Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
This is an epistolary YA novel that’s meant to accurately portray the life of a young lady in 12XX. She’s not a peasant, but she’s certainly no princess in a castle. She has a nice manor and some servants, but what this girl really wants, she can’t seem to get–freedom.
She’s supposed to sew, cook, and do medicine (which involved a lot of herbs), but those are only the in-between times of babymaking. There’s a lot of praying and going to church, as well as playing pranks on others (I think at one point she throws her sewing down the outhouse). Her central conflict comes from loathing the idea of being married off to some stranger. And there are several dinners being introduced to potential suitors that she sabotages. She has more fun playing with the peasant children her age. But they’re doomed to live a life of servitude, and she’s destined to be married off.
I really liked Karen Cushman’s other book The Midwife’s Apprentice which was also period-accurate. I would say this one is better, maybe because it’s simpler. There is no arching plot, since it’s a “slice of life” story. You get to see more of the “typical” events, such as the birthing of a baby, a wedding, traveling Jews. She’s a surprisingly relatable teenager for living over 800 years ago. I think it’s because she’s juuuust outside of adulthood, when she would be all reverent and polite. Instead we get to see her in that transition of child to adult and it’s interesting. Plus, like The Midwife’s Apprentice, it’s rich with medieval history and factoids. I highly recommend it.
The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
E.L. Konigsburg also wrote The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler which I recall as a memorable book from my sixth-grade self, although I haven’t read it since then. I remember the kids were naked in the fountain gathering up money, and the answer was B for Bologna.
The format for The View From Saturday is its big draw. It’s kind of an anthology and kind of not. You’ve got four separate kids and the novel takes the time to tell their stories. Or really, it tells their character-forming anecdote. And there’s a Pulp Fiction-esque string that ties each to each in some coincidental way. That’s about four-sevenths of the book. The rest is when they are together. These kids call themselves “the souls” for some reason which escapes me, but it sounds pretentious because it is. And they’re on a quiz bowl team and the big question is will they win, since they’re so young.
The style left me pretty cold. There was an absence of emotional involvement in the characters. They all look at things in the same way, in a static robotic analytical way. There’s divorce, there’s death, there’s remarriage. But none of the kids seem to care. They all act like distant little autistic geniuses. They don’t use contractions. They do calligraphy and theater and Saturday afternoon tea.
It’s supposed to be about friends getting together, but I can’t believe these kids would be friends unless you plugged them into each other, like one of those four-way cables for the original Game Boy. They’re such little perfect students walking around like wind-up toys. They have backgrounds, but they’re lacking character. And that makes me lose my investment.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Cinderella plus Blade Runner? You know I love those crazy combinations. I had actually kept passing on this book forever because I thought it was just a YA romance, like The Selection. I never looked hard enough at the cover to see there’s a titanium bone there. They need to work on the cover art because I had no idea this was cyberpunk.
Now here’s a plot-driven book. First thing that happens is the prince enters Cinderella’s machine shop with an android that needs repairing. Then her evil stepsister catches the Black Shakes and her stepmother blames her. There is also a ball everyone’s getting ready for, because it’s when the prince becomes emperor and looks for a bride. I wanted to find out what happens, even if the story doesn’t go much beyond that YA depth of “hey c’mere c’mere c’mere c’mere” “no, get’way get’way get’way get’way get’way” boy-girl relationships, ripped off from Ever After.
Some things are never explained and that bothers me. Like there is never a reason given for why cyborgs are persona non grata here. Our main character seems to be the only one in the cast of characters, but I don’t get what’s wrong with being one? You can have cool laser vision and multi-tool arms and rocket legs. You’re an enhanced human. Why isn’t this seen as a step up? Especially in a world where you’re competing with the moon men who have psychic glamour. Being a cyborg is expensive, so those who get the surgery, elective or not, must be signs of status.
It was intriguing enough I think I’m going to read at least the second one. The book ends on a cliffhanger, which I’m not fond of. I didn’t really care about the characters enough to continue (the main character has that aloof Katniss vibe), but I cared about the world and the plot enough to.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
A ghost story. An aging rock-and-roller accidentally invokes the vengeance of a former girlfriend’s daddy. Said daddy is using his ethereal powers to haunt and drive the rock-and-roller suicidal or insane. Most of the novel is a road trip down to the south as old wounds that need healing are reopened.
I feel like not enough events happened for the length of the novel. The style is much like Stephen King, where there’s a lot of overwriting. There’s nothing terribly new here either. This could easily be in King’s early pantheon and I wouldn’t know it. The beginning and ending are great, it’s that sludgy middle that’s the problem.
I’ve never really liked ghosts either. Ghosts have no rules, and Hill does no better job of explaining them than anyone. Can they be attacked outside the house? Is the ghost always watching? Is there anywhere they are safe? How much can a ghost do?
I don’t know if I have any desire to read any more Joe Hill after the failed NOS482 and now this. I just don’t see anything big or new about it.
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
This book was pretty damn good. It was originally suggested from a list of books dealing with mental illness. (Depression, for this one.) I don’t know if this book does much to address that but it does an excellent job of storytelling otherwise. The writing is the real star of the show here.
It reminded me of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, which I liked very much, with a little Bridge to Terabithia thrown in. I like the idea of there being some kind of family secret and only the kids can uncover it because they lack the prejudices or social stigmas of adults. They’re smart enough to ignore the “don’t associate with those people” rule. I love those books where the kids are heroes and the adults are the screw-ups.
The main character has this world she escapes to because she has depression and anxiety. But when she goes to her grandparents, and interacts with her cousins for the first time, they all get into the world, and suddenly they have a reason to play together. But this doesn’t help the broken-ness, the blue days, the panic attacks. She’s got to deal with them while fending off Grandma’s desire to keep up appearances, developing a crush on the neighbor boy, and idolizing the cool older cousin.
It may not help with your depression or give you much insight into it–the mental illness isn’t really part of the plot, it’s more a tacked on part of the character–but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy this.
Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini
This book teaches you to treat people like shit, do drugs, steal from your parents, and suck on infected nipples.
A teen dork gets a computer in his head that tells him what to do and how to be cool. Kind of like “Upgrade” without the body control or “Venom” without the symbiote. The computer is a huge asshole, which is pretty much what I expected. Its only purpose is to get our hero to climb the social ladder, with no regard for the little people or whose feelings get hurt along the way. You’ve seen this in sitcoms all the time. It’s like “pick-up artistry for kids”.
All girls are sluts, all guys are horndogs, all adults are useless. Even the dad calls everything “gay”. Aren’t we passed that already? I can’t believe this book got so many awards for being “realistic teen fiction”. There are way more parties and drugs than there should be. All this book does is encourage the “I have to dress the way everyone does, I have to talk the way everyone does” groupthink mentality that turns everyone into Abercrombie zombies.
The worst part is the ending. I can’t talk about it without spoiling so stop reading this paragraph. The computer advises him to break character in the middle of the play, a play that’s been going on since the beginning of the novel, and announce his love for this girl he’s been pining for all the time (basically the high school equivalent of a marriage proposal). Also this takes place a day after two students were burned in a house fire. And the computer thinks it’s a good idea to, at this exact time, announce himself to everyone in the audience and take all the attention away from grief for the burn victims, the people who’ve been working on the play, the audience who came to see it, and make it all about him. It’s the dumbest plot point I ever saw. No one in their right mind would advise that kind of move. ELIZA has more intelligence than that.
I don’t think the author hates women, but he doesn’t know how to write women. All he knows is what he thought women were in high school, or what is gleaned from “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Sixteen Candles“. Checkout “Booksmart” for a better example of nerds trying to party that isn’t so misogynistic. This is what we talk about when we say “the author’s responsibility”.