Book Club Review: “Black Sun”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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

Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Alex Award

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

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

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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

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

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Bram Stoker Award for a Young Adult Novel

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

Book Club Review: “Parable of the Sower”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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

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

Publishing Info: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Award: New York Times Notable Book of the Year

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

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

Basically my face during my entire reading experience.

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

Book Club Review: “Big Friendship”

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

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

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

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, July 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Self-Help Memoir

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

Find “Big Friendship” at your library using WorldCat!

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

Book Club Review: “Annihilation”

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

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

Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

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

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

Genre/Format: Horror

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

Book Club Review: “Red at the Bone”

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

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

Book: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, September 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Literary Fiction

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

Next Book Club Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Book Club Review: “The Right Swipe”

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: “The Right Swipe” by Alisha Rai

Publishing Info: Avon, August 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: I own it.

Genre/Format: Romance

Book Description: Alisha Rai returns with the first book in her sizzling new Modern Love series, in which two rival dating app creators find themselves at odds in the boardroom but in sync in the bedroom.

Rhiannon Hunter may have revolutionized romance in the digital world, but in real life she only swipes right on her career—and the occasional hookup. The cynical dating app creator controls her love life with a few key rules:

– Nude pics are by invitation only

– If someone stands you up, block them with extreme prejudice

– Protect your heart

Only there aren’t any rules to govern her attraction to her newest match, former pro-football player Samson Lima. The sexy and seemingly sweet hunk woos her one magical night… and disappears. Rhi thought she’d buried her hurt over Samson ghosting her, until he suddenly surfaces months later, still big, still beautiful—and in league with a business rival. He says he won’t fumble their second chance, but she’s wary. A temporary physical partnership is one thing, but a merger of hearts? Surely that’s too high a risk…

Kate’s Thoughts

Though I tend to stick to a few genres that I tackle on this blog, in my overall reading habits I try to be varied and open minded when it comes to what book I decide to pick up. But like most people, I do have my blind spots in genres. My goal this year is to try and read more romance because of this. So the fates were lining up when I decided to take on the Outside the Genre Box book for February. After all, our book club meeting was going to be on Galentine’s Day, the day before Valentine’s Day. Obviously picking a romance was going to happen. I decided on “The Right Swipe” by Alisha Rai for a couple of reasons. 1) It had some good reviews and solid hype. 2) I saw that it had a diverse cast of characters, and 3) I’m not quite ready to jump into Regency era bodice rippers, so something contemporary felt just right.

And I really enjoyed “The Right Swipe”. I liked our main characters, Rhiannon and Samson, whose one night stand could have turned into something more, had Samson not ghosted on Rhiannon before their second date. It’s a pretty typical premise, and I was expecting it to be fairly obvious in execution of the plot (they meet again, it’s frosty at first, then it gets hot, then it gets cold, then it ends up okay in the end). But that may have just been my preconceived notions of the genre, because it didn’t go in ways that were expected for me. I liked both Rhiannon and Samson as characters, as they both had their flaws and their strengths, and all of that felt realistic. Their chemistry is palpable, and it’s very easy to root for them because they are both good people who clearly are right for each other. But you also understand why Rhiannon is reluctant to give him another chance with her past relationship traumas, and why Samson has his own insecurities and hurt from past experiences. They just click, but aren’t perfect, nor melodramatic.

But what really struck me was that Rai brings in some really relevant and meaty social issues into this story that both Rhiannon and Samson have to deal with. For Rhiannon, it’s the fact that she is a social media mogul on the rise, but has to work twice as hard and be twice and brilliant because she is a Black woman in a white dominated industry, and has an unearned difficult reputation because of a vindictive white man whom she used to be involved with. You see her drive and her hunger, as well as the emotional labor and pain that comes with the constant roadblocks because of her race and her gender. For Samson, his history of being a professional football player from a family of football greats is darkened by the very real issue of CTE. While he himself doesn’t have it, people he cared about suffered and deteriorated because of it, and while Rai doesn’t overtly call out the NFL for how it has ‘handled’ the issue, the commentary is very much there.

And yeah, it’s definitely steamy. It lives up to all my expectations of the genre in that regard, and that is a compliment to be sure.

I really liked “The Right Swipe”, and I am definitely going to continue on in Rai’s series. I’m expanding my literary horizons, people, and it feels good!

Kate’s Rating 8: A cute and steamy romance with some really good social commentary, “The Right Swipe” is a fun read, and a great place to begin if you want to check out the romance genre with little experience within it.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of Rhiannon and Samson’s relationship? Healthy? Unhealthy?
  2. What were your thoughts on Rhi’s personal rules for dating? Did you find the rules too stringent? Not stringent enough?
  3. Both Rhi and Samson have some pretty significant back stories. What did you think of them? Did you like one more than the other?
  4. What were your opinions on the CTE subplot? How aware were you of CTE before this book?
  5. Rhi has a number of roadblocks she has to deal with being a Black woman in the dating app industry. Did you think that Rai did a good job balancing these themes with the plot?
  6. This is the first in a series. Assuming the next books are going to follow side characters, whose story would you like to hear in the coming books?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Right Swipe” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “2019 Romance Books by Authors of Color”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Book Club Review: “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

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: “The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

Publishing Info: Soho Press, January 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Cozy/Historical Mystery

Book Description: Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights.

Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.

The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.

Kate’s Thoughts

I keep saying this over and over again and yet never really follow through, but I always feel like I’m in on the look out for a new mystery series to follow. While Kathy Reichs has returned to her Temperance Brennan mysteries after an illness, one series doesn’t seem like enough. So thank you to Book Club for introducing me to the Perveen Mistry series with the first book “The Widows of Malabar Hill”! Because I found this first entry in this historical/cozy (debatable to me) mystery collection to be exactly what I wanted!

For one thing, I really liked the setting, being in 1920s Bombay, when British Colonialism was still a thing, and our heroine Perveen is living life as an attorney in her father’s practice after her marriage fell through. I have very little knowledge of this time period in India specifically, and I really enjoyed getting some context into the many different people and cultures who lived there at the time, sometimes to great conflict. I loved Perveen as a main character, as she is determined and spunky, but still felt realistic for the time period based on the knowledge that I did have previously and what we learn in the story itself. There are two timelines here, the present day one in which Perveen is investigating the will of a man who left three wives behind after his death, and then finds herself involved in a murder investigation. This storyline was well done, with well plotted out intrigue and a mystery that kept me guessing. But it was the other storyline that really got my attention, in whcih we see Perveen’s previous doomed marriage, and how she came to be working for her attorney father in the first place. I thought that the situation she found herself in was deeply upsetting and fascinating, and it really gave her a good amount of depth and characterization that suited her in the present day storyline.

Overall, I really enjoyed “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, and am definitely going to continue reading the Perveen Mistry mysteries!

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, I’ve also read many of the Temperance Brennan series. I’m pretty behind now, but it is also one of my favorite mystery series. But I also currently read a few historical mystery series, so it’s a genre that I’m still fairly involved with in my general reading. That said, most of the historical mysteries I’ve been reading for the last two years have been set in Britain in similar time periods in the last 1800s. So I was excited to read another historical mystery (a genre I clearly enjoy), but one set in a very different location and period of time.

Most of the praise that Kate has already covered I would second. Perveen, herself, is a really excellent character. I imagine it was difficult to write a character that takes on the roles she does (lawyer/detective) but who must also feel true to her time and deal with the many roadblocks that were present in women’s lives. I think the author does an excellent job of making Perveen a very believable character in this way. Her history, as we see it play out in the portion of the story set in the past, lays out a nice foundation for Perveen to find herself in the position she does in the present. And for her perspective that shapes her approach to tackling the mystery and murders at the heart of the story.

I also really liked the time period and setting. I, too, only knew a little about India during this time period. I’d read “A Passage to India” way back in college, but that was about it. So I really enjoyed the immersion in the culture and history that served as the backdrop and landscape for Perveen’s story.

The mystery itself was also very good. This book was chosen as a “cozy mystery” type story, so while there is tension and mystery throughout, it’s not as gruesome or scary as some of the other mysteries series you may read. If you enjoy historical mysteries this will probably be a good fit!

Kate’s Rating 8: A well plotted mystery and a compelling backstory combine along with a unique setting to make “The Widows of Malabar Hill” an intriguing start to a series I plan to continue!

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent start to a new series with a compelling heroine at its heart!

Book Club Questions:

  1. What kind of mystery sub genre would you think this is? Does it feel more historical, or cozy?
  2. What did you think of the writing style? Do you think it matched the story tone and themes?
  3. What did you know about the various themes of the sotry, be it the setting, culture, religion, society?
  4. What did you think of the narrative structure of the two time periods that we follow in this book? Did you prefer one over the other?
  5. Who was your favorite character outside of Perveen? Who was your least favorite character?
  6. Do you think you’ll keep going in the series? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Historical Mystery Series”, and “India: Fiction”.

Find “The Widows of Malabar Hill” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The Right Swipe”

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