Kate’s Review: “Haunting The Deep”

33977969Book: “Haunting the Deep” by Adriana Mather

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Titanic meets the delicious horror of Ransom Riggs and the sass of Mean Girls in this follow-up to the #1 New York Times bestseller How to Hang a Witch, in which a contemporary teen finds herself a passenger on the famous “ship of dreams”—a story made all the more fascinating because the author’s own relatives survived the doomed voyage.

Samantha Mather knew her family’s connection to the infamous Salem Witch Trials might pose obstacles to an active social life. But having survived one curse, she never thought she’d find herself at the center of a new one. 

This time, Sam is having recurring dreams about the Titanic . . . where she’s been walking the deck with first-class passengers, like her aunt and uncle. Meanwhile, in Sam’s waking life, strange missives from the Titanic have been finding their way to her, along with haunting visions of people who went down with the ship. 

Ultimately, Sam and the Descendants, along with some help from heartthrob Elijah, must unravel who is behind the spell that is drawing her ever further into the dream ship . . . and closer to sharing the same grim fate as its ghostly passengers.

Review: Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have a deep and obsessive attachment to a YA paranormal romance series, and yet here we are. It’s a bit more than a year since I read the bananas kooky and super awesome “How To Hang A Witch”, and I was waiting with bated breath to finally get my hands on book two of the series. I knew that it was going be a series, and that I’d be able to gallivant with my beloved witch Samantha and her ghost boyfriend Elijah once again. The moment that I found out it was finally coming out, I was excited. And when I found out that the main plot point involved The Titanic, oh man….

giphy4
SEVENTH GRADE KATE IS FREAKING OUT!! (source)

If I were more cynical or less inclined to give this series all the passes because of my affection for it, I’d probably call out Mather for taking another part of her personal family history to fuel this book (if the next one takes place during another significant event that her family happened to be a part of I will start to really question). But as of now I’m just happy to be along for the ride. Mather has really fallen into a strong stride with her characters now, as Sam no longer feels like she’s trying to hard to be cynical and her friendship with The Descendants is on easy and natural footing. I was worried that bringing her Dad into the dynamic might make things a bit tricky, especially since he doesn’t know about his ex-wife Vivian being a witch who tried to curse him and Samantha, only foiled because of Samantha’s own dabbling in magic. But luckily, he adds a new foil for Sam to interact with, another skeptic who she is trying to hide herself from.

The Titanic theme was a little harder for me to swallow, though I did overall enjoy it enough. I think that my reticence is less because of how Mather approached it and more because I worked in an exhibit that was all about the Titanic during my museum days and I’ve been pretty burned out on the topic ever since. It also made some of the inaccuracies more glaring than they would have been otherwise. For example, there is mention of the Steerage passengers being locked behind gates so that First and Second Class had access to the lifeboats first. Yeah, that didn’t happen, so it was a little disheartening that that ‘fact’ was kept in, especially since I was under the impression that Mather did the research before writing. Plus, yeah, I have the skeleton in my closet that I did indeed see “Titanic” in the movie theater four times, and so my lingering embarrassment paints my judgment. It wasn’t even because of Leo and I don’t really want to talk about it…

But hey, let’s be real. I’m not here for the Titanic plot line. I’m mostly here for Elijah, the handsome and mysterious ghost who had to leave his lady love Sam behind when he crossed over at the end of “How To Hang A Witch”. Or did he? Spoiler alert, he did not.

giphy5
This must be what “Twilight” fans felt like. (source)

I really like Elijah and Sam as a couple, mostly because while Elijah does have his old world ideas of chivalry and protecting her, Sam shuts that shit down and he respects her and her decisions. He isn’t in this one as much as he was in the first book, but when he is there it’s really great and romantic. Plus, that kind of lets Sam show off that she is more than her love life, and given that some of the more popular paranormal romances stumble in this regard, it’s refreshing to see her have her own agency and personality. True, there’s a bit of a kerfuffle regarding Jaxon, the boy next door who is also keen on Sam (damn love triangles), but the good news is that Sam doesn’t really waffle or question where her heart is. She knows exactly who she wants, and so this love triangle is basically defunct, which is the best kind of love triangle. True, it adds for needless tension that I just kind of skipped over, but it made it easier to hate Jaxon, which I was down for.

