Serena’s Review: “Now I Rise”

22817331Book: “Now I Rise” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.

After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Previously Reviewed: “And I Darken” (some spoilers!)

Review: “And I Darken” was another surprise hit from last year, so much so that it made my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year. So I was anxiously awaiting this sequel. The stakes (…pun intended?? with impaling?? get it???) have never been higher for Lada, Radu, and Mehmed. Impossible dreams are being pursued, but how much will need to be sacrificed in the attempt? And once they get what they want, was it worth the price?

The narrative is again split between Lada and Radu, however, so many of their choices revolve around their conflicting feelings towards Mehmed, their childhood friend, ruler of the nation that has held them hostage from family and country, and lover/wished for lover of both, that he almost feels like a POV character, too.

As I mentioned, this story is mostly about obsessions that have taken the place of love. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed all serve as prime examples of how letting one goal become your purpose in life can begin to rule you and lead to choices you never would have imagined. Each of their goals are impossible in different ways.

For Lada, it turns out that reclaiming her homeland isn’t as easy as she thought. Also, Mehmed’s “support” isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Lada’s story here is a tragic example of expectations vs. reality and her slow realization that she is truly alone in the world, even from those she loves best. Lada wishes to become Prince of her homeland of Wallachia, a nation that has never had a female ruler and has been willing subservient to the Ottomans for decades. She is routinely dismissed by those around her for simply being a girl, and it takes the entire book for her to realize that even those closest to her see and use her this way. And along her own path, she is forced to make choices, betray those she loves, in pursuit of this seemingly impossible goal. Terrible acts are committed all for the good of Wallachia. And what makes her story, and these books, most compelling is the morally grey area these choices always exist within. Lada does terrible things, but in a certain light, she also does incredibly good things. She betrays those around her and is betrayed herself. Routinely, she chooses Wallachia over those who love her and those who claim to love her. She pushes forward with a single-minded determination, dealing out consequences left and right, that both help and hurt her. So, too, she must deal with the fact that Mehmed and Radu are equally single-minded in their own pursuits, and those don’t always align with her own goals.

Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed is front and center in this book. He has been shunted to the side in Mehmed’s court to serve as a “sleeper agent,” essentially. But this also results in real isolation and distance between the two. And then he is sent in to Constantinople as a spy and things go from bad to worse. The “enemy” is now humanized for him, and while he despises their strange obsession with “signs” and holy artifacts, he also grows to respect Constantine himself, and especially, the young man, Cypiran, who serves as host to Radu and his wife, Nazira. He is forced to double cross and double cross again his friends on both sides of what he is increasingly convinced is nothing more than a war of egos between Mehmed and Constantine.

While Lada, too, makes choices that are hard to read about, she’s also fighting for respect and acknowledgement for her accomplishments, a goal that I can very much understand. She’s also simply a badass character, and has some fun moments between herself and her soldiers that were even comedic. Radu…I struggled with more. His obsession with Mehmed is the epitome of unhealthy, something that Nazira (probably the most likeable and objectively “good” character there is in this book!) is quick to point out in the most strong language. His choices, while understandable for his character, routinely made me want to smack him up the backside of the head. But, all of this said, he is an intriguingly conflicted character. It’s a sign of incredible strength as an author to make a character whom I often very much disliked at the same time read as incredibly interesting and whose story I am still fully invested in.

And Mehmed. As I said, we don’t get a POV for him, but he’s so instrumental to the other two, that we are painted a fairly clear picture. And that picture is: nothing and no one matters except for Constantinople. His obsession is arguably the worst of them all. He uses Lada and Radu in truly unacceptable ways. He claims to love them both, and I believe he probably does, but by the end of this story, to me, he reads as the true villain.

The themes of this book are dark and heart-breaking. Again and again, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed choose impossible dreams over the love of family and friends. Radu abandons Lada in pursuit of Mehmed. Mehmed uses Radu’s feelings for him against him and abandons Lada in the wilderness in pursuit of Constantinople. And Lada sacrifices the goodness and softness in herself to become whom she must to be Prince of Wallachia. Poetic tragedy, conflicted characters, and a stark historic landscape that proves that no one wins when obsessions rule over love and kindness.

