowing the rules of courting and interactions between men and women, every time Cresswell ignores this to flirt with or touch Wadsworth is exciting because it’s a blend of his innate reaction to her and his desire to flout the rules.

I saw the ending coming from about halfway through the book and spent a lot of time yelling (internally and out loud) at Wadsworth and Cresswell to figure it out sooner. Cresswell especially should have seen it long before he did in the novel, or at least suspected. I think he did, and if that’s the case then I’m really mad he didn’t even bother to tell Wadsworth his suspicions. The two made a deal not to lie, and I think he lied by omission. I honestly can’t tell if the intention was for the reader to figure it out before the characters, or if I just understand this genre so well that the pieces fell into place for me well ahead of the reveal.

This book is an adventure, and while it seems like a relatively slim novel, A LOT happens but it doesn’t feel rushed. I enjoyed following Wadsworth and seeing her struggle with finding a femininity that made her feel strong, while also not letting herself be diminished by the societal expectations on her gender. There is a heck of a lot of sass in Wadsworth – the best part of her character is that it’s not just responses in her head. What makes her different than similar protagonists is that while some things are done in secret, she tries to make changes and be different out in the open. She toes the line to a certain extent, but for the most part she’s forthright and forceful in disagreement. Wadsworth does not seethe quietly, she talks back and demands, or chooses to ignore.

My few real complaints unique to this novel (and not just the genre): I still don’t totally understand the character of Blackburn and Wadsworth’s response to him, and I find that very frustrating. While I don’t necessarily believe him to be trustworthy, I think it’s the one time Wadsworth was lying to herself or being dishonest about her perceptions and responses, even in her head, and it felt very un-Wadsworth to me. The sections with him read in a very clunky way. Second, I wish we’d gotten to see Cresswell’s family and not just heard about them, because I think it’s an important part of his story that will feel like a big old plot hole in the next book.

I am totally fan-girling the cuteness of Wadsworth and Cresswell. Which, because I am who I am, will override a lot for me. I didn’t need the plot to be groundbreaking because I could invest deeply in character rather than story, and I think these two DO have the potential to be something unique as their stories continue.

I’m giving Stalking Jack the Ripper a 3.5/5 for fun characters in an already known world, for pulling in Frankenstein mythology, and because I will definitely be buying the next book on release day.

Review: Be Not Afraid

Marin can see people’s pain, but looking inside a classmate’s head she sees a blackness inside that might be something…else. Be Not Afraid by Cecilia Galante (4/5)

Be Not Afraid by Cecilia Galante was published in 2015; I read it November 24, 2016.

This book is definitely scary, and I think very different from Galante’s other writing. In her author bio it’s indicated that this is her first YA/Horror novel, and I am curious if she will return to the genre.


Be Not Afraid is the story of a teen girl named Marin who develops the ability to see people’s pain inside their bodies after a personal tragedy. In a new town and a new school she is tricked into completing a ritual with her classmate Cassie that leads to scarier consequences than either could have foreseen. Now everyone is in danger, Marin must face her past and her present, and along with Cassie’s brother Dominic she needs to find a way to use her ability to save lives.

I do want to give potential readers trigger warnings for eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide. This book, even with a happy-ish ending, is incredibly dark. It’s also very real – I don’t think the pain is put in this novel for sadistic purposes, but to reflect real life.

If you are not into possession stories, this is not the book for you. It also relies heavily on Catholic doctrine and theology in regard to possession and exorcism, but isn’t so specific that someone unfamiliar with the religion would be confused about what’s going on. It is both a classic possession story, and one with it’s own spin given the fact that Marin’s ability allows her to not only see the demon inside, but see the physical injury the demon has inflicted.There is also a lot of contemplation about belief, blessings, and purpose. It doesn’t feel overly preachy, but like the thought and growth process someone who has been raised in a mostly devout household might experience as they grow up.

Marin’s ability to see pain is unique, and I enjoy that it’s source is only theorized and never definitively explained. Marin’s family is struggling and grieving, and is such an accurate depiction of loss that it kind of hurts to read. When people are grieving, they often blame themselves even when it doesn’t make sense, and when we’re struggling we sometimes shirk responsibilities that we shouldn’t have. I could have read a book just about Marin and her family, minus the pain-seeing and possession, because it’s compelling, and very, very real for so many people.

I was honestly scared in parts because as a person who was raised a certain kind of Catholic (I now consider myself lapsed), possession was taught to you as a real thing, and something that especially afflicted children. Even without that, some of this is just scary because the possessed character is so unpredictable, and we have a protagonist who often gives into her fear and panic and runs away, damn the consequences.

The thing I didn’t like is kind of oddly specific. I didn’t like that Marin had a crush on Dominic before all of this started. While I enjoyed their relationship, I think it would have been more powerful to me had they found romantic feelings for each other during the kind of crazy journey of this novel (because it’s about so much more than the possession.) Before the present events, Dominic was there for a really humiliating moment in Marin’s life and I just don’t see a crush being developed or sustained from that. It was nice to see how much both characters changed and learned and felt for each other, but Marin’s struggle right from the beginning about saying no to him didn’t feel totally in-sync with the rest of her characterization.

Lucy was also under-utilized. It’s a little…stereotypical for the introvert/shut off main character, and it can get frustrating to read someone who is so open and caring being denied for almost no reason.

Overall, this was a creepy read that wasn’t like other possession novels I’ve read. It’s not so scary you’re going to be afraid after, but it was a book that I wanted to read in one sitting so I had a resolution right away to process. I’m rating Be Not Afraid a 4/5, with the note to self that I would read another Galante horror novel.

 

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

A review of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (5/5)

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay was released June 21, 2016. I read it November 20-21, 2016.

One night in the heat of August, Tommy Sanderson disappears. He was with his friends in the Borderlands State Park at a place they called Devil’s Rock when he ran into the woods and didn’t come back out.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Tremblay books are really hard to summarize.


This is the story of his mother, Elizabeth, and his little sister, Kate, as they try and figure out why Tommy and his friends went into the woods in the first place, and why Tommy didn’t come out. It’s a story of growing up and growing away, and the moments that take away innocence and thrust children into adulthood. It’s the story of the particular kind of loneliness that comes from losing a parent, from death or from leaving, and the way you might choose to fill that space. The story of what can happen not when we dream too big, but when we think our dreams are too big for us. It’s a story that asks you to believe in the maybe – maybe there’s something more out there, maybe there is a darker shadow in the shadows, and maybe sometimes we can see what’s coming and we can’t stop it.

One of my favorite things about this novel was how much I loved Tommy. Maybe it’s because the story is mostly told from the perspective of people who loved him, but I finished the story with such a sense of attachment to him. It’s also good to see myself reflected in a character – I too spend a lot of time discussing zombie contingent plans when there is a lull in the conversation. I have made note of some of the thoughts shared in these pages to bring to my next discussion with my husband.

I cannot help but compare this to A Head Full of Ghosts. Tremblay’s voice in both works is so strong – his talent for tiny details that make the scene brutally clear, the code in which children speak to each other, and the constant existential crisis of the cusp of puberty and what it means to grow up. Those are all there in both. The difference I enjoyed is that while Merry as unreliable narrator makes Ghosts terrifying, Elizabeth is a very reliable narrator and that makes what happens, the supernatural and the natural, all the more devastating. Her certainty makes me believe. And that’s what makes it scary. That’s what made me get the chills in the end of the book, reading her understanding of events, when I both knew and had no explanation for what happened.

Some might feel that the pace of Disappearance is a bit slow, but I think this was done very intentionally. We experience the waiting and the discovery in almost real time with Elizabeth and Kate. We live through those excruciating days of invasion and the unknown right along with them. We do not get a montage of their pain. We do not get to skip to the revelations. We read their pain, and we earn the revelation. I felt like I was learning teeny bits of information at a time and then when I stopped to look I found myself halfway through the book.

Another excellent book from an excellent writer – 5/5 from me, easily. It is a tight, well-crafted, makes you doubt your own mind kind of story and I would definitely recommend it.

