Why Frankenstein Is Important to YA Lit

Happy National Frankenstein Day! & Some YA Takes on Frankenstein

Mary Shelley

by REBECCA, August 30, 2013

National Frankenstein Day is celebrated on Mary Shelley‘s birthday (August 30th, 1797), and honors her most famous (and arguably the most famous) literary monster. And I love literary monsters.

But what a lot of people forget is that Frankenstein has a lot of the elements that make YA lit great. After all, Mary Shelley did write the original story when she was just nineteen.

Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyIt tells the story of how a kid becomes obsessed with something and turns it into his life. Victor Frankenstein’s backstory is one of my favorite elements of the novel. His early relationships with his adopted sister and his two younger brothers are the backdrop for Victor’s growing obsession with science. It’s when he sees lightning strike a tree outside his family’s home in Geneva that Victor first gets the idea of lightning as an energy force, which he’ll later use to animate his creature. His interest in natural science is as singleminded as any teen’s obsession with a band or a comic book. And, though he’s captivated by Elizabeth when he’s older, it’s still his childhood friend, Henry Clerval, that is his strongest relationship throughout the book.

But the thing that always struck me as most YA-similar is the way that Victor’s monomaniacal pursuit of his obsession ends up producing something totally out of his control.

So, it’s no wonder that a number of young adult authors have taken Frankenstein as the jumping off point for YA novels of their own! Here are a few.

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel

The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series by Kenneth Oppel

This delightful series by Kenneth Oppel tells the story of Victor and his twin brother and their mutual love of Elizabeth. When his twin falls ill, Victor must go on a quest to find the ingredients for the elixir of life. Loved it! My review of This Dark Endeavor is HERE.

Dr. Frankenstein's Daughters by Suzanne Weyn

Dr. Frankenstein’s Daughters by Suzanne Weyn

This retelling features Victor Frankenstein’s twin daughters who inherit their father’s castle—one of them wants to throw lavish parties, but the other . . . the other wants to pick up where daddy left off.

Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley

Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley

In this adaptation, a young street urchin befriends the creature and accompanies him on his search for Victor Frankenstein.

iFrankenstein by Bekka Black

iFrankenstein by Bekka Black

This is a Frankenstein told through texts, tweets, emails, etc. Victor is homeschooled and has set his sights on winning a prestigious science prize and going to a tech university. He creates a bot, which he codes with a self-extending version of his personality and puts it on the internet. Soon, though, it seems like this e-doppelgänger has developed a personality (and a plan) of its own—one that may threaten not only Victor, but all humanity.

Broken by A.E. Rought Tainted by A.E. Rought

Broken series by A.E. Rought

Emma Gentry’s boyfriend died tragically last year and she’s barely holding it together. But when she meets Adam Franks, the son of a renowned surgeon, she’s intrigued—especially when it seems like Adam knows things about her that only her dead boyfriend knew . . . And when Emma stumbles on Adam’s father’s experiments, she knows that something is very, very wrong with Adam—or is he Adam? My complete review of this ridiculous disappointment is HERE.

Adam Franks by Peter Adam Salomon

Henry Franks by Peter Adam Salomon

Henry Franks had a terrible accident and his father put him back together again. He thinks. But he can’t be totally sure because he can’t remember anything. His nightmares and a serial killer on the loose make him a little hesitant to trust that everything his father says about his recovery is true. Creepy!

Do you have a favorite Frankenstein-related book or movie? Tell me in the comments. Happy National Frankenstein Day!

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Favorite New Show? White Collar!

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

White Collar

by REBECCA, January 21, 2013

For a few years, Netflix has been recommending White Collar to me and for a few years I’ve summarily dismissed the recommendation. My logic: “You know what’s boring? White collar crime.” But, through a series of (frankly uninteresting to anyone but me) circumstances, I found myself deciding I’d give the pilot a whirl, just to prove to Netflix that they were wrong. That, while, sure, I love me some Law and Order SVU and some Bones and some Lie To Me does not mean that I’m a sucker for any procedural show with a unique premise and a set of codependent partners.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. Turns out, I am a sucker for a smart and unique show with codependent partners, which White Collar definitely is. So, to save you from making the same mistake that I did and, thus, depriving yourself of a true joy, I present to you: 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

1. Expertise & Monomania! Holy hell, is there anything that delights me more than people who know a shitload of super-specific information about a lot of things and a single-minded drive to pursue those things? No! (Or, at least, nothing that’s any of your business.) So, the premise of White Collar is that Neal Caffrey (played by the delightful Moby Dick final chaseMatt Bomer)—expert art forger, counterfeiter, thief, confidence man, and all around freaking charmer—cuts a deal with the FBI to be released from prison (he’s already escaped once, NBD) as an expert consultant in the white collar department. He’s partnered with agent Peter Burke, who put him in prison in the first place. The point? Neal is an expert in all things associated with forging, art, counterfeiting, breaking in places, stealing things, puzzles, and math. He can forge the Mona Lisa, signatures, and any piece of identification you can imagine.

But, just as interestingly, Neal is an expert at reading people. He is immensely charming and can tell what people want and what their weaknesses are. It doesn’t hurt that he is distractingly handsome and dresses really well. (Seriously, though, he’s the kind of handsome—not so model beautiful that it’s ridiculous and smiley enough to be super engaging—that I can’t imagine having to deal with it on a daily basis. Like, I wonder if Matt Bomer’s boyfriend is ever trying to tell him that, like, he put too much chili powder in the stew and instead finds that he’s just been staring at Matt Bomer’s face, not having noticed that forty-five seconds have gone by?) As the show continues, Neal’s many and varied expertises keep revealing themselves. Seriously, it’s goddamned beautiful to watch (just make sure you’re not feeling like a failure when you start watching).

2. A Married Couple Without Kids! Peter Burke and his wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen, aka Kelly Kapowski from Saved By the Bell in a charming turn) have been married for ten years and have no kids. Why does that matter? Because it’s one of the few portrayals on tv (at least that I’ve seen) of a couple who have a great relationship where they actually care about the details of each other’s lives as opposed to being bored with each other, cheating on each other, or only caring about their kids’ lives. They’re pretty cute together, and not in a gross, schmoopy way. Elizabeth runs her own party planning business but she’s also super into hearing about FBI stuff; she often gives Peter insights and likes to talk through cases, and she’s smart, so it’s charming. Anyway, I didn’t notice for the whole first season how rare (and refreshing) it is to see a couple that is crazy about each other (and their super cute dog!).


white collar 3. Odd Couple In Love!
Speaking of couples in love, Peter and Neal totally adore each other and the show delights in how much they respect, admire, and infuriate each other. Peter (played by Tim DeKay, who I loved in Carnivàle) was the agent who pursued Neal for years and eventually put him in jail, and it’s clear that he respected the hell out of Neal as a brilliant criminal. When Neal was in prison, he sent Peter birthday cards and other such cheeky things. From the moment they start working together, it’s obvious that Peter is absolutely delighted by Neal, both professionally and kind of like a little brother. Neal clearly feels genuine affection and respect for Peter. Peter admires Neal’s charm, intelligence, and ability to always land on his feel; Neal admires Peter’s honesty, principles, and dependability. They are the perfect odd couple and goddammit it is delightful to watch their relationship develop. This is the definition of a buddy-buddy homosocial partnership (think Supernatural, but without that whole . . . brothers thing).

White Collar Mozzie4. Nerd Power! White Collar is definitely a show that celebrates the nerdy, from science to obscure historical factoids. Sure, many of the nerds in question are overly attractive, but not my favorite nerd. Enter, Mozzie (Willie Garson)! He’s Neal’s oldest friend and is brilliant, well-read, and nerdy! He has a penchant for wine, cravats, hanging out at Neal’s house, and clever turns of phrase. In combination with Neal, he’s devastating in a number of areas. Like, I think between the two of them they could probably topple governments or steal the entire contents of the Louvre.

When I first started watching White Collar, I thought it was a superficially fun show that kept me intrigued because of all the above. However, after a few episodes, I started thinking that it was a really smart show, in terms of writing. In each episode, there is a crime/scheme that Neal and Peter need to solve (that’s the procedural part). As such, each one is a little mini-mystery, like most procedurals, but unlike many shows of the whodunnit variety, White Collar‘s crimes are often much more complicated and smarter. These are elaborate schemes by criminals of Neal’s ilk, so it’s often as delightful to see the criminals’ intelligence as it is Neal’s. But it isn’t just the plots that are smart, it’s also the writing. One of my pet peeves in television writing is when characters don’t have properly differentiated voices (vocabularies, knowledge sets, syntaxes), but White Collar definitely delivers. Mozzie, in particular, has an awesome voice and backstory. You know a show’s writing is good when you don’t even notice it for a few episodes.

5. A Conflict Of Interests! One surefire way to create persistent and natural dramatic tension is to have characters who share one goal or interest, but have essentially conflicting interests in another area. The reason Neal wanted to be let out of prison (and treasureescaped in the first place, as we learn in the first five minutes of the pilot, so I’m not spoiling anything) is because his ex-girlfriend left town and he wants to find her. So, alongside the cases that he works with Peter, Neal is also trying to solve the mystery of where she went. Then, in later seasons, he has even bigger personal . . . pursuits. This makes for a really awesome dynamic: Peter trusts Neal intrinsically as it concerns his expertise, and adores him as a person, but knows that very expertise could allow Neal to try and escape or perpetrate schemes under his nose. Neal, on the other hand, has obligations and desires that force him, again and again, to choose between them and his loyalty to Peter. It’s all very dramatic!

White Collar seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix now.

A Review of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle #1) by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic, 2012

The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, November 5, 2012

characters

Blue: the only non-psychic in a super-psychic family, rather than having an inferiority complex, Blue is open-minded and appreciative of the possibilities that others see

Gansey: a monomaniacal to-the-manor-born nice guy—who ever thought something so delightful could exist!?

Adam: a scholarship townie too proud to accept anyone’s help, he is honorable to a fault

Ronan: angry, self-destructive, genuine, loyal to his friends, he seems as scared of himself as others are of him

Noah: though he always seems to fade into the background, he is great at finding things . . . and people

hook

Blue’s family has foreseen that if she kisses her true love he will die, so she has no intention of ever falling in love. But then she meets Gansey, Adam, and Ronan and gets caught up in their pursuit of a magic larger than she has experienced. And she gets caught up in them.

worldview

Binary Ode, by Adam S. DoyleFirst of all, can I say how pleased I am by this use of “Cycle”? It just makes me expect some glorious, Wagnerian epic. And I’m sure it won’t disappoint. Second of all, I adore this cover. You can’t really tell from the picture, but the paper it’s printed on has this really beautiful nacreous coating. The image is by the wonderful Adam S. Doyle, who also did the forthcoming cover for the paperback edition of The Scorpio Races. You can check out more of his work HERE. Third of all, I want to say the word Aglionby all the live-long day.

In The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater  combines a number of my favorite things for a delightfully balanced story that makes me immensely excited to read the rest of the cycle (apparently there are to be four? yay!), but still feels like it could stand alone. In Henrietta, West Virginia, Blue is the only one in her family without the sight, but she acts like an amplifier to the powers of those around her. Her whole life, Blue has avoided who she calls Raven Boys, boys from Aglionby, the private school in town, but one night at work, she meets four of them and is drawn into their quest for the ley lines, magical lines that Gansey (the true quester) believes will lead to a long-buried king. Gansey is driven in this quest, and Adam and Ronan are devoted to Gansey, so they’re devoted to the quest. As Blue’s friendship with the boys deepens she sees that there is truth to their quest and that, perhaps, her own story is connected in ways she never would have expected.

Glendor's BannerWhile I certainly enjoyed the interlocking plot elements, The Raven Boys‘ greatest pleasure for me was the friendship among the Raven Boys, who are a rather unexpected crew. Gansey, in particular, is a gorgeously conflicted and surprising character. He is accustomed to leisure and privilege, and is driven by his monomaniacal desire to find the body of Owen Glendower, a Medieval Welsh king. With his meticulous research notebook, his khakis, and his friendships with old British dudes, Gansey is the kind of ageless character that I’m really drawn to. He seems like he could be from any time since, like, the 1920s. His friendships with boys as different as Adam, Ronan, and Noah add to this quality. He is the center of their group, and his sincere dedication to his quest and to the well-being of his friends connects them to him in ways that I imagine will only grow more complicated in the next books.

Also, I loved that Stiefvater seeded a number of things that I imagine the next books in the cycle will take up (what a fantastic and sinister final line!). It’s hard to make these tidbits both really compelling and not like big, shiny buttons labeled “HEY, I’m going to press this in the NEXT BOOK!” and Stiefvater nails it.

Blue comes from a tight family and we get the sense that they have been her main relationships thus far, so her new friendship with the Raven Boys feels full of discoveries for her. Blue’s relationship with Adam is sweet and makes sense: she is a townie who wouldn’t ordinarily poke a Raven Boy with a stick, and he is a scholarship kid who lives in a trailer and has much more in common with Blue than with his friends. It seems exactly the kind of first relationship that they would each have. Blue’s feelings for Gansey, on the other hand, are more complicated and much less clear. They’re not romantic—although, neither is her relationship with Adam, exactly—but more like the recognition of something she respects but cannot control, like an untamed animal.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The different worlds of Aglionby and Henrietta are also particularly vivid, and Stiefvater’s engagement with class is really well-done. In the way of all the best storytellers, Stiefvater manages to use the differences in economic and cultural backgrounds to develop her characters and the intricacies of their relationships:

“Adam had once told Gansey, Rags to riches isn’t a story anyone wants to hear until after it’s done” (131).

“Gansey knew he had to make a difference, had to make a bigger mark on the world because of the head start he’d been given, or he was the worst sort of person out there” (131).

“A wrinkle formed between Adam’s eyebrows as he looked away. Not at the double-wides in the foreground, but past them, to the flat, endless field with its tufts of dry grass. So many things survived here without really living. He said, “It means I never get to be my own person. If I let you cover for me, then I’m yours. I’m [my father’s] now, and then I’ll be yours.

It struck Gansey harder than he thought it would. Some days, all that grounded him was the knowledge that his and Adam’s friendship existed in a place that money couldn’t influence. Anything that spoke to the contrary hurt Gansey more than he would have admitted out loud” (133).

The only uneven thing about the book, for me, was the perspective. The roaming, third-person perspective is part of what makes the character development so strong, but it also gives the narrative a bit of a floaty feeling; I often found myself backtracking a few sentences because I realized I had shifted from one character to another. I think this was partly because in the chapters that focus on Blue, she’s the only one who we’re following, whereas in the chapters that focus on the Raven Boys there are several perspectives.

As you’ll remember from my review, I adored Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races—it was gorgeous, a soaring yet restrained duet. The Raven Cycle promises the opposite: all of Stiefvater’s beautiful writing and insightful characterization in a sprawling, wide-reaching tale that explores magic, fate, the limits of belief, and, you know, dead kings. COUNT ME IN!

readalikes

Donna Tartt The Secret History

The Secret History  by Donna Tartt (1992). Something about Gansey put me in mind of Donna Tartt’s character Henry, a wealthy scholar totally out of touch with contemporary life or mores. They both have this delightfully nineteenth-century intellectual thing going on—the notion that knowledge is the highest pursuit and its own reward that only the very wealthy can envision for themselves. The Secret History is one of my favorite novels, so Gansey’s touch of Henry-ness delighted me. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Practical Magic Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995). Blue’s psychic-y, clairvoyant-y family is a little like the Owens family in Practical Magic. If you’ve only ever seen the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman movie (don’t get me wrong: I love it and my sister and I watch it at least ten times a year, but . . . ) the book is far superior and completely different in tone. Check out my review of both the book and the movie HERE.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). I know it’s totally cheating to put one of Stiefvater’s own books as a readalike, but I really feel like they go together in some way. Besides, as a bonus, you can read my review HERE and laugh at how I cried all over myself in public. Good times!

procured from: the library! But you should feel free to get me a copy of my very own for Chanukah, since I’ll certainly want to re-read it.

Spotted: 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl

By REBECCA, April 27, 2012

Gossip Girl

Okay, so I came super late to Gossip Girl. Yeah, I had a friend or two who watched it. And I knew what it was, sure: a superficial show about a bunch of privileged kids with nothing better to do than talk about each other and swap lip gloss colors. Right? Right! And yet, so very, very WRONG! I stand before you humbled by the power. The power of Gossip Girl.

So, I have compiled the following list of reasons you should watch Gossip Girl if, like me, you have either a.) operated under the assumption that it wasn’t worth your time, or b.) have had it on your list and just needed a little shove into the upper East Side.

Or, for those of you who were on it from go, maybe this list will remind you that, oh, look, global climate change likely has us in for a hellish summer—what better way to spend it than inside with air conditioning, a frozen cocktail, and Gossip Girl?

Without further ado, here are 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl!

Veronica Mars Kristen Bell1. Kristen Bell. I wouldn’t necessarily say that everything is better with Kristen Bell’s presence. Nope, I just double-checked on IMDb and I can confirm: Everything Is Better With the Presence of Kristen Bell. It’s like, actually, all the times when I thought to myself, “self, this show Gossip Girl is probably crap,” myself should have said, “shutup, RP-G—it has Kristen Bell in it.” Even though she’s only voice-over, she manages to seem like she knows everything and yet could be anyone. That, my friends, is talent.

[Sidebar: once, my friend A— tricked me into seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall (ok, she didn’t trick me; I was writing my dissertation and she basically had me at “want to go to the mov—”). When we got there and I realized that it was a romantic comedy in which I was going to have to watch people be laughed at for humiliating themselves I was un-pleased. However! Within like 14 seconds of Kristen Bell coming on camera, I was laughing. (Well, and then there was that thing with the puppet musical of Dracula that just slayed me.)]

Sugar Cookies xoxo

Image: Whipped Bake Shop, Philadelphia

2. Relatedly, the signoff “xoxo, Gossip Girl.” This is one of the most addictive and delightful inventions of the information age. The “xoxo, —” provides an email salutation that is simultaneously warm and suggests a shared cultural milieu,  but isn’t overly intimate and can always be explained away as a GG citation were the recipient to feel it intrusively intimate. Besides, Kristen Bell’s snarkly little “you know you love me. Xoxo, Gossip Girl” is about the best ending to a tv episode ever. It works no matter what the state of the cliffhanger. Because we do love her!

3. Incestuousness. Among the core cast, that is. I love when even the cast photos make it clear that a show is going to have all the cast members sleep together.

Gossip Girl Queer as Folk The L Word 90210

America's Next Top Model

Hmm.

Seriously, though, sometimes it’s infuriating to see a show where the couple combos just keep flip-flopping: it’s like, what, show, do you not have the budget for a new character—go to a coffee shop and meet someone. But in Gossip Girl, with the familial expectations of marriage, the incredible elitism, and the suspicion of people being after them for their money, the inter-relating actually makes sense. And it’s kind of cool to see a model of how a small group of people can be friendly after dating, rather than the character having to leave the show.

Blair Waldorf

Image credit: Colormecourtney.com

4. Fashion, of course. Unlike many teen shows where fashion isn’t mentioned and the designer clothes, coiffed hair, and high heels are supposed to just be naturally occurring, in Gossip Girl fashion is talked about, aspired to, and expected. This is so much more realistic (narratively), and it actually acknowledges the time, money, and effort that it takes to look put together, much less stylish. My particular favorites in the fashion department are Blair and her school cronies. Blair’s gowns are stunning, and her school clothes (dictatorially echoed on her ladies in waiting) are like British school boy uniform + Godard waif + Marie Antoinette + money.

