Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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The narrator of Black Swan Green is an endearing thirteen-year-old poet with a stammer named Jason Taylor. The setting is a small town in Worchestershire, England in 1982, which sets the stage for an entire chapter on the Falklands war and lots of appropriate cultural references. The plot is episodic, with a structure almost like related short stories, except for a few narrative threads that run through the entire novel. A major theme is bullying and the way that Jason deals with a persistent group of tormentors in his school and neighborhood. Along the way, Jason encounters some unusual characters, deals with family drama, and learns some important Socratic-style lessons about poetry and secrets.

I remember putting this book on my list because someone compared it to Catcher in the Rye, but I don’t really see too many similarities between the books. They both have a first-person young male narrator and are about growing up, but that’s about it. There is so much more tenderness and so much less cynicism in Black Swan Green; the books’ tones are entirely different.

I really have to praise the language of this novel. It approached some big philosophical questions, and usually in a way that felt somewhat fresh, like putting a pretty inspirational carpe diem speech in the mouth of an older cousin urging young Jason to smoke his first cigarette. Jason’s wide-eyed, articulate, and apt observations about the people and the natural world around him are what set this novel apart. Here are just a few tastes of the quick descriptions of nature that I found so charming:

The melony sun dripped steamy brightness…Passing a stable, I peered into the hot manure-reeky dark (82).

Bluebells swarmed in pools of light where the sun got through the trees. The air smelt of them. Wild garlic smelt of toasted phlegm. Blackbirds sang like they’d die if they didn’t. Birdsong’s the thoughts of a wood. Beautiful, it was, but boys aren’t allowed to say “beautiful” ’cause it’s the gayest word around (92).

A bride and groom pose outside a flinty chapel. Bare twigs say it’s winter. The groom’s thin lips say, Look what I’ve got. A top hat, a cane, half fox. But the bride’s half lioness. Her smile’s the idea of a smile. She knows more about her new husband than he knows about her. Above the church door a stone lady gazes up at her stone knight. Flesh-and-blood people in photographs look at the camera, but stone people look through the camera straight at you (157).

Lyme Regis was a casserole of tourists. Everywhere smelt of suntan oil, hamburgers, and burnt sugar (168).

The coins in my caged fist rattled like magic bullets (169).

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This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

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I loved Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was excited to pick up his latest book, especially after the buzz I heard about it this past summer. It’s structured more like a book of related stories than like a novel, so it feels kind of fragmented and impressionistic, in a good way that fits the character and the story. For the last two chapters, it switches from first person point of view to second. The stories follow Yunior, a character who turned up in Oscar Wao, through his many screwed-up relationships. There are more break-ups in this book than anyone should have to endure in a lifetime. He keeps making the same mistake over and over, cheating on every girlfriend. Yunior seems to continually astonish himself with his own capacity for selfishness and heartbreak.

I remember reading a review of this book that said it was about a character who was a misogynist, or who at least exhibited some misogynistic behavior, but it was not a misogynistic book because it’s clear that the character is wrong and misguided and self-destructive. I think I agree with this assessment. At one point Yunior even “blames the patriarchy” for his own womanizing. I think I also remember reading an interview with Diaz where he said the book was about a misogynist turning into a feminist, or something like that. I’ll agree with that too.

As always, I was blown away by Diaz’s sentences. I love the flavor of the Spanish words he drops in, the punch of swagger they add. The tone of regret and self-recrimination, tinged with bravado and humor, that runs through the book makes a character who does some pretty despicable things sympathetic and even tragic.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

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Philippa Gregory is most famous for The Other Boleyn Girl, about Mary Boleyn, sister of the infamous Anne. She’s also written several historical novels about the queens and ladies who lived before the Tudor period, especially during the Wars of the Roses or the Cousins’ War. There’s Lady of the River, about Jacquetta Woodville, The White Queen about Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, and The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. This one is about Anne Neville, wife of Richard III of York. All of these books seek to tell a mostly historical story from a feminine perspective. Since the historical record is told from the point of view of the men (and the winners), there is a lot of room for Gregory to invent and speculate about the motivations of the women. The novels are rich with period detail and go deep into the psychology of each woman.

Anne Neville is an interesting historical figure because she participated in the Cousins’ War on both sides, acting both as a pawn for others and as a power player in her own right. Her father, the rich Duke of Warwick, made Edward IV king by defeating the Lancasters, then turned on Edward because of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. He conspired with George, the king’s brother and Warwick’s own son-in-law, to kill the king in battle, and when that failed, he allied with the Lancasters through marrying Anne to their heir. When both he and Anne’s husband died in the attempt, Anne was left a penniless widow, dependent on her sister and the York court that she blamed for her father’s death. Anne is always aware that her father gave his life to make her queen of England, and that sense of destiny guides her through years of trials to a brief triumph.

For a reader who’s read several of the books in this series, it’s fascinating to see the same events described from differing perspectives. All are first person narratives, and each narrator has her own personality and style, which comes out in the writing as well as the actions. In general, they see themselves as good, well-intentioned, and often as victims, while others may have an entirely different idea of them. For example, Elizabeth Woodville is presented as a witch and villainess in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, but in her own novel, The White Queen, she seems pretty saintly. Margaret Beaufort sees herself as called by God and is always comparing herself to Joan of Arc, which makes her seem unhinged and fanatic, and makes it kind of chilling when she wins after committing some pretty terrible deeds. The other characters’ views of her change based on shifting alliances, but they rarely fully trust her.

I have great sympathy for Gregory’s feminist project in these novels. They’re fun to read because of the descriptive language and the romance stories. They’re not for everyone, and might be somewhat longer than they need to be. But for anyone who likes period novels, biographies, or learning about British history and the late Middle Ages, these books are a treat best enjoyed as a set.

The Lucky Ones

The Lucky Ones by Anna Godbersen

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The Lucky Ones is the last of the Bright Young Things novels, a soapy trilogy about high-society, bootlegger, movie star girls in 1929 New York. Adventure, danger, romance, intrigue, period dresses: what more do you want in a YA novel? This installment seems somewhat more adult than the earlier ones, bringing adultery into the picture. Astrid’s relationship with her husband Charlie is on the rocks thanks to Charlie’s violence and an amorous bodyguard. Cordelia brokers peace between rival bootlegging gangs and sneaks around with her pilot boyfriend. And Letty gets caught up in a Hollywood couple’s complicated marriage. There are wild nights in Manhattan hotels, a Long Island party that ends in blood and prison, and a contest between two bragging pilots. The action doesn’t stop as it switches between the three protagonists, each caught up in her own drama.

In my review of Beautiful Days, the second of the trilogy, I marvelled at how Godbersen had arranged things to maximize the number of possible outcomes going into the final volume. Somehow, the ending was still something I didn’t predict, for each of the three girls: a satisfying surprise. Godbersen went for tragedy again. Her conclusion’s sense of loss and disillusionment seems perfect for the end of the 20’s. It was a pleasure to read, a page-turner with strong sentences and characters that managed to interest me despite their occasional shallowness. I’ll be looking out for Godbersen’s next book.

Trickster’s Choice

Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

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Trickster’s Choice is the first of a series about Aly, the daughter of Alanna, protagonist of the Song of the Lioness series. It’s longer and more complex than the Alanna novels were, full of political intrigue. Aly wants to be a spy, but her parents don’t like that idea, so she runs away, but is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Luckily, the trickster god Kyprioth singles her out for a special mission, keeping her safe from the worst dangers of the slave market and steering her toward a noble household where slaves are well-treated. Aly’s task is to keep the children of this house safe through a politically turbulent season. She uses her spy skills to uncover the mystery about why these particular children are special and figure out how to use the people around her to help accomplish her mission. She has some magical help from Kyprioth and his minions, the crows. One of the crows turns into a man and courts Aly in a sweet, earnest, but clueless way.

The gender issues that took center stage in the Alanna books take a backseat here, in favor of focusing on racial and colonial issues. The book’s setting is a multiracial colonial society in which lighter skinned “luarin” people dominate darker-skinned native “raka” people. Pierce has invented a world in which fiction reflects historical reality fairly closely. The racial politics of this colonial society are fairly complex, and both sides are given a voice and are shown to be human and flawed. Aly and her allies are hoping to peacefully end the colonial domination of the raka through helping a girl of mixed blood to become queen. The two most problematic things about the book for me was the discussion of the noble family as “good” slaveowners, and the incident where Aly uses blackface as a disguise. I would love to know what someone who’s more familiar with postcolonial theory would think of this book.

Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix

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The world of Sabriel, first in the Abhorsen trilogy, is strange and fascinating. The dead won’t stay dead, and magic is either Free or bound by the Charter. Sabriel is a young Charter Mage who ventures into the Old Kingdom to save her father. She uses his sword, Charter marks, and bells to command magic and fight undead creatures. The action moves quickly as Sabriel travels the Old Kingdom, running from foul creatures, encountering a prince who has been turned to wood, and taking rides on magic-wind-powered planes called Paperwings.

The language of this novel is high fantasy: evocative, moody, darkly picturesque. It’s definitely a novel that is crafted with attention to good sentences. Nix tosses us right into the world without much explanation of how magic works in it, which may be frustrating for some readers, but gives the sense of a pre-existing universe whose natural laws are just that, natural. The tech level of the world is kind of unusual–there are soldiers with machine guns who also use swords.

Sabriel is a great heroine, a brave warrior who sets out into the unknown to do her duty, but who experiences a good amount of doubt and fear along the way. I’d call it a feminist story because the fact that she’s female isn’t made a big deal. At one point she even commands men older than her in battle. There is a love interest, but the clear focus of the story is Sabriel fighting her father’s enemies and coming into her power. There are hints that she’ll have to marry and reproduce to fulfill her destiny, but it seems like this imperative would have fallen on her just the same if she’d been born male. The ending is a big cliffhanger, and I would totally have picked up the sequel anyway.

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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I read a few books by Lurlene McDaniel about kids with cancer when I was in high school. They were blatant cry-bait, with titles like Six Months to Live and Don’t Die, My Love. They were kind of maudlin and over-the-top sweet and wallowing in sadness. I still remember that one was about a football player who got cancer, and his whole team shaved their heads to show solidarity, and before he died he planted tulip bulbs on the football field so that they bloomed in a pattern that spelled words and gave a message from heaven to his girlfriend.

The Fault in Our Stars is about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love, but it is the polar opposite of those Lurlene McDaniel paperbacks. The main characters, Hazel and Augustus, are sardonic hipsters, bookworms whose every word is a hilarious wisecrack or a sparkling piece of wisdom. They have cute, idiosyncratic ways of talking and they’re not afraid of the dark, ugly side of cancer. They’re especially interested in destroying the myth of the beautiful, strong, suffering cancer patient that McDaniel’s books did so much to perpetuate. Their illnesses force them to face existential questions that most of us have the luxury of ignoring, and they don’t flinch from offering some pretty bleak answers. The main action of the novel concerns Hazel’s favorite book, also about a sarcastic cancer patient. Augustus offers to use his “wish” to take her to Amsterdam to visit the author.

I’m not going to lie: when I was 16, Augustus have been my dream boy. It’s hard not to fall in love with this character yourself. He can talk about books, he’s interested in the big questions in life, he’s capable of grand romantic gestures as well as eloquent declarations of love, and he writes a great letter. He has grand ambitions of doing something big and important with his life, which cause him great anguish when it becomes clear that he won’t have time to do much on the scale he would like. He pursues Hazel directly from the beginning, making no mystery of the fact that he’s intrigued with her. If anything, he falls too hard, too fast, in a way that makes you wonder for a while if he’s just in love with the idea of being in love. But his sincerity soon becomes clear.

A little over halfway through the book, there’s a twist that’s sort of expected, but still fairly well-handled. You know one of them is going to die, and it’s not usually the narrator. I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s one of the best love stories I’ve read in a while.