Book Club Review: “The Golden Compass”

119322We 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: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

Publishing Info: Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 1996

Where Did We Get This Book: We both own in!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 200 (Religion)

Book Description: Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved. 

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “His Dark Materials” in college, at the insistence of my father, a huge fantasy nerd and book worm. I knew little to nothing about it when I opened the first pages of “The Golden Compass”, but was taken in almost immediately by the characters and the world that Philip Pullman created. And then my own personal copy (I have the whole series bound up in one) sat on my shelf, untouched until Anita picked “The Golden Compass” for book club. I was curious as to how I would view the book almost fifteen years after reading it the first time. But going back to “The Golden Compass” was worthwhile for me, even after all that time.

I will be honest, the stories of the entire series are so entwined in my mind that I can’t help but take influence from “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” when I look back at “The Golden Compass”. So my opinions of “The Golden Compass” now are probably affected by works that aren’t within the text of the first book, which was an interesting quandary to be in. During Book Club when Anita would ask questions about the story, I realized that my opinions of various things took influence by the series as a whole (as well as the first prequel book “The Book of Dust”), and I haven’t quite been able to remove the two. But I will do my best here. I really, really love the world that Pullman has built, an alternate universe  that have the same locations in our world, but with various changes to make it unique to its own. When he describes Oxford, it sounds like the Oxford of our world, but there are differences that make it its own unique location. Within this world are daemons, beings that take on the form of an animal and are attached to all people, functioning as a soul outside of the body. It’s such a cool concept that Pullman made of having a huge and intricate part of you on the outside instead of within. This time around reading it I definitely felt it a bit more than I did in college, as my initial thought was ‘how cool to have an animal sidekick!’. Now I was more introspective about what that would actually mean for a person.

I also really like the way that Pullman completely trusts his readers to handle the complex and dark themes that he throws their way. This book is definitely YA, but it takes on religious fundamentalism, child torture, and institutional corruption without holding much back. While the philosophical meditations on religion and dogma play out a bit more in the later two books, with The Magesterium REALLY revving up into its quest for absolute power, there are moments, like with the Gobblers that want to separate children from their daemons because they feel it attracts Dust (aka Original Sin in this world). Pullman is not shy when it comes to his thoughts on organized religion, and he doesn’t mince words about it. Reading it again reminded me just how much faith he puts in his readers to be able to tackle some of this critical thinking he encourages them to tackle.

It was really great going back and re-reading “The Golden Compass”, and now I feel like I should continue with a re-read. I feel like it held up pretty well for me, and this classic series still remains a powerhouse in YA Fantasy.

Serena’s Thoughts

Well since Kate mentioned it, I will take this opportunity to propose joint reviewing the next two books as well! Yes? Yes?

As Kate mentioned, I too struggled separating my mind with this book as a single unit outside of the trilogy as a whole. Unlike Kate, I’ve OBSESSIVELY re-read this series throughout my entire life. My mom read the first book to my sister and I when we were little, and then I remember that the next two books were various Christmas presents the years they came out. And it’s been an ongoing love affair ever since. Reading a series this way was also a peculiar experience. As a kid, most of what I got from these books was the action and yeah, “wouldn’t it be fun to have an animal side kick??” But as I’ve re-read, each time a bit older, there’s always another level to find. This alone easily earns it a spot on my top 10 lists.

But yes, reading this book alone and then discussing it for bookclub was hard. So much of the groundwork that is laid in this one seems like major plot points here, but then as you continue, expand exponentially and you realize you only had the tip of the iceberg to start with. But here it goes.

“The Golden Compass” definitely reads as the most middle grade/young adult of the series. Lyra is the singular main character and her feelings and adventures are at the center of everything that takes. The story pretty much lives and dies on whether you are interested in her. And Lyra has to be one of the great child protagonists. What makes her special is the fact that, from the beginning, it’s clear that she’s not a “good” child. She’s precocious, meddlesome, and disobedient. And yet she’s never terribly punished for these traits. Instead, all of these aspects of her personality are crucial to not only her success in this story, but to her very survival. Lying, in particular, is a specific strength of hers, and it is always presented as such: a strength. But for all this, Lyra is also incredibly brave, loyal, and loves openly, taking in those who society might overlook. All together, she makes for an excellent child lead. Pantelemon, for his part, serves as a balance to her character, and their witty banter and the supports they offer each other were always at the basis of my desire for a daemon of my own.

The story does have a slow start. I remember as a child being fairly bored for a good bit in the beginning of this story. As Kate said, Pullman doesn’t pull his punches with big ideas, and he dives right into these within the first 20 pages of the book, before readers have had time to form any other ideas for themselves. But once the action does start, it’s all great. And everything he includes strikes the perfect balance of appealing to both children and adults. Child snatchers called Gobblers? Significantly creepy for kids, but wait, they are also connected to this high-level religious dogma for adult readers. A child concentration camp where the kids break out? Great for kids! Super creepy for adults reading about events that look scarily similar to historical happenings. Armored bears? Awesome for kids! Awesome for adults! It’s really a testament to Pullman’s talent that he so neatly balance an action-packed adventure for kids while also introducing huge topics of religion and what makes up humans themselves.

And that ending! How can you NOT want read the entire series after that? Again, no punches pulled. Children are reading this, and yet Pullman doesn’t hesitate to introduce some really tough and challenging topics. Even as a kid, shocked and dismayed by these events, I remember appreciating the fact that this story felt so real, regardless of all the talk of armored bears and daemons, and I think it was because of the fact that Pullman treated these topics as not only acceptable but necessary for kids to read about as well as adults.

So, in summary, obviously I loved this book. Always have, always will.

Kate’s Rating 9: A complex and wondrous world of philosophy and fantasy, “The Golden Compass” holds up for me after all these years of holding it in high regard.

Serena’s Rating 9: A fantasy novel that finds the perfect balance to appeal to both adults and children, never shying away from addressing big topis, all while flying around in a zeppelin chasing after armored bears.

Book Club Questions

  1. Okay, everyone wants to share this: What kind of animal do you think your daemon would be? And what do you think a daemon is in that world vs our world?
  2. What did you think of the characters in this book and how did your opinions of them change as the book progressed?
  3. In this book, usually the gender of your daemon is the opposite gender from yourself, but sometimes you see a person and their daemon sharing the same gender. What do you think that Pullman was trying to convey with this?
  4. There are many different communities and groups within this world, from Oxford to The Bears to The Gyptians. Where/with whom would you want to live in this world?
  5. What religious parallels do you see between Lyra’s world and our world?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Golden Compass” is included on the Goodreads lists “Most Interesting Magic System”, and “Best Feminist Young Adult Books”.

Find “The Golden Compass” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Serena’s Review: “Jane, Unlimited”

32991569Book: “Jane, Unlimited” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Kathy Dawson Books, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: If you could change your story, would you?

Jane has lived a mostly ordinary life, raised by her recently deceased aunt Magnolia, whom she counted on to turn life into an adventure. Without Aunt Magnolia, Jane is directionless. Then an old acquaintance, the glamorous and capricious Kiran Thrash, blows back into Jane’s life and invites her to a gala at the Thrashes’ extravagant island mansion called Tu Reviens. Jane remembers her aunt telling her: “If anyone ever invites you to Tu Reviens, promise me that you’ll go.”

What Jane doesn’t know is that at Tu Reviens her story will change; the house will offer her five choices that could ultimately determine the course of her untethered life. But every choice comes with a price. She might fall in love, she might lose her life, she might come face-to-face with herself. At Tu Reviens, anything is possible.

Review: I have a lot of thoughts on this book, on the book itself (which is of the sort that is probably best appreciated on re-reads) and on the reception of said book by the general reading public. But, without further ado: I, for one, absolutely loved the book and am absolutely baffled by the general reading public’s reception of it.

Jane parents died in an plane crash when she was a baby. They decided to sit on one side of the plane, and on that side, everyone died, On the other side, everyone lived. This choice changed Jane’s life, but led her to a happy childhood growing up with her Aunt Magnolia, a marine biologist with a general joie de vivre approach to life. Now tragedy has stuck again with the death of her beloved Aunt, and Jane finds herself aimless and alone, with only her love for umbrella-making to give her any purpose. That is until she is invited to Tu Revien, a house full of mysteries, and once again, there are important, life-changing choices ahead.

It’s hard for me to really get at this book and my reaction to it without wondering whether my prior knowledge of it affected my read. I’d like to think not, but I’m not sure. For one, I had the joy of getting to meet Kristin Cashore at ALA this last summer and hear her speak on a panel. During the panel, one librarian got up and asked if there were pages missing from her most recent book, as the librarian found it very confusing. Cashore said this was exactly what she had worried about when writing it, knowing that it was an experimental style. First, I was very embarrassed for everyone involved in this situation, as the panel was about a completely different topic and not the place for authors to be quizzed about their own works. Librarians should know better! But I won’t rant about that.

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Here I am getting my copy signed by the author! A definite highlight at ALA!

Cashore was gracious enough to explain that she started the book as a “choose your own adventure” story, which than morphed into a more traditional novel, in that it is meant to be read in a linear fashion. So, I had this information going in and to a certain extent knew what to expect. However, that aside, I do think that she did an amazing job setting up that this was where the story was headed, with no prior knowledge of this required. As I laid out in my brief plot description, the story starts out with the idea that Jane’s entire life was shaped around a completely arbitrary decision that her parents made, which side of the plane to sit on. Further, Jane and her friend, Kiran, a member of the family who owns the house and the one who invited Jane there, discuss the fact that choices can lead you to very different places in life, and you never know which choice will be the one to make the big difference.

With this premise, the story starts out slowly putting together a great cast of characters, and many mysteries for Jane to follow. This takes about 100 pages or so, which is where I’ve heard the most complaints about it being a slow read. For me, this was completely necessary work for laying a foundation for the rest of the book. In these pages, we get to know Jane, and those around her. We have mysterious disappearing art, rumors of a missing family and their children, a dog that is obsessed with a painting, and the family’s own strange history with the missing first and second wife of the father. From there, Jane chooses.

And yes, those choices have drastically different outcomes! I’m talking, genre-defying outcomes. I don’t know how I’ll categorize this book when I get to posting it, because it’s a bit of everything. We have mystery, we have intrigue, we have horror, we have sci-fi, we have fantasy. You name it! And what makes this even more excellent is the way the story reads, as, like I said, it is still laid out in a linear manner, meaning each section is meant to be read after the last. You aren’t supposed to “pick” which story to read, but go through them in the order they are presented. Through this method, you see the real genius of what Cashore has done: with each storyline, the reader has more knowledge of all the elements at play. We see characters move in and out of a scene and have more knowledge of what is going on than Jane herself, because we’ve seen that side of the story already, through a previous choice. It’s the kind of book that I’m sure is even better the second time, catching all the small details that are woven throughout all of these various outcomes. It’s simply brilliant.

Beyond this, each genre was compelling. I had my favorites, but I was impressed by Cashore’s ability at them all. The horror story line was particularly disturbing. And, not surprisingly, I enjoyed the sci-fi and fantasy plotlines the best. Most of all, I spent a ridiculous amount of timing wondering which choice I would have made, and then dissecting which plot line would be the best to choose in order to increase one’s chances of eventually encountering ALL of the mysteries, but still avoiding the horror one. Seriously, I’ve continued to think about this for like a week even after finishing the book.

And this is why I’m so baffled by the book’s general reception! Cashore’s writing is as strong as ever. Her characters are compelling, and anyone who’s read “Bitterblue,” specifically, shouldn’t be shocked by her more introspective character in Jane. And yet, on Goodreads, there are so many low stars! And look, I’m all for that everyone has their own opinion, and I’m not here to tell anyone that they’re wrong, but I do find it surprising. I think much of it is simply due to the fact that here we have an author who wrote a beloved fantasy trilogy years ago, and everyone’s been waiting with baited breath for her to re-emerge with her newest YA fantasy work, preferably in the same world. And then we got…this. Which is so completely different than the books we all loved from her before. But if an author is allowed only to write what we loved and were comfortable with before, how limiting would that be? If we only expect one kind of book from any given author simply because they wrote a good one in that mode in the past, we are doing not only them, but ourselves, a massive disservice.

I don’t particularly think this result was anyone’s fault. It’s definitely not Cashore’s, who is free to write whatever calls to her. And I can even understand fan disappointment from those who so loved “Graceling” and were wanting more of the same (for the record, I, too, loved “Graceling” and “Fire” and have my hardback copies stored lovingly on my shelves). But I do challenge readers to strive against the tendency to limit authors and our own reading habits to only the “known” and comfortable. You never know what you’re missing out on. And, let me say, had some of those DNF reviews managed to get past the first half of the book that was not the sword-and-sorcery fantasy they had expected, they might have found themselves choosing a path that included its own delightful fantasy world!

Rating 9: A criminally under-appreciated book and the answer to “what would an adult ‘chose your own adventure’ novel look like?”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jane, Unlimited” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Bisexual Fiction in YA” and “Derivatives of Jane Eyre.”

Find “Jane, Unlimited” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “A Conspiracy in Belgravia”

33835806Book: “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Penguin Group, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women”

Review:  So this is the book that I bought when I was only halfway through the first one. That’s how much I was loving what Thomas was laying down in her re-imaging of Sherlock Holmes as a young, “fallen” woman named Charlotte. With this method, I was able to put down the first book and immediately pick up the next, and I think this worked in the books’ favor, though, let’s be real, I would have loved it in whatever manner I had gotten to reading it in.

The story picks up almost immediately after the events of “A Study in Scarlet Women.” Charlotte Holmes is still very much just figuring out what her new life will be like living the charade of marketing her services through her fictionalized ailing brother, “Sherlock.” Of course, there are those who know the truth.

Mrs. Watson, Charlotte’s business partner and roommate. Livia, her sister who remains stuck in their unhappy childhood home and whom Charlotte dreams of rescuing one day through her own financial independence. Inspector Treadles, the police detective who worked with her on her first case, and is less than enthused by the fact that the “man” he had esteemed for so long turned out to be a woman, and that, through this revelation, he’s had to confront the reality that his own wife might also be more than she seems. And, of course, Lord Ingram, Charlotte’s childhood compatriot with whom she has a challenging relationship, due to his unfortunate marriage.

This story takes this already large cast of characters and blows it up even further. Most importantly, Lord Bankcroft, the Mycroft of this world and Lord Ingram’s brother, makes an appearance. In the first book we learned that he had made an offer of marriage to Charlotte in the past. And here, we see that he is just as determined, regardless of her role as “Sherlock.” In fact, as an incentive to her consideration, he provides her with several puzzles from his own work in the field of secrets and mysteries. And of course, one turns out to be more than it had seemed. On top of this, Charlotte has a new client: Lady Ingram.

I’m already halfway through a typical word count for these reviews, and I’ve just finished laying out the bare bones of all that goes on in this story. Not only is the mystery just as compelling and complicated as the first, requiring me to again page back and forth a few times to keep track of things, but the interweavings of all of the characters’ relationships and interactions became even more complicated.

I loved that we got to meet Bankcroft in this book and explore the role that he plays in this world. He also provides a legitimate temptation to Charlotte, offering her a doorway back into “acceptable society.” Even one that could offer her some of the same mental challenges that she enjoys in her current position. Through these interactions and her tackling of this case, Charlotte really has to confront what she expects and wants from her life. It’s not as simple as it could be, either, as Charlotte is not simply thinking of herself, but of her two sisters who are languishing in the unhappy and neglectful home of their parents, and who depend on her for any hope of future freedom.

I also enjoyed the continuing expansion of Charlotte’s skillset. As I said in the first review, I appreciated the fact that this version of Sherlock doesn’t come with all of his/her skills already in place. Too often versions of Sherlock seem so over-powered with their supreme abilities in literally everything that they become practically unbelievable. Charlotte is brilliant, but she still has much to learn. I particularly enjoyed the introduction of self-defense lessons taught by none other than Mrs. Watson herself, who, living a life as an actress in the more seedy parts of the world, has a firm foundation under her belt in this area. Charlotte also begins exploring the world of lock-picking and disguise, two other typical areas of expertise for a Sherlock character.

The mystery was also particularly intriguing. As I said, it was just as complicated as the first, something that I find incredibly satisfying. But because we are getting at these mysteries through more personal connections to Charlotte and those around her, I felt that it was even stronger. The mystery she stumbles upon through Mycroft’s work obviously ties into her interactions and future with him. And the mystery brought to her by Lady Ingram clearly affects her tenuous relationship with Lord Ingram. How can she maintain her friendship and loyalty to one while respecting the secrecy of a woman who has come to “Sherlock,” a man wholly unconnected with her husband?

Obviously this is further complicated by the underlying tremors of romantic feelings that exist between Lord Ingram and Charlotte. This aspect of the story is still gradually building, and as a fan of slow-burn relationships, I have loved this part of the story. The author doesn’t hand-wave away the fact that he is married and has children. He chose his wife completely on his own, and he loves his children, regardless of his failed marriage. The realities of these things are solid and not to be easily done away with simply due to his complicated feelings for Charlotte. I love how the author has handled this so far, and that gives me full faith to trust where she is leading readers in future books.

This is going to go down as yet another book that I’ve read recently that is even better than the first. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly re-imaginings of the classic character, than this is a must for your next read! I’ve now become quite spoiled, reading both books back to back, so the wait for the next book, due to come out sometime this year, looks like it will be quite tortuous.

Rating 9: Fantastic! Both this, and the first one, are early runners for my “Best of 2018” list already!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conspiracy in Belgravia” is a newer title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it is on “Regency and Victorian Mysteries.”

Find “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Thunderhead”

33555224Book: “Thunderhead” by Neil Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.

Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

Previously Reviewed: “Scythe”

Review: Looking back, I’m kind of surprised that “Scythe” didn’t find its way onto my Top 10 reads for the year list. Just goes to show that I read a lot of amazing books last year, so even great ones that I completely enjoyed reading failed to make my Top 10. But reading “Thunderhead” just hit home again how much I enjoy Shusterman’s writing and the complex, nuanced, and entertaining world he has created in this series. If anything, I think “Thunderhead” takes this entire series to a new level.

Starting off a year after the events of the first book, Citra has settled in to life as a scythe and Rowan has fully committed to his rogue existence attempting to weed out the corruption that he sees within the organization. But beyond these two, we get two new voices. One is the Thunderhead itself who oversees the action of this story with increasing dismay and almost tragic realizations. And the other is a boy named Greyson Tolliver who has practically been raised by the Thundhead and who wishes for nothing more than do commit his life to helping it. But between them all, will they have the power to halt the terrifyingly fast descent into corruption that is taking over the Scythedom? Especially when new power come onto the scene with their own plans for the future of scythes?

As far as characters go, I was always fully on board with Citra and Rowan, and their arcs in this book just further reinforced my love for them. As a new scythe, Citra has come up with her own gleaning methods: she chooses to let her targets know she has selected them, but then gives them a month to come to terms with it and select the method with which they’d like to go. This seems perfectly in line with Citra’s morality and was also a fun surprise as it answers a moral question that we had at bookclub when we reviewed the first book, about the fact that some of the methods of gleaning were more gruesome than others and it would be rough having that completely left up to chance. So it was fun to see Citra recognize that same concern and solve it in her own way.

Further, this choice, as well as the way that she side-stepped having to glean Rowan in the first book, have lead her to become somewhat of a celebrity and leader among the younger and newer scythes. Citra is reluctant to take on this role, but throughout the book, she learns the importance of providing leadership, even if it’s not something you crave. Perhaps especially if it’s not something you crave.

Rowan’s arc is a bit less predictable, and I can’t get into many of the details of his story without resorting to spoilers. But I like the fact that his rogue existence is presented as incredibly challenging. The scythedom isn’t just sitting back and letting him do this. However, there is a lot of confusion about the fact that the Thunderhead, particularly, IS essentially just sitting back and letting him dot his. This complicated power balance between the Thunderhead and the scythedom is key to this story, and the path that Rowan walks is just one example of it.

When I saw that this book was titled “Thunderhead,” I knew that we were going to get a lot more information about the benevolent AI that runs the world in this series. In the first book, I remember particularly enjoying the fact that the Thunderhead was presented as a completely positive force, so I was worried that in this book we were going to fall back on the rather trope-y “but OF COURSE the AI is evil and trying to take over the world!” That doesn’t turn out to be the case…at least so far…dun dun DUN.

I was particularly pleased to see the interlude sections between chapters that before were made up of various scythes’ journal entries were completely given over to the internal musing of the Thunderhead. It was fascinating reading through the “eyes” of this being and exploring its own thoughts on humanity, its own awareness, and the balance that it has created between them. Further, the Thunderhead has its own role to play, and I loved the creativity and emotion that was given to a being that could have simply been a glorified computer system. By the end, I was completely invested in the Thunderhead as a character itself and upset on its behalf with regards to certain things that were happening. The ending, in particular, leaves some huge question marks about the Thunderhead’s future, and I can’t wait to find out where this is all going.

I also very much enjoyed the introduction of Greyson Tolliver. Through him, we get to see a lot of the inner workings of the rest of the world, outside of the scythedom and their work. For one thing, there is an entire organization that is centered around doing work for the Thunderhead, and this is where Greyson Tolliver first dreams of working. We also explore the lives and society of the “unsavory” members of the population, those who fight against the norms of the world. This could have so easily become a stereotypical portrayal of rebellion and anger, but instead it went in directions that I never would have expected. We also get to see more of the motivations and society of the Tonists, the sole remaining religious organization of the world.

In so many ways, this book took what now seems like a very insular little story in the first book, and blew up it up by ten times the magnitude. This world is so much more complex and complicated than I first thought! With the unsavories themselves, the “free states” like Texas where the Thunderhead is experimenting with letting humanity have more free reign, the ways that the Thunderhead has attempted to move society past any point where they might romanticize the past, and the history of the scythedom and the creation of the Thunderhead itself. There’s just so much!

Through all of these things, Shusterman explores what it means to be human, what makes certain choices and expressions of emotion important to some and not to others, and how corruption can creep its way into even the most perfect of societies. By the end of the story I was both compulsively reading, unable to put the book down, but also absolutely dreading what could happen on the next page. Shusterman has definitely raised the stakes with this one, and while you should absolutely check this book out RIGHT NOW, be warned that you’ll be left completely ruined while waiting for the next one!

Rating 9: A fantastic sequel that expands this world exponentially and leaves readers craving more!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Thunderhead” is still a new book and so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Best artificial intelligence books.”

Find “Thunderhead” at your library using WorldCat

Serena’s Review: “A Study in Scarlet Women”

28588390Book: “A Study in Scarlet Women” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Christmas present from Kate!

Book Description: With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.

But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

Review: While this has been on my TBR list for QUITE a while, I’ve also been incredibly nervous by the entire concept. I mean, let’s be honest, their is definitely “Sherlock exhaustion” in the air. I can think of several adaptations that came out in the last few years off the top of my head, all with “new” twists on the character. Many of these “new” twists are all very similar and have something to do with a female Sherlock, either a modern relation of him, or a modern relation of Watson who is a young woman, something! So, on the face of things, this book falls solidly in the same category. However, it has also been hugely popular and several reviewers whom I trust raved about it. But the credit in this case for me finally getting to reading it goes to Kate for getting it for me for Christmas. And man, suddenly all of my seemingly good reasons for being hesitant about this read went immediately out the window!

As stated, this is yet another re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes. In this version, Charlotte Holmes takes on the role of the brilliant detective, and the surrounding classic characters all get a revamp too. We have a newly imagined Watson, a new take on Mrs. Hudson, and a few references to the Myrcroft of this world. What’s particularly brilliant about them all is how much license the author gave herself to completely re-think these characters, their histories, and their relationships to each other. All too often, “unique” retellings only switch one basic fact and then try to simply re-tell the same story. Like, let’s just make Sherlock a woman, but change nothing else about the character, regardless of the massive impact that this one change would have on everything else. In a case like this, that change makes all the difference, given the very different worlds that men and women inhabited at this time. Often, this leaves these retellings feeling not only hollow, but anachronistic.

But Thomas takes it a step further: not only is Charolette a woman, but she is a woman who, while just as brilliant as Sherlock, is also distinctly her own person. We would expect a female Sherlock (indeed, we’ve seen this play out many times before) to be described as a thin, willowy woman, not only in an attempt to mimic the original character’s height and thinness, but because when wasn’t the young female lead thin and willowy? (but of course she’s insecure about it…) Charlotte is none of these things. A large focus of her day is spent thinking about food, and she has a strict number of chins that she’s decided are allowable before she much cut back. She’s blonde, cherubic, and society regularly uses the word “darling” to describe her. So right off the bat, this is a welcome change! At one point in the story, one character says something along the lines that it is God’s little joke that the most brilliant mind is housed in a body least likely to be suspected of having it. It’s awesome.

Further, Charlotte is written as a believable young woman would be, brilliant mind aside. Her intelligence is on display at all times (particularly her insights into people’s minds based on their clothes choices, as garish fashion is another of her pet loves), but she’s also a young woman who has been raised as a member of the gentry. She’s not automatically amazing at everything (a trope that is far too common for almost all Sherlock iterations nowadays). There are people in her life whom she respects who share with her these skill sets. I loved this attention to realism, and it helped make Charlotte feel like a more believable young woman. And it’s great fun to watch her build towards the “woman of all trades” that she will ultimately become.

Beyond Charlotte, the other characters were exceptional. As I said, their relationships with her and their own personal histories are much changed from the original, but somehow Thomas manages to perfectly capture the essence of each and re-create the roles they play in Charlotte’s story. There are little clues scattered throughout that were immensely fun to put together with my knowledge of the originals.

Further, Thomas introduces new characters, most notably, a beloved sister for Charlotte, Livia. Through Livia, we get an insight into Charlotte’s childhood and family life. Livia, too, serves the purpose of humanizing Charlotte. This was another aspect of this take on Sherlock Holmes that I loved. All too often, because he is brilliant, he’s simply allowed to treat others terribly and it seems as if he truly doesn’t care for anyone around him. Livia impresses upon Charlotte how important it is to learn how to function socially, and we never question Charlotte’s humanity due to her unfailing love for her sisters, particularly Livia.

All of this and I haven’t even covered the mystery! I can barely even sum it up, because, man, it was complicated. And this is one of the biggest compliments I can give it! I love mysteries that are challenging for the reader, and I loved piecing it all together after the reveals towards the end. But I can also see how this might be a turnoff for readers who don’t particularly enjoy mysteries. As I said, this one is pretty complicated, and with the huge cast of characters/suspects, I had to page back and forth a few times to make sure I was keeping track of everything. I didn’t mind this, but it may prove frustrating for other readers.

Beyond all of this, I loved the exploration of what it meant to be a woman in this time, and the underlying feminism at the heart of the story. Never does it bash you over the head, but instead, meticulously, carefully, and graciously, it lays out the case that women are just people, people who have their own thoughts, desires, ambitions, and loves. None of this taking away from the men around them, but simply existing alongside them. There was one scene, in particular, between Inspector Treadles (Charlotte/Sherlock’s connection in the police force) and his wife that really strikes upon this fact. Mrs. Watson, too, was a lovely force of will in this way. And, obviously, Charlotte herself who was ever practical about the limitations of her sex and how best to manage them towards her own goals.

I really could just rave about this book forever, but I’ll cut myself off here. I literally stopped reading about halfway through and ordered the sequel, so expect to see a review for that up soon!

Rating 9: A pure delight! THIS is the Sherlock Holmes re-imagining that I’ve been waiting for!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Study in Scarlet Women” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian/Regency Female Sleuths/Mysteries” and “Reimagined.”

Find “A Study in Scarlet Women” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Book of a Thousand Days”

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We 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: “Book of a Thousand Days” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, September 2007

Where Did We Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despises, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment.

As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors–one welcome, the other decidedly less so–the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.

Serena’s Thoughts

I have read a good number of Shannon’s Hale’s books. Not only the Princess Academy trilogy that I reviewed for this blog, but a few of her other YA stories like “The Goose Girl” and such. I’ve always loved her simple, yet beautiful, writing style, and as a fan of fairytale retellings, her work is always a hit for me. However, I don’t particularly love epistolary stories, which was the reason I held back on this one. I always have a hard time turning off my brain and not thinking about how incredibly unrealistic it is that anyone would write out entire conversations in their journal. But, I admit, I have been proven wrong in the past, and there are several books I can think of (“A Brief History of Montmoray,” for example) that I have enjoyed despite of this.

For the first third of the trilogy, I didn’t even need to bother with this concern. Dashti and the Lady Saren have been locked in a tower. There isn’t much else to do other than write extensive entries in ones journal! While some readers might feel this section is slow, I particularly enjoyed this section of the book. Not only do we have tons of character development for Dashti that builds up a good foundation for her character which goes on to drive important decisions she makes later in the story, but I enjoyed the fact that the threat wasn’t really any sort of villain. The threat was simply the looming dark, isolation, and dwindling food that came with their imprisonment. Throughout this ongoing challenge, Dashti’s strengths are apparent. She is resourceful, optimistic, hard-working, and willing to find joys in small things.

As the story progress, we move beyond the tower. I also enjoyed these segments, but I do think they were made better by what we had learned of Dashti and the Lady Saren as characters from their time in the tower. Further, as the story progressed readers are given more opportunities to fully immerse themselves in this world. I particularly appreciated the setting that Hale chose for this story, placing it in a kingdom that is similar to Mongolia. After reading a million and one European-set fairytale retellings, this choice was a breath of fresh air.

This story is also a bit more dark than some of Hale’s other works. I thought this was another big point in its favor. While Dashti herself is an optimistic character, the challenges that she face are by no means simple or easy. The villain is truly terrifying, and the sacrifices that Dashti makes throughout the book are at times heart-breaking. This layer of darkness and seriousness provided a nice balance to Hale’s simple and clear storytelling.

Beyond Dashti, the characters were excellent. As I said, the villain was worthy of the story and quite creepy. And Lady Saren was the type of character you could enjoy disliking. This was made even better by the fact that she was also a realistic character whom you couldn’t help but sympathize with. She is what she was made to be, and while that was frustrating, it also portrayed a very honest take on a character. There was also a cat, My Lord, whom we all at bookclub probably obsessed about more than is healthy.

Kate’s Thoughts

“Book of a Thousand Days” was my first foray into Shannon Hale, and as an introduction to her work I found it to be pretty good! Though fantasy of this sort isn’t really my cup of tea, I was immediately taken in by the medieval Mongolia-like setting. Like Serena, I found it to be a nice change from the Euro-centric fairy tales and fairy tale re-tellings that the genre is kind of inundated with, at least in our culture and collective consciousness. I had never heard of the fairy tale that this was based off of, so I didn’t have the context of comparison, but ultimately that didn’t matter. Hale made this story her own, and she made the characters interesting in their own right.

Character wise, I really liked Dashti. Perhaps it was because of her first person perspective vis a vis diary entries, but the way that her character changed and progressed was a really nice story to follow. She goes from being absolutely and completely devoted to Lady Saren, to a well rounded and independent person in her own right who can stand on her two feet. The choices she made, while sometimes frustrating and upsetting, were within the realm of her character. And then there’s Lady Saren, who I found to be incredibly unlikable and obnoxious. But even that characterization was wholly believable based on the way that she had been raised, and based on the dark stuff that she had gone through. They both came from various kinds of hardship and trauma in their lives, and Hale did a good job of showing different ways that we cope (without casting judgement).

I did think that the tower part was a bit stronger than the time after. I will admit that I was kind of taken by surprise that they left the tower at all. That isn’t to say that the second part of the book didn’t have well done moments or was poorly written, I just liked spending a claustrophobic and tense time as Dashti and Saren started to wonder if their food supply was going to dwindle to nothing.

And don’t even get me started about My Lord the cat.

All in all I think that “Book of a Thousand Days” was a nice fairy tale retelling, and I see why Shannon Hale has the following that she does. I don’t know when or if I’ll pick up more of her stuff, but I’m glad that I can say that I have read her work.

Serena’s Rating 9: A bit darker than some of Hale’s other works, but better for it. An excellent re-telling of a lesser known fairytale and one that features an excellent leading lady in a unique location.

Kate’s Rating 7: The great location and the awesome protagonist made this book a worthwhile read. Even though fantasy of this type isn’t really my thing, I had a fun time reading this book and give props to Hale for creating this world.

Bookclub Questions:

  1. This book is divided into three sections. How did you feel about each of these sections? Did you have a favorite? A less favorite?
  2. This book is set in a world based on Mongolia. What aspects of the world-building and the cultures of Dashti’s world spoke to you?
  3. Towards the middle of the book, Dashti makes a decision with regards to My Lord, how did you feel about this? (Like I said, we at bookclub were a bit fixated on this question!)
  4. What did you think of Khan Tegus as a character? How did his relationship with Dashti compare to romances you usually see in fairy tales?
  5. What did you think of the mucker vs gentry dynamic?
  6. What did you think of the end? Did it feel believable? Should it feel believable as a fairy tale retelling?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Book of a Thousand Days” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Lesser-Known Books” and “Best Princess Tales.”

Find “Book of a Thousand Days” at your library using WorldCat

Next Book Club Pick: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

 

Serena’s Review: “Iron Gold”

33257757Book: “Iron Gold” by Pierce Brown

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself?

And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever:

A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined.

An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life.

And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes.

Previously Reviewed: “Red Rising,” “Golden Son,” and “Morning Star”

Review: I absolutely loved the “Red Rising trilogy. It was epic in every sense of the word: a sweeping landscape that sprawls across the entire galaxy. An intimidatingly large cast of characters whose political machinations were challenging (in a good way!) to keep track of. And a story driven by one man’s quest to begin a revolution that would shake an entire world order. But in Darrow’s success, and the trilogy’s success, where is left to go? Many, many places it turns out!

From the get go, “Iron Gold” sets out to be its own story. It’s been ten years since Darrow’s revolution, and yet he, his comrades, and his civilization are still at war, both with the remnants of the old system who seek to bring back their own ways and privileges, as well as with those in their own fledgling government who struggle to direct this new world order from within a different political and societal perspective.

The narrative is also split between four characters. Alongside Darrow, we have Lyria, a Red girl who grew up on a “freed” Mars where all is not as well as they had been promised when her family and their colony were brought up to the surface from the mines below. Back on Luna, an ex-solider-turned-thief struggles to find meaning in an existence void of his fiance who died years ago and finds himself caught up in an underbelly mafia that might be more than he can handle. And far on the out reaches of the galaxy, Lysander, the exiled heir apparent, drifts along until he unexpectedly finds himself pulled into a revolution of its own.

Both of these tactics, the expanded POV cast and the time jump, were managed extremely well. Not only was it a great choice to set the story 10 years later, but by splitting the narrative, “Iron Gold” was freed up from some of the constraints that were beginning to niggle at me back in “Morning Star” when Darrow’s hero complex and habit of speechifying was just beginning to annoy me.

Here, not only do we have the three other characters, but Darrow is very much a changed man from the hopeful, conquering hero that we saw at the close of “Morning Star.” Through him, Brown tackles complicated issues surrounding ongoing warfare, the effects to the psyche on career soldiers, and the simple truth that winning a revolution doesn’t magically deliver up a new world freed of the systemic social classism that was at the heart of the old one. Darrow doesn’t know how to come home, and his discomfort while there, surrounded by friends, his wife, and his son, is palpable. Further, Brown gives us a more complicated Darrow. No longer is the reader assured that however morally grey Darrow’s decisions may be, that of course he is on the right side of this issue, he’s going to save the day! This Darrow is operating in a world where the black and white issue, upending the Gold class system, has already happened. But Darrow’s own legend has become  a burden and throughout this story I often found myself questioning not only his actions but his justifications. Darrow almost becomes an unreliable narrator, and I loved it all.

This discomfort and moral greyness carried over throughout much of the series. While the first trilogy was in many ways a simple mission with the good guys saving the world, this book challenges much of what we took for granted before. Through Lysander, we see a young man who was torn from the only life he had been trained to and cast out into the wilderness. Alongside him, we see the fallout of decisions that were made years ago to support Darrow’s revolution, but had their own catastrophic consequences on other parts of the galaxy and felt by other people. I enjoyed Lysander for the most part, but I also struggled with his decisions towards the end. While I understood them and why he, specifically, would choose as he does, this discomfort of both rooting for AND against a character at the same time was challenging.

Lyria, growing up in the slums on Mars, highlights the fact that winning a war isn’t all that is needed to save a downtrodden people. She and her family are essentially refugees on their own planet, forgotten by the very people who set out to save them who are now caught up in the “bigger picture.” Yes, that big picture is important, but through Lyria, we see the very real image of a revolution that is still actively failing the vulnerable. Lyria was the one character who was entirely sympathetic, and I loved all of her chapters.

Ephraim, the Grey solider-turned-thief, was almost the most “Darrow-esque” character of the whole lot, at least as far as you can judge from the original trilogy. Which is funny, since of the four, he’s also the one most in the wrong throughout the book. But through him we had much of the action and adventure we had in the first series. More jokes, less brooding.

There was also, of course, the return of many characters from the first book. Most notably, Sevro is right along Darrow for much of this ride. I loved that for all of his craziness, of the two, Sevro was by far the more balanced individual, able to carry the trials of war more lightly, and, most importantly, still able to retain a healthy, loving relationship with his wife and children. His wife, Victra, was probably my favorite character in the book for the simple fact that she had a battle suit fitted for her 8 month pregnant body and didn’t let it slow her down one bit.

The biggest disappointment, however, was Mustang. Not in anything she does, but by the simple fact that she has very little page time in this book. It’s not unexpected, considering her role as Sovereign, but I still wish we had more from her. I did enjoy the conflict that arose between her and Darrow. They are on the same side, obviously, but Brown masterfully illustrated the fact that a ruling Sovereign and a general on the front lines might still find themselves in very different places and making very different decisions, even when reaching for the same goal.

This is clearly the first book in a trilogy (?), and while many of the storylines are wrapped up well enough for the book itself, there are just as many ongoing challenges that are only made worse in this first book. Things go pretty badly for almost everyone involved and it definitely seems to be heading towards a “darkest before the dawn” type place. Further, given this book’s willingness to confront the moral quandaries and grey zones of warfare, it feels like less of a given that all will end well for our heroes. As we’ve seen here, winning the battle doesn’t get you very far if you don’t know how to live without fighting. And what’s more, what is the line in a war to save a galaxy? And are you even saving it to begin with? This book challenges its readers in ways that the original trilogy did not, and that is one of the highest marks in its favor. If you’re a fan of the first series, definitely get your hands on this one soon! But make sure to browse through those first few books again first, cuz, man, there are A LOT of characters and connections that I had to try and remember as I went along!

Rating 9: Darker and more complicated than the first, but just as excellent, especially with its expanded POV character cast.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Iron Gold” is a new book and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Sword and Laser Sci-Fi.”.

Find “Iron Gold” at your library using WorldCat!