Serena’s Review: “Doomsday Book”

Doomsday Book Book: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

Publishing Info: Bantam Spectra, July 1992

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Review: This book has been on my list for a long time. Connie Willis is regularly mentioned as one of the top women authors for science fiction, and “Doomsday Book” shows up on lots of “must-read” lists. So, when I spotted it as available when browsing my way through the library’s audiobooks a couple of weeks ago, it was as if the stars had aligned and it was finally, finally time for me to get to this one. And for the most part, it was ok? Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to all of my expectations.

For one, the story is told with alternating perspectives between Kivrin in the Middle Ages and her mentor, Dunworthy, in Oxford in 2054. My usual problem with this storytelling method was highlighted again here. One story almost inevitably is much stronger and more interesting than the other. While Dunworthy learns very quickly that something (he doesn’t know what) has gone wrong with Kivrin’s trip to the past and works to find answers while also handling a sudden mysterious disease crippling the city, there’s just no way for him to compete with Kivrin’s story, stranded in the past, with her carefully laid plans crumbling around her.

So, too, there were aspects of Dunworthy’s story that were incredibly frustrating as a reader. It’s hard to know whether, as a longtime reader of sci-fi/fantasy, I’m more familiar with the trail of clues laid out in these types of stories and can anticipate the final destination from long practice, or whether these clues have simply become more standard in the genre all together in the 20 plus years since this book was initially published. Either way, Dunworthy’s progress learning what had happened to Kivrin was so drawn out. At certain points in the story, the character would outright ask another character a basic question and then, bizarrely, the other character would change the subject or, what, pretend not to have heard him? It started to feel really contrived, and by about two thirds of the way through the book when he was still struggling to get basic answers to simple questions, I started doubting my ability to finish all together.

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Only, it was an audiobook, so there was no flipping, just sad, sad listening.

Unfortunately, this forced confusion carried over to Kivrin’s narrative as well. While the a large part of the story revolves around the incompetence of the current director who even allowed Kivrin’s trip to the Middle Ages (an era of time that had previously been rated a “10” on the “too dangerous to travel to” scale), Kivrin herself would at times come across as equally incompetent. I have to imagine that this was not intended.

Things go wrong for Kivrin from the beginning, and it becomes clear why time travel to this era was going to be a bad idea for a young woman traveling alone. Beyond the obvious factors, things that Dunworthy pointed out from the beginning in his effort to stop her from going, the fact that a woman in this time period has almost zero agency seems to be an obvious reason to avoid this. If everything had gone right, how was Kivrin, a young, unmarried woman, supposed escape the household she was in? Women didn’t go anywhere by themselves, let alone walk miles into the wilderness along strange roads! Kivrin’s struggles in this area seemed easy to anticipate. The book even discussed two-person drops in time, and I never felt like there was an adequate explanation for why things moved forward as they did. Like I said, a lot revolves around the new director being an idiot. But for something as important as time travel, it was a bit hard to swallow that a disaster like this could so easily happen due to one man’s ego and ignorance.

Here too, Kivrin’s confusion and inability to catch on to simple clues didn’t feel right for a character who was presented as supremely thorough in her preparation for this trip. She seems genuinely confused at one point to discover that a 13 -year-old girl is engaged to  a much older man, after many, many clues to this have already been lain out. This kind of bizarre storytelling was very distracting. I feel like Willis was trying to build tension in these choices, but all it did was make me question the sanity of her characters and wish things would just start happening already.

That said, Kivrin’s story was still a very interesting read. I would recommend this book for fans of history, however, rather than sci-fi fans. Time travel aside, the majority of the story is an intricate look at life in the Middle Ages. This is where Willis shines. Not only did the characters feel exactly right, highlighting the various challenges of people’s different roles, but the small details of the challenges of every day things were touched upon in a way that felt incredibly natural. What could have come across as a history lesson, instead felt like catching a glimpse into a beautiful painting of a small slice of time. But this glimpse is entirely honest, and with that honesty comes a lot of tragedy. This book was very hard to read towards the end, but I appreciate that Willis didn’t shy away from the realities of the world she brought Kivrin into.

