Bookclub Review: “The Joy Luck Club”

7763._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989

Where Did We Get This Book: Borrowed it from family; the library!

Book Description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts. 

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Joy Luck Club” right after college, when I found it on my sister’s book shelf and decided to give it a go. It was around this time that I really started to devote my life to reading again, and I remember really enjoying the book in my early twenties. So when it was chosen for book club, I was interested to see if my thoughts and feelings would have changed as time passed. I found my Mom’s old school copy in their basement, and dove right back in.

Time and reading experience has definitely changed my perceptions, but not in a bad way, necessarily. I still liked how Tan portrayed the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, sometimes because of the complex relationship between parents and children, and other times because of a culture clash between immigrants who grew up in one place and culture, and their children who grew up in a different place and different culture. We see their lives and personalities through various vignettes and experiences, and see how the hardships that the mothers had made them approach how they raised their daughters, and in turn how the daughters may or may not understand those approaches. Sometimes the relationships were touching and loving, and other times there would be conflicts that were hard to read. For me, the most effective vignettes mostly involved Suyuan Woo (the founder of the Joy Luck Club) and her daughter Jing Mei. Suyuan was living in China during the Japanese Invasion and the lead up to World War Two, and endured the tragedy of not only losing her husband, but having to abandon her twin daughters on the side of the road because she was too sick to carry them. Jing Mei always felt like she wasn’t good enough in her mother’s eyes, and when she finds out that the rest of the Joy Luck Club found out that her half sisters are alive, she has to decide if she’s going to pursue them. Her complicated relationship with her mother is filled with a lot of painful subtext and context, and while through my Western experience I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how Suyuan (and many of the other mothers) treated their daughters I did think that the stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei had the most emotional oomph, and definitely made me tear up multiple times. Tan does a good job of not necessarily excusing some of the manipulative or cruel behaviors of her characters, but showing why they may be acting that way. Her writing is also gorgeous, as it flows well and brings out a lot of imagery in vibrant ways.

I can see how there are criticisms from some Chinese American authors and scholars when it comes to “The Joy Luck Club”, as for so long this seemed like the go-to book for Westerners when it comes to what Asian American stories are consumed. Hell, I am pretty sure that when I picked it up a decade or so ago it was one of the first books I’d read written by an Asian-American author about Asian and Asian-American characters. As time has gone on it’s important that more Asian and Asian-American authors have been able to tell stories of all kinds, and to show all kinds of experiences that don’t necessary reflect stereotypes that “The Joy Luck Club” may have contributed to, inadvertently or otherwise. But on the other side, this story definitely seems to be a very personal one for Tan, and therefore it’s hard to completely write it off or to say that it should be left behind completely. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to where “The Joy Luck Club” should be in the literary canon.

Reading “The Joy Luck Club” a second time was an interesting experience, and with older and wiser eyes I think that I got more from it. I’m glad that book club gave me the chance to read it again.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was a book that I only knew through vague familiarity with the title and the fact that it had been made into a movie in the early 90s that I may have caught bits and pieces of, here and there. So other than knowing that this type of literary fiction is typically my jam, I didn’t have many preconceived notions of the book going in.

Overall, I was right in my initial assessment that this wouldn’t be my type of book, but there were things that I did appreciate about it. I don’t know a lot of about China during the Japanese invasion and many of mother’s tales were an interesting (if tragic!) look into that time period and how these women came emigrate to America. I do wish there had been a bit more variation between the tales. While they were each distinctive enough, towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the next mother’s tale to be the starkly contrasting tale to balance out the others. Instead, most of them were fairly similar at their heart, which leads to one of my main criticism.

I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and how each was related to the one who did what. Part of this comes down to the similarity between some of the stories. But there was also similarity between characters. Many of the daughters ended up married to varying levels of scumbag husbands who all also tended to blend together in my mind. The story was also broken up into chapters for the mothers and chapters for the daughters, but they are all scattered throughout the book in a way that forced me to always flip back to the chart in the front of the book and to previous chapters to try to figure out just who we were talking about how and how their story related to others’.

