Kate’s Review: “Hidden Bodies”

23492288Book: “Hidden Bodies” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Atria/ Emily Bestler Books, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Joe Goldberg is no stranger to hiding bodies. In the past ten years, this thirty-something has buried four of them, collateral damage in his quest for love. Now he’s heading west to Los Angeles, the city of second chances, determined to put his past behind him.

In Hollywood, Joe blends in effortlessly with the other young upstarts. He eats guac, works in a bookstore, and flirts with a journalist neighbor. But while others seem fixated on their own reflections, Joe can’t stop looking over his shoulder. The problem with hidden bodies is that they don’t always stay that way. They re-emerge, like dark thoughts, multiplying and threatening to destroy what Joe wants most: true love. And when he finds it in a darkened room in Soho House, he’s more desperate than ever to keep his secrets buried. He doesn’t want to hurt his new girlfriend—he wants to be with her forever. But if she ever finds out what he’s done, he may not have a choice…

Review: Joe Goldberg has sort of kind of unexpectedly become one of my favorite recent literary narrators. Trust me, I’m shocked too. This is a guy who (oh man will there be spoilers in this review) has killed multiple people, stalked multiple women, and murdered his supposed true love Beck from his first book, “You”. This guy is a predator who targets women all because of his delusions of true love and romance….. And I kind of love him. Which makes me feel yucky.

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In “Hidden Bodies”, Joe has taken up with Amy, the girl he met in “You” when she tried to commit credit card fraud at his store and he was instantly smitten with her. What the Goodreads description fails to mention is that Joe is going to L.A. because Amy tricks him and rips him off of a whole lot of cash, and he is going not to try and make a fresh start, but for good old fashioned revenge against her. I’m ashamed to say that I was totally on board for Joe tracking her down and making her pay, as what does that say about me?! I think that it says more about Kepnes as a writer, as Joe is a horrible person, but she writes him in a way that is so funny and so entertaining that you just want to see what he does and how he’s going to survive in a city of phony people and platitudes when he thinks so highly of himself. Spoiler alert: the results are both unsettling and incredibly funny.

This book drops the framework of being in the quasi second person, and it’s better for it. Joe is now his own being, and he can do so much more with this range that has opened up for him. This story reminds me quite a bit of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” series, as Ripley, too, was a sociopathic protagonist who you couldn’t help but follow willingly into violence and cruelty. In L.A. Joe shines even more, and Kepnes uses him as a strange Greek Chorus to point out the absurdity of the culture. Joe is a psychopath living in an L.A. that is portrayed as pure sociopathy, and the fact that they do not really mix well until he embraces it is darkly delightful. Joe does embrace it when he meets Love, an heiress to a grocery fortune who is kind, loving, and born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She is different from Beck and Amy in that while those two were trying to make it and rife with insecurity, Love has already made it thanks to her parents’ money and fully secure within herself. She is a striking contrast to her twin brother Forty, who is everything that is wrong with L.A. privilege and excess. Seeing Joe interact with these two people was far more interesting than a repeat of “You”, which I was worried “Hidden Bodies” would be, and it made him more of a “Dexter”-like avenger as he takes out the very worst of what L.A. has to offer. Is this a bit strange rooting for a man who is taking out human trash? Kind of? Does it validate Joe’s stalker actions towards Beck in “You”? I don’t think it does. Joe is still absolutely creepy and repugnant, but why not let a creep take out a few other creeps along the way?

Like with “You” there were a few plot points that felt a bit forced or convenient. There were times that Joe probably should have gotten caught, or at least had some culpability thrown his way, but external circumstances fixed that. I rarely like a deus ex machina solution, and there were moments in this that felt that way. I saw that it was more trying to show that sometimes luck is just on people’s side, like in the movie “Matchpoint” (as Joe loves Woody Allen movies), but it still frustrated me. But one big twist, which I won’t spoil here, was very intriguing, and involved Joe’s girlfriend Love. Love was a unique character in that she always exceeded my expectations. While Beck was pretty two dimensional, at least how Joe saw her, Love is very clearly a complex and hard to read foil for Joe. I am very, very interested in where her character goes, especially with some of the progressions we saw with her.

That is to say, if this series keeps going. It ended on a note that could very easily go either way for Joe. I really do hope that we get to see more of him, and that Kepnes treats us to another book about Joe Goldberg and the terrible, yet enthralling, deeds that he does. “Hidden Bodies” was very fun, and I’m ready for more.

Rating 8: A great follow up to “You” and Joe Goldberg remains fiendishly fun. There were some deus ex machina moments, but ultimately I hope that this series continues.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hidden Bodies” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Dark Humor”, and while it’s not on this list it would feel right at home on “I Like Serial Killers”.

Find “Hidden Bodies” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Paper Girls, 1”

28204534Book: “Paper Girls, 1” by Brian Vaughan, Cliff Chiang (Ill.), Matthew Wilson (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Image Comics, April 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: In the early hours after Halloween of 1988, four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls uncover the most important story of all time. Suburban drama and otherworldly mysteries collide in this smash-hit series about nostalgia, first jobs, and the last days of childhood.

Review: Though my book club, and other people in my life like my sister, swear by the series “Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan, I haven’t picked it up and am not really in much of a hurry to do so either. I know that Serena is probably side eying this review right now. Sorry, girl. That said, I have read Vaughan’s other really huge series, “Y the Last Man”, and that one I really enjoyed. I think that the difference is that “Saga” is big Space Opera sci-fi, while “Y the Last Man” is post apocalyptic, and of the sci-fi subgroups I much prefer the latter. So I don’t really know why I was surprised when I picked up “Paper Girls, 1” and it was another science fiction story. But “Paper Girls” fell in the middle of those two subgroups, and at it’s heart is more a coming of age, bildungsroman-esque story.

To give a bit more of a summary: The morning after Halloween in 1988, Erin the paper girl begins her route, joining up with other neighborhood paper girls Mac, KJ, and Tiffany in hopes of steering clear from the local bullies. But when their walkie-talkie is stolen by some mysterious guys in robes, they stumble upon a strange craft in the basement of a local house. Then people start disappearing, and more strange creatures appear. So the Paper Girls get pulled into a strange, end of world-like situation. While it may sound kind of simple, the way that Vaughan tells it is very real and very engrossing. Though I felt that KJ and Tiff wren’t given much to do thus far, Erin and Mac really shine, being portrayed as very three dimensional girls with complex, and in Mac’s case, difficult, backgrounds. Mac, the cigarette smoking tough girl, is pretty much Bender from “The Breakfast Club”, and Vaughan isn’t afraid to make her at times very unlikable (I was rather shocked by her entrance, as she calls one of the neighborhood bullies a ‘faggot’ and ‘AIDS-patient’. I realize that in 1988 it was Reagan’s America and there was a lot of scorn directed at the GLBT community, but realistic or not, it set my teeth on edge right out he gate). Erin is far gentler than Mac is, but that doesn’t make her any less fascinating or fascinating. She’s by far had the most exploration of their situation, and given the cliffhanger that we were left on in this volume it’s pretty clear that this is, ultimately, her story. And I’m one hundred percent okay with that. Hopefully Tiff and KJ will be given more to do as the series goes on, though the little snippets we got of them were fine and enjoyable.

I suppose that I should say that I was sort of disappointed that this is as sci-fi as it is. I guess when I read the descriptions I found online I was thinking it would be more “Blue Velvet” or “Twin Peaks”, but it is what it is and I did like the sci-fi elements for what they were. I highly enjoy the alien beings (if that is indeed what they are) and their kind of tenuous grasp on the English language. I also liked how there were symbols for dialogue for a few of the characters when they were conversing amongst themselves, and that the read has to figure out what is going on based on the visual cues that are being presented. This sort of device works VERY well in graphic novel form, as one can imagine, and given the prevalence both in and out of story, I want to learn more about these glyphs.

I also want to give a shout out to the gorgeous artwork in this comic. Cliff Chiang has done some other artwork for DC over the years, his most well known probably being some “Wonder Woman” for the New 52, which was incidentally one of the only things I LIKED about the new Wonder Woman arc. It looks simple at first glance, but the more you look at it, the more details you see. I think that he’s really making the characters and the story pop, and it’s a good match for the writing and story that Vaughan has given us. The cover alone just looks like an 80’s electric color bubblegum dream.

“Paper Girls, 1” has me hooked, and I’m sorry that I can’t just binge my way through it like I did “Y: The Last Man”. Fans of Vaughan’s work need to check this newest series out.

Rating 8: A fun sci-fi comic with some good characterizations. Some of the paper girls need to be explored more, but they are off to a good start. Plus the art is very funky and leaps off the page.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Paper Girls, 1” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Great Graphic Novels (Released in ) 2016”, and “Cover Buys”.

Find “Paper Girls, 1” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Mortal Bond”

The Last Mortal Bond Book: “The Last Mortal Bond” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all–Valyn, Adare, and Kaden–come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

Spoilers for the first two books in the series.

Review: As I said in my review of the previous books (see end of post for links), Staveley went to great lengths to create a tangled mess of misunderstanding, dueling motivations, and confusion with his first two books. And my question was simple: how? How was he going to resolve all of these dangling threads in a way that stayed true to what has been a compellingly honest, complicated but realistic story up to this point? My doubts have been rested, and sign me up for the Brian Staveley fan club. “The Last Mortal Bond” exemplifies nailing the landing in epic fantasy, by no means an easy feat.

Continuing my pattern from my review of the first two books, it is easiest to review this book by checking in with our main characters, the royal siblings, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden and Kettral leader, Gwenna.

Let’s start with Gwenna, shall we? I love Gwenna. She only had a few chapters in the last book, and there at first it felt a little strange to be in the head of a seemingly random second tier character. She still plays the same role in the narrative, as a character with an exciting, but largely insular, story arc. Between all the politics, magic, secrecy, and anger going on between the royal siblings, Gwenna’s chapters were a breath of fresh air. A problem was presented, the downfall of the Kettral training islands, and Gwenna and her team were deployed to solve it. I really enjoyed returning to this aspect of the story. In the first book, when Valyn was still in training, we learned a lot about the Kettral and the role they play in the Empire. However, in the second book, they and their giant falcons, were largely absent. It was thrilling to return to the islands, especially as seen through the eyes of Gwenna, a warrior who did not grow up with any expectations of leadership, but has had it thrust upon her and is more than capable of rising to the occasion. And the giant falcons were back. Always a plus.

It’s interesting how Staveley has set up different levels of stakes for his three main characters. Kaden’s story has been one with the highest level of stakes (the war to save humanity), Adare’s has been on the second level (the war to save Annur), and Valyn’s on the most insular level (the war to avenge himself and his family).

Kaden’s story continues to be the one that I have had the hardest time predicting. While throughout the story Adare has been focused on the greater good of the Empire, and Valyn has had a tendency to get caught up in the inner dynamics of whatever group he is in in the moment, Kaden has floated along the periphery, gathering knowledge and making unexpected decisions. For example, his decision to suddenly turn the Empire of Annur into a Republic in the last book. What a huge thing to decide, and so suddenly! I appreciate that Staveley didn’t try and make any political commentary here, which I was concerned with at first. This isn’t our world, and it becomes clear pretty early on in this book that while Kaden might have started from a very idealistic place, the powerful lords and ladies of Annur are not ready for the responsibility of truly ruling, instead focusing on power grabs and becoming mired in debate. So, too, in this book, Kaden’s journey is unexpected. Allying with Triste, who is understandably bitter and resentful of the role she has been thrust in, Kaden makes a desperate journey across the Empire in an effort to both contain the Gods who are walking the earth and also save them from the csestriim out to kill them, and thus, cripple humanity.

Adare remains my favorite character. As before, her practicality, ability to face tough choices, and general pizazz in face of it all, makes her a blast. Kaden could be frustrating with his idealism (come on, we all knew that handing over power to bunch of whining aristocrats was never going to be a good idea) and Valyn could get too caught up in his missions to take a step back and realize the larger implications of his decisions. And it makes sense that it would be this way. Valyn and Kaden grew up largely disconnected from the Empire. Adare, on the other hand, grew up at the foot of her father, by all accounts an incredibly successful ruler. But Adare’s failings are not swept away either. Her misjudgements come to bite her in the butt big time, specifically her choice to save the csestriim general il Tornja by stabbing Valyn.

Valyn’s story was a stumbling block for me, this time around. He started as my favorite character in book one, was still highly entertaining in book two, but then seems to have taken an abrupt change of course in this book. I understand that his wounds were detrimental at the end of the last book, but his decision to isolate himself from his remaining Kettral Wing friends and sink into darkness came a bit out of left field. The reader is constantly told how dark, gritty, and angsty he has become, but it feels unearned. Out of the three siblings, Valyn was the one trained to believe in teamwork and reliance on others, so for him to be the one to sink so quickly into despair and reject human connection felt out of place. He suffers the most physically, it is true. But what has been the strength of the series, its ability to highlight the impossible choices they all have made, makes Valyn’s descent into self-loathing less palatable when compared to the other characters who are facing their own challenges, rather than running away and hiding. I felt myself often growing frustrated with him and wishing that the Flea would show up to slap some sense into him.

“The Last Mortal Bond” does an incredible job of wrapping up this series. I highly recommend it, and the whole “Unhewn Throne” series, to any reader who enjoys epic fantasy. Especially those looking for a series that wraps up nicely in only three books, which is practically unheard of at this point and is frankly a relief!

Rating 8: Great conclusion to a great trilogy! There were a few stumbling blocks, particularly Valyn’s odd character decisions, but other than that, I love it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Mortal Bond” is very new so is on very few lists. As I particularly highlighted my love of it as the conclusion to a series, it is included in this Goodreads list: “End of Series in 2016”

Find “The Last Mortal Bond” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews of “The Empire’s Blades” and “The Providence of Fire.”

Kate’s Review: “You” by Caroline Kepnes

20821614Book: “You” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler books, September 2014

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Find “You” at your library using WorldCat!

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

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

Publishing Info: DC Comics, April 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

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

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

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

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

AND THEN there is the double date story.

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You read that right. 

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

Book Club Review: “The Outsiders”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

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

Book: “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton

Publishing Info: Viking Press, April 1967

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Notes and Questions:

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

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I mean, really. (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Find “The Outsiders” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Emperor’s Blades”

The Emperor's Blades

Book: “The Emperor’s Blades” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again . . .

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy.

His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

Review: It’s just a fact that a lot of high fantasy novel descriptions start sounding all the same over time. If you’ve read a lot of the genre, you immediately recognize staples in these summaries. Ruler’s death. Fight for the throne. Assassins. Mysterious religious/mystical figures. A forgotten past. And this isn’t a gripe about lack of creativity. If you pick up a horror novel or a science fiction novel, there will be a similar case with each. It’s just the nature of genre storytelling. If a reader loves a specific genre, chances are good that what they really love are these specific features common to that type of story. But there is a balancing act to be found between crafting these typical elements to support new and interesting characters and support creative world building and using them as a crutch. More and more, I am wary of the latter. So when I read the description for this book, I kind of sighed and thought, well, here we go! But not only was I wrong; I was so, so wrong. This is Brian Staveley’s first book, but “The Emperor’s Blades” reads like it is already a fantasy classic.

The narrative is split between the lately deceased Emperor’s three children: the youngest and heir to the throne, Kaden, the oldest child and only daughter, Adare, and the middle son, Valyn. So, from the get go, Staveley sets himself up with a challenge. Three perspectives ranging in age, gender, and life experience is no easy task. Often I find myself strongly gravitating towards one narrative and wishing to flip quickly through the rest. And while I feel like I could rank the three stories in an order of preference, I truly did enjoy them all. If anything, a large part of my complaint has to do with unequal distribution. I wanted more from each character!

Specifically, I wanted more from Adare. Sadly, Adare only has a handful of chapters in this book which I felt did her story a disservice. The author is clearly attempting to set up these three storylines as parallel journeys  with each character taking a unique path and answering different questions in the mystery of what happened to their father, the Emperor, and what political mechanisms are in play in the Empire. And Adare is the politician, the daughter who has grown up in the capital city, learning at her father’s knee from birth. But she is not the heir, and after her father’s death, she discovers he has placed her in a political role not typically held by women. Struggling to find allies and unravel the truth behind her father’s cryptic messages, Adare’s story seems central to the larger tale being started with this book. Not only is her position so clearly important, but her practical, no-nonsense approach and savvy political mind were fascinating to read about. A few chapters weren’t enough!

Kaden’s story, on the other hand, is the slow burn in an otherwise fast-moving story. As customary for the heir in the Empire, he has spent the majority of his life being raised far away from the capital by a holy order of monks. This was a fascinating swap in typical fantasy tropes. Kaden spends a large part of his narrative discussing the peaceful, meditative practices that he has spent the last several years learning. Not only was I (a fantasy reader used to hearing all about a typical princelings learning fighting and politics in the middle of court drama) confused by Kaden’s segregation from his family and kingdom, but Kaden himself struggled to understand the value of his tutelage. This storyline was initially a bit slow for me. Kaden is the most cut off from the mayhem that comes from his father’s death, and as a character, he is drawn as a thoughtful, careful person. But while it might have taken a bit for me to become fully invested in his story, there was a big pay off in the end, and I am excited to see where Kaden goes next.

By far, the character with the most page-time and the most to do was the youngest son, Valyn. Valyn, too, has been growing up disconnected from his family and home. From a young age, he’s been training to be a member of the Empire’s most elite fighting force, a group of warriors whose primary skill set revolves around their ability to fly huge falcons. I mean, right there, you know this guy’s going to be fun. Valyn, also, is the first character to begin fully realizing the extent of the problems going on in the Empire following his father’s death which leads to a lot of exciting action. He also is surrounded by the most interesting tertiary characters. The other trainees provide for a very diverse look at the other people living in the Empire. The female members of his group also did a good job of making me feel slightly less disappointed in the small number of chapters that Adare was relegated. Valyn is probably the most typical character, as far as high fantasy goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. Like I said, genre readers like what they like. And by sandwiching his story in between Adare and Kaden, two far less typical high fantasy characters, Valyn’s familiarity works as a good balance point.

“The Emperor’s Blades” is the first in a trilogy, and it definitely reads like one. Major cliffhanger warnings! But luckily, the second book came out a while ago, and the third was just published this month. I’ll be diving into those immediately.

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Rating 8: Loved it. Wished there was more Adare, but I’ll by jumping right into the sequels, so hopefully I’ll find it there!

Reader’s Advisory: 

Getting on a bit of a soapbox here: I went to look up lists on Goodreads for this book and found not only one, but two lists that were titled something like “Best Fantasy Books for Guys.” There might have been even more, but after the first page included two of these lists, I stopped looking. Here is a pretty generic list that it’s on “Best New Fantasy Novel” and here are two articles worth checking out about gender and reading. Elaine Cunningham briefly discusses epic fantasy and the misconception of them as “boy’s books” here and Caroline Paul writes about how boys should read “girl’s books” here. Both really get to my main point: there is no such thing as “boy’s books” or “girl’s books.” People who like high fantasy will like “The Emperor’s Blades.”

Find “The Emperor’s Blades” at your library using WorldCat!