The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Guide, #1)
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve slept together or simply slept together.

This novel reminded me of reading Voltaire’s Candide in an English translation in college. What I remember most about that is that it was one adventure after another, a sort of Energizer Bunny of a story that just… kept… going. I recently did a little digging to figure out if what I remembered was accurate, and I ran across the term “picaresque novel”, for which the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms provides this explanation:

In the strict sense, a novel with a picaroon (Spanish, picaró: a rogue or scoundrel) as its hero or heroine, usually recounting his or her escapades in a first-person narrative marked by its episodic structure and realistic low-life descriptions. The picaroon is often a quick-witted servant who takes up with a succession of employers. […] In the looser sense now more frequently used, the term is applied to narratives that do not have a picaroon as their central character, but are loosely structured as a sequence of episodes united only by the presence of the central character, who is often involved in a long journey[…].

Okay, so The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t strictly meet the definition, but it’s pretty close. It’s set in an unspecified year sometime in the eighteenth century. The first-person narrator, Henry “Monty” Montague, is the eighteen-year-old Viscount Disley, a lad pretty committed to a daily routine of drinking, gambling, and romping with assorted girls and boys. His father, the earl, has been vocal (and physical) in his disapproval of Monty’s habits, especially the “mucking about with boys” that was a major factor in Monty’s expulsion from Eton.

Monty is looking forward to one last hurrah of a Grand European Tour with his best friend (and the boy he’s been in love with for years), Percy, before returning to England, where his father expects him to settle down and learn how to handle estate he is expected to inherit. Monty is disappointed to discover that, in addition to bringing his fifteen-year-old sister, Felicity, along for a portion of the tour, he and Percy have been assigned a “bear-leader” who pledges to keep them on the straight and narrow.

That doesn’t last past Paris; events at a party at Versailles quickly lead to Monty, Percy, and Felicity – separated from their supposed guardian – finding themselves in a flight from city to city, trying to keep one step ahead of some dangerous pursuers. Secrets of all sorts are revealed as one challenge follows another, and Monty learns quite a lot more than he bargained for.

Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all realistically complicated characters. Monty is a rogue who has trouble seeing past his own privilege, but his biracial best friend and science-minded younger sister can (eventually) get through to him. The difficulties Percy and Felicity face are realistic edges in a story that verges on the fantastical.

This book is, most of all, fun. Monty’s attraction to boys as well as girls isn’t an issue for him (other than the fact that it drives his father’s vicious treatment of him); his problem is that he isn’t sure how to tell the boy he likes that he, well, likes him. Having a crush on your best friend that you’re afraid to confess because you can’t bear the thought of losing that friend? That’s a problem teenagers across time, space, gender, and orientation can all understand. This is a picaresque (hey, there’s that word!) adventure novel and a romance, so you know that despite the obstacles (and more obstacles… and more obstacles) they face, our heroes will get to their happy ending.

And Felicity is getting a book of her own, slated for October 2018. I am so looking forward to The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. I can hardly wait.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

Reading Challenges: Um, none. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

The afternoon my parents died I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
by emily m. danforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
In the summer of 1989, twelve-year-old Cameron Post kissed her best friend, Irene. The next day, her parents died in a car accident. For Cameron, the two events would be forever linked, not that she could explain that to her born-again Aunt Ruth, who moves into Cameron’s house in Miles City, Montana to become her guardian. Cam knows enough not to talk about her attraction to other girls, let alone how she spends her time with them in the secrecy of haylofts and under the dock at the lake. But during the summer after her first year of high school, just when it seems that the girl she has fallen for might become more than a friend, her aunt finds out. Cam is packed off to God’s Promise, a “Christian School & Center for Healing” for an indeterminate stay. While the staff there tries to help her “break free from the bonds of sexual sin and confusion”, Cam realizes she risks losing herself before even finding out who that really is.

 

Review:
This is a beautifully written book. Danforth has the sort of polished style I expect from graduates of MFA Fiction programs (and she does hold an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, along with a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln). This is both a blessing and a curse, because it produces a feeling of distance between the reader and the narrator, despite the first-person voice, and between the narrator and the events. Maybe because Cam is clearly telling her story from some point in the future, it lacks immediacy.

Then, there is the setting. The rich description and attention to detail bring Miles City into clear focus, engaging all the senses. The location isn’t the only aspect of the setting, though. Equally important is the time period. The book is set two decades ago, when a teenager like Cam had to depend on letters through the postal service, access to the family phone, and the availability of movies for rent to pop into her VCR. Her world is limited by the boundaries of her small town and the people who live in it. The realistic portrayal of both the place and the time add to the feeling of distance from the events. It is all too easy to read this book and think, “Oh, but that was 20 years ago. That wouldn’t happen now.” But it could and it does, as Danforth reports in an author’s note at the front of the book. (At least, at the front of the Advance Reader Copy; I don’t know if it will appear in the final version.)

Cameron comes to terms with the wrong done to her by recognizing that these are deeply held convictions of people who truly believe they are working in her best interest, a realization that would seem to come with the perspective of time passed, and she refuses to outright condemn the sort of program that God’s Promise represents. Instead, she allows the reader to live through her experience, letting him form an opinion based on life on the inside of the program, the side its supporters rarely (if ever) really see.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an expertly crafted work, a fine example of Literary Fiction that happens to feature a lesbian teenager as its protagonist. And that is a wonderful thing, a fantastic thing. I would love to see more literary fiction with queer characters. After all, must a protagonist be a straight white male for the work to be one that “explores universal themes of truths and/or humanity in general” or, perhaps more significantly, “broadens the reader’s impressions of the human experience”?

I would also love to see more lesbian YA romance.

When it comes to this book, my negative feelings aren’t really about the book at all. They are about the marketing of this book as a teen title, when, really, it feels like an adult novel featuring a teen protagonist. The book itself is lovely. I worry, though, that it will have trouble finding readers who will enjoy the style enough to finish the story and reach the absolutely perfect ending.

On shelves February 7 2012.

 

Final Word:
An expertly crafted literary coming-of-age tale set in Big Sky country.

 

Source:
ARC provided by the publisher at ALA Midwinter 2012.

 

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Book Review: Almost Perfect

I took a little while after reading this one to put up a review. It’s this year’s Stonewall Award winner in the Children and Young Adult category, and I wanted to like it more than I did. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Almost PerfectAlmost Perfect by Brian Katcher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from the library

I knew I shouldn’t stare, but I couldn’t look away. Girls this strange didn’t exist in Boyer. They lived in Columbia or Kansas City or places like that.

High school senior Logan Witherspoon has known all of his classmates since kindergarten. In a town the size of Boyer, MO, everyone knows everyone. So, it’s a surprise when a new girl, Sage, joins his biology class. With her outgoing nature and flashy clothes, she seems like the polar opposite of Logan’s ex-girlfriend, the girl he dated for three years and thought he might one day marry. Sage is attractive and intriguing, but Logan knows she’s hiding something about her past. He never thinks to suspect that her secret is that she was born in a male body.

The first-person narration gives the reader Sage’s story filtered through Logan’s experience, making this more a story about Logan’s meandering journey out of total transphobia than about Sage herself. Katcher creates a believably confused and sympathetic Logan, so it’s unfortunate that Sage feels like an amalgamation rather than a fully-fledged character in her own right, as if events from different people’s lives were thrown together and expected to become a coherent backstory.

Katcher explores the meanings and boundaries of friendship, love, and loyalty, issues that any teenager struggles with. Logan’s interactions with his sister, mother, and friends contrast against Sage’s description of her relationships with her parents and sister, just as the relationship Logan had with his ex-girlfriend forms a stark contrast to his developing relationship with Sage. Logan’s story will prompt teen readers (and maybe some adults, too) to think about how they would act in his situation. And that can only be a good thing.

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Book Review: Jumpstart the World

Jumpstart the WorldJumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book Source: Checked out from my library

Lately I’ve been noticing how people have these ways of accidentally letting you see what’s important to them.

Just days before her sixteenth birthday, Elle moves into a new apartment. Alone. Except for a one-eyed cat she’s just rescued from the pound. Her mother would rather pay to put her teenage daughter up in an apartment in New York City than risk losing her boyfriend, Donald. The first neighbor Elle meets is Frank, an older guy who sparks an unexpected attraction in Elle. When she learns that Frank is a transgender man, it throws her into a whirl of confusion.

Jumpstart the World is a story of growing up, becoming independent, and finding one’s role in life. To teens dreaming of the day they get to move out of the family home (like the small group she begins to befriend at her new school), Elle’s situation looks great at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that being alone might not be all it’s cracked up to be. In first-person (but not present-tense!) narration, Hyde maintains a voice for Elle that reflects a slightly-more-mature-than-average, little-bit-prickly, sixteen-year-old girl wrestling with issues of love, friendship, and family. The book opens with Elle remarking on her mother’s frequent use of the words “beautiful” and “ugly” as an indication of what her mother considers important, and I was struck by how often Elle uses “weird” or “weirdly”, underscoring how much she thinks about what is normal and what is not. The focus throughout the book remains tight on Elle and her immediate situation. Details about her previous home life are sparse (whatever happened to her father?), and although the novel is written in past tense, it’s clear that these are very recent events. This realistic contemporary novel has clear appeal to anyone who has had that outside-looking-in feeling, and the conclusion of Elle’s story is both satisfying and hopeful.

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