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

Book Club Review: “The Golden Compass”

119322We 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: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

Publishing Info: Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 1996

Where Did We Get This Book: We both own in!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 200 (Religion)

Book Description: Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved. 

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “His Dark Materials” in college, at the insistence of my father, a huge fantasy nerd and book worm. I knew little to nothing about it when I opened the first pages of “The Golden Compass”, but was taken in almost immediately by the characters and the world that Philip Pullman created. And then my own personal copy (I have the whole series bound up in one) sat on my shelf, untouched until Anita picked “The Golden Compass” for book club. I was curious as to how I would view the book almost fifteen years after reading it the first time. But going back to “The Golden Compass” was worthwhile for me, even after all that time.

I will be honest, the stories of the entire series are so entwined in my mind that I can’t help but take influence from “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” when I look back at “The Golden Compass”. So my opinions of “The Golden Compass” now are probably affected by works that aren’t within the text of the first book, which was an interesting quandary to be in. During Book Club when Anita would ask questions about the story, I realized that my opinions of various things took influence by the series as a whole (as well as the first prequel book “The Book of Dust”), and I haven’t quite been able to remove the two. But I will do my best here. I really, really love the world that Pullman has built, an alternate universe  that have the same locations in our world, but with various changes to make it unique to its own. When he describes Oxford, it sounds like the Oxford of our world, but there are differences that make it its own unique location. Within this world are daemons, beings that take on the form of an animal and are attached to all people, functioning as a soul outside of the body. It’s such a cool concept that Pullman made of having a huge and intricate part of you on the outside instead of within. This time around reading it I definitely felt it a bit more than I did in college, as my initial thought was ‘how cool to have an animal sidekick!’. Now I was more introspective about what that would actually mean for a person.

I also really like the way that Pullman completely trusts his readers to handle the complex and dark themes that he throws their way. This book is definitely YA, but it takes on religious fundamentalism, child torture, and institutional corruption without holding much back. While the philosophical meditations on religion and dogma play out a bit more in the later two books, with The Magesterium REALLY revving up into its quest for absolute power, there are moments, like with the Gobblers that want to separate children from their daemons because they feel it attracts Dust (aka Original Sin in this world). Pullman is not shy when it comes to his thoughts on organized religion, and he doesn’t mince words about it. Reading it again reminded me just how much faith he puts in his readers to be able to tackle some of this critical thinking he encourages them to tackle.

It was really great going back and re-reading “The Golden Compass”, and now I feel like I should continue with a re-read. I feel like it held up pretty well for me, and this classic series still remains a powerhouse in YA Fantasy.

Serena’s Thoughts

Well since Kate mentioned it, I will take this opportunity to propose joint reviewing the next two books as well! Yes? Yes?

As Kate mentioned, I too struggled separating my mind with this book as a single unit outside of the trilogy as a whole. Unlike Kate, I’ve OBSESSIVELY re-read this series throughout my entire life. My mom read the first book to my sister and I when we were little, and then I remember that the next two books were various Christmas presents the years they came out. And it’s been an ongoing love affair ever since. Reading a series this way was also a peculiar experience. As a kid, most of what I got from these books was the action and yeah, “wouldn’t it be fun to have an animal side kick??” But as I’ve re-read, each time a bit older, there’s always another level to find. This alone easily earns it a spot on my top 10 lists.

But yes, reading this book alone and then discussing it for bookclub was hard. So much of the groundwork that is laid in this one seems like major plot points here, but then as you continue, expand exponentially and you realize you only had the tip of the iceberg to start with. But here it goes.

“The Golden Compass” definitely reads as the most middle grade/young adult of the series. Lyra is the singular main character and her feelings and adventures are at the center of everything that takes. The story pretty much lives and dies on whether you are interested in her. And Lyra has to be one of the great child protagonists. What makes her special is the fact that, from the beginning, it’s clear that she’s not a “good” child. She’s precocious, meddlesome, and disobedient. And yet she’s never terribly punished for these traits. Instead, all of these aspects of her personality are crucial to not only her success in this story, but to her very survival. Lying, in particular, is a specific strength of hers, and it is always presented as such: a strength. But for all this, Lyra is also incredibly brave, loyal, and loves openly, taking in those who society might overlook. All together, she makes for an excellent child lead. Pantelemon, for his part, serves as a balance to her character, and their witty banter and the supports they offer each other were always at the basis of my desire for a daemon of my own.

The story does have a slow start. I remember as a child being fairly bored for a good bit in the beginning of this story. As Kate said, Pullman doesn’t pull his punches with big ideas, and he dives right into these within the first 20 pages of the book, before readers have had time to form any other ideas for themselves. But once the action does start, it’s all great. And everything he includes strikes the perfect balance of appealing to both children and adults. Child snatchers called Gobblers? Significantly creepy for kids, but wait, they are also connected to this high-level religious dogma for adult readers. A child concentration camp where the kids break out? Great for kids! Super creepy for adults reading about events that look scarily similar to historical happenings. Armored bears? Awesome for kids! Awesome for adults! It’s really a testament to Pullman’s talent that he so neatly balance an action-packed adventure for kids while also introducing huge topics of religion and what makes up humans themselves.

And that ending! How can you NOT want read the entire series after that? Again, no punches pulled. Children are reading this, and yet Pullman doesn’t hesitate to introduce some really tough and challenging topics. Even as a kid, shocked and dismayed by these events, I remember appreciating the fact that this story felt so real, regardless of all the talk of armored bears and daemons, and I think it was because of the fact that Pullman treated these topics as not only acceptable but necessary for kids to read about as well as adults.

So, in summary, obviously I loved this book. Always have, always will.

Kate’s Rating 9: A complex and wondrous world of philosophy and fantasy, “The Golden Compass” holds up for me after all these years of holding it in high regard.

Serena’s Rating 9: A fantasy novel that finds the perfect balance to appeal to both adults and children, never shying away from addressing big topis, all while flying around in a zeppelin chasing after armored bears.

Book Club Questions

  1. Okay, everyone wants to share this: What kind of animal do you think your daemon would be? And what do you think a daemon is in that world vs our world?
  2. What did you think of the characters in this book and how did your opinions of them change as the book progressed?
  3. In this book, usually the gender of your daemon is the opposite gender from yourself, but sometimes you see a person and their daemon sharing the same gender. What do you think that Pullman was trying to convey with this?
  4. There are many different communities and groups within this world, from Oxford to The Bears to The Gyptians. Where/with whom would you want to live in this world?
  5. What religious parallels do you see between Lyra’s world and our world?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Golden Compass” is included on the Goodreads lists “Most Interesting Magic System”, and “Best Feminist Young Adult Books”.

Find “The Golden Compass” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Bookclub Review: “Book of a Thousand Days”

248484

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 “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: “Book of a Thousand Days” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, September 2007

Where Did We Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despises, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment.

As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors–one welcome, the other decidedly less so–the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have read a good number of Shannon’s Hale’s books. Not only the Princess Academy trilogy that I reviewed for this blog, but a few of her other YA stories like “The Goose Girl” and such. I’ve always loved her simple, yet beautiful, writing style, and as a fan of fairytale retellings, her work is always a hit for me. However, I don’t particularly love epistolary stories, which was the reason I held back on this one. I always have a hard time turning off my brain and not thinking about how incredibly unrealistic it is that anyone would write out entire conversations in their journal. But, I admit, I have been proven wrong in the past, and there are several books I can think of (“A Brief History of Montmoray,” for example) that I have enjoyed despite of this.

For the first third of the trilogy, I didn’t even need to bother with this concern. Dashti and the Lady Saren have been locked in a tower. There isn’t much else to do other than write extensive entries in ones journal! While some readers might feel this section is slow, I particularly enjoyed this section of the book. Not only do we have tons of character development for Dashti that builds up a good foundation for her character which goes on to drive important decisions she makes later in the story, but I enjoyed the fact that the threat wasn’t really any sort of villain. The threat was simply the looming dark, isolation, and dwindling food that came with their imprisonment. Throughout this ongoing challenge, Dashti’s strengths are apparent. She is resourceful, optimistic, hard-working, and willing to find joys in small things.

As the story progress, we move beyond the tower. I also enjoyed these segments, but I do think they were made better by what we had learned of Dashti and the Lady Saren as characters from their time in the tower. Further, as the story progressed readers are given more opportunities to fully immerse themselves in this world. I particularly appreciated the setting that Hale chose for this story, placing it in a kingdom that is similar to Mongolia. After reading a million and one European-set fairytale retellings, this choice was a breath of fresh air.

This story is also a bit more dark than some of Hale’s other works. I thought this was another big point in its favor. While Dashti herself is an optimistic character, the challenges that she face are by no means simple or easy. The villain is truly terrifying, and the sacrifices that Dashti makes throughout the book are at times heart-breaking. This layer of darkness and seriousness provided a nice balance to Hale’s simple and clear storytelling.

Beyond Dashti, the characters were excellent. As I said, the villain was worthy of the story and quite creepy. And Lady Saren was the type of character you could enjoy disliking. This was made even better by the fact that she was also a realistic character whom you couldn’t help but sympathize with. She is what she was made to be, and while that was frustrating, it also portrayed a very honest take on a character. There was also a cat, My Lord, whom we all at bookclub probably obsessed about more than is healthy.

Kate’s Thoughts

“Book of a Thousand Days” was my first foray into Shannon Hale, and as an introduction to her work I found it to be pretty good! Though fantasy of this sort isn’t really my cup of tea, I was immediately taken in by the medieval Mongolia-like setting. Like Serena, I found it to be a nice change from the Euro-centric fairy tales and fairy tale re-tellings that the genre is kind of inundated with, at least in our culture and collective consciousness. I had never heard of the fairy tale that this was based off of, so I didn’t have the context of comparison, but ultimately that didn’t matter. Hale made this story her own, and she made the characters interesting in their own right.

Character wise, I really liked Dashti. Perhaps it was because of her first person perspective vis a vis diary entries, but the way that her character changed and progressed was a really nice story to follow. She goes from being absolutely and completely devoted to Lady Saren, to a well rounded and independent person in her own right who can stand on her two feet. The choices she made, while sometimes frustrating and upsetting, were within the realm of her character. And then there’s Lady Saren, who I found to be incredibly unlikable and obnoxious. But even that characterization was wholly believable based on the way that she had been raised, and based on the dark stuff that she had gone through. They both came from various kinds of hardship and trauma in their lives, and Hale did a good job of showing different ways that we cope (without casting judgement).

I did think that the tower part was a bit stronger than the time after. I will admit that I was kind of taken by surprise that they left the tower at all. That isn’t to say that the second part of the book didn’t have well done moments or was poorly written, I just liked spending a claustrophobic and tense time as Dashti and Saren started to wonder if their food supply was going to dwindle to nothing.

And don’t even get me started about My Lord the cat.

All in all I think that “Book of a Thousand Days” was a nice fairy tale retelling, and I see why Shannon Hale has the following that she does. I don’t know when or if I’ll pick up more of her stuff, but I’m glad that I can say that I have read her work.

Serena’s Rating 9: A bit darker than some of Hale’s other works, but better for it. An excellent re-telling of a lesser known fairytale and one that features an excellent leading lady in a unique location.

Kate’s Rating 7: The great location and the awesome protagonist made this book a worthwhile read. Even though fantasy of this type isn’t really my thing, I had a fun time reading this book and give props to Hale for creating this world.

Bookclub Questions:

  1. This book is divided into three sections. How did you feel about each of these sections? Did you have a favorite? A less favorite?
  2. This book is set in a world based on Mongolia. What aspects of the world-building and the cultures of Dashti’s world spoke to you?
  3. Towards the middle of the book, Dashti makes a decision with regards to My Lord, how did you feel about this? (Like I said, we at bookclub were a bit fixated on this question!)
  4. What did you think of Khan Tegus as a character? How did his relationship with Dashti compare to romances you usually see in fairy tales?
  5. What did you think of the mucker vs gentry dynamic?
  6. What did you think of the end? Did it feel believable? Should it feel believable as a fairy tale retelling?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Book of a Thousand Days” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Lesser-Known Books” and “Best Princess Tales.”

Find “Book of a Thousand Days” at your library using WorldCat

Next Book Club Pick: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

 

Book Club Review: “Scythe”

28954189We 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: “Scythe” by Neil Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Giveaway from ALA 2017!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 600s (Medicine and Technology)

Book Description: Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Kate’s Thoughts

This book had been on my list but had never quite made it to my pile, so imagine my delight when Serena picked it for book club! I love Shusterman and his writing, and the premise itself is just like catnip to me. A future where people have conquered death, but still have to cull the population somehow, so they recruit ‘Scythes’ to do it? YES YES YES!

And it really lived up to my hopes and dreams and expectations. I liked that Shusterman thought outside the box for this book, giving us less dystopia and more utopia, but with the consequences a utopia would have. The idea that a person can regenerate to their younger physical self while maintaining everything else in their life is rich with possibilities, and I feel like Shusterman really did a good job of world building. From the Thunderhead to the small cultural things (like ‘splatting’, which sounds like the planking fad but with jumping off buildings because you can be rebuilt), he really made something that I wanted to explore to its limits.

I also really loved the characters. You have your veteran Scythes, Curie and Farraday, who both have their own approaches to ‘gleaming’, the process where they remove people from the population by killing them. Both Farraday and Curie end up as two of the mentors to our protagonists, Citra and Rowan, and their philosophies show that great care and reflection can be taken towards their jobs. An overarching theme in this is that people who are Scythes don’t want the job, and because they don’t want the job means they are the ones who should do the job. Both Farraday and Curie have these deep emotional moments surrounding that philosophy, and they were very likable and incredibly poignant. Between our protagonists I liked Citra more, but I think that’s because her arc was more about finding that balance between the job they must do, and how they can do it in the most thoughtful way possible. Rowan fell into a more used trope, as he is ultimately trained by a renegade Scythe named Goddard whose love for Scything is deeply disturbing, and his methods reflect that. I liked Rowan, I especially liked him with Citra, but where he ends up and where it looks like he’s going to go is less interesting because I feel like, as of now, we’ve seen it before.

I will say, though, that their relationship and their innate pull towards each other is going to make for a VERY interesting path in future books.

giphy14
Frankly, I’m hoping for a Veronica/JD from “Heathers” dynamic. (source)

Speaking of, I cannot wait for “Thunderhead” to come out. I’m so far down the list at the library, but oh MAN will it be worth it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I chose this book for bookclub even though I had already read (and reviewed) it. But that’s how much I enjoyed it! And it fit perfectly with my designated Dewey section which had a focus on medicine and technology. The whole story is about the effects that a perfected medical system, one that allows everyone to live forever, has on society. And for technology, we have the Thunderhead, the seemingly neutral AI that directs much of this world’s systems.

I won’t recap my entire previous review, but much of what I said then remained true in my appreciation of the book a second time. The sheer scope of creativity and attention to detail is what makes this world stand out as so fully realized and believable. Every minute aspect of society is touched by this one essential change. Without death, how would family life change? How would one approach day-to-day things like going to work or school? Would our friendships and marriages remain the same when the people we are befriending and marrying will now likely be around for centuries and “to death do us part” means a whole new thing?

Shusterman succeeds in one of the most challenging aspects of writing a dystopia/utopia storyline. Reading books like “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” it’s immediately clear to the reader that these worlds are terrible and it’s often confusing to see how they got to be where they ended up. How were people on board with that very first Hunger Games system where their children died? How did that overly complicated and nonsensically limited system of dividing people ever even get traction in “Divergent?” But here, it’s so easy to see how the world could end up in this place. Per Shusterman’s goal, the question can still be posed about whether this is a utopia OR a dystopia? Life seems pretty good for most of society and the steps that would move the world in that direction are easy enough to spot even today!

The second book has the rather ominous title of “Thunderhead,” so I’m excited to see where he is taking the series next. Will more of the curtain be pulled back and reveal a nasty underbelly to this seemingly well-ordered world? Is the Thunderhead truly a benevolent system? I’m excited to find out!

If you’d like to read my full, original review, here it is.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a creative and engrossing novel! I love the characters and the world that Shusterman created, and cannot wait to see what happens next.

Serena’s Rating 9: I loved it just as much reading it again six months later! So much so that I went ahead and pre-ordered the sequel that is coming out any day now.

Book Club Questions

  1. Shusterman set out with the goal to write a true utopia. Did he succeed? Would you want to live in this world? Are there aspects that appeal to you and others that seem particularly challenging?
  2. There are a lot of advances to medicine and technology presented in this book. Do any of them seem more plausible or likely to be invented? Any that are unbelievable?
  3. Between Citra and Rowan, were you more drawn to one or the other’s character and story? Which one and why?
  4. We are presented with several different approaches to performing the work of a Scythe. Did any particular approach stand out to you? What are you thoughts on the various method of culling that are used? Are any more or less ethical?
  5. The Thunderhead is presented as a benevolent AI and plays an unexpected role in this story. What did you make of it? Any predictions, given the next book is titled after it?
  6. If you were a Scythe, what name would you choose for yourself and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scythe” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fiction Books About Grief, Death and Loss” and “Grim Reaper Books.”

Find “Scythe” at your library using WorldCat

Next Book Club Pick: “Book of a Thousand Days” by Shannon Hale

Book Club Review: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”

30781490We 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: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, March 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 400s (Language)

Book Description: Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? This account of how dictionaries are made is for you word mavens. 

Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises–for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.

Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.

Kate’s Thoughts

So it will surprise no one here that I love to read. What may surprise people is that even though I love reading and the words that ultimately come with it, I don’t have much interest in the history or said words. When this was picked for book club, I will totally own up to the fact that I basically groaned internally. I have a hard enough time with non fiction as it is (unless it’s narrative, memoir, or true crime), so I worried that this would be a terribly boring slog to get through. The good news is that I wasn’t totally correct in this. The bad news is, like the scorpion in that old folktale, it’s in my nature to have a hard time with this kind of book no matter how engaging it is.

But I’m going to focus mostly on the good since the bad isn’t any fault of Stamper’s. “Word By Word” was a well done, and at times quite funny, overview of what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster, and the intricacies that go into adding words to and defining words for a dictionary. I guess that until I read this book it never occurred to me that there would be questions and consistently changing definitions to words, or that sometimes it can take months to settle on a most representative definition. Stamper not only talks about what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster in this capacity, she also talks about how people like her have to take so many different variables into account just to function in the best way possible. For some, some of the most interesting concepts were focused on how society perceives dictionaries, and how they actually are supposed to function. Within this was the authority myth, in that if a word is defined one way in the dictionary, this is the bottom line because the dictionary said so. Stamper points out that this just isn’t the case; dictionaries are not supposed to be authorities on definitions, they are merely there to record and relay these definitions. Language is always changing, and therefore the meanings of words are changing too.

My reservations and hesitations about this book (aka why it was a slog) was going back to my nature: I am very picky about my non fiction. I merely want to reiterate that for my ultimate rating, because it was based on form, not substance. This book also gave our book club a LOT to talk about, which was really, really excellent. So while “Word By Word” wasn’t really my cup of tea, I can see it being very appealing to a lot of people who aren’t me.

Serena’s Thoughts

As evidenced by the content of this blog, neither Kate or I are big nonfiction readers. If anything, Kate is more of a nonfiction reader than I am, and as seen in her thoughts above, she’s still not that into it. At least she has true crime to back her up as not completely stuck in the “fiction only” section that I am. I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single nonficton book on this blog. I don’t say this out of pride or anything. I really wish I liked nonfiction more than I do. There are a few exceptions to this, but usually it’s when books are thrust upon me my trusted friends and family. So, while I would never have picked up this book on my own, I’m so glad that our fellow bookclub librarian, Katie, recommended it! I found myself very much enjoying it, and while it isn’t changing my mind on nonfiction as a whole, that’s too big of an ask for any book.

I’ll also confess that I didn’t read this book in the traditional front-to-back method, and I really think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed it more than I would have otherwise. Instead, I picked a chapter here and a chapter there, skipping forward and backward through the book based on my interests. For example, I started with the “irregardless” chapter, because, yes, that word and all the controversy around it does intrigue me! From there, I found myself in a chapter document acronyms and how rarely the much bandied explanations for words’ origins having to do with acronyms is true. We’ve all probably heard of some acronym for the “f” word, for example. The author does an excellent job exploring why acronyms are so rarely involved with a word’s definition.

As I read, I mostly found myself gather ammo for word-related conversations. As a librarian and book lover, these are the exact sorts of disagreements and discussions that I regularly find myself in, and I loved getting some more detailed background knowledge on my side going forward. As Kate said, for this reason, I’m sure, our bookclub probably had more to say with regards to this book than we’ve had for many other books recently. In this way, this book is an excellent choice for other bookclubs out there. Especially for those that have members who may not be totally bought into nonfiction. I recommend my reading strategy, specifically, for those folks. I think I had an easier time than Kate just because of this. By hopping around, picking it up to read a chapter here and a chapter there, I never had to confront the general dismay about the long slog ahead that results from starting in the beginning, especially starting with a non-enthralled position.

I also really think that had I not found my calling as a librarian that working on a dictionary like this like may have been another dream job. I had an assignment in a publishing class back in undergrad to create an index for a book, and similar to that, dictionary work seems appealing nit-picky and focused on organization. I also would have had a lot of fun writing snarky answers to the people who wrote in with complaints about the inclusion of the word “irregardless” in the dictionary. Really, could I just have that job? Answering dictionary-related complaint mail?

Kate’s Rating 6: An enlightening examination of how dictionaries are compiled and the role they play, as well as fascinating questions raised about language in modern society. It was a bit of a dry read for me at times, but overall a worthwhile one.

Serena’s Rating 8: I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this! There was a lot of history of words and details of dictionary work that I didn’t know, and by reading it one chapter at a time I was able to hold off my own non-fiction antipathy.

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you surprised about anything about this job? Would you want it?
  2. Grammar snobs: heroes or obnoxious?
  3. What do you think about the social justice implications of language/dialects?
  4. Does the history of words, or etymology, interest you? Why or why not?
  5. What words do you hope get added to future dictionaries?

Reader’s Advisory

“Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” is on the Goodreads lists “Microhistory: Social Histories of Just One Thing”, and “Best Non-Fiction Books About Books and Reading”.

Find “Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” at your library using WorldCat!