May 2015 Media Round-up (Books)


The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine


Okay, so this is a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in 1920s New York; I’m not actually familiar with the original fairy tale1, so I can’t really comment on how the novel functions as a development or subversion of that. I enjoyed Robin McKinley’s books in my youth and The Girls at the Kingfisher Club feels like a spiritual successor to those, at least in terms of adapting classic fairy tales to new settings and with feminist values, although The Girls at the Kingfisher Club doesn’t actually contain any fantasy elements and the writing is, stylistically, pretty distinct (more on that in the section on Mechanique).

Anyway, nothing too insightful to say about this book. I loved it, but I didn’t read it all that critically—unclear whether that’s a reflection of my lack of depth or the book’s. The younger sisters and love interests could have been better developed, but given the sheer number of characters that the premise requires and the fact that this is a 288-page stand-alone novel, it’s understandable that most of them weren’t given more than one or two distinguishing traits. I was still invested enough in the plot and characters to cry and feel compelled2 to keep reading, so maybe that’s good enough.

Select quote:

He was like a song she’d heard years back, played again in a quiet room; there was no telling if the song was any good, or if she only remembered it fondly because of the person she’d been long ago, when she heard it first.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan


Similarly, I loved A Visit to the Goon Squad, but I don’t feel like I have any ~deep insights~ about it. The perspective-shifting every chapter totally worked for me; in general, Egan spends long enough on each character that you start to understand what their deal is but not so long that you get tired of them. It definitely helps instill the sense that everyone is a protagonist in their own story3, which I assume is one of the main points of the novel. Not super into the last chapter, which is set in the near future and thus shifts into the speculative fiction genre; it reminded me of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (which I fucking hated) in terms of being a totally cringe-worthy critique of smartphone culture that almost immediately4 dated itself. I mean, I hate a lot of things about smartphone culture, but I also get that pretty much every major technological development in human history has sparked “[insert technology here] is going to make people lose the ability to think for themselves and ruin civilization,” so Egan and Shteyngart’s takes on it just feel a little out-of-touch and hysterical.

Select quote:

Everyone laughs except Bix, who’s at his computer, and you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street if you fail, even at something so small.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis


  • Plot: solid—who doesn’t love time travel and the bubonic plague?
  • Characters: the main characters didn’t seem to have really distinct personalities outside of reacting to the plot? And the peripheral characters tended to be caricatures that mostly acted to make the main characters look reasonable in comparison? But I guess props for writing a time-travel novel with a female protagonist that isn’t about historical sexytimes.
  • Writing: a bit too long and too dry. Although—in the first few chapters, I noticed that Willis would describe each time a character tripped and bumped into anyone and, at the time, thought that was a totally unnecessary level of detail that was the result of poor (i.e. no) editing. But then the whole epidemic thing happened, and I was like, “oh shit, those details actually served a purpose, like the opening sequence of Contagion with the camera lingering on people touching things transactionally. How clever!” So some of the other things that felt overly descriptive or repetitive may have served a similar purpose that I just didn’t quite pay enough attention to catch.
  • Technology: Doomsday Book was published in 1992, but takes place (pre-time travel) in 2054. The main sci-fi aspects are the time-travel technology and medical technology; everything else seems pretty unchanged from the 1990s. That’s a totally valid writing choice, I think, because anything more might be distracting and alienating, when the main focus seems to be more on how people react to epidemics/pandemics. The phones of Doomsday Book’s future appear to just be landlines with video monitors attached (basically Skype?), which is sort of fascinating, especially right after reading the vision of the Dystopian Smartphone Future in A Visit from the Goon Squad, but also in general, to see an example where the non-fiction modern age has completely overtaken the fictional sci-fi future in crazy sci-fi technology.

Select quote:

Eh, there weren’t any passages that were poignant or clever enough for me to save. I feel like this is one of those books where the writing is mostly just there to convey the plot? It’s not bad writing, it’s just not like strikingly beautiful or anything.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, Genevieve Valentine

I enjoyed this book overall because it had a cool setting (traveling steampunk circus in a dystopian future with no clear sense of the passage of time5), but some quality of the writing consistently pissed me off. Let’s try to be more specific:

  • The prose feels like it’s trying too hard to sound Literary. Obviously all writing requires effort, but the end result should perhaps feel effortless.6
  • Conflicted feelings on the use of parenthetical statements. On the one hand, it feels like a natural way to capture the non-linear way that people think (some event reminds us of some other event or feeling that isn’t quite enough for a full flashback and doesn’t fit into the current linear narrative, but needs to be noted). This is certainly why I use a shit-ton of footnotes and parentheticals. But combined with the overall writing style, it also feels too similar to the cadence of spoken-word poetry which just fucking irks me.
  • It relies on non-linear storytelling—short chapters shifting between first, second, and third person and weaving in and out of chronological order—in a way that feels a bit messy and very first novel-y? But this style also may be what makes it compelling, in a similar way to A Visit from the Goon Squad— it doesn’t give the reader the chance to get bored with a particular perspective or thread in the story.

A lot of these things were also true for The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and didn’t bother me there. Maybe the poetic language meshes better with a Jazz Age fairy tale setting than it does with a dystopian future steampunk circus setting, or maybe Valentine’s writing got more polished from first to second novel. I will probably read her third novel, Persona, in any case.

Select quote:

He doesn’t argue with her, but when he opens his mouth a moment later, it comes out as a sigh in D flat.

[1] Although I kind of have the sense that I’ve read another retelling of the fairy-tale in the period (pre-8th grade) before I started keeping a “Books Read” list. Wikipedia tells me that Robin McKinley did a version of it in The Door in the Hedge and Patricia McKilip did one for A Wolf at the Door, and I do have a vague memory of reading some fantasy short story anthology with “door” in the title, but that may be false.^
[2] When I talk about compelling books (or TV shows), what I mean is: all I want to do is keep reading this book, and that takes priority above checking tumblr, eating, sleeping, etc. Ideally, I would only read books that I felt this way about (although then I probably wouldn’t get anything done), but in practice, a lot of books are just things that I read so that I have something to do on the bus or to make me look less pathetic when I eat alone in public. I mean, I’ll abandon them if I don’t think I’ll get any value out of them, but there are many forms of value, so. ^
[3] Which is still something that I struggle with in real life, even though it’s like…very obvious. Relevant quote from a totally different novel (M. Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine):

My husband has no doubt whatever that he and he alone is the point around which all humanity revolves. He is absolutely incapable of seeing that every other human being feels the same way and that from the standpoint of each of those “every others” he, my husband, not only was deprived of his pointhood but was himself forced to revolve; in other words, my husband cannot comprehend that the world of many such central points, each supporting its own self-perceived, self-defined subworld, is equal to the number of living creatures in that world.

[4] Both books came out in 2010 and I think smartphones have gone from “almost ubiquitous” to “totally ubiquitous” in the intervening years. ^
[5] The circus members don’t age and the geopolitical situation is basically just the lyrics to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for eternity. ^
[6] The closest analogy I can come up with, and this is a very specific and probably not super helpful analogy, is to Keanu Reeves’ performance in My Own Private Idaho, as compared to his performance in, say, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Every time he speaks in My Own Private Idaho it just feels like…Actor Keanu Reeves, whereas in Bill & Ted’s it feels like Ted “Theodore” Logan. Like, he’s obviously acting in both movies, but it only feels like Acting in My Own Private Idaho, you know? ^


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