Book Club Review: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club 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 “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. 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: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert

Publishing Info: Avon, June 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Romance Trope: Fake Dating.

Book Description: Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.

When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?

Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his… um, thighs.

Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?

Serena’s Thoughts

This is going to be a good bookclub theme for me, I think. Because, while I do read a decent amount of romance fiction, it’s usually within some greater genre preference, like historical fiction or fantasy fiction. So this, as a contemporary romantic novel was fairly out of my wheelhouse. That being the case, this wasn’t my favorite book out there, but I can also see the general appeal to readers who do like contemporary romcoms.

For the most part, I liked both of our main characters. I really liked how the author played with gender roles, especially Zaf’s love of reading romance novels. It was very meta as well as nicely representing that romance is by no means only the domain of women. It takes two to form a romantic pair, so naturally both have an interest in romance in general. But for some reason, enjoying romance novels or movies is seen as purely a feminine pursuit and one that people are judged for enjoying, even women but especially men. I also really liked Dani’s initial, unapologetic commitment to noncommitment. Again, something that we usually see from the hero in these romantic pairings but gender swapped here.

However, I did have a hard time really connecting to either of these main characters. My biggest problems with contemporary stories like this is my inability to really buy into the idea that people like this would walk about in our every day world. I mean, who is naturally this quippy? Who really talks like this? It’s a fairly minor point overall, but it’s something that I personally always struggle with in contemporary fiction. So this is definitely a subjective critique and something that will hold varying levels of water depending on your own preferences.

Overall, I thought the story was fun enough, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I think the author did some creative things with her character building, but I couldn’t ever fully invest myself into Dani and Raf’s lives.

Kate’s Thoughts

I admit that by the end of 2021, I had gathered SO MANY romance novels for my book pile that by the time I’d worked my way through, I was a little burned out on the genre. I was happy to give romance more of a chance in 2021, and overall I found a lot of books I liked. But there is, in fact, a reason that I tend to limit my consumption of it. Maybe that doesn’t bode super well for our Book Club theme, but I’m going to work through it (and I think so long as I just stick to romance for book club I’ll be good). And it’s good that “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” was the first selection of the cycle, because while I’m burned out on romance, this one was meta enough that I thought it was fun enough.

Like Serena said above, I liked that Hibbert toyed with our expectations of the genre and gave Zaf the more stereotypically feminine role (being romantic at heart, interested in love over lust, etc), and Dani the more stereotypically masculine role (not into commitment in any way shape or form). I also liked that we explored themes of trauma and loss through Zaf, as his brother and father were killed tragically a few years before the events in this book, and how we got to see a realistic examination of grief and PTSD through his character. Honestly I just really liked Zaf. He’s snarky and adorable and vulnerable and funny as heck. Dani was pretty good too, and much like Serena I liked how flippant she is about romance and love at first. Quippy for sure. I don’t have as big an issue with that (I do love me a good quippy banter), though I think that maybe Zaf got a little more understandable vulnerability than Dani.

And I’m always interested in seeing how the sexy moments in romance novels happen. I’ve found myself very particular about how these things unfold and are portrayed when it comes to the smut and romance (but to each their own obviously!), and “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” was basically the kind of build up and pay off that I liked: a nice slow build of tension followed by very satisfying, uh, climaxes… if you will. There was a bit of a weird rushed factor to make conflict after a bit of this, but that was really the only glaringly clunky thing for me. Overall, it’s steamy and fun.

“Take A Hint, Dani Brown” is enjoyable and cute. I’m a bit worn out on the romance page, but this one held my interest enough that I wasn’t feeling like it dragged.

Serena’s Rating 7: Not really my thing, but a fun romcom for fans of this sort of contemporary romance story.

Kate’s Rating 7: I’m feeling a little burnt out on romance, but “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” had enjoyable characters and some good moments of steaminess.

Book Club Questions

  1. In this book the ‘fake dating trope’ is taken on in a very self aware and meta way. Did you think that it was a good send up? Why or why not?
  2. What did you think of the supporting cast? Did you have any favorite side characters?
  3. What did you think of the progression of the romance between Dani and Zaf? Do you think that it would last in a real world setting?
  4. What were your thoughts on the way the book tackled anxiety and grief? Did these themes feel well explored?
  5. Would you read the other books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“Take a Hint, Dani Brown” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “Contemporary Romance by Black Authors”.

Find “Take a Hint, Dani Brown” at your library using WorldCat, at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “From Blood and Ash” by Jennifer Armentrout

Book Club Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club 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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Publishing Info: Pamela Dorman Books / Viking, May 2017

Where Did We Get this Book: An audiobook from the library; print book from the library.

Award: Costa Book Award

Book Description: No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am the type to try and spread my literary interests across multiple genres, and because of this I usually find myself reading buzzworthy or hyped books from contemporary and literary fields. But somehow, I missed “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine”. I mean, I’d seen it around, of course, as it came out right at the tail end of my permanent hours library job where I did a lot of request processing and shelving. But I never really looked into it. So thanks to Serena for picking it for book club, as it landed on my book pile after not being at the forefront of my mind!

And I can see why this was hyped and buzzy, honestly. “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” surprised me a bit, as I expected one thing and got something that didn’t line up with those expectations. I thought that Gail Honeyman did a really good job of balancing a lot of things: an unreliable and kind of unlikable narrator (until you get to know her better), a humorous tone, and some really dark themes involving trauma and PTSD. But like I said, with a humorous tone! I think that it may have been a hard task for some authors, but Honeyman had me feeling just utter sadness for Eleanor, but then chuckling to myself about one thing or another, and it wasn’t ever in a discordant way, or a way that felt like the seriousness of the issues at heart was being undercut. Also, I loved Raymond, Eleanor’s first real friend. He is sweet and patient but not a pushover, and I thought he was just a delight (and kind of a fun swap of the usual way this kind of story works: it’s rare that a woman is allowed to be the surly and kind of unlikable protagonist while the man is the warm and caring one who helps the other grow. I liked the reversal). While it didn’t have any moments that totally wowed me or spoke to me overall, I enjoyed my time reading it.

Another thanks to Serena for picking “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” for book club! I thought that it was completely fine and a little bit more.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I must pass the thanks on, as it was my mom who raved about this book to the point that I selected it for book club. Unlike Kate, I rarely read outside of the three main genres I enjoy (mostly because I can’t keep up with books I want in even those genres, let alone more!), so this book was completely out of my wheelhouse. But in the end, my mom was completely right, and I really enjoyed this read!

I read the audiobook, and, if it’s available, I highly recommend checking that version of the book out. The narrator has a Scottish accent that does wonders to really bring Eleanor to life and ground the book in its setting. And as Eleanor is such a unique character, the narrator’s voice helped humanize some of her more odd antics and perspectives.

Like Kate mentioned, one of the most impressive things about this book was the balance the author was able to strike between humorous moments (think “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and some really tough, grim topics. I was not at all prepared for how dark this book really got at times. But that said, when I closed the story, it left a hopeful, fun aftertaste, even more surprising considering some of these topics. I also really liked the exploration of mental health and therapy. Most books that deal with therapy have it happen off-page or don’t really go into how it really works for the character. Here, we get a very good look at an excellent therapeutic setting and outcome.

The book was also peopled with excellent characters. Eleanor herself is unlike any character I’ve ever read, and she makes a few friends along the way who stand out as well. I was also pleased that the story didn’t take a few of the more predictable turns, and on top of that, there are a number of fairly major surprises (or less surprising for some, our book club was a bit half/half on who predicted what).

Kate’s Rating 7: A nice story that balances a tragic foundation with humor and heart.

Serena’s Rating 9: I really liked this book! It was surprising in many ways and addressed some important topics without being overwhelmed with a grim tone.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you make of Eleanor in the beginning of the book? How (or did) your opinion of her change as the story went along?
  2. This book tackles some dark subjects. How do you think it handled these?
  3. What did you make of Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond? Where do you think it will go in the future?
  4. There are some surprises towards the final third of the story? Were you able to predict any of them? What clues were given early on that pointed to these outcomes?
  5. Many people around Eleanor shaped her journey through this book. Which ones stood out to you and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” is on these Goodreads lists: 2017 Librarian Recommended Books and Best Up Lit (uplifting reads).

Find “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” at the library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert

Book Club Review: “Front Desk”

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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Publishing Info: Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature

Book Description: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Kate’s Thoughts

I don’t usually seek out Middle Grade fiction unless it’s in graphic novel form. There are always exceptions to this, but Young Adult is about as young as I go these days. So when our book club picked “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang, I was interested to see what the Middle Grade landscape was looking like, and it also just so happened that this book was being targeted by angry white adults completely scandalized that a children’s book would dare talk about racism. Talk about timely!

I enjoyed “Front Desk” as a children’s book to be sure! I think that Yang did a really good job of making our protagonist Mia super relatable to her target audience, as Mia has some pretty familiar hang ups and anxieties, all while having to work the front desk at the motel her parents have found themselves working at. It’s definitely true that this book follows a lot of Middle Grade patterns in terms of how certain scenarios set up and play out, and that isn’t a bad thing for the target audience, it still made my reading of this an exercise in suspending my disbelief here and there. But all that said, I thought that Yang also does a great job of tackling the relevant social issues of the difficulties immigrants face, to racism, to exploitative labor practices, to how life in America has a lot of problems for a lot of people. And she does this in a way that makes it very easy to understand for the age group that is going to be reading this book.

“Front Desk” is a good book to give to kids who are starting to learn about certain injustices of the world, as while it doesn’t sugar coat them, it has a hopeful story through Mia, and one that will probably be enjoyable for lots of the kids that do pick it up.

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, Middle Grade isn’t an age-range of books that I read very often. Even in the last few years I’ve noticed my inner curmudgeon coming out more and more with Young Adult, so the prospect of reading even younger was a bit daunting. That said, objectively, I think “Front Desk” succeeds at all it sets out to do and will appeal perfectly to its target audience (as demonstrated by the many very worn-down copies our bookclub members have checked out from the library).

I knew going in that “Front Desk” set out to tackle a lot of important, touch topics. That said, I was surprised by the level of emotion and depth it went into. The work “dark” is too strong for a Middle Grade book like this, but if you tone that word down some, you get to what I’m talking about. The author is definitely setting out to challenge her readers while still creating a safe environment in which to engage with these topics. Mia’s good-hearted, self-starting persistence is just the sort of character strengths that are sure to appeal to middle graders and allow the story to not let any of these bigger topics weight down to the story too much.

As an adult reading this, like Kate mentioned, there was a decent amount of suspension of disbelief needed. Some of the problems seemed to be tidied up much too easily and the solution to many of these situations was often the same. After the first couple of rounds, it began to feel fairly repetitive and predictable. The ending was also a bit too fairytale-like for my taste, especially given the very real challenges the rest of the book tackled. But, again, I think these are the kinds of flaws that stand out to me as an adult reader but will not read as flaws at all to the target audience.

Kate’s Rating 7: A well done children’s book that has enjoyable characters and tackles a lot of good and important issues in a way that kids can understand.

Serena’s Rating 7: The perfect combination of fun characters and important issues, a very good book for middle grade readers. Perhaps less so for an adult.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have expectations going into “Front Desk”? If so, were they met as you read the book?
  2. Did you think that Mia was a realistic ten year old?
  3. What did you think about Mia’s parents? Was there anything about their portrayals that stuck out to you?
  4. What were your thoughts on the portrayals of Mr. Yao and Jason?
  5. How did you think Yang did when it came to talking about some themes that are sometimes hard to talk about?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Front Desk” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle Grade Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”, and “Middle Grade Books Featuring Characters of Color”.

Find “Front Desk” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Book Club Review: “Furia”

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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Furia” by Yamile Saed Méndez

Publishing Info: Algonquin for Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Pura Belpré

Book Description: In Rosario, Argentina, Camila Hassan lives a double life. At home, she is a careful daughter, living within her mother’s narrow expectations, in her rising-soccer-star brother’s shadow, and under the abusive rule of her short-tempered father.

On the field, she is La Furia, a powerhouse of skill and talent. When her team qualifies for the South American tournament, Camila gets the chance to see just how far those talents can take her. In her wildest dreams, she’d get an athletic scholarship to a North American university.

But the path ahead isn’t easy. Her parents don’t know about her passion. They wouldn’t allow a girl to play fútbol—and she needs their permission to go any farther. And the boy she once loved is back in town. Since he left, Diego has become an international star, playing in Italy for the renowned team Juventus. Camila doesn’t have time to be distracted by her feelings for him. Things aren’t the same as when he left: she has her own passions and ambitions now, and La Furia cannot be denied. As her life becomes more complicated, Camila is forced to face her secrets and make her way in a world with no place for the dreams and ambition of a girl like her.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am not really a sporty person, though accompanying friends and loved ones to games of most any sport can be fun. I probably go to more soccer games than other sports since my husband loves soccer, so when I saw that “Furia”, this month’s book club book, had a soccer theme I figured I would at least have a vague working knowledge of it. But lucky for me, “Furia”, while having a lot to do with soccer, also tackles other issues, like love, ambition, and misogyny. I thought that it was interesting seeing Camile, aka “Furia”, have to navigate the very narrow and defined expectations that Argentine society (and her mother) heap upon her. I enjoyed seeing the parts that had to do with Camile pushing against these norms, be it when she was trying to interact with her very conservative parents (on top of that her father, a former soccer star who is placing all of his lost dreams onto Camile’s soccer playing brother, is incredibly abusive), or when she is trying to determine if she can have a romance with her old flame Diego (ANOTHER rising soccer star), who has returned to town for a bit before he goes back on the road. I also really liked seeing how Méndez would weave in various realities of living in modern day Argentina, from the way the machismo could both bolster male soccer players and create really loyal ties between players and communities, to how the misogyny could lead to violence towards women (and a lot of society would think that these women deserved it one way or another). All of this worked.

There were some problems with the narrative for me as well. One, I go to soccer games on occasion, but I’m not super interested in it in general, and on the written page that isn’t much different. So the soccer moments I found myself speeding through pretty quickly. And on top of that, I didn’t feel like many of the characters were terribly complex. Camile was able to have depths and layers to her, given that she is the main character and we mostly get into her mind, but I do like seeing other supporting roles have a little more exploration and depth, and we didn’t really get that in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed “Furia” as a contemporary YA novel. It gave me a glimpse into a setting that I don’t see as much in YA books, and it had some emotional beats involving her family.

Serena’s Thoughts

I agree with everything Kate said. Her husband and mine share a love for soccer and have been splitting season tickets for as long as I can remember. What’s more, I probably do enjoy sports more than Kate, in general. But I’ll also say that I probably had a stronger negative reaction to this book’s sports elements than she did. So take from that what you will! While I really like watching sports live and even on TV sometimes, I really have a hard time caring about the “action” when it’s the description of movements of a ball and the players kicking it. It’s not even that I can’t picture it, I can! I just…couldn’t care. So that was a pretty big hinderance to my enjoyment of that aspect of the book.

That said, I agree with what Kate said that, lucky for both of us, there was much more to this book than the sports story. I mostly enjoyed the setting and description of every-day-life in Argentina. I don’t know a lot about this part of the world, and what I do know is mostly based in historical accounts rather than a contemporary look. All of the street-level windows into this culture and part of the world were fascinating. Even more so when we witness the uphill battle Furia faces in the face of the misogyny that still limits so much of what is expected for women. The story also touches on the tragedy of how easily women and young girls can go missing or have other violence inflicted upon them and it will be casually swept under the “she probably deserved it” rug.

Like Kate said, the characters themselves were fairly flat feeling. Even Furia herself, while more nuanced than any of the side characters, felt a bit one-note at times. However, I did like the romance that came into play. The challenges they faced felt natural and the ending was satisfying and heart-warming.

Overall, this wasn’t really the book for me. I think it’s so important, though, to have books that represent different parts of the world AND to have sports books for girls. Just cuz I’m not into them, doesn’t mean that I don’t think this is a wide open hole in YA literature. There’s a bunch of YA sports books for young men (perhaps at the detriment of other genres for them), but young women, on the other hand, don’t see tons of sports books directed towards them.

Kate’s Rating 7: While the soccer parts didn’t speak to me and some characters were flat, I liked the family drama as well as the look into Argentine life and what it’s like for women.

Serena’s Rating 7: I, too, enjoyed the Argentinian setting and the look into the culture, but sports books are never going to be my jam.

Book Club Questions

  1. Was there a character that you most identified with in this story? Was there a plot point that really stood out to you?
  2. What did you think about the themes of the Patriarchy in Camile’s life?
  3. What did you think of Camile’s nickname, La Furia? How does it apply to the story that she is living?
  4. How did you like the soccer parts in this book?
  5. The book sets up two paths for Camile: follow her soccer dreams, or follow the potential for romance. Do you think it has to be one or the other for her?
  6. What were your thoughts on the depictions of day to day life in Argentina?
  7. Did you feel like the ending was realistic? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“Furia” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA/Children’s Books in Latin America”, and “YA Girls Take On the Patriarchy”.

Find “Furia” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Book Club Review: “Black Sun”

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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Alex Award

Book Description: A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’d heard of “Black Sun” through various book circles, online hype, and awards talk. I knew that it was really well liked by fantasy fans, and when it was picked as a book club book I had two very clear feelings about it. The first was ‘oh good, it’s great seeing BIPOC authors writing fantasy novels and this one has a lot of good hype around it!’ The second was ‘oh no, epic fantasy’. But I went in with an open mind because I have been surprised by fantasy now and then, in terms of how well I connect to it!

I can definitely recognize that “Black Sun” has some great epic fantasy elements to it, and hell, there were things that I liked about it as well! For one, I really liked Serapio and Xiala. For Serapio it’s because of his brooding and haunting backstory and the fact he seems to be walking the line between potential hero and villain. For Xiala, I liked her tenacity, I liked her motivation of being a disgraced sea captain, and I liked that she was tough but also very layered. I also really liked the two of them together, and how their potential romance built and formed against a backdrop of seafaring and potential disaster with the impending eclipse and Serapio’s potential destiny. And the themes and elements taken from Pre-Columbian folklore and mythology all seemed well researched and well implemented, which made me curious to look into some of the folklore beyond my own limited knowledge.

But as well all know, at the end of the day, I am not really an epic fantasy reading kind of gal. While there are some exceptions to that general rule, as a genre it doesn’t connect with me as much. So even though I could absolutely see the talent that Roanhorse has in writing this book and can appreciate the final product for how ambitious and well crafted it is, “Black Sun” wasn’t really my thing. And that is purely based on the genre preferences I have and not on the work itself. You should absolutely take my thoughts with a grain of salt, as Serena is the one who is going to have the most helpful and relevant things to say.

“Black Sun” may not work for you if you’re like me and you don’t care for epic fantasy. But it’s easy to see why it’s so lauded by those who do like the genre.

Serena’s Thoughts

I said this at bookclub itself, and I’ll repeat it here: this is why Kate and I are great blog partners! We both love books, but (with some definite exceptions and cross-overs) we tend to enjoy very different genres and types of reads. This gives us a lot of breadth of coverage on the blog and, hopefully, provides options and insights to readers of a lot of different sorts. This book is a perfect example. Epic fantasy is hardly ever Kate’s thing, and this was a bit of a miss for her. But for me? Loved the heck out of it! Hit every checkbox for things I like! Excellent all around! So, you see? Two very different sides of the same “loves books” coin.

For me, there was much to love about this book. I read the audiobook, so I missed out on the awesome maps that were provided in the print copy, but the world-building was so detailed and imaginative that I had no trouble picturing this sprawling world. From cities perched on pillars linked with bridges, to perilous seas and distant lands, it felt like a fully realized world full of different cultures, histories and religions. This information came out slowly and organically, something of a staple of epic fantasy, so readers must trust that these bits of the world and history will come together as the story continues. Which it does, brilliantly!

I also really enjoyed the way the story was laid out. It’s definitely the kind of read that takes its time setting up all of the various characters and their arcs and motivations. But the author wisely helps jumpstart this process by giving us a few glimpses of where some characters will end up by the book’s end before jumping back to about a month before these events. This type of teaser keeps readers on their feet, wondering how a character will get from point A to point B. I think it worked really well and did help with the slower pacing at the front end of the story.

I also really liked our three (kind of four?) main characters. I definitely had favorites, but I enjoyed all of their stories individually as well. It’s that delicious sort of torture where you have multiple characters you love and you see them beginning to be set up on opposing sides of a coming conflict. Like Kate, Serapio and Xiala were my favorites, with the spunky and sea-bitten Xiala taking the crown as my most enjoyed character. However, I also liked the political intrigue (another staple of much epic fantasy) that came with Naranpa’s story.

I loved the heck out of this book. The audiobook was also an excellent read, and I highly recommend that to fans of audiobooks. There are different narrators for all four main characters, and each one does an excellent job. I will definitely be checking out the second book the minute it comes out!

Kate’s Rating 6: This is very clearly well written and thought out epic fantasy. But as we all know, epic fantasy and I don’t really mix well.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this! Strong world-building, excellent mythology, and relatable characters make for the perfect fantasy read.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you like the maps and the character list that were provided for the reader? Did these things make it easier to keep everything straight while you read?
  2. Do you think that the world building that Roanhorse did in regards to the Pre-Columbian inspirations was well done?
  3. What did you think of the gender representation in this novel?
  4. What did you think of the major city and town settings of Tova vs Cuecolla?
  5. Whose perspectives were your favorites? If there was a side story you could explore, whose would you choose?
  6. What are your thoughts on the magical elements and systems in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Black Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”, and “2020 Locus Recommended Reading List”.

Find “Black Sun” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez

Book Club Review: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”

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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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 Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Bram Stoker Award for a Young Adult Novel

Book Description: Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness. 

Kate’s Thoughts

This isn’t the first time that I’ve read “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White, as I read and reviewed it when it first came out a couple years ago. But I knew that for an Award Winner book I wanted to pick something that was a Bram Stoker Winner, but also wasn’t super terrifying since I know a lot of my book club friends aren’t as into horror as I am. This book seemed to be a good meet in the middle kind of compromise, as it isn’t terribly scary, but also won the Young Adult award the year it came out. So reading it again was perfectly acceptable, as I enjoyed it so much the first time!

And I enjoyed it again this time too. I don’t think that my opinion has really changed too much since the last time I read it (here is the original review if you want context). I was once again struck by how White made comment on gender in English society and culture at the time, and how Elizabeth has sacrificed a lot, including a good deal of her morals, to keep herself safe and secure lest she fall through the cracks. I also liked seeing White compare and contrast three different women characters in this story, as Elizabeth, Justine the governess, and Mary the book seller/amateur scientist all, to me, are three different facets of female protagonist tropes that all have a little bit of exploration and deconstruction. And of course it’s always interesting to look at the character of Victor Frankenstein and to ponder upon who is truly ‘the monster’ within the original story, and let me tell you, White does a really good job of making the case for a VERY clear choice (even if it does still come off a bit two dimensional at times). I think that the only change I had from my initial read was, upon re-reading, I didn’t think that enough was done with The Monster in this retelling. I still like what White did with The Monster in terms of making it feel like a unique take, but I found myself wanting more this time around.

Overall, I still really like “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”! Nice to give women a voice in a book by a pioneering woman in the horror and Sci-Fi genres!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was super excited when Kate selected this book for her choice for book club. Not only am I a fan of Kiersten White in general, but I really like the original “Frankenstein.” Really like, as in I’ve read it probably three or four times. Kind of a strange choice, I know, for someone who doesn’t count horror as one of her favorite genres! But I’m a sucker for exactly that sort of use of supernatural aspects to delve into the ugliness (and beauty) at the heart of humanity. I also just love the style of writing in that time period with the long, drawn out sentences and extensive vocabulary.

And man did White excel or what! I really liked what she did with this retelling. It was great reading this book as a fan of the original, to see all of the little nods and winks she gives to readers who are familiar with that story. Her use of the classic characters was also on point, reading as familiar enough to their original versions, but also clearly uniquely reimagined for her own take on the story. Elizabeth, of course, is the biggest chance as this is now her story (rather than her fairly unfortunate experience in the original story…).

Not only did White use Elizabeth to expound on the impossible choices faced by women in this time, unable to create their own futures without tying themselves to men, but she also used the character to further explore the same themes of the original “Frankenstein.” Elizabeth is by no means a “good” character. She’s not “bad” either, but her choices are definitely walking a pretty stark moral line. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the story knows that it is meant to highlight the true villainous nature of Victor as the monster rather than his creation. So it was an interesting take to not simply focus on that tired ground (Victor is pretty obviously evil here) but to instead use Elizabeth as the character to exist in shades of grey.

Like Kate said, I do wish there had been a bit more of the Monster here. I liked what we had from him, but that was clearly not the focus of White’s story. I also had a bit of a struggle with the end of the story. A few things felt rather sudden, and, strangely for my own usual preference, I almost wish the very last chapter hadn’t existed and the initial ending at stuck. But that’s just me! Overall, I thought this was a clever, imaginative re-imaging of a beloved classic.

Kate’s Rating 9: Still a fun and feminist retelling of a horror classic!

Serena’s Rating 9: Definitely worthy of the award it received and an excellent read for fans of horror and supernatural books alike!

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with the original “Frankenstein” story? Do you think that this retelling complements that story? Why or why not?
  2. Elizabeth’s characterization has gone from passive side player to Victor’s protector and enabler. What did you think of this change?
  3. Why do you think Elizabeth was so attached to Justine? What did you think of their friendship?
  4. What do you think White was trying to say about gender expectations and society in this book? How did Elizabeth, Justine, and Mary represent different angles of ‘womanhood’?
  5. Does Elizabeth bear any responsibility on how Victor turned out? How much? What about others around him? Or is Victor solely to blame?
  6. Do you think the Monster played a big enough role in this story? Why or why not?
  7. What did you make of the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Gothic Retellings”, and “Homages to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein”.

Find “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!!

Next Book Club Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Club Review: “Parable of the Sower”

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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler

Publishing Info: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Award: New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Book Description: When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ pain.

Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith…and a startling vision of human destiny.

This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” (John Green, New York Times)—now with a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin.

Kate’s Thoughts

Back when Trump was elected, I started hearing whispers from my friends and acquaintances about a book called “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler. Many of them were saying that “Parable of the Sower” predicted the society in which a person like Trump could be elected, along with the existential crises that come with it. When we were deep in the shit of the Trump Administration, I couldn’t bring myself to read that book, as even though it sounded supremely fascinating, it also sounded too real. A story written in the early nineties that seemed to predict the shitshow of climate change, social inequity, and an incompetent and narcissistic president? On the nose! And therefore too stressful to read. So when someone in book club chose it for our first Award Winners read, I was happy that I finally had a push to read it…. And then I read it, and was sent into an anxiety spiral.

Basically my face during my entire reading experience.

“Parable of the Sower” is a bleak and terrifying dystopia where climate change, vast social and financial disparities, and corporate corruption has created a society where people are either gated in, hoping that they will not fall victim to rampaging violent nomads, or trying their best to survive in a violent and dangerous wasteland. We follow Lauren, a teenager who lives in a gated community who has dreams of a better future for herself, and who starts to develop and discover a new religion/life she calls Earthseed due to her faith and a condition in which she has hyper empathy to those around her. Butler creates a terrifying world where mass violence is always a threat, and it’s only a matter of time until a person faces the bleak and staggering reality of having to survive. I found it to be incredibly well written as well as horrific. It’s told in mostly epistolary devices, with Lauren recording what is going on each day, and I thought that the slow crumbling of her life and then rebuilding in a chaotic and unpredictable landscape to be compelling and very suspenseful. There were so many moments that not only set me on edge, but felt like they could potentially happen if we don’t get a hold on many existential crises that plague our world at the moment. Engaging to be sure, but it also made it hard for me to sleep at night.

I think that if I were a more religious person (in that I’m not at all) I may have connected a little bit more with the aspects of Lauren’s journey that involved ‘discovering’ Earthseed, and her self assurance that everything was going to work out because she was discovering and bringing forth a new religion that would save society. From the Biblical references to some of the blind faith aspects of this book, I didn’t connect as much to the moments where Lauren was creating a whole new belief system. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t intriguing; I definitely found myself enjoying the mythos that Butler was creating in this story, and liked seeing Lauren connect to it. I’m not sure that I have the emotional wherewithal to continue in the series (especially given that it’s incomplete; Butler passed away before she could complete it), but what I saw in this book really hit home how incredibly gifted Butler was for creating complex and horrifying alternate realities while also giving us a little bit of hope to cling to.

“Parable of the Sower” is a rough read, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. Butler was a true talent, and this showcases the world building, and premonition, that she had as an author.

Serena’s Thoughts:

For being a long-time fan of the science fiction and fantasy genre, it’s kind of crazy that I hadn’t read any of Octavia Butler’s books before this. And I can’t really tell you why! Perhaps, like Kate mentioned above, when her books began coming up more and more in the public consciousness recently, I wasn’t really in a good mental place to dive into this type of story. Margeret Atwood is a similar author for me: I can recognize the supreme talent she is and appreciate her books, but I can only manage to read one every five years or so and inevitably spend those five years half terrified of the “too real”-ness of her stories. But, also like Kate said, I was glad to have the push to read this.

I agree with everything Kate wrote. I, however, come from a more religious family so in that way, I did connect more to the aspects of the story that were focused on the development of a belief system and the role that would play in Lauren’s management of the challenges of this society. Blind faith is a particularly challenging topic, even for those have a religious life. Most who are honest with themselves, I think, would say that faith itself is a constant challenge. It can provide some assurance in the midst of strife and unknown, but it, too, can cause its own form of strife, in that faith, at its core, is not necessarily a comfortable thing. I liked the way that Butler dug into this topic and her use of Biblical references went beyond the usual uses we’ve all seen a million times over.

I do think I’ll eventually read the next book, but like I said above, it will probably follow a pattern similar to my reading of Atwood’s stories. It’s a credit to just how powerful a writer Butler was that her presentation of a future world feels too read to inhabit for overly long without it causing real-world anxiety! If you haven’t checked this one out yet, I definitely recommend it.

Kate’s Rating 8: Terrifying and bleak, but well written and sprinkled with some hope, “Parable of the Sower” is a glimpse into a could be futurescape.

Serena’s Rating 8: Hope wars with terror in a version of the future that feels all-too real at times.

Book Club Questions

  1. The future that Butler paints in this book has a lot of mirrors to a reality that we seem to be nearly living in. Do you think that what happens to society in this book could happen in a similar fashion in real life? Why or why not?
  2. Even though Lauren is living in an unstable society and there is lots of violence and despair, she still seems to want to have kids some day. Why do you think that is?
  3. Does Lauren’s religion or belief system of Earthseed connect to you? Do you see it as a new religion? A cult? Something else?
  4. At one point Lauren says that she isn’t inventing Earthseed, but discovering it. What do you make of that statement?
  5. At one point Lauren and her group pass by the settlement of Hollister, which seems to be pretty stable and safe. What did you think of them continuing on their journey instead of stopping and settling?
  6. What did you think of the concept of hyper-empathy?
  7. What did you think that Butler was saying about religion in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Parable of the Sower” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sci-Fi That Will Change The Way You Look At Life”, and “SFF Books by Black Authors”.

Find “Parable of the Sower” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White.

Book Club Review: “Big Friendship”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” by Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, July 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Self-Help Memoir

Book Description: A close friendship is one of the most influential and important relationships a human life can contain. Anyone will tell you that! But for all the rosy sentiments surrounding friendship, most people don’t talk much about what it really takes to stay close for the long haul.

Now two friends, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, tell the story of their equally messy and life-affirming Big Friendship in this honest and hilarious book that chronicles their first decade in one another’s lives. As the hosts of the hit podcast Call Your Girlfriend, they’ve become known for frank and intimate conversations. In this book, they bring that energy to their own friendship—its joys and its pitfalls.

An inspiring and entertaining testament to the power of society’s most underappreciated relationship, Big Friendship will invite you to think about how your own bonds are formed, challenged, and preserved. It is a call to value your friendships in all of their complexity. Actively choose them. And, sometimes, fight for them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m not a big nonfiction reader and when I do read in the genre, it’s usually more history-based. But I was intrigued by this book when it was selected for bookclub. You can throw a stone any direction and hit a book talking about the trials and tribulations of romantic and family relationships. What you don’t often find are books that discuss the work involved in maintaining friendships.

The backstory behind this book in particular was interesting. The two authors have co-run a successful blog for many years before deciding to write a book about friendship and the challenges they in particular have faced and overcome in their many years working together and being friends. And, I think, this is a bit where the concept fell off for me. The book was much more focused on the ins and outs of their unique stories and situations. While they confronted issues such as race and the balance of roles in friends who also work together, the story was also very narrowed down to their own experiences. As such, I felt it was only marginally useful as a general topic book about maintaining friendships.

I also wasn’t familiar with their blog. That being the case, I was perhaps even less interested in the details of their situation. To me, it read simply as two random people writing about their friendship, which started to feel a bit strange as I went on. Fans of the podcast are likely going to get much more out of this book, as they would already have an established interest and investment in these two individuals. But for me, I had been hoping for a bit more of a general examination of the unique aspects involved in friendships.

The writing also threw me off. They made the choice to write the book in third person, essentially referring to themselves in third person throughout. I could see glimpses of the humor and style that must be part of what has made their podcast such a success, but I struggled with the process of actually reading this book.

Kate’s Thoughts

Unlike Serena, I do like to dabble in non-fiction a fair amount, though more often than not it’s usually true crime with the occasional memoir, or a history book. I’m really not big into self help, or memoirs that delve into relationship dynamics. So “Big Friendship” was definitely going to be stretching my reading muscles a bit. My experience with the book was pretty similar to Serena; it didn’t really connect with me the way I had hoped it would.

Serena covers a lot of the same qualms that I had with the book (the writing style drove me a bit batty, to be honest). I thought that it was very much based on their own relationship and personality dynamics, and therefore am not sure that I was getting much out of it from a complete ‘this is how you nurture friendships’ angle. Which is too bad, because I really do think that our culture doesn’t value a platonic friendship relationship in the same ways it does familial or romantic ones. I went into this book with no idea as to who these two women are, or what their friendship is like, and therefore didn’t really have any investment into their thoughts on how they’ve maintained it. All of that said, I am pretty certain that were I familiar with their podcast and had I formed that kind of attachment to them as people, this book probably would have connected better.

And that isn’t to say that I got absolutely nothing from it. I really liked how they talked about how different friendships have ‘rituals’ that help maintain it, like perhaps a favorite bar to go to or a certain routine that applies to a get together or meet up. That section definitely had me thinking about the rituals that I have in my own friendships (Chinese food, video games, and LGBTQIA+ movies with my friend David immediately came to mind during this section), and it kind of made me appreciate the routines that we do have that make our friendships unique to us. I also appreciated the honest talk about the extra work and care it takes between friends of different cultural backgrounds and racial lines, and how exhausting it can be for POC when their white friends aren’t being as supportive or empathetic as they think they are being, and how these white friends need to do the work of listening and applying changes to how they act after letting their friend down.

Overall, while there were a couple of things I felt were insightful, “Big Friendship” wasn’t a hit for me. Fans of the podcast will probably find more to love here than I did.

Serena’s Rating 6: Unfortunately not for me, but it has inspired me to seek out other nonfiction books that discuss friendship.

Kate’s Rating 6: While it had a couple bits that I could apply to my own friendships, overall “Big Friendship” wasn’t my literary cup of tea.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think about the progression of these ladies relationships and lives in the book? Did you relate to either of them more than the other?
  2. The authors talk about the concept of ‘low drama mamas’ who don’t thrive on drama within their personal circles. Do you see yourself that way, or have you had times where you do find yourself drawn to drama?
  3. What do you think of their idea of ‘shine theory?’ Do you see yourself trying to apply it in your life and relationships?
  4. Do you think that social media draws us closer, or pulls us apart?
  5. Moving forward, do you think there are any components of this book that have to do with friendships that you think you will try and apply to your relationships?

Reader’s Advisory

“Big Friendship” is included on the Goodreads lists “Better Friendships: Essential Nonfiction on Friendships”, and “Feminism Published in Decades: 2020s”.

Find “Big Friendship” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler

Book Club Review: “Annihilation”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.

The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

Genre/Format: Horror

Kate’s Thoughts

This is not my first time reading “Annihilation”, as a few years ago I picked it up thanks to the recommendation of a circulation supervisor at a library I was subbing at at the time. Along with his rec, one of my good friends also said that she loved the series. Reading it through the first time was a weird, unsettling, but rewarding experience into weirdo gonzo sci-fi horror. So when Serena chose it for book club, I was pretty amped to give it a re-read.

And on the second time around, I was once again really into “Annihilation”. Vandermeer creates such a unique, creepy, and mysterious environment that feels like a character in and of itself. Area X is an unknown entity that dooms those who enter it, many of whom just straight up never come back, and those that do come back, well… They’re changed. As our characters (all nameless, referred to by their occupations in the expedition) start to fall prey to Area X, as well as their own paranoia and potentially even their compatriots, the first person Narrator, The Biologist, leads us on a confusing and convoluted journey where you don’t really know what’s going on. And that, in and of itself, is scary.

Vandermeer’s greatest strength is building up the unknown through the things we cannot see. For me, the scariest aspect was an entity referred to as The Moaner, which lets off terrifying baying sounds at dusk and night. I mean MY GOD. It’s things like this, as well as nefarious scheming that we see happen without much explanation, and the general breaking down of the explorers’s sanity, that kept my dread levels pretty high up on both reads. While other books may slowly start to peel back reveals, with foreshadowing, twists, and ah ha moments abound, those aren’t the kind of things that you find in this book. And our book club was pretty split as to how we felt about that. For some of us that worked. For others, it didn’t. But that just meant the conversation was great as we all peeled back the various layers.

“Annihilation” is weird. It doesn’t feel a need to give you many answers. But if you like weirdo Sci-Fi horror with a hint of eco-terror as well, it is absolutely the book for you.

Serena’s Thoughts

When we came up with this round’s bookclub theme, I knew immediately that I wanted to do horror for my pick. Not only is it good to dabble in the genre that my co-blogger routinely writes about and reads, but I’ve found myself enjoying a decent number of horror-y book that have come across my reading pile recently (“Mexican Gothic” comes to mind right off the bat). But, of course, being me, I couldn’t resist a choice that also seemed to dabble in science fiction themes as well. And thus, “Annihilation!”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely a strange one, and I feel like my comfort reading epic fantasy novels where you’re routinely thrown into worlds full of strange words and rituals that are never really explained paid off really well for me. This book is weird and it’s only marginally interested in explaining itself. What does get explained only comes up in the last 20% or so of the story. So that leaves almost the entire book with the reader being just as (if not more) clueless than our nameless main character. It takes a long time to even get an answer about why there are so few answers to start with! A convoluted idea if ever there was one.

In many ways, the reader is left feeling unbalanced and confused throughout most of the read. This helps increase the building tension and fear when, for most of it, very little is actually, physically, happening. Instead, the book leans into the sense of doom and the greater fear of an unknown that you can’t see or understand rather than the monster that is richly described in detail for you.

The narrator is also an unknown. Much of her story plays out in a series of flashbacks to her life before entering Area X. She is is definitely a strange entity all on her unknown. I wasn’t quite sure if her oddness was an intentional choice on the author’s part or if he struggled to write from a woman’s perspective? Or some combination of things? I will say, characterization is perhaps not his particular strength as a writer, but the narrator was definitely serviceable in delivery all the oddness and spookiness inherent in Area X itself.

In the end, I think I was left with more questions than I had answers. Most of bookclub was just one big question: “What the heck did we just read?” But for me, this was a good question, and I’ll probably add the second book to my TBR pile.

Kate’s Rating: Super weird but incredibly fascinating, “Annihilation” is very unique in how it tells a story.

Serena’s Rating 8: Bizarre in the best way, this book dials into the fear of the unseen in a really great way.

Book Club Questions

  1. The main character’s past and her relationship with her husband directs a lot of her thoughts and actions. In what ways were these flashbacks important to her story? Was there any one moment/flashback that stood out to you as touching on the greater themes?
  2. There are a lot of unknowns in this book, from bigger mysteries surrounding Area X down to smaller details like characters’ names. How did this prevailing sense of the unknown affect your reading experience? Were you able to predict any of the reveals?
  3. What do you believe Area X is? Does it have a goal, and if so, what is it? Any theories regarding the meaning of the writing and the writer?
  4. This story walks the line between horror and science fiction. What aspects of the story/writing best represented each of these genres?
  5. This is the first book in a trilogy. Do you have any predictions for where the story will go from here? What are you most curious to learn more about?

Reader’s Advisory

“Annihilation” is included on these Goodreads lists: Best Weird Fiction Books and Cli-Fi: Climate Change Fiction.

Find “Annihilation” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

Book Club Review: “Red at the Bone”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, September 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Literary Fiction

Book Description: Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony– a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

Kate’s Thoughts

Although this genre doesn’t tend to make it onto the blog, I am not really a stranger to literary fiction. If a literary novel has a topic that sounds interesting, or has a lot of hype around it, I will probably pick it up, and a lot of the time I enjoy it as a genre. But somehow I missed “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson when it came out, so when book club picked it as the Outside the Genre Box book I was eager to dive in. I read it in the course of an afternoon, as the family saga theme is one that I’ve always been a sucker for.

“Red at the Bone” is an emotional look at a family that has gone through a lot through the generations. We start with the society coming out celebration of Melody, a sixteen year old Black teenager living in New York City in 2001. She is wearing the dress that her mother Iris was supposed to wear before her, but her pregnancy at 16 cancelled the event. We look at the entire family, jumping through time, perspectives, and themes, and learn how Melody came to be, how her relationship with Iris has become what it has, and how the influence of her other family members, and the influences of their experiences, has affected her, and all of them. Woodson takes a good hard look at class differences, the way that parents have hopes for their children that don’t always mesh, and the way that trauma can be passed down through family lines, even if the later generations weren’t there to experience the initial traumatic event (for example, there is a lot of attention paid to the Tulsa Massacre, and how that horrible event has lingered down the family line). I found the different perspectives of different family members to be powerful, and Woodson gave all of them a lot of attention even in the comparatively lower number of pages. I was especially moved by the way that Woodson looks at mother and daughter relationships, and the difficulties that can be found there (I’m probably a bit biased in that regard, but I have no doubt that anyone will find it emotionally resonant as Woodson is so good).

I really liked “Red at the Bone”. It’s a quick read, but it hits in all the right ways.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unlike Kate, I really and truly don’t read a lot of literary fiction. Pretty much rules me out of being an adult librarian (rather than YA/children’s, which what I was trained for)! But I have read one or two here and there, usually upon recommendation, and often enjoyed them. I typically want more magic and unicorns in my reading, but if the writing and story are strong, I can get behind ordinary life as well.

I knew nothing about this author before reading this. Or, really, anything about what the story was about even. So I picked it up with no real preconceptions. And then I didn’t set it down until it was finished. Yes, it is a shorter book as well, but it was also compulsively readable. The layers of family history and personalities perfectly layered one on top of the other to weave together an intricate tapestry of lives lived through various trials and tribulations. We see the many ups and downs of everyone’s lives and how these experiences shape not only the character whose head we are in currently, but how these traumas, joys, choices ripple out to affect everyone else around them and following them.

Like Kate, I was particularly interested in the story of motherhood that is at much of the heart of this story. While I have two boys instead of a daughter, I am, of course, a daughter myself. It was heart-breaking and yet completely relatable to experience the fierce love and fierce hurt that can exist within this unique relationship. I also very much related to the sudden, sometimes harsh, reality of what parenthood looks like.

My own experience was very different, behind older, married to my husband, and both hoping for this outcome. But there were also moments of very real, very dark places in the actual experience of become a mother, too. The idea that overnight your entire identity seems to be sucked into this new born baby. It’s the first thing people ask you, it’s almost all you are to people for so long. And, you know, the baby isn’t even grateful! Just screaming and crying and demanding food all the time! Little punk. I kid, but it is also very hard. I can’t even imagine going through it as a young teenager and trying to find some way to be a good mother while also retain some part of a life for yourself that you hadn’t even had a chance to start.

There were so many incredible themes that resonated in this book: family, identity (both sexual and racial), history and legacy. For such a short book, it would be easy to write several essays covering different topics broached in this story. Fans of literary fiction, especially those focused on family and identity should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: An emotional and lyrical family saga, “Red at the Bone” is a quick and powerful read.

Serena’s Rating 8: Beautiful and heart-breaking, a must-read for fans of stories focused on family.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of the narrative? Was it easy for you to follow?
  2. Did you have a character that you liked the most, or wanted to learn more about beyond the story that they had in this book?
  3. What did you think about the way that Woodson presented this family and the dynamics within in?
  4. There is a lot of family trauma and grief that this family has gone through over the years, as well as hope for future generations. What did you take away from this story in terms of trauma that passes through family lines, as well as aspirations for legacy?
  5. Iris and Melody are the central relationship within this story. Do you think that their relationship has hope to evolve into something new beyond the end? Do you think that it needs to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Red at the Bone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2019”, and “Popsugar 2021 #33: A Book Featuring Three Generations”.

Find “Red at the Bone” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer