Book Club Review: “Red at the Bone”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, September 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Literary Fiction

Book Description: Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony– a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

Kate’s Thoughts

Although this genre doesn’t tend to make it onto the blog, I am not really a stranger to literary fiction. If a literary novel has a topic that sounds interesting, or has a lot of hype around it, I will probably pick it up, and a lot of the time I enjoy it as a genre. But somehow I missed “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson when it came out, so when book club picked it as the Outside the Genre Box book I was eager to dive in. I read it in the course of an afternoon, as the family saga theme is one that I’ve always been a sucker for.

“Red at the Bone” is an emotional look at a family that has gone through a lot through the generations. We start with the society coming out celebration of Melody, a sixteen year old Black teenager living in New York City in 2001. She is wearing the dress that her mother Iris was supposed to wear before her, but her pregnancy at 16 cancelled the event. We look at the entire family, jumping through time, perspectives, and themes, and learn how Melody came to be, how her relationship with Iris has become what it has, and how the influence of her other family members, and the influences of their experiences, has affected her, and all of them. Woodson takes a good hard look at class differences, the way that parents have hopes for their children that don’t always mesh, and the way that trauma can be passed down through family lines, even if the later generations weren’t there to experience the initial traumatic event (for example, there is a lot of attention paid to the Tulsa Massacre, and how that horrible event has lingered down the family line). I found the different perspectives of different family members to be powerful, and Woodson gave all of them a lot of attention even in the comparatively lower number of pages. I was especially moved by the way that Woodson looks at mother and daughter relationships, and the difficulties that can be found there (I’m probably a bit biased in that regard, but I have no doubt that anyone will find it emotionally resonant as Woodson is so good).

I really liked “Red at the Bone”. It’s a quick read, but it hits in all the right ways.

Serena’s Thoughts

Unlike Kate, I really and truly don’t read a lot of literary fiction. Pretty much rules me out of being an adult librarian (rather than YA/children’s, which what I was trained for)! But I have read one or two here and there, usually upon recommendation, and often enjoyed them. I typically want more magic and unicorns in my reading, but if the writing and story are strong, I can get behind ordinary life as well.

I knew nothing about this author before reading this. Or, really, anything about what the story was about even. So I picked it up with no real preconceptions. And then I didn’t set it down until it was finished. Yes, it is a shorter book as well, but it was also compulsively readable. The layers of family history and personalities perfectly layered one on top of the other to weave together an intricate tapestry of lives lived through various trials and tribulations. We see the many ups and downs of everyone’s lives and how these experiences shape not only the character whose head we are in currently, but how these traumas, joys, choices ripple out to affect everyone else around them and following them.

Like Kate, I was particularly interested in the story of motherhood that is at much of the heart of this story. While I have two boys instead of a daughter, I am, of course, a daughter myself. It was heart-breaking and yet completely relatable to experience the fierce love and fierce hurt that can exist within this unique relationship. I also very much related to the sudden, sometimes harsh, reality of what parenthood looks like.

My own experience was very different, behind older, married to my husband, and both hoping for this outcome. But there were also moments of very real, very dark places in the actual experience of become a mother, too. The idea that overnight your entire identity seems to be sucked into this new born baby. It’s the first thing people ask you, it’s almost all you are to people for so long. And, you know, the baby isn’t even grateful! Just screaming and crying and demanding food all the time! Little punk. I kid, but it is also very hard. I can’t even imagine going through it as a young teenager and trying to find some way to be a good mother while also retain some part of a life for yourself that you hadn’t even had a chance to start.

There were so many incredible themes that resonated in this book: family, identity (both sexual and racial), history and legacy. For such a short book, it would be easy to write several essays covering different topics broached in this story. Fans of literary fiction, especially those focused on family and identity should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: An emotional and lyrical family saga, “Red at the Bone” is a quick and powerful read.

Serena’s Rating 8: Beautiful and heart-breaking, a must-read for fans of stories focused on family.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of the narrative? Was it easy for you to follow?
  2. Did you have a character that you liked the most, or wanted to learn more about beyond the story that they had in this book?
  3. What did you think about the way that Woodson presented this family and the dynamics within in?
  4. There is a lot of family trauma and grief that this family has gone through over the years, as well as hope for future generations. What did you take away from this story in terms of trauma that passes through family lines, as well as aspirations for legacy?
  5. Iris and Melody are the central relationship within this story. Do you think that their relationship has hope to evolve into something new beyond the end? Do you think that it needs to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Red at the Bone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2019”, and “Popsugar 2021 #33: A Book Featuring Three Generations”.

Find “Red at the Bone” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Diving into Sub-Genres: Literary Fantasy

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Literary fantasy is a hard sub-genre to even wrap your head around. Many of the other sub-genres of fantasy (portal fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk, urban) have very distinct elements that are easily recognizable even from a short blurb about the book. Literary fantasy…not so much. It’s tempting to say that literary fantasy is simply contemporary fantasy where the story is simply light on fantasy altogether. But this writes off historical works which would also fit this category. So perhaps it is simply the light fantastical elements? But even that I don’t think is correct (you’ll see that a couple of books I’ve included here have fairly extensive magical elements).

Instead, I think it’s largely contained in a certain style of writing that is often found in these books. Literary fantasy is often just as focused on a beautiful turn of phrase as it is on describing a magical spell’s effects. There’s often an elegance to the writing, a compulsion to appreciate the words themselves rather than fully immerse oneself in the book to the point that the reader forgets they’re reading. Indeed, knowing that one is reading is half of the joy of these types of books, with more focus given to descriptions and omniscient narrator musings than action-packed set pieces. In many ways, I’m essentially describing “literary fiction” but with some fantastical element involved. However, I think that “literary fiction” typically includes other notable elements that don’t necessarily rely on a style of writing as strongly as literary fantasy does (often tragic, more experimentation with word-play and style of writing).

So with that in mind, here are a few examples of favorite books of mine that I would file under literary fantasy.

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue”

This was actually the book that inspired this entire review series, after one of our readers commented on my labeling it as “literary fantasy” and asked about other titles that would fit in that sub-genre. So here we are! This story, that of a young woman who strikes a deal to live forever but to never be remembered by anyone she meets, fits the criteria in a few ways. It definitely has fantasy elements, what with the main character living forever and all, but the themes of the book are much more focused on identity, one’s own history, and what it means to exist in a world made up of so many other people living out their own journeys. There’s also a big focus on art and how it expresses the lives of both the artist and the subject of art. Between these themes, much of the story taking place in a standard contemporary/historical setting with very little magic involved, and the beautiful style of writing, it definitely meets the criteria for literary fantasy.

“The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

If “The Invisible Lie of Addi LaRue” was the inspiration for this post, “The Starless Sea” was my immediate answer to the question posed by our blog reader for another example of literary fantasy. I could also include Morgenstern’s first novel, “The Night Circus,” under this category, but as this is the one I’ve read and loved most recently, I’ll include it here. It’s also an example of a book I would classify as literary fantasy but one that includes many, many fantasy elements. If anything, it walks right up to the line of what I would classify as fairytale fantasy or portal fantasy. The story is a winding affair of exploration and mystery throughout time and space, all held together by a mysterious library that exists right through a doorway, if one is only brave enough to open it. There’s much reflection on love and passion, but half of the magic is the sheer whimsy of the entire thing. Behind every door is a new wonder, and the writing seems to wrap you up in a warm blanket of delight and you’re left wondering if you perhaps travelled to this magical world after all, simply through the process of reading this book. It is this lovely style of writing and the effortless feel of the magical elements involved that classifies it as literary fantasy.

“Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

This book walks even closer to the line of fairytale fantasy than the last, in that it’s largely inspired by Russian myth and the Russian folklore character, Kuschei the Deathless. But again, it’s all in the style of writing. I debated including one of Valente’s “Fairyland” stories, which I think skirt this sub-genre fairly well themselves. But I think “Deathless” hits the mark a bit better with its supposition of fantastical creatures and myths over almost all of the important events of the 20th century in Russia. Of course, knowing even a little of Russia’s history during that time period, it’s a safe guess that the story, while beautiful, has its fair share of tragic moments, as well. Valente expertly wields her magical elements in such a way as to shine new light and new insights into some of the better (and lesser) known parts of the country’s history. Anyone who has read a book by her before can also testify to the unique and beautiful style of her writing. She’s definitely an author whose stylized sentences and combinations of thoughts often makes the reader stop and re-read certain sections just to revel in her use of words.

“The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker

This is another literary fantasy novel that is at least as much concerned with delving into its real-life, historical themes as it is in exploring the two magical creatures who are the story’s main characters. Yes, our two leads are the titular golem and jinni, but their story is much more than that. Instead, in many ways, the book is more concerned at looking at the experience of immigrants in the early 1900s and life in New York City during this time period, in general. Not only are both of our characters origins not of the United States, but each, of course, is even more “other” in that they aren’t human. But at the same time, each has such core human traits that define them, that their experiences and struggles feel almost amplified for it. This is a long book, and one that definitely takes its time carefully depicting the details of the place and time as much as it does the history of the golem and jinni. It’s the kind of book that could fairly easily be recommended to straight-up historical fiction fans as well as fantasy readers.

“Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is another author who’s entire catalog of books would likely fit in this sub-genre. My favorite books by him, “The Fionavar Tapestry” quartet, definitely meet the criteria for style of writing, but they fall closer to portal fantasy, in my opinion. But I could have easily put “The Lions of Al-Rassan” or “Children of Earth and Sky” or many others on this list. I selected “Tigana,” however, because it’s probably, universally, one of his most beloved and well-regarded novels. Gavriel Kay’s books are also unique to this category in the fact that they are entirely set in alternative worlds. The settings and events are often inspired by real-life countries and events, but the worlds are still entirely fantasy-based, ultimately. This story touches on themes of war, love, and the tangle that politics makes of it all. It is expansive and marvelous, and, too many, set a higher bar for what readers can expect from fantasy fiction and specifically literary fantasy.

