Favorite books of 2011, part 6: Dystopia

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

In this dystopian future society, love is seen as a disease. Some of the best passages were from a propaganda book that outlines the “symptoms” of love and its “treatment,” etc. It’s so interesting how impossible it is to argue that love is sane and the society is crazy once that rhetoric of disease has taken hold. And it’s interesting to see how much we do use that rhetoric of disease in real life to talk about love. The love story was very sweet and even sexy, and sad and tragic at the end.

Looking forward to the sequel, Pandemonium, coming out on February 28!

Matched and Crossed by Ally Condie


A dystopia series in which The Society runs everything and even chooses mates for people. Just like in the godfather of all dystopias, 1984, Cassia and Ky have to play mental games with the police and/or society leaders. They’re constantly wondering if they’re being watched or tested, or if they have outsmarted the society after all. There is adventure and romance as they run away and try to find each other. I particularly liked the parts about censorship and how it was the first step in society’s movement toward ever more repression. The latest book, Crossed, really set up the next one to be amazing. Cassia and Ky are separated again, fighting for the resistance and infiltrating the society, and the love triangle will come back in a big way.

I think it’s interesting how in both of these books, the repressiveness of a dystopian society finds its highest and most objectionable expression in the way the society tries to constrain love and choose characters’ partners for them. It’s certainly true that in our most intimate relationships there is the most potential for subversion, and therefore it would be important for an authoritarian government to keep these relationships from undermining loyalty to the state. The instant we make another person more important than any other in our eyes, we go against the collectivist ideology that permeates these societies. And when we’re really in love and value another person above our own life, then we become absolutely unpredictable, incredibly powerful, and unspeakably dangerous from the point of view of authority. It makes perfect sense that love would be unpermissible in this kind of society.

It’s also true that the love story makes a dystopia immediately interesting to teenage girls. It creates a Romeo and Juliet plot where a couple has to work to figure out a way to be together in spite of the society’s prohibition. And there are few things more romantic than the sacrifices and risks these couples go through to be together.

Favorite books of 2011, part 5: Metafiction

Yes, I love metafiction. I love those moments where a story becomes aware of the fact that it is a story. I love narratives that deconstruct themselves. I love genre savvy characters who break the fourth wall. This attraction to going meta has penetrated my personal life as well: every time I disagree with my husband, I have to draw our attention to the way we’re arguing and whether or not it is a loving, fair way to argue. My favorite TV show right now is Community, the sitcom about sitcoms, and if it dies I will cry meta tears.

Going meta makes books, TV, movies, life fun.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Others have called this series Harry Potter for adults, and it’s true. The students are quite a bit older, and sexually active. When Quentin accidentally witnessed a friend’s kinky sex, then I knew we weren’t in Hogwarts anymore. Once “the beast” shows up and kills a student, there’s a sense of menace that Harry Potter doesn’t approach until at least halfway through the series. Fillory, the supposedly fictional magical world that Quentin is obsessed with, is much more like Narnia, though, which should be obvious. I loved how in this world, magic was really difficult to learn, and it seemed like the characters earned the awesome stuff that they could do. And eventually they treated each other like shit, like real young adults, and had some real consequences to their magical traveling, and felt some horrible losses.

Why do I call this metafiction? Throughout the book, explicitly at times, but mostly implicitly, runs a metaphor comparing magic to reading and writing, and reading and writing to magic. When they do magic, Quentin and his friends are like authors making the world anew. Brakebills is like an MFA program. When Quentin and his friends go to Fillory, they’re like kids having fun in an imaginary world of a book. In this way, the novel is about reading, writing, and imaginary worlds. Can’t wait to read the sequel!

The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall

This book is from a genre I really like that I call “retellings,” for lack of a better term. They’re books that tell classic stories from a different point of view, or otherwise enter a conversation started by a previous work of literature. The best examples of the genre change your view of the original work forever. Some other good retellings are: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike, Dracula in Love by Karen Essex, Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King, Jane by April Lindner…I could go on and on.

This novel tells the story of Gone with the Wind from the point of view of Scarlett’s half sister, daughter of Mr. O’Hara and Mammy. Throughout the whole novel, the protagonist calls Scarlett only “Other,” which will make anyone who’s ever read postcolonial criticism chuckle, but which I think was also motivated by lawsuits or fear of lawsuits from the Mitchell estate. The kicker is that she steals Rhett from Scarlett! I loved the way this book centered attention on the slaves and their story, using the book that probably did the most to over-romanticize the Civil War and antebellum period and turning it on its head.

Favorite Books of 2011, part 4: Feminist fantasy

Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore

These two books are part of a planned series of fantasy novels, but each could stand on its own. In this fantasy world of several kingdoms, the political alliances and dealings are a big plot-driver. The problems the characters face and the strategies they devise to solve them using their magical powers and their knowledge of the enemy are really interesting and cleverly devised. The main characters are strong young women with power of their own who fall in love with men who treat them really well and with whom they face dangers and enemies. What great models for positive relationships! And they kick serious ass as women warriors.

In Graceling, Katsa is born with a supernatural talent for fighting and killing. By law, her talent is subject to the king’s orders, and she spends the novel working to take control of her own power. She wrestles with the same self-loathing that some comic-book-type heroes face, because she has a conscience and hates the things that her uncle makes her do. With good reason not to want to reproduce, has sex and takes a herbal tea that’s supposed to keep her safe from pregnancy, so of course a lot of conservatives flipped out because of that. Whatever. Seemed pretty responsible to me. I liked that despite this determination never to have a child, Katsa actually acts pretty maternal when she has to save a little girl and keep her safe. The novel didn’t allow an easy dichotomy between “maternal” and “non-maternal” women, women who care and women who fight.

In Fire, the epynomous heroine is a “monster,” born with unnaturally brightly colored hair, able to control others’ minds, and hunted for this ability. She has some of the same inner conflicts that Katsa does, although her talent is less physical, and she also forms a solid relationship with a guy who respects her, after some initial love-triangle angst.  Fire, a prequel, shares a villain with Graceling, and he’s really a chilling, creepy and dangerous character. Both books are very imaginative, if you can’t tell by the little plot descriptions here, filled with great visual images and a large cast of well-developed characters, each with their own agendas, and the language is beautiful, appropriate for the fantastic setting.

Another two for my sixteen-year-old sister’s book list.

And yay! A third book coming out on May 1!

Favorite books of 2011, part 3: Feminist concerns

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

What if Lord of the Flies were about a bunch of teenage beauty queens instead of choir boys? That’s pretty much the premise of this novel. It might qualify loosely under what one of my grad school professors called a documentary novel because it includes commercials for the products of “The Company” and other documents that shed light on the action of the novel. There are multiple points of view, and Bray is obviously concerned with interrogating mass media and reality TV and their role in perpetuating gender constructions. The characters are all different, and doing the pageant for different reasons, which was probably a necessary departure from reality, even if it does make the ensemble seem like kind of an after-school special, with token minorities and lesbians. Maybe that’s not fair of me. Is it possible to attempt diversity in a cast like this, without getting that after-school special feel, without making it seem artificial? That’s worth thinking about.

Anyway, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. It really got underneath a lot of gender issues and exposed them with biting humor, which is probably the best way to do it.

I really admire Libba Bray because each of her books have had a very different writing style. The Gemma Doyle trilogy has a 19th century teenage girl first person narrator, and Going Bovine, a retelling of Don Quixote, has a contemporary teenage boy first person narrator. Beauty Queens is told in third-person narration that switches among all of the girls on the island. There is a lot of irony and making-fun in this book, which you don’t see as much in her previous ones.

I’m going to make my 16-year-old sister read this.

Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-changed World by Peggy Orenstein

This was the best nonfiction book I read in 2011. It’s over 10 years old, but sadly, the world hasn’t changed that much in 10 years to make it irrelevant. In fact, it seemed more relevant than ever, since some big news stories this year have been about “The End of Men” and women surpassing men in numbers graduating from college and graduate school. The books is also about things that I’m very concerned with in my life now: how women make the decisions in their lives about careers, marriage and children. Especially children.

Orenstein has a tone of genuine searching in this book. She honestly wants to know how other women manage their daily lives, weigh hard decisions about marriage, children, and jobs, and find meaning. She has some opinions about what she finds, inevitably, but for the most part she is compassionate when she approaches judgement, rather than contributing to any “mommy wars.” She decided to write about this topic because she was personally struggling to decide whether or not to have children; her most recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is about the eventual result of that decision.The book’s worst flaw is probably its focus on middle- and upper-middle class women, without giving much time to the perspectives of the working class. This is sadly common among white feminists, and has not changed much since this book was published, as other more recent writing on the topic shows.

The book’s conclusion seemed to be that men and workplaces need to change to keep up with the changes that women are making or want to make in their lives. Masculinity needs to be defined differently, so that men are ok with being a secondary breadwinner, doing household chores, and providing equal childcare, and people need to see a stay-at-home dad as a normal thing, not a hero or martyr, and hold fathers to the same high standards we have for mothers. Employers need to offer more flexibility for both men and women, fathers need to be offered and actually take a long paternity leave, and part-time work needs to be a more viable option. All of that sounds great to me. I sure hope it all happens someday, before I have a child, like within the next 2 years. Wouldn’t that be nice.

My favorite books of 2011, part 2: New Fantasy

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This book is about a mysterious contest of magic between two young magicians who fall in love. The setting for their contest is the Night Circus, where they each try to out-do each other by creating bigger and better tricks and shows. It’s a nonchronological narrative told using multiple points of view.

The visual descriptions were my favorite parts of this book. Morgenstern must have a designer’s eye and imagination. The black and white motifs of the circus and the descriptions of the different tents and fanciful effects that the magicians made were so gorgeous to imagine. Walking through and living in these places and was a real treat, especially since some chapters were written from the point of view of a random circus-goer. For the visual beauty alone, I would have to say that Morgenstern deserves her success, so rare for a first novel.

It wasn’t all about pretty pictures, though. The novel showed a lot of heart in describing the characters’ relation to the circus, and the main characters’ relationships with each other and their respective father figures. The scene where Marco and Celia finally get together is emotionally satisfying as well as gorgeous. Marco is a bit of a jerk, but the kind that makes a novel more interesting. The only drawbacks for me were that the vagueness of the “contest” got annoying after a while, since the reader knows its nature the whole time, and the ending seemed almost too easy.

I’m excited that I’m going to meet Morgenstern in a week or so! She’s speaking at the Nashville downtown library on January 26. It should be a great event.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A sexy academic paranormal adventure story, starring a witch and a vampire. I liked the ideas and concepts of evolution and alchemy and the search for an origin story for the paranormals. Some of those conspiracy-revealing scenes reminded me of The DaVinci Code, but better. The stakes are high: the survival of the paranormal races, and the meaning of their existence. The love story is hot, with lots of push-pull, charged conversations and a few steamy scenes.

Like in Twilight, I sometimes got annoyed with the way that Matthew, the vampire, was described as perfectly handsome, had stalker tendencies, withheld information from Diana, swept in to save her repeatedly, etc. And must every fictional vampire be filthy rich? I mean, if I were immortal I’d take advantage of compound interest too, but really, this trope is getting old (ha!). The date scene where he feeds Diana exotic cheeses and centuries-old wine was like foodie erotica, which grossed out and bored me personally, since I just wanted them to get back to the non-food-related sexiness or the even more compelling mythology. Thankfully, Diana, the protagaonist, makes more of an effort to be independent and to save herself than Bella Swan does, not that that is a high standard. The fact that she has her own super power of a kind helps. Overall, it seems like their relationship is as healthy as a 40-day-old relationship between an immortal vampire and a mortal witch can be. (These are minor complaints. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a novel this long, and certainly not one with vampires, without annoying me at least a little.)

This is the kind of book you can’t put down. The narrative moves along at a well-timed pace, allowing you just enough time to savor a romantic moment before moving on to some new exciting discovery in the lab or library. Deborah Harkness is a history professor, and her scholarly expertise comes out in the best way possible. The book is never pedantic, but it makes you feel smarter after reading it because you learn so many little things about Oxford, Europe in the Middle Ages, the lore of alchemy and witchcraft, and even genetics. The competing interests of the different characters and factions drive the action and set the scene for what will surely be a great showdown in the later books of the planned trilogy. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which will take our heroes to Elizabethan England! It’s coming out on July 10!

My favorite books of 2011

I thought I’d start the year by reviewing some of my favorite books that I read last year. These books were not all published in 2011, but some of them were. These reviews are somewhat shorter and less detailed than the ones that I hope to post regularly, mostly since it’s been a while since I read them and I don’t have copies handy for reference. I chose 13 that I have fudged down to 10 through counting some series books as one entry. I have not ranked these 10 items but have grouped them in pairs by theme or author. I’ll post them in sets of two over the next week or few days.

Part 1: Pretty Language and Faeries


Lament and Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater is most well known for her Shiver books, which tapped into the current Twilight-induced YA fascination with werewolves. I read them and enjoyed them. But not as much as I enjoyed Lament and Ballad. Stiefvater is one of the best sentence-writers working in YA fiction today. Her writing is descriptive and ethereal, perfect for her topic of faeries. I fall into a kind of trance when reading her musical, poetic language. The ominous, scary faerie world, the characters with real conflicts and consequences, the believable love stories, the descriptions of music which even a music mundane like me can appreciate, and the compelling moral dilemmas all add up to novels that are hard to put down and reward rereading.