ARRT GENRE STUDY WEBSITE

Click here for quick access to all of the materials for the 2014-15 Crime Fiction Genre Study. Please note, some information will be password protected for members only. Click here for information about joining ARRT.

RA FOR ALL...THE ROAD SHOW!

I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What I’m Reading: World of Trouble

There are very few times in life when you complete a series and it is just perfect.  As I mentioned in a previous Monday Discussion on this blog, this is how I felt about completing Ben H. Winters The Last Policeman Trilogy with the last installment, World of Trouble.

This review of World of Trouble as a novel will be short because to say too much would give away the joy of reading the series.

First, you need to see my reviews of The Last Policeman (book 1) and Countdown City (book 2) for more details.  Click through. I can wait.

Okay, you are back.  All I am going to say about World of Trouble as a book is that the story picks up where Hank left off, leaving his girlfriend at a safe house and headed back out into a world only weeks away from impact with the asteroid that will destroy most, if not all life on Earth.

Hank follows some leads to Ohio where most of the action in this book takes place.  I can tell you that before the asteroid hit the earth, Hank has put all the pieces into place from the last 2 books.  He knows what was going on with his sister, he solves a few other mysteries along the way, and still leaves time to end the novel in a beautiful, heart warming scene as the asteroid streaks across the sky.  It’s just perfect.

For Readers Advisory purposes what you really need to know is how to suggest this now completed trilogy to patrons. Here are a few tips and points on that front.

First, it stays completely true to the tone and focus of the first installment.  This means, Hank gets a bit more seasoned as he is investigating the mystery surrounding his sister, but he is still a bit naive and bubbling until the end.  He also remains endearingly good hearted and good natured despite the fact that the world may be ending any day. You can be sure Hank stays Hank no matter what.

Second, this series although set in a pre-apocalyptic time NEVER moves to post apocalypse.  Do not give this series to people who want to know what happens because of the asteroid!  This is a hard-boiled detective novel, albeit featuring an unexperienced detective, who refuses to accept defeat even as he faces down the end of the world.  He will fight to figure out what happened to his sister and why until the end. He will leave no stone unturned.  He will complete his mission before the deadline. Hank is nothing if not earnest, but Winters will not break our trust.  This is a pre-apocalyptic novel and it stays that way until the end.

But it is also a novel about what choices people make when they know the end of the world is coming.  There is no blue print for how you are supposed to act here.  We meet many, many people who all make different choices.  We see what happens to the country’s infrastructure, institutions, and community as the day of impact comes closer.  This is a lot to take in and makes the trilogy very thought provoking, but not as dark as you would imagine because of Hank’s positive personality.  Seeing these background details evolve over the course of the series is not only very interesting, but it is also a huge factor in why someone would read and enjoy these books. So my RA point here...take the term pre-apocalyptic literally.

Third, this is a great option for mystery fans with an off kilter sense of humor, who enjoy quirky characters, and a first person narration.

Fourth, if you commit to reading the entire trilogy, rest assured, it is extremely well paced.  You can read each book in a few sittings.  It would not be a huge investment in time.  They are also paperback originals, so I will be sending quite a few patrons with all three on vacation in the years to come.

Taking the entire series into consideration, I have been suggesting it to many more readers than before the publication of World of Trouble.  Until I finished the trilogy, I couldn’t be sure that it would  stay true to the mystery part.  I was worried that the gimmick of the asteroid would overtake the true story here.  So now, you can be sure the reader does not need to like apocalyptic fiction in order to enjoy these books; they just need to be okay with the pre-apocalyptic setting and the shadow it casts over the tone.

Three Words That Describe This Book: endearing narrator, pre-apocalypse, thought provoking [same three words I used at the start and they still are the key appeal of this series]

Readalikes:  I have plenty of readalikes listed from when I wrote about the first 2 books here and here.

I think your best readalike options have NOTHING to do with the science fiction aspects or apocalyptic stuff though. I do have those other options listed in the links from previous reviews.   Rather, your focus on readalikes should be for other mystery series with an endearing detective, an off beat sense of humor, and some level of thought provoking issues [in other words, it needs to be a bit more than fluff because there are some serious issues at the foundation of  the story...the end of the world is coming for goodness sake].  Thankfully, this is one of my favorite areas of mysteries.  So here are a few options with links to my reviews:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday Discussion: Back to School Edition

I can hardly believe it but some of the Berwyn school started today and my own kids go back on Wednesday. That summer went fast!

This mean it's time for our annual back to school edition of the Monday Discussion.

This year I want to know about the best book you ever HAD to read for school.

I could list many including The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison in 10th Grade American Literature and Beowulf in 9th Grade English, but this year I was reminded on being assigned Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in 8th grade.

My daughter's 7th grade summer reading assignment was to read The Outsiders by Hinton and another book from a provided list.  Flowers for Algernon was there and I book talked it to her.  I told her how much I had loved it in Junior High and explained why she would love it.  I thought it was a nice readalike for Wonder by R.J. Palacio which she loved in 5th grade. Well, after reading it AND writing her paper, she really loved the novel and I think it is also a book that will stay with her for many years to come.

I think Flowers for Algernon will remain forever as my favorite book I HAD to read because of this extra level of enjoyment I have now had with my own daughter.

What about you?  For today's Monday Discussion, think back to your assigned reading days and share the best book you were ever assigned to read.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Let's Get Excited About RA and Libraries

As you saw in yesterday's post about RA Summer Camp, I am feeling particularly inspired to provide the best RA service I can. And for those of you who know me and my enthusiasm for the field, this is saying a lot.

But I am not the only one getting excited these days.

Over at Booklist, Donna Seaman wrote a wonderful article "In Defense of Fiction." If you work with leisure readers, read this. Even after 14 years of training my patrons that helping them to find the perfect fiction book for their mood and tastes IS my most important job, some of them still think their leisure reading questions are less worthy than other's fact based questions.  I am going to use some  of what Donna has to say to help remind them, like this:
The pleasures and benefits of reading fiction are many and profound. Yet fiction is often cast as a frivolous pursuit in our utilitarian society, and under totalitarian regimes, reading fiction can be a crime. Two zealous, learned, and eloquent literary advocates—both college literature teachers and energetic critics—passionately celebrate and defend fiction and its role in our lives in two exhilarating books that combine memoir, literary criticism, and vivid portraits of the writers under discussion. 
Click through for more from Donna. And her article reminds me to remind you that books about books and reading make for the perfect "outside the box" reading suggestions for your stuck in a rut patrons. Here and here are of ideas to get you started with those suggestions.

Also, thanks to the Readers and Reference team at the Syosset [NY] Public Library, I found this article from Tuesday's WSJ entitled, "Why the Public Library Beats Beats Amazon-- For Now." This article takes a lot about what I had to say about how librarians should be reacting to all the Amazon backlash, but uses actual data to back it all up.

Be proud of our fantastic work at American public libraries.  Yes, each individual library has its own set of problems, but look at this data.  As a united front we are kicking butt!  We are putting leisure readers first and giving them the best access to all books and reading for only the cost of their tax dollars. What a deal.

We rock!

Now stop reading this blog and get out there to help match someone with their next great read!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

RA Summer Camp Program Recap

As promised, here is a recap of the program with Neal Wyatt yesterday.

Annabelle and I tweeted during the event using the hashtag #arrtreads. You do not need to have a Twitter account to view our notes.  I will be repeating some of what was there, but not everything, so click. Also, there are pictures and posts from yesterday on the ARRT Facebook page.

First and foremost, what I loved most about this program overall is that Neal took the one thing all of us RA librarians think we know everything about-- appeal-- and made us look at it in a new way.  The result? I felt like I had my eyes opened.  I learned so much more about what I do every day and have many good ideas to bring back to use with our staff.

But let's back track.  Neal opened with what I saw as a brilliant idea, but was shocked that no one had ever done it before.  She took the three main RA sources which introduced the idea of appeal and went through them [quickly] to show where they were the same and where they differed.  These three are outlined in the following books. listed in the order in which they were published:
She spent about 30 minutes really honing us in on their similarities and what is most important to consider because the bulk of the 2 hour meeting as going to be all about writing annotations! But just before we switched gears, Neal tried out her newly created Myers-Briggs style test so we could each assess our personal reading tastes based on 4 big areas of appeal; the areas where the 3 resources overlap the most.

We also did madlibs with appeal where we were given a sentence with multiple missing adjectives and a noun and a verb to fill in.  The goal, make 2 sentences but make them be completely opposite of each other. Not only was it fun, it really focuses you on how the words you chose to use in only 1 sentence make a HUGE difference in how the book sounds to a reader.

So before we all dug into reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson [which we later worked on writing an annotation for] Neal talked at length about annotations. Along the way she used examples of her own work to point out both how to and how NOT to.  Here are some quick soundbites of the things she said on this topic:

  • Writing an annotation is not like writing a review.  An annotation is to advertise a book to its best reader.
  • Always start with genre and type of book.  Example: a locked room mystery.  This orients the audience to the type of book it is right away.
  • The biggest mistake people make when writing annotations is that they add more story. Instead, less plot and more appeal.
  • Show restraint. Don't overshare
  • You are writing to someoone who has not read the book already, so do not write in code.
  • Characater-- identify main character and write only the 1 most important thing about him or her.  Example: Jack Reacher-- mention he is an ex Army MP, leave out that he doesn't own anything. [Becky's note: although I often like mentioning his weird tick of him not owning anything because it is funny and endearing about Reacher, she is correct, it is not the most important thing about Reacher; readers can discover that quirk on their own.]
  • Be DEFT with your writing.  Make your words do double duty. Example: use adverbs and adjectives that reflect the tone of the book as you are describing the story.
  • There is no need to mention the setting in an annotations unless it acts like another character in the story or it is key to the book's plot.  Example: Hampton Sides' In the Kingdom of Ice is very setting dependent.
  • While setting is not always necessary to mention, frame is very necessary. If a book has any specific frame you must mention it.
  • In general advice about writing annotations: Only talk about the things that matter to the experience of reading the book.
I want to also quickly mention Neal's personal advice on how to write an annotation.  As she cautioned, this is what works for her. She had a slide which Annabelle posted a picture of here.  Below are her steps in the order she does them as she writes an annotation:
  • Sketch out the elements you will include
  • Look for overlaps
  • Look for empty thoughts
  • Order by orientation and importance
  • Look for gaps
  • Write it
  • Revise it
  • Fact check it
  • Prepare to be edited
Then we read The Lottery [love that story!] and brainstormed an annotation as a group of 50+. Very cool.  My favorite adjective that came out of our brainstorming was from the BPL RA's fearless leader Kathy-- "disorienting."

Then we ended the session by playing RA Jeopardy!
Other quick takeaways of note:
  • Neal is working on a book on the history of RA Service.  Knowing Neal it will be comprehensive AND interesting to read.  I am quite excited. 
  • ARRT is a big part of that history of RA service in US public libraries and we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary this year.  Big milestone birthday means big party!  Go here for details and to sign up. You do not need to be a member to join us at the Oak Park Public Library on Saturday, September 6th. Non-members do need to fork over $10 though.  Again details here.
  • The next ARRT program will be Wednesday November 12th from 2-4 PM at the Schaumburg Township District Library and it will feature Heather Booth talking about RA for Teens. She is currently working on an update to her 2007 ALA Edition guide on that topic. More details after we party.  
All in all it was wonderful day at RA Summer Camp!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

RA Summer Camp and Horror Blog Update

Today is the RA Summer Camp Program.  Click here for details.  It is from 2-4 central time and myself and other attendees will be tweeting using the #arrtreads hashtag during the event.

I will have a longer report up tomorrow on the blog because I know there is a lot of interest in this program.  I did get one preview tip which has really gotten me excited.  The only handout is a copy of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery!

This is going to rock.

Until then, I have a brand new post on the horror blog. It is the first in an occasional series of posts that are meant to get you and your library ready for Halloween.  Believe it or not, the planning is well underway in the horror community for October 31st.

So click through to that post while you wait to here how my afternoon at RA Summer Camp went!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday Discussions: Endings That Don’t Suck

For today’s Monday discussion, I wanted to celebrate finishing the fantastic The Last Policeman series by Ben Winters over the weekend.  Here and here are my reviews of the first 2 books in this pre-apocalyptic series.

There have been lots of kudos for this series, including from me, but what I loved about this final installment, World of Trouble, was how PERFECTLY it ended [at least for me]. I was hoping for the best and Winters delivered an ending even better than my wildest hopes.  Yay!  It was so invigorating to come out so happy from a trilogy.  That doesn't always happen.

This got me thinking about my personal reading.  Too often I love a book until the ending.  Bad endings ruin so many books for me that when I come across a great one, I am elated.

This works for TV shows too. Over the weekend, my sister and I were talking about how we are upset with the final season of True Blood becuase we feel like they are trying to hard to wrap it all up too neatly, but that led my Dad to chime in about how utterly perfect the final episode of Alan Ball's other series Six Feet Under was. We all agreed there. So we are holding out hope.

This leads to our discussion today.  Let's celebrate our favortie perfect endings in any media becuase life is too short to complain about the bad endings [plus there are too many of those to list].

Here are some recent endings I adored to kick off the discussion [besides World of Trouble]:
What about you?  For today's Monday discussion, share some of your favorite endings in books, tv series, or movies. From recently or from way back; it doesn't matter. Do not include any ending syou hated.  We are all about the positive today.

For past Monday Discussions click here.

Library Reads: September 2014

You know the drill on Library Reads by now.  Click here for past lists. Lots of big names on this one.


September 2014 LibraryReads List

SmokeGetsinYourEyes-199x300

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:
And Other Lessons from
the Crematory

by Caitlin Doughty

Published: 9/15/2014
by W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 9780393240238
“Part memoir, part exposé of the death industry, and part instruction manual for aspiring morticians. First-time author Doughty has written an attention-grabbing book that is sure to start some provocative discussions. Fans of Mary Roach’s Stiff and anyone who enjoys an honest, well-written autobiography will appreciate this quirky story.”
Patty Falconer, Hampstead Public Library, Hampstead, NH
StationEleven-203x300

Station Eleven: A Novel

by Emily St. John Mandel

Published: 9/9/2014 by Knopf
ISBN: 9780385353304
“An actor playing King Lear dies onstage just before a cataclysmic event changes the future of everyone on Earth. What will be valued and what will be discarded? Will art have a place in a world that has lost so much? What will make life worth living? These are just some of the issues explored in this beautifully written dystopian novel. Recommended for fans of David Mitchell, John Scalzi and Kate Atkinson.”
Janet Lockhart, Wake County Public Libraries, Cary, NC
SecretPlace-199x300

The Secret Place

by Tana French

Published: 9/2/2014 by Viking Adult
ISBN: 9780670026326
“French has broken my heart yet again with her fifth novel, which examines the ways in which teenagers and adults can be wily, calculating, and backstabbing, even with their friends. The tension-filled flashback narratives, relating to a murder investigation in suburban Dublin, will keep you turning pages late into the night.”
Alison McCarty, Nassau County Public Library System, Callahan, FL
Rooms-199x300

Rooms: A Novel

by Lauren Oliver

Published: 9/23/2014 by Ecco
ISBN: 9780062223197
“A family comes to terms with their estranged father’s death in Oliver’s first novel for adults. Told from the perspective of two ghosts living in the old house, this unique story weaves characters and explores their various past connections. Great book!”
Rachel Fewell, Denver Public Library, Denver, CO
ChildrenAct-203x300

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

Published: 9/9/2014 by Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 9780385539708
“Judge Fiona Maye is at a difficult point in her marriage. Taking refuge in addressing other people’s problems in family court, Fiona extends herself more than usual, meeting a boy whose future is in her hands. McEwan is a masterful observer of human distress. With a simple story and flawed, genuine characters, this novel is poignant and insightful.”
Jennifer Alexander, St. Louis County Library, St. Louis, MO
Distance-198x300

The Distance: A Thriller

by Helen Giltrow

Published: 9/9/2014 by Doubleday
ISBN: 9780385536998
“Imagine a modern-day Robin Hood who deals not in money, but identity. Karla, the protagonist of The Distance, is a tech guru with a conscience, and the security of several nations dependent on her. This nuanced book kept me on the edge of my seat. I cannot wait until the next one comes out.”
Cathy Scheib, Indianapolis Public Library, Indianapolis, IN
Horrorstor-253x300

Horrorstor: A Novel

by Grady Hendrix

Published: 9/23/2014 by Quirk Books
ISBN: 9781594745263
“You know how some horror movies would work better as novels? Horrorstor is that book, perfectly capturing everything that is terrific about the horror genre. In its catalog-style pages, you’ll find a hefty dose of satire, as a Scandinavian furniture store is transformed overnight into a prison. With characters that you’re rooting for and terror that creeps up on you, Horrorstor will keep you up all night in the best possible way.”
Donna Matturri, Pickerington Public Library, Pickerington, OH
PayingGuests-199x300

The Paying Guests

by Sarah Waters

Published: 9/16/2014 by Riverhead
ISBN: 9781594633119
“You can almost bet that a situation with long-term guests–paying or not–is not going to turn out well. This novel by Waters, who many know from her earlier booksTipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger, will keep you turning the page to see just how tense things can get, and how far fear and passion can push someone.”
Elizabeth Angelastro, Manlius Library, Manlius, NY
WitchwithNoName-199x300

The Witch with No Name

by Kim Harrison

Published: 9/9/2014 by Harper Voyager
ISBN: 9780061957956
“In this book, Harrison ends her long-running Hollows series, featuring witch Rachel Morgan, vampire Ivy, and pixy Jenks. Rachel’s come a long way; now, she and her friends attempt the impossible and face their toughest battle yet. Harrison skillfully wraps up many plot points, leaving readers sad that the series is over but satisfied by its ending. Fans will surely cheer Rachel on and shed a tear or two.”
Ilene Lefkowitz, Denville Public Library, Denville, NJ
SeasonofStorms-197x300

Season of Storms

by Susanna Kearsley

Published: 9/2/2014 by Sourcebooks Landmark
ISBN: 9781402258732
“Once again, Kearsley introduces you to a cast of characters who will quickly hold a special place in your heart. Celia and Alex mirror lovers from decades past, sharing similar secrets and passions. Flashbacks are woven seamlessly into the storyline, and the strong family component is handled beautifully, with surprising twists and turns.”
Marianne Colton, Lockport Public Library, Lockport, NY

Thursday, August 7, 2014

For Your Amusement....

I have spent all morning working on ILA Annual Conference planning and am about to head out to Glenview Public Library for the next ARRT Genre Study meeting-- Historical Crime.

You can click here for ILA Conference info.  The early bird discount is still available.

You can click here for all the ARRT Genre Study info including the next assignment which I prepared on our first subsets of Thrillers.

But, you don't care about any of this.  I know that.  You want a post.  Well, today you are getting a "just for fun" one.

Go to the blog Fake Library Stats.  Read it.  Bookmark it.  Follow it on Twitter.  Trust me.  No matter what kind of day you are having, no matter how many patrons yell at you, no matter what kind of bodily fluid you have to clean up in the stacks, this site will put a smile on your face. You will thank me, if not today, then some day when you really need it, and then you will already know about Fake Library Stats, you will visit it, and it will brighten your day.

You are welcome.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Summer Reading Postmortem Report 1

Our Summer Reading program ended on Saturday, and Monday afternoon, Kathy and I had a blast with this site generating random numbers to pick our grand prize winners.

But now the fun begins-- the data gathering and postmortem assessment of how it all went.  Today, I have the first of what I see as at least 2 reports on our summer reading program.  First, is the immediate reactions and current action steps for the next three weeks, basically until Labor Day when summer unofficially ends.  The second report, will come sometime after our late August staff meeting where the entire team will be breaking down the pros and cons of what we did this summer, how it all went, what was fantastic, what needs to be tweaked, and what should be scrapped.

Which brings up my first and MOST important point about summer reading programs.  Yes they are a lot of work to plan, yes they boost circulation, yes they make patrons happy, BUT if you just have the reading program and do nothing with the data you collect they are a complete waste of your time.

In order to help you to better use your summer reading program to help your RA service and collection development all year long, here is a run down of what we we are doing.

First, some background. Here is the link to a post I had last year detailing how we have used our summer reading program as an RA and collection development tool in year's past.

And here is the post from earlier this summer in which I talked about all the changes we had in store for this year's summer reading.

I highly suggest you quickly peruse these 2 links before reading the rest of this post.  They should open in a new tab so that you don't loose this page. I am not going to repeat it all here, but those posts provide the necessary context to what comes next.

Now on to the nitty gritty quick data from summer reading.

We gave out 400 lawn signs-- modeled here by our Head of Circ, Crytsal.  There were on lawns all over town, and people kept coming into the library all summer saying that they saw a sign on their friend or neighbor's lawn and wanted one for themselves. YAY!  It was very satisfying to drive through town and see the signs everywhere.

We had close to 1,100 books read and logged by our adult readers and just under 350 books read and logged by our teens!  All of this in a mere 8 weeks!

We are still evaluating the online, Google form system we used for patrons to sign up and log books this year, but one thing we know we are keeping and already using for RA purposes is the mandatory "Tell Us Something About The Book" field.

As I have mentioned on this blog in the past, we have a high traffic area near our desk which we use for "conversation starter displays."  Well, for the next 3 weeks or so [from the end of summer reading through Labor Day] we are using that small area to highlight a book read by a summer reading participant and their comment about said book.  Below you can see a photo of the display and then another photo close-up of the form Kathy created to highlight the patron annotation about the book.


The book here is The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King and the comment reads:
"I've read most of this author's Mary Russell novels, and have enjoyed them all.  This is a stand-alone, with all new characters, but it captured my attention from beginning to end. The setting is Paris, a city I love, and the story winds around the art world in the time of Man Ray and the surrealists. The ending was a surprise, even though I am not in the habit of trying to guess "who dunnit." I really recommend this book.  --Barb"
Our plan is to leave each book and its corresponding patron comment on display for up to 3 days or until the book is checked out and then replace and repeat.  It is an easy "Patrons' Picks" display, but also, the patrons can clearly see we are paying attention to them and what they read. This should make them more willing to both participate in summer reading next year and to just stop by and ask for help identifying their next good read.

The display says we listen and we care. It says we paid attention to you all summer. It says we want you to know about the great books your fellow patrons are reading. It screams the RA department is interested in helping you.

So that's how it is going in these first 5 days after we have wrapped up our 8 week summer reading program.  As I mentioned, above we still have to evaluate the online Google forms process and start sifting through the data itself to identify issues for collection development and 2015 display planning.

But that is for Summer Reading Postmortem Report 2 and maybe even 3!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Remarkable Creatures

Last Monday (7/28) the book discussion group met (one week late due to my vacation) to discuss Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.

Here is the summary from the publisher:
A voyage of discoveries, a meeting of two remarkable women, and extraordinary time and place from bestselling author Tracy Chevalier. 
From the moment she's struck by lightening as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has "the eye"-and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.
Luckily, Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a recent exile from London, who also loves scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy. Ultimately, in the struggle to be recognized in the wider world, Mary and Elizabeth discover that friendship is their greatest ally.
Remarkable Creatures is a stunning novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and social prejudice to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, is it a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.
We purposely picked this book to go with out summer reading science theme.  Also, one of the ladies in our book group donated one of the summer reading grand prizes-- a family membership to the Field Museum.  So, this novel really was a no-brainer pick. Luckily, the choice panned out as there is A LOT to discuss here. In fact, overall if you are looking for a book that is hard to dislike, is a quick read, and still worthy of a good discussion, Remarkable Creatures is a solid choice.

On to said discussion:

  • We began with 10 liked, 6 so-sos, and 0 dislikes.
  • Liked Comments:
    • It was a fast read but I still learned something
    • I was so anxious to find out what would happen between the two women.  Would they make up?
    • It was a comfortable read
    • One participant shared how she is a docent at the Field Museum where she works with the fossils.  I am not a scientist, she said, but I loved how the novel gave me a sense of the history of natural science.
    • I like the Jane Austen-eqsue details and how the characters were aware that their lives were like an Austen novel at times. 
    • I really enjoyed this from the perspective of how what we learn about science changes what we think about God.  Then, many were scared by the idea that God “made mistakes.” I have been a religious educator for 25 years and now I see the idea of the cosmos challenging views of God now.  So, interesting.
    • I like how all of our “likes” reasons are wide ranging.  That shows how interesting this book is, even though on the surface it feels “light."
  • So-So Comments:
    • I was annoyed by the monotony of their lives as women in the early 1800s.  Also their relationship as friends annoyed me. So what that one was poor and one was well off. Just be friends.
    • I didn’t know much about fossils before this.  I was a little confused at how they actually determined something was a rock or a fossil.  I liked learning about it, but need more information.
    • There were lots of little gems of words or phrases.
    • As I read it, I didn’t realize Mary and Elizabeth were real people.  When I found this out at the end (Author’s Note) I liked the book a lot more.
    • I admired Mary; she was smart if not educated.
  • Let’s discuss the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth; how would you define it?:
    • I found it enlightening how much class differences mattered. It was a huge impediment to friendship between women.  I never knew that.
    • evolving-- like sisters at times
    • Elizabeth was the mentor to Mary at first but then over time, Mary became a mentor to Elizabeth.
    • I liked how their relationship changed over time
    • It was very mother/daughter like too. Elizabeth is very protective of Mary and her discoveries, but she is also a bit overprotective of her too.
    • They became colleagues-- both on a path to knowledge.
    • They are both searchers.
    • It ends with their friendship which was nice because it was their friendship which was at the heart of the story.
    • Which woman needed the other more changed over time, but Elizabeth is always there when Mary needed her.
    • They end together on the beach, but also alone searching for fossils. They are there if the other needs them but are happy to go along lost in their own world.
    • Both apologize to each other. This is hard.
  • Class Issues?:
    • At some point each used their class strengths to help the other.  Elizabeth shared her connection with the higher and educated classes with Mary while Mary shared how to get down and dirty in the mud to find fossils with Elizabeth.
    • Mary never would have known what happened to her fossils without Elizabeth.
    • I liked how the women took the class restrictions and used them to their advantage. The divisions helped both of them.
  • Woman Issues?
    • It was terrible to be a woman at this time.  I think being a widow was your best option.  You had the most freedom that way.
    • The women and their relationship are the “remarkable creatures” as much as the fossils.
    • Molly Anning transcended the gender issues, but she could never marry because of it. She was a woman with an inquiring mind that allowed her to rise about what was expected and allowed.
    • It was amazing these women, despite the huge constraints, still has a huge effect on history, one that is still important today!
    • What if either woman had married?  We would never know about them now and the history of natural science would be much different.
  • Speaking of Marriage...Colonel Birch and the Love Triangle
    • Chevalier admits to adding the love story here.  There is no evidence that Mary loved him, no evidence they had a relationship beyond colleagues, and no evidence Elizabeth was jealous.
    • As a group, we were torn on Birch and Elizabeth’s reaction to him.  Did she love him herself? Some said yes.  Was she jealous of the fact that he took away Mary’s attention?Others agreed here.
    • So why is this story even there? It is Chevalier’s reaction to the historical record that Birch donated all the money from his auction of fossils to Mary Anning.  Why else would he do that? Lacking an answer, the novelist used her imagination.
    • Elizabeth falling a bit for Birch herself made her more feminine and a more believable and sympathetic character.
    • This love triangle storyline also lightened the story a bit.  Novel is a bit too serious and dry without it.
  • When I opened up the conversation to any other characters, Buckland came up right away.
    • He symbolizes the church and science issues. He is a church man who loves natural science too.
    • He made me think about the era and its contradictions
    • I found it bizarre to read this book and try to imagine a world where we don’t know that the earth was around for billions of years before people came along.
    • It was a scary time.  People were learning more about the natural world, but did not understand it fully.
    • Chevalier did a fantastic job of putting us the the middle of the start of  a time of huge and rapid scientific discovery.
    • What was so neat is that it makes sense that Mary, a girl brought up by cliffs and watching the tides, would understand that the earth is constantly in flux.
  • Fanny: She was a well placed character who exemplified lots of views of people in society at time.
  • Elizabeth’s sister-in-law in London: I think she was jealous of the freedom the sisters had living unmarried in Lyme.
  • Bessy is still lost to history
  • Johnny, Elizabeth’s nephew kept her legacy alive for the world and history.  He was like a puppy dog, loyal to her and their shared secrets.  As a child, he could break the rules of gender more easily.
  • Words that describe this book:
    • enlightening
    • alternating povs
    • female friendship
    • history of science
    • forgotten history
    • Austen-esque
    • faith challenging
    • science and religion
    • social contraints

Readalikes: First of all, if this book interests you and you want to know more about the real life people, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, Chevalier has an excellent bibliography in the back of the novel. Click here for more links from Chevalier.

There is a Dickensian feels to this story and the life of Mary Anning in particular.  So try Great Expectations.

There are also more than a few references to Jane Austen here. So readers may want to read something by her.

NoveList has these two books with fossils hunters from a similar place and era (but with different writing styles):  The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and Pictures From an Expedition by Diane Smith

 If you want more historical fiction with a focus on women and their friendships try books by Lisa See, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, .  For historical fiction focused around an unlikely friendship but with men, I would suggest Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon.  And for historical fiction that just feels similar to me, try Geraldine Brooks or Brookland by Emily Barton

But interestingly, the book this most reminded me of of a title, also about an unlikely British scientist from a similar era, but in this case, it was a nonfiction book, Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel which I read and reviewed here.