This book was hot popular on the librarian listservs, which is why I decided to give it a go. Of course, I'm not a pioneer reader. It was published in 2012, and I picked it up at the end of 2013. That's okay. Better late than never.
A diviner is a person with the ability to see the future, a prophet or soothsayer, according to dictionary.com. The world of The Diviners is peopled with individuals with special--shall we invoke the word "magic"?--abilities, but I can only remember one who could actually see the future. So I suppose the title is a BIT misleading, but it's a great title nonetheless.
The Diviners is a huge undertaking, both because the book itself is hefty--578 pages--and because the plot indicates a much longer narrative, i.e. several sequels. It is 1920's America--Prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, and rampant jazz. Evie O'Neill leaves her hometown in a hurry after she accuses a boy she knows of "knocking up" a girl (Yeah, I know. I didn't realize that particular slang term was so old.). It turns out Evie's claims are not based on suspicion. She can hold objects in her hand and uncover secrets about the object's owner. She is shipped off to New York City to live with her uncle, the docent of "the museum of creepy crawlies," a museum chock full of occult artifacts. Evie is a free spirit who loves to get down and get funky. She's a party girl, and it doesn't take her long to start painting the town red, alongside her friend Mabel, the daughter of radical Communists, who dresses and behaves like a dowdy spinster.
Evie is quickly drawn into a strange murder mystery, via her uncle, who is called upon to help with the investigation. It seems the corpses of this particular killer display signs of occult activity. The murderer leaves behind evidence that point to the bible, albeit an apocryphal version, and through their research, Evie and her uncle, along with helpers Jericho and Sam, discover that the murder is a resurrected member of a cult intent on bringing about the end of the world.
So that would be enough of a premise for a good novel, right? But, uh-uh. There's more. Woven within this overarching narrative are the stories of Memphis Campbell, a numbers runner from Harlem with a latent healing ability, and Theta Knight, a gorgeous chorus girl who seems to have some sort of pyrotechnics magic. Then, there's Sam, the fellow who helps out with the murder case and who I mentioned in the previous paragraph; he can will himself to become invisible when someone looks his way. It's apparent these folks are some sort of superhero superforce who are going to be important in the books to come.
Memphis and Theta share a dream of a strange man in a cornfield and the premonition that "something wicked this way comes," something even more wicked that the resurrected serial killer Evie and her pals are investigating. In addition, a woman referred to as Sister Walker is scouting for potential "diviners," testing Memphis's younger brother, who can predict which playing cards she is holding with astonishing accuracy. She shows up at Evie's uncle's museum and behaves cryptically, insinuating that something evil is on its way. Then, there is the scene of the gray man in the stovepipe hat who rips the heart of a rabbit for no apparent reason and walks around being evil and mysterious. So, yeah, I'd say there are more books on the way.
Although the suggestion of further stories and further mysteries is delicious, it is also a distraction from the major narrative in the novel. The defeat of Mr. Resurrected Cult Serial Killer (Okay, he does have a name--John Hobbes, also called Naughty John and the Pentacle Killer) is pretty anticlimactic considering that all the events up to that point have led to his destruction. Evie has a face off with him, there's some scary stuff, a bit of uncertainty--will Evie be his final victim?--then Evie routes him and he's crushed to dust. Cough. Cough. Bye, bye, serial killer dude. Then, the book just keeps chugging along with hints of some future menace even badder than Naughty John. For me, these cryptic droppings kind of took away from the Naughty John plot, and I think the showdown between him and Evie could have been more climactic.
The novel's real prize is its romp through 1920's New York. The reader gets a real sense of life during the Roaring Twenties, and it's obvious Bray did a lot of research into the time period. We get the Zeigfeld Follies, speakeasies, flapper fashion, eugenics, the Harlem Renaissance, and all that jazz. Some of it is a bit overkill, such as when Memphis mentions several Harlem poets and writers who are well-known today. On the other hand, for a large part of the target audience--teenagers--this will probably be their first introduction to the culture of the 20's, so I guess I can forgive Bray's overindulgence in naming nearly everyone and everything associated with the time period.
Overall, a whole lotta fun, this one. Dig in. It's all jake.
It's an edict: good writers don't tell; they show. It's probably what your English teachers told you. "Now, now, generic writing pupil. Good writers don't just tell you. They show. Illustrate it with language. Use examples."
It's been my conundrum this past week: how do I show that Meg, the character in my novel, is unsure about her relationship with her boyfriend and that one of the reasons she stays with him is out of gratitude? There, that was easy enough to write out, but, "Uh-uh," says my inner writing teacher. "Not so fast, writing pupil. You can't spell it out so easily for the reader. You have to be more subtle. Your reader will appreciate it." *Sigh* So that means I have to think up anecdotes that will illuminate the dynamics of Meg and Henry's relationship.
Good writers are able to invest these little anecdotes with poignancy. They dream up episodes that will resonate with readers. Really good writers are able to communicate the depths of a person's psyche, the motives behind a person's actions in just a few words. Bare naked descriptions. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit verbose in my writing. I start out with a scene that I think will cover two pages, and it ends up being twenty. Why write ten words when you could write thirty-five?
But that was not actually my dilemma, not this go around. My problem was thinking up a magical story that would give insight into Meg and how she interacted with Henry.
So I've kept an eye out for examples the past several days, and lucky me, I came up with two.
The Father through the Window
The first came from NPR. I didn't catch the whole story, unfortunately, but I managed to pick up the nuts and bolts. A young black boy is sitting in his classroom, looking through the window, a bit bored by the day's lesson. On the sidewalk outside, he notices a man walking through the snowy, blustery day. It is his father. The boy is inundated with emotion. No one will stop to pick up his father, deliver him the ten miles he must travel to get to work. The boy wants to acknowledge his father, feels guilty that he is sitting in a nice warm classroom while his father battles the elements outside to get to a job that allows the boy to maintain the lifestyle he has. But he knows it is his job to sit in that classroom, to get an education.
I was struck with the poignancy of this story. It communicates a wealth of information with the briefest of snapshots into the boy's life. Mucho impressive!
The Miserable, Limbless Experiment
My second example comes from a novel I just finished, The Diviners by Libba Bray. In it, there is an anecdote describing the past tragedies of one of the characters, named Jericho, and explaining his weird mechanical innards.
The character tells how he suffered from polio as a child and was cured by experimental medicine at a hospital. There were others who took part in the experiment as well. One of them was a man who was missing his legs, an arm, too, if I remember correctly.
Unfortunately, the medicine began to have strange effects. The limbless man began to see things that weren't there. He was going crazy. They had to amputate his remaining arm. Somehow the man was later found dead. He had hanged himself in his room. The hospital staff couldn't figure out how a man with no arms and no legs managed to hang himself. It was a mystery.
Jericho explains that he killed the man, his friend. The man had begged him to put him out of his misery. Jericho took compassion on him and obliged.
This little tidbit tells volumes about Jericho, what he has suffered, why he is such a serious, melancholy figure. And within that story is an even shorter one that reveals the reason why Jericho is able to help his friend kill himself.
His friend tells about the war, World War II, and how he came across a German soldier who had had his insides blown away. "[H]e was just lying there in agony." The two exchange a look, and the man--Jericho's friend--put the man out of his misery. "He didn't do it with anger, as an enemy, but as a fellow man, one soldier helping another."
It is partially because of this miniature story that Jericho is able to help his friend take his own life.
Henry Loves Meg; Does Meg Love Henry?
I did finally come up with a simple story to illustrate Meg's relationship with Henry. Not only that, it reveals a little bit about her past and why she is burdened with her father's death. I hope it works. Maybe it will, but I will continue to look out for these tiny little stories I've described in this post. Is there a name for them other than "anecdotes" and "little stories"?
So, again, one of those authors with a weird last name--Pfeffer. How would you pronounce that? Puh-Feffer? Is that right? Is the "p" silent? Reminds me of the Bugs Bunny episode where the king keeps calling for hassenpfeffer, which it turns out is rabbit stew (at least, that's what Wikipedia says).
In this companion book to Life as We Knew It, we get the story of another teen's experience after the moon is knocked closer to the earth when an asteroid hits it. This time it's 17 year old Alex Morales. He lives in NYC with his parents and two sisters (his older brother is in the military). Alex is a devout Catholic of Puerto Rican descent, a competitive overachiever who attends a private Catholic school in spite of his family's relative poverty.
He loses track of his parents almost immediately after the moon is knocked closer to the earth and tidal waves rush into parts of New York. His mother is off at work, but did she really make it? Was she in the subway when it was flooded? His father is in Puerto Rico for a funeral, and other than a fuzzy phone call that may or may not be from him, Alex and his family get no word about him. He does hear from his older brother, but when things get bad, Alex loses track of him as well. It is just Alex and his younger sisters, devout Briana and whiny Julie.
At first, the three make it along okay and think that things are going to get back to normal, but of course, things get worse, not better, and they are left to fend for themselves in a city that is slowly dying. Winter hits early and blankets the city in a layer of snow. Food becomes more and more scarce. Electricity comes in spurts and then dies out altogether. All they are left with is each other and their faith, which also seems to be fading.
This is the story of their survival in this bleak atmosphere, what they have to do to survive, the lies that have to tell themselves, and how they become the victims of those lies. It is not particularly interesting at first but becomes more compelling as their struggle to survive becomes more difficult. I love post-Apocalyptical and dystopian novels, so, of course, this was right up my alley. I read it because I also enjoyed Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It.
There were a few places where I wanted to slap the characters around a bit, however. You know how it is when you're watching a movie or reading a book and the characters do something stupid or don't do something that should be blatantly obvious to them? I kept getting annoyed at Alex for not being truthful and forthright to his sisters. Also, he bosses them around like he's an overseer on a plantation (okay, maybe it's not that brutal, but he does have that whole macho-man-in-charge thing going on). But what I couldn't understand is why they never broke down the doors of the other apartments in their building in order to get supplies. We are made to understand that their building is virtually abandoned, so why they don't ransack those other apartments for food is beyond me. And why do they eventually settle on the 12th floor? Really? You want to climb twelve stories to get to your apartment when the elevator is not working? Wouldn't the first or second floor have been a wiser choice even if you have to bust down the door?
I find asteroids and meteorites fascinating...in spite of the fact that I use the terms interchangeably. There are theories that the Earth's water and even the building blocks of life itself originated in meteorites. So I was wondering how plausible the scenario in the series is. Could an asteroid really knock the moon closer to the Earth? Well, it turns out, no. If an asteroid hit the moon, all that would happen is that the moon would get another crater. The only way a body could move the moon would be if it were the same size or larger than the moon itself and hit it in the opposite direction direction from what it is traveling. So, it's pretty unlikely. Still, makes for a good story, du'n it?
I FINALLY finished The Hunger Games trilogy. It only took, well, five years or so. I read v e r y s l o w l y. Even slugs read braille faster than I can read. No, but really. I started the series a muy long time ago in a far off galaxy of school librarianship. I was one of the first original Hunger Games pioneers and recruited newbies to join the fun. It was a big hit in our library.
I'm not sure why it took me such a long time to get around to reading the third book. Was it because I enjoyed the story so much I didn't want it to end? Yeah. Was it because the second in the series was a bit disappointing and I didn't want to be let down even more by the third? Yes, again.
It's so common that it's a cliche. Series sequels just don't meet the high standards of the first installment. Doesn't matter if you're talking about books or movies. Just don't bother with any of the sequels. They're pretty awful. The Matrix is a good example. Remember how awesome the first movie was? Remember how it blew your mind? Remember how awesome it was to watch Keanu contort his body as the bullets swirled overhead? How creepy and cool it was when agent clone called him "Mr. Anderson"? Those awesome fight scenes? And the premise--the world we know is just a computer program and our real bodies are stuck in a hive somewhere and hooked up to machines? Wowzies! It was a hit and rightly so.
And then The Matrix was reloaded, but I think they forgot to include the gunpowder. It was a real letdown. Nothing innovative. Nothing exciting. Just more fight scenes and a re-run of the same ideas from the first.
Well, The Matrix sequels didn't deliver anything radical or mind boggling, and neither did Catching Fire or Mockingjay for that matter.
So, Mockingjay. (Cool word--mashup of "mockingbird" and "bluejay." Cool concept, too.) Do I actually need to describe what happens? Probably yes since the movie has yet to come out. (On a side note--it's a good thing I saw the Catching Fire movie recently because I had forgotten a lot of the plot elements and characters from that long ago time when I read the first two books in the series.)
Katniss is "safe" in District 13, which is like an anthill for rebels that stretches far underground and includes everything you need to survive, like food, air, clothes, beds, and these nifty little machines that stamp your daily schedule onto your arm for some strange reason.
The compound was originally created as a war shelter for higher-up government types and is complete with quarters for the occupants and nuclear weapons. Apparently (according to Wikipedia), it's a futuristic Cheyenne Mountain.
Katniss is just as moody and recalcitrant as ever. The girl just cain't be satisfied. This time it's guilt over Peeta*. She got dragged out of the arena, but he's somewhere in the Capitol where they're doing God knows what to him. It doesn't matter that Katniss has been saved from annihilation in the hunger arena or that her family is safe and sound or that she is cared for and has enough to eat (repulsive as the food may be), she is just plain unhappy and won't do as she's told. She spends most of her time hiding in broom closets and sleeping.
After she witnesses interviews with Peeta on tv showing that he is very much alive, she perks up a little and makes an important decision--she will become the mockingjay. The president of 13 has asked Katniss to become a symbol for the rebels to follow, something to inspire the resistance. Basically she's a marketing ploy (once again). Katniss says, yeah, okay, I'll do it, but only if you spare all the other Hunger Game victors even those with bad behavior and let me kill President Snow myself. Prez 13 says, okay, and the fight is on.
Katniss and her cohorts spend the rest of the novel galvanizing the troops, plotting a rescue attempt for Peeta, and waging an assault on the Capitol. I'm not going to go into great detail, however, because I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say, there are some deaths and a whole lot of violence, Katniss doesn't do what she's told, and although the ending wraps up the loose ends, we're left with a grown-up Katniss who is still not quite satisfied with her lot in life.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. I'm a big fan of well-written dystopian novels. There's a lot of action as well, which is fun to read. I was unhappy with Suzanne Collins's (the author's) decision to kill off some of the characters, however, but I guess in a post-Apocalyptic world, you can't have too much happily ever after.
The use of people as marketing ploys is an interesting theme throughout the entire series. Katniss is always someone else's tool--she is constantly used as a message to the people, first by President Snow and then by Prez 13. She is always resistant to being branded by others, but her need to protect the ones she loves always outweighs this resistance and she agrees to represent the symbols created for her.
I could go on and on about the philosophical implications of this theme...if I were a philosopher. We are every one of us a symbol of something to someone. And we play all kinds of different roles in our lives. The difference is that Katniss is coerced into the roles she plays. What is interesting about her story is watching as she defies and subverts the symbols applied to her.
So, it's a good read. A nice conclusion to the trilogy. Could have been more innovative, sure, but it wrapped up the loose ends. Two thumbs (and one big toe) up! In other words, 3 outta four.
*Footnote: What's up with the name "Peeta"? It seems to be a corruption of the name "Peter," but it sounds like a toddler's version of the word, or someone who has a speech impediment. And then those other crazy names all over the novel. Nobody has a "normal" name: Katniss, Prim, Gale (What kind of name is that for a guy? I thought it was a girl's name.), Haymitch (Would that be a person who mitches hay? And how exactly does one mitch hay?). And then the Capitol folks all have these strangely Roman/Grecian names: Cinna, Plutarch, Caesar (the talk show host), Claudius. Is this a way of showing that the Capitolinians are the elite with their stately names and the districtinians are mongrels with their made-up, compound names? Hmm...A thought.
Word and Book Lover.