“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

Lastly, I wanted to include the first book in a trilogy of books that would all fit well in this category. Like some of the others, “The Bear and the Nightingale” has a definite fairytale vibe to the story. But the slow build of the story, the attention spent on developing atmosphere, and the beautiful, lyrical style of writing all fit perfectly for literary fantasy. The sharply beautiful description of the Russian winter landscape are particularly poignant, and the themes regarding religion, magic, and one young woman’s journey to carve out a place for herself in a world that doesn’t have a place for women who don’t fit a certain type of mold. What starts out on a fairly small scale expands across the three books until Vasilisa’s story starts to encompass the entirety of Russia itself. I loved this entire tirlogy and would recommend all three (though they can’t be read separately, other than the first one, perhaps) to fans of literary fantasy.

What fantasy books would you categorize as literary fantasy? What are some of your favorites? Share in the comments below!

Kate’s Review: “White Ivy”

Book: “White Ivy” by Susie Yang

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a Goodreads giveaway.

Book Description: A dazzling debut novel about a young woman’s dark obsession with her privileged classmate and the lengths she’ll go to win his love.

Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her. Raised outside of Boston, she is taught how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops by her immigrant grandmother. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, where her dream instantly evaporates.

Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when she bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate.

Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners and weekend getaways to the Cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Filled with surprising twists and offering sharp insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love triangle and a coming-of-age story, as well as a glimpse into the dark side of a woman who yearns for success at any cost.

Review: Thank you to Goodreads for sending me an ARC of this novel as part of a giveaway!

Me and my kiddo were sitting in the front yard one day, when a UPS guy pulled up and had what was clearly a book shaped parcel in his hands. I thanked him from afar and after he left I wondered if I had ordered a book that I’d forgotten about. But when I opened it up and saw that it was “White Ivy” by Susie Yang, it occurred to me that I had won a Goodreads giveaway! Which rarely happens! I had seen a bit of buzz online about this book, being described as a thriller much like “The Luckiest Girl in the World”, which is about a social climbing schemer with a dark past. That book was entertaining enough, so I figured “White Ivy” would be similar. Which it is…. and it isn’t.

“White Ivy” is certainly about a social climbing schemer. Ivy Lin is our protagonist, and after being raised in a lower class and strict Chinese immigrant household, she has dreams of rising above. It’s true that she from the get go sets her sights on a rich former classmate, and it’s true that she has every intention of doing anything to be with him. But the issue is that “White Ivy” reads less like a thriller, and more like a character study of a damaged person who, being put in certain boxes because of her gender, culture, and race, wants to succeed in the world she has deemed ‘perfect’. Sort of a twist on the ‘immigrant experience’ story that is seen in literature. In some ways Ivy is conniving, but I felt that Yang wrote her with empathy and not really with that much judgement, at least not as much as the summary implies. Does Ivy do questionable/admittedly bad things to get ahead? Absolutely. But I felt that she came off more as an anti-heroine than anything else. And I liked that Yang wrote her that way. We get to see white male antiheroes in books all the time. Seeing a Chinese-American woman fit into this part is something that I don’t encounter nearly as much. Yang touches on the culture clash between Ivy and her parents and grandmother, as while Ivy was born in China, she has grown up in the U.S. (outside of being sent back for awhile after she was caught misbehaving). I thought that while Ivy’s parents definitely contributed to her problems, Yang also afforded them some grace as well, not painting them as just another antagonizing factor, but as complicated people.

Character study aside, outside of Ivy’s deeply fascinating characterization “White Ivy” follows a somewhat predictable route. Ivy finds herself caught between Gideon, a man who represents the ideal life and future she wants, and Roux, a bad boy from her past who stirs up passion, albeit a toxic kind. Following this escalating love triangle to dangerous places isn’t exactly new territory, and this is the only element where the ‘thriller’ aspect of the story comes into play. It has a slow build and escalation to be sure, but there weren’t any surprises that came out of it. I think that had Ivy not been such a good character with all the complexities and depths that she had, I would have been a little less forgiving of this. Her two lovers don’t really move outside of their tropes, Gideon being boring but dependable, and Roux being exciting but dangerous and violent. It also doesn’t read as much like a thriller as buzz and descriptions have promoted. There was one area of suspense for me, but I feel like you need more than one to be an actual ‘thriller’ novel.

Overall, I enjoyed “White Ivy” mostly because of Ivy herself. I think that if you go into it looking at it as a character study as opposed to a full on thriller, you’ll like it. I am intrigued by what Yang will do next.

Rating 7: A dark and fascinating character study and a twist on the ‘immigrant experience’ trope, “White Ivy” is a page turner with an anti-heroine you will probably root for despite your moral misgivings.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Ivy” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2020”, and “Romance Books with Asian Love Interests” (this may be a stretch but I think it applies).

Find “White Ivy” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “These Women”

52218559Book: “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda

Publishing Info: Harperluxe, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles, they’re referred to as “these women.” These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved … 

In her masterful new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.

Written with beauty and grit, tension and grace, These Women is a glorious display of storytelling, a once-in-a-generation novel.

Review: I know that through my true crime reviews, and maybe even a thriller review or two, that I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘lesser dead’ on this blog. For those who may not have seen that, it’s basically the idea that law enforcement doesn’t prioritize certain victim groups when trying to solve cases. Groups included in this concept are POC, addicts, and sex workers. When I read a book review of “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda, the fact that it was emphasizing a literary thriller take on this concept, I knew that I really needed to read it. But as I read “These Women”, it became apparent that the narrative wasn’t only going to focus on forgotten sex workers who are the victims of a serial killer, but also on other women who are connected, if not directly affected.

We have multiple perspectives in “These Women” who represent a swath of women living different lives in South Central, Los Angeles. You have Feelia, a sex worker who narrowly survived being murdered. Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was a victim of the same murderer. Julianna, a sex worker who Lecia used to babysit for. Essie, a detective for the LAPD whose colleagues don’t take her insistence on paying attention to a potential serial killer seriously. Marcella, a neighbor to Julianna who finds a cell phone that sparks her creativity, no matter what that may mean for another person’s privacy. And Anneke, a judgmental woman who has certain opinions about other women in her community. On the surface a lot of these characters seem different from each other, but once you get really into the grit and meat of this book you realize that, while there are some differences and some privilege differences, all of these women are struggling in their own ways, usually because of societal expectations thrust upon them. I felt that Pochoda gave pretty good attention to most of them, though there were some that were more compelling than others. The pain was very real in a few of them, the rage in others, as well as perspectives that were more about privilege and superiority. They all worked well, and really brought on guttural responses at the various injustices that are feeling especially pertinent in this moment.

While this is definitely more a character study, or an examination of some aspects of the culture we live in, there is a mystery at hand, and that is who is killing these sex workers, and why. The mystery did take a back seat to the other aspects of the book, but for the most part I thought that it was well laid out and plotted so that I was taken by surprise by the reveal when it happened. I also found myself really enjoying how all the pieces eventually came together, both in terms of the mystery and in terms of how all of these characters are connected to one another. It also is a good way of showing that there is common ground between all of these women in a way, and how a society that looks down upon the gender as a whole makes victims of them all in different ways, and sometimes in ways that can be damaging to each other. All of that said, I did feel that the story ended a little abruptly, and I think that that is in part due to the structure of it as a whole, with no moment to tie all of the perspectives together. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because this is less about conclusions and more about concepts, but for me it just felt like it was cut off when there could have been a little more room to sink into an end.

Overall, “These Women” is dark, emotional, and gritty. Also very sad. But I think that it tackles a good number of themes and realities that many thrillers sometimes leave by the wayside. Ivy Pochoda has a very clear message, and while it’s hard to immerse oneself in, it’s necessary to do so.

Rating 7: A very powerful message about how society views the victimology of certain groups, “These Women” is a compelling literary thriller, even if it ends a bit abruptly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Women” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

Find “These Women” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Glass Hotel”

45754981Book: “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts, and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass and cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Review: Though I cannot possibly imagine going back and reading it right now, I really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic book “Station Eleven”. While it’s true that it takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a super flu (no thanks right now), it is also a lovely and quiet meditation on the power of art, the ties and connections that keep us together, and humanity as a whole. When I saw that she had a new book coming out called “The Glass Hotel”, I put it on my library hold list. And when the libraries closed, it was the first book that I decided to buy to own. Honestly, Mandel should be one of my must buy authors anyway, and she once again has delivered a quiet and introspective tale, this time about Ponzi schemes, of all things. Of course, it’s about as much about Ponzi schemes as “Station Eleven” was about a pandemic. It’s merely a backdrop to something much more intimate.

We follow a few different paths in this book, and a few different timelines, realities, and narratives. They do all connect together in ways that seem more tenuous than they are, but then that’s one of Mandel’s greater talents. The three main characters, I would argue, are the half siblings Paul and Vincent, and John Alkaitis, Vincent’s eventual husband and Ponzi scheme perpetrator. All are running away from something, be it guilt, or the truth, or grief, though it could be argued that all of them are running from all three in different ways and manifestations. Though the biggest thing they’re all running from is responsibility, and all start seeing various ghosts as they do so. It’s unclear as to whether they are real or not, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. In the end, they are seen because they are the unshakeable reminders of those that these characters have hurt or wronged, so even if they aren’t ‘real’, they still very much are.

None of these characters we meet are exactly ‘good’ people, but because of their depth and their perspectives you become invested in them and their outcomes regardless of their likability. Vincent’s story, being the largest connector of all narratives, is in many ways the most engrossing and haunting, as her complicated relationship with her brother, her ill fated marriage to a criminal, and her longing for her mother (who died when Vincent was a tween, her death mysterious, and mirroring Vincent’s own disappearance later in life) drive her constant moves, shifts, and changes in lifestyle and in some ways personality. Alkaitis, too, runs from his responsibility in the wreckage of so many lives, though his running is mostly done by letting himself disappear into a ‘counterlife’ in which he was never caught, a life that bleeds in and out of his narrative, and then some. Paul’s story is perhaps the smallest of the threads, but in many ways it has some of the largest impacts on the paths that all the characters take. As his overall purpose and his role in the story slowly fell into place, I found myself astounded by the intricacies and how carefully Mandel made sure to bring it all together. And truly, it’s a wonder to behold as it all does flow and merge. By the time I had finished this novel, having read it mostly in one night and definitely staying up far too late to finish it, I just let out a long sigh, knowing that by reading it I had really experienced something remarkable. Like “Station Eleven”, “The Glass Hotel” has a lot of pain and trauma, but it almost feels muted and quiet, as those are not the points of the story. The point is resilience, no matter the cost. It’s wonderful and tragic all at once.

