Shelley Meets Saadawi

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: Frankenstein in Baghdad

Author: Ahmed Saadawi, translation from Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Publisher: Penguin Books (Original publication by Al Kamel)

Genre: Science fiction

Year: 2018 (Originally published in 2013)

Pages: 281

Price on Amazon: $22.99 CDN

“From his pocket he took a small gadget attached to a long silver cord that you could hang around your neck. I figured out that it was a digital recorder. He was talking to his friends about the device, and some of them started laughing. One of his friends pointed to the metal chairs near the table where I was sitting. He came over, and our eyes met.

“He said it was a Panasonic digital recorder and that he wanted four hundred dollars for it – a hundred for the recorder itself and three hundred for the story that was recorded on it. It was the strangest story that had ever come his way, he said, and a writer like me could use it to write a great novel.” — Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad

There are some books that can only be books. Some stories that can only be told through the written word. Sometimes, it’s for the devices they employ, or the fact that the story just isn’t believable as a film – as the two mediums require varying degrees of belief suspension. It is rare that I find stories that must be books because of the emotion in them. Because of the experience they offer, something personal that, once interpreted for the screen, loses its openness and potential. Usually, these stories come from outside of the Western World, mostly originating in Asia. Just how the Canadian short story leaves one hollow and changed on the inside, so does the Asian novel offer an experience with a specific thread that is so close to visual art – that it is meant to be interpreted, and left open.

Such is the case with Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, an award-winning novel originally published in 2013 but only just recently this year translated to English and published here.

“So what?” a few of you must be saying. “Another Frankenstein retelling. Woop-dee-doo. What’s so special about this?” I tell you, you have never read a novel retelling of Shelley’s tale like this. Sadaawi takes the story of Frankenstein and turns it on its head. Dr. Frankenstein is no longer a brooding university dropout (as such, should we really call him a doctor?). The creator of the abomination comes to us as one Hadi the junk dealer, also known as the creator of the Whatsitsname (aka Frankenstein’s monster).

Set in US-occupied Baghdad, this story is a tapestry of many vibrant threads. It follows the lives of many people – from the elderly Elishvha, searching for her son and speaking to saints, and Faraj the Realtor, taking advantage of the violence of the era, to Mahmoud al-Sawadi, a young journalist, and Abu Anmar, the owner of the Orouba Hotel – as the tale of the Whatsitsname is told and shakes their lives. (Some for the better, some for the worse.)

Throughout this novel, there is a sense of tension that I, being born and raised in the West, never experienced or understood. The constant threat of car bombings, suicide bombers, and brutal interrogations glares over this tale of wonder, belief, and vengeance like a looming storm, each lightning strike ready to smite another heart. It is a powerful awakening. It is a testament to these citizens, how each of them understands the magnitude of this violence and yet lives on through it. This story, behind its tale of magic, is of a brewing war and how one becomes accustomed but not quite entirely acclimated to the horrors.

What drew me to this book was the concept, and why Hadi built the Whatsitsname in the first place. Having come across missing limbs and body parts from various explosions, Hadi decided that the only way the government would give these parts a proper burial was if they were attached to a whole body. And so, he has collected enough to build a whole man in his shed in the hopes of the body being given the respect it deserves.

But instead, the Whatsitsname rises, alive, and sets out to take its revenge on those who harmed the people of which it is made. This is a tale of vengeance and spirituality, a question of morality. Who is the criminal? Who are innocent? Can these lines cross? Is there good violence? How far can revenge take a man or a monster, and is there a point of no return?

This book is deliciously deceptive, in that the language used is practical and precise. No jargon or poetry (though the work itself is art, undoubtedly), no reading sentences multiple times to understand them. Saadawi is straightforward and simple at his craft, which makes indulging in this novel all the easier. But the story itself is not to easily interpreted. As I said, it is art; and where I might see a hand extended in hope, another may see a fist curled in anger. Frankenstein in Baghdad uses the unreliable narrator, sowing doubt and questions in its readers. What (and who) are we to believe, and why?

Saadawi’s work is impeccably self-aware. Stories within stories, and a raw rip of reality slashed right down the centre of it. You have met these people before. Have lived with them, loved them, spent afternoons with them. He effortlessly weaves a tale of humour, horror, and ends it with a question in morality. Should it have ended that way? Is it fair? Do you agree with the Whatsitsname? With Mahmoud, with Saidi, with anyone?

What I have enjoyed the most in this novel is that Saadawi lets his characters feel in a realistic way. From Elishva’s hopeful grief and stubbornness to Mahmoud’s final emotions towards Saidi and Nawal al-Wazir. Above all, the story lays in the details. Hadi’s past, Abu Anmar’s hotel, the struggles within the Tracking and Pursuit Department. Saadawi plants the seeds that matter in these places, grounding the story, making it real.

This story could very well be a religious experience. Whether you go in searching for family, for war, for science fiction, for spirituality, or simply for a tale you can tell in a coffee shop, you will not be disappointed.

Top 10 Badass Spring 2018 Book Covers — And The Stories That Go With Them

If you’ve read even one sentence of an author’s acknowledgements at the end of a novel, you know that there are plenty of unsung heroes in the publishing world. From editors and agents to marketing teams and beta readers, more work goes into writing, publishing, and selling novels than one might originally believe. Writing may be thought of as a solitary art, but writing for publication is anything but lonely.

If you’ve read even one sentence of an author’s acknowledgements at the end of a novel, you know that there are plenty of unsung heroes in the publishing world. From editors and agents to marketing teams and beta readers, more work goes into writing, publishing, and selling novels than one might originally believe. Writing may be thought of as a solitary art, but writing for publication is anything but lonely. But what sells a novel? What catches your eye when you walk into a bookstore or library?

The cover art. The first thing a reader sees when they pick up a book for consideration, covers have to convey mood, subject, and entice the reader. Everything from word spacing and font size to that exact shade and that precise image works to sway readers. And this job is one that, while important, goes largely unacknowledged.

That considered, here are ten badass book covers to look forward to in Spring 2018 – and oh, yeah, the stories that go along with them are pretty intriguing, too.