This isn’t an easy read, but the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are full fleshed out, and the story is like watching a slow-motion car crash that you can’t look away from. Definitely check this book out if you enjoy books that look at the darker side of history.

Rating 10: Poignant and beautiful, terrible and tragic, a must-read for historical fiction fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Now I Rise” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Children’s and YA with LGBT characters” and “Diverse YA Retellings.”

Find “Now I Rise” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Waking Land”

32671619Book: “The Waking Land” by Callie Bates

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC giveaway from Goodreads & ARC NetGalley e-book

Book Description: Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life.

Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition powers that suddenly stir within her.

But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.

Review: First off, thank you to the publisher and Goodreads for providing me this book through a give away! I also read a portion of it through an e-book ARC provided by NetGalley. You know, cuz I need to be able to read the book at ANY GIVEN MOMENT and thus need copies available in every format.

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(source)

Anywho! On to the review! Beyond the beautiful cover (yes, I do judge a book by its cover when it suits me, thank you very much), I was instantly intrigued after reading the story synopsis. It sounded like an appealing mix of political intrigue, manners and etiquette, and, of course, magic. And while it was all of those things, there were a few stumbling blocks along the way.

First off, the political intrigue. It became very clear early in the book that the author was drawing inspiration from the Jacobite rebellion between Scotland and England to create the history and heart of the conflict in her story. There are two countries occupying an island nation, one has been overthrown in recent history, but still hopes to put their own choice leader on the thrown and regain independence for their portion of the country. Obviously, there’s much more to it than this, but at its core, it’s fairly straightforward. I was very pleased with this portion of the story. It was interesting finding similar threads to real history sprinkled within this fantasy novel, especially when those threads diverged from the path with which we are familiar.

Bates clearly had a lot of world building she was trying to pack in this novel. Beyond these tie-ins to the Jacobite rebellion, there’s a complicated history that goes back centuries before it, involving not only these two nations, but another powerful nation who had conquered the entire region at one point and then retreated again.  Detailed histories likes this make a story interesting, but they also present a challenge to authors. All too often books end up with large info-dumps presenting all of these details, which no one loves. But here, we saw the opposite side of the coin. I was a good 150 pages into this story and was still trying to work out the timeline of who conquered who when and why. At a certain point, it was so frustrating that I simply gave up trying to understand. I hesitate to recommend more info dumping, but in circumstances like this, it’s probably the better option than sprinkling in details throughout a long-ish book where much of the plot revolves around the political implications of this history and readers end up just confused.

I did love the magical set up that was brought into the story. Sure there was the cool magic that Elanna was able to create, but the more interesting part was, again, the detailed framework and history behind her power. Not only are her powers needed for the rebellion, but the symbol that she represents as a corner of the tri-part governing force that traditionally ruled the land is highly motivating to the people.

I had mixed feelings with regards to Elanna herself. Her history (the stolen child of a failed rebel leader being held to keep the other side in check) is one that sets her up to have many conflicting feelings and views of those around her. Things like family, friendship, and even national loyalty are all tied together in knots. She feels abandoned by one family, guilty for developing attachments to her captors, questions everyone’s motives around her, questions her own loyalties. Much of this was very interesting and created a rich character arc for her to travel. Unfortunately, all too often she would perform complete 180s on a dime with very little explanation for why she changed her mind. She hates her father! She’ll join her father in this rebellion! Also, while the stress and frustration that would arise from her situation is understandable, at times she read as very unlikable and immature. I never could quite decide how I felt about her. Ultimately, I think I was more invested in the story that she was living than in her as a character on her own.

So there are my thoughts! To be summed up, I was very conflicted with this book. It had true moments of brilliance with a unique and complicated history, both political and magical, and the main character also had flashes of greatness. But I was also all too often confused by the same history and frustrated with Elanna herself. I would still likely recommend this book to readers who enjoy historical “fantasy of manners” type books based on its strengths. Want to judge for yourself? Enter our giveaway to receive an ARC of this book!

Enter to win an ARC of ‘The Waking Land!”

Rating 6: Had so many things going on (complicated history, complicated characters) that it didn’t quite manage to fully flesh it all out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Waking Land” is new and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of Manners” and “Best Books Containing Elemental Powers.”

Find “The Waking Land” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

3682Book: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray

Publication Info: Simon and Schuster, December 2013

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

Book Description: A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy—jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order.

Review: You may be wondering…a book about snarky popular girls? Why is Serena reviewing this and not Kate, the keeper of snarky girls’ clubs? Well, after I started this book, I found out that Kate did in fact read this book before we started this blog, and I’m now just playing catch up. But, in many ways, this book also sounded like something that would be up my alley. I love historical books, and especially those that fall into the very specific “fantasy of manners” category that often mixes Regency/Victorian fiction with magical worlds and systems. So, while the snarky girls did get on my nerves at points, these other elements that are more typical of my usual reading wares were definitely working in its favor.

The story starts out with us meeting Gemma, a spoiled and rather bratty teenage girl living in India with her parents and dreaming of London. After tragedy strikes and her mother dies in the midst of some strange dark magic, Gemma finds her “dreams” coming true, but not in the ways she would expect. Yes, she’s now in England. But being the new girl isn’t all that she thought it would be, and not only is she set apart by this status, but she’s hiding a dark secret of her burgeoning magical abilities. All too quickly, things begin to spiral out of control and now Gemma needs to not only manage learning her own powers, but finding a way to keep her new friends safe in the process.

While I found myself wanting to smack each of these girls up side the head at one point or another, I loved the clear-eyed look at the harsh realities that were forced upon Victorian young ladies. Each girl has her own struggles to overcome. The beauty who is being essentially sold to the highest bidder in a marriage of convenience. The powerful, popular girl whose charm and magnetic personality allows her to reign over the school but whose control over her self and her decisions doesn’t translate to a life where she has been abandoned by her mother and ignored by her father. The orphan, attending school on a scholarship and whose dreams of beauty and singing are being squashed beneath the realities of an almost unavoidable future as a governess. And Gemma, herself, who is being told again and again by the men around her to keep her head down, be a good girl, and definitely don’t learn anything more about her own magical abilities.

Each of these girls was distinct, and each responded differently to the sudden power and freedom they discover in Gemma’s abilities and the mystical Order, a group of magical women that existed for centuries before coming to a mysterious and tragic end a few decades ago. I loved the slow reveal of the Order and the truth behind the girls who had been at the center of its downfall. There were plenty of surprises, and some that, while I was able to guess the result, were just as delicious in the telling.

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I was pretty much picturing scenes from “Practical Magic” throughout this entire book. (source)

My few qualms with the story are purely personal preference. There’s a reason why Kate is the queen of the snarky girls groups and I’m not. At various points in the story, but especially towards the last third, I would get increasingly frustrated with the nonsense of these girls. While the tenuous balance of their friendships read as true of teenage girls, even if I found it annoying at times, it was the complete lack of thought that went into some of their actions towards the end that really got to me. The author did a good job of building up the desperation, frustration, and fear of the future that drove these actions, but I still had a hard time with the complete idiocy that made up some of these decisions, given the information they had about past events. However, this last third was saved by some good action sequences, and a realistic bout of consequences for everything that occurred.

My last point will be that there was the seemingly required romance sub plot in this story. And when I say sub plot, I mean sub sub plot. It was barely there to the point that whenever it was referenced, it almost felt like it was coming out of the blue. The boy in question was rarely involved in the action of the story, would be absent for large chunks of time, and really had no relationship building with Gemma, leaving any feelings she had for him based purely on physical appearance. Luckily, the relationship doesn’t develop much, which felt on par with the above mentioned limitations, but I was left wondering whether it needed to be included at all. I’m guessing that more will come of this in the next few books, which may, in retrospect, make this element read better a second go-around.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. I loved the setting of a Victorian boarding school, with the strict boundaries set before these girls as the force upon which the freedoms and power of the magical elements worked against. While I can only hope that in future books the girls wisen up a bit, and maybe snap at each other a bit less, I’m definitely interested enough to continue with the series.

Rating 8: While my tolerance for bratty girls may be rather low, I still loved the magic and the Victorian setting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Great and Terrible Beauty” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain” and “Fantasy of Manners.”

Find “A Great and Terrible Beauty” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising”

31624824Book: “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” by Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo (Ill.), and Laura Braga (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Based on the hit DC Collectibles product line! As World War II rages across Europe, the Allied forces issue a call to arms for the greatest heroines the world has ever known! With an old villain arising from beyond the grave, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Kara Starikov, Kortni Duginova and Mera must aid the Allied forces while at home, a brave group of Batgirls must defend the homeland!
The incredibly popular DC Collectibles line is brought to life in these stories that reimagine the course of history! From writer Marguerite Bennett (BATGIRL, EARTH 2: WORLD’S END) and featuring artists including Marguerite Sauvage (HINTERKIND), Laura Braga (Witchblade) and Mirka Andolfo (Chaos) comes DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 3.

Review: With the way that the last “DC Bombshells” collection ended (if you’ll remember, it was devastating), I was wondering if we were going to get into more pathos in which we’d have to potentially say goodbye to another of our beloved heroines. I suppose that I should have steeled myself for that possibility from the get go, as this is WWII and with war comes death. And given that our ladies are spread out across various fronts, battling not only Nazis, but also Nazi Zombies, the stakes are pretty high. And we jumped right back into it.

But first, we went back to the home front to check in with the Bat Girls! They’re continuing there time of taking up the mantle for Batwoman while she is overseas, and this time they have a new ally to go along with Maggie Sawyer.

LOIS LAAAAAAAANE!!!!

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It’s her time at the table, folks, so buckle up! (source)

Seeing Lois introduced (and giving her a very interesting backstory that gently but deftly touches on the immigrant experience) was a serious treat for this Lois Lane fangirl. It was also great seeing her jump in without having to worry about needing help from Superman (still nowhere in sight), and helping the Bat Girls break up a crime ring (involving the Penguin!), though they find themselves wanted in the process. Seeing this and a non-Two Face-d version of Harvey Dent going on and on as a political candidate with an “America First” platform made this story feel pretty close to home.

But meanwhile, in Europe, we catch up with our Bombshells on the front lines. We don’t get to see Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or the aftermath of Stargirl’s death this time, but that’s okay by me. I’m not ready to see the fallout from that. But that isn’t to say that we have a lack of stories this time around, as we are juggling a number of story lines. We have Batwoman, leaving Wonder Woman and Stargirl to try and get back to the front lines, who meets up with an old flame, Renee Montoya (aka The Question). They first met during the Spanish Civil War, and fought on the rebel side against the fascists. Now they are teaming up again, in spite of bad memories of losing a young protege and friend named Jacon (YES AS IN JASON TODD I AM SCREAMING) and the end of their love. You have Zatanna, who has been sent to a ghetto because of her Jewish and Romani heritage, and is being tormented by Joker’s Daughter, who has taken away her powers. You have Mera, who has washed up in Ireland without her powers, banished from Atlantis and her rightful throne. And we finally come back to Harley and Ivy, who have become freedom fighters for the resistance, and have found love with each other as they try to make their way to Berlin to take down the Nazis from their home base. And I haven’t even mentioned Huntress, Miri Marvel, Joker, Catwoman, Raven, and Aquaman, who all make appearances as well.

It’s definitely a lot to balance. But Bennett does a really good job of slowly but surely weaving all of these stories together. It was SO lovely to see my girls Harley and Ivy again, and to see how they play into this whole thing. I was wondering how it was all going to fit together, but it does. I was also really relieved that even though we did get a bit more romance with some of the heavy hitting men of the Universe (Aquaman and Constantine, specifically), it didn’t bring down Mera or Zatanna. Even though Mera has found lighthouse keeper Arthur, there is no sign of him having powers that are going to outdo hers as of yet. Their romance is just another part of her as a person, but Mera remains Mera and isn’t distracted from her goal of getting her powers and Atlantis back. The same can be said for Constantine, who is in the ghetto with Zatanna. He is there to support her, but his presence doesn’t weaken her or make her seem like he is her only strength in a horrific situation.

I loved seeing all of these women come together to fight against Joker’s Daughter and the Nazis, and that a number of these women in this story are Jewish or of Jewish descent, as Batwoman, Zatanna, Miri, and Harley all make mention of their heritage while they are inside the ghetto during a shabbat dinner. There was great beauty in this entire moment, as it wasn’t solely a ‘savior’ moment, as these women are also targets because of their heritage. The symbolism was bittersweet, and I really appreciated it. It was also good seeing the concept of abusive and controlling relationships being addressed, and not just in romantic ways. There was a small moment with Harley and Joker as she tells Ivy about her past, but there is also the relationship between Joker’s Daughter and Zatanna, and the relationship between Mera and her former beau. There is also poor Raven, who has only known Joker’s Mother as her mother figure, and is so damaged in her need to please her but also her need to escape. These are things that women in real life have to grapple with, and I so appreciate that this series dares to bring up the toxicity of relationships like these, and contrast them with healthy relationships. Harley finds Ivy. Zatanna finds Constantine. Raven finds a new group of women to mother her. Mera finds Arthur. And they all find more self respect. It’s just so positive!!! I can’t gush about it enough!!

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(source)

There is just so much to love in this series. It continues to be super feminist, it continues to strive for diversity, and it continues to have some awesome action sequences that are just as good as any other superhero comic out there. I am once again sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the next one in the series (out this fall I think!). While I’m worried that some characters are done, I am excited to see who else could show up.

Rating 10: Once again “DC Bombshells” knocks me off my seat and excites and thrills me until I turn the final page. These ladies continue to kick serious ass!!!

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but given the lists it’s predecessors are on it would fit right in on “#fempowerathon”, and “Amazons, Female Warriors, and Wonder Women”.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “DC Bombshells (Vol 1): Enlisted!”, and “DC Bombshells (Vol 2): Allies”.

Book Club Review: “The Inquisitor’s Tale”

29358517We 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: “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog” by Adam Gidwitz, Hatem Aly (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Beloved bestselling author Adam Gidwitz makes his long awaited return with his first new world since his hilarious and critically acclaimed Grimm series. Featuring manuscript illuminations throughout by illustrator Hatem Aly and filled with Adam’s trademark style and humor, The Inquisitor’s Tale is bold storytelling that’s richly researched and adventure-packed.

Beautifully illustrated throughout! Includes a detailed historical note and bibliography.

Kate’s Thoughts

Guess who has never read “The Canterbury Tales”? Me! Guess who isn’t really into Medieval Fiction? Also me! And guess who knows little to nothing about religion and the philosophy of it beyond the most basic tenants of Judaism and United Church of Christ Christianity? This girl! So I feel like all of these factors combine (as well as some spates of bathroom humor, one of the few types of humor that doesn’t especially appeal to me) to make “The Inquisitor’s Tale” a book that isn’t written for me. So yes, while I understand the praise for this book and the appeal of it, and understand why it works so well as a children’s book and does so much more than other children’s books, I never really got into it myself.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t anything I liked about it. I liked that it asked some pretty deep philosophical questions that you usually don’t see in children’s literature. I feel like Gidwitz doesn’t patronize to his audience, and that he knows that these are hard questions to wrap minds around regardless of what age you are. What makes a Saint? How can some people say that they hold certain values and beliefs, and not realize that they are perpetuating cruelty towards others, especially those that they claim to care about? What are ways that stories can be told and passed on, and how can these stories be changed based on the storyteller? I also liked that Gidwitz had three very different protagonists to show different walks of life and different experiences that would have been common during this time period. You have Jeanne, the peasant girl who can see parts of the future, who has to function in a society where women and peasants hold no value. You have William, a boy raised to be a monk who is both of African and Muslim descent, and stands out among those around him. And there’s Jacob, a Jewish boy in a France where King Louis persecutes the Jews as heretics. Seeing all these kids come together (along with Jeanne’s resurrected dog Gwenforte) and try to understand each other is a great message.

I also had a very hard time reading about the anti-Semitism in this book, be it villages being burnt to the ground, Jews being humiliated and threatened with violence, and Talmuds being burnt. I know that it was the reality of the time period, but for whatever reason I really struggled with it and had to set the book down a number of times and calm down before I could continue reading. I appreciate that Gidwitz was being honest about this time period, of course, and I really liked the extensive historical notes that he put in the back of the book, and yet I wasn’t really on board for the ‘Louis was a complex person who thought he was doing what was right, no matter how wrong it was’ stuff. Because at the end of the day, no matter how noble Louis thought he was being, it WAS wrong. And I have less and less time for those kinds of explanations these days.

My personal issues with this book shouldn’t necessarily reflect this book. It just wasn’t for me, but I definitely see how it would be an appealing read for other people.

Serena’s Thoughts

From the other side of the spectrum, I have read “The Canterbury Tales!” I am into Medieval fiction (at least as far as the fact that much fantasy is set in some type of medieval-like world)! And I was raised Lutheran, so at least the Christian theological philosophy was fairly familiar to me! So I think Kate is right, there are some factors going in that if you have as a reader you’re perhaps more likely to immediately engage with the book. However, massive caveat in this whole theory is that this is a middle school children’s book and let’s be real, how many kids have read “Canterbury Tales” or have a strong understanding of religious philosophy??

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Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (source)

So, while I did enjoy the story more than Kate did, I do have to agree with her on a few of the downsides of the book. Most notably the potty humor and, for me, the suspension of disbelief in a few parts.

But first the pros! Since by an large I did very much enjoy this book. I won’t repeat what Kate said about the great diversity of the cast, except for one extra note. I really appreciated the close up look at exclusion/inclusion that the narrator took with these three children. Yes, they are all in this together. And yes, they are all friends. But at various points throughout the book, even with the friendships that have formed from their shared experiences, they each have to confront the sense of “otherness” that comes from their own unique walk of life. For William,  he’s a black boy with two white children. For Jeanne, she’s a girl with two boys. For Jacob, he’s a Jewish boy with two Christian children. I loved the various triangles that were made up and the constant shift that was in play from situation to situation with each of their “ins” or “outs” becoming a strength or something that made them stand out as different. I felt that this was a really important message for a book like this: privilege comes in all shapes and forms and at any given moment any single person can be on the in or the out, so we must all be aware and kind.

I’ll also throw in a few good words for the illustrations! I loved the metacommentary of the way the book was illustrated, mimicking the images that monks would draw into the margins of their transcribing work. Some would align with the action of the story while others were intentionally obtuse (a fact that is noted in the beginning of the story, that the illustrator would draw what came to him, with some images existing without connection to the story or explanation).

The ties to “The Canterbury Tales” were also fun, with the story being told by various narrators. I loved the way this element of the book came to life towards the last third, drawing these outside forces into the story itself. There were a few very clever twists with this that I don’t want to spoil! That said, as I mentioned above, I doubt any kid reading this will have read “The Canterbury Tales” and I don’t think there is anything missing for it. It’s more just a fun plug for those English nerds out there who have plowed through that thing and all of its incomprehensible Old English.

But I also agree with a few of the down points that Kate mentioned, notably the potty humor. This is purely a personal preference thing, as I know many kids (and adults!) love this type of humor. But there was one side plot that really lost me as it focused almost entirely on these types of jokes. Secondly, there were a few points in the story where my suspension of disbelief was called into question. We’re dealing with magical children, so for the most part I was ready to just go with this. But there were a few scenes, notably a fight scene where William beats up a bunch of bandits with a donkey leg, that pushed me out of the story a bit wondering how much of the “real world” this story was supposed to be set in.

Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this book. It is a tough read in parts like Kate mentioned. Serious issues are tackled and the persecution and tragedy of the time period weren’t glossed over. I appreciated this fact, but it does make for some sad happenings. But ultimately I would recommend this book to middle schoolers and adults. It’s one of those rare children’s books that can equally appeal to adults.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong middle school story set in a unique time period with a lot to say about history, religion, and inclusiveness.

Kate’s Rating 6: I see the value and I understand the praise, but I had a harder time with this book than I would have liked.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is told from multiple perspectives when a group of people gather in a pub to recall the story of the three kids. Did you have a favorite perspective voice?
  2. The illustrations in this book are similar to that of illuminated texts that are seen throughout history in religious works. Have you ever encountered this kind of illustration before? What did you think of the illustrations?
  3. King Louis IX was an actual person in history, as was his mother Blanche, as were other people mentioned in this book. What did you think of using real people in this fictional story?
  4. Each of the main characters comes from a different walk of life, has their own set of challenges to overcome, and their own magical powers. Did one of these characters stand out more to you? Why?
  5. This story tackles a lot of big questions about religion and diversity. Did any of these points stand out to you as particularly strong? Could any have been improved upon or weren’t fully realized?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Inquisitor’s Tale” is included on the Goodreads lists “Newbery Medal Honor Books”, and “Bravewriter Boomerangs”.

Find “The Inquisitor’s Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making”.

 

Emily’s Corner: “Miss Buncle’s Book”

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!

15725379Book: “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D. E. Stevenson

Publishing Info: First published in 1934, republished in 2008 by Persephone books

Where Did I Get this Book: Barnes and Nobles! My husband gave me a generous book budget for my Christmas present so I promptly stocked up on all of D. E. Stevenson’s re-published novels.

Book Description: Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Maybe she could sell a novel … if she knew any stories. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from her fellow residents of Silverstream, the little English village she knows inside and out.

To her surprise, the novel is a smash. It’s a good thing she wrote under a pseudonym, because the folks of Silverstream are in an uproar. But what really turns Miss Buncle’s world around is this: what happens to the characters in her book starts happening to their real-life counterparts. Does life really imitate art?

Review: This was my most recent pick for book club. I had seen the Miss Buncle series several times at my local Barnes and Nobles (praise be that a real life book store still exists driving distance from my house!) and couldn’t wait to read it.

I’ll be honest, the first several chapters were slow going. I was a bit worried that I’d picked a sleeper, especially after last month’s emotional selection, “My Name is Asher Lev.” But thankfully it picked up after a few short chapters.

Miss Buncle is yet another adorable old maid (you know my soft spot for them, see my The Blue Castle” review.) She is a spinster in her sleepy village, whose pre-war dividends have reduced her monthly budget to minuscule proportions. Eager to lift herself out of poverty, she attempts to write a book and produces a best-seller on her first try. The first half of her novel are thinly veiled accounts of her neighbor’s comings and goings, and in the second half she re-writes their lives doling out both poetic justice and happy endings with glee.

The result is a book that is quickly picked up by a publisher who is convinced that this is a work of satire, an opinion seized upon by the public which launches Miss Buncle into conveniently anonymous stardom. The trials of keeping her identity a secret from her alternately furious and delighted neighbors are hilarious, and involve a scheming gold-digger, the town’s charming new parson living a year of self-imposed poverty, a surprise elopement, and the kidnapping of twins!

One of my favorite characters is Miss Buncle’s publisher, a man who is delighted with both the book and its’ beguiling author, once he comes around to the idea that the satirical “John Smith” is in fact a mousy spinster who is honest to a fault and in desperate need of money. The following quote says all you need to know about him.

“What fools the public were! They were exactly like sheep…thought Mr. Abbott sleepily…following each other’s lead, neglecting one book and buying another just because other people were buying it, although, for the life of you, you couldn’t see what the one lacked and the other possessed.” 

In essence, this is a book about a book, full of thoughtful commentary on what it means to be a reader and the very thin line that exists between fact and fiction. This is exactly the kind of book you want on a sick day at home, under the covers with tea and chocolate toast.

One last observation. I was struck by the similarity in writing style to L. M. Montgomery, so I was delighted to discover the D. E. Stevenson was in fact a contemporary of Montgomery’s! If you like “Anne of Green Gables,” I can almost guarantee that you’ll adore the Miss Buncle trilogy. I have yet to read “Miss Buncle Married” or “The Two Mrs. Abbotts,” but they are next on my list!

Rating 8: Get yourself through the yawn-inducing first chapters, and you’ll be rewarded with a delightful little tale set in just the kind of English village you’ve always wanted to retire to.

Reader’s Advisory:

Funnily enough, “Miss Buncle’s Book” is included on only one Goodreads list and it is “Potential Book Club Choices.”

Find “Miss Buncle’s Book” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Long May She Reign”

30320053Book: “Long May She Reign” by Rhiannon Thomas

Publication Info: HarperTeen, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Freya was never meant be queen. Twenty third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

Freya may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councilors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, Freya knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom – and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisors. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her, but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

Review:  Everything about this book description sounded like something that would be right up my alley. And other than a bit of confusion about the genre (fantasy?), I was not disappointed!

Freya is 20-something in line to the throne, but after a mass poisoning, somehow queenship still manages to fall on her shoulders. Now, not only does she, a natural introvert who only wants to work on her science experiments, have to figure out how to rule a country, but she needs to unravel the mystery behind the poisoning before she’s next. No killer would set out to put her on the throne, after all!

