Tag Archives: classics

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

Standard

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.

Advertisements

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

Standard

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Delacorte Press, September 2018.

Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old gothic horror Frankenstein story is given a YA feminist update in this stirring retelling from the point of view of 17-year-old Elizabeth Lavenza, a minor character in the original tale. White (And I Darken series) largely hews to the original tale, albeit told through a lens in which smart women are suppressed and trapped by contemporary norms, but deftly twists the ending to bring a whole new light to our understanding of the characters.

At the age of five the orphan Elizabeth is brought into the Frankenstein household to befriend and, it emerges, to help socialize the out of control genius Victor. Elizabeth sees this as a way of assuring a safe future for herself and makes herself look “fragile and sweet, incapable of harm and deceit” while chafing at being forced into this subservient and dependent role. Years later when Victor cuts off all contact with them while he is studying at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth pursues him there, scared that he has abandoned her, but is horrified at what she discovers.

Elizabeth reveals far more perception, emotion, and intelligence than her society allows her and her narration has the elegant formality of the 19th century while flowing swiftly, moving between the past and present. Though the reader will probably be aware of the monstrous experiments that Victor is undertaking, Elizabeth’s dawning realization is artfully drawn.

This novel happily stands alone for those who have never read the original; however, those who have read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (or have read the Wikipedia précis like I did) will thrill to the subtle and profound changes the author has made.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Standard

Pride by Ibi Zoboi
HarperCollins, September 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been used as the basis for many a retelling; in this “remix”, Ibi Zoboi sets her charming and breezy YA romance in present day Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Janae, Zuri, and their three younger sisters live with their Haitian mother and Dominican father, all squashed together in a rundown but joyous 2-bedroom apartment. For Zuri, home is “my parents’ love, my loud sisters, my crowded and cluttered apartment, and the lingering scent of home-cooked meals.”

When the black Darcy family moves into a remodeled mini-mansion across the road, the scene is set for Zuri to be prejudiced and Darius Darcy to be proud. But it also opens up the novel’s larger theme of the gentrification of neighborhoods: “Outsiders moving in to change things up and throw things away.” (And a recent Bloomberg headline “Brooklyn’s Bushwick Zooms Up the List of NYC’s Priciest Neighborhoods” bears Zuri’s fears out). Even though Zuri resents these, mainly white, incursions, she does concede “that the new people moving in, with their extra money and dreams, can sometimes make things better.”

With Janae just back from her first year at Syracuse and narrator Zuri getting ready to apply to Howard, these young women are far from the restrictions placed on the Bennet sisters of the early 19th century: “We’re thinking about our careers and goals and breaking barriers.” Their parents are also much more reasonable than the Austen Bennets: Mami is the life and soul of the block, cooking up a storm at the drop of a hat and Papi keeps the household going by working two jobs.

Darius and his older brother Ainsley (the Bingham love interest for Janae) have wealth and privilege and just don’t fit into Zuri’s idea of the neighborhood: they speak differently, they behave differently, and they seem to be negatively judging the people and the place. On the other hand, Warren, a young man from the neighborhood who headlines himself as “Black Teen Boy from the Projects with Absentee Father Makes It into New York City’s Top Private School” has a lot more appeal for Zuri: “There’s a little bass in his voice, a little hood, a little swag, not like these Darcy boys.”

Ms Zoboi stays close to the structure of the Austen plot, only taking a few liberties with characters’ relationships for the sake of brevity, and it works naturally and really well. Given that it is contemporary YA, Pride does not have the same leisurely pace and depth of character development as Pride and Prejudice, though to be fair most teens I know (and many adults) find Jane Austen interminably slow. And it isn’t really a spoiler to say that pride and prejudice are overcome in satisfying ways and resolution is reached without Zuri compromising her ideals.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Standard

hark a vagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant is not strictly YA, but nonetheless has enormous appeal to older teens. We’ve had several of the comic strips up in my library and, though it was a bit of a slow burn, they now have many committed fans among the cool young cognescenti.

The comics are witty, erudite, supersmart (though definitely not above a fart joke), have a feminist bent, and make me laugh harder than anything I’ve read or seen in ages. The black and white drawings are deceptively simple, but the characters’ expressions embellish many of the jokes. The helpful and funny footnotes aid comprehension, though not in an entirely straightforward way.lord byron

Collected from a long-running website, the short strips are mainly grouped around satirical literary themes. Hark! A Vagrant opens with ‘Dude Watching with the Brontes’ (“So brooding!”), has a poke at the Scottish Play when one of the three weird sisters can’t meet up when the hurly burly’s done because she has a dental appointment on her calendar, has Nancy Drew’s Ghost of Blackwood Hall playing Bennie and the Jets, and compresses Crime and Punishment into 24 panels, the key clue being Raskolnikov’s article “Murdering Old Ladies: Not Even a Big Deal”. Dracula, Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson Crusoe, King Lear, and many others, all get their serious ideas shredded for some pointed laughs.

Beaton also get some yuks from history with insights on some well-known topics like the French Revolution and the Founding Fathers, but also enjoying sport with the obscurity (at least to us) of Canadian history, and the downtroddenness of “every lady scientist who ever did anything till now.”

But writing any more just continues to prove that Kate Beaton’s writing is way funnier than mine, so the  best thing you can do is grab a copy of one of her books, or click onto her website and enjoy plenty of those satisfying I’ve-just-understood-an-obscure-reference chuckles.