Book Club Review: “Eliza and Her Monsters”

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

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

Book: “Eliza and Her Monsters” by Francesca Zappia

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

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

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

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

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

Kate’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Serena’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club Questions

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

Reader’s Advisory

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

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

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

Summer Giveaway: “We Were Liars”

It’s time for another Library Ladies giveaway! And since we’re in the heart of summer, what could be more perfect than giving away a SIGNED hardback copy of “We Were Liars!” Perhaps you’ve heard of it. But it may be better if you haven’t. Read on…..

16143347Book: “We Were Liars” by e. lockhart

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, May 2014

Book Description: A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

Mini review & Synopsis:

Kate here! So I read “We Were Liars” a few months after it was first published. I knew that it had a lot of buzz surrounding it, and I knew that people were keeping pretty tight lipped as well. I basically swallowed it whole over the course of two days, reluctant to put it down unless I absolutely had to, and I can say that it is amazing, and the perfect summer book to give away.

So why is it the perfect summer book? For one, it’s compulsively readable. Like I said, I couldn’t put it down while I was reading it. It would be a great read for the beach, or an airplane, or just sitting around your house on a super hot day whilst drinking lemonade. And for another, the story and setting really set the mood of summer. It’s about a teenage girl named Cady Sinclair who spends her summers on the family island out east (think Kennedys). She goes with her mother, and spends a lot of time with her cousins. She is closest to cousins Mirren and Johnny, but is also very close to the nephew of Johnny’s mother’s boyfriend, Gat. They’re all so close that they formed a little clique that calls itself The Liars, and Cady and Gat even strike up a summer romance. But during the fifteenth summer, something happened that has left Cady with horrible headaches and few memories. After taking a summer away from the island, she and her mother return for the seventeenth, and she’s reunited with The Liars. But what did happen that fifteenth summer? And why did she forget?

Seriously, this book is a major treat and a lot of fun with its twists and turns. You may not have a private family island to read it on, but the story will nearly whisk you away so that won’t be necessary. Good luck, everyone! You’ll want to get a hold of this book! For a fun bonus, this book has been signed by the author!

Enter the Giveaway!

Book Club Review: “Ghost”

28954126We 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 “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

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: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Publishing Info: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, August 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Running. That’s all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race — and wins — the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. Thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger, and a past that he is trying to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Kate’s Thoughts

It occurred to me and the rest of book club that we have been dong a fair  amount of Middle Grade books for this session! Which, hey, that’s just fine. I know that for some of us, me included to a certain extent, the fear with middle grade is that the book may rely less on nuance and more on being explicitly clear about what is going on. But the good news is that with “Ghost,” one of the deluge of books by Jason Reynolds recently, the story never seems to underestimate the middle grade audience. Not only are the themes of this book pretty sophisticated, such as parental abuse, systematic oppression, and bullying, but Reynolds doesn’t seem to feel a need to water anything down. Ghost is a very intriguing and complex protagonist, who is dealing with a large amount of trauma due to his father trying to kill him and his mother when he was younger. I thought that Reynolds addressed this trauma in a way that wasn’t told but definitely shown. Ghost has a lot to deal with, and while his first person POV never explicitly describes how he’s dealing, the reader gets a very clear sense of how much this continues to haunt him. Though I’ll be honest, the sports theme wasn’t really my thing, just because I myself am not really a sports oriented person (outside of hockey and baseball). I was definitely skimming the more sports oriented parts, and wanted to get back to Ghost’s personal life and struggles.

I think it’s also important to note that I greatly appreciate the fact that “Ghost” is a book that has People of Color as the default. What I mean by this is that in many books, ‘white’ is kind of the default character, so when the author describes someone, their skin is kind of assumed to be white, while characters of color have their skin described almost right off the bat. In this book, however, it’s the opposite, and the white characters are the ones who are described as if they are outside the norm. Given that the middle grade and YA publishing industry is still struggling with diversity, this was refreshing.

I liked “Ghost” quite a bit and I think that a lot of kids could find a lot of things to like about it as well.

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate said, sports books aren’t really my thing either. Unless it’s, like, magical horse racing or something. I read a few as a kid, like the almost required “Maniac Magee,” but never really went beyond that. But “Ghost” has received a lot of attention as a great new addition to middle grade fiction, including both a diverse cast of characters and a story/topic that is likely to appeal to middle grade boys (the age-group-bane of most public librarians’ existence!), so I was excited to try it out. And while sports books will never be my thing, I found myself quite enjoying this one.