(and yes, this story does have connections to “Station Eleven”. But it stands so well on it’s own it’s more like Easter Eggs than an actual canonical link.)

Gosh I loved this book. It’s haunting and I know that it’s going to stick with me for a long while.

Rating 10: Phenomenal. Mandel has done it again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Hotel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Covid-19: Books to Read on Lockdown”, and “Books Unbound Podcast”.

Find “The Glass Hotel” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Long Bright River”

43834909Book: “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Two sisters travel the same streets, though their lives couldn’t be more different. Then, one of them goes missing.

In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.

Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.

Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.

Review: My sister and I aren’t thick as thieves or anything like that. We get along pretty well, though we’re very different people. Lockdown has actually made us interact more than we have in awhile, vis a vis our Switches, playing “Mario Kart” and “Animal Crossing” together. But even though we aren’t best friends, I do love her very much (and am trying not to worry about the fact she and her wife are in New York City, the worst hit place for COVID-19 in this country). So whenever I see a story about sisters, I am bound to relate to it at least a little bit, which was part of the reason I was drawn to “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore. I figured that I could kind of justify it within the mystery or thriller genre, but once again this is a bit more literary than most thrillers I read.

While there are a couple of mysteries that “Long Bright River” centers around, this is more of a character study about two sisters who grew up in poverty, dealing with generational trauma and addiction. Mickey became a police officer, persuaded in part by her need to escape her familial situation, and by a cop who took an interest in her when she was a teen. Kacey, however, was swept up in drugs and addiction, like many people in their community as the opioid crisis looms. We see Mickey as she tries to find her sister as a serial killer starts to prey on addicts and sex workers on her beat, and as Mickey searches for her we get insight into both sisters through the present and through flashbacks. Moore really captures the complications of their relationship, exploring how their differences and their upbringing influenced them and changed them, and the ways they have both loved and hurt each other over the years. Though the perspective is Mickey’s, I felt like I knew both sisters by the time we came to the end, and could understand both of them, even their darker and rougher sides. You see how their sad home life (raised by their grandmother after their young mother died of a drug overdose and their father fled the coop) shaped them both, and can see why each took the paths that they did.

The mystery of the serial killer targeting addicts and sex workers definitely takes a back seat the the sisterly relationship, but the story of the sisters was so well done and so emotional that I didn’t really mind, even though I thought it would be more of a mystery than a character study. The character study was damned good, and it doesn’t limit itself to a sister theme. Along with the themes of childhood trauma and generational poverty and addiction, we also get a hard look at police corruption, and how communities seen as expendable are easily ignored by those who are supposed to protect them. Or sometimes, even explicitly targeted by them. I feel like sometimes books about police officers or detectives are more inclined to either ignore the systemic problems within the police, from racism to corruption to militarization that targets some groups while upholding the power of others. Or, if it’s not outright ignored there is assurance that the protagonist, and the protagonist’s unit, are not part of that problem, that they are good cops. But what I really liked about “Long Bright River” is that Moore acknowledges that Mickey is in it for the right reasons…. but a lot of the time, that isn’t enough.

I also really enjoyed the writing style of this book. Similar to the works of Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue isn’t in the usual punctuation. Instead it’s minimal, with dashes and not a lot beyond that. It always takes a little bit for me to get into this style, but once I’m in I’m in, and I thought that it was a complement to the overall story. I also liked that Moore played with the timeline, as mentioned above, going back in time to expand upon the narrative and to provide insight along the way. And finally, there are many, many references and moments that acknowledge the opioid crisis that has many people firmly in its grip. The story starts off with a list of people who have OD’d within the community that Mickey and Kacey have grown up in, which really sets the scene and serves to show that there is a pall that hangs over the story, just as there is a pall that’s hanging over society right now.

“Long Bright River” was a fantastic and heart rendering mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat. Steel yourself for something dark. But definitely take it on.

Rating 9: A dark and gritty mystery that examines police corruption, the opioid epidemic, and the powerful, if sometimes fraught, relationship between sisters, “Long Bright River” is a fantastic read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Bright River” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sister Mysteries”, and I think it would fit in on “Books of Philadelphia”.

Find “Long Bright River” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Saint X”

43782399Book: “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Several days later, Alison’s body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men – employees at the resort – are arrested. But the evidence is slim, the timeline against it, and the men are soon released. The story turns into national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved. For Claire and her parents, there is only the return home to broken lives.

Years later, Claire is living and working in New York City when a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with Clive Richardson, one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. It is a moment that sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth – not only to find out what happened the night of Alison’s death but also to answer the elusive question: Who exactly was her sister? At seven, Claire had been barely old enough to know her: a beautiful, changeable, provocative girl of eighteen at a turbulent moment of identity formation.

As Claire doggedly shadows Clive, hoping to gain his trust, waiting for the slip that will reveal the truth, an unlikely attachment develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by the same tragedy.

