Back to School: A Book List

While both of us are well past the point where fall means it’s time to head back to school, there are quite a few good books out there that run wild with the concept. I mean, even “Harry Potter,” at its core, is a British boarding school tale! Here are a few of our favorites!

24337Book: “Ella Enchanted”

Author: Gail Carson Levine

Even after the unspeakable movie was released and tried to taint this book forever, “Ella Enchanted” remains one of the more charming fairytale retellings you’ll run across. Ella was given a “gift” when she was born, the gift of obedience. Unsurprisingly, this gift turned out to be much more of a curse than anything else. Luckily, our plucky heroine never wavers in the face of her challenges and is determined to make a life for herself free of those who would use her gift/curse for themselves. Much of the story takes part at a boarding school where Ella has been sent to be finished. There she makes both friends and enemies. The whole book is just a delightful affair and the school elements makes readers praise their lucky stars that “finishing” so isn’t a thing anymore.

3008Book: “A Little Princess”

Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Obviously we had to include this, the almost quintessential boarding house book! This classic tells the tale of the young Sara Crewe, the daughter of a wealthy and devoted father who sends her to boarding school. While there, she learns of her father’s tragic death and her idealic life quickly becomes a nightmare, re-located to the attic and forced to work as a servant under the vengeful eyes of the awful headmistress. But through it all, Sara’s imagination and caring nature continue to give her strength. It’s a lovely story and probably has one of the best villains as far as evil teachers/headmistresses go!

35465844Book: “Tempests and Slaughter”

Author: Tamora Pierce

While it is tempting to simply include the first two Alanna books here since they, too, are school stories, we thought we’d include Pierce’s more recent release. This story focuses on the childhood of Numair, the powerful mage we follow in “The Immortals” series alongside Daine. The book covers Numair’s years from age 11 to 14, detailing his time at school as he learns to wrangle his own powerful magical abilities. He also befriends the ambitious prince Ozorne, another familiar face to fans of the original series. This is the first book in its own series, so it will be fun to see where the tale goes from here!

434631Book: “Freak Show”

Author: James St. James

James St. James, known predominantly for his time as a New York club kid and his book “Disco Bloodbath” (about sociopath Michael Alig), has created an over the top and boundary pushing ‘new kid in school’ story with “Freak Show”. Billy Bloom, a gay teenage drag queen with a flair for flamboyance and glamour, has been sent to live with his straight laced and wealthy father in Florida, who sends him to an elite school filled with kids who are not like Billy at all. Billy is teased and tormented for being out and proud, but finds a friend in the handsome school quarterback, Flip Kelly.  When Billy decides to buck the norms and run for homecoming queen, things REALLY get complicated. While this book is admittedly dated in a lot of ways, and while St. James is known to push the envelopes of bad taste, “Freak Show” is ultimately about being yourself, loving yourself, and finding your place.

510632Book: “Killing Mr. Griffin”

Author: Lois Duncan

The original queen of teenage suspense was known for giving her characters a lot of moral quandaries, and none were as controversial as “Killing Mr. Griffin”. A group of teens really hates their English teacher Mr. Griffin, and thinks that it would be fun to pull a prank on him just to teach him a lesson, so they kidnap him in hopes of scaring him into kindness. But then something goes wrong, and Mr. Griffin ends up dead. Now the kids have a real problem, as while some want to come forward, others want to pretend it never happened. “Killing Mr. Griffin” is one of those Lois Duncan books that brings up questions about responsibility and culpability, and makes the readers muddle through some complex issues. And while it has been considered a controversial book (it has been on the Banned Book List before), it has a lot to say about cause and effect and the consequences of our actions.

6334Book: “Never Let Me Go”

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Though now people are kind of aware that this is a dystopian book with questions about the ethics of cloning, what sometimes gets lost in the sauce is that it is, indeed, a boarding school story to start out with. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are all students at a mysterious boarding school called Hailsham, in which they are taught about high culture and living a healthy life. What they find out, however, is that they are actually clones who have been created to donate their organs to unhealthy people. Our three main characters all meet at Hailsham, and forge strong bonds between each other in spite of the fact that they are not likely to live very long after they start donating their organs. “Never Let Me Go” is a heartbreaker of a novel as you get attached to characters who are seemingly doomed to die, and it raises a lot of questions about what makes a human, who society values, and how far is too far when it comes to medical science and research.

What are some of your favorite books that take place in schools? Let us know in the comments!

Fair Reads: Books About Fairs, Circuses, and Carnivals

This week, one of Minnesota’s grandest traditions starts: the Minnesota State Fair. To born and raised Minnesotans this is one of our most important moments of the year. To outsiders, it may seem a little overblown. But regardless how you feel, it’s going to be a really fun time. In honor of the Fair (one of the biggest in the country), we’ve put together a list of books that take place at fairs, circuses, and carnivals!

54607Book: “Something Wicked This Way Comes

Author: Ray Bradbury

Usually a traveling carnival can bring joy and wonder to a community, but Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show is a bit more sinister than that. Best friends Will and Jim find themselves targets of the malevolent Mr. Dark, Mr. Cooger,  and their evil carnival, a carnival that includes arrives once a generation and leaves chaos and tragedy in it’s wake. Attractions at this carnival include a carousel that can manipulate your age, and the Dust Witch, a being who is filled with magic but also incredibly dangerous. While this book does have it’s scary moments that have become legendary in horror literature, it also addresses friendship, coming of age, the power of kindness, and how to face your fears.

13872Book: “Geek Love”

Author: Katherine Dunn

Though ‘freak shows’ are not the entities that they once were (and are more about showcasing talents and feats of illusion than gawking at those different from you), “Geek Love” takes us back to a crueler time, and gives us the story of one of the ‘freak’ families. The Binewskis are a family of carnival workers that travel around showcasing their various ‘oddities’: Arturo the Aquaboy has flipper-like limbs; Iphy and Elly are the conjoined twins who are seen as seductive sexpots; Oly is the hunchbacked Albino. Then there is Chick, who seems ‘normal’ on the outside but inside contains multitudes of dangerous gifts. All of these people came to be because their parents hoped to create a family of human oddities they could profit upon, and used various means (such as arsenic, drugs, and radioactive materials) to do it. This is a story about family, a story about ambition, and a story about what actually makes a person ‘normal’.

9361589Book: “The Night Circus”

Author: Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives at night and is open only during those dusky hours. It leaves as mysteriously as it game. This is the story of not only a strange, magical circus, but of the two magicians who are using the circus as a platform in their ongoing competition to best the other with new and wondrous displays of magical prowess. But it is a game that has been chosen for them, and as they find themselves growing closer and closer to one another, the ultimate conclusion of this competition becomes more perilous. Equal parts fantasy, romance, and historical fiction, this story has a circus that is not only a setting for the plot to unfold but feels like a living, breathing entity itself.

43641Book: “Water for Elephants”

Author: Sara Gruen

You can’t have a fair/circus book list and not include “Water for Elephants.” This massively popular book from several years ago, however, earns the hype it has gathered. It follows the story of a young veterinarian who suddenly find himself adrift and alone in the world. Of course, he joins the circus! But there he finds not only the wonders and spectacle that come with the greatest show on earth, but a seedy underbelly full of intrigue and danger. When he begins falling in love with the wife of the animal trainer, he quickly realizes that danger has arrived at his door. This is another historical drama and features not only a nice romance, but, of course, a lovely relationship between Jacob and an elephant.

23982Book: “Modoc”

Author: Ralph Helfer

You may have noticed that the title of this book is truncated in our version and that’s for the simple reason that the biggest complaint filed against the book is the highly questionable “true story” that it claims to be telling. But I don’t think this should detract from what is still a beautiful story about the love between an elephant and a boy. While there was an elephant named Modoc (maybe even three!), there is very little evidence to support much of this book, but I still felt it was an excellent and heart-breaking story on its own. Just approach it as a fictional story rather than nonfiction, and you’ll probably be happier with it!

21996Book: “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America”

Author: Erik Larson

This may be considered one of the very best books about a fair, though it is also considered one of the best true crime books all time. Erik Larson tells two stories: that of the creation and execution of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and that of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed upon women who came to Chicago looking for a new life. Larson is the master of drawing parallels between his various narratives, and in “The Devil in the White City” he shows the extent of American progress within an urban setting, and how a growing and bustling city can lead to the kind of anonymity that a serial killer can thrive in. History buffs and true crime buffs will both find a lot to love in this book, as the grandiosity of the Columbian Exposition will enthrall you as much as Holmes’s ‘Murder Castle’ will horrify you.

What about you? What fair, circus, and carnival books have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments. And to our Minnesotan readers who are going, enjoy the Great Minnesota Get Together!

Books, Uh, Find a Way: A “Jurassic Park” Book List

What’s up, Dino Nerds! “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” has come out and expanded the “Jurassic Park” franchise, and if you like dinosaurs fighting each other that’s gonna be your kind of movie. We here at The Library Ladies are more fans of the original movie, 1993’s “Jurassic Park” (why earlier this month Kate went to a Fantasy Sci-Fi Convention in an Ian Malcolm Cosplay). Given how fun it is to pick books for fictional characters, we thought we’d try our hand at recommending books for some of our favorite “Jurassic Park” players! While there are lots of characters to choose from, we have a feeling we’ll be picking some of the fandom’s favorites.

Dr. Alan Grant: “Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found” by Steve Fiffer

Even though Alan Grant seemed to be all about the velociraptors, he sure knew a lot about the formidable T-Rex. Therefore, he would certainly be interested in the story about Sue, the largest T-Rex specimen ever found. And if the largest T-Rex ever found doesn’t get him, how about the huge scandals, legal battles, fights, and drama that went with finding it? Because Sue caused a giant circus involving paleontologists, academics, a group of Indigenous people, auctioneers, and more. Since Grant is a very capable paleontologist who is credible to a fault, I think that this book would not only fascinate him, but would also reaffirm the fact that he wouldn’t get into the mess that so many people did over some dino fossils.

Lex Murphy: “Warcross” by Marie Lu

Lex gets some unwarranted grief from some people in the “Jurassic Park” fandom, because how many of YOU know Unix Systems like she does? For this teenage self professed hacker, a thrilling YA novel with a hacker protagonist will absolutely catch her eye. That’s why Marie Lu’s “Warcross” would be a good fit for her. Warcross is a popular online game that has become quite popular in the near future. When hacker Emika Chan hacks herself into the game illegally, instead of being punished she is recruited to weed out cheaters from the game. Not only would Emika be a protagonist that Lex could really get behind, the story itself is fast paced and very tech-y based while still remaining relatable for most any reader who picks it up.

Dr. Sarah Harding: “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowat

Was Sarah in the original film? No. Is she still one of Kate’s very favorite “Jurassic Park” characters? HELL YES! So therefore she gets a spot on this list. Harding is an adventurous and empathetic animal behaviorist, and because of those traits she would probably love the book “Never Cry Wolf”. Farley Mowat was sent into the wilds of Canada to try and figure out why wolves were killing Arctic Caribou and messing with the population. But while he was living in the woods with the wolves, he learned a lot about their behavior (and how they generally aren’t dangerous to humans), and became a crusader for their survival. His compassion towards the animals combined with his research would absolutely appeal to Harding

Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Of course we couldn’t have this list and not include our beloved Ian! Especially since we used one of his lines to title this post. Other than posing in strangely sexual positions given the life-and-death circumstances, Ian’s main role in the movie was to highlight just how little control humanity has over life itself. With this in mind, “Annihilation,” a story about a mysterious location where nature has reclaimed the land from humanity, sounds like a perfect fit. Multiple expeditions into this strange Area X have lead to various outcomes, all disastrous in their own way. The book tells the story of the twelfth expedition, one made up of four women. We’re sure Ian’s on board for that aspect of the story, too!

Dr. Ellie Sattler: “These Rebel Waves” by Sara Raasch

Ellie is the paleobotanist of the group, which means she’s focused on the plants. We also get to see her holding her own in what is a very man-dominated movie/field. So for a mixture of plants and strong women characters, we turned to the upcoming book “These Rebel Waves.” This book tells the story of the soldier Adeluna who is fighting for the freedom of her home country, a land much fought over due to its wealthy of plant magic. There are a couple dudes there, too. But we feel confident that Lu will hold her own, just like Ellie did. Woman inherits the earth, after all.

Robert Muldoon: “Death in the Long Grass” by Peter Hathaway Capstick

And last, but certainly not least, we have the badass hunter extraordinaire, Robert Muldoon. And if you’re not all either saying “Shoooot her!!” or “Clever girl” in your head right now, we’re revoking your “Jurassic Park” card. What could be more perfect for Muldoon that “Death in the Long Grass,” a book based on the Capstick’s own experiences as a big game hunter in Africa. He covers not only the traditional big baddies like lions and leopards, but also delves into the challenges of dealing with rhinos, crocodiles and the supremely underrated hippopotamus. Given that the author survived to write the book, we can assume his title isn’t quite as literal as it would be for poor Muldoon.

What are some of your favorite “Jurassic Park” characters and books you might pair with them?

Beach Reads: Summer 2018

Back for 2018, here is a list of some more favorite beach reads! “Beach read” is a very fast and loose term for books people read over the beautiful summer months when we really should be outside “doing things” but are instead reading…maybe outside. Some people see these months as an opportunity to slog through long classics (we’re looking at you “Moby Dick”) before the busy-ness of of the fall starts up, but for the sake of this list, we’re limiting our choices to stand alone, mostly feel good books (though there’s some obvious leeway here for Kate’s horror tastes!) that could be easily brought along on vacations. So, still a very loose definition, but hey, we had to start somewhere! We will select one title for each of the genres we most read.

Serena’s Picks:

 22544764Fantasy Title: “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik

This book is a few years old now, but I always go back to it when I’m asked about favorite stand alone fantasy fiction. It’s one of those magical unicorns of a book that somehow walks the line between being a fairytale retelling (“Beauty and the Beast”) but blurring the events and twisting things around so thoroughly that by the end of the book, you’re questioning whether this wasn’t just an entirely new fairytale on its own and any similarities were just happen chance. I didn’t have a single criticism of this book when I read it, with its strong main character, beautiful writing, and complex magical world. What’s more, while it is a standalone novel, Novik will be releasing another fairtyale-esque book, “Spinning Silver,” in July and I can tell you right now, that one’s amazing, too!

24100285Science Fiction Title: “Space Opera” by Catherynne M. Valente

I haven’t actually read this title yet, but I have much love for Valente’s “Fairyland” series as has been well documented on this blog. I also have two librarian bookclub friends whose judgement I trust who gave it high ratings, so on with the recommendation! The description of this one is about as wacky as it gets: intergalactic Olympics, but not so much the sports and more singing and dancing. And Earth has just made its first grand entrance. Will there song and dance numbers have enough glitter and air guitar to make the final cut? I don’t even know what more to say, but that the human band is called “Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.” I mean, c’mon, this has to be a hellava ride!

28186322Mystery Title: “A Curious Beginning” by Deanna Raybourn

This was a no-brainer pick for me. I just discovered this historical mystery series this spring, and have absolutely loved the two I have read (the review of the second book to come shortly!). With its light tone, witty leading lady, and grumbly but endearing romantic interest, there’s nothing left wanting for a mystery title to while away the hours outside in the sun. Veronica Speedwell is right up there with Amelia Peabody and some of my other favorite female sleuths. The mystery itself was strong, even if the ending was a bit rushed. But who really cares. I was just there for the snappy banter and blistering romantic tension!

33574143Historical Title: “The Beautiful Ones” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Technically, this one has magic in it, too. But its such a non-integral part of the story, in my opinion, that I’m throwing this one in here anyways. Mostly, this book has been criminally under-recognized and I want to do my part to bring it to the attention of readers who enjoy British manners and society books. In many ways, it reads the way a modern Jane Austen novel would. The primary crux of the story is one of relationships and the roles that women are expected to play in society in a time period where their options were limited. Here we see two very different women who have chosen different paths. One, giving up one dream of the future in order to conform to the expectations of family and society. The other still rebelling and pushing back against what is expected of her. And between them, one man who is still not sure of his own place in the world. This is a sure hit for fans for historical romances.

Kate’s Picks

7466727Horror Title: “The Amityville Horror” by Jay Anson

So I just want to say straight away that this book is advertised and technically classified as ‘non-fiction’, but it’s pretty common knowledge now that the Amityville Haunting was a big ol’ hoax. It was all a huge distraction and cash cow to make some bank for some people and to provide a legal defense for another (specifically Ronny DeFeo Jr, who killed his entire family with a shotgun). But the story of the Lutz Family moving into the large house on 112 Ocean Avenue is a VERY entertaining read, even if it is a big lie. Anson tells a haunted house story with a certain matter-of-factness and a fast paced vigor, and the now notorious story is truly best on the page. From flies to a ghost pig named Jody to the sounds of a MARCHING BAND stomping through the house, this novel hits all the cliches, and yet feels fun and fresh in spite of it. If you want a quick beach read that is just fluff and fun, “The Amityville Horror” is the way to go when you let go of the illusion that it’s true.

5886881Thriller Title: “Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn

So unlike everyone else in the world, I was NOT impressed by the book “Gone Girl”. I didn’t find any of the characters likable, I called the twist early but didn’t enjoy the journey to the reveal, and I hated the ending. So if people ask me what Gillian Flynn I do like, I will ALWAYS say “Dark Places”. Libby Day survived a family massacre that her own brother was arrested for. Her notoriety dried up when media interest went elsewhere, and now she’s worn out and dysfunctional as an adult. But when a group of armchair detectives approach her with the theory that her brother didn’t do it, she is pulled back into her past, and starts to wonder if everything she remembers about that horrible night is actually untrue. This is a fast paced and well done thriller, and unlike “Gone Girl” there are characters here that you can absolutely root for. I remember devouring it in a couple sittings. If you hated “Gone Girl”, this is proof that Gillian Flynn still may have something to offer you.

22040598Graphic Novel Title: “The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud

If you are looking for romance, despair, a meditation on artistry, a very readable story, and a beautiful art style, “The Sculptor” will be a good pick for you to take on your vacation this summer. Don’t be daunted by the size; while it is a thick book, it reads very fast just because it’s so engrossing. It’s the story of a struggling sculptor named David who makes a deal with Death: he will be able to use his hands to sculpt and manipulate any kind of material and matter, but he will die in 200 days. David accepts, thinking that’s plenty of time to make his mark on history as an artist. But then he meets Meg, and love becomes a true problem for a man with so little time. While the characters in this are grating (ESPECIALLY David and Meg), the story itself is filled with such emotion and raw expression that I couldn’t put it down when I read it.

29780253

Non-Fiction Title: “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah

If you are a fan of “The Daily Show” you know who Trevor Noah is (and even if you aren’t a fan you probably know too). He’s a very dry, observant, and intelligent comedian who has taken over one of the great satirical platforms of our time. But in “Born a Crime” he goes back to his childhood in South Africa during and after Apartheid. The product of a bi-racial relationship (which was illegal in South Africa at the time), Noah tells stories from his childhood that run the gamut of funny, scary, and very, very devastating. Noah’s voice is quite witty and down to Earth as he recalls these various stories, and his love for his mother is powerful and leaps off the page. Plus, you will probably learn about South African history and culture, as well as a first hand account of what Apartheid did to Black South Africans while it was in place.

What books are you bringing to the beach, the cabin, or the pool with you this summer? Let us know in the comments! 

Readers, Assemble!: An “Avengers” Book List

It’s been a while since we’ve done a book list, and since we had so much fun putting together our “Game of Thrones” book list last year, we though, why the heck be original?? Let’s just do the same thing, maybe change it up a bit, call it good! So this time, we’re focusing on another super popular series with a long list of characters: the Avengers. Again, we won’t be focusing on plot points, but instead on the characters and what books they might like. This cast list is massive so this is a totally random assortment of characters. Hopefully you’ll see a few of your favorites!

Iron Man/Tony Stark: “Iron Gold” by Pierce Brown

Sure, the name is convenient. But I swear I didn’t even think about that until after I picked the book! My first thought for Tony was the “Red Rising” saga. All of these books deal with heroism, but specifically with the hard choices and blurring lines that comes with fighting a war. Given the state that Tony has been in for the last several films, I felt that the best fit would be the most recent book in the series, “Iron Gold” that tells the story of an older, more hardened and world-weary Darrow who is still endlessly fighting a war that he is beginning to feel will never end. What’s more, he’s scared that he doesn’t want it to end. He is brilliant at what he does, but ten years of battle and making decisions that skate the moral line has taken its tole, not only on his own psyche but on his relationships with those he loves. He and Tony Stark seem to have quite a lot in common. Plus, they each get in big fights with their friends!

Black Widow: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo

We’ve just started reading this for our next bookclub book, but when I was starting to think of Black Widwo and her place in the world and on her team, I immediately thought of Inej from this book. Like Black Widow, Inej had a rough coming of age, one where she had no control of what was happening to her and what her future would be. But now, free of those restraints, she’s come into her own as a quiet but deadly force. She’s the right hand of the leader of the group and often the solid backbone behind much of the action, quickly getting done what needs to happen, without waiting for instruction or permission. They also both tend to wear black a lot and hang out on teams made up mostly of men.

Thor & Loki: “The Gospel of Loki” by Joanne M. Harris

At this point, I think Thor is just kind of baffled by his brother. Is he a bad guy? Does he have some good him? When exactly is he going to betray him next? So, it’s probably time for some investigative reading. Enter “The Gospel of Loki,” a first-person narrative by none other than Loki himself. This book is hilarious and its tone fits perfectly with the Loki we’ve come to see on screen. He wryly narrates the fall of the Norse gods and his own version of events.

Loki, that’s me.

Loki, the Light-Bringer, the misunderstood, the elusive, the handsome and modest hero of this particular tissue of lies. Take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s at least as true as the official version, and, dare I say it, more entertaining.

As for Loki, OF COURSE he’d be reading a book about himself.

Bruce Banner/The Hulk: “A Fractured Mind” by Robert Oxnam

We know that Bruce Banner is always in battle with his other personality, The Hulk. While he has been able to control this other side of him for the most part in recent films, and has been able to use his Hulk side for good, there have been and still are times that he finds it difficult to have to balance out the duality of his existence. So a book that he may find some interest in is this memoir about Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka multiple personalities). Robert Oxnam is a well renowned China scholar, and was diagnosed with DID in his middle age when other personalities started making their presences known and interfering with his life. This book is about his diagnosis, the hardships and stigma he faced, and ultimately how he approached treatment for his condition. There are lots of moments that I think Bruce would relate to, as well as a lot of hope and optimism about living with multiple personalities within one body.

T’Challa/Black Panther: “A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

T’Challa had his own hurdles to jump during his ascension to the throne of Wakana, with some family intrigue and secrets in the form of his cousin Erik Killmonger blocking his path (though not totally wrong in his points). Because of this, he might enjoy this high fantasy story by N.K. Jemisin. Not only is the City of Sky similar to Wakanda in it’s Afro-fantasy inspirations, T’Challa himself was surprised to find himself thrust into a powerful role when his father died, just as Yeine was when she returned home after her mother’s death. This is the first of a trilogy, so T’Challa will have more than one book to look forward to!

Steve Rogers/Captain America: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

So there is a process behind this pick, so let’s lay it out. Yes, Steve is a true American patriot and loves the U.S.A., and yes, “The Book Thief” takes place in WWII Germany and doesn’t see any time on the battlefield. But Steve is also a fan of those who fight injustice and cruelty in any form, and that is why he would like the story of Liesel. Not only is Liesel’s household hiding a Jewish man from the Nazis, Liesel herself is out there standing up against the Nazi Regime by saving books from mass burnings, an act that could have severe consequences. But like Steve before he went through his transformation, Liesel is determined and tenacious, no matter her size and no matter how dangerous the situation may be. And Steve would LOVE that.

There are SO many more Avengers that we didn’t cover here. What other books do you think some of them would like? Let us know in the comments!

Joint Review: “The Belles”

23197837Book: “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, February 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First; an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Kate’s Review:

Many thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this novel!

My first experience with Dhonielle Clayton was the sudsy and dramatic “Tiny Pretty Things” duology that she wrote with Sona Charaipotra. While I loved the first book in that series, I was left cold by the second. But when I heard that Clayton was writing a fantasy series on her own, I knew that I would absolutely need to get my hands on it. I know that I say that fantasy isn’t really my wheelhouse, I do have exceptions, and this kind of fantasy (other worldly dystopia/utopia) absolutely falls into that category. I sat down and read “The Belles” in one day, absolutely taken in by this amazing fantasy world that Clayton created.

And oh my gosh, so many FASHION DESCRIPTIONS. I have no style, but I love fashion.

giphy
Sashay shanté, bitches. (source)

Orléans  is unlike any other fantasy world that I have seen in a very long time. It has certain similarities with our world, feeling like a combination of French Revolution era societal castes and factions, and yet with magic and grand technologies dispersed throughout it. The Belles, women who have descended from the Goddess of Beauty, have magic flowing through them that allows them to create beauty with various tools and powers that they have. The mortals of Orléans have been cursed with a distinct lack of beauty and grace (the mythology is indeed explained), and the Belles are the only ones who can help them. I greatly enjoyed Camellia’s moral journey as a Belle. She starts wanting to be the very best, to be picked as the Favorite of the Royal Court and to live with them, just as her mother had. But as she starts to live that life, she starts to change, as realities that she has never seen start to become all too real. The way that she changed and met those changes was very fascinating, and hers was a complex and interesting perspective to follow.

The other characters in this book are all very well done as well. Though we only see the events through Camellia’s eyes, I feel like I got a good hold on the supporting ones too and what their motivations were. I greatly enjoyed one of the other Belles named Edel, whose inherent need to rebel and question her life as a Belle was a small, but telling, theme about how different people function within this opulent world. There are different ways that the characters in this book fit into the complicated society, and I was impressed and genuinely horrified by how willing Clayton was to go into disturbing and dark situations to show the dangerous side of a beauty obsessed and power imbalanced culture. Keep an eye out for Princess Sofia. If you want a really screwy and messed up villain in your YA fantasy, she is exactly what you’re looking for.

I really enjoyed “The Belles” and am waiting for the second book on pins and needles.

Serena’s Review:

I had never read any books by Dhonielle Clayton before this, but the intriguing book description alone was enough to convince me this was one to check out. The fact that Kate was also interested was also a plus, since she’s not a huge reader of fantasy, so when there’s one that appeals to her as well, than I’m usually pretty curious!

The thing that stands out about it the most to me was the world-building and descriptions of the beauty that make up the lives of those able to afford such luxuries. The fact that this beauty is also tied to the world’s creation story and is a tangible part of their lives further cemented it as an intriguing concept. What could have read as a fairly superficial fantasy world was instead fully realized and complex, using beauty as not only the primary aspect of the magical system itself but a commentary on what is important to the people in this world. But the simplistic moralizing that one would expect , obsession with physical beauty is superficial and bad, is complicated by the very real implication of the beings peopling this world. Not only do they become physically less beautiful, with grey skin and red eyes, but it is mentioned that insanity also comes for those who fall too far into this “natural” state. I loved the added layers given to this, as, like I said, this could have ended up with a very simple and trite message.

Instead, much of the arc was devoted to Camellia’s growth as a character. Yes, obsession with physical beauty is discussed. But for Camellia, much of her story is that of a young woman who is just beginning to live the life that she’s dreamed of and realizing that it might be very different than she had expected. She’s a typical teenage girl in many ways, struggling with jealousy, self-care, and establishing her own boundaries. Throughout the story, we see her fight with her instincts to please those around her versus do what she knows to be right. Further, this growth comes slowly and steadily, reading as a more natural progression and thus highly relatable to teenage girls. The pressure is real, as are the consequences, and remaining true to your own judgements is never a straight forward path.

I also loved how dark this book was, and I was surprised by the quality of the villain who was presented. The same detailed and extravagant writing that goes into illustrating all of the beauty that makes up this world was put to just as good of use when drawing up the truly terrifying future that now looms by the end of this book.

All in all, I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! It was easy to read the concept and dismiss it as a kind of silly fluff-fantasy that was going to preach an all too familiar message about the “beauty within.” But nope! This is definitely one worth checking out!

Kate’s Rating 8: A sumptuous and unique tale about a gilded society and the darkness behind, and cost of, outer beauty. The characters were all well done and the world Clayton built was wonderfully crafted.

Serena’s Rating 8: A surprising read that avoids the easy and expected messages while still focusing on what’s important. Strong characters, beautiful descriptions, and villain to give you the creeps! Everything you want from YA fantasy fiction!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Belles” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Fashion Dystopia” and “YA Heroines of Colour.”

Find “The Belles” at your library using WorldCat!

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.

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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