Book Club Review: “Eliza and Her Monsters”

31931941We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Eliza and Her Monsters” by Francesca Zappia

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

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

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

Book Club Review: “The Inquisitor’s Tale”

29358517We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

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

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

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

 

Book Club Review: “Ghost”

28954126We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

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

Book: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Publishing Info: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, August 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Running. That’s all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race — and wins — the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. Thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger, and a past that he is trying to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Kate’s Thoughts

It occurred to me and the rest of book club that we have been dong a fair  amount of Middle Grade books for this session! Which, hey, that’s just fine. I know that for some of us, me included to a certain extent, the fear with middle grade is that the book may rely less on nuance and more on being explicitly clear about what is going on. But the good news is that with “Ghost,” one of the deluge of books by Jason Reynolds recently, the story never seems to underestimate the middle grade audience. Not only are the themes of this book pretty sophisticated, such as parental abuse, systematic oppression, and bullying, but Reynolds doesn’t seem to feel a need to water anything down. Ghost is a very intriguing and complex protagonist, who is dealing with a large amount of trauma due to his father trying to kill him and his mother when he was younger. I thought that Reynolds addressed this trauma in a way that wasn’t told but definitely shown. Ghost has a lot to deal with, and while his first person POV never explicitly describes how he’s dealing, the reader gets a very clear sense of how much this continues to haunt him. Though I’ll be honest, the sports theme wasn’t really my thing, just because I myself am not really a sports oriented person (outside of hockey and baseball). I was definitely skimming the more sports oriented parts, and wanted to get back to Ghost’s personal life and struggles.

I think it’s also important to note that I greatly appreciate the fact that “Ghost” is a book that has People of Color as the default. What I mean by this is that in many books, ‘white’ is kind of the default character, so when the author describes someone, their skin is kind of assumed to be white, while characters of color have their skin described almost right off the bat. In this book, however, it’s the opposite, and the white characters are the ones who are described as if they are outside the norm. Given that the middle grade and YA publishing industry is still struggling with diversity, this was refreshing.

I liked “Ghost” quite a bit and I think that a lot of kids could find a lot of things to like about it as well.

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate said, sports books aren’t really my thing either. Unless it’s, like, magical horse racing or something. I read a few as a kid, like the almost required “Maniac Magee,” but never really went beyond that. But “Ghost” has received a lot of attention as a great new addition to middle grade fiction, including both a diverse cast of characters and a story/topic that is likely to appeal to middle grade boys (the age-group-bane of most public librarians’ existence!), so I was excited to try it out. And while sports books will never be my thing, I found myself quite enjoying this one.

Reynolds expertly mixes the two primary parts that make up this book: track and life trauma. The obvious parallels about literally and figuratively running away from one’s struggles are never hit on the head too fully, and I appreciate the author’s dexterity in creating a story that doesn’t simplify the realities its main character has lived through. As an adult reader I very much enjoyed such literary touches as opening the story with the shot of the gun his father is aiming at Ghost and his mother and closing it with the shot of the pop gun to begin the race. This ability to weave real depth into the story while also creating a relatable main character with an excellent voice that would appeal to young readers really makes this book stand out. Ghost himself could make me laugh on one page and want to shake him on the next.

I also enjoyed the fact that the sport in question was track. There are tons of books out there about the more traditional sports like football, basketball, and more and more often, soccer. But track with its strange balance of individual stakes and teamwork was a unique sport to choose. My own track career was very short (due to a happy ankle sprain that got me out of it, essentially), but I still enjoyed reading the sporting portion of the book as well.

Reading books like this is why I particularly enjoy being involved in a great bookclub. I’m consistently challenged to read outside of my own comfort zone and discover excellent books like this that I likely would never have stumbled upon myself.

Kate’s Rating 8: While I don’t really care about the sports themes of this book, I liked Ghost and the other members of the track team, as well as the way that Reynolds tackled some pretty complex themes.

Serena’s Rating 8: “Ghost” was an excellent middle grade book that provided deep commentary on important topics while never losing sight of its own story and audience.

Book Club Questions

  1. What do you think motivates Ghost to run at the beginning of the book? Do you think that has changed by the end of it?
  2. What did you think of how Coach dealt with Ghost stealing the shoes? Why do you think Ghost impulsively stole the shoes in the first place?
  3. The end of the book is fairly ambiguous about how the track team ended up in the race. Did you wish that there was a definitive ‘win’ or ‘lose’ outcome? Do you think the book needed that?
  4. What did you think of the other members of the track team? This is going to be a series that follows each of these kids. Whose story are you most excited for, and why?
  5. This is a middle grade book, though Reynolds is known for writing YA books as well. How do you think this book would have been different had it been written for a YA audience?

Reader’s Advisory

“Ghost” is included on the Goodreads lists “2016 YA/MG Books with POC Leads”, and “2017 Mock Newbery.

Find “Ghost” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog”.

Book Club Review: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a Short Story Collection” challenge.

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

24561496Book: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” by Ellen Oh (Editor)

Publishing Info: Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: the library!

Book Description: Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

Kate’s Thoughts

The “We Need Diverse Books” movement is one that I have been following for a bit now. Basically, it’s goal is to promote, publish, and highlight books by diverse authors, and tell stories of many different viewpoints and experiences, especially in children’s and young adult literature. When our dear friend and fellow librarian Alicia picked the short stories collection “Flying Lessons” for our book club, I threw it on my request list and got it almost immediately. I also happened to read it during the first attempt this administration made on implementing a travel ban into this country. So yeah, this felt like a very pertinent read, especially since the hope is that diverse books will build empathy to other experiences.

Like most short stories collection, it had some highs and lows. But luckily, it was mostly highs! I really liked the varied authors that contributed to this, and how they all offered so many different kinds of stories without feeling like a box was getting checked off. I expected no less from Ellen Oh, one of the instrumental members of We Need Diverse Books. I will focus on my two favorites.

“Sol Painting, Inc” by Meg Medina: I love the other books by Medina that I’ve read (“Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass”; “Burn, Baby, Burn”), and I was very excited to see that she had a story in this collection. She does a great job of showing one snippet of a day in the life of Merci, Roli, and Mr. Sol, who are Latinx and have a family painting business. While Mr. Sol and and younger sister Merci really love this business, so much so that Merci wants to open her own home improvement empire someday, the elder brother, Roli, is starting to feel embarrassed by it, and would prefer to focus on science things. Medina does a great job of showing the discomfort that Roli has surrounded by his very white peers in a very white space when they go to paint the high school gym, in exchange for tuition for Merci. This story also feels very real in Merci’s voice, as she is the narrator. She doesn’t understand her brother’s self loathing or her father’s self sacrificing. This is probably the saddest story in the bunch, but it was my favorite.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin: Lin takes us back in time to long ago China. It follows the story of Lingsi, a servant girl who is also educated, as it was her mother’s dying wish and her mistress, fearful of being cursed with bad luck, agreed. Lingsi and her house are traveling to try and find a wife for the only son of the family, a cruel and idiotic lout. But as they are traveling, they are attacked by pirates, and Lingsi finds herself in a very surprising situation. I loved Lin’s story telling in this one, as I could totally see everything and hear everything with perfect clarity. It was also neat seeing a surprising feminist twist within this story. No spoilers here. But let’s just say that there is a history of female pirates during this time period. This story was fun and definitely satisfying.

I really liked “Flying Lessons”, and I think that it’s a great collection of short stories that all kids will love.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m always a bit hesitant about short story collections for a few reasons. First is the same reason that Kate laid out earlier and is true to a certain extent with this one: there can be a variety in quality from one story to another which can be an off-putting reading experience. Secondly, writing a short story is a completely different beast than writing a novel, a fact that I think many authors tend to forget and that then leads to questionable short story collections. Publishers simply paste all the big author names together on one title and think it’s a clear win, with no understanding that many of the skills and traits that make an author successful as a novelist may not carry over to a short story collection.

So, with all of this in mind, I was hesitant about this book, especially as it was often marketed and sold on the fame of the authors’ works it included. But, while there were a few misses, I was happy with the collection as a hole and there were a few stories that particularly stuck out. Kate already discussed two of my favorites, but I’ll throw in a third.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist: This story follows Isaiah Dunn, a young boy coping with the death of his father and with his mother’s subsequent fall into alcoholism. Just with that short description, you know going in that this was one of the heavier titles in the book. But this story was so incredibly powerful for it! Grief itself is a huge subject, but the story also touches on so many other factors that all get swirled together in a the life-changing impact that comes with the loss of a parent. The trying economic situation of the family, the mother’s coping method, and the hope that can be found amidst it all is beautifully illustrated in this tale. I particularly appreciated the rather meta use of the power of stories that is brought to being in this story after Isaiah finds a old book of his father’s stories. Isaiah’s voice is also particularly strong, effectively portraying the innocence of childhood but never short-changing his ability to deeply understand the world around him.

As Kate said, there were a few weaker stories included, but even these would likely be well-received by the middle grade target audience of this book. All in all, I greatly enjoyed this collection and its ability to tell important stories without falling under the weight of too much “agenda.”

Kate’s Rating 8: A fun, touching, and varied collection of stories from some of the best children’s and YA authors out there.

Serena’s Rating 8: What else should we have expected from this strong collection of children’s/YA authors? Its strength lies largely in the variety of stories included, both in tone and subject matter.

Book Club Questions:

1.) What was your favorite story in the collection? Why?

2.) Were there any stories that didn’t work for you as well?

3.) This book sets out to present a very diverse collection of stories. Are there any perspectives that you felt were missing?

4.) Were you familiar with any of these authors before? Did any of them have particular writing strengths that appealed to you?

5.) A lot of thought goes into the order in which stories are arrange din a short story collection. Were there any changes you would make to this line up and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flying Lessons and Other Stories” is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 YA/MG Books With POC Leads”, and “YA Short Stories and Collections”.

Find “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”

16054808We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a Maud Hart Lovelace award winner” challenge.

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

Book: “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” by Chris Grabenstein

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, January 2013

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Kyle Keeley is the class clown, popular with most kids, (if not the teachers), and an ardent fan of all games: board games, word games, and particularly video games. His hero, Luigi Lemoncello, the most notorious and creative gamemaker in the world, just so happens to be the genius behind the building of the new town library.

Lucky Kyle wins a coveted spot to be one of the first 12 kids in the library for an overnight of fun, food, and lots and lots of games. But when morning comes, the doors remain locked. Kyle and the other winners must solve every clue and every secret puzzle to find the hidden escape route. And the stakes are very high.

In this cross between “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “A Night in the Museum,” Agatha Award winner Chris Grabenstein uses rib-tickling humor to create the perfect tale for his quirky characters. Old fans and new readers will become enthralled with the crafty twists and turns of this ultimate library experience.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am a pretty big fan of both “The Westing Game” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, so when our book club compatriot Katie picked “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”, I was pretty interested. The comparisons were made pretty starkly between this book and those classics, so I went in with highish, if not tentative, hopes. BIG SHOES TO FILL, MR. LEMONCELLO!

Overall, I did basically like this book, though most of that is probably because I’m a librarian and this book reads like a Valentine to the profession. While the characters themselves are fairly stock and two dimensional (Kyle is the imperfect but charming protagonist, Mr. Lemoncello is basically Willy Wonka, Charles is the priggish and snooty nemesis, etc), the little literary touches are great. There are multiple books referenced in this story, many more than I would have expected for the target audience of this book (middle grade and elementary school age), but I liked that Grabenstein was referencing Fyodor Dostoyevsky along with Arthur Conan Doyle. This book is filled with many puzzles and riddles as well, seeing as Mr. Lemoncello is an expert game maker, whose newest game is figuring out how to escape from the new library in town. But not only are the clues distributed in puzzles and riddles, to even get to the puzzles and riddles the characters have to utilize the library and its resources! What did I say about a Valentine to my profession???? From teaching about the Dewey Decimal system to the different functions of the public library, this is a pretty good introduction about how kids, inside and outside the story alike, can use the library to get the information they’re looking for.

This was a quick read that I was able to get through in an afternoon. I definitely see how kids would find it a fun read, but I do kind of wonder how well it would crossover to adults if they aren’t library-oriented. And while it’s true that there doesn’t have to be crossover from kid’s books to adult books, I always think it’s nice when a story can be appealing to all ages. I think that sometimes it did feel less like an homage to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Westing Game,” and teetered towards just kind of copying it and its themes. However, I did like that in this book teamwork and friendship definitely play more prevalent themes than they do in the previous books. I like that asking for help and partnership wasn’t derided or dismissed.

Overall I found this to be a fun and quick read, and I enjoyed it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve had a bit of a hard time knowing how to start this review or really work out what I think about this book. On one had, there’s no denying the appeal as a librarian to a book that is essentially a massive love letter to the profession. And for middle graders, the puzzles, games, and adventures are sure to please. But…I was still a bit “so so” on the book overall, and I think maybe it’s a case of what Kate said, this book not being written for adults and perhaps not crossing over as well as others of its kind. But maybe it’s also a bit of “author’s agenda is showing?”

If I wanted a guide to the wonders of the library in novel format, I wouldn’t look any further than this book. As an introduction to the library and to all the different ways a library can be a marvelous place for learning, for fun, and for so many others things, this book is spot on. But it’s almost too spot on. If that was the book’s goal, essentially to just be something that public libraries hand out to get kids interested in the library, than sure. But the novel portion of it seemed to be lacking, in my opinion.

Most of the children characters felt too much like stock characters with very little development or character growth. And the plot/adventures were a bit too close to set up of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And in the midst of all the library love, the narrative sometimes seemed to take a nose dive into the twee.

So, this all sounds pretty negative, and I don’t really mean it that way. For a middle grade reader, I’m sure this book would be a massive hit. And as a librarian, I can never complain about finding a good novel to brainwash the kiddies into loving the library as much as I do. But as an adult reader and book critic, this one was a bit too sugary sweet for me and the “teach kids about the library” agenda was a bit too on the nose.

I did enjoy all the book name dropping, as Kate mentioned as well, and I applaud the author for bringing in titles/authors that most middle graders will need to follow up on on their own. Hopefully using the newly discovered wonder that is the library!

Kate’s Rating 7: A fun and quick read that promotes librarianship. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s cute for what it is.

Serena’s Rating 6: Same. A fun, quick read that is in love with the library. But it didn’t translate as well for me, as an adult reader.

Book Club Questions:

1.) This book has several similarities to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Does it stand on its own, in your opinion?

2.) This book works very hard to teach children about the library. Of all the lessons, what do you think the book most successfully taught kids who are reading this book?

3.) What were a few of your favorite book references? What other works would you have included?

4.) Is there any character growth you would have liked to see added to any of the characters?

5.) This book is a hit with young readers. But as Kate and I have expressed, more of a challenge for older readers. Is there a way to make this more appealing for adults? Should this even be a concern?

The author has also provided this great reading guide for the book for kids, so if you read this with a group of children, this is a really fun, helpful resource! Here it is!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books about Books and Libraries”, and “The Games We Play”.

Find “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” at your library using WorldCat!

The Next Book Club Book Is “Beauty” by Robin McKinley

Book Club Review: “The Neverending Story”

27712We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the 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 “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a book that has been translated from a different language” challenge.

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

Book: “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende

Publishing Info: Thienemann Verlag, 1979

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it,

Book Description: This epic work of the imagination has captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide since it was first published more than a decade ago. Its special story within a story is an irresistible invitation for readers to become part of the book itself. And now this modern classic and bibliophile’s dream is available in hardcover again.

The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place–by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic–and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the courage to face unspeakable foes and the mysteries of his own heart.

Readers, too, can travel to the wondrous, unforgettable world of Fantastica if they will just turn the page….

Kate’s Thoughts

We are finally back to our book club, which means that we are finally back to our book club posts! This time around, the theme was pretty fun; we each came up with two themes that we put into a hat, and then whichever suggestions you drew, you had to pick what theme you wanted to do. One of the suggestions I got was “A book translated from another language.” It was in that moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do: “The Neverending Story.” I had grown up watching the movie (and its first sequel, “Neverending Story 2”), and I’m pretty sure that I wore out the video cassette of it that we had. What can I say, eight year old Kate had a pretty serious thing for the movie’s version of Atreyu.

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To  girl me this was SO BADASS!!! (source)

But it took me awhile to actually read the book. The first time was when I was in middle school. I’ve re-read it a few times since then, but it had been awhile. And I knew that going into it I would probably expose myself to criticism and having to rethink one of my favorite books from childhood. But that was actually good for me, in the end.

There are a number of themes that can be found in this book. Sure, there is the usual ‘hero’s cycle’ theme that both Atreyu the warrior and Bastian Balthazar Bux go through. But along with that we get the themes of childhood, broken innocence, grief, and imagination. The book is split into two distinct parts: the first is Bastian acting as a (not actually) passive part of a fantasy story at hand, where the world of Fantastica is falling apart because their leader, the Childlike Empress, is dying. But it’s also because The Nothing is tearing apart the very fabric of its world. But then the second half is about how Bastian, seen as the savior of Fantastica, is taken to a world that is not his own, and is corrupted by the power he is given to save it. While they could easily read as two distinct books, as far as Bastian’s journey goes it comes full circle. I had forgotten that Bastian was such a little punk for the second half of the book, as most of my fond memories come from Atreyu’s journey. But I think that it was a very interesting choice for Ende to make the hero we’re meant to relate to and root for from the get go the one that we’re rooting against by the end. But along with that theme is the ever permeating spectre of grief that haunts the story. Fantastica is falling apart and losing itself, many of its inhabitants dying (including Atreyu’s faithful horse Artax, and don’t even think of telling me that this isn’t one of the saddest moments in movie history, jerks!). But along with that is the fact that Bastian’s mother has recently passed away, leaving Bastian feeling empty and his father lost in his own sadness, and unable to care for his child. Of course Bastian wants to run away from his life; a land of luck dragons and magic and Childlike Empresses has got to be better than the reality he’s living. Even if that land is hard and imperfect as we soon realize it is. Bastian learns that the strongest thing that a person can have is not power, but love, and that his love is needed in his own world, no matter how hard that world is. And Ende created a wonderful cast of characters to help the reader explore these themes, from the brave and loyal Atreyu to the kind and optimistic Falkor the Luck Dragon. God I love Falkor.

There are, of course, some things that left me feeling a bit cringy as I read it. As much as I really, really do love Atreyu, and think that he’s a great character and a wonderful hero for the first half of the book, it complete smacks of European cluelessness that he is clearly based on American Indian Indigenous cultures and merely in a superficial way. While he is himself a complex and well rounded character, the only things we really know about his people and culture is that 1) they hunt buffalo, and 2) they have mystical rights of passage that involve hunting these buffalo, as well as spiritual dreams/connections to said buffalo. It reeked of the ‘Indian as mystic’ trope that is far too prevalent in popular culture and literature. It’s also pretty disconcerting that there are very few women in this book, and the ones that are there are not terribly fleshed out. The Childlike Empress is wise and mysterious, but we know little about her outside of her purity and goodness. The various females Atreyu meets on his journey are just there to give him some info or advice. And then there’s Xayide. She is literally an evil sorceress who is just there to fuck things up for Bastian and turn him against his friends. Not exactly empowering.

All that said, however, I still really enjoyed going back and reading “The Neverending Story.” I think that as an old school fantasy novel it still holds up pretty well, the characters still very beloved and the story still entertaining and wondrous.

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when Kate picked this book as her bookclub choice. I feel like my experience of this story is the same as Kate’s which is the same as many girls our age: it all began with a strong crush on Atreyu from the movie. I mean, c’mon, let’s admit that we all loved him!

atreyu
(source)

However, I never made it past the movie version of the story (though I, too, wore out my VHS copy of the film). I did know that the movie only focused on the first half of the book and while I did watch the sequel film once (I remember that they re-cast Atreyu and I’m pretty sure kid!Serena saw that as an unforgivable crime and never looked back), I have no memory of the story. So I was especially curious to get the second half of the book.

But let’s start with the first half! Right off that bat I was horrified…by the fact that the magical land is called “Fantastica” and I’ve known it as “Fantasia” all along! What is this change?? Cuz now I’m all mixed up about it since I’ve known it as “Fantasia” my whole life only now to discover that this was a change from the original! This was a major internal conflict for me throughout the book. But on a more serious note, I very much enjoyed this first half and how true to the book the movie really did stay in this part. There were changes here and there, some that I preferred in the movie (I think the tension was greater in the movie with the First Gate sphynxs than the way they were described to work in the book) and some that I preferred in the book (man, somehow Artax’s death CAN be even more traumatic!)

I very much the extra insight (though its still very minimal) with regards to the relationship between the Childlike Empress and the land of Fantasia itself. While still confusing and never fully explained, I felt like the connection between her, The Nothing, and the land of Fantasia (I just now realized that I’ve been typing Fantasia instead of Fantastica this whole time! See?! It’s hard!) is a better lain out in the book. I also really liked the character of Atreyu. He was heroic in the movie, but here we see even more how impossible his task was when it was given to him and how brave he would have to be to move forward with so little hope of success.

Bastian on the other hand…Look, I never really liked him in the movie and I didn’t really like him here. Though, I will say that I liked him better in the first half of the book than I did in the movie that covered this portion. Here he’s a bit bumbling, but he picks up on what is going on in a more willing way. Maybe it was just the kid actor in the movie, but I never really liked Bastian there. Kid-me always got very annoyed by the way he reacted to the realization that he was in the book. He got angry instead of inspired, and as a kid who always wanted to live in a book, too, I was never impressed by him.

But then we get to the second half and now I feel completely justified in my initial dislike of him as a kid. Maybe that actor was just channeling this portion of the character all along and was simply done a diservice by only portraying the first half’s version who is supposed to be the more sympathetic of the two. I had a harder time with this portion and I can see why the movie stuck to the first half of the book. It’s just always going to be a bit of a hard sell when you main character turns into a real brat. As Kate mentioned, there are some lovely themes of grief and love throughout this all, but I’m still a bit biased towards the first half. Though this is honestly probably due to the movie’s lasting influence on me. Oh well!

Kate already covered a few of the problematic issues of the book, so I won’t go into them myself. They were distracting, but I wouldn’t say anything was overly offensive to a point that it affected my reading of the story. Just a bit unfortunate, ultimately.

All told, I very much enjoyed this book! While I enjoyed the first half more than the second, it was an interesting read altogether. I imagine especially for the time the “metaness” of the story itself was particularly interesting, and, even now when this approach has been explored in other books (“The Princess Bride” comes to mind a bit), it still has some fresh takes on a story-within-a-story.

Kate’s Rating 9: Though it is certainly not perfect and has some flaws that I had a hard time overlooking, “The Neverending Story” is still a fun and wondrous fantasy book with lots of deep and meaningful themes and lovely characters.

Serena’s Rating 8: I second what Kate said! One point lower for me as I did find myself struggling a bit at times with my increasing dislike of Bastian, but still a thoroughly enjoyable read!

Book Club Questions:

1) What do you think about the world of Fantastica and how it’s influenced by our world? Is the thought of readers having influence on stories a theme that you enjoyed?

2)Ende clearly took some influence from American Indian cultures/stereotypes when he created the character of Atreyu. How do you feel about him as a character throughout this story? What do you think of his portrayal?

3)Bastian starts out the story as a passive character who is merely reading a book, but finds out that he has the ability to influence the world of Fantastica. What did you think of his journey from the beginning of the story to the end?

4)In this book there is the constant spectre of devastation, grief, and loss, be it the destruction of Fantastica by the Nothing to the loss of Bastian’s mother. What do you think Ende was trying to say about these feelings of despair and grief within human nature?

5)There are many instances within this book where Ende would hint at other stories and adventures of certain characters, but would say ‘but that’s another story and shall be told another time’. Which of these stories would you most want to learn about?

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Neverending Story” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Doors, Portals, Gates”, and “Quests”.

Find “The Neverending Story” at your library using WorldCat!

The next book club book is “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”!

Bookclub Review: “A Brief History of Montmaray”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have gone the extra mile and created our own bookclub. 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 “Across the Decades,” we each drew a decade and had to select a book that was either published or set in that decade.

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

6341739Book: “A Brief History of Montmaray” by Michelle Cooper

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2009

Where Did We Get This Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

Kate’s Thoughts

So as a fan of “Downton Abbey”, and as a fan of kicking the shit out of Nazis, I had high hopes that “A Brief History of Montmaray” would combine the best of both worlds. I had this vision of Mary Crawley punching an S.S. officer in the face a la “Indiana Jones” while making some snippy and cruel remark, and in my mind that was just the best damn thing that I had ever thought of in the history of ever, crossover wise.

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And she’ll never tell where the bodies are buried either. (source)

While the book did have some likable characters (the cousin Veronica, in particular) overall I was a bit disappointed that “A Brief History of Montmaray” was more focused on the dysfunctional, if quirky, royal family and the problems that they are facing in love, life, and succession. Our narrator, Sophie, is pretty good at laying out the family lines and showing how the royal family connects to each other (King John has no male heir, so the next in line should be his nephew Toby, Sophie’s older brother). Sophie, not having as much investment in the royal line to the throne, is a good choice for narrator, as she doesn’t have the pressure of being a direct heir like her brother, nor does she have the frustration of being an ineligible heir like her cousin based solely on her gender. Because of this she can present a pretty fair view of how things are supposed to work in this family. She is a fine narrator and a good lens to see these conflicts, but at the same time she isn’t as interesting as I wanted her to be. I much preferred Veronica, the incredibly intelligent and capable daughter of the King, who would make a fine queen if only Montmaray approved of female succession. She was by far the most interesting character, as she has so much more interest in her home country than Toby, the flaky rightful heir. It’s the perfect example of an unjust and sexist society that is probably really screwing itself over. Veronica is also quite well rounded, probably the most well rounded of all the characters. She is cunning and ambitious, but also loves her home and her family, so much so that she puts rightful succession above all else even though you know she is aching for it. Had the story been following Veronica’s POV, I think that I would have been able to forgive it a bit more for not focusing on the Nazi storyline, and the storyline about how Europe was in serious, serious danger at this time. I do realize that this is a series and that there were two other novels to focus on that, and that this novel was more about introducing us to this family. But to me, the family wasn’t the part that I wanted to focus on outside of Veronica. It was a bit too “I Capture The Castle” for me, a book that I recognize as being significant and a classic, but one that I also am not terribly fond of as a whole.

And yes, I’m resentful that there weren’t enough Nazis, at least not as much as the summary would suggest. True, the Germans do land on Montmaray, sending the FitzOsbourne family into turmoil for many reasons. But they are there for a moment in the middle, and then come back at the end. The rest of the book is about the family and their squabbles and scandals. And hey, I like a nice soap as much as the next person, but it all felt kind of trite compared to the things I knew were coming, even further into the series. It’s hard for me to care about awful (AWFUL) housekeepers and their stupid secrets when I know that a whole lot of awful pain is about to rain down on the rest of Europe. And maybe for me it’s still a little raw since there was recently just footage of a bunch of these guys doing the Hitler salute in D.C. But had I known that the family malarky and hoopla was going to be the focus (aka, more “Downton” and less “Indiana Jones”), my expectations would have been more in line with how it turned out, and therefore I would have been more receptive to it. As it was, I kept saying to myself “BUT WHEN ARE ALL THE NAZIS GOING TO REALLY GET THEIR COMEUPPANCE?!”

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Preferably in this kind of endgame situation. (source)

So I think that it’s fair to say that “A Brief History of Montmaray” was at a disadvantage because of misplaced expectations. It’s not necessarily the fault of Cooper, but more so how it was promoted. I loved Veronica, but that was about the only thing that I really enjoyed, and sadly that’s not really enough to keep me going.

Serena’s Thoughts

This book had been on my reading list for a while as it was well reviewed by several other blogs that I followed. And when I ended up with the 30s as my decade of choice for our bookclub theme this go-around, it seemed like a perfect time to finally get around to it!

As the historical fiction reviewer on this blog, it’s probably not a surprise that I enjoyed this book more than Kate. For the most part, the historical detail is what captures me in these stories, and I enjoy books about quirky families (ala “Anne of Green Gables” and Jane Austen novels). The addition of a bit more action than is usually found in this type of book was the extra cherry on the top for me.

I agree with Kate’s assessment of the characters themselves. Sophie was an interesting narrator and I enjoyed the transformation she goes through during this book. The combination of teenage silliness mixed with a healthy dose of self-awareness with regards to said silliness made her a very endearing teenage protagonist. Veronica, however, is the type of character I generally gravitate towards. Intelligent, snappy, and a girl who firmly has her head on her shoulders. Seriously, nothing would get done if Veronica wasn’t there. And she has by far the most challenging set of circumstances to deal with, what with the sexism involved in the rules of ascension and the terrible family life (crazy dad who hates her, abandoned by her mother).

As for the boys involved, I found myself increasingly frustrated with Simon, the set up love interest for Sophie. I couldn’t help agreeing with Veronica’s assessment of him as a bit of a self-serving prat. And while I generally liked Toby, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with his selfishness. I mean, the guy gets to go out and live in the world to go to school, make friends, be in society, and, yes, there are responsibilities to being the heir, but that’s a huge amount of privilege, too. So for him to whine to his cousin and sisters who are living in a castle that is literally falling down around them and who have no friends of any sort really just seems ridiculous and made me want to slap some sense into him.

As for the Nazi involvement: I actually really appreciated that this book didn’t go the expected route with them. There was a lot of discussion with regards to the political climate in Europe and it does a lot to remind modern readers that the Nazi party didn’t just sprout out of the ground fully formed. There were a lot of moving pieces and many years went by before it became clear just what everyone was dealing with. There were some interesting nuggets that were very…Indiana Jones-ish…and were quite fun, and another lesser used mode of introducing Nazis into the story. I do agree that the book summary can be misleading, so if you go into it expecting clashes with Nazis and said comeuppance served upon them it might not be for you. However, given the year that this is set in, and that it’s the first in a trilogy, I guess I was more prepared for delayed gratification re: Nazi destruction.

All in all, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It’s definitely more geared towards readers who enjoy slower paced historical novels. There’s a good amount of family drama, family mystery ala books like “Rebecca,” and historical detail. And, while there is action and Nazis towards the end, those aspects definitely come later and don’t take up as much page time as the rest.

Kate’s Rating 6: Though I greatly enjoyed the character of Veronica, overall the story didn’t match my expectations, and therefore didn’t grab me as I thought it would.

Serena’s Rating 8: Strong historical detail and interesting characters, though beware the lighter Nazi involvement if that’s what you were here for!

Bookclub Questions:

1.) How did we feel about Sophie as a narrator? What do you think the story would have been like if it had been told from the perspective of a different character?

2.) Montmaray is an imaginary kingdom that is meant to exist in an otherwise historically accurate version of Europe. Did it succeed in this way? Were there aspects of the historical set-up that you particularly enjoyed or found distracting?

3.) The Nazis: How did you feel about them? Their entrance into the story, their mission, and the resolution to their involvement?

4) For a first-person narrated story, it feels as if we get a good amount of detail about many of the side characters. Were there characters who stood out? What about Rebeca and Simon?

5) The book does seem to involve some supernatural elements, how did you feel about this inclusion and twist?

6.) This is the first in a trilogy. Where do you think/want the story to go from here?

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Brief History of Montmaray” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Fiction Set During WWII”, and “Best YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “A Brief History of Montmaray” at your library using WorldCat.

The Next Book Selection: Not sure yet! We’re at the switching point between one “season” and another. For our next theme, we all chose two things (“a book that’s been turned into a musical!” or “a book about animals!”) and had to draw from a hat for our own options. We’ll see what comes up!