Bookclub Review: “It’s Not The End of the World”

504509We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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

Book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Publishing Info: Macmillan, 1972

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Meet Julie” by Megan McDonald

Book Description: Can Karen keep her parents from getting a divorce? This classic novel from Judy Blume has a fresh new look.

Karen couldn’t tell Mrs. Singer why she had to take her Viking diorama out of the sixth-grade showcase. She felt like yelling, “To keep my parents from getting divorced!” But she couldn’t say it, and the whole class was looking at her anyway.

Karen’s world was ending. Her father had moved out of the house weeks before; now he was going to Las Vegas to get divorced, and her mother was pleased! She had only a few days to get the two of them together in the same room. Maybe, if she could, they would just forget about the divorce. Then the Newman family could be its old self again—maybe. But Karen knew something she didn’t know last winter: that sometimes people who shouldn’t be apart are impossible together.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, literary confession time. Before Book Club picked “It’s Not The End of the World”, I had never read anything by Judy Blume. I don’t really know how I missed that, as I was almost certainly in the target demographic of her books, and I know that various classrooms at my grade school had her books on the shelves. But this was my first experience with Blume, so I was glad that one of our members picked it! I know that Blume is a queen of kid lit, so finally reading one of her books seemed far past due. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy “It’s Not The End of the World” as much as I thought I would.

I do want to say that first and foremost, I definitely understand the significance of a book about divorce being written in 1972. Especially a book that shows how toxic and terrible an acrimonious marriage and split can be for a family, without the promise of a happy moment of Mom and Dad reuniting because they do still love each other. As the 1970s brought more lenient social mores and changing ideas of values, divorce became more commonplace, and I think it’s so important that kids going through such a thing had a book like “It’s Not The End of the World” to turn to. It’s important to be able to see yourself in the media you consume, and so kids who had to go through that having this reflection of themselves and a reassurance that it is, in fact, not the end of the world, must have been resonant. On top of that, it was very easy to read and Blume’s skills as a writer are on full display.

But all that said, I think that now that more books have been written about divorce as time has gone on, they would be better options to explore than this book. I thought that a lot of the characters were two dimensional, including Karen who seemed quite a bit younger in her voice than the twelve year old she was supposed to be. On top of that, every single adult in this book was just awful, and while I think it’s probably pretty realistic that parents going through this kind of thing won’t always be on their best behavior, they were almost flat out abusive. And it felt to me like this was almost excused by Blume, or at least written off as typical and what to expect from divorcing parents. I don’t know what the 1970s were like, but this seemed unrealistic and histrionic.

I get and appreciate “It’s Not The End of the World,” but I don’t think it holds up as well as I’m told other Blume stories do.

Serena’s Thoughts

So I’ll try to keep my half of this review from just repeating everything Kate said. But somehow, even though we grew up in completely different states and both loved books obsessively, I, too, missed the Judy Blume train. Part of this I think has to do with the fact that I was pretty solidly a genre reader from the get-go and my forays into contemporary fiction have always been few and far between, even as a kid. The only other Blume book I read was “Forever” and that was just because I was assigned it in library school (Kate and I were in this same class, but she wisely chose a different book option for this assignment.) I didn’t particularly enjoy that book. So it was with some skepticism that I started this book, knowing that I hadn’t been the target audience pretty much ever and didn’t loved my only other experience with her work. And, alas, it held true here.

Like Kate said, this book definitely had its time and place, and there’s no arguing with the general popularity of Blume’s work with many middle graders. Still today libraries circulate many copies of her more popular stories. That said, I think this one shows its age and in ways that make it particularly less approachable to modern kids reading it than others. Books dealing with how kids deal with divorce are still needed today, but this one’s approach is heavily cemented in the idea that Karen is experiencing a socially rare event, one that is distinctive enough from her peers’ experiences that she stands out. Not only are attitudes around divorce markedly different than they were in the 70s, but it is simply common enough that Karen’s situation wouldn’t have likely made her stick out in a crowd.

Beyond this, the adults in Karen’s life are almost uniformly letting her down in massive ways. So much so, that at times both parents read as cartoonish in their villainy. There are also elements in their parenting strategies that would fall under a much harsher lens than they might have at the time this was written. Like Kate said, their actions in today’s views could be seen as borderline abusive. But the parents weren’t the only one-dimensional characters. Sadly, I didn’t connect with Karen at all either. She felt largely like a stock character around whom this “afternoon special: divorce!” topic was being framed.

