As has been previously noted, I’m a sucker for books about books—a book featuring a bookstore, a library, a bookmobile, a librarian, a writer, a reader—if it’s book-centered, I usually end up reading it. After my post about a variety of these a few days ago, I decided to track down some more, but before I could do so, two serendipitously popped up, one of them a bargain book for my Kindle and the other “trending” on my Goodreads feed.
The first one I read was By the Book, by Julia Sonneborn, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I should have taken the title literally, because this book is written “by the book” without necessarily being “about” books. Let me clarify.
It’s supposedly a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (so, yet another author for Jane Austen’s lawyer to sue in the afterlife), and while the basic elements are there—the woman and her former suitor, working their way gradually back into a relationship—there were so many other things to distract that the original material didn’t resonate for me as I read the story.
Anne Corey is teaching English at a small liberal arts college in the foothills outside San Bernardino. She’s quite happy in her work, but trouble looms: In order to gain tenure (and avoid being fired!), she has to get a book deal for her literary tome on women writers. She goes into the new fall semester thinking this will be her biggest challenge, but then discovers, somewhat to her dismay, that the newly hired president of her college is none other than her first love and former fiancé, Adam Martinez, the man she jilted in favor of college and career.
The “publish or perish” push to get tenure was an interesting story element; but some of the others (Anne’s gay friend Larry’s obsession with a closeted actor, Anne’s own romance with a questionable Lothario, and dealing with the needs of her aging father) seemed to distract from the main thesis quite a bit.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the book; I did. But it reads as much more of a light, “cozy” romance than it does as a book that is engaged with books and literature. We hear a lot about the writing of books without getting many details of what is written; and the rest is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory human relationships, including the secondary love interest, who turns out to be something of a caricature.
I also felt that the author let the source material down by improperly characterizing “Captain Wentworth.” In Persuasion, Wentworth is dead set against Anne at the beginning, and a lot of the book is about how he gradually changes his mind and returns to his original feelings for her. But in By the Book, despite some red herring relationships for him, it’s pretty clear that Adam Martinez is still carrying the torch, which made the tension between them feel too flimsy to carry the story. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t think it will go into my “canon” of bibliophilia-related reading.
The second book I read, the one that kept popping up on Goodreads, was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan, and it was a lot closer to being what I have in mind when I want a book about books.
First of all, I loved the description and provenance of the bookstore; it’s in a previously dodgy but now up-and-coming neighborhood, built into a former lightbulb factory, which is what contributed the name and logo (a lit-up bulb) for the store. While being a smart emporium for new books, it employs a variety of quirky book people, nicely described, and also serves as a haven for a group of book-loving ne’er-do-wells, from the homeless to the merely eccentric, with whom the main character, Lydia, is involved, due both to her empathetic nature and to her desire to share her love of books with all and sundry.
The gist of the story, however, is a mystery based on tragedy, both present-day and in the past, and both connected to Lydia. In the present, it’s the suicide of a boy who frequents the store (one of the customers the clerks call “Book Frogs”). This event contains an unexpected element that carries Lydia (and the reader) back to a traumatic incident in her childhood, and brings her into contact with people and incidents she had banished to her subconscious for a couple of decades. The suicide, a boy named Joey, leaves her ingenious clues contained within books he stole from the bookstore, and in piecing them together Lydia discovers connections about which she never dreamed.
I didn’t expect the book to be so dark or so mystery-oriented, but I loved the writing, the set-up of the atmosphere surrounding the events, and the protagonist’s gentle yet inexorable qualities. (I also loved the cover!)
I would definitely read something else by this author, and will probably read this one again someday.
I blogged some months ago about books written about books and readers, a category of book beloved by avid readers, and promised more titles for those “afflicted” by bibliophilia. Here, then, is another batch to add to my previous post.
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
Queen Elizabeth, in search of her beloved corgis, stumbles upon a bookmobile near the palace. She feels compelled by good manners to check out a book, which she struggles through, returns, and again feels compelled to take out another. But this one she enjoys! This behavior is out of character for the Queen, who has previously allowed herself few hobbies or interests that express a preference for anything, and now here she is, preferring books, which habit begins to influence the person she is and how she reigns and interacts with her subjects. Not everyone approves, however; politicians and staff collaborate to steer her away from this selfish, isolating, alienating addiction! A charming and clever novella that contains some astringent commentary within its simple story.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend,
by Katarina Bivald
Sara travels all the way from Sweden to small-town Iowa to meet her penpal, Amy, only to discover that it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. The town’s residents rally around to make her feel better, and she ends up staying in Amy’s home, surrounded by Amy’s wide-ranging collection of books. She doesn’t want to return to Sweden, so she decides to open up one of the depressed town’s abandoned storefronts and sell Amy’s books. But she’s in the United States on a tourist visa…. I enjoyed the quirkiness of this virtual ghost town and its offbeat inhabitants who are finding revitalization through the presence of this strange and unassuming book-loving young woman from Sweden.
The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler
Set in California’s Central Valley, this book follows the stories of five women and one man who start a book club to read and discuss the novels of Jane Austen. The action takes place over a six-month period, during which many interpersonal issues (some of which reflect what’s happening within the novels of Austen) take place among and between these fans. This is a book about people who love reading and love talking about reading. It’s a little satirical, and apparently not for everyone—there are some passionate expressions both for and against in the reviews on Goodreads! One reader wrote: “I’m convinced the first thing Jane Austen is going to do on the Day of Resurrection is to hire a lawyer and sue the philistines who have commandeered her name and characters.” Try it for yourself (or chicken out and watch the movie, which some say was better).
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
A book based on letters between a London writer and a man on the island of Guernsey immediately after World War II. He finds her name and address in a used book, and writes to her about the literary club he and his friends formed to evade the curfew imposed by the German occupying force of their island. Some felt the epistolary style left out too much of the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, while others were inspired to find more letter-based books, so consider to which kind of reader you are speaking, before recommending
A Novel Bookstore,
by Laurence Cossé
Francesca, the lonely but wealthy Italian wife of a Parisian captain of industry, and Ivan, an indigent seller of comic books and classic novels, combine forces to open a bookstore in the heart of Paris that has one simple goal: to sell only “good” novels. They form a secret committee of eight celebrated writers, asking each to submit a list of six hundred titles. These dictate the inventory that fills the shelves of The Good Novel Bookstore. Imagine what happens when the publishing industry and the “literati” get wind of this pair who are daring to narrowly define what constitutes a good novel—especially when their enterprise is successful!
Voices, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Ansul was a peaceful town filled with libraries and books before the Alds came. The conquerors didn’t just pillage the town and rape its occupants, they burned all the books and set up an oppressive regime under which the people of Ansul suffer. Memer, an orphan who is a product of the rape of an Ansul woman by an Ald, has a secret bond with the Waylord, who hides and preserves books for his people. LeGuin explores the role of the occupier and the occupied, the double-edged sword of religion as a force of peace and war, and the value of storytelling to transform the lives of individuals and their culture. This is the second book of The Annals of the Western Shore series, but can be read as a stand-alone. (Young Adult Fiction)
Having re-explored all of these makes me want to seek out and read even more books about books! Stay tuned…
It strikes me that the difference between a nonfiction vs. a fiction reader is subject vs. type. That is to say, a nonfiction reader may be intrigued by a particular subject and then read widely and eclectically on that topic for information, whereas a fiction reader is more driven by the type of fiction that she likes.
For instance, in my most recent rare burst of serendipitous nonfiction reading, the subject was bees. The peril to pollinators has figured prominently in the news recently, and I have been distressed to find more than one dead bee in my driveway. While I haven’t used a pesticide in my garden in 38 years, I am confident that my neighbors and their gardeners are not so nice in their gardening behavior. Now that this is becoming a worldwide problem, with colony collapse disorder threatening not just the bee population but also the pollination of essential crops, I wanted to know more.
Being primarily a fiction reader, I first instinctively gravitated to a recent novel on the subject. The author’s mentor is Elizabeth Gilbert, and it was blurbed by Elizabeth George and heralded as a national bestseller. But I found Telling the Bees, by Peggy Hesketh, a disappointing read, not so much because it didn’t contain some information that I wanted, but because of the fictional aspects. The details about bee-keeping were surprisingly well detailed and quite informative, but the way the main character was written seemed so far from reality that I was dumfounded when I realized, more than halfway through the book, that he couldn’t have been more than 50 when the flashback part of the story began, while I had assumed he was in his late old age based on his affect. The book took more than 170 pages out of its 300 to get going (a murder takes place early in the book and then isn’t addressed again except tangentially for more than halfway through), and even then the progress of the story was glacier-like. There is a “secret” that is revealed to the clueless protagonist at the very end, but I guessed it less than halfway through, making the time spent waiting for this guy to “get it” an excruciating exercise. The story was also rather depressing, being a tale of missed chances, miscommunication, and a life not lived to the full.
The reason I had picked up this book was the recollection of a memoir I had liked almost 20 years ago. I was hoping for a similar experience to reading A Country Year: Living the Questions, by Sue Hubbell, but alas. The only thing I took away from Telling the Bees was some rather riveting folklore about communicating with bees, which I did enjoy.
I then decided to go back and reread the Hubbell book, and received nearly as much pleasure from it that I did the first time. The seasonally dictated round of farm, field, barn, and house, as she cares for her bees and harvests their honey, accompanied by her minute, delighted and delightful observations of the wildlife surrounding her acreage in the Ozarks of Missouri, was simultaneously soothing and inspirational. It led me to consider moving to the country to pursue bee-keeping, or at the very least made me want to drive immediately to my local nursery and get busy planting some bee-friendly foliage.
After this, having had a lengthy discussion with my cousin about a book she had recently, coincidentally, read, I addressed myself to a polemical debate that claims to reveal the inner lives of bees and calls for their better, more sensitive treatment. I found Song of Increase, by Jacqueline Freeman, a bit of a tough sell, even though my cousin asked me to keep an open mind to the end. I was quite impressed with Freeman’s observations and understanding of bees, and liked and appreciated her “bee-centric” approach to beekeeping, putting the welfare of the bees ahead of their “product.” She shows a lot of insight and makes intelligent observations, and her writing is pleasant and evocative.
What I had trouble with was her interpretation of the spiritual aspect of her relationship with them. I understood that she believed she was “channeling” messages from the bees, and I think I could have swallowed that content more easily if it had been presented as such—the bees as communicators with her as interpreter. But when she divided the book into parts and implied that the bees had literally and directly communicated certain parts in human words (in one case she uses phrases such as “the bees call themselves” this, and the bees “use the word” that), it put me off. The information about the bees was sufficiently fascinating that I didn’t believe there was a need to embellish by giving them human language or feelings. It’s not hard to believe that humans can be attuned with bees; I have read enough anecdotal evidence from other beekeepers who can translate the sounds the bees make into specific moods and intentions and who can figure out from pitch and intonation when, for instance, a new queen is about to start a swarm. But the way Freeman writes about it will set off some people’s BS meters, which is a shame.
Looking at the differences between these three books was instructive. The first, although fiction, was obviously written by someone who had a fair knowledge of bees and bee-keeping, and was filled with rather clinical descriptions of procedures accompanied by the aforementioned folklore. Sue Hubbell’s book was an interesting contrast to Jacqueline Freeman’s, in that both authors spent extensive time living with and trying to understand bees, but Hubbell’s conclusions were more along the line of “the longer I keep bees, the less I understand them,” while Freeman’s were to claim specific knowledge communicated to her directly by the bees themselves, which was seductive and in some cases completely plausible, but ultimately somewhat suspect. Also, Hubbell’s humility in disclaiming knowledge was contradicted by her humane practices, which agreed with Freeman’s conclusions, such as refusing to kill an old queen once a swarm was rehived, despite common commercial wisdom that to do so was the only way to promote an efficient honey yield. Hubbell was willing to do without that yield for a year, in order to accommodate the bees’ natural processes, which was precisely the kind of behavior being advocated by Freeman. I imagine if you could put the two authors in a room together, they would have much to share and agree on.
I rounded out my curiosity by checking into how the subject of danger to pollinators is being addressed in children’s books, by reading a charming one by Bethany Barton, called Give Bees A Chance. Although the book goes into much factual detail about kinds of bees, their physiognomy, the process of making honey, and their essential role in the food chain, one gets the feeling that the primary reason for writing and illustrating this book was to squash the first impulse of some children to, er, squash whatever they don’t understand! The book acknowledges children’s fear of and focus on a bee’s stinger, but tries to distract from and diminish that fear by presenting all its good qualities. Let us hope it succeeds!
All of this ultimately moved me to a search online for organizations that discuss the specifics of how to create a pollinator-friendly environment within your home landscape, and ways to enlist your neighbors in this campaign so that yours doesn’t prove to be a tiny island of safety in a perilous ocean of neonicotinoids. I noted down upcoming sales by local growers of native pollinator-friendly plants, bought a book on turning your lawn into a more natural, critter-friendly environment, and got ready to start digging, once the winter rains have (finally) subsided. Who knows, once the environment has been created, whether I will decide to add a hive or two?
Back to the theory about which I began this post… By contrast with the relative randomness of a nonfiction reader seeking information, the fiction reader may be more driven by type, and by type I don’t necessarily mean by genre. Although there are fiction readers who stick by preference to just one genre, be it mystery, fantasy, or science fiction, there are others who read widely in many genres. My theory here, however, is that if you are a particular type of reader, you seek out, within those genres, books with a similar feel to the writing.
That is, despite the fact that you have switched from mystery to fantasy, the appeals of the fiction you enjoy may stay constant across genres. So if you like a mystery in which there is a plethora of descriptive language and a resultant leisurely pace, perhaps that is also the type of fantasy to which you will gravitate. Likewise, if you are fond of thrillers with lots of action, you may seek out science fiction in the form of space opera, rather than reading something more clinical or philosophical.
Based on my own experience, I would say that this idea may be only partly true and not completely consistent; I am a mood-driven reader, and sometimes enjoy leaving behind the torturous detail of a Tana French for the three-page, adrenaline-fueled chapters of a James Patterson. But for the most part, I am a consistent reader who seeks out the same type of appeals regardless of genre.
This is an interesting concept to test out, first with yourself as a reader, and then with those for whom you advise, to see if it is legitimate and common. In her book Reading Still Matters, Catherine Sheldrick Ross remarks that “the varieties of ways to experience reading seem to expand the longer we consider the question, as do the dimensions along which readers may vary in their reading practices.” On page 168, she provides what she calls a “model,” which is a series of questions she uses to capture the experience of avid readers. It’s a query well worth exploring in our quest to become better readers’ advisors.
Post your book, and let’s chat!
“Kirsti reads a magazine” from my “people reading” series.
I have recently been making my way through the books of Sue Grafton, beginning with A is for Alibi. I had never read any of Grafton’s books because, by the time she appeared on my radar, she had written more than half of an alphabet’s worth, and starting a series of that length seemed overwhelming. On someone’s recommendation, though, I finally decided to read the first one last fall. I liked it, but it didn’t bowl me over, so I thought, Okay, did that, checked off, next? and moved on.
For some reason, though, I felt like I wanted to give her books another chance. I liked her protagonist a lot; in readers’ advisory terms, she would be some combination of “lone detective” and “hard-boiled.”
A “hard-boiled” detective is usually working-class, white, and male, relying on tough talk to get his way. (This is one element that makes Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone unusual, because she’s the female version.) The most frequent protagonist of a hard-boiled novel is a private investigator, with a license, hired to solve crimes (as opposed to the amateur sleuth from the cozy novel). The hard-boiled protagonist is generally American, quite often a loner (and taking pride in that), with a code of honor and justice that is not strictly legal but is moral (and perhaps a bit black and white—hard-boiled detectives are not compromisers). Hard-boiled investigators are fast thinkers, witty but in a down-beat, cynical way, and have the expectation that most people are liars. The detective is frequently the first-person narrator, and tells the story in a detached, objective manner.
A “lone” detective works outside the lines of bureaucracy, and often considers him- or herself superior to the police force because she has to work twice as hard since she has no access to the built-in benefits of the bureaucracy, such as access to forensics, past records or databases. These types of characters are usually examined for the complex motives, strengths, and weaknesses they exhibit, to give their stories more credibility and interest.
These two descriptions come together in Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. She’s an orphan in her early 30s, twice divorced, living alone in a one-room apartment converted from a garage. She went to the police academy and worked as a police officer for a few years, but rapidly discovered that the bureaucracy chafed her and decided she was better off on her own. She got her start by working for an insurance company, doing skip traces and research, and gradually built herself up into the type of investigator who would take on any assignment. She still has some contacts on the police force, but mostly gets where she wants to go by dogged persistence, extensive research, innate intelligence, and the occasional leap of canny intuition.
The way Grafton writes is not typical of the hard-boiled novel; although her protagonist exhibits all those characteristics, the writing style is more like literary fiction, with descriptions worthy of Tana French. She has an excellent command of language, and paints a complete visual picture of every town, street, building, car, and character, down to the color and make of his shoes and the number of lines in his face. This occasionally gets annoying, but is mostly an excellent backdrop for the precision with which Kinsey puts together her clues to solve her cases.
The other thing that keeps this series compelling is that in each book, Kinsey’s “assignment” is substantially different from that of the previous one—Grafton’s repetitive parts are made up for by the different situations in which Kinsey finds herself. I have, at this point, read A through J, and here is a quick summary of the variety of cases: a wrongful murder conviction; a missing persons case; a client with no memory; a simple delivery; a personal frame-up; an escaped killer whose father wants to prove his innocence; retrieval of a senior citizen from her desert home off the grid; a traffic accident insurance scam; a civil suit to protect an inheritance; and the presumed dead perpetrator of a ponzi scheme come back to life. Of course, since this is a mystery series, these mostly turn out to be murder stories, one way or another, but the clever way they are introduced and framed gives them a freshness not found in a police procedural.
Some readers find fault with the fact that, despite the number of books in the series, Grafton chose to keep Kinsey eternally in her 30s and the settings forever in the 1980s (think jumpsuits, shoulder pads, and radical hairdos), rather than letting the protagonist and the action grow into such technology as the internet, cell phones, etc. But I find it simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing that the people in these books still rely on such things as telephone books, pay phones, and reference librarians at the public library.
The one small caveat I have about these novels is the way Grafton chooses to end them all. One of the reasons it took me a few months to go beyond the first book in the series is detailed here, in my Goodreads review: “I enjoyed everything about this book up to the conclusion. I felt like she took us to a cliff, and then we turned a page and she had walked away from writing the penultimate scene and instead wrote a summary from a distant perspective. That was disappointing. ” Every book ends with an epilogue, some more abrupt than others. After reading a few of them I got used to the style, but it’s still occasionally jarring and I could wish that Grafton would have followed through in the present instead of summing up from the future, in each case.
EPILOGUE: A speech or piece of text added to the end of a play or book, often giving a short statement about what happens to the characters after the play or book finishes.
Despite having read as many of these as I have (and planning to read the rest, eventually), I couldn’t say that this is among my top five favorite mystery series. But there’s something sort of restful about it, if you can say that about a bunch of murder mysteries; Kinsey acts true to character, all the stories take place in an increasingly familiar environment as bits and pieces of description are added with each subsequent book, and I feel like I could pick up any one of these in a lull between other, more strenuous reads and find a satisfying occupation for a rainy afternoon.
In the library masters program at UCLA, certain classes are only offered once every two years, because there are so many paths these days for a librarian to take that equal time must be given to covering all those avenues. One of these is my class on Young Adult Literature, which I last taught in the winter of 2017 and am going to be teaching during this upcoming spring quarter, beginning two weeks from now.
Since the last time I taught it was my first, I have been going back over my syllabus, assignments, and lectures to tweak them in ways suggested by the feedback I received from my students, and to update them, since much YA literature has been written in the interim!
Although I have read widely in teen lit for the past 12 years, the one area in which I am weak is graphic novels. Being an artist myself, one would think that I would enjoy this format more than most; but on the contrary, I find them difficult to follow. Even though I am a visual creator, apparently I am not a visual learner, and the effort to go from frame to frame seeking out the text and trying to understand the continuity of the story is daunting. (I honestly don’t know how the kids and teens read manga, which is also much of it read right to left!)
When I realized that I needed to choose some new graphic novels, both fiction and nonfiction, as the required reading for that week’s lecture, therefore, I turned to three of my students from last time who were enthusiastic about the format and asked their advice. Helen, Christina, and Alex were generous with their recommendations, and I proceeded to order about half a dozen for my Kindle and chose several afternoons to page through them in a search for good examples for my class.
Last time out, one of the GNs we read was the classic Smile, by Raina Telgemaier. I wanted something similar in terms of age level, which is middle school, and also a book that was autobiographical and “coming of age” oriented, so the first book I read was Real Friends, by Shannon Hale.
It’s a fairly simple story, and it’s probably nearly everyone’s story, depending upon your point of view. It’s easy, when you’re in kindergarten or first grade, to make a friend: You turn to your left or your right, you focus on the person sitting there, you ask “Will you be my friend?” and they are. This was the case with Shannon and her friend Adrienne. It’s harder, having been best and only friends together for a couple of grades, to confront the concept of popularity and to realize that while you are perhaps the one-loyal-bff-forever type, your friend would prefer to run with a crowd, a crowd that is happy to leave you behind because you don’t quite fit. The combination of the judgment made by the group and the betrayal by your friend, whose reluctance to go against the group outweighs her loyalty to you, is heart-breaking.
While there is much to appreciate about this memoir, including the myriad ways Shannon finds to cope and hold her own against bullying and her own OCD, the conclusion I came to after having read this was that it was well done…and reminded me way too much of my own grade school experience! The issue with reading books like this is that the level of angst, while probably completely true to life for that child in that moment, is a little much to read about after you have passed through it. (However, Susie Benveniste, if you are out there somewhere, read this book! I was Shannon, you were Adrienne, and Lori was the evil Jenny in our scenario.) The illustrations are adorable, and seem directed towards the younger end of this age group.
The next book I read was recommended by Christina as one that addressed similar themes: Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson.
In this story, there are also best friends (Astrid and Nicole) who have done everything together for years. Their twosome has been a little more long-lasting than that of Shannon and Adrienne, but they have reached a place (the summer before middle school) where their interests have diverged, and for the first time they are not in agreement. Nicole is a ballet girl, and is beginning to gravitate towards others who share her interests (in dance and also regarding boys), while Astrid has become fascinated by the prospect of skating with the local roller derby team, after seeing them play. Although Astrid’s skating skills are definitely lacking, she is so enthusiastic about this idea that she wants to sign both of them up for the summer for roller derby camp. She’s devastated when Nicole chooses, instead, to go to ballet camp, but grits her teeth and pursues roller derby alone. The rest of the book is her personal journey, including meeting new friends who are quite unlike her and her previous circle, and painfully gaining a new skill.
This was a really cute story, both verbally and visually. The illustrations were a little more adult and modern, and with more energy and pizzazz than those in Real Friends. It had just enough about changing friendships, growing pains, and growing apart to be entertaining, without quite so much self-obsessed angst; and all the roller derby details were great fun. I ended up agreeing with Christina that this might appeal to a wider range of readers.
The third book I read was also memoir, but nonfiction this time: March, Book One (of three), by John Lewis. March begins in 2009, when Lewis is a prominent Senator, and then flashes back to his beginnings on the farm and in small towns as he began his lifelong struggle for civil rights and human rights. This first volume looks at his youth in rural Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the beginning of the Nashville Student Movement, and their nonviolent protests at lunch counter sit-ins across the South. It poignantly references the 1950s comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as an influence on Lewis, whose own comics now enliven that history.
It was a powerful, emotional read, and the stark black-, white-, and gray-toned images were an excellent choice to convey the importance and the emotions of the theme. I will go on to read the other two volumes with pleasure.
Although I have a few more graphic novels to read, Roller Girl and March are both definitely going to be part of the curriculum for my class.
J.R.R. Tolkien says that “the world of fantasy is accessed by a meeting between the narrative skill of the author and the imaginative willingness of the reader.” This is a powerful quote, because it underlines the readers’ advisory tenet that only a collaboration between reader and writer determines reading preferences.
There is a huge body of work written about how to define fantasy, too long to cover here. One definition I appreciated, by John M. Timmerman in the book Genreflecting, and condensed down to a summary paragraph:
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, and the way fantasy creates that relevance is to create protagonists with a common nature, regular folk with beliefs and values. The fantasy world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness; but it can’t be too obviously fictional. The evocation of the world must be immediate; the world is provided and we as readers step into it. There must be an essential conflict, usually between good and evil. There is oftentimes a quest, with a specific goal, usually to restore the society’s well-being. There is the presence and/ or use of magic. And fantasy is, for the most part, persistent in its optimism for humankind, with a positive resolution.
Contained within this broad description are nearly endless small differentiations of subgenre, which are defined by their world (unique, alternate, paranormal, crossworld), by the kind of protagonist (hero, commoner, adventurer), by the origins (unique, faerie, fairy tale retold), by the setting (legendary, urban, dark), and by the tone (humorous, epic, frightening). Lou Anders, an editor at Pyr Books, says that “nothing will land you an ax in your skull or a dagger in your spine faster than trying to define fantasy subgenres.” He notes that there are always exceptions to the rule.
With all that as lead-in, let me tell you about a particular fantasy I just read. It fits into the “fairy tales retold” subgenre, but the setting could be described as a “crossworld,” since the primary protagonist is physically transported from our own contemporary world sideways into a fairy tale. She is a “commoner” dropped into a role in a medieval kingdom still defined by swords and daggers as weapons, horses as transportation, and rulers and servants as characters. The world-building is fairly minimal, but both sufficient and believable because of its extreme familiarity. The conflict is provided by the specific fairy tale trope, but the author has inserted some twists. There are multiple conflicts, both personal and kingdom-wide, with enemies and heroes within and without. There is a specific goal; there is magic; and there is a resolution.
The book is A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. I bought it along with four other fairly new young adult titles, and I left it until last to read because I was almost sorry I had chosen it. First of all, I am not particularly enamored of fairy tale retellings; I’d rather have an original story any day than one that is restricted by a precursor. And “Beauty and the Beast” is among my least favorite fairy tales, for so many reasons, paramount among them the compulsory nature of the romance—she either loves the Beast or experiences an epic fail, but who (besides sufferers of Stockholm syndrome) believes this is possible? I equally dislike the dark, original tale (the father’s love being used against him), and the first Disney version (with the dancing dishware). There’s just too much coercion and self-effacing pity involved for it to survive as a believable romance.
Second, as is usual with YA literature, the critics, the publishers, or other readers are way too busy comparing it with other books. At least a dozen sources said, “If you liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, you will like this.” Well, I didn’t read ACOTAR (heresy, I know), because I read Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, first. A brief synopsis of my review is that the protagonist (and thus her author) couldn’t decide whether to be a ninja or a Disney princess, which was really irritating. Other readers opined, “If you loved Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, you should read this book!” I hated Caraval. Apart from the flimsy world-building, vague story line, and confusing game, here is my quote, which should also enlighten re: my previous caveat: “The protagonist, Scarlet, reminds me of the supposed badass assassin, Caelena, in Throne of Glass, who can’t decide whether to kill the male characters or to ‘pillage’ them (plural). I call it ‘dithery fiction’ because we spend the entire book listening to the characters saying ‘what if’ a lot but never settling to a decision. Yes, they show moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over. It’s tiresome.”
I have said all that to emphasize that taking read-alike claims seriously will sometimes backfire, either on the reader or on the publisher. I got it out of the way in order to give an original review to this book, which I read in less than 24 hours and couldn’t have loved better.
First of all, major props for originality on the part of Kemmerer. The protagonist, Harper, is a tough lower-class kid with a brother who’s an enforcer (but only because he owes guys money) and a mother with cancer. One of Harper’s legs is affected by cerebral palsy, so she isn’t as strong as she could be, and moves with a limp, but she doesn’t let any of this stop her. One day, she sees a guy attempting to kidnap a girl off the street and, realizing there’s no other help nearby, she tackles him. Somehow, the girl has suddenly disappeared, and the guy and Harper are…somewhere else. Somewhere that looks like a medieval fantasy, with a castle and swords and horses, filled with food and drink, posh accommodations and fancy dress, but no people except for her kidnapper, Grey, commander of the Royal Guard, and a guy called Rhen who says he’s a prince. Is she sticking around for this? She is not. They lock her in; she climbs down a trellis, steals Rhen’s horse out of the stables, and tries to escape…but where, exactly, is she going to go? She’s in the middle of nowhere, she has no idea where her home world is or how to get there, and so, when she’s recaptured by the two men, she decides to let things play out and try to figure out what’s what.
There is quite a lot of revelation about her circumstances, unlike in the original fairy tale; Rhen lets her know that he’s been caught in an enchantment loop for many years, and the only thing that will get him out of it is if one of the girls he sends Grey out to kidnap falls in love with him. Upon hearing this, Harper is not just skeptical, but aghast, and determined not to fall for any wiles. What does move her, however, is her eventual knowledge about the sad state of his kingdom and the people in it while he has been otherwise occupied; apparently a horrifying wild beast has been savaging and killing whole communities every year! This is the one factor not revealed to Harper (that Rhen becomes that beast). So she turns on him and chastises him for not caring about the people he was sworn to protect while he ruled, and together the three of them—prince, warrior, and girl from another world—begin to take that commitment seriously. But there is more to his curse than she knows, and more evil awaiting his subjects than he himself offers them in his guise as the beast. And amidst all of this, Harper yearns to return home before her mother succumbs to cancer and someone makes a permanent example out of her brother Jake.
The book is written from dual points of view—those of Rhen and Harper. This proves quite effective, giving the reader the inner thoughts of the proud but needy enchanted prince, who wants nothing more than to resolve his situation but can’t quite bring himself to trust, and the scrappy import, who has to figure out, on the fly, how to deal with a completely new situation. This book is the antithesis of YA “insta-love,” and the emotions of the two protagonists are ably portrayed from every angle. The writing is good, the scene-setting and details are excellent, and the story moves along at a satisfying pace, with little of the “dithery” bits included in each character’s self-examination. The side characters are equally well fleshed out and provide extra drama without distracting unduly from the main story. Finally, although there are threads left hanging at the end that will be addressed in a sequel, the book has a satisfying resolution and could be read as a stand-alone, if you’re not a sequel kind of person.
If every fairy tale was retold this well, I would happily read them all.
I’m always happy when I see mysteries written for teens; for some reason, this is a genre that isn’t nearly as popular with YA authors as it is with adult writers. And many YA authors seem caught in the homage trap, as they continue to remake Sherlock Holmes to fit teenage readers, either by picturing him as a youth (Andy Lane), inventing a younger sibling with similar gifts for detection (Nancy Springer), or postulating how his descendants would carry on his legacy (Brittany Cavallaro).
If they’re not playing a variation on Holmes, there are also the legacies of Agatha Christie (Gretchen McNeil) and James Bond (Charlie Higson) to mine for material. And then there are the take-offs on popular television icons, such as Tory Brennan, the great-niece of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan of Bones (Kathy Reichs), or relatives of iconic series stars, such as Mickey Bolitar, nephew of sports agent and part-time sleuth Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben).
I’m not saying any of these are bad; in fact some of them are quite good. But I do wonder sometimes why more YA authors don’t take off on their own when it comes to the mystery genre. Certainly the field is burgeoning with fertile imagination, but most of it seems to be expressed through fantasy, science fiction, or retold fairy tales.
Maureen Johnson’s first excellent mystery series, Shades of London, has a Jack the Ripper connection up its sleeve, and throws in paranormal features as well to keep the attention of fickle teens. But her new series, beginning with the book Truly Devious, shows she is an author who knows how to plot, how to build suspense, and how to introduce twists, without reliance on previous material.
When I first began reading the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, because it does make use of a familiar and somewhat over-used trope: the boarding school. How many young adult books begin by separating their odd, misfit protagonists from their drearily predictable parents and sending them off to a mansion steeped in mist and mystery? But if we didn’t love this trope before, we certainly embraced it post-Harry Potter, and Johnson makes a few sly references to that series in this one:
“Stevie had great hopes for the boarding school dining hall. She knew better than to hope for floating candlesticks and ghosts, but long wooden tables didn’t seem out of the question.”
The basic premise: Albert Ellingham, an early 20th-century tycoon, decides to create a boarding school “where learning is a game,” and populate it with a combination of rich and poor teens, all of whom have some special gift for learning. He also builds himself and his family an adjacent, ornate mansion filled with secret passageways and tunnels to gazebos and such on far parts of the property. In 1936, shortly after the school has opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter are kidnapped. There is one clue, a Dorothy Parker-esque riddle/poem signed “Truly, Devious.” Iris and Alice are never returned, although at least one of them is discovered to have met a tragic end, and the mystery of who took them and why has never been solved.
Stevie Bell has received an invitation to be a student at Ellingham Academy, and she couldn’t be more thrilled: Stevie is a true crime enthusiast, as well as possibly the world’s biggest aficionado and quite the authority on this particular mystery; and the chance to be on the property to expand her knowledge, search for more clues, and potentially even solve it is making her positively giddy. But when death revisits Ellingham, Stevie finds herself in an awkward position…
I really enjoyed this book. Stevie is a human, interesting main character, and the secondary characters are all just as quirky and well developed. The flashback scenes are gripping, and the present-day mystery is absorbing as well. But as I got down to the last 30 pages or so of the book, I began to realize that there were not enough words left in the book to reveal all the mysteries (past or present), and then…the cliffhanger. If it weren’t for the fact that I am behind on my YA reading and the sequel for this book just came out a few weeks ago, I would be howling with frustration about now! Instead, I ordered the second book and started reading as soon as it arrived.
The Vanishing Stair takes up only a few weeks after Truly Devious left off. Stevie’s parents insisted she leave the boarding school after all the drama that ensued, and she’s miserable back at home, once more subject to her parents’ oversight. But fate, in the person of politician Edward King (idolized by Stevie’s conservative parents and loathed by Stevie for everything he stands for), steps in: King’s son David, one of Stevie’s classmates at Ellingham, is acting out in a big way, and King’s theory is that returning Stevie to the school will act as a damper on David’s bad behavior and keep him there until he can graduate. Stevie has no such confidence, but the opportunity to go back is too amazing for her to quibble over the means by which she arrives—and thus begins the first of the secrets and lies…
This book introduces new characters, most notably Dr. Fenton, the author of some of the leading research into the Ellingham mystery, who hires Stevie to help her when she decides to release an updated volume, and soon begins to hint she knows more than she’s saying. She has an engaging nephew, worried for her mental and emotional state, who tries to enlist Stevie to help protect her. The familiar housemates and friends from the first book are also present and developed further, as is Stevie’s overall grasp of the mystery. But at the end of volume two, just as you are receiving some actual facts about the kidnapping from the horse’s mouth (Albert Ellingham), another cliffhanger ensues and the aforementioned howls of frustration are now truly aimed at Maureen Johnson’s head, because book three isn’t due out until sometime in 2020.
So…should you start this mystery series, knowing you will have to wait at least a year for its final outcome? Well, that depends: Are you a re-reader? Because there are so many tiny, important details about the mystery buried in both books to which the author later refers that I’m thinking I will be re-reading them to remind myself of those before assaying the third one, whenever the third one manifests. So if you don’t mind refreshing your memory, go ahead; but if you’re one of those who stubbornly refuses to read anything for a second time, then wait for #3 and have a long weekend of wallowing in the Ellingham mystery, start to finish!
I always find it interesting how one has a thought about something and suddenly that subject is popping up everywhere in life. This happens to me frequently with books: I will decide to read a book about Paris, for instance, and three more will come to me, purely by chance, after I’ve finished the first. This time, the theme was the Romany, otherwise known as travelers or, in less politically correct nomenclature, gypsies.
First, I bought a Kindle book as one of my “daily dollar deals,” called The Snow Gypsy, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford. I have always liked stories about Travelers, ever since reading Rumer Godden’s book The Diddakoi as a child, and following it up with Meridon, the last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy as an adult. I didn’t read this one right away, though; my friend Bix had mentioned the other two books in the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris, and I decided to catch up with those first. But those introduced me to the itinerant boat people, including Vianne’s love interest, Roux, who seem to be some variation on Romany or pavees, as the Irish travelers call themselves, except that they travel by river boat rather than by horse and wagon. The French townsfolk of Lansquenet unflatteringly designate them “river rats.”
After finishing the three-book series, I went back and read The Snow Gypsy on my Kindle. Rose Daniel is an English veterinarian who specializes in alternative medicine for animals; in other words, she is an herbalist in her practice. Rose’s brother disappeared in 1938 in the mountains of southern Spain, fighting alongside gypsy insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. Rose knows that he had a love interest (or possibly a wife) in one of the villages near their base, and decides, in 1946, to drop everything and go there to see if she can find any trace of what happened to him. (She has, of course, an irrational hope that she will actually locate him, and/or possibly the woman and child.) She is on a collision course with Lola Aragon, whose entire family was murdered by the fascists eight years ago in one of those same villages while she was herding goats up on the mountain, and who rescued a baby girl from her dead mother’s arms when she descended and found the slain villagers. Rose connects with Lola, an aspiring flamenco dancer, hoping to get her help finding some trace of her brother and his family.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit, though it had its flaws. The parts I liked best were the details about flamenco (tantalizingly few, as it turned out), the herbalist knowledge Rose exhibits and learns throughout the book, the scene-setting in the mountain villages of Spain, and the lingering atmosphere of the Spanish Civil War that casts its shadow over all the characters. The coincidences were a few too many, and at least one of the relationships was hard to buy. I wished (in light of the title) that there had been a bit more detail about the Travelers—the few pictures that were given were evocative but not elaborate. Some of the details of the book that seemed superfluous became more understandable when I learned from the afterword that it’s based on the true story of a woman herbalist, so I reserved one of her autobiographies at the library and am waiting for its delivery.
In the meantime, my memory was jogged about another Traveler-related book that I read a few years back, and will mention here: The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. It’s poetic, beguiling, and different; a coming-of-age story, but within the subculture of the Irish Pavee—gypsies, tinkers, whatever name they are called by outsiders—circa 1950s rural Ireland. And within the already arresting picture of this nomadic people is the intimate story of Christy, who is at the brink of many unexpected discoveries about his family’s past and his own. I had planned, when I read it, to suggest this as a selection for my 10-12 Book Club—it was a real charmer, poignant and inspirational but also a good tale. Alas, I couldn’t get copies of the book in sufficient quantities at the time to make it work for the club.
That was my Romany serendipity; the following week, everything was about bees. Stay tuned…