Reynolds expertly mixes the two primary parts that make up this book: track and life trauma. The obvious parallels about literally and figuratively running away from one’s struggles are never hit on the head too fully, and I appreciate the author’s dexterity in creating a story that doesn’t simplify the realities its main character has lived through. As an adult reader I very much enjoyed such literary touches as opening the story with the shot of the gun his father is aiming at Ghost and his mother and closing it with the shot of the pop gun to begin the race. This ability to weave real depth into the story while also creating a relatable main character with an excellent voice that would appeal to young readers really makes this book stand out. Ghost himself could make me laugh on one page and want to shake him on the next.

I also enjoyed the fact that the sport in question was track. There are tons of books out there about the more traditional sports like football, basketball, and more and more often, soccer. But track with its strange balance of individual stakes and teamwork was a unique sport to choose. My own track career was very short (due to a happy ankle sprain that got me out of it, essentially), but I still enjoyed reading the sporting portion of the book as well.

Reading books like this is why I particularly enjoy being involved in a great bookclub. I’m consistently challenged to read outside of my own comfort zone and discover excellent books like this that I likely would never have stumbled upon myself.

Kate’s Rating 8: While I don’t really care about the sports themes of this book, I liked Ghost and the other members of the track team, as well as the way that Reynolds tackled some pretty complex themes.

Serena’s Rating 8: “Ghost” was an excellent middle grade book that provided deep commentary on important topics while never losing sight of its own story and audience.

Book Club Questions

  1. What do you think motivates Ghost to run at the beginning of the book? Do you think that has changed by the end of it?
  2. What did you think of how Coach dealt with Ghost stealing the shoes? Why do you think Ghost impulsively stole the shoes in the first place?
  3. The end of the book is fairly ambiguous about how the track team ended up in the race. Did you wish that there was a definitive ‘win’ or ‘lose’ outcome? Do you think the book needed that?
  4. What did you think of the other members of the track team? This is going to be a series that follows each of these kids. Whose story are you most excited for, and why?
  5. This is a middle grade book, though Reynolds is known for writing YA books as well. How do you think this book would have been different had it been written for a YA audience?

Reader’s Advisory

“Ghost” is included on the Goodreads lists “2016 YA/MG Books with POC Leads”, and “2017 Mock Newbery.

Find “Ghost” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog”.

Emily’s Corner: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”

20170202_140222Emily and I (Serena) have been friends since the first week of freshman year of college. Other than a lost purse (I did the losing, Emily did the calming), take a wild guess as to what we bonded over? Yes, that is correct: books. And the fact that we both had plans to be English majors and would go on to coordinate our schedules to have as many similar classes as possible! All that said, Emily has agreed to be a semi-regular contributor to our blog, so keep your eyes open for posts from her in “Emily’s Corner” on random Mondays going forward!
284066Book: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami

Publishing Info: Originally published in three parts between 1994 and 1995, the English translation was published in 1997

Where Did I Get this Book: A gift from a friend in book club

Book Description: In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat.  Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.  As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria. Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.

Review: My book club did something a little different for our January read. Instead of reading the same book, we each picked out our favorite novel and did a book swap. (My pick was The Blue Castle, of course.)

The book I received was “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” by Haruki Murakami. Our book club had read his earliest work “Wind/Pinball” together, so I was delighted to receive a more recent publication. Murakami is one of those maddening geniuses who knocked it out of the park on his first try writing a novel. I had high expectations for “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and it did not disappoint.

A word on Murakami’s writing style; he takes the most mundane, ordinary situations and makes them riveting. Case in point, I started the book during Christmas break while visiting my parents. My dad asked what I was reading and I said something along the lines of “it’s about a guy and his wife, and the wife has a cat, and it goes missing, and she’s upset with the husband for not caring, so he goes to look for it, and it’s all about this tension in their marriage . . .”

Dad cut me off. “That sounds boring.”

Boring this is not! Murakami takes this story and twists it, wrenches it, in fact. It turns into this surrealist, cerebral adventure that takes on an otherworldly quality without losing its grasp on reality. It was exhausting trying to keep up and yet I couldn’t put it down.

The story twists and turns from the perspectives of the man and his search for his wife who mysteriously vanishes along with the cat, a precocious teenager so fascinated by death that she almost commits murder, bloody flashbacks to the power struggles and mind games of war-torn Manchuria, eerie sisters whose magical talents are the hub of the story, a villain who controls his victims by mentally raping and trapping them in an otherworld, and a wealthy but strange mother-son duo named after baking spices.

I get it. This sounds like an acid trip. This is not a story that you can explain by saying “and then such-and-such happened.” And for sure it is a far cry from the “man looks for lost cat” opening.

That is what is magical about Murakami; he takes you on such a slow and winding journey, where everything makes sense until it doesn’t. You look back to see how far you have come, almost unable to believe that a story about a lost cat could turn into the most violent, most beautiful, most moving thing you’ve read in years.

This book isn’t so much about the story, though it is truly a riveting story. It’s about Murakami’s way with words. He is unlike any author I’ve encountered, writing about daily activities like boiling pasta and ironing shirt collars in such a way that they become intensely beautiful rituals. Something as simple as climbing down a dry well becomes an out-of-body experience, for both the protagonist and the reader. I was gasping by the end of that chapter.

There is a horrifying torture scene, and while I normally have a very low tolerance for this sort of thing, I couldn’t help but be entranced by how Murakami achieved a level of grace and beauty in it. I was trapped between being appalled and being fascinated.

For me, Murakami’s work is about experiencing his way with words just as much as it is about getting caught up in a good story.

Rating 8: While this is one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a while, my squeamishness over the aforementioned torture scene and some terribly awkward phone sex kept this from getting a higher score. Still, this is a must-read for anyone who appreciates the cerebral/magical realism genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Magical Realism” and “Mind Twist.”

Find “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Landline”

18081809Book: “Landline” by Rainbow Rowell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 2014

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

Book Description: Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble; it has been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts…

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review: I had read two of Rowell’s young adult novels, “Fangirl” and “Eleanor and Park” and really liked them before coming to this book. I had heard that she had an adult novel floating around, and had it casually on my mental “to read” list, but had never made a real effort to pick it up as it falls out of my usual favorite genres. Last week, however, it happened to pop up as an available audiobook at the library, and that was my sign that now was the time!

I went into this story not knowing much about it. In fact, I had even less than the book description given above, since I was really only checking it out on the strength of Rowell’s other books and the general knowledge that this was about a married couple. That’s about it. So, it was quite a shock when I got to the magical, time-travel phone about 1/4 of the way into the story! A good surprise though.

Georgie is a television writer with her longtime friend and partner, Seth, who has been married for the past 17 years to her college sweetheart, Neal, and has two small girls to complete her family. From the outside, they look like the poster family for a working mom/stay-at-home father lifestyle, with Georgie financing the family, and Neal caring for the two daughters. However, after years of struggles balancing her work/home life, Neal and Georgie’s marriage is coming to a crisis state. Enter time travel, magical phone. A connection for Georgie back to the Neal she knew in college when they were going through a similar rough patch in their relationship.

So, just from that description, this book was quite a step out from my typical reading habits. Magical phones aside (which largely, it really is, as it functions as a plot device and not a lot more),  this book was mostly about the relationship between Georgie and Neal, how they got to where they are now and discovering whether they have a future. It’s a romantic, non-romance book, I guess, featuring two lead characters who are anything but typical romantic leads.

I really enjoyed this book. It perfectly balanced the emotional challenges of a long term relationship without vilifying either of the main characters. I’ve read a few other reviews where Georgie came under strong fire as a narrator, but I felt that her struggles, her realization of poor choices and her own failings was the whole point of the story. She is not written to be an unlikable character, just an honest, flawed human being. Being frustrated with her for these traits misses the journey of the story itself. Neal, too, is not written as a perfect partner, and while Georgie is our primary focal point, one can see the role he plays in their relationship fairly clearly.

I also really enjoyed the role that Georgie’s best friend and writing partner, Seth, plays in the story. I had quite a few concerns when he showed up initially, wondering whether we were heading into love triangle territory, but I should have had faith! If there is one thing that Rowell has proven with her previous books, it’s that she knows how to write honest relationships. And, at their core, I don’t believe love triangles can reflect any honesty about human relationships. It’s just not the way people truly form relationships and attachments. Seth’s role in Georgie’s life is refreshing and integral. He has played a role in the weakening bonds between Georgie and Neal, but not due to any romantic entanglements.

I also really enjoyed Georgie’s interactions with the rest of her family, both her young daughters as well as with her mother, step father, and much-younger sister. I’m going to repeat the word “refreshing” here for how much I appreciated this focus on the other people and relationships that make up Georgie’s life. She is not only defined by the primary romantic relationship in her life, but it is clear that the influence and love that she relies on from these other members is paramount in her life. I always enjoy reading about sisters, especially, and Georgie’s mother was a great character, too.

I sped through this audiobook! Usually I just listen to my audiobooks during my commute and call it good, but I found myself listening to this one as I cleaned my house and even before bed. The reader was very good, and I felt the story itself was very engaging. If you enjoy contemporary novels, with a good dash of humor and an honest look at the challenges and joys of married life, I highly recommend “Landline.”

Rating 8: Very good, especially the deeper look into all the many relationships that make up the central character’s life.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Landline” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Chick Lit for the Beach” and “Married Couples – NA/Contemporary Romance.”

Find “Landline” at your library using WorldCat!