Tag Archives: Libba Bray

Who doesn’t have a mysterious past?

The prologue of Libba Bray’s The Diviners (Little, Brown 2012) finds a ditzy debutante worried that her 18th birthday party is turning out to be a big snoozefest.  Naturally this would be a tragedy of epic proportions so she breaks out her newly acquired antique Ouija board for some seance fun. It’s 1926 and the occult is all the rage (along with jazz and under-the-table hooch) so it actually works.  Those crazy kids raise a spirit who calls himself Naughty John and starts spelling out “Whore” over and over, so you know he’s a real prince of a ghost. In their haste to move on to the next fun activity, they neglect to bind the spirit back to the board, but I’m sure there won’t be any negative consequences to THAT decision.

Elsewhere, party girl Evie O’Neill has been banished from her small Ohio town after announcing that the town golden boy has knocked up a local chambermaid.  The boy’s parents are demanding a public apology, but Evie refuses to give one because she knows it’s true. See, she has the ability to psychically divine all sorts of things by touching an object and tends to trot out this ability when she gets drunk at parties. So she’s shipped off to live in New York City with her Uncle Will, a professor and curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (aka the Museum of of Creepy Crawlies). Also running around New York City are:

  • Jericho Jones – Uncle Will’s stoic assistant/ward. He has a mysterious past.
  • Sam Lloyd – a con artist with the talent of going unnoticed. He develops a thing for Evie and has a mysterious past.
  • Mabel Rose – Evie’s serious best friend who is the dutiful daughter of well-known communist rabble-rousers. She’s pretty boring.
  • Memphis Campbell – a black Harlem numbers-runner who’s charming on the outside and tortured on the inside. He just wants to write poetry and take care of his little brother, but he has a mysterious past haunting him.
  • Theta Knight – this glamourous Ziegfeld girl lives in Uncle Will’s building and is running from her mysterious past.
  • Henry Dubois – Theta’s “brother,” roommate, and piano accompanist.  He doesn’t get much to do, but I’m sure he has a mysterious past too.

Oh, and Evie is not the only character here with special powers. Anyway, when Uncle Will is asked to consult on the brutal, ritualistic murder of a young girl, Evie accidentally touches something that gives her insight into the murder.  From there, Evie, Will, and Jericho race against time to stop the psycho serial killer and possibly armageddon as more mutilated bodies pile up. If you’ve realized that the prologue might have something to do with this plot, then you’ve clearly read a book before. While that’s going on, the characters begin to meet and connect in ways that I’m sure set up the other three books in the series.

My love of thieves and spies is pretty well-known by this point, but have I mentioned how much I love stories about people with special powers? It all started when I read Matilda as a kid and ever since then, I’ve been a sucker for them. Probably because I not-so-secretly wish I had super powers. Though not just any super power. Telepathy or talking to the dead would suck, but I would love teleportation or telekinesis.  Because I’m lazy.  So hearing that Libba Bray, whose book Beauty Queens I loved so much, was writing a supernatural series about people with special powers I was psyched. Psyched enough to overlook my usual aversion to historical fiction. I usually get too distracted by the historical details and vernacular to full enjoy the story. Also, the real-world treatment of women and minorities during those time periods makes me feel stabby, which also makes it hard to fully enjoy the story.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed.  The narrative feels overly stuffed and I think Bray is trying to do too much here. Granted, Beauty Queens, my only other Libba Bray experience, was similar so maybe that’s her style, but since that was a hilarious satire, it didn’t bother me so much. The central murder mystery is very strong (and gross), but I couldn’t get into the rest of the story. Now I know that a lot of set up is required with a world this complex, but the non serial killer parts felt like nothing but set-up. Eventually it was like, “oh, here’s another scene where someone hints ominously about some vague threat in the future. And SURPRISE, everyone is mysterious.”

There is much to like in this book.  The writing is great and the characters, while not always likeable, are interesting and sympathetic. I just couldn’t get into it as much as I wanted to and I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up the next book in the series.


Do you think my new feminism makes me look fat?

Anastasia recently went on a beach vacation and took Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (Scholastic, 2011) as one of her beach reads. She loved it and promptly tweeted that everyone she knew should read it and pestered the rest of the Rampant team to get on it as well. And Captain Awesome obliged. So now, they conversate!

AB: FINALLY. YOU FINALLY READ IT! I’ve been dying for someone to finish this book so I could talk about it because I LOVED IT. What were your first impressions?

CA: Well, I am the daughter of a former Miss Derrick AND I spent my formative elementary school years in Dallas, Texas (the unofficial Beauty Queen capitol of America), so it was inevitable that I would read and love this book. I think what struck me the most about the story is that at first it seems exactly like what you would a expect a story about beauty queens crashing on a deserted island to be like — hilarious and ridiculous — but underneath there is a really smart critique of gender identity and expectations, among other things. And this book satirizes EVERYTHING. Beauty pageants, our reality TV obsession, corporate culture, the influence of huge corporations in our government and everyday lives, boy bands, health care, and Sarah Palin all get taken down, but never in a way that feels to preachy or didactic. And did I mention that it’s hilarious? Because it is.

AB: So so hilarious. I knew Libba had a gift for dark humor when I read Going Bovine last year and it broke my heart as I was cracking up, but she took it to a whole new level with this one. I mean, when one of the first characters you encounter has a seat-back tray stuck in her forehead and one of the other girls suggests she grow her bangs out to cover it up, you know you are reading something special.

CA: I knew it was love when one of the characters starting singing a boy band song called “Safe Tween Crush”, where the lyrics call the original singer an emo eunuch. I nearly fell off the bed, I was laughing so hard.

AB: There is so much great humor in the book, it helps the violent sections go down easier. The plane crash alone could have been truly awful – finding the stewardess’s body, the tray in the forehead… This book operates on so many levels, the shifting in tone could really be jarring and overwhelming if it wasn’t done with the skill that Libba brings to the table.

CA: Libba also plays around with the form of storytelling quite a bit. The story is told through multiple POVs, but it’s interspersed with pageant contestant questionnaires, fake product ads, and talk show transcripts. Oh, and humorous footnotes. I LOVE humorous footnotes. Because I’m a nerd. I’ll admit there were a few times that I was annoyed with the intrusion and just wanted her to get back to the story, but for the most part, I felt that these little stylistic detours really helped flesh out the world and the characters.

So what did you think about the characters? (That really wasn’t much of a segue, I know.)

AB: Footnotes are AWESOME (I love you, Terry Pratchett!) I loved the characters. I think Libba worked very hard to give each of the girls depth and backstory, reasons for who she is and why she was in the pageant, then showed her growing through her time on the island. I also loved how she played with stereotypes and prejudice and acknowledged them throughout the story, especially with Shanti and Nicole. That frankness is one of Libba’s trademarks and it’s so refreshing.

CA: I love that the characters all start out as stereotypes — the angry feminist, the non-threatening minority, the dumb blonde, the tough lesbian, the brave deaf girl — but then were revealed to be something more. And a beauty pageant is such an interesting lens to view these identities though, because to me at least, pageants are all about conformity. You have to have the right clothes, the right heartwarming answers, the right demure behavior in order to succeed in that world, Not to get all English majory on you, but I think Libba uses the pageant as a metaphor for how society pressures girls to fit certain gender roles and can really punish those who break out of those roles. I mean, the characters have to crash and nearly die on a deserted island, before they gain the confidence to discover who they really are. It’s kind of a subversive message, actually. I hope the book inspires teen girls to explore themselves and the world a little bit more. Hell, I could use some of that inspiration now and then.

We could talk about this book forever, but we should probably wrap things up. Any final thoughts?

AB: I totally agree with you on the subversion and I think she reinforces it with tv pundit reactions at the end of the book, that the only thing they are concerned with is “are modern girls too wild?” Precisely the point Libba is trying to make.

Final thoughts: A friend of mine who also read the book said that her book group felt that all the different shifts in tone made it feel like Libba was writing several different books at once. I can totally see that perspective, but I think that shifting tone keeps you on your toes as a reader, and reinforces that this is a satire. It can go from joking about leg hair to deadly serious (literally) in a moment, and I love that. I think Libba gave her teen readers a real challenge with this book and I hope they get as much out of it and enjoy the crap out of it as much as I did.

CA: So I tried explaining the plot of this book to my family and when I got to the stuffed lemur named General Good Times, they just looked at me for a few seconds before saying, “and this was good?” YES! Beauty Queens is hilarious, insightful, irreverent, a little weird, and just plain fun. And by the end, I really did want world peace.