I also want to share a last, slightly controversial, thought. I love the way Tremblay writes women. The controversial part is not that Tremblay writes women well, it is the obvious opposite that some male-identifying authors do not. In both books I have read by him, the women feel very real, like myself or women I know, and a lot of the thoughts and actions that occur could just as easily be a male character too because what they are doing and reacting to is not inherently gendered (for the most part; Marjorie is a bit but it makes sense within the story.) Tremblay writes women as complete people and I think sometimes that doesn’t occur, and is the struggle some women feel in the world of adult fiction. Women are not plot devices, metaphors, or achievements. Tremblay’s work crafts complex and detailed people – his work excellently captures essential humanness, and I think there’s something to be said for that. Both novels easily pass the Bechdel test, and in fact both novels highlight the bonds between women in a way that shapes the narrative. I think that’s awesome.

The Twistrose Key

The Twistrose Key by by Tone Almhjell was published in 2013 – I read it over the course of about a week during November 2016.

Almhjell is Norwegian, and after some googling I learned that while she did write the book in her native language she ultimately published the novel in English. I think this is relevant because there are a lot of assumptions made about something being “lost in translation” with this book. I don’t think anything is lost in translation.

I just think this book is very particular to an audience of children who are coping with a very specific kind of growing up.

The Twistrose Key begins with Lin – a girl moved from her comfortable country home to the city, and shortly after her pet vole dies. Lin is lonely, unhappy, and missing the life she knew. Then a mysterious key is slipped in through the post slot, one that leads not only to the mysterious basement of their rental house, but another key made of thorns and vines that leads her into the world of Sylver. Sylver is a land of dreams, nightmares, love, and wishes. Lin finds on the other side and near the city of Sylveros – the place where any pet who has loved a child goes when they die. Lin is reunited with her vole, Rufus, and also finds that she is a Twistrose – a child called into the world of Sylver in a time of great danger to complete a quest. Lin, Rufus, and a host of Petlings and clues must save Sylver from the Margrave before the enchanted star, the Wanderer, passes out of the valley trapping Lin in Sylver and dooming it to destruction.

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This book is sad and hopeful and a weird mix of things that are hard to describe. It has a different sensibility than a lot of books and I can’t even articulate it. It’s a bit slow moving and I don’t think I always had the information I needed to fully invest in the actions Lin and Rufus were taking. The two of them have a strong bond and it comes across so clearly, but I didn’t always understand why they did things. I didn’t understand entirely why Rufus made some of the choices he did, and I felt some of those things really led Lin astray in regard to the story overall.

The mythology of Sylver feels very complete – there could easily be many more stories in the universe of Sylver that seems to be the basis of Almhjell’s latest release – Thornghost. I like that the internal logic of the magic of Sylver holds – I don’t ever get knocked out of the suspension of disbelief when the magic is happening. Almhjell is so detailed – so many little things come back later, or have greater meaning and if a reader picks up on that early it makes it easy to see certain things coming. It does not make some of those things any less tense, or eerie as is the case with the first time we see the real villain of the story.

Sometimes the pacing is a little off, but the story really picks up halfway through and has a very sad, smooth finish. One of my favorite aspects of this book was how important friendships are, and how important it is to connect with others and know that you can trust them. Communication is such an essential part of this story, and I appreciate her focus on that.

Fans of Narnia will definitely enjoy this novel. I’m going 3/5 because it took me a long time to get into it, but it would be an excellent book to read out loud to a child, particularly after the loss of a beloved pet. It’s a book that gives hope, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom

Listen, you’re going to like these, so no quip is needed. Read Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo.

I read Six of Crows on October 22-24, 2016. I read Crooked Kingdom on October 26-27, 2016.

I have so much to say.

I was never really interested in reading the Grisha trilogy (I have rethought this decision,) but something about the gritty sass that was apparent in Six of Crows drew me in. This duo has been so hyped on Instagram that my expectations were really high and I must say I was not disappointed.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom start in the city of Ketterdam on the island nation of Kerch – a place where trade is both God and good; where economics and capitalism are the work of both the wealthy merchant class and the illegally wealthy underbelly of the Barrel. The Dregs are one of the many gangs that control the gambling in the Barrel, and Kaz Brekker is their leader in everything but title. Kaz is offered the heist of a lifetime with a payoff big enough to do whatever he wants. Through various means, Kaz recruits five more members to create the titled Six: Inej (the wraith/spy/acrobat), Jesper (the sharpshooter), Wylan (the bomb maker/hostage?), Nina (the Heartrender, rogue member of the Grisha Second Army), and Matthias (rogue druskelle, large blonde man.)

Obviously, all does not go entirely according to plan. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about these books is that pretty much nothing goes to plan but you have no idea how it’s going to go wrong, so you think maybe everything will be okay and then it’s totally not but not in the way you expected. Or Kaz is so smart that he sees how it will go wrong so many layers deep that the wrong becomes the actual plan all along.

It’s a world of racism, human trafficking, violence, and magic. It’s a world where everyone is a little bit broken in their own way but you love them anyway. A world where someone can recover from brainwashing, from intolerance and ignorance, and where people are kind of horrible but you can still find the good ones if you look.

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Perhaps the most interesting relationship is that between Inej and Kaz. And some of the things that happen make me really frustrated with Inej – and it’s a frustration that I think Bardugo chose to create.

There’s a line in Six of Crows that people love in which Kaz is sort of starting to tell Inej that he has feelings for her and Inej responds: “I will have you without armor Kaz Brekker, or not at all.” So either lay yourself open for me physically and emotionally, or it ain’t happening.

This is problematic because both Kaz and Inej are struggling with major PTSD. Kaz wears gloves and cannot stand the touch of human skin; the reader learns why and completely understands this feeling. The other thing is that Inej is someone who was sold into sex trafficking and was repeatedly hurt and raped; she’s only been free for a year. Does Inej really think that she can expect to be touched by Kaz in a romantic or sexual way without also feeling panic? Does she not sympathize with Kaz’s aversion? While she doesn’t know the reason Kaz wears gloves, she knows it’s not just an affectation – if it was that would be armor I can accept her asking him to remove.

And yes, she’s asking him to remove his emotional armor as well – and that’s something she absolutely should be asking of him. But the gloves? That’s removal that takes time and trust – time she doesn’t seem to be willing to give him. Just as Kaz touching Inej in a way that she can respond to from a place of love and attraction will take time.

In the end I think there’s a better understanding between the two of what they really need to let go of in order to be together, truly together, and not just broken people who don’t know how to love. Ultimately I appreciate the damage of those two characters because it demonstrates that you can recover from trauma – you can move on to the next thing when you find a reason to make yourself heal. So, I forgive Inej for saying something wildly insensitive.

I was blown away by this duology, and it is absolutely deserving of the hype and craze it gets on Bookstagram and everywhere else. I hope it never gets made into a movie because the cast in my head is so weird and specific and has aged out of their ability to play some of the roles they have in my head, and no one can ever be Kaz for me except Reeve Carney.

Anyway, back to why the story is amazing. It’s so complex and complete and has crazy specific details and plotting. I would definitely walk around inside Leigh Bardugo’s head if it meant I could wander around Ketterdam. I might even be willing to gamble a little, which is something I kind of despise. This world feels so real you could touch it, you can smell it, and sometimes even taste it.

The characters are your new best friends by the time you’re done. You want for them to get what they were after, and to feel safe to try and to dream. You want them to be happy, whatever that means.

My favorite running gag is when Kaz asks a question and they all reply with a different answer (always the wrong answer). My most favorite is the first time this happens and Matthias responds with “you’re all horrible.” I crowed with laughter because it was true, but also displayed how disgruntled and stubborn he is.

My first instinct is that Nina is my favorite character, followed closely by Kaz and Matthias, but then I’m like, wait – Inej, and Jesper, and Wylan. It’s like choosing a favorite finger.

If I keep talking, I’ll ramble. Six of Crows 5/5 and Crooked Kingdom 4.5/5 because, listen Leigh, you did NOT have to kill that one character and even plotlistically I cannot find good enough justification for it. READ THESE NOW.

Binge Reading

I am a binge-reader – I don’t savor books. In fact, I’m really bad at it. When I want a book to last, I resign myself to gulping through it and then immediately starting it for a second time. Or I will re-read from a part somewhere in the middle that I really liked so I can enjoy the build up to the resolution without having to go through some of the background stuff again. I resign myself to finishing a book and then slowly trolling back through it to mark the parts I want to refer back to, make note of, or share with someone else.