I see how Blume’s work can be highly readable, as I did manage to get through the book quickly. But between this book and “Forever” (a book where I had a lot of similar complaints, particularly around the flat characterization), her writing is definitely not for me. I’m hesitant to throw a beloved author for many under the bus, but…I ain’t seeing it. With this topic specifically, I think there are better books being written now that I would direct readers to before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely an important work for it’s time and honest in many ways, but now it feels a bit over the top with histrionic moments and pretty two dimensional characters.

Serena’s Rating 5: More interesting as an artifact representing a very different time period with regards to divorce than as an actual story.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book was one of the first children’s novels that had divorce as a main theme. Do you think that it holds up today?
  2. What did you think of the adults in this novel? Did you find them realistic?
  3. What were your thoughts on Val, Karen’s new friend and supposed divorce expert?
  4. Did Karen’s voice feel authentic?
  5. Do you think that “It’s Not The End of the World” is still a book that you might recommend to kids whose families are going through a divorce? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“It’s Not The End of the World” is included on the Goodreads lists “Coming of Age Stories”, and “Books for My Eleven Year Old Self”.

Find “It’s Not The End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Kate’s Review: “Foul is Fair”

42595554Book: “Foul is Fair” by Hannah Capin

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: Elle and her friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer rule their glittering LA circle. Untouchable, they have the kind of power other girls only dream of. Every party is theirs and the world is at their feet. Until the night of Elle’s sweet sixteen, when they crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party. The night the golden boys choose Elle as their next target.

They picked the wrong girl.

Sworn to vengeance, Elle transfers to St. Andrew’s. She plots to destroy each boy, one by one. She’ll take their power, their lives, and their control of the prep school’s hierarchy. And she and her coven have the perfect way in: a boy named Mack, whose ambition could turn deadly.

Foul is Fair is a bloody, thrilling revenge fantasy for the girls who have had enough. Golden boys beware: something wicked this way comes.

Review: Thanks to Wednesday Books and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

When I was in ninth grade my English class read “MacBeth”, the Shakespearean tragedy involving assassination, witches, torment, and revenge. I loved it from the very start, from reading the book itself to when our teacher showed a group of fourteen and fifteen year olds the Roman Polanski film adaptation, which is horrendously bloody and disturbing. I remember turning to my friend Blake at one point and both of us clearly thinking ‘whaaat the fuuuuuck?’ By the time my younger sister got to that class they’d replaced Polanski’s version with the offbeat “Scotland, PA”, a retelling of the classic story set in the world of fast food. It’s hilarious and dark, and I had been waiting for a long time to see another retelling of my favorite Shakespeare play. You can imagine how excited I was when “Foul is Fair” by Hannah Capin was in my email box. A YA retelling of “MacBeth”, from the female point of view, as a revenge story? On paper, this seems like everything that I would want for the Scottish Play. And yet, it became pretty clear pretty early that this wasn’t really going to work for me as much as I’d hoped it would.

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I had certain expectations when I opened up this eARC, and I’m incredulous that basically none of them were met. (source)

Okay, let’s start with the good. Frankly, these days given the repeated reminders of the misogynistic and sexist culture that we live in, and the prevalent stories of abuse and trauma that have been exposed due to the #MeToo movement and powerful abusers falling from grace, I am all for a story that wants to tackle these issues with unrelenting rage. Catharsis is important, especially when it feels like some things never change and that privileged abusers will never see any true consequences (or sometimes hold high places of power, be it a Supreme Court seat or the Oval Office). So the fact that “Foul is Fair” is a power fantasy in which a rape victim is taking out all of her rage  and revenge against her rapists and taking her power back does give it lots of points. Especially since justice in the real world can be so hard to come by. Plus, I really did like the writing itself, as it’s vivid and visceral with a raw power that makes it almost burn off the page.

But when it comes to the characters within this book, I was supremely disappointed. One of the things about “MacBeth” is that while there are clear heroes and villains, each hero and villain has some complexity and nuance to them. MacBeth and Lady MacBeth in particular have moments of ruthlessness and vulnerability, and you understand the motivations for both of them even if you don’t necessarily agree with them, like the whole regicide thing. In “Foul is Fair”, all of the characters feel like two dimensional beings that aren’t defined by much else beyond their scumminess, or their unrelenting rage, or their weirdness. Can this be entertaining? Sure. But I didn’t feel like I really got to know our protagonist, Elle/Jade, outside of her understandable anger about what the golden boys at St. Andrews did to her. Effective plot? Absolutely. But it does not characterization make. Her interactions with her ‘coven’ (I’m also a little confused here, as she is clearly the stand in for Lady MacBeth, but she’s hanging out with Jenny, Summer, and Mads, who are the stand ins for the Weird Sisters. I don’t want to be a purist to the original material, but why was this a choice?) always felt a little ‘2edgy4me’ as they always, ALWAYS talk with coolness and malevolence, and even when they start turning on each other it still comes off as trying way too hard to be badass when all I wanted was to see some relatability amidst the badassness. And on top of all that, sure, there are some “MacBeth” aspects to it, but it definitely felt like it picked and chose the themes that would work best for the story at hand as opposed to actually trying to make it a “MacBeth” retelling. You take away the character names that reference the characters they’re based upon, and it’s not so easy to find the “MacBeth” aspects, it was shifted and changed so much. You can definitely adapt old texts to modern times and do it in ways that still give the original intent and feel of the source material (one of the best moments of this is in “Clueless” where Josh gives summation of Knightley’s dressing down and scolding of Emma with ‘you’re such a brat’. PERFECT!). “Foul is Fair” did not achieve this.

(and as a side note, poor Lady MacDuff gets thrown under the bus in this ‘reimagining’. The poor woman and all of her children are brutally slaughtered because MacDuff is a threat to MacBeth. In this she’s turned into a bitchy queen bee who is complicit in rape. It’s like ya didn’t even TRY to adapt that character! There were other instances of pick and choose feminism, but whatever, I don’t need to get on a soap box.)

There is something to be said for the ultimate rage message of standing up against violent misogyny, and that maybe it needs to be beaten over the head to get the point across. But I had hoped for a little more vicious and biting satire with Shakespearean flair.

Rating 5: The beat down of misogyny and the overall power fantasy was cathartic, but “Foul is Fair” had two dimensional characters and a grasp on the source material only when it suited.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Foul is Fair” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Shakespeare Retellings”, and “ANGRY LADIES’ BOOK CLUB”.

Find “Foul is Fair” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Weight of a Soul”

43517326Book: “The Weight of a Soul” by Elizabeth Tammi

Publishing Info: Flux, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Lena’s younger sister Fressa is found dead, their whole Viking clan mourns—but it is Lena alone who never recovers. Fressa is the sister that should’ve lived, and Lena cannot rest until she knows exactly what killed Fressa and why—and how to bring her back. She strikes a dark deal with Hela, the Norse goddess of death, and begins a new double life to save her sister.

But as Lena gets closer to bringing Fressa back, she dredges up dangerous discoveries about her own family, and finds herself in the middle of a devastating plan to spur Ragnarök –a deadly chain of events leading to total world destruction.

Still, with her sister’s life in the balance, Lena is willing to risk it all. She’s willing to kill. How far will she go before the darkness consumes her?

Review: I’ve read a few Vikings stories in the past year or so and largely enjoyed them all. Mythology is always a win for me, so it’s been fun to see Norse mythology getting its day in the sun after Roman and Greek had staked out the genre for so long. Combine those things with a story about sisters and this book was a no brainer for me to request. Sadly, all of those things together still somehow didn’t prove to be enough for me to really enjoy this book.

Lena and Fressa have grown up together to be as close as sisters can be. But while Lena is set out to lead a quiet, predictable life as a healer, it is Fressa who draws people to her with the sheer force of her vitality. So it is a shock when Fressa is suddenly found dead. But the life of a Viking is one of violence and sudden endings, so life moves on, for everyone but Lena. Driven to discover not only what happened to Fressa but to bring her beloved sister back, Lena sets out on a mission that will test the boundaries of life and death and draw her into the dark places of the world and herself.

So, as I said, this book wasn’t a hit for me. Even the things I liked are couched between things I disliked. For example, I liked the sisterly relationship. However, the story jumps through plot elements so quickly in the beginning that I was never able to feel fully connected to Fressa, thus lessening the impact of her death and my own commitment to the lengths (some pretty bad) that Lena went to in her attempts to bring her sister back.

I also enjoyed the mythology aspect of the story. However, again, there was really very little of it and only two god characters played a part and even then were more plot devices than anything else. The goddess, in particular, I felt was underwhelming and non-threatening, not something you want from an all-powerful being.

The pacing of the story also felt very off. As I said, the beginning of the book rushes through many important plot points. It’s attempting to not only set up the relationship between the sisters, but between them both and Fressa’s fiance, the girls’ parents, and  a few of the other village members as well. Between this and the brief attempts at history and world-building, the story feels like it’s simply jumping from one plot point to another. And then, suddenly, when Lena begins her journey, the brakes are pumped, hard. The rest of the book felt plodding, meandering, and frankly, rather boring. This left the overall pacing of the story feeling jarring and mismatched.

Beyond this, Lena was simply not a very likable character. The story is all set up to explore some deeper themes with regards to grief and the morality of choosing who lives and dies. And Lena, being a young woman presumably studying to be a healer, seems like a character primed to interact with these tough situations and choices in a compelling manner. Not so. While her descriptions of grief were at times beautiful and touching on some good ideas, the morality of her decisions was pretty terrible. And, even worse, she seems to think nothing of the terrible things she does.

It’s all well and good to have a character get so caught up in their own sorrow that their worldview becomes myopic to the point of a loss of their own morality, but the interesting part there is having the character explore this topic in some meaningful way. Or simply be from there after written as a villain. But Lena is unquestionably the hero of the story and yet she never seems to really care about the things that she does. As I said, it seems even more questionable when paired together with the empathy that it would have taken to be a healer. I was also not a fan of the romance of this story. It felt unnecessary at best and at worst it made Lena even more unlikable.

The idea of balancing a lost soul with the “weight” of another equal soul is a very interesting idea (though the end result is fairly predictable for fans of the genre), but much its potential was wasted behind choppy pacing and an unlikeable main character. Frustratingly, it seems like only a few minor tweaks could have really improved the story. Flashbacks, for example, would have worked better for the scenes before Fressa’s death and would have broken up some of the more plodding bits of the last half of the book. Ah well, what could have been alas was not! Fans of Norse mythology may like this book, but I think in the end it doesn’t live up to its own potential.

Rating 5: The unlikable main character was the last nail in the coffin for a book that unfortunately wasted several good aspects.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Weight of a Soul” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle-Grade Norse Mythology” and “YA Vikings.”

Find “The Weight of a Soul” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “To the Waters and the Wild”

45440239._sy475_Book: “To the Waters and the Wild” by S.C. McGrath

Publishing Info: Seanchie Press, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Shrouded in mystery, ancient Eire nurtured a people both eloquent and fierce. Scholars and warriors were honored with like reverence and women were recognized as equals to men. Within this isolated world of poetry and warfare, Keelin, a fearless chieftain’s daughter, struggles to understand her fate. Gifted by the gods in the arts of healing and telepathy, and destined to become a priestess, she nonetheless rails against such a solitary and self-sacrificing life. She chafes under the strict tutelage of the austere priestess, Nuala, who demands unerring scholarship and dedication. Torn by conflicting emotions, Keelin imagines a life possible only in her dreams.

Keelin’s troubles are soon overshadowed by a dire threat to her island home: the most powerful civilization in the ancient world has turned a covetous eye toward Eire and an invasion is imminent. Rife with clan rivalries and blood feuds, Eire and its defiantly independent people seem doomed, forcing Keelin to resolve her internal strife and quickly hone her extrasensory powers to help defeat the invader. So, too, Eire’s clans must unite their warriors to battle the forces of the Roman Empire. Among these warriors is Brian, who Keelin has alternately hated and loved for as long as she can remember. The approaching battle will irrevocably seal their fate.

Review: I was excited when I snagged a copy of this title from BookishFirst. The description and short synopsis that I had early access to made it seem like just the kind of book that would be up my alley being in a similar vein as many of Juliet Marillier’s works (which we all know are my favorite). When I received my copy I dove right in, but sadly it didn’t live up to these, perhaps too high, expectations.

Set in an alternative ancient Ireland, Keelin has her future before her. Destined to be one of the wise women, valued for their gifted abilities, Keelin brings to the table her own abilities as a healer and a variation of telepathy. But any fears she has about the restriction placed on her in this role are suddenly done away by the very real threat of war on her people’s doorstep. Now she, and a warrior who has always inspired strong feelings, both good and bad, find themselves with the fate of their people in their hands.

As I mentioned above, this was a pretty easy book request for me to place. On paper it had everything I liked: a historical setting mixed with a dash of fantasy, romance, and a lyrical style of writing ala one of my favorite authors. But also as I mentioned, it ended up not being for me. For most of the book, this boiled down to my feeling rather “meh” about the entire thing. And then we got to end and while a stronger feeling was drawn forth, it was definitely not a positive one.

The biggest thing that stood out to me throughout the story was the fact that I simply didn’t feel connected to the main character. Either through the presentation or the fact that she was simply not that compelling, I never truly cared about Keelin’s arc. And she was still the best drawn character of the batch. Part of my struggle to connect to her could have had to do with the numerous time jumps in the story. They seemingly struck out of nowhere and left the story feeling disjointed and choppy. Because I was always off-balance due to this, I struggled even more to connect to Keelin herself and the events taking place around her.

I also found the romance to be much less of a factor than I had expected. Obviously this wasn’t presented as a romance novel, and I didn’t want it to be one, but my own personal preference would have been for this aspect of the story to have been given a bit more attention. There was also only a scattering use of the fantasy elements, which read as kind of strange given Keelin’s own abilities.

With both of these elements taking a back seat, the story was left mostly focusing on the war itself. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy stories that focus on warfare and action; I very much do! But combined with the weaker characterization and the lack of balance between the other story elements, the focus on the war itself and the larger battle scenes left little effect. Because I wasn’t wholly invested in Keelin herself or those around her, I didn’t care as much about the outcome.

And then the ending was not something I enjoyed. I don’t want to spoil it, but I feel like it’s the kind of ending that will frustrate many readers, coming out of nowhere and effectively undercutting its own story. My own personal preferences also played a part in my frustrations here, so some readers may have less of a problem with this. But I do want to put out a general warning that the ending is noteworthy, at the least. Overall, this book was a disappointing read for me. At best I wasn’t as invested as I would have liked, and when I did become invested, it was in regards to a strongly negative reaction to the choices made in the end.

Rating 5: A lackluster character and weaker fantasy elements leaves a story with a war at its heart that I didn’t particularly care about.

Reader’s Advisory:

“To the Waters and the Wild” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be one “Popular Celtic Fantasy Novels.”

 

 

Bookclub Review: “An Ember in the Ashes”

20560137We 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 ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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

Book: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Kate’s Thoughts

I like to think of myself as a good sport when it comes to my willingness to read genres that I’m not too keen on. Be it in an effort to stretch my reading wings or going off a recommendation from a close friend, I will try and be open minded about a book even if I wouldn’t really pick it up on my own or of my own volition. This happens a lot of book club with YA fantasy fiction, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve found some pretty good books this way that I wouldn’t have normally read. But when it comes to “An Ember in the Ashes”, it HAD been on my list in spite of the genre, it just never came up in my reading rounds. So when it was the selection for the month, I went in apprehensive but hopeful. YA fantasy, sure, but based on Roman history! That’s something I could enjoy, right?

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(source)

“An Ember in the Ashes” does have strengths that I did like about it. For one, as mentioned, the Roman influenced world was unique for me and fun to see, as I’ve had a fascination with Ancient Rome (specifically the Julio-Claudian Emperors) since college. I liked that Tahir took influence from the culture in terms of not only the way the characters were, but in the way that world was built. While it’s been tweaked to fit the story, there were definitely aspects of the society that felt familiar, and the society itself was definitely interesting enough that I wanted to know more about it. On top of that, the story itself was engaging and filled with enough conflict and stakes that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see what was going to happen to Elias and Laia, and wanted to know how their fates were going to tie together, as promised. We get two narratives within this story, of Laia and Elias, and of the two I liked Elias’s narrative more. One of the reasons for that is that I thought that his voice was more interesting to me as someone who is incredibly good at what he does, though he secretly despises it and plans to abandon it as soon as he can. The other reason, and the far more pressing one, is that while I liked Laia and was interested in what she was doing her ‘reluctant but willing rebel who has devoted everything to avenging and saving her family’ is a theme we have seen in YA for a very long time now, and it didn’t feel all that new or unique, nor did it stand out from the other narratives out there. Throw in some awfully cartoony/not terribly well fleshed out antagonists, and you have a story that has promise, but doesn’t quite land.

I thought that “An Ember in the Ashes” was an entertaining read, but I don’t think that I’m going to go on in the series. Should someone tell me that I should give it a chance, I will happily be a good sport and do so. But as it stands now, I am parting ways with Elias and Laia where we left them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I…wasn’t a fan of this book. I’ll also admit that right out of the gate I wasn’t feeling super hopeful about this one, as I remember it coming out and then looking into it at the time and choosing to pass. It then blew up into a huge read of the year, and I still didn’t read it. I can’t remember now why I didn’t read it, but I’m guessing that some of the trusted reviewers I follow must have flagged it and I had enough other things on my plate (a perpetual non-problem!problem) to write it off as likely not for me. But, like Kate said, bookclub is super handy in that it pushes me to read books that I otherwise wouldn’t, for whatever reason. And as I said, this was a huge fantasy novel, so really, it’s good that I read it so I could form my own opinion.

Most of what I liked about the book, Kate already covered. Though, even there, I had some pretty big qualifiers to my enjoyment of most of them. First off, the world-building. I did enjoy the Roman aspects that were being used and the unique world that was built around it. However, having read a lot of YA fantasy, these elements also didn’t standout as breaking some huge mold. Roman society and influences are at the heart of a lot of second world fantasy. I did find it interesting, however, that the rebellion seemed to be stemming from a different cultural background. Irish, I would guess, based on the naming conventions. One of our booklcub members had a theory that the world here was essentially the Roman empire shrunk down to a more manageable size. So some of the nearby cultures could be representing other place in the world that Romans expanded out to, like Ireland. It’s an interesting theory, and one that I think would be super clever. However, this is never explicitly said in the book itself, and I’m not sure there’s enough to conclusively say that that was the purpose behind some of these choices. If it was, I wish the author had made it more clear, because it is a very interesting idea.

The other thing that stands out as notable about this book was the violence of it all. I think that this was one of the aspects of the story that made it stand-out when it was first published, that it went further than other YA fantasy. But this is also where I started having major problems with the book. Primarily, the violent, serious nature of the world that our characters are living in didn’t match up with the often frivolous and silly nature of their thoughts and priorities, especially with regards to their romances. In other words, the book was trying to walk an unnatural line. It wanted to be “Game of Thrones,” but still have “Twilight” level romances. This simply doesn’t work. “Game of Thrones” is known for having teen characters involved at the heart of the story. The difference here is that when presented with the dire and very serious nature of the world around them, their thoughts and actions appropriately reflect that.

Laia and Elias have grown up in a world where violence and the threat of violence is around every corner. Beyond this, sex is used as a weapon and prostitution is a fairly normal thing for soldiers to participate in. Yet, Laia and Elias don’t reflect this as characters. Instead, right next to rape threats and horrific deaths, we have two characters who read so PG as to be almost laughable. It also weirdly worships the purity of these two characters. Elias is not like other boys and while he is constantly admiring the beauty of the women around him, he’s never engaged in anything himself. They both talk about physical attraction and love in the same way that teenagers today would. But that doesn’t work in a world where they would have grown up past this type of purity quickly (if they ever had it in the first place). You just can’t convince me that a character whose family has been murdered and is a spy for an evil queen would be so caught up in this love square or whatever it was.

I also didn’t appreciate the repeated rape threats made to Laia and Elias’s near constant worry about rape happening to the women in his life. It felt like the topic was used to further darken the world but was never explored further on how it would shape the lives of these women. Attempted rape has its own horrific aftereffects and yet none of this is explored with Laia.

Perhaps if this book had been written for adults I would have appreciated it more. There were some strong bones with the world and the political nature of the story. Elias and Laia, if aged out of their teenage swooning, could have also been good characters. But as it stands, the book seems to be presenting a weird position where tons of violence and rape threats are a totally ok topic for teen readers, but consensual sex between characters would be too “adult” so Laia and Elias must weirdly fixate the belly flutters. It’s a strange position to take and I don’t think it fits well.

Kate’s Rating 6: An engaging read to be sure, though a lot of the themes and characterizations we’ve seen in this genre over and over again.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not for me. I don’t think it did enough to address some of the serious topics it throws around and the romance didn’t mesh with the world that was created.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the world building in this novel? Did you think that it took accurate aspects from Ancient Rome and applied them well?
  2. There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
  3. This book is labeled as a YA fantasy, though some would argue that it doesn’t have as many fantasy elements as other fantasies do. What do you think of this genre classification?
  4. What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
  5. Do you think that the romance aspects of the book lined up with the world that the characters lived within? More specifically, can people still be fixated on potential romance or attraction when they are surrounded by darkness and horrors?
  6. This is the first in a four book series. Do you have predictions on where the plot is going to go? Do you think you’ll keep reading?

Reader’s Advisory

“An Ember in the Ashes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Free Range and Morally Complex YA”, and “‘High Fantasy’ With Female Leads/Protagonists”.

Find “An Ember in the Ashes” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Serena’s Review: “Tiger Queen”

42281646._sy475_Book: “Tiger Queen” by Annie Sullivan

Publishing Info: Blink, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In the mythical desert kingdom of Achra, an ancient law forces sixteen-year-old Princess Kateri to fight in the arena to prove her right to rule. For Kateri, winning also means fulfilling a promise to her late mother that she would protect her people, who are struggling through windstorms and drought. The situation is worsened by the gang of Desert Boys that frequently raids the city wells, forcing the king to ration what little water is left. The punishment for stealing water is a choice between two doors: behind one lies freedom, and behind the other is a tiger.

But when Kateri’s final opponent is announced, she knows she cannot win. In desperation, she turns to the desert and the one person she never thought she’d side with. What Kateri discovers twists her world—and her heart—upside down. Her future is now behind two doors—only she’s not sure which holds the key to keeping her kingdom and which releases the tiger.

Review: I requested this book based purely on my curiosity to see how an author would transform the short story “The Lady or the Tiger” into a YA fantasy novel. The rest of the book description sounded fairly familiar, but I was hopeful that the unique source material would propel it beyond your typical fare. Alas, no.

In Kateri’s world, water is life. Her city and her people suffer for its lack and have fought for years to continue to thrive in a city that is barely getting by. Conditions are only made worse by a group of rebels who defy the water limits and steal the city’s supply for themselves. But Kateri’s father has developed a clever deterrent: if a thief is caught, they much choose between two doors, one of which allows them to return to their home and the other that releases a deadly tiger onto its prey. As Kateri continues to fight for her place in the royal line of succession, she begins finding more and more secrets behind other doors. And soon enough she finds herself questioning everything she’s come to know.

Honestly, take out the bit about the tiger/lady door thing and I feel like I’ve just typed out the same description that I have for so many books before. Substitute “tiger” for “dragon” and you pretty much have the plot of “The Last Namsara.” And that’s just the first one that comes to mind. I’m pretty sure anyone whose read a decent amount of YA fiction could read that book description and give me the entire outline of this book. And you’d be right.

It’s really hard to rate and review books like these. Is this book any worse than the million and one that came before it with the same plot and the same main character? Was I in a less forgiving mood when I read this one as compared to them? I’m not sure. But I will say that this book made me mad. It took what could have been a clever concept and instead of exploring the unique opportunities available there, it twisted it to fit the exact same “write by numbers” mold that we’ve seen forever now in YA fantasy fiction.

I knew I was in for trouble in the first chapter when I read about Kateri’s experience watching a caught thief go through the process of choosing a door. At first she’s sympathetic to the thief who is so young, to show that she’s caring. But then, for no reason, she must show that she’s ruthless and rage against his option for freedom. He should die now for what he’s done! It flip flops as easily as I’ve just written it. There is no explanation or developed rational behind this. It’s clearly there just to get to two basic character traits, at the expense of the character’s overall development as a believable person. The author clearly just wants to get through this whole “character building” bit as fast as possible. This mode of character “development” holds true throughout the rest of the book. Beyond that, Kateri was only the “warrior woman” she’s touted to be on the most superficial level. Other than her fighting skills, her entire plot line is in reaction to the men around her: her father, the men she fights, the man she loves.

In that same chapter we’re introduced to the king, her father, who is OF COURSE not hiding any secrets and OF COURSE is telling her the full truth about this whole water/thief thing. And there’s the nefarious dude she might have to marry and the rumored young, hot leader of the rebels and…man, I’m so bored even typing this out. It’s all exactly as you’d expect.

Frankly, I have very little to say about this book. I’m having a hard time even filling out this review to the word count that I usually hit. There’s just so little new here to even critique. Anyone who is passingly familiar with YA fantasy can see every twist and turn coming from a mile away. All of the characters dutifully follow the scripts laid out for them in books like this, with nary a unique trait to be found. It was incredibly disappointing. Maybe someone who hasn’t read a bunch of YA fantasy would enjoy this, or those who are not worn out by this basic storyline yet. But anyone looking for something fresh or new should beware.

