This book was clever, immediately gripping, suspenseful, well-paced, and full of powerful moments. If I had any complaint at all it was that I occasionally felt like I was reading a script from Season One Veronica Mars. And I'm not a fan of S1 VM. But since that puts me at odds with roughly 99% of the people reading this journal, please don't let that be a deterrent. The writing was strong, the characters were well-defined, and the tone and candor of this novel has stuck with me weeks after reading it. This is definitely one to read, ponder, and share with the teens in your life.
* Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. What a crazy, crazy time! This book! It has everything! EPIC RURAL TRAGEDY! Mistaken Identities! People Coming Back From The Dead! DRAMATIC BULL ATTACKS! Small-town Scandals! Love Squares! Shocking Secrets! Psychics and Princes! Forced Engagements! Wicked Elopements! Long-suffering Virtuous Maidens! Effigies! Animal Cruelty! Roman Roads! Drunken Routs! Deathbed Confessions! Desolate Haunting Landscapes Symbolic Of The Desolation Of The Human Soul!
Did I mention the bull? Thomas Hardy, what a wild guy! This book made me :D :D :D :D :D. I've never actually read Hardy before. And, okay, I probably won't be picking up Jude the Obscure any time soon, but I really enjoyed reading this book. It was just outlandish and WTF enough, and combined with this serene understanding of human temperament and a brittle wit that frequently made me laugh aloud, it was not at all what I expected it to be, and much more than I was expecting at all.
(Also, the whole time I read this book I could not stop picturing Ciaran Hinds in the title role. And then I found out that the BBC actually adapted this book into a film starring him. Because clearly the BBC is reading my mind. And clearly I am best casting agent ever. HIRE ME.)
* A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. I know I've mentioned having trouble getting into this book before. Today I took time and finally let myself read and absorb it. I honestly didn't enjoy reading it - which is not to say that it wasn't well-written, because it was. But the experience of reading this novel made me aware of something I've never thought about before, and that is the unsettling disconnect that occurs when I as a reader am forced inside the head of a narrator I don't necessarily relate to, empathise with, or trust. I felt throughout reading this book that I was being somehow asked to despise or mistrust the intentions of every single character I came into contact with. Even though the book is set in turn of the century England, I felt the narrative tone had more in common with the thinly veiled irony of a lot of chick lit, where absolutely everyone and everything are presented to the reader in terms of satire, and not a very gentle one. It was a tone that kept me at a distance from the characters on the whole. I felt I was never allowed to trust any of them, not even the narrator, and the result was that the emotional impact of the ending felt hollow to me. I didn't believe Gemma Doyle loved any of the girls she had spent the novel getting to know, despite the very carefully laid-out emphasis on the bond they had developed. And that made me a bit sad, because I wanted to like some of them, at least more than I wanted to like Gemma herself.
There were two other things that bothered me about this book. I think the thing I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that the majority of the book was concerned primarily with social ettiquette and particularly sexual politics - I really enjoyed the fact that magical events took a backseat and were motivated by the real social dynamics at hand - and not vice versa. It made the magical elements that much more compelling for being largely off-center stage.
However, the insistence on the absolute subjugation the young women of Spence are forced into felt anachronistic to me. This felt like an extremely well-researched book, so I'm mostly going on my gut instinct, and the vibe I get from19th--century writers I've read, and not any kind of expert knowledge. But I believe that society's view of womanhood and the independence entitled to them had advanced just a bit beyond the point at which any of the girls in this novel, especially Pippa, would have seen marriage to a considerably older gentlemen as the absolute and only choice available to them. And of course, I recognize that women even still today have to struggle not to be thought of as property, and in the novel's point was well-taken; but it was a stretch for me to believe that in 1890's England, Pippa's only plausible choices were enforced marriage or death.
The other thing that bothered me about this book is minor, but I seem to be really really really prone to having a kneejerk 'ugh NO' reaction to this trope wherever I see it - and that is the dreaded Dead Lesbian Trope. :| There, I said it. I think this book, for all it's trying not to, invokes the dead lesbian cliche. (In case this is a term you've not heard before, a short summation taken from here is below.):
- Presentations of lesbians in film and television have historically presented these women as troubled, twisted and desperate. They were not accepted by society, and the only appropriate ending for them was either to be killed or to commit suicide, thus denying these characters any chance at happiness and, also, providing for the audience a rather clean solution to an embarrassing problem -- how to get rid of the lesbian.
I've ranted about the Dead Lesbian Trope on this lj in the past, most notably after she appeared on an ep of Smallville. It's something that I sort of notice with chagrin, without really meaning to. And I might be a little over-sensitive about it, because I feel that we haven't really moved on from this trope as much as we'd like to think we have. But I think this book is an example of the way the trope kind of sneaks into the subtext. This novel is extremely, extremely heavy on the femslash, and even includes a nice girl-on-girl kiss as well as two overtly lesbian characters who are only described in flashback. But the subtext of those two characters is neither liberating or hopeful. The subtext is that of the Dead Lesbian Trope.
The first of these girls is clearly the story's evil goddess, and even in flashback she is shown to be manipulative and exploitative, preying upon the other girl's friendship and guilting her into becoming a pawn. Part of that exploitation involves arguably corrupting the other girl's love for her into something sexual. Not only is she evil in the standard magical sense, but her sexuality in the context of this novel adds to her power over her friend, and adds a sinister element to her persona.
Yet she is (while presumed dead) not the lesbian who actually "dies" in this book. Instead, the other girl, the one shown to be swept away by and responding to her advances rather than initiating them, is later discovered to be Gemma's mother. She has dramatically "escaped" the psychosexual clutches of her former best friend. She has changed her name, and created a new, almost wearily conformative, identity for herself as the dutiful wife of a British politician and mother of two children. About her previous, lesbian self, she states flatly, "she doesn't exist."
The book ends with Gemma viewing the discovery of her mother's past and the way she 'overcame' it through a hopeful lens. But as I read it, I couldn't shake the feeling that the subtext wasn't jiving with the text. Gemma's story is about her struggle to break out of the social confines into which she is placed - which is illustrated both through magical and sexual experimentation, of a sort. But her mom's story seems to be about her struggle to break away from the dangerous consequences of her own experimentations into a socially adaptive and "safe" life - one in which she has erased not only her name, but also her sexual identity. Gemma's mother in her new incarnation is the dead lesbian. And I understand that it wouldn't have been easy in Victorian England to have fully retained that identity at any cost - but to be asked to see her mother's choices, along with eradication of her sexuality, as heroic was a bit much for me.
So, I'm left torn about reading the next two books. I want to see if the further development of the characters, and the playing out of the story's themes, will do anything to rid me of the unsettled distrust I'm left with of the characters and their motivations. I want to see if it's possible for the author to sway me towards liking Gemma better than I do, and whether the really tantalizing depiction of sexual dynamics in the first book will be expanded in the later ones. And also, despite everything I've said her, I want to know what happens next. This is a well-plotted book with solid writing. I am finding myself stopping to think about my reaction to it more than I usually need to do when I read; and despite that, despite the fact that I'm enjoying the read, I'm still not sure whether this is a book I like or not. So I guess there's nothing left but to start in on the next two, and see if I can come up with an answer.
And now for an overtly negative review of The Amazing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga. One of my pet peeves is inconsistent subtexts: where the author's subtext seems to be saying one thing, but the meta-narrative of the book seems to completely contradict that theme. (My prime example here: J.K. Rowling on the subject of Slytherins.)
So, Fanboy. I hated this book. Hated. It's something that I wanted to like, because it seemed, on the surface, to be one of those charmingly sensitive, wryly adolescent portraits of two geeks and their subcultures. But instead? (Spoilers) Fanboy's entire journey of maturation is to reach the stunningly vapid understanding that reality isn't like a comic book. I'm not even joking. Goth Girl turns out to be too caught up in her private pain to snap out of her own dangerous levels of unreality, and the book ends with the implication that Fanboy, as the wiser, more mature person on his way to a successful adulthood, has put away his visions of gaining superpowers and gone his separate way, away from the crazy fantasy and the chick enabling those fantasies.
And, I'm sorry, if I wanted writing that reminded me that fans are delusional, and that the need to break away from fantasy and develop a sense of reality is an albatross around every fan's neck, I'd just go look up pre-1990 academia.
Golly, I'm ranty tonight. Think will just go write fic instead of wasting my time trying to sound smart.