Ideally, friends, this will be the first in a longish series of blog posts in which I read books that my friend Johanna Parkhurst recommends to me, her goal being to get me to positively review books that I would ordinarily never read on my own. Books from genres that make me cringe, make me feel embarrassment on the author's behalf, and books that generally I have a crappy and even childish attitude about. Because I'm not going to lie to you. I'm kind of a dick about some things (and also we may as well get it out there that I curse like a sailor; if you are a visitor from Johanna's website, I apologize in advance and promise to try to keep such shenanigans to a minimum). Be warned as we move forward that I hate romance as a literary genre, along with other genres, and I'm bluntly judgmental about people who like them. This is not something I'm proud of, but it is an accurate picture of how I *can* be.
So here we are. I messaged Johanna that I would be willing to slum it with genres I find gross if she is herself willing to come to her senses and read some genres I know to be amazing. Which is to say, she recommends a book to me, I recommend one to her, and we both read and review the recommendations with an open mind. Johanna, being who she is, was down to try it. Below, you can see how our personal literary tastes compare. And if I stop playing and trash-talking for a minute, I have to go on the record and say that what makes this challenge so cool is that we are both into genres that are not usually respected by literary elites (I match her love of romance with my own geekdom over sci-fi and weird), and in this sense we both know what it's like to have the things we love and make be maligned as "low-brow", "pulp", or "trash".
So, welcome to our little challenge, and read on to see how we fared on the first leg, in which Johanna reads 14 by Peter Clines upon my recommendation, and I reluctantly dive into A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by MacKenzi Lee, the book Johanna decided to lob my way.
This month I recommended to Johanna my favorite book, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. So needless to say, I am super excited and nervous to see what she has to say about it. It is, from all metrics given to me by Ms. Parkhurst, completely out of her wheelhouse in terms of literature that she would select for herself. It's speculative fiction, so it's about concepts and world building and doesn't follow the traditional fiction narrative form. In fact, the entire goal of the novel is to play with the concepts of fictional narrative forms, and the ways in which readers build a relationship between themselves, text, and the author. If you ever wanted to read a book about the act of reading itself, this is the one.
I don't like to give a lot of spoilers about this book, partly because to tell would be to spoil it, but also because it's hard to capture. Few authors so successfully use the sort of narrative frame that Calvino uses in If on a Winter's Night, like Borges and William Goldman (and if you haven't read The Princess Bride yet, and you liked the movie, you need to run out immediately and purchase yourself a copy. It's absolutely delightful and wonderfully inventive). Essentially, Calvino opens If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by speaking to you, the reader, and it's not very long before you realize that you are the protagonist of the book, kinda like ol' Bastian in The Neverending Story. Except with a bunch of dorky postmodernist concepts and an inconsistent universe.
This recommendation also gets to the heart of a key difference in the ways in which Johanna and I differ so greatly as readers; she's in it for the feels, and I'm in it for the beautiful ideas. I like to escape, not in feeling, but in imagining new worlds or thinking about concepts that feel fresh and exciting and mind-blowing. I recommended this book to Johanna fully aware that what was once a book that refreshed my love of literature at a time when I felt utterly burnt out on it might actually, to her perspective, feel like an annoyingly self-aware and over-intellectualized jaunt into the neurosis of authorship and reader-dom. The only way to know, though, is to see what she had to say herself.
I couldn't love it though, because the characters exist solely as the exigence for situations to pull at the heartstrings. One girl is pregnant and gives up her child for adoption, triggering the exploration into her biological past. Another is dealing with an alcoholic parent and the looming divorce of her adoptive parents. The third sibling, a boy, is struggling with the weight of his past jumping from one foster home to another, and the mistakes he's made in the process. There's a couple of things that bother me about this. First, like many young adult novels, the author doesn't bother to flesh out the characters. One is a vaguely nice and sad girl, another copes with sarcasm and is defined largely by her relationship with her girlfriend (so she's a lesbian and that is her identity outside of the adoption plotline), and the boy is Mexican and an artist, though neither aspects of him is explored in the book beyond a single scene of him helping a kid throw a pottery vase. The rest of the book unravels like most any teen drama, with pregnancy, shame, arguments that lead to regret, and a small flirtation with smoking a joint. I should say, when it comes to the way in which the teen mother is struggling to cope with her feelings and thoughts regarding the child she gave to adoption, I felt Benway did do the character some real justice, and convincingly crafted a heartbreaking depiction of her grief.
And here I feel I need to rant. Because the second thing that bothers me about this book is the degree to which it is sterilized, presumably to protect the minds of the young readers who encounter it. There is a vague mention about the one character not being ready for swimsuit season because her pregnancy left her stomach "floppy". No real discussion about the ways that pregnancy ravages a woman's body, especially one who has not yet fully developed, and it's gross that the only time the issue arises is in the context of whether she's ready to wear a bikini. There's the fact that the other girl is largely defined by her lesbian relationship, and she keeps bringing it up to challenge the people she meets, and at no point does she ever have to contend with other people's negative perceptions about it. That's great; that's realistically ideal, but it doesn't add to the plotline, which would be fine if she had anything else going for her besides that and her adoptive identity. And the boy perhaps bothers me the most. I found him to be the most sympathetic and fleshed out of the characters, but that actually drew my attention to the saccharine way in which his identity was handled. He never had any real issues with foster care, except the one time a foster father pushed him for hitting his bio daughter with a stapler by accident. He is aware that he is an "undesirable" adoptive child because he is visibly Mexican, but the only discussion about the struggle of what it's like to grow up with a distinct cultural and racial identity without access to mentors to guide you through them takes place between his white bio sister and her Mexican boyfriend, and it takes place in half a page. Nor do they acknowledge white America has its own cultural and racial identity to contend with. Instead, they engage in a moment of pity for this Mexican kid they hardly know, and how tough it must be for him to not be Mexican enough, while he himself never dwells on the topic. The whole things grossed me out, frankly, and the author would have been better off ignoring the topic rather than giving it such cursory attention.
There are other scenes that bother me, like the foster kid being appalled that his sister is *gasp* smoking a joint! to the point that he has to find the roach and throw it over the fence. It's absurd. It's absolutely absurd. It reminds me of a Sherman Alexie Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he responds to another writer who expressed disgust over young adult books that get, in her opinion, too gritty for the virgin eyes of children. Alexie expressed his own disgust at such an attitude, saying of such critics, " ...they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged."
Ultimately I was not touched by Far from the Tree, because it felt like what a privileged adult would want kids to know about actually difficult situations without having to expose them to the harsh realities that come with it. I didn't feel like the characters were real people, so I didn't have any real sympathy for them.
And again, maybe I've been spoiled. On the topic of foster care and adoption in young adult fiction, I always point to Sherman Alexie's novel Flight. The novel focuses on the plight of one character in foster care, and he is racially mixed, and the book touches upon ICWA, the law meant to protect Native American children from forced assimilation to white culture, and what happens when a mixed child doesn't get the protection of the law or access to Native foster care because he can't prove that he has tribal affiliation. He uses foul language and talks about orgasms. He develops a dark sense of humor. He drinks alcohol. He parties with homeless drunks. He steals and begs. He erupts in violence toward foster parents, and he gets locked up. He squats in an abandoned warehouse with another runaway.
Now, I know that Alexie is now "cancelled" because of his problematic history with women and that he has fully admitted to it, but this novel does what I wish Far from the Tree had done: it honors the painful, ugly, honest experience of what it is like to be a child in foster care who has, amongst other issues, to contend with his tenuous grasp on his racial and cultural identity. And it is him engaging in figuring that all out, not the pitying side conversation of a white person he only just met. Also. It's just an excellent and beautiful novel that does make me cry whenever I read it, so I recommend it highly in place of this book. It doesn't replace the discourse about adoption issues, but it does a far better job of thinking about how a child struggles with his identity when he doesn't know who he belongs to.
I do get the appeal of Far from the Tree though. It's not scary. Everything ties up neatly with a pretty little bow, and all the kiddos have great relationships with everyone around them and look forward to bright futures. The alcoholic mom is in recovery, all the romantic relationships are salvaged, the foster kid gets adopted right before he turns 18, and everyone is excited to connect with their newly found family members. The message to young readers is clear; family and support systems are key to surviving crises of identity, and it's possible to wait out the storm. I can see why it would be popular in classrooms and with parents. It allows kids to play with big ideas in a way that won't actually give them nightmares. Unless, of course, the kid reading them is already living the nightmare.
“Don't you get it? That's what happens when you love someone: they're brave when you can't be! I can be brave--for you, for both of us!”
“It took us fifteen years to find each other, but we still did! And sometimes, family hurts each other. But after that's done you bandage each other up, and you move on. Together. You've got us now, like it or not, and we've got you.”
“That’s what parents do. They catch you before you fall. That’s what family is.”
Let's begin by remembering that this is a reading challenge as much as a blog collab between myself and author Johanna Parkurst, in which we are recommending books to each other in the hopes of trying to convince each other that our preferred literary genres are not total trash. For my part, I recommended the book 14 by Peter Clines to Johanna, and we'll get to the book she recc'ed to me in a bit.
14 is the kind of book that isn't trying to be anything other than fun and interesting. I like this about it. It's not trying to turn anyone on sexually or have anyone peeking under their bed looking for monsters; in fact, it's the books that try too hard that come across as super cringe-worthy (50 Shades of "my inner goddess doing the meringue", anyone? Talk about horror.) 14 just happens to have some pretty dope monsters in it, but other than that, it's just trying to be a cool, fun story. This is why I chose it as Johanna's initial foray into horror fiction, as she frankly seemed influenced by contemporary film and television to believe that all horror media is about guts and gore. In fact, not long into her reading, she messaged me, "I'm just waiting for the house to come to life and start killing people."
Guys, this is not what horror is about, or at least, it's not what it's always about. There's a difference between Slasher and Gore subgenres compared to the other subgenres of horror; let's not forget that Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula are considered gothic horror as well as classical canon today. Let's not forget that Stephen King is perhaps history's most prolific writer of horror novels, many of which have been adapted as films and television shows without resorting to sprays of arterial blood or festering piles of human viscera. That's some Rob Zombie shit, which is fine if that's what you're into (and you only like it in a fictional setting), but it doesn't define horror.
I mean. Who really was the monster in Shelley's Frankenstein?
14 is a Weird fiction adventure that I would describe as "Scooby Doo meets The Call of Chthulu". It's a gang of goofy and earnest sleuths trying to figure out the deal with this steampunk style apartment building they live in, and finding out that its function as a place of residence is only nominal, a cover. It's not as hardcore of a dive into Weird as would be a novel like House of Leaves, but then again I'm trying to persuade a reluctant horror reader to enjoy the wonder and adventure and world-building that takes place in the genre, not turn her off by going too savage too soon. And it's a fun book for people who are into Weird in that it is riddled with allusions to Lovecraftian eldritch horrors and the Deep Ones, and when one realizes that this is one book in The Threshold series (Clines toyed with "Koturoverse" as the name of the series, but decided it wasn't commercial enough), then the allusions start to stack up as easter eggs between the other Clines books as well as across Lovecraft's Chthulu Mythos. It's fun, is what I'm saying, in the way that all geeky things are fun; the author wants the reader to feel like they are part of something bigger, and the audience is rewarded with dopamine-pumping flashes of recognition every time they encounter another lime-green cockroach with an extra leg. *BONUS* And in the audiobook edition, critically-acclaimed Ray Porter is the voice actor, and he's one of the best in the business. But of course, Johanna probably has her own take on how fun it may or may not be.
... Moving on, The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by MacKenzi Lee is an interesting choice for Johanna to recommend to me for a couple of reasons. There is a 50/50 chance I would have selected this book for myself without prompting, in that it includes genre elements that I do enjoy, such as queer romance (pretty much the only kind of romance you would catch me reading; I'm tired of straight stories) and elements of magic realism. Thing is, is that the other 50% of the book is stuff I despise: teen romance, sick lit, period British setting,
Johanna didn’t specify a preference as to textual formatting, so I went with audiobook. Largely because I was about to start a long drive the same day she gave me the recommendation, honestly. I mildly disliked the experience of listening to it, but that’s just because I dislike English accents from a subjective, aesthetic perspective. The reading was objectively well-done; the problem is that English accents gross me out when they say stuff like, "And have you a name, my foxy lady?", or, "We both know that the true game is not in the cards, but in the coquettish removal of each subsequent article of clothing." I mean if there is anything that screams "PEARL-CLUTCHING AND PETTICOAT-RUFFLING" stereotypes, it's an English accent describing the fumbling sexploits of a rakish young man just waiting to be tamed by love and lust. And when one of the characters was mentioned for the second time excusing himself because of a headache, it was so obvious that I was in for a sick lit plot line that I rolled my eyes so hard that I momentarily worried I would hit a deer. I recall the feeling so distinctly that I remember exactly where I was in my drive when I heard it.
The main character is one of the most irredeemable personalities I have ever read in Young Adult fiction, and allow me to remind you at this point, I have read the entire Twilight series. Henry "Monty" Montague, who sleeps around mostly with other dudes but occasionally with girls, is rich and spoiled and responds to authority with childish lashing-out. At one point in the book, he is so mad at another character for being rude at a party that he considers pissing in the man's desk drawer, and only elects to avoid that action because there's an attractive girl in the room with him. Instead, Monty steals an object of obvious worth from the man's desk, getting the plot rolling. Monty is throughout the novel an unreliable narrator who careens from guarded standoffishness to his crush to obsession that proves destructive to everyone around him, and in the very last chapter of the book seems to realize, "Oh. It turns out that other people have wishes and desires and rights of their own. Huh." And that is the whole of his development as a character. If you can't tell, I am not a fan.
Which might have been ok yet, except that all the other characters are more archetypes than personalities. There’s the “good black kid who’s just down on his luck in a racist society” with very little else interesting about him (and of course he's light enough to mostly pass but dark enough for it to be just inconvenient), and the “fierce girl who is smarter than people give her credit for and dreams of a life without having to follow society’s notions of what a woman’s life should be”. With that level of predictability, it really doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for how the plot will develop. There's some cursory commentary about straight privilege, white privilege, and male privilege, and if you can believe it, all of that takes place in one conversation in one part of one chapter, like the author needed to tick them off some "woke-factor" checklist all at once so that she could get on with actually telling the story.
Thematically the book is more successful despite the fact that it can't decide what it wants to be (Historical Queer Romance Sick Lit YA Coming of Age Paranormal Adventure). Here's some quotes that demonstrate the consistency of the imagery and the themes:
“We are not broken things, neither of us. We are cracked pottery mended with lacquer and flakes of gold, whole as we are, complete unto each other. Complete and worthy and so very loved.”
It's a tale about healing and medicine and fate and stars and choice, which the male lead seems to negate for the bulk of the story by bulldozing everyone around him with his actions and choices, even when one of them is collapsing in seizures (yes, I know that is the point; my point is that it never really recovers from that set up; the character development is more like a consistent slope that a discernible arc). The themes and plot lines become evident fairly quickly and are delivered with the nuance of a wealthy teenage boy trying to rebel against his conservative father; what with one person insisting on partying constantly, another refusing to take off her glasses and put down her books, and the last constantly retiring early due to headaches and faintness, it's pretty clear what these kids are in for and what lessons need to be learned.
In terms of genre, I did not think the paranormal component was particularly well-done, and I didn’t buy the central romance as being more than infatuation, particularly because of the way the protagonist is depicted in his internal monologues, essentially fantasizing about groping the object of his affection while simultaneously being mildly irritated by his propriety and the inconveniences of his race. I also don’t read sick lit or coming of age tales, and I don’t think this book is a strong enough example of either of those genres to turn my head. So I think the experiment failed for me in this respect, because much of the book already falls under genres I’m cool with, and because it’s trying to do so much, the parts that I’m not cool with are not as fleshed out as they could be.
So that's a pretty tough review on my part to start out with, but rest assured friends, I'm not counting on it being one-sided. Tune in next time when Johanna reviews my favorite book If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, and I plunge into a book she promises will send me to tears when I read Far from the Tree by Robin Benway.