Category Archives: Commentary

Hunger Games – Victorian Style

I have a confession to make:  I’m addicted to Victorian “hunger games.”  No, I’m not talking about some new infestation of bastardized romance novels, like Pride and Prejudice and Decapitation or Sense and Sensibility and Swordplay. And I’m not referring to little known versions of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë novels where the heroines are marooned on an island and must eat raw monkey hearts and build canoes out of coconut trees before they can meet the man of their dreams.  (Though that would be a fun read, wouldn’t it?)

I’m talking about the recent wave of Young Adult books featuring Victorian girls and women who live on their own, run their own businesses, disguise themselves as gentlemen or sailors or errand boys, have adventures that would make most Victorian men wet their trousers, and defeat the bad guys time and time again. I’m talking about a particular type of hunger and a particular manner of survival in a time that was far too particular about what women could or could not want.

When I first noticed the growing number of YA novels about young independent women taking on the dinosaurs of the Socio-Mesozoic age, the Inner Pedantic Writer in my head said, “Oh great, just what we need! More romantic fluff for teen and pre-teen girls.” I had to agree.  I mean, isn’t it bad enough that half the YA covers show a girl and boy kissing, or holding hands, or rubbing noses, or, in at least one case, miming a sex act? Have we exhausted the supply of girl-meets-boy stories to the point where we are forced to import them from Victorian England?

After I’d read one or two of these books, though, I realized my Inner Pedantic Writer was wrong. These aren’t bodice-ripper stories for the under-aged. They are serious adventures and mysteries with brave, intelligent heroines. But I did have to wonder: Why were so many writers suddenly eager to plop their heroines down in a time and place where even getting to the scene of a crime takes almost as much imagination and plotting as an entire sci-fi novel?

“Because,” Inner Pedantic Writer answered, “freedom does not make for very exciting stories. If a heroine can be a transgendered bionic clone of Hercule Poirot, have sex wherever and whenever she wants, shoot, stab, karate chop, chainsaw or lightsaber the villains as needed, and even solve crimes in other people’s books—well, what’s left?  Where is the tension going to come from?”

That sounded reasonable. But after a little thought I realized there were two problems with Inner Pedantic Writer’s theory:

1)  It suggested that there are no major obstacles left for women and therefore any story set in modern times has to be dull because all the big issues are gone.  Clearly Pedantic Inner Writer has forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale, Bastard Out of Carolina, Speak, Try to Remember, The Murderer’s Daughters, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the dozens of other moving, powerful stories about women fighting for life and liberty in modern (or future) times.

2)  It implies that those authors who choose to set their stories in Victorian times are choosing an easy way out. But Inner Pedantic Writer knows that trying to write a mystery—any mystery—is not an easy job. Imagine if you have to figure out how your heroine is going to go out in public alone, how she can take on cases when no one will hire a lady, how she can interview victims and witnesses and criminals when no one will speak to her about such sordid things, and how, once she’s solved the case, she can deliver her findings without anyone knowing what she’s done. It’s like trying to fly a broom through a bonfire.

So, I sent Inner Pedantic Writer off to his room with an armful of books, and while he was gone, I read every Victorian series I could get my hands on.  That’s when I discovered what it is about these books that is so addictive. They aren’t just tales of mystery and romance and adventure. They’re  survival stories. True, the heroine doesn’t have to learn to find food and water on a desert island, or fight for her life in a televised game of kill-or-be-killed. But she has to find a way to be free in a society that does not want her to be free.

This type of “hunger games” has some extra complications: There is no audience or choreography, and there is no final moment of escape or victory. If the heroine fails, she will be raped or killed or, at best, left to die on the streets. If she makes herself too visible, she will be labeled a mad-woman or whore (or both) and locked away or hanged. So all her victories have to be personal and invisible. Her triumphs have to come from being quicker and braver and more cunning than the enemy. And the reward for her heroism is to live one more day as the free and independent spirit she wants to be, rather than the object she’s expected to be.

I can’t think of many stories more inspiring than that.

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Here are a few of my favorites. Feel free to add to the list, or contribute your own thoughts about the genre.

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mysteries) – Nancy Springer

Enola is the 14-year old sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.  When their mother vanishes one day, she has two choices:  Enroll in a girl’s boarding school and become a proper lady, as Sherlock and Mycroft want her to do, or run away. She decides to run away and, somewhat by accident, becomes involved in the mystery of a kidnapped boy. Enola not only has to deal with all the usual dangers of Victorian London, she also has to contend with her brilliant brothers, both of whom believe it’s their duty to catch her and send her off to school.

The Ruby in the Smoke (Sally Lockhart Trilogy)  – Philip Pullman

Most people know Philip Pullman for his His Dark Materials series, but before there was The Golden Compass, there was Sally Lockhart—the most realistic of all the Victorian heroines listed here. Sally solves mysteries, but she suffers some very real hardships and tragedies in the process—which only make her triumphs that much more impressive.

A Spy in the House (The Agency Series) – Y.S. Lee

Mary Quinn, a 12 year old orphan and thief, is about to be hanged when a stranger saves her and brings her to a private academy for girls. When Mary turns 17, the headmistresses of the school recruit her for their all female spy group, The Agency, and send her off on her first case: to spy on a wealthy businessman suspected of smuggling. In the process, she enters into a very complicated romantic relationship, and discovers some long-hidden secrets from her past.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce Series) – Alan Bradley

12-year old Flavia de Luce is not technically a Victorian heroine, since she lives in post-WWII rural England. However, her family is landed gentry, and though they’ve fallen on hard times, their lifestyle and attitudes are nearly the same as their Victorian ancestors’, complete with manor house, cook and driver. Also, Flavia’s favorite “playroom” is a perfectly preserved Victorian chemistry lab left behind by her great Uncle Tar.

The Diamond of Drury Lane (Cat Royal Series) – Julia Golding

Also not technically Victorian, as it takes place in the 1790s. But Georgian England had many of the same constrictions as 19th century England, and the dangers the main character faces are nearly identical. An orphan living in a theater in London, Cat Royal accidentally stumbles onto a plot involving a stolen gem, a runaway slave, a political outlaw, and a very nasty boss of the streets.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot  – Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Authors Wrede and Stevermer married fantasy to Victorian society to create a nobility based as much on magical prowess as on inheritance. The two cousins, Kate and Cecelia, write to each other about everything from romance to court intrigue, but are eventually caught up in a plot involving a twisted Marquis and an enchanted chocolate pot. Full of humor as well as adventure.

A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy) – Libba Bray

Another marriage of fantasy and Victorian society, but with a touch of horror and the supernatural thrown in.  When 16 year old Gemma’s vision of her mother’s death comes true, she is sent to a girls boarding school with a mysterious burned out wing. At first, she’s snubbed by all the girls, but eventually she forces her way into a clique. As her visions continue, she discovers that she and the other members of her clique can enter a secret realm through her visons.


(This post first appeared on BeyondTheMargins.com)

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It Was Fresh When I Started: The Sell-By Date on Inspiration

Many years ago, while driving down Charles Street, in Boston, I had what I call a “speculative vision.” It had rained during the night, and the morning sun glaring off the puddles was casting weak, golden halos around everything. Two men in long woolen coats suddenly passed in front of me, and in the strange morning light, they looked like hunched, wingless birds. That’s when the vision struck: Beacon Hill transformed into a ghetto of crumbled buildings and flooded streets, miles of barbed wire holding in a population of cold, dying bird-people.

Who were these people? How could Beacon Hill become a ghetto? Who would be on the inside and who would be on the outside? Why? These were the questions I had to answer, and since I was writing not long after the Reagan era (yes, I’m that old), the story I created—“Mercy Street”—reflected many of the issues of the time: AIDS, gay rights, religious extremism, conservative activism.

Almost as soon as I finished the story, the ground started to shift under my feet. The Boston Garden, a crumpled heap in my dystopian vision, got turned into the sparkly Fleet Center (now TD Banknorth Garden—yuck). The 93 overpass, meant to sag into the water, got cut up and trucked away during the Big Dig. And the Charles Street Jail, a granite hulk in my story, is now the luxurious Liberty Hotel. The only detail that has stayed faithful to my vision is the flooding of Storrow Drive. But it’s not nearly as often or as deep as I’d like.

The thematic aspects of my story suffered, too. Federal funding for HIV research, better treatment and higher survival rates all made my vision of the future seem more paranoid than speculative. And the shift in the national dialogue on gay and lesbian rights, inching away from “Who cares about a disease that kills gays?” to “Should we allow same sex couples to marry?” has had the same effect on my story as leaving the cap off a bottle of seltzer. Flat. Flavorless. Dead.

Which brings me to my question: What do you do with a story that’s past its expiration date? Can you change the details and recycle the main ingredients? Can you substitute fresh problems for old ones without turning the whole thing into an indigestible mess?

Conventional wisdom says true art is timeless, and I guess that’s mostly true. The Iliad and The Odyssey haven’t lost much of their appeal, despite the fact that no one (except maybe Rick Riordan) has sacrificed anything to a Greek god in over a thousand years. And Jane Austen doesn’t seem to be losing fans, despite the disappearance of nearly all Victorian sense and sensibility.

But what about during the writing process itself? If the shadows of totalitarianism had begun to fade before George Orwell finished 1984, would he have kept going? If the civil rights successes of the 50’s and 60’s had taken place in the 30’s instead, would Richard Wright have kept working on Native Son? Would he have believed Bigger Thomas’s fate was as inevitable as ever? Or would he have begun to doubt the mechanistic vision of racism, poverty, and injustice that drives the novel?

Okay, it’s pretty hard to second-guess the literary greats. And since they are literary greats, we know their ideas passed the “sniff test” right up to the moment of publication, and beyond. But you and I, racing to preserve what we know in a world where everything sprouts and dies faster than the vine over Jonah’s head—we’ve got our work cut out for us.

So it’s worth repeating the question: What do you do with an idea that’s gone past its expiration date? Do you toss it aside and start something new, the way you’d pour old milk down the drain and open a new carton? Or do you do what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years—open that story up now and then, see if there’s a way to turn vinegar back to wine?

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Series: The New Dirty Word in Publishing?

NerdTearingHairAnyone who read Scott Westerberg’s latest book, Leviathan, or James Dashner’s The Maze Runner may have noticed a curious omission in both books.  Look at the front covers, the back covers, scan the flap copy, the title page—you won’t find any hint anywhere that these books are the first in their series.  And yet, when you get to the last sentence, guess what?  The story ain’t over.

Did the publishers forget to put the words “Book 1” on the covers?  Did Westerberg or Dashner neglect to mention there will be other volumes coming?  Not likely.  But then, with so many wildly successful series on the market (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, A Series of Unfortunate Events), why would anyone want to hide the fact that a book is part of a new series?

Hm—maybe because the word “series” has become a sales killer?

Sure—we can all name multi-volume sagas that have raked in the bucks.  That’s why there are so many out there.  But waiting a year, two years, even three for the next installment has gone from being an occasional annoyance to a constant state of hair-tearing frustration—like being stuck in the doctor’s waiting room forever.  So when readers pick up a new book and find the words “Book 1” or “Volume 1” or “The New Arthurio-Pelerandian-GnomeFighters Cycle” on the cover, they don’t think, “Oh good—something new to read!”  They think, “Oh crap—another eight year commitment.”

Maybe publishers have noticed this.  Maybe it even makes sense for them to be a little cagey about their new series, get the reader hooked first.  Right?

Wrong.  I loved both Leviathan and The Maze Runner.  But when I finished them and realized I’d been duped into reading two new series, I threw the books across the room and swore never to buy anything in those series again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I won’t read the next installments.  The books are great—exciting, entertaining, wildly inventive—and I fully intend to find out what happens next.  I just don’t intend to spend money on them.  And since there are over a dozen libraries in my area, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep that promise.

But this makes me worry about Simon & Schuster and Delacorte and anyone else playing the new “hide the series” game.  Yes, we’re all suffering from series burn-out, and it may be hard to sell us anything new.  But if you piss us off on Book 1, who’s going to buy Book 2?  And if no one buys Book 2, how are you going to publish Book 3, 4, 5, etc.?

Plus, you may not have noticed, but there are these cute little devices out now called Kindles and Nooks and Sony eReaders.  They’re very hot items for Christmas this year.  So before you stumble too far down the “What they don’t know will at least get them hooked” road, you might want to think about how many buyers you can afford to piss off.  Because those eBook readers?  They’re really easy to pass around.  Wicked easy.

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At Last: A 12-Step Program for Book Addicts!

<b>Book addiction is epidemic - and we couldn't be happier!</b>From the Unrepentant Book Addicts Anonymous (UBAA) manual:
(with apologies to AA members everywhere)

Step 1: Admit that other people may have a problem with your lust for books, but they should just get over it.
Step 2: Accept that no Power in the Universe is great enough to keep you from buying more books.
Step 3: Make a conscious decision to turn all your money over to nice indy bookstores with great selection, even when Amazon is cheaper.
Step 4: Make daily inventories of your bookshelves and keep track of who borrowed what. Then go after them.
Step 5: Admit that you don’t know the exact amount you’ve spent on books lately, but who cares? They’re books, for Pete’s sake–not crystal meth.
Step 6: Recognize that God is the Prime Author, and all books belong to God. Therefore, when you reduce your consumption, you reduce God’s royalties–which is an unforgivable Sin.
Step 7: Remember that God has made book-buying a mitzvah, which means your place in Heaven’s Library is assured.
Step 8: You have tried to make a list of all the people you’ve harmed by buying books, but guess what? There just aren’t any.
Step 9: For those who think they’ve been harmed by your addiction, make amends by giving them great book recommendations.
Step 10: Continue to take inventory and admit when you find one or two books that may not be worth keeping, like Where’s Waldo for Dummies.
Step 11: Improve your conscious contact with literature’s Highest Powers (Stephen King, George Eliot, Barbara Kingsolver, whoever) by buying everything they write.
Step 12: Remember that the great awakening is coming! Ask not what owning so many books will do for you. Ask what all those Kindles will do for other people–when the power goes out.

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