Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

Information

Goodreads: Long May She Reign
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Feb. 2017

Summary

As twenty-third in line to the throne, Freya never expected to be queen.  But someone poisons nearly the entire court at a banquet and suddenly the reclusive teen is expected to rule a nation.  Unfortunately, Freya never paid much attention to the court or to the country.  She imagines she can leave the ruling to the council but, with a murderer still at large, trusting others may cost Freya her life.

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Review

“Perhaps you’ll have to kiss him again, if you’re not sure. Gather more evidence. In the name of science.”

Long May She Reign is one of those books with a protagonist readers are supposed to cheer because she “isn’t like the other girls.”  Unfortunately, this makes her all too much like a host of other YA protagonists.  Freya, you see, would rather conduct experiments in her lab than attend to the court.  And she detests girls like Madeleine Wolff who are pretty and adept at navigating social situations with wit and grace.  After all, who needs social skills when you’re so much more intellectual than all those other rich people?

To be fair, Freya does grow throughout the book.  She learns that she really should have been paying attention to the rules of court if she wants to survive there. And she begins to learn that there are people in the city with larger problems than “my dad wants me to go to a party and I don’t wanna.”  Readers will likely want to cheer her along her journey because she comes across as such an underdog.  As twenty-third in line to the throne and a teenager, she’s really like a lamb being thrown to the wolves.  She assumes she can trust other people in the court to attend to matters that they are supposed to know more about.  She has to find out the hard way that there’s a difference between relying on others’ knowledge and being negligent.

But I didn’t pick up this book for Freya; I wanted a book with court intrigue.  In this regard, Long May She Reign did a decent, if not spectacular job. We do see some of the inner workings of court politics and those politics  make more sense than most of the politics I see in YA.  I’m still wondering why Freya has so much free time and freedom to go sneaking around the castle and the city–with a man!–(doesn’t she have…laws to read and sign off on?  or something?) and I didn’t find the ending overly convincing.  (It assumes that the populace is ignorant and susceptible, which seems odd.  I didn’t get the general impression that science was something that could easily delude scores of people, many of whom are educated.  Unless we are supposed to accept the implied explanation that religious people are…dumb and not interested in science?)  However, I recognize that most readers of YA don’t share my enthusiasm for logical plots, so I don’t think these attributes will hurt the story for the general reader.

Long May She Reign is a fairly standard YA fantasy.  It features a typical “different than the others” heroine, a romance that falls into tropes towards the end, and an over-simplified vision of politics.  Still, it’s not a bad way to spend a few days.

3 Stars

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The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

Information

Goodreads: The Serpent’s Secret
Series: Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Kiran’s parents have always told her that she is an Indian princess.  But she never believed them until her twelfth birthday, when her parents disappear and a rakkhosh demon chases her out of her house.  Aided by two princes, Kiran flees to the magical Kingdom Beyond.  But the clock is ticking.  Can Kiran save her parents before they are eaten by demons?

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Review

“We humans may not be powerful or magical,” Baba added, holding me close. “But the stories we pass on to our children can be.”

 

A story about a modern-day girl meeting the characters of Bengali folklore will obviously draw comparisons to Rick Riordan.  However, since I have only read The Lightning Thief and do not recall much except not liking it, I have little to say on this matter.  Indeed, my only Riordan-esque observation is that, strangely, Aru Shah and the End of Time seems much more popular on Goodreads at the time I write this review–even though both books have a similar premise.  I assume because Aru Shah is presented by Rick Riordan and The Serpent’s Shadow is not.

Not knowing  much about Bengali folklore, I approached The Serpent’s Shadow as a I would any middle-grade fantasy.  I could not anticipate the entrances of familiar characters or compare them to their other literary incarnations.  I could only enjoy what I saw happening on the page.  And, largely, I did enjoy the story.  It is fun, fast-paced, and filled with the type of humor that seemingly appeals to middle school readers.  I think fans of Percy Jackson will like Kiran’s adventures, as well.

Indeed, my main criticisms are personal and not really a reflection on the writing quality of the book.  First, I do not enjoy sarcastic or rude characters.  Kiran is both, the kind of character who makes pathetic comebacks because she thinks insulting people is equivalent to being strong.  She also has a habit of pointing out all the bad qualities of other people and starting arguments over nothing.  Because of this, it took me a good chunk of the book to start liking her.

Secondly, Kiran has a huge issue with princesses.  The result is that the book seems to be criticizing people who like princesses.  “Look at my heroine!” the book seems to shout.  “She’s dressed in a hoodie and hates all things sparkly!  That makes her better than other royal heroines!”  I am not sure the book meant to convey this attitude. I also recognize that Kiran’s opinions do not have to represent the opinions of the author.  Still, I can certainly see why princess-loving readers might feel personally insulted by the tone of the book (despite the fact that Kiran is, ironically, a princess herself).  Kiran’s attitude is that “girls who can kick demon butt are better than girls who aren’t into fighting” and not much in the book contradicts her perspective.

Other than that, I suspect the main fault readers will find with the book is that it is predictable.  But so are a host of other middle-grade fantasies.  And I am not sure that middle school readers will care.  The story is still engaging, the mini quests full of danger, the ending satisfactory.  The Serpent’s Shadow does not stand out for me among a host of similar books, but it is solid.

4 stars

How Can Barnes and Noble Save Themselves?

Why Bother Saving Barnes and Noble?

This month we have been discussing how Amazon’s unethical business practices harm the publishing industry and the strong likelihood that Barnes and Noble will close.  I expected that readers would rejoin with arguments that they enjoy the low prices and customer service aspects of Amazon, while they do not always enjoy the experience of shopping in a Barnes and Noble.  Fewer available titles and unpleasant interactions with employees are obvious critiques of the U.S.’s largest brick-and-mortar book retailer.  And, indeed, plenty of comments reflected similar views.

So why save Barnes and Noble if many customers believe the chain does not deserve to be saved, based on how the company has been run?  The short answer is two-fold.  First of all, Barnes and Noble is one of the last physical bookstores around for many people.  Decreased access to books is a problem because it makes equal access to knowledge and learning materials more difficult.  Secondly, if Amazon gains a monopoly on the bookselling business, publishers will have even more difficulty negotiating prices with them.  Amazon already has a history of offering to pay prices so low that publishers would lose money selling to the company.  But, with Barnes and Noble gone, what other choice would they have?  Although publishers do typically sell directly from their websites, few consumers seem to use this option.  And why should they if Amazon is selling books below cost and thus offering a greater deal to readers?

So what can Barnes and Noble do to turn their company around and encourage people to shop there?  Below I offer some ideas.

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What Can Barnes and Noble Do to Improve Their Bookselling Experience?

Reduce the Gift Items

I recognize that gift items sell well and that they are often the reason book stores stay afloat.  (We can even look at Amazon, who sells books at a loss because non-book items help make up the deficit.)  However since the gift section was expanded, shelf room for books has been lost.  Barnes and Noble seems to specialize now in trendy items and bestsellers, meaning people looking for more obscure books often end up online.  I think Barnes and Noble should keep their book- and fandom-related merchandise, but they can downsize the candles, soaps, and random electronics to start.  The company already announced it plans to downsize this section, so that seems promising.

Expand the Children’s Section

People love buying books for children, whether this is teachers buying for their classroom, parents buying for school projects, or relatives hoping to send an educational present.  If the store makes room for more books, I think the children’s section makes the most sense for expansion.  I would also like to see some reorganization for a more pleasant browsing experience.  The current organization never makes complete sense to me and I feel like I walk around a lot trying to get an idea of what each section is meant to be.  It’s sort of by age, sort of by genre/type of book, and sort of by hardcover/softcover?  Presumably the layout makes things easy for employees to locate itemse, but the layout should really be focused on how easy it is for customers to browse.

Increase Programming

More programs could get more people in the door to make impulse purchases.  Barnes and Noble’s new book club is a step in the right direction as it encourages people to both buy a book from the store and to show up again to maybe buy some more books.  I would like to see more programs like this, especially for children, where the program is tied directly back into merchandise the attendees will find relevant and helpful.  I’m thinking writing workshops where writing books are highlighted, children’s storytimes with thematic books on a special display, etc.  But the key is to impress customers with the idea that the books being suggested for them are ones that they will actually find useful and not just books that are being pushed on them.

Change Locations

Edward Helmore for The Guardian notes that Barnes and Noble stores tend to be located in malls.  This means consumers have to make a conscious effort to get in their cars and drive there.  Moving locations to areas where stores would get spontaneous foot traffic could help the company increase revenue.

Hire Knowledgeable, Friendly Employees

Like plenty of other commenters I have seen, my experiences with the staff at Barnes and Noble have often been unpleasant.  Barnes and Noble may have to rethink their hiring practices or their training practices.  But their recent layoffs, many of full-time employees, do not bode well for the company.  Part-time employees often have less of an incentive to invest in their job if there are no full-time positions they can aim for.  And part-time employees who leave for full-time jobs at other companies means Barnes and Noble will have to spend more time hiring and retraining employees.  Fewer stable employees means fewer experienced employees.  Plus the recent layoffs mean that the employees left will likely be struggling to do the same amount of work with fewer people–at least in the short term.  Stressed employees are unlikely to give customers a shopping experience they will enjoy.

Go Local

Indie bookstores are treasures because they typically stock local-interest books and local authors.  Chain stores, meanwhile, tend to give the same planograms to all their stores, regardless of what their customers actually want or buy.  Barnes and Noble could sell more if they stocked their stores with regional differences in mind.

Serve Alcohol?

In 2016, Barnes and Noble announced that some locations would serve alcohol.  While my own anecdotal observations lead me to believe that serving alcohol does attract more people to a place or an event, I have to question whether the alcohol drinkers intend to buy books when they leave. Probably not, so I’m going to have to give this idea a pass, creative as it is.

Discourage People from Using the Store as a Library

This idea will probably be controversial.  And I have no idea how to implement it without making customers feel unwelcome.  However, isn’t it odd that people go to Barnes and Noble to read an entire book or magazine while they sip on their coffee–and then they do not buy it?  People typically don’t go to other stores and use their products for hours without purchasing them.  Would you go to the home goods store, use their tools on your DIY project, and leave without paying?  Would you go to an ice cream shop, eat a sundae, proclaim it mediocre, and then announce you don’t want to pay after having consumed it?  Probably not, so why do people do this with books?  Do we not value them enough to pay for our consumption of them?  I think Barnes and Noble needs to remind people that they sell things and that they are not a library.

Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf

Periods Gone Public

Information

Goodreads: Periods Gone Public
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 10, 2017

Official Summary

The first book to explore menstruation in the current cultural and political landscape and to investigate the new wave of period activism taking the world by storm.

After centuries of being shrouded in taboo and superstition, periods have gone mainstream. Seemingly overnight, a new, high-profile movement has emerged—one dedicated to bold activism, creative product innovation, and smart policy advocacy—to address the centrality of menstruation in relation to core issues of gender equality and equity.

In Periods Gone Public, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf—the woman Bustle dubbed one of the nation’s “badass menstrual activists”—explores why periods have become a prominent political cause. From eliminating the tampon tax, to enacting new laws ensuring access to affordable, safe products, menstruation is no longer something to whisper about. Weiss-Wolf shares her firsthand account in the fight for “period equity” and introduces readers to the leaders, pioneers, and everyday people who are making change happen. From societal attitudes of periods throughout history—in the United States and around the world—to grassroots activism and product innovation, Weiss-Wolf challenges readers to face stigma head-on and elevate an agenda that recognizes both the power—and the absolute normalcy—of menstruation.

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Review

I picked up this book from the library because the author describes herself as a “menstrual activist,” and I had no idea what she meant by that and wanted to find out. Though the book does talk about various charities and what Weiss-Wolf calls “menstrual equity,” I think it’s best viewed as an overview of what the author calls “The Year of the Period,” when all things period-related seemed to be making national news. (Note that the book opens with a trip to India and discussion of other countries, but it’s largely US-focused.) She covers everything from lack of access to menstrual products to lack of education about reproductive health to the “tampon tax” and new period product innovations.

Personally, I thought the chapters about lack of access to menstrual products were the most interesting. I had been aware of this issue in other countries, which Weiss-Wolf addresses, but I hadn’t thought much about the issue in the US. She covers in-depth how lower-income students might miss school because of lack of proper products and then addresses the particular plight of the homeless and women who are incarcerated.  This last category was the most eye-opening to me, as it never occurred to me that prisons would have inadequate supplies or that, even if they did have enough pads/tampons, that guards would purposely withhold them from inmates who needed them in order to exert control over them. Weiss-Wolf addresses the variety of actions we can take to address these problems, ranging from donating to lobbying for laws. (For instance, donating more pads to prisons is meaningless if guards are still legally allowed to deny them to inmates.)

I was less interested in the “tampon tax” which seems to be a pet cause of the author’s, so it takes her halfway through the book, after passionately advocating for this, to admit that eliminating a tax on menstrual products would have basically no effect on menstruating people in terms of saving them money or making the products more affordable:

“As indicated earlier, the road ahead requires far more than pushing for sales tax reform, which really only scratches the surface. In terms of practical relief for those who are struggling and truly unable to access or afford the expense of menstrual products, a tax savings of pennies on the dollar likely isn’t going to make enough of a dent” (147-148).

(Seriously, she notes that in some places the tax is 1.5%. Even if the tax were higher, say 10%, most people are going to spend less than $1/month on tax on these products, by my calculations. This isn’t a meaningful per person savings. You can argue the products should be tax-free as a matter of principle, but not as a way to impact individuals’ finances. On the other hand, the lost tax revenue to the government would be significant, and figuring out how to compensate for that raises other questions.)

Weiss-Wolf also takes a detour to talk about other women’s issues, such as the legality of abortions, but these also read to me as passion projects of the author, and she didn’t fully convince me that whether abortions are legal or not has a real bearing on whether people have access to affordable menstrual products.

Basically, some parts of this book were enlightening, and some seemed more like things the author just wanted to talk about that weren’t closely related to the main topic of the book. I think it could be a good read for those interested in this topic, though, particularly if you pick and choose the chapters you read.

2 star review Briana

I’m No Longer Interested in Reading about Princesses (and I Hope It’s Temporary)

Princess Books

I’ve only read a few YA books with princess protagonists in the past couple months (Dark Breaks the Dawn and Ash Princess come to mind), but I’ve noticed a troubling personal reaction: I didn’t like them.  This came as a genuine surprise to me because, if asked, I probably would have said I loved princess books. I enjoyed reading them as a child, and I like all the things that come with princess stories—power, opulence, the chance for a character to have a real impact because they’re going to rule a country.  But reading princess books recently (particularly YA, as opposed to MG), I found myself frustrated and bored.

On one level, maybe a princess protagonist is too “obvious.”  Maybe in my mind I’m thinking that it’s just too convenient or too overdone that the author chose this character for the focus of a book, and that things would be a lot more interesting if they focused on someone else.  (The Rebel of the Sands books, for instance, work really well by featuring a protagonist who is supporting a prince leading a rebellion, rather than on the prince himself.)  Of course princesses have power, so maybe what I really want to hear about is the chief political advisor, or the general, or the woman who milks the royal cows!

However, I think I’m also pushing back against the idea that royalty have inherent powers that other people don’t.  In princess books, the royal family seem to be in power not because of politics or a rebellion or just a weird accident of fate; they’re in power because they hold [insert some wildly powerful magical ability the poor plebeians can never have], and that irritates me.

Perhaps my societal conditioning has me grating against this idea. Americans don’t like nobility, right? And there’s probably something to be said about millennial attitudes here.  Maybe it smacks too much of “divine right of kings,” implying that these people inherently should rule because their bloodline, in fact, does make them inherently better than other people.

However, I think my real problem is that I’m not convinced that this idea actually makes sense.  I like magic systems in books where magic is genetic but widely spread throughout the kingdom’s people, and I like magic systems where one can learn magic or acquire it through an external source. But the idea that only the royal family has magic (or a particularly powerful manifestation of the book’s form of magic) is weird to me.  If it’s genetic within the royal family, there should be someone besides the current rulers and their direct heirs who have it.  Cousins? Bastard children in the country? Someone?

Whatever my issue is, I hope I can resolve it soon, or otherwise find a YA book that does a princess character really well. Leave me your recommendations in the comments!

Briana

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Information

Goodreads: The Warden’s Daughter
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Jan. 2017

Summary

Cammie O’Reilly lives as the Hancock County Prison where her father is the warden.  Her mother died when she was a baby.  Now, twelve years later, Cammie is still searching for a mom.  And she’s thinking the prison is a great place to find one.

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Review

Though set in a prison, The Warden’s Daughter does not offer much commentary on crime or prison life, instead focusing on the bars Cammie O’Reilly feels around herself.  She lost her mother as a baby and now, twelve years later, she is still trying to deal with the pain and the emptiness.  As she reacts with anger, she finds herself slowly drifting away–maybe straight into trouble.

Readers hoping for a story that provides an empathetic look at inmates will find themselves disappointed.  The point of the story is that Cammie tends to be selfish and little too focused on her own needs and concerns.  As a result, the prisoners are often viewed through Cammie’s lens–a lens that misunderstands or sometimes distorts.  She thinks of others only in terms of how they relate to her, can give her the love she craves.

Still, the story is a moving one.  It illustrates how sometimes cages can be mental instead of physical.  And how sometimes a person acts out, not because they are bad, but because they are hurting.  It’s all set in a delicious 1950s Pennsylvania town, with historical references enough to make readers young and old squeal with glee.  This is my first Spinelli book, but it will not be my last.

4 stars

The Book World Is Debating the Value of Audiobooks–Again

Audiobook Discussion

Credit: Sai Kiran Anagani – Unsplash

If you’ve logged onto Book Twitter in the past couple days, you’ll have noticed the resurrection of a tired debate: Does reading an audiobook “count” as “real” reading?  To the credit of the people I actually follow on Twitter, I’ve only seen people saying that, yes, audiobooks are books and reading one/listening to one (whatever terminology you prefer to describe the activity) counts as reading a book.

To me, it’s blatantly obvious that listening to an audiobook isn’t fundamentally different from reading a physical book or an e-book (you know, directing your eyes at words on a page or a screen), but I’ve been pondering why some people are so adamant that audiobooks are basically fake books.  After some reflection, I can’t help but wonder if this is part of a different debate that Krysta and I sometimes raise on the blog: When people think of “reading,” are they thinking about “reading skills?”

Basically, Krysta and I have been positing for a while that the value of English classes (or, “reading things while you are in school”) is about learning content and about learning to analyze and interpret a text.  The primary point, then, is that you understand what the text is saying, you understand the context of the text in history or in some type of discourse/discussion, and you can make reasonable judgments or interpretations of the text based on what you know about it and about literature in general.

Without fail, however, some people disagree with us (which is cool; feel free to disagree in our comments!) and suggest that the point of reading in school is basically to build reading skills—to know what words mean when you see them on a page, to understand what certain sentence structures say when you see them on a page, to be able to gradually work your way up to being able to read more complex things on a page, etc.  It’s about having a “reading grade level” that is appropriate (or better than expected!) for your age because you can direct your eyes at a page and know what the words there say. But if reading is about “reading skills” and not really about understanding the content and argument of a text and being able to talk intelligently about it…then reading something on a page is actually different from having someone read something to you, whether it’s a person who is physically with you or an audiobook doing the reading.  It’s a different skill.

However, because I think reading is most importantly about content and discussion, the question of the manner in which someone came to be familiar with that content is irrelevant to me. No one is better because they read the word “themselves.” Whether you prefer paper books, e-books, or audiobooks, you are a reader (and therefore, obviously, awesome).

Briana