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I really ought to be doing something unspeakable to an excel spreadsheet for my research class, but instead I’ve been going on a hold-placing spree at the library catalog and looking up reviews of books I may or may not ever commit to reading (Skeletons at the Feast – do I finish it or not?)

My shelves suddenly felt bare – only 5 unread library books, and all but one are thin and spindly – mere snacks in the world of reading.  I’ve been going through them like nobody’s business (considering all the other things I ought to be doing).

I was mildly disappointed by Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s latest – Princess Ben – but I still liked it.  Maybe I was disappointed in proportion to how much I loved Dairy Queen and The Off Season.  Or in proportion to how much I love other fairy-tale type stories in general.  At any rate, there are plenty of good things about it and I recommend it to fans of fairy-tale retellings (even though this isn’t one).

I practically gobbled down Suite Scarlett, Maureen Johnson’s latest.  It was a hilarious blend of over-the-top and realistic, but what was funny was usually not what happened, but the snappy little ways in which Johnson described things.  A great summer book.

Then I tried Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay.  I’m all over kids fantasy, but I usually don’t touch adult fantasy (see, it just sounds wrong) with a ten-foot pole.  However, I’d read glowing reviews at Chasing Ray and Bookshelves of Doom and it sounded good.  And, frankly, it sounded like YA.  I can do YA fantasy.  And yes, it really is YA at heart, concerned with a 15 year old growing up.  Sure, there are centuries-old conflicts, some druids, plenty of descriptions of Provence that make me ache for another trip, oracular pigs, a touch of romance, a healthy dash of history (oh, those Romans!) and a few fight scenes.  But really, it’s all about a teenager having the world as he knew it collapse, and knowing he’ll always have to think about everything differently after this.  Fantasy is just an extreme way of depicting the coming of age story.  So – published for adults, and a decent read for anyone interested in the history of the south of France or looking for a fantasy that won’t make your eyes roll too much, teens or adults.  If you want more plot description, go read the two reviews I linked to.  And Leila pointed this out, but I noticed it, too – there’s a real similarity in mood to the Dark is Rising sequence, and I would definitely recommend it to teens who liked that series but want something a bit older.

Ysabel also got me thinking about a trend in YA books.  I once heard a teen complain that there are too many YA novels where the main character only has one friend.  Perhaps they make another friend in the course of the story, perhaps not.  But I think this happens a lot to 1) highlight feelings of isolation and 2) because it’s easier to create one good friend character than the whole cast of characters we usually surround ourselves with – a bosom buddy, a few good friends, a bunch of acquaintances, etc.  You can’t introduce that many people in a 200-page book.  So a common antidote to the one-friend scenario seems to be removing the teen from his or her normal surroundings.  Have them travel, or have all the friends leave town for the summer.  Create a situation where it’s not loser-ish of them to only have one or two peers to interact with.  This happened in Princess Ben – she gets moved into the castle and loses touch with all her old friends because she has to write fake, stilted letters to them.  In Suite Scarlett, all her friends have left town for the summer.  In Ysabel, Ned is traveling with his father, but we hear about how his friends back home might react – he only has to deal with one peer, who is also isolated from her normal friends by being an exchange student.  Even in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, for crying out loud, the friends spend most of each book apart.

Now I’m trying to think of exceptions, where a group of friends are actually friends and spend the course of the book together, in their normal homes and situations.  Anyone?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.

October 14, 2008.

Okay, a few more words.  You may remember that I have a deep and abiding love for Volume I: The Pox Party.  Not only do I think it was one of the most finely written pieces of fiction (not just Ya fiction – fiction in general) to pass in front of my eyeballs, I adored the period language and the history and the character of Octavian himself.  I’ve been keeping my ears perked ever since I finished it for the second volume.  I want it in my hands now.  Or at least as soon as I’ve had a chance to reread the first one.

If you haven’t read The Pox Party yet, and like smart historical fiction and fab language, what are you waiting for?

I’ve been quiet lately, hmm?  Maybe because I’ve actually been doing a lot of school work (third quarter burn-out, how nice to see you again!) and reading one huge book and wallowing in my dairy products.*

The one huge book was Free Food For Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee, which I picked up because it looked interesting while I was processing it (I never actually browse the shelves at the library – the shelves are for ordinary people.  I do all my browsing with the ‘in processing’ books).  It was long, but fairly light and engrossing, and I was always interested in finding out what happened to the characters (even though a lot of things they did – particularly financial things – made me cringe).  But here’s the thing: the main character has a lot going on over the years the story covers (graduating from college and the next few years) and of course the side characters have a lot going on, too, because that’s life.  So it felt like Lee was trying to do the Dickens thing, with a huge cast of characters with bizarre little lives, the whole breadth of human experience, etc. etc.  But it didn’t quite work, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe because we never got to see quite enough of those characters – we get a taste of the sister, just enough to think “I want to know more about her life” and then we’re whisked back to Casey.  Same with her friend Ella.  We’d go off on these tangents, that really felt more like they could each be developed into their own story.  They didn’t quite fit together as a whole.

So, when the ending came around and there was no Dickensian wrap-up, because the characters all knew each other already, it didn’t quite work.  I’m not saying that a Dickensian cast of characters requires that kind of wrap-up, necessarily, but the more ambiguous “let’s imagine what might happen next instead of me telling you, okay?” ending didn’t quite match the story.  If the story had focused more on Casey, that ending would have felt more satisfying.

*I still can’t believe I can eat whatever I want.  I’ll think fondly of some food, or start to wonder what on earth I’ll eat for dinner, and then realize that I no longer need to eat like a vegan.  Hallelujah!

December 2022

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