Review: Whenever I hear the phrase ‘missing white woman syndrome’ I immediately think of Natalee Holloway. Holloway was an eighteen year old on a school sponsored trip to Aruba when she went missing. Her disappearance was all over the news, her face practically everywhere even as little new information came up. While her case is technically still unsolved, the general consensus is that she was murdered by a local whose father was a judge, and therefore had a lot of protection (it just so happens the same guy was eventually convicted of murdering another woman in Peru). A very sad and mysterious case all around, and it was all I was thinking of when I read the description for “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin. But instead of a run of the mill thriller that takes inspiration from real tragedy for lurid entertainment (I know that I’m one of the people who perpetuates that problematic issue by reading books like that), I instead found a literary thriller that had a lot of deep thoughts and haunting themes.

“Saint X” is less about Alison’s disappearance, and more about the fallout and consequences for those involved with the case, specifically her sister Claire and one of the accused but cleared suspects, Clive. Both Claire and Clive have had their lives completely upended by what happened to Alison. For Claire, it’s the grief and trauma of loss that her family never recovered from, and her obsession of wanting to find out what happened. This is sparked when she sees Clive in New York City. For Clive, being suspected and never officially cleared made his life back on Saint X one of suspicion, and he felt the need to start over and leave it all behind, which meant leaving everything he ever knew and loved. They are both damaged people with one commonality, and Schaitkin really brings out the pain that both of them have been dealing with. Along with these two and their trauma, we also get snippets of other people’s associations with Alison’s death. These bits are left to the end of chapters, and not only shed light into how Alison’s death sent shockwaves through many lives, but how she was as a person before her ill fated trip and during it as well.

Alison herself is a bit more of a mystery, but I thought that that was deliberate and I enjoyed that. We see her through Claire’s eyes, and Clive’s eyes, and the eyes of others. But those eyes can’t really know who Alison was as a person. Even the audio diary entries that Claire finds and listens to don’t quite capture who Alison was, because Alison was still trying to figure all that out. It’s a really interesting way to call out this obsession people get with missing and murdered (usually white and attractive) women, and how we project our own ideas of who they are upon their memory, even if those ideas are totally of the mark. I also liked that what we DO know about Alison is that she is very human, in that she isn’t perfect. Alison is at that tenuous age where she is trying to find herself, and yet still trying to be seen in a certain way by others. She is privileged and naive, and sees the colonizer issue of a resort in the Caribbean, but doesn’t see that her presence, as judgemental of the system as she is, is still perpetuating the problem.

And that was another thing that I liked about this book: Schaitkin definitely takes shots at the resort society on Saint X. It’s an industry that drives the economy, but relies upon a population group that is underprivileged and taken advantage of. Clive is doing his best to support himself and his loved ones, and has to kowtow to wealthy white tourists who see his home as an escape, but doesn’t see the inequities outside of the resort walls. This theme wasn’t at the very front of the story, but it was simmering underneath.

I wasn’t expecting what I got from “Saint X”, in that I was ready for a tense and addictive thriller. What I got instead was a little more ruminative. That isn’t a bad thing, but I will admit that had I known it was more literary I would have probably enjoyed it more. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t grab me as much as I think it would have had I had the expectations it called for. That said, I think that “Saint X” is a worthwhile read. Just go in expecting something more nuanced.

Rating 7: A haunting and evocative literary mystery. It wasn’t what I was expecting. But it’s definitely worth the read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint X” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications January-July).

Find “Saint X” at your local library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “My Dark Vanessa”

44890081Book: “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

Review: Thank you to William Morrow for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

I will admit that when Serena handed me the print ARC of “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell and said it arrived for the blog and that it sounded more in my genres, at first glance I agreed. I mean, Stephen King’s blurb was on the cover, so clearly it had to be, right? But then when I read the description of the book, I was suddenly nervous. For one, it sounded more literary than horror or thriller. But hey, I can go outside my usual genres if a book really interests me, right? The bigger issue was what the plot sounded like: a woman has to contend with the fact that her illicit affair with her English teacher when she was fifteen was, in fact, abusive. Heavy stuff to be sure. But I was still very interested, especially as time went on and more buzz began to build around the novel. So I steeled myself, and finally dove in. It’s definitely not a book I’d say is within my usual genres. But I’m still glad that I read it.

“My Dark Vanessa” is a complex and very uncomfortable and upsetting novel about abuse, grooming, rape culture, and coming of age in very hard ways. It’s told through two timelines, both from the perspective of a woman named Vanessa. In 2017 she’s a woman who works at a hotel in hospitality, and is seeing her former teacher, Strane, being swept up in accusations of sexual misconduct with his female students. Vanessa, who was in an illicit relationship (I hate using that term here but am at a loss as to how else to describe it) with him that started at age fifteen, has to contend with the fallout of his downfall, and how that trauma of their ‘relationship’ has affected her after all these years. The other timeline is seeing Vanessa during the time that Strane began grooming her, and seeing how their relationship progressed. Russell is frank and unflinching in how she shows the realities of the sexual abuse that Vanessa experienced at the hands of her teacher, but is also very honest about how Vanessa herself cannot seem to view it as abuse as time goes on, even as other women are coming forward with their experiences with him. I greatly appreciated that Russell was also inclined to explore the very complex feelings that a survivor like Vanessa could feel, being groomed and manipulated for so long and therein not comfortable with seeing herself as a victim, and not wanting to expose herself in such a way. A subplot within the story is that a journalist starts pressuring Vanessa to tell her her story so that it can be put in an article, and heavily implies that Vanessa has an obligation to do so for victims everywhere. I think that it’s VERY important to make that point that victims of sexual abuse have NO obligation to open up about their experiences, and they are allowed to unpack and deal with said experiences in the way that they are most comfortable with.

