Book Club Review: “Sailor Moon Eternal Edition (Vols 1 and 2)”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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

Book: “Sailor Moon Eternal Edition (Vols 1 & 2)” by Naoko Takeuchi

Publishing Info: Kodansha Comics, September 2018/November 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: I own them.

Genre/Format: Manga

Book Description: The guardians in sailor suits return in this definitive edition of the greatest magical girl manga of all time! Featuring an extra-large size, premium paper, and an all-new translation and cover illustrations by creator Naoko Takeuchi!

Teenager Usagi is not the best athlete, she’s never gotten good grades, and, well, she’s a bit of a crybaby. But when she meets a talking cat, she begins a journey that will teach her she has a well of great strength just beneath the surface and the heart to inspire and stand up for her friends as Sailor Moon! Experience the Sailor Moon manga as never before in these extra-long editions.

Kate’s Thoughts

Though I have read some manga here and there and have watched a fair number of anime series (I actually just started watching “Death Note” for the first time, and I’m DIGGING it!), I never go into “Sailor Moon”. I had friends in high school who liked it, but by the time I did get into anime and ‘Magical girl’ stories, I pretty much just went with “Princess Tutu” and left it at that. So when our new Book Club session started up and one of our members wanted to read the first two books in “Sailor Moon”, I figured that now was as good a time as any to read one of the most influential Magical Girl mangas.

I think that had I been in a very specific time frame when reading “Sailor Moon” for the first time (perhaps after grade school but before I entered my ‘I’m not like other girls and too cool for girly shit’ punk and Goth phase in high school) I would have probably appreciated it more than reading it now. That isn’t to say that I don’t get why “Sailor Moon” is such a phenomenon. I liked the mythology of the Sailor Scouts, and I liked how we slowly got to meet each one and the different things that they all bring to the table. I also can tell that there is a LOT of mythology we haven’t even gotten to yet, and that as Usagi and her friends/teammates go forward there will be a lot more to learn regarding their identities, how Tuxedo Mask (the mysterious love interest) fits into it all, and how Usagi will balance this with her normal life as a teenage girl. In the first volume there is a lot of this kind of set up, while the second volume there is more solid adventuring and conflict that escalates. It was also pretty neat to see that things weren’t afraid to get dark as the plot arcs went on in Volume 2, and there were some pretty high stakes involved for Usagi and the others, as well as some legitimate peril to wrangle with. But at the end of the day Usagi herself was hard to connect with because there is a lot of effort to make her super imperfect to contrast with the amazing Sailor Moon alter ego that she has inside of her. But at the end of the day, these stories are not written for me as the intended audience, and because of that this is definitely a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation, as I DEFINITELY get the appeal in theory. Just not in my own practice.

I now feel like I have a better understanding of a story that has a very firm and well earned place in pop culture. It may not be for me, but I love that it is a story for teenage, fantasy loving girls who want their own kind of power fantasy. My hat does off to that and to them.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unlike Kate, I did read a lot of magical girl fantasy right around when this was coming out. But, unlike Kate in general, I’ve never really gotten into reading Manga or graphic novels much at all. As an adult, I’ve discovered more graphic novels that I enjoy, but it’s still not a go-to type of reading for me, even within my preferred genres. And as a middle school girl, I think I just associated any/all graphic novels with comic books and filed them away under “boring boy stuff.” I went on to have a complicated relationship with “Sailor Moon” in high school due to my on again off again boyfriend’s love of the series and my suspicion that he only wanted to date me initially based on my name being the same as the Americanized version of the main character’s. I was pleased to find that on reading the series now the main character’s name has been reverted back to the original, thus reducing my flashbacks to teenage years and highschool love letters between Serena and “Tuxedo Mask” (yes, he would sign off like that!)

With that little jaunt down memory lane out of the way, I had a lot of similar impressions to Kate. I can definitely see the appeal of this story and understand how it came to have such a far-reaching fanbase. The characters are all intriguing, the magic is fun, and the story is willing to engage with some darker themes. It also has much of the drama and awkwardness that teenagers enjoy, with Sailor Moon’s teenage identity providing a stark contrast to her magical girl persona.

Like Kate said, the second volume had more to work with after the first one spent much of its time laying down the foundation for the series. But even in the second one, it was clear that the story was just scratching the surface of all the stories it wanted to tell with these characters. I was pleased to see it go a bit deeper than the first volume did.

Overall, this also wasn’t really my thing. But I think that’s probably mostly due to my age and my generally picky approach to graphic novels and Manga. I picked up a “Pride and Prejudice” Manga at ALA a few years ago, and even that wasn’t really my jam. So this one had a steep hill to climb. But I definitely see the appeal for fans of the format and fantasy lovers in general, especially teenagers.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely ground breaking and assuredly appealing to magical girl fantasy fans, but not really my cup of tea at the end of the day.

Serena’s Rating 6: Approachable and fun for those who fit its audience type; unfortunately that wasn’t me.

Book Club Questions

  1. Have you read any manga before this? If so, what manga have you read and how does it compare to “Sailor Moon”? If not, what did you think of this first foray into the format?
  2. What did you think of the structure of the story as a stream of consciousness path that Usagi is taking? Did you like learning things as she did, or do you wish there had been a more organic way to explore the mythology?
  3. Did any of the Sailor Scouts appeal to you more than the others? If so, who, and why do you think that is?
  4. What did you think of the relationship between Sailor Moon/Usagi and Tuxedo Mask?
  5. Which elements, if any, of the ‘magical girl’ genre did you find most appealing?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sailor Moon Eternal Edition” Vols 1 and 2 (in other formats) are included on the Goodreads lists “Magical Girl Manga”, and “Fandom Origins”.

Find “Sailor Moon Eternal Edition” Vols 1 and 2 at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

Book Club Review: “I Will Always Write Back”

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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Continent: Africa

Book Description: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it.
Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one
.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Well when we started our “Around the World” Series for Book Club, we thought that it would outlast quarantine and that it would be a fun way to pass that time. The reality is that we’re in an even worse place than we were back when we started once this session ended. But even if we have more COVID times ahead of us where we have to meet virtually, I’m glad that we did our “Around the World” cycle, as we got to read books that I may not have read otherwise. Our last book was “I Will Always Write Back”, a dual memoir by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, two pen pals whose friendship became so much more.

I went into this book with a very rudimentary knowledge of Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s regime, and with the unease that we may have been starting a ‘white savior’ narrative. But “I Will Always Write Back”, I think, did a good job of walking that line without crossing it, and I think that the main reason for that is because we got both Caitlin’s perspective, that of a teenage white American living in a comfortable economic situation, and Martin’s, who is a Black Zimbabwean who was living in abject poverty. Getting to hear Martin’s side of the story in his own words and getting his perspectives and experiences really helped keep it away from centering Caitlin’s journey in the narrative, which was good. Martin’s chapters were the ones that I most looked forward to, as while Caitlin was relatable (we are the same age, so I was doing and experiencing similar teenage America girl things that she was in this book), I wasn’t as interested in her story. I think that there could have been a little more introspection on her part at times, but then again, she was a teenager and young adult through the crux of it, so maybe throwing that in would have felt out of place. Luckily Martin’s sections gave the reader a lot to think about, and I feel like I got more from this story from him.

I was interested in seeing their friendship grow and change, however, and liked seeing the two of them interact with each other. You can feel the love and care they have for each other within this books pages, and seeing the two of them have each other’s backs was absolutely uplifting. Given that any pen pal situation that I had in grade school completely floundered, the fact that they kept this friendship going and changed each other’s lives so much is a lovely story in and of itself. This is the kind of book that I would recommend to teens who are wanting to start looking at cross cultural themes and issues, as I think it’s a good introduction to the idea of reaching out to others who may not have the exact same life as you, but could have very similar goals and dreams that you have.

Kate’s Rating 7: An undeniably uplifting memoir about friendship and cross cultural connection, “I Will Always Write Back” has heart and earnestness, though not as much introspection as I was hoping for.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were some of your reactions to the comparisons and contrasts when it came to the lives that Caitlin and Martin were living when they started their correspondence?
  2. Were you knowledgable about the history and the cultural and societal situation of Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule?
  3. Do you think that teenagers today would relate to the teenage voices of the people in this book who were teens twenty years ago?
  4. As the book goes on, we learn that Caitlin and her family help Martin out in many ways. How do you think this changed and affected their friendship?
  5. Recently there has been criticism of publishers elevating and publishing ‘white savior’ narratives in books and the publishing industry. Do you think that “I Will Always Write Back” could be considered a white savior narrative? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“I Will Always Write Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Must Read Memoirs”, and “Southern Africa”.

Find “I Will Always Write Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition Vols. 1 &2

Book Club Review: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it at the library!

Continent: Europe

Book Description: At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.

But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m currently in the last few months of the “My Year with Jane Austen” review series, so when I drew Europe for the continent choice, my mind was naturally in a Regency-era place. (Not to mention, Europe is the kind of choice that’s almost too wide-open with possibilities!) I had been gifted this book several years ago, but for whatever reason, hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I think I just never really spent the time figuring out what it was about. But I was pleased to find that it perfectly matched what I was looking for in a bookclub choice this go around: historical fiction, plus fantasy, plus a diverse cast, plus a plot that tackles social commentary in a time period that is often very white and very gender-role specific.

There was a lot to like about this book for me. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed this type of mannered, historical writing style that seems to relish the use of long sentences and overly proper grammar. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely my cup of tea. It’s also a tricky style of writing to master and can often read as unnatural with strange breaks or anachronisms thrown in that break the entire thing up. Sherry Thomas comes to mind as a current author who has really nailed this style of writing. So I was super excited to see that Zen Cho could hold her own in this respect. The writing was confident, clever, and perfectly fit the type of story she was trying to tell.

I also really liked our main two characters, Zacharias and Prunella. Each are struggling against the prejudices and restrictions that are being placed on them for being who they are. Zacharias is a freed slave who has been raised up in magic as a prodigy of the previous Sorcerer to the Crown. His entire life has been made up of being an example for an entire continent’s worth of people. Along with that comes the awkward balance of his love for his teacher and father figure and the struggle that the previous Sorcerer to the Crown, for all his reforming ways, was still never fully able to comprehend Zacharias’s position and life experience. It perfectly illustrated the kind of passive racism that we all must work against.

As for Prunella, she’s not only a half-Indian young woman, but she’s been orphaned and raised in a girls’ school. In the version of Regency England, magic in women is so feared and distrusted that entire schools are devoted to teaching young women how to repress their abilities, sometimes at great risk to their own health. A strong magic user herself, Prunella has always struggled against the limitations of the life being set out before her. I really loved this character. She was bold, self-assured, and not willing to be held back by the preconceptions of those around her. And it wasn’t just the obvious ones, like women shouldn’t do magic. She also sees the practical side of being a woman of the times and argues with Zacharias about the economy of the marriage business for women, even magical women.

So, yep, I really liked this book. It was definitely the kind of thing that fit in my general reading preferences, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much it engaged with several topics. There’s a sequel out it seems, so I’ll be adding that to my TBR list.

Kate’s Thoughts

While my reaction towards fantasy novels of the YA persuasion is usually skepticism, followed by ‘eh’, the big ol’ dragon on the cover of “Sorcerer to the Crown” was enough to get me on board. And while dragons didn’t play a large role in the story, I was still tickled and happy by a few aspects of this book, even if the genre had me a little nervous.

As Serena mentioned, I thought that Cho was really wise in taking a genre and a setting that can sometimes fall into being very white and giving voice to two non-white characters who function in a society that is constantly Other-ing them. Zacharias especially had a lot of moments of inner conflict regarding his place as Socerer Royal, and while I was worried that his relationship with Sir Stephen would be a strange paternalistic one that negates the clear power dynamic, Cho isn’t afraid to point out that while Zacharias was taken from slavery, Sir Stephen left his parents behind and took their son away from them. While it isn’t a focal point to the tale, this moment was hit home as the travesty and violence that it was. And we also had moments of people commenting on Prunella’s parentage, with reflections of English colonialism towards India and the people who lived there before imperialism took hold.

Also, Prunella. I really loved Prunella. For one, if you give me a book about witches, I will immediately have an affection for it, and while this witch aspect wasn’t the usual kind that I find myself reading, Prunella was a hoot. She, too, has societal roadblocks due to her being biracial AND a woman, and seeing her fight against that and stay true to herself was quite satisfying. I also loved the chemistry between her and Zacharias, and it did feel a lot like reading an Austen romance at times, especially when they would bicker. Serena also brought up the writing style, which was such a breath of fresh air! I was thinking back to “The Parasol Protectorate” series in terms of the tongue in cheek wit and stylization, which I also enjoy quite a bit.

At the end of the day, it did feel a little long for me and weighed down by the fantasy aspects (witches or not), and I probably won’t go on in the series. But, all of that said, I did find “Sorcerer to the Crown” to be engaging and outside the box of my experiences with the genre, and had a fun time reading it!

Serena’s Rating 8: A great balance of strong writing, enjoyable characters, and a plot that explores social justice topics in a fantasy setting.

Kate’s Rating 7: An entertaining and charming fantasy tale with likable characters and some good comments on race, class, and gender.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is written in the style of a Regency era novel (like a Jane Austen book, for example). How do you think the style or writing impacted the story? What did it add to the story? Or take away?
  2. Both Zacharias and Prunella face challenges based on their race and gender. How well do you think the story engaged with these topics?
  3. How did you feel about the way that this book dealt with the topic of slavery, particularly through Zacharias’s experiences with his mentor and father figure?
  4. This is a fantasy novel as well as a historical fiction story. What did you think about the magical elements and the way they were fitted into the traditional Regency story?
  5. Prunella and Zacharias must both make some tough choices near the end of the story. How did you like the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sorcerer to the Crown” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.

Find “Sorcerer to the Crown” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives”

Book Club Review: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext”

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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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 BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez (Ed.), José Olivarez (Ed.), and Willie Perdomo (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Haymarket Books, April 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Continent: North America

Book Description: In the dynamic tradition of the BreakBeat Poets anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT celebrates the embodied narratives of Latinidad. Poets speak from an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space. Like Hip-Hop, we honor what was, what is, and what’s next.

Kate’s Thoughts

So in the song “The Great Imposter”, there is the (much condensed down and cherry picked) line ‘Poetry, so sweet…..’. And reader, I do not feel this way towards poetry. There are a few flickers of poetry that I’ve enjoyed over the years. I love me some Poe, and Dickinson, and the poem “The Second Coming” by Yeats, as well as the occasional book in verse (Jason Reynolds in particular is a favorite of mine). But as a rule it’s really not my cup of tea. So when book club decided to do poetry with “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext”, I was hesitant. I also, however, like to be game for whatever my dear friends may pick so I got it and dove in. I’m happy to report that I did not hate it, not even a little bit. This may sound like a back handed compliment, but I assure you, it’s not.

There were actually a number of poems from this collection that I greatly enjoyed. If you look at the commonalities between the various poems and poets that I cited above, if you give me something dark, I will probably be more into it, so the poems that really struck a chord with me in this book were those that addressed hard topics, like death, sadness, and despair. I wholeheartedly admit that the optics of that are not very good within the context of this collection, but at least I can say that that’s generally what’s going to get me on board with poetry. All that said, I really liked the mission of this collection, highlighting Latinx voices within the American and Latinidad experiences. These range from the political to the tongue in cheek to the joyful to the sorrowful, and I think that it does a great job of introducing new ideas of what poetry is and what it can be for different people.

But, at the end of the day, it’s still poetry. Serena will expand on this a bit more, but I do think that it went on a bit long. This may be because the way that it was sectioned, as the darker things were all at the front of the collection as opposed to spaced out. I didn’t mind the structure, as I like things being themed and categorized, but for someone like me who has ideas as to what kind of poetry she does and doesn’t like, it made me skim more and more the further along we got. I can’t really say if this is a failing in the poets, as they probably weren’t going to resonate with me because it’s poetry, but I do think that it suffered from some bloat. I totally get why bloat would happen here, wanting to give voice and representation to so many different possibilities. But it’s still a bit bloated.

All in all, there were some things here that I really liked. I don’t think that I will look into more of the collections that The BreakBeat Poets have done, but if you do like the genre, check it out. It may resonate more with you than it did with me.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back in college, oh so long ago, it was a close call when choosing majors between English Literature or English Writing (yes, there are multiple options for important topics like English!). The main case for the English Writing route was my love for the poetry classes and professors. I ended up going the Literature route, but was one of those “loves school a bit too much” dummies who still signed up to take the Capstone course for both routes. You know, why not take the highest level course for a education route you’re not even majoring in?? Anyways, long story short, I took that class because I loved reading and writing poetry that much. All of this to say, I’m a bit of a poetry snob, and it’s not really something I’m proud of, but there it is.

With that background, I often find reading poetry for fun rather challenging. I really, really enjoy great poetry, but I’m also extremely picky about what I think constitutes great poetry. For me, it’s the culmination of topics, language choice, and some simple beauty that is hard to describe but comes across like a great painting in that you know it but have a hard time saying why it’s great. After reading this book, I’d say there were a good handful of poems that really worked for me with these criteria. But there were also a good number that didn’t.

The challenge of this collection is both its strength and what I think ultimately got in the way of its being truly great. It’s so important to highlight diverse poetry and poets, and there’s a wealth of history, stories, and experiences that the Latinx community brings to the table. Some of my favorite poems spoke to some of the expected topics like immigration challenges as well as some of the smaller experiences that we might not immediately think of, like how the continued mispronunciation of one’s name can impact one’s life.

The other side of this coin, however, is that there is JUST SO MUCH to cover. Latinx covers a huge swath of cultures and countries, some speaking to their experiences in their native lands, others speaking to their experiences as Americans with Latinx heritage. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s pretty clear that the editors were overwhelmed by trying to cover all their bases. It’s an impossible task to start out with, and one that I think ultimately bogged down this collection. There were a number of poems that just didn’t work for me. They weren’t bad, per se, but I also felt that they weren’t as powerful as some of the others. And in a collection that begins to feel bloated at around the 50% marker, weaker poems do more damage in hiding the truly good ones than any value they add on their own.

That said, I still really like the general approach of these poetry collections and am curious to look into the ones that came before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: A unique and at times quite powerful collection of voices not seen as much in poetry. But it’s still poetry, nonetheless, and therefore not really my jam.

Serena’s Rating 6: Some really great poems highlighting lesser known experiences and topics were at times hidden in a collection that was a bit over-sized.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the section structure of this collection?
  2. Did you have a favorite poem? What about it stood out to you?
  3. What topics did you feel were well addressed in this collection, and what topics did you want to have more focus?
  4. How did this poetry collection compare to other collections you have read in the past?
  5. What do you think the next BreakBeats Poetry Collection will be?

Reader’s Advisory

“The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Poetry Books By Authors of Color”, and “Stephen’s Multicultural and Anti-Racist Reading List”.

Find “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

Book Club Review: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings”

35430013._sx318_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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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 Thousand Beginnings and Endings” by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Eds.)

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Continent: Asia

Book Description: Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Sixteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman—who both contributed stories to this edition, as well—the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read the short story collections “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” back when it first came out in 2018, and for being a short story collection I greatly enjoyed it! I felt like there was a hearty mix of genres and perspectives in its pages, and was more satisfied than not with the tales that were derived from various Asian folklores and mythologies. When our Book Club picked it, I was eager to re-read the stories, but didn’t expect to feel any differently. But what I discovered as I re-read the book was that my own perspectives changed, and my old favorites either had new depth, or completely shifted out in favor of new ones.

The two stories that remained favorites for me were “Olivia’s Table” by Alyssa Wong and “The Land of the Morning Calm” by E.C. Myers. “Olivia’s Table” is about a young woman who has inherited her mother’s job of ‘exorcist’ for a small ghosttown in the Southwest, in which actual ghosts of the area congregate during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Olivia makes them a feast that helps them cross over. “The Land of the Morning Calm” is about a teen whose mother’s ghost is seemingly trapped inside an MMORPG based upon Korean folklore. I mean, of course stories about ghosts are always going to float my boat, so it’s probably no surprise that those were still near and dear. But both of them had some very touching themes about mother/daughter relationships, grief, and moving on which were incredibly touching and emotional. But as mentioned above, this time around I had stories move up in my rankings upon a second read. The best example of this was Julie Kagawa’s “Eyes Like Candlelight”, which takes the Japanese fox spirit mythology and puts it into a short story about love, loss, and vengeance. A fox spirit falls for a man whose village is being taken advantage of by tax collectors, and after tragedy strikes she takes her revenge on those who wronged her and her lover. I don’t even know why this one didn’t catch my eye the first time around, because this time I REALLY liked the tone and storytelling.

And the best thing about all of the stories in this book is that at the end of each of them, there is an author’s note about the original mythology or folktale that gives it context and allows the reader to see how the stories have been adapted for this collection. I love me an authors note with historical factoids, and having that at the end really enhanced the experience for me. As someone who hadn’t been familiar with a lot of the story origins on my first read, I found this to be super helpful. This time around it was nice just having the reminder, as I hadn’t retained all of the information after two years. It’s just a great idea to have this kind of thing in general. On top of context, this is such a varied collection of all different type of genres, I feel like it has something for everyone. There’s mild horror, modern teen hijinks, romance, Sci-Fi, “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” shows the vast creativity of these authors, and it has encouraged me to read more of a few of their works.

“A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is engaging and varied, and if you are looking for a short story collection with a vast range of tastes, this is a great choice.

Kate’s Rating 8: A varied and well rounded selection of stories with influences from the Asian Diaspora, “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is a well done collection with something for everyone.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have a favorite story in this collection, or any that particularly stood out to you? What was it about this story that caught your attention? How about a least favorite?
  2. How familiar were you with the folklore in this book?
  3. What did you think of the interpretations of some of these myths and folktales and how they were re-told within their new stories or genres? Were any of the genre choices surprising to you?
  4. Had to read any of the authors whose works were in this collection? If not, did this collection inspire you to pick up their other works?
  5. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is included on the Goodreads lists “Modern Mythologies”, and “Alternative Summer Reading List”.

Find “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo (Eds.).

 

Book Club Review: “Picnic At Hanging Rock”

34785405._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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent.

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: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Publishing Info: Penguin, 1967

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Continent: Oceania

Book Description: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

Kate’s Thoughts

Back when I first got my Netflix account where discs were the main platform, I went through a few months where I would request obscure-ish films that maybe I’d heard of, or maybe I stumbled upon. One of those films was “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, an Australian cult classic. When book club decided that our theme this time around was Continents, I was the only person who wanted to call dibs on a continent. That continent/region was Oceania. I eventually settled on “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, knowing full well it would probably be a controversial read as I’m one of the few people who like a good high strangeness thriller in the group. But did that stop me?

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I’m sure they understood where I was coming from. (source)

Reading “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was a weird and dreamy experience, as author Joan Lindsay has created a story filled with frustrating ambiguity and an ethereal tone. Three star pupils and a chaperone disappear during a picnic in the Australian countryside at a rock formation called Hanging Rock, and while people go searching, mysteries and darkness seem to follow those involved. On its surface the book is a pretty compelling mystery with few answers, though perhaps that’s the point of it. But what struck me more as I was reading it, and this may not even be intentional, is how many themes involving sex, class, colonialism, and nature were just below the surface. In many ways, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is very of its setting and of its time. The fact that it takes place in an upper class, white boarding school in the middle of the Australian wilderness just screams so many things. Privileged people thinking that nature is their playground, it’s very colonialist and it’s VERY Victorian, so when these women disappear, and most don’t reappear, the shock and disbelief feels very realistic. I’m sure that for these characters, wilderness picnics back in England were very safe, as the terrain and flora and fauna are well known and predictable. But when you apply that complacency to a totally different continent, a continent that is notoriously tricky and dangerous to those who are unfamiliar (or who take it for granted), disaster surely can follow.

On top of that I was deeply intrigued by the various relationships between the characters, and what was said or not said. You have the friendships between the adolescent girls, in particular Sara and Miranda, and how intense they can be (as Sara is deeply dependent on Miranda, so when Miranda goes missing Sara spirals). You have the relationships between the adults and the children, in particular Mrs. Appleyard who seems to loathe all the girls, lest they be wealthy and their families be benefactors. You have the upper class English boy Michael, who is infatuated with Miranda and who has a very macho (homoerotic?) friendship with the lowerclass Australian valet Albert. This was the relationship that was of most interest to me, as Michael doesn’t know shit about the world because of his privilege, and it’s Albert who is almost constantly bailing him out or bringing him back to reality.

And what of the ending? I like ambiguity myself, so I was a-okay with the fact that there are no real answers. At one point Joan Lindsay had a definitive end attached to the story, but was told to leave it out upon publishing. You can find the end if you want definitive answers, but honestly, not knowing, to me, is far more unsettling.

There were a few things that didn’t quite work for me in this book. It’s not a very long book, but it still felt a little extended beyond its means. There was a side plot involving another woman who worked at the school who ends up wanting to leave, and while I understand the point of it, in terms of adding to the tension and the mystery, it felt a little off the beaten path. And while it isn’t surprising, given the time period in which this was written and the setting itself, there was very little mention of the Indigenous Aborigines outside of an ‘abo tracker’ who is sent in to look for the missing girls. A real life tidbit that makes this all the more unsettling is that Hanging Rock is an actual place, its original name Ngannelong (possibly. There may have been a translation issue). It was originally a very important site to the local Aboriginal groups, and now it has basically been overrun by the popularity of this book and film, erasing the importance to the Indigenous people who were there first.

All this said, I mostly enjoyed “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, if only because I found so much hidden beneath the surface. Don’t read this if you want solid answers. But do if you want to be mystified.

Kate’s Rating 7: A dreamy and odd mystery filled with high strangeness and a lot of commentary (be it intentional or not), “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, while a little babbly and in some ways problematic, is still mysterious all these years later.

Book Club Questions

  1. This takes place at the end of the Victorian Era, during which the idea of Nature was very intriguing to Western cultures. What do you think this story was trying to say about human’s relationship to nature?
  2. The Appleyard College for  Young Ladies is an Upper Class attended boarding school in the Australian countryside. Why do you think having it take place at a wealthy boarding school was the choice Lindsay made?
  3. This book was chosen as a representation of Oceania, specifically Australia. Do you think that there was anything about this book that could be uniquely Australian?
  4. What were your thoughts on the relationships between the characters (between the students, between the students in relation to authority figures, friendships, potential romantic relationships – do you think that there were sapphic/romantic/homoerotic elements to this story?)?
  5. What do you think happened to the people who disappeared at Hanging Rock? Doe it matter? Was the ambiguity frustrating for you?
  6. There had at one time been an ending that had a solid answer and conclusion as to what happened to the missing women, but has since been left off of the book as it wasn’t part of the original story as published. Would you want to know what happened? Or do you prefer the open ended end?

Reader’s Advisory

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is included on the Goodreads lists “Female Authored Weird Fiction”, and “Best Books Set in Australia”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” by Ellen Oh and Elise Chapman (eds.).

Book Club Review: “My Invented Country”

16528We 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 “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent.

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: “My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile” by Isabel Allende

Publishing Info: Harper, May 2003

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it;

Continent: South America

Book Description: Isabel Allende’s first memory of Chile is of a house she never knew. The “large old house” on the Calle Cueto, where her mother was born and which her grandfather evoked so frequently that Isabel felt as if she had lived there, became the protagonist of her first novel, The House of the Spirits. It appears again at the beginning of Allende’s playful, seductively compelling memoir My Invented Country, and leads us into this gifted writer’s world.

Here are the almost mythic figures of a Chilean family — grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends — with whom readers of Allende’s fiction will feel immediately at home. And here, too, is an unforgettable portrait of a charming, idiosyncratic Chilean people with a violent history and an indomitable spirit. Although she claims to have been an outsider in her native land — “I never fit in anywhere, not into my family, my social class, or the religion fate bestowed on me” — Isabel Allende carries with her even today the mark of the politics, myth, and magic of her homeland. In My Invented County, she explores the role of memory and nostalgia in shaping her life, her books, and that most intimate connection to her place of origin.

Two life-altering events inflect the peripatetic narration of this book: The military coup and violent death of her uncle, Salvador Allende Gossens, on September 11, 1973, sent her into exile and transformed her into a writer. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, on her newly adopted homeland, the United States, brought forth from Allende an overdue acknowledgment that she had indeed left home. My Invented Country, whose structure mimics the workings of memory itself, ranges back and forth across that distance accrued between the author’s past and present lives. It speaks compellingly to immigrants, and to all of us, who try to retain a coherent inner life in a world full of contradictions.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am sorry to say that while Isabel Allende has been on my reading list for a long time, I haven’t actually picked up any of her novels. So “My Invented Country” was my first interaction with her as an author. In terms of the history of Chile, I did have a small familiarity with the Pinochet government/dictatorship, as in high school we learned about him. But all of my experience reading about him was through an American lens, which is problematic enough on its own without even adding in the fact that the CIA was the one to help put him into power in the first place. So I went into this wanting to get familiar with Allende, and to see a perspective on Pinochet through a Chilean’s eyes.

“My Invented Country” is a collection of recollections of Allende’s childhood in Chile, and what her life was like when she had to flee after Pinochet came to power. She also makes a lot of connections to how her childhood influenced her books, with a lot of references to “The House of the Spirits”. Given that I haven’t read her other books, I didn’t feel like I was getting as much from this book as one who had read them might have. Along with that, it took a long while to actually get to the information about Pinochet and what that dictatorship did to the country. By the time we did get to that, however, I really liked seeing her insights and how complicated it was in society, and even within her own family. And it’s undeniable that Allende’s writing is gorgeous. The way she described the people in her life, the people in Chile, the landscapes and settings, I felt like I was there and getting a full view.

So while I probably didn’t get as much from “My Invented Country” as I might have, it has encouraged me to actually pick up some of Allende’s books in the near future.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have to echo a lot of what Kate already said. I had heard of Allende before, but of all the subgenres of fantasy, “magic realism” is probably my least preferred. So while her books have been on my radar for a while, I’ve never actually gotten around to reading any of them. And, like Kate said, that might have helped my reading experience with this.

In many ways it was clear that Allende was directing this book almost exclusively to her fans. There were a lot of references to her previous books, and this type of insider knowledge is just the sort of information I would gobble up if one of my favorite fantasy authors wrote a biography of this sort. It was also clear in the overall tone of the book. The writing was often light and witty, obviously tailored to be appealing to even the most strident “only fiction” readers out there who may be new or less used to memoirs. I think she was very successful in this regard, as I would fall in that category of readers who rarely picks up memoirs, and I found her writing to be very engaging.

On the other side of that coin, however…I also know very little about Chilean history, and I had been looking forward to learning more. Like Kate said, it takes quite a while to really get into the more informative aspects of the story, and here the writing style worked a bit against what I was looking for. She had some very good insights here and there, but all too often the actual deeper analysis of the time, people, and political upheaval was only briefly skimmed over. She would often continue to throw in the light, airy commentary amidst all of this. And while still entertaining, I was left wanting more.

Overall, while this may have not been the best introduction to Allende’s work, it did confirm that I enjoy her writing style itself. Her books will remain on my reading list, and I hope to get to one of them soon!

Kate’s Rating 7: Her writing is gorgeous and I really liked the information about the rise of Pinochet, but having not read other books by Allende I feel like I didn’t connect as much as I could have.

Serena’s Rating 7: Struck an awkward balance between a great writing style but one that seemed to, at times, work against the more informative take on the country and times that I was looking for.

Book Club Questions

  1. Had you read anything by Isabel Allende before reading this book? Did you see the connections that she made between her life and her other writings?
  2. How familiar were you with the history of Chile before reading this book? Did you feel like you got a sense of the history and the people who live there? Why or why not?
  3. What kinds of parallels can you draw between Allende’s childhood and your own childhood?
  4. Did this book make you want to visit Chile someday? Why or why not?
  5. Allende talks about moving from one place to another, and how having two homes an sometimes make you feel like you don’t quite fit in perfectly in either. Have you ever experienced anything similar?
  6. If you haven’t read anything else by Allende, did this book make you want to explore her bibliography more?

Reader’s Advisory

“My Invented Country” is included on the Goodreads lists “Chilean Literature”, and “South America: History and Culture”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Book Club Review: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

36510722We 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: “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: We both bought it!

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

Book Description: The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Serena’s Thoughts

I read this book for the first time last summer and raved all about it. But when it came time for me to pick my book for bookclub, I was having a hard time finding one that I felt matched up at all with the “American Girl” I had. I tossed out this book’s title and as no one else had read it, that was all the excuse I needed! Not only to pick it as my bookclub book, but to order a copy for myself for this re-read.

This second time around, I enjoyed the story just as much as the first time. I was reminded just how unique of a story this is. I haven’t read any other book about this time period and place, and I’ve especially never read anything combining it with traditional Mayan folklore and all of the fantasy elements the author threw in. While the beginning of the story definitely has a “Cinderella” vibe, it deviates from that traditional tale so quickly and so completely that it wasn’t even until this re-read that I made that connection at all.

Like my first read through, what really stood out was the writing itself and the way the use of the unique narration style was able to really draw complete, full-bodied pictures for the reader. The images of these locations and cities, both real and fairytale, all feel so vivid and colorful that it’s impossible not to be drawn in, even if one has no familiarity to base any of these visuals on. The writing is strong enough to get you there on its own.

I obviously still really enjoyed Casiopea herself. She’s a very strong protagonist and her journey of self-discovery was compelling. She learns many of the same lessons anyone who travels from home the first time does: that the world is both much larger and grand than you ever could have imagined, but it’s also still just people, going about their lives, no matter the change of scenery. This time around, I was able to focus more Hun-Kame’s story and his slow transition from godhood to humanity. I really appreciate the way the author went about this, as all of his changes were subtle and believable, something that can be hard to pull of with this type of story arc.

Overall, I still really enjoyed this book. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her, and she has a new book, “Mexican Gothic,” that’s coming out this June that I can’t wait to check out! If you want to read my full review from last summer, you can find it here.

Kate’s Thoughts

I have been interested in digging into Silvia Moreno-Garcia for a bit now. I have “Mexican Gothic” waiting for me in eARC form at the moment, so when Serena suggested that she pick “Gods of Jade and Sorrow” for book club I was wholeheartedly in favor. True, while fantasy isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, mythology is an exception to that general rule. Especially mythologies that I’m not as familiar with (though when I was in grade school we had a unit on the Mayans and the mythology associated with it. Of course, it was by no means expansive).

I quite enjoyed “Gods of Jade and Shadow”, for a few reasons. The first, like Serena mentioned, was the time and place. 1920s Mexico isn’t a setting I’ve encountered much in the books I’ve read, and while I have a working knowledge of some aspects of it thanks to reading about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the past, it’s still fairly novel. The road trip and journey that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé take together all over Mexico and into the U.S. is engaging and entertaining, and the other magical beings they encounter were fascinating and well crafted. I thought that their very important journey aligned with Casiopea’s own journey of self-actualization against a backdrop of a burgeoning freedom of society was stark and powerful.

And, like Serena, I also enjoyed Casiopea herself. She grows and changes, but always remains true to herself and her characterization. She has a lot to learn, but she also has a lot that various characters, be it Hume-Kamé or her cruel cousin Martín, could learn from her. Some of the choices that she makes when it comes to how to deal with the cruelty and viciousness of others are refreshing in that they are steeped in more empathy and compassion as opposed to revenge or evening the score.

And of course, the Mayan Mythology was great. I have vague recollections of Xibalba and the various Death Gods from my early experiences of reading up on them in grade school, and seeing them put into this story and really dug into was awesome. It also gives the feel of this story a distinctly Indigenous one, which I greatly appreciated, especially since an Own Voices author was taking on the subject matter.

Overall, I really liked “Gods of Jade and Shadow”, and I’m even more stoked to dig into Moreno-Garcia’s next works!

Kate’s Rating 8: A fun and unique coming of age story with a distinctly Indigenous voice, “Gods of Jade and Sorrow” really entertains.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this book just as much the second time around and highly recommend it for fantasy-lovers looking for a story set in a time and place not typically found in the genre.

Book Club Questions

  1. Casiopea’s story starts out as a sort of “Cinderella” tale that involves into one of self-discovery and independence gained. What stood out to about her story arc or characterization?
  2. In many ways, Casiopea and Hun-Kame’s relationship evolves from city to city as they travel. What did you make of this progression? Did you enjoy the romance in this story? What did you think of the larger balance being struct between humanity and godliness?
  3. The story takes place during the Jazz Age in Mexico and covers a lot of ground. Was there a particular location or aspect of this time/place that stood out to you?
  4. The author combined traditional Mayan words and stories with her own unique tale. Were there any aspects of the fantasy elements that stood out to you? Were you familiar with any of these terms or Mayan tales previously?
  5. The narration for this story is omniscient, allowing the author to provide a lot of detail and context for her tale as it meanders across Mexico. It also provides insights into the villain’s perspectives. What did you make of this narrative style and the balance between characters that we’re given?

Reader’s Advisory

“Gods of Jade and Shadow” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Aztec, Maya & Inca – Fiction” and “2019 Adult SFF by Authors of Color.”

Find “Gods of Jade and Shadow” at your library using Worldcat!

Book Club Review: “This Place: 150 Years Retold”

39351184._sx318_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: “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Jen Storm, et al.

Publishing Info: Highwater Press, April 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Meet Kaya” by Janet Beeler Shaw

Book Description: Explore the last 150 years through the eyes of Indigenous creators in the graphic novel anthology, This Place: 150 Years Retold. Beautifully illustrated, these stories are an emotional and enlightening journey through magic realism, serial killings, psychic battles, and time travel. See how Indigenous peoples have survived a post-apocalyptic world since Contact.

This is one of the 200 exceptional projects funded through the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter initiative. With this $35M initiative, the Council supports the creation and sharing of the arts in communities across Canada.

Kate’s Thoughts

Book club opens my eyes to books I haven’t heard of on occasion. This time around, when I looked at “This Place: 150 Years Retold” I was both excited to start it, and also sad that I hadn’t heard of it before then. While short story collections in regular print form rarely work for me, I almost always like graphic novel short story collections. The stories in “This Place: 150 Years Retold” are incredibly varied and unique, and they all have a lot of things to say when it comes to the Native experience throughout Canadian history.

I really liked the range that these stories had, from historical fiction to mini biographies or memoirs to fantasy to Sci-Fi. Each story had a bit of context written before it by the author, as well as showing where in the timeline that said story fit, which I REALLY liked, especially since I have such little knowledge of Canadian history. And while the stories all took place in a different point in history, the themes are still, unfortunately, very relevant to Indigenous lives today. My favorite example of this was the story “Like a Razor Slash” by Richard Van Camp, which was a tribute and interpretation of a speech given by Chief Frank T’Seleie when speaking out against the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Water Rights and pipeline protests have been more in the public eye in the U.S. as of late given DAPL and Standing Rock, and it really hit home that this has been an issue for decades for Indigenous communities. But that isn’t the only topic that hits home. From fishing rights to broken treaties to residential schools and family separation, “This Place: 150 Years Retold” doesn’t hold back when looking at the injustices that Canada has shown towards it’s Native population. Given that the stories are by different authors, there are many different artwork types as well as story types. The ones that worked best fell in the middle of super realistic and super abstract or more stylized, but they all served their stories fairly well.

Not all of the stories worked for me, but the fact that almost all of them did shows the strength of the collection as a whole. Definitely pick this one up if you can, because you will learn a lot as well as be moved.

Serena’s Thoughts

I really enjoyed this collection. While I won’t claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of even U.S. history with regards to Native American stories, I definitely had very little knowledge of Canadian history. I was familiar only with a few pieces that touched on legends and mythology found in these cultures, such as the Wendigo creature and some parts of the Inuit understanding of shaman. Each story was proceeded by a brief description of the history that inspired the author, and I found all of this, plus the timeline included in each, to be incredibly interesting. Grounding each story in these mini historical lessons really helped add another layer of understanding to what the author was trying to get across.

A few stories stood out in particular. “Nimkii” tells the story of one women sharing her experience in the foster care system. It was so tragic and beautifully told. Again, this was a part of Canadian history that I wasn’t aware of. Apparently, so many Indigenous children were taken during the 1960s that it was given a name: “the 60s scoop.” I also really liked “Peggy” which tells the story of a man who was called to war as a sniper. He was a leader through that time and awarded multiple times over. This is then contrasted by his return home where he struggles to be afforded even the most basic rights to make a life for himself and his family in the country he went to war to protect.

I will say, however, that there were a few stories that I had a hard time understanding or connecting to. I liked the Wendigo story for the most part. It highlighted a lot of important factors about mental health and the contrast between law enforcement in native communities and western cultures. But I also felt like I was perhaps missing a part of this story. Maybe not, but I was unsure. There was also an Inuit story about shaman and the importance of names. This story had really amazing art work, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what the heck was going on for about 80% of this story. I even re-read it a few times. I’m hesitant to say it’s a failing of the story, as it could have just been me not picking up on things. But, all of this to say, there were a few stories that took a bit more work to really understand.

Overall, I really liked this collection. The artwork throughout was varied and interesting. Many of the stories spoke to portions of history that I was unaware of, and I think it’d be a great learning tool for anyone looking to know more about this portion of time in Canada.

Kate’s Rating 9: A powerful and varied collection of Indigenous stories that give voice to many themes.

Serena’s Rating 8: A powerful collection of stories detailing lesser known sections of Native American history in Canada.

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you familiar with any of historical events or fables that inspired these stories prior to reading this? And if so, how did the stories presented here offer greater insight into these events?
  2. There are a variety of different artistic styles used throughout this book. Which one was your favorite? Which do you think paired best with the story it was trying to tell?
  3. The last story in the book jumps into the future. How did this story succeed or not succeed at representing the world and the issues that would exist in this time?
  4. Many of these stories focused on dark events. Were there any that stood out to you as being particularly successful in delving into tough topics?
  5. This is a collection of stories based on Canadian relations with Native peoples. In what ways do these events and histories differ from the U.S.? In what ways are they the same?

Reader’s Advisory

“This Place: 150 Years Retold” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Best Canadian Aboriginal Literature” and “Graphic Novels & Comics By The Aboriginal, Indigenous and Native Peoples Of The World.”

Find “This Place: 150 Years Retold” at your library using WorldCat!

Next up is “God’s of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Book Club 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.