Serena’s Review: “The Hazel Wood”

34275232Book: “The Hazel Wood” by Melissa Albert

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

Review: I judged the book by its cover. And the cover is beautiful, so I picked it up. Also, dark fairytales, a mysterious family history, travel between worlds, and this book sounded right up my alley. And while pieces taken outside of the whole were enjoyable, I found myself not as enamored by this one as I had hoped.

Alice and her mother have been running their entire lives, pursed by nameless, faceless, bad luck. That, and from the mystery and cultish fervor that swirls around Alice’s grandmother who is best known for writing an obscure book of fairytales. Other than flee when bad luck arrives on your door, Alice knows there is one rule: don’t interact with fans of her gradnmother’s book. But when her mother disappears, Alice has no choice but to turn to a fan and fellow classmate, the only one who will believe the strangeness involved. And neither are fully prepared for what they get: perhaps those fairytales weren’t fiction after all.

Part of my struggle with this book was due to the fact that it was simply incredibly slow for the first half of the book. It’s not a monstrously long title by any means, but half of a book is still too long to take to get to the meat of the story. There’s quite a lot of build up to Alice’s mom’s disappearance, and then, afterwards, it takes even longer somehow for Alice and Finch to get into the actual magical aspects of the story. This was even more frustrating because it didn’t seem that this extra time was spent building anything. Alice and Finch, early in the story, have already bought into the concept that there are magical elements at play, so it’s not character development that necessitates the slow movement. Further, there are about three or four mini adventures that they go through before even getting out of the city which felt like three or four more than were needed.

This slow beginning also had the unfortunate effect of making me begin to dislike Alice herself. Since the story goes some interesting places with her character in the second half of the book, the fact that the slowness of the first half had already damaged my enjoyment of her was pretty unfortunate. Yes, Alice had a non-traditional childhood and one that was made up largely of isolation and instability. And the author lays the groundwork for her anger early in the story. But all of that given, she’s just kind of a mean person a lot of the time which made it hard for me to become invested in her emotional arc. Like I said, there’s a payoff for some of this in the end. But I do think the slowness of the first half is directly responsible for the fact that damage control had to be done at all. Had we more quickly gotten into the actual story itself, there might have been less time for me to wallow around thinking that Alice was just kind of being a bitch to a bunch of people most of the time.

In the second half, things do pick up, and it was here that I found much of my enjoyment of the story. I loved the fact that the author fully embraced the darker side of fairytales. Throughout the story,  we get to hear some of the stories that were in Alice’s grandmother’s collection, and they are perfectly pitched as darkly creepy and strange, without any clear moral or predictable pattern. This just makes it all the more shivery when the characters and worlds themselves begin to come to life.

Readers’ mileage for this part of the story could also vary. There’s a lot of mystery and obfuscation. Characters withhold information simply because they can. There are definite elements of “Alice in Wonderland” with the strangeness, nonsense, and bizarre mini scenes that Alice travels through. I enjoy nonsense fairytales, and I especially liked the darker aspects of this one. However, I can see how it could read as disjointed and, again, hard to connect to for some readers. Even I struggled a few times with the strange juxtaposition of classical dark magical elements with other very modern references. It was definitely jarring at times, but by this point I was so relieved to have the story picking up that I didn’t mind.

This book was very hit and miss for me. There were parts of it that I absolutely loved (the fairytales themselves, most of the action in the second half, and the nice twist at the end), but I also very much struggled to get into the story. It starts slow and there were certain writing choices, just the way certain sentences were strung together, that were confusing and required me to read through twice, something I never love doing. I also wasn’t sold on Alice as a character, though I did enjoy the later reveals with her. If you like dark fantasy stories and can handle a slow start and a healthy dose of the strange, I’d recommend giving “The Hazel Wood” a go!

Rating 6:  A dark “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice is kind of a brat. But the fairytales themselves were on point!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hazel Wood” is a newer book and so not on many Goodreads lists. I’m not sure whether I agree with this classification or not, but it is included on “2018 YA Horror.”

Find “The Hazel Wood” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Before She Ignites”

285240581Book: “Before She Ignites” by Jodi Meadows

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Before

Mira Minkoba is the Hopebearer. Since the day she was born, she’s been told she’s special. Important. Perfect. She’s known across the Fallen Isles not just for her beauty, but for the Mira Treaty named after her, a peace agreement which united the seven islands against their enemies on the mainland.

But Mira has never felt as perfect as everyone says. She counts compulsively. She struggles with crippling anxiety. And she’s far too interested in dragons for a girl of her station.

After

Then Mira discovers an explosive secret that challenges everything she and the Treaty stand for. Betrayed by the very people she spent her life serving, Mira is sentenced to the Pit–the deadliest prison in the Fallen Isles. There, a cruel guard would do anything to discover the secret she would die to protect.

No longer beholden to those who betrayed her, Mira must learn to survive on her own and unearth the dark truths about the Fallen Isles–and herself–before her very world begins to collapse.

Review: This book made its way on to my TBR pile for a few different reasons. First of all, I was intrigued by the inclusion of a fantasy heroine who struggles with her mental health. I’ve also read a few of Jodi Meadows’ books in the past and have mostly enjoyed them. And lastly, dragons. Enough said. For those three interest points, the book does deliver. However, the execution and pacing of the story was off and there simply weren’t enough dragons.

Mira’s life has been one lived upon a stage as the living representative of a treaty that brought several island nations together under a peace and trade agreement. But Mira herself has never felt like the fabled Hopebringer that she is meant to represent. For one, she suffers from anxiety and panic attacks and uses a counting system in her mind to keep her fears at bay. For two, she has an unseemly obsession with dragons, always running off to spend time on the reservation with her two friends and these fantastical beasts. But when she stumbles across a secret betrayal and reports it to her countrymen, she’s not rewarded, but thrown in prison.

I have complicated feelings and thoughts about this book. Many of the things I enjoyed were also parts that I later had criticisms of, which makes it hard to write this review. To start with some of the things I remained “all in” on throughout the book, I guess.

I very much enjoyed the world-building in this story. The islands that have joined together in the Mira Treaty all are based around one of the gods in a shared pantheon. These gods, and the religions practiced in their name, greatly shape the culture and priorities of each unique island nation. Mira is from a pair of twin islands that devote themselves to a pair of gods, a god and goddess of love. Through this lens, we get some insight not only into Mira herself and her struggles in her role as a public figure, but also into her reactions to the betrayal committed against her when she reports wrongdoing.

Part of Mira’s anxiety and insecurities are based on the fact that she sees herself as not perfectly matching the preferred and seemingly often inherent skill sets that make up her island’s culture. The people of her home are known for the social skills, to befriend others easily, to converse freely, and to generally thrive in social interactions. Thus, for Mira, a young woman whose role would require the most of these inherent skills, she sees her own struggles and inabilities in these roles as failures and a sign that there is something wrong with her. Further, her naivety when reporting on the betrayal she uncovers is explained through her perception of her homeland. For a country that’s focus is on love and care, it simply never occurs to her that power dynamics and political maneuvering could lead even her own country’s leaders down some treacherous paths.

As the story unrolls, we see various other island nation’s differing cultures and religions. There is an island nation devoted to Silence, and this is reflected in the power they associate with not speaking (a lesson Mira much needs), and an alternative language that they have developed to communicate without noise. There is also a nation focused on warfare and fighting prowess. A nation whose inhabitants are skillful healers and agriculturalists. A nation that worships shadows. All of these cultures are masterfully woven in throughout the story, and I very much appreciated the non-info-dumpy manner that Meadows worked them into Mira’s journey.

Mira herself was an interesting protagonist. I very much enjoyed the exploration of her anxiety, the strategies she has developed to deal with her panic attacks, her counting method (I don’t believe it is meant to represent an OCD habit, but it’s still incorporated well).  Further, Mira is not demonized for missing the beautiful parts of her life when she finds herself in prison. She’s always been clean and been surrounded by lovely things. It’s believable and refreshing that she would miss these things and relish in them when she finds them again, even now knowing the underworkings behind her privileged life. I very much liked that she was written as a believable young woman in this way. And, again, while she sees things through new lens, her character isn’t punished for still loving these creature comforts or presented as superficial for caring that her hair is dry and broken from long days in a prison.

However, while I appreciated these aspects of her character, I never felt truly invested in Mira. I’m not quite sure what the problem was. Perhaps, while I liked the realism that was given to her character, that same realism read as…dull? The story has several action scenes and jumps from one location to another, but Mira was often a passive player in all of this. And that’s what the story requires, I understand that. But that still doesn’t make me enjoy it any more. So, yes, it’s complicated. I see what the author was trying to do, and I think she largely accomplished it, but the downside of that same success is that this goal makes Mira not the most engaging character to follow.