I have always read quickly and retained well (which was helpful for my ACT and SAT scores in high school) but sometimes it does take the enjoyment out of things. I read at a pace akin to skiing down an icy mountain with no idea how to slow yourself down or stop. When I get into a story my pace is breakneck – it’s the only speed I know.

I also binge in groups – if I read a good book by an author I hunt down one and then another and then another until I have read their oeuvre and can then feel prepared to read whatever they are coming out with next. Or if I find a series I read all of the series. I savor nothing. I am trying to stop this habit too, but it isn’t working.

How do you slow down?

I am a devourer of words.

Girl of Nightmares

What price would you pay to save the one you love? Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake.

Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake was released in 2012 – I read it October 21-22, 2016.

My initial thoughts:

  • Anyone who thinks this should be more than a duology is crazy. The only justification I can see is that the third book’s cover would have Anna facing full forward. I have imagined the third image in my mind and it looks badass, but alas, this has ended exactly as it should.
  • If the first book made me scream, this one made me cry.
  • I’m kind of okay with this version of the afterlife.

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Girl of Nightmares picks up almost 6 months after Anna Dressed in Blood. Cas can’t let Anna go. He starts seeing her and the visions are awful and violent enough that he begins to believe she’s calling to him from the other side. Anna is not safe, and this time it’s Cas’s turn to do the rescuing. Girl of Nightmares takes the gang to London and then the Scottish Highlands where the true history of Cas, his powers, and the athame are revealed.

This book is a bit more gore over creep factor than Anna, but it was always justified and further created the power and the tension in the story. The tension creates intentional frustration – the reader feels what Cas is feeling about the lack of straight answers and information, or even truly understanding what the athame and the other side are. Cas is his usual reckless self, and everybody else seems a little bit more at peace with that, if a little less tolerant of it. I liked him even more in this book because I felt like his journey was more internal – there were things he had to figure out about himself, revisiting his knowledge of his identity and his place in the world, and I liked knowing that I could trust who he is at his core.

Like all good horror, we explore regular life via the supernatural – love, loss, and change. It had to end the way that it did – it was the realistic and the powerful way to end it. If it had ended differently, it would have really ruined both books for me and I would have felt that it was very unhealthy. The reality of life is that things don’t always work out and we lose people – sometimes to change and sometimes to death. The power is in letting go. There are so many specific tiny moments that would be total spoilers during the final battle that I find so powerful.

Most important line, from new and dynamic character Jestine:

“Your morality isn’t the only morality in the world. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Also, I think Cas totally should have yelled at Carmel. And I was frustrated by that storyline in general – maybe because it was what an unsure teenage girl would do and I expected more of Carmel, or maybe because it felt pushed in to create extra conflict. However, I did enjoy that we see Cas-as-third-wheel to Thomas and Carmel. I don’t think we get the perspective of the third wheel who is also the narrator very often in a way that isn’t whining or pining after one half of the couple, and his frustration over Carmel but holding back is something I think everyone has experienced at some point. It points out in a subtle way why it’s hard when your friends date. When they hurt it hurts you too.

Blake is an excellent writer and a craftsman of story – there’s just no overloaded exposition – you discover things instead of being told them, you inhabit Cas very completely and feel what he feels, and she trusts her reader to take leaps. On that level alone Blake has earned a fan for life – a pre-order, book signing, tell-everyone-to-read-this fan.

On a personal level, this book spoke to me the way Blake’s other books have because of my own loss. One of my best friends died unexpectedly in February – it’s part of the reason I started this blog – and I have been using books (and Criminal Minds for some reason) to help me move forward. Anna and Girl did that because while I am a religious person, the view of the afterlife presented felt very grounded and unattached to any school of thought and that was comforting. Three Dark Crowns did that for me because I can just feel it would be a book that we would have obsessed over together (she would be Team Arsinoe, I have embraced being Team Katharine) and it makes me feel connected to her again.

Anyway, read. Go to your library, get tons of books, and read! But especially read Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares.