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

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.).