Monday, October 28, 2013

The Bone Season - Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon has been dubbed the “new J.K. Rowling” in literary circles worldwide since her first published novel hit the scene in August 2013.  In 2012, she signed a 6 figure deal with Bloomsbury Publishing, giving the company publishing rights to the first three books in a seven book series.  Let me repeat myself: this Londoner, born in 1991, signed a 6 figure deal with her first book.  (Well, this isn’t her first book, but no one jumped at her first attempt.  Maybe AURORA will be published someday, but more likely than not, writing that first book was the learning experience necessary to make this book the gem it is.)  The price tag plus the book’s subject matter, make the leap to Rowling relatively expected.

But Shannon is not the new Rowling.  Paige Mahoney is not the new Harry Potter.  The Sheol I is not Hogwarts.  And Rephs are not deatheaters.  If one wants to make a comparison, Suzanne Collins and THE HUNGER GAMES are more fitting.  Paige is what Katniss would be if I actually liked Katniss.  My thoughts on THE HUNGER GAMES are not a secret: I enjoyed the first book, tolerated the second, and hated the third.  Before I can 100% say that THE BONE SEASON > THE HUNGER GAMES, it would be fair to read the rest of the series, which isn’t out yet.  (Hurry up, Samantha!  Type!  Type! Type!)  But the fact that I am hungering for more from Shannon leads me to believe my initial assessment is correct:  Shannon is a better writer than Collins.  Her Oxford connection makes me want to anoint her leader of the New Inklings (and grab a pint with her at the Bird and the Babe).  But enough about the author – let’s talk the book.

Set in 2059, THE BONE SEASON was an unexpected, fast-paced, sci-fi, helluva ride.  I couldn’t put the book down and read it in two sittings.  (Partly why I am so enamored – it’s been a bit since a book hasn’t let me go.)  Paige, the Pale Dreamer, is fascinatingly constructed.  She’s caught in that spot of a child forced to grow up too quickly, but childishness comes out in the most natural of ways.  She’s not forced into being a character that does not read believable.  Quite the contrary, Paige’s realness is what makes this book work so well.  It doesn’t seem fantastical and forced – it’s like a dream that you wake from and can’t tell if the dream was real or not because it felt real.  At one point, the Warden requests that Paige literally put down her walls so that he can enter her dreamscape and see the memories she keeps locked away.  The one she opts to show him is an extremely heartbreaking memory that is just so damn relatable.

I know my book reviews tend to be spoilers, but I cannot spoil this book for anyone.   Read it.  Now.  I cannot justify ruining one of the better books I’ve read in a long time for the sake of a review.  It would appear Bloomsbury landed a great literary whale when they bagged Shannon.  I cannot wait for her next book.  But until such a time, I encourage you to make a purchase (and you know me – I like softbacks and used books because hardbacks tend to be SO expensive… this is worth the hardback price…) and read this before the movie.  This is a book a movie can ruin.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

NW - Zadie Smith

I have long considered myself a fan of Zadie Smith, though she is not a writer I'd ever want to have a drink with.  I have this strong feeling that she's a bit of an arrogant bitch.  It may very well be misplaced, but I've felt that way since before NW.  That feeling, I believe it started after reading a Salon interview with Smith, hasn't stopped me from devouring her novels like the gut-wrenching candies they are.  White Teeth still stands strong on my list of all time favorites.  Autograph Man, some markedly different from her first novel, was a specialness I'd like to see her revisit.  On Beauty was essentially a retelling of White Teeth that shows how Smith had grown as a writer.  And NW is along the same vein, though it shows not only the growth of a writer, but Smith's physical aging as a woman.

Once upon a time, I read an African novel Nervous Conditions.  The novel, and the title, explained that awkward existence of trying to maintain one's culture while being "westernized."  While reading NW, I couldn't shake the idea of it being a "nervous condition."  Smith's novels are full of people suffering from this condition.  The character of Natalie Blake is an excellent example:  Nat is a black girl.  A lawyer.  A mother because that is what was expected of her.  (The descriptions of her interactions with her two children show how disconnected she is from the idea of "mother.")  Nat has it all.  But Nat is really Keisha, the second of three children.  She changed her name when she decided to change her life.  "Dress for the job you want, not the one you have," is how Michell, Nat's best friend's husband, describes the name-change.  Michell means it as a compliment; it's something he admires in Nat and something he strives for in his life.  He also is struggling with the "nervous condition" as an African trying to make it in England.

Nat's best friend, Leah, has her own nervous condition.  She's white.  In her 30s.  Often times dead in the eyes.  She never lived up to her potential.  She smoked her way through school, constantly trying to reinvent herself, but never really succeeding.  Parts of the novel are told from her POV and remind me of "The Yellow Wallpaper."  Much like Nat, the pressure to have children is like an elephant on her tiny chest.  Michell wants kids.  Her coworkers constantly tell her "she's next" and make her feel incomplete because she has not procreated.  So they are "trying."  But trying for Leah means stealing Nat's birth control and sneaking off for abortions when the pills are unsuccessful.  She's had three.  Michell only knows of one.  Leah and Michell are only able to communicate with their bodies.  She is envious of Nat's life, but even she doesn't know that Nat frequents the Internet seeking threesomes.  (The encounters she has are both comical and heartbreaking.)

The novel contains a cast of colorful characters, all broken in some ways.  They either tried to get out of the life they'd been given (Nat and Leah) and they fall victim to it (Nathan.)  The sections on Felix are fantastic.  I've always thought Smith did well with men characters, and I wish there were more.  I won't tell you about Felix other than to say it involves an old car, a Rasta father, a whore, cocaine, and a knife.

Smith is still Smith.  She has a way with words that can leave you gasping for breath.  But her ending is shit. It would appear she didn't know how to bring her story to a close, so she neatly packages up a reconciliation between Leah and Nat that involves them turning on someone they grew up with, someone whose life could have very well been theirs.  The idea isn't shit, the execution of it was.