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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: REBEL ANGELS by Libba Bray

Young Adult fantasy
Delacorte, 2006
548 pages  $16.95

About a month ago, I read Libba Bray’s debut novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, which was Book One in this juicy Victorian fantasy trilogy. While Book One captured my imagination, Book Two--Rebel Angels--kicked the story into high gear and deepened the characters lives, both inside and outside their fantasy realm.

Heroine Gemma Doyle is a 16-year-old student at Spence Academy for Young Ladies in Victorian England. While Spence purports to prepare its charges for a life as proper young women of society, Gemma and her friends all hide shameful secrets—poverty, drug-addicted relatives, shattered families. Theirs is a life of propriety, structure, and social class, rules that choke them like the corsets they’re forced to wear. And that’s just in our world.

I love stories that straddle two worlds. Gemma Doyle may be the good schoolgirl by day, but she’s also the only hope for the Order, a secret society whose control of the magical Realms is crumbling. Evil forces are struggling to take power of the Realms and to break through to our world as well. Gemma, whose powers were conferred by her late mother in Book One, must bind the magic to calm the chaos of the Realms before the evil Circe beats her to it. It’s a tangled mystery of whom to trust and how to gather the power that is Gemma’s alone to wield.

The wonderful twists in the story come from the glimpses of Dickensian Christmas scenes, Bethlem Hospital (the madhouse), viscount’s sons and illicit loves. Terrors abound both in the Realms and in London Town—it’s up to the reader to decide which is more horrific. Author Libba Bray weaves the two worlds together with ease and develops Gemma and her friends into young ladies we care deeply about. Luckily, I can move right on to The Sweet Far Thing, the concluding book, as it was released in 2009.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: SKYLIGHT CONFESSIONS by Alice Hoffman

Years ago, I read my first Alice Hoffman novel—Turtle Moon (Putnam, 1992). Part thriller, part heartbreak, it was hauntingly, beautifully written. Every character was as real as my own mother, and every emotion expressed got under my skin. Since then, I’ve been a Hoffman fan.

Skylight Confessions may not quite reach TM’s level of perfection, but it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Hoffman belongs to that school called “magical realism.” Personally, I’m not fond of schools and labels, but it’s the sort of thing one mentions in a review. All it means here is that a vague, shimmery otherworld surrounds the harsh realities of the Hoffman world. A hint of a ghost or the footstep of a witch shouldn’t surprise a Hoffman reader, and in fact, in most of her stories, the “magic” doesn’t seem all that foreign to those of us who have seen death up close.

Here she tells the simple yet impossibly complex story of a lonely young woman, her marriage to the wrong man, the children she has, the life she completes. Easy, and yet not, because every simple family boils with confusion and deceit, even if they don’t, like this one, unveil real tragedy. Orphaned Arlyn, who marries too fast, with too much passion, is the heartbeat of the book. Even when she is not physically present, she bleeds through her determined daughter, her troubled son, her neglectful husband, her true love. This is not the happiest of stories, but it is beautifully told. We weep for the sinners as well as the sinned upon, because no one quite knows who he or she is, or how he or she is meant to act, until it is too late. Hoffman is a writer’s writer in the way she constructs characters and weaves them through the quiet desperation of ordinary lives.

If this book lacks some of the fervor of Hoffman’s earlier works, it may be that it is simply a quieter, more studied story. In any case, it will stay with you, as it has with me. No true fan will walk away disappointed.