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!

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(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!

Bookclub Review: “Revolution”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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! 

Book: “Revolution” by Deborah Wiles

Publishing Info: Scholastic Press, May 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.
 
As she did in her groundbreaking documentary novel COUNTDOWN, award-winning author Deborah Wiles uses stories and images to tell the riveting story of a certain time and place — and of kids who, in a world where everyone is choosing sides, must figure out how to stand up for themselves and fight for what’s right.

Kate’s Thoughts

So “Revolution” is part of a series called the “Sixties Trilogy”. A chunk of our bookclub read the first in the series, “Countdown”, in our Children’s Literature class in grad school, and I was wondering if “Revolution” was going to need “Countdown” to serve as a context and foundation. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that a reader could easily skip over “Countdown” and read “Revolution” first if they so chose. While I did enjoy “Countdown” (which is about a girl living on an army base during the Cuban Missile Crisis), I actually enjoyed “Revolution” a bit more. “Revolution” takes on one of the most important and tumultuous times from the 1960s, Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Like “Countdown” this book is both a novel and a documentation of the time period through photos, quotes, and documents. There are many photos of African Americans in Mississippi and the SNCC volunteers, along with biopic sections and influential quotes and song lyrics from civil rights leaders and activists. Being able to juxtapose the actual people in the movement along with the characters in the story and their progressions was incredibly powerful, and I think that this book would be very good to use in tandem with history classes when studying this time period and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The characters are fictional, but portray two different experiences of teenagers at this time. The first, and most prominent, perspective is that of Sunny. She’s about to turn thirteen, adjusting to a new stepmom and two new step siblings, and is becoming more aware of her surroundings, specifically the tensions in her community. She yearns for adventure and to learn, and is drawn to the Freedom Righters and activists that are ‘invading’ her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. I felt that Sunny was a well written and believable tween girl, who thinks that she knows everything and that she knows what the world is like. She is close to her step brother Gillette, but resents her stepmother Annabelle, still holding out hope that her mother will eventually come back for her, even though she left her and her father Jamie when she was just a baby. This book is from Sunny’s perspective, so we explored the opinions of those around her through her eyes. We see her Meemaw who just can’t understand why the ‘negroes’ are being so ‘uppity’ when they were so ‘happy’ up until now. We see her great Uncle Vivian, who is a jolly older man who loves his grand niece, but harbors serious racist views. And we see Annabelle, who is seen as meek and weak by Sunny (or at least unapproachable), but is in actuality an activist with deep convictions and devotion to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Civil Rights Movement. Our other perspective is that of Raymond, a fourteen year old African American boy who is inspired by the galvanization of his community and the Freedom Righters who have come to his part of town. He goes from covert acts of defiance (like sneaking into the segregated swimming pool after hours) to blatant acts of rebellion, standing up for his rights in light of the Civil Rights Act, and facing violence from angry whites in the community.

I liked both of these perspectives, but I think that it’s a damn shame that the dominant perspective was that of the white girl. While Raymond did gets sections of his POV, this book was very much about Sunny and her discovering the evils of racism in 1964 Mississippi. It’s a story that’s been told before, over and over again, and I had gone in hoping that this was going to be more about the African American perspective. I was glad to see that the documentary sections of this book did have a lot of that POV, but even then there were three well drawn out bio sections of various important figures in the Civil Rights Movement, and two of them were of white people. Like, really?

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(source)

Overall, though, I did really like “Revolution”. I think that it’s a valuable resource and I feel that it was well written. I am also really really REALLY intrigued by what the final book in the trilogy will be about. I’m thinking it’s gonna be ‘Nam. Which is going to hurt like a bitch.

Serena’s Thoughts

As one of the aforementioned classmates in the Children’s Literature class that read the first book in this series, “Countdown,” I had a good understanding of what I was getting into with this book. While I liked “Countdown” well enough, what sold me on the book was the slick way the author incorporated real news articles, ads, and images from the time, creating a fictional story and a documentary style narrative side-by-side. While I wasn’t blown away by the story in that book, I was truly impressed by this take on historical novels, especially for middle grade readers.

I think here, in “Revolution,” she really comes into her own with this style. Even more so than “Countdown,” I feel like the historical documents and articles really added to the story. I was fascinated by what she chose to include, how the placement of certain items aligned with the facts of the fictional narrative, and just by the stylistic choices that were made in how, and what, was presented.

I also was more invested in the fictional story as well. I thought Sunny was a brilliant character and witnessing the events of Freedom Summer through her eyes was a very interesting choice. I especially appreciated seeing the many adults’ reactions to events as seen through Sunny’s perspective, both her stepmother who she initially dismisses but learns to appreciate, as well as her Uncle Vivian who’s love of her is unquestionable but has opinions and views that are less than praise-worthy.

I also very much enjoyed Raymond’s sections and the voice and perspective that he offered. While Sunny did get the majority of the narrative, Raymond’s portions were equally important when fleshing out the full story.

While I agree with Kate that it would have been preferable to have more from Raymond’s character, I’m going to play a bit of a devil’s advocate role here. I don’t remember if this came up with regards to this particular series and “Countdown,” but in the same Children’s Literature class, we discussed writers of different racial/cultural backgrounds writing across racial/cultural lines. There can not, and I believe, should not, be any right or wrong answer to this question, nor a hard and fast rule with regards to this. But I would surmise that the reason Sunny’s perspective was given more weight might have to do with, perhaps, a sense of imposition that could have arisen from Deborah Wiles, a white woman, writing this story primarily from the perspective of a young African American boy. I have no idea whether or not this was the case. Just goes to show how challenging it can be to be an author and write about tough subjects like these! All the more power to her, though, for tackling the subject, and discussions like this are always important.

Overall, I, too, found myself enjoying this book even more than I did the first in the series. The documentary style elements were even stronger I felt, and I was more connected to the characters in the fictional story.

Serena’s Rating 8: A really great combination of fiction and documentary. I would strongly recommend this to any middle grader with an interest in history (or to a classroom teacher who’s looking to pair some fiction with a lesson plan on this time period).

Kate’s Rating 8: Though I feel like there weren’t enough voices or perspectives from the African American POV, I did like the story and found the historical content incredibly fascinating and valuable.

Bookclub Questions:

1.) There are a lot of images/documents/quotes included in this story. Did any stand out to you? Why?

2.) Did you connect with the characters of Sunny and Raymond? With one more than the other?

3.) This book would pair well with a class that is learning about this era in time. Are there any particular issues/scenes/thoughts that are expressed that would perhaps be more challenging and need discussion when reading with children? How would you approach these discussions? Are there things that weren’t addressed?

4) What did you think of Sunny’s relationship with her stepmother Annabelle? Did Annabelle’s characterization surprise you in any way? What about her relationship with her father Jamie?

5) Did you learn anything new about Freedom Summer in this book that you hadn’t known before? Do you think that “Revolution” did a good job of bringing up new issues that some of us may not be as familiar with?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revolution” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Middle Grade Fiction Set in the 1960s”, and “Black Lives Matter: Kids”.

Find “Revolution” at your library using WorldCat.

The Next Book Selection: “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham

 

 

Bookclub Review: “Bone”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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! 

Book: “Bone” by Jeff Smith

Publishing Info: first published in 1991, assembled into one book by Cartoon Books in November 2010

Where Did We Get this Book: The library!

Book Description: An American graphic novel first! The complete 1300 page epic from start to finish in one deluxe trade paperback.

Three modern cartoon cousins get lost in a pre-technological valley, spending a year there making new friends and out-running dangerous enemies. Their many adventures include crossing the local people in The Great Cow Race, and meeting a giant mountain lion called RockJaw: Master of the Eastern Border. They learn about sacrifice and hardship in The Ghost Circles and finally discover their own true natures in the climatic journey to The Crown of Horns.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I only started reading graphic novels a few years ago, so I had heard the title “Bone” thrown around for a while, but didn’t have many preconceived notion attached to it other than it was a classic graphic novel that I would need to get to if I was ever to have any cred as a graphic novel enthusiast. Well, I have accomplished it!

Like I said, I didn’t really have any idea what this story was about other than it featured some strange little while creature called “Bone.” Like…was this supposed to be like an animated skeleton bone? Or…? Very confused. But, after only a few pages, this really ceased to matter as I discovered just how enjoyable this story was going to be! Jeff Smith wastes no time explaining things, like what world this is, what are these creatures, even what happened before that finds us starting a story with Fone Bone, Phoney, and Smiley having been just run out of town. Nope, full throttle ahead! As you see below, we included a list under “Reader’s Advisory” for reluctant reader’s, and this book fits perfectly in that category. The adventure is exciting and instant, and before you know what’s happening you’ve been swept along and are wildly flipping from one page to the next.

One thing that stood out to me particularly was the witty dialogue. It finds the perfect balance point of being approachable for young readers, but there is a very adult level incorporated as well. It strongly reminded me of the humor you find in Pixar movies nowadays, particularly humor-strong ones like “Toy Story.” I was chuckling out loud often as the story progressed. Particularly, I loved the Rat Creatures and their bizarre relationship. The fixation on quiche is not only hilarious, but understandable: quiche is delicious.

I very much enjoyed the way smaller stories were wedged in within the larger mystery. There was never a dull moment, but for a story that is as long as it is, the main plot thread is drawn out in a steady manner, never disappearing completely and feeding just enough new clues to keep it in the forefront of readers’ minds.

There’s a reason this graphic novel series is a classic. Do yourself a favor and schedule a long, cozy Saturday afternoon to make your way through this epic adventure story.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I was first exposed to “Bone” back when the first story arc was being run in Disney Adventures Magazine, and child me really enjoyed it. Then in college one of my roommates had the complete collection, and I read the story in its entirety and loved it. So when we revisited it for our book club, I was super excited to go back and re-read such a fun story. I was kind of worried that it wasn’t going to hold up after ten years, but I am VERY happy to report that I loved “Bone” just as much this time as I did the times before. What I like the best about the story is the characterization of every single character. All of them are well realized and have realistic motivations, from Fone Bone trying to be a good friend to Thorn to Grandma Ben wanting to protect her granddaughter and her kingdom, to even Phoney Bone and his relentless pursuit for riches and power. Even the Rat Creatures, the villains and comic relief in some cases, have their moments of being well thought out and very realistic in their complexities and motivations. I suppose that if you have a story that runs for thirteen years you have lots of opportunity to really flesh out your characters, but it’s still a joy to see all of them leap off the page and into my heart.

Serena mentioned the wit and snark of this series, and I need to give a nod to it as well. There were times that I was reading this book and I would laugh out loud, like really cackle, to the point where my husband would have to ask me what I was laughing at because it was so prevalent. Much of the humor came from my very favorite character Smiley Bone, a light hearted goofball who just likes to be included in everything his cousins do. As you all know, I’m not very big into high fantasy stories in general, but the fantasy epic that is “Bone” is an exception because of these funny and witty moments and characters. Smith doesn’t let the story get bogged down by the dour realities of war and tragedy, as while they are definitely treated seriously, the moments of joy and humor balanced them out. I mean what’s funnier than seeing Smiley Bone dressed up in a really shoddy cow costume?

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I would argue nothing is funnier. (source)

And of course Bartleby. I cannot forget Bartleby. There was much aw-ing over how adorable Bartleby the baby Rat Creature is.

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I can’t with the cuteness. (source)

I could and would recommend “Bone” to readers of all ages, especially readers who enjoy an epic fantasy story. Because at its heart “Bone” is a well thought out and very well done fantasy tale that hits every point it needs to, and brings memorable and lovable characters with it. And along with being very well written, it’s also super, super cute. I’m so glad I was able to revisit this wonderful series.

Serena’s Rating 9: A great romp with a perfect mix of childlike wonder and adult snark.

Kate’s Rating 9: A well written fantasy epic and a beautiful story about friendship, peppered with hilarious moments and memorable characters.

Bookclub Questions:

1.) There are many great characters in this series. Who is your favorite and why?

2.) How did the illustrations aid the story? Are there any particular panels that stand out to you? Any particular story arcs that were better served by the illustrations (or weakened)?

3.) What did you think of the world building for this story? How was it similar to other fantasy adventures, and how did it stand out from them?

4.) This book is generally recommended towards kids, but tends to have an appeal towards teenagers and adults as well. What do you think it is about the story that has such a broad appeal for all ages?

5.) This story is very long, with the complete collection clocking in at 1000+ pages. Are there any parts in the story that could be cut out without hurting the overarching storyline?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bone” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Graphic Novels” and “Best Books for Reluctant Readers.”

Find “Bone” at your library using Worldcat!

The Next Bookclub Selection: “Revolution” by Deborah Wiles

 

Book Club Review: “Warm Bodies”

9475392We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

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: “Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion

Publishing Info: Atria, October 2010

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

Book Description from Goodreads: R is a young man with an existential crisis–he is a zombie. He shuffles through an America destroyed by war, social collapse, and the mindless hunger of his undead comrades, but he craves something more than blood and brains. He can speak just a few grunted syllables, but his inner life is deep, full of wonder and longing. He has no memories, no identity, and no pulse. Just dreams.

After experiencing a teenage boy’s memories while consuming his brain, R makes an unexpected choice that begins a tense, awkward, and strangely sweet relationship with the victim’s human girlfriend. Julie is a burst of vibrant color in the otherwise dreary and gray landscape that R lives in. His decision to protect her will transform not only R, but his fellow Dead, and perhaps their whole lifeless world…

Serena’s Thoughts:

I read this book several years ago, and watched the movie right when it came out, so when bookclub decided to do a “book/movie” theme, this was an easy choice for me! I hadn’t re-read it since, and with the movie version being the more recent version I had experienced for the story, it was fun reviewing the original material and seeing the difference from the reverse perspective as well.

I think this book flew beneath the radar for quite a while before it was announced as a movie, and then when it was, everyone dismissed it as “zombie romance.” Which, really, shouldn’t that intrigue people, not put them off? But alas, judgement arose. And given that the new editions of the books have been released with the movie cover (a whole post could be committed to the subject of how much I hate movie-covers for books), I can’t even blame people who pass this over with that thought. I mean, look at this thing!

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Can you get any more teen-pop-stereotypical-romance-looking than that? No, the answer is no. And this is a tragedy, because the story is not that at all. Sure, there is some romance, but it’s sad to see what is a very philosophical book be overlooked simply because of that inclusion.

R is such an intriguing narrator. For a character whose actual dialogue is limited to brief syllables, he’s quite verbose as a protagonist. While much of the changing that he goes through can be attributed to his run in with Perry’s brain (the teenage boy he eats on one scavenging trip) and Julie, the living girl he befriends, R is clearly a force of change himself. With brutal honesty, he evaluates zombie society, humanity, and the force of human will.

With so many pop-culture representations of zombie-hood currently, Marion’s version is very intriguing. Zombies are often just stumbling, groaning, beasts. But here, they have, at the most basic sense, a world of their own. Their attempts to re-create life through human constructs such as marriage, school, and religion, all while bereft of the inner feelings that accompany them is not only sad but deeply disturbing. Further, Marion succeeds at something that the poor, struggling writers of “The Walking Dead” tv series have been attempting for so long: connecting the dots between the living and the zombie-fied. “We are the walking dead,” and all of that, but done in a subtle and truly impactful manner (unlike certain shows…).

I haven’t spent much time talking about Julie, and I think she was the biggest surprise for me when I re-read this book. The first go around, I didn’t really put much thought into her as a character. This time, looking more closely, I appreciate the fine line that Marion walked when writing her. She could so easily fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category. But for all of her snappy lines and crafty bedroom design (cuz of course, she’s a teen girl, then obviously she must paper mache her room!), Julie’s background is dark. Much darker than I had remembered. These struggles help round her out as a character and allow her to offer a unique perspective into the world of the Living, without getting too caught up in the super sweet, “hope is all you need!” naivety that she could have been reduced to.

All in all, I had a really fun time returning to this book!

Kate’s Thoughts:

Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that it wasn’t me who picked the zombie book for our bookclub, but our dear Serena. But that should just go to show that this book isn’t just for fans of the horror and zombie genre. I think that the nice thing about the zombie genre, when done well, is that it’s usually far more about humanity and the human psyche than it is about marauding monsters. The few exceptions I can think of are “Dawn of the Dead” (the original), in which zombies are drawn to a mall because of a instinctual need for the routine of their past lives, and “Day of the Dead,” in which Bub the zombie starts to relearn various human emotions and actions, and feels affection for the man who has “created” him in a way. So “Warm Bodies” kind of took that concept and ran with it. Marion takes it even further though, and deconstructs just what makes humanity in a person, and gets way existential about it. Which kind of surprised me in the best way possible.

It took me a little while to warm up to R, as I did, admittedly, have a hard time with how he just kind of took Julie under guise of keeping her safe, and hid from her that he had, uh, eaten her boyfriend. But as he went on, he really, really grew on me, and I became very fond of him and his journey of self discovery. His rumination about what it means to be human, and his descriptions of the zombie culture and how it functions on indifference and complacence, were so thought provoking and tragically beautiful that I was completely enraptured with his voice and narration. I love the idea that zombies aren’t really totally lost if they look for connections and seek out beauty in life (because of R and Julie and their own connection).

Julie too makes for a very good character, like Serena said. She never rang false and never felt like she was too perfect, or too understanding and good.  I really, really loved her relationship with R. Their connection grew and progressed in a natural way, and I never felt like it was unrealistic or forced as time went on. It was also very complicated and had many layers, as R did, indeed, kill and eat her boyfriend, Perry. But even that was resolved and reconciled in a way that I found believable, and I was thinking that there was no way that I was going to be satisfied with that whole thing. Joke’s on me, I guess.

And I also want to say that M, R’s best friend, was exactly the kind of pal that I aspire to be. Snarky and sarcastic (even as a zombie) but ultimately loyal, and pretty damn great. I also liked Julie’s best friend, Nora, who is pragmatic and thoughtful, but never feels like she’s just a second fiddle. It goes to show that Marion took great care when crafting his supporting characters as well.

I greatly enjoyed “Warm Bodies.” I am so glad that I finally got to it with Serena’s good taste in book club books!

Serena’s Rating 9: Really great, even better the second time around.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a complex and enjoyable love story, and a very deep look at what makes a human a human.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

“Warm Bodies” came out a couple years ago, nearing the end of the paranormal romance phase of teen movies and right in the midst of the rise of dystopia as the new theme. As a film, it’s a bit more light-hearted than the original source material, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good adaptation. Nicholas Hoult plays R, a casting choice that makes almost perfect sense. First of all, his eyes are huge and expressive, and can convey so much emotion as R, even when he is still in the midst of being in his limited zombie phase. He is nuanced and subtle in his acting, and makes a believable zombie who is slowly evolving. Theresa Palmer plays Julie, and also brings justice to that role. Her back story isn’t as dark and depressing, at least it isn’t explored as much, and while it’s nice that things worked out a bit better for her, it’s too bad that we lost that character exploration. It’s also too bad that the decision was made to cast Nora, in the book a biracial woman, as a white woman. It’s not that Analeigh Tipton didn’t do a good job, because she is pretty great, but it’s a sad reminder that Hollywood is still fully into white washing characters.

1. Zombie stories have always arose from what seems to be society’s own existential fear. What is your perspective on the unique version of zombies and human society that is presented in this book?

2. It is never made quite clear what the “Bonies” are in this world. The human equate them almost to aliens and the zombies themselves almost fear them. How do you think they came to exist? Did they have their own inner society? Own goals and agendas?

3. The movie lightened up the story a lot and there were a few significant changes. What changes did you like? Were there ones you wished they hadn’t changed?

4. What notable differences between the book and movie did you see in the portrayal of the main characters (R, Julie, Perry, Nora, and M)?

5. Music, writing, and art are discussed a lot in this book. Does the story have anything to offer on the impact these things have on humanity? And the more fun question, if you were a zombie and had a favorite song, what would it be?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Warm Bodies” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Not your normal zombie!!!” and “Living On Their Own/On The Run (Teens/Young Adults).”

Find “Warm Bodies” at your library using Worldcat!

Book Club Review: “Tomorrow, When The War Began”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

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: “Tomorrow, When the War Began” by John Marsden

Publishing Info: Pan Macmillian, 1993

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

Book Description from Goodreads: When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong — their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision — run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back.

Kate’s Thoughts:

When our dear friend and co-book club member Melissa picked “Tomorrow, When The War Began” for book club, I hadn’t heard of it. In my mind I was picturing something like “A Boy and His Dog”, which is… decidedly not what this book is. I think that I hadn’t heard of it because of a few things, the most obvious being that I was younger than it’s demo when it came out in 1993, and when I did become part of the YA reading age group I had already pretty much graduated to adult novels. So suffice to say, this was a whole new experience for me.

One thing that struck me about this book was that it was pretty grim by today’s standards, so the fact that it was published in 1993 kind of boggles my mind. There are many themes in this book that seemed pretty dark and mature for a book written for teens about twenty years ago. The first thing that is striking and out in the open is the violence. Marsden isn’t gratuitous with the violence that Ellie and her friends encounter, but he isn’t unflinching with it either. It always feels very real, be it Ellie coming home to find her dogs dead or dying, or Ellie blowing up a lawnmower and in turn causing the deaths of some invading soldiers. The reactions to violence from most of the group also feels very true to life, as they don’t automatically turn into commandos right away. Ellie is definitely uncomfortable with hurting people, even if she eases into it out of necessity, and other characters in the group also have to adapt and react in their own ways.

I was also quite impressed with how Marsden so wonderfully captured the voice of a teenage girl. I by no means think that guys can’t write girl voices or vice versa, but I was a little worried that it may come off as a bit stereotypical, even if he hadn’t meant to. So I was very happy when Ellie did seem like a pretty normal, and typical teenage girl. I thought that the way she thought and approached certain situations seemed reasonable and understandable given her character, and while I was a bit irritated that there was a brief possibility of a love triangle between her, nice boy Lee, and her best friend Homer, it was quashed pretty quickly and acknowledged as displaced feelings. After all, Lee is the one that gets her going both intellectually and physically, at the end of the day. I also thought that Marsden’s approach to sex was pretty realistic too, as Ellie definitely has urges and does think about these things. While I know there are some people out there who may think that these kids would have more on their minds than their sex lives, I think that they are humans at the end of the day, and teenagers to boot.

I think that my qualms were definitely more just about the story as a whole. I like end of days dystopia kinds of stories, but this one almost felt a bit too realistic for me to be able to get super into it. A strange criticism, I know. The ending felt abrupt, and while I know and get why he wrote it the way he did, it just seemed like a fast way to wrap things up. Luckily, there are a bunch of other books in the series, so it’s not like it ended completely on a note of ambiguity…. Or maybe it does, I don’t know I haven’t read them. Overall I did enjoy reading “Tomorrow, When the War Began”, but I don’t think I’ll keep going. This was good enough as it was.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I was one of only two book club members who had already read this book. Not only that, but I had read the entire series! So all the gold stars for me! (Is self-congratulatory speech a good look??) I grew up in rural Idaho and for some reason the librarians at the tiny local library were all about Australian, teen guerilla warfare and had bought the complete series. I remember blowing through them as a kid, and have from time to time thought of them as an adult when reminscing about favorites books as a kid. But I hadn’t re-read them, so it was a treat getting to re-visit the series now as an adult.

I must say, it holds up. If anything, I’m kind of impressed with kid-Serena’s good taste (the self praise has gotten out of control! But seriously, I had many other questionable favorites as a kid, so this was a bit reassuring, really.) As Kate said, I was impressed by many things in this book, especially given when it was written. The author doesn’t shy away from the violence or trauma of the events he lays out. His characters are never given any easy outs and the variety of reactions and coping methods that the different teens fall back on seem all too realistic. Certain characters whom you might not expect to thrive under the stress rise to the occasion, while others struggle more. Moreover, there is never any criticism for these different reactions.

And, also following Kate’s lead, the author’s take on a teenage girl’s inner thought process and voice is spot on. As a kid, I never spent much time thinking about whether an author was a man or a woman (take that publishing companies that think teenagers fret about that stuff!), so when I picked it up as an adult and saw that it was a male author, I was actually a bit surprised. Especially given that the book was written in first person, an easier narrative style for many young readers and often a go-to for these type of books even now, this ability to slip into the skin of his female protagonist was really impressive. As simplistic as first person narration is, I think it can also be more challenging in specific situations like this where the author has to so completely encompass the full perspective of the character.

Specifically, there was a moment in the book where Ellie is having a conversation with one of her male friends and there is an inner line where she recognizes his tactics as typical of a teenage boy, trying to “bully” her into a relationship almost. This is so spot on! Reading it myself, I instantly recognized the type of conversation that was happening, and for an adult man to so fully capture this inner working of teenagedom from a young girl’s perspective is truly impressive.

My one complaint was that the book was a bit long on the descriptions. I don’t remember noticing this as a kid, and it may have simply been a factor of my re-read. I knew where things were going and was maybe in a rush to get there. But while there might have been a lot of text given over to these descriptions of scenes and locales, the writing was on point and really did an excellent job of painting the scene of the Australian wilderness.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to this series. I also heard from a fellow book club member that there is a follow-up series, “The Ellie Chronicles,” that I might need to check out now, too!

Kate’s Rating 7: An impressive narrative and story for what I was expecting! It wasn’t totally my jam, thematics wise, but it was a worthwhile reading experience!

Serena’s Rating 8: I greatly enjoyed returning to this series and am almost even more impressed with it now as an adult than I was the first time around as a teen.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

In due diligence to our book club theme, we watched the 2010 version of “Tomorrow, When the War Began” which is currently available on Netflix. I, for one, really enjoyed this movie. The casting was spot on, specifically the actors they got for Ellie and Homer. While they did have to leave out several parts of the book (sadly a lot of the time they spent in Hell the second go around), most of the decisions made sense and it seemed that the movie could stand alone. The biggest disappointment, probably, was the fact that several of the characters had to be narrowed down to meet the shorter screen time they were allotted, so we didn’t have as fully rounded character arcs for some of them. Again, understandable, if not a bit disappointing. And while the Australian scenery in the film was beautiful, I think Kate (and everyone at book club) will agree that the only Australian scenery that is ever needed is this:

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Hugh Jackman in “Australia”

1. This book was published in 1993, but has a lot of themes that are pretty common in today’s YA literature. Do you think that this book would be as successful if it came out today, and took place in the early 21st century instead of the late 20th?

2. What did you think of the invading army’s ‘identity’ being ambiguous? Do you think that having to know who was invading would have improved the story? Hindered it? Not made any difference?

3. How did you feel about Ellie as a character? Do you think that her voice was authentic and relatable?

4. Who was your favorite character in the book? The movie? If they were different, why?

5.  If you went on a camping trip and came back to find your homeland invaded, what 6 other people would be in your group? Would you turn to guerilla warfare? Hide?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tomorrow, When the War Began” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Australian Young Adult Books,” and “Books that should get more attention.”

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