Book Club Review: “The Golden Compass”

119322We 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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

Publishing Info: Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 1996

Where Did We Get This Book: We both own in!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 200 (Religion)

Book Description: Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved. 

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “His Dark Materials” in college, at the insistence of my father, a huge fantasy nerd and book worm. I knew little to nothing about it when I opened the first pages of “The Golden Compass”, but was taken in almost immediately by the characters and the world that Philip Pullman created. And then my own personal copy (I have the whole series bound up in one) sat on my shelf, untouched until Anita picked “The Golden Compass” for book club. I was curious as to how I would view the book almost fifteen years after reading it the first time. But going back to “The Golden Compass” was worthwhile for me, even after all that time.

I will be honest, the stories of the entire series are so entwined in my mind that I can’t help but take influence from “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” when I look back at “The Golden Compass”. So my opinions of “The Golden Compass” now are probably affected by works that aren’t within the text of the first book, which was an interesting quandary to be in. During Book Club when Anita would ask questions about the story, I realized that my opinions of various things took influence by the series as a whole (as well as the first prequel book “The Book of Dust”), and I haven’t quite been able to remove the two. But I will do my best here. I really, really love the world that Pullman has built, an alternate universe  that have the same locations in our world, but with various changes to make it unique to its own. When he describes Oxford, it sounds like the Oxford of our world, but there are differences that make it its own unique location. Within this world are daemons, beings that take on the form of an animal and are attached to all people, functioning as a soul outside of the body. It’s such a cool concept that Pullman made of having a huge and intricate part of you on the outside instead of within. This time around reading it I definitely felt it a bit more than I did in college, as my initial thought was ‘how cool to have an animal sidekick!’. Now I was more introspective about what that would actually mean for a person.

I also really like the way that Pullman completely trusts his readers to handle the complex and dark themes that he throws their way. This book is definitely YA, but it takes on religious fundamentalism, child torture, and institutional corruption without holding much back. While the philosophical meditations on religion and dogma play out a bit more in the later two books, with The Magesterium REALLY revving up into its quest for absolute power, there are moments, like with the Gobblers that want to separate children from their daemons because they feel it attracts Dust (aka Original Sin in this world). Pullman is not shy when it comes to his thoughts on organized religion, and he doesn’t mince words about it. Reading it again reminded me just how much faith he puts in his readers to be able to tackle some of this critical thinking he encourages them to tackle.

It was really great going back and re-reading “The Golden Compass”, and now I feel like I should continue with a re-read. I feel like it held up pretty well for me, and this classic series still remains a powerhouse in YA Fantasy.

Serena’s Thoughts

Well since Kate mentioned it, I will take this opportunity to propose joint reviewing the next two books as well! Yes? Yes?

As Kate mentioned, I too struggled separating my mind with this book as a single unit outside of the trilogy as a whole. Unlike Kate, I’ve OBSESSIVELY re-read this series throughout my entire life. My mom read the first book to my sister and I when we were little, and then I remember that the next two books were various Christmas presents the years they came out. And it’s been an ongoing love affair ever since. Reading a series this way was also a peculiar experience. As a kid, most of what I got from these books was the action and yeah, “wouldn’t it be fun to have an animal side kick??” But as I’ve re-read, each time a bit older, there’s always another level to find. This alone easily earns it a spot on my top 10 lists.

But yes, reading this book alone and then discussing it for bookclub was hard. So much of the groundwork that is laid in this one seems like major plot points here, but then as you continue, expand exponentially and you realize you only had the tip of the iceberg to start with. But here it goes.

“The Golden Compass” definitely reads as the most middle grade/young adult of the series. Lyra is the singular main character and her feelings and adventures are at the center of everything that takes. The story pretty much lives and dies on whether you are interested in her. And Lyra has to be one of the great child protagonists. What makes her special is the fact that, from the beginning, it’s clear that she’s not a “good” child. She’s precocious, meddlesome, and disobedient. And yet she’s never terribly punished for these traits. Instead, all of these aspects of her personality are crucial to not only her success in this story, but to her very survival. Lying, in particular, is a specific strength of hers, and it is always presented as such: a strength. But for all this, Lyra is also incredibly brave, loyal, and loves openly, taking in those who society might overlook. All together, she makes for an excellent child lead. Pantelemon, for his part, serves as a balance to her character, and their witty banter and the supports they offer each other were always at the basis of my desire for a daemon of my own.

The story does have a slow start. I remember as a child being fairly bored for a good bit in the beginning of this story. As Kate said, Pullman doesn’t pull his punches with big ideas, and he dives right into these within the first 20 pages of the book, before readers have had time to form any other ideas for themselves. But once the action does start, it’s all great. And everything he includes strikes the perfect balance of appealing to both children and adults. Child snatchers called Gobblers? Significantly creepy for kids, but wait, they are also connected to this high-level religious dogma for adult readers. A child concentration camp where the kids break out? Great for kids! Super creepy for adults reading about events that look scarily similar to historical happenings. Armored bears? Awesome for kids! Awesome for adults! It’s really a testament to Pullman’s talent that he so neatly balance an action-packed adventure for kids while also introducing huge topics of religion and what makes up humans themselves.

And that ending! How can you NOT want read the entire series after that? Again, no punches pulled. Children are reading this, and yet Pullman doesn’t hesitate to introduce some really tough and challenging topics. Even as a kid, shocked and dismayed by these events, I remember appreciating the fact that this story felt so real, regardless of all the talk of armored bears and daemons, and I think it was because of the fact that Pullman treated these topics as not only acceptable but necessary for kids to read about as well as adults.

So, in summary, obviously I loved this book. Always have, always will.

Kate’s Rating 9: A complex and wondrous world of philosophy and fantasy, “The Golden Compass” holds up for me after all these years of holding it in high regard.

Serena’s Rating 9: A fantasy novel that finds the perfect balance to appeal to both adults and children, never shying away from addressing big topis, all while flying around in a zeppelin chasing after armored bears.

Book Club Questions

  1. Okay, everyone wants to share this: What kind of animal do you think your daemon would be? And what do you think a daemon is in that world vs our world?
  2. What did you think of the characters in this book and how did your opinions of them change as the book progressed?
  3. In this book, usually the gender of your daemon is the opposite gender from yourself, but sometimes you see a person and their daemon sharing the same gender. What do you think that Pullman was trying to convey with this?
  4. There are many different communities and groups within this world, from Oxford to The Bears to The Gyptians. Where/with whom would you want to live in this world?
  5. What religious parallels do you see between Lyra’s world and our world?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Golden Compass” is included on the Goodreads lists “Most Interesting Magic System”, and “Best Feminist Young Adult Books”.

Find “The Golden Compass” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Bookclub Review: “Book of a Thousand Days”

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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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Book of a Thousand Days” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, September 2007

Where Did We Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despises, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment.

As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors–one welcome, the other decidedly less so–the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have read a good number of Shannon’s Hale’s books. Not only the Princess Academy trilogy that I reviewed for this blog, but a few of her other YA stories like “The Goose Girl” and such. I’ve always loved her simple, yet beautiful, writing style, and as a fan of fairytale retellings, her work is always a hit for me. However, I don’t particularly love epistolary stories, which was the reason I held back on this one. I always have a hard time turning off my brain and not thinking about how incredibly unrealistic it is that anyone would write out entire conversations in their journal. But, I admit, I have been proven wrong in the past, and there are several books I can think of (“A Brief History of Montmoray,” for example) that I have enjoyed despite of this.

For the first third of the trilogy, I didn’t even need to bother with this concern. Dashti and the Lady Saren have been locked in a tower. There isn’t much else to do other than write extensive entries in ones journal! While some readers might feel this section is slow, I particularly enjoyed this section of the book. Not only do we have tons of character development for Dashti that builds up a good foundation for her character which goes on to drive important decisions she makes later in the story, but I enjoyed the fact that the threat wasn’t really any sort of villain. The threat was simply the looming dark, isolation, and dwindling food that came with their imprisonment. Throughout this ongoing challenge, Dashti’s strengths are apparent. She is resourceful, optimistic, hard-working, and willing to find joys in small things.

As the story progress, we move beyond the tower. I also enjoyed these segments, but I do think they were made better by what we had learned of Dashti and the Lady Saren as characters from their time in the tower. Further, as the story progressed readers are given more opportunities to fully immerse themselves in this world. I particularly appreciated the setting that Hale chose for this story, placing it in a kingdom that is similar to Mongolia. After reading a million and one European-set fairytale retellings, this choice was a breath of fresh air.

This story is also a bit more dark than some of Hale’s other works. I thought this was another big point in its favor. While Dashti herself is an optimistic character, the challenges that she face are by no means simple or easy. The villain is truly terrifying, and the sacrifices that Dashti makes throughout the book are at times heart-breaking. This layer of darkness and seriousness provided a nice balance to Hale’s simple and clear storytelling.

Beyond Dashti, the characters were excellent. As I said, the villain was worthy of the story and quite creepy. And Lady Saren was the type of character you could enjoy disliking. This was made even better by the fact that she was also a realistic character whom you couldn’t help but sympathize with. She is what she was made to be, and while that was frustrating, it also portrayed a very honest take on a character. There was also a cat, My Lord, whom we all at bookclub probably obsessed about more than is healthy.

Kate’s Thoughts

“Book of a Thousand Days” was my first foray into Shannon Hale, and as an introduction to her work I found it to be pretty good! Though fantasy of this sort isn’t really my cup of tea, I was immediately taken in by the medieval Mongolia-like setting. Like Serena, I found it to be a nice change from the Euro-centric fairy tales and fairy tale re-tellings that the genre is kind of inundated with, at least in our culture and collective consciousness. I had never heard of the fairy tale that this was based off of, so I didn’t have the context of comparison, but ultimately that didn’t matter. Hale made this story her own, and she made the characters interesting in their own right.

Character wise, I really liked Dashti. Perhaps it was because of her first person perspective vis a vis diary entries, but the way that her character changed and progressed was a really nice story to follow. She goes from being absolutely and completely devoted to Lady Saren, to a well rounded and independent person in her own right who can stand on her two feet. The choices she made, while sometimes frustrating and upsetting, were within the realm of her character. And then there’s Lady Saren, who I found to be incredibly unlikable and obnoxious. But even that characterization was wholly believable based on the way that she had been raised, and based on the dark stuff that she had gone through. They both came from various kinds of hardship and trauma in their lives, and Hale did a good job of showing different ways that we cope (without casting judgement).

I did think that the tower part was a bit stronger than the time after. I will admit that I was kind of taken by surprise that they left the tower at all. That isn’t to say that the second part of the book didn’t have well done moments or was poorly written, I just liked spending a claustrophobic and tense time as Dashti and Saren started to wonder if their food supply was going to dwindle to nothing.

And don’t even get me started about My Lord the cat.

All in all I think that “Book of a Thousand Days” was a nice fairy tale retelling, and I see why Shannon Hale has the following that she does. I don’t know when or if I’ll pick up more of her stuff, but I’m glad that I can say that I have read her work.

Serena’s Rating 9: A bit darker than some of Hale’s other works, but better for it. An excellent re-telling of a lesser known fairytale and one that features an excellent leading lady in a unique location.

Kate’s Rating 7: The great location and the awesome protagonist made this book a worthwhile read. Even though fantasy of this type isn’t really my thing, I had a fun time reading this book and give props to Hale for creating this world.

Bookclub Questions:

  1. This book is divided into three sections. How did you feel about each of these sections? Did you have a favorite? A less favorite?
  2. This book is set in a world based on Mongolia. What aspects of the world-building and the cultures of Dashti’s world spoke to you?
  3. Towards the middle of the book, Dashti makes a decision with regards to My Lord, how did you feel about this? (Like I said, we at bookclub were a bit fixated on this question!)
  4. What did you think of Khan Tegus as a character? How did his relationship with Dashti compare to romances you usually see in fairy tales?
  5. What did you think of the mucker vs gentry dynamic?
  6. What did you think of the end? Did it feel believable? Should it feel believable as a fairy tale retelling?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Book of a Thousand Days” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Lesser-Known Books” and “Best Princess Tales.”

Find “Book of a Thousand Days” at your library using WorldCat

Next Book Club Pick: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

 

Book Club Review: “Scythe”

28954189We 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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Scythe” by Neil Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Giveaway from ALA 2017!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 600s (Medicine and Technology)

Book Description: Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Kate’s Thoughts

This book had been on my list but had never quite made it to my pile, so imagine my delight when Serena picked it for book club! I love Shusterman and his writing, and the premise itself is just like catnip to me. A future where people have conquered death, but still have to cull the population somehow, so they recruit ‘Scythes’ to do it? YES YES YES!

And it really lived up to my hopes and dreams and expectations. I liked that Shusterman thought outside the box for this book, giving us less dystopia and more utopia, but with the consequences a utopia would have. The idea that a person can regenerate to their younger physical self while maintaining everything else in their life is rich with possibilities, and I feel like Shusterman really did a good job of world building. From the Thunderhead to the small cultural things (like ‘splatting’, which sounds like the planking fad but with jumping off buildings because you can be rebuilt), he really made something that I wanted to explore to its limits.

I also really loved the characters. You have your veteran Scythes, Curie and Farraday, who both have their own approaches to ‘gleaming’, the process where they remove people from the population by killing them. Both Farraday and Curie end up as two of the mentors to our protagonists, Citra and Rowan, and their philosophies show that great care and reflection can be taken towards their jobs. An overarching theme in this is that people who are Scythes don’t want the job, and because they don’t want the job means they are the ones who should do the job. Both Farraday and Curie have these deep emotional moments surrounding that philosophy, and they were very likable and incredibly poignant. Between our protagonists I liked Citra more, but I think that’s because her arc was more about finding that balance between the job they must do, and how they can do it in the most thoughtful way possible. Rowan fell into a more used trope, as he is ultimately trained by a renegade Scythe named Goddard whose love for Scything is deeply disturbing, and his methods reflect that. I liked Rowan, I especially liked him with Citra, but where he ends up and where it looks like he’s going to go is less interesting because I feel like, as of now, we’ve seen it before.

I will say, though, that their relationship and their innate pull towards each other is going to make for a VERY interesting path in future books.

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Frankly, I’m hoping for a Veronica/JD from “Heathers” dynamic. (source)

Speaking of, I cannot wait for “Thunderhead” to come out. I’m so far down the list at the library, but oh MAN will it be worth it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I chose this book for bookclub even though I had already read (and reviewed) it. But that’s how much I enjoyed it! And it fit perfectly with my designated Dewey section which had a focus on medicine and technology. The whole story is about the effects that a perfected medical system, one that allows everyone to live forever, has on society. And for technology, we have the Thunderhead, the seemingly neutral AI that directs much of this world’s systems.

I won’t recap my entire previous review, but much of what I said then remained true in my appreciation of the book a second time. The sheer scope of creativity and attention to detail is what makes this world stand out as so fully realized and believable. Every minute aspect of society is touched by this one essential change. Without death, how would family life change? How would one approach day-to-day things like going to work or school? Would our friendships and marriages remain the same when the people we are befriending and marrying will now likely be around for centuries and “to death do us part” means a whole new thing?

Shusterman succeeds in one of the most challenging aspects of writing a dystopia/utopia storyline. Reading books like “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” it’s immediately clear to the reader that these worlds are terrible and it’s often confusing to see how they got to be where they ended up. How were people on board with that very first Hunger Games system where their children died? How did that overly complicated and nonsensically limited system of dividing people ever even get traction in “Divergent?” But here, it’s so easy to see how the world could end up in this place. Per Shusterman’s goal, the question can still be posed about whether this is a utopia OR a dystopia? Life seems pretty good for most of society and the steps that would move the world in that direction are easy enough to spot even today!

The second book has the rather ominous title of “Thunderhead,” so I’m excited to see where he is taking the series next. Will more of the curtain be pulled back and reveal a nasty underbelly to this seemingly well-ordered world? Is the Thunderhead truly a benevolent system? I’m excited to find out!

If you’d like to read my full, original review, here it is.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a creative and engrossing novel! I love the characters and the world that Shusterman created, and cannot wait to see what happens next.

Serena’s Rating 9: I loved it just as much reading it again six months later! So much so that I went ahead and pre-ordered the sequel that is coming out any day now.

Book Club Questions

  1. Shusterman set out with the goal to write a true utopia. Did he succeed? Would you want to live in this world? Are there aspects that appeal to you and others that seem particularly challenging?
  2. There are a lot of advances to medicine and technology presented in this book. Do any of them seem more plausible or likely to be invented? Any that are unbelievable?
  3. Between Citra and Rowan, were you more drawn to one or the other’s character and story? Which one and why?
  4. We are presented with several different approaches to performing the work of a Scythe. Did any particular approach stand out to you? What are you thoughts on the various method of culling that are used? Are any more or less ethical?
  5. The Thunderhead is presented as a benevolent AI and plays an unexpected role in this story. What did you make of it? Any predictions, given the next book is titled after it?
  6. If you were a Scythe, what name would you choose for yourself and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scythe” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fiction Books About Grief, Death and Loss” and “Grim Reaper Books.”

