Serena’s Review: “Skin”

24721903Book: “Skin” by Ilka Tampke

Publishing Info: Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Southwest Britain, AD 43.

For the people of Caer Cad, ‘skin’ is their totem, their greeting, their ancestors, their land.

Ailia does not have skin. Abandoned at birth, she serves the Tribequeen of her township. Ailia is not permitted to marry, excluded from tribal ceremonies and, most devastatingly, forbidden to learn. But the Mothers, the tribal ancestors, have chosen her for another path.

Lured by the beautiful and enigmatic Taliesin, Ailia embarks on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced.

Review: I believe this book was self-published a few years ago (or published from a smaller, independent publisher?), so I wasn’t aware of it until I saw it and its sequel, due out in January, pop up on Edelweiss. Always in the mood for historical fiction and intrigued by the unique time period in which this was set, I was quick to request it! And while it was darker than I had expected, the beautiful writing and gripping story swept me along in a quick read-through.

Ailia has grown up living a half-life. Her mysterious origins left her without a skin, an identifier by which tribes connect to each other and their land. Without this marker, she exists outside of the normal structure of life, unable to fully participate and with a large question mark looming over her future. But when their quiet life is interrupted by the threat of war, Ailia journeys far and wide to not only find her own place, but to save her people.

This book was a bit hit and miss for me. But if I’m honest about it, the “misses” are likely just personal preferences at the moment and maybe not being in the correct headspace for some of the darker elements of this story. To start with the good stuff, however! The first thing that really stood out to me immediately was the beautiful style of writing. This book was very reminiscent of Juliet Mariller’s writing, and I really couldn’t give out a better compliment than that! It is lyrical and heart-wrenching, perfectly painting the picture of life in this early part of history in Britain. It’s the kind of thing that is hard to pin down; somehow the style of writing itself lends a sense of atmosphere to the story.

I also really liked the setting and time period of this book. It’s set in early AD Britain where Roman influence and invasion has been ebbing and flowing for a while. I don’t know much about this time period, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the story. The author does include a good note at the end which does detail some of the historical influences behind the work. But beyond that, again perhaps due to the strength of the writing, it was easy to sink into the time and place being presented, even when elements of this life felt completely foreign.

I also like Ailia as the main character. The book is written in first person from her point of view, so it is quick and easy to fall into line with her character. While the general outline of her story isn’t the most original (outsider comes into her own power as a central figure in a growing conflict), I was still invested in her arc throughout the story. The idea of “skins” was also very intriguing, especially in connection with how Ailia sees herself and how other see her.

Now for the downsides. This book is dark. Very, very dark. Right from the start the reader is thrown into a pretty violent scene. And given the nature of the story, the lifestyle, and the growing conflict, this violence does continue to pop up throughout the story. Typically I’m not overly squeamish about violence, and it never felt gratuitous or glorified here. In fact, I would even say that this violence was part of what made the book feel so grounded in the time period and events that it was trying to depict. So, again, I think it was largely that I was just surprised by it and wasn’t in a good emotional place to read about some of these topics. Perhaps re-reading it later I wouldn’t struggle as I did here. And other readers may not have the same qualms I did.

My one other struggle with the book has to do with the ending, so this is obviously a hugely subjective problem. For me, the ending was of the sort that left me more focused on the grim nature of the story than on the beauty of the writing. It felt incredibly realistic, but it was the kind of reality that I didn’t necessarily want to be left with at the end of a story. I guess I needed a bit more light to counterbalance all of the brutality, and for me, the book just ended on yet another grim note.

It’s hard to rate and review books when you struggle with how they end. Obviously, that’s the last experience I had of the book, and it wasn’t an overly positive one. I’m definitely curious to see where the sequel goes from here. There is a chance that, depending on how that book goes, the ending of this one might be retroactively improved for me. And all of this to say, my qualms with this one were very much based on my own preferences. Overall, the writing, story, and characters are all strong. It was just too much darkness for me. Readers who aren’t put off by that and enjoy atmospheric historical fiction (with a dash of fantasy, of course!) will likely enjoy this.

Rating 7: A reader’s case of “it’s not you; it’s me.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Skin” is on these Goodreads lists: “Coming of Age Stories” and “Books for the INFJ.”

