Flappers make everything the cat’s pajamas

Happy Halloween! Also, sweet Samhain, if that’s more your thing. Dear readers, my personal life may be going up in flames as I write this, and there is a really good chance that I’ll start November literally living under a bridge like a really well-read troll (serves me right, I guess, after all those hobo jokes… c’mon, it’s a funny word!), but if nothing else is left to me, at least I have today. At least we all have today. The economy is shite, violent conflicts are waging across far too much of this planet, and the weather is alarmingly reminiscent of a History Channel documentary about the coming Mayan apocolypse, but today, my friends, today, life is good.

Yes, Boromir. Yes, it is.

Because today is Halloween. And it is physically impossible to be unhappy today. Here in the hellish suburb in which I currently reside, the skies are dark grey, the rain-slicked pavement is as pretty as the jet stone in a Victorian widow’s brooch, and everywhere rotting leaves, oddly beautiful in their fiery hues, serve the dual purpose of being festive reminders of the season and also making any attempt at walking in heels an utter nightmare. It’s Halloween, the time of year when we are not only allowed to embrace the dark and grim and horrifying things in life, to dress up and pretend to be someone else, to wander the world beneath that lovely old moon and demand candy from strangers who will ACTUALLY THEN GIVE US CANDY – hell, we are expected to do these things. And that is just awesome. I don’t care if you’re five, fifteen, fifty, or a hundred years old, today, just be happy. I’m going to try, anyway.

Enough yammering on, let’s get to the book, shall we? I know that’s what you’re waiting for. Today, it’s Libba Bray’s The Diviners.

The Story: It’s 1926 – what more do I need to say? It’s the heart of the Jazz Age, Prohibition’s in full swing, and the bright young things rule the world. Every Sheik and Sheba is living life to the fullest with a drink in her hand, Fitzgerald’s scribbling away, and the Harlem Renaissance is challenging established cultural hegemony with its dazzling explosion of African-American literature, music, art and philosophy. There’s also women’s suffrage, the fight for workers’ rights, and the Ziegfield follies.  In the thick of it all is Evie, sent from small-town Ohio to the bright lights of New York City to escape an awkward situation, and loving every minute of her supposed banishment. While she might not get along perfectly with her aloof Uncle Will, curator of the Museum of American Folkore, Superstition and the Occult, she adores living in the same building as her bestie buddy Mabel, and soon finds a new pair of pals in Theta, a true-blue flapper, and Hen, a brilliant pianist, both as glamorous as they are mysterious. Even the irritating pickpocket Sam and Will’s solemn assistant Jericho can’t bring Evie down – until a girl is found brutally murdered, beginning a series of gruesome killings that rock New York. When Will is called in to advise police on the odd occult symbols found at the murder scenes, Evie realizes that she might have to acknowledge the secret talent that got her sent away from home in the first place. Evie can read objects; she can hold a button and know what its owner had for breakfast, and a whole lot more. And Evie’s not the only one with a trick or two up her sleeve. Harlem numbers runner Memphis is struggling with his own gifts, trying to keep his younger brother safe and figure out why there’s a crow dogging his footsteps and why his dead mother keeps appearing in his dreams with words of warning…

Whoah. So, first of all, apologies for that monster of a plot summary. This book is freaking massive, and there are dozens of seemingly disparate storylines (that eventually converge in a brilliant finale, I might add), so a pithy summation is difficult, but I did try. Also, I’m… kind of speechless. I absolutely, positively, straight up LOVE it. This will probably come as a surprise to no one but me – as far as I can tell, everyone in the world loves Libba Bray, including ALA and YALSA. I don’t know how I missed that memo, especially because I am kind of a librarian. AWKWARD. But anyway.

Confession: I am mildly obsessed with the Roaring Twenties. This is my decade, the one I would time-travel back to if I wandered into Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (God, Hemingway was hot in that movie). As far as I’m concerned, I was born in the wrong era of history. I want to be a flapper, with rebellious shorn locks and scandalously short dresses and a talent for dancing, drinking, and dazzling the gents.

Oh, I’m meant to be reviewing this book, aren’t I? Okay, here goes: THIS BOOK IS AMAZING. READ IT. NOW.

There. Done.

No, but seriously. The story is impeccable. Flawless. I can’t think of a single thing I might have improved. The use of the supernatural felt truly fresh, when for a while it seemed that YA was to be inundated with the same old vampires and werewolves forever and ever, amen. Add to this the time and setting, which I felt was truly innovative – please more supernatural historical-fiction! – and a perfectly paced, truly suspenseful plot full of genuine surprises, thrills, and quite a few chills (I sometimes couldn’t read this book before bed, because I am that much of a baby), and you have what I like to call a perfect storm of awesomeness.

The characters are, in the words of Coffee Talk’s Linda Richman, LIKE BUTTAH. Flawed, fascinating, utterly charming, each of them felt real, complex, and vulnerable (except for the villain, who was scary bananas). Bray is a master of shifting point of views. The transitions were effortless, and each character’s perspective was distinct from the others’.

And don’t even get me started on the writing itself. Sweet baby Thor, this is what you call WRITING. The incorporation of ’20s slang was ingenious, elegantly done, and hilarious. Oh, and Libba Bray is a FREAKING POET, a queen among wordsmiths. This is prose at its best, the kind of writing that makes you stop and re-read passages and shake your head in awe and envy, the kind of writing you insist on reading aloud to everyone in the vicinity, even if they have no idea what you’re going on about because it’s the end of the world and no one has time for YA. The kind of writing that makes you want to rage at a world where books are relegated to arbitrary categories based on age when really everyone should just read everything.

Damn. And sigh.

Please please please read this book. It will make you happy. And then I will be happy.

Best line(s): The wind part of the prologue. You’ll see. Okay, here’s a bit: “The wind swoops over the tenements on Orchard Street, where some of those starry-eyed dreams have died and yet other dreams are being born into squalor and poverty, an uphill climb.” (p. 6). Man, this is GOLD.

Rating: Five out of five bob-and-shingle haircuts. Which I got. Because of this book. That’s how much I love this book. It does not look good on me, what with my Angelica Huston-esque handsome bones, but hey, I’m so happy anticipating the next book in this series that I don’t even care.

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I’ll still take Heathcliff….

Autumn demands gothic romances with dark, brooding, inscrutable heroes. So I’m taking refuge in Jane Eyre (even though I kind of hate it and much much much prefer Wuthering Heights) and taking lots of moody walks through the woods behind my old elementary school. I may or may not be taking these walks in long, billowing skirts and chunky knits, with my hair all coiled up on my head in Victorian-style braids. Okay, I am. Whatevs. I BELIEVE IN MAGIC.

Now, Book Cat has some thoughts on Jane Eyre. I note he appears to have misplaced his usual elegance and wit, though he does make a good point…

HOW CAN ANYONE PREFER A DUDE WHO IS A MASSIVE JERK – OH, AND LOCKS UP HIS CRAZY WIFE IN THE ATTTIC – TO HEATHCLIFF? HOW? HAS THE WORLD GONE MAD??? TEAM HEATHCLIFF 4EVERRRR!!!

You know, while I usually detest the film adaptations of classic novels that I love, I think that in this instance, the movies perfectly illustrate the dilemma posed by great Brontë debate, and indeed, its resolution.

Because, c’mon. I mean, I think I’ve made it clear that I love me some of this:

So hot.

But even the great Fassbender cannot compete with this:

HOT! BURNING! SCALDING!!! OW OW OW–

Even Scarlett O’Hara swooned over him… sigh.

P.S. One day, my friends, we will have a legit, mature, intelligent, academic, fancy-pants literati-style discussion about this, I promise you. For now, though, just enjoy the hotties.

I was promised dessert of some kind

Well, aren’t you all just the luckiest, duckiest lucky ducks of all. No fortnight of silence between posts anymore, my friends! No, I am determined to remedy my slothful ways and produce weekly “read it” book reviews supplemented by photographic evidence of the most benign form of feline exploitation. I am, after all, little more than a reluctantly immobile gentlewoman hobo who happens to live in a house (for the moment). Seeing as the majority of my days are spent playing at being a pioneer lady, perfecting my zombpocalypse survival skills, and reading, there’s ample time to blog about what I’m reading.

Unemployment, y’all. It’s a frakkin’ biyotch.

So today, it’s back to YA. It’s like crack or blue meth or pictures of Michael Fassbender. You can never get enough, no matter how many times you’re told it’s bad for you. So here’s my admittedly rather desultory review of Sarah Zarr’s Sweethearts.

Confession: I read this quite a while ago, but since I am currently in the throes of a mega re-read that is occupying most of my time, thoughts, and swoon tendencies (cough Brisbane cough), I thought I’d share my reactions to this book, rather than fan-girl out on you about the books comprising the re-read (which you get next week, if I manage to find a way to marshal my book-love into something that approaches coherence).

So here’s the sssssynopsissss:

Jennifer Harris used to be a social outcast, but she didn’t mind so much, because she had her best friend and fellow outcast, one Cameron Quick, to help her survive the cruelty of boring, normal children. But then, one day, Cameron disappears, and if anyone knows where he’s gone, they’re not telling Jennifer. She is forced to go on without her closest friends, never knowing where he is or if he’s all right. By high school, Jennifer has transformed herself into Jenna, shedding the extra weight that used to relegate her to the fringes of the social sphere. Now, though, thin, pretty Jenna is actually one of the popular girls, funny, sociable, and adored by her friends – and her boyfriend. Yet despite all of this, Jenna never really feels like Jenna; in her heart, she’s still just chubby outcast Jennifer, still missing Cameron Quick. Then one day, Cameron reappears, and Jenna/Jennifer must (ugh, do I have to keep writing this? Jeeeezuz) confront, um… stuff. Like memories. And the past. And what made Cameron leave and Jenna/Jennifer eat. And (here I must quote the book jacket), “the drastically different paths their lives have taken” (ugh).

Boring. BOOOOORING. Boring boring BORING.

I started reading this book with some high expectations. The lovely writers at Forever Young Adult love this book and seem to worship Cameron Quick as some sort of YA Fassbender (their review of the book is here). And the GoodReads.com rating of this book is 3.64, which I guess is pretty high? I dunno. But for me, this book was truly excruciating to read. Like, thumbscrews excruciating. The kind of excruciating one experiences witnessing my Idiot Brother trying to do a Scottish accent (ye gods, the horror!).

Problem number one: the cover image. But, Robyn, you all shout, the author has no input into the cover design. This cannot count as a strike! Yes, yes, I know, calm yourselves. Still, somebody MUST be held accountable for this unforgivable deception! That, my friends, is one delicious looking cookie. I mean, it’s got freaking frosting swirled all artfully on top. That is a high class cookie. That is straight up artisanal, you dig? And yet there was not one single mention of so beautiful and clearly scrumptious a cookie being devoured at any point in this story. Not. One. I kid you not. You know me. I would never joke about dessert. It’s f***ing blasphemous.

Other offenses: the story. What the hell? That’s all I can really bring myself to write. I can’t get into details, because that would be spoiler-y, but I will try to be like Gandalf the White and talk in riddles. There may have been some sort of shared childhood trauma that made Jenna into an emotional eater and then made Cameron Quick disappear like a mob informant into the great unknown, and this childhood trauma was, a) the most cliché childhood trauma ever, and b) not at traumatic as it was made out to be.

Please please please don’t think I’m being insensitive. I have the deepest sympathy and respect for anyone who’s ever experienced even the slightest bit of what Zarr writes about, but since this is a work of fiction, I feel entitled to express my opinion. About fictional events and fictional characters. Okay?

So I just thought it was dealt with poorly. Like it was this huge spectre and then it wasn’t and then it was again. And honestly, a lot of my problems with this might have been allayed if the writing style was better. I haven’t read any of Zarr’s other books, but the language and style of Sweethearts felt listless, unfinished, and anemic. There was no joy in the way in which the words were put together, and that is perhaps the greatest failing any piece of writing can have.

The characters were similarly enervated. Jenna/Jennifer is a cipher, though perhaps her lack of characterization was due to the first-person point of view and her role as narrator and witness of the story’s events. I didn’t care for Cameron Quick or for the awkward, luke-warm “romance” (worst romance ever, guys, seriously) that sort of just existed, inexplicable and poorly portrayed, between the two protagonists.

Damn. I just did not like this book. I felt completely miserable and melancholy after I finished reading it. In fact, I seem to recall that I spent the remainder of that night crying and listening to Birdy’s cover of “Skinny Love” while I flipped through old high-school yearbooks, desperately craving pink-frosted cookies and the unrequited hate-crush of my youth who inspired so many terrible poems.

But I dunno. Maybe you’ll like it? Who the hell knows. You’ll just have to read it and see for yourself, and if you love it, you can take off your glove and give me a smack and we’ll have grass before breakfast like all the classy people do.

Best lines(s): There was actually one quote I really liked (I know, surprise, right?) It was this: “Life was mostly made up of things you couldn’t control, full of surprises, and they weren’t always good. Life wasn’t what you made it. You were what life made you.” (page number go out and get the book yourself because I can’t remember what page it was on.)

Rating: One out of five delicious, freshly-baked, still-warm vanilla shortbread cookies topped with pink frosting so sweet it makes your teeth hurt and your heart sing.

And now, Book Cat’s thoughts:

Reading this book was even more unpleasant than the events pictured above.

That’s all, folks.