Don’t Judge Alone: A Wrinkle in Time

Well, it’s certainly been a while since I’ve done anything but a straight review, hasn’t it? It’s been far longer since I’ve even touched on covers. Which is sad, because I really do love looking at covers and trying to figure out why the design choices that were made happened.

I wanted to look at an older novel this time, because while you can go into everything from what themes in the novel the designer was pulling on to what they shifted to make the novel more marketable in a more recent work, there’s one thing you can’t see the development of in a book that’s been out for under ten years. The way public tastes have shifted over the years, and the way a novel’s cover has adapted to new trends can easily be seen in something that’s been around for several decades, though.

You’d think I’d have done this before, since noticing those shifts was one of the first things that got me looking at covers.  The oldest series I’ve looked at, though, has been Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom, and that only dates to the 90’s, with the only changes being very recent. It really doesn’t have the same feeling of generational shift that some other books do.

So let’s look at a novel that’s turning fifty-five this year, albeit with a few caveats. First, I’m only looking at A Wrinkle in Time, not the time quartet as a whole here. There really are an astounding amount of covers for this series, and all of us only want to be here so long.

Second, along a similar line, I really can’t hit every cover even this single book has ever had. I’m mostly going to be pulling out the ones that I’ve seen most often and the ones I find most interesting, though if I’ve missed a favorite of yours let me know.

And lastly, I’m going to try to break this up by era, but without access to individual books, it’s apparently impossible to get accurate dates on each design. I’m seeing covers I owned as a child listed with publication dates of 2016, and ones that I know I didn’t see until I was an adult listed under 1973. A lot of this is going to be guesswork and general “before my era/after my era.” Again, if I get anything glaringly wrong, let me know.

So, start from the oldest, I guess? Here are the three I’ve seen that I know are definitively before my time.

The first is the first edition from 1962, the second I would guess to be early 70’s between the art style and the $1.25 price point, and the last I think is probably late 70’s or early 80’s. It’s the copy of the book my older cousins had, at least, so that seems about the right time period. And even in this short span of time you can see how far tastes have already changed, as we go from “classic sci-fi” to “hippie flower child” to “prog rock van door.”

Looking back, I think the only one of these that I actually like is the first edition cover. It’s minimalist and timeless; it still looks like something that could be put on a shelf today without too much difference. In fact they pretty much did that for the 50th anniversary cover, and even then I like this original better. The new one has all of the characters standing straight and tall, which is nice but doesn’t fit; the body language on the silhouettes here screams confusion and distress, which is how the leads first react to travelling by tesseract.

It’s also the only one of the three that seems to fit the whole story for me. The sunshine and rainbows of the 70’s cover fits only a very small part of the story. And as much as the glowing red eyes of the 80’s cover intrigued me when I was six, I can’t say doom and gloom fits the entire novel either. And neither of them reflect that this story is far more sci-fi than fantasy. A group of children looking like they’ve just been shoved into something they’re not remotely ready for, while metaphorically teleporting is a pretty good description of the plot, though.

Not that the cover that is my era is much better than the latter two.

a wrinkle my book

Oh the 90’s pastels.

This one gets major nostalgia points from me, as it’s the copy I owned as a child (and still do!) When I think of Meg and Charles Wallace, those are the faces I see. Aesthetically, though, it probably ranks below even the flying rainbow cover. Given, I think it does a better job of capturing the tone of the story than most of the other ones. There’s peace and wonder here, but also a looming threat.

A lot of the newer covers do a good job of capturing that tone as well. All of these post-date me, so they’re all 2000 or later. And even just looking at the art style you can see how much times have changed. The bright colors and realistic style are gone, in favor of more muted tones and heavy stylization.

These are probably my three favorite of the ones that post-date me. Between personal experience and research I’d guess 2005-present on all of them, though I couldn’t find any details on the middle one.