Gossip Girl Blair Waldorf Gossip Girl Serena Van der Woodsen Blair Waldorf

5. Champagne. It’s as effervescent as the nightlife and as fizzy as the fashion. The folks of Gossip Girl remind us that it doesn’t have to be New Year’s Eve or a wedding to pop the cork on some bubbly. And, especially with summer coming, Gossip Girl has inspired me to pair my YA with a bit of the Brut, thank you very much. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go get a bellini.

6. What I called the Random Appeal Factor in my list of 10 Reasons You Should Be Watching Make It Or Break It.  I’ll just be honest. I’m really not the intended audience of Gossip Girl. I mean, I’m like the anti-Gossip Girl. But I LOVE it. And then one night my sister was hanging out, and we were all, what should we watch while sipping whiskey, petting the cat, and brainstorming how to topple capitalism? Well, Gossip Girl, obviously. I was in the middle of season 2, and I just popped it on, telling my sister we’d change it if she didn’t like it. By three minutes in, she was like, “wait, pause it and tell me EVERYTHING about EVERYONE.” And I did. And then she kept calling me after work and after hanging out with her friends, all, “oh, yeah, hey, um, I’ve got like 48 minutes before my next thing—you wanna watch an episode of Gossip Girl?” Yes. Yes, I do.

7. Blair. Sure, it’s “Serena” that gets whispered in the opening credits; sure, it’s Serena’s return that whips the upper East Side into a tizzy in the first episode; sure, dudes seem to find her irresistible. But who cares about Serena when the HILARIOUS Blair Waldorf is in a scene? Oh, Blair, you are so crazy. You’re insecure, entitled, uncompromising, spiteful, vindictive, petty, and dictatorial. And HILARIOUS.

I have discussed my love for monomaniacal characters here and here, and Blair definitely makes the list. And that’s why I actually love her; because despite her many, many horrible qualities, she is a hella hard worker who goes after what she wants and is willing to appear ridiculous to get it. And, as Chuck remarks to Blair, “you don’t get nearly enough credit for your wit.”

8. Chuck. Chuck Bass. Chuck Basstard. Mother Chucker. Speaking of monomaniacs with extremely questionable ethics! Ok, Chuck, I hated you in the beginning of the show because I have a soul and you treat women like disposable party favors. And yet, despite finding every element of your politics despicable, with each passing 42 minutes I found myself more and more delighted by you. Dude, you are fucked up. And hilarious, ambitious, smart, and resourceful. Plus, you can say things that would sound ridiculous coming from any other character/actor. (In response to why he should be chosen for a position: “Because I’m Chuck Bass.”) Chuck Bass, you diabolical, screwed-up fiend.

Chuck Bass Evil Genius

9. Chuck and Blair! If you look up “synergy” in the dictionary, you will find the equation “Chuck+Blair.” Okay, you won’t; you will find something like “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements” (dictionary.com). Or, as George Orwell would put it, 2+2=5. These two superpowers are each formidable on their own. But whenever they join forces, it’s seismic. Their scenes are far and away the best written scenes on the show, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see them glower at each other, admire their own and each other’s craftiness, and dress impeccably.

[slight spoiler for Season 1:]

“Blair: Do you . . . ‘like’ me?
Chuck: Define like.
Blair: You have got to be kidding me.
Chuck: How do you think I feel? I can’t sleep! I feel sick, like there’s something in my stomach . . . fluttering.
[disgusted]
Blair: Butterflies? Oh no, no, no, no no.
[horrified]
This is not happening!
Chuck Bass: Believe me no one is more surprised or ashamed than I am.
Blair Waldorf: Chuck, you know that I adore all of God’s creatures and the metaphors that they inspire, but those butterflies have got to be murdered”

Image: January Jones Prints on etsy

10. Scheming, Plotting, and General Mischief Making via Gossip Girl. Okay, so ordinarily, I’m not a fan of lying and scheming on shows—it so often feels like the writers couldn’t create drama without a convenient “misunderstanding” that leads to plotting, etc. But, in Gossip Girl, the scheming seems so much a part of the characters and the world they’ve been raised in that it all makes sense (we even see how Upper-East-Side-itis can be contagious . . .). Despite all their money and connections, there is so little that these teenagers have control over in their worlds that they seem to crave the tiny pops of control that they get when they reveal something via Gossip Girl or use it to punish someone else, even if they know they’re inviting retribution.

Image: Blue Ribbon General Store

These people use Gossip Girl to measure their social cachet, perpetrate retribution on one another via truth and lies alike, and air confessions and grievances. And they variously describe Gossip Girl as ally and threat. As Gossip Girl points out at one point, though, it is only through the very active participation of each person who sends tips to Gossip Girl or acts in accordance with her tips that she has any power to destroy their lives or tell their secrets. As my sister astutely pointed out: even though they would be better off if they simply didn’t play the game, it’s like a very well-orchestrated self-destruction that they all participate in because they believe momentary notoriety and the upper-hand are the only forms of capital they have.

And so, the scheming, lying, vicious truth-telling, innocent acts caught on camera from the wrong angle, incidents of omission, and flat out manipulation creates drama, yes, but it’s a dynamic and dangerous drama, even when it’s based on lies and misunderstandings.

So, there you have it. Have I missed your favorite (or most hated) thing about Gossip Girl? Your favorite Chuck- or Blair-ism? Let me know in the comments!

The Path To Wisdom Is Paved With . . . Terror?: Skin Hunger

A Review of Skin Hunger (A Resurrection of Magic # 1) by Kathleen Duey

Simon Pulse, 2007

By REBECCA, March 2, 2012

characters

Skin Hunger’s story is told in chapters from alternating viewpoints.

Sadima’s narrative:

Sadima: Caring and artistic, with a penchant for hearing animals’ thoughts and cheese-making

Somiss: brilliant & sociopathic? sociopathic & righteous? righteous & corrupt & brilliant? yes!

Franklin: Sadima’s love, servant to Somiss, and conflicted about whether the ends justify the means

Micah: Sadima’s well-intentioned but limited brother

Papa: Sadima’s father, ruined by the death of his wife at Sadima’s birth

Hahp’s narrative, centuries later:

Hahp: Slightly suicidal, abused son of a rich merchant with a talent for thought control

Gerrard: Hahp’s roommate, mysteriously astute with the ancient language of magic . . .

Franklin: Distant, if not actively malevolent, wizard who teaches the boys to move their thoughts

Somiss: Somewhat Nietzschean wizard, devoid of mercy, who inspires terror wherever he goes

Jux: Manic and vaguely psychopathic wizard whose backstory is told in the sequel, Sacred Scars

Other pupils at Limòri Academy: fellow sufferers, not allowed to help one another on pain of death

hook

What would you sacrifice to resurrect the power of magic? Once resurrected, what would you sacrifice to possess it?

worldview

Skin Hunger is told, alternatingly, from Sadima and Hahp’s perspectives. Sadima lives in a time when all knowledge of magic has been banned by reigning royalty, who (as always) fear the power it gives to the people. The promise of magic’s resurrection is the promise of closing the immense gap between royalty and the starving peasant classes in the cities and farmers in the country. Magic is a practical tool that could drastically ease these folks’ daily lives—it can cure stomachaches, calm a crying baby, or ease childbirth. In Hahp’s time, centuries later, magic has been resurrected and is controlled by a group of elite wizards, making it (as always) a commodity that fetches a high price— prohibitively high for those whom it might actually help. All this makes for a worldview that values magic and education, hopeful for their ability to change the world. But it also makes for a worldview that is distinctly suspicious that the power to wield magic corrupts absolutely.

Somiss is the ultimate embodiment of this promise and this threat. The son of a wealthy noble family (with one of many claims to the throne), Somiss abandons his family, monomaniacally driven to research the old magic. He is brilliant and tyrannical, and in his paranoia that his work will be discovered he resorts to . . . extreme measures of . . . research. What’s awesome about Kathleen Duey, though, is that Somiss’ goal of restoring magic is absolutely an honorable one that the reader roots for, one that, if it goes as Somiss claims it will, would make the world a better place, flushing out royal corruption and leveling the classes. Sadima, who was raised on a farm and finds her way to Somiss and Franklin’s city garret in her teens, is not naïve, and yet her love for Franklin entices her to participate in their work long after she believes that it has soured. This tension continues in the sequel, Sacred Scars (2009), which is also amazing, and proceeds directly from where Skin Hunger leaves off (review forthcoming).

This ethical tension (how far should we go to pursue knowledge) is one that I find endlessly compelling, and I was quite impressed by how suspenseful Duey’s portrayal of this drama is in both narratives. In Limòri Academy, Hahp and the other boys toil to be the one who “graduates.” They are punished for offering any help to one another, and are punished for their failures with food deprivation, physical torture and, most effectively, mental warfare—how long have they been there? how big is the room, really? when will they next eat? what do the wizards want them to do? The wizards push the boys to their limits in an attempt (we think) to find which of them has the makings of a wizard. It’s just like graduate school.

apples have a role to play

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Duey was clearly invested in this being a real atmosphere piece—Limòri Academy, in particular, is one of the damned creepiest places ever. With its endless twists and turns, its ability to seem like a huge space when it’s dark but resolve into a normal sized room when lit, the way the wizards seem to be able to hear your very thoughts . . . Eeurgh! Awesome. It also lives up to its intention to have complicated, terrified, weak, strong, conflicted characters. Hahp, especially, is a character that I haven’t seen in YA fantasy before. Because he barely interacts with anyone, Hahp’s characterization is all in his head and how he reacts to the bizarre and confusing challenges of the Limòri wizards. While this could, in a less skilled author, make for a solipsistic or self-indulgent narration, Duey is extremely disciplined in her choices, and so our all-access pass to Hahp’s poor little head reveals the shame, fear, and desperation that seem realistic for a pubescent boy who knows that he is definitively on his own.

