Review: The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Series website.

The Post: New York City, 1926, is the best place in the world to be! At least, according to Evie O’Neill, who — get this — has been punished by her parents by being sent away from home to New York City to live with her Uncle Will. Evie can’t believe her good luck! Shopping, parties, speakeasies, the Ziegfeld Follies, what doesn’t New York have? Why, it didn’t have Evie O’Neill and now that Evie is there, she’s determined to stay, to shine, to leave her mark.

As for Uncle Will, yes, his museum is odd — the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, aka the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. And things get weird when Uncle Will is called in to consult on the murder of a girl not much older than Evie. It’s actually weirder than Uncle Will or anyone else knows, because Evie has a gift. Sometimes, when she picks up an object, she sees things about its owner. Discovering (and blabbing) about someone’s secrets discovered this way is what got her into trouble back home. Now her gift may bring her trouble of a different kind — it may help her find a killer.

Bodies pile up as the jazz plays on.

The Good: It’s Libba Bray; so, of course, The Diviners is something completely different from what she has done in the past.

The Diviners is a supernatural story set in the Roaring Twenties. Evie is the main character, yes; but she’s only one of the main characters. Once in New York, she meets her uncle’s assistant, Jericho, reunites with best friend, Mabel, becomes friends with Theta, a Ziefgeld Girl, and Theta’s roommate Henry; and crosses paths with a pickpocket, Sam. At the same time, we learn about Memphis, a numbers runner in Harlem. In a way, Bray is establishing a Team; but (since it’s Bray) it’s not as simple as bringing a Team together. Bray doesn’t do anything as expected as having these teenagers (and all of them are about seventeen years old) meeting and sharing their secrets with each other by page 110. Heck, it’s not even as simple as Evie and the others meeting each other; there are crossed paths and missed meetings. In other words, it’s a cast of characters who are unexpected and fresh and delicious, both in who they are but also in how they related to each other, even when they don’t know it.

The story being told in The Diviners is that of Naughty Jack; what the reader knows (but the characters don’t, more on that later) is that this serial killer is a spirit raised during a reckless OUIJA Board game. (True fact: OUIJA boards creep me out.) While The Diviners is first in a four book series, rest assured (and, sorry, I’m the type of reader who needs this assurance when I hear the word “series” so I assume so are you), it works as a standalone for the primary supernatural mystery while painting a broader world with bigger questions that are left to be explored in future books. In other words: perfect first book in a series.

The setting is 1926; and I am not a historian, but I am someone who reads a lot and looks things up and watches all sorts of movies and TV shows and documentaries. The Diviners is chock full of historical details, from clothes and music to slang and prejudices. Just one example — Zarephath, which some readers may read about and think “no way” or “not in New Jersey.” Yes way! Totally a real place and accurate history, and I love how it is woven seamlessly into The Diviners. Most of the story is set in New York City, and I got to the end and knew exactly what I wanted out of any series related website: information on the various places and people mentioned in the book along with a map to follow in the footsteps of Evie and crew.

One of the interesting things Bray does is that, while this is Evie’s story, it is told from multiple viewpoints. Because of this, from the start the reader has more information than Evie or any of the other characters. The characters don’t reveal all their secrets right away, not to each other, and not to Evie, and not even to the reader. Just when I thought I had more puzzle pieces than Evie so knew what was happening, something else was added. I was reminded (in a good way) of Stephen King. At times, I was waiting for Evie to catch up to what I knew, or wondering when she’d work something out, but just as often I was surprised by what had happened or where things were going.

Evie, Evie, Evie. Evie is an interesting girl, throwing herself boldly into the brave new world of the Jazz Age, embracing fashion, hairstyles, music, slang, and attitude. She pushes herself forward almost desperately; running to something because she is running away from something. She is running from her beloved brother’s death in the Great War; she is running from a family that mostly shut down after that death. She is also unsure of her own powers and what they mean, so hey, what better thing to do than find a party and dance and think just about the moment?

Because I loved every part of this book, from setting to characters to plot. Because Bray doesn’t do what a reader expects. Because of Evie. Because of the sheer fun and terror. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Reading Rants; Teen Librarian’s Toolbox; SLJ’s review.


Review: Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Scholastic Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: A plane full of teen beauty queens crashes on a remote tropical island.

No, really.

The Good:  What I’m fast appreciating about Libba Bray is that she’s always doing something different as an author; but, each time, it’s awesome. It’s like she’s the Meryl Streep of authors. Without the accents. Wait, Gemma Doyle was British so I guess maybe that counts? Anyway, so far Bray has given us a historical fiction lush with fantasy; a road trip that explores life, death, and spirituality; and now a satire about commercialism, beauty, and modern priorities and pirates. What’s next, westerns? (Actually, I know the answer is the Roaring Twenties. But still.)

Here’s the short pitch: America’s Next Top Models plus Lost multiplied by Arrested Development.

There will be quoting. Because Bray’s writing is humorous and biting and insightful, and because the best way to know if you’ll like her style is, well, by reading it. There is a plane crash, but don’t worry! The book begins, “A Word From Your Sponsor. This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.  . . .  But there are survivors. You see? Already it’s a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. . . . Such a happy story. And shiny, too. This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better (TM).” Now you know: an arch tone, slightly over the top, and from the start satire about consumerism and the companies that convince is that if we just buy that terrific button down white shirt, our lives will be better. (They won’t? But I bought the shirt already!)

The crash happens in the prologue (“the pilots and copilot, whose names are not important to our tale, are trading stories with each other“) and Chapter One stars with Adina Greenberg (Miss New Hampshire) opening her eyes. Adina is a journalist and she, like us, at first views her fellow dozen-odd survivors as simply pageant girls: “the waving goddess stood outlined by the smoking metal wing as if she were a model in a showroom of plane wreckage. She was tall and tanned, her long blond hair framing her gorgeous face in messy waves. Her teeth were dazzling white.” “I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.” “They were both artificially tanned and beach-blond, with the same expertly layered long hair.”

As Beauty Queen progresses, the teenagers turn out to be more than Adina thinks. Taylor (Miss Texas) may eat, breathe, and drink the pageants, but she is also a leader, an organizer, and has some very interesting military skills thanks to her her general father. When days pass with no hope of rescue, it is Taylor who digs up a grub because “it’s packed with protein. My daddy says his unit had to survive on these for a whole month once.” And then — to cement her leadership status — Taylor gets Adina to be the first person to eat a grub. Shanti (Miss California) turns out to have written her junior thesis on “micro forming and sustainable agriculture. I could come up with some plans for planting a garden and constructing an irrigation system. And I know how to make a system for drinking water.” It’s like Gilligans Island, with the teens each a mixture of Ginger and the Professor.

Bray shares with us what Taylor, Adina, Shanti and the other contestants are thinking: their fears, their motivations, what being in the pageant and succeeding means to them. The reader, the other contestants, and the young women themselves begin to see themselves, and each other, as more than the “nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls” the pageant showcases. What is terrific about Beauty Queens is that it does so with respect and without trashing the contestants. It trashes the pageant system, yes. Beauty Queen‘s satire also targets commercialism and the way things are sold, reality TV, and overuse of PowerPoint.

I adore this type of humor; but like rich chocolate, for me it was best read over several days instead of all at once. And it’s a humor that masks some deeper issues and observations. The tag line to one of the commercials for breast implants? “Breast in Show. Because “you’re perfect just the way you are” is what your guidance counselor says. And she’s an alcoholic.” It’s not all deep — there is also this very serious warning about dolls: “But you should not put anything on a pedestal, least of all dolls who watch you while you sleep, waiting to suck the breath from  your lungs.”

And I still haven’t talked about how Beauty Queens is also about ambition, and friendship, and what happens when a bunch of reality TV pirate hunks show up, and sex and sexuality and race and gummi bears.

Because it’s Libba Bray. Because beauty queens are so much more than pretty faces. Because there are footnotes. Because there is romance. Because there is happy ever after, and hopeful ever after, and happiness isn’t about being all coupled up. Beauty Queens is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Links: Bray uses footnotes in Beauty Queen; so Melissa Rabey at Librarian by Day uses them for her review. Reading Rants calls it Lord of the Flies meets classic 90210.