All in all, there were parts of “Doomsday Book” that I really enjoyed, however, I also felt like the story could have used a heavy dosage of editing. It was’t a short story to begin with, and the continued delay of basic facts that readers could guess on their own, only made it feel longer. It was not a light read, but if you enjoy history and a richly detailed story, I would recommend “Doomsday Book.”

Rating 6: I enjoyed the historical aspects, but I also wanted to knock the characters’ heads together a few too many times to fully get behind it.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Doomsday Book” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Time Travel Fiction”  and “Books for a Pandemic.” 

Find “Doomsday Book” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “You” by Caroline Kepnes

20821614Book: “You” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler books, September 2014

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.

There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.

As Joe invisibly and obsessively takes control of Beck’s life, he orchestrates a series of events to ensure Beck finds herself in his waiting arms. Moving from stalker to boyfriend, Joe transforms himself into Beck’s perfect man, all while quietly removing the obstacles that stand in their way—even if it means murder.

Review: When I first picked this book up, I had an ‘uh oh’ moment. Having read “Perfect Days” fairly recently, I was worried that “You” was going to be so similar to that one that I wouldn’t be able to give it a fair shake. And on paper, they definitely sound like the same book; it’s from the perspective of an obsessed, sociopathic guy who is stalking an effervescent and flaky artist-type girl. But I am happy to report that the similarities end there, as while “Perfect Days” goes right into the kidnapping and torturing consequence of that, “You” is more about the stalking.

I’m not selling this book to a good chunk of people with my description, and that’s fine, because if you have a problem with reading a book that’s about themes like this, “You” isn’t for you.

One of the most striking things about “You” is that it is told in a strange first and second person perspective. Joe is the narrator, talking about his experience, but it’s as if he’s telling the story to Beck, the object of his obsession, and is addressing the reader as if he or she is Beck. So it’s always “You are”, or “You didn’t”, etcetera etcetera. I was worried that it was going to be awkward at best and unreadable at worst, but it actually worked very, very well.

This is going to sound strange, but I liked reading it from Joe’s perspective, mainly because I liked that we got to see just how disgustingly weird and threatening he is. Kepnes makes it very clear right out of the gate that this guy is a predator, and worse still he’s a predator who doesn’t know that he is one. In his mind he’s just a nice guy who has fallen in love with the perfect woman, and he will stop at nothing to be with her. I also appreciated that while Kepnes was definitely pointing out the mistakes that Beck made (after losing her phone she didn’t deactivate it, she has no security settings on her social media and talks about her life in full, among other things), at no point do you feel like she is being blamed for any of the under the surface victimization that is happening to her. It did, however, make me double check my privacy settings on my accounts and confirm that all of my devices are locked. It was very unnerving to watch how Joe tracked and stalked Beck, all the while inserting himself into her life and romancing her as well. You could see how, without seeing the dark and insidious side to how this relationship began, Beck would find him utterly charming, and also underestimate him. Scary, scary stuff.

While this book was mostly engrossing and totally thrilling, there were a couple of things that did come off as unrealistic, so unrealistic that I had trouble suspending my disbelief. My main beef is that Joe starts to go see Beck’s therapist, Dr. Nicki. Joe gives himself a fake name to do this, and as someone who has been in therapy before, I’m pretty sure that it’s not that easy to do that and get treatment. You’d think there’d be questions about health insurance, checking accounts, or why a person would be paying with flat out cash if the first two issues are to be circumnavigated. None of this, however, is ever addressed, and for whatever reason it just irritated me. Everything else was so meticulous when it came to how Joe achieves what he does, and this seemed more ‘because I said it worked’ than actually feasible. Which was too bad, because until then everything had be saying ‘yes of course this is how it would happen tell me more’.

Nit picking aside, I really enjoyed “You”, and I think that those thriller fans who think they can handle it ought to try it out. It had me in suspense and tied up in knots up until the end. It takes a lot of guts to tell a story from the perspective of a predatory character and make that character easy to read and interesting to read. I can’t say that I ‘liked’ Joe, per se, but I enjoyed experiencing his darkness. Make no mistake, he is pure darkness, but it’s a creepily entertaining darkness.

And, there is a sequel called “Hidden Bodies” that is currently on my nightstand, just waiting for me to start it. I’m not quite ready, but I know that I will be soon. I’m coming back for you, Joe Goldberg, you creepy and awful sonnuvabitch.

Rating 8: Incredibly dark and incredibly screwed up with a very strong voice and a very voyeuristic feel to it. I just wish that a few of the less realistic aspects hadn’t taken me out of the moment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You” is included on in these Goodreads lists: “Dark and Deep Books”, and “Most Messed Up”.

Find “You” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Providence of Fire”

The Providence of Fire Book: “The Providence of Fire” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

Spoilers for the first book “The Emperor’s Blades”

Review: The second book in Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series is like one of those scenes that starts zoomed in a on kid playing, and then zooms back and the kid is in large park, and then zooms back and the park is in a huge city, and so on and so forth. What I’m saying is that the world building goes from complex to wait…what now?? But Staveley’s control of his narrative, world, and characters never stumbles under this added mythology. If anything, the strength of this series only grows with the additional challenges and complications thrown in the mix.

What is the most impressive about this series is Staveley’s ability to handle his three main characters. Kaden, Valyn, and Adare have a more equal balance this time, as far as page time goes. Each is traveling such a distinctive path. Kaden’s is a cerebral journey pealing back the mysteries of the Shin, the portal-like doorways of the kenta, and the history between the Csestriam, the gods they sought to kill, and humanity caught within a struggle between power players completely out of their league. Valyn’s journey continues as the most straight forward. He is a man of action, and action itself becomes his motivation. While Kaden and Adare spend much of their time balancing the intricacies of the pieces on the world-sized board, Valyn sets a goal and moves towards it, even if reaching that goal means aligning with the Urghul, the savage enemies of his own Empire. Adare, the politician, is forced to re-evalutate her own role in this crumbling world. Betrayed by her own general, Adare is driven out of her city in desperate attempt to gain allies and a find new foothold to combat the roving Urghul armies heading her direction.

What is so amazing about this balance is also what is so frustrating. Kaden, Adare, and Valyn all are seeing limited parts of the story and reacting in ways that are consistent to their worldviews and preferred operating methods. But these choices and stories conflict, setting the three up against each other with misunderstanding and suspicion. While reading each chapter, I could completely understand and sympathize with each character’s decisions. But then once I switched to the next chapter it became clear that no, this other character had the right idea about things.

As the story progresses, each character made decisions that made me want to shake them. However, I see this as a strength of the story. Staveley’s characters are flawed and limited by the knowledge they have and their own personalities and tendencies that lead them towards one decision or another. It was perhaps more uncomfortable if only because I think many fantasy readers are accustomed to our heroes and heroines quickly evolving into specific tropes. Kaden should be all-wise, calm, and reasoned. Valyn should be completely heroic, using violence in only the most esteemable ways. And Adare should be clever, easily wrapping her foes around her finger and springing elaborate traps. When they fail to behave as we expect, it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and frankly, awesome.

This book also made a lot of strides to improve upon the last as far as page time and use of its female characters. Adare is given an equal portion of the story; in fact, hers becomes my favorite of the three siblings. And a new character, Gwenna, a member of Valyn’s group of Kestrel fighters, gets her own sprinkling of chapters. This was particularly welcome. As I said, the three siblings become very caught up in the increasingly complicated web that is the Empire, and it was a relief to read chapters from the very straight-forward thinking Gwenna. She was brash, sympathetic, and highly entertaining. So, too, Triste’s role in the story is greatly increased.

And, as I mentioned, the amazing world building cannot be over emphasized. Most epic fantasy relies on a complex historical past for its world. In this book, it becomes more and more clear that this history is not as understood as it was thought to be. Not only that, but history is still unraveling even in the present. The Csestriam, the old gods, the new gods, the mad, power-hungry leaches of centuries past, the Atmani. They all weave in and out of the story in completely unexpected ways. By the end of the book, I was left questioning everything I thought I had understood from the first book.

All told, “The Providence of Fire” only improved on what was an amazing fantasy epic to begin with. The added complexity of the world and the characters left me constantly guessing and re-evaluating my opinions. While the previous book had slow sections, particularly in the beginning with Kaden’s chapters, this story moves at full throttle from beginning to end. “The Emperor’s Blades” laid out the threads of each storyline, and “The Providence of Fire” tangled them all up into such a mess that I have no idea how Staveley is going to wrap this all up. But I do know that I’m looking forward to finding out!

Rating 9: So good! So worried about what’s coming next!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Providence of Fire” is included in this Goodreads list: “Must Read Epic Fantasy.”

Find “The Providence of Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Review of “The Emperor’s Blades”

Kate’s Review: “Secret Six (Vol 2): Depths”

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Book: “Secret Six (Vol 2): Depths” by Gail Simone, Nicolla Scott (Ill.), Carlos Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, April 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When Batman’s cowl winds up for grabs after his death in FINAL CRISIS, two members of the Secret Six think they have what it takes to be the new Dark Knight. But will Robin put up with the unruly team in his hometown? And where have all the forgotten heroes and villains of the DC Universe been? The Six are blackmailed by someone claiming to be their old boss, Mockingbird, into a brand-new mission taking them into the heart of the metahuman slave trade! And Artemis, the former Wonder Woman, returns in the most brutal Secret Six story yet!

Review: As much as I do love a good dark and twisted story, I am also quite the fan of fluffy, goofy, one off side stories that round out my favorite characters. That’s the reason that I do find myself reading comics skewed towards younger readers, such as “Li’l Gotham” and “Itty Bitty Hellboy”. I am usually very excited when the adult comics I read go in a more light hearted direction, and I was very happily surprised when Secret Six even got in on this action, at least a little bit, in “Depths”. I will talk about the main, progressing plot line first. But know that there is more. So much more.

In the progressing story, The Secret Six has been given a new assignment by someone who is claiming to be their old boss, Mockingbird, and it leads them to Devil’s Island, where a man named Mr. Smyth hopes to build the world’s largest, and only prison. This concept let the Six explore the idea of prisons, and who we put in them. It never felt preachy, and I really enjoyed the way that it was presented. The best part about this plot progressing story line was that we got an appearance from the HBIC herself, Wonder Woman! I literally screeched when my precious Diana Prince arrived on the scene, and though I didn’t really care for some of the twists and turns in this arc, Wonder Woman’s presence made up for it. As did the expansion of Jeanette’s role. We finally got to see her in full on banshee mode. I had been waiting so long for that. I will definitely admit that I am starting to get a little frustrated with how these team members find ways to betray each other, and I’m starting to fear that this is just going to be par for the course. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, and yet here we are.

But I mentioned a diversion story line at the beginning of this. Before we got into the dark and gritty (and of course sarcastic) story of Devil’s Island, we got two fun side stories featuring the Six and their shenanigans. There is the response comic (I have to think?) to Batman’s Death in Final Crisis, in which Bane, Catman, and Ragdoll take a night to do some good in honor of the fallen Bat. Watching these guys saving children from kidnappers all over Gotham was super cute, especially since Ragdoll was wearing a Robin outfit and none of them really knew how to function as heroes, though their efforts were so sweet and well meaning.

AND THEN there is the double date story.

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You read that right. 

Deadshot and Jeanette go on a date with Scandal and Liana. Who’s Liana? Liana is the exotic dancer that the Six hired for Scandal when she was mourning Knockout’s death in the first volume. She’s back, and she’s such a darling and lovely character that I can’t help but love her. While at first I was a bit worried that Scandal’s relationship with her was going to be weird and macabre (given how much she looks like Knockout), she adds a lovely bit of balance to a group of ne’er-do-wells with her non cynical outlook on life.This entire story may have felt a bit like fanfiction on paper, but it worked because the characters were so true to themselves. I really wish that there were more stories like this in The Secret Six series. They are truly at their best and brightest when they are being a ridiculous and dysfunctional group of friends. I would read this series if it was just a humorous group of regular people having to share a loft, because the characters do work that well outside of being super villains.