  1. Chemistry Lessons by Meredith Goldstein, cover art by Whitney Leader-Picone, Leonello Calvetti, and Connie Gabbert.

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Debuting on June 19th this year, Chemistry Lessons is Goldstein’s third book – and second one expected this year! (Can’t Help Myself: Lessons and Confessions From A Modern Advice Columnist, a memoir and collection of Goldstein’s Boston Globe advice column, hits shelves on April 3rd.) Romance meets science in this upcoming novel, making it a can’t-miss for 2018. Just see for yourself:

For seventeen-year-old Maya, the equation for happiness is simple: a dream internship at MIT + two new science nerd friends + a perfect boyfriend = one amazing summer. Then Whit dumps her out of the blue.
Maya is miserable until she discovers that her scientist mother, before she died, was conducting research on manipulating pheromones to enhance human attraction. If Maya can finish her mother’s work, maybe she can get Whit back. But when her experiment creates chaos in her love life, she realizes that maybe love and loss can’t be understood using the scientific method. Can she learn to trust the unmeasurables of love and attraction instead?

This YA novel features a poppy, vibrant cover, a perfect combination of sweet romance and the science side of the story, designed by Connie Gabbert, Leonello Calvetti, and Whitney Leader-Picone. Its simple yet unique design is sure to turn eyes! You can find Connie Gabbert and Leonello Calvetti’s work on their respective websites (Gabbert) (Calvetti), and read up on Whitney Leader-Picone, senior designer at Mifflin Harcourt Books, here.

  1. A Thousand Beginnings and Endings by various authors, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, cover art by Feifei Ruan
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If you’re in the publishing industry, you’ve heard of We Need Diverse Books, an organization whose goal is to diversity children’s literature and put the spotlight on minority authors. If you’ve been in the publishing industry for longer than five seconds, your first thought was probably, “Finally!” Get ready for your excitement to skyrocket, people: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is a young adult anthology of East and South Asian short stories! Take a moment to breathe, and read on:

Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings. These are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.
Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.
Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renee Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.
A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place. From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings’ intricate, elegant cover captures the eye and pulls one in. A wondrous homage to traditional Asian art and seems to pull the sky into its background. You can find Feifei Ruan at her websiteand don’t forget to check out We Need Diverse Books while you’re online! The anthology is expected June 26th.

3. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, cover art by Rich Deas

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Do you ever look at a book, put it back onto the shelf, and a few months later you kick yourself for not hopping on the train earlier – because now, the series has taken off and there are spoilers everywhere? Take this as a sign to pick up Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, the first instalment in the Legacy of Orïsha series. Slated to hit the big screen in the future, this novel is not one to miss. Take a look:

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zelie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now, Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy.

The cover design by Rich Deas, readers are immediately met with an intense, regal, and magical impression of the story to come. The use of simple black and white colouring, with pops of red and blue, make this cover stand out like no other. You can check out Rich Deas at his websiteThis book hits shelves March 6th.

  1. Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, cover by Shehzil Malik

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It takes a lot for me to look beyond my little cave of SF/F/horror/mystery. Few are the books on my shelf that lack swords, magic, and creatures that belong in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. But upon finding Amal Unbound, I found I couldn’t resist featuring this book. Its plot is compelling, its themes relevant, and promises to be an excellent read. Debuting May 8th, you don’t want to miss this:

Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when–as the eldest daughter–she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens–after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt.
Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal–especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.

The cover art by Shehzil Malik is vibrant, warm, and hopeful. These days, black covers with harsh, angry illustrations are the norm. It’s refreshing to see something tranquil and earthy. You can find more of Shehzil Malik’s work on here and check out the process of fleshing out and finishing the design for Amal Unbound here.

  1. The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde, cover art by Becca S. on Swoon Reads

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Bisexuality is so rarely seen in books these days. Either the characters are purposefully ambiguous about their sexuality, or readers are queer-baited into an almost-progressive story. Seeing a novel that puts bisexuality in the spotlight right out of the gates is more than refreshing.

As a rock star drummer in the hit band The Brightsiders, Emmy King’s life should be perfect. But there’s nothing the paparazzi love more than watching a celebrity crash and burn. When a night of partying lands Emmy in hospital and her girlfriend in jail, she’s branded the latest tabloid train wreck.

Luckily, Emmy has her friends and bandmates, including the super-swoonworthy Alfie, to help her pick up the pieces of her life. She knows hooking up with a band member is exactly the kind of trouble she should be avoiding, and yet Emmy and Alfie Just. Keep. Kissing.

Will the inevitable fallout turn her into a clickbait scandal (again)? Or will she find the strength to stand on her own?

This being my first time truly researching cover artists for books, I was surprised and delighted to find that the cover artist for The Brightsiders is one Becca S, a designer on Swoon Reads. The cover is bright, outlandish, and coquettish, proudly featuring the colours of the bisexual flag. The placement of the title is so interesting. It’s bound to attract readers to this book. You can check out Becca’s profile on Swoon Reads here Make sure to get your copy on May 22nd.

  1. The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross, cover art by Jo Myler, Fleur Clarke, Kate Sinclair, and Daren Newman

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Who doesn’t love a good retelling? Take an old classic and turn it on its head, make it something new. In The Beast’s Heart, author Leife Shallcross tells the story of Beauty and the Beast from the Beast’s view. Check it out:

A sumptuously magical, brand new take on a tale as old as time—read the Beast’s side of the story at long last.

I am neither monster nor man—yet I am both.

I am the Beast.

The day I was cursed to this wretched existence was the day I was saved—although it did not feel so at the time.

My redemption sprung from contemptible roots; I am not proud of what I did the day her father happened upon my crumbling, isolated chateau. But if loneliness breeds desperation then I was desperate indeed, and I did what I felt I must. My shameful behaviour was unjustly rewarded.

My Isabeau. She opened my eyes, my mind and my heart; she taught me how to be human again.

And now I might lose her forever.

Lose yourself in this gorgeously rich and magical retelling of The Beauty and the Beast that finally lays bare the beast’s heart.

The cover, design by Jo Myler, Fleur Clarke, and Kate Sinclair, and type/illustration by Daren Newman, is pure Victorian aesthetic. Deep blue and copper designs like wrought-iron gates set the stage for an intricate and marvellous tale ahead. Shadows play lattice to creeping florals, the perfect combination between dark and harsh metallics, and a gentle, blossoming pop of colour. You can see more designs by Jo Myler here, as well as check out Daren Newman’s exceptionally minimalistic website here. Kate Sinclair can be found here and Fleur Clarke on Twitter. The Beast’s Heart comes to a bookstore near you on May 3rd.

  1. Evangeline of the Bayou by Jan Eldredge, cover art and illustrations by Joseph Kuefler

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Coming to shelves on May 1st, Evangeline of the Bayou is a promising Louisiana tale by Jan Eldredge featuring the gorgeous artwork of Joseph Kuefler. And as most children’s books go, I predict this tale will be for everyone of all ages to enjoy. Read on:

Twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement spends her days and nights studying the ways of folk magic, honing her monster-hunting skills while pursuing local bayou banshees and Johnny revenants.

With her animal familiar sure to make itself known any day now, the only thing left to do is prove to the council she has heart. Then she will finally be declared a true haunt huntress, worthy of following in the footsteps of her long line of female ancestors.

But when Evangeline and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to resolve an unusual case, she uncovers a secret that will shake her to the soles of her silver-tipped alligator-skin boots.

Set in the evocative Louisiana bayou and the vibrant streets of New Orleans, Evangeline’s is a tale of loyalty and determination, the powerful bonds of friendship and family, and the courage to trust your gut no matter how terrifying that might be.

If the cover is any indication of the story to come, we’re all in for a treat. It shows a monstrous tale of adventure, bravery, and terrifying creatures. With a shadow quite literally foreshadowing a monster right on the cover, it was a no-brainer to add this book to the list. Check out more of Joseph Kuefler’s work here.

  1. The Queen Underneath by Stacey Filak, art by Rosie Gutmann

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I cannot compile a list of books without including fantasy. Even if it’s a list of mystery or sci-fi books! I will slip one in there. The Queen Underneath was an easy pick for me. Being Stacey Filak’s debut novel, I predict this one is one to watch out for. Challenging gender roles, a female protagonist, LGBTQ+ themes… Just check this out and see what I mean:

The Above and the Under have a tenuous truce that is shattered after the death of both their respective rulers. Gemma, the new queen of Under, must throw history aside and team up with Tollan, the heir to the Above throne, in order to take down a power that seeks to rule them all.
Their group of rebels is comprised of an assassin, a sex worker, and a palace servant from Above, and we follow their unique perspectives as they are forced to question previously held beliefs. But even with war looming, romance still grows. Challenging gender roles and the expectation that every prince must have a princess, Tollan discovers love with Elam—a young man, a sex worker, and one of Gemma’s closest friends.

Rosie Gutmann did a phenomenal job on the cover art. Lustrous twilight backs a black city skyline, flanked by thorny golden vines. From the intricate symbol at the cover’s centre and the gorgeous type for the title, this book practically grabbed my eyeballs and held them in place. No doubt this will intrigue many readers to come. Check out Rosie Gutmann’s blog (she’s a book reviewer, too! Hi! -Waves-) here. The Queen Underneath is expected on May 8th.

  1. Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson, cover art by Corina Lupp and Michael Frost

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This book has been on my TBR list for awhile. I am beyond excited to list it here as an upcoming spring debut, because that means I can finally get my hands on a copy! Lily Anderson, author of Not Now, Not Ever and The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You, dives into 2018 with Undead Girl Gang, a young adult novel equal parts fantasy/mystery. And let me just say, as someone who actually does practice witchcraft, seeing this movement of modern witches and magic in the literary world is so much fun. This books hits stores on May 8th, but here’s a little blurb to tide you over for the next few months:

Mila Flores and her best friend Riley have always been inseparable. There’s not much excitement in their small town of Cross Creek, so Mila and Riley make their own fun, devoting most of their time to Riley’s favorite activity: amateur witchcraft.

So when Riley and two Fairmont Academy mean girls die under suspicious circumstances, Mila refuses to believe everyone’s explanation that her BFF was involved in a suicide pact. Instead, armed with a tube of lip gloss and an ancient grimoire, Mila does the unthinkable to uncover the truth: she brings the girls back to life.

Unfortunately, Riley, June, and Dayton have no recollection of their murders, but they do have unfinished business to attend to. Now, with only seven days until the spell wears off and the girls return to their graves, Mila must wrangle the distracted group of undead teens and work fast to discover their murderer…before the killer strikes again.

With a fresh, occultish cover repping this story, readers will be flocking to shelves for their own copy. The design moves witchcraft into modern era, featuring tarot cards, crystals, athames, and a pinky-swear solidarity between witches and undead. Oh, I do love some feminist necromancy. You can check out Michael Frost’s portfolio here, and with book covers such as Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens and Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen under his belt, I’m sure we’ll see plenty more exceptional cover art from Frost in the future. Corina Lupp is a designer at Razorbill, a branch of Penguin Random House Canada.

  1. The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R. Pan, cover art by Sasha Illingworth

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I believe I saved one of the best covers for last. The Astonishing Colour of After, hitting bookstores March 20th, promises to be a magical, heartfelt, and emotional tale of loss, rediscovery, and forgiving oneself. Having been a co-creator of Foreshadow: A Serial YA Anthology, this is Emily X.R. Pan’s debut novel. Why do I think we’ll be giving Pan a standing ovation come award season? Take a look at the book’s description:

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.

The cover design is just as astonishing as the title suggests, a deep red and purple ombre playing background to a crisp, white bird that carries the title and author’s name in its body. The entire design emits an aura of freedom and hope, the bright colours rich and evocative of deep emotions. This will definitely turn heads in bookstores. Check out Sasha Illingworth’s work here.

So, what’s your favourite cover art of 2018? Has it already been published? Are you looking forward to taking a selfie with it? Do you have any favourites for summer 2018? Do you have a favourite cover designer or artist? Let me know in the comments, or chat with me on Twitter!

Disclaimer: As with most unpublished novels, information on all the people that worked on these projects isn’t always readily available for researchers such as myself. I’d like to thank Meredith Goldstein, Lily Anderson, Liz Deadrick, Ellen Oh, Leife Shallcross, and Madison Taylor for taking time out of their schedules to help me name a few artists who deserve some credit. If I have missed anyone in this list, or you feel someone else deserves credit for a design featured here, please let me know and I’ll add their name and website (if they have one).

Image Credits: Goodreads

 

Gruesome and Gothic

“In that womb and grave of nature, He sculpted a world, telling it to Himself like a story, word after word. This part of the story you already know, although most would have you believe He made it idly, effortlessly, summoning it into existence like a dream, but I tell you — and I am telling you tales — He slaved those six days. He hammered out the heavens, flat and smooth, like a mirror. He kneaded the mountains out of mud, built pillars to hold up the sky and smoothed the basin for the sea. He carved each and every tree, scratching out the grooved bark with His fingernails and tearing dark eyes into the skin of white birch.

“Each creature — not all unique, not all beautiful — He made and moulded. I like to imagine Him joyful in the exertion, but I think of Him more driven half mad by the sheer enormity, complexity of his undertaking.

“He picked faces out of the clouds and gave them form. They were as beautiful as the blushing dawn, as the twilight sky, as the morning star. His voice He gave to them, and they spoke his own words back to Him.

“Angels, he called them.

“They were almost company, chattering back to Him in their lofty, echoic voices. They praised all that he did and urged him on with indulgent smiles, blinking their empty eyes at Him.

“But how long can one mind, however fragmented by madness, be content with hearing only echoes of Himself?” — Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: Under the Pendulum Sun

Author: Jeannette Ng

Publisher: Angry Robot

Genre: Historical fiction

Year: 2017

Pages: 409

Price on Amazon: $12.50 CDN

“In that womb and grave of nature, He sculpted a world, telling it to Himself like a story, word after word. This part of the story you already know, although most would have you believe He made it idly, effortlessly, summoning it into existence like a dream, but I tell you — and I am telling you tales — He slaved those six days. He hammered out the heavens, flat and smooth, like a mirror. He kneaded the mountains out of mud, built pillars to hold up the sky and smoothed the basin for the sea. He carved each and every tree, scratching out the grooved bark with His fingernails and tearing dark eyes into the skin of white birch.

“Each creature — not all unique, not all beautiful — He made and moulded. I like to imagine Him joyful in the exertion, but I think of Him more driven half mad by the sheer enormity, complexity of his undertaking.

“He picked faces out of the clouds and gave them form. They were as beautiful as the blushing dawn, as the twilight sky, as the morning star. His voice He gave to them, and they spoke his own words back to Him.

“Angels, he called them.

“They were almost company, chattering back to Him in their lofty, echoic voices. They praised all that he did and urged him on with indulgent smiles, blinking their empty eyes at Him.

“But how long can one mind, however fragmented by madness, be content with hearing only echoes of Himself?” — Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun

It isn’t often I come across a story of fairies that understands their classical nature. Modern fae lit, however daring and wondrous, usually categorize fae into two sides: wicked or lovely. Seelie or unseelie. Jenny Greenteeth and the Queen of the Water Court or the Copper Prince and household brownies.  And while the intriguing trickster nature of fae hasn’t been lost, it is rare that I find a story that paints them in true moral greys.

Under the Pendulum Sun, a Victorian tale of the fae by Jeannette Ng, is one such story that defies and redefines the genre’s norm.

Arcadia, the Faelands, has been found. The world is flooded with knowledge of fairies, and with that knowledge comes the desire to conquer, to take, to teach and civilize. People have taken sides: either the fae can or cannot be civilized and converted to the light of Christianity. But when Catherine Helstone receives word that her missionary brother, Laon, goes missing while bringing God to Arcadia, she is sent to the continent to find him. She is welcomed to the shadowy, treacherous house of Gethsemane by three citizens of Arcadia who claim to know Laon but mince words in a way only fairies can manage. But when Laon returns, it is with the Pale Queen Mab and her mad court of subjects. And as with the most insane of courts, chaos follows.

Having had a Christian upbringing that sprouted into a discovery of neo-paganism, I knew from the first page that this book was for me. It brought together two seemingly opposing universes: the wild, ancient world of fae, and the sacred, philosophical world of Christianity and God. The concept of bringing God into Arcadia is one question I had yet to ask, and one I’m so glad that the likes of Jeannette Ng has answered.

Ng explores the ins and outs of religion, faith, morality, and fae politics, showing where they overlap and where they careen in completely different directions. It is a question of how far God’s gaze can reach, how far He wills it, and what creatures are and are not considered to possess souls. Ng uses her background in theology to question the mission Laon and Catherine are sent on and keep the reader doubtful at every turn. When a protagonist born and raised in strict religion begins to question themselves, it gives the tale a sense of unease that lasts from the first unbolted door to the last revelation. Ng is expert at sowing in creepy happenings in broad daylight and making her readers uncomfortable, asking the hard and taboo questions.

Ng has captured the fae in ways I have waited to see in modern literature for years now. Their treacherous whimsy, their desire to disturb and challenge and destroy just for the fun of it. Their confusion, their impossibility, their double entendres, the weight of their worlds, names, and promises. These fairies don’t steal socks and pinch toes. They steal trinkets far closer to grief and they are far more devious in their violence.

This book does not organize the fae into elemental categories and paint them as strictly good or evil. (In fact, it is very self-aware of the trope, questioning the elemental boundaries and approaching that business in a scientific and philosophical way, offering other theories.) It shows them as creatures bound to promises and pacts, who jump from loophole to loophole and guided by a morality that takes words in the literal sense. Ng explores the concept of bringing Christianity to this world,eah chapter seeming a duel between opposing images: a good and pious missionary versus a chaotic neutral fairy queen. But even there, shades of grey are shown.

Such is art, I may interpret this the “wrong” way, but I see no strong themes besides the nature of sin, religion, and what it means to be human. This is a story for story’s sake, a tale meant to spur one’s heart to thundering. A tale whose lessons is, “Beware the fae” and has no cause for more. I would not say I didn’t learn something from this novel. On the contrary, Ng challenges both the Bible and fae politic in every chapter. It is, ultimately, a question of morality that forces the reader to either accept what is happening to and between Catherine and Laon, with all its conditions and considerations, or oppose it.

Early on, I described Under the Pendulum Sun as an abstract painting in its beginnings and a sort of Renaissance piece in its end. It is vibrant, complex, and engrossing, but confusing and uncertain in its first chapters. It is the mood of the work that keeps the reader hooked. But as the story continues, details can be picked out from the colours. By the end, you’re left breathless, staring at a sorrowful, heartfelt masterpiece, wondering how exactly you missed all the hints for so long.

Ng’s voice is unlike any I’ve read before. She paints Arcadia in bright and hazy colours, only touching the outsides of the wild land but managing still to enrapture the reader. How she thought of a literal pendulum sun and fish moon, I can’t fathom — but I adore it. This truly is a return to old fairytales. This world Ng has created, with its ballrooms cast in mirrors and shards of glass, its sudden goblin markets selling dreams and answers and lost things, and its manual seasons where death is painted and life is worked in soil and blood, is a world I want to explore more. Ng has imagined the fae, birds of stained glass and men of sand, in an entirely unique and wonderful way. I can only hope she’ll return us to Arcadia one day soon.

It is impossible to review one part of this book, which is an important part to talk about, without spoiling it — so I’ve left it to the end. (And, being pro-trigger warning in all media, I think this warrants a note.) Ng explores a dynamic that is considered taboo in many places: sibling incest.  It’s one I’m not comfortable with, but also one I’ve yet to see examined in this way. Two faithful followers of Christ, trapped in a land of sin and wonder, are tempted beyond their wills to indulge in the one desire they’ve both resisted — either knowingly or unknowingly — for their entire lives. As someone who is, admittedly, usually uncomfortable with incest, I think Ng approached the concept with grace and respect for the reader and her characters. For much of the novel, the attraction between Catherine and Laon is all eluded to. Nothing is ever said outright and nothing has to be.  This strange, Gothic tale is much like the mists surrounding Gesthesmane: shifting, hinting, but rarely confirming. Ng allows the reader to draw their own conclusions and doesn’t go into detail, which suits the story and the subject. However, there is no mistaking the intent. You may be a little confused to start, but by the end all will be revealed.

In all, Under the Pendulum Sun is an excellent book. It is well worth having been reminded of my Catholic school days with the Bible quotes. This is a book of lies atop lies, of sin and pain, and of faith and questioning it. I believe all who read this will come out of it changed, but not in the same way.

One thing is for certain: all of us will be salting out food for months, maybe years, to come.

(I’ve changed the way I rate books. Learn more here.)

A Study in Surviving

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

Author: Kim Fu

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada

Genre: Fiction

Year: 2018

Pages: 448

Price on Amazon: $22.99 CDN
“The day Kayla and Andee’s father left, three years before Andee went to Forevermore, he said only, ‘Well, I’m going now.’ He took only the folding knife he carried in his pocket, his wallet, and the clothes on his back. Kayla understood this as a fundamental difference between men and women: men could leave, women had to stay.” – Kim Fu, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore.

When I look for the opening quote and subsequent points for a book review, I usually flick through about twenty dog-eared pages that touch on key themes and scenes, or passages that sum up the story’s tone, emotional magnitude, or message.  Most books have more than one point to make. Different facets depending on the reader. Stories are rarely ever neat and succinct, especially realistic ones. Humanity’s stories are messy, raw, painful, and beautiful in a way that is difficult to capture but easy to understand, which makes choosing a quote just as challenging.

I opened Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore to find I’d only marked a single passage. This passage, I believe, sums up the entire story.

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore follows the lives of Nita, Siobhan, Andee, Dina, and Isabel, five girls attending the famed Camp Forevermore – a girls-only summer camp that promises to turn the young ladies they host into independent women ready to tackle the wilderness and forge lifelong friendships. But an accident finds the girls stranded on an island with no way back to Forevermore, their food running low, and no rescue on the horizon. Together, the girls must find a way to survive and get help.

I went into this novel expecting that it would be about wilderness survival. It would be a harrowing, adventurous story filled with sisterly bonding, tree forts a la the Swiss Family Robinson, and a Lord of the Flies-esque climax that would prove the true power of female friendship.

I was wrong. Absolutely wrong. And I have never been so glad to be so wrong in my entire life. This is not a fantastical, unbelievable adventure like Life of Pi. It is life, pinned to a board and framed in a museum for a cruel and unyielding inspection.

This novel follows the girls through their short-lived struggle for survival and onwards throughout their lives. Each girl has her own part of the book in which her past and future are detailed, the line of Forevermore’s events sometimes clear and sometimes blurred, giving the girls a Before and After like so many other victims of trauma. Throughout their stories, we see how the events of those few days affected the girls. Subtle forms of PTSD crop up for some, while others are quieter in their struggles.

This book is an intimate investigation of womanhood. Fu addresses sexuality, marriage, parent-child and sibling dynamics, religion, motherhood, death, tragedy, and cultural issues. Above all, this is a story of psychology. Of horrendous acts the girls commit during their time at Forevermore, knowingly or unknowingly, necessary or unnecessary, and the ripple effects of these acts.

Perhaps most impressive is Fu’s choice of the girls being so young when this happens. Ranging from 9-11 years old, they are shown as intellectual in a way that so many children in literature are not. Fu acknowledges emotional immaturity and the true logic of a child, all while never dumbing them down or pretending they are less human because of their age. The fact that they are children grounds the story in reality, making the work more meaningful and more terrifying.

This book is a fierce and unflinching study of what it means to be a woman. The girls are expected to swallow their trauma, use it as a lesson, or forget about it. While the men in the novel can walk away, die, leave, the women have to remain like edifices to some bygone lesson they are meant to spend their lives teaching. It is a story of survival after the danger has passed. How parts of these women remain stuck in those few days at Forevermore, still lost.

Fu captures life in small places. Throwaway lines about bathing suits, fleece, and drama club ground the work. All who read this will feel a sense of familiarity that perhaps only humans can. She proves that we are all, essentially, the same. The realism in the girls’ stories being messy, open-ended, hopeful and horrifying in their own ways strikes the audience. To have their lives wrapped up with a ribbon would be counteractive to the point. The questions that remain keep the novel fresh and real. Like so many other Canadian authors before her, Fu delivers this fresh jolt of reality in punches to the gut, and leaves us with the question: are the girls living, or just surviving?

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is a precise, visceral, poignant story of a trauma that echoes through multiple lives. Fu’s masterful organization and ability to tell real, relatable stories is the perfect voice for this novel. It is a question of humanity, one that demands answering.

It had been an absolute privilege for Fu to have shared this story, like so many secrets whispered fireside under the stars. This story is a small trauma that will resonate through all those who read it.

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu hits shelves on February 13th, 2018.

Reviewer’s Note: I’d like to thank HarperCollins Canada and Ashley Posluns for being so kind and welcoming, and making me feel like a part of the team with the HCC First Look Program. This fabulous monthly opportunity to read unpublished books and review them for HarperCollins Canada is one I am incredibly grateful for and will not be forgetting soon. If you’re interested in applying, head to their website or Like them on Facebook to keep updated on future opportunities. Who knows? You may be chosen next1

A Bloody Good Time (POSITIVE)

Maniscalco proves her skills have only increased between novels. She maintains a keen ability to strike emotion into her readers, from anguish and anxiousness to jealousy and laughter. Most prominent of all is her ability to terrify her readers. (If you make it through the “Spider Chapter” [as I’ve dubbed it] without shuddering, I salute you.) With an intimate and confident voice, a talent in casting doubt, and a satisfying ending, Maniscalco has once again proven she is a literary force to be reckoned with.

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title:  Hunting Prince Dracula

Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Publisher: Little, Brown

Genre: Fiction (YA, horror, mystery)

Year: 2017

Pages: 430

Price on Amazon: $24.99 CDN

“For the second time that evening, a horrid image of Miss Mary Jane Kelly’s corpse crossed my mind, as it often did when I imagined something truly brutal. Her body has been destroyed by Jack the Ripper until it barely resembled anything human.

“I closed my eyes for a moment, willing myself to remain calm and steady, but the feeling of being watched persisted. The forest was charming during the daylight hours, but at night it was forbidding and treacherous. I vowed never to leave my rooms in the dark again.

“Werewolves and vampires are not real. There is no one hunting you… Vlad Dracula is dead. Jack the Ripper is also deceased. There is no…

“A branch snapped somewhere close by, thudding to the ground, and my entire body went numb.” — Kerri Maniscalco, Hunting Prince Dracula

To review a single book within a series is a task often riddled with retractions. One book leaves blank what the next fills in. Questions are answered later, and the reader must see the series as a single story with multiple arcs. It is a problem that makes me want to read a series in its entirety, then review it as a whole.

In my last review of Maniscalco’s book, Stalking Jack the Ripper, I lamented that the ending felt rushed and wished there had been more focus on Audrey Rose’s emotional turbulence following the mystery’s traumatic conclusion.

Hunting Prince Dracula, the second thrilling installment in Audrey Rose’s adventures, mends every qualm and question I had with the first book.

Audrey Rose Wadsworth and Thomas Cresswell travel to Romania to compete with each other and a class full of aspiring forensics students for a place at the exclusive Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science. But before the first class even begins, the two are flung into their next case: someone is imitating the long-deceased Vlad Dracula, staking some victims through the heart and draining the blood from others. And when students of the academy begin dying and disappearing, the castle filled with suspects and teeming with motive, Audrey Rose and Thomas must solve the mystery– preferably before the killer strikes again.

The best way to describe Hunting Prince Dracula is balanced. Like its predecessor, this novel has just the right amount of romance, suspense, intrigue, and action. Maniscalco had me longing for more with every turn of the page, but never starved me of content. Unlike the last novel, this tale had me (wrongly) guessing the culprit’s identity up until the big reveal. As is with the best mysteries, all the clues clicked into place and the story came full circle. No far reaches or suspension of belief. The truth is believable, logical, and — in hindsight — obvious.

To those who enjoyed Stalking Jack the Ripper and want to know if Audrey Rose is still the Victorian feminist icon she was, I’m pleased to report that she hadn’t just kept her fierce wit, curiosity, and determination, but has grown from who she was. In this latest novel, we see Audrey Rose tackle disbelieving classmates and professors at the academy, fight for and prove her independence while also knowing when to ask for help, and supporting other women. She truly is an example I wish I’d had when I was a teen.

Oh, that second last line? Yes, you read that correctly. Hunting Prince Dracula features multiple female characters, all of them fleshed-out and individual with personality, motive, and incredible backgrounds. (But you’ll have to read that for yourself.) There is even a gay (or bisexual, as it is never confirmed) couple, who are not questioned or made fun of despite the time period. And for those who claim such a social inaccuracy cannot be excused (“Damn those feminists, those radical gays! Warping history for their own entertainment!”), Maniscalco touches on historical inaccuracies and artistic liberties in the appendix. And after all, when we live in a world where feminists and the LGBT+ community are still marginalized, who doesn’t enjoy a little escape?

Maniscalco proves her skills have only increased between novels. She maintains a keen ability to strike emotion into her readers, from anguish and anxiousness to jealousy and laughter. Most prominent of all is her ability to terrify her readers. (If you make it through the “Spider Chapter” [as I’ve dubbed it] without shuddering, I salute you.) With an intimate and confident voice, a talent in casting doubt, and a satisfying ending, Maniscalco has once again proven she is a literary force to be reckoned with.

Placing out protagonists in a different setting was a move worth making in Hunting Prince Dracula. Maniscalco took full advantage of the Romanian setting, including luxurious and moody landscapes, romantic yet treacherous castles riddled with mystery, and also of the mythology and cultural traditions of the area. While the vernacular of bilingual character seemed a little off (seeming to reinforce the fact that English was not their first language) and a set of poems written in Romanian somehow (frustratingly) rhyming in English may have itched at the back of my brain, all is forgiven thanks to the masterful way with which Maniscalco told this tale.

Hunting Prince Dracula brings Audrey Rose’s story to an entirely new level. We see new parts of her, see her struggle and overcome. She asserts herself and demands her dreams come true. Above all, we see her grow as a forensics student, a detective, and a person.

And there is Cressworth. So. Much. Cressworth. Shippers will be satisfied.

All in all, Maniscalco’s balanced tale of murder, romance, legends coming to life, and a woman choosing bravery each and every time not only seals the last novel’s cracks but raises the bar for the rest of the series. I cannot wait to sink my teeth into the next book.

(I’ve changed the way I rate books. Learn more here.)

Sink Your Teeth In (POSITIVE)

“Let me tell you a story, Nils. When I first came here, I was frightened of this town. I was confused by it. Time didn’t work. The City Council were creatures I had never seen before. There were angels, actual angels, wandering around, and they were all named Erika. But the strangest part of it was that everyone here treated it as normal. No one was a bit surprised at the form the City Council took, or that UFOs are a regular part of the night sky. I would listen to Cecil on the radio, calmly describing the day’s events, and I would try to call him, to get him to understand that everything was all wrong, that time didn’t work here. But it wasn’t that he didn’t see the things that I saw, he just interpreted them differently. I was afraid of him and all the people of Night Vale because of that.

“But as I spent more time talking to him, explaining science to him, I realized that even though I didn’t understand his worldview, I liked talking to him. And even though he didn’t understand my worldview, he liked talking to me. And we liked being with each other. And that like turned into love. Sometimes still he’ll calmly report something on the radio that I know is impossible by all current scientific knowledge, but that same day he’ll squint up from bed with a pillow-wrinkled face as I bring him coffee, and he smiles like it’s the first time he’s ever seen me, and he says, ‘How did I end up this lucky?’” – Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor, It Devours!

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: It Devours!

Author: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Publisher: HarperCollins

Genre: Fiction (weird fiction)

Year: 2017

Pages: 347

Price on Amazon: $26.99 CDN

“Let me tell you a story, Nils. When I first came here, I was frightened of this town. I was confused by it. Time didn’t work. The City Council were creatures I had never seen before. There were angels, actual angels, wandering around, and they were all named Erika. But the strangest part of it was that everyone here treated it as normal. No one was a bit surprised at the form the City Council took, or that UFOs are a regular part of the night sky. I would listen to Cecil on the radio, calmly describing the day’s events, and I would try to call him, to get him to understand that everything was all wrong, that time didn’t work here. But it wasn’t that he didn’t see the things that I saw, he just interpreted them differently. I was afraid of him and all the people of Night Vale because of that.

“But as I spent more time talking to him, explaining science to him, I realized that even though I didn’t understand his worldview, I liked talking to him. And even though he didn’t understand my worldview, he liked talking to me. And we liked being with each other. And that like turned into love. Sometimes still he’ll calmly report something on the radio that I know is impossible by all current scientific knowledge, but that same day he’ll squint up from bed with a pillow-wrinkled face as I bring him coffee, and he smiles like it’s the first time he’s ever seen me, and he says, ‘How did I end up this lucky?’” – Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor, It Devours!

For those familiar with the Night Vale universe, the above quote is both obvious, thrilling, and perhaps a bit confusing. Obvious and thrilling, because it recollects the events of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast thus far. Confusing because, out of all the strange and unsettling parts of a WTNV novel, why did I choose a quote that didn’t mention the Glow Cloud, the house that doesn’t exist, or the dog park?

Because the above quote encompasses everything I didn’t expect in It Devours!, the latest WTNV novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.

The original podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, first aired in 2012 and has resulted in two books transcribing the podcasts and two novels – one under the podcast’s name, and the second, It Devours!, having been released this year. With such a full universe, one can be forgiven if one thinks they need to listen to every podcast and read the first novel before even thinking of picking up It Devours!. But rest assured that even the uninitiated can enjoy this novel. I, being vaguely familiar with the WTNV universe, noticed a few references to past podcasts throughout the novel. While they certainly add to the story and the reader’s enjoyment, they are not essential to the plot. In that way, Fink and Cranor have made their universe accessible to all, this novel an entire story in and of itself, with no obvious sequel on the horizon – but while there’s hope, there isn’t need. If you’re curious about Night Vale, this is a perfect way to introduce yourself to it.

WTNV is known for its deadpan surrealism, a dash of abrupt silliness, followed by a raw, unaltered punch to the gut of existential dread and the sudden realization of one’s role as a microscopic mortal speck, then back to the silliness and surrealism. It is a universe of Lovecraftian horror, the ability to communicate All to listeners and readers, and sandwiches. It’s the poetry you find in a dollar store at two in the morning on a Tuesday, the kind that feels like a dream. It Devours! follows this formula, and those familiar with Night Vale will feel a sense of home when reading this. The writing is quirky and confident, matter-of-fact in places which makes its absurdities all the more intriguing and its philosophical revelations all the more shocking and impacting. Fink and Cranor tell their tale without fear. It Devours! is an open, raw, and straightforward story, without frills yet somehow still conveying a sense of whimsy essential to spreading such a heavy and necessary message.

I hope I can be forgiven for not expecting much beyond a weird and wonderful story. I hope, because I was wrong.

It Devours! is the story of Nilanjana Sikdar, a relatively new resident of Night Vale. A scientist working with Carlos (who is an established character in the universe thus far), her world consists of facts, numbers, and the words “I’m fine.” But when a tragedy strikes just outside of town and Nilanjana is sent to investigate it, she finds the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and Darryl – a wholehearted believer committed to the church. Soon, Nilanjana is caught between an attraction towards Darryl and the growing suspicion that the congregation is behind the strange rumbling in the desert – and all the dark and horrendous events that follow every attack.

This story of the struggle between science and faith, and the possibility of common ground there, it one that I personally needed with a desperation I never realized before. At its heart, It Devours! tells its readers that it is okay to disagree with each other, and that two people with drastically different sets of beliefs or lack thereof can work together, play together, and love each other. A peaceful coexistence is portrayed in this novel, one that our current world is in search of. The novel opens and closes in the same place, a loop that connects right into your heart and leaves you gawping at the last page. This story, like every other WTNV story, is unlike any other. It is unexpected, real, and has an odd sense about it that only comes from Night Vale. Fink and Cranor have effortlessly condensed the eerie feeling of Night Vale into It Devours!, a sensation I can only describe as standing in a liminal space at a strange hour and disassociating. (If you haven’t done it before, I recommend it: quite an adventure in philosophy and terror.) At every turn, the reader is hit with another and another (and yet another) series of statements and off-handed ideas that set one off-kilter. From the very first line, I was laughing at the absurdity.

At the end of the novel, when that very same line is repeated, I admit that I cried.

This is a novel the literary world is starved for, as Fink and Cranor also include a racially, religiously, physically, and gender- diverse cast of characters. Night Vale is much like any other American town, except for… well, everything. They introduce us to Nilanjana, a woman who is smart and anxious, new to Night Vale, who we see go through a drastic and wonderful change throughout the novel. The dialogue is casual but impacting and real, the setting is strange but familiar, and the story alone – with or without the message – captures readers from start to finish.

As I mentioned earlier, It Devours! is a perfect loop, which is why I think it’s a wonderful way for readers who are interested in Welcome to Night Vale but don’t quite know where to get started or aren’t a fan of podcasts to jump right into the franchise. While the uninitiated may not know exactly who Carlos, Cecil, or Big Rico are, those questions are quickly addressed with the information necessary to the story being told. Night Vale may be hard to find in its universe, but it’s easy to navigate once one gets there. The reader is left with zero unanswered questions in the end, yet the fates of our protagonists are left open enough to suggest something more may be told. If you pick up this novel, read it, and put it back on the shelf, you will not have to read fifty transcripts and another five novels to be satisfied. But be warned: once you step into Night Vale, it’s very difficult to leave.

Above all, the story of Nilanjana, Darryl, and the Smiling God teaches us about the ups and down of religion, the double-edged sword of science, and it asks the ultimate question: do you want to be right or be happy? There is no bias in this novel. The devout and the sceptical (and everyone in between) are recognized, validated, and taught a lesson each. Readers will leave this story with a better understanding of themselves and others. This book is a chance to see the world from a different perspective and be at peace with the beliefs (or lack thereof) of oneself and others. It recognizes science as something pure that human bias changes. It recognizes religion as an act rather than an institution. It challenges the reader’s views of both.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Fink and Cranor have taken Night Vale to a new height, and I look forward to seeing what they do next with the franchise. Whether you’re searching for a lesson, an adventure, a glowing cloud that rains dead animals, or just something weird to sink your teeth into, It Devours! is a fabulous choice.

All Hail the Glow Cloud. Or is it the Smiling God now? No matter what you believe, this book has it all.

(I’ve changed the way I rate books. Learn more here.)

Dissecting the Ripper (POSITIVE)

“No twelve-year-old should watch her mother’s soul drift into the abyss. It was the first time I’d ever felt helpless. God had failed me. I’d prayed and prayed the way Mother always said I should, and for what? Death still claimed her in the end. It was then I knew I’d rely on something more tangible than holy spirits.

“Science never abandoned me in the way religion had that night.

“Forsaking the Holy Father was considered a sin, and I did it repeatedly. Each time my blade met with flesh, I sinned more and welcomed it.

“God no longer held dominion over my soul.” – Kerri Maniscalco, Stalking Jack the Ripper

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: Stalking Jack the Ripper

Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Publisher: Little, Brown

Genre: Young Adult (mystery)

Year: 2016

Pages: 318

Price on Amazon: $22.49 CDN

“No twelve-year-old should watch her mother’s soul drift into the abyss. It was the first time I’d ever felt helpless. God had failed me. I’d prayed and prayed the way Mother always said I should, and for what? Death still claimed her in the end. It was then I knew I’d rely on something more tangible than holy spirits.

“Science never abandoned me in the way religion had that night.

“Forsaking the Holy Father was considered a sin, and I did it repeatedly. Each time my blade met with flesh, I sinned more and welcomed it.

“God no longer held dominion over my soul.” – Kerri Maniscalco, Stalking Jack the Ripper

To define the term “young adult literature” with certainty, “books whose target demographic are between the approximate ages of 15-21.” Sometimes, people define YA novels as “novels with a young adult protagonist” rather than defining them by their targeted audience. Whatever the case, it’s often said that young adult literature should be read by young adults alone, and that no adult should seek to peruse that dreaded aisle.

It would be a grievous mistake not to rebel against this idea, especially when works such as Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper await devouring.

To define young adult literature is ultimately simple. But to herd every novel under that umbrella into the same description is an unfortunate mistake so many readers make, a choice which results in missing out on great novels. I’ll admit, young adult is rarely ever my first choice in reading material. I’ve had far too may experiences in which I was spoon-fed a story that had little substance and was all smoke and glitter. Not to say that a little smoke and glitter is a bad thing. (If it makes your heart sing, tuck in, I say.) But for someone seeking a novel with a great depth of story, intricacy, complex themes, and just the right amount of romanticism to make the young adult inside us all swoon, Stalking Jack the Ripper is at the top of my recommendation list.

In this first installment of a series I’m certain will succeed among all ages, Maniscalco tells the story of Audrey Rose Wadsworth, a lady of London and an aspiring forensic pathologist. It goes without saying that she faces more than her fair share of difficulty when it comes to breaching the male-dominated field. Maniscalco doesn’t shy away from this. While it’s always refreshing to have a feminist utopia where our real-world issues are ignored for the sake of a good story, Audrey Rose’s struggles are real and necessary. As I said before in my review of Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (yet another historically-accurate-to-a-point YA novel tackling all-ages problems), it may hurt to read it, but it’s a vital point that must be made. And dancing around these points, mincing words or pretending the problems don’t exist, does nothing to help.

We face a time where women are forced to choose. Either we are beautiful or we are brainy. Audrey Rose dares to be both, demanding to be lovely and fierce whenever she pleases. Small symbolisms like silken shoes and bustles and corsets, key parts of feminine attire that once oppressed women, are used to convey power for our protagonist. More than that, we see feminism on a sliding scale. Liza, Audrey Rose’s cousin, proves to be as smart as she is pretty. Maniscalco flawlessly shows that feminism is a spectrum, and that we can do what we want without sacrificing what we enjoy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quality of this mystery. Stalking Jack the Ripper follows the investigations of Audrey Rose, her uncle Jonathan Wadsworth, and her intellectual rival and reluctant partner Thomas Cresswell. (I may or may not have swooned at his very name.) Jack the Ripper is hunting down the women of Whitechapel, and when the case breaches carefully-drawn lines and hits closer and closer to the Wadsworth home, Audrey Rose is forced into a hunt for the murderer. Every chapter is stuffed full of twists, more questions than answers, and clues that should have been so obvious while reading them in the first place.

I have to admit, because I’m rather proud of the fact, that I marked the place where I guessed who Jack the Ripper was. The exact page number would be a spoiler, but it was before the fourth chapter ended. Does this mean Maniscalco failed in weaving a weird and complex mystery? No. It means I watch too much true crime and am far too suspicious of everyone, as I admit I suspected everyone Audrey Rose came into contact with during the novel. Maniscalco achieves a wicked, personal, and eerie mystery. When one goes back to read it a second time, one may come across clues that wave right in one’s face. Maniscalco forces her audience to doubt what they know. And to make someone question their own first instinct through written word alone is no small feat.

Endings are always troublesome things for me. I confess that I thought badly of this novel’s conclusion at first, simply because it felt rushed. Once Audrey Rose discovers who Jack the Ripper truly is, we’re flung into the not-too-distant future, after our protagonist has dealt with the brunt of her emotions and has returned to a semi-normal life. (The life of Audrey Rose will never be normal, let’s admit that now. All the more reason for me to look forward to the sequel.) But after a week of contemplation, I think there’s no better ending than the one Maniscalco wrote. From the narrator’s perspective, the audience is privy to much, but not everything. The emotions Audrey Rose must work through in the end are difficult, personal, and were rightly kept private. It gives our protagonist a bit of mystery. Maniscalco’s overall choice of narration perfectly suits the story, and I look forward to understanding more about how Audrey Rose feels about the mystery being solved.

Speaking of the mystery itself, many inquiring readers may wonder if Maniscalco remains true to the real-life crimes of Jack the Ripper himself. The short answer is: yes, as much as the story’s integrity would allow. The long answer is: Maniscalco masterfully slides Audrey Rose’s tale into the Victorian mystery, keeping as close to the truth as she can and admitting in a note at the end of the novel what truly happened, opening up about small inaccuracies. If you enjoy the true tale of Jack the Ripper, Maniscalco will not disappoint.

This novel covers the family dynamic, in all its shapes and forms. It covers feminism in so many aspects, from respecting the choices of other women to recognizing the problems society has whether or not it targets one specifically. Audrey Rose is the protagonist I wish I had when I was 15. She is a scientist, a leader, unafraid to make mistakes and learn from others, and she is not ashamed to be who she is, whatever that may be. This book is a necessity for all young girls (and young people in general), as well as the adult population. This novel will teach you something, no matter how old or young you are.

Maniscalco’s latest book and newest installment in this series, Hunting Prince Dracula, was released this past September. I look forward to reading more about Audrey Rose and her next diabolical and terrifying mystery.

And the next one after that.

(I’ve changed the way I rate books. Learn more here.)