I'm not entirely sure this deserves 5 stars, but, as has been established time and time again, I am a sucker for atmosphere, and this book has it in s...moreI'm not entirely sure this deserves 5 stars, but, as has been established time and time again, I am a sucker for atmosphere, and this book has it in spades. (less)
This books feels like it was written a couple of decades ago, in a good way. It fits nicely into that YA subgenre of New York latchkey kids navigating...moreThis books feels like it was written a couple of decades ago, in a good way. It fits nicely into that YA subgenre of New York latchkey kids navigating interpersonal and family issues, and the time travel aspect is worked in seamlessly - it does nothing to pull you out of the fairly quiet and ordinary goings-on. It's very much written for middle readers (the central mystery, for instance, is not all that mysterious, and the brief discussions of time travel theory are at a pretty basic level), but it never talks down, and the emotions are so clear and natural that I never cared that I basically knew what was going on even when Miranda didn't.
This is, without a doubt, the best work of historical fiction I've ever read. The problem with most Tudor narratives is that they are very black and w...moreThis is, without a doubt, the best work of historical fiction I've ever read. The problem with most Tudor narratives is that they are very black and white, based on ideas of people instead of the people themselves. Henry VIII is always a bombastic horndog, Anne Boleyn either a schemer or a helpless pawn, Wolsey the picture of debauched excess - after all, it's the easiest way to justify the English Reformation, isn't it? And then, of course, there's the Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons, saintly and admirable and tragic, and opposed at every turn by the devious Thomas Cromwell.
None of those caricatures are at play here. Cromwell is our narrator, and he is amazing. He's a genius, clearly, but never an unbelievable one. And the beauty of this book being about a commoner is that we get life at the court and life outside of it - the scenes at Austin Friars (his home) are just as enjoyable, if not moreso, than the ones in the company of Henry and Anne and the various councillors. We know Cromwell thoroughly by the end of the book, and I think it's impossible not to love him, his cleverness and his memories and his humor. And it's through his eyes that we know Wolsey (a benefactor, a master, a man whose excess is not borne of malice, but ignorance) and Henry and Anne and all the rest. And characters who are so often overlooked are brought to life here, beautifully. Mary Boleyn gets the treatment she deserves (let's not talk about that other book; I like to pretend it doesn't exist), and Jane Seymour, who is so often just a footnote after Anne Boleyn's death (and she'll feature heavily in the sequel, I'm sure), and, oh, Rafe Sadler. They're all treated so well - nobody feels awkwardly shoehorned in to make the history feel more legitimate, nobody is included just to wink and nudge so that readers feel in the know. Mantel has crafted a very real world. It's kind of amazing what she's done, without having to lean on tortuous descriptions of everyday life or hardships we no longer have to deal with. She's skilled enough that her characters do the work for her, reminding us all at once that it was a very different time and that people do not change so much.
And, well. She treats Thomas More the way I've always wanted someone to treat Thomas More - critically. He's the closest thing the book has to a villain, I'd say (which is not to say that he's evil or one-dimensional, just very wrongheaded), and it's so refreshing (to quote, well, myself: "And her version of Thomas More is a total douche, but I'm pretty sure that's just historically accurate"). Man, that guy.
The prose is dense, and she tends to refer to Cromwell simply as "he," which can lead to you re-reading pages to figure out exactly who is speaking, but it's so good that you shouldn't mind. I can see how this might be daunting for someone without a fair bit of Tudor-related knowledge, but the lengthy cast of characters and Tudor family tree in the front of the book can be very useful - Hilary Mantel thinks you are smart enough to tackle a book that might make you work a little bit; don't prove her wrong. (less)
Stories about stories are always fun, and this one is spectacular. Its backbone is the Bluebeard tale, turned on its head - St. John Fox is an author...moreStories about stories are always fun, and this one is spectacular. Its backbone is the Bluebeard tale, turned on its head - St. John Fox is an author with an irritating tendency to kill of all his female characters, Mary Foxe is his walking, talking, very annoyed, and only sort of imaginary muse, and Daphne Fox is his long-suffering wife, growing suspicious. St. John and Mary challenge one another via a series of short stories, often bizarre and always beautiful. It's a book about books, about love, about authorship, about the thin line between fiction and reality. It's certainly the most adventurous of Oyeyemi's books so far (which, after 2009's weird and wonderful White is for Witching, is impressive), and only continues her upward trajectory. (less)
There's a trend in YA fiction toward unremarkable main characters, girls who are aggressively average, so that readers can identify with them. I hate...moreThere's a trend in YA fiction toward unremarkable main characters, girls who are aggressively average, so that readers can identify with them. I hate to continue harping on Bella Swan, because (1) she's just a symptom, not the whole problem, and (2) it is depressing to see one character whose author failed her so miserably get so much hate piled upon her. But she's the most visible example, so. Everything about Bella is designed to let the reader (or, well, let's be honest - the author) step into her shoes and imagine herself with dreamy stalker Edward Cullen. She doesn't really have any hobbies, she's neither great nor terrible in school, and her thoughts are almost all directed outward - her boyfriend, her (theoretically) charmingly incompetent parents - we know very little about her because she's got no personality and no highs or lows.
