Serena’s Review: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan”

44059557._sy475_-1Book: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Tu Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise

All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty

Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling–the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion . . . before it’s too late.

Review: There are certain stories out there that I always think about wistfully. They are the ones that have so much potential and yet, while tried, have still not (to my mind at least) come out with a definitive version (like “Beauty” by Robin McKinely is for me for “Beauty and the Beast). Even worse, sometimes, are those that have so much potential and have been attempted only to muck it up badly. “Mulan” is one of those tales. It has all the right ingredients to make a great story and to be (seemingly) easily adapted into a story that is sure to appeal to many readers right now. And yet…for me, it definitely falls in the latter category of disappointment: attempts have been made but not only are they not the definitive version (again, my own opinion of it at least), but I had varying levels of frustration with these attempts. From boredom to out-right anger. cough”Flame in the Mist”cough. But…but…finally!

Mulan has spent much of her life disguised as a boy and training to compete in an age-long duel between her family and another over the possession of two incredible swords. Her days are filled with swordplay, catching flying arrows while blindfolded, and other incredible feats. She has defined her life around this role, though secretly mourns the loss of her own identity as her father’s only daughter. But when war strikes, thoughts of the duel are set aside and duty rises to the forefront. Now, marching to battle, Mulan finds herself in the company of a handsome prince who seems somehow familiar. And all too soon her fighting skills are put to the test, not in an organized duel, but out in the wild with death on the line.

I was incredibly hopeful for this version of “Mulan” when I saw that Sherry Thomas would be the author writing it. Not only is Thomas a Chinese American who was born and lived in China during her childhood, but she’s successfully tackled retelling other well-known historical stories, like her “Lady Sherlock” series (guess what review you’ll be reading from me next??). Like that series, here Thomas not only masterfully recreates the character of Mulan but deftly draws a version of early China that not only feels authentic but is very informative of a time and culture that many Western readers may not be familiar with.

The central conflict, for example, doesn’t center  around the ubiquitous, largely undefined Huns as many past versions have done. Instead, it dives into the various political maneuverings of North and South China, their differing cultures, and the challenges of bringing together a nation as large and diverse as that. It also speaks to the seeming randomness of borders and how being on one side or another can define much about a person and have lasting effects on the way one group is perceived over time.

But don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t just an exploration of cultural definitions in China; Mulan and her fellows are going to war. I very much enjoyed the action of this story. From the beginning, we see the differences between how Mulan has been raised to fight, seeing it as something bound in duty and a form of art, and what fighting looks like on a battlefield when your life depends on your choices. Here we see Mulan struggle not because she is a woman and has to somehow overcome more due to this “deficiency” (no, she is largely acknowledged as one of the most skilled fighters from the beginning), but because she is human, and being human makes fear and courage very real things that must also be learned and mastered. Here, we have not only the exploration of these themes through Mulan’s experiences, but some really great examples seen in the princeling himself.

I think of them all, much as I love Mulan herself, the princeling struck me as the most interesting character. Thomas goes some surprising routes with this character and deftly sidesteps the pitfalls that other versions have fallen into where his “manliness” is used to bluntly contrast Mulan’s own femininity. Much as I love Disney’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song, this version provides a much more layered character and one who contrasts Mulan, but not in the ways one would expect.

I’m not terribly familiar with the original tale of Mulan, but this one feels right. The added layer of the ancient sword duel and the use of this aspect of the story to delve into family, honor, and trust fleshed the story out beyond the confines of a war story where a girl disguises herself as a man. Mulan’s conflicts are not only battles and war tactics, but the challenge of understanding one’s parents and the choices of those who came before us. Through this understanding, she is better able to find peace with her own walk of life.

I absolutely loved this story. It’s everything I could have wanted for a “Mulan” retelling. If I had to ding it, HAD to, I would say I could have used a tad bit more of the romance. But this is such a niggling thing that it barely is worth mentioning. Overall, I found the romantic plotline, like everything else, to be very satisfying. This story not only retells the known tale (at least what most readers know of it, probably, again, based on Disney), but it adds new layers to the main characters and the conflict itself. If you, like me, were waiting for the version, your wait is over! Check out this book immediately!

Rating 9: Absolutely brilliant. Thomas has done for “Mulan” what she did for Sherlock: taken a challenging-to-get-right story and blown it away!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Mulan” and “YA East Asian Fantasy.”

Find “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Festival”

42369064Book: “The Tea Dragon Festival” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, September 2019

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

Book Description: Rinn has grown up with the Tea Dragons that inhabit their village, but stumbling across a real dragon turns out to be a different matter entirely! Aedhan is a young dragon who was appointed to protect the village but fell asleep in the forest eighty years ago. With the aid of Rinn’s adventuring uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel, they investigate the mystery of his enchanted sleep, but Rinn’s real challenge is to help Aedhan come to terms with feeling that he cannot get back the time he has lost.

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

A couple years ago I stumbled upon a sweet and unique graphic novel called “The Tea Dragon Society”, a charming story about a group of people who raise and care for Tea Dragons. After reading that book I became and instant fan of author Katie O’Neill’s fantasy tales, and when I saw that she had a follow up called “The Tea Dragon Festival”, I immediately requested to read it via NetGalley. I’m still in need of all the dragon positivity I can get in my stories, as dragons are my favorite mythical creatures and any and all positive depictions are going to bring me all kinds of joy. Especially if it means characters get to coexist with dragons peacefully and everything ends happily.

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Happier times. (source)

“The Tea Dragon Festival” is something of a peripheral prequel to “The Tea Dragon Society”, but it is able to exist on its own. But this time around, our dragon lore moves beyond the Tea Dragons, and expands it to include wild Dragons. While a mountain town prepares for the annual Tea Dragon Festival, a girl named Rinn discovers a sleeping Dragon named Aedhan. Aedhan was supposed to be the protector of the town, but some kind of forest magic put him to sleep for eighty years. The focus of the story has two aspects. The first is trying to figure out what kind of being put Aedhan to sleep, which brings in the familiar faces of Erik and Hesekiel! In “The Tea Dragon Society”, Erik and Hesekiel have retired and opened a tea shop where they care for Tea Dragons, but in “The Tea Dragon Festival” they are still young and adventuring throughout the lands together. Erik is Rinn’s uncle, and his connection to the town is deftly placed and he and Hesekiel feel right at home in the pages of this story. But the larger focus of the tale is about Aedhan trying to readjust to life after being asleep for so long. Perhaps not as long for a Dragon, but still long enough that he feels like he’s missed out and failed the people he was supposed to look over. I really liked that this was the narrative with the most attention, as it let the characters grow and unfold organically. That isn’t to say that the Erik and Hesekiel storyline was neglected; on the contrary, I also enjoyed the mystery of the magic of the forest, and it was awesome getting a glimpse into their adventuring days while still being overall positive and not succumbing to tropes of wandering adventurers and bounty hunters. They were still true to their characters even in a completely different circumstance.

The new characters were also lovely and endearing. Not only was Rinn a kind and unique protagonist, as she too is trying to find her place in town and what role she has to play, Aedhan and his own background is rewarding and fascinating. He has the ability to shapeshift to look more ‘human’, which is explained as a defense against people who still may want to slay Dragons out of a toxic need to prove themselves as brave and fearless. The friendship that develops between Rinn and Aedhan really reminded me of Chihiro and Haku in “Spirited Away”, as their deep friendship is touching and isn’t really defined by platonic, romantic, or anything else. But they aren’t the only characterizations that were strong and well thought out. From Rinn’s Gramman, who is her mentor in all of her cooking endeavors, to Lesa, one of Rinn’s friends who is deaf and mute (note on this: I LOVED that not only did O’Neill incorporate a disabled character into her story, she created a way to denote sign language within her illustrations), to a little girl named Aya who looks up to Rinn, a number of the characters all have their parts to play and feel complex and interesting. And just like in “The Tea Dragon Society”, O’Neill brings in a lot of diverse characters, be they different skin tones, or different sexual orientations, or having different abilities. Both overt diversity and more everyday diversity are very important for kids to see in their stories, and these stories handle both kinds beautifully.

And finally, THE TEA DRAGONS ARE BACK AND THEY ARE ADORABLE! Not only do we see Tea Dragons again, we get new kinds of Tea Dragons because of the different region within the world of the story. That said, O’Neill brings in other fantasy creatures that are just as breathtaking as the Tea Dragons, such as Aedhan’s full Dragon form and some of the forest creatures. The designs are both adorable and gorgeous.

