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

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Greatest Book I Ever Hated: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

A few weeks ago, I talked a little about the two basic functions of art, at least how I see them. Broadly stated, art (and by extension, literature) can be viewed as having two primary and often conflicting goals:

1. To entertain us and provide an escape
2. To unsettle us and prod us to action

If you want to read more of the initial discussion, go here. In that post, I talked about how most books straddle the line between escapism and unsettling content,  but then promised to talk about two books that had a profound impact on me, largely because they didn't bother walking the tight rope. 

Following that, I posted about one of my favorite escapist reads ever, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). This book helped me through one of the worst reading slumps of my life and taught me a great deal about how to make reading an enjoyable, lively experience.

Today, we are not discussing that book. Instead...

Gotta admit though. Love this cover.

I can't think of a book I liked less than Tess of the D'Urbervilles. While Three Men in a Boat is largely silliness to the exclusion of any kind of hard-hitting content, Tess is hard-hitting content to the exclusion of anything that reminds you of happiness or why life is worth living. I read this book in my final year of high-school, because no one gets through high school without reading at least one novel they loathe. I loved The Great Gatsby and so Tess seems to have been where I paid my dues.

When I started this blog, I made myself a promise. This blog would be about celebrating good literature, rather than ripping on the stuff I dislike. Of course novels are still open to literary criticism here, but one thing I learned in grad school was that my own opinion really was just that. An opinion. Books I hated were loved by other people. My taste was not the definitive measure of quality. So why am I devoting an entire post to a book that, frankly, I cannot stand?

Reason #1: The author of this book is long dead and so I'm not terribly worried about how Thomas Hardy will feel because I did not like his book. No one will @ this post to him on Twitter. He can go on blissfully decomposing without ever knowing I hated his work.

Reason #2: In fairness to Thomas Hardy, his poetry wasn't half bad. 

Reason #3: I dunno. Maybe I'm not as much of a happy, positive, person as I'd like to think. Maybe I have some bile in my mouth that I need to spit out. 

Reason #4: I don't actually contest that Hardy was a great writer or even that Tess is a good book. I couldn't have hated a book this much unless it had some kind of power behind it. One of my professors once told us that she chose books for her classes that she knew, at the least, would incite a response. She couldn't guarantee that we'd like everything we read, but she could stoke the fires of discussion. Tess is a perfect example of that philosophy. Hardy himself clearly wanted his reader to respond and in that he was very successful. I'm not sure "enjoyment" was even on his radar.

Reason #5: A couple months ago I had a terrible realization: The novel I am working on right now was at least, subconsciously, inspired by how scarred I am from reading this book.

Let's delve a little deeper into those last two points, shall we?


While not often repeated, the full title of the book is actually Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. That in itself is an incredibly bold assertion, especially when it's publication date, 1891, is considered. The Victorian Era is not well known for leniency when it came to who could be called a "pure woman" and Tess's life is filled with instances that would have spoken to impurity. 

As a young girl, she's sent off by her family to live with a rich, distant "relative" who sexually assaults and eventually rapes her. (Note: Hardy never uses the word rape, which isn't surprising, since definitions were shady at best back then. Consent wasn't a Victorian Era strong suit, but to modern audiences, she's asleep and a dude comes at her. It's pretty hard to mistake.) She gives birth to a child out of wedlock, whom she names "Sorrow." The baby dies without baptism and when Tess begs the parson about the state of her son's soul, he pityingly informs her that the child cannot enter Heaven.

This shakes her faith, and when she meets a young, handsome intellectual by the name of Angel Clare, she decides to embrace a life of skepticism. She works on a dairy farm and this is the closest Hardy gets to letting her be happy. She and Angel fall in love, but it's not until their wedding night that Tess has the nerve to tell him about everything that happened to her. And like the upstanding gent Angel is, he promptly abandons her. 

Look, I could go on. Suffice it to say, this story amounts to Angel coming back, Tess finally getting revenge on the man who ruined her and death for our heroine beneath the pagan monuments of Stonehenge. I gotta say, if you have to die, Stonehenge is the most rock n' roll place to do it, so we can give the book that.

Actually, I can give the book it's most important element, and that's Tess herself. Start to finish, I liked her. She's smart and fiery and ultimately, a very principled person. That wasn't to say she lacked flaws either. Hardy never cheapened the story by making her perfect. But she was a pure woman, faithfully presented. We were very different people, but I empathized with her tremendously. I wished the world had been kinder to her, yet at the same time, I admired Hardy's unflinching portrayal of her life. It was like Hardy took a look at the way poor women were treated and abused around him and went, "wow, that sucks. I should write a book about this." Not many men of his time would have seen the world so sympathetically through the eyes of a girl like Tess.


The problem is, there is another main character in this novel who is not Tess and his name is Angel Clare and he is the biggest nose wipe in the history of literature. Like, I just opened the Wikipedia page to double check a few details in this post and went "For the love of milk! WHY IS ANGEL SO HORRIBLE????" I'd forgotten about the part where, on their wedding night, he confessed to also not being a virgin. And yes, he still proceeds with the abandonment because he's not going to tolerate this non-virgin nonsense in his wife. (Remember, too. Because rape.) HA! WOW! What an upstanding citizen!!! No wonder our heroine loves him!!!!!

Maybe he was sympathetic back in 1891. I don't know. Maybe his hypocrisy and self-righteousness didn't sting so badly. But the truth is that the ruin of Tess belongs not just to the novel's villain, but also to Angel Clare. I don't know if I would have minded this if Hardy hadn't expected me to forgive him at the end. (Did he? Did Hardy want me to cheer for Angel consoling Tess's younger, still living sister? GROSS MAN!!!!) I've heard many people say that Delores Umbridge might just be the most awful, hateful person in literature and while they may be right, it still stands to reason that Angel Clare is worse to read. Why? Well, because there's a kind of pleasure in hating a villain. Hating a hero, I find, just makes you hate the book. 

The novel, however, is a classic, and despite what high school reading might make you believe, most classics are considered to be what they are because someone liked them. So maybe Angel didn't ruin the novel for every reader like he did me. Maybe for some people, he was part of the underlying "truth" of the work. I'm not here to argue that he isn't a realistic character. He's so banally realistic, you'll find yourself seeing him everywhere you look. But he's unlikable. Coupled with that, the book is also very bereft of hope. The closest it gets to a glimmer at the end is Angel walking off into the sunset with Tess's sister which, I'm sorry, DOES. NOT. CUT. IT.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I found Jimmy, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, to be unlikable, but the book itself somehow managed to portray the end of the world, yet still gave the reader a taste of hope. I'm not convinced you can have it both ways. Hamlet is a somewhat hopeless tragedy, but I love it because I love Hamlet the character. You get one or the other:

Hopeless ending? Better give us someone we want to grieve!
Unlikable central protagonist? Better be something positive that justifies our effort spent reading this book!

Uggghhhhhhhh.... Angel Clare. I feel like I need to wash my hands just from typing about the guy.


I'm writing a book right now about a girl struggling to navigate through a world dominated by men. It's a historical fantasy and takes place in a time period just a little before the Victorian Era. She's a quiet, fast thinking girl who is largely underestimated by the world around her. Eventually, she meets a pompous, self-important man that provides her a great deal of trouble when he begins to pursue her romantically. 

For a long time, I felt like my heroine's name was too derivative of something, but I couldn't put my finger on what. I kept flipping through other Young Adult novels, trying to figure out whose name I'd stolen. I wanted to change it if it seemed too closely tied to some fad out and about right now.

I've been working on and off on this project for a couple of years. It's been my primary work-in-progress since September. Only a month ago it hit me.

Her name is Tessa. I'm not changing it.

Now, don't get your knickers in a twist just yet. No, I am NOT rewriting Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I would not put the world through that again. But some deep seated part of me can't handle Tess dying under Stonehenge. Some part of me needs to see that girl get a happy ending. Or... at least a happier ending.

So I'm going to write her one. 

With grudging humility, I guess I have to say thank you. Thank you, Thomas Hardy. Thank you for writing TessYou upset me. 

But you also inspired me.