Further, the pacing of the story was strange. In the beginning, her time in prison was broken up with flashbacks to the events that lead up to her ending up where she does. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it was hard not to find myself skimming through the flashbacks, eager to get back to the prison plotline that I felt was much more compelling. Part of this is due to the fact that Mira’s fellow inmates were much stronger characters than her two friends back in the outside world. So with a fairly bland leading lady, these variations in strength of supporting characters really drove my appreciation of one plotline over the other.

Further, about halfway through the story, Mira’s experiences take a sudden shift and, again, due to the change of location and supporting characters, it was all just kind of “meh.” This whole section left something wanting in my opinion, and again, I was eager to get back to the prison action.

Lastly, the dragons serve an important role within the story, and yet, somehow, I still felt like there wasn’t enough of them in the story itself. At the point we were at in this book, I almost wish there had been even less? We were right at the teetering point with what was given here, and I feel like committing to one side of the other would have been an improvement. Either make the dragons a more active portion of the story, or keep them more fully on the peripheral as chess pieces in a larger game.

Ultimately, while there were things that I very much enjoyed about this story, I left it feel rather indifferent. I wasn’t “in love” with anything presented here, but I also didn’t actively dislike it. I give tons of credit to Meadows for giving us yet another example of a YA protagonist who isn’t a special snowflake. And the world-building is very interesting. As I recently discovered with “A Poison Dark and Drowning,” sometimes the second book in a trilogy is better having gotten all of the set up out of the way with the first book. That would be my hope with this trilogy.

Rating 6: Doing good work introducing a YA heroine who struggles with her mental health, but lacking in strong pacing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Before She Ignites” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Girls with Dragons” and “2017 YA/MG Books With POC Leads.”

Find “Before She Ignites” at your library using WorldCat!

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

30781490We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

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

Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, March 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 400s (Language)

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

 

Book Club Review: “Every You, Every Me”

9972838We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Every You, Every Me” by David Levithan

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2011

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 700s (The Arts)

Book Description: In this high school-set psychological tale, a tormented teen named Evan starts to discover a series of unnerving photographs—some of which feature him. Someone is stalking him . . . messing with him . . . threatening him. Worse, ever since his best friend Ariel has been gone, he’s been unable to sleep, spending night after night torturing himself for his role in her absence. And as crazy as it sounds, Evan’s starting to believe it’s Ariel that’s behind all of this, punishing him. But the more Evan starts to unravel the mystery, the more his paranoia and insomnia amplify, and the more he starts to unravel himself. Creatively told with black-and-white photos interspersed between the text so the reader can see the photos that are so unnerving to Evan, Every You, Every Me is a one-of-a-kind departure from a one-of-a-kind author.

Kate’s Thoughts

“Every You, Every Me” was my choice for Book Club this time around, and it was my gut reaction when I got the 700s (aka The ARTS!) of the Dewey Call Numbers. I knew that this book was written by David Levithan, but that the photos that were interspersed throughout the book were taken by Jonathan Farmer and given to Levithan as he was writing the story. Levithan wouldn’t know what the next photo would be, and then would have to fit it into the narrative. The concept of this was a fascinating one to me, and I thought that the photos angle fit into the Dewey theme. I haven’t had a lot of luck with ‘concept’ novels such as these, as I was one of those folks who didn’t absolutely adore “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and decided to give a hard pass to the “Asylum” series. But my reasoning was that hey, it’s David Levithan.

That said, this wasn’t the thrilling mystery with appropriate and aching teen pathos that I had hoped it would be. There was a great idea here, and glimmers of that idea shined through from time to time, but all in all I felt that “Every You, Every Me” never quite evolved beyond a concept. Evan is our narrator, and he is telling this story through stream of consciousness diary entries and through the photos that he is receiving from an anonymous source. He is set up as an unreliable narrator from the jump, with parts of his diary entries crossed out (but not enough that the reader can’t read the redacted thoughts). It was a little heavy on the crossing out, but I felt that it was a fairly effective way of showing his personal struggles instead of him literally saying ‘I AM CONFLICTED ABOUT ALL OF THIS AND DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL OR WHAT ROLE I PLAYED’. Evan himself was both interesting and maddening. Maddening in that goodness gracious was he the epitome of emo teen angst kid, so much so that our book club joked about how much My Chemical Romance and Evanescence would be on his iPod.

Fun Fact, a playlist of his favorite songs was officially created by our book club member Anita. See the bottom of this post to access it.