(This kind of segues into some of the controversy that surrounded “My Dark Vanessa” for a hot minute before its release. HERE is a good article that sums it up. My two cents: I think that there are absolutely important questions to be asked about the publishing industry, and what stories get huge cash advances while other ones get left aside and not as promoted. But I think that it’s really gross that the discourse rose to the point where a survivor felt that the only way to move forward was to out herself as a victim of sexual abuse when she really didn’t want to. And unfortunately, abuse like this is probably more prevalent than we think, and the MOs of the abusers are probably pretty similar. Can we say that it must be plagiarism if it’s an experience that is, unfortunately, more commonplace than we’re comfortable admitting? I really don’t think so.)

I did find this book a little bit bogged down by the narrative as it went on, however, and more just in the sense that it felt longer than it probably needed to be and had some repetitive moments that could have been shaved, or at least tightened. I read it in a timely manner, but it did lag a bit at times, and I would put it down less because of the really hard content but more because of how it kind of felt like it was dragging.

And finally, content warnings abound for this book. There are scenes of rape, scenes of grooming and sexual harassment, and some really heavy and hard themes. This is not a book I would say that I ‘enjoyed’, as it’s greatly upsetting and unsettling, but I do think that Russell has crafted a story that is well done and filled with things that we should be thinking about as a society that has issues with misogyny and rape culture.

“My Dark Vanessa” was a hard read. But it’s one that I think has a lot of important points to make.

Rating 7: A deeply unsettling but engrossing novel, “My Dark Vanessa” tackles some seriously difficult themes but sometimes gets a bit bogged down within the narrative.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dark Vanessa” isn’t on any Goodreads lists that I feel really do it justice (“Hot For Teacher”? Seriously?), but I think that it would fit in on “#MeToo”, and “Sexual Assault Awareness Month”.

Find “My Dark Vanessa” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Disappearing Earth”

34563821._sy475_Book: “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips

Publishing Info: Knopf, May 2019

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

Book Description: Beautifully written, thought-provoking, intense and cleverly wrought, this is the most extraordinary first novel from a mesmerising new talent.

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the north-eastern edge of Russia, two sisters are abducted. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.

Set on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth draws us into the world of an astonishing cast of characters, all connected by an unfathomable crime. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty – densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska – and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.

In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer’s virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel provides a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.

Review: I was visiting my parents when I saw “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips on their coffee table. I asked them who had read it, and my Dad said ‘Your Mom got it for me. I read it. I didn’t like it at all.’ Not the highest of praise, but I also knew that it was probably less a reflection of the quality of writing, and more of the kind of writing. I know my Dad, and I know that literary fiction isn’t really his style. Therefore, I was definitely interested in giving it a go, especially since it had so much praise from the book community. Because that’s what “Disappearing Earth” is at it’s heart: it has the plot of a thriller, but the foundation and bones of a literary novel.

While it’s true that “Disappearing Earth” starts with, and deeply connects, to the disappearance of Alonya and Sophia, two sisters who vanish in an isolated town in Kamchatka, Russia. But it’s definitely more about life in an isolated town in a country that is still feeling the effects of a fallen empire, and the people who live their lives there every day. Each chapter takes place in a different month after the disappearance, spanning over nearly a year, and has a different perspective of a member of the community, or the surrounding communities. Each character has their own connection to the missing girls, from their mother, to a police officer, to the only witness, to members of the Even community who had their own disappearance a few years prior (but more on that later). But focusing on the various people in the town and their own connection to the girls and their disappearance, as direct or indirect as it may be, we get a slice of life narrative that is steeped in sadness, resilience, and a little bit of hope. Can I understand why this perhaps wasn’t my Dad’s kind of book? Sure. It’s not your typical thriller/mystery, even though Alonya and Sophia’s disappearance is always at hand. It’s really more about how these girls went missing, how different people react to it (from disbelief to coldness to determination to know what happened).

The theme that really stood out to me, however, was that of the Even community and characters, specifically Alla Innokentevna, the mother of the missing Lilia, and Ksyusha, a University student who is torn between her community at home and the community she has at school, specifically her boyfriend, a white Russian named Ruslan. One of the big reveals of this book is the disappearance of Lilia, whose disappearance was like Alonya and Sophia’s, but went largely unnoticed by those outside of Esso and the natives who live there. I know so little about Russian society, and the little that I do know has very little to do with the rural communities and the relationships between the white Russians and the native communities. And like in other parts of the world, the non-white victim has gone largely forgotten while two white girls have their faces splashed all over town and beyond. It’s not a mystery what happened to Alonya and Sophia, as we see what happens to them in the very first chapter, but we do find ourselves wondering if Lilia did actually leave by her own volition, or if she fell victim to the same predator as the two younger girls. And Phillips does a very good job of making you fear the very worst, and wrings out some truly heart wrenching moments involving her family. Especially when Alla interacts with Martina, Alonya and Sophia’s mother.