The first is sketchy, whimsical, and manages to cover enough ground in its little details that it feel like it represents the book as a whole. The middle cityscape covers a lot less, but the Art Deco style is beautiful enough that it makes up for it for me. Besides, in spite of depicting what has to be Camazotz, it doesn’t have the overwhelming feeling of horror that the 80’s cover above does; the shining city could be either utopic or dystopic easily.

The standout for me is the last cover done by the Dillons, but when it comes to their artwork that’s almost always the case for me. The children look a little awkward, but the witches and landscape in the background are perfect. And while everything’s ominous, again it’s not so overwhelming that it makes the novel look like it’s horror.

I know these three also post-date me, though I can’t give an exact point for the first. The second says “40th anniversary” on it, so about 2002, and I remember seeing the third in bookstores in late high school, so around 2004. I like them less than the three above, but thought they were interesting enough to point out. Most of the other covers I hadn’t seen before seem to stick to some stripe of “Mrs. Whatsit in centaur form,” but these go a different route.

I admit I find the comet tails cover interesting largely because it doesn’t appear to depict anything described in the novel. I’m not sure what they were actually thinking with it, aside from “generic fantasy.” And if I had to guess a date for it, I’d probably peg it as early 2000’s, too; it has the same feel that a lot of generic covers from that era have. It almost looks like a Lurlene McDaniel cover to me.

The other two are much better, though, looking both modern and unique. The middle, rainbow circles cover, depicting what I’m assuming to be kything, is probably my favorite. It calls back to the first edition cover, plays off an underused mechanic from the novels, and references the science fiction in the story in a way most of the covers don’t. And again, it looks very modern to me; this is one of the only covers I’ve seen that uses a photo instead of a drawing.

The last I probably find more unique than appealing. The art style is not my favorite, but I find it almost biblical or iconographical in a way. Which fits: religion has always been a major part of L’Engle’s worlds, in a way that I’ve never really seen come through before. It feels older than the other two, but I think it has its place.

What I like about putting all of these together, though, is that you can clearly see the shift in taste that’s happened over A Wrinkle in Time’s long publication history. It’s harder with the newer ones for me, but the older ones I can glance at and say “god, that’s so 70’s” easily. And I think as we move on, that will happen for the 2000’s era covers, too. And with that cultural shift in taste comes the fact that everyone who’s ever read this book takes away a slightly different view of it. Or, for an older person, maybe they see their view of it represented better.

So, do you have a favorite, or one that you thinks best represents the novel? Or did I miss one of yours? The question of what cover art connects the most to people is always so subjective, so I’m always interested to know what other people like best, and why.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirl

Standalone, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 438 pgs.

Cath can’t help but worry about her first year at college. The whole experience seems explicitly designed to involve everything she can’t deal with. There’s the classes, which she knows are going to be harder than the ones at high school. There’s the worry about how her dad is going to handle living alone in their big house. There’s the fact that she’ll be far from home, away from everything she knows and every comforting thing she’s ever built up for herself. And worst of all there’s having to live with a complete stranger, since her twin and partner-in-crime Wren has apparently decided they need to split up and meet new people. Because Cath knows she’s a little weird. She would rather stay at home and read than party, she’s far happier trying to deconstruct a fictional world than trying to figure out her own life, and to top it off she’s one of those fanfic people. Really, she’s far more comfortable interacting with the other weirdos online than with the swathes of normal, judgmental people that college has to offer. And at one point Wren would have happily stayed back with her and Simon and Baz, their favorite characters. An increasingly distant Wren seems more than happy to leave everything that used to make the two of them happy behind and move on with her life, though. Unfortunately for Cath, she can’t seem to do the same.

Some spoilers in this review

Well, I did walk into this knowing it was going to be the song of my people. I can’t say I didn’t get what I thought I was going to here. I may have gotten a little more than that, actually.

I’ll start out by saying that I think this was a technically good book. The characters start out pretty complex and have some good development as they go through the novel. They’re all likeable and interesting, as well, so the plot stays compelling in spite of the fact that it’s mostly about the lead’s internal journey. And the story works in what I think are some important life lessons, to boot.

I’ll also say, though, that this book was so geared to be something made for me that it’s hard for me to take any sort of technical quality into consideration. I was always going to love this novel, because, like I said, it’s the song of my people. On more levels than I expected, really.

There are two main parts to that, and I’d like to discuss each of them separately, because wow, was I not expecting this book to pull at my heartstrings like it did.

So, the more obvious first. And by “more obvious” I mean what I expected walking in, which I did admittedly get. This is a novel titled Fangirl, where our lead is a megafandom BNF who is so shy in real life that she can barely interact with other people. As much as you’ll never know how much joy it brought me to write that sentence, you probably see where I’m going with this. I expected teenage awkwardness and the hijinks that come with it. I expected rom-commy character interaction, because it’s also abundantly clear this is a romance. Most of all, I expected a metric ton of nerdy references to eat my little geek heart out over.

I can’t say the book failed to deliver on any of those fronts, either. There definitely are funny moments here, and I even liked the romance, which is unusual for me. I’m typically uninterested in mutual support and care in fiction, but Cath and Levi were so down to earth and adorable that it was hard not to like them together. The portrayal here is less of star-crossed lovers who are perfect together and more of two people who are working very hard to grow into each other, and I did appreciate that.

And the nerdery, which was the main draw for me, was absolutely spot on. Either Rowell was actually an active part of the Harry Potter fandom during its heyday, or she did her research impeccably, because I was having about as many nostalgia flashbacks during this as I did while reading Soulbound, if for entirely different reasons.

Simon and Baz are so entirely Harry and Draco that I actually found it a little awkward when it was made clear that Harry Potter also exists in this universe. The little details are perfect as well, leather pants, vampires, snark and all. The snippets of Cath’s fanfic that Rowell scatters in really do capture the tone of being in fandom; I had to stop reading for a moment to writhe with happiness when I got to the one that was an actual “five times” fic.

I expected to relate to all of the fun things about this novel, though. I didn’t expect the other side at all.

Because intertwined with all the goofy fandom clichés is an actually somewhat painful story about learning to work around your own mental illness, and about learning to overcome the soul-crushing insecurity caused by it. One of the first notes I made about this book was that, within a couple of pages, I already felt a deep, heartfelt connection with Cath because we opened with her being nervous about college as a new situation with new people. And this connection continued as the novel went on, and it became more clear that what was happening with Cath was more an actual anxiety issue than just shyness. Rowell is as careful with her details on this front as she is on the fannish side of things.

Cath barely talks to her new roommate for the first couple of weeks she’s in class, because she’s afraid of looking crazy. She lives on granola bars for probably the first third of the novel because she’s too scared to brave the cafeteria. She has an internal scale for the intensity of what she’s feeling, and “protocols” to handle each level, because it’s the only way she can even begin to control what’s going on with her. And, even with that, small changes to her routine or comfort zone can really shake her, leave her unable to deal with things. Even small setbacks can do the same; she nearly flunks out of a class because she assumes her writing’s not good enough to even try at the final assignment.

And she throws herself into fandom to avoid having to deal with her real life.

It’s not only Cath, either. It’s never exactly spelled out, but it’s pretty clear her dad is bipolar. He has episodes where he works maniacally and goes days without eating or sleeping. And he doesn’t deal completely well without his two daughters there to keep him grounded. Her twin sister, Wren, has a breakdown at the end of their first semester where she nearly drinks herself to death because she’s trying so hard to be the stable, normal, cool one.

These aren’t the stereotypical shy loner, kooky parent, or party girl, and the problems their traits bring them aren’t flat half-issues. This is an honest, detailed portrayal of mental illness, warts and all, Of the way it can pick at you, even when things aren’t going badly. Of the way it runs in families, though the expression of it is different for every person. Of the way you sometimes have the choice between letting the pain drag you all down or using the understanding you have to try to lift each other up.

And if you take bits and pieces from all three characters, you have something that uncannily resembles my story. I’ve done a lot of those things. I still do some of them. I was not expecting the song of my people to sting quite so much. It’s hard to really be critical when you have something like that handed to you on page. I imprinted on the book early on, and it never left.

There are other subplots that I haven’t mentioned here, given. There’s the romance, and Cath learning to stand up for herself, and some stuff with the girls’ estranged mother. This is a coming of age novel on pretty much all fronts, and far from all of it was a direct one to one for me.

Still, with the overwhelming amount of things I related heavily to, analysis was never in the cards, here. I can’t say how this book will read to someone who has none of those experiences. For myself, though, I have to thank Ms. Rowell. We read for two reasons: to be taken out of ourselves or to see our own reflection. And I can’t say I’ve ever had a better example of the latter.

Chum by Jeff Somers

chum

Standalone, Tyrus Books, 2013, 208 pgs.

Six friends, a little sister, and a couple of lovebirds get smashed at a wedding. Sounds like the setup to a joke, right? Or maybe some godawful summer movie, where everyone comes together in the end to learn some stupid life lesson. You’d be wrong, on both counts, though. This is the story of the year it all falls apart, instead. This group might only have been together by coincidence, really, might only have ever held on to each other by threads, but the scissors of stress and nerves can wreak havoc on even the most casual group of acquaintances. Secrets can destroy you, even when you really shouldn’t care enough for them to be able to. Relationships can splinter, even when they’re supposed to be flimsy as air.

I think I really need to stop trying to like literary fiction. Or, really, serious slice of life in general, since I’m not sure how experimental or envelope-pushing some of the things I’m referring to are meant to be. These just aren’t my genres, regardless of how intellectual I want to be, and any attempts I make never seem to go well. As much as it’s horrifically unfair to write off what I’m sure is a vastly diverse group of works based on the worst elements in the lot, it always seems like one of those worst elements pops up and ruins whatever book I’m reading for me.

This has happened in almost everything that’s not genre fiction that I’ve tried to read over the past four or five years, barring classics. Last year I got one bright spot in Geek Love, which I thought had actually well developed characters and good tragedy, but everything else I’ve had a stab at has fallen flat.

Chum may be one of the worst experiences I’ve had on that front, too. For every other lit fic piece that I’ve badly disliked I can at least pick out something that I thought was interesting or unique about the work. This, by comparison, feels like the blandest mixture of every horrible stereotype I have about this type of novel that could possibly exist. This…this is not going to be a good review.

So let’s get the one good bit out of the way first. Character voice is incredibly strong here. The book switches viewpoints every chapter, and I could always tell whose eyes we were seeing through within a couple of sentences without being told, even from very early in the novel. That’s a talent in and of itself, and it’s probably the only thing I thought worthwhile in this piece.

Unfortunately I also hated every single one of the characters behind these distinct voices. Usually having a cast comprised entirely of awful people means at least one of them will be interesting, but that didn’t happen here. Instead it was all of the smug, with none of the entertainment value.

The best way I can describe it is in the context of Seinfeld, because on one level this book reminded me a lot of that show. I’d actually like you to do a thought experiment with me along those lines. If Seinfeld is too outdated you can fill in a more recent show with a similar cast. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Arrested Development, maybe?

You know how you watch those shows in spite of the fact that everyone on them is selfish and smug and generally terrible? Or sometimes because of it?

Now take the cast of characters from whichever show you’ve chosen and strip them of any quirks that might make them interesting to follow. Throw out anything that gives them actual personality and replace it with the most generic of flaws. This one’s a disgusting womanizer! That one’s completely shallow! Then take away any sort of layers they might have. Any moments where you see the humanity of these characters, no matter how small, are now gone. Replace everything that might make them seem like a person with ennui and disgust for life. And then, as a final touch, make everything about the presentation absolutely unfunny.

Does that sound like anything you’d actually want to read?

I honestly felt justified in my hatred of these people, because all I got from them was how much they hated each other, their lives, and themselves. And as much as that was probably the point, that setup has never been anything that’s going to make me like a book. This is a novel filled entirely with disgust and loathing, so that’s really all I got out of it. That’s how it always works for me.

And I get where that sort of thing could have appeal, but the execution thereof needs to not be completely uninspired for me to give a piece that credit. The plot here is fairly plain, and the structural shenanigans put in place to hide the terrible event at the center of it don’t do enough to keep it from being predictable. The horrible bits seem mostly to be there to reinforce the point that life sucks and people are awful, rather than to eke any sort of emotion out of the audience. The prose is very, very wannabe Hemingway.

And, perhaps most damningly, in spite of the characterization being distinct and consistent, it’s still not that well done. If you’re going to write a cast populated with awful people who are dysfunctional together, you really need to be willing to go into how they work and what makes them tick. When you instead slap a cardboard stereotype into every scene, all that’s left is how hateful they are. I can sum up each of the characters in about three words: Pretentious Hipster, Sleazy Womanizer, Narcissistic Rage Machine, Nagging Girlfriend, Jaded Ball-Buster, Slut #1, and Slut #2.

Which is honestly another problem. The author seems to have some very strange ideas about how women act and think. I had this post running through my head from the very beginning.

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And that feeling was consistent throughout, even when we’re in the point of view of one of the supposed-to-be straight female characters. I know I at least can say if I catch my best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her, my first thoughts are not going to be about the other woman’s boobs.

As a measurement of how bad this can get, about halfway through one of our main four women dies, and we get a sort of stream of consciousness monologue from her as it’s happening, which is all about the men she’s slept with. Really? No, like, memories of her family or thoughts about her hopes and dreams? Not even any sort of day to day minutia, like what she had for dinner or how she’s angry at her boss? No internal life whatsoever outside of who she’s banged?

The women are treated both confusingly and awfully here. I can usually get over that if the novel gives me a reason to, but, well, you’ve read the rest of this review. The insult didn’t help me in connecting to any of this, but I honestly don’t think I would have regardless.

If I thought Eating Mammals was a good example of why I avoid literary fiction as a rule, this book kicks that one to the ground, stomps on it, and then spits in its face. It has claimed its throne as the Alpha of literary bullshit, and I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal. If a piece of Chum isn’t stereotypical, it’s hateful. And, to be quite frank, most of the book is both.

Libriomancer by Jim Hines

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Magic ex Libris Book #1, DAW Books, 2012, 348 pgs.

Isaac’s been out of the game, for a while really. He’s still a libriomancer, a book mage, and still a member of the Porter hierarchy that governs them, but his ban from field work leaves him spending most of his days working as a librarian and surreptitiously tagging books for other Porters to use. Until the day a group of vampires step into his rural, Midwestern library, obviously attempting to get at him and spouting off about some coming war. And when he tries to take this to his higher-ups in the organization, he finds out that half of them are dead and the other half don’t know what’s going on either. Instead of explaining, they give him emergency leave to go back to the field and tell him to figure it out. Unfortunately there’s more going on here than just angry vampires, and the things Isaac uncovers lead straight to the heart of the Porters themselves: what they exist for, and what they’re hiding.

It’s always amazing to me, the ways in which what’s going on with you personally can affect your enjoyment of a book. Our mental states, experiences, and the things happening around us have a far greater weight on our media intake than I think we often give them credit for.

Obviously rereading a book as an adult and suddenly loving or hating it when you didn’t before is a known phenomenon, but even within a couple of years, with no major life changes, I’ve had vastly different reactions to pieces on reread. And I can’t help but feel that has more to do with my strictly internal mental state than with any new things that have happened to me.

All of this is basically being a long way to say I had a hell of a lot less fun with Libriomancer than I typically do with Hines’ work, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the book or because of me.

If I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably the latter. This really, really should have been fun; it has everything about Hines’ work that usually makes me give it that description, and, on multiple levels, it’s very much a story built for people who love books. Like a lot of his other series, it’s sort of pulpy and tropey, in a way that’s as much loving as it is mocking. If the Princess series was a take on Disney fairytales and the Jig the Goblin series a riff on generic high fantasy, this was almost a play on the summer blockbuster formula. We literally start here with a disgraced, loose-cannon magic cop having to step back into the field to redeem himself.

And like the genre it’s playing with, and again, as is typical of Hines, there may be dark elements present, but the plot never gets bogged down in them. It remains fast-paced and hopeful in tone, creating a sort of breezy feel that should have been fun and easy to read.

Also, like a lot of Hines’ work, it’s sort of nerdy. I mean, it’s about a secret group of magic librarians who use the world’s collective love of stories and suspension of disbelief to pull every cool thing fiction has ever offered to the world out of books to use. What genre nerd wouldn’t love that? There are constant little references to everything from laser guns to magic swords, all pulled from classic series and all of which our hero Isaac is willing to geek out over as much as the audience.

In a world peopled partially by every popular type of vampire you can possibly think of, because sometimes magical diseases can also be pulled out of the books. Our opening scene has Isaac fighting a group of “sparklers.”

And those are just the things I enjoy specifically about Hines’ books; this also involves a lot of things that I enjoy in novels in general. There’s no easily established good and evil here. Almost everyone is a little morally shady and playing according to their own agenda, and even the main villain is very much a product of the same system our hero is. Speaking of Isaac, he’s far from a perfect protagonist; he’s a little too reckless and headstrong, but as much as that leaves him running straight into stupid situations, he’s also clever enough to usually pull it off. All of the characters are well rounded and unique; none of them ever just fade into the background of the work.

The plot keeps itself moving too. We barely know what’s happening at the beginning, and never fully understand until the end, so there’s more than enough suspense to keep things going. The fact that most of this is action packed (like I said, summer blockbuster) keeps you barreling from scene to scene, too. And there’s enough of a personal element, enough of a character journey for the leads at least, to keep it from just feeling like stupid schlock.

So all of this sounds awesome, right?

I had such a hard time getting through this book, though. It took me about two months, which is ridiculously long for me. I kept starting, reading five pages, and then drifting away again, and even after I’d finished it, everything still felt unsatisfying. For a work that seems tailor-made for me, from an author I know I like, this is incredibly odd.

So, two theories.

One is, this is somewhat different from Hines’ usual work. It’s not that his books have been all happy fluff, far from it, but usually the dark elements there are more plotty than philosophical. And a lot of the passages here do get very metaphorical and metatextual. His prose in this book is far more lyrical than his typical, plain-spoken style, things are left far more up to interpretation than in his other pieces, and he’s attempting to dig into some fairly meaty ideas about how the love of narrative shapes people, in both good ways and bad.

There are questions in Libriomancer about everything from how group dynamics can sometimes leave people to fall through the cracks, to how a widely read novel can create a mass media experience that is both the same and different for everyone who participates in it, to where the lines of personal autonomy begin and end for a character pulled out into the real world. The fact that there’s a lot going on here is objectively good, but it is a departure from his norm. I can very much see having liked his previous books while still having trouble with this one.

Or there’s the other theory, which is that Life was Happening (and the capitals are justified there) while I was reading this. I was very busy, leaving gaps of up to a week between putting the novel down one night and picking it up again, and I can’t say I was in a very good mood during any of it. I know very well that I forced my way through this book because I was trying to not lose too much time, rather than because I felt like reading. And there’s every chance that affected my judgement. Like I said, if I’m honest with myself, I think that’s probably it.

So yes, this is a little more description than review. I do have the second in the series, Codex Born, sitting on my shelf, and I am planning on reading it soon. If it leaves me cold as well I’ll let you all know. Until then, there’s enough here that I should have really been into, and circumstances were suspicious enough, that I can’t just write this off.