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(source)

But along with Evan being so hopelessly angsty, he was also very fascinating as a character, mostly because I felt that Levithan did a VERY good job of portraying the mind of someone who has gone through a very upsetting trauma. No deep spoilers here, but what I will say is that Evan has lost his closest friend Ariel, and he thinks that it is all his fault. While Evan is the narrator and protagonist, this story is really about the mysterious Ariel; who she was, how she was, and where she has gone (which is the main mystery of this book). They have a deep and codependent friendship, and the more you learn about Ariel and how she treated Evan, the more, I think, you get to understand why he is so, so warped and moody in this whole thing. I definitely found Evan to be more sympathetic as time went on, but also stopped caring about what happened to Ariel and who is harassing Evan BECAUSE my opinions of Ariel changed so much. Which is a bit callous of me, within the context of the book, but the sheer manipulation within that relationship just made me uncomfortable and angry and uncaring towards her endgame.

The ending, though. Again, I don’t want to go into deep deep spoilers here, but it felt so tacked on and so clunky that it kind of threw the book off kilter for me. I know that it kind of harkens back to one of the bigger themes in this book (i.e. no one really knows every side of a person), but it almost felt a bit TOO unrealistic in how it all played out. I’m fine with a huge twist coming through, but I want at least SOME groundwork for that twist to be laid out.

So while I was kind of disappointed with “Every You, Every Me”, I did like the characterization that Levithan created for his main players. The concept is unique enough that I would say pick it up just to see how this neat writing exercise turned out, but don’t expect to be super blown away by it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have read a few David Levithan books before this one and have mostly enjoyed them. He is particularly strong at writing believably complex teenage protagonists who are not only relatable to teens themselves, but also to adult readers. Other than this knowledge of the author, all I knew about this book was a vague understanding of it being a concept book with the photographs being sent to him as he wrote the book. I, like Kate, have never particularly loved the concept books I’ve read in the past. Too often I feel that the author ends up relying on the images to depict much of the drama of their story, thus paying less attention to, or becoming simply lazy with, their own written descriptions. Powerful writing doesn’t need the support of photographs, and while they can serve as a nice backdrop, I don’t love the idea of a story becoming dependent on them.

For the most part, I think that Levithan walked a nice line with the art in this book. The photographs were interesting and he managed to (mostly) tie them in nicely with the overarching plot of the book. There’s a great theme of what it means to know someone that runs throughout the story, and this concept ties neatly with a conversation that seems to always swirl around the small glimpses of a person that are caught in specific photographs. I loved this idea, that like photographs, we’re only ever seeing small glimpses of an entire person. And that another person (another photograph) will see/capture an entirely different side of that individual. These themes were probably my favorite part of this book.

Other than this, I did struggle with the story. Evan is not the type of narrator that typically appeals to me. He’s conflicted and self-questioning to the point that his angst and confusion are more off-putting than sympathetic. I wanted to shake him at multiple times during the story, and frankly had a hard time taking him seriously. As we learn the truth behind his concerns, I could better understand his reasons for feeling the way he does. But that doesn’t wave away the execution of those feelings that presents him as a whiny, overly emotional teen boy who is hard to invest oneself in.

Further, I was not a fan of the crossing out text tool that was used so much in this book. Not only did it negatively play into the already annoyingly self-involved angst machine that was Evan, but at many points in the story the basic function of cross out text seemed to be misunderstood. In some ways, yes, it makes sense for a story like this with a semi-unreliable narrator like Evan to cross out some parts of the text and through these reconsidered aspects of his writing, get a better understanding of his thoughts and character. But at times, especially towards the end of the book, huge sections of the story were crossed out and the format was being used more to indicate a flashback than to highlight a questioned thought of Evan’s. I think the format read as a bit pretentious, and by the end of the story, I was so distracted by it and how it was being used that it was actively throwing me out of the story.

I also agree with Kate about the ending. Without spoiling anything, the explanation of the photographs seemed to come out of left field and a lot of hand waving and hoop jumping was done to explain portions of the mystery. It felt tacked on and unearned.

Lastly, as this entire mystery revolves around Ariel, we learn a lot about her and need to understand the role that she played to all of these friends, specifically Evan, who are all so distressed by her loss. And, like the character of Evan, I couldn’t really get behind the appeal of Ariel. At Book Club, we all had a bit too much fun coming up with all the crazy explanations for why all of these characters seemed so obsessed with Ariel. None of our explanations were favorable to her.

Ultimately, I think this book touched on some very important themes, specifically those having to do with the fact that people are made up of multitudes and that no one person can ever fully know another. But the execution was shoddy with the crossed out text, and Ariel and Evan were pretty unlikable all around. Add to that the fact that this isn’t a favorite genre of mine (no fault of the book’s), and I didn’t end up loving this one. Alas, they can’t all be winners!

Kate’s Rating 6: A fascinating premise with some interesting things to say about trauma and loss, but ultimately a bit underwhelming. Add in a clunky solution and you have an okay book, when it could have been a great one.

Serena’s Rating 5: Good themes were bogged down by the restrictions of the concept art, an angst-fest leading character, and a dud of an ending.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the device of the photographs that was used in this book? Did you feel that Levithan did a good job of incorporating the random photos he received into this story? Do you think this story needed the photos to feel fully realized?
  2. Evan is our protagonist, and his relationship with Ariel is the crux of this book. What did you think of him as a narrator? How did you feel about him at the end vs at the beginning?
  3. One of the big mysteries of this book is where Ariel is and what happened to her. Were you invested in this mystery, and invested in Ariel as a character?
  4. Another theme of this book is that people tend to have different sides of them that they present to different people. Could you relate to this concept? Do you have different sides of yourself that different people see?
  5. SPOILERS: Let’s talk about the ending. What did you think of the reveal of Dawn, Ariel’s secret best friend that Evan and Jack didn’t know about, being the one sending the photos?
  6. This is what one might call a concept novel, using photos to drive and tell a story as they are presented. What are your opinions on this kind of book (similar to Miss Peregrine, or Asylum, etc)? Did EVERY YOU EVERY ME confirm those feelings, or buck them (in whichever way that may be)?

Reader’s Advisory

“Every You, Every Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Involving Mental Health Issues (2000s-Present)”, and “YA Books With Pictures”.

Find “Every You, Every Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

And now…. the aforementioned playlist! Thanks to Katie, Alicia, and Anita who helped compile the list, and to Anita for putting it together!

 

Serena’s Review: “Silver in the Blood”

22929540Book: “Silver in the Blood” by Jessica Day George

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury USA Childrens, July 2015

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

Book Description: Society girls from New York City circa 1890, Dacia and Lou never desired to know more about their lineage, instead preferring to gossip about the mysterious Romanian family that they barely knew. But upon turning seventeen, the girls must return to their homeland to meet their relatives, find proper husbands, and—most terrifyingly—learn the deep family secrets of The Claw, The Wing, and The Smoke. The Florescus, after all, are shape-shifters, and it is time for Dacia and Lou to fulfill the prophecy that demands their acceptance of this fate… or fight against this cruel inheritance with all their might.

Review: I’ve read a few of Jessica Day George’s books, mostly her fairytale retellings. I’ve enjoyed them for the most part, even if the middle grade tone read as a bit simplistic for my taste. But when I stumbled upon this original fairytale type story featuring some of my favorite things (sisters/cousins! shapeshifters! Romania!), I knew I’d need to dive right in.

The story alternates perspectives between two American-born heiresses, Dacia and Lou. Their mothers both emigrated to New York from Romania, and now it is time for the girls to travel back to this homeland and meet their maternal family, a family that is old and has many secrets. The chapters are broken up with short interludes, either letters written between the two characters when they are separated, journal entries, or news entries.

While not everything worked for me in this book, Dacia and Lou as characters were a definite highlight. Both girls have distinct story arcs, and I appreciated the fact that neither was allowed to wallow in the stereotypes of the characters type they are originally introduced as. Dacia starts the story as a confident, independent young woman, constantly testing the boundaries that are set upon her and fearless in the face of others’ disapproval. Lou, however, is more thoughtful, reserved, and cautious with the route she takes through life. Through the story Dacia’s confidence, or over confidence, is shaken and she must confront who she believes she is and make serious adjustments. Lou, on the other hand, comes into her own, discovery her own inner strength.

And, importantly, each girl takes turns supporting or being supported by the other. In the beginning I worried that this was going to follow a typical path where Lou would be “brought out of her shell” by her brilliant, shining cousin. But I was pleased to see their roles swapped, and by the end, each girl has learned more about herself and come to see the value in the others’ original approach to life.