And finally, Phillips completely captured what life is like in this village, making the village feel like a character in and of itself. I got a very good feel for not only the location and the people, but also the day to day emotions and experiences that the communities as a whole had, and how they were shaped by where they live. This was so well done, and I was a bit astounded by how real and evocative the place of this story was.

“Disappearing Earth” may not be the kind of thriller I usually cover, but it’s so damn good. Phillips has blended two genres to make a satisfying and compelling read. I’m no doubt going to have to have a long conversation with my Dad to try and plead its case!

Rating 9: Evocative and melancholy, “Disappearing Earth” is about life on an isolated peninsula, and the way lives change yet continue when a community is rocked by tragedy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Disappearing Earth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books on the North”, and “Russia Based Thrillers”.

Find “Disappearing Earth” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “A Christmas Carol”

5327We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Publishing Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Kirsten’s Surprise” by Janet Shaw

Book Description: The celebrated P.J. Lynch captures the spirit of Dickens’s beloved tale in a richly illustrated unabridged edition.

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge opens on a Christmas Eve as cold as Scrooge’s own heart. That night, he receives three ghostly visitors: the terrifying spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Each takes him on a heart-stopping journey, yielding glimpses of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the horrifying spectres of Want and Ignorance, even Scrooge’s painfully hopeful younger self. Will Scrooge’s heart be opened? Can he reverse the miserable future he is forced to see?

Now in an unabridged edition gloriously illustrated by the award-winning P.J. Lynch, this story’s message of love and goodwill, mercy and self-redemption resonates as keenly as ever.

Kate’s Thoughts

It’s just me again this time around, as Serena was unable to make book club this session. But I’m going to do my best to bring in some deep thoughts about a Christmas classic that has been part of the Western zeitgeist for generations. We read “A Christmas Carol” along with “Kirsten’s Surprise” because of the obvious Christmas theme, and honestly, this is going to be a fun cycle of reads because of the connections we make between the American Girl books and the other books we read. This was my second time reading Dickens, as I read “A Tale of Two Cities” in high school, and while I could have sworn that I read “A Christmas Carol” at some point I realized as I was reading that I was probably just creating a memory from the countless, COUNTLESS adaptations I’ve seen over the years. Going in and reading the original text was a fun way to get into the holiday spirit, reading wise.

For anyone who may not know, “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday ghost story in which a bitter selfish man is visited by three (technically four) ghosts to learn about the true meaning of Christmas, and to realize he has to change his dickish ways. I’m so familiar with the story I figured that reading it was going to be just par for the course, but I really enjoyed reading this story in it’s own, original words. The ghosts are sufficiently spooky, the pathos is (for the most part, but we’ll get there later) definitely heartwrenching, and the messages of benevolence and charity resonate throughout the years. Ebenezer Scrooge is a complex character whose journey of self reflection and redemption is old hat, but even though I know the story and know how it was going to go I did like seeing him change. Dickens may have been a little ‘on the nose’ by today’s standards when it comes to Scrooge’s reactions as his journey goes on (lots of head hanging, guys), but it is still satisfying to see him realize that he can change and should change for the good of others and for the good of himself.

The greater metaphors that Dickens was going for in the text, specifically Tiny Tim representing the oppressed and downtrodden in England’s lower classes at the time and the references to child labor, are admittedly pretty well played out these days. I myself don’t really care for Tiny Tim, thinking he’s saccharine and cloying (except for Calvin in “Scrooged”, he is ADORABLE and it probably help that he doesn’t talk), but having the context of what Tiny Tim actually is supposed to be was helpful. Because the symbolism is better in the original text, and doesn’t manifest as a sweet faced but constantly coughing/limping/wise beyond his years child, I appreciated Tim more in the book than I usually do. The setting of the Industrial Revolution and knowing how friggin’ AWFUL that was for the lower class in hindsight made me appreciate these messages all the more. Even beyond Tim there are references to children having to go get jobs and not knowing if and when they will see their loved ones come Christmastime, and gosh if that didn’t just make this book a little sadder.

And finally, the ghosts are great. From Marley to Past, Present, and Yet To Come, Dickens made well characterized and freaky spirits that would have perfectly fit into the ‘telling ghost stories at Christmas’ aesthetic that was so popular during this time period. We should bring that back, quite frankly.

I enjoyed reading “A Christmas Carol”. It was a lovely way to get into the holiday spirit!! If you haven’t read it and have a few hours during this holiday season, it is worth the read.

Rating 8: An enduring Christmas classic.

Book Club Questions

  1. There have been many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” over the years. Which one is your favorite, and why? How faithful of an adaptation was it compared to the original text?
  2. Scrooge has a very clear transformation in this book, and on the page it is made evident from the get go when he feels bad and when he should feel bad for his actions. Do you think there could have been more nuance in his change, or did you appreciate the blatant moments of him realizing he was wrong throughout the story?
  3. “A Christmas Carol” was one of the first Christmas stories to leave a country or pastoral setting to take place in an urban setting. Do you think that the story would have worked as well if it took place in the country instead of London? Why or why not?
  4. What are your thoughts on Tiny Tim? Is he still an effective character as time has gone on?
  5. Why do you think this story has endured for so long and resonated with so many people?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Christmas Carol” is included on the Goodreads lists “Favorite Christmas Books”, and “Ghost Stories”.

Find “A Christmas Carol” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi