North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Information

Goodreads: North and South
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1854

Official Summary

Penguin Edition

‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

In her introduction, Patricia Ingham examines geographical, economic and class differences, and male and female roles in North and South. This edition also includes a list for further reading, notes and a glossary.

Star Divider

Review

North and South is essentially two stories woven fully together: that of protagonist Margaret Hale as she navigates moving, losing family members, and falling in love and that of the conflict between the northern (manufacturing) parts of England and the southern (agricultural) parts.  Readers might prefer one theme over the other, depending on how engaging they find Margaret as a character and how enthralling they find debates over the value of manufacturing and workers’ rights, but overall the book shows how Margaret—and the reader—must reconcile differences between things that seem fundamentally different or opposed.

Personally, I found the book intriguing, but it’s difficult to say I entirely liked it.  Margaret, though routinely praised by other characters for her poise, grace, virtue, etc. is still a flawed character.  She’s a bit classist and a bit judgmental (and indeed occasionally called out for it), and part of her arc involves her learning to accept the people of the manufacturing town of Milton without somehow holding herself as apart and separate from them.  Beyond that…she seems very generic to me.  She is generally nice and well-meaning and educated and such, but she’s not unusually good or intelligent, and I don’t find her overly remarkable or memorable as a character the way I might protagonists from other works.

The story does have a number of twists, turns, and exciting events, such as a visit from Margaret’s brother, who is likely to be executed if discovered on English soil.  There’s also the melodrama of sickness and death and the violence of a strike.  Gaskell certainly tries to keep readers turning the pages.

Nonetheless, the book is topical in the way of many Victorian novels; its major concern is the relationship between the employees and the employers in Milton, the rights of workers, etc.  Readers will likely draw comparisons to other novels of the period that treated the subject of mill owners and workers, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley.  It’s a subject that was of popular discussion at the time, but may or may not hold equal interest for today’s readers.  This is particularly true in North and South, where Gaskell has characters engage in lengthy debates and monologues on the subject, in order to press her final point that workers do deserve some consideration.  If the reader doesn’t have a personal or academic/historical interest in such debates, the can make the book drag in places.

However, I did enjoy learning about the smoky town of Milton and seeing how characters could come to love a place that seems, particularly to newcomers, dirty and noisy and lacking in any beauty.  If you’re interested in Victorian literature, North and South is certainly a must-read.

Briana
3 Stars

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker (Author) and Wendy Xu (Illustrator)

Mooncakes Cover

Information

Goodreads: Mooncakes
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2019

SummarY

There is a demon loose in the forest, and werewolf Tam wants to stop it, before it uses her magic against her.  First, however, she will need to team up with her girlhood crush, a witch named Nova.

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Review

Mooncakes was one of the year’s most hotly anticipated titles and I, like many others, eagerly awaited the release of this seasonally appropriate title. Witches and baked goods–what a magical October release!  Having finished finished Mooncakes, however, I find myself underwhelmed by the unoriginal plot and the insta-romance.

Mooncakes promises a sweet story about romance, magic, and baked goods, but it fails to deliver.  The plot about defeating an evil creature in the forest is rather generic, and one I have already seen an handful of times in recent graphic novel releases.  This means that, to stand apart, the story must rely on its characters.  While Nova and Tam are likeable enough, however, their romance falls flat.  They are childhood friends who were separated before high school and are now reunited–and they are in love and kissing within a day.  Without any real lead-up, without the two discovering who they are as people now, the idea that they are forever soul mates simply is not believable.

Even the title of the book ultimately leads to disappointment as mooncakes do not play a particularly important role in the plot.  There is a celebration of Sukkot and the Mid-Autumn Festival halfway through the story, and mooncakes are eaten.  Family issues also arise during these holidays, and Nova has to work through them.  Thematically, it seems as if mooncakes or cooking or baking ought to recur at the end of the story as Nova faces her family issues.  However, they do not, leading me to wonder if  Mooncakes is the title of the book just as a cute nod to the presence of a werewolf character.

This title has rightly received plenty of buzz around its diverse cast of characters.  However, the plot is lackluster and the romance unconvincing.  There are plenty of stronger graphic novels being published right now, and Mooncakes ultimately does not stand out from the crowd.

3 Stars

5 Resources to Keep Up with the Book Industry

American Library Association

The ALA is a nonprofit organization that supports libraries.  Recently, their news feed has abounded with stories surrounding their efforts to end the Macmillan e-book embargo.  However, they also release information on banned books every year for Banned Books Week, announce award winners, and provide professional resources to librarians.

Kirkus

Kirkus is  mainly known as a review publication, but the website also includes blogs (children’s, YA, and more), best-of lists, recommendation lists, and author interviews.

Library Journal

Library Journal focuses on news about public and academic libraries, featuring stories on the state of the profession, budget issues, and trends, as well as general interest stories about new library openings, etc. In addition, the publication releases bestseller lists, round-ups of recent book news, and lists of books featured or adapted in other media. Library Journal tends to feature adult books, while School Library Journal focuses on children’s books and YA.

Publisher’s Weekly

Publisher’s Weekly focuses on a wide range of book-related news, featuring reviews, best-of lists, author interviews, and lists of forthcoming books by publisher, as well as reports on the publishing world, bookstores, and libraries.   Recent posts include marketing middle-grade, the best children’s books of 2019, and Congress investigating the state of the digital market.

School Library Journal

School Library Journal focuses on news featuring school libraries, as well as children’s and teen departments in public libraries.  In addition, they publish reviews, recommendation and read-alike lists, and lists of forthcoming books.  Various blogs associated with the site have different specialties; Good Comics for Kids publishes a weekly list of newly-released comics to help readers stay current.

How Kate Wetherall Subverts Reader Expectations in The Mysterious Benedict Society Series

Mysterious Benedict Society Kate Wetherall

Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society series celebrates the talents of four unique children: Reynie Muldoon, who is a logical puzzle solver; Sticky Washington, who can memorize anything; Kate Wetherall, who is agile and lightning fast; and Constance Contraire, who is, well, stubborn.  When I first fell in love with the Mysterious Benedict Society ten years ago, I fell in love with Reynie most of all because I admired his curiosity and his ability to think through any problem.  Sticky is good at remembering things, but, to  me, Reynie seemed clever.  He knew how to apply his knowledge.  And, even though the Mysterious Benedict Society is a team, I, like many of the characters, saw Ryenie as the leader, the one who solves puzzles others think unsolvable.

While rereading The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, however, I was struck by how clever all the children are.  Reynie can come across as the cleverest because he fits the traditional definition of clever–he can solve logic puzzles.  But all the children are necessary at one point or another to solve a particular problem; there is more than one way to be clever.  Kate’s contributions to the group struck me the most during this reread.  Tall, fast, and agile, Kate takes on a role typically given to male characters: that of the star athlete.  But she’s more than speed and strength.  She’s also a quick thinker who can anticipate ow her adversaries will react, and use that knowledge to outwit them.

Teams with an athletic type often relegate that character to the “Brawn,” as opposed to the “Brains” of the operation, but Kate demonstrates repeatedly that she understands how her unique skill set can be used to advance the goals of the Mysterious Benedict Society.  Often her advantage lies in the simple fact that no one expects a person to be as fast and agile as Kate. But Kate’s cleverness goes beyond her knowledge that she is good–very good.  She uses her knowledge of her abilities to come up with solutions to problems no one else might consider, since they are not thinking of a physical solution to the problem.

Kate is able to do more than think of ways to use her athleticism, however.  She is also able to recognize when her enemies expect her to use her talents.  As a result, she has become a rather convincing actress.  She is self-aware enough to realize that her enemies see her as somewhat impetuous and quick to react, so a recurring trick for her is to make a bold attempt to escape or fight that her adversaries anticipate.  Once they seemingly subdue her, they turn their attention to other matters.  But Kate has usually done something her enemies did not expect while they were responding to her calculated show of defiance.  She outwits her opponents, not with sheer physicality, but with her mind.

Kate’s characterization warmed my heart because it feels so rare to have a female character who gets to be the athletic team member–the one who is taller, stronger, and faster than all the rest.  It is Kate who regularly carries Constance, who fights back, who continues on when everyone else is exhausted.  Seeing Kate glory in her talents is wondrous.  And it is even more inspiring that Kate combines her athleticism with her own brand of cleverness.  Ten years later, the Mysterious Benedict Society is still subverting reader expectations.  Perhaps soon, Kate’s characterization will no longer seem so radical.

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Melanie R. Anderson and Lisa Kroger

Information

Goodreads: Monster, She Wrote
Series: None
Source: Quirk Books for Review
Published: September 17, 2019

Official Summary

Meet the women writers who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales, from Frankenstein to The Haunting of Hill House and beyond.

Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.

Part biography, part reader’s guide, the engaging write-ups and detailed reading lists will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories. 

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Review

Monster, She Wrote gives readers a captivating overview of the history of women writing horror and speculative fiction, referencing big names like Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison while acknowledging a large body of writers who have generally been overlooked by academia and general readers alike.  Written in a chatty voice with fun illustrations and short sections addressing biographical information and recommended reads, the book is accessible and welcoming.

Despite the approachable tone, one can clearly tell the amount of research and personal knowledge that went into Murder, She Wrote. Both authors have PhDs in literature, and while the book might seem superficially casual, it is clear it can only have been written by someone with a deep knowledge of the field of horror fiction.  Picking the most influential and interesting women writers from each time period is its own large task, while references to essays and nonfictions works reveal the authors’ knowledge of scholarship surround these women.

The one downfall of the book is that, personally, I find it difficult to read a few hundred pages of short biographies, no matter how interesting the subjects, yet this is a book I think is best looked at as an overview of the field.  That is, it makes sense to read the whole thing, rather than to read only a section or otherwise use it as a reference book.  I’m not sure there’s a solution to this; changing it would have resulted in an entirely different book.

That said, I enjoyed it immensely, from the anecdotes about the authors’ lives to the glimpses into the evolution of horror writing to the summaries of books I might read in the future.  I certainly got some ideas of novels to add to my TBR list from this, which is always a win.

Briana
4 stars

What Kinds of Books Should Libraries Display?

Library Book Displays

For years, I have been somewhat baffled by the books the libraries in my area choose to display.  Usually the adult department seems to make beautiful, relevant displays featuring seasonal reads (gardening books, holiday baking and decorating books, beach reads, and so forth). The children’s department, however, often seems to lack a designated display area, and so workers will simply face books out on the ends of shelves where there is empty space.  The choices made for these faced-out books are puzzling, to say the least.  They seldom seem to be new, relevant, or popular titles–quite the opposite, in fact! So what’s going on?  Why aren’t the books displayed in the children’s area books with appealing covers, titles, or content?  Why aren’t the books on display as relevant as the books in the adult department?

For a time, I thought perhaps workers were simply grabbing books at random and displaying them without thought.  This may be particularly true if the workers putting books on display are not the children’s librarians, but part-time shelvers who  have no interest in or knowledge of children’s books.  But, still, it seemed odd that the workers would not realize a beat-up cover with a tasteless design or lack of vibrant colors would not exactly entice the average child to pick it up.  Definitely not in the renaissance of the children’s graphic novel!  Children know good, appealing design when they see it.  They know they want to pick up something colorful and somewhat recent-looking.

I think sometimes workers really do pull books at random and they really do not care if the book is thirty years old with yellowing pages and a faded cover.  However, over time, I began to notice more of a definite trend happening in the books on display.  Many of the books being chosen are old on purpose because the workers are choosing classics or books they somehow see as worthy–old award winners, old school list titles, old favorites.  The librarians are saying, “These are the types of books we think you ought to be checking out.” And so the YA section displays show Aristotle, Homer,and Jane Austen, while the children’s section proudly promote titles such as Caddie Woodlawn and Tom Sawyer.  The graphic novel section, meanwhile, almost always has an educational title on display, like “Oceans Explained in Comic Form!”–not something as good as the Nathan Hale Tales.  Popular and recently-published titles are usually missing.

Now, there is nothing wrong with classics; I happen to love reading them myself and I loved reading them even as a child.  I have read many of the older titles being displayed regularly at the library.  I do have to wonder, however, if the libraries I am familiar with are using the displays to their advantage.  Library displays are basically a form of advertising, a way to get patrons to see what new or interesting titles the library has, a way to get overlooked books noticed, a way to encourage patrons to “impulse check out” an extra book.  But, to advertise effectively, one has to know the market.  The adult displays do this very well because they connect with readers on topics they are already thinking about–entertaining for the holidays, eating healthy for the new year, starting that new home project.  The children’s displays fail (I know because the books on display never change, meaning patrons never check them out) because they ignore what children today are actually reading and actually like, and try instead to encourage the children to read something the workers perceive as “good for them.”

The fundamental difference between the adult displays and the children’s displays is that the adult displays respect their readers and trust them, while the children’s displays (perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously) have taken on a sort of didactic role.  But readers who like classics do not need Jane Austen or Homer or advertised to them, and readers who do not like classics are not going to pick up Homer on a whim. The workers assumed that simply placing any book on a display stand would move it to check out, but the results indicate that their choices are not resonating with many readers.

The workers would create more effective displays if they could think thematically like the adult displays, focusing on relevant issues like a new school year, friends, video games, etc, or choosing books that might appeal to fans of Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney, or other popular authors.  It would also help if they would pull a mix of recent and older books that are worthy because they are well-written or thought-provoking or relevant to the community–not just because the librarian remembers reading that book when they were growing up.   Finally, the older books should probably have updated covers that will be appealing and eye-catching in the age of Instagram–not a cover that says, “Yes, I am from the 1980s.”

I love older books.  I really do.  But the purpose of library displays is not to convince children that they really ought to be reading more classics and award winners.  The purpose is to draw attention to exciting or interesting resources the library has, some of which patrons may have overlooked.  The libraries I’ve seen could create more effective displays if the workers would feature a mix of old and new books that would appeal to the types of readers coming into the library, rather than the types of readers they apparently wish they had.

How does your library display books?  What would your ideal display look like?

Is It Time for the Digital Book Market to Change?

Time for Digital Market to Change

News that Macmillan has enacted an embargo, allowing libraries to purchase only one copy of new e-books for the first two months after release, has rocked the bookish community.  With the news that John Sargent and Macmillan plan to forge ahead despite protests comes even more intriguing news; the United States Congress is looking at the state of the digital market, and the American Library Association (ALA) has testified that outdated policies have made it possible for companies to limit public access to content.  While the ALA mentions the Macmillan embargo, the scope of their report to Congress goes far beyond that, arguing that action must be taken to ensure that libraries are able to purchase–or even allowed to purchase–content in order to provide equal access.  Below are some areas of concern that the ALA has identified.

E-Book Pricing

The ALA notes that libraries pay far above consumer retail price for e-book licenses that typically expire after a few years.

Exclusive Content on Amazon and Streaming Services

The ALA notes that some content is available only to paying subscribers, such that created by authors exclusively for Amazon or that streamed through services like Netflix, Hulu, or Spotify.  They argue that companies that refuse to sell to libraries are keeping valuable or cultural resources from the public.  They also note that refusal to sell to libraries prevents libraries from making preservation copies; some media may go out of existence when companies close.

Academic Publishing

The ALA notes that five publishers control the majority of scholarly journals being published and that they often lock libraries into restrictive multi-year deals, meaning libraries pay incredibly high prices with little room for negotiation.  Furthermore, libraries pay varying prices for these journals, but are prohibited from sharing their prices with each other by non-disclosure agreements.

Textbook Pricing

The  ALA notes that three companies control the textbook market and that at least two are trying to move all textbooks to digital in order to eliminate competition by the used book market.

Student Privacy Concerns

The ALA suggests that textbook companies are capturing student data through their online platforms.  Sometimes this is done through quizzes that students may take.  More regulation is needed.

Conclusion

The ALA report is a reminder that the digital market can change.  Even though the public has grown accustomed to issues such as the inability to access scholarly research or the inability to view or listen certain content without paying for a streaming subscription, these are scenarios that have arisen because the rules that managed the physical marketplace do not always work for the digital marketplace.  New legislation could try to break the hold that a few companies have over how digital content is distributed or withheld.  Perhaps, in time, equal access to information may seem as normal as the current state of affairs.

What do you think?  Is new legislation needed in the digital marketplace?