As I’ve mentioned, one of Duey’s clear goals is to explore the classic philosophical issue of how far one should go to pursue knowledge. What’s unique about Skin Hunger’s take on this issue, however, is that it looks very different in 11-14 year old boys than it does in Somiss, a man in his twenties. For Hahp and Gerrard, possessing knowledge of magic is a matter of survival—the pure pursuit of wisdom twisted into a desperate Skinner-box lever pull. As the boys go through their classes, learning to move their thoughts into their toes, Hahp fantasizes about how he wants to be the one to graduate and become a wizard, not because of a desire to do magic, but so that he can finally look his abusive father in the face and know that he has the power to protect his mother. One of the more interesting elements of Hahp’s storyline is the way the boys’ deprivation and training seem almost cult-like, the wizards more monks than magicians.

As you likely noticed in the character listings, Franklin and Somiss are in both narratives, and they exemplify the underlying horror of the novel: how did we get from Sadima’s story to Hahp’s? How did we get from Somiss and Franklin’s desire to solve an intellectual mystery and restore magic to the people, to Somiss and Franklin’s mental and physical torture of children in an attempt to perpetuate their hold over magic? Holy crap, this book is disturbing and awesome.

My one critique was that the cross-cutting between Sadima’s and Hahp’s storylines happened too quickly—the chapters are sometimes only a few pages long. However, upon re-reading Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars to write this review, I realized that much of the narrative suspense comes from this style of editing.

personal disclosure

Along with being a totally kickass book that portends a kickass series, Skin Hunger is a really excellent example of how tools of production being controlled by an elite few cannot help but lead to suffering, death, and the suppression of knowledge! Is the resurrection of magic destined to produce a rarified commodity because Somiss, despite having run away, is, and thinks like, a member of the nobility? Or is it because he sincerely believes that he is the only one who could possess power without becoming corrupt? Or because he’s a psychopath?

Many reviews of this book that I’ve read seem to think that nothing happens, or that this ethical issue is treated in an overly dark manner. I can’t help but think that these reviewers are also not fans of Faust, nor are they researchers of any kind, nor do they possess a deep dissatisfaction with the system that controls access to resources and believe that perhaps if we could study what undergirds that system and find the key to toppling it then people would be better off. As such, I dismiss their opinions. More important, I totally understand why they wouldn’t find this book interesting. For me and, I think, for anyone who is intrigued by the razor’s edge on which the pursuit of knowledge becomes oppression, there is a nearly Saw-esque level of tension in attempting to be the one student who graduates (whatever that means) Limòri Academy, potentially at the cost of your peers’ lives. God, Somiss is an evil, evil genius!

I can’t wait for the third book in the series to be released! Kathleen Duey reports that she’s working on it . . . Also, check out more amazing work by the cover artist for Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars here.

readalikes

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (2009). There is a similar sensitivity to how the lies that we tell about our histories, when revealed, can be just as horrifying as, say, zombies (or wizards, as the case may be).

Winter of Fire, by Sherryl Jordan (1992). Elsha, all her life a member of the slave class that mines coal for the Chosen, has visions that bring her to the attention of the all-powerful Firelord. She becomes his Handmaiden, and discovers mysteries that have long divided the Quelled and the Chosen.

The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek (2006). Ashleigh Trine and Kieran Trevarde are imprisoned and studied for their talents, and magic is strictly controlled by, who else, a corrupt overclass. Trine and Trevarde bust out of prison and begin a dusty, epic run for their lives, and for the mysterious patterns that make magic, not to mention love. One of my favorites—check out my review here.

Procured from: the library

Skin Hunger was recommended to me by my dear friend, E—. Many thanks!

My Hideous Proto-Progeny: This Dark Endeavor

A Review of This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book One by Kenneth Oppel

Simon & Schuster, 2011

by REBECCA, February 10, 2012

Awesome & relevant cover

characters

Victor Frankenstein: impulsive and mischievous teen with a taste for theatrics and daredevilry

Konrad Frankenstein: more docile and charming firstborn twin and Victor’s other half

Elizabeth Lavenza: adventurous and smart cousin-sister-friend of the twins

Henry Clerval: Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth’s best friend; many-phobia-ed budding playwright

Alphonse Frankenstein: the twins’ father, a liberal and a scholar

Julius Polidori: an elderly former alchemist with an underground laboratory

Dr. Murnau: cutting-edge scientist who awakes Victor’s interest in the natural sciences

Krake: Polidori’s lynx familiar

  lynxypoo!

hook

How far would you go and what would you risk to save your soul mate? When Konrad falls ill, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry undertake a grand and dangerous adventure to save his life. Forever.

aw, twinsies!

yikes, twinsies!

worldview

As you likely guessed from the self-explanatory title, this is a story of Victor Frankenstein (that’s Dr. Frankenstein, to you, thank you, he worked hard for that degree in creative revivification) in his early years. As this is a prequel to Frankenstein, it takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, during the French Revolution. Now, before you say to yourself: self, I don’t appreciate when random authors think they can do whatever they like with the most perfect novel ever written—or, for that matter: self, I don’t dig historical fiction and I don’t understand why Frankenstein has all those glaciers in it—pause to consider several things.

First, This Dark Endeavor is a totally contemporary-feeling young adult novel, so it doesn’t feel like historical fiction at all, except in a bit of a Jacques-Tardi-adventure-punk way.

Second, for all that it has the word “apprenticeship” in the title, this is really an adventure story. It contains tree-climbing, animal-evading, death- and parent-defying shenanigans, and, yes, the wrestling of a giant prehistoric fish. Indeed, Victor isn’t really much for the old book-learning, even if he does become fascinated by the dark arts. He’d really rather explore things, or jump off of them. Konrad is the better student; perhaps even the better human being, Victor sometimes feels—and Victor often waits to see what Konrad’s response is before he knows how he feels. So, when Konrad suddenly becomes ill, Victor sees for the first time what it is to be truly alone (ah! “alone, bad; friends, good”—break my heart). Bereft and terrified, he will stop at nothing to save his brother.

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that I have a vast soft spot for monomaniacs, especially when their pursuits aren’t purely selfish. While Victor begins the novel with nothing more than a curious spirit and a desire to “create something, some great work that will be useful and marvelous to all humanity,” his drive to save Konrad (or is that his only goal?) quickly enters the monomaniacal territory that Frankenstein readers will recognize (35).

The setting—the streets, forests, and lake of Geneva, and the Frankenstein family château—is well-drawn, but not belabored, as it is merely the backdrop for the adventures and discoveries that unfold. The real treat for me was watching the character of Victor emerge from an ordinary teenage boy to the driven, tormented man we know he will become. Oppel has a light touch, and he manages to create the circumstances for this development realistically and without preciousness as it regards Frankenstein. This was impressive, indeed, especially given that Oppel did indulge in multiple references to Shelley’s novel and its intertexts, which will likely tickle Frankenstein enthusiasts and pass benignly under the notice of others.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Oppel seemed interested in similar things about Victor’s life as I would be: what sparked his interest in science? how did that interest, ahem, grow to take on a life of its own? what’s the big f-ing deal about Elizabeth, anyway? is Victor actually super-smart or just deluded? There is no moralizing here, even when the Frankensteins’ liberal atheism butts up against Elizabeth’s Catholic tendencies; Oppel offers no answers to the budding questions raised about life, death, and nature. Nah, he’s too busy writing a fast-paced adventure story, even if the goal of that adventure is of the alchemical sort:

Elizabeth gave a shriek, for the answer had come from behind us. We all whirled to behold, standing in the doorway, Father.

“You’ve discovered the Biblioteka Obscura, I see,” he said, torchlight and shadow dancing disconcertingly over his craggy face. . . . “And would I be right in assuming, Victor, that you were the one to shake hands with the door?”

I heard Konrad chuckle.

“Yes,” I admitted, “and it very nearly crushed my hand!”

“No,” said my father, “it was not designed to crush the hand, just hold on to it. Forever.”

I looked at him, shocked. “Truly?”

“When I discovered this secret passage as a young man, no one had descended the stairs for more than two hundred years. And the last person to do so was still here. What remained of him, anyway. The bones of his forearm dangled from the door. The rest of his ruined body had fallen into the shaft.”

“We wondered if we’d seen . . . a finger bone down there,” Elizabeth said.

“No doubt I missed a bit”’ said father. (21)

In short, This Dark Endeavor is not such a dark endeavor, after all. Oppel’s companion novel has very little of Shelley’s doom and gloom “workshop of filthy creation.” It’s more a château of slightly besmudgéd creation. Oppel uses the details and backstory of Shelley’s original as a canvas on which he paints his own picture of a particular moment in which a group of teenagers come of age through their quest—a bit like a Stand By Me for the upper class 18th century set. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a superficial story, simply that Oppel doesn’t treat the material with such deference that he is afraid to have fun with it. The writing and pacing are deft, but not showy, and the story immediately engaging, even if it isn’t particularly complex.

personal disclosure

I feel honor-bound to mention that I worship Shelley’s Frankenstein. This, of course, made me delighted by the prospect of this novel, as well as dubious that it would be able to do much more than flesh out the backstory that Shelley already gave us. Also, I think I expected Victor to be something like a youthful combination of Snape and Heathcliff: a dark and brooding potions savant. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case. One thing that I was particularly looking forward to in this book was the potential character development of my favorite Frankenstein character, Henry Clerval. While Victor is busy grave-robbing and corpse-knitting, Henry is, you know, writing poems and reading books, and probably wearing flowers in his buttonholes. So, while we do get a view of the teenaged Clerval, he’s not particularly developed and we miss out on seeing the seeds of their mutual love and admiration. Ah, well, perhaps in the next installment.

readalike

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (2007). Both books engage historical mysteries/quests for knowledge in appealing and unique ways.

Procured from: I received this book from the publisher and was in no way bribed or compensated to write this review.

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