I think the way the book was laid out in this way had a detrimental effect even on one of the main messages the author was trying to get across, about how the mother’s lives effected how they interacted and raised their daughters, and vice versa. Every once in a while I’d be able to form a clear connection from one of the mother’s stories to how she interacted with her daughter. But I think there was also a lot I missed simply because I couldn’t keep track of who’s story was who’s. The book was originally written as a collection of short stories, and I almost think it would have been more successful had it been left as that. The attempt to draw it together as a novel is just enough to technically earn that description, but left me, the reader, more confused than I would have been had I just read the short stories seperately.

We had a really good book club discussion about identity, mother/daughter relationships, and whether or not immigration and 1st, 2nd, generation immigrants may have different experiences now, coming out of differing political climates in their home countries and into a different USA, too. So there’s still clearly a lot of good stuff to be found in this book. As a point of discussion, I really liked it. But as a read, it wasn’t really my thing.

Kate’s Rating 7: An emotional book with complex themes and issues, “The Joy Luck Club” was interesting to revisit, and for the most part still held up for me.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting point of entrance into a larger discussion about immigration, family, and culture, but still a bit hard to read for me.

Book Club Questions

  1. The story is broken into several different stories about the mothers and the daughters. Is there one that stands out to you and why?
  2. The story is focused largely on the challenging relationship between the mothers and daughters. What makes this relationship so challenging but also fulfilling? What about these depictions strikes you?
  3. Immigration is challenging issue right now. How does this book fit into the current narrative about immigrants and their experiences leaving their homes and coming to live in a new country?
  4. When Jing-Mei is talking with the other women of the Joy Luck Club about her mother, she says that she doesn’t feel like she knew who her mother was or anything about her. How much do you think we know about our own mothers? Do you think that Jing-Mei’s perceived lack of knowledge (And Suyuan’s privacy) could be generational? Cultural?
  5. The book is broken into several stories and jumps around from one to another. How did this structure affect your read?
  6. There are rumors of a sequel to this book (in film form). If there was to be a sequel to this story set in the modern day, what do you think it would cover? What relationships, what countries, what cultures?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Joy Luck Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Jezebel’s Books All Women Should Read”.

Find “The Joy Luck Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant.

 

Serena’s Review: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back”

42867937Book: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.

For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again—a home.

Review: Here’s another example of a cover that has a model but is still super cool to look at. Notably, she’s wearing clothes appropriate to her character and it depicts a scene that seems to connect with the title and description pretty well. Always love to see that! But, cover aside, I really decided to check this book out based on my enjoyment of the author’s previous book, “Sky in the Deep.” As I mentioned in the Highlights post, it’s always exciting to find standalone fantasy novels. And when you have an author who chooses to write multiple standalones, but in the same world, it’s like getting your cake and eating it, too.

Tova’s remembered life began alone, cold on the sea. It’s only through fate, it seems, that her small craft washes up on shore and she is taken in by a people who are both mystified and wary of her mysterious origins and the power she possesses. As a young woman, she is drawn into a brewing conflict, both internal and external, as the Svell people debate the merits of war. With two of the major tribes having joined together, the Svell see this as their time to rise. But Tova sees darkness ahead. Will they listen to their own mystic, or is she, and the young warrior Halvard from the opposing tribe, doomed to be caught up in another round of warfare?

Sadly, this book wasn’t as much of a hit for me as the first one. I think there are a few factors, but first I want to talk about the things I did like. I was again pleased to return to this world that Young has created. The Viking-like mythology is still intriguing, as is the way of life and cultures that are described for the various clans. The writing itself is still solid and I think she did a good job balancing out introducing new characters and themes, while also giving readers a few peaks at what is going on with beloved characters and arcs from the first book.

All of that said, however, I just wasn’t able to connect with this story the way I was able to with the first. Part of this might come down to the dueling narrators. Having two narrators means that the author needs to balance two characters’ worth of story, emotional motivation, and overall arc with only half the page time that one alone would have. There are obviously benefits in getting to see various characters’ differing perspectives, but it’s still quite challenging. Here, I think both main characters suffered for the lack of full devotion to either.

Halvard, to some extent, was better served in the fact that I at least was familiar with him from the first book and had a bit more emotional investment right off the bat. Tova, however, the titular “girl the sea gave back” always felt a bit bland. Her backstory is intriguing, and her life growing up as a powerful mystic but one who is still seen as an outsider in the clan that has adopted her is compelling. But for some reason, I struggled to fully invest in her story. In the end, both main characters lack the spark that gave life to the main character from the first book.

The plot was also incredibly predictable. To some extent, the same could be said of “Sky in the Deep,” but I think there was enough of a personal arc of her discovery of her brother in the midst of her enemy’s camp and the slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance to keep the plot failings afloat. But, as discussed, with flat characters, the plot failings become much more apparent. Must of the story revolves around a discussion of fate and destiny. These themes can be compelling if taken apart and contrasted against free will and choice. But here they are simply wielded as clumsy explanations for why unlikely events occurred, hand-waving away coincidences one way and another.

“Destiny” also killed the romance of this story. For one, there was simply a lot less of one than there was in the first, which I personally found disappointing. But for two, what romance we were given was one meet-cute away from instalove, right down to the almost deadly brawl that somehow ends with a “connection.” With all of that destiny and intertwinedness to go around, the reader is never given a reason to root for these two, as we’ve been told from the start that it is simply meant to be. The characters don’t need to build up feelings for each other, they just know they’re there, even across time and space almost.

Overall, this was a very flat story for me. I struggled to find anything to connect to and by the end reading it felt more like a chore to get through. How disappointing, based on the strength of the first story and the fact that the author clearly has skills. In many ways, it almost feels like this would be the author’s first book, and that one the one she pulls out later in all of its more-polished glory. I’m not writing the author off completely, as I know she has good stories in her. This one just wasn’t one of them.

Rating 6: Fans of the first book should beware that this is in many ways “Sky in the Deep” lite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl the Sea Gave Back” is, weirdly, on this Goodreads list: “Summery vibes.”

Find “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Night Before”

40867676Book: “The Night Before” by Wendy Walker

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: First dates can be murder. 

Riveting and compulsive, national bestselling author Wendy Walker’s The Night Before “takes you to deep, dark places few thrillers dare to go” as two sisters uncover long-buried secrets when an internet date spirals out of control. 

Laura Lochner has never been lucky in love. She falls too hard and too fast, always choosing the wrong men. Devastated by the end of her last relationship, she fled her Wall Street job and New York City apartment for her sister’s home in the Connecticut suburb where they both grew up. Though still haunted by the tragedy that’s defined her entire life, Laura is determined to take one more chance on love with a man she’s met on an Internet dating site.

Rosie Ferro has spent most of her life worrying about her troubled sister. Fearless but fragile, Laura has always walked an emotional tightrope, and Rosie has always been there to catch her. Laura’s return, under mysterious circumstances, has cast a shadow over Rosie’s peaceful life with her husband and young son – a shadow that grows darker as Laura leaves the house for her blind date. 

When Laura does not return home the following morning, Rosie fears the worst. She’s not responding to calls or texts, and she’s left no information about the man she planned to meet. As Rosie begins a desperate search to find her sister, she is not just worried about what this man might have done to Laura. She’s worried about what Laura may have done to him…

Review: This summer has come and gone, and while I didn’t have a trip where you could find me by the pool with a stack of books, there were a few books I did read that would have been the perfect pool reads. You know the kind, the ones that will suck you in and that you can’t put down. “The Night Before” was one such book. And while I read it in bed as opposed to pool side, all of the elements that I love were there. Wendy Walker has impressed me again.

“The Night Before” is told through two perspectives, the sisters Laura and Rosie. Laura is freshly out of an intense romantic relationship, and her rocky love life has started to take an emotional toll on her. Her arc is first person, and starts the night of the first date she’s had since her last relationship. She’s about to meet a man named Jonathan she met online. She’s nervous but excited to get back in it. The second narrative is Rosie’s which is third person and starts the morning after, when Laura hasn’t come home, and Rosie is worried. While this could be a pretty standard set up for a pretty standard thriller, Rosie’s fear, as it turns out, seems to be more about what Laura is capable of as opposed to the mystery man she was going on a date with. Therefore, our story is about not only finding out what happened to Laura, but if she is less the vulnerable victim and more a dangerous predator. The two perspectives slowly start to unravel Laura’s past, the reasons Rosie may be both worried and perhaps scared of her, and how Laura’s past relationships may influence her actions on the night she goes missing. Walker did a really good job of slowly revealing her cards, and while I had a lot of theories about what was going on, I usually found myself in the wrong, which was great! It goes to show that the mystery was strong and that Walker had complete control of what she wanted to reader to take away from it. I was so invested in finding out what happened that I found myself tearing through this book in a couple of sittings. The suspense builds at a satisfying pace, and by the end it has risen to a breaking point that makes the reader unable to put it down.

I liked Laura and Rosie enough as characters, thought I do wish that we got a little bit more interaction between them in the moment so we weren’t relying as much on telling as opposed to showing. I also felt like that while we got a really good sense of who Laura was as a person when all was said and done, Rosie was relegated to worried older sister, and I wanted more from her. I also felt like one of the big reveals was a little farfetched, or if not farfetched it felt like the weight of it didn’t carry in the way I think it should have. The hints at the set up were there, so that wasn’t a problem, but ultimately it was clear it was just there to aid a red herring as opposed to be a meaningful moment of plot and character development. All that said, the plot and mystery was so strong that I didn’t really mind.

“The Night Before” was a fast paced and fun read with a solid mystery and a lot of good twists. Pool side reading may be over, but if you want a book that you could get lost in, this would be a pick that I recommend!

Rating 8: A gripping and fast paced thriller that kept me guessing, “The Night Before” is a fun read with many twists and turns. While the characters could have been more developed, the plot and mystery made up for it and then some.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Night Before” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “The Girl on the Train Readalikes”.

Find “The Night Before” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Tiger Queen”

42281646._sy475_Book: “Tiger Queen” by Annie Sullivan

Publishing Info: Blink, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In the mythical desert kingdom of Achra, an ancient law forces sixteen-year-old Princess Kateri to fight in the arena to prove her right to rule. For Kateri, winning also means fulfilling a promise to her late mother that she would protect her people, who are struggling through windstorms and drought. The situation is worsened by the gang of Desert Boys that frequently raids the city wells, forcing the king to ration what little water is left. The punishment for stealing water is a choice between two doors: behind one lies freedom, and behind the other is a tiger.

But when Kateri’s final opponent is announced, she knows she cannot win. In desperation, she turns to the desert and the one person she never thought she’d side with. What Kateri discovers twists her world—and her heart—upside down. Her future is now behind two doors—only she’s not sure which holds the key to keeping her kingdom and which releases the tiger.

Review: I requested this book based purely on my curiosity to see how an author would transform the short story “The Lady or the Tiger” into a YA fantasy novel. The rest of the book description sounded fairly familiar, but I was hopeful that the unique source material would propel it beyond your typical fare. Alas, no.

In Kateri’s world, water is life. Her city and her people suffer for its lack and have fought for years to continue to thrive in a city that is barely getting by. Conditions are only made worse by a group of rebels who defy the water limits and steal the city’s supply for themselves. But Kateri’s father has developed a clever deterrent: if a thief is caught, they much choose between two doors, one of which allows them to return to their home and the other that releases a deadly tiger onto its prey. As Kateri continues to fight for her place in the royal line of succession, she begins finding more and more secrets behind other doors. And soon enough she finds herself questioning everything she’s come to know.

Honestly, take out the bit about the tiger/lady door thing and I feel like I’ve just typed out the same description that I have for so many books before. Substitute “tiger” for “dragon” and you pretty much have the plot of “The Last Namsara.” And that’s just the first one that comes to mind. I’m pretty sure anyone whose read a decent amount of YA fiction could read that book description and give me the entire outline of this book. And you’d be right.

It’s really hard to rate and review books like these. Is this book any worse than the million and one that came before it with the same plot and the same main character? Was I in a less forgiving mood when I read this one as compared to them? I’m not sure. But I will say that this book made me mad. It took what could have been a clever concept and instead of exploring the unique opportunities available there, it twisted it to fit the exact same “write by numbers” mold that we’ve seen forever now in YA fantasy fiction.

I knew I was in for trouble in the first chapter when I read about Kateri’s experience watching a caught thief go through the process of choosing a door. At first she’s sympathetic to the thief who is so young, to show that she’s caring. But then, for no reason, she must show that she’s ruthless and rage against his option for freedom. He should die now for what he’s done! It flip flops as easily as I’ve just written it. There is no explanation or developed rational behind this. It’s clearly there just to get to two basic character traits, at the expense of the character’s overall development as a believable person. The author clearly just wants to get through this whole “character building” bit as fast as possible. This mode of character “development” holds true throughout the rest of the book. Beyond that, Kateri was only the “warrior woman” she’s touted to be on the most superficial level. Other than her fighting skills, her entire plot line is in reaction to the men around her: her father, the men she fights, the man she loves.

In that same chapter we’re introduced to the king, her father, who is OF COURSE not hiding any secrets and OF COURSE is telling her the full truth about this whole water/thief thing. And there’s the nefarious dude she might have to marry and the rumored young, hot leader of the rebels and…man, I’m so bored even typing this out. It’s all exactly as you’d expect.

Frankly, I have very little to say about this book. I’m having a hard time even filling out this review to the word count that I usually hit. There’s just so little new here to even critique. Anyone who is passingly familiar with YA fantasy can see every twist and turn coming from a mile away. All of the characters dutifully follow the scripts laid out for them in books like this, with nary a unique trait to be found. It was incredibly disappointing. Maybe someone who hasn’t read a bunch of YA fantasy would enjoy this, or those who are not worn out by this basic storyline yet. But anyone looking for something fresh or new should beware.

Rating 5: The book itself is like opening the door and getting the tiger instead of the lady.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Tiger Queen” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Books Based on Myths, Legends, Fairytales and Folklore.”

Find “Tiger Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Five Midnights”

41555950Book: “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

Five Midnights is a “wickedly thrilling” (William Alexander) novel based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern day Puerto Rico.

Review: The first time I encountered the el Cuco folktale was in Stephen King’s book “The Outsider”. While I really liked what he did with it and REALLY liked “The Outsider”, I did see how it could be a little problematic that a white guy was taking a Latinix/Portuguese mythology and twisting it to his own needs. Because of this, when I heard about “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal, I definitely wanted to give it a whirl, given that she is of Puerto Rican descent and sets her story about el Cuco in modern day Puerto Rico. Luckily my local library system had some copies checked in despite its new status, and it didn’t take long to arrive.

“Five Midnights” has a lot of strong points and a lot of potential for YA horror fans. The story is both unique but also timely. You have an old school ‘boogeyman’ story that blends with social themes that are affecting Puerto Rico of the 21st century, such as poverty, the drug trade, and wealthy (read: white) developers coming in and creating further divides between the haves and have nots. You have two perspectives you are seeing within this story: there is Lupe, a Vermont based teenager whose father is Puerto Rican who is visiting her policeman uncle, and Javier, a local who has fought against poverty and drug addiction and is now in recovery. It is mostly Javier and those in his group that reflect the struggles that his community is facing, as he and his friends have fallen into dangerous behaviors due to desperation and circumstance. It is also Javier’s friend group that has started to end up dead, one by one, the targets of a potential murderer, or perhaps supernatural being based in the folklore they grew up with (el Cuco!). Along with Javier is a girl named Marisol, the sister of one of Javier’s dead friends, whose rage and resentment towards their circumstances is channeled towards Lupe, an outsider from America who is also white passing. I really liked that Cardinal took these social issues and not only put them into the narrative, but was able to show how the story of el Cuco could be tied to them, given that it is said el Cuco targets misbehaving children. And honestly, I really like the el Cuco myth, and since it’s still kind of new to me I liked seeing a new interpretation that is based more on what the original folklore is as opposed to Stephen King’s version of it. It makes me want to go out and learn more about the mythology as a whole.

That said, there were definitely some weaker aspects of this book as well. The mystery itself wasn’t REALLY a mystery, as it’s clear from the get go that this isn’t a serial killer or human antagonist, but el Cuco committing the murders. The reasons are sound, and I liked the reveal of the origins, but I never really got completely invested in whether or not Javier and his friends were going to make it out alive or not. I think this is in part because the characterizations weren’t as strong as I would have liked. Javier was fine, but he wasn’t very fleshed out. And Lupe, while the other protagonist, was a bit harder to like, if only because she never really tried to understand nor was totally called out on her privileges, be it that she is an American citizen or that she is white passing. For me the most interesting character was Marisol, but even she never really got past being a two dimensional quasi-antagonist, especially since her antagonism is based in a very understandable anger about her disenfranchised circumstances. On top of that, she and Lupe could have very easily had an interesting relationship where they could have learned a lot from each other. Instead, it was merely two strong willed girls butting heads, which was disappointing. 

The negatives aside, I definitely appreciated “Five Midnights” and the story that it told from perspectives we don’t see as much in YA literature. It has some well done scary moments, and some relevant themes interwoven with the scares.

Rating 6: A compelling and original horror story with some well done social commentary. While the characters weren’t as fascinating as I had hoped, the el Cuco myth was a true strength of this novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Five Midnights” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Set in Puerto Rico”.

Find “Five Midnights” at your library using WorldCat!

Highlights: September 2019

September signals the end of summer, the start of autumn, and the promise of cozy days and nights. While Kate is eager for the upcoming spooky season and cooler weather, Serena wonders why we can’t just get a LITTLE more sun and warmth before the doldrums of winter arrive. We have some new books on our personal lists that we’re looking forward to, however! Here’s what we can’t wait to read in September!

Serena’s Picks

43316755._sy475_Book: “The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Why I’m Interested: Confession time: Last Monday while Kate so kindly implied that we both had not finished up the Highlights post, it was definitely all me. She, responsible and on-top-of-it blogger that she is, had her part all done and it was me who completely forgot that yes, the first Monday of the month was indeed already upon us! Thus, now my first highlight choice is a book that I’ve already reviewed. But never say I pass up a chance to brazenly endorse one of my favorite authors every chance I get! “The Harp of Kings” is a wondrous new fantasy novel that brings together pieces of many of Marillier’s past works while setting the stage for what looks to be a compelling new series. If you want to read my full review, it’s here. And, even more, don’t forget to enter our givewaway to win a free copy!

42867937Book: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” by Adrienne Young

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Why I’m Interested: I really enjoyed “Sky in the Deep.” It was a historical fantasy novel where the balance definitely veered more towards the historical side with an emphasis on the warring nature of two Viking-esque clans and the young woman who must bring them together to save both. The fact that it was a standalone was also a huge perk. So I was pleased to find out that the author was releasing this book, another standalone, but one that is set in the same world, ten years later. It’s like having your cake and eating it too! More of the same world and mentions of familiar characters, but readers don’t have to wait for years for a continuation of a beloved story, biting their lips hoping for a happy ending! This story seems to follow Halvard, a boy we met in the first book and a young woman, Tova, whose origins and abilities are a mystery. I can’t wait to see how the author draws in past players and expands her world!

44059557._sy475_Book: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Publication Date: September 10, 2019

Why I’m Interested: This book is every reader’s dream come true, a favorite author taking on a beloved tale that hasn’t been done well in the past (yes, I mean you “Flame in the Mist.”) I’ve only ever read Thomas’s “Lady Sherlock” series, so I know that she can take famous characters and reimagine them in creative ways while also keeping the foundation of what made that character excellent to begin with. That said, I know this tale mostly from the Disney “Mulan” perspective, and I’m curious to see whether Thomas will draw more from the original material than that did? The description sounds pretty inline with the tale I know, a young woman going under cover dressed as a man to join the army. I can’t wait to get my hands on this!

Kate’s Picks

43798285Book: “The Institute” by Stephen King

Publication Date: September 10, 2019

Why I’m Interested: Say it with me: STEPHEN KING!! My favorite author is always going to be at the top of the list whenever he has a new book coming out. But not only is this a new Stephen King book, it incorporates one of my favorite creepy tropes: a shady school setting where kids are in danger! Luke is kidnapped from his house in the middle of the night and taken to The Institute, where kids like him (with special powers) are held and studied. If you cooperate you’re rewarded, if you don’t you’re punished severely. And you can never leave. King seems to be revisiting themes he’s talked in books like “Firestarter”, and honestly I’m totally here for it. On top of that, I pre-ordered the audiobook, and Santino Fontana is going to be the one reading it. I can barely contain my excitement!

39127647Book: “His Hideous Heart” by Dahlia Adler (ed.)

Publication Date: September 10, 2019

Why I’m Interested: I’m warming up to short stories collections, especially if they have a uniting theme and a number of different perspectives. “His Hideous Heart” really appeals to me because, not only is it a number of high profile YA authors, it’s their takes and spins on stories by Edgar Allan Poe! Poe is one of my favorite ‘classic’ authors, and I am very interested to see what a number of modern YA writers will do with his themes and his most famous stories. Some of the contributors are some of my favorites in the YA community, like Stephanie Kuehn and Tiffany Jackson, so that makes me all the more excited to get my hands on this book and devour it.

42369064Book: “The Tea Dragon Festival” by Katie O’Neill

Publication Date: September 17, 2019

Why I’m Interested: A follow up to the adorable and gentle fantasy graphic novel “The Tea Dragon Society” was something that I had hoped for, but didn’t necessarily expect to happen. So when I saw that Katie O’Neill had written a follow up, I freaked out and was so excited to dive back into the world of Tea Dragons! When her mountain village is preparing for a festival to celebrate the Tea Dragons in town, Rinn stumbles upon an ACTUAL Dragon asleep in the woods. But when the Dragon, named Aedhan, wakes up, he tells her that he has been sleeping for decades, and doesn’t know how it happened. As Rinn tries to help Aedhan come back to society as their protector, some familiar faces arrive to try and find out what caused him to sleep for so long. Given how much I LOVED “The Tea Dragon Society”, this follow up is near the top of my anticipation list of the year!

Serena’s Review: “The Harp of Kings”

43316755._sy475_Book: “The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier

Publication Info: Ace, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Liobhan is a powerful singer and an expert whistle player. Her brother has a voice to melt the hardest heart, and a rare talent on the harp. But Liobhan’s burning ambition is to join the elite warrior band on Swan Island. She and her brother train there to compete for places, and find themselves joining a mission while still candidates. Their unusual blend of skills makes them ideal for this particular job, which requires going undercover as traveling minstrels. For Swan Island trains both warriors and spies.

Their mission: to find and retrieve a precious harp, an ancient symbol of kingship, which has gone mysteriously missing. If the instrument is not played at the upcoming coronation, the candidate will not be accepted and the people could revolt. Faced with plotting courtiers and tight-lipped druids, an insightful storyteller, and a boorish Crown Prince, Liobhan soon realizes an Otherworld power may be meddling in the affairs of the kingdom. When ambition clashes with conscience, Liobhan must make a bold decision and is faced with a heartbreaking choice. . . 

Review: It’s always exciting to receive new books to read. But I have to say, this was the most excited I’ve ever been to receive an advanced copy of a book. Juliet Marillier has been a favorite author of mine for about 15 years and I’ve read every single one of her books and own 90% of them (really, that’s just a reminder that I need to get on top of things and complete collection!). Plus, it’s the first book in a series which always brings with it an extra dose of excitement. Per the usual, I was not let down and was once more caught up in Mariller’s world where fairytales take on new life.

As the children of Blackthorn and Grim, Liobhan and her brother have a multitude of skills. But primarily they each are skilled musicians. Now training to hopefully be recruited as famed Swan Island warriors, they didn’t suspect that this particular skill set would be called upon so early among a band of fighters who often prize secrecy, fighting abilities, and overall efficiency above all else. But now in hiding as court bards, they each begin to discover that no mission is as straight forward as it seems, and their parents’ habit of finding themselves ensnared in magical mysteries seems to be a family trait.

As I said, it’s always exciting to start a new series by a favorite author. Over the years, I know that I can count on Marillier always delivering on a few key points: strong, intriguing main characters, a perfect blend of the fantastical and the historic, and a gorgeous writing that will make you feel as if you, too, are walking through lush woods filled with bird song and mysterious shadows. Here, all of those things were again on point.

As with her “Blackthorn & Grim” trilogy, this book is divided between multiple POVs. We have Liobhan, the headstrong, capable warrior who has more than a hint of her mother’s fiery disposition. Her brother, Brocc, who is the more talented musician between the two and sees a story in all that is around him. And Dau, a fellow trainee, who is determined to be accepted as a Swan Island warrior no matter what, knowing he can never return home.

I enjoyed all three narrators, though I definitely found myself more drawn to Liobhan and Dau. To some extent that is to be expected as each has significantly more chapters and page time than Brocc. And it is definitely Liobhan around whom most of the story and action hinge. I loved seeing elements of Blackthorn’s character in her. And her strong connection to her brother and tenuous, burgeoning friendship with Dau were both excellent. Dau, himself, was also intriguing as his story slowly unfolds and we begin to understand more about his past and what drives him now.

For me, Brocc was the weakest of the three. The way the story unfolds, his chapters are crucial to understanding all of the mystery involved. But I also wonder if there was another way to go about it as the way it stands now, especially towards the end where he essentially disappears from the story for a good chunk and when we return we learn that some rather significant events occurred that we the readers didn’t even get to see. It makes his chapters feel a bit superfluous, as if they’re there to serve the needs of the story, but don’t fully justify Brocc’s needing his own POV based on the character himself. It’s a strange thing to find in a Marillier book. But it was more of a minor mental question mark than a problem for my reading.

Marillier’s real strengths with characters often comes in the ways she writes the relationships between them, the friendships, the family bonds, and the romances. This one definitely focuses on the first two. Brocc and Liobhan’s bond as siblings was lovely and I very much enjoyed the growing friendship that formed between Liobhan and Dau, two characters that started the story very much at odds. I think there’s some strong potential for a developing romance here, and I’m excited to see where it goes. However, there was another romance in the story, and that one I had a bit more trouble with. It was fine, all things considered. But it also felt rushed and much of the connection that is formed happens off page and the reader is only informed of it after the fact. Again, odd to find in a Marillier book. I’m curious to know whether this was a one-off thing or whether we will see more of this relationship in the future.

I very much enjoyed the mystery itself. I was able to put many of the pieces together myself, but the way they played out was still quite enjoyable to read. The “villain” of the piece was quite good and there were some choices made towards the end in this regard that really did surprise me. I also enjoyed all of the Easter eggs to be found in this story. All of this talk about MCU and DCEU, etc. etc., it’s like Marillier has been slowly creating her own “Marillier-universe” and for longtime readers, there’s a lot of good stuff to be gleaned in this one. But it can also just as easily be read by first-timers as well with very little being missed.

I’m so excited for this series (have I mentioned that yet?) and think that this is a solid opener to further adventures. There were a few odd points with Brocc’s reduced number of chapters as compared to the other two and a romance that felt a bit rushed and weirdly off page. Perhaps the natural growing pains of settling in to a new story with new character. But other than these few quibbles, I was still captivated by this story. I enjoyed the mystery at the heart of the story and while much of it is resolved, there are still plenty of question marks left open for further exploration. And Liobhan and Dau, in particular, are both set up to be excellent protagonists. Fans of Marillier’s work should definitely check this out and fantasy fans in general will likely enjoy this book, particularly if you’re drawn to fairytales and the like.

We’re also currently hosting a giveaway for an ARC of this book! Don’t forget to enter here!

Rating 8: Marillier delivers once again with a book where readers will feel like they, too, are lost among the trees and ready to find magic around every corner.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Harp of Kings” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Books with Musical Instruments in the Title.”

Find “The Harp of Kings” at your library using WorldCat!