Because of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.
Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:
The Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.
Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White
While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)
The Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard
Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.
If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…
This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.
And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.
This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.
If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.
Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!
If Marvel movies about superheroes and evil geniuses haven’t yet palled for you,
there is a young adult novel you might want to try: Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. It doesn’t feel like a book written for teenagers, but more like one written for anyone who enjoys stories in which villains take over the world and heroes rise up to fight them.
The premise of Steelheart is that our world has been changed forever by an event that everyone calls Calamity. There aren’t many specifics about the event; there was a big burst of light in the sky, and then afterwards, some of the population developed superpowers. But with the acquisition of great gifts came a lust for power and domination, and the Epics, as they’re called, turned into monsters, wreaking havoc on the portion of humanity that stayed human. They fight amongst themselves for ascendency, destroying infrastructure and driving people underground or enslaving them for their purposes. Many parts of the world have been turned to wasteland, and even the cities that have been preserved by those Epics who wish to rule a cooperative populace are no Eden. People are increasingly unable to remember the good old days, and only hope for such basic amenities as power, clean water, and somewhere
dry to sleep.
The protagonist of the book is David, who is now 18 years old, but had his major run-in with an Epic 10 years ago, when he was eight. At that time (soon after Calamity), some humans, including David’s father, still believed that some of the Epics would turn out to be good, and would become superheroes to defend humanity from the others. But David’s father’s faith was shown to be misplaced, and David has spent the 10 years since his father’s death at the hand of the Epic Steelheart plotting his revenge.
A big part of his plan is to find a group of humans called Reckoners, an underground organization that studies the Epics, finds their weaknesses, and assassinates them. He has tracked the activities of the Reckoners with almost as much attention as he has given to the quirks and skills of the various Epics, and now he is in position to try to make contact and insinuate himself into this band of resistance fighters. And he has a secret that he thinks will gain him a welcome: He is perhaps the only human who has ever seen Steelheart bleed.
By the way, if this kind of fiction makes you happy, there are a few other titles you will definitely want to try: Carrie Vaughn’s books After the Golden Age and Dreams of the Golden Age; and V. E. Schwab’s books Vicious andVengeful. My review of the books by Schwab is here.
Why have dystopian and post-apocalyptic books become and remained so popular? As a teen librarian, this was one of the questions most frequently asked of me (mostly by bewildered parents and teachers), so I recently included my (extensive) answer in a speculative fiction lecture to my Young Adult Literature class.
Included in the dystopian and apocalyptic sub-genre are books addressing the degradation of the planet, painting societies that have run out of fossil fuels, societies that have run out of water, numerous scenarios of global warming, and societies in which the entire infrastructure has broken down and created a scavenger mentality. There are stories addressing the breakdown of civil society, with the rise of oppressive religions and philosophies and the persecution of “the others,” and experimenting with ideas about who those others of the future will be—will they still be gay people, Jewish people, Muslims, people of color? Or will the society shift and find different victims on which to avenge itself?
Some observers of the success of this publishing niche point to 9/11 and the many terrorist events before and after it as an existential catalyst to make people consider end-of-the-world scenarios. But dystopian fiction was around long before any of our current destruction scenarios, starting in 1932 with Brave New World, and featuring such classics between then and now as Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, and Parable of the Sower. And in addition to those considered classics, there are equally enduring stories (even though some of them are dated) such as Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank; Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan; War Day, by James Kunetka and Whitley Streiber; Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; On the Beach, by Nevil Shute; and The Family Tree and The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper.
The question is, though: Why are these books so popular, especially with teens?
Before The Hunger Games ever spurred a glut of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books on the teen market, there were forays into this downbeat science fiction sub-genre of dark, diminished futures focused on survival: cautionary tales such as Feed, by M. T. Anderson and The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer; and future projections such as Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, and the chilling Unwind (and sequels) by Neal Shusterman. After The Hunger Games, which is the all-time best-selling book series (surpassing even Harry Potter and Twilight!), the reading public went crazy for such books as Ready Player One and Epitaph Road, and overdosed on such series as The Maze Runner, Divergent and sequels, and The Young Elites.
Some of these works are focused on the immediate hereafter, while others project centuries ahead to speculate on what a future world would look like after the immediate destructive effects have subsided. If adults are feeling anxious enough to write these books, it’s probable that their anxieties are being communicated to their teenagers through more than popular fiction and the movies made from it.
Reading about a society that is worse than yours, or a scenario in which the worst that could possibly happen has transpired—but people have survived and are using their ingenuity and determination to make things better—can be reassuring.
There is also the advantage of being able to talk about socially unacceptable topics in a fictional arena and work out how you feel about them or how you should feel about them. Calling a political regime into question, or rebelling against a religion or cultural restriction by reading about it can help a teen (or an adult) who can’t quite bring him- or herself to rebel in real life, by offering some relief, or possibly even guidance and encouragement. Authors can offer pointed commentary about societal trends (as did the authors of Brave New World and 1984) from within a fictional setting and gain an audience while not suffering the criticism or retribution they might receive if their comments were offered in plain speech.
Teens can use these books as metaphors to work out their own problems with the real world. Teen brains are not done maturing yet, and many teens are filled with rage and fear and longing, and have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings; so fiction that provides a cathartic release and relief of these emotions is helpful. These books can also inspire us by the actions of their courageous, defiant protagonists who overcome barriers and limitations or come to the realization of their own shortcomings and seek to do better.
Ultimately, it is also fiction that, once again, provides the opportunity for the learning of empathy.
“Reading good literature can be a powerful way to develop empathy. Empathy could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young citizens who will go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.”
—Dr. Brené Brown
Periodically, I blog about young adult books or series that may have adult appeal, and the series that begins with Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, is one such.
To any bibliophile, the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, the first so-called universal library, was a tragedy of epic proportions. The loss of the ancient world’s single largest archive of knowledge, the idea that so many “great works of brilliant geniuses” (Orosius) was destroyed, causes anything from a wince to a fit of weeping by those lovers of antiquity who can only imagine what they might have missed by this loss. In this series, Caine rewrites literary history by allowing the Library at Alexandria to survive, and then postulates what might have happened next.
By the present day (the series actually takes place a decade into our future, although it’s a weirdly old-fashioned and steam-punky rendition), the Library and its staff have gained immense political power and influence, akin to that of the Catholic Church and a world government rolled into one. The Great Library is a looming presence in every major city, and has complete power over the dissemination of information via its Serapeums (Serapea?), the equivalent of your local library branch. Through the use of alchemy and the highly developed mental powers of the Library’s servants called Obscurists, literally any literary work can be delivered to a “blank” book for any citizen to read…but at the same time, the individual ownership or possession of “real” (original, permanently printed) books is strictly forbidden. The Great Library wants to keep the power of the written word solely in its own hands. This begins as a noble goal to protect and preserve knowledge, but over the course of history has become a restrictive and smothering power play.
The primary protagonist of the book is Jess Brightwell, whose family has for centuries been involved in the black market trade for illegal books. Jess, however, is neither qualified for nor as interested in following the family trade as is his twin brother, Brendan, so his father decides that, since he’s a bright boy who likes to read, the best thing Jess can do for the family is to become a librarian! What better than to have a loyal family member strategically placed within the organization of your rival? This begins Jess’s association with a motley group of other teenagers, all vying for a role in the hierarchy of the most powerful organization on earth. But what they discover is that the Great Library isn’t as benign, high-minded, and well-intentioned as they’ve been brought up to believe….
I picked up the first book because of the little gold plate on the cover that said “THE GREAT LIBRARY.” I thought the book was brilliant. The alternate history, the scene-setting, the imagery, the concepts, the characters, the action, are all fully on. Every time I had to stop reading, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It’s a book that will definitely appeal to teenagers, what with the impulsive decisions, quickly embraced loyalties, and underlying romances among its cast, but the series is definitely worth a look by adults intrigued by the premise.
