BOOK REVIEW: City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

BOOK REVIEW: City of Ghosts, by Victoria SchwabTitle: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab
Series: Cassidy Blake #1
Published by Scholastic Press
Published: August 28th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pages: 285
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Cassidy Blake's parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn't sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn't belong in her world. Cassidy's powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that Victoria Schwab is one of my favorite writers of all time. Her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, and her YA fantasies — The Monsters of Verity duology and the Archived series — are complex and SO GOOD. When she announced City of Ghosts, I immediately preordered it and couldn’t wait to have it in my hands.

City of Ghosts follows Cassidy Blake’s and her parents’ move to Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin filming a television show (The Inspectres) episode centered on the ghostly activities in old places within Edinburgh. Cassidy has a ghost-friend named Jacob and I loved their interactions, because there’s a lot of spooky in Jacob’s existence. I also want to know Jacob’s history. How did he die? Why did he decide to choose to save Cassidy?? I also enjoyed Cassidy’s friendship with Lara, and I hope to see that developed further in the future books in the series. I liked that Lara was a little bit of a foil for Cassidy in the sense that Lara is able to do some things that cause Cassidy to rethink her own abilities. I won’t spoil anything for you, though!

I read a few pages of this one night, and then I sat down and finished the rest of it in a single sitting. This is just the right amount of scary for younger readers and was just enough spooky for me. In fact, it reminded me a lot thematically and atmospherically of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book to the extent that I considered City of Ghosts to be a companion series of sorts! Both City of Ghosts and The Graveyard Book deal with thematic horror of growing up and facing the unknown as we “cross the border” between the innocence of childhood and the awareness and understanding of adulthood. It’s in those in-between times that we really come to know ourselves and what we’re capable of.

If you enjoy middle grade fantasy/horror and want to be chilled to the bone in similar ways after reading The Graveyard Book and Coraline, definitely pick this one up!

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: February 6th 2018
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants--these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley's book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor's "creature," scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time, and definitely in my list of top ten classics. So when I saw Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster beginning to make its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, I added it to my TBR and wishlist and waited for a good sale because based on the cover and title alone, I wanted it for my own collection.

I love literary histories like these that give the reader an insight into the creation of the novel while also providing context for the scientific aspects of Frankenstein. Sometimes I felt that the structure of the book could be better managed, but overall, I thought that the back and forth between Mary Shelley’s life and the real-life science that inspired the science in her novel worked effectively. Harkup’s book is incredibly well researched, and her meticulous attention to detail adds so much to the experience of reading this. For someone like me who isn’t wholly aware of a lot of medical and science history, the chapters focusing on the medical and science history were the most chilling and most engaging, especially the chapter regarding autopsies and the lucrative business surrounding the digging up of cadavers to sell to institutions of higher learning.

The main issue I had with the book were the biographical sections involving Percy and Mary Shelley because a good portion of those sections read as if they had been poorly edited or were a draft that could have easily been tightened up or finished off. I think Harkup’s strengths lie in scientific writing that is readily based upon set-in-stone information, whereas biographies do require a little more finesse in terms of narrative structure. For example, a lot of sentences in the biography sections ended with prepositional phrases and included digits instead of spelled out numerals for numbers under 100. Several sentences contained dangling participles, and I had to reread the sentences several times to be sure what the “it” was in the second half of the sentence. These are my editorial quibbles from my days editing student essays, so my reading experience is jarred when I notice these things in published works.

Overall, the science and medical histories and the biographies in Making the Monster are accessible to a variety of readers, whether or not they are familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’re interested in the sometimes gruesome practices in the history of medicine and/or enjoy literary biographies, I recommend checking this one out!

BOOK REVIEW: Code Girls, by Liza Mundy

BOOK REVIEW: Code Girls, by Liza MundyTitle: Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
Published by Hachette Books
Published: October 2nd 2018
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.

When I think of code breaking in World War II, I think of Alan Turning, British spies, and the Enigma machine. The history I was familiar with growing up didn’t mention much about American code breaking, let alone no mention of women’s involvement in code breaking during World War II.

Liza Mundy explores women who joined both the Army (WAC) and Navy (WAVES) to aid the war effort in code breaking. She focuses mostly on two women named Dot and Crow, but also includes other notable women who contributed. Mundy draws on her own research and interviews she conducted with these women, and I felt like I could read countless pages about the lives of these women and the risks they took.

It is both inspiring and frustrating to realize how much work these women did to aid the war effort and how little credit they have received in our history books. Now knowing that the work these women did to break codes entirely shifted the American’s trajectory during World War II, I want everyone who is interested in women’s history and war history to read this. It further goes to show that the paths taken in wartime are never black and white, never just a boy’s club, and never as straight as some would like to assume. War is complicated, and these women sometimes had to break codes containing information that lead to the direct harm of people they knew without being able to put a stop to the attacks. Mundy showcases the strength and resilience of these women in then-unheard of situations.

This comes highly recommended from me, so if you are interested in women’s history and World War II history, add this to your TBRs immediately.

Thank you to Hachette for sending me a complimentary copy for review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester FoxTitle: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House
Published: October 2nd 2018
Genres: Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Two centuries after the Salem witch trials, there’s still one witch left in Massachusetts. But she doesn’t even know it.

New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall.

The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

The Witch of Willow Hall is a perfect fall read to me. It’s got just the right amount of thrill and spooky vibes, unlikable but compelling characters, a heroine to root for, and a little dash of romance that you’ll root for.

The first few chapters were a little bit of a slow start for me, but it’s a slow start that builds suspense and wonder about the Montrose family backstory and why they’ve had to leave Boston. It’s not solely for one obvious reason or another, and once pieces of Lydia’s story began coming together, I needed to see how everything played out. The Witch of Willow Hall is a delightfully gothic story involving witchcraft, forbidden forests, and a large and spooky house holding all sorts of secrets.

Fox’s world-building reminded me a lot of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak in the way it presents the reader with an assumption that soon reveals more truths than initially expected. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s not too spooky but with the right amount of atmosphere, twists, and historical fantasy, then check out The Witch of Willow Hall!

I received a digital review copy from Netgalley in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: A Knife in the Fog, by Bradley Harper

BOOK REVIEW: A Knife in the Fog, by Bradley HarperTitle: A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper
Published by Seventh Street Books
Published: October 2nd 2018
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 288
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Physician Arthur Conan Doyle takes a break from his practice to assist London police in tracking down Jack the Ripper in this debut novel and series starter.

September 1888. A twenty-nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle practices medicine by day and writes at night. His first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, although gaining critical and popular success, has only netted him twenty-five pounds. Embittered by the experience, he vows never to write another “crime story.” Then a messenger arrives with a mysterious summons from former Prime Minister William Gladstone, asking him to come to London immediately.

Once there, he is offered one month’s employment to assist the Metropolitan Police as a “consultant” in their hunt for the serial killer soon to be known as Jack the Ripper. Doyle agrees on the stipulation his old professor of surgery, Professor Joseph Bell—Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes—agrees to work with him. Bell agrees, and soon the two are joined by Miss Margaret Harkness, an author residing in the East End who knows how to use a Derringer and serves as their guide and companion.

Pursuing leads through the dank alleys and courtyards of Whitechapel, they come upon the body of a savagely murdered fifth victim. Soon it becomes clear that the hunters have become the hunted when a knife-wielding figure approaches.

As someone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes pastiches and nearly anything revolving around Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life outside of those stories, I was incredibly excited to see a new mystery (or mystery series, perhaps? Goodreads says it’s a series starter!) involving Conan Doyle, Bell, and Margaret Harkness. Bradley Harper’s A Knife in the Fog is incredibly well-researched and well-rounded. It’s difficult to get the tone and language of the time period to be believable without feeling as if it’s forced, and Harper manages to bring the style of the time forward to modern ears.

A Knife in the Fog follows Doyle, Bell, and Harkness as they try to deduce who calls himself “Jack the Ripper” and his motives for attacking the working women of Whitechapel. There are numerous theories of the identity of Jack the Ripper, and Harper’s theory ties in believably in the scope of his novel. Margaret Harkness is a lively figure in history brought to life in the novel in such a way that charges the trajectory of the narrative. As a reader, I thought the addition of Margaret Harkness into the dynamic duo of Bell and Doyle was a necessary and wonderful addition to the story. While I won’t go into spoilery details, Harkness is one of the two women in this story who forces each Bell and Doyle to reconsider their assumptions and prejudices about women and women’s work. And given the traditional nature of these boys’ club mysteries, I was pleasantly surprised to see two women.

I also liked the nods to various literary figures and future Sherlock Holmes stories scattered throughout the book as well. It was like hunting for literary clues. Overall, this is a well-paced, well-researched, and well-crafted mystery with just the right amount of flair and atmosphere. If you enjoy historical fiction/mysteries, Jack the Ripper stories, and Doyle/Holmes pastiches, I highly recommend you check out A Knife in the Fog!

Thank you to Seventh Street Books for sending me a complimentary review copy! All opinions are my own.