Sequel Watch: The Diviners

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The second book in The Diviners series comes out soon. With this in mind, it seemed like The Diviners #1 was worth a re-read. I absolutely love Libba Bray. I think she writes fascinating female characters who are deeply engaged with the frustrations, limitations and possibilities of whichever time period she has chosen to write in. She constructs immersive worlds that weave easily through fantasy and reality. (Go read her entire back catalogue and come back to this review when you’re done)

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An evil force has sprung up in New York. Heinous murders are committed and bodies missing limbs are left covered in mysterious symbols. Meanwhile a young flapper run wild – Evie O’Neill – is banished by her parents from Ohio to stay with her uncle at his Museum of the Creepy Crawlies (occult studies, etc) in New York as a punishment for her behaviour. Her parents believe that she has been spreading slanderous rumours about a local young man, but Evie knows everything she claimed is true. When Evie holds an object and concentrates, it tells her its owner’s secrets.

Life starts for Evie once she arrives in New York. She’s clever, a drama queen and seeking fun over all else. She wants to dive headfirst into all that life can offer her, so New York is the best thing that could have happened. I loved getting to know Evie. She’s complicated. Her brother, James died during the First World War and her family have never recovered from his loss. She’s often torn between being the confident, dramatic, snarky personality that she is and being the good, quiet girl she knows that the people around her would prefer. She can be selfish, and some of her actions in the book made me cringe as a result.

She wants to be famous and is at times ruthless in the pursuit of that goal. She strikes up a very ill-advised deal with a journalist. She knows how to take advantage of a situation.

Horrifying occult-style murders happening across the city? An opportunity to get more tourists into the museum. If that opportunity also means getting herself in the papers? All the better.

There is a real sense of the abandonment of the values of the previous generation running throughout the book. Theta, a young dancer has run to New York away from her abusive husband. She’s moved in with her best friend, Henry (he’s her brother, as far as the landlord is concerned), a piano player and gay. Memphis has turned away from the church he was brought up in because he can’t see the relevance of it in his life. He writes poetry about the future he wishes to have.

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Libba Bray writes about navigating a world ruined by the very people who were supposed to save it: A world in which traditional values are seemingly meaningless in the aftermath of the grief and loss of the First World War; where you never know when the rug is going to be pulled out from under you so you may as well dance on it. A world in which the present can barely stand under the weight of its own history – and in fact may be destroyed by it. Evie and co. must fight the forces of evil threatening to take over the city while negotiating their own pre-ordained fates. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has an unlikely premise. When Lara Jean decides the time has come to put a crush to bed, she writes a letter to the boy in question filled with all of the reasons she loves him, as well as all of the reasons why she isn’t going to anymore. She then places the letters in envelopes, stamps and addresses them before putting them inside a vintage hat box. It’s supposed to be cathartic.

I’m glad that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han showed up on several must-read lists, because if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I would have judged its terrible pretty girl cover and cringe-worthy title and decided that it was not for me.

to all the boys i've loved before

But it kept showing up.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has an unlikely premise. When Lara Jean decides the time has come to put a crush to bed, she writes a letter to the boy in question filled with all of the reasons she loves him, as well as all of the reasons why she isn’t going to anymore. She then places the letters in envelopes, stamps and addresses them before putting them inside a vintage hat box. It’s supposed to be cathartic.

One day the letters get sent out (gasp). Two in particular are of major consequence. One goes to Josh, the very recent ex-boyfriend of her sister, Margot. The other goes to notorious school dude-bro, Peter Kavinsky. Kavinsky was Lara Jean’s first kiss, and a recent dumpee of school bully, Genevieve. So that she can get out of the Josh awkwardness and he can appear unbothered by Genevieve’s dumping, Lara Jean and Peter strike up a fake relationship.

What I liked most of this book was how Jenny Han used it to study the way that Romance, the pervasive cultural beast, affects our actual relationships. From such a young age we see the build-up and break down of relationships played out over and over again in film, television and books. The bombardment of constant sexual tension means that we’re experiencing the ideas and sensations of falling in love over and over without actually… experiencing it. Jenny Han uses Lara Jean’s budding relationships to explore her fear of dealing with an actual real life boy outside of the constraints of a perfect movie script. A boy who might be influenced by shitty friends or have complex relationships with other women. A boy who doesn’t show up with perfect timing.

Lara Jean is forced to recognise that what the boys she professes to love have in common is unavailability. She realises that perhaps that isn’t so much bad luck as a defence mechanism. Over the course of the story Lara Jean learns that falling in love can’t just be hopeless admiration from afar, that instead it’s opening up to an actual, real, complicated, unpredictable human.

I read this book on a train. This is why I hated the cover quite so much, because I felt like the suits surrounding me were rolling their eyes behind their iphones and designer glasses. I thought this because even though they were in front of me I was making them into imaginary people.

I considered whether there was actually something to be learned from this book.

I think there is. And it doesn’t have to be romance specific. I think that embracing (note: not literally – people don’t like that) real life people rather than withdrawing into imaginary scenarios is something all us book people could probably do more of.

I got talking with one of the people behind the iphones. He was a true crime documentary writer from New York. He told me about how he has to acquaint himself with every minute detail of a case before he can start writing. His team sometimes have the manipulate murder victim’s families to talk to them for the documentaries that are 90% true but adapted for entertainment purposes. It sounded both great and awful. Whichever it is, I was glad that I had got to hear about it.

Really great fiction helps you reflect on your every day. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is definitely worth a read.