Find “Skin” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Newt’s Emerald”

24737347Book: “Newt’s Emerald” by Garth Nix

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, October 2015

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

Book Description: On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful, nicknamed “Newt,” will inherit her family’s treasure: the Newington Emerald. A dazzling heart-shaped gem, the Emerald also bestows its wearer with magical powers.

When the Emerald disappears one stormy night, Newt sets off to recover it. Her plan entails dressing up as a man, mustache included, as no well-bred young lady should be seen out and about on her own. While in disguise, Newt encounters the handsome but shrewd Major Harnett, who volunteers to help find the missing Emerald under the assumption that she is a man. Once she and her unsuspecting ally are caught up in a dangerous adventure that includes an evil sorceress, Newt realizes that something else is afoot: the beating of her heart.

Review: After reading “Angel Mage,” I found myself on a bit of a Garth Nix kick, as I had been clearly reminded just how much I enjoyed his writing. Not wanting to bite off the large task of re-immersing myself in the “Sabriel” world and series, I was happy to come across this short-and-sweet, standalone fantasy!

Lady Truthful, or “Newt,” is due a large inheritance, but more important than the money is a priceless, magical heirloom, an emerald with unknown but great powers. When the emerald is stolen from beneath her nose, Newt sets out on an adventure to recover it. Disguised as a man, she finds herself wandering dark alleyways at night and aboard ships raging through storms. And as a woman, she is caught up in an even more dangerous endeavor: a young woman debuting for her first season in London! By her side she finds the mysterious Major Harnett who also might be hiding his own secrets.

This was a strange little book. And really, I think that’s where many of its strengths and weaknesses lie, with how little it is. From my research, it seems that this was originally written as a novella and then expanded out into a full-length, albeit still short, book. Reading it, it is easy to see these backbones through what we are presented here. Everything that is given is excellent: a solid main character, a firm touch on both the genres its straddling (fantasy and historical romance), and a succinct, but clear, storyline. And I enjoyed it all. However, I do wish there had been a bit…more of everything.

In some ways, it feels that this was a novel born from a writing exercise on Nix’s part. That he went into the story wanting to dabble in historical romance, but, being a fantasy author, wanted to include his own trademark worldbuilding and fantastical elements to the standard elements. Perhaps readers not familiar with his other works would be less surprised by this book, but for those of us who have read those, this book feels remarkably light on the fantasy. There is the titular emerald, of course, and it seems that characters in this world are prone to having some level of magical abilities themselves. The ins and outs of these abilities, their range, scope, or power, is never really explored and the few times we see people use them, there isn’t much there other than a flash and bang. From an author that I know is capable of writing complex and thorough magic systems, it ended up reading a bit bland.

The characters themselves fared better, though even here it seemed we were getting only modestly adjusted variations on the stock historical romance characters one often sees. Newt’s time spend dressed as a man is a saving grace for her character, raising her above the tropes that often befall historical romance heroines. I particularly enjoyed the time spent between her and the love interest when she was still thought to be a man and their friendship began to develop.  Once the secret was outed, the story fell quickly back into the more expected beats of a romance.

There was a strange moment, however, when the reader is allowed to see behind the curtain on the Major’s side of things. I’m not quite sure what the goal of this inclusion was, but from my perspective it took the bite out of a few of the mysteries at the heart of the story. Newt has her own secrets, but so does the Major. Being privy to the truth before our main character quickly defangs many of the conflicts and makes Newt’s own agonizing and confusion read as more of a bore, knowing the truth and likely outcomes ourselves already.

Again, this isn’t meant to be all critical. I did enjoy the romance, it was sweet and funny. The action and adventure was probably the strongest portion of the story, with several good chase scenes and fights. And the writing was perfectly matched to the Recency romance style that Nix was clearly attempting to reference, most especially noticeable in the dialogue, which was witty and fun. Most of this seems due to the length of the story; it’s simply too short to fully flesh out all of its characters or expand on the magical system and world to the extent that I might have wished. It was a quick read, however, and a fun story. Readers who are looking for a light, beach-read-like story will likely enjoy this. Just don’t go into it expecting to see the full power of Nix’s abilities on display.

Rating 7: Reads a bit more like a primer of Nix’s work than as a fully completed work of its own.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Newt’s Emerald” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Girls Disguised as Boys.”

