Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Reviews - Bone Gap

Bone Gap
Seventeen-year-old Finn O'Sullivan is used to losing people. Two years ago, his mother picked up with an orthodontist and moved to Oregon, leaving him and his older brother Sean alone in the sleepy town of Bone Gap, Illinois. So when beautiful, enigmatic Roza disappears on the O'Sullivan boys too, people assume its nothing more than her turn to move on and leave the boys to their lonely lives.

Only Finn knows that isn't what happened. Roza was kidnapped, right in front of him, but when he can't provide the police with a helpful description, her captor gets away. When the searches turn up nothing, everyone decides this is just some delusion of his. Hasn't he always been the town nut-job? The kid who won't look other people in the eye? Worst of all, Sean seems to believe them. With his older brother retreating deeper and deeper into anger and depression over Roza's disappearance, Finn's at risk of losing the only person who has stuck by him his whole life - Sean.

Meanwhile, in a strange suburban house where the lamps are fused to the floors, Roza wakes up. And she's trying to figure out why Sean hasn't come to save her.

What Makes it So Good:

You might have noticed it's been a while since I did a straight up book review. There have been a couple of reasons for that, but probably one of the biggest is that I tend to read and write in cycles. Good books turn me into an anti-social zombie who won't emerge from my room or sleep until I have consumed the very brains of the book. I don't get anything done on a reading binge, other than reading.

Similarly, when I'm writing heavily, I don't do much reading. I usually try to stay focused on the task at hand, instead of letting other author's characters compete with mine for attention in my brain. So since the past fall has been pretty heavily writing based for me, there hasn't been a lot of reading going on. (Don't worry, I read a lot in the spring. Just didn't find much I wanted to review). But with the end of the year comes end of year best book lists, and those are just plastered with tempting covers and blurbs. One that I saw on a few already was Bone Gap, and with it's intriguingly minimalist bee themed cover, I was curious about it. The other day I went to the swimming pool and while there, popped in at the adjacent library. And wouldn't ya know it? Bone Gap was sitting right on the shelf in the YA section. So even though I was leaving for Christmas holidays in only a week, I picked it up. And wow, am I glad I did!

Bone Gap has all the markers of an award winning, best book. It's a coming of age story with a hint of magical realism, an unreliable narrator and beautiful, evocative writing. This pretty much describes 90% of the books that make it onto the Printz award lists.

Most importantly, the characters in this book are amazing, especially Finn. The book is told through alternating third-person points of view, and I was always excited when the narrative circled back to Finn's life in Bone Gap, where he was odd but oh, so endearing. Along with him, there was his over principled, always angry, self-sacrificing brother Sean. Sean treads the line between obnoxious-twat-who-won't-listen-to-the-main-character and broken-nice-guy-you-just-want-to-give-a-hug really well. One step too far in either direction would have unbalanced the story, either by making him unlikable or making him outshine Finn, who rightfully leads this story. But there's also the lovely Roza, the bizarre Old Charlie Valentine and, my other favorite, the crabby girl who tends bees who tries to convince everyone to call her "Petey" instead of "Priscilla" (they won't).

The mystery elements of the story are also handled well, as Finn gradually reveals the circumstances of Roza's arrival and departure. This is one of those books where once you know what's going on, you suddenly realize how well the previous chapters reflected the central mystery.

I also have to give this books props for deconstructing the fairy tale myth of the helpless woman who waits to be rescued rather well. Roza wants to be saved (what rational person wouldn't hope someone was looking for them after they are kidnapped?) but the people of Bone Gap seem to be too broken to find her. So desperately, she tries to find her own way out of the mess she's in.

The book is also fascinating in it's treatment of beauty and what it means to truly see a person for who they are. Roza has been quantified by her outward appearance her whole life. Petey is a girl that the local bullies all tease about being a butterface. And Finn, clueless as he is, doesn't seem to understand why he's an object of affection for half the girls in school, while his best friend Miguel can only look on in envy.

With all these different elements at play, it's easy to see why Bone Gap is such a layered, textured, satisfying read. This book has something for everyone, performing one wicked balancing act to keep all the threads going. This couldn't have been an easy book to map out and write, so I salute Laura Ruby for her incredible work here.

What Might Make it Better:

My last compliment to the book is actually going to lead into my one criticism of it. There is a LOT going on here. Like, a LOT. And it's arguable if every thread is necessary or if every element is executed equally well. Nothing is done badly, but I'm not sure that's the same as saying that every scene earns it's place, considering the strength of the other elements.

In particular, I do have to pick on Roza a little. She's a fun deconstruction of the helpless heroine, but in being that, she occasionally sticks her toes into the camp of "Mary Sue." For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a "Mary Sue" it used in fiction to describe two related, though slightly different types of characters. The term was first used in a very old Star Trek fanfic, that was purposely making fun of bad fan fiction that existed as nothing but a wish fulfillment strategy. It featured a character known as Ensign Mary Sue, who was unbelievably amazing at her job, was beautiful beyond reason and had both Kirk and Spock in love with her as a result. These types of characters are common in fanfic, but also creep up in regular fiction. For instance...

1) Mary Sue can exists as an author insert character, there to play out the fantasies of the author. Especially common in fanfic (ie; the character gets to have a romance with the target of the author's choosing). How does this manifest in regular fiction? Many would say you need not look further than Bella Swan from Twilight. It's been noted that Bella's physical description, from her brown hair and eyes to her widow's peak, mirrors the appearance of Stephanie Meyer in suspicious detail. But on the whole, these kinds of obvious "author inserts" are uncommon. I don't think this was at play with Roza.

2) But a Mary Sue can also refer to a character who is too perfect and is created to be adored by everyone else. Their flaws, when inspected, don't really seem like flaws. And Roza kind of fell on her face here. I struggled for a while to think of ANY flaws Roza has. She's kind. She's feisty. She's clever. She'd never be vain, no matter how beautiful she is. In fact, about her only flaw is that she isn't very trusting... except that flaw is a direct result of how beautiful she is. She doesn't trust, because people have done her dirty in the past and refused to treat her like a normal human being because she is SO beautiful! Like, c'mon, man. I'm not saying that isn't an interesting characterization, but it doesn't count towards your "character flaw" tally. But Roza pretty much never says or does the wrong thing. She's morally untouchable.

I generally liked the character, and I liked what Laura Ruby was trying to say with her, but she never seemed as real as Finn or the other citizens of Bone Gap. On the whole, I would have found her story line more compelling and her thematic relevance more stirring if she felt a bit more realistic. In a lesser novel, this could have seriously impacted the overall book, as her part is by no means small. But strong prose can make up for a lot, and so on the whole, I swallowed her. There were worse sins than trying to get away with someone as magical and wonderful as Roza, especially when Ruby was feeding you an extra dollop of honey to make the story go down easy.

Overall, I highly recommend the book. The weaknesses aren't too weak and the good stuff is just so good, that it wouldn't be worth missing out on. It definitely earned its place as one of the best books of 2015

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