This was such a simple story, and I loved it for this very reason! Within the framework of a political drama, Freya herself is allowed to shine as the unique heroine she is. Often we’re presented with this archetypal character arc: shy wallflower through plot devices learns she’s super special and beautiful and ends the book as the bad-ass she was truly meant to be, thus shedding all of her original shyness. I’ve never liked or bought this story arc for a character. As an introvert myself, that’s just not how it works, and I’m kind of offended whenever having a quieter disposition is presented as something that must be “overcome” to become the bad-ass warrior in the end. And it has been well-documented on this blog that I love me some bad-ass women characters! But that doesn’t mean that every character should become this!

Freya’s journey is not to become a better person by the end, but to truly  appreciate that the changes she brings to the country as a different ruler with different strengths, manners, and priorities is ultimately  just what it might need. Mental health is a subject that is brought up a few times in this book, both for Freya who suffers from anxiety attacks and for another noble lady whom Freya quickly befriends who suffers from some form of depression. While neither of these subjects were tackled in any depth, neither character was demonized for the way that they chose to deal with their own mental health and the fact that they each needed to make its management a priority in their own way. For Freya, this meant the comfort of straightforward and logical scientific research.

Given this connection to Freya’s anxiety,  I appreciated that her research wasn’t simply set up in the beginning as “oh, here’s a special thing about her to make her stand apart from all the other fantasy YA heroines but doesn’t actually play any part in the story” but as an aspect of Freya’s character that is continually reinforced throughout the story. Not only does she use her knowledge and abilities to solve the mystery, but we see how she will continue to make room for this important aspect of herself as a ruler going forward. Science is her retreat and her method for calming her mind, and I loved that this was so fully embraced. Further, the characters who are important to her embrace this as well. Not only appreciating that Freya is always going to make scientific research a priority in her life and one that they will have to live aside, but actually joining her and learning from her.

These side characters were also key to my enjoyment of the novel. The cast is a manageable size, both small enough that I felt like I was able to get to know many of them well, but also large enough to hold up the mystery itself with several viable suspects. Many of them were also delightfully written in shades of grey. There are few obviously “good” characters, like Freya’s best friend from the beginning (Yay for female friendships! There were several in this book, and I loved that ultimately these relationships were given more attention than the romantic story line, which is fairly minimal, all told) and, obviously, her cat whom she adores (she risks her life to save the cat at one point which I completely understand!) But several characters on her much-reduced council are presented with their own compelling reasons for either wanting to support her rule or work quietly against it. Freya’s own father is set up as a bit of a grey character. He clearly loves his daughter, but his ambition is what lead to his rise in court from a lowly merchant, and Freya questions where this ambition could ultimately lead. With all of this, I was truly surprised by who the culprit ultimately turned out to be.

I typically try to avoid reading many other reviews for books before I write my own, but with this one I did want to see what other reviewers were doing when slotting this book in a genre. It is presented as a fantasy novel, but for the life of me I can’t really understand why. Sure, it’s set in an imaginary kingdom…but that’s it. There is no magic that is referenced, no creatures that don’t exist in our world, nothing really. And I feel like this was a bit of a failing in its marketing. This book is more a political/historical YA novel, and by setting it up as a YA fantasy (a genre that is booming beyond belief right now), I feel like a lot of readers came out of it disappointed. As I love these genres as well, I wasn’t perturbed by it. But both the description and cover make it seem like this is somehow a fantasy novel, and for readers who are mostly there for the magic and romance that is usually found in YA fantasy…you’re kind of setting the book up to fail by not targeting the correct audience. Sure, publishers want the extra bang for their buck that comes from jumping on a popular genre bandwagon, but is it worth the backlash when readers discover the truth? I never like this type of marketing tomfoolery, as I feel like this is a strong novel for what it is and that’s now being undercut due to these silly tactics.

But if you are a reader who enjoys YA political/historical novels that focus in on science rather than magic, definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A great, character-focused political romp!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long May She Reign” is a new book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “YA Royalty” and “Unconventional Princesses (and Princes).”

Find “Long May She Reign” at your library using WorldCat!