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Making Contact With the Outside World

I don’t know about other librarians, but when it comes to book reviews, I find it easy to get bogged down in the world of the library journals and book blogs by fellow librarians.  So today I decided I wanted to take a look at what the rest of the world is saying about some of the books we review on this blog.  Specifically, I wanted to know what the mainstream media was saying—by which I mean nation-wide newspapers and magazines.

To make things easy on myself, I decided to look at just 2013 books that we’ve given starred reviews to.  There are five of them: Catherynne Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, Frances Brody’s A Medal for Murder, Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls, Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident.  But when I started looking for reviews of these books, I quickly realized that two of them—A Medal for Murder and Six-Gun Snow White—have been basically ignored by the mainstream reviewers.  This isn’t particularly surprising to me—A Medal for Murder is 1) the second in a series, 2) a (relatively) cozy mystery, and thus is not particularly high on the radar of most book reviewers, who tend to look for the more buzzy novels.  And Six-Gun Snow White was published by a tiny press in a limited run, and is written by a YA novelist—again, not a prime candidate for places like The New Yorker.  Of course, The New Yorker hasn’t reviewed any of our five titles, but you get the idea.  In any case, I think Valente’s book, in particular, deserves a much higher profile, and if people are writing off Brody’s for being a mystery series, they are missing out.

In any case, that leaves us with three books.  All three have been reviewed in numerous small papers, but aside from The Teleportation Accident, which I’ll get to in a second, the only national press they got was from The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly.  Let’s take a look:

The Painted Girls

painted girls 198x300 Making Contact With the Outside WorldBefore I get to the reviews, I should mention that Buchanan’s novel did get some nice press from NPR, in the form of an interview with the author, but no formal review.

But on to the reviews: The Post’s review is as glowing as our own, and even uses the same word to describe it, calling it “a captivating story of fate, tarnished ambition and the ultimate triumph of sister-love” where our reviewer said the novel was “a beautifully told and utterly captivating story”

Also like our reviewer, The Post was taken by (as our reviewer put it) the “historical detail [and] primary-source material”, or as The Post puts it: “Integrating three actual murderers with the three girls’ histories is another brilliant act of imagination that drives the novel, producing a compelling story of yearning for love in the face of ugliness and brutality.”

Entertainment Weekly’s review is a bit harder to parse, as it is quite brief and mostly plot summary, but the reviewer gave the novel a grade of A-, and gets a nice dig into a new movie with the closing line: “If it were Les Miz, they’d break into song. Instead, we get something much richer”

So all in all it seems that the mainstream press is right on board with us in praising this fantastic historical novel.  Not so with the next one up.

The House Girl

house girl 198x300 Making Contact With the Outside WorldYou’ll remember from our review that The House Girl tells two stories: a modern story of a lawyer working on a slavery reparations case and a historical story of a slave named Josephine.   Both Entertainment Weekly and The Post object strongly to the modern story, claiming that it brings the whole novel down.

EW gave it a B, and while heavily praising the Josephine section, had this to say: “As the plot switches back and forth, it’s clear that Conklin, an ex-litigator, really cares about the court case. But this reader? Not much.”

The Post goes further: the “silly legal drama has been bred with an engrossing slave story in a tragic act of literary miscegenation. Far too many flags are raised to mark significant parallels between Josephine’s situation and Lina’s. A bolder editor would have sliced away these modern bits and published ‘The House Girl’ as a good historical novel.”

Our reviewer couldn’t have disagreed more: “Conklin does a brilliant job of crafting the plot, artfully building links between Lina’s case and Josephine’s life. Her description of Lina’s work to build the case examines the long-term harm of slavery in a fresh and analytical way. She uses a critical eye in examining self service disguised as public service and handles complex issues of race deftly.”

I haven’t read The House Girl yet, but I find the difference between these attitudes striking, and I have to say that my bias (aside from a general bias in favor of our own reviewers) is with the side arguing for a more complex presentation of the story, and I quite like our reviewer’s idea that the modern day story lets us look at slavery in a more “analytical” way. But I’ll hold off judgment until I read the novel for myself.

The Teleportation Accident

teleportation accident 193x300 Making Contact With the Outside WorldFinally, we come to The Teleportation Accident, which has been reviewed in far more sources, because it came out in England in July of last year and was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Looking at the reviews, I was pleasantly surprised to find is being even more heavily feted in the mainstream media than it is in the library world.  For instance, Booklist gave the book a starred review but ended with the backhanded compliment “It makes no sense, but it’s brilliant”, so I noted with gratification that The Guardian found the same “sense” in the book that I did: “It’s lucky, as the book is built on likenesses, that Beauman has such a talent for metaphor and simile” (in my review I used the word “representations” rather than likenesses).

But back to our two main sources.  Entertainment Weekly gave the book it’s highest grade, an A, and featured it on that week’s “Must List” (which lists the 10 movies, music, books, art the magazine thinks its readers have to know about that week).  The review focuses on the satiric elements of the book: “Every generation gets the hipster satire it deserves. But this one’s for every generation”, and praises the novel as “fiendishly clever” and “fizzy”.

The Post is similarly high on the book, calling it “Endlessly witty and furiously inventive”.  The review also picks up on the steady grounding of seriousness amid the hilarity that I mentioned in my review: “You laugh, then you flinch. On the evidence of his first novel, ‘Boxer, Beetle,’ and now this brilliantly clever and covertly humane book, Beauman promises to keep us laughing and flinching for years to come.”

I should note, since there are more reviews to choose from with this book, that not everyone is as excited about it as I am.  NPR found it fun, but seems to agree with Booklist in having trouble making sense of it: “The deranged plot defies synopsis. I would also argue it defies novelization. . . . To fully enter into Beauman’s wack universe you need to vibrate on his frequency, which I, for one, do not. But just wandering at the peripheries has its rewards.”

I don’t have any grand conclusion to this post, and three books is a pretty small sample size for any sweeping generalizations, but at the very least, I think this is an interesting experiment to see how books are being discussed outside of our library bubble.  And it is certainly gratifying to see the great response The Painted Girls and The Teleportation Accident are getting in that outside world.

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About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark

Comments

  1. Mark, when you say “And Six-Gun Snow White was published by a tiny press in a limited run, and is written by a YA novelist—again, not a prime candidate for places like The New Yorker,” you mean GENRE novelist, right? Valente is a luminary in the speculative fiction/fantasy field, and quite acclaimed; her recent discovery by the kidlit world is because of a book that started as a book within an adult book (September’s tale began in Palimpsest), but I’ve been reading her work since 2006 and it is very not YA!
    The tiny press issue is the much bigger one for Six-Gun, I think — I bought a copy for myself but the run is so small I can’t get one for my collection! I adore Small Beer Press, but often find myself disappointed that I can’t get the books if I miss the narrow window before they sell out (Pat Rothfuss’s The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, I’m looking at you).

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Karyn – indeed. I think of Valente as a YA author because that’s how I encountered her, but you are of course right that she’s been writing adult speculative fiction for years. Neither type of fiction (YA, speculative) is likely to be reviewed by the New Yorker though, where James Wood, in particular has very strict ideas of what makes “Literature” (with a capital L).

      The small press issue is just tremendously frustrating in my hats as reviewer and librarian alike. Even as the big houses keep consolidating and seem to run the publishing world, there really are some amazing small presses out there putting out really important work, but it is incredibly challenging to try to track it all down and figure out what is worth reviewing and/or purchasing.

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