After discovering the first book, I have, over a period of years, read the sequels—Paper and Fire, Ash and Quill and, just this past week, Smoke and Iron. The subsequent books take Jess and his band of friends—including his teacher, Scholar Wolfe, and the teacher’s lover, Commander Santi of the High Garde, Thomas the brilliant inventor, Khalila the quiet diplomat, Morgan the Obscurist, Dario the haughty member of Spanish royalty, and Glain, stalwart soldier of Welsh origins—on multiple harrowing adventures as they fight the current corrupt leadership for the soul of the real Library they love and wish to save.
Although there is inevitably some variation in pacing when reading a series, Caine managed, by varying the scenery and also developing and changing the relationships among the characters, to keep the books pretty consistently at the same level of quality. I had read somewhere that this was originally intended as a trilogy, and somehow assumed that Smoke and Iron was the last in the series, only to get to the end and realize that there is one more book—Sword and Pen—still to come. This fifth book publishes in September, and I will be the first adult on the waiting list at the library to read it. Look out, teens, I’m coming through!
My reading time is, of necessity, taken up right now with the novels I am assigning to my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA’s MLIS program. Most of them are a re-read for me, many with a specific goal of evoking some quality of YA lit that will give my class a context for where it came from, the ways in which it has been and continues to be effective for teenagers, and where it is now.
Last week we had a far-roving and engaging discussion about two “classics” of YA—The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton, and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier—and two later books that continued the job of these seminal works—Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.
Previous to the 1960s, there were narrowly defined categories for this newly emerging fiction sector: adventure stories for boys, romance for girls. That was pretty much the extent of YA fiction. With the exception of some vocation-driven series like Sue Barton: Student Nurse and Nancy Drew, most of the books written for teenagers were, to quote historian and critic Michael Cart, “slick, patterned, rather inconsequential stories written to capitalize on a rapidly expanding market.”
Hinton’s book was the start of the writing revolution in teen literature. Here was a teenager, writing from personal observation and with thematic relevance about class warfare, rejecting “the inane junk lining the teen-age shelf of the library” (to quote the young author Hinton herself), and echoing the rejection of the status quo for which the 1960s were known. The year 1967 kicked off a positive flurry of books about such formerly verboten topics as gangs, drug use, underage sex, homosexuality, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Teen fiction went from sweet stories tied up with a bow to exemplars of determinism and naturalism. Robert Cormier, who wrote The Chocolate War in 1974, commented that “Adolescence is such a lacerating time that most of us carry the baggage of our adolescence with us all our lives.” Judging from the discussion we had about these first two books and the two that followed, many YA authors and the teens who read them agreed with him.
There are certainly issues with these books that make them problematic to recommend to today’s teens. The absence of a single non-white character, the blatant misogyny exhibited towards both the “bad” girls and the “good” in the society of the 1960s, and the rather blatant sentimentality with which the characters are treated in The Outsiders would seem to be stumbling blocks, and yet this book is still widely read and enjoyed. The dark atmosphere of The Chocolate War, depicting teens (and humans in general) as hapless victims of social and natural forces and holding out no happy ending, seems similarly discouraging, but the book continues to check out of the library.
Other popular books of that era, such as The Contender, by Robert Lipsyte, which took up the theme of becoming an individual and focused on self-transformation through the eyes of an African American protagonist, or Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, which explored heroin addiction in the first person of 12 distinct voices, continued and extended the reach of the admittedly rather gritty view of the teenage years. Author Richard Peck cited these works as books “about young people that parents thought their children didn’t know.” They fostered a writing revolution that has ebbed and flowed ever since, interrupted by the inane “problem novels” of the 1980s and revitalized in the 1990s, pushed off track by trendy fiction with the vampire craze and the fascination with all things paranormal and revitalized yet again in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and the current return to realism.
The two books we read from 1999, Speak and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, are also classic books about secrets, about guilt, and about the adolescent task of figuring out what responsibility you bear for your circumstances versus the degree to which you have been victimized by others and by life itself. The class discussion concluded that these books are necessary so that teens who are in similar situations can see themselves in their literature, realize that they’re not alone, and possibly find reason for hope.
This week we continued this theme in a way, but brought it up to date with our segment on “soft reads vs. edgy fiction.” There are obviously teens for whom the books full of personal human tragedy are not relevant or not desirable. Likewise, these teens’ parents are more comfortable with a literature that doesn’t expose their children to language, relationships, and frank talk beyond their level of emotional maturity. There is definitely a place in teen fiction for the equivalent in adult fiction of the “cozy,” the soft read, the book that tells an uplifting and nonthreatening tale with a positive message and a happy ending. Even those who appreciate gritty fiction sometimes enjoy taking a break from it!
This week’s exemplar of a soft read was Joan Bauer’s Hope Was Here, which would seem with its very title to express a different message than those other books we had been reading. Bauer is among the many authors who has written a baker’s dozen of books (between 1995 and 2016) about perky, approachable protagonists with a sprightly, can-do attitude and a feel-good mood. Authors for slightly older teens who want soft reads include Maureen Johnson, Melissa Kantor, Ally Carter, and Sarah Dessen.
While most of these books are aimed at a female audience, their equivalent in gentle reads for boys include adventure, science fiction, and fantasy genre fiction that the girls likewise appreciate. Some of the more popular series that serve this purpose of transitioning children from age 11 or so to about age 14 are the Pendragon series by D. J. MacHale; the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz; the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer; and Michael Scott’s books beginning with The Alchemyst.
The flip side, the polar opposite of these books are those that place a high premium on being real—the realer the better—and if that means drinking and smoking, profanity, sex, and violence, then bring it on. This edgy fiction pushes all the boundaries beloved of teens and shocking to parents, and gives teens the ability to encounter those they may not ever know in real life, through the pages of books.
The ones we read this week included:
Tyrell, by Coe Booth: Tyrell is 14 years old. He’s grown up in the projects, with his dad, his moms, and his little bro Troy, but his dad’s just gone to prison, his moms is a hot mess incapable of caring for herself or her children, and the weight of it all is resting heavily on Tyrell’s shoulders. He loves his girlfriend but she won’t put out, he’s tempted by an overly friendly new girl he meets at the roach-filled motel where social services has parked them, and he’s angry and confused about the role into which his mother is trying to force him, which is as the wage earner in the absence of his father.
If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch: When she was five years old, Carey’s mother stole her away from her father and took her to live in a trailer in the middle of a national forest. Her mother, bipolar and a meth addict, subsequently gave birth to a second daughter, whom Carey took care of during her mother’s frequent absences. Carey’s mother did whatever she had to do, including exploiting her daughter, in order to get a drug fix or a new winter coat, while the girls lived on cans of beans and Chef Boyardee and the squirrels and rabbits Carey shot in the forest. One day, after their mother has been missing long enough for the store of beans to be looking worryingly small, a man and a woman show up calling their names, and Carey and Jenessa are whisked off to the real world to live with Carey’s father, stepmother, and stepsister, with all the adjustments this involves. But Carey can’t help thinking about the crime she committed during a moment of desperation back in the forest, and worrying that its revelation will separate her from her sister, the only person in the world she really loves.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick: Leonard is the epitome of the sad loner at every high school, and like that guy, he’s about to indulge in some stereotypical behavior: His plan is to take a gun to school, shoot his former best friend, and then off himself after. But first, he wants to make a final connection with the few people in his life who have been kind to him by giving them each a gift. The book is the story of the last couple of days of Leonard’s sorry life…although some letters to Leonard from the future hold out a ray of hope.
Parents, teachers, and random adults have asked me, during my tenure as a teen librarian, “Of what value are these books for teens? Why are all of your book lists so irredeemably bleak?” My answer has always been, it’s what the teens want, and in many cases it’s what the teens need. Protecting a privileged notion of what constitutes teen literature can easily deprive teens of reading books that let them identify and understand their sadness, their loneliness, and their anger, and also equip them to fight the real monsters in their lives, whether those are other teens, the adults who control them, the world at large, or simply their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
The paradox of much of edgy fiction is that although the circumstances in which the characters exist are ugly, the characters themselves are beautiful in their vulnerability, and the literature itself can be lyrical even in its truthfulness. And in my discussion with my class, some of whom were put off or even horrified by the selection of edgy fiction we read, we ironically came to the conclusion that the soft reads are often identical in their effect to the edgy ones, and the adults who laud them as more appropriate aren’t seeing the spectrum on which they appear.
The book we read, Hope Was Here, has a protagonist whose mother deserted her, and she was raised by her aunt. She had to move repeatedly during her 16 years because of financial hardship. Her only constant is being a good waitress at the serial diners at which she has worked. Her new boss, of whom she has become fond, is dying of cancer. The town is run by a crooked politician who is exploiting the townsfolk. Reading that synopsis, would you guess it was a soft read? The fact that the heroine, Hope, takes a relentlessly positive attitude toward the obstacles in her life doesn’t negate the fact that she’s been dealt a tough hand.
The truth about young adult literature is, no matter what its guise—soft read, edgy fiction, paranormal or dystopia—the really good stuff is designed to invoke one important quality from the teens who read it: Empathy. The greatest gift we as librarians (or teachers or parents or friends) can give our teens is how to experience empathy; and one of the best ways to teach them that is through reading.
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…
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 Disney version of my childhood (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 have read two books recently that dealt with the ideas, emotions, and results of bigotry, both focused on the Muslim experience. One was, somewhat weirdly, the third volume in the Chocolat series, by Joanne Harris, called Peaches for Father Francis (I reviewed the other two books earlier on this blog); the other was a newish young adult novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi.
The first was a story of clashing cultures trying to co-exist in the same small French village, while the second was the devastating effect high school ignorance has on one Persian Muslim girl in a sea of white kids, one year after 9/11. Both were powerful statements and, while quite different, arrived at some of the same conclusions.
In Peaches for Father Francis (otherwise sold as Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé), it is eight years after the events of the original book Chocolat, and Vianne and her two daughters have made a life for themselves in Paris, floating on the Seine in a houseboat with the traveler Roux, father of Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Then comes in the mail a posthumous letter from Vianne’s old friend Armande, via her grandson, Luc, summoning Vianne back to Lansquenet because “someone here needs you.”
It’s August in Paris, which means it’s stiflingly hot and empty except for the tourists, so Vianne decides to indulge the impulse to take Anouk and Rosette for a holiday in the country. Roux somewhat surprisingly decides to stay behind, in Paris.
What Vianne discovers when she arrives is that the derelict housing on the other side of the bridge from Lansquenet, near where the travelers used to dock their boats, has been appropriated by a rather large immigrant Muslim community, the Maghrébins, and although their occupation had initially been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by many of the other villagers, now factions have broken out on both sides of the river, and friction is growing. Somehow, despite their formerly oppositional roles, the solution comes down to a cooperative relationship between Father Francis, the town priest, and Vianne to solve the impasse and narrowly avert a war.
The characters and situations in this novel are masterfully drawn. While it still retains a bit of the magical realism for which the first book is known (the shadow of Pantoufle still follows Anouk), this third tale is deadly serious in its exploration of warring cultures, tolerance, and understanding. It clearly and sometimes horrifically demonstrates the degree of misperception that can exist when people make shallow and blatant assumptions about one another and fail to take either human nature or love into account.
The young adult book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, was more problematical for me, partly because it relies so heavily on high school tropes, which become wearying after so many teen novels based on them; but the fact is, they do still exist, and are potent, especially for the teenagers experiencing them.
I found the protagonist, Shirin, confusing because she is so vulnerable and yet so hardened in her angry cynical belief that no one will ever give her a fair shake. Several things baffled me about her character, the first being that she spends almost a hundred pages (basically a third of the book) being angry about how people react to her because she covers her hair with the hijab; then, when asked why she wears it, her reason seems inadequate. Her parents don’t require her to wear it, and in fact questioned her decision to do so; while she celebrates Ramadan with her family, she isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t otherwise have any kind of spiritual practice; and what she finally reveals to her new boyfriend is that wearing the scarf is a control issue for her—she gets to decide who can see her hair. I was kind of stunned that she would put up with the treatment dealt out to her post-9/11 for such a stubborn but singular reason.
While acting and talking like she doesn’t care whether anyone sees and knows her or not, she seems completely blown away when her brothers’ friends, who are in the siblings’ break-dancing club (the side story of a break-dancing hijabi was one of the best images of the book), tell her she’s beautiful. This scene may have been constructed so that the black friend, Jacobi, can subsequently tell her that she’s also scary and mean, and that she has let her anger convince her that all people are assholes when in fact they’re not and she needs to let go of that belief; but the degree of her investment in her looks, after rejecting every superficial nice remark and compliment from absolutely everyone, felt a little off.
There is one raw-ly honest moment in the book when a teacher embarrasses Shirin in class and then keeps poking at her (after she cuts his class for three days) to find out why she’s so upset that calls out white privilege and is probably the penultimate speech Mafi wrote the book in order to include:
“I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way. I’m just—I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job? It’s not.”
But there are also a couple of bigoted remarks by Shirin herself—like when she somewhat snottily hopes that the boy who likes her will just give up and “find a nice blond girlfriend.” Ultimately, though, the book does a good job of breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions on both sides of the divide, and provides along with it a sweet, satisfying, and occasionally swoony romance. Most significant, perhaps, is the reaction to the book by this former teenager on Goodreads:
“Y’all mind if I cry? because if you’d told 16-year-old me that one day I’d read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.”
(Despite searching its pages, I have not figured out the title of the book: The boy protagonist has the unlikely first name of “Ocean,” but other than that, there’s no reference to a large expanse of sea. I’m sure it’s hugely symbolic and that I’m just being obtuse; if you get it, please enlighten me!)
Since I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at UCLA for the library masters program there starting April 1 (after a two-year hiatus since the last time I taught it), I am scrambling to catch up on my YA reading. Although the class deals primarily with the history of young adult lit, I certainly want to be up to the minute on my knowledge of what’s new and popular. So I splurged and ordered a few books from Amazon to read and review during my ramp-up to the class.
I should have known, the minute that I heard Jennifer Lynn Barnes had written a new book, that it would be good; but when an author has done a particular kind of story well and then writes something completely different, there’s always the fear that the magic touch won’t hold up when the genre is changed.
I have read and enjoyed Barnes’s series The Naturals multiple times; I read the first two in the series with my high school book club when I worked as a teen librarian, and then was happily entertained by the remainder of the books as they emerged. I also enjoyed her series that begins with The Fixer, about political intrigue in Washington D.C.
When I saw that she had written a book about southern debutantes, I thought Uh-oh, partly because I have read two or three of those by other authors who took a perfectly good set-up and turned it into puerile insta-love. I should have had faith in Barnes: Even though the premise couldn’t be more different than that of a set of gifted youth working covertly for the FBI, Little White Lies is fantastic in every way.
The concept of starting out in the middle of a particular scenario on a particular day in April and then jumping backwards in ever-lessening increments (nine months earlier, three months earlier, six hours earlier) is itself designed to hold the reader’s interest: What happened today, and what led up to it? At some point, late in the book, when you begin to figure out what’s going on, you will undoubtedly (as I did) thumb back through its pages to read those one-or two-page interludes sequentially and get a giggle out of them.
The other thing that really separated this from run of the mill was the outsider status of the protagonist, Sawyer, The reader sees a slice of her world (regular, if a bit bleak), and then experiences with her the contrast between that and the one from which she originally emerged, and would have grown up in but for her mother’s rejection of that lifestyle. Her new knowledge of her family gets to be revealed to her in a way that both validates and contradicts her mother’s version of events; but her mother has raised her with the ability to judge for herself, and that’s what is important amidst the disconnect.
If all of this weren’t enough, however, you also get the bonus story of secrets, scandals, blackmail, and revenge, with all the anticipation and satisfaction those bring. This book is clever, witty, and humorous in the most perfect of dark ways. And although it stands alone, one tiny detail is left dangling temptingly at the end for Barnes to pick up and continue from, should she decide a sequel is in order (which seems likely, since this book is labeled “#1” on Goodreads).
What can I do but echo the most used phrase of the debutantes and their eagle-eyed mamas when I say to Barnes, “Bless your heart”?