January 2022 Book Club: Lovecraft Country

Cover art for Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

Lovecraft Country was an interesting book to ring the new year in with. For starters, it wasn’t the horror book that I thought it would be based on the first episode of the HBO show that I watched. There were no crazy monsters that went bump in the night (although there are definitely some horror scenes!), only a strange organization of Alchemists that somehow possessed magic powers.

As I read each section of Lovecraft Country, I had a hard time following the timeline of events. Where they meant to be short stories that were independent of each other? Connected only in that they were dealing with the same man? It wasn’t until the characters got together to discuss what had been happening to them that I realized the change in narration was designed to illustrate that these things were all happening more or less at the same time after the initial trip to Ardham.

Many of these stories are based around the concept of how getting what you want doesn’t always happen in the way you want it. Atticus begins our tale with a subtle desire to live in a Lovecraft novel and to find his father, who wanted to understand where his wife came from. Both of these desires were the catalyst for our story, so it’s interesting that they spend time ignoring what happened to them despite the clear meddling from Braithwhite. They want to be left alone from the legacy that was left them, which does eventually happen (although getting to that place is a process).

Letitia, one of my favorite characters, wants to leave her mark on this world and is determined to do so since the first page we’re introduced to her. When she comes into some money from a mysterious benefactor, it’s no surprise that it’s used to purchase an apartment building in a white neighborhood. A part of me was even left to wonder if Letitia would have been as interested in doing so if it didn’t also come with the label of “pioneer”. On the one hand, Letitia got what she wanted. On the other hand, she needed to stand her ground and navigate owning a haunted house. Letitia’s story is one of determination and grit, one that you want to succeed from the beginning.

Ruby’s story provides the most insight into how people of color were (and sometimes, unfortunately, still are) treated. You can’t help but feel angry for her as she loses her job because someone else stole a pair of earrings and intrigued when she’s able to try on a different face. Ruby wanted power over her life and Braithwhite gave it to her. This was one of the few relationships in the book were Braithwhite was being used as much as he was doing the using and the cost was “only” lying to those around her and believing Braithwhite when he told her that she was keeping Delilah alive.

Ruby’s story is about being self aware of yourself and your surroundings. It’s hard to recognize the privilege that comes with the color of your skin as you observe through Ruby’s eyes what it’s like to interact with a police officer as Hillary. How easy it is to manipulate the men and women around her because they believe that she can do no wrong as Hillary. Ruby wanted freedom and power over her own life, it broke my heart that in order to get those things she had to physically change who she was.

Ruff also takes us through a desire to begin to set things right (the ledger of owed back wages and interest), a desire to discover (the teleporter), and a desire to protect your family (the devil doll, and the trip to meet the Winthrop ghosts). Each of these desires demonstrates how you have to decide between what you want and what you need, all the while taking advantage of the experience (minus the devil doll story, poor Horace).

Lovecraft Country is brought to a cinematic end once each character shares their stories with each other and it becomes clear that Braithwhite is a problem. Perhaps the most poetic part of the tale, Braithwhite loses his powers to the people he manipulated and we are left to assume that he will spend his days trying to get back into an organization that will no longer take him due to the new color of his skin.

Knowing that the show has altered the story’s events, I haven’t decided if I’ll finish it. That being said, I’m glad I picked up Lovecraft Country and stuck it out to the end, it was a fun read.

The icy January winds have me daydreaming of warmer days, so for February’s book let’s step into the pages of The Henna Artist, which takes place in the city of Jaipur during the 1950s.

Cover art for the Henna Artist by Alka Joshi.

Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own…

Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow—a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does.

December Book Club: Station Eleven

Cover art for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

If I had to summarize Station Eleven for someone while only having read the first few chapters, I would describe it as what it would be like to be a part of a traveling Symphony in a post pandemic world where most of the population dies. Now that it’s in my “read” pile, I think a better summary would need to include how one person can shape and connect the lives of many.

Arthur was not a great person, he cheated on his wives and had a hard time prioritizing the right things. Towards the end of his life, more than one person described him as if he was acting off camera/stage. It was as though during his pursuit of happiness, Arthur lost himself and his understanding of what could really make him happy. This isn’t to say that Arthur was a bad man, he had a way of genuinely caring about people and wanting to support them. No, Arthur’s issue seemed to stem from not really knowing what was important when it was important and a misguided quest for what happiness really was.