I definitely want more. These characters remain incredibly charming and likable, and I hope that they stay that way. If only all comic characters could be written with such wit and complexities.

Rating 8: Great to see Amazons like Diana and Artemis, and cute side storylines that are very amusing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Six (Vol. 2): Depths” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Diverse Heroes in Comics/Graphic Novels” and “Swancon 2013 Reading List”.

Find “Secret Six (Vol. 2): Depths” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews of “Secret Six”: “Villains United”, “Unhinged”.

Book Club Review: “The Outsiders”

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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: “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton

Publishing Info: Viking Press, April 1967

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

Book Description from Goodreads: According to Ponyboy, there are two kinds of people in the world: greasers and socs. A soc (short for “social”) has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. Ponyboy is a greaser, and he’s always been proud of it, even willing to rumble against a gang of socs for the sake of his fellow greasers–until one terrible night when his friend Johnny kills a soc. The murder gets under Ponyboy’s skin, causing his bifurcated world to crumble and teaching him that pain feels the same whether a soc or a greaser.

Kate’s Thoughts:

It was my turn to pick the book for book club, and I knew right away that I wanted to to “The Outsiders”. Unlike a lot of middle or high schoolers in this country, I did not initially read this book when I was a teenager. When I turned eleven or twelve I made the transition to reading adult novels as opposed to those for the teenage set. My sister, however, had a copy, and I knew that she liked it. So I first read “The Outsiders” when I was in graduate school in my Young Adult Literature and Services class. So I wasn’t exactly at the right age demographic when I read it, but I loved it. A whole, whole lot.

Reading it again did not diminish my love for this book. I think that while it takes place in the 1960s, the themes of isolation, teen rivalry, violence, abuse, and loss are timeless and can still be applied today. It may be a fight between the poor greasers and the rich socs, but it could be any group at odds within a teenage community. S.E. Hinton wrote this book when she was a fifteen year old herself, and so Ponyboy’s voice is very authentic and rings very true. What amazes me is that this was written by a fifteen year old, as it definitely seems like it has a feel for these issues from that of one much wiser. Hinton wrote better than I ever did at age fifteen, I can tell you that much.

I also love how so many of the characters have fully realized personalities. To me the most fascinating and complicated characters are Darry, Ponyboy’s older brother, and Dallas (aka Dally), the head greaser in Ponyboy’s group. Darry is portrayed to a T as a boy who had to grow up too fast and raise his younger siblings when their parents died. I love how Darry’s frustrations come out, but so does his love, and while I’m sure as a teenager I would have been critical of Darry and how he reacts and relates to Ponyboy, as an adult I just want to sweet him up and give him a hug. And then there’s Dallas, the character with the biggest mouth, the worst attitude, and the most tragic core. I love that Dally has his awful and mean moments, but you know that he loves his friends, specifically the doomed Johnny, and has little to live for outside of them.

And finally, the theme of growing up, sometimes too fast, carries a lot of weight in this book. Johnny does so when he accidentally kills Bob the Soc. This strikes a sharp contrast to Ponyboy, who wants to grow up as fast as he can, and those around him, specifically Johnny and Darry, want him to cling to his childhood. To ‘stay gold’. The difference between Ponyboy and the other Outsiders is that he has that familial support in both his brothers Sodapop and Darry. Even if their family is hurting and broken, they still love each other, which ultimately, I think, saves Ponyboy from himself.

No it isn’t perfect. There aren’t many girl characters, and only one, Cherry, has any development to her character. And the scene with the church fire always seemed pretty over the top to me, though the consequences of it never feel melodramatic. Sometimes Ponyboy’s voice was grating, and while I know that he’s supposed to be a naive teenage boy it was a little hard to deal with how not self aware he was. But overall, these are quibbles.

