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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Round Up (Austen Style!)

austen Round Up (Austen Style!)

Delicious Jane Austen tea pot cookies from flickr user mischiefmari. Used under cc license.

Alright, y’all, I’m having a rough blog post, OK? Because I have here two books that I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed reading for myself. But when I switch to my magical Printz-o-vision, neither Keeping the Castle nor For Darkness Shows the Stars stands up to a more critical analysis. Pity me, the poor blogger, who has to write up why these books that are decidedly entertaining reads just don’t work in the context of our blog. Boo!

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
Balzer + Bray, June 2012
Reviewed from a final copy

Let’s start with Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars. It’s a retelling of Persuasion, set in a dystopic future. This title got one starred review and a lot of love in our comments — ha, and the last time that happened, I ended up reviewing Where Things Come Back…well, we all know how THAT ended.

darkness Round Up (Austen Style!)Elliot is a sympathetic main character: responsible, reliable, relatable. Her frustrated romance with Kai is emotionally compelling; both Kai and Elliot have changed in their years apart, and both of them have good reason to distrust each other when they meet again. There are times when combining an Austen-style society in an SF setting work well; the frustrated, slow-cooking romance in particular was satisfying and felt true. The story also flowed when Elliot’s estranged cousin Benedict returned; his role was murky and absorbing and had all the best (read here: “my favorite”) twists. There was genuine suspense: should Elliot trust Benedict? Would he be an ally against her father? Could she trust Benedict with her secret wheat? Benedict’s ability to spin a plausible explanation for his banishment based on Baron North’s paranoia and mismanagement was horrifyingly conniving, opportunistic, and almost fooled me. What a delightfully evil character! Felicia was also great, as was Dee — as strong, cool, supporting ladies, they rocked my world.

But. I had my problems, at least with a literary-lensed read. While Dee and Felicia (yes, and Benedict, that lout) were interesting, some of the other minor characters were too thin. Nicodemus was more of an idea than a character. Olivia, Donovan, Tatiana, and Ro were all too simple, too vague — just there to keep the plot going, to keep it similar to Persuasion. This means that Tatiana’s (essentially) off-page transformation at the end was uninteresting and unconvincing. Olivia’s and Donovan’s love story was boring. Andromeda’s reveals felt like the fulfillment of the plot rather than a guarded person slowly opening up to new people — and made the end feel somewhat undeserved, deus ex machina style.

The biggest failing was Elliot’s father. He was the main villain but so supremely underdeveloped that his character made no sense. It was hard to understand how he was powerful; no one on his own estate respected him. Elliot’s fear and intimidation were so unwarranted that they seemed like a plot contrivance. The Innovations came to the North estate knowing that Elliot’s father was selfish and ineffectual; the Groves knew of his incompetence, too. With gossip so unanimous, it’s hard to imagine Luddite tribunals (or whatever) supporting his right to the North lands (should’ve gone to Benedict, that toad) or to the Boatwright estate. All of which meant that Elliot’s final confrontation with him felt more like “FINALLY” rather than “awesome work!”

The writing was sometimes weak. There were too many moments when the narration and dialog were too obvious (Upon Benedict’s return, page 179: “Why had the prodigal nephew returned? How did her father feel about it?” Kai’s admonishment to Andromeda, page 389: “‘She [Felicia] didn’t need to find out now. She didn’t need to find out this way.’” See also: all the letters between Kai and Elliot). These moments were common enough that the story felt predictable and preachy. Similarly, Elliot’s internal debates — should she out herself as a non-Luddite? Should she tell people about her wheat? Should she ask Felicia for more effective help for her grandfather? — went on for far too long, were too drawn out, and were  too obvious.

I also had some world building problems with this one. It felt wrong, that the Norths were so cut off from everyone and everything. OK, they all live on an island. And there are other islands in the distance. But those distances that were once spanned by bridges are no longer navigable at all? Really? So that means that Channel City is on their island, right? How big is their island — if Posts are leaving estates and roving the country, why don’t the Norths see them? Elliot and Tatiana don’t even realize (at the start of the novel) that it’s possible — maybe even common — for a Post to flourish outside of an estate; yet in Channel City there’s a thriving Post colony? How can the Norths be so cut off? And the no tech thing — they have machinery — are all the machines left over from before the Reduction? Did the metal just…last? Or is metal-working acceptable Luddite-level technology? If metal working is not acceptable, did the Luddites bring their machines into their underground retreats with them? I only have questions, you guys. Cranky, cranky questions.

I hate to end on a cranky note full of questions like that — for reals, I really did enjoy reading FDSTS — but it’s time to move on because we also have:

keeping Round Up (Austen Style!)Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl
Penguin, June 2012
Reviewed from an ARC

Patrice Kindl’s Keeping the Castle has been nominated for the Pyrite Printz. It’s also received three starred reviews and for a while was the book I was naming as my personal favorite read of the year.

One part Austen style comedy of manners, another part retelling of Cinderella, this book is charming and a lot of fun. There were so many things I enjoyed. The writing is wonderful: frothy, funny, so smart, and  — seriously — so much fun. It’s a great approximation of the period but still accessible and clever. Althea is terrific, managing and hilarious, and Mr Fredericks is so nerdy-clumsy-kind; I loved their love story. KTC is efficient story telling; it can be read in a single sitting, which means that its flaws might just slip right by you.

With a close reading, though, some of the humor is too wobbly — the target moves around too much. Lord Boring is, indeed, quite boring. Is that the level of humor here? Are we reading a gentle send up of Regencies? Or an obvious, mocking satire? His name was too cute for words, too much of a nod/wink at readers in a book that generally played it more subtly. Kindl pulls in a lot of glancing references to Austen — specifically Emma and Pride and Prejudice — but these references never really add up to anything, never really go anywhere (EXCEPT TO FUNSVILLE, which is a place I enjoy visiting! I swear!).

The end had a lot of reveals, and many of them were predictable. The romance, of course, is the big one, but I could forgive that because it’s really just a staple of a Regency. I found the wrap-up of the Miss Vincy subplot especially problematic. She was secretly married and has a child — hmmm, I am suspicious. Her husband was terrible and now she’s sworn off love and is going to live as an artist? Well, I really don’t know about that. I’m not sure you get to laugh at the rules of a Regency (satire!) and also break them (Miss Vincy will be fine!). This particular subplot stuck out too much and felt too false, too easily solved.

We’ve had a run of well reviewed, starred books recently that we haven’t, for various reasons, fully embraced as contendas. We’ve talked before about the differences between a starred review and a Printz silver/gold. For me, these are two more titles that are entertaining, will be loved by many readers, but ultimately won’t be in that final five come January. But what say you?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Maureen E says:

    Now I’m picturing Austen doing Gangnam Style…oh dear.

    I would agree with your assessment of both books. Before FTDSTS came out, I was really worried because Persuasion is my favorite Austen book and Anne/Wentworth my favorite Austen couple. I was a bit disappointed in it, but not for the reasons I was worried about. Basically I just felt that it was light–the worldbuilding didn’t hold together and the characters read as Austen-lite. I enjoyed it and, you know, finished it. But it didn’t provoke any deeper questions or revelations.

    I was amazed by how well Kindl manages Regency language in Keeping the Castle–I can’t think of a single time when it slipped. And I’m partly dealing with false expectations because for some reason I thought there was going to be a fantasy component and then there wasn’t and I was disappointed. But I did wish that a little more time had been spent on Althea’s change of heart. It felt like a book that wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be, although when I think about it it seems obvious (Regency coming-of-age). I don’t know if a re-read would help nail down why I’m uncertain about it or not.

  2. Miriam says:

    I found KTC simply delightful as a reader, but a bit underwhelming as an award candidate. It was a really, really enjoyable, happy-making read, and there is SO MUCH RIGHT with that and absolutely nothing wrong with it. But it was a bit slight and a bit obvious, which made it feel like a cozy re-read even though I’d never read it before–which was part of its absolutely delightful reading experience but may detract from its distinguishedness.

    Incidentally, I do English Country Dance (the type of dance done in the Regency period by middle-class and upper-class Brits, though the styling has evolved and we dance both historical dances and modern choreography), and I just happened to be reading this on a night I was going to the dance. I had the book out as I was saying goodbye (I needed to read it waiting for the bus, after all) and it ended up getting passed around a small circle–all of whom wound up snerking and/or laughing out loud at the beginning of the book. It’s definitely a book that is enjoyable and approachable.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Yes! Miriam, it totally did feel like a reread. What a perfect summation of how I felt, too! It’s why this has never felt like a serious shortlister for me, although it did get a Pyrite nomination.

      I liked For Darkness too, but thought there were some serious pacing issues, as well as the issues of world building Sarah and Maureen both noted. It has some ardent fans and I think some definite appeal — but nothing like the appeal of the frothy confection that is Keeping the Castle.

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    My instincts tend to agree with the general consensus so far – fun and lightweight, not an award contender. But the discussion does cause me to wonder what precisely we would require out of a purely humorous title. We’ve had some comic novels get recognized before, but often they also deal with “issues” like THE EARTH, MY BUTT or VERA DIETZ. The only “pure” comedies I can think of on the Printz list are ANGUS, THONGS . . . and AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES.

    The award is just for literary excellence, not for being issue heavy – so, what does it take for a comedy to be literarily excellent? How does KTC compare to ANGUS and KATHERINES? I’d have to reread it to answer that question, but since it does have a pyrite nomination, it probably behooves us to try to answer that question.

  4. Maureen E says:

    Mark, that’s an interesting point. I myself would never have thought of categorizing KATHERINES as a pure comedy, though it is very funny. Speaking entirely off the top of my head (it’s been several months since I read KTC), I would say that the deal-breaker as far as the award goes is the lack of real character development and…struggling with how exactly to put this….thoughtfulness? Though it takes on a number of issues in terms of women’s lives in the Georgian era and so on, I didn’t necessarily feel like it did so in a new or surprising way. I’m not at all sure I’ve hit on it.

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  1. [...] the Castle by Patrice Kindl, (Viking, 2012), SLJ Best Book. A Regency-era romance with an indomitable heroine and a bumbling, [...]

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