OH, and the female friendships are in full swing in this book! In “How To Hang A Witch” there was an enemy situation between Sam and the Descendants, but now that the conflict has been resolved Sam, Alice, Susanna, and Mary are BFFs for life and it’s good seeing positive female friendships in a YA novel. We also are getting to know each of them a bit more, and I can only hope that this continues because I need to know more about all of them. Especially Alice, that sassy and snarky Queen Bee!

Overall, “Haunting The Deep” continues a series that I’m still totally invested in. I hope I don’t have to wait long for the next one, as I’m not sure I can go for another year without another Elijah fix.

Rating 8: A fun and soapy sequel to one of my favorite not so guilty pleasure books, “Haunting The Deep” brings us back to the delightful bitchcraft of the Descendants, the plucky Sam, and the swoon-worthy Elijah.

Reader’s Advisory

“Haunting the Deep” is a newer book and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it’s included on “2017 YA Horror”, and I think that it would fit in on “Wise Women, Witches, Midwives, Healers, and Strong Girls!”.

Find “Haunting the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

 

Serena’s Review: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

27366528Book: “Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Beneath the Sugar Sky” returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the “real” world.

Sumi died years before her prophesied daughter Rini could be born. Rini was born anyway, and now she’s trying to bring her mother back from a world without magic.

Previously Reviewed: “Every Heart a Doorway” and “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Review: I read and loved the first book in this series of novellas, had complicated feelings about the second, though still largely enjoyed it, and was counting down the days until I could get my hands on this one (even better, I got it early so I was able to do away with my “counting calendar” before the madness really took over).

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” introduces us to Cora, yet another girl who has been unwillingly returned to a world where she feels she no longer belongs. New to the Home for Wayward Children, she is just beginning to make friends with the others around her and beginning to understand the far-reaching and complicated network of other worlds that children have traveled to and from for years. But, like them all, she wants only to find her door and return as soon as possible. Instead, what she finds, is a girl who has traveled to this “regular world” with one goal and one goal only: to resurrect her mother, Sumi, who died so tragically way back in the first book.

First off, I loved the combination of introducing a completely new character and world through Cora, but also directly tying the plot to the action from the very first book in the series, and using this contrivance to more naturally bring in characters from the first two books with whom we are familiar and enjoy. I particularly loved the surprise appearance of a past main character and exploring more fully the world she loves.

And that was another great thing! We got to visit multiple fantastical worlds in this book! I always love adventure/quest stories, and that it was lovely following our band of strange heroes through various worlds and seeing how they reacted/experienced each of these worlds. We know that the worlds choose children who are natural fits for those worlds, so seeing those characters out of place in a strange new world was very interesting, highlighting how “high nonsense” worlds would have a negative impact on characters who are more aligned to “logical” worlds. And how the world itself could actively resist those rules being pushed upon it.

Alongside some returning characters, the two new faces are Cora and Rini. Cora, our main character, was an excellent addition to a ever-growing pantheon of characters who push against conformative exceptions of society that make quick judgements of who a person is. In this particular story, we see Cora dealing with the judgements based on her weight. Her athleticism, particularly in the water, was continuously dismissed before she finds her own door that leads to a water world where she goes on adventures as a mermaid. There, in the freezing depths, her extra layers and strong, poweful body are an asset. So, here, returned to a world that sees only a “fat girl,” Cora is struggling to re-assert the powerful self within her.

While I did like the exploration of the judgements and insecurities that Cora deals with in this aspect, I was also a little underwhelmed with its resolution. Namely, there never was much of a resolution to speak of. Throughout the story Cora remains insecure about the judgements she assumes others are making about her. At the same time, she knows her own strength and begins to see how truly in-tune her own world was to her particular strengths. But she also finds ways to use those same strengths in other environments. However, I felt that this particular thread was left a bit hanging in the end. The plot itself was resolved, but this arc seemed to just peter out without any true revelations, either on Cora’s part or on other’s.

