The Ruining by Anna Collomore

the ruining

Standalone, Razorbill, 2013, 313 pgs.

Annie finally feels like her life is beginning. She’s moving away from her run-down, broken home in Detroit to go to college in California and make something of herself. Moreover, she’s moving away from her awful past and into a taste of what she hopes is her future; she’ll be working as a nanny for and living with a rich couple who have the sort of life she’s always dreamed of. Life in California seems wonderful, too. Walker, the father of the family she’s staying with, is funny and easygoing, Zoe, the little girl she’s watching, is sweet and adorable, and their house is beautiful, like something out of a magazine. There’s even a cute boy next door and the excitement of finding herself in her classes to round things out for Annie. So if the mother, Libby, is a little nit-picky and gets worked up over tiny things, that’s fine, right? She’s still fun to be around, and attentive, and seems to think of Annie as a little sister, even if she sometimes does strange things. Ok, so maybe it’ll be a little tougher than she thought it would, but Annie can’t throw this chance away. She just can’t.

I’ve read quite a lot of smart books; it always brings me a little pang of joy when an author does something clever with the characters or plotting or references. I’ve read quite a lot of stupid books as well, sometimes unintentionally, but also because sometimes everyone needs to relax with something fun and light.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that is somehow both at the same time.

I realize that’s sort of an odd statement to make, but this book is pretty clearly split on how well it was thought out. There are parts of this that are done beautifully, where the author obviously did detailed, studious research, and there are parts of this where things seemingly happen only because it’s convenient to the narrative.

To start, though, I will say this to the book’s credit: the parts that don’t really fall into either of those categories are generally good. The characters are engaging and decently three dimensional, and the prose is pretty evocative and beautiful. If you’re not going to be bothered by some plot contrivance then you’ll probably be perfectly fine with this.

Similarly, the major driving theme is really well-researched, especially for a YA novel.

A novel about the way abuse can work its way into your brain and make you think that the only problem in a situation is you could have easily been hackneyed and melodramatic, but here nearly every part of the novel that works toward exploring that side of things is well drawn.

What our villain, Libby, is doing to Annie isn’t exactly subtle, but you do really get the sense of her deliberately fishing out another person’s weaknesses and using them. You do really get the feel of Annie blaming every little thing on herself, because obviously no one would react that strongly if she hadn’t done something wrong. You are confused along with her as she begins to doubt her own senses and memories. It’s clear Collomore looked into how an abusive situation works and tried to do as much justice to it as she could.

And Annie herself is set up very well, with regards to that. It’s made clear at the beginning of the novel that she comes from a sort of neglectful background anyway and has some mental issues along the lines of PTSD and self hatred from her sister’s death when she was younger. She’s fresh from escaping the first and has never really dealt with the second. These are all things that make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulation in the first place, and, when she trusts Libby with them towards the beginning of the novel, they become hinge points for Libby to work her way in.

Again, this is all set up fairly cleverly. There are parts of this book that are smart.

Also again, there are unfortunately parts of this book that are stone-cold stupid.

Like Collomore’s tendency to make her lead behave in irredeemably dumb ways when the plot calls for it. I never expected Annie to see through the abusive behavior of someone she trusted and liked, especially when she saw this job as her one chance to get away from her awful life and Libby’s craziness and impositions were introduced slowly. I did, on the other hand, expect her to be a reasonably intelligent person who could put two and two together from easily offered pieces of information.

There were several key points along the way that Annie really should have figured out sooner. For at least one of them I’m not even sure if you could rightfully call it plot contrivance, because knowing it wouldn’t have broken Annie’s mindset of “Libby is good and giving me far more chances than I deserve,” so it wouldn’t have really affected how things played out. Knowing it might have even given her more sympathy for Libby.

I’m not sure why Collomore decided to dumb down here character there, except as for a cheap twist that didn’t work because it was too obvious. I suppose that’s a sort plot contrivance too, though.

And in some ways this tendency toward plot contrivance breaks the typically good characters. Annie’s supposed to be a smart person, and fairly fighty. She spends most of the novel trying to keep herself up out of the swamp of manipulation, even as she’s slowly slipping down. Then, at the end, the author completely throws out what has been some careful work with this character’s arc in order to have her break down completely, seemingly overnight.

And this example is plot contrivance in a way that the former might not be: this needed to happen for the love interest to have motivation to actually interfere in the situation. So, complete breakdown from a character who really didn’t seem that far gone.

It’s just little pieces of sloppiness that destroy something that could have been really interesting. Like some other things I’ve read, Collomore really needed to take the careful thought she put into taking apart an abusive situation and seeing how it worked, and expand it out to the other pieces of her novel.

Indexing by Seanan McGuire

indexing-seanan-mcguire

Indexing Series Book 1, 47North (Originally by Kindle Serial), 2013, 404 pgs.

You may know her better as Snow White, but her name’s Henry actually. And she really must insist on Henry, too; she hasn’t spent years avoiding apples and fighting the urge to be a shrinking violet just to let her Aarne-Thompson designation define her, even if she can’t shake the unfortunate coloration. She’s only one of many, anyway. There are thousands of possible Snow Whites out there, ready to wake up one day and start talking to the birds and collecting groups of short men. There are thousands of every possible fairytale character. Because underlying our reality, the one where people get to make choices about who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do, is The Narrative. You probably know it, or have at least heard its stories. They pop up in almost every culture across the globe. And fighting it is what Henry and her team do for a living. She and the others at the ATI Management Bureau are who they call in to save lives when a Sleeping Beauty activates and sends everyone in an office building downtown into a coma or to when a newly awakened Cinderella decides to ditch her loving fiance for a prince she barely knows. So, Henry please, and some respect. Even if you’re a completely normal human, you might need her some day.

Have we ever talked about how much I love stories about stories?

As much as I do appreciate individuality in a piece, and as much as I’ll complain about certain tropes, nothing will get me into a work quicker than the idea that the writer knows and loves storytelling as an art form. It might show up in something as simple as having the lead be a reader who makes references to other pieces, or it might come from something as complex as the sort of interwoven myths and history you get from a high fantasy piece. It might even just be in the self-aware use of a predictable element.

But books and stories have had a huge impact on my life, and I like when an author clearly has that background too. That’s part of the reason I like mixed genres, and part of the reason I like retellings when they’re done skillfully and cleverly.

What I’m saying here is that I’d been meaning to read some Seanan McGuire for a while now, and I’m glad this book was my first, because it has both of those things. This is a book entirely about stories, and the way we create them, and the way they take over, and the way we try to control them.

I have to say, though, this would have been a fun book even if it wasn’t as metatextual as it is. I may read more fantasy than anything anymore, but I grew up on Agatha Christie and old Law and Order reruns, and this captures the spirit of those episodic procedurals pretty well.

Though I guess that fits in with the “story about stories” theme, too. We have all of the standard stock characters here, from Henry, who’s a hard-nosed detective even while she’s Snow White, to Sloane, the eccentric goth girl/evil stepsister, to Jeff, one of the shoemaker’s elves, whose need for detail work makes him the go-to computer expert, rounded out by Demi the guileless rookie who gets dragged into the crazy because the team needed a Pied Piper type to end a story takeover without deaths. Oh, and Andy, who’s sort of the brawn, but is mostly the straight man, as he’s perfectly normal and only has a secondary connection to the fairytale side of things.

If it weren’t for their fairytale alter egos they could almost be an episode of NCIS.

And the plot follows along those lines, as it’s mostly a series of cases that the team takes on as they attempt to prevent “memetic incursions,” or fairy tales taking over and messing up people’s’ normal lives, from running wild in their city.

The episodic nature allows for a lot of flexibility, which gives McGuire the ability to look at a lot of different types of cases as the book goes on. It’s not exactly the most fast-paced plot structure or the one with the best build, but it does allow the novel to be light and fun, in the way a send-up procedural should.

Even if what problems the book does have also seem to stem from this structure. The long drag of a slow case between two incredibly tense ones, or the piece’s tendency to be very repetitive are both probably lingering elements from its original, serial publication. I can’t be too hard on either, considering they were probably necessary for the way it was originally released, but they are off-putting when reading the story in one sitting.

Basically, though, if you have any fondness for cheesy cop shows, there’s a good chance you’ll like this.

But the real fun for me comes from the way the fairy tales are reinterpreted and used. I’m the sort of folklore geek who knew the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index existed before this novel, so all of the little meta touches and nods to lesser known fairy tales of course made me incredibly happy. If you’re also the sort of person who’d get a kick out of our characters trying to classify a Sleeping Beauty story down by variation, this is definitely for you.

I think, though, if you have any idea of the way a story can shift and warp in each retelling, you’ll get the general idea. In the book’s world, there are thousands of potential Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, all ready to awaken in the narrative and disrupt the normal world, with its ability to change, by forcing it to conform to the story.

Which is the other wonderful, metatextual thing about the book’s setup: its effect on the character.

There’s a quote in one of the Discworld books, Witches Abroad, I think, where one of the leads rails against the idea of “feeding people to stories,” of letting the role you think someone is supposed to play override any of their actual goals and desires, override any of the things they choose to do. It’s an idea that’s always stuck with me, and one that I think has relation to a lot of real world issues.

It’s part of the reason we talk so much about representation. How are you supposed to know you can become an astrophysicist when everything is telling you the role you’re “supposed” to play is nanny? How are you supposed to accomplish something when every force, social, economic, and media is telling you that people like you don’t do that? We do, sometimes, have a tendency to “feed people to stories.”

This is a novel almost entirely about that idea, down to its very bones. Most of the cases break down in roughly the same way: a “memetic incursion” will pop up, drag everyone in its immediate vicinity into whatever story it is and give them a proscribed role, and then our heroes, all of whom have been badly affected by the overall narrative, will have to go in to fight it. And the heroes are the ones who fight it, because whether the narrative popping up is dangerous to lives or just to personal autonomy, letting it go just allows it to gain strength.

You can read a lot of different things into that. The first and most obvious, like I said, is as a representation of the societal forces that have a hand in dictating where our lives go, but there are definitely others. Sloane’s sudden urges to kill her teammates, which horrify the part of her that is her own person, can be read as a metaphor for intrusive thoughts, for one.

Or you could take it straight back to storytelling: the ways in which stories become entrenched, until they’re seen as just how narrative works, and how hard it can be to do something new when that happens. There’s a reading here that relates as much to fiction and authorship as much as one that relates to real life.

What I’m saying, though, is that this book does what all the best fantasy does, and that’s to use its fantastical elements as layered commentary, whether it’s to give us some road map for real world issues or to try to pick out the nature of narrative itself.

And while this is far from a perfect book, I’ll very happily take that.

Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

wayfarer

Passenger Series Book 2, Hyperion, 2017, 532 pgs.

So now the timeline has shifted once again, separating Etta and Nicholas at the very crux of their journey. Stranding them from the only person each could trust, right after they’d failed at their goal of finding the Astrolabe and needed each others’ support the most. And without a plan, without knowing how their actions have changed the timeline, without even any idea of what year they’ve each been thrown to, the journey back to each other could be the most perilous yet. Because Etta finds herself badly injured and stuck with the Thorns, whom she can neither trust nor agree with. Even if their leader is her father. Even if he begins to call into question what little her mother, Rose, has told her about the time traveler’s world. Nicholas, for his part, finds himself forced to deal with both the arrogant and intractable Sophia Ironwood, a former enemy turned reluctant tag-along, and the mysterious mercenary that’s been stalking the both of them, claiming to have knowledge of what they’re looking for. Together, and separately, they’ll all stumble down into the dark secret of the Traveler‘s existence.

Spoilers for both books

I wonder if Alexandra Bracken’s work is always going to throw me for a loop regarding how to talk about it, because much like the first book in the series, I have badly mixed feelings regarding Wayfarer.

It’s a little frustrating, honestly, because I thought this was going to be the book that gave me what I wanted out of this series. And in a lot of ways it did. Given, the problems I had with the first book were still there, considering most of my issue was with the main character. Etta did still annoy me, even if I thought she was far better here, but for most of the novel there was enough awesomeness to make up for her.

Perhaps that’s partially because, in a lot of ways, this felt more like Nicholas’ book to me; Etta certainly has her own journey, but most of the memorable emotional beats revolve around what Nicholas and the people traveling with him are doing.

And that makes me far more tolerant of this novel. A focus more on Nicholas apparently means a loosening up of the hard-set, black and white view that permeated the first book. This isn’t exactly a case of moral relativism, but even in Passenger Nicholas was the more forgiving presence.

That was part of why I was excited for the sequel in the first place. When, at the end of the first book he met up with Sophia again, I knew I was going to enjoy what was coming. I knew it was going to involve a lot of development for her, as well as probably some of the other characters that had been written off in the first book. And adding a major part for a trained traveler was probably going to give me some of the deepening of this world that I’d been wanting.

And for those things Wayfarer delivered in spades. No only did we get the bickering road trip through time that I was expecting from Nicholas and Sophia, we got a growing, mutual respect that I completely wasn’t, but am entirely happy about. Sophia gets more sympathy and gets to be more heroic than I could have ever hoped for coming out of Passenger; I was absolutely certain, for example, that my pipe dream of badass, eyepatch-wearing Sophia was destined to remain just that, but I got it here, along with a nicely detailed character arc. She even got a love interest!

Like I said, I even liked Etta better than in the first book. Early on here, she meets up with the long missing Julian, and putting her in contrast with his breezy, carefree attitude cuts a lot of what bothered me about her in book one. Her sections now have a sense of humor to them, and just giving her someone to challenge her perspective makes it seem less gratingly like the be all and end all of righteousness. I honestly felt for Etta at some points in this novel, which was something that never happened in the first.

And for the parts that did still grate, well, those bothered me less with the addition of major parts for Sophia, Julian, Rose, and Etta’s father, Henry, as well as the introduction of Li Min. Making the cast an ensemble rather than just Nicholas and Etta far diminished the annoying bits in overall effect.

For the most part, the plot gave me what I wanted, too. We get all the family politics, and traveler backstory, and history and lore that I was looking for. There wasn’t as much along the lines of time-travel mechanics as I would have liked, but I’ll take where the travelers came from and how they developed into the society that they did as a very acceptable substitute.

Bracken’s even upped the ante with a new villain that’s older, crazier, and far more powerful than Ironwood, leading to some great tension and some great twists. Keeping the action quick and exciting was something that Bracken never had a problem with in the first, though, so seeing that continue here was no surprise.

Rose’s backstory also adds some wonderful mystery to the piece, calling into question a lot of what we’d thought was established about this world and story, and that mystery keeps the plot moving at the same blistering pace that the time limit and chase sequences in the first one did.

I was, in fact, happily reading along until the ending.

Those spoiler tags are up there for a reason, and that’s because it’s very hard to talk about my reaction to this novel without mentioning the ending. And by that I mean this would have been almost perfect if the ending hadn’t been far, far too easy.

Look, so much of the first novel was Etta coming to accept that, even with time travel powers, she couldn’t change the bad things that happened in the past. That was most of her journey, but now I’m supposed to accept it when I’m told that “Oh yeah, the original timeline was so much better! Millions more people survived and several wars never even happened!”?

That’s, cheap. That’s handing your character a perfect ending without any concern for earning it.

It’s even more galling that I’m supposed to believe this from a guy whose initial portrayal is as ruthless and cunning, and who is clearly telling Etta everything she wants to hear. Who we’re explicitly told at one point not to trust. And I’m supposed to just accept it when, at the end, he’s completely good and doing the right thing? Everything about the build here was telling me that Henry was manipulating her, but then at the end he’s just…not.

I’ll be fair here: this is mostly because it was very rushed. Loose ends are tied up too tidily so that the book doesn’t end up being nine hundred pages long. Ironwood gets taken out completely anticlimactically so that the novel has room to actually focus on taking out the new villain, whom we don’t get that much more from. Etta gets her happy family and her reunion with Nicholas with almost no struggle just because the book needs to end.

If the stuff with Henry had more room to grow and develop, this might have felt like less of a cop out. Specifically, we needed more time to see that he was doing good, without the specter of his potential evil over it. Or we needed more room in general, because there’s something so off about this ending.

It feels like this had the setup for at least another book, with Henry playing Etta in this one and coming in at the end as a third force working against our heroes. I don’t know if that is the case, and the rest of the series was nixed at some point, or if Bracken just wrote in some things that she never meant to pick back up. Either way, even getting most of what I wanted, I’m once again left wanting more.

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando

dreamland social club.jpg

Standalone, Dutton Books, 2011, 389 pgs.

Being the daughter of a roller coaster designer used to be an exciting, if often lonely, life. Jane’s lived all over the world and been to almost every major theme park you can think of. And even when she was isolated and friendless, she had her energetic, eccentric mother to brighten life. “Used to” being the operative phrase, though; her mother died a while back, and her father’s fallen on hard times since. That’s why she, her father, and her brother are moving into the rundown old house left to them by her maternal grandfather on Coney Island. It’s free and available, and maybe with a little luck her father can get some sort of work at one of the parks. Coney Island’s an odd place to move to, though. Not only does nobody blink an eye at the boy with tattoos covering every part of this body, not only are the bullies in the school deliberately strange, but it has history. The island’s, yes, with its fairs and parks, but Jane’s too. Her family’s. Her mother’s. And that history is in danger of being lost.

I have to say, this was not at all what I was expecting out of this book. Not that I can say I know Altebrando’s work all that well, having only read one previous novel. The Best Night of Your Pathetic Life was a piece of feel-good fluff, though: fast, fun, and engaging, but not particularly deep.

And sometimes that’s all a piece needs to make an impact. I bought this book because I’d liked the previous one I read, and I liked that book because reading it brought me back to every goofy high school movie I’d ever watched with my friends in the summer. I don’t think the novel was exactly trying to be anything else, either.

Dreamland Social Club, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. This is a book that wants to Say Something, and it has all the pros and cons that make up the territory.

Specifically, on the cons side, its sometimes gets a little bogged down trying to make its point; it’s never exactly preachy in that obnoxious, didactic way, but story rhythm is sacrificed at times in order to work into the novel’s themes. Also, the main character, Jane, is a little stiff, in a way that I’m noticing more and more often in books that want to be serious and intellectual.

It’s not that she’s awful, but she’s written to be almost unbelievably sheltered in order to differentiate her from the community she’s moving into. I can buy shy stick-in-the-mud, even if it’s not my favorite archetype, but I can’t quite accept that a girl who’s traveled all over the world and lived in major cities, both in the States and abroad, doesn’t know what “the projects” are. Again, the point being made sometimes overrides the story.

In spite of what they sound like, though, those are honestly very minor complaints. The pros very much outweigh the cons in this novel, and that is pretty much down to two things: uniqueness and nuance.

YA is a fairly political genre, but it has a tendency to keep the drama at a personal level. Most things will make nods at the huge, overarching issues society faces, like racism or sexism, but often they really only bother to skim the surface of those issues. It’s rare that I see anything that really gets down into the details, rare that a piece talks about something that isn’t an identity issue, and even rarer that the politics being talked about connect so heavily to storyline and character arc.

Dreamland Social Club isn’t only a novel about gentrification. But it is still a novel about gentrification, and most of the personal drama involved has some connection to that main theme. The characters’ hopes and dreams hang on the tension between preservation and development that’s at the center of the book, their relationships live and die by it, and even our lead’s journey to find out about her dead mother’s life has major roots in it.

Altebrando’s skillful in depicting that tension, as well. There’s no uncomplicated “corporations are evil” message, like you might expect; this is an honestly nuanced look at the issue, and nobody’s exactly a mustache twirling villain here. The people promoting development are on some level trying to make things better, though they’re ignoring the needs of the broader community and carelessly knocking down history to do so. In turn, the people looking to preserve Coney Island have their hearts in the right place, but are also sometimes desperately clinging to things that have been fading for a long time.

And most of the characters fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Babette, a character with dwarfism, is firmly on the side opposing development, but also takes offense at the idea that they should go back to the old days when her most viable career option would have been as part of a freak show. Jane herself is torn between the two; she wants to preserve Coney Island as it is in order to find out about her mother’s past, but she also wants to see the parks flourish again in order to secure her father’s job and future.

The amount of nuance Altebrando brings to this issue extends to the rest of the novel, too. The characters are all fully realized, in spite of some of them being tropes that usually set my teeth on edge. Jane’s hyper-shy innocence and the standard high school bullies in particular could have been grating, but weren’t because they all had history and development.

Every other theme the book tackles, too, has at least the potential for the same sort of depth. The plot is mostly Jane settling into her new community: making friends and finding romance, getting involved in the conflict between the born-and-bred Islanders and the company looking to build new attractions, and attempting to find out what she can about her mother’s side of the family.

But even the very setup leads to some interesting questions. Is it wrong to be interested in the strange and the grotesque? Can “strange” be something you choose to be? How much of who we are is choice, how much is experience, and how much comes from who and what your family is? If you never knew that family, how much impact could they have on you, and can you find out who they were from outside sources? Can something that’s been lost, person or place, ever be reconstructed?

I can’t say the book fully answers any of those questions, in fact, it only ever touches on some of them. But I can see tons of little moments in it leading to good discussion. I like things that give me food for thought, even if I have to read it into bits and pieces myself. And to be frank, the ability to read nuance into a situation is something that a lot of books actively cut off.

Largely, though, this is an entertaining, interesting read, with likable characters and the ability to tackle some tough questions without being flat or annoying about it. And that’s something you don’t get every day.

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.

IMG_20170308_140621 (1)

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.