Deconstructing Death: Victoria Schwab's The Archived

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Due to, perhaps, snow and icy roads and other nonsense things with which I'm currently living, UPS didn't deliver my pre-ordered copy of Victoria Schwab's The Archived until late yesterday, but it was certainly worth the wait! This has been a great month for new releases (Shades of Earth, Through the Ever Night, The Madman's Daughter, etc.), but so far Victoria's is my favorite. Here's the GoodReads description for those of you unfamiliar with the plot:

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often-violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper isn't just dangerous-it's a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da's death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.

In this haunting, richly imagined novel, Victoria Schwab reveals the thin lines between past and present, love and pain, trust and deceit, unbearable loss and hard-won redemption.

***A digression: Normally I refer to authors by their last names in reviews, but I had the privilege of meeting Victoria a couple of years ago at the Auburn Writers Conference, where I enrolled in two of her workshops--the two best workshops I've ever attended at a conference, BTW. Victoria is just such a lovely person--kind, generous, professional, prepared (it's amazing how often that doesn't seem to be the case in writing workshops), and hard-working. The kind of person you want to cheer for and who you hope receives every accolade she deserves. So that's why she's Victoria here, and not "Schwab." End digression.***

The Archived is Victoria's second novel, and I'm not going to lie--I enjoyed her first, The Near Witch, but I didn't love it. Still, I could see her potential to become not just a good writer, but a great one. If I'm remembering correctly, in one of her workshops Victoria mentioned that she originally wanted to be a poet, and you could see that in The Near Witch, in her elegant prose and precise word choice. But in The Archived, Victoria elevates her poetic language to another level. I'm not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most beautifully written YA books I've read in quite some time. Every sentence is carefully crafted. Her verbs sings. Her metaphors are original and interesting. (At one point she describes a storm dragging "its stomach over the city," and I thought Yes. Wow. And, of course, Why didn't I think of that?) It's always delightful to find an author who values language as much as plot, dialogue, and character, but the good news is, Victoria also values all of those things!

Although it takes a little while for the plot to really get moving (Victoria has a lot of world-building to do first, since her settings and concept are so original), once it does, the mystery and danger of the Narrows is thrilling. Many of the images conjured are haunting (but not too frightening), and the world she has built lingers long after the book is over. (Although I just finished the entire book, I read the first hundred pages on NetGalley back in the fall, and I was surprised that I still remembered so many of her descriptions months and dozens of books later.) Some of the revelations along the way seem a little obvious, but most are surprising, which is difficult to accomplish these days, when astute readers have learned to expect the unexpected.

Victoria's characters are also well-constructed. MC Mackenzie and her family have recently suffered the loss of her little brother, Ben, and their grief and denial is handled with such empathy, compassion, and clarity. I'm not much of a crier when it comes to books (something to do with the fact that Florence + the Machine doesn't accompany them), but I teared up twice when reading The Archived. Here's the first one, when Mac is thinking back to the morning Ben died:
I walked with him, all the way to the corner of Lincoln and Smith like always, and he drew a stick-figure Ben on my hand like always and I drew a stick-figure Mac on his like always and he told me it didn't even look like a human being and I told him it wasn't and he told me I was weird and I told him he was late for school.
I can see the black scribble on the back of his hand through the white sheet.
Seriously? Oh my God. The tears. Ben isn't even alive when the book begins, yet he lives on every page. He is one of the most fully realized characters in the book. I can see him even more clearly than Mackenzie, perhaps because children just tend to be easier to see and understand than adults and teenagers, and also because Mackenzie is still a little bit of a mystery to me, despite spending 300+ pages in her head. I think that's intentional, though. Mackenzie is a bit more difficult to see clearly because I think she has a hard time seeing herself. (Deep, I know.) Sometimes she does things that seem strange or that are frustrating, but I think they are only strange and frustrating to us because Mac doesn't acknowledge why she does these things. (Although we can figure it out based on how other characters respond.) She doesn't think as much about reasons and consequences as we might because it's hard enough for her to keep her entire world from crumbling (sometimes literally) without adding in guilt and repercussions. Oh, and there's also a boy, Wesley Ayers, who reminds me of a nicer, goth version of Mara Dyer's Noah, so that always complicates things (in the best way possible).

In the end, The Archived is a paranormal thriller, it's a fantasy, it's a mystery. But more importantly, it's a beautifully written story about how people, young and old, deal with death and loss, and how those we lose never really leave us. I'll be waiting (impatiently) for the sequel.


Reading Challenge 2013

Thursday, January 3, 2013

One of my New Year's Resolutions (of which I have many) is to complete the GoodReads Reading Challenge this year, which I failed last year. The failure was no one's fault but my own because, well, I set the reading goal myself. Last year my goal was 52 fun books, or one per week, which should have been pretty manageable. But each time I got deep into a dissertation chapter I pretty much gave up fun reading altogether, which meant that after each chapter I was left with a stack like this one...

The stack of mostly new releases waiting for me when I finished writing Chapter 2. I only made it through four of these by year's end.
...and only about a week of free reading time before I had to begin the next dissertation chapter. Towards the end of the year, I found myself mid-way through three or four different books, none of which were finished before January 1, which means that none of them counted toward the 2012 Reading Challenge, but together they set me up well for 2013. I already finished one of them this morning, so I have high hopes that I WILL complete the Challenge this year.

In all, I finished 44 books for fun last year. My list was YA heavy, and some of the titles aren't really books (more like singles or companion pieces), and a few of the books were more for teaching purposes than for entertainment. The list also feels incomplete because there were so many books for which I downloaded the samples onto my Kindle but never read the whole books or that I started and didn't finished or that I bought and didn't find time to read. So my reading and writing life was informed by so many other titles, many of which I hope to complete in the future, but for now, here are the books that I finished in 2012:

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart (fourth time)
Atwood, Margaret. I’m Starved for You
Atwood, Margaret. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination
Baggott, Julianna. Pure (Pure #1)
Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Clare, Cassandra. City of Bones (Mortal Instruments #1)
Clare, Cassandra. City of Ashes (Mortal Instruments #2)
Clare, Cassandra. City of Glass (Mortal Instruments #3)
Clare, Cassandra. City of Fallen Angels (Mortal Instruments #4)
Clare, Cassandra. City of Lost Souls (Mortal Instruments #5)
Clare, Cassandra. Clockwork Angel (Infernal Devices #1)
Clare, Cassandra. Clockwork Prince (Infernal Devices #2)
Condie, Ally. Reached
Dermont, Amber. The Starboard Sea
Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides
Fuller, Alexandra. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars
Harris, Charlaine. Dead Reckoning (Sookie Stackhouse #11)
Hawkins, Rachel. Spell Bound (Hex Hall #3)
Hodkin, Michelle. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Mara Dyer #1)
Hodkin, Michelle. The Evolution of Mara Dyer (Mara Dyer #2)
Hubbard, Kirsten. Wanderlove
Ilibagiza, Immaculee. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
Keire, Vicki. Worlds Burn Through (The Chronicles of Nowhere #1)
Kirby, Jessi. In Honor
Meyer, Marissa. Cinder (Lunar Chronicles #1)
Morton, Kate. The Secret Keeper
Munro, Alice. Too Much Happiness
Oliver, Lauren. Hana (Delirium #1.5)
Oliver, Lauren. Pandemonium (Delirium #2)
Revis, Beth. A Million Suns
Reger, Rob. Piece of Mind (Emily the Strange, #4)
Riggs, Ransom. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine #1)
Roth, Veronica. Divergent (Divergent #1)
Roth, Veronica. Free Four: Tobias Tells the Story (Divergent #1.5)
Roth, Veronica. Insurgent (Divergent #2)
Rowling, J.K. The Casual Vacancy
Russell, Karen. Swamplandia!
Schwab, Victoria. The Ash-born Boy (The Near Witch #0)
Spillman, Rob, ed. Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing
Taylor, Laini. Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1)
Taylor, Laini. Days of Blood and Starlight (Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2)
Taylor, Laini. Lips Touch: Three Times
Walker, Karen Thompson. The Age of Miracles

There are lots of series on this list (because I like to live in the same worlds and with the same characters as long as possible) and lots of books by the same authors (because once you hook me, I'm yours), but I was reading many of these authors for the first time. 

I will always remember 2012 as the year in which I read Laini Taylor's gorgeous prose for the first time and became a forever fan. Her Daughter of Smoke and Bone goes down as my Favorite YA Fantasy of the Year (even though it was published in 2011).

In a year in which my reading list was dominated by dystopian titles (as it often is), Julianna Baggott's Pure wins for Best World Building, Veronica Roth's Divergent books win for Most Addicting Dystopian Series, and Beth Revis's A Million Suns wins Best Dystopian Sequel

I'd give the award for Best Contemporary YA to Kirsten Hubbard's Wanderlove (although it just barely nudged out Jessi Kirby's In Honor). 

Because I devoured SEVEN Cassandra Clare books, I had to create a special category just for her, so the Cassandra Clare Award for Best Cassandra Clare Book goes to Clockwork Prince, which was by far the most heart-wrenching of her works.

2012 will also be remembered as the year in which Kate Morton reminded me of why I'm so in love with her prose, her structure, and her storytelling. The Secret Keeper was absolutely one of my favorite reads of the year, and it wins for Best Literary Fiction and Best Historical Novel (even though I didn't read a lot of historical fiction).

2012 is also the year in which I was first introduced to Karen Thompson Walker, whose The Age of Miracles gets my award for Best Debut of the Year (and also Best Coming-of-Age, Best Literary Sci-Fi, and Least Bleak Semi-Apocalyptic Book of the Year).

The coming year promises to be just as exciting, as many of my favorite series are wrapping up, a few by favorite authors are just beginning, and I'm sure there were will be plenty of surprises and discoveries along the way. 

If you have any 2013 releases you are really looking forward to (or a book of your own to promote), please leave the titles in the comments and I'll try to add them to my TBR pile!


Saying Good-Bye/Good Riddance to 2012

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy New Year! It's 2013, which means the 21st century is officially a teenager! Hard to believe, isn't it? Most days, I feel like the 90s just happened, and here we are well into the second decade after them. Thinking about it that way makes me feel really old, so let's move on, shall we?

2013! Can you tell I'm excited about the New Year? I'm always excited when a New Year is approaching because a New Year means a new beginning, and a new beginning means a clean slate, endless opportunities, a chance to put the problems of the past year behind me and start anew. But I'm particularly excited about this New Year because, well, 2012 sort of sucked and I'm really glad it's behind me. That's not to say some really wonderful things didn't happen in 2012, because they did, but it was also a year of uncertainty and heartache and illness and uncertainty and isolation and more uncertainty, uncertainty that will unfortunately continue into 2013. But because I cannot control any of the uncertainties in my life, I'm not going to let them consume me the way they have the past several months. I'm going to spend these next few weeks focusing on the things I CAN control, at least somewhat--my work, my eating habits, how I spend my time. And, as is the tradition, I'm going to start the year by saying good-bye to the last one by recalling all my favorite memories, so here they are:
  1. Honeymooning in Hawai'i with my wonderful husband, including
    • Taking a helicopter tour of the Na Pali Coast of Kauai
    • Roadtripping all over the major islands, including south, east, and north Oahu; the northern coast of Maui; Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island; and all over Kauai
    • Seeing the sunrise at Haleakala and biking 26 miles down the volcano afterward
    • Sampling local cookies, chocolates, macadamia nuts, shaved ice, and ice cream on the different islands
    • Watching the sunset on Ke'e Beach on the North Shore of Kauai
    • Enjoying a Dole Whip at the Dole Plantation on Oahu 
  2. Taking an epic two-week vacation last summer to Disney World and LA/Disneyland, including
    • Visiting the National Portrait Gallery in DC on our first day and discovering a painting that became the subject for a story cycle I'm planning
    • Spending an afternoon just sitting in the sand at Huntington Beach
    • Exploring the rock formations at El Matador Beach in Malibu
    • Learning about the concept of gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art) at the "Gustav Klimt: Magic of Line" exhibit at the Getty, one of the most inspiring exhibits I've been to in recent memory
    • Appreciating the beauty of the "work-vacation," writing, reading, and editing in the California sunshine on the lanai of our hotel room
    • Returning to Narcoossee's and the Grand Floridian a little more than six months after getting married there
    • Watching the 4th of July fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, which were spectacular and moving even after an hour rain delay
    • Hanging out with my little brother and enjoying all the treats he left in our room at Animal Kingdom Lodge almost every night
    • Going on a "snack tour" of the different parks, trying to get the most out of dining plan snack credits (highlights included the carrot cake cookie at the Writer's Stop and 4th of July cupcake at Pizza Planet in Hollywood Studios, cream-cheese pretzel and of course Dole Whip in Magic Kingdom, and white chocolate elephant cupcake in Animal Kingdom)
    • Riding Toy Story Mania over and over again with my husband, at both Hollywood Studios and California Adventure. I lost all but one time, but I still had fun because he's the one person I can stand losing to.
    • Partying at the delightfully whimsical, surreal Mad T Party in DCA
    • Exploring the new Cars Land (even though Radiator Springs Racers was broken when we were there) and seeing it all lit up in neon lights at night, riding Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, shopping for Cars-themed gifts for the nephews, and eating at Flo's V8 Cafe
    • Sketching Piglet at Hollywood Studios and the Cheshire Cat at DCA after discovering the animation classes, which might be one of my favorite things to do at Disney  
    • And ending my visