Author Archives: Invested Ivana

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Christina Henry continues her series of fairytale-inspired retellings with The Mermaid, the grown-up version of The Little Mermaid for cynical adults.

Title: The Mermaid
Author: Christina Henry
Publish Date: June 19th, 2018 by Berkley
Genre: Historical fantasy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionOnce there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.

P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.

Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

The Mermaid is a grittier, and probably more accurate, tale of the famous P.T. Barnum than The Greatest Showman, though he isn’t the main protagonist. The central character is Amelia, a mermaid whose curiosity drove her to land. The first part of her life on land is somewhat idyllic. But the later part is full of heartache.

I am absolutely in love with Henry’s retellings of Alice in Wonderland (Alice and The Red Queen). So I expected a lot from The Mermaid. But, while it was a good story and a great audio performance, the story wasn’t quite as dazzling for me. Amelia, the mermaid, gets screwed over by men, and is even somewhat complicit in her own screwing over, though she finds her own strength in the end. I think it’s just not quite as novel a story as Alice — a woman getting screwed over by men is an all-too-familiar story these days.

In Alice, I also enjoyed seeing all the elements of the original story that Henry reinterpreted in her grittier version. That part was missing in The Mermaid, though not through any fault of Henry’s. I haven’t read the original H.C. Anderson version of The Little Mermaid, so if there were reinterpretations, I wasn’t aware of them. But I suspect there aren’t as many quirky characters and images as in Carroll’s tale.

Despite those subjective observations, there is nothing bad about the book. The story is well-written and interesting. The characters are believable and sympathetic. I’d recommend it to fans of The Greatest Showman who want a better taste of what P.T. Barnum was really like.

Jackaby by William Ritter

If you dropped Sherlock Holmes into an urban fantasy setting, you’d get something like Jackaby.

Title: Jackaby
Author: William Ritter
Series: Jackaby, Book 01
Publish Date: September 16th, 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers
Genre: Historical urban fantasy
NarratorNicola Barber
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionNewly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

Mixing Sherlock Holmes with a female Watson and magic in an urban fantasy setting made for a fun story.

Jackaby is a competent, somewhat arrogant, socially-awkward scholar of magic. He can see supernatural creatures and forces others can’t.  Therefore, he has access to more information about the world, much like his counter-part, Sherlock Holmes, has because of his powers of observation. Jackaby fancies himself a detective on cases that involve the supernatural.

His Watson, Miss Abigail Rook, is a young female interested not in frocks and parties and marriage, but in having adventures and being independent. She forces her way into Jackaby’s investigations, and they make a good pair since Abigail can’t see magic and brings some grounded reality to the investigations.

I particularly enjoyed some of the secondary characters–the ghost and the duck, especially. The running joke about staring at the toad was cute as well.

As for the mystery, it was very interesting. However, this book did the one thing in mysteries that really bothers me. The mystery is solved by happenstance, not through any effort on the part of the detectives. I find this disappointing as it makes all their efforts to understand the case irrelevant.

Overall, the story is cute. The narrator does a good job of bringing the characters to life. It might be just about right as a young adult series, as it’s marketed. It’s not going to be on my must-read list, but I might eventually continue with the rest of the book in the series as long as the cases are actually solved by the protagonists.

Series Spotlight: Elemental Assassin by Jennifer Estep

I just finished a massive re-read of every novel, novella, and short story of the Elemental Assassin series. Actually, I listened to most of it, since all seventeen novels and one novella are available in audio. It was fabulous! I just love Gin and the gang and all the justice she brings to Ashland and beyond.

Author: Jennifer Estep
Series: Elemental Assassin
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Cover: Tony Mauro
Source: Purchased

Description (from Goodreads): The Elemental Assassin series focuses on Gin Blanco, an assassin code-named the Spider who can control the elements of Ice and Stone. When she’s not busy killing people and righting wrongs, Gin runs a barbecue restaurant called the Pork Pit in the fictional Southern metropolis of Ashland. The city is also home to giants, dwarves, vampires, and elementals – Air, Fire, Ice, and Stone.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

Seventeen novels and ten novellas/shorts make for a lot of time to invest in a series. But long series are perfect for a reader like me who invests heavily in the characters and their lives. Every new book is a chance to visit with my friends, and I always want to know what happens next in their lives because happily-ever-after just doesn’t happen. If you haven’t invested in the series yet, or have just dipped your toe into a book or two, here are some observations about the series that you might want to know.

Ashland is the Gotham City of the South.

By that, I mean that Gin’s world is governed by the rules, not of reality, but of graphic novels. Picture any Batman movie–Ashland, like Gotham City, is chock full of bad guys and their thugs/minions–probably more baddies than regular folk. And some of the “baddies” are actually the good guys! Though there is no Penguin, Catwoman, or Riddler, there is a mix of super-human citizens–giants, dwarves, vampires, and those with elemental magic–who, for the most part, are just as “human” as anyone else but with a few physical bonuses.

The world is highly stylized, with individuals and businesses identifying themselves via runes placed on everything from business cards to jewelry to kitchen decorations. Plus, some villains go in for a theme, dressing themselves, their minions, and their environments like Wild West cowboys, 1920-era mobsters, Renaissance-fair actors, etc. Thugs and minions are killed in droves, but their deaths are of consequence only if they drive the plot forward. Secrets are revealed from beyond the grave as though the deceased had uncanny prescience, and the elimination of each opponent brings a bigger, badder villain forward. And, of course, there are wildly wealthy people everywhere.

While the characters, their motivations, and their relationships are fully fleshed out, rich, and realistic, the sett

ing follows its own rules, similar to those of Gotham City. Understanding those rules allows your suspension-of-disbelief skills to flourish, and you’ll enjoy the story that much more.

There are three main story arcs (so far).

The other day, I was chatting with a friend who was criticizing long series for being “repetitive and formulaic.” Though I understand her point, I argue that it depends on WHICH STORY you’re focused on. As with all good TV and book series, there is the episodic story — each book or short — and there is the story arc — the events that tie a whole season together. I love story arcs. A well-written series pulls me from book to book because there is a compelling arc. Each episode fleshes out the characters, deepens relationships, introduces new players, and gives the characters new knowledge or skills that lead them toward the completion of the arc. Now, I admit that those arcs can be more obvious when you “binge” a series, like I just did. That is why I love rereading books; I get to see how all the pieces fit together toward the story arc. Some readers just don’t have that kind of patience with or invest that much in series, and that’s fine. Stand-alone novels, duologies, and trilogies are made for those kinds of readers.

From what I can see, there are three main story arcs in the Elemental Assassin series. The first five books or so deal with Gin’s back story and her nemesis. The next seven or so books explore the back stories of some of the other main characters while dealing with the consequences of the first arc, including a successor villain that turns the tables on Gin’s world view a bit. This arc may seem a bit meandering to some readers, but new characters are introduced, existing characters are fleshed out, and everything we learn about them pays off in the end. The final arc is in progress at the time of this writing, and I can already tell it’s going to be amazing. After finishing the most recent novel (Venom in the Veins), I’m on the seat of my pants to see what Gin finds out next!

Taken individually, each book is about Gin and her friends solving a mystery and fighting a bad guy, and I guess you could call that repetitive and formulaic if you want. But each episode adds something to the story arc, and that arc is what compels me.

The entire series takes place in a short amount of time.

Though the series has been in progress since 2010, far less than nine years have passed in book time. My best guess is that the whole series takes place over two to three years or so, not counting a couple of “flashback” stories. I want to say there have been two Christmas parties since the first novel — one at Owen’s and one at the Pork Pit (Jennifer–correct me if that’s wrong!) It would be interesting to see a calendar layout marked with the time frame for each book.

It can be hard for readers to keep “book time” and real time separate while reading a series, but it can often help put some things in perspective if you remember how little time has passed in Ashland since we first met Gin.

The audiobook version is fantastic.

If you’re an audiobook fan, you should know that Lauren Fortgang is superb at portraying Gin and all the characters of Ashland. I understand that the appeal of narrators’ voices can be subjective, so take that for what it’s worth, but not only do I find Fortgang fantastic, but after seventeen novels, she is SO totally ingrained in my head as the voice of the Elemental Assassin series. Unfortunately, that made listening to the only novella in audio, Nice Guys Bite, narrated by David Marantz, difficult. Marantz is a fine narrator, but he’s not “the” narrator for this series, and audiobook listeners feel strongly about the continuity of narrators.

So I want to say a huge THANK YOU to Audible for producing Venom in the Veins using Lauren Fortgang even though Pocket dropped the Elemental Assassin series (WTF, Pocket?) and Venom in the Veins was self-published (also thank you to Jennifer and to Tony Mauro for maintaining the continuity of cover art!) I also hope that someday, when publishing rights can all be arranged without breaking the bank, Jennifer can publish an anthology or two of all the shorts and novellas and that Audible will produce them with Fortgang as narrator. Because of Fortgang’s performance, Elemental Assassin is one of those series I’d rather hear than read.

Feeling like there’s no justice in this world? Gin can help!

Hopefully, my observations about the series will spark your interest in reading, re-reading, or listening to Elemental Assassin. But if not, here’s one that might: vicarious bloody justice. Right now, our world feels like Gotham City — full of wealthy, corrupt villains who too often get away with their evil deeds. Even well-adjusted, non-sociopaths need to indulge in a revenge-fantasy or two just to stay sane.

Reading the Elemental Assassin series is a socially-acceptable way to exercise your revenge fantasies. Assassin Gin Blanco goes after those wealthy, manipulating, corrupt, exploiting, entitled asshats, stabs them with her knives, and bathes in their blood. So the next time you feel oppressed by the wealthy, cheated by politicians, or angered by the news, crack open an Elemental Assassin book and let Gin take down the baddies for you.

The Menagerie Trilogy by Rachel Vincent

Much like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautiful, fascinating, and timely commentary on gender and economic inequality and religiously-justified politics, Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie trilogy is a beautiful, fascinating, and timely commentary on xenophobia, “otherness,” and our tragic tendency to treat other people as sub-human out of fear, ignorance, and selfishness.

Titles: Menagerie, Spectacle, and Fury
Author: Rachel Vincent
Series: Menagerie Series
First Publish Date: September 29th, 2015, by Harlequin MIRA
Genre: Urban fantasy, dark fantasy
NarratorGabra Zackman
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description of MenagerieWhen Delilah Marlow visits a famous traveling carnival, Metzger’s Menagerie, she is an ordinary woman in a not-quite-ordinary world. But under the macabre circus black-top, she discovers a fierce, sharp-clawed creature lurking just beneath her human veneer. Captured and put on exhibition, Delilah in her black swan burlesque costume is stripped of her worldly possessions, including her own name, as she’s forced to “perform” in town after town.

But there is breathtaking beauty behind the seamy and grotesque reality of the carnival. Gallagher, her handler, is as kind as he is cryptic and strong. The other “attractions” — mermaids, minotaurs, gryphons, and kelpies — are strange, yes, but they share a bond forged by the brutal realities of captivity. And as Delilah struggles for her freedom, and for her fellow menagerie, she’ll discover a strength and a purpose she never knew existed.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

In the world of Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie trilogy, cryptids have always existed—human/animal hybrids of myth and legend, creatures that look human but have inhuman abilities, etc. But it’s a horrible time for them. If they are outed and caught, they are ostracized from society, separated from their families, exploited and bred like beasts, and treated as deadly or evil creatures by humans.

The impetus for this treatment is an event that happened several years prior—a mass killing that occurred all across the globe, committed by creatures that were not human. Rage, fear, and ignorance spurred humans into tormenting all cryptids, believing that one form of cryptid was responsible for the killings.

Delilah Dawson has returned to her hometown after going to school for cryptid zoology in order to understand and care for the various cryptid creatures. Her boyfriends treats her to a trip to the carnival, where a menagerie of cryptids is on display. After watching the brutal treatment of a child werewolf by the menagerie staff, Delilah has an unexpected transformation—and gets labeled a cryptid herself.

This change in Delilah’s status is the real horror and appeal of the series. As a stand-in for the reader, Delilah—a perfectly normal human—suddenly becomes “other,” and the treatment she receives after that point is atrocious. It leads the reader to think, “What if that happened to me?” It reminds us that anything a group of people is allowed to do to others—such as tear children from parents and place them in animal cages—they can eventually do to us. It forces us to recognize the “frog in hot water” phenomenon that many people believe we are living through today.

Delilah, who has learned to view cryptids much the way a sympathetic vet or zoologist views animals, is now forced to see how little difference there is between them and herself. She comes to know them as individuals with the same concerns about their family and survival as she has. And because she had the privilege of a human upbringing and education, she is able to plot and scheme and fight for cryptid rights with more skill and righteous indignation than a cryptid without that privilege.

There are so many timely and relevant themes in this trilogy that it could be great fodder for a book club. At the same time, it is rich, beautiful, sorrowful, devastating, and empowering fantasy fiction and a joy to read. Stories like this one justify the theory that reading can help people be more empathetic, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent because they are “experiencing” events from a point of view other than their own. The audio version, narrated by Gabra Zackman, is fantastic. For me, hearing the characters’ voices really amps up my emotional connection to the story.

And did I mention the ending? Wow! It’s not a happy ending, but it’s not an unhappy ending, either. It’s clever, victorious, sad, and hopeful with a huge dollop of karma, which I adore. But it also leaves the reader with questions: What happens next? What impact does the final event have on the world? Will things get better for cryptids? Those questions go unanswered in the book, indicating that it is up to us how the future goes for everyone who is “other.” We readers have to be the ones to make that better future manifest in our own world.

The Menagerie trilogy is not popcorn fiction, but a significant commentary on the state of humanity in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, and other great dystopian classics. But it’s also a beautiful, accessible, and highly-entertaining piece of fiction, one that will leave you with some deep thoughts and lots of feels. Five stars for each book.

Little by Edward Carey

A mix of very quirky characters and a superbly innocent voice make Little an intriguing look at a famous, yet little-known, historical figure.

Title: Little
Author: Edward Carey
Publish Date: October 23rd, 2018 by Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical fiction
Narrator: Jayne Entwistle
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionThe wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris, befriended by royalty and radicals, who transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud.

In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and . . . at the wax museum, heads are what they do.

In the tradition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Edward Carey’s Little is a darkly endearing cavalcade of a novel–a story of art, class, determination, and how we hold on to what we love.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

A while ago, Agent Annie suggested I might like the book Little, a fictional-yet-apparently-accurate-in-facts history of Madame Tussaud, of wax museum fame. Her recommendation was spot on. Little, particularly the audio version, is spectacular!

We meet Marie, who will eventually become Madame Tussaud, as a small child in Switzerland whose family is struggling after her father sustains a serious injury in the military. After her father’s death, her mother becomes housekeeper to a professor and then dies, leaving Marie to be buffeted on the winds of fate for the majority of her remaining life.

There are a couple of things I find fascinating about how this story is written. First, the tone of the story is so quirky-gothic. It feels similar to, though weightier than, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Addams Family, or the card game Gloom. Every character has some eccentric, quirky feature, such as the professor who is in love with bones, the Paris historian who never takes off his shoes, Marie’s childhood friend who comes to believe he is a dresser’s dummy, or the street urchin who behaves like the stray dogs who raised him. The eccentricities of each character are fascinating and the quirky tone of the story is very compelling, assuming quirky and dark is your thing. From a historical perspective, this tone also does a great job of characterizing the experience of the common citizen caught up in the craziness of the French Revolution.

Second, Marie’s voice, which we first hear as a child, retains that same child-like, innocent quality for the whole book. Not only her “voice,” as in a writing style, but also her literal voice, provided by narrator Jayne Entwistle, is absolutely perfect for the character and tone of the book. Particularly toward the end of the book, the reader witnesses Marie mature into an adult in terms of her actions and decisions, but her “voice” continues to be that of an innocent child, caught up in the machinations of fate, war, and people who have more power than she does.

This is a book I will listen to again, probably more than once. There is a lot to digest in terms of history and the way the writing style is both fun and yet layered to communicate the dynamics of power and absurdity of war and politics. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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