Well, that's simultaneously boring and insulting. Where did we get this idea that readers (specifically girls) can only relate to dull, simplistic characters? What does that say about the way the publishing industry views young girls? It's gross and it's maddening and it's completely unnecessary; a talented author makes a character relatable because her actions are understandable and sympathetic, not because she's so lacking in personality or accomplishments that a reader is forced to graft on her own.
E. Lockhart is a talented author, and Frankie Laundau-Banks is exceptional. She's clever and brave and pretty, but she can also be mean and angry and short-sighted. She's a 10th grader who reads Wodehouse for fun, she's her parents' silly Bunny Rabbit, and she's grown up enough to be sick of being boxed in, but maybe not enough to know exactly how to fix it. This book could have easily become preachy - early on, Frankie begins dating the boy she's had a crush on for the last year, and discovers that it's not all it's cracked up to be. He's not a bad person, but he doesn't understand what he has in her, doesn't get what we know, that she is whip-smart and not content to just be a girlfriend on the fringe of his boys club. So, yeah, it could have easily become hackneyed, a dumbed-down clumsily-told tale of burgeoning feminism, or something. But it never did - the feminism is there, organically. And it's realistic; things don't always work out and people often don't appreciate it when you call out sexism or work your way into places where you aren't traditionally welcomed. And Frankie's pissed off by the exclusion she encounters - this is a side of feminism that stories tend to overlook (probably intentionally, because everyone is so afraid of the Angry Feminist stereotype that they completely erase anyone's completely correct and justified outrage at the way women are viewed and treated), but Lockhart's not interested in whitewashing this. People discount Frankie and underestimate her and treat her like she has no mind of her own, and it's horrible and it makes her angry and she acts out of anger as much as (maybe more than) an intangible, vague idea of what's Right. And that's okay.
Frankie's not a capital-H Hero. She can be kind of petty, and she makes some questionable choices, and she's a person, not a morality tale. In what might be my favorite sequence in the book, she holds her own against an older girl in an impromptu argument over the dangers of prescriptive gender roles, noting that her boyfriend and his friends are uncomfortable, and refusing to shut up. It's a good moment. And then in the next scene, she's agonizing - does he still like me, is he over me now that he's seen me be argumentative, does he think I'm shrill? These are real things people worry about. This is the way lots of women react. There is bravery followed by worry, and it sucks, and in a lot of books, that second part wouldn't have been written because two-dimensional "strong female characters" (and let me say, if you have to spell out someone's strength instead of it being obvious through her characterization, she's probably not the feminist icon you think she is) don't worry about that kind of stuff, nope. But there is an honesty to this book that was surprisingly mature, and kind of sad.
While I was reading, there were three (THREE!) occasions when I was utterly convinced I knew how this was going to end. And all three times I was proved wrong, and I've never been more happy to make completely incorrect predictions.
My one complaint is that there are one or two instances of what felt like pitting Frankie against other girls who aren't quite as enlightened as she is (specifically Star, but sometimes Elizabeth), which is counterproductive - there's no one correct way to be a girl, and if someone's behavior is in line with the way everyone else views and treats her, it's not entirely her fault. It wasn't outrageous, and in most books I probably wouldn't have batted an eyelash at it, but this book got everything else so right that I was a little taken aback by the hints of the Right Kind vs Wrong Kind of girl attitude.
I had a weird aversion to this book, and I just realized it is because the cover art reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (they actually aren't that similar, but they are weirdly bound in my mind), to which I developed an irrational aversion while I worked at Barnes and Noble and had to reshelve it constantly, and Frankie Landau-Banks reminded me of Frankie Muniz/Agent Cody Banks (and I shouldn't have to explain why that's a bad thing). And the back cover copy is sort of wretched and makes it look like just the kind of Plucky Heroine Topples Opposition and Changes Everyone's Hearts and Minds book that it wasn't. So. It had a lot of things working against it in my case, but I'm glad someone whose taste I admire recommended it and I finally read it.(less)