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Cuteness overload. (source)

I am so glad that Katie O’Neill decided to revisit her Tea Dragons and their friends with “The Tea Dragon Festival”. It’s a dragon story that stands out from the rest, and while I don’t want to be greedy, I am going to once again hope that she makes more stories within this world!!

Rating 9: Katie O’Neill has once again brought a gentle and calm fantasy story to vibrant life. “The Tea Dragon Festival” lets us revisit the Tea Dragons and other familiar faces, and brings in more delightful characters with rich mythologies.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tea Dragon Festival” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dragons”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “The Tea Dragon Festival” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Tea Dragon Society”.

Serena’s Review: “The Bone Houses”

36524503._sy475_Book: “The Bones Houses” by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Aderyn (“Ryn”) only cares about two things: her family, and her family’s graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don’t always stay dead.

The risen corpses are known as “bone houses,” and legend says that they’re the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it about Ellis that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?

Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them deep into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the long-hidden truths about themselves.

Review: Given that it’s almost October and Halloween is coming up quickly, I thought it was time to keep my eyes out for a fantasy novel that I could point to when asked if I read anything spooky. I’m not up to Kate’s level of horror, but I thought that this mixture of what sounds like a zombie story and a fairytale would do the trick! And boy oh boy was I right! It’s really the best thing when you go into a book with zero expectations and end up with a huge hit on your hands!

Ever since her father disappeared, presumed dead, Ryn has taken up his mantle as the village grave digger, scraping by a meager existence for herself and brother and sister. She cares for them with the respect and peace they deserve, laying them to rest in the warm earth. And she, more than anyone else, is struck by the wrongness when the dead don’t stay that way and begin to roam free. Soon enough the risen dead become more than an occasional nuisance, and Ryn and a young map-maker, Ellis, embark on a dangerous trek through the dead-infested woods to track down the origins of an old curse hoping to give the bone houses the rest they finally deserve.

First things first, whomever wrote this book description did a very poor job. If you haven’t read it already, DON’T! Not only does it get several things wrong, it also spoils a decent-sized reveal that comes up in the book! Luckily for me, I hadn’t read it (or maybe did months ago when I requested an ARC of this book), so I was still surprised, but what were they thinking? Things like this really highlight how often the people writing these descriptions either didn’t read the entire book or skimmed through it so quickly that they didn’t even catch the fact that hey, some of these things are best left discovered by the readers and not blabbed about in your dang blurb! Anyways.

That out of the way, man I loved this book! In many ways it’s a re-imagining of “The Black Cauldron,” down to the precocious animal friend, though this time it’s a goat instead of a pig. The fairytale and quest of the story loosely tie to that tale, but are also unique enough in their own version to remain well and truly separate. It’s kind of like how closely/loosely “Uprooted” was to “Beauty and the Beast.” The barest hints are there, but it is mostly just its own fairytale.

I also loved the messages about family, grief, and wanted-ness at the heart of this story. Ryn’s occupation as a gravedigger isn’t just a passing trait to make her badass or something; it’s a real point of entrance into a larger discussion about how people process, or don’t process, grief. Through out the story, we see many different approaches to managing loss and the story does a lovely job of delving into the challenges of loving someone who will one day leave you. At its heart, we see that love can be both the greatest blessing but also the most painful of curses.

Ryn and Ellis were amazing lead characters as well. Ryn’s bravery and stubbornness were endearing and realistic in a way that is often lost in other YA leading ladies who are also, of course, brave and stubborn (since somehow those have become default traits for heroines in YA). These traits felt based in the story of her life up to the point at which the reader meets her, and we aren’t just told she is these things: we see it again and again, for better or worse. Ellis was also excellent. He deals with chronic pain and I appreciated the way this was handled and discussed. There are some excellent points made about the way he approaches his own life and the challenges of dealing with others and how they perceive him due to it. But this also doesn’t define his character, and his journey is one of self-discovery and sheer determination.

There is a romance in this story as well, though it, too, feels earned and is definitely a slow burn story. I particularly appreciated how when the characters first meet and then part ways, neither thinks anything more of it, each still rightly focused on their own lives and missions. No instalove to be found here.

Obviously, given the bone houses themselves, the story would definitely fall under the category of a darker fantasy story. I really liked how the “zombies,” essentially, were never just big bad monsters. There was always a tinge of sadness and “wrongness” that could be found there that made them feel like more than simple, disposable monsters. This darkness was also balanced out by some unexpectedly funny moments of dialogue that helped lift the story out of what could have been a rather gloomy place.

At its heart, this is a pretty simple, standalone fairytale fantasy story. But it does everything it needed to do and had a lot to say about the ties of love and the challenges of death. The characters were lovely, the adventure was fun, and the romance was sweet and understated. I definitely recommend this book for fans of “Uprooted” and “Sorcery of Thorns.”

Rating 9: A superb fairytale, deftly drawing upon “The Black Cauldron” to bring us an entirely fresh-feeling story of love and grief.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bone Houses” is a new title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be one “Best Standalone Fantasy Books.”

Find “The Bones Houses” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “They Called Us Enemy”

42527866Book: “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisigner, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Top Shelf Productions, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon — and America itself — in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.

Review: When I was in grad school, one of our professors asked us how old we all were when we first learned about the Japanese American Internment during World War II. I was in sixth grade, but I remember that was on the early side of things in that straw poll. It is a shameful part of American History when our Government targeted innocent people based on their race, and shipped them off to internment camps based on bigotry and fear. I knew that actor and political activist George Takei and his family were sent to one of these camps when he was a little boy, but didn’t know his full story. “They Called Us Enemy” is him telling that story, but not only is it that, it’s connecting that experience and horrible government policy with more recent policies that are playing out in our country today.

Takei weaves his own personal story together with the broader political climate and maneuvers that ultimately led to Executive Order 9066, which relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. Takei was a little boy when this happened, and his memories are shaped by his age and perceptions at that time. I thought that it was especially effective to tell the stories of how he as a little boy perceived what was going on around him, and how looking back at how his parents were acting during that time now shows him the broader pain and injustice of what happened to their family. Moments like him and his little brother Henry playing on the train that was taking them to Camp Rohwer, where their natural curiosity made their mother nervous that they would get the negative attention of the guards, were especially chilling. He remembers having a fun time with Henry, but then also looks back and sees the unease his mother had regarding their safety, and it hits the point home that their innocence was being slowly chipped away at, even if they didn’t know it. I also liked that he would show other moments of childhood joy and innocence, like seeing their first snow or experiencing a visit from Santa at Christmas, but then would still reiterate that moments of happiness do not outweigh or negate the fact that he and his family were being imprisoned because of their heritage and race and not their actions.

Takei is also really good at presenting the political events and policies that surrounded the Japanese Internment, from putting forth the major players like FDR and Warren Berger in the spotlight to showing how the racism and fear meant more policies and more rules, and more distrust of those who were imprisoned. We see such policies play out on the larger scale, and then see how they impact the Takei family. His parents Takekuma and Fumiko are doing their best to keep their children safe, but as the policies become more restrictive their refusal to declare ‘loyalty’ to America, as to do so would be pledging loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them AND supposed that they were loyal to the Japanese Empire even though they did not live there and hadn’t for most of their lives. This, of course, led to consequences and the Takei family was sent to an even more restrictive camp called Tule Lake. We also see George Takei reflecting upon the conflict between older prisoners and younger prisoners, with older prisoners more likely to try to bow their heads and stay safe, and younger ones more willing to question and openly rebel. This is all seen through hindsight, as Takei has memories of, after the fact when he was a young adult, pushing against and deriding his father for not fighting back, and his father clearly still feeling caught between what was right and what would keep his family safe. It’s clear this still hurts Takei as he looks back on it.

Finally, Takei isn’t afraid to compare the Japanese Internment Camps and Policy to what we are seeing at the border with asylum seekers and the Muslim Travel Ban. The comparison has made some people uncomfortable and indignant, but Takei is more than game to show that the inhumanity of these policies is very reminiscent of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, and that they’re based similar fears and racism that Executive Order 9066 sprung from. It’s a wrenching comparison, and a hard reality to face that we’re falling into the same mistakes and injustices of our past.

The artwork by Harmony Becker is lovely to look at and fits the story well. It strikes a balance between realism, especially when talking about policy and world events, but also has cartoony moments that reflect childhood and childrens’ reactions to various events in their day to day lives.

4
(source)

“They Called Us Enemy” is a story that is upsetting and personal, and it is a familiar situation that many had hoped we had left in the past. George Takei opens up and shares this story with power and grace, and if you want to know more about the Japanese American Internment, this is a good place to start. Learn our history. We’re repeating it now and it’s atrocious.

Rating 9: A powerful, heartbreaking story that shows injustices of America’s past (and present), “They Called Us Enemy” is a stunning and personal graphic memoir by George Takei.

Reader’s Advisory:

“They Called Us Enemy” is included on the Goodreads lists “Japanese American Internment”, and “History Through Graphic Novels”.

Find “They Called Us Enemy” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Turning Darkness Into Light”


41555968Book: “Turning Darkness Into Light” by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

Review: The “Lady Trent” series has been on my TBR pile for quite a while. But as I’ve heard good things about the audiobook, I’ve been stubbornly waiting to catch it when its available at the library in this format. So far, no success. But not to be put off by little things like reading the first series first, I still decided to go ahead and request an early copy of the new standalone novel set a generation after the first series. And, while there were probably a lot of references and aspects to the story that would have meant more had I read things in order, I still ended up loving this book!

Audrey has quite a distinguished family name to uphold. And she believes that she may finally found her opportunity to stake her own place in history when a collector comes across a rare set of tablets that could possess the secret history and great fabled story of the Draconian people. Translating a tale like this would not only put quite the feather in the cap of the historian who completed it, but the story itself could have greater ramifications on the future of the Draconian people. What this future may be is of great interest to several parties, all who have their own designs on the tablets and what they may say. Soon enough, Audrey finds herself at the heart of several conspiracies and must work to find the way out of this maze of history, language, and story.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this story. Obviously, I feel like I probably missed a lot of the backstory and world building that preceded this standalone in the main series, but even without that prior knowledge, I felt like the world and history were approachable. And what a clever, unique world it is! The Draconian people were incredibly intriguing and I’m sure what I got here was only a small taste of what you see of them in the first book. It’s not often that you come across what feels like an entirely new fantasy being, and the Draconians definitely are that, being a strange mixture of humanoid and dragon.

I really liked the exploration of the concept of history and story that is at the heart of this book. They are both one and the same and very different, each only partially understandable by a “modern” reader or historian approaching something that is thousands of years old. But not only do we the challenges of understanding histories and stories that are far removed from the times and people they describe, but we see how powerful they can still be to a modern people The Draconians are still looking for a place in this world, having just come out of hiding after being away undiscovered for centuries. There is a lot of discussion over how having a defining story is at the heart of being recognized as an individual and respected people. And what values are shown at the heart of that story are paramount for a how a people define themselves and how others regard them as well. It can aid or hurt, depending on interpretation and how it connects with established (or only theorized) history.

I also really liked Audrey as a character. You can see her struggling under the weight of expectation, coming from such a famous family. But she’s brave, independent, and willing to take on the challenges before her to make her own way. She’s also young, impulsive, and sometimes lets her bravery carry her into situations she had better have avoided. I also really enjoyed how the traces of a romance are weaved into this. It’s not at all what I’m used to finding, and, technically, it’s probably better to approach this story with no expectation of romance, given what it is, in the end.

The story is also presented in a unique, multi-media fashion. It plays out through a series of diary entries, letters, and news reports. It’s a tough medium to work with in the most ordinary of stories, but it’s even more impressive in a fantasy world where there is a lot of world building that would be common to the writers of these letters and thus would read as strange for them to be spelling out in these types of media formats. But while there are one or two weird, info-dumpy passages, for the most part, I think it was really successful.

I really have very few complaints about this book. Any confusion of world building is probably on me for reading it in the wrong order. And while the multi-media format had a few sticky bits, overall I think it worked really well. I was definitely left wishing there were more books telling Audrey’s story going for. But at the very least, I now know that I should get a move on with reading the original series! Fans of that original are sure to like this. And for the brave (or those who are lazy with their TBR pile like me), this is still a fun read, even with out that background knowledge.

Rating 9: A creative, new book that highlights just how intertwined and important history and storytelling are.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Turning Darkness Into Light” is a new title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be “Stand Alone Dragon Books.”

Find “Turning Darkness Into Light” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Kindred”

60931We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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

Book: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Publishing Info: Doubleday, June 1979

Where Did I Get This Book: I borrowed it from my Mom!

Book Description: The first science fiction written by a black woman, Kindred has become a cornerstone of black American literature. This combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction is a novel of rich literary complexity. Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

Kate’s Thoughts

Usually when only one of us can read the book, we will forego our book club review. But even though Serena was otherwise indisposed for our book club meeting, I really, REALLY wanted to make a post about “Kindred” by Octavia Butler. One reason is that it has been on my personal reading list for awhile now, even though it was fellow book club member Alicia’s pick for this session. But the second, and more pressing, reason is that “Kindred” blew me away and I want to talk about it. Why did I wait so long to read this book? Why? It is still as powerful and relevant today as it was in the 1970s when it was first published.

While it may have similar conventions to what we’ve come to expect of time travel stories, “Kindred” pushes the bounds of what the reader thinks they are going to read. Our protagonist Dana is a 20th Century Black woman who keeps getting sent back to the Antebellum South to save her white ancestor, slave owner Rufus Weilan, from danger, as he needs to live to father her great great grandmother. Butler doesn’t explain why this is happening, nor does she go into the details of various time paradoxes, but honestly, that didn’t bother me at all when usually it really, really does. The more pressing and immediate danger for her, however, is not the existential crisis of her very existence, but whether or not her trips back will ultimately leave her broken, hurt, or killed because of the fact she’s a Black woman in a slave state, and a culture that treats her like chatel and property. She learns to care for Rufus, as her initial meetings with him are when he is a vulnerable child, but as he grows older and more entrenched in the violent white supremacy of his time period their friendship becomes more strained, toxic, and abusive. Dana has every reason to try and keep him alive, but doing so becomes more and more dangerous for her and for the slaves on his family plantation. Butler tackles this complexity with a lot of nuance, but doesn’t shy away from the horrors of chattel slavery in the American South, and the monstrous actions of many white people during this time period. From Rufus to his mother and father to patrollers, the psychological and physical abuse that many white people in this book throw towards the slaves is historically accurate, and therein very upsetting. She doesn’t hold back on the violence and cruelty, and there are many moments in this book that are hard to read, but also necessary to confront. “Kindred” has more gumption on tackling these issues than a number of stories about slavery that have been published after it, and it really says something to me that a book written forty years ago feels braver than more recently published books about slavery. 

On top of the compelling and powerful social commentary, the time travel story had a well developed and interesting system that I could fully buy into. When Dana goes back in time and lives out the timeline then, weeks for her could be minutes for the modern day. This is demonstrated by her relationship with her husband Kevin, who tells her that after her first encounter that she was gone for only a moment, while to her it felt like quite a bit longer. This plays out in more dire, and somewhat tragic, ways later, as a time separation extends for years for one of them, and days for the other. As mentioned earlier, we don’t know how this time travel happens, or what the origin of it is, but it’s well established and believable enough that you don’t find yourself questioning it. You know how she gets there, how she gets back, and that is all you really need to know. The rest doesn’t really matter. This is a significant piece of science fiction, and Butler completely owns and deserves the status of a Sci-Fi heavyweight.

I am so, so happy that I’ve finally read “Kindred”. I now absolutely have to take on other works by Butler, as while Sci-Fi isn’t really my jam, I have a feeling that anything she does in the genre is going to work for me. If you’re a science fiction fan and haven’t read this, you absolutely must do so. 

Rating 9: A stellar, gripping, complex, and compelling piece of speculative and historical fiction, “Kindred” remains one of the best science fiction books that seamlessly combines the all too real with the fantastical.

Book Club Questions

  1. “Kindred” was written in the late 1970s, but still has a lot of resonance today. If it was written today, what, if any, differences do you think there would be in the narrative? Do you think that the social commentary would be the same? Different?
  2. What did you think of the science fiction aspect of the story? Do you want more details? Did it hold up within the narrative?
  3. Dana’s husband Kevin is both a supportive, caring, and sensitive husband, but he also has moments of ignorance and naïveté when it comes to her experiences as Black woman. What did you think of him and Dana as a couple?
  4. Do you think that Dana ever had the ability to change Rufus? If you think she could, what do you think she’d need to have done?
  5. Slavery is a large theme within this novel. How does to content of “Kindred” compare to other slave narratives you’ve read?
  6. What did you think of the ending of the book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Kindred” is included on the Goodreads lists “Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color”, and “Best Time Travel Fiction”.

Find “Kindred” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Kate’s Review: “Bloom”

29225589._sx318_Book: “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band―if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

Review: We’re getting near the end of summer (kind of?), and on the hot days sometimes you just need to have a cute, sweet, comfort read that you can enjoy in the sun… or air conditioning in my case. I saw “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau on a display at the library I was working at, and decided to pick it up on a whim. It had been a bit since I’d read a one shot graphic novel, and the look of it and the summer feeling the cover gave me stood out to me. I hadn’t heard of “Bloom” until I picked it up, and after reading it I wish I’d found it sooner. I really, really enjoyed “Bloom”!

The story involves two young adults who are both looking for some self discovery and paths for their future. Ari is determined to move away from his home and his family bakery to become a music star with his friends, while Hector is trying to wrap up his late grandmother’s affairs and move on from a needy relationship. While they are both starkly different, you can’t help but love both of them for what they are. Ari is over emotional and a little bit self centered, but also wrapped up in insecurities about those around him. You understand why he wants to go out and make his own life, but can’t help but feel for his parents, who want him to join the family bakery business. Panetta did a really good job of showing how people can be torn between by their individual dreams, and their familial expectations. Ari is complex and at times very frustrating, but he also is a character I think a lot of people can see themselves in. Hector, too, is a fascinating character, as while he isn’t as conflicted as Ari, he has his own insecurities, but is better at navigating them. That said, I liked the foil that he played, as his kindness and patience has led him to troubles in the past because of his compassion and empathy for people. I loved them both for who they were, and I loved seeing them interact with each other. The side characters were a bit more hit or miss for me. On the one hand you have Ari’s parents, who I really liked. Ari’s father was the strict and singleminded parent you tend to see in stories like this, who could have easily fallen into the box of being the ‘out of touch parent who doesn’t care about what their kid wants’. But instead, Panetta does a fantastic job of showing complexities there, and his worries and fears regarding his business, his livelihood, and his relationship with his son were definitely well defined, and brought tears to my eyes. Ari’s mother was a bit more of the supportive parent of the two parent dynamic, but I also liked that she had moments of stepping out of that box too and being stern and realistic. But while Ari’s parents were great and spot on, I thought that Ari’s and Hector’s friend groups were a little two dimensional. They tended to check off a lot of trope boxes (the aggressively quirky, the jerk, the snarky, etc), and while I didn’t mind seeing them I didn’t really get much interesting from them.

The romance and overall plot of this book was very sweet and rewarding. Ari and Hector get closer because of baking, and Panetta focuses as much on the slow burn of the love story as much as he focuses on the intricacies and art of baking. Passion, be it romantic passion of passions for hobbies, are a huge theme in this book, and you can see the passion of a number of characters, and how it drives them, and sometimes makes them forget about the potential consequences of said passions. You can’t help but root for Ari and Hector as their romance slowly blooms and comes to life. And you can’t help but think about the metaphors of baking and the patience that it takes, the time and care it can require, and how sometimes you have to restart when unanticipated problems arise. I loved every panel and every moment, and savored the story as it unfolded. And as I mentioned above, I definitely cried as I was reading it.

The artwork is understated and lovely. I loved the blue hues and the sketches, and how the art not only brings the people to life, but the food as well. The style sometimes looks like sketches that aren’t quite finished (with arrows denoting movement and bare boned sketches occasionally making appearances), but it only added to the charm of the story. Also, the occasional large splash panel would showcase both the people and their emotions, as well as the food that they were making.

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“Bloom” is an adorable and touching summer romance about finding yourself, finding love, and finding your passions. If you want a cute and satisfying love story, look no further than Ari and Hector!

Rating 9: A sweet, emotional, and mouth watering romance that has delightful characters, a lovely romance, and some tasty looking baked goods!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Pride Month! The Teen Essentials List”, and “Graphic Novels Centered Around Food”.

Find “Bloom” at your library using WorldCat!