Review: The Dark Days Club

TDDC
Nearly 500 pages of awesome.

Title: Goodman, Alison. The Dark Days Club. New York, NY: Viking Books.

Keywords: demons, magical abilities, orphans, young adult, Regency England

Caution: Some plot points ahead.

The Dark Days Club is written by Australian novelist Alison Goodman. Goodman wrote the acclaimed Eon / Eona fantasy duology (which I have not yet read but plan to), and teaches creative fiction courses to graduate students at the university level. The novel depicts a young English woman on the eve of her Court Presentation during the Regency Era of Britain (roughly from 1811 to 1820, depending on the historian you cite). Events become complicated when the young woman discovers that a maid has gone missing, and that a dear friend has been ruined in the eyes of Society.

Readers learn early on that Lady Helen Wrexhall comes with a tainted past, having been born to the notorious Countess Catherine Wrexhall, a noblewoman with a mysterious (and possibly treasonous) past prior to her death by drowning. Thus, Lady Helen is warned against being too similar to her mother; too unfeminine, for she is tall; and really, too anything. She lives with a proper aunt and a horrendous, abusive uncle, and wrestles with excess energy and boredom. Until she meets the infamous Lord Carlston and discovers that she is a Reclaimer, an individual with inherent abilities that allow her to remove the various types of Deceivers — essentially, demons — from human vessels and in doing so, reclaims human souls. The Reclaimers, and along with several allies, belong to The Dark Days Club — a group of determined demon hunters based in England.

I was not surprised to discover that Lady Catherine had also been Reclaimer, and that Lady Helen’s direct inheritance of these magical talents is a key plot point in the novel. Here are a few more details:

  • Pacing: The novel’s pace / timeline is superb. The story seems to unfold at a pace that is exactly right for this particular novel and these particular characters. Goodman allowed sufficient time for true character development throughout the novel, and then would juxtapose the story or character exposition with exciting action. As a result, an otherwise fantastical story has a unique ring of authenticity and a distinct sense of reality.
  • Prose: You can tell that Goodman is a creative writing professor by her prose. She practices what she preaches: Nary an adverb in sight, and each paragraph on every page feels like it had individual attention.
  • Research: The Dark Days Club is very well researched. Abundant historical references from the Regency Era were introduced to add pertinent details to the story, around which then Goodman centered important plot points. This resulted in an enhanced story, one that did not hit the reader over the head with the lengthy bits of research-laden exposition.
  • Magic, Religion & Cosmology: While demon hunter stories abound on today’s bookshelves, this novel’s take on demon hunters (set against a Regency backdrop) is fresh enough to warrant a second look. Furthermore, Goodman smartly ensures that Lady Helen has enough religion (an accurate and authentic experience of the young noblewomen of that time) to warrant sufficient inner turmoil about the existence of immortal souls and Deceivers and Reclaimers and alchemy.

I enjoyed The Dark Days Club. With so much to love about this novel, I felt that I had an embarrassment of riches to discuss in this review. The book was crafted through such deliberate, masterful decisions that I could relax and enjoy both the story and the craft without ever being jarred out of my suspension of disbelief. Escapism at its finest.

Excitement Level: #Awyiss

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Bad Feminist

Title: Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Bad Feminist
Let’s all be bad feminists.

Keywords: Essays, feminism, intersectionality, non-fiction

Note: I wrestled with whether to categorize this as ‘Required Reading’ or as a ‘Review.’ I will stick with ‘Review’ for now but know that it was a difficult decision…

I finished Bad Feminist last week, and since then, I cannot stop thinking of this powerful, hilarious, and moving collection of essays. Gay is an astute cultural and literary analyst, and a professor at an unnamed college in a Midwest state in the United States. Her prose is especially well written: concise, unpretentious, and every word is there for a specific purpose. Her essays read as an effortless exercise in the art of analysis.

First things first: Gay writes that feminism is a movement created by people, and people are fallible, irrational, and can be assholes (my emphasis). This is true. So when she goes on to explore, dissect, and otherwise ruminate over myriad topics such as reality television programming or Scrabble championships or Daniel Tosh’s infamous rape joke, Gay proceeds to examine each subject in nuanced and careful ways. It’s not enough to simply analyze a topic. Instead, she also strives to identify how associated variables impact the topic at hand. I’m terribly impressed by this approach; this kind of analysis yields incredible rewards for the reader. As I read the text, I often had the sensation of luxuriating in these careful details.

As I read through her essays, two main themes resonated with me:

  • Feminism is not a catch-all movement. What I mean is that the movement doesn’t promise you that you can have it all, and the Kate Spade purse, too. What I found most memorable is Gay’s assertion that people, as a whole, should adjust their improbably high expectations of the feminist movement to something more… realistic. Feminism = Equal opportunity for all genders to have choices in matters economic / financial, digital, social, and cultural.
  • Feminism is contextual. Unfortunately, equality does not mean equity. Throughout several of her essays, Gay examines how the mainstream feminist movement does not equitably address the needs of any person who is not white, able-bodied, cisgender, and heterosexual. Historically, the feminist movement in the United States has barely acknowledged — let alone addressed — how the combined cultural legacies of racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, and rigid gender roles (and identities) impact people; how these cultural and systemic factors prevent equal access to the very opportunities ostensibly provided by the feminist movement. It is crucial to recognize such facts.

Gay is a champion at identifying each piece of the intersectionality puzzle in her essays. Incredibly (in my opinion), she makes the exercise look simple. Gay is rightfully discomforted that she exists in a system that fails to meet so many people’s needs, and she captures very well the persistent and disquieting despair that bleeds into a person once they realize this fact.

I enjoyed Gay’s work with a profound appreciation. So few writers can be thoughtful and authentic about such difficult topics, and I feel grateful that I get to read these essays. If you’re interested in learning more about Gay but cannot commit to Bad Feminist right now, I highly recommend Gay’s delightful TED Talk (available here). Her last line is as close to perfect as I can imagine on this topic: “I am a bad feminist. But I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Excitement Level: All the stars in this galaxy.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Haruki Murakami

A while back, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories. I have read a few other Murakami books (including his non-fiction Underground, about the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which I highly recommend. I think sometimes American’s forget that terrorism exists in other countries—what? Other countries?—and this book is a testament to global violence). I would consider myself a fan of his work. But about halfway through the book, I realized something: I didn’t understand about 60% of what I was reading. And that is probably being generous.

For those of you that don’t know, Haruki Murakami is probably the best known Japanese author outside of Japan. He studied at Waseda University, and I only mention that because I made a little pilgrimage, and their literature department has its own library. A library only devoted to works of fiction to be used by writers for reference purposes. I may have peed my pants a little. Got to hand it to the Japanese, they appreciate their art. Here, have some of my pictures, because everyone loves to look at other people’s travel photos.

Anyway, Murakami has won a million awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize, which Wikipedia tells me that to win, your work has to exhibit “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times.” Haha, no problem! I bust crap like that out every day! I’m just filled with human validity. Now, excuse me while I partake of some ugly sobbing.

Murakami’s writing is filled with all of those themes, all beautifully crafted in a gloss of post-modern melancholy that I find both appealing and so damned frustrating, because sometimes YOU JUST WANT A HAPPY ENDING! STOP WHINING YOU OVER EDUCATED, OVERSEXED PROTAGONIST! His themes include violence, loss, and the subconscious. He is ridiculously well versed in Western culture, especially music, and interweaves this knowledge without you ever thinking he’s name dropping just cause he can. He plays around with reality and fantasy in ways that will blow your mind. So basically, Haruki Murakami wins. At life. And is better than you could ever hope to be.

Going back to my original point:

I could not make sense of a lot of what was going on in The Elephant Vanishes. But I still enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed what I did understand. I enjoyed the language. I enjoyed the different world view of reading a non-Western author. Murakami is a highly celebrated author, and my permanent “what?” face while reading should have made me feel like my AP English tests should be revoked. But I ended up not caring, and just reading.

What I am trying to say is I think that we are trained from an early age that everything must have some kind of deeper meaning. And if we don’t understand that meaning, we must be uncultured idiots. Even if you didn’t go to college, this idea was hammered in by high school. I still have my 12th grade English teacher’s horrible voice screeching in my brain when I approach a difficult book: “What’s the undergirding, overarching theme?” To which now, in the safe anonymity of the internet, I can finally reply you can take your undergirding and shove it up your overarching. And I say good day, Madame. I said good day!

So we get scared to explore challenging material, because of the fear that we won’t be able to identify and analyze the one sentence that that one character said on page 360, that other people have told us is important. And it probably is. But guess what? It’s not so important to be able to comprehend every microcosm of Heart of Darkness. What is important is whatever you end up getting out of it. Whatever speaks to you personally, as well as going out and finding stuff you may never have read because you thought it would go over your head.

Basically, go read. Read all the things. Try long books and poetry. Try philosophy and science. Hell, try a Murakami. Find what meaning you can and just enjoy the thrill of reading beyond your comprehension. I am someone who believes deeply in the power of books as a medium of learning and growing. So read. And grow. And learn. And don’t ever apologize for what you chose to take away from a book.

Review: Passenger

passenger
The cover is pretty bitchin’ though

Details: Bracken, Alexandra. (2016). Passenger. Los Angeles: Hyperion.

Keywords: Young Adult, fantasy, time travel, romance

Review:

I heard mixed things about Passenger from many different sources. Some people loved it, and some were more meh about it. I decided to try it out because the premise sounded interesting and I’d heard good things about Alexandra Bracken’s other books series, starting with The Darkest Minds.

In a nutshell, the book follows Etta, a budding virtuoso violinist, after she is forced through a time passage back to the 1700’s, where she discovers she is a traveler, someone who can use these passages to jump through time. When she is blackmailed into finding a magic astrolabe, she is sent on a whirlwind journey through time, accompanied by sailor Nicholas Carter, who has an agenda of his own.

Mixed is about how I felt about the book. It was entertaining and well written, but nothing about it really stuck with me. I think a part of this was because of Etta. While I liked her as a character, I felt like she wasn’t as well rounded as she could have been. I wanted to know more about what motivated her besides the situations that she found herself in. I did like that she was no nonsense, and was able to handle herself in some pretty terrifying and confusing situations, and I thought that the theme of music in her life carried nicely through the book. I just wish that her characterization had been more robust.

I also had a hard time with the extreme insta-love between Etta and Nicholas. While I understand that they had an immediate connection, it was hard to believe the deep feelings they magically had for each other, to the point of making some fairly major sacrifices for each other. I know there was a timeline (hah!) that the author was working with, but I think their relationship would have been more believable had they developed feelings a little slower.

That being said, I really liked Nicholas. His background and upbringing was compelling and made many of his action understandable. His discomfort with himself and his unwillingness to let himself get involved with Etta at first were pretty heart breaking, and served the story well. I also like the discussion of race and race relations through different time periods, and how Etta especially has to come to understand how deeply affecting those kinds of social boundaries can have on a person.

I also enjoyed seeing the different time periods represented. It was enjoyable to see how Nicholas and Etta had to navigate through time periods that they might not fully understand or be prepared for, like the London Blitz. I think Bracken used these settings well to move the plot along in a well paced way.

If you are looking for a fun and action packed book, I would recommend Passenger, but my opinion is that it was not as memorable as I would have liked. I am interested to see how the sequel plays out though, so I suppose that says something about the quality of the writing.

Excitement Level: Three stars to starboard!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Required Reading: Emergence

Required Reading is (another) new format at Cardigans & Capes: This category refers to a novel, text, or series that was so important / innovative / resonant that this same text has stayed with us for the rest of our lives. Thus, for our dear readers, it is… Required Reading.

EmergenceTitlePalmer, David R. (1984). Emergence. New York: Spectra.

Keywords: Post-apocalyptic worlds, hominids, evolution, Russian Scare

When I first read Emergence at twelve years of age, I had no idea how important this novel would become (to me, at least. After the 1985 nomination for a Hugo, Palmer has enjoyed relative obscurity as far as I can tell). For some context: I have always been a reader. I started my voracious consumption of novels with ghost stories and Nancy Drew (The Secret at Shadow Ranch 4Evah!), and when I turned ten, I thought I’d give a fantasy novel a try (This event will be detailed in another Required Reading post…). By twelve, I had branched into Anne McCaffrey and some other adult sci-fi novels. But Emergence was something else.

Emergence occurs in a post-apocalyptic world where homo post hominem  — the next stage in hominid evolution — has arrived. Narrated by a twelve year old girl who methodically picks her away across the bionuclear fallout zone that was the United States, Emergence is told through an amalgamation of shorthand styles (think Pitman shorthand) and in a conversational tone addressed to the reader, who is often saluted with, “Hello, Posterity!” Even now, this phrase makes me smile. The novel follows the main character, Candidia Maria Smith-Foster, as she searches out other hominems. The novel culminates when she engages in a dangerous mission to save her fledgling species. The characterization, the narrative style, and the plot are deliberate and excellent choices that, when added together, create a rollicking read. The sheer imagination and scope of the novel is tremendous, and such fun! The reader is left with a feeling of, “Goll-eee, that was great!”

But Emergence resonated with twelve-year-old-me on a fundamental level: Never before had I seen myself (or rather, how I wanted to imagine my future myself) in a novel. Many other readers, librarians, and cultural analysts know and comment upon this phenomenon: Readers want to identify with the characters; they need to “see” themselves in the stories they consume. Candy, the main character, was a polymath with a hard work ethic, a nigh telepathic animal sidekick, and a black belt. I, also twelve, was an awkward fat kid with a hearing loss (and a related speech pathology).

So… we were not quite the same.

However, Candy seeded in me the idea that I could — someday — become a polymath and obtain a black belt and do anything I wanted to. As I grew up, reality presented itself: With some privilege, some luck / chance, and hard work, I could accomplish some goals. Not everything that Candy could do, true. But some of them. And though reality has intruded and my ability to continue faking adulthood seems to be successful, I will never forget the joy of possibility I felt when I read Emergence for the first time. I realized then that I didn’t need to be limited to what I was, or what I had been. I could be more. And that is a precious, precious gift.