Bookclub Review: “S.T.A.G.S.”

35248505We 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 ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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: “S.T.A.G.S.” by M.A. Bennett

Publishing Info: Penguin Teen, January 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate received an ARC from NetGalley.

Genre Mash-Up: “Satire” and “School Story”

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Greer, a scholarship girl at a prestigious private school, St Aidan the Great School (known as STAGS), soon realizes that the school is full of snobs and spoilt rich brats, many of whom come from aristocratic families who have attended the institute throughout the centuries. She’s immediately ignored by her classmates. All the teachers are referred to as Friars (even the female ones), but the real driving force behind the school is a group of prefects known as the Medievals, whose leader, Henry de Warlencourt, Greer finds both strangely intriguing as well as attractive. The Medievals are all good-looking, clever and everyone wants to be among their circle of friends. Greer is therefore surprised when she receives an invitation from Henry to spend a long weekend with him and his friends at his family house in the Lake District, especially when she learns that two other “outsiders” have also been invited: Shafeen and Chanel. As the weekend unfolds, Greer comes to the chilling realization that she and two other “losers” were invited only because they were chosen to become prey in a mad game of manhunt.

Kate’s Thoughts

Yes, I did read and review this back at the beginning of the year. But when my genre mash-up came up in our Book Club drawing, I thought that perhaps “S.T.A.G.S.” should get a revisit through the lens of pure satire as opposed to teenage thriller. I thought that it was really just going to meet the requirements for our book club, but then something  happened that brought it into a new focus: Brett Kavanaugh was nominated and confirmed for the Supreme Court, in spite of the fact that he was accused of attempted rape by a classmate from high school (not to mention a whole slew of other issues), with many people saying that his Yale credentials and good background meant that he couldn’t POSSIBLY be a sexual predator. All of a sudden, a book about privileged wealthy kids at a private school stepping on the less fortunate, all because they CAN, felt incredibly, incredibly relevant, and it caused my opinions of this book to evolve a bit.

So re-reading “S.T.A.G.S.” with these events in mind made it a sobering experience. This time, seeing Greer, Chanel, and Shafeen have to contend with the Medievals and their cat and mouse nonsense made me look a bit deeper into how this could be satirical as opposed to straight up survival YA popcorn. Seeing the action unfold again with a different lens made it a more chilling read, and my eyes were more eager to spot the little moments, be it when Greer is more willing to believe her rich, white counterparts over Shafeen in spite of damning evidence of wrongdoing, or presumptions that both Greer AND Nel have about Shafeen based on his heritage.

As satire I do think that it can be heavy handed at times, but over all I think that it works effectively. High school is always ripe for the picking when it comes to satirical possibilities, though it’s not as often you see it unfold in full on violence, though that’s probably more due to actual violence in schools being far too prevalent as opposed to creators not thinking about it. “S.T.A.G.S.” manages to tread a good line in making the points it wants to make, while still managing to mostly punch up. I enjoyed reading it again with these themes in mind.

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited to read this book when Kate said it would be our next bookclub pick. While not falling in my typical genre of reads, I had had it on my own personal reading list for a while. I like survival stories in general (though I’m often overtaken with judgement about plausibility and stupid choices, but that’s half the fun!) and I remember one of my favorite projects in highschool English had to do with re-creating scenes and a map (which I hand drew and was very proud of) for “The Most Dangerous Game.” So yes, in many ways this was right up my alley.

As Kate discussed, this also came at a pretty rough period in American politics so many of its themes struck a more somber note than they may have reading outside of the current environment. I liked a lot of the more up-front points being made about uber wealth and privilege as well as some of the more subtle comments that Kate alluded to. I would be curious to see how this story read in Great Britain which has a much longer history and different understanding of the type of class system on display here. American readers simply don’t have this type of background to layer onto our reading of this story and, even while I still was able to appreciate many of its larger point, I feel like some of these shades of criticism and even comprehension were lost on U.S. readers.

I very much liked our main character Greer. There were a few moments here and there  where her plethora of cultural references could have been a bit much, but over all, I was so involved in the story and on-board with her character that I don’t think these distracted overly much. And there were a few key ones that really struck home with how a fan of media (movies, books, etc) would relate a new situation/scene to something they’ve read or seen in a film. And while there were definite moments where I wanted to shake her out of some of her more stupid decisions, overall she read as a very realistic protagonist. For the most part, she is clever and discerning, so her moments of weakness read as very believable. I mean, c’mon, it IS an unbelievable situation! Doubting their suspicions only makes sense.

My one criticism of the book had to do with the violence and introduction of the story. No, it wasn’t too much for a young adult novel. If anything, it felt too PG. I kept waiting for something truly terrible (in a life-ending way) to happen, but instead, all of the action and violence felt a bit toothless. In particular, there is one event that Greer references right in the beginning of the book, so the entire story is building towards it, supposedly. And then we get there and…it is not at all that thing. And even after the event, Greer insists on referring to it as her original concept, and I was just like “but…but…IT’S NOT THAT!” I don’t think this would have annoyed me so much if it hadn’t been for the fact that readers are teased about this event for the entire story. And then when this misdirection is combined with the relatively tame action of the story, it just felt like a bit of a let down.

But overall, I still very much enjoyed this book and it was a nice excuse to venture outside of my typical reading boundaries.

Kate’s Rating 8: “S.T.A.G.S.” held up pretty well the second time through, and reading it this time I was more in tune with the satirical elements about the haves subjugating the have nots, and how systems (as well as the compliance of other have nots) help them escape consequences.

Serena’s Rating 8: A stellar main character makes up for a few weaknesses as far as plotting and action.

Book Club Questions

  1. I picked “S.T.A.G.S.” for this book club choice because my theme was satire meets a school story. Do you think that the satire (of the wealthy privileged literally hunting the less fortunate) is effective?
  2. One of the biggest themes in this book is about privilege, and how those with it exploit and victimize those that don’t. How did Shafeen, Greer, and Nel’s interactions with the medievals and each other come off? So you think that these three had some privileges that others didn’t?
  3. What do you think Bennett was trying to say with Greer’s hesitance to believe that the Medievals were up to no good in spite of the evidence presented to her? Why do you think that she was more susceptible to believe the best of them as opposed to Nel and Shafeen (outside of her crush on Henry, that is)?
  4. Shafeen made up a story about feeding at a tiger’s tit to take the attention off of Nel, but tells Greer that he doesn’t live in a palace but is actually from a bustling city (though he does have royal roots). Why do you think he made up a story like that instead of telling a true story from his youth.
  5. What did you make of the Medievals rejection of technology and their categories of Medieval vs Savage? Do you think that Henry had a point about the ills of the internet?
  6. At the end it is revealed that even though Greer, Shafeen, and Nel have become the new prefects/medievals, the Abbot has been shielding and continuing the violence without their knowledge. What did you think of that revelation?

Reader’s Advisory

“S.T.A.G.S.” is new and not included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Let The (Deadly) Games Begin!”, and  “Boarding Schools, Camps, and Private Academies”.

Find “S.T.A.G.S.” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Nights”

21524446We 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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 Nights” by E. K. Johnston

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”

Book Description: Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?

There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.

For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.

By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.

I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.

It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.

I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.

All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.

I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.

Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.

Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.

Book Club Questions

  1. This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
  2. Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
  3. The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
  4. There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
  5. There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Nights” is on these Goodreads lists: “Scheherazade” and “Desert and Djinni.”

Find “A Thousand Nights” at your library using WorldCat.

Book Club Review: “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Vol 2)”

37675578We 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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: “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Vol. 2) by Hope Nicholson (ed.)

Publishing Info: Alternate History Comics Inc., 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

B-Side Book: “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Vol.1)”

Book Description: The highly anticipated second volume of the multiple award-winning collection is here! MOONSHOT The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2 brings you even more original comic book stories, written by Indigenous authors from across North America. Gorgeously illustrated by a mix of award-winning artists, Volume 2 will take you on a stunning journey through this world, and to worlds beyond!

Kate’s Thoughts

If you guys remember, I read “Moonshot Volume 1” a couple years ago, and really really enjoyed it. I loved the artwork, I loved the varied stories, I loved that it gave a platform to voices who we don’t hear nearly enough of in literature. Now we come to “Moonshot Volume 2”, and I knew that while I would like it, it would be hard to top my love for the first collection. And yet “Moonshot Volume 2” did. I think that what I liked more about this one (as much as I loved the first) was that it felt like it tackled more issues within Indigenous communities, such as suicide, addiction, the murder and abuse of Indigenous women, poverty, and water rights. While I found all of th stories strong in their own ways, I had a couple favorites that I will lay out here.

“Worst Bargain in Town” by Darcie Little Badger and Rossi Gifford (Ill.)

This story, originating from Lipan culture, is mostly about cultural appropriation of Native aesthetics and fashion, and how White Culture tries to benefit off of it while taking power and ownership from Native groups. Kat and Laura are two Lipan women who are wary of the new beautician in town, who REALLY wants to cut their hair. Turns out this hairdresser is a demon that is taking the hair she cuts and consuming it, sapping the power from the hair’s owners. I liked that it touched on the issue in two ways. The first and more obvious connection is how the beautician is taking the culture from Indigenous women and benefiting from it. You see this in non metaphorical ways in everyday life, be it buying Native designs from non-Native artists for clothing or decor, or through those people who wear head dresses at outdoor music festivals, etcetera. But the other way goes back to a more direct form of colonialism, as Native Children in America were taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools in an effort to ‘civilize’ them, where their hair would be cut. Given that within the Lipan culture hair is a source of strength, the metaphor in this story is especially chilling. The illustrations, however, are fun and lighthearted, and while one may worry that it may take power away from the story, it doesn’t.

“Water Spirits” by Richard Van Camp and Haiwei Hou (Ill.)

Given the visibility of the NODAPL movement, Water Rights have been a hot topic within the public consciousness as of late. Richard Van Camp’s story concerns a school field trip going to a now defunct mine, and being led on a tour by a Native man who has a lot of knowledge of it’s history and how the mine has changed and affected the community. This story examines the consequences of capitalism at the expense of the environment, and how our Western culture tends to value things that are arguably not as essential (like gold within this mine) as VERY essential things (like water). There is a certain simplicity to this story, as it’s really just a field trip, but the message comes through loud and clear: we are poisoning the Earth because of our capitalistic values, and we won’t be able to come back from it. What really stood out for me in this story, however, was the artwork. It has a very realistic, almost Roto-Scope quality to it, and it’s uniqueness really made it pop off the page.

water-spirit-by-haiwei-hou-600x946
I mean just look at it. (source)

But all of the stories are strong. If you haven’t read the “Moonshot” books yet, do yourself a favor and get your hands on them.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unfortunately, I had to return my copy to the library, so I don’t have have a list of the individual story titles and authors in front of me. Instead, my portion of the review will focus on general topics/themes throughout the book.

I’m also in the camp of enjoying this collection more than the first. While I didn’t review it here, I did read it and really liked many of the stories. In this second iteration, it felt like the collection simply felt more comfortable in its skin, more fully embracing its own concept and messages. As opposed to the first collection, many of the stories in this collection delved into topics that are currently heavy hitters in the Native population.

Kate mentioned water rights, but there were also intensely sad (and sensitive) explorations of the high suicide rate that exists in Native nations. I particularly enjoyed (doesn’t feel like that should be the right word about such a sad story) a story about a young man who is experiencing grief at the loss of another boy close to him to suicide. The artwork in this particular story was also gorgeous and worked perfectly with the somber subject matter, painting its images in muted hues of blues and greens.

There were also a few stories that leaned into the science fiction/fantasy angle, and of course I really loved those, too. The art in these were particularly love, with vibrant colors and interesting animation choices for how characters are drawn.

There were a few stories that I did struggle with, however. Particularly the first story in the book. This one picked up seemingly in the middle of a story and also was incredibly short. It was interesting, but also a bit confusing and off-putting. I think it was definitely worth including, but I question choosing to have that story introduce the collection as it isn’t really representative of what’s to come and could turn off the casual browser.

Overall, however, I very much enjoyed “Moonshot Volume 2” and highly recommend it!

Kate’s Rating 9: A fabulous and powerful collection that has a lot of salient points and a lot of heart, “Moonshot Volume 2” is a must read for comics fans.

Serena’s Rating 9: An even stronger outing that the first, “Moonshot Volume 2” leans into contemporary challenges faced by the Native nations.

Book Club Questions

  1. If you have read “Moonshot Vol. 1”, which collection did you prefer more? Why?
  2. There are multiple issues that affect Indigenous Communities that are touched upon in these stories. Did any of these themes have an especially striking affect on you? Which one, and why?
  3. How familiar are you with topics that were discussed in this collection, such as Water Rights, Cultural Appropriation, abuse cycles, etcetera? Did reading these stories make you want to learn more about these things?
  4. Did you feel that the artistic choices and illustrations reflected all of the stories well? Were there any stories where you felt that the art really strengthened it? Or weakened it?
  5. What was your favorite story within the collection? What was it about this story that stood out for you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Volume 2)” is not included on any Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Indigenous Peoples”, and “Graphic Novels & Comics By The Aboriginal, Indigenous and Native People’s of the World”.

Find “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Volume 2)” at your library using WorldCat.

Book Club Review: “Deathless”

8694389We 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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: “Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2011

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate from the library, Serena owns it.

A-Side Book: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

Book Description: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was my bookclub book choice. After reading and loving the entire “Fairyland” series, I was eager to see what Valente had to offered with a new fantasy setting and topic. How would her lyrical writing style and witty twists of nonsense translate to the seemingly much more dark and serious tone of a Russian fairytale?

As a young girl growing up, Marya sees more than most. She sees the bird-forms that her sisters’ husbands wore before changing into men and asking for their hands. She’s visited the small beings who run her house via committee. She knows there is magic in the world, and she is ready and waiting for her turn. But what she gets is Koschei, a dark being who has served as the nightmare in Russina folklore. However, Marya is no wilting flower herself, and over the years proves to be the challenging equal of even a being so great as Koschei.

This is the story of Marya, but it is also the story of Russia. And with that dual focus and the time period during which this is set, there is a darkness that permeates the story. There are some incredibly rough scenes that draw from historical events and Valente doesn’t back down from the tragedy of it all. It was quite the change from the up-beat and fuzzy tone of her other books, but not a change for the worse. I don’t have a strong foundation in Russian history, so there were various points where I had to put the book down out of curiosity about the real-life events that were being referred to. However, the book and fairytale aspects are also strong enough on their own that this type of extra research was by no means necessary.

I very much enjoyed Marya herself and the way she moved through her own fairytale. I also wasn’t familiar with the original folktale, so I read up on that as I went along, too. The story was slow to start, but once it gets into the truly fantastical elements and onto Marya’s own adventures and quests, I was able to zip along.

I did struggle a bit more with Valente’s flowery way of writing in this story. While she still had several very beautiful lines and highly quoatable sections, there were also portions that felt like they just dragged on just for the sake of lyrical lines. But those lines were actually adding anything to the story. It felt like an editor could have been used to really pair these sections down. This would have not only helped the pacing, which, like I said, could be slow at times, especially in the beginning. But it also would have left the remaining beautiful bits as stronger for being more rare.

Kate’s Thoughts

I was the person in book club who didn’t really care for “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”, but when I heard the plot of “Deathless” I was game to give Valente another try. I don’t know much about Russian folklore outside of Baba Yaga, and my knowledge of Russian history is admittedly limited, but I thought that this could be a fun break from the usual fairy tale retellings that usually have a huge focus on Western European stories. And these aspects were the things that I liked best about this book.

I had never heard of the Marya and Koschei story, but found myself completely taken in by their admittedly problematic relationship. Yes, he kidnapped her as a child and there was certainly a fair amount of manipulation to begin with (very “V for Vendetta”, as we agreed in book club). But ultimately, like in “V for Vendetta”, Marya became more than Koschei, became an incredibly tough and strong protagonist who takes back her agency, and has a new kind of connection to Koschei. Sure, in real life this isn’t a good thing, but HEY GUESS WHAT I DON’T EVEN CARE!! I was one hundred percent invested in them and was rooting for them, even when Ivan showed up (as he does in the original story), because Ivan can’t POSSIBLY get Marya like Koschei does. I went back and looked up the original Marya and Koschei the Deathless fairy tale, and I liked how Valente subverted it to fit along with important, and sometimes dark as night, moments in Russian history.

But ultimately, I still have a very hard time with Valente’s writing style. While I liked the plot, I found myself slogging through this book because of how detailed and flowery her writing is, and also found myself having to skip back and re-read sections just to figure out what was going on. I don’t like having to do that repeatedly in a book, and I was doing that a fair amount in “Deathless”. I think that her writing style and the way that she likes to make her fantasy worlds (another thing I am not keen on) are just not conducive to how I like my stories.

I’m glad that we read “Deathless” if only because we stretched our reading muscles a bit and covered unknown folk tales from a not as familiar culture and history.

Serena’s Rating 7: I enjoyed this book, especially the darker fairytale aspects and the tie-ins to Russian history, however I felt that Valente’s writing style too often distracted from the story itself or needlessly dragged out sections of the plot.

Kate’s Rating 6: I’m still not really into fantasy and think that Valente’s style is a bit too flowery for me, but I liked the Russian fairy tale aspect, and I was deeply invested in the messed up romance between Marya and Koshchei.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This is a fairytale re-telling. How does it compare to other fairytales you’ve read? Were you familiar with the original fairytale this was based on? Or Russian fairytales in general?
  2. The story blends fairytales with historical fiction. How did this work for you? Were there parts you particularly intriguing or you felt could have been expanded upon more?
  3. There was also some subtle or not too subtle commentaries on politics and the Communist regime, like the committees of house imps and references to Party slogans. How did these work for you?
  4. Mixed with the topics of war and fear, the story explores love and marriage. Marya and Koschei have a tumultuous (to say the least) relationship. What did you think of the arc of their story? How did you feel about the character Ivan and his role in the story?
  5. Valente has a very unique writing style. Did this add or detract from the story in your opinion?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deathless” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark, Lyrical Fairytales”, and “Russian Motifs in Fantasy”.

Find “Deathless” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Six of Crows”

23006119We 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Company, September 2015

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

A-Side Book: “Shadow and Bone”

Book Description: Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Serena’s Thoughts

This book is probably one of the perfect diverging points for Kate and my own differing book tastes. I’m pretty sure that everything I love about these genres are the same things that turn off Kate, so be ready for some whiplash in our opinions!

It’s no secret that I love fantasy. Pretty much any fantasy, but high fantasy (rather than, say, urban fantasy) is definitely my preferred type. After all, that’s the primary genre that I cover on this blog. But I also love heist stories. I don’t read many heist books, because frankly most of the ones I’ve tried fall into the worst category of “beach reads” where the writing and plotting is so simplistic that I just can’t acknowledge it as worth my time to read. But I do love heist movies (though even I have my doubts about this new “Oceans 11” reboot…). So reading this book description, I was all over this!

I did have a few points of hesitancy, however, going in. I don’t typically prefer books with multiple narrators, let alone five. And I’ve been burned by Bardugo in the past. While I liked the first book in her “Grisha” series, my rage boiled over in the second and I don’t think I even finished the third. So, I was excited, but hesitant.

All for nothing! I had a blast with this book! Set in the same world and a few years (?) after the events in the last book of the “Grisha” trilogy, our team is made up of a ragtag group of individuals all with complicated pasts and motivations that lead them to be involved in what everyone says is an impossible mission.

I very much enjoyed the world building in this story. It’s been a few years since I read the other two books, but for the most part this world and history is presented in such a way that prior knowledge of it was not necessary. If anything, I think my half reading of the first trilogy almost made it worse, as I could sort of remember things here and there and was never quite sure whether something new was being introduced or whether I should be remembering it from before. In that respect, it might even be easier to read this book with zero knowledge of the original trilogy. All of that said, this story takes place in two new and distinct locations: the gang-riddled streets of Ketterdam and the Ice Court where the people of the north capture and exterminate Grisha, as they see their magic as contrary to the natural world. Bardugo does an excellent job in painting clear and brilliant scenes on which to work her stories. I particularly liked the Ice Court itself, and the complex inner workings that the team had to overcome to break in and out.

As for the characters, Bardugo masterfully juggled a very full cast, somehow managing to weave together a very action-packed story while also slowly revealing the complicated and often dark histories of each individual character on this journey. I had a few favorites, but I ultimately enjoyed them all. I would say that Jesper was probably my least favorite, due to the fact that he had the least developed back story of the group and, for plot reasons, had to be kept in the dark about certain events. I enjoyed Inej the most, as her character type (silent, deadly, masterfully proficient at what she does best) is one of my favorites. But I think that Nina and Matthias, as a pair, had the most compelling journey in this story. Raised in very different cultures and with very different views on the world, they both have to confront prejudices and the darker side of their own beings.

I had a few quibbles of plausibility here and there, as far as the heist itself goes. But for the most part, I was having such a blast that I didn’t have time to pause and really think about the viability of some of their more outrageous plans. Bardugo is particularly effective with her dialogue, and with a cast of 6+ characters, there were ample opportunities for this strength to shine and overcast any weaker plot points. Over all, I greatly enjoyed this book and have the second one sitting on my shelf ready to read!

Kate’s Thoughts

Say it with me folks: I don’t like heist stories, I don’t like high fantasy, and while I read “Shadow and Bone” in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I didn’t particularly care for it and never went back to that trilogy. So yeah, going into “Six of Crows” I wasn’t terribly stoked. But I like to think that I’m a good sport and something of a trooper, and given that I really liked other works by Bardugo (specifically “Wonder Woman: Warbringer”, and the short story “Verse Chorus Verse”), I had a little bit of hope that I would enjoy at least parts of it.

Turns out I was right on both counts. So, yay?

For not liking heists or high fantasy, there were plenty of things that I did find likable in this book. As Serena mentioned, Bardugo has a knack for world building, and while I remember very little from her Grishaverse I greatly enjoyed seeing aspects of it popping up in this book, even if it was in a different time and place. The Dutch influence in Ketterdam is a fun thing to watch as well, with references to various familiar landmark types and certain words clearly being derived from the Dutch language. Bardugo has a clear world idea, and in some ways she expands upon it in this book (as far as I know) with how Grishas (or witches) are viewed, and how this society functions in a more poverty stricken and corrupt society.

Bardugo also has a talent for characterization and dialog, and I ended up really enjoying a number of the characters. While in book club the solid consensus seemed to list Inej as a favorite, I myself greatly, GREATLY enjoyed Nina and her morally grey, duplicitous yet empathetic ways. Like Serena I was quite intrigued by her relationship with Matthias, and how they both have a deep connection but deep resentment and mistrust because of past actions. Whenever the story was focused on her, it had my rapt attention.

But, at the end of the day, Serena knows me very well: “Six of Crows” manages to run with a number of story themes that I don’t care for, mostly heists and high fantasy. And because of that, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, and as much as others have. I am not a good judge for how good this story is because this is not a book that was written with me in mind, and it’s not quite strong enough (outside of a few aspects I did like) to rise above my preferences and prove me wrong. It’s no one’s fault. It just didn’t do it for me as a whole.

Serena’s Rating 9: Strong dialogue and a great cast of characters added to what was already a thrilling heist story.

Kate’s Rating 6: While the characters compelled me and the dialog was snappy, the story line and themes didn’t interest me.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This story is set in the same world as Bardugo’s original “Grisha” trilogy. How did reading that trilogy before (or not reading it) affect your experience with this book?
  2. This book is made up of a large cast of characters. Which ones stood out to you as particularly interesting? Were there any that you felt less connected to?
  3. Through Nina and Matthias’s story arc, this book confronts some challenging themes regarding prejudice and persecution. What moments stood out to you in this area? Do you think this could have been explored even further?
  4. The heist itself is made up of several moving pieces and changed throughout the story. Did any parts of it strike you as particularly surprising or fun to read about? Did you have questions about any parts of it?
  5. There are a lot of surprises revealed throughout the story. Which ones took you by surprise and which ones could you predict?
  6. The story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Where do you think it will go from here?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Six of Crows” is on these Goodreads lists: “Villain Protagonist” and “Speculative Fiction Heist/Caper Stories.”

Find “Six of Crows” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

 

Book Club Review: “Long Way Down”

22552026We 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Publishing Info: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, October 2017

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

A-Side Book: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Book Description: A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? 

As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually used his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator?

Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Serena’s Thoughts

Thank god for bookclub! It’s books like this that remind me how lucky I am to be in a club with such a great group of ladies who love to read and know their stuff about what’s out there. The only other Jason Reynolds book I read was for bookclub (was great), but per my norm, since he writes the type of fiction that I don’t usually pursue on my own, it’s likely I would have missed out on this great read as well.

During our meeting, there was a persistent theme of us all having read it in one sitting (most of us the very day of bookclub, my bad!) due to the story being written in verse. But this decision was so much more than a device that made the book quick to read! Reynolds masterfully binds together all the strengths that can be gleaned from versed-novels, while deftly avoiding some of the pitfalls, such as melodrama and pretentiousness.

Instead, the limited number of words created an almost claustrophobic atmosphere that mirrored Will’s journey down the elevator. From page to page, the words would be laid out differently across the page, sometimes mimicking the topic that was being discussed, such as a jagged splatter of words about an earthquake and a question mark shape drawn in words themselves. The line breaks, and even page turns, were also effective in giving weight to moments and certain words, leaving them to fall hard on the unsuspecting reader.

Beyond the style of the book, Reynolds tackles a tough and nuanced topic in his exploration of gun violence in a poor, black neighborhood. His story is a frank reveal of the limited choices and persistent cycles that exists, without casting judgement or freeing characters from the responsibility of their actions. Again, the decision to write in verse just further supported this exploration. As the number of words are limited, Reynolds’ language is precise, clear, and devastating.

My only criticism is with the very end, and even there, I’m not entirely sure how I feel. I like the ambiguousness, but I also feel like it wrapped up rather suddenly. However, I also don’t know how else a story like this could have been finished, and the ending itself speaks to the limited and challenging options available in these communities.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jason Reynolds while at ALA’s Annual Conference in 2017, and when I met him I got an ARC of “Long Way Down”. I hadn’t known what to expect from that book, but I knew that the concept sounded very intriguing to me. When I finally opened it up a couple months later I was pretty much blown away. I hadn’t expected to be as taken with the book, only because it’s written in verse and DAMN am I not a poetry fan. But I read it one sitting and said ‘wow’ as I set it down at the end. So when we did the B-Sides theme, I KNEW that I needed to pick “Long Way Down”.

Will is a character that the reader can instantly relate to, even if your circumstances don’t match his. He’s a person who has just suffered a great personal loss, and his grief, rage, and helplessness are pushing him towards making a huge mistake: shooting the man who he thinks killed his brother Shawn. As mentioned, this entire story, from his brother’s murder to the aftermath to Will’s experiences in the elevator, is told in poetry form. The poems split up the story into little segments, and you get the full span of anger and deep grief that Will is experiencing. Even though I don’t like poetry, it’s use in this book is incredibly evocative, and in some ways makes it more powerful because of the way Reynolds structures each poem. You know that Will is a boy who deeply loves his brother, and is within a community where cycles of violence can affect, and embitter, anyone.

I also really appreciate the way that Reynolds shows the different victims of gun violence in Will’s life, from his brother to his father to his uncle to a childhood friend. They all have different scenarios that led to their deaths, some because of a direct choice, and others because of sheer circumstance and randomness. The one that hits the hardest is that of Dani, a girl who was friends with Will when they were eight, and who died because of a stray bullet meant for someone else. But that isn’t to say that Reynolds makes any of the other victims less of a victim by including her, no matter what choices they may have made. As Serena mentioned above, Reynolds shows that they are all victims in one way or another, be it victims of gun violence of victims of a society that has forgotten about them. There are lots of greys in this book, and, as Serena mentioned, lots of ambiguity, and I think that given that life is filled with greys it hits the point home.

Reading “Long Way Down” for the second time cemented it as one of my favorite YA books as of late, and Jason Reynolds is a master who is telling stories that really need to be told. I can’t wait to see what else he brings to the literary world.

Serena’s Rating 10: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was beautiful and soul-crushing, and provided a clear-eyed look into the gun violence that exists in so many of our cities today.

Kate’s Rating 10: A powerful and emotional story about grief, loss, helplessness, and rage, “Long Way Down” makes the reader confront a very dark reality about life for some people living in America today.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This story was written in verse. How do you think this affected the story that was being told?
  2. Each page was laid out in a different way with a different structure. Was there a particular one that stood out to you? Why?
  3. Of the individuals that Will meets in the elevator, was there one whose story stood out for you? Why?
  4. This book tackles some challenging issues surrounding race, poverty, gun violence, and the police force. Were there any moments that stood out to you as presenting a new way of looking at these issues? Are there any aspects that you wish could have been explored more?
  5. The ending of this story is ambiguous. What do you think happens next and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Way Down” is on these Goodreads lists: “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas” and “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Long Way Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo

 

Book Club Review: “Challenger Deep”

18075234We 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

A-Side Book: “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman

Book Description: A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today’s most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep “a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.”

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “Challenger Deep” a couple of years ago when it was getting a lot of press and hype for its themes of mental illness. Given that I went through some nasty battles with depression in high school and college, I was very interested to see what Neal Shusterman was going to do with it, especially since I knew that his own son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teen (and therein inspired this book). Reading it the first time was a very rewarding and somewhat personal experience, but reading it a second time gave me the chance to read it knowing what was coming and how all the symbolism was going to come together.

One of the most striking things about “Challenger Deep” is how Shusterman frames it, in that it’s a very disorienting read for the reader, giving him or her a sense of what constant disorientation may feel like for those who are struggling with mental illness. Shusterman is careful to not put any kind of mental disorder into a box, and does take care to mention that this one experience that Caden is having is not necessarily universal to all people who suffer from schizophrenia. The story is all from Caden’s perspective, but you do kind of get insight into what those who are around him may be feeling based on their reactions and the decisions that they make. The parallels between what is going on in Caden’s ‘reality’ and what is going on on ‘the ship’ was very interesting to see, and it was powerful to be able to see the glimpses of reality within the hallucinations (the captain, the figurehead, etc).

I also liked that Shusterman never felt condescending or cloying in his storytelling, and never got preachy about what Caden should or shouldn’t do, or should or shouldn’t feel. He presents a situation and lets the reader decide for themselves what conclusions to draw. He also doesn’t  wrap everything up in a neat little bow; you get the sense that things aren’t over for Caden and that he will always have these struggles. As hard as that is to accept, it’s also very realistic, as mental illness is for many people something they are going to have their entire lives, degrees of seriousness changing all the time. It’s a realistic take, but it doesn’t feel bleak or nihilistic. Given that this book is so personal for Shusterman and his family, I’m not surprised that he didn’t approach it with easy answers or cut and dry solutions. I think that it’s very important that teens can see this kind of story, so that they can either see themselves in a book, or they can gain some insight into something that those close to them may be dealing with.

“Challenger Deep” is a poignant and powerful novel, and I’m pleased that we kicked off our B-Sides Book Club Theme with it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I had never read anything by Shusterman until I picked up “Scythe” last summer. So all I knew was that I liked him as a dystopian, YA author. Tackling a tough subject like mental illness is another thing all together! But I should have had faith, as Shusterman once again blew me away with his sensitive, unflinching yet compassionate, tale.

As Kate already touched on, one of the strongest aspects of this story is the subtle manner in which Shusterman depicts the slow, almost unnoticeable, descent into confusion and paranoia that Caden slips into. The reader, too, is unsure of what is happening, not only with the events on the ship, but the timeline between one section and another. It isn’t until halfway through the story that I was able to begin to piece together these two disparate storylines. This perfectly aligns with the point at which Caden, too, begins to gain a bit of clarity, though he is by no means out of the woods.

The ship itself, obviously, is an extensive metaphorical look into the world that Caden has projected around himself. However, for readers looking to gain more insight into what loved ones experiencing mental health challenges are going through, the author also sprinkles in some shockingly simple but apt comparisons that I found incredibly insightful and helpful. In this way, the book speaks not only to an “own experience” reader looking to see themselves and their challenges on the page, but also as a perfect portal for friends and family to understand a bit better what could be going on. As Kate said, Shusterman is careful to never imply that this is by any means a road map for all mental health experiences and that even any given diagnosis is not the same for every individual experiencing it.

It is clear that Shusterman was writing from a very real place, having been the parent of a teenage boy who struggled with mental health. His son not only provided insights to help direct the creation of this story, but there are also images sprinkled throughout the story that Shusterman’s son drew in the midst of his own crisis. Every time a new image appeared, I found myself taking quite a bit of time looking at it. Most were unclear, scribble-like creations that, while not clearly depicting a scene or object, spoke quite strongly to the swirl of emotions that its creator felt. Caden’s own art and his use of it to not only express himself but what he sees in others was also a great lens through which to read his experiences. His family and friends first begin to note changes in him by the changes in his art, and Caden uses his artistic ability to get at deep truths of the other teens he meets who have their own struggles.

I absolutely adored this story, and it was a great start to our new season of bookclub!

Kate’s Rating 8: A thoughtful and personal book that sensitively and carefully addresses mental illness, “Challenger Deep” is a poignant and important read for all ages.

Serena’s Rating 8: Shusterman masterfully tackles a complex and sensitive subject, creating a masterwork that will strike chords with not only those who have experienced mental illness, but by anyone who has been touched by it in their lives.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the two narratives in this book, Caden’s reality and his time on Challenger Deep? Did you enjoy both of them, or prefer one over the other?
  2. What does “Challenger Deep” mean in this story? What parts of that narrative could you see in Caden’s ‘reality’, and in what ways did they manifest?
  3. What did you think about the drawings throughout the book? Do you think that they added to the story? Why or why not?
  4. Would you recommend this book to teens who are struggling with mental health issues? Why or why not? If not, who would you recommend this book to?
  5. By the time the story is wrapping up, it becomes clear that Caden isn’t going to have the same friends in his life coming out of his experience as he did coming in? What did you think of this? Do you think it’s realistic?

Reader’s Advisory

“Challenger Deep” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Including Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”, and “YA “Brain” Novels”.

Find “Challenger Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds