Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Reviews - The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener
With the potato famine in full, terrible glory, a pair of Irish siblings are destitute and looking for work. The jobs they finally secure at a crumbling English manor, deep in the ominously named Sourwoods, are their only way of staying out of an orphanage.

But the longer they stay in the house, the clearer it becomes that every bystander who warned them to avoid the road into the Sourwoods might have been right to be superstitious. Illness lurks inside the house and a stranger prowls the grounds at night.

And then there is the tree. The great, terrible, black tree, growing beside the manor house...

What makes it so good:

So I have a bit of a history with this book! This review is probably going to be part review, part self-indulgent reveling in the past. You have been warned!

I had just started attending classes at Chatham University. I was living the dream, studying what I'd wanted to since grade school. Creative writing. Better than that, creative writing, with my primary genre focus being writing for children and young adults.

One of my foundation classes was therefor in Children's Literature, taught by Jonathan Auxier. You might recognize him as the gent whose name is directly below the night gardener's feet on the  book's cover. At the time, this book was a year and a half away from release and Jonathan was knee-deep in revisions. And that, friends, is very deep. He's a tall man.

As a result, The Night Gardener was one of the first books I've ever had any insight into the "journey" of. As one of his students, we certainly weren't the ones giving critique and feedback on it in its infancy. We heard little snippets. What it was like working with an editor on a novel-in-progress, what writing a duel point-of-view novel meant. How important it was to start your second book as soon as possible after the release of your first.

And our reading list, it turns out, consisted of numerous titles that eventually made it into the author's note at the end of The Night Gardener - books like Something Wicked this way Comes and The Secret Garden. *coughI think someone might have had ulterior motives for making us read and discuss those bookscough*

But that's actually one of the reasons I wanted to cover this book now! On the heels of the earlier discussion of books that are "derived" from earlier sources rather than "derivative" of them, I thought it would be fun to discuss books that are very upfront about their literary influences and which can only be described as reveling in those connections.  The Night Gardener is among them.

I recently discussed with someone whether or not Gardener could be considered historical fiction. Certainly the history and the setting play into the richness of the story. And even the more fantastical, horror elements harken back to the Victoria era. As Auxier says in his own author's note, the era was one of rapid scientific discovery, but also fascination with the spiritual and occult, something The Night Gardener plays with.

But overall, I couldn't conclude that it was historical fiction. Usually the genre is interested in teaching something about the past as one of it's primary goals, and I never got the sense The Night Gardener held this as its motive. This book isn't trying to teach the reader something about the "facts" of the Victorian era - it's aiming to teach you about it's stories.

Among the characters are two story-tellers. First, the old Hester Kettle, a vagabond story teller who always seems to know more than she should, and second, one of novel's heroes, Molly. Only fourteen, Molly is still learning the difference between a story and a lie. 

That a story this steeped in literature and the history of children's books also comes with a satisfying element of horror meant that I loved the book. And this isn't bias speaking, either! This isn't Jonathan's first book, but in my humble opinion, it is his best. All the elements just came together beautifully - the horror, the old fashioned prose, the characters. It's all there. It's funny, touching and terrifying. I highly recommend it.

What might make it better:

This is a very, very long and very, very verbose children's book.

For me, it works. The reading level isn't easy, and while it's a quick read, it isn't as quick as some comparable books. To give an idea, Neil Gaiman is well known for his children's scary stories. Coraline, definitely a Middle Grade book, is only 30,000 words. The Graveyard Book sort of straddles the line between Middle Grade and Young Adult, and is around 67,000. Definitely on the longer end of Middle Grade, but okay for the anticipated audience. The Night Gardener clocks in at over 79,000 words. It also straddles the line between YA and MG, but I think it's pretty clear that for some kids, that's a lot of reading.

Tonally, it still reads like a Middle Grade book rather than YA, but with it's dark subject matter and hefty sentences, it's not going to be a breeze for all children. Still, I think it does fill a niche that a lot of people worry about in children's literature. I hear plenty of people who love books bemoan that we no longer get books for children like The Hobbit. They usually say something like this:

"When I was eleven, I read all of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books! I wanted to be challenged. These kids books today, they just aren't challenging. Have you read Twilight? Way too easy! Such bad writing."

First, I'm not saying that The Night Gardener necessarily bares a lot in common with The Hobbit or Twilight. It's just that most of my friends are sci-fi/fantasy nerds and they all somehow think it makes sense to compare epic fantasy to paranormal romance (it doesn't). I thought it had more in common with older books - ones like those by Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens which, again, people wished children read. Or were prepared to read. This is exactly the type of book that introduces the wonder and creepiness of the Victorian era to young readers.

Second, I don't personally believe that a book being an "easy" read or not is the same as whether or not it's good or bad. Charlotte's Web is a very easy book and its completely brilliant. But there is something to be said for a book that gets its beauty from its use of complex language. To give you an idea of what The Night Gardener challenges its reader with, I spent a lot of the book trying to remember what a dumbwaiter is.

Behold the dumbwaiter!
If you know what a dumbwaiter is, or if you know a child who would like to learn that sort of thing, then don't worry about the length or the words. I do feel the need to add  that the book IS creepy, scary and at times, down right violent. Nothing Auxier included felt gratuitous to me. Any horror story has to include some actual horror, but take that into account. It is shelved among the children's books and while it belongs there, and I'm glad of its presence, its scares are not to be taken lightly. Again, think Coraline and The Graveyard Book and Something Wicked this way Comes.

And in general, do read it. And think of the wonderful tradition of stories that it places itself a part of. Think of the history of books we draw from, and how we all derive something from that history.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Derived VS Derivative: In Defense of Divergent

Try saying that title ten times fast.

I went for the movie poster rather than book cover because THEO JAMES!!!

Today, I'm talking about Divergent by Veronica Roth. I'm also talking about story and influence and what makes an idea "new" vs "tired and done." This won't be the last time either, so stay tuned! Today, I'm focusing on a book that catches a lot of flack for bearing similarities to others on the market and making an argument for why it deserves the love it gets anyway.

For those who don't know Divergent, here's the quick rundown:

Beatrice Prior is a sixteen-year-old girl living in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago. She's been raised in a society where people are segregated based on what virtue they most strongly identify with, whether that virtue is courage, truthfulness, kindness etc. These segregated groups are called factions and Beatrice belongs to Abnegation, the faction that bases its identity around service. While she admires those she lives among, she also feels stifled by the high level of self-denial the Abnegation insist on.

She hopes her faction test will help her make some sense of these feelings, as her choosing ceremony is coming up and she'll have to decide whether she remains in her own faction or transfers to another one. But when her test results come up inconclusive and she is forced to confront the possibility that she doesn't belong to any one faction, her understanding of her world begins to unravel...

Okay, so there's my version of the dust-jacket blurb. It gives a decent idea of what the book is about, but there is a much shorter version of the Divergent blurb that could also be given:

Divergent is Harry Potter's Hogwarts houses recast in a gritty, Hunger Games-esque environment.

And honestly, it's not a bad description of the book either.

This is where Divergent has hit some snags and criticism. Hot on the heels of Hunger Games and featuring a story mechanic reminiscent of another recent kidlit sensation, many critics are dismissing Roth's series as derivative and phoned in. The premise isn't unique enough and the books are just copycats.

Roth clearly did derive a number of her novel's elements from Hunger Games and Harry Potter. She's been very public about the fact that Harry Potter is one of her favorite books and dystopia is greatly overshadowed by Suzanne Collins's trilogy right now. But books are more than the sum of their parts, and this is especially the case with Divergent. Just because some of her novel's landscape can be traced back to other books doesn't mean that there isn't something unique on offer in Dystopian Chicago. So here are those two most common criticisms and some arguments for why they aren't quite fair.

#1: The factions are just Hogwarts houses but darker.
This, I would argue, is one of the strengths of the books. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, but even as a child, something about the Hogwarts houses bothered me. For instance, pretty much every villain the story saw came from one house - Slytherin. During the final battle for Hogwarts, Rowling states very clearly how many of each particular house stick around to defend the school. Courageous Gryffindors make up the largest amount, followed by hardworking Hufflepuffs. A smaller fraction of intelligent Ravenclaws stay and then, of course, ambitious Slytherin is absent because they're all evil.

If Roth did base her factions on the Hogwarts houses, she recognized that there were some problems with this clear-cut way of looking at virtue. The Dauntless Faction, for instance, value courage just like Gryffindor, but Roth's version points out that courage is only useful if it is placed in correct principles. And being gumptious and willing to jump into action when it is demanded is not a guarantee that someone is going to always know WHAT the right thing is. Dauntless is largely divided between those who value the power that comes from bravery and those that value the heroism.

Similarly, the ambition of Slytherin is in many ways at it's most dangerous when it's combined with the intelligence of Ravenclaw. Erudite Faction represents a more complicated fear - one of logic overwhelming principle. I'm not sure I entirely agree with her version of these virtues, but she does devote a lot of time to arguing her views, something I do value.

Roth's books engage the notion of a society organized by cardinal virtues more deeply than the Harry Potter books, sometimes with directly opposing points. In other words, she adds to the discussion. Whether you agree with her or Rowling, she does at least force some questions about just what drives someone to evil and what weaknesses are inherent in what we call our strengths.

#2: The plot is just another Hunger Games knock-off.
This criticism has a bit more bearing, and I can definitely see some similarities. There's something familiar about the pacing of the books and the dark, grittiness. It is a dystopia and there is a "stop the evil empire" plot and there are children put through recklessly dangerous tasks that our heroine, Tris, must "win" in a matter of speaking.

But there are some important differences, most of them coming down to a character level. Tris and Katniss are very different from each other and they confront their problems in very different ways. Katniss is constantly worried about the damage she might cause in someone's life, and so holds people at a distance, more comfortable using them for survival than receiving affection. Tris, on the other hand, actively pursues acceptance and new friendships. She wants a normal life, and incidentally, lives in a world where she's got a better chance at one.

Yes, the worlds are different too. Chicago's system might be broken, but it's no punitive dictatorship like Panem. As the novels go on, she's not even sure the answer is to end the faction system, since she can see the good and the structure that have come from it. Really, there IS no hope for Katniss within the status quo, so resisting the Capitol is an easy decision... or would be if Katniss was good at making moral decisions. Another key Katniss/Tris difference. Tris is much more idealistic and much more in control of her own destiny.

In fact, if you're looking for the king of Hunger Games knock-offs, I would say you don't need to look any further than Catching Fire, the second book in Collins' trilogy, which is almost identical in plot to the first one. One of Divergent's greatest strengths is its second book, Insurgent, which steps away from the plot line of the first by developing the encroaching war in an interesting, detailed way. The same issues are not rehashed and Tris's relationships with other characters grow and change in ways not seen in the first book. As the story goes on, the more Divergent and the Hunger Games - ahem - diverge. And that is very satisfying. Once again, it might have started in a similar place, but Divergent adds something to the conversation of YA fiction.

Divergent isn't the only YA book that gets accused of being derivative. As paranormal romance and dystopian sci-fi have ran their course, numerous books have come and gone that bare resemblance to one another. Now, we're even starting to see editors and lit agents mention not wanting another "sick child" or "cancer" novel because John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is too ubiquitous.

But all of these books owe their lineage to earlier stories. It's one of the outcomes of living in the world we do. There are thousands of years of stories preceding the ones currently bought and sold in your local Barnes and Noble. Hunger Games has been accused of being derivative of an earlier Japanese film, Battle Royale, but its origins can be traced to an even earlier time. Collins has stated explicitly that she was inspired by the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which youths where abandoned inside a maze with a monster and only one made it out alive. With her use of Greek and Roman names and imagery, its clear that Collins did derive much from these books, just as Divergent derives much from earlier stories. But they aren't derivative.

For me, the bench mark is the one I've stated a couple of times already - does the work of art bring something new to the conversation? Is it using the literary tropes already common in fiction in a new way? Is it reminding us of another way of thinking about a topic, one relevant to the way the world is today? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, then I would argue the book is derived, not derivative.

So what then if you can't? What if a book adds nothing to the discussion? Or what if an element of the story adds nothing to where it is borrowed from? Well, stay tuned, folks. As mentioned, there's more to come.