Despite dying early in the book, Arthur’s life shaped the story of the many characters that we encountered throughout Station Eleven. In some ways, this was for the better. Clark found himself realizing that he had been sleep walking his way through life after having dinner with Arthur shortly after his death. Kirsten turned to Arthur for comfort during her childhood and found herself comforted still by the comics that he gifted her. Miranda came into her own. Jeevan learned that he did in fact want to become an EMT (and eventually became a doctor).

In other ways, Arthur caused a lot of chaos in the new world by not being a good father to his son Tyler. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Arthur hadn’t missed so many of Tyler’s birthdays or had been able to move to Jerusalem before the pandemic. Would Tyler have learned to cling to the bible the way that he did? Would he have a world view to balance his mothers? If so, imagine how many people would have lived more peaceful lives.

Another thing that Station Eleven did was point out that there will always be people that try to support and grow from each other. People who do their best to take the ugly and make something beautiful. Just as there will always be people who are unable to see past the ugly, and it’s not that these people are lesser than the first group of people (although you do wish they’d rise to the occasion!), it’s that their version of doing the best that they can isn’t as outward facing. Where some are able to turn to others and raise them up, others are barely able to put their own oxygen masks on.

Station Eleven is what I wanted from The Stand. A story about people putting the pieces back together after trauma and learning how to move forward. There was just enough description of the pandemic to understand what has happening without the feeling of “ok I get it, everyone is dying”. I had a lot of reservations about reading this book in the middle of a pandemic, but honestly the pandemic was simply the spark that started this story.

Last October, I poured over a bunch of horror books and added them to my to-read list. Not because of Halloween (although maybe), but because I found myself rereading The Shinning yet again. Since adding Lovecraft Country to my to-read list it has become a show on HBO and the trailer reminded me that I should read it. I have not seen the show beyond episode one, so I’m coming into the story with a set of (mostly) unbias eyes.

Cover art for Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy.

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today. 

November Book Club: A Court of Thorns and Roses

Cover art for a Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas.

The fastest and simpliest way to summarize A Court of Thorns and Roses to someone who has never read it before is to say that it’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. A beautiful land is under a curse that can only be broken by true love.

There is, of course, a lot more to this book than that. For starters, Feyre doesn’t stumble across a castle in the woods because she’s trying to find her father. While trying to keep a promise to her dead mother, Feyre kills a faerie in the shape of a wolf while hunting for food. Though she doesn’t know it, this one action sparks a chain of events that leads to being whisked off to a magical land and her family being elevated back to their original wealthy status.

I want to start by discussing the dedication that Feyre feels towards the promise that she’s made to her mother to look after her family. She was the youngest daughter and was less than ten years old, other than requiring this plot point to put her hunting in the woods, I didn’t really understand this decision. What a weight to put on a young child’s shoulders, in fact Feyre literally complains about how binding the promise is and how heavy keeping the promise feels sometimes. When viewed upon as a plot point, however, it’s clear that this is meant to show us that Feyre is honorable and stubborn.

Feyre’s distinction of hunting for necessity and hunting out of pleasure is another interesting point that should have done more in the realm of foreshadowing what was to come. By knowing this about her during the third trial, we can appreciate her struggle as she fights to remember the fate of many is more important than the fate of a few. Knowing that she only hunts to eat and has no interest when food is readily available, I’m left to assume that Feyre will be affected by the two deaths for the rest of her life (or at least the next book in this series).

I wanted more from the three trials to free Tamlin and the people of faerie. As scenes, they seemed rushed and anticlimactic. I also disliked the use of the fairy wine even though it was done to get her out of the dungeon for a few hours and show Tamlin that she was safe. They could have worked something out where she didn’t have to drink the wine every single night. Also, Tamlin’s indifference was agitating – even if it was to protect her. It would have been more forgiving if he was under a spell as Alice alluded that he might be.

I also found the use of magic something to be desired. True, there was a curse that limited the ability of the faeries to use magic and true, the story stayed true to most of the general rules of faerie land (minus the “if you eat the food you can’t leave”), I just felt as though there could have been more. There was nothing spectacular about Feyre’s day to day minus being pulled from her family. It wasn’t until she went under the mountain that we got to experience what the world had the potential to be.

All in all, I enjoyed this book but don’t feel the need to read the other books in the series. There’s obviously going to be a story line with Feyre trying to deal with being a faerie with a human heart and some sort of love triangle that’s probably brought on by Feyre thinking something like “how can Tamlin love me after all that I did?” and the monthly requirement to spend a week in the night court.

Next month we’ll be reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I think this book made my “to-read” list after discussing it with a co-worker on zoom last fall due to the premise of it taking place after a super flu. I’ve previewed a chapter to make sure that it doesn’t feel too much like the pandemic we’ve been living through (that wouldn’t be escapism!) and am please to report that it seems like a lot of fun.

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

October Book Club: The Giver of Stars

Cover art for the Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Confession time: Sometimes I avoid books because their plot revolves around my profession. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my work as a librarian, it’s just that I tend to read books that allow me a certain level of escapism. When The Giver of Stars first came across my radar, I was tempted to dismiss it in favor of something that had at least a little bit more of a fantasy element. Now that I’ve read the book, I’m glad that I didn’t.

That being said, do I feel as though I’ve gotten a good picture of what it was like to participate in a packhorse library? In some ways yes, it was interesting to read about how the library built a sense of community and how long and tiring the hours where. In other ways, perhaps not. While this book is based on a true story, I was left wondering how much liberties were taken in romanticizing the packhorse librarian experience.

Regardless of this romantic perspective, Moyes gave us an interesting group of characters to watch grow throughout the story. Though the story focuses on impulsive Alice, Margery, Izzy, Sophia and Beth find themselves changed by the library as well. Though they started with nothing in common besides the library, it was easy to relate to how something so intense could bring a group together.

Though wrapped up almost too perfectly, one thing I appreciated how one wealthy man could manipulate the town’s mindset in order to best suit his needs. One woman is making sure that his town can’t expand so he’s got to take town that one woman, starting with her library. It almost worked too, showing us the dark side of what money has the power to do.

As always, I have mixed feelings about Alice finding true love and remarrying. On the one hand, she’s a character I wanted to be happy. On the other hand, she was getting ready to go back to England despite all the growth that she had gained during her time as a packhorse librarian. I couldn’t decide if those were really her only choices during that time period (I suppose they were) or if there may have been a third path (realistically there probably wasn’t). Still, one can’t help appreciating that the reason she’s able to leave her neglectful husband is because he never consummated the marriage.

Speaking of Bennet, what a strange character. It’s obvious that his father abused him, but I wonder if there’s more to the story there. Did he want to be married to a woman? If not, why go back after Peggy and fail to consummate that marriage as well? Bennet seemed like one of life’s sleepwalkers. He wasn’t really a bad guy, he just also wasn’t a very good one.

The Giver of Stars is often recommended to be read in junction with the Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, so I picked it up and read a few chapters. These three chapters cued me into the idea that The Giver of Stars may be more of a romantic story (you know, besides the fact that it was a romantic story), but I ended up abandoning the book due to seemingly consistent violence. While I don’t typically abandon a book for having a rape scene in it, I also don’t want to be greeted by one in the first few chapters. There’s so much happening in the world right now, I couldn’t bring myself to keep reading as Bluet faced abuse after abuse.

Cover art for A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas.

I’ve decided to give into social media a little bit for November’s book club and have us read a Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. Having read a lot of Holly Black growing up, this book looks like it uses that traditional style: fairies cannot be trusted, don’t eat the food, don’t drink the wine, don’t make any deals combined with a main character who systematically breaks each rule.

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

September Book Club: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids

Cover art for the Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids tells the story of Amra, a careful thief who is drawn into the revenge game when her friend is murdered in the middle of the night. While following the trail of his killer, she finds herself thrown in jail for no reason, running from a price on her head, befriending a wizard and closing a hell gate. In other words, this is a very plot focused book where the setting could really be any fantasy town and the character development is minimal.

That’s not to say that The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braid’s is a bad story, in fact there is simply the assumption that you have read a fantasy novel before and have an understanding of what the general rules are. For example: there is a huge power differential between those with money and those without, magic always comes with a price, gods speak through their priests who expect offerings in exchange for favors. The fun thing about the lack of world building and following the tried and true rules is that you can plunk the story into the world of your choosing and imagine your favorite characters running around elsewhere while Amra makes decisions like shaving her head to get rid of lice and maneuvers over cliff edges to sneak into fancy houses.

I don’t see myself reading any more books in the series, but The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids was a fun ride. Perhaps there is more world building in future books, but in my experience first person narratives lead to short scenes due to the limits of narrator perspective. That aside, I do find myself super curious about the eight armed goddess apparently coming out of her prison and wonder how else Amra is going to contribute to that.

It’s hard to believe that I’m already selecting a book for October and that we’re three book clubs away from the end of the year. Let’s hop back into historical fiction and read something from Reese’s Book Club (I’ve never tried one of her recs before!): The Giver of Stars. I’ve read and enjoyed Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, let’s find out if this one is also a tear jerker together.

Cover art for the Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.