Saturday, July 31, 2010

Alice I Have Been

Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been was a bit befuddling, but not in a frustrating way. Hence, I've put off writing about, and now feel even more directionless.

It is historical fiction. The real Alice, that is, the young girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland, was in a somewhat sketchy relationship with the man who would become Lewis Carroll. Alice narrates the story as an old woman and takes us through her life up to her present.

It is a slowly unfolding story with details of clothing and mores of mid-19th-century Oxford. It is somewhat unsettling but not as creepy as it might sound. It's subtle and the writing is lush.

One thing I can do for this book is identify a readalike--a nonfiction one, no less! Michael Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History is an epic biography of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, who became stage famous in England around the same time period as Benjamin's novel. There is a large cast of strange characters and artists, and the details well evoke the time period.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

RAview: Wintergirls

In short, Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls is a YA novel about an 18-year-old girl with anorexia who is relapsing for the third time after the death of her childhood best friend, who had bulimia. In short, not a pretty story.

I would think Readers' Advisory librarians would want to subtly make clear that this book could be a trigger for someone suffering from these disorders or very difficult to read for loved ones. To me, this is not a fault of the book, but just an extra layer one should be aware of when recommending it. But, if you're concerned about that, here's Jezebel and the Times on this book as a trigger.

From my perspective, telling a prospective reader it is a raw, emotional, terrifying, and realistic exploration of the actions and thoughts of a young girl suffering from anorexia and other psychological disorders would suffice.

The pacing is fast, characteristic of a YA novel. The language is carefully crafted to mimic the main character Lia's thought processes. Anderson uses strike throughs, repetition, paragraph breaks, and ellipses to evoke Lia's confusion and fear. (these tactics could also fall into the story line appeal element of RA--not sure here.)

Characterization is great. The book is a very intimate look at Lia; and her friend who died, Cassie, is evoked via Lia's detailed, episodic memories and hallucinations. The tone is dark, scary, horrific, touching at times. But Lia is witty, and, although it's typically in the form of barbs directed at her parents, she can be funny. The setting is winter in New Hampshire, and Lia is always cold--it is effective to think of her skin-and-bones body in this harsh climate.

I've heard on panels and read in blogs that "YA" is not a genre, so, if I have to stick this in another one, I'll call it psychological suspense. Seems strange, but read the Wikipedia definition, and you'll be convinced. Also, now I can use it toward the "Thriller & Suspense Challenge"!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Notes on The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

I didn't like Alan Bradley's The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag nearly as much as the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Although Readers' Advisors are supposed to look for what in a book will be appealing to readers, all I can do now is take the opposite approach and try to identify what I didn't like about it.

I just felt detached from the book. There's no suspense in it; the first was by no means suspenseful, but the second didn't thrill me in the least. I read for characters, and I already know Flavia de Luce, the young detective girl. She didn't develop in a significant way, and her character as an anomalous curiosity has worn off.

Much of the story line was relayed via storytelling from characters' mouths. This is not to say there is not description, but the writing did not feel as lush and evocative to me as the first book. Details relate to World War II, puppeteering, chemistry, the vicarage. The pace is leisurely. The language is fun and witty, and the tone would be quite dark were it not for Flavia's childhood perspective.