Find “Newt’s Emerald” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Art of Theft”

36510437Book: “The Art of Theft” by Sherry Thomas”

Publication Info: Berkley, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear”

Review:  Continuing my week of Sherry Thomas reviews! While “The Magnolia Sword” took me by surprise (I didn’t realize it was coming out until late in the game, and still later figured out the author was Sherry Thomas), I’ve been impatiently waiting for the release of the latest “Lady Sherlock” story. Thanks to Edelweiss+, I had early access to it on my Kindle, and due to a complete lack of willpower, I ended up reading this book a few months ago but still wanted to review it closer to its publication date, so here we are. And while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, I’m still enjoying the heck out of these stories and, again, am anxiously awaiting the next.

After helping Lord Ingram escape a false murder charge in the last book, Charlotte Holmes once again finds herself at the service of one of her close friends. This time it’s Mrs. Watson who has been contacted by a friend from the past who is now caught up in a mysterious blackmail/art theft situation. But this time, Charlotte and co. must do more than simply unravel the various players in this charade, but now find themselves playing an active role within the events themselves. Now she must not only discover who is at the heart of this conflict, but find a way to walk the narrow line between solving the case and not becoming a criminal herself!

Many of the strengths of the original books are still present here. Charlotte, as always, is a perfectly realized character, now comfortably familiar in both her quirks (her sense of fashion and preference for sweet treats), her strengths (obviously), as well as her weaknesses (challenges with navigating complicated relationships). One of the pleasing things about a long(ish) running series is this solid comfort with a character who is understood and beloved, but it also come with challenges. Here, while Charlotte is still at the heart of untangling the mystery, it feels like she is not the main character in her own book. That is, there is very little ongoing character development or a unique arc that is devoted to her. Much of this character work is picked up by the others in the book, but for a series that is called the “Lady Sherlock” series, this book was the first that did begin to show some signs of not quite knowing where to go from here with its titular character.

Luckily, the series has already set up a good number of side characters in the first several books so a shift of focus to them, while not preferred, also still feels earned. And I was already invested enough to feel that their conflicts were enough to carry much of this story. Mrs. Watson, of course, is at the heart of this story, and I loved learning more about her past and those who played a role in it. We see, again, both the strengths and weaknesses that lead her to where she is today. She also serves as a good mentor for Livia who ends up taking on a much more active role in this story.

Throughout the series, Livia has always played a bit of a strange role. A decent amount of page time is devoted to her, but she’s typically no where near the action and her development has moved at a fairly glacial pace. Here, Livia finally gets to come out of the shadow and play with the big kids. I loved seeing her come out of her shell, even if it was an uncomfortable process for her. Through her, the story also spends a bit exploring, again, the limitations on women in this time period. And, while Livia’s life has by no means been a happy one, she comes to realize the privileges that she has taken for granted.

I did enjoy the mystery itself as well. After the more active role that Charlotte took on in the previous book, it was nice to see that approach used once again here with Charlotte and co. essentially staging a heist. The story has definite “‘Ocean’s 11’ but in Victorian times” vibes, which I thought was a clever change of pace from the other, more typical mysteries of the first books. There were some surprises sprinkled throughout, as well, and, overall, I found the conclusion and explanation satisfying.

However, for all the answers we do get, there were a few too many loose ends left hanging. This was clearly done on purpose, but there were just one or two too many for me not to begin to feel slightly frustrated and anxious. For one thing, these mysteries are complicated. It always takes a bit of thinking on my part to fully put things together and still I’d have a hard time explaining it all later. But to add more unsolved clues on top of all that, clues I can only assume will come into play in a later book and that I will need to recall…it’s a bit too much. For me, I was left feeling a bit worried that I was not only missing things in this book, but will now likely miss even more in some future story.

The book also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I’m not sure was necessary. It’s not the type that gnaws away at you, but more just introduces the topic of the next book. But it seemed liked a strange choice for an established series. It’s the kind of thing you do in book one or two, just to keep readers interested. But here, it was more like an unneeded “coming next week” preview for a well-watched and established TV show. Just leave it out and let the book end on a note relevant to this book’s story. The next book can take care of itself without page time given to it here.

Those quibbles aside, this was another solid entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series. I’m definitely excited for the next book as it seems like it will focus on a character who wasn’t much seen in this story. And I hope that Charlotte’s more active role continues. However, I also hope that she gets a bit more character development and a more defined emotional arc in future stories. I enjoy the side characters, for sure, but I’m mostly here for Charlotte. All of this to say, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far, you’re good to go on this one as well. And never fear, there will be another; it’s all set up right there at the end of this one.

Rating 8: While Charlotte fades a bit into the background and there are a few too many dangling clues, I enjoyed the addition of a heist plot onto another solid mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Art of Theft” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads’ lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2019.”

Find “The Art of Theft” at your library using WorldCat!

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!

Serena’s Review: “The Gameshouse”

41716946Book: “The Gameshouse” by Claire North

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: Everyone has heard of the Gameshouse. But few know all its secrets…

It is the place where fortunes can be made and lost through chess, backgammon – every game under the sun.
But those whom fortune favors may be invited to compete in the higher league… a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on the scale of a continent.

Among those worthy of competing in the higher league, three unusually talented contestants play for the highest stakes of all…

Review: This book sounded like something altogether different. So different in fact that I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting! Was this a fantasy story? Some type of sci-fi dystopian future ala “The Hunger Games?” Would the said three contestants be fighting against each other? The sheer mystery of all, plus the appropriately creepy cover, was enough for me!

Throughout history disasters have struck, luck has failed one and served another, the slightest change can have lasting effects. It all seems so random. But what if behind many of these grand events lay a sinister and beguiling underworld where grand players used the entire earth as their playing board and kings and countries as their pawns? Who would join such a game? And more importantly, who would win?

Other than the intriguing general description, I didn’t know a whole lot about this book before picking up. Most importantly, I didn’t know that it had previously been released as three separate novellas. Once I realized this, it didn’t hugely change my take on the book, it is a fact worth noting going in, that this isn’t your typical, singe protagonist, linear story that one typically expects to find in novels. But, given the stories it does tell, I think the three separate novellas do fit very well together as a larger collection like this. It would have been interesting reading them individually, but together, you can see a greater progression, especially in the scale of the “games,” as each story unfolds.

That said, while the scale does get grander from the first to the last, I do think I enjoyed the first story the most. The smaller, more intimate setting and stakes somehow made it all feel a bit more personal and lead me to be more invested in the protagonist of that story and its outcome. As the three stories unfold, the fantasy elements begin to take over more completely. The first one felt more grounded as an alternate history with only a smidge of fantasy thrown in.

While the fantasy increased, story by story, I really liked the alternate history and blend of historical ficiton and fantasy that was woven across all three. These stories are definitely global and I liked that we got to deep dive into a few locations and times that aren’t often seen. The second book in particular, with its lush descriptions of early 20th century Thailand, was very interesting. While Venice (the setting of the first book) is always fun, it’s definitely a more common setting for a story. And the third one takes place in modern days and across the entire world. Each of these three had their own strengths, but, setting-wise, I did like the second one best.

The writing was also strong and quirky, living up to all the absurdity of its concept without becoming a mockery of it. There were some clever bit of commentary on identity, order, and chaos that were also slipped in there between the high stakes and increasing fantasy fare. I haven’t read anything else by this author, but this one was pretty darn fun and fans of hers are sure to be pleased. New readers might just find a new author to check out as well!

Rating 8: Three unique stories that seamlessly blend alternative history, fantasy and thrilling adventure!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Gameshouse” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Let the (deadly) games begin!”

Find “The Gameshouse” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Lady Rogue”

43822758Book: “The Lady Rogue” by Jenn Bennett

Publication Info: Simon Pulse, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler—more widely known as Dracula—and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Review: I’m always up for a good Vlad the Impaler story. Pair that with what sounds like a romping adventure and an Amelia-Peabody-like heroine, but a teenager, and this book seemed right up my alley. I know the author is a favorite romance author for many people, but I hadn’t read any of her stories previously, so I was excited to see what this one had in store!

For all of her father’s overprotective ways, Theodora finds herself suddenly alone in Eastern Europe and now, he’s the one in trouble and she’s the one tracking his trail. Good thing she’s been preparing for this moment for her entire life. Less good thing that her father’s protege, the irresistible and annoying Huck, is on the trail as well. Together, they discover that her father has gotten himself caught up in matter way above any of their pay grade and those responsible for his disappearance may now be after Theodora and Huck as well.

While this book wasn’t an absolute hit for me, it was still a quite fun read. The author has definitely mastered a witty, style of writing and the dialogue was definitely her strength. From the very first page, I was laughing at Theodora’s descriptions of the troubles she gets herself in. And once Huck shows up, their verbal sparring was on point. You can definitely see the author’s romance writing roots in this, as I’ve always found that the best romance books depend most on the the strong dialogue that pulls together the hero and heroine. Anyone can writing a steamy scene, but the heart of romance writing is the characters themselves since there isn’t a lot of plot, often. Thus, they have to have an amazing inner voice and repartee.

I also enjoyed the adventure and action of this book. The story takes off running and never really lets up on the gas. Mysterious strangers hunt them across multiple countries and even aboard the Orient Express. As the mystery about her father’s disappearance and his connection with the infamous Vlad the Impaler comes to light, I enjoyed seeing Theodora put her own unique skills to the test to rescue him.

Huck, on the other hand, never really landed for me. As I said, the dialogue and witty banter between him and Theodora was engaging from the beginning, but for his own part, he was kind of bland. It was hard to completely buy the connection between him and Theodora since it often came across as having come about simply due to proximity growing up, rather than any particularly unique bond between the two. He also had a habit of tipping a bit too far over the arrogant line from “charming” to “kind of rude.”

Really, the romance was my problem with this book. Maybe if I hadn’t known the author was a romance novelist, my expectations would have been adjusted. But I really just found myself wishing, as I went along, that this had just been a regular, old adult novel. Age up the characters by a few years, increase the romance, and boom! Fun book! As it was, it felt like the author was continuously pulling her punches and the story was wobbling along, crippled by the need to be YA.

I had a fun enough time reading this book. But by the end of it, I mostly remembered it for some witty banter and a few fun action pieces. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t capture me the way I wanted and it’s unfortunately the kind of story I enjoyed once but will probably easily forget I ever read. I am interested in checking out the author’s adult romances, however! Fans of the author will probably enjoy this and if you’re looking for a good beach read, this is the book for you!

Rating 7: A fun, but forgettable, ride.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lady Rogue” is a new title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads books, but it should be on “Best Books Featuring Dracula.” 

Find “The Lady Rogue” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “The Joy Luck Club”

7763._sy475_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 ‘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: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989

Where Did We Get This Book: Borrowed it from family; the library!

Book Description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts. 

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Joy Luck Club” right after college, when I found it on my sister’s book shelf and decided to give it a go. It was around this time that I really started to devote my life to reading again, and I remember really enjoying the book in my early twenties. So when it was chosen for book club, I was interested to see if my thoughts and feelings would have changed as time passed. I found my Mom’s old school copy in their basement, and dove right back in.

Time and reading experience has definitely changed my perceptions, but not in a bad way, necessarily. I still liked how Tan portrayed the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, sometimes because of the complex relationship between parents and children, and other times because of a culture clash between immigrants who grew up in one place and culture, and their children who grew up in a different place and different culture. We see their lives and personalities through various vignettes and experiences, and see how the hardships that the mothers had made them approach how they raised their daughters, and in turn how the daughters may or may not understand those approaches. Sometimes the relationships were touching and loving, and other times there would be conflicts that were hard to read. For me, the most effective vignettes mostly involved Suyuan Woo (the founder of the Joy Luck Club) and her daughter Jing Mei. Suyuan was living in China during the Japanese Invasion and the lead up to World War Two, and endured the tragedy of not only losing her husband, but having to abandon her twin daughters on the side of the road because she was too sick to carry them. Jing Mei always felt like she wasn’t good enough in her mother’s eyes, and when she finds out that the rest of the Joy Luck Club found out that her half sisters are alive, she has to decide if she’s going to pursue them. Her complicated relationship with her mother is filled with a lot of painful subtext and context, and while through my Western experience I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how Suyuan (and many of the other mothers) treated their daughters I did think that the stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei had the most emotional oomph, and definitely made me tear up multiple times. Tan does a good job of not necessarily excusing some of the manipulative or cruel behaviors of her characters, but showing why they may be acting that way. Her writing is also gorgeous, as it flows well and brings out a lot of imagery in vibrant ways.

I can see how there are criticisms from some Chinese American authors and scholars when it comes to “The Joy Luck Club”, as for so long this seemed like the go-to book for Westerners when it comes to what Asian American stories are consumed. Hell, I am pretty sure that when I picked it up a decade or so ago it was one of the first books I’d read written by an Asian-American author about Asian and Asian-American characters. As time has gone on it’s important that more Asian and Asian-American authors have been able to tell stories of all kinds, and to show all kinds of experiences that don’t necessary reflect stereotypes that “The Joy Luck Club” may have contributed to, inadvertently or otherwise. But on the other side, this story definitely seems to be a very personal one for Tan, and therefore it’s hard to completely write it off or to say that it should be left behind completely. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to where “The Joy Luck Club” should be in the literary canon.

Reading “The Joy Luck Club” a second time was an interesting experience, and with older and wiser eyes I think that I got more from it. I’m glad that book club gave me the chance to read it again.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was a book that I only knew through vague familiarity with the title and the fact that it had been made into a movie in the early 90s that I may have caught bits and pieces of, here and there. So other than knowing that this type of literary fiction is typically my jam, I didn’t have many preconceived notions of the book going in.

Overall, I was right in my initial assessment that this wouldn’t be my type of book, but there were things that I did appreciate about it. I don’t know a lot of about China during the Japanese invasion and many of mother’s tales were an interesting (if tragic!) look into that time period and how these women came emigrate to America. I do wish there had been a bit more variation between the tales. While they were each distinctive enough, towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the next mother’s tale to be the starkly contrasting tale to balance out the others. Instead, most of them were fairly similar at their heart, which leads to one of my main criticism.

I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and how each was related to the one who did what. Part of this comes down to the similarity between some of the stories. But there was also similarity between characters. Many of the daughters ended up married to varying levels of scumbag husbands who all also tended to blend together in my mind. The story was also broken up into chapters for the mothers and chapters for the daughters, but they are all scattered throughout the book in a way that forced me to always flip back to the chart in the front of the book and to previous chapters to try to figure out just who we were talking about how and how their story related to others’.

I think the way the book was laid out in this way had a detrimental effect even on one of the main messages the author was trying to get across, about how the mother’s lives effected how they interacted and raised their daughters, and vice versa. Every once in a while I’d be able to form a clear connection from one of the mother’s stories to how she interacted with her daughter. But I think there was also a lot I missed simply because I couldn’t keep track of who’s story was who’s. The book was originally written as a collection of short stories, and I almost think it would have been more successful had it been left as that. The attempt to draw it together as a novel is just enough to technically earn that description, but left me, the reader, more confused than I would have been had I just read the short stories seperately.

We had a really good book club discussion about identity, mother/daughter relationships, and whether or not immigration and 1st, 2nd, generation immigrants may have different experiences now, coming out of differing political climates in their home countries and into a different USA, too. So there’s still clearly a lot of good stuff to be found in this book. As a point of discussion, I really liked it. But as a read, it wasn’t really my thing.

Kate’s Rating 7: An emotional book with complex themes and issues, “The Joy Luck Club” was interesting to revisit, and for the most part still held up for me.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting point of entrance into a larger discussion about immigration, family, and culture, but still a bit hard to read for me.

Book Club Questions

  1. The story is broken into several different stories about the mothers and the daughters. Is there one that stands out to you and why?
  2. The story is focused largely on the challenging relationship between the mothers and daughters. What makes this relationship so challenging but also fulfilling? What about these depictions strikes you?
  3. Immigration is challenging issue right now. How does this book fit into the current narrative about immigrants and their experiences leaving their homes and coming to live in a new country?
  4. When Jing-Mei is talking with the other women of the Joy Luck Club about her mother, she says that she doesn’t feel like she knew who her mother was or anything about her. How much do you think we know about our own mothers? Do you think that Jing-Mei’s perceived lack of knowledge (And Suyuan’s privacy) could be generational? Cultural?
  5. The book is broken into several stories and jumps around from one to another. How did this structure affect your read?
  6. There are rumors of a sequel to this book (in film form). If there was to be a sequel to this story set in the modern day, what do you think it would cover? What relationships, what countries, what cultures?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Joy Luck Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Jezebel’s Books All Women Should Read”.

Find “The Joy Luck Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant.