Bookclub Review: “Almost American Girl”

40030311._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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Felicity Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

Book Description: A powerful and timely teen graphic novel memoir—perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Hey, Kiddo—about a Korean-born, non-English-speaking girl who is abruptly transplanted from Seoul to Huntsville, Alabama, and struggles with extreme culture shock and isolation, until she discovers her passion for comic arts.

For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had not heard of this book before it was picked for our book club session in March, and therefore going into it was a bit of a blind dive in. I had heard of Robin Ha’s previous book, “Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes” but I knew that this was going to be a bit different. I figured I’d read “Almost American Girl” over the course of a few days, but then I ended up devouring it in nearly one sitting. I loved it that much.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how gorgeous and unique the art was. The colors are a watercolor-esque aesthetic, and it had both a calming effect as well as really evoking the emotions that were coming off the page. Robin’s transition from her life in Korea to her sudden shift to America was emotional and very difficult, and Ha used the imagery in both the pictures themselves and the color schemes to portray all of the ups and downs of Robin’s feelings during that time. From stark reds or darkness during difficult times, or almost glowing and bright colors in times of happiness, Ha uses the artwork to her advantage in her storytelling, and I really liked it.

The story, too, was compelling and very readable. While I was absolutely interested in Robin’s story as a girl who has to completely shift from one culture to another, Ha also makes a point to show the point of view of her mother, who made the decision to take her daughter from her life in South Korea and move them to Alabama without any hint or forewarning. I thought that at first I was going to have a hard time with her mother (while still trying to recognize the cultural differences between my experience and hers), but, like Serena mentions below, Ha was very deliberate in wanting to give a full picture as to how hard she had it and why she would take such a huge risk. And, on a personal note, I think that now that I’m a mother to a daughter (who is still just a baby, mind you) I was especially moved by their relationship, through the good times and the bad.

Ha also did a very good job of showing the straddling of traditional cultural expectations, and the different expectations that the children of immigrants may have. Ha’s step family was a mixed bag of those who thought that Robin and her mother should be adhering to the traditional roles they would have had back in South Korea (even though Robin’s mother didn’t feel like she had a place in that society as an opinionated single mother), and those who wanted to just fit in in American society. That was a theme that I wasn’t really expecting from this story, and I thought Ha was very careful in making sure not to say whether these expectations were right or wrong. Well, except in the case of her step-cousin. That girl was just mean. But we also got to see Ha make connections to other Korean-American kids her age as time goes on, and how once you do find that place in a community that ‘gets it’ it can make a world of difference in one’s life.

“Almost American Girl” was a moving and wonderful graphic memoir. I am so, so glad that we read it.

Serena’s Thoughts

As I’ve said many times before, a big part of my appreciation for bookclub is how it challenges me to read outside of my typical genres. Unlike Kate, I rarely get around to graphic novels, even though I tend to enjoy them when I do  read them. I was excited, then, when I saw that we’d be reading this book next!

This book had a lot of great things going for it, from the excellent looks into a girl’s experience as an immigrant coming to the U.S., to the exploration of her mother’s life and choices, to the beautiful use of the artwork to display the myriad of emotions that Robin experiences as she adjust to her new life. I’ve read a handful of other “immigrant experience” novels and they have all had something unique to offer as no “experience” will be the same, obviously. One thing that I think this story really highlighted were the challenges of language for Robin and the impact this had on her adjustment to life in the U.S. The use of the graphic novel format was cleverly used in this instance to replace speech bubbles with nonsense jargon to highlight how difficult it was for Robin to follow along in conversations, especially when the speaker was talking quickly.

I also really liked the inclusion of the mother’s story. From the beginning, seen through Robin’s eyes, it is challenging to understand the choices Robin’s mother has made that has lead to the complete upheaval of their lives. But as the story continues, we learn more and more about Robin’s mother’s past, the challenges she faced living in Korea as a single mother, and the values she saw in coming to raise her daughter in a completely foreign and new country. And even after that one major choice was made, we see the struggle and the myriad of choices, both good and bad, that Robin’s mother faces in the U.S. while trying to make a new life here.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the last portion of the story that shows Robin briefly returning to Seoul when she’s in college and finding that she no longer fits there either. It’s an interesting look again at the differences between Korean and American culture, and touches on a side of the immigrant experience that is often skipped over. How, on returning to one’s nation of origin, many can find that they no longer fit in within that culture either.

I really enjoyed this book. I think the artwork was beautiful, and I loved the story itself. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone!

Kate’s Rating 9: An emotional and personal memoir that tackles culture, the immigrant experience, identity, and the importance of community, “Almost American Girl” was a heartfelt and moving read.

Serena’s Rating 9: Through beautiful artwork, “Almost American Girl” presents a moving story of the immigrant experience full of challenges, sorrows, and joys

Book Club Questions

  1. How does “Almost American Girl” compare to other “immigrant experience” novels that you have read?
  2. What did you think of the artwork in this book? Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?
  3. How did you react to Robin’s mother’s parts of this book? Did you feel like you understood the choices that she made?
  4. How did you find Robin’s step family and the way that they treated her and her mother?
  5. Do you think that today Robin would have had the same experience when coming to a completely new culture and country? Why or why not?
  6. How did you feel about where she ended the story in terms of where she was in her life at the time? Did that seem like a good way to wrap the story up?

Reader’s Advisory

“Almost American Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “Great Graphic Novels Released in 2020”, and would fit in on “Books and Boba Reading List”.

Find “Almost American Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by  Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, et al.

Bookclub Review: “It’s Not The End of the World”

504509We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Publishing Info: Macmillan, 1972

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Meet Julie” by Megan McDonald

Book Description: Can Karen keep her parents from getting a divorce? This classic novel from Judy Blume has a fresh new look.

Karen couldn’t tell Mrs. Singer why she had to take her Viking diorama out of the sixth-grade showcase. She felt like yelling, “To keep my parents from getting divorced!” But she couldn’t say it, and the whole class was looking at her anyway.

Karen’s world was ending. Her father had moved out of the house weeks before; now he was going to Las Vegas to get divorced, and her mother was pleased! She had only a few days to get the two of them together in the same room. Maybe, if she could, they would just forget about the divorce. Then the Newman family could be its old self again—maybe. But Karen knew something she didn’t know last winter: that sometimes people who shouldn’t be apart are impossible together.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, literary confession time. Before Book Club picked “It’s Not The End of the World”, I had never read anything by Judy Blume. I don’t really know how I missed that, as I was almost certainly in the target demographic of her books, and I know that various classrooms at my grade school had her books on the shelves. But this was my first experience with Blume, so I was glad that one of our members picked it! I know that Blume is a queen of kid lit, so finally reading one of her books seemed far past due. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy “It’s Not The End of the World” as much as I thought I would.

I do want to say that first and foremost, I definitely understand the significance of a book about divorce being written in 1972. Especially a book that shows how toxic and terrible an acrimonious marriage and split can be for a family, without the promise of a happy moment of Mom and Dad reuniting because they do still love each other. As the 1970s brought more lenient social mores and changing ideas of values, divorce became more commonplace, and I think it’s so important that kids going through such a thing had a book like “It’s Not The End of the World” to turn to. It’s important to be able to see yourself in the media you consume, and so kids who had to go through that having this reflection of themselves and a reassurance that it is, in fact, not the end of the world, must have been resonant. On top of that, it was very easy to read and Blume’s skills as a writer are on full display.

But all that said, I think that now that more books have been written about divorce as time has gone on, they would be better options to explore than this book. I thought that a lot of the characters were two dimensional, including Karen who seemed quite a bit younger in her voice than the twelve year old she was supposed to be. On top of that, every single adult in this book was just awful, and while I think it’s probably pretty realistic that parents going through this kind of thing won’t always be on their best behavior, they were almost flat out abusive. And it felt to me like this was almost excused by Blume, or at least written off as typical and what to expect from divorcing parents. I don’t know what the 1970s were like, but this seemed unrealistic and histrionic.

I get and appreciate “It’s Not The End of the World,” but I don’t think it holds up as well as I’m told other Blume stories do.

Serena’s Thoughts

So I’ll try to keep my half of this review from just repeating everything Kate said. But somehow, even though we grew up in completely different states and both loved books obsessively, I, too, missed the Judy Blume train. Part of this I think has to do with the fact that I was pretty solidly a genre reader from the get-go and my forays into contemporary fiction have always been few and far between, even as a kid. The only other Blume book I read was “Forever” and that was just because I was assigned it in library school (Kate and I were in this same class, but she wisely chose a different book option for this assignment.) I didn’t particularly enjoy that book. So it was with some skepticism that I started this book, knowing that I hadn’t been the target audience pretty much ever and didn’t loved my only other experience with her work. And, alas, it held true here.

Like Kate said, this book definitely had its time and place, and there’s no arguing with the general popularity of Blume’s work with many middle graders. Still today libraries circulate many copies of her more popular stories. That said, I think this one shows its age and in ways that make it particularly less approachable to modern kids reading it than others. Books dealing with how kids deal with divorce are still needed today, but this one’s approach is heavily cemented in the idea that Karen is experiencing a socially rare event, one that is distinctive enough from her peers’ experiences that she stands out. Not only are attitudes around divorce markedly different than they were in the 70s, but it is simply common enough that Karen’s situation wouldn’t have likely made her stick out in a crowd.

Beyond this, the adults in Karen’s life are almost uniformly letting her down in massive ways. So much so, that at times both parents read as cartoonish in their villainy. There are also elements in their parenting strategies that would fall under a much harsher lens than they might have at the time this was written. Like Kate said, their actions in today’s views could be seen as borderline abusive. But the parents weren’t the only one-dimensional characters. Sadly, I didn’t connect with Karen at all either. She felt largely like a stock character around whom this “afternoon special: divorce!” topic was being framed.

I see how Blume’s work can be highly readable, as I did manage to get through the book quickly. But between this book and “Forever” (a book where I had a lot of similar complaints, particularly around the flat characterization), her writing is definitely not for me. I’m hesitant to throw a beloved author for many under the bus, but…I ain’t seeing it. With this topic specifically, I think there are better books being written now that I would direct readers to before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely an important work for it’s time and honest in many ways, but now it feels a bit over the top with histrionic moments and pretty two dimensional characters.

Serena’s Rating 5: More interesting as an artifact representing a very different time period with regards to divorce than as an actual story.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book was one of the first children’s novels that had divorce as a main theme. Do you think that it holds up today?
  2. What did you think of the adults in this novel? Did you find them realistic?
  3. What were your thoughts on Val, Karen’s new friend and supposed divorce expert?
  4. Did Karen’s voice feel authentic?
  5. Do you think that “It’s Not The End of the World” is still a book that you might recommend to kids whose families are going through a divorce? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“It’s Not The End of the World” is included on the Goodreads lists “Coming of Age Stories”, and “Books for My Eleven Year Old Self”.

Find “It’s Not The End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Bookclub Review: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood”

9516We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi

Publishing Info: Pantheon, June 2004

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Samantha Learns a Lesson” by Susan S. Adler

Book Description: Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love. 

Kate’s Thoughts

While it’s true that I read and reviewed “The Complete Persepolis” a couple years back, I really wanted to read it for book club. It was my turn for the American Girl theme, and I knew that I wanted to do “Samantha Learns a Lesson” (as Samantha has always been my favorite American Girl). So I decided that “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” would be the match up, as both are about girls from upper classes who have to learn hard social justice lessons about the lower classes in the society in which they are living.

My opinion of “Persepolis” hasn’t changed since I last addressed it here. It’s still one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, like top ten no question. But with the focus specifically on Satrapi’s childhood for this reading, mixed with the lens I had on social class, AND the current tensions the U.S. is having with Iran, this reading was all the more meaningful for me. Satrapi does a very good job of disseminating how Iran changed so fundamentally as a society in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, and addresses the complexities of those changes, showing how it isn’t a black and white, right or wrong situation. She also points out her own privileges within Iran during the Cultural Revolution. While she was a girl and her family wasn’t as socially favored as some, they had enough wealth and means that not only could she carefully rebel against societal norms with little repercussions (though some of this was pure luck), she also wasn’t part of the social class that was being used as cannon fodder during the war with Iraq. Along with all that, she also had the means to be sent away for school in Austria when it was becoming clear that being a teenage girl was becoming more and more unsafe.

I’m so pleased that we read “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” for book club! It fostered a lot of good conversation, and I will take any excuse to revisit this stunning memoir.

Serena’s Thoughts

My only previous familiarity with this book was through reading Kate’s glowing review of the complete collection. But with that strong recommendation, I was excited to finally get the excuse (more like the push, but “excuse” sounds better) to finally read it myself. And, put simply, like always, Kate was spot-on in her stamp of approval for this title!

I will admit to having only the barest understanding of the events that happened during Iran’s Cultural Revolution. I knew the end result, of course, but had very little clarity on the progression of events. In that way, this book does a fantastic job at bringing reader’s down to the street level of a topic that is often discussed, at least here in the U.S., at very global levels. Her life also offers an interesting window, coming from an educated and modern family who have many privileges at their finger tips that can help mitigate the experience.But, with those privileges, we also see the increased strain of a change that is felt quite acutely, especially for a young girl growing into her teenage years. We see the burgeoning of the obligations towards social justice weighed against the practicalities of safety and one’s own welfare.

I also loved the illustration style of this book. The choice to use only black and white colors not only parallels the movement of a society towards a more black and white way of thinking about life, but leaves the readers to focus largely on the content before them. It is not “prettied up” in anyway that could distract from the fact that this is based upon a woman’s real life experience. That said, the style of drawing is also very approachable to young readers and nicely balances out the stark color palette.

I really enjoyed this book and am so glad Kate picked it for bookclub. Like the broken record I often am, I’m yet again thankful to be part of a group of readers who expose me to books that I would likely not get around to reading on my own.

Kate’s Rating 10: An all time favorite of mine that I will happily revisit over and over.

Serena’s Rating 10: A must read for fans of graphic novels and those looking for more insights into life growing up in Iran during the Cultural Revolution.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the choice to tell her personal story in graphic form? How do you think it would have been different had it been written in a traditional narrative structure?
  2. “Persepolis: A Story of a Childhoold” is set before, during and after the Cultural Revolution in Iran. How much did you know about this historical period before reading this book?
  3. Like Samantha, Marjane is a child who has to learn some hard truths about the society she’s living in as a child. Are there any obvious differences between how Marjane experienced this period vs other Iranian children from other backgrounds may have?
  4. In an interview Satrapi said that she wanted “Persepolis” to show that Iran wasn’t only the society and culture that is shown through western lenses (that of a fundamentalist culture). Do you think she succeeded? Why or why not?
  5. Captivity and freedom are themes that are prevalent throughout the narrative. What are some of the ways they are presented within the story?
  6. How does a persons personal history interact with the history of a society or a culture they live within? How do you think your own personal history ties with the history of your country?

Reader’s Advisory

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” can be found on the Goodreads lists “Best Memoir Graphic Novels”, and “Reading Recommendations for a Young Feminist”.

Find “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Bookclub Review: “A Christmas Carol”

5327We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Publishing Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Kirsten’s Surprise” by Janet Shaw

Book Description: The celebrated P.J. Lynch captures the spirit of Dickens’s beloved tale in a richly illustrated unabridged edition.

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge opens on a Christmas Eve as cold as Scrooge’s own heart. That night, he receives three ghostly visitors: the terrifying spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Each takes him on a heart-stopping journey, yielding glimpses of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the horrifying spectres of Want and Ignorance, even Scrooge’s painfully hopeful younger self. Will Scrooge’s heart be opened? Can he reverse the miserable future he is forced to see?

Now in an unabridged edition gloriously illustrated by the award-winning P.J. Lynch, this story’s message of love and goodwill, mercy and self-redemption resonates as keenly as ever.

Kate’s Thoughts

It’s just me again this time around, as Serena was unable to make book club this session. But I’m going to do my best to bring in some deep thoughts about a Christmas classic that has been part of the Western zeitgeist for generations. We read “A Christmas Carol” along with “Kirsten’s Surprise” because of the obvious Christmas theme, and honestly, this is going to be a fun cycle of reads because of the connections we make between the American Girl books and the other books we read. This was my second time reading Dickens, as I read “A Tale of Two Cities” in high school, and while I could have sworn that I read “A Christmas Carol” at some point I realized as I was reading that I was probably just creating a memory from the countless, COUNTLESS adaptations I’ve seen over the years. Going in and reading the original text was a fun way to get into the holiday spirit, reading wise.

For anyone who may not know, “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday ghost story in which a bitter selfish man is visited by three (technically four) ghosts to learn about the true meaning of Christmas, and to realize he has to change his dickish ways. I’m so familiar with the story I figured that reading it was going to be just par for the course, but I really enjoyed reading this story in it’s own, original words. The ghosts are sufficiently spooky, the pathos is (for the most part, but we’ll get there later) definitely heartwrenching, and the messages of benevolence and charity resonate throughout the years. Ebenezer Scrooge is a complex character whose journey of self reflection and redemption is old hat, but even though I know the story and know how it was going to go I did like seeing him change. Dickens may have been a little ‘on the nose’ by today’s standards when it comes to Scrooge’s reactions as his journey goes on (lots of head hanging, guys), but it is still satisfying to see him realize that he can change and should change for the good of others and for the good of himself.

The greater metaphors that Dickens was going for in the text, specifically Tiny Tim representing the oppressed and downtrodden in England’s lower classes at the time and the references to child labor, are admittedly pretty well played out these days. I myself don’t really care for Tiny Tim, thinking he’s saccharine and cloying (except for Calvin in “Scrooged”, he is ADORABLE and it probably help that he doesn’t talk), but having the context of what Tiny Tim actually is supposed to be was helpful. Because the symbolism is better in the original text, and doesn’t manifest as a sweet faced but constantly coughing/limping/wise beyond his years child, I appreciated Tim more in the book than I usually do. The setting of the Industrial Revolution and knowing how friggin’ AWFUL that was for the lower class in hindsight made me appreciate these messages all the more. Even beyond Tim there are references to children having to go get jobs and not knowing if and when they will see their loved ones come Christmastime, and gosh if that didn’t just make this book a little sadder.

And finally, the ghosts are great. From Marley to Past, Present, and Yet To Come, Dickens made well characterized and freaky spirits that would have perfectly fit into the ‘telling ghost stories at Christmas’ aesthetic that was so popular during this time period. We should bring that back, quite frankly.

I enjoyed reading “A Christmas Carol”. It was a lovely way to get into the holiday spirit!! If you haven’t read it and have a few hours during this holiday season, it is worth the read.

Rating 8: An enduring Christmas classic.

Book Club Questions

  1. There have been many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” over the years. Which one is your favorite, and why? How faithful of an adaptation was it compared to the original text?
  2. Scrooge has a very clear transformation in this book, and on the page it is made evident from the get go when he feels bad and when he should feel bad for his actions. Do you think there could have been more nuance in his change, or did you appreciate the blatant moments of him realizing he was wrong throughout the story?
  3. “A Christmas Carol” was one of the first Christmas stories to leave a country or pastoral setting to take place in an urban setting. Do you think that the story would have worked as well if it took place in the country instead of London? Why or why not?
  4. What are your thoughts on Tiny Tim? Is he still an effective character as time has gone on?
  5. Why do you think this story has endured for so long and resonated with so many people?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Christmas Carol” is included on the Goodreads lists “Favorite Christmas Books”, and “Ghost Stories”.

Find “A Christmas Carol” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

Bookclub Review: “An Ember in the Ashes”

20560137We 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: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Kate’s Thoughts

I like to think of myself as a good sport when it comes to my willingness to read genres that I’m not too keen on. Be it in an effort to stretch my reading wings or going off a recommendation from a close friend, I will try and be open minded about a book even if I wouldn’t really pick it up on my own or of my own volition. This happens a lot of book club with YA fantasy fiction, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve found some pretty good books this way that I wouldn’t have normally read. But when it comes to “An Ember in the Ashes”, it HAD been on my list in spite of the genre, it just never came up in my reading rounds. So when it was the selection for the month, I went in apprehensive but hopeful. YA fantasy, sure, but based on Roman history! That’s something I could enjoy, right?

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(source)

“An Ember in the Ashes” does have strengths that I did like about it. For one, as mentioned, the Roman influenced world was unique for me and fun to see, as I’ve had a fascination with Ancient Rome (specifically the Julio-Claudian Emperors) since college. I liked that Tahir took influence from the culture in terms of not only the way the characters were, but in the way that world was built. While it’s been tweaked to fit the story, there were definitely aspects of the society that felt familiar, and the society itself was definitely interesting enough that I wanted to know more about it. On top of that, the story itself was engaging and filled with enough conflict and stakes that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see what was going to happen to Elias and Laia, and wanted to know how their fates were going to tie together, as promised. We get two narratives within this story, of Laia and Elias, and of the two I liked Elias’s narrative more. One of the reasons for that is that I thought that his voice was more interesting to me as someone who is incredibly good at what he does, though he secretly despises it and plans to abandon it as soon as he can. The other reason, and the far more pressing one, is that while I liked Laia and was interested in what she was doing her ‘reluctant but willing rebel who has devoted everything to avenging and saving her family’ is a theme we have seen in YA for a very long time now, and it didn’t feel all that new or unique, nor did it stand out from the other narratives out there. Throw in some awfully cartoony/not terribly well fleshed out antagonists, and you have a story that has promise, but doesn’t quite land.

I thought that “An Ember in the Ashes” was an entertaining read, but I don’t think that I’m going to go on in the series. Should someone tell me that I should give it a chance, I will happily be a good sport and do so. But as it stands now, I am parting ways with Elias and Laia where we left them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I…wasn’t a fan of this book. I’ll also admit that right out of the gate I wasn’t feeling super hopeful about this one, as I remember it coming out and then looking into it at the time and choosing to pass. It then blew up into a huge read of the year, and I still didn’t read it. I can’t remember now why I didn’t read it, but I’m guessing that some of the trusted reviewers I follow must have flagged it and I had enough other things on my plate (a perpetual non-problem!problem) to write it off as likely not for me. But, like Kate said, bookclub is super handy in that it pushes me to read books that I otherwise wouldn’t, for whatever reason. And as I said, this was a huge fantasy novel, so really, it’s good that I read it so I could form my own opinion.

Most of what I liked about the book, Kate already covered. Though, even there, I had some pretty big qualifiers to my enjoyment of most of them. First off, the world-building. I did enjoy the Roman aspects that were being used and the unique world that was built around it. However, having read a lot of YA fantasy, these elements also didn’t standout as breaking some huge mold. Roman society and influences are at the heart of a lot of second world fantasy. I did find it interesting, however, that the rebellion seemed to be stemming from a different cultural background. Irish, I would guess, based on the naming conventions. One of our booklcub members had a theory that the world here was essentially the Roman empire shrunk down to a more manageable size. So some of the nearby cultures could be representing other place in the world that Romans expanded out to, like Ireland. It’s an interesting theory, and one that I think would be super clever. However, this is never explicitly said in the book itself, and I’m not sure there’s enough to conclusively say that that was the purpose behind some of these choices. If it was, I wish the author had made it more clear, because it is a very interesting idea.

The other thing that stands out as notable about this book was the violence of it all. I think that this was one of the aspects of the story that made it stand-out when it was first published, that it went further than other YA fantasy. But this is also where I started having major problems with the book. Primarily, the violent, serious nature of the world that our characters are living in didn’t match up with the often frivolous and silly nature of their thoughts and priorities, especially with regards to their romances. In other words, the book was trying to walk an unnatural line. It wanted to be “Game of Thrones,” but still have “Twilight” level romances. This simply doesn’t work. “Game of Thrones” is known for having teen characters involved at the heart of the story. The difference here is that when presented with the dire and very serious nature of the world around them, their thoughts and actions appropriately reflect that.

Laia and Elias have grown up in a world where violence and the threat of violence is around every corner. Beyond this, sex is used as a weapon and prostitution is a fairly normal thing for soldiers to participate in. Yet, Laia and Elias don’t reflect this as characters. Instead, right next to rape threats and horrific deaths, we have two characters who read so PG as to be almost laughable. It also weirdly worships the purity of these two characters. Elias is not like other boys and while he is constantly admiring the beauty of the women around him, he’s never engaged in anything himself. They both talk about physical attraction and love in the same way that teenagers today would. But that doesn’t work in a world where they would have grown up past this type of purity quickly (if they ever had it in the first place). You just can’t convince me that a character whose family has been murdered and is a spy for an evil queen would be so caught up in this love square or whatever it was.

I also didn’t appreciate the repeated rape threats made to Laia and Elias’s near constant worry about rape happening to the women in his life. It felt like the topic was used to further darken the world but was never explored further on how it would shape the lives of these women. Attempted rape has its own horrific aftereffects and yet none of this is explored with Laia.

Perhaps if this book had been written for adults I would have appreciated it more. There were some strong bones with the world and the political nature of the story. Elias and Laia, if aged out of their teenage swooning, could have also been good characters. But as it stands, the book seems to be presenting a weird position where tons of violence and rape threats are a totally ok topic for teen readers, but consensual sex between characters would be too “adult” so Laia and Elias must weirdly fixate the belly flutters. It’s a strange position to take and I don’t think it fits well.

Kate’s Rating 6: An engaging read to be sure, though a lot of the themes and characterizations we’ve seen in this genre over and over again.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not for me. I don’t think it did enough to address some of the serious topics it throws around and the romance didn’t mesh with the world that was created.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the world building in this novel? Did you think that it took accurate aspects from Ancient Rome and applied them well?
  2. There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
  3. This book is labeled as a YA fantasy, though some would argue that it doesn’t have as many fantasy elements as other fantasies do. What do you think of this genre classification?
  4. What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
  5. Do you think that the romance aspects of the book lined up with the world that the characters lived within? More specifically, can people still be fixated on potential romance or attraction when they are surrounded by darkness and horrors?
  6. This is the first in a four book series. Do you have predictions on where the plot is going to go? Do you think you’ll keep reading?

Reader’s Advisory

“An Ember in the Ashes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Free Range and Morally Complex YA”, and “‘High Fantasy’ With Female Leads/Protagonists”.

Find “An Ember in the Ashes” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Bookclub Review: “Gone”

2536134We 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: “Gone” by Michael Grant

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, June 2008

Where Did We Get This Book: From the library!

Book Description: In the blink of an eye, everyone disappears. Gone. Except for the young.

There are teens, but not one single adult. Just as suddenly, there are no phones, no internet, no television. No way to get help. And no way to figure out what’s happened.

Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents—unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers—that grow stronger by the day. It’s a terrifying new world. Sides are being chosen, a fight is shaping up. Townies against rich kids. Bullies against the weak. Powerful against powerless. And time is running out: On your 15th birthday, you disappear just like everyone else…

Kate’s Thoughts

When I was in middle school I had already dived right into adult fiction. I would imagine that part of that was because when I was that age (totally dating myself a bit here) we were still a number of years off from the YA boom and I had already read horror and thrillers for teens by the time I had entered fifth grade. Because of this, I had a few preconceived notions about what to expect from “Gone” by Michael Grant. True, it was published in 2008, a time when the YA book dynamics had already started to change, but I thought that it was going to be straight forward and ‘kid gloved’. I was wrong. I was so wrong.

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Probably my face as disturbing detail after disturbing detail came to fruition. (source)

“Gone” is an imperfect YA end of world tale, with a lot of ideas, a lot of characters, and a lot of details that are building to something that has yet to be seen. It also has a lot of darkness within its pages, at least compared to other YA end of world thrillers that I’ve read. Nothing I can’t handle, of course, but damn, Michael Grant, you went all in. That said, I LIKED that he went all in, because it makes it seem like he trusts that his readers can handle whatever he tosses their way. And boy, does he toss some rough things their way. From grotesque wounds to spates of violence perpetrated against children to the very concept of very small children being left alone with no one to protect them, “Gone” was bleaker than I anticipated, but that made it all the more enjoyable.

That said, there is a LOT going on in this book. It makes some sense, given that 1) Michael Grant used to work on the “Animorphs” books with Katherine Applegate and those had a lot of details and world building, and 2) it has six books in the entire run. But I think that the reason it didn’t really work for me was because so much was crammed in and only touched upon, and there were so many characters to address that a lot of them didn’t get a lot of attention or development. True, there are more books to flesh all of these things out, but, at the same time, there are MORE BOOKS TO FLESH THIS ALL OUT. In other words, I wish that Grant had saved some of the details and developments for later books, just because this story did feel bloated and there were multiple characters that I didn’t feel like we really got to know. Luckily, it was the villains who were the most interesting, which is what I like to see in books like this.

This is also a very 2008 book in terms of how it approaches a number of themes, and it didn’t age well in that regard. From an autistic character to the very clear gender roles of some of the girl characters, I totally see how these things wouldn’t have been seen as problematic back then, but are definitely a bit hard to read now. I’m not going to write this book off completely because of this, as it is very of the time and that’s just the reality of it. But I wanted to note it.

I don’t think that I will keep going in this series, but I was pleasantly surprised that “Gone” trusts its YA readers to be able to take on some bleak, bleak themes.

Serena’s Thoughts

The timing of reading this book couldn’t really be better. I had just finished up my re-read of “Animorphs,” a middle grade science fiction series that Grant collaborated on with his partner, K.A. Applegate, and our bookclub theme (books on our TBR pile) gave me the perfect excuse to inflict it upon the entire group! “Inflict” being purely a dramatic term, as, while it was darker than some of our group preferred, it was still a quick, action-packed read. But oof, talk about dark.

From a non-“Animorphs” perspective, I agree with almost everything Kate said, especially about just how much is packed into this book. It didn’t really hit me until I was starting to write up questions for our bookclub discussion, but this book really through everything in at once. You have the post-apocalyptic setting with the adults suddenly gone, kids with powers, family drama, a mysterious nuclear power plant, mutated animals, some dark force potentially behind it all. There are a lot of cards on the table, and for a book that is quite obviously the beginning of the series, I do wonder if it would have been better served to introduce some of these mysteries in the next books. As it is, there is a lot to get done and I think some of the issues Kate highlighted with the characters could have been better served had they been given more time, no longer needing to fight for page time against the numerous mysteries being set up.’

The character stuff is what really struck me in this book, however, both in a good and bad way. Having read “Animorphs,” it is very easy to see bits and pieces of those characters here, and I think in some ways, these are almost better in that they are not, in fact, better people. Our main character, for example, is essentially the Jake of this story. Except that Jake accepted the call to action as a leader almost from the get go and fairly seamlessly fit into that role. There were some bumps along the way and he struggled with this role throughout, but he took up the mantle quite quickly and with little real conflict. Here, Sam is much more reluctant, and with his reluctance come real consequences. I mean, REAL. As in kids die because he backs off originally. And he knows it. This makes Sam in some ways a much more believable character than Jake. He messes up big time right off the bat because of a the very real reaction of any kid in that situation, not wanting to be the one responsible.

So that’s a good example of characters. Kate mentioned some of the negatives. To be honest, I have a hard time separating this book from Grant’s collaboration with Applegate on the “Animorphs” in this regard. Having read that series, which came first, it’s hard not to read this book through the lens of faith that some of the problematic character issues, most especially the women, will be resolved some how. If this book is of its time for handling some things poorly, “Animorphs” was way ahead of it by offering up a very diverse team and making its most badass character a girl. This makes it hard for me to reconcile the two together. I think I can objectively say that while a few things stuck out to me (there’s an unfortunate line about the autistic character, for sure), I still felt that there was enough groundwork laid in other areas to excuse some of the more gendered roles some female characters were given. For one thing, I think Diana, an enigmatic character on the bad side, was set up as one of the more complicated characters in the entire book. Does this make up for the fact that a girl is running the daycare and another the hospital while the boys duke it out for leadership? I’m not sure. But I feel like enough was done to make me want to read more and find out how everything plays out.

Where the book was definitely ahead of its time, however, was the way it treated its readers as capable of handling darker elements of the story. It almost made me wonder if YA has regressed a bit in this regard, as the stakes felt much higher and more real in this book than they have in other YA stories I’ve read recently where YA protagonists are leading armies and the fate of the world!!! yada yada. As hard as some of it was to read, this commitment to the harsh realities of what this situation would look like is probably one of the biggest reasons I want to keep reading. The next books is called “Hunger,” for heaven’s sake!

Kate’s Rating 7: A darker than I expected YA novel with lots of components, “Gone” is entertaining, a little much, and a good fit for YA readers who want more thrills than juvie fiction but aren’t necessarily ready for adult end of world sagas.

Serena’s Rating 8: This book takes it premise and goes full throttle, but its wackiness is quickly squashed beneath a serious, “Lord of the Flies”-like exploration of human nature. Also talking coyotes.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book explore similar themes to “Lord of the Flies.” If you’ve read that, how does it compare? In what ways does this book tackle themes of power and civilization?
  2. There are a lot of characters who perspectives are covered in this book. Which ones stood out to you and why?
  3. If there was an element of the story that could have been explored more in this book, which one was it? Which element would you leave out (perhaps for the second book) to make room for this?
  4. Some of the roles in this burgeoning civilization seem to be falling along traditionally gendered lines. Are there examples of the book challenging this? Particular failures that you struggled with and wish were changed?
  5. We have several explanations offered up as to what caused this situation. Which one are you leaning towards?
  6. What predictions do you have for book two?

Reader’s Advisory

“Gone” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Best Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction” and “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Gone” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

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.