Rating 5: The book itself is like opening the door and getting the tiger instead of the lady.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Tiger Queen” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Books Based on Myths, Legends, Fairytales and Folklore.”

Find “Tiger Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “A Stranger on the Beach”

41150430Book: “A Stranger on the Beach” by Michele Campbell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: There is a stranger outside Caroline’s house.

Her spectacular new beach house, built for hosting expensive parties and vacationing with the family she thought she’d have. But her husband is lying to her and everything in her life is upside down, so when the stranger, Aiden, shows up as a bartender at the same party where Caroline and her husband have a very public fight, it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.

As her marriage collapses around her and the lavish lifestyle she’s built for herself starts to crumble, Caroline turns to Aiden for comfort…and revenge. After a brief and desperate fling that means nothing to Caroline and everything to him, Aiden’s obsession with Caroline, her family, and her house grows more and more disturbing. And when Caroline’s husband goes missing, her life descends into a nightmare that leaves her accused of her own husband’s murder.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I kind of stumbled upon Michele Campbell’s books a year or so ago, picking up “It’s Always The Husband” on a whim and listening to it on eAudiobook. I was immediately taken in by the suspense, the plot twists, and the complex characters. I also enjoyed “She Was The Quiet One”, and at that point I decided that Campbell was going to be one of my go to requests when it comes to authors. I was lucky enough that NetGalley granted my request to read her newest novel “A Stranger on the Beach”. The plot enticed me straight away. A scorned woman decides to get revenge against her potentially cheating husband by having one night stand with a handsome younger man, and it goes terribly awry with secrets, sex, lies, and murder?

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Go on. (source)

It became pretty clear that Campbell had more in store for her readers than the simplicity of this tried and true plot line. The problem is that with “A Stranger on the Beach” she didn’t do a good enough job of keeping her cards close to her vest.

I’ll start with what did work for me, as there was a fair amount that did. I am a huge sucker for lurid and soapy thrillers, and “A Stranger on the Beach” is definitely that. The elements of a wealthy woman getting caught up with a man from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ has a lot of potential for fun and quick thrills, and because of that I breezed through “A Stranger on the Beach” pretty quickly. Caroline’s chapters were first person, and gave you a sense of what was inside her head and what was driving her emotions, and while Aidan’s were from a third person perspective you still knew who he was and what he was about. I also liked the power dynamics that Campbell brought into the story, with Caroline being part of the wealthy tourist population that spends summers in beach houses, and Aidan being a townie struggling to make ends meet and having to see the entitled hoi polloi throw their weight around. This made it so their interactions always had an added tension to them, beyond the tension that is already there because of their uneven affections for each other. It also brought in the questions of who is more trustworthy to the reader, Caroline or Aidan, based on gender, class, and what you know about the two of them and their personal lives. You know that Caroline is a potentially scorned wife, and you know that Aidan has had past run ins with the law. But what do you actually know about them when it comes down to it? I will say that it was fun seeing things get turned sideways.

That said, unlike Campbell’s previous novels, I found pretty much no one to root for in this story, as everyone was pretty much terrible, even if they were all pretty complex. In previous works by Campbell I feel like while there are rotten characters, there are at least some people to root for, and even some who buck the trend. But in “A Stranger on the Beach”, I couldn’t find one character with any redeeming qualities, and that made it very hard to connect to any of them. They weren’t even terribly fun villains that you love to hate, just unpalatable and frustrating to follow. Even the law enforcement officials who are trying to see the best in everyone came off as complete rubes. On top of that, while the plot was well paced and kept me going, I figured out almost all of the big surprises and plot twists very early on, far earlier than I should have been able to do so. I’m not sure if it’s another instance of knowing the clues and the devices and what to look for, or if it was a little too obvious. But even if it was an instance of being a huge thriller reader, given that I imagine thriller readers would be one of the main demographics for this series, it’s not a huge leap to say that I probably wouldn’t be the only person with this problem.

“A Stranger on the Beach” was a bit of a let down. I’m not about to write off Michele Campbell as an author, but I do hope that whatever she comes out with next is a return to form that we saw in her previous novels. 

Rating 5: While I found the read to be addicting and pleasantly fast, I didn’t care for many of the characters and called the big twists a long time before the reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Stranger on the Beach” is included on the Goodreads lists “So You Love An Unreliable Narrator”, and “Down By The Sea”.

Find “A Stranger on the Beach” at your library using WorldCat!