Oh, how I enjoyed this book! I'd actually say it's on the line between 4 and 5 stars for me, but I'm rounding up because although there were some prob...moreOh, how I enjoyed this book! I'd actually say it's on the line between 4 and 5 stars for me, but I'm rounding up because although there were some problems with it, what I loved about the book by far outweighed any issues that might have cropped up. "Delightful" is the best word I can think of to describe All Men of Genius, and what was particularly delightful about it was the fact that it not only made me giggle (rather a lot), it also made me think, and that's a rare combination. A novel shouldn't have to be dreary and heavy-handed to get its message across, and an escapist read shouldn't have to avoid discussing important issues. An homage to both Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest, All Men of Genius seems like a book that would be equally appealing to lit geeks and Steampunk fans, with enough discussion of gender identity and politics to engage the feminist theorists too. It's a lively read, fun and witty, erudite without being off-putting, filled with characters I loved and set in a world I can't wait to visit again.
Violet and Ashton Adams are twins, the children of a rather absent-minded astronomer living in a Victorian London where steampunk technology works. Violet has an avid scientific mind, but her sex prevents her from the education she desires, namely attending the renowned scientific academy Illyria College, founded by the late Duke Illyria. When Mr Adams plans a trip to America for an academic conference, and decides to extend his trip for a full year, Violet sees her chance. She applies to Illyria College using her brother's name, and plans to attend in drag, revealing her gender once the year is over, so that she can prove once and for all the women are intellectually equal to men. Violet knows if her masquerade is discovered, her freedom and possibly even her life will be in jeopardy. But she is unprepared when she attracts the attention of the duke's ward, Cecily, or for the attraction she feels for the current duke himself . . .
All Men of Genius owes much of its plot to Twelfth Night; the setting and tone are where the Oscar Wilde influence comes out the most. On his blog, Rosen mentions the specifically Victorian style he used in writing All Men . . . , including adopting the third person omniscient narrator and including the sorts of narrative details modern authors normally eschew. In one scene, you might start off following Violet's thoughts, then leap into brain of Cecily, who only knows Violet as Ashton, and yet the transition is surprisingly smooth. Rosen takes the rules we learned in creative writing class about "showing vs. telling" and does not run roughshod over them so much as set them aside deliberately to cultivate a more Victorian tone. It's not a tactic that every author could make work, but Rosen does, and in doing so allows the reader to get to know his large group of characters more quickly and thoroughly than they might otherwise.
And, oh, the characters. As someone who loves an empowered heroine, particularly of the brainy and bookish variety, I was already predisposed to love Violet Adams, but what thrills me about All Men of Genius is that she is not the only female character to be (openly or not) chafing at the restrictions placed upon her by society (and for the male version, there's the real Ashton, to whom I'll return in a moment). Cecily Worthing, the sixteen year old ward of Ernest, Duke Illyria, is another girl who loves science, but her family connections allow her the freedom to both interact with the great minds of Illyria and present herself as female. While romantically minded to some extent (unfortunately towards ersatz Ashton), Cecily is intelligent enough to reject any pretense of "love at first sight" (the scene in which she does so is one of my favorites!). Her governess, Miriam, is a young widow, whose dark skin (she is a Persian Jew) grants her some freedom from societal expectations, but the freedom she enjoys ultimately leaves her open to blackmail. And let's not forget the small but pivotal role played by the historical Ada Byron Lovelace (I squeed when she appeared), a brilliant scientific mind here permitted to become an outspoken matriarch, respected by her male peers. In fact, there were so many strong and determined women here that I often wondered if, in this fantasy Victorian world, there were any women who didn't rail against their societal oppression. I suppose the closest would be Mrs. Wilks, the twins' governess, though even she later proves to be a bit more than she appears.
Among the male characters, my favorite and the one whom I'd most like to see get his own story, if Rosen writes a sequel, is Violet's twin Ashton. Ashton goes along with Violet's plan because it enables him to live independently in London, write poetry, and pursue his amorous pursuits away from the watchful eyes of Mrs. Wilks. For Ashton, as well as being a dandy, is what Victorian society calls an invert, i.e. gay. If he acts upon his impulses and the wrong people find out, he is likely to face imprisonment or worse. Although Ashton did not get as much "screen time" as Violet, I felt that he was the other side of the coin: a man who felt as restricted by his society's expectations of men as his sister did its expectations of women. Fortunately for Ashton, neither his sister nor any of his friends have a problem with Ashton's orientation, and he did find willing partners, the most notable his footman Antony. Since Ashton and Antony are different classes, I wondered what difficulties that might present in their relationship, and what could happen when Ashton was expected to get married though I suspect perhaps that's a ways off for him.
All Men of Genius owes its inspiration to two theatrical works, both comedic. When I began reading in novel, the set up for Violet's masquerade felt too easy (specifically the disposal or Mrs. Wilks), and I had a similar feeling when the loose ends were tied up at the end. On reflection, I wonder if the easiness of the set up and resolution might not be another sort of homage to the literature which inspired it; when you read or watch a farce such as The Importance of Being Earnest, you don't worry too much if the comic misunderstandings are realistic or make sense--you simply go with it. Of course, this homage is anything but a strict retelling, a fact that allows Rosen to take some of what is troubling to modern audiences in the original works and update it.Twelfth Night is one of my favorite plays, but I am always bothered by the treatment of Malvolio in it. However, Rosen's Malcolm Volio is a truly despicable character, a double blackmailer, and his punishment seems far more deserved.
All Men of Genius is a lighthearted read that will be appreciated by those who like witty banter, elegant writing, and a bit of substance to their escapism. However, it is a novel I would recommend to lit majors who want to try a bit of speculative fiction more than to hard science fiction buffs, as I'm not sure the gadgety bits are at all sound (but Rosen admits this). Also, if you are the sort who wishes the characters would stop the talking and start fighting already, I don't think this is the book for you, as that sort of action doesn't come in until the end. But for clever writing and characters you'll care about, All Men of Genius can't be beat.
Francesca Lia Block is one of my favorite authors. Her quirky, poetic writing style and sometimes controversial subject matter aren't for everyone, bu...moreFrancesca Lia Block is one of my favorite authors. Her quirky, poetic writing style and sometimes controversial subject matter aren't for everyone, but personally, I like her unique voice. Usually her writing is in the Young Adult genre, and while I love these books, it was also nice to read something with a protagonist closer to my age. Quakeland is rather non-linear, and Block takes some risks that make me go "What?" at times, but for the most part I found it to be a moving tale that made me feel alternately melancholic and hopeful.
Most of Quakeland is told from the perspective of Katrina, a single 30-something who runs a pre-school and has visions of the natural disasters that seem to plague our times. Katrina is in mourning over the death of her mother and a recent miscarriage; to cope with life's stress, she relies upon her beloved friends, Grace and Kali, antidepressants, and a therapeutic dance course. It is through the latter she meets her new lover Jasper, a massage therapist, who both revives her sensuality and cuts down her self esteem. Jasper made me want to defenestrate the novel at times, which is a testimonial to how believable and familiar he felt: the quintessential "sensitive guy" who flirts with other women & damns his lover with faint praise, then can't understand why she feels so insecure. It's no wonder Katrina is so much closer to her female friends, idolizing Grace, and feeling attraction towards Kali. To me, the relationships in this novel are what really make it work, and they felt quite realistic, involving characters who aren't unrealistically good or unbelievably bad, but flawed in the way we all are. From even the most painful circumstances, the characters learn and grow.
Quakeland has been described as a novel of woven stories, a technique Block embraced in her YA Echo and her erotic anthology Nymph. However, Quakeland does the "linked stories" thing differently; for the novel's first two-thirds (or so), the narrative shifts about in time, but remains from Katrina's perspective, then it switches to a few different perspectives and away from Katrina entirely. This is the "What?" moment I mentioned earlier, and part of the reason I want to reread the novel, because I think I understand what Block is doing and why, but it's difficult to be sure. I won't say I didn't find the tactic a little unsettling, but it also gave me great room for thought and the stories Block moved on to tell were also interesting. An author of less skill might have made me wonder if she had grown tired of the story, or if she was trying an experiment simply to be experimental. Instead, I found myself thinking about the fourth wall, and how fiction-style resolution rarely occurs in real life. At the end, things did get a bit New-Agey for my personal taste, but the book as a whole was thought-provoking, poignant, and lovely. Recommended.(less)