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Sort of historical

I have just realized that we’ve reviewed a lot of historical fiction this year. Karyn was talking about a strong year for fantasy, but I’m over here impressed by historical fiction in 2015. Or our sort-of-historicals, as is the case for one of these.

This week, we’ve got two past winners, and both authors provide an important, engaging look at history. Both have no problem examining some of the, let’s be polite and say “less savory” aspects of US history. One, though, focuses on a real-life person, and the other works in elements of history to a fantasy/horror filled world. One book is short, one is very long. So similar, and yet so different!

jubaJuba! by Walter Dean Myers
HarperCollins, October 2015
Reviewed from an ARC

I was lucky enough to read and review Myers’ On a Clear Day two years ago. Now I’m equally lucky to take a look at his final book. The title character’s birth name was William Henry Lane, and he  was known to friends and to the public as Juba; for a time was a world-renowned dancer. Myers tells the story with first person narration, and he creates a strong, sympathetic voice. Juba burns with passion, with energy, and with the impulse to dance, to make art. “But when you got something going for you, when you have feet people watch and a body that people want to see moving across the stage, nobody can tell you anything because they’re nowhere near where you are.” Juba is relatable, charming. His ambition is marvelous, and his success is thrilling. His quick and bitter end is tragic.

Myers does an admirable job of weaving fact and fiction, making a captivating tapestry for the reader. This is an illumination of an individual and an examination of our white supremacist history, and both elements are equally important in telling this story; it feels well balanced between these two purposes. Constance Myers’ note on the research needed to tell the whole story is fascinating, but brief.

The book as a whole is quite brief, actually. Myers’ work in creating neighborhoods that feel lived in, that feel communal, that feel real, is on full display. Despite the small page count, the LES neighborhood where Juba gets his start feels like city life. This approach works out well for the varied background characters, but isn’t so great for some of the more important characters who don’t quite develop as well as Juba (Sarah, Stubby). Maybe we are just too stuck in Juba’s head? Or maybe with a longer book, we’d get a little more time with these non-background people.

lairLair of Dreams by Libba Bray
Little, Brown, August 2015
Reviewed from a final copy

On the other hand, we have Lair, which goes an entirely different direction (despite the shared NYC historical setting). First of all, Lair is, um, noticeably longer (600+ pages here). And Bray works consciously to spread the work, to be more expansive, to incorporate more people, more stories. It all adds up to really epic storytelling, and I am pro the bold move of having Evie, a hard partying party lady in the middle of all these Big Things. I am even more pro the bold decision to use genre fiction to tell a story that is both an examination of US history and cultural biases, AND is also a mighty fine mystery full of period details and a (seemingly) vast and quite diverse cast.

Nearly every day ends with an outsider’s (non-major character) perspective on the events of the narrative. This helps Bray’s world feel huge; it’s one more way to add details to the narrative, one more way to reinforce that this is both a mystery/magic and a story of a nation.  It brings a rhythm to the narrative, too — another tick or tock as the days go by. The end of each day adds another twist of tension to the story as the shadowy background figures (King of Crows/the gray man in the stovepipe hat) slooooowly, creepily get sketched out.

I haven’t read The Diviners (I know, people, I KNOW. I will have to backtrack come January and fix that), so while I recognize that the story has a slow start, I totally appreciated the backstory and slow set up. On the one hand, that means that this book can stand alone (at least for those coming in on book 2, like me).

On the other hand, RealCommittee may not be as into the work that Lair does in expanding the world. While the central mystery is dealt with, the overall frame of the novel shifts, showing just how epic Bray’s ambitions for the series are. Like Clair said when she reviewed The Diviners, “How can you immerse yourself in a universe when you don’t understand how you got there or where you’re going?” This is one where we are getting glimpses of where Bray is taking us, but it’s not the whole story by any means, and although this is a strong installment, it’s only one part of that larger story.

If I were on the committee, I would make an argument that the series element doesn’t have to mean we leave this title out, but…I don’t know how convincing that would be. For different reasons, I’m not sure either title will get a lot of play at the table…but I’ve certainly been wrong before.

I am borrowing Joy’s method of stray thoughts here:

  • Mostly because I want to take a second and squee about the Seward Park branch moments. I’ve said it before and I know I’ll say it again, but….what a branch, people. What. A. Branch.
  • Love the juxtaposition in Lair of ghosts+progress as the forces that could destroy the characters slash THE WORLD. Love.
  • I love, in pairing these two books, getting to think about the ways we often talk about history, versus the way we ought to talk about history — not as a removed “back then” but as something that is directly connected with the way the world is now, with the way we understand the world now.
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.

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