Mondays on the Margins: Writing About Books for Marks

In my School Libraries course last term (the one with the instructor who annoyed me), I did a Book Talk project on five YA books that had been made into movies. I thought I did an awesome job, but of course the instructor found all kinds of nit-picky details that weren't in the assignment instructions but we somehow should have just guessed that she wanted. One of her comments was "you should be honest about whether or not you've read all the books - students will be able to tell if you haven't, and you'll lose their trust."

SAY WHAT? As IF I'd do a book talk on a book I hadn't read. If I hadn't read it, I would just read it the night before. Okay fine, I can't read every single book in the library, but I can read all the books I do book talks about - are you saying you don't, Ms. Instructor, because maybe that's why I don't trust you. Hmph.

So my course right now is called Genre Fiction and Readers' Advisory, and so far it does seem like a Golden Age in Library Tech Courses for me. The whole discussion board is people going "omg, you loved that book? I loved that book! Have you read this book? I've totally read that book too!" And my first assignment is a book review.



But you know what's coming, right? Yeah, cue the choke.

But wait. What if I'm NOT as awesome as I thought? I don't usually do them for marks. I usually just do them however I feel like. People TELL me they're awesome, but those people aren't college instructors, mostly. I put in my student profile that I have a book blog - what if that set up an unreasonable expectation of greatness? What if I do it wrong? What if I leave something out? Think, think, overthink, obsess....

Give head a shake. Pick awesome book, write awesome review.

Here it is:


                I’ve been a fan of the horror genre since I was quite young, although at this point in my life I find that the best horror is at least as sad as it is scary, stemming from an archetypal fear of loss and mortality. Horror is also a very pure expression of Aristotle’s catharsis, as evoking the emotions of pity and fear is paramount in the genre.

                Also, although I agree with Diana Tixier Herald that “each genre follows rules governing plot and characters - and abides by certain taboos - that are acknowledged by authors, required by publishers, and expected by readers”, and that some “readers of genre fiction do not like to be surprised, and often feel cheated by twists in the formula”, I personally find that the best examples of genre fiction do tend to put an original twist on the genre blueprint.

                M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts succeeds admirably, in my opinion, in bringing a fresh perspective to a common horror trope (which is not revealed until partway through the book, so I won’t reveal it here), and in evoking pity and fear in abundance. The events in the book take place in a future version of England, after an event known as “The Breakdown” has caused widespread death and destruction. A small cast of characters are on an army base at the beginning, but events force them to flee into the dangers of the surrounding area in search of a new safe haven. Carey tells the story in the present tense, which lends an urgency and immediacy to the proceedings. He also reveals the full details of the threat gradually, building suspense throughout the opening chapters, which only tell us that a group of children are held on the army base and given the basics of a classical education by a succession of teachers.

                After the first violent upheaval in the action, the cast of characters is culled to four principal players: Melanie, who is infected, and considered by most other people to be a monster, yet she exhibits the most integrity and the strongest moral code of all the characters; Helen Justineau, Melanie’s favourite of the teachers, who is determined to protect Melanie at all costs, because she cares for her but also to atone for past transgressions; Sergeant Eddie Parks, stoic and embittered by the state of the world, determined to complete his mission and baffled by Justineau’s feelings for Melanie; and Dr. Caroline Caldwell, whose missionary zeal and ferociously single-minded quest for medical truth and personal glory have erased all vestiges of compassion or empathy or humanity. Later in the story, Private Kieran Gallagher is introduced, with a quick, vivid sketch that fills in his background and personality to an amazing extent with the fewest possible words. Carey has a gift for flawed, nuanced characters.

                The fact that the beginning of the book takes place largely in a classroom setting allows Carey to set in place a solid underpinning of great literature and Greek myth. The discussion of Pandora and Epimetheus creates resonant themes of human curiosity and hubris, while references to the Brothers Grimm foreshadow dark fairy tale elements with no happy endings. Words and language are important to Melanie throughout the story, as tools both to understand and control the world; this, along with Carey’s remarkably assured writing, strengthens the narrative thread and elevates it beyond much purely formulaic genre fiction. With Melanie and Miss Justineau, Carey perfectly renders the relationship between the worshipful student and the beloved teacher, while Dr. Caldwell’s solid, detailed scientific explanation of the pathogen that generated The Breakdown lends the story a chilling element of plausibility.

                Although there are moments of pathos and connection, the story is devoid of easy sentimentalism, reflecting on some fairly unpalatable but uncomfortably discerning truths about human nature. There is no deus ex machina or Hollywood ending, although the conclusion does contain a skewed kind of optimism.

                I would recommend The Girl With All the Gifts for anyone who likes intelligent, literate horror, and look forward to future books from this author. 


Let's be honest, yours are the only opinions that really matter to me anyway. 


Alison said…
Your reviews are AMAZING. I've gotten so many good books from your recommendations, and saved time avoiding the duds. I can even say that when I started blogging again, your reviews served as an example of What to Do when reviewing books. That instructor can just suck it, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm sure you're going to get an excellent grade for this review. And yay for enjoying some classes--you were due!
Julie Leclair said…
of course you rocked it! and I agree with Alison, about time you had a course you enjoy!

and I am so thankful for all of your YA reviews. when I get my new ipad and new kobo app I am very eager to download all of your 3 stars and over reviews.
Lynn said…
Well, I'd give you an A. You clearly loved the book, but I like the way it isn't just gushing - there are reasons and explanations for why the book works, and what's really special about it. Personally I do prefer a little more snark but I think your professor will like this version better :).
Nicole said…
I love your reviews. And I'm not just saying that! I'm not a professor, obviously, but I find your reviews balanced and informative and they really give me an insight as to what kind of book it is and whether or not I should read it.

Your instructor sounds like a total d-bag.

This course sounds like it was MADE for you!

Maggie said…
Your reviews are the reason I've tried several books I've enjoyed including The Girl With All The Gifts! They are balanced and provide sufficient information and analysis for me to determine if the book is probably my kind of thing or not.

And what teacher tells and ADULT taking their class that they should have read all the books? Jeez, you're not some 18 YO who is just getting through the class on their way to something else. You are an adult, making time in your busy grown up life to take this class to get a degree, her comment was irritating and insulting. BAH.
StephLove said…
Nicely done. Just a tiny question-- did you mean scary instead of funny in the second line?
Bibliomama said…
Jesus Christ, YES. *facepalm* Thanks.

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