I also very much enjoyed the setting. While we don’t get a lot of detail about the city and countryside of Romania, there was enough to highlight its cultural differences to Paris and New York, the girls’ other points of reference. The family history, hierarchy, and creativity of the actual shapeshifter types was also a pleasant surprise. We don’t only have wolf shifters, but bats and another mysterious type that we discover halfway through. It was refreshing to find a shapeshifter story that expanded upon many of teh tropes we are used to seeing. George introduces a complicated history for the Florescus family, one that is intimately connected with another ancient family, the Draculs. And before you guess, I will say that this second part doesn’t necessarily play out the way you would expect!

For all of these pros, there were a few points of this story I found myself struggling with. One was, again, the writing style. While Dacia and Lou are interesting, their narrating voices often read as younger than they were presented to be. The general tone of the book, again, read as very middle grade. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that in other ways the story is very adult. There are some very serious scenes dealing with sexual violence, battles, and straight up murder. This gruesomeness and darker tone jarred with the light and rather simplistic style of writing that surrounded it and often through me off balance as I was reading.

I also struggled with the villain of the story. He was just evil. And crazy. And while yes, this is what we expect from villains, his sheer and utter madness often left me unable to take him seriously. Many of his plans dealt with inflicting harm or reigning in the power of people who were much stronger than him. Some of his threats didn’t make any logical sense if you thought about it. So, yes, he was meant to be a crazy character. But the fact that everyone around him reacted to his madness seriously at times read as very strange. His threats were so completely empty and the solution to the whole problem so easy that it very much undercut any actual urgency for the final act.

The ending was also a bit unclear. There seemed to be several loose ends that were left hanging, and I can’t find anywhere that this was ever meant to read as more than just a standalone. The storylines that we did get wrapped up were closed all too quickly and easily. And I felt that there were many important scenes that were only referenced but left off the page, which was very disappointing.

So, while I did enjoy the main characters and the unique take on shapeshifter mythology, I was left a bit disappointed  by this read. At this point, I think it is probably best to just admit that George’s writing style is not to my taste and leave it at that. However, if you enjoy light (for the most part??) historical fantasy that is set in a unique locale and features two awesome ladies, this still might be the book for you!

Rating 6: Two strong characters and an interesting magic system weren’t enough for me to get past some of the strange plot choices in the end and an off-putting writing style.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silver in the Blood” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Shapeshifter/Werewolf books” and “Victorian Paranormal YAs.”

Find “Silver in the Blood” at your library using WorldCat

 

Book Club Review: “Eliza and Her Monsters”

31931941We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Eliza and Her Monsters” by Francesca Zappia

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 800s (Literature, Writing)

Book Description: Her story is a phenomenon. Her life is a disaster.

In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, she’s LadyConstellation, the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves the online one, and she has no desire to try.

Then Wallace Warland, Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer, transfers to her school. Wallace thinks Eliza is just another fan, and as he draws her out of her shell, she begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile.

But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart. 

Kate’s Thoughts

My high school years were during the time before social media really became a huge thing. My parents had Internet, but it was a dial up connection that we could only use if we weren’t expecting or planning to make any pertinent phone calls. And honestly, I’m so relieved that the Internet wasn’t the big social zone that it is now, for regular people as well as celebrities. I think that teenage Kate would have both loved living a lot of her life online, but I also think that it would have been isolating in its own way (and given that I was bullied a fair amount, it probably would have opened up a huge target on my back from my peers). And that is where “Eliza and Her Monsters” comes in. As a teenager who suffered from social anxiety and depression, I saw a bit of me in Eliza, our main character who has found the online world to be more comforting than the real world. And as someone who has written some fanfiction in her life (and was a vaguely well known author in a niche fandom at one point, though I’m not telling which), the ups and downs of online artistry also spoke to me. But the core of Eliza herself, and how she interacted with those around her, didn’t do as much for me as one might think that it would.

But I want to start with what I liked here. I thought that Eliza’s social anxieties were pretty spot on in terms of characterization. Without really outwardly saying that she was suffering from it, you get a slow and well painted picture of what Eliza’s insecurities are like, how they hinder her, and how she tries to cope with them. It was refreshing to see this character portrayed in a realistic and honest way, and that while it was understandable that she would act in various ways, she wasn’t totally let off the hook when she was being a jerk to those around her. I also really liked that this book brings up the philosophical question of ‘what do artists owe their fans?’. Sure, this is something that has been going on for a long time, but with the advent of social media, now fans can not only interact with each other, but they now have the opportunity to address and interact with their favorite creators in a more direct way. And while this is great in lots of ways, in other ways, sometimes lines are crossed and fan entitlement gets a bit out of hand. From the “Song of Ice and Fire” fandom to the “Harry Potter” fandom to the wonderful world of comics across the board, sometimes healthy and relevant critiques of topics turn into “YOU OWE US THIS.” This book allows us to see that from the creator’s POV through Eliza and one of her favorite authors, and it’s a great way to raise these questions and get the reader to think about them.

But there were other things about this book that frustrated me. Mainly, I didn’t really care for Eliza, as relatable and realistic as she was. I think that seeing it from the perspective of an adult who had to tramp through that swamp of teen angst and came out on the other side, a lot of me was saying “goddammit, suck it up.” Teen Kate would have TOTALLY loved Eliza though, and given that this is, ultimately, written with teens in mind, I think that she probably works well. I also was a bit frustrated with her relationship with Wallace, if only because I felt like there were some things that she did that were SO manipulative and she never really was taken to task for it. I didn’t really like what it said about acceptable things in teen relationships.

Overall, I liked how “Eliza and Her Monsters” approached fandom, artistry, and teenage mental illness. I wish that I had liked the protagonist more, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Serena’s Thoughts

As Kate has lain out so nicely, my evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of this book is pretty similar. I don’t have the personal experience of existing as a creator on an online platform, but I follow various fandoms online fairly avidly and have witnessed first hand the strength in community that these groups can bring, as well as the viscous cycle of entitlement and possession that can also be on display at times. In these ways, I think this book is very much speaking to an ongoing struggle in today’s teens’ lives that I, like Kate, never had to deal with.

Like Kate, I was never part of the popular crowd in highschool. I wasn’t the most bullied either, and instead existed somewhere in the probably lucky “no one cares” zone of being unnoticed. I also had no other “version” of life or a representation of my life that I had to maintain, like today’s teens who must carefully navigate and manage not only their day-to-day activities, but also the version of themselves that exists online. Eliza, uncomfortable and shy in real life, has found a niche for herself online. But no social sphere comes without its own strings.

I very much enjoyed the exploration of creativity on an online platform. Eliza is both safely at a distance from those who interact with her online (one of the appeals of her online persona), but is also exposed and at the mercy of those same fans. No longer do fans need to write a letter and mail it in to an author who may or may not even look at their fan mail. Creators online are exposed across so many formats to the visceral reactions of the same fans whose admiration and appreciation they are hoping to garner. I think one of the best representations of the push/pull relationship of this kind is Bo Burnham’s raw, and almost tragic, song “Can’t Handle This.”

But, in general, I read books for the characters, so as much as I loved the themes that were tackled in this story, I had a similar hang up with Eliza as Kate did. I think Kate hit it on the nose when she mentioned the fact that she and I are reading this having come out on the other side of that hellish tunnel called “highschool.” Many years (yikes!) distanced from these same struggles, they begin to lose their edge. This is good, but it also presents a reality check when reading books like these. I don’t want to dismiss these problems as “just highschool stuff, get ready for REAL life, kids!” But…I’m still a 30 something woman reading this and that’s what I felt. So with that perspective, maybe there’s nothing wrong with this character for highschoolers themselves, and it’s probably touching on many relatable challenges. But there are many YA stories out there that present the challenges of their young protagonists in ways that are more approachable and sympathetic to their adult readers as well than this one did, which is a legitimate mark against it.

Kate’s Rating 7: This book brings up a lot of good questions about artistry and creativity, the relationship artists have with their fans, and mental illness, but I was put off by Eliza, as relatable as she could be at times.

Serena’s Rating 6: Many great themes are discussed, but the protagonist wasn’t as widely relatable as she could be to readers beyond highschool themselves. And as a reader who goes in mostly for characters, this put a pretty big dent in my enjoyment of the book.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of Eliza as a main character? Did you find her to be relatable and/or likable?
  2. Have you ever had a friend you met online, or know solely from online interaction? What do you think about the claim that online friends aren’t ‘real’ friends?
  3. Eliza has a complex relationship with the fans of her work. What do you think an artist owes their fans when it comes to content production, or characterization? Do they owe their fans anything?
  4. Eliza has a contentious relationship with her parents. What did you think of how they all interacted with each other? What could they have done differently?
  5. Have you ever followed an online work that is posted occasionally like “Monstrous Sea”? What was it? Is it still going on? If not, how did it end?

Reader’s Advisory

“Eliza and Her Monsters” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Fiction Featuring Fangirls, Fanboys, or General Fandom”, and “YA Nerd/Geek Books”.

Find “Eliza and Her Monsters” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Every You, Every Me” by David Levithan

Kate’s Review: “There’s Someone Inside Your House”

15797848Book: “There’s Someone Inside Your House” by Stephanie Perkins

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC of it from the publisher at ALA.

Book Description: Scream meets YA in this hotly-anticipated new novel from the bestselling author of Anna and the French Kiss.

One-by-one, the students of Osborne High are dying in a series of gruesome murders, each with increasing and grotesque flair. As the terror grows closer and the hunt intensifies for the killer, the dark secrets among them must finally be confronted.

International bestselling author Stephanie Perkins returns with a fresh take on the classic teen slasher story that’s fun, quick-witted, and completely impossible to put down.

Review: We’re nearing the end of September, guys, which means that October is just around the corner! For me, that means HORRORPALOOZA is on the way, in which my reading tastes gravitate towards all horror, all the time. I had to get a little taste of that before the calendar turned over, though, as I just couldn’t wait to pick up “There’s Someone Inside Your House” any longer. So I don’t know if it was the waiting and the hype that I built up in my head for it, but I’m wondering if waiting was a mistake. because while there were definitely things I enjoyed about this book, it was something of a let down.

I’ll start with what I did like, though. “There’s Someone Inside Your House” has had comparisons to “Scream”, one of my favorite slasher movies of all time because of how it cheekily deconstructs the tropes and tricks of the slasher genre. While I was reading this book, I one hundred percent could see it in my mind’s eye as a film. It has the right amount of characters, it has the right dynamic for the group that we follow, and it has so many visual moments in it that would translate very well to a movie screen. I also enjoyed Makani, our protagonist and surmised ‘final girl’, as of course this book would need one to play to genre type. She is a fish out of water, but not in the ways we may be used to seeing. Not only has she moved to small town Nebraska from freakin’ Hawai’i (I can totally get her bitterness), she is also a biracial girl living in a town with a majority of white people. Being half black and half native Hawaiian means she gets a lot of ‘but where are you from really?’ questions, and this book deals with that openly and frankly, which is very important. She does, of course, have a dark secret in her past that she fears getting out, and while I was rolling my eyes at this cliche when it was revealed what had happened, I was actually at peace with it, as it wasn’t too melodramatic, yet she also did have legitimate things to be sorry for while having reason to be hurting and traumatized. From characters who are POC to LGBTQIA to socioeconomically different, I feel like Perkins was committed to exploring diversity for this story when other authors may have not bothered.

The slasher killer plot line (so, the main plot line) had some issues that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. I give props in that while Perkins starts out making us wonder who the killer is (mainly is it Ollie, Makani’s brooding but sensitive love interest), once it is revealed who they are, there are no more questions or twists, or suppositions of coming twists. It was who it was, and that was that. But once it was revealed WHY the killer was doing what they were doing, this book kind of lost me. It’s one thing if you are doing it because you’re a supernatural being that is taking revenge for your deserved but untimely murder (“Nightmare on Elm Street”), or because camp counselors weren’t paying attention and you drowned (“Friday the 13th), or because you’re just one big metaphor for Evil (“Halloween”). Even in “Scream” the trauma of parental abandonment mixed with the need to be famous/notorious worked out as a solid motive. But in this one it’s just so…. not that, and without more background to the killer I couldn’t and wouldn’t swallow it so easily. On top of that, each teenager killed by this person has something cut off and taken away, and it seemed like it was going to build up to one big gross reveal of just what was happening with these absconded body parts…… But then nah, the pomp and dramatics were all for naught, it was maybe just because reasons (note, I will admit that perhaps I’m wrong on this, as when I start getting near the end of a tense book I sometimes inadvertently skim in my anxiety).

While there were a few hang ups I had with “There’s Someone Inside Your House”, I do think that it’s a quick, simple, and totally appropriate book for the upcoming Halloween season. Teens that are craving horror but maybe aren’t feeling something a but denser and darker will probably find a lot to like here, and anything that nurtures kids and teens loves of horror gets props from me.

Rating 6: The characters were fine and I liked the diversity. While the identity of the killer wasn’t drawn out or too twisty turny, the motivation and MO felt flimsy at best.

Reader’s Advisory:

“There’s Someone Inside Your House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Teen Screams”, and “2017 YA Books With LGBT Themes”.

Find “There’s Someone Inside Your House” at your library using WorldCat!