Find “Scythe” at your library using WorldCat

Next Book Club Pick: “Book of a Thousand Days” by Shannon Hale

Book Club Review: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”

30781490We 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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, March 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 400s (Language)

Book Description: Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? This account of how dictionaries are made is for you word mavens. 

Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises–for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.

Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.

Kate’s Thoughts

So it will surprise no one here that I love to read. What may surprise people is that even though I love reading and the words that ultimately come with it, I don’t have much interest in the history or said words. When this was picked for book club, I will totally own up to the fact that I basically groaned internally. I have a hard enough time with non fiction as it is (unless it’s narrative, memoir, or true crime), so I worried that this would be a terribly boring slog to get through. The good news is that I wasn’t totally correct in this. The bad news is, like the scorpion in that old folktale, it’s in my nature to have a hard time with this kind of book no matter how engaging it is.

But I’m going to focus mostly on the good since the bad isn’t any fault of Stamper’s. “Word By Word” was a well done, and at times quite funny, overview of what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster, and the intricacies that go into adding words to and defining words for a dictionary. I guess that until I read this book it never occurred to me that there would be questions and consistently changing definitions to words, or that sometimes it can take months to settle on a most representative definition. Stamper not only talks about what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster in this capacity, she also talks about how people like her have to take so many different variables into account just to function in the best way possible. For some, some of the most interesting concepts were focused on how society perceives dictionaries, and how they actually are supposed to function. Within this was the authority myth, in that if a word is defined one way in the dictionary, this is the bottom line because the dictionary said so. Stamper points out that this just isn’t the case; dictionaries are not supposed to be authorities on definitions, they are merely there to record and relay these definitions. Language is always changing, and therefore the meanings of words are changing too.

My reservations and hesitations about this book (aka why it was a slog) was going back to my nature: I am very picky about my non fiction. I merely want to reiterate that for my ultimate rating, because it was based on form, not substance. This book also gave our book club a LOT to talk about, which was really, really excellent. So while “Word By Word” wasn’t really my cup of tea, I can see it being very appealing to a lot of people who aren’t me.

Serena’s Thoughts

As evidenced by the content of this blog, neither Kate or I are big nonfiction readers. If anything, Kate is more of a nonfiction reader than I am, and as seen in her thoughts above, she’s still not that into it. At least she has true crime to back her up as not completely stuck in the “fiction only” section that I am. I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single nonficton book on this blog. I don’t say this out of pride or anything. I really wish I liked nonfiction more than I do. There are a few exceptions to this, but usually it’s when books are thrust upon me my trusted friends and family. So, while I would never have picked up this book on my own, I’m so glad that our fellow bookclub librarian, Katie, recommended it! I found myself very much enjoying it, and while it isn’t changing my mind on nonfiction as a whole, that’s too big of an ask for any book.

I’ll also confess that I didn’t read this book in the traditional front-to-back method, and I really think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed it more than I would have otherwise. Instead, I picked a chapter here and a chapter there, skipping forward and backward through the book based on my interests. For example, I started with the “irregardless” chapter, because, yes, that word and all the controversy around it does intrigue me! From there, I found myself in a chapter document acronyms and how rarely the much bandied explanations for words’ origins having to do with acronyms is true. We’ve all probably heard of some acronym for the “f” word, for example. The author does an excellent job exploring why acronyms are so rarely involved with a word’s definition.

As I read, I mostly found myself gather ammo for word-related conversations. As a librarian and book lover, these are the exact sorts of disagreements and discussions that I regularly find myself in, and I loved getting some more detailed background knowledge on my side going forward. As Kate said, for this reason, I’m sure, our bookclub probably had more to say with regards to this book than we’ve had for many other books recently. In this way, this book is an excellent choice for other bookclubs out there. Especially for those that have members who may not be totally bought into nonfiction. I recommend my reading strategy, specifically, for those folks. I think I had an easier time than Kate just because of this. By hopping around, picking it up to read a chapter here and a chapter there, I never had to confront the general dismay about the long slog ahead that results from starting in the beginning, especially starting with a non-enthralled position.

I also really think that had I not found my calling as a librarian that working on a dictionary like this like may have been another dream job. I had an assignment in a publishing class back in undergrad to create an index for a book, and similar to that, dictionary work seems appealing nit-picky and focused on organization. I also would have had a lot of fun writing snarky answers to the people who wrote in with complaints about the inclusion of the word “irregardless” in the dictionary. Really, could I just have that job? Answering dictionary-related complaint mail?

Kate’s Rating 6: An enlightening examination of how dictionaries are compiled and the role they play, as well as fascinating questions raised about language in modern society. It was a bit of a dry read for me at times, but overall a worthwhile one.

Serena’s Rating 8: I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this! There was a lot of history of words and details of dictionary work that I didn’t know, and by reading it one chapter at a time I was able to hold off my own non-fiction antipathy.

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you surprised about anything about this job? Would you want it?
  2. Grammar snobs: heroes or obnoxious?
  3. What do you think about the social justice implications of language/dialects?
  4. Does the history of words, or etymology, interest you? Why or why not?
  5. What words do you hope get added to future dictionaries?

Reader’s Advisory

“Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” is on the Goodreads lists “Microhistory: Social Histories of Just One Thing”, and “Best Non-Fiction Books About Books and Reading”.

Find “Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Book Club Review: “Every You, Every Me”

9972838We 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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Every You, Every Me” by David Levithan

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2011

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 700s (The Arts)

Book Description: In this high school-set psychological tale, a tormented teen named Evan starts to discover a series of unnerving photographs—some of which feature him. Someone is stalking him . . . messing with him . . . threatening him. Worse, ever since his best friend Ariel has been gone, he’s been unable to sleep, spending night after night torturing himself for his role in her absence. And as crazy as it sounds, Evan’s starting to believe it’s Ariel that’s behind all of this, punishing him. But the more Evan starts to unravel the mystery, the more his paranoia and insomnia amplify, and the more he starts to unravel himself. Creatively told with black-and-white photos interspersed between the text so the reader can see the photos that are so unnerving to Evan, Every You, Every Me is a one-of-a-kind departure from a one-of-a-kind author.

Kate’s Thoughts

“Every You, Every Me” was my choice for Book Club this time around, and it was my gut reaction when I got the 700s (aka The ARTS!) of the Dewey Call Numbers. I knew that this book was written by David Levithan, but that the photos that were interspersed throughout the book were taken by Jonathan Farmer and given to Levithan as he was writing the story. Levithan wouldn’t know what the next photo would be, and then would have to fit it into the narrative. The concept of this was a fascinating one to me, and I thought that the photos angle fit into the Dewey theme. I haven’t had a lot of luck with ‘concept’ novels such as these, as I was one of those folks who didn’t absolutely adore “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and decided to give a hard pass to the “Asylum” series. But my reasoning was that hey, it’s David Levithan.

That said, this wasn’t the thrilling mystery with appropriate and aching teen pathos that I had hoped it would be. There was a great idea here, and glimmers of that idea shined through from time to time, but all in all I felt that “Every You, Every Me” never quite evolved beyond a concept. Evan is our narrator, and he is telling this story through stream of consciousness diary entries and through the photos that he is receiving from an anonymous source. He is set up as an unreliable narrator from the jump, with parts of his diary entries crossed out (but not enough that the reader can’t read the redacted thoughts). It was a little heavy on the crossing out, but I felt that it was a fairly effective way of showing his personal struggles instead of him literally saying ‘I AM CONFLICTED ABOUT ALL OF THIS AND DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL OR WHAT ROLE I PLAYED’. Evan himself was both interesting and maddening. Maddening in that goodness gracious was he the epitome of emo teen angst kid, so much so that our book club joked about how much My Chemical Romance and Evanescence would be on his iPod.

Fun Fact, a playlist of his favorite songs was officially created by our book club member Anita. See the bottom of this post to access it.

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(source)

But along with Evan being so hopelessly angsty, he was also very fascinating as a character, mostly because I felt that Levithan did a VERY good job of portraying the mind of someone who has gone through a very upsetting trauma. No deep spoilers here, but what I will say is that Evan has lost his closest friend Ariel, and he thinks that it is all his fault. While Evan is the narrator and protagonist, this story is really about the mysterious Ariel; who she was, how she was, and where she has gone (which is the main mystery of this book). They have a deep and codependent friendship, and the more you learn about Ariel and how she treated Evan, the more, I think, you get to understand why he is so, so warped and moody in this whole thing. I definitely found Evan to be more sympathetic as time went on, but also stopped caring about what happened to Ariel and who is harassing Evan BECAUSE my opinions of Ariel changed so much. Which is a bit callous of me, within the context of the book, but the sheer manipulation within that relationship just made me uncomfortable and angry and uncaring towards her endgame.

The ending, though. Again, I don’t want to go into deep deep spoilers here, but it felt so tacked on and so clunky that it kind of threw the book off kilter for me. I know that it kind of harkens back to one of the bigger themes in this book (i.e. no one really knows every side of a person), but it almost felt a bit TOO unrealistic in how it all played out. I’m fine with a huge twist coming through, but I want at least SOME groundwork for that twist to be laid out.

So while I was kind of disappointed with “Every You, Every Me”, I did like the characterization that Levithan created for his main players. The concept is unique enough that I would say pick it up just to see how this neat writing exercise turned out, but don’t expect to be super blown away by it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have read a few David Levithan books before this one and have mostly enjoyed them. He is particularly strong at writing believably complex teenage protagonists who are not only relatable to teens themselves, but also to adult readers. Other than this knowledge of the author, all I knew about this book was a vague understanding of it being a concept book with the photographs being sent to him as he wrote the book. I, like Kate, have never particularly loved the concept books I’ve read in the past. Too often I feel that the author ends up relying on the images to depict much of the drama of their story, thus paying less attention to, or becoming simply lazy with, their own written descriptions. Powerful writing doesn’t need the support of photographs, and while they can serve as a nice backdrop, I don’t love the idea of a story becoming dependent on them.

For the most part, I think that Levithan walked a nice line with the art in this book. The photographs were interesting and he managed to (mostly) tie them in nicely with the overarching plot of the book. There’s a great theme of what it means to know someone that runs throughout the story, and this concept ties neatly with a conversation that seems to always swirl around the small glimpses of a person that are caught in specific photographs. I loved this idea, that like photographs, we’re only ever seeing small glimpses of an entire person. And that another person (another photograph) will see/capture an entirely different side of that individual. These themes were probably my favorite part of this book.

Other than this, I did struggle with the story. Evan is not the type of narrator that typically appeals to me. He’s conflicted and self-questioning to the point that his angst and confusion are more off-putting than sympathetic. I wanted to shake him at multiple times during the story, and frankly had a hard time taking him seriously. As we learn the truth behind his concerns, I could better understand his reasons for feeling the way he does. But that doesn’t wave away the execution of those feelings that presents him as a whiny, overly emotional teen boy who is hard to invest oneself in.

Further, I was not a fan of the crossing out text tool that was used so much in this book. Not only did it negatively play into the already annoyingly self-involved angst machine that was Evan, but at many points in the story the basic function of cross out text seemed to be misunderstood. In some ways, yes, it makes sense for a story like this with a semi-unreliable narrator like Evan to cross out some parts of the text and through these reconsidered aspects of his writing, get a better understanding of his thoughts and character. But at times, especially towards the end of the book, huge sections of the story were crossed out and the format was being used more to indicate a flashback than to highlight a questioned thought of Evan’s. I think the format read as a bit pretentious, and by the end of the story, I was so distracted by it and how it was being used that it was actively throwing me out of the story.

I also agree with Kate about the ending. Without spoiling anything, the explanation of the photographs seemed to come out of left field and a lot of hand waving and hoop jumping was done to explain portions of the mystery. It felt tacked on and unearned.

Lastly, as this entire mystery revolves around Ariel, we learn a lot about her and need to understand the role that she played to all of these friends, specifically Evan, who are all so distressed by her loss. And, like the character of Evan, I couldn’t really get behind the appeal of Ariel. At Book Club, we all had a bit too much fun coming up with all the crazy explanations for why all of these characters seemed so obsessed with Ariel. None of our explanations were favorable to her.

Ultimately, I think this book touched on some very important themes, specifically those having to do with the fact that people are made up of multitudes and that no one person can ever fully know another. But the execution was shoddy with the crossed out text, and Ariel and Evan were pretty unlikable all around. Add to that the fact that this isn’t a favorite genre of mine (no fault of the book’s), and I didn’t end up loving this one. Alas, they can’t all be winners!

Kate’s Rating 6: A fascinating premise with some interesting things to say about trauma and loss, but ultimately a bit underwhelming. Add in a clunky solution and you have an okay book, when it could have been a great one.

Serena’s Rating 5: Good themes were bogged down by the restrictions of the concept art, an angst-fest leading character, and a dud of an ending.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the device of the photographs that was used in this book? Did you feel that Levithan did a good job of incorporating the random photos he received into this story? Do you think this story needed the photos to feel fully realized?
  2. Evan is our protagonist, and his relationship with Ariel is the crux of this book. What did you think of him as a narrator? How did you feel about him at the end vs at the beginning?
  3. One of the big mysteries of this book is where Ariel is and what happened to her. Were you invested in this mystery, and invested in Ariel as a character?
  4. Another theme of this book is that people tend to have different sides of them that they present to different people. Could you relate to this concept? Do you have different sides of yourself that different people see?
  5. SPOILERS: Let’s talk about the ending. What did you think of the reveal of Dawn, Ariel’s secret best friend that Evan and Jack didn’t know about, being the one sending the photos?
  6. This is what one might call a concept novel, using photos to drive and tell a story as they are presented. What are your opinions on this kind of book (similar to Miss Peregrine, or Asylum, etc)? Did EVERY YOU EVERY ME confirm those feelings, or buck them (in whichever way that may be)?

Reader’s Advisory

“Every You, Every Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Involving Mental Health Issues (2000s-Present)”, and “YA Books With Pictures”.

Find “Every You, Every Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

And now…. the aforementioned playlist! Thanks to Katie, Alicia, and Anita who helped compile the list, and to Anita for putting it together!

 

Book Club Review: “Eliza and Her Monsters”

31931941We 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 a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Eliza and Her Monsters” by Francesca Zappia

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 800s (Literature, Writing)

Book Description: Her story is a phenomenon. Her life is a disaster.

In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, she’s LadyConstellation, the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves the online one, and she has no desire to try.

Then Wallace Warland, Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer, transfers to her school. Wallace thinks Eliza is just another fan, and as he draws her out of her shell, she begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile.

But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart. 

Kate’s Thoughts

My high school years were during the time before social media really became a huge thing. My parents had Internet, but it was a dial up connection that we could only use if we weren’t expecting or planning to make any pertinent phone calls. And honestly, I’m so relieved that the Internet wasn’t the big social zone that it is now, for regular people as well as celebrities. I think that teenage Kate would have both loved living a lot of her life online, but I also think that it would have been isolating in its own way (and given that I was bullied a fair amount, it probably would have opened up a huge target on my back from my peers). And that is where “Eliza and Her Monsters” comes in. As a teenager who suffered from social anxiety and depression, I saw a bit of me in Eliza, our main character who has found the online world to be more comforting than the real world. And as someone who has written some fanfiction in her life (and was a vaguely well known author in a niche fandom at one point, though I’m not telling which), the ups and downs of online artistry also spoke to me. But the core of Eliza herself, and how she interacted with those around her, didn’t do as much for me as one might think that it would.

But I want to start with what I liked here. I thought that Eliza’s social anxieties were pretty spot on in terms of characterization. Without really outwardly saying that she was suffering from it, you get a slow and well painted picture of what Eliza’s insecurities are like, how they hinder her, and how she tries to cope with them. It was refreshing to see this character portrayed in a realistic and honest way, and that while it was understandable that she would act in various ways, she wasn’t totally let off the hook when she was being a jerk to those around her. I also really liked that this book brings up the philosophical question of ‘what do artists owe their fans?’. Sure, this is something that has been going on for a long time, but with the advent of social media, now fans can not only interact with each other, but they now have the opportunity to address and interact with their favorite creators in a more direct way. And while this is great in lots of ways, in other ways, sometimes lines are crossed and fan entitlement gets a bit out of hand. From the “Song of Ice and Fire” fandom to the “Harry Potter” fandom to the wonderful world of comics across the board, sometimes healthy and relevant critiques of topics turn into “YOU OWE US THIS.” This book allows us to see that from the creator’s POV through Eliza and one of her favorite authors, and it’s a great way to raise these questions and get the reader to think about them.

But there were other things about this book that frustrated me. Mainly, I didn’t really care for Eliza, as relatable and realistic as she was. I think that seeing it from the perspective of an adult who had to tramp through that swamp of teen angst and came out on the other side, a lot of me was saying “goddammit, suck it up.” Teen Kate would have TOTALLY loved Eliza though, and given that this is, ultimately, written with teens in mind, I think that she probably works well. I also was a bit frustrated with her relationship with Wallace, if only because I felt like there were some things that she did that were SO manipulative and she never really was taken to task for it. I didn’t really like what it said about acceptable things in teen relationships.

Overall, I liked how “Eliza and Her Monsters” approached fandom, artistry, and teenage mental illness. I wish that I had liked the protagonist more, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Serena’s Thoughts

As Kate has lain out so nicely, my evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of this book is pretty similar. I don’t have the personal experience of existing as a creator on an online platform, but I follow various fandoms online fairly avidly and have witnessed first hand the strength in community that these groups can bring, as well as the viscous cycle of entitlement and possession that can also be on display at times. In these ways, I think this book is very much speaking to an ongoing struggle in today’s teens’ lives that I, like Kate, never had to deal with.

Like Kate, I was never part of the popular crowd in highschool. I wasn’t the most bullied either, and instead existed somewhere in the probably lucky “no one cares” zone of being unnoticed. I also had no other “version” of life or a representation of my life that I had to maintain, like today’s teens who must carefully navigate and manage not only their day-to-day activities, but also the version of themselves that exists online. Eliza, uncomfortable and shy in real life, has found a niche for herself online. But no social sphere comes without its own strings.

I very much enjoyed the exploration of creativity on an online platform. Eliza is both safely at a distance from those who interact with her online (one of the appeals of her online persona), but is also exposed and at the mercy of those same fans. No longer do fans need to write a letter and mail it in to an author who may or may not even look at their fan mail. Creators online are exposed across so many formats to the visceral reactions of the same fans whose admiration and appreciation they are hoping to garner. I think one of the best representations of the push/pull relationship of this kind is Bo Burnham’s raw, and almost tragic, song “Can’t Handle This.”

But, in general, I read books for the characters, so as much as I loved the themes that were tackled in this story, I had a similar hang up with Eliza as Kate did. I think Kate hit it on the nose when she mentioned the fact that she and I are reading this having come out on the other side of that hellish tunnel called “highschool.” Many years (yikes!) distanced from these same struggles, they begin to lose their edge. This is good, but it also presents a reality check when reading books like these. I don’t want to dismiss these problems as “just highschool stuff, get ready for REAL life, kids!” But…I’m still a 30 something woman reading this and that’s what I felt. So with that perspective, maybe there’s nothing wrong with this character for highschoolers themselves, and it’s probably touching on many relatable challenges. But there are many YA stories out there that present the challenges of their young protagonists in ways that are more approachable and sympathetic to their adult readers as well than this one did, which is a legitimate mark against it.

Kate’s Rating 7: This book brings up a lot of good questions about artistry and creativity, the relationship artists have with their fans, and mental illness, but I was put off by Eliza, as relatable as she could be at times.

Serena’s Rating 6: Many great themes are discussed, but the protagonist wasn’t as widely relatable as she could be to readers beyond highschool themselves. And as a reader who goes in mostly for characters, this put a pretty big dent in my enjoyment of the book.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of Eliza as a main character? Did you find her to be relatable and/or likable?
  2. Have you ever had a friend you met online, or know solely from online interaction? What do you think about the claim that online friends aren’t ‘real’ friends?
  3. Eliza has a complex relationship with the fans of her work. What do you think an artist owes their fans when it comes to content production, or characterization? Do they owe their fans anything?
  4. Eliza has a contentious relationship with her parents. What did you think of how they all interacted with each other? What could they have done differently?
  5. Have you ever followed an online work that is posted occasionally like “Monstrous Sea”? What was it? Is it still going on? If not, how did it end?

Reader’s Advisory

“Eliza and Her Monsters” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Fiction Featuring Fangirls, Fanboys, or General Fandom”, and “YA Nerd/Geek Books”.

Find “Eliza and Her Monsters” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Every You, Every Me” by David Levithan

Book Club Review: “The Inquisitor’s Tale”

29358517We 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 a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

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

Book: “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog” by Adam Gidwitz, Hatem Aly (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Beloved bestselling author Adam Gidwitz makes his long awaited return with his first new world since his hilarious and critically acclaimed Grimm series. Featuring manuscript illuminations throughout by illustrator Hatem Aly and filled with Adam’s trademark style and humor, The Inquisitor’s Tale is bold storytelling that’s richly researched and adventure-packed.

Beautifully illustrated throughout! Includes a detailed historical note and bibliography.

Kate’s Thoughts

Guess who has never read “The Canterbury Tales”? Me! Guess who isn’t really into Medieval Fiction? Also me! And guess who knows little to nothing about religion and the philosophy of it beyond the most basic tenants of Judaism and United Church of Christ Christianity? This girl! So I feel like all of these factors combine (as well as some spates of bathroom humor, one of the few types of humor that doesn’t especially appeal to me) to make “The Inquisitor’s Tale” a book that isn’t written for me. So yes, while I understand the praise for this book and the appeal of it, and understand why it works so well as a children’s book and does so much more than other children’s books, I never really got into it myself.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t anything I liked about it. I liked that it asked some pretty deep philosophical questions that you usually don’t see in children’s literature. I feel like Gidwitz doesn’t patronize to his audience, and that he knows that these are hard questions to wrap minds around regardless of what age you are. What makes a Saint? How can some people say that they hold certain values and beliefs, and not realize that they are perpetuating cruelty towards others, especially those that they claim to care about? What are ways that stories can be told and passed on, and how can these stories be changed based on the storyteller? I also liked that Gidwitz had three very different protagonists to show different walks of life and different experiences that would have been common during this time period. You have Jeanne, the peasant girl who can see parts of the future, who has to function in a society where women and peasants hold no value. You have William, a boy raised to be a monk who is both of African and Muslim descent, and stands out among those around him. And there’s Jacob, a Jewish boy in a France where King Louis persecutes the Jews as heretics. Seeing all these kids come together (along with Jeanne’s resurrected dog Gwenforte) and try to understand each other is a great message.

I also had a very hard time reading about the anti-Semitism in this book, be it villages being burnt to the ground, Jews being humiliated and threatened with violence, and Talmuds being burnt. I know that it was the reality of the time period, but for whatever reason I really struggled with it and had to set the book down a number of times and calm down before I could continue reading. I appreciate that Gidwitz was being honest about this time period, of course, and I really liked the extensive historical notes that he put in the back of the book, and yet I wasn’t really on board for the ‘Louis was a complex person who thought he was doing what was right, no matter how wrong it was’ stuff. Because at the end of the day, no matter how noble Louis thought he was being, it WAS wrong. And I have less and less time for those kinds of explanations these days.

My personal issues with this book shouldn’t necessarily reflect this book. It just wasn’t for me, but I definitely see how it would be an appealing read for other people.

Serena’s Thoughts

From the other side of the spectrum, I have read “The Canterbury Tales!” I am into Medieval fiction (at least as far as the fact that much fantasy is set in some type of medieval-like world)! And I was raised Lutheran, so at least the Christian theological philosophy was fairly familiar to me! So I think Kate is right, there are some factors going in that if you have as a reader you’re perhaps more likely to immediately engage with the book. However, massive caveat in this whole theory is that this is a middle school children’s book and let’s be real, how many kids have read “Canterbury Tales” or have a strong understanding of religious philosophy??

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Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (source)

So, while I did enjoy the story more than Kate did, I do have to agree with her on a few of the downsides of the book. Most notably the potty humor and, for me, the suspension of disbelief in a few parts.

But first the pros! Since by an large I did very much enjoy this book. I won’t repeat what Kate said about the great diversity of the cast, except for one extra note. I really appreciated the close up look at exclusion/inclusion that the narrator took with these three children. Yes, they are all in this together. And yes, they are all friends. But at various points throughout the book, even with the friendships that have formed from their shared experiences, they each have to confront the sense of “otherness” that comes from their own unique walk of life. For William,  he’s a black boy with two white children. For Jeanne, she’s a girl with two boys. For Jacob, he’s a Jewish boy with two Christian children. I loved the various triangles that were made up and the constant shift that was in play from situation to situation with each of their “ins” or “outs” becoming a strength or something that made them stand out as different. I felt that this was a really important message for a book like this: privilege comes in all shapes and forms and at any given moment any single person can be on the in or the out, so we must all be aware and kind.

I’ll also throw in a few good words for the illustrations! I loved the metacommentary of the way the book was illustrated, mimicking the images that monks would draw into the margins of their transcribing work. Some would align with the action of the story while others were intentionally obtuse (a fact that is noted in the beginning of the story, that the illustrator would draw what came to him, with some images existing without connection to the story or explanation).

The ties to “The Canterbury Tales” were also fun, with the story being told by various narrators. I loved the way this element of the book came to life towards the last third, drawing these outside forces into the story itself. There were a few very clever twists with this that I don’t want to spoil! That said, as I mentioned above, I doubt any kid reading this will have read “The Canterbury Tales” and I don’t think there is anything missing for it. It’s more just a fun plug for those English nerds out there who have plowed through that thing and all of its incomprehensible Old English.

But I also agree with a few of the down points that Kate mentioned, notably the potty humor. This is purely a personal preference thing, as I know many kids (and adults!) love this type of humor. But there was one side plot that really lost me as it focused almost entirely on these types of jokes. Secondly, there were a few points in the story where my suspension of disbelief was called into question. We’re dealing with magical children, so for the most part I was ready to just go with this. But there were a few scenes, notably a fight scene where William beats up a bunch of bandits with a donkey leg, that pushed me out of the story a bit wondering how much of the “real world” this story was supposed to be set in.

Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this book. It is a tough read in parts like Kate mentioned. Serious issues are tackled and the persecution and tragedy of the time period weren’t glossed over. I appreciated this fact, but it does make for some sad happenings. But ultimately I would recommend this book to middle schoolers and adults. It’s one of those rare children’s books that can equally appeal to adults.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong middle school story set in a unique time period with a lot to say about history, religion, and inclusiveness.

Kate’s Rating 6: I see the value and I understand the praise, but I had a harder time with this book than I would have liked.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is told from multiple perspectives when a group of people gather in a pub to recall the story of the three kids. Did you have a favorite perspective voice?
  2. The illustrations in this book are similar to that of illuminated texts that are seen throughout history in religious works. Have you ever encountered this kind of illustration before? What did you think of the illustrations?
  3. King Louis IX was an actual person in history, as was his mother Blanche, as were other people mentioned in this book. What did you think of using real people in this fictional story?
  4. Each of the main characters comes from a different walk of life, has their own set of challenges to overcome, and their own magical powers. Did one of these characters stand out more to you? Why?
  5. This story tackles a lot of big questions about religion and diversity. Did any of these points stand out to you as particularly strong? Could any have been improved upon or weren’t fully realized?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Inquisitor’s Tale” is included on the Goodreads lists “Newbery Medal Honor Books”, and “Bravewriter Boomerangs”.

Find “The Inquisitor’s Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making”.