Rini was very fun, being the first “native” other world character we’ve seen. It was fun watching her character travel through the book with a “nonsense” perspective on everything. So far, we’ve only seen children from our world who, while particularly attuned for one world or another, understand that strangeness of it when compared to our “real world.” Through Rini, we see a character who has grown up in one of these strange lands and understands its rules and history (there was some great stuff with a creation story here) as as “obvious” as we consider our own world’s rules and history.

This was an excellent third story to McQuire’s Wayward Children series. While some of the internal conflicts weren’t resolved to the extent that I wish they had been, I very much enjoyed her combination of new worlds and characters with familiar faces. Further, each book seems to build upon the last as far as the mythology and connection between all of these various worlds. Even more fun, the characters themselves are learning right along side us! For fans of this series, definitely check this one out. And for those of you not on this train yet, get on, but start with the first as it’s a “must read” to fully appreciate this on.

Rating 8: Whimsical and dark, but coming up just short on a few of its character arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” is a newer book, but it is on this Goodreads list: “2018 Queer SFF Releases.”

Find “Beneath the Sugar Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Marriage Pact”

31748890Book: “The Marriage Pact” by Michelle Richmond

Publishing Info: Bantam, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received and ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Newlyweds Alice and Jake are a picture-perfect couple. Alice, once a singer in a well-known rock band, is now a successful lawyer. Jake is a partner in an up-and-coming psychology practice. Their life together holds endless possibilities. After receiving an enticing wedding gift from one of Alice’s prominent clients, they decide to join an exclusive and mysterious group known only as The Pact.

The goal of The Pact seems simple: to keep marriages happy and intact, and most of its rules make sense: Always answer the phone when your spouse calls. Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly. Plan a trip together once per quarter. . . .

Never mention The Pact to anyone.

Alice and Jake are initially seduced by the glamorous parties, the sense of community, their widening social circle of like-minded couples–and then one of them breaks the rules. The young lovers are about to discover that for adherents to The Pact, membership, like marriage, is for life, and The Pact will go to any lengths to enforce that rule. For Jake and Alice, the marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

Review: Ahhh, marriage. I’ve been married to my husband for eight years, and while it certainly isn’t a perfect marriage, it’s a good one. Probably because we don’t strive for perfection. And because we don’t strive for perfection nor are we perfectionists in any way, I take solace in the fact that had we been approached by a deranged marriage cult we probably would have answered with a solid

giphy2
(source)

But lucky for us readers, Alice and Jake in Michelle Richmond’s “The Marriage Pact” did not make the same choices that I would make. After all, had they said ‘no thanks’, we wouldn’t have gotten this tense and dark thriller that took me by surprise. As someone who didn’t have any expectations going into it I had no idea what to expect, but I’m thinking that in some ways that worked in the book’s favor. Because after letting it collect some dust on my book stack, I finally picked it up and cursed myself for not picking it up sooner.

“The Marriage Pact” is a slow building thriller that puts the reader in the position of Jake and Alice, newlyweds who find themselves invited to join a prestigious and secret group specifically for married couples. They are both written in such a way that I could definitely see them getting sucked into it: for Alice, her commitment phobia from her past could easily make her nervous about falling out of step with Jake. For Jake, he’s so in love with Alice that he would happily indulge her in her eagerness to try it out. And because it’s seen from their perspectives, we too get to experience the gradual change from fun and quirky hobby to all encompassing nightmare. This point is what struck me the most as I read this book: it didn’t rely too much on major twists or turns to get the thrills into the narrative. While I do love a good thriller with lots of game changing moments, the horror and surprise in “The Marriage Pact” was far more based in the realities of the dark sides of human nature and group think, and how far we can be taken because of cognitive dissonance and denial. It felt fairly real that Jake and Alice would find themselves in a frog in the boiling water scenario because of this. The punishments for breaking the ‘rules’ of the group evolved from minor and silly consequences to full blown horror shows, and by the time we got to that they were in so deep that all you could feel was abject dread for them. The cultist perspective was masterfully done, as while Jake (our narrator) knew that things weren’t right, he also seemed under the spell in some ways, thinking that in spite of the horrific circumstances they were finding themselves in that his marriage to Alice was, in fact, stronger when all was said and done.

I do think that this book was a bit longer than it needed to be. While it was a fast read and an entertaining one too, I did find myself thinking that it was kind of repetitive at times. The various punishments and strange meetings with other ‘Friends’, as the members call themselves, tended to make things drag on a bit more than I would have liked, and I did find myself skimming here and there. I also found a few of the details unbelievable or farfetched, specifically about how much power and money this secret group could possibly have. And finally, given that Alice is a freaking LAWYER at a high powered firm, I REALLY found it odd that she didn’t have any problems with the giant manual of rules that you have to agree to abide by, via non negotiable contract. What kind of lawyer would agree to ANY of that without going through the entire manual bit by bit? But those are minor quibbles when the rest of the story was so creative and outside the box of what I’ve come to expect from thrillers today.

Overall I found “The Marriage Pact” to be a satisfying and compulsively readable novel. And it makes me thank my lucky stars that my husband and I are such lazy non perfectionists, lest we be approached by some crazy marriage cult someday.

Rating 8: A solid and original thriller that slowly burns to a disturbing level, “The Marriage Pact” relied less on twists and turns and more on the dark side of human nature.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Marriage Pact” is included on the Goodreads lists “Follow The Rules and Everything Will Be Okay”, and “Domestic Noir”.

Find “The Marriage Pact” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Feral Youth”

31556153Book: “Feral Youth” by Shaun David Hutchinson (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: At Zeppelin Bend, an outdoor education program designed to teach troubled youth the value of hard work, cooperation, and compassion, ten teens are left alone in the wild. The teens are a diverse group who come from all walks of life, and they were all sent to Zeppelin Bend as a last chance to get them to turn their lives around. They’ve just spent nearly two weeks learning to survive in the wilderness, and now their instructors have dropped them off eighteen miles from camp with no food, no water, and only their packs, and they’ll have to struggle to overcome their vast differences if they hope to survive.

Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, Feral Youth features characters, each complex and damaged in their own ways, who are enticed to tell a story (or two) with the promise of a cash prize. The stories range from noir-inspired revenge tales to mythological stories of fierce heroines and angry gods. And while few of the stories are claimed to be based in truth, they ultimately reveal more about the teller than the truth ever could.

Review: We have once again found a book that is inspired by “The Canterbury Tales”, the medieval tome that I have not read. Even though I was excited about “Feral Youth”, enough so to highlight in on this blog, I was a bit worried that I would miss key components because of my ignorance. But I still went ahead and picked it up, and I’m glad that my self doubt didn’t discourage me. “Feral Youth” is a strong collection of short stories from a number of talented YA Authors, some of whom I loved before, others of whom I am now interested in pursuing.

As the description says, the premise is that a number of teenagers at a program for troubled youth are on an eighteen mile team building exercise hike, and tell stories to each other to pass the time or provide distraction. Each author of the collection has written a story for each of the teenagers, and created some insight into their personalities through the stories. As a whole the collection was pretty strong, with a few excellent standouts and a couple of clunkers. I’m going to talk about my three favorites here.

“A Ruthless Dame” By Tim Floreen: Cody is a closeted teen in a religious family. He starts up a romance with Mike, the boy next door who is visiting from college, and has a passionate, yet brief, love affair. But after Mike goes radio silent, Cody feels like he’s been used. When Mike comes home the next break, Cody finds out that Mike not only has a girlfriend, but a number of photos of underage boys on his phone… Cody included. Cody decides to follow the footsteps of the femme fatales of his favorite noir movies to get his revenge. This story was a pure revenge fantasy piece, and I greatly enjoyed Cody and his manipulations. While in many ways he has been victimized by Mike, he doesn’t take things lying down, and is brilliant in his scheming. I was cackling as I read this story, but also always had a sense for the tragic existence that Cody is living and why he loses himself in noir films.

“A Cautionary Tale” by Stephanie Kuehn: C.J. Perez has found himself in the role of Student Safety Escort during a college’s Avalon Festival. He meets Hollis, a sophomore who pulls C.J. into an urban legend and conspiracy theory about a serial killer, or something worse, that kills students at the school in cycles. While C.J. is skeptical, he and Hollis find out that things may not always be what they seem. This story was the one that pulled the rug out from under me, plot wise, and I expected nothing less from Stephanie Kuehn. You all know how much I love her books, and this short story is just another triumph of hers. The suspense builds and the behavior of various characters simmers in unsettling ways, so this combined made for an intense and shocking read. Man, I would love it if Kuehn would do flat out horror in her future works, because this story shows that not only could she pull it off, she could create something fabulous.

“Self Portrait” by Brandy Colbert: When Sunday moves to a new town and new school, she befriends Michah and Eli, two brothers. Michah and Eli have a tumultuous relationship, and Sunday finds herself in the middle of their low simmering feud. But she never could have imagined that she would find herself betrayed so fiercely by one of them. Colbert was the other author that I was very excited for, and “Self Portrait” didn’t disappoint. I feel like Colbert knows how to build up the feel of YA melodrama without ever crossing into the ridiculous, and Sunday’s story continues that theme. It was one of the quieter stories in this book, but it still packed a real emotional punch at the end of it.

The stories are strung together through interactions between the characters on the camping trip, and it was interesting to try and parse out who were reliable narrators and unreliable ones based on those moments. But all in all, it ultimately doesn’t matter if these stories are ‘true’, at least within the context of the story. The point is that they shed insight into those telling it, and with all these different authors telling these different stories it does feel like a group of unique individuals. If I missed anything because of my lack of knowledge of “The Canterbury Tales”, I didn’t notice it. It stood on it’s own two feet well.

“Feral Youth” was an enjoyable collection of short stories that showcases some good writers. If you want a taste of some of these authors, this is the place to start!

Rating 8: A solid collection of stories with a few serious stand outs, “Feral Youth” is a must read for fans of short stories collections with a twist!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Feral Youth” is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 YA Books With LGBT Themes”, and I think that it would fit in on “Best Teen Short Stories”.

Find “Feral Youth” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Hippopotamus Pool”

126730Book: “The Hippopotamus Pool” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, June 1997

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

Book Description: A masked stranger offers to reveal an Egyptian queen’s last tomb… and Amelia Peabody Emerson and her irascible archaeologist husband are intrigued, to say the least. When the guide mysteriously disappears before he tells his secret, the Emersons sail to Thebes to follow his trail, helped – and hampered – by their teenaged son, Ramses, and beautiful ward, Nefret. Before the sands of time shift very far, all will be risking their lives foiling murderers, kidnappers, grave robbers, and ancient curses. And the Hippopotamus Pool? It’s a legend of war and wits that Amelia is translating, one that alerts her to a hippo of a different type – a nefarious, overweight art dealer who may become her next archenemy!

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.”

Review: This is the most privileged-person reading problem ever: how do I continue to find creative ways of praising these books and this author without just sinking into repetitive gushing?? It’s problem, people.

Let’s just say that the strengths of this series are just as present in this book as they have been in the many before it. Amelia is ever the entertaining heroine (I’ve been listening to the audiobook version for the past several books, and it’s almost impossible now to separate the Amelia of the page and the Amelia that is brought to life with Barbara Rosenblatt’s expert and canny reading of her). Emerson, an excellent romantic hero, foibles and all.  A mystery, complicated and full of new suspects. Villains, some old and some new.

But I will focus on a few of the newer bits of this story. For one, while there is comfort in the stability of Amelia, Emerson, and their relationship, it’s a nice balance to have it contrasted with the ever-evolving lives of their children. Ramses and Nefret are now teenagers, Ramses on the young teen side and Nefret right smack in the middle, an especially complicated age for a young woman of fortune.

For his part, Ramses is beginning to evolve his relationship from child-with-adults to putting out feelers establishing himself as an independent entity. His changing relationship with his parents is perfectly illustrated in small changes (calling them “mother and father” rather than “mama and papa”). But also comes into play in larger ways as he pushes for independence and respect. However, Ramses’s relationship with them is firmly bound in familial love and respect. So these struggles often present themselves instead in strained interactions with his “sister” Nefret.

The two are at a perfect point for frustration. Sixteen and fourteen are around the exact ages when two years represents a world of difference and both the older and younger sibling struggle. In this case, it is all the more challenging in the fact that while Nefret has been adopted by the Emersons, she is not their natural born daughter.

Peters strikes the perfect balance in this sibling relationship. They bicker and argue like all the best siblings, but there is also a clear underlying tension in the knowledge of their non-typical family relationship. Further, Nefret is still adjusting to life in British Society, with all of the ridiculous rules and impositions that come with it. Yes, she’s growing up with a “mother” who shirks much of this (lucky for Nefret!),  but society itself has a way of pushing back, this time in the form of “suitors.”

I particularly loved Amelia’s attempts to parent a young daughter. She went from having one child, a very non-typical boy, at that. To having a pre-teen daughter who came with the added complications of being smart, headstrong, beautiful, and an heiress. But like anything, Amelia is up to the task. Theirs is a very nice example of female relationships, both maternal and friendly.

As I said, most of these stories come with the addition of new characters and you never quite know which ones are “one offs” or which are there to stay. We had Nefret introduced recently, but Peters wasn’t done there! Here we have the addition of David, a young boy (around Ramses’s age) who is loosely related to Abdullah, but through various mishaps has lead a life estranged from his family and raised to a life of crime. This will not do, of course! Particularly since Ramses forms a close, brotherly bond with David throughout this book. I feel confident that David is a character that is here to stay, and I’m excited to see what role he falls into in this strange family.

Beyond characters, this story is one of the first in a while to truly delve into a major dig, this time with the discovery of a queen’s tomb. While Egyptology is always important to these stories, there are varying degrees in each. I very much enjoyed having another mystery focused so closely on a dig.

Lastly, this book tackles some difficult topics with the sudden death of Evelyn and Walter’s infant child. Through Amelia’s eyes we see Evelyn’s struggle with this loss, the strain that is put on her and Walter’s marriage, and the process of living through grief. This also leads to Evelyn and Walter playing a much larger role in this book than they have for quite a long time. While the reason was tragic, I loved having these two characters back in a book. Evelyn especially. Not only does Amelia’s relationship with her lead to a deeper exploration of loss and depression, but Evelyn also rises through it into a role that was surprising and fun to read. Walter, on the other hand, had moments where I wanted to slap him upside his head. I can’t quite remember whether he always had some of the tendencies he put on display in this book, or whether this is evidence of Peters evolving his character over time and through experience. Don’t get he wrong, however, I still finished the book enjoying his character.

Well, hopefully I managed to cover some new ground in my praise of this book! But really, I’ll take the challenge of tricky reviews for the assurance of enjoyable novels any day. For fans of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, this is yet another to check out!

Rating 8: Yet another excellent story. This one tackles some tough issues, but handles them well and introduces another (hopefully!) main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hippopotamus Pool” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Regency and Victorian Mysteries” and “Archaeology Novels.”

Find “The Hippopotamus Pool” 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!

 

Kate’s Review: “Into the Drowning Deep”

34523174Book: “Into the Drowning Deep” by Mira Grant

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.

Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.

Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves.

But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

Review: A special thanks to Orbit for providing me with an ARC of this book!

I’ve come to learn many truths within this literary world, and one of those truths is that if you want some well plotted out techno-horror, Mira Grant is the person to go to. I’ve mentioned her “Newsflesh” Series here before, and I reviewed the most recent book “Feedback”, as well as her short story “Final Girls”. Basically, Mira Grant is one of the most original and fun tech horror writers out there, and she needs more attention. I will admit that I went into “Into the Drowning Deep” with little knowledge about it. So imagine my surprise when early on it became quite clear what kind of story I was getting myself into.

Killer. Mermaids.

giphy1
BEHOLD, I BRING TIDINGS OF GREAT JOY! (source)

I mean, honestly, at this point she had me and I was guaranteed to give it a solid review. But let’s talk about why I liked this book so much, beyond mermaids disemboweling people. To start, the plot is exciting and interesting from the get go. While we don’t see much about the ‘doomed voyage’ of the Atargatis (but if you want to, the prequel story “Rolling in the Deep” is about that voyage), we do get to see those who have been affected by it and their motivations for wanting to follow up with it. The range of reasons is wide for our characters. For Tory it is because her older sister was the media face for Imagine, the network that sent the movie crew out to the Mariana Trench in the first place. Tory is an Ahab-esque character, though far more likable. She has a vendetta out for whatever killed her sister Anne (in “Rolling in the Deep”), and her pain and rage makes her a very human and sympathetic person to follow. You also have Dr. Jillian Toth, who is an Academic who has always believed in mermaids. This is both a validation of her work, but also a painful reminder that her enthusiasm and certainty of their existence was one of the motivators that sent the Artagatis out in the first place. Along with that is the fact her estranged husband Theo is on board too, who left his conservation activism life after an accident left him in chronic pain…. and joined Imagine as a suit. And you have Olivia, the new face for Imagine Entertainment, who finds herself in a mutual attraction with Tory, even though she has the job that Anne had. Which, of course, leads to some angst for Tory. You also have big game hunters, cryptozoologists, scientists, and others that round out our cast, all of them feeling very real and human, a skill that Grant has always had a knack for.

Grant is known for bringing a certain amount of fascinating at at times ‘hard’ (at least for me!) science into her horror stories. As someone who isn’t terribly science minded, she manages to make some pretty complex (to me) concepts and break them down for the average person like me, and to effortlessly weave them into her story lines without forcing them to fit. In “Into the Drowning Deep” that science is climate change, and how it could potentially change our oceans, as well as potential technology that could come forth because of it. “Into the Drowning Deep” takes place in 2020, and works under the assumption that in a mere four years things will be getting to the point of dire, ocean ecosystem wise, and this book brings up these ideas while incorporating them into the greater plot. She also peppers a lot of the story with facts about the ocean and sea life, and this fan of Monterey Bay, California was pleased as punch that a lot of the action at the beginning takes place there. Grant’s science has always been a bit of a trademark, and this book continues that grand tradition.

And even though perhaps the idea of ‘killer mermaids’ sounds silly to you, this book is so well done that it completely sells it. Grant does a great job of giving these mermaids an evolutionary basis, and finds them a place in the ocean ecosystem that makes them seem like they could, in fact, exist. The slow build of found footage descriptions to the reveal of the deadly mermaids deep under the sea, all the way to the inevitable slaughter had me flipping through the pages quickly, needing to find out what comes next. While this book could have come off as cheesy, it never does, and the stakes are high as Grant holds no sacred cows, character wise. You have to go into a Grant book assuming that at LEAST one of your favorite characters isn’t going to make it out alive, and even knowing this I still was caught off guard and saddened by a few of those who become mermaid chow.

“Into the Drowning Deep” was a scary and entertaining read that I had a hard time walking away from. Mira Grant is absolutely one of those authors who I am always going to be on the look out for, and I hope that the wait for the next in the series isn’t that long. I think that the literary world could use more killer mermaids, and I can’t wait to see where Grant takes them next.

Rating 8: A fun, frightening romp through the dangers of the ocean, “Into The Drowning Deep” kept me on the edge of my seat and a smile on my face. Bring on more killer merfolk!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Drowning Deep” is a new book and not on any relevant Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Oceanic/Marine Science Fiction”, and “Sea Monster Books!”.

Find “Into the Drowning Deep” at your library using WorldCat!