Catch-Up Round: A Cook’s Tour and The Deep

A Cook's TourA Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Genre: food memoir

Setting: global

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 274 pp

Published by: ecco (30 July 2001)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Just like his various TV shows, this book takes readers on a global tour with Anthony Bourdain. He travels, eats, gets drunk with the locals, and writes about it, which is basically my dream job. He covered regions from Russia to Mexico, the UK to Asia, and many places in between in search of the perfect meal. 

This will be a super short review. I loved this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 just because I thought the Russia section was overly long, and there were a few places where he seemed to have run out of words and kept using the same one over and over. That is bad editing, not really Tony’s fault, though. One of my favorite parts was in the Russia section, though, where he went into the frozen pool. LOL! 

I read this to complete a Read Harder task (read a food memoir about a cuisine you’ve never had before). I have had many of the cuisines in this book, but not all of them. I can honestly say I’ve never had any kind of Russian food, and some of the UK food. Though last time I was there, I did try black pudding and thought it was delicious. Anthony Bourdain is the reason I tried it. I wanted to read this book again now because I still miss him. 

The DeepThe Deep by Rivers Solomon (Website)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the ocean deep

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 166 pp

Published by: Saga Press (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a super original fantasy set in the Caribbean. The Wajinru are basically mermaids, the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves who were thrown overboard through the Middle Passage. They live almost entirely in the present, with all their culture’s collective memories housed in one Historian. Once a year, all the Wajinru gather inside a huge room built specially for the gathering and the Historian, Yetu, passes all the memories to the other Wajinru. Yetu, though, is highly sensitive and being the receptacle of all the horrible memories of her ancestors is a burden that is killing her. She has to decide whether to leave her group and let the memories remain in the others or if she is willing to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of her whole community. 

I did like this novella a great deal, though I found it kind of confusing in some parts. Once I got the Wajinru culture figured out, it got easier, though some of it was pretty nonlinear and threw me off a little bit. Overall, this story was complex and well-crafted, especially considering how short it is. The world-building was awesome.

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Hitolia, the fantasy version of Anatolia, the ancient Hittite lands

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 482 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (13 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In this third instalment of Starkston’s delightful Tesha series based on ancient Hittite culture, Of Kings and Griffins picks up a few months after the events of her second book, Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha, our protagonist, is now Queen of Alpara and has given her husband, Hattu, a baby daughter, Arinnel. Hattu’s brother, the Great King, has died, leaving as heir his untested teenaged son, Urhi, who plots against Hattu’s aid. At the same time, Tesha’s blind sister, Daniti, is called by the griffin king, Bothar, to help him overcome a deadly danger in a way she is uniquely suited for.

This novel opens around a year after the events of Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha and Hattu are at the funeral of his brother, the Great King Muwatti, and Tesha, seeing that Hattu’s young nephew, Urhi, will be a problem for them, uses her magic to influence him to bend to Hattu’s will. Except Tesha, still being very young, wasn’t so subtle and got caught, thus undermining any authority Hattu might have had over Urhi. At odds with each other and his nephew, Hattu and Tesha return to Alpara to regroup. 

At the same time, Hattu’s best friend and military commander, Marik, is dealing with a mysterious illness that is striking down his troops. The court physician believes the illness to be caused by a curse from a powerful sorcerer, and that the ultimate goal is to kill Marik or Daniti next. To stop the magickal illness from killing all his troops, Marik goes on a dangerous spying mission to learn what he can and, with luck, kill the sorcerer responsible for the curse.

There are many layers to this novel, all delicately entwined and teased out over the course of the narrative. The politics involved are interesting and often very subtle. I liked the interplay between Tesha and both Urhi and the Egaryan ambassador, Ahmose. Seeing how Tesha learned to work with and, in some cases, manipulate, these men was fun to read. She has grown as a priestess, a queen, and a woman since we first met her and she’s becoming a very well rounded character. 

I always liked Daniti, so it was great to see her have such a prominent role in this novel. She has begun to manifest magic as well, not as strong as Tesha’s, but she is able to communicate telepathically a little bit over distances. She uses this skill to talk to her niece Arinnel. This ability, as well as her blindness, makes her valuable to the griffin king Bolthar, who brings her to the hidden realm of the griffins to help protect his young cubs. Daniti is certainly kinder than I would be. Bolthar needs her help and yet he is arrogant and disdainful of her practically every step of the way. It would be really hard to want to help someone who treats you like that, but Daniti has a loving heart and throws herself into the project despite Bolthar’s attitude. 

I also liked that Marak played a large role here, even more so than Hattu. Marak was all over the place in this story, from undercover spy searching for a sorcerer to leading military campaigns. It seemed like everywhere you turned, there was Marik, in the best way possible. 

I remain utterly delighted with this series. I read a LOT of fantasy, both pure fantasy and historical fantasy. A series that is based on historical context is almost always going to appeal to me greatly, like Stephen Lawhead’s Robin Hood King Raven series, or Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen Arthurian series. To have a historical fantasy series that is based on ancient Hittite culture is entirely unique. Starkston’s knowledge of the Hittites and the political events of the time period is deep. She supports her characters’ decisions and drives the plot based on her thorough research and understanding of the culture. I have read all three books that are now in the series and can honestly say they are just getting better and better. Also, these books could probably all be read as standalone stories, though you are missing out if you don’t read all of them. Including the author’s notes! Learning the real historical events and people that the Tesha series is based on adds so much depth and meaning to the story. 

Very enthusiastically recommended! 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • When searching through old scrolls and clay tablets for a binding spell, Tesha discovers a whole room of forgotten, ancient tablets. She says the old ones are the best kind. I loved this! Tesha would totally be a book nerd! 

Age of Druids

Age of Druids by Christy Nicholas (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Ireland and Faerie

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 284 pp

Published by: Tirgearr Publishing (14 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Age of Druids is the ninth and final book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series. In this instalment, readers are taken to early Christian Ireland, roughly 5th century, where Cliodhna struggles to come to terms with the new religion that is invading and pushing out her beloved old religion. She is accustomed to welcoming the day with the sun, feeling the spirit and energy of living things, and communicating a bit with the Fae who live in the woods near her roundhouse. To her dismay, not only do the new religion have no place for the things she loves, but her two eldest children, nearly grown themselves, are drawn to this religion and are changing because of it. On top of that, Cliodhna’s husband has been missing for months, adding a layer of suspicion through which the zealous abbot, Padraic, views her.

To try to hold on to her way of life, Cliodhna begins lessons with Adhna, a man of the Fae. He teaches her how to draw upon earth energy to revitalize plants and animals as well as to protect herself. Cliodhna soon finds herself drawn into Adhna’s world more deeply than she ever imagined possible. She will be forced to make a choice between the mortal world, full of strange new ideas and shifting loyalties, and the Fae world, utterly foreign and frightening. 

It was interesting to see how the various threads from the other books in this series were entwined throughout this novel. We learn how the brooch was created at last and how and why it was gifted to Cliodhna’s family line to begin with. Learning how her family became connected to the Faerie realm was satisfying after so many books preceding it that hinted but never confirmed. 

I have read many of Nicholas’s books and, while I greatly enjoyed this one, it was probably my least favorite of the Druid’s Brooch series. There were a few places, in particular scenes set in the Faerie realm, that I felt I had read before. I spent a lot of time backtracking my old reviews and copies of the other books to see where I had read it before. I couldn’t find any duplicated scenes, so I am clearly wrong. But there was a lot that read in a very familiar way which I hadn’t gotten from any of her other books. Maybe it was just a function of having read the other ones and Nicholas’s writing style has become familiar. That is not in itself a bad thing.

The descriptions were all top notch, both in the mortal realm and in Faerie. I liked the diversity of characters and how they changed over time. The Christian monks in general, and the Abbott in particular, were described in a pretty negative way since they were seen primarily from Cliodhna’s point of view. This negativity was explained in a later part of the plot, but devout readers, which I am decidedly not, may be a little put off by it. The villagers had a few bright spots in terms of character development as well. Ita in particular was an interesting figure and I wish there had been more scenes with her. She added a nice counterpoint to Cliodhna, who was all feisty; Ita was a good balance for her. 

The ending felt a little abrupt, but it makes sense because now the timeline starts to move forward, rather than backward. Readers could tackle the series in the reverse order of publication if they really wanted to and get a sweeping epic fantasy. Which, of course, it is anyway. I really loved the way the entire series moved backward through time to get to the genesis of the brooch that was central to the lives of the characters. I thought that was a really fun way to approach it.

One small quibble I had was the title. There really weren’t any Druids in the book. They were mentioned in passing. Druids are awesome, so I wish there had been more, or a Druid who played a main role. Cliodhna was not a Druid so she couldn’t have been the one the title implies.

Overall, this novel nicely done and provided a satisfactory summation to the entire series. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fantasy and Irish culture.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***Read More »

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA, possibly a little younger

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: my own collection

Length: 3:59:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (23 Sept 2011)

All the spoilers below!

Connor O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy whose mother is battling cancer, only no one really calls it that. She is also dying, but no one talks about that, either. Every night since his mother started her treatments, Connor has had the same nightmare. One night, he wakes up and finds a monster outside his window. He had expected the one from his dreams but it wasn’t; it was an actual monster that comes from ancient British folklore. It tells Connor that he himself summoned the monster because he wants something from it. With each encounter Connor has with this creature, the closer he comes to the truth, painful and bright. 

I confess I bought this audiobook purely because Jason Isaacs narrates it and, since it’s a kid’s story, I figured I could just put it on and not pay much attention to it beyond being delighted to hear Isaacs’s lovely, gravelly British voice reading to me. I never expected that I would actually like the story, which I did, immensely. The story was not about cancer or illness so much as a study in grief from both a young boy’s perspective and his mother’s. It is about how childhood friendships shift during times of tragedy and how we learn who our true friends are. 

I really loved the theme of stories taking on lives of their own. The monster tells Connor that ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ I like this passage because it shows how stories can be interpreted differently by different people, how each person might take a wholly new meaning from it or react to it in an unexpected way. They may not even anticipate how they themselves will react until the story is told. Connor reacts more and more violently with each story the monster tells. If his situation had been different and he heard the same stories, undoubtedly his reactions would not have been the same. Similarly, when writing a story, I’m sure many authors don’t know exactly where their story will go, how it will end up. I can’t be the only writer who is often surprised by what my characters decide to do. Stories weave themselves into the fabric of culture and inform society at many levels; the monster is just highlighting that fact in ways Connor doesn’t always appreciate. 

Another big theme is truth. Connor’s mother has cancer. Truth. She is going to die. Truth. No one comes out and directly says any of this, beating around the bush about it, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. The monster helps Connor to see that the truth, though often painful, is the only way he can be healed, and that that is why the monster came. Not to heal Connor’s mother, but to heal Connor himself. Connor has to learn that the truth is the only way he can learn to let his mother go and also the only way to live through it. And he has to learn to forgive himself. Everyone lies to themselves sometimes, and to others. It is a human trait to ward off pain and to comfort themselves. But ultimately, facing the truth is the only way to relieve that pain, no matter how pleasant the lie is. 

Learning a little bit of woodlore is always an added bonus. There was a lot of discussion about the yew tree, which is what the monster is. Yew trees are what the dreaded English longbows were made from in the Middle Ages. The tree is symbolic of death, rebirth, and immortality likely because old yew branches that droop to the ground can take root and grow new yew trees and they are incredibly long-lived. There are a lot of churches in Britain that have yew trees around them, particularly in cemeteries. They are highly toxic and their needles can produce fatal results if ingested. The berries are also hallucinogenic and lethal. The tree can also symbolise silence, introspection, and aloofness, possibly because they’re very twisty trees with lots of nooks and crannies for solitary creatures to live in, or for ways to the Underworld in Celtic mythology. The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford would make an interesting companion read, at least her chapter on yew. 

As for the audiobook element, yes, I got it for Jason Isaacs. However, he honestly is an excellent narrator, doing various voices and accents with great facility. His performance draws listeners into the story swiftly and seamlessly. He is one of my favorite narrators, right alongside David Tennant, Simon Preble, Davina Porter, Wil Wheaton, and Simon Vance.

Strongly recommended, especially the audio version. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
  • Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 
  • Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.
  • Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” 
  • You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.” 

 

 

 

The Lost Queen

41971059._sx318_The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fantasy

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Toni Frutin

Source: my own collection

Length: 17:44:00

Published by: Touchstone (4 Sept 2018)

In 6th century Scotland, twins are born to Morkan, a petty king of Cadzow. Languoreth and her brother Lailoken lived in a time when the old ways are being destroyed by Christianity, and the result is political instability and conflict. Although Languoreth wants nothing more than to become a Wisdom Keeper (Pike’s term for Druid), it is Lailoken who is chosen for that path. Languoreth is married to Rhydderch, a son of the High King Tutgual who is sympathetic to Christian interests. Rhydderch adheres to the old ways but his fairly tyrannical father has converted. Languoreth’s duty to her people is to act as their emissary, protecting and preserving the old ways as best she can. Through politics, strategic marriage, and ties of loyalty, Languoreth fights for her beliefs. Alongside Languoreth are Maelgwn, a Dragon Soldier for Emrys Pendragon and her lover; her foster brother Gwenddolau, later called the Other Pendragon, or Uther; and her brother Lailoken, who the common people began calling Mad Man – Myrddin, known to history as Merlin. 

Languoreth of Strathclyde was a historical woman, mostly forgotten by history. Thus, the ‘lost’ queen. Fantasy that is based in reality is the best kind, in my opinion, because it takes a beloved story and turns it into something that might actually have happened. No matter how much we suspend our disbelief for the sake of entertainment, it is hard to imagine that a boy really did pull a sword out of a stone and that magic forged the historical foundation of Britain. It is thrilling, though, to find real evidence of men and women on whom the legends are based. Signe Pike did an absolutely stellar job in creating a believable and complex novel on the basis of bits of information. 

The politics in this novel are detailed and readers feel the stress, uncertainty, and fear produced by it. The tensions between the old ways and the new religion are vividly depicted and reflect an awareness of modern social issues as well as ancient. 

The creation of this world and the characters who will eventually become the well-known figures of Arthurian is intricately drawn out. It is not always a fast-paced novel, so for people who want all action, all the time, this may not be the book for you. For me, though, I’ve finally found a book that can replace The Mists of Avalon as a book I can recommend. 

I had initially skimmed an ARC of this from Netgalley and left a brief review. However, I enjoyed it so much that I bought both the hard copy and audio version. I have to say, the narrator, Toni Frutin, is amazing. I don’t know why she hasn’t narrated more audiobooks, because she absolutely ought to. I also liked hearing the way some of the words are pronounced, which definitely didn’t happen when I eyeball read it. 

There were some things I wanted more of, like Ariane needed more time in the story, I had thought. However, this is just part one of a trilogy, so I am hopeful she will make another appearance in the later books. Maybe she will wind up being the Lady of the Lake or something. 

Overall, highly recommended. I am looking forward to reading the next installment. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • We may not always have the choice we would like. But we always have a 

choice.

 

 

Sorcery in Alpara

47870793._sy475_Sorcery in Alpara by Judith Starkston (website, Twitter, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fantasy

I read it as an: ARC

Source: digital ARC from the author

Length: 439 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (14 Oct 2019)

This second novel in Starkston’s Tesha series picks up right where the first story, Priestess of Ishana, left off. Tesha and Hattu are newly married and traveling to Alpara, his capitol city. Tesha is to be crowned as Hattu’s queen and rule beside him. Instead, as they travel through hostile lands, a dark force attacks Hattu and his army. Tesha frees the army through the use of her skills as a priestess of Ishana, but at a steep price. Tesha is drained of her strength and power, unable to move or speak. As she gradually recovers, under the care of her sister Daniti, it becomes clear to Tesha that Hattu has been overcome by the same dark force. Tesha must struggle against betrayals that take everything she holds dear from her, save Hattu and her new kingdom, without sacrificing herself in the process. 

Second novels in a trilogy often struggle with a sluggish plot in some odd sort of literary ‘middle child syndrome.’ Sorcery in Alpara definitely does not suffer from this problem. From the start, it is full of action and magic, love and despair. Readers get several gut-punches as Tesha fights to save those she loves, even while being unjustly accused of a crime she didn’t commit. 

A major subplot of the novel involves Tesha’s older sister, Daniti, who was taken captive by a faction of Hattu’s enemies. Daniti uses all her considerable skills to delay her captors from carrying out their plans. Helping her is Marak, Hattu’s second-in-command, who had allowed himself to be taken hostage to protect Daniti. Their whole story, while not quite as fraught as Tesha and Hattu’s, is intriguing and highlights some of the facets of being disabled in the ancient world. Daniti’s blindness doesn’t hinder her ability to be a formidable ally to Tesha and fierce enemy to Paskans and others who would overthrow her brother-in-law. 

Hattu’s people, the Hitolians, are based on the ancient Hittites. Starkston does a masterful job weaving in elements of their culture and religious practices throughout her writing. The religious rituals the Hittites practiced lend themselves extraordinarily well to creating the magic spells Tesha and other priestesses use in this series. Using historically accurate details to turn them to one’s own purpose in a story really helps create a richer reading experience. Starkston has this practice well in hand and she uses her impeccable research on the Hittite culture to modify and implement magic rites within the world she has built around Tesha, who is herself based on a real life Hittite queen, Puduhepa. 

In short, this is an excellent addition to the Tesha series. I can’t wait to buy a hard copy for my own library. Strongly recommended to anyone who loves historical fantasy, or who has an appreciation for well researched books with a seriously fun plot. 

PLEASE NOTE: If you go to the author’s website, you can preorder a copy of this book for $2.99 on kindle. When you preorder Sorcery in Alpara, you get a free short story which continues the narrative of Anna, a prequel story to the Tesha series. The first short story installment comes when you sign up for Judith’s newsletter. I’ve received both and the short story and the newsletter are entirely worth your time. 

Suspicious Minds (Stranger Things #1)

40535559._sy475_Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi/fantasy/horror

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 301 pp

Published by: Del Rey (7 Feb 2019)

*SPOILERS BELOW!*

Set in 1969, this first official Stranger Things novel focuses on Terry Ives, Eleven’s mother, and how she becomes entangled with Dr Martin Brenner and his MKUltra experiments. An ad in a local paper promises $15 (around $100 today) for each week a person participates in a top secret experiment. Terry joins the group and is subjected to Brenner’s work which involves loading up test subjects with LSD and other stimuli, including electroshock, to see if any specific combination will bring forth special powers. Terry and her friends – a motley group of people from various backgrounds – quickly figure out that Brenner is operating under the radar to perform morally compromised tests. The group struggles to find a way to escape Brenner’s control while also striving to bring him down and free a child who is trapped in his grasp.

This is a difficult review to write. On the one hand, I was delighted to read a Stranger Things novel. On the other hand, it was kind of a hot mess. If I didn’t pay attention to anything but the story, it was an ok read. But ONLY ok. If I pay attention to writing, plot holes, and lack of answers, this is a terrible book.

Let me first say this is in no way a personal attack on the author. However, what the fuck was Netflix thinking in hiring an author who, previously, has exclusively written YA?? Stranger Things is most definitely NOT a YA show, nor is it appropriate for children to watch. The books should similarly reflect the darkness and danger of the show. But this book barely touched on most of what we have come to love about the show, and is written in a very simplistic style, which one might expect for a YA novel or younger. 

I had hoped to get some answers that we missed in the show, such as more about Brenner himself. That was entirely missing from this book and Brenner remains as mysterious as ever, but not in a good way. The other people who joined Terry in the lab experiments – Gloria, Alice, Ken – were all very flat characters overall, as was Terry’s boyfriend Andrew, and even Terry herself. None of them seemed to have much depth. Terry even had a thought early in the book about how Andrew actually ended up having an interesting personality, opposite what she had experienced before with boyfriends, and yet we don’t get to see said interesting personality. He is vaguely anti-Vietnam, and yet he doesn’t hesitate when he’s called up for the draft and goes off to war with only a little backward glance. His draft lottery being pulled up was manipulated by Brenner, and then he dies in Vietnam. Everything about him is just too easy and convenient. The other people of the group are delivered to us as instant friends once Terry meets them, a pretty tired YA trope (insta-friends, insta-love, insta-hate, etc.). They aren’t developed enough as characters for me to care about them, not even when it’s discovered that one is being electrocuted in the lab. I didn’t even care about Kali, and she is just 5 years old in this novel.

In short, all the characters were just a facade with no depth, character growth, or personality traits to make them seem like real people with whom readers can form attachments. 

Nothing is really shown to us; we are told about things, emotions characters are feeling, etc, but it falls flat since little actual emotion goes into it. Terry was filled with rage. How do I know? Because the text says, ‘Terry was filled with rage.’ There are no indicators otherwise, such as clenched fists or stiff posture, to indicate her anger. Telling us she was filled with rage might work fine for a YA audience, but for most adults, this isn’t sufficient. We get beaten over the head that this is set in the 60s – yes, I know, there’s the moon landing; I know, there’s Woodstock; I know, there’s Vietnam and the draft – but there is very little feeling of the 60s about this novel. We want to be shown, not told. 

Brenner is the biggest letdown of all. He was not the creepy, dangerously calm man we see in the show. He was hardly even competent in this book. He was tricked into letting Terry join the experiment, even though she was found out to have switched spots with her roommate early on, and he appears to have little control over his staff. The plot to rescue Kali/008 was half-assed and yet it fooled Brenner quite easily. Yes, he still retains control in the end, but the fact that he was tricked at all by a bunch of mediocre undergrads doesn’t mesh with what we know of him. He didn’t get any of his back story filled in at all, which was kind of implied this book would focus on heavily. Also, holy lack of security on your top secret experiment, Batman! If it’s so top secret, why were any of the participants allowed to know each other? Why were they able to sneak out of their rooms and go gallivanting about whenever they wanted? Why weren’t they isolated and locked in their rooms each time at a minimum?

Also, I get that this was supposed to be a different time and people didn’t talk about pregnancy and/or birth control like we do now, but honestly. How does a woman not know she’s pregnant for seven months? Even if you don’t show a lot, you’ll show some, and there are other changes that might trigger normal women to at least see what happens if they pee on a stick. You don’t notice that your boobs hurt, that you are breaking out like a teenager, the crushing fatigue? This must be written by someone who has never had a baby and didn’t think to research the common signs of pregnancy. Similarly, why didn’t the scientists at the lab notice that the subjects were remarkably lucid and check that they had actually taken the LSD? Didn’t they monitor them for things like pupil dilation or other autonomic responses that can’t be faked? Why didn’t they stay with their assigned subject the whole time they were there each week to monitor things and make sure they didn’t OD or something? Worst scientists ever. 

If you want to read this purely because you’re a huge Stranger Things fan, like I am, and just want to read a Stranger Things book no matter what and don’t plan to read too deeply into the story, you’ll probably be moderately entertained by this. If you expect something actually good that answers questions you have from the show, and you can’t overlook the glaring plot holes and other problematic areas, get ready for disappointment.