Gosh. I love this book. Imperfect as it may be in some ways, I still love it.

Serena’s Thoughts:

Can I just write “what Kate said” and leave it at that?

Well, I guess I have a different story of when I first read it. Not much of a story, actually, but it was an assigned book in my highschool English class. Which meant I was forced to hate it initially. In reality, I didn’t hate it, but it definitely wasn’t a book that I listed on any favorite lists. Honestly, looking back, I barely remembered anything from this book, so re-reading it for bookclub was a lot like reading it for the first time.

In all seriousness, really, what Kate said. I had similar feelings about a lot of the characters, specifically my love for Darry. As an older sibling, I think I naturally gravitated towards him. I don’t remember having any teenage angst towards him as cramping on Ponyboy’s style when I read it the first time, but I probably did. But as an adult, I just want to cry and rock him. (I only just now looked up at Kate’s review and saw that she said she wanted to hug him. We have the same mind!)

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As a literature major, I also enjoyed the heck out of the literary discussions in this. I had forgotten how many there were, between “Gone with the Wind” and the obvious “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” I can see why they used this in my English class! Sneaky, sneaky. If we read this, maybe we’ll read those!

But it’s clear where the success of this book lies: the honest portrayal of life as a group of teenage boys. It’s amazing that a 16 year old young woman wrote this. The beauty, pain, growth, limitations, every aspect of what it would be like as a young man growing up in this situation seems to be touched upon. And with such frank honesty. There is no trying to hard. There is no morality story for the sake of a morality story. It simply is. And what it is is amazing. This book should be highlighted whenever people start falling down the rabbit hole for why it may be too challenging for a male author to write from a woman’s perspective or vice versa.

A few weaknesses for me: as a narrator, at times, Ponyboy could come off in a way that was off putting. But, this could be as much another example of an honest portrayal of teenagedom as anything else. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the bookended beginning and end of the story. This could also be something that I’m less tolerant of for having seen it done one too many times. At the time this book was published originally, I imagine I would have felt differently.

All in all, however, I really enjoyed “The Outsiders” and am glad that Kate forced to re-evaluate my rebellious teenage opinion.

Kate’s Rating 9: This book stands the test of time with its relatable characters and themes. It may not be perfect, but it’s imperfections are dwarfed by it’s merits.

Serena’s Rating 8: Very enjoyable and still a strong recommendation for teenagers and adults alike!

Book Club Notes and Questions:

We’re still going strong with the Movie theme in our book club at the moment, so we watched the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of “The Outsiders”. The cast in this movie is fabulous, with youngster versions of Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, and Matt Dillon. And a not as young as the rest version of Patrick Swayze, who was, by book club consensus, the most attractive of all the Outsiders.

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I mean, really. (source)

The adaptation is a pretty faithful one, though the original theatrical release left out a lot of stuff that happens with Darry and Sodapop. Luckily, there is a director’s cut version called “The Outsiders: The Complete Novel” that adds all of this back in.

1. Who is your favorite Outsider? What is it about them that makes them your favorite?

2. What do you think of how this book is framed (as an essay Ponyboy is writing)? Does this work for you as a reader?

3. How do you feel about Darry as a character? What do you think of how he handles Ponyboy?

4. What did you think of Cherry and the other Socs? What function does Cherry serve in this book?

5. “The Outsiders” came out in 1967 and is seen as one of the first YA novels. Do you think that it holds up for a modern audience? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Outsiders” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Young Adult Realistic Novels”, and “Best Coming of Age Stories”.

Find “The Outsiders” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “City of Stairs”

City of Stairs Review: “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publishing Info: Broadway Books, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

Review: This book is like a magical combination of everything I love to read.

Ingredients for Serena’s favorite reading experience:

  • a unique, fantasy setting
  • a compelling main character with a diverse and interesting set of companions
  • a mystery that is both challenging but has also been well laid out with clues
  • a good helping of action scenes
  • a dash of philosophy
  • a sprinkle of witty dialogue

Mix well and consume!

Bennett’s “City of Stairs” was a perfect concoction.

Honestly, this book was so good, I don’t even know where to start. Not only that, but the world that Bennett has created, its history, its peoples, its culture, is so elaborate and detailed that almost anything I say will be wildly, misleadingly, simplified. I guess I’ll try to just touch on a few of my favorite aspects.

The characters. I could probably list every single character here and just call it good. Shara was a great leading character. She’s reminiscent of a noir detective, combined with Hermione Granger, with the chops of James Bond. Her “secretary,” Sigrud is essentially a giant Viking with a dark past who’s taking names. Turyin Mulaghesh: grizzled war veteran. She just wants to retire on an island, but her inherent badassery is always going to get in the way. Vohannes, a Continental native whose political savvy and charm make him an indisposable ally or a disastrous foe. Aunt Vinya, the “M” of the Saypurian spy network. I could go on. Essentially, this cast is diverse, complex, and perfectly balanced. There wasn’t an unrealized character or point of view to be found.

But the real strength of this story is the intricate analysis of its world. There are two aspects that I most want to focus on: colonialism and religion. The relationship between the Continent and Saypur is laid out in a way that is so perfectly imperfect. The Continent, once the powerhouse of the world, invaded Saypur and enslaved its people for centuries. After their Gods fell at the hands of a Saypurian general, the Continent sunk into disrepair. Saypur has risen as the new center of culture and economics. Saypur has occupied the Continent and outlawed the Continent’s own history. What makes this balance so striking is the honest portrayal of the failings of countries. The line between the oppressor and the oppressed is constantly tested.

The real success here is the sadness this book evokes. The Continentals did terrible things. But the remnants of their history are laid slowly before you, the ruin of what once were glorious feats of architecture, and you can’t help but feel a sense of loss. This ability to balance the wonder, beauty, and terrible, sudden quenching of culture and people with the true horror that was the Continentals’ reign makes this book special.

The commentary on religion is even stronger. In a world where once Gods walked the earth and directly touched the lives of people, religion and faith have a different meaning. The sense of entitlement that can come with a belief system would inevitably become even more prevalent. The Continentals can see and interact with their Gods. Saypur is literally Godless. How can the Continentals not be blessed and meant to be the center of the world?

Beyond this, each God has his or her own set of beliefs, ways of interacting with their followers, and chosen method of influencing the world. Kolkan reflects a rule-based religion. Judgement and punishment is at its core. Olvos is the Goddess of light. Hers is a faith based in thinking for oneself and living a life of service. Jukov is a God of mischief. He’ll as likely bless you as turn you into a flock of birds. Life should be lived to its fullest and the chaos of the world embraced. Each of these Gods and their specific faith systems carry traces of the familiar. Buried within it all is a deeper discussion of power and where it lies. Does faith and religion carry meaning because of the power of its God or the power of its followers?

It’s hard to discuss much of this book without spoiling the best parts. For a story that takes place in a world where knowledge of its past is forbidden, the slow reveal of history, its lies and truths, is a huge factor in the reader’s enjoyment. I won’t ruin it for you!

Let it just be said, beyond having some really interesting things to say, there are also some truly fun adventures. Shara and Sigrud battle a sea monster. Sigrud battles ninjas. There are portals, there are magic carpets, there are mysterious cults and creepy beasts. Like I said at the beginning, everything I could possibly want!

Rating 10: Practically perfect in every way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Stairs” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Sword and Laser Fantasy List” and “Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.”

Find “City of Stairs” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Breathe a Word”

9581507Book: “Don’t Breathe A Word” by Jennifer McMahon, Lily Rains (Narrator)

Publishing Info: HarperAudio, May 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Two young lovers find themselves ensnared in a seemingly supernatural web that ties them to a young girl’s disappearance fifteen years earlier in this dark and twisty tale from the New York Times bestselling author of Island of Lost Girls and Promise Not to Tell. Jennifer McMahon returns with a vengeance with Don’t Breathe a Word—an absolutely chilling and ingenious combination of psychological thriller, literary suspense, and paranormal page-turner that will enthrall a wildly diverse audience including, among others, avid fans of Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child), Laura Lippman (I’d Know You Anywhere), and Tana French.(In the Woods).

Review: I have had very mixed results with Jennifer McMahon. Before I started “Don’t Breathe a Word” I had read three other books of hers. I liked “The Night Sister” and “Promise Not To Tell”, but I wasn’t impressed by “The Winter People”. I was looking for a new audiobook, and decided to try this one. I had pretty high hopes for it as I started it, walking around my neighborhood at dusk. I was taken in by the story of Phoebe, a woman with a dark past, and her lover Sam, a man whose sister Lisa disappeared fifteen years prior when she was twelve and he was ten. Lisa had been obsessed with the idea of fairies, and thought that she had been chosen to be the next Fairy Queen to Taylo, King of the Fairies, and she disappeared without a trace. But then Sam and Phoebe get a phone call from a woman claiming that she is Lisa, and has returned from the Fairy Realm. So now Phoebe and Sam are trying to find out if this is Lisa, and if so, where she had been all this time, because fairies can’t be real, right?

Well don’t ask MacMahon, because she kept changing her mind about that little fact. And this probably isn’t actually what happened, but as I was listening to this book the evidence kept jumping between being something supernatural going on, or something very real and very insidious. While I think that it’s fine if a writer does these things occasionally to raise questions,  making the reader keep jumping back and forth between these questions gets tiresome. Eventually I didn’t even care anymore if it was actual fairies or some creep who preyed on a young girl, and that’s generally not a feeling you want your reader to have. I also had a hard time with the characters in this one, as none of them were particularly likable. Phoebe made terrible and stupid decisions, Sam was two dimensional AND something of a jerk to Phoebe a good chunk of the time, and Sam’s cousin Evie, a mysterious presence in the story, wasn’t threatening enough OR sympathetic enough, both things that her character needed to be depending on what the reader was supposed to believe at the time. The one character who seemed the most authentic was Lisa, whose perspective we got as well in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. I liked those parts more than the modern ones, as that was the only part that didn’t shift back and forth about whether or not this was a story about fairies or a story about evil people. For Lisa’s parts, it was about the dysfunction of her family and the tragedy that befell her because of it. I was mostly on board for her parts, and could forgive the rest of it…. But then…..

SPOILERS. SCROLL DOWN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

Okay I am going to just talk about the ending, because that is where I just completely wanted to toss my phone out the window. So the book spent a lot of time making you wonder if fairies took Lisa, or horrible people. It turns out that she was kidnapped by her aunt Hazel, Evie’s mom, who was raped by her grandfather, and gave birth to a secret son who was part Fairy (as Hazel’s grandfather was rumored to be a Changeling fairy). So Lisa was held in captivity by her aunt, not taken to the fairies to be a bride to Taylo, but to be breeding stock with her cousin. SUPER YUCK, but okay. I was satisfied with that solution… BUT THEN, Phoebe and Sam have a baby, and MacMahon decides that “Oh wait, Taylo is actually real and he set up Phoebe and Sam through his influence and magic and he wants their baby and steals her away, replacing her with a changeling”. I was livid. You had an ending. You can’t just change your mind in an attempt to pull the rug out from under the reader!!!

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There is no other way to describe how I felt.

END SPOILERS

But I do want to say that Lily Rains, the narrator for this book, did a pretty good job. She changed her voices for every character and had a lot of life and passion in her voice.

The end pretty much ruined the rest of the book for me, and I really hate it when that happens. “Don’t Breathe a Word” had potential, and I do like MacMahon enough to give her another chance. But definitely skip this one in favor of “The Night Sister” or “Promise Not To Tell”.

Rating 4: A strong start, a shaky middle, but then an end that unraveled everything before it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Breathe a Word” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Changelings”, and “WTF Endings”.

Find “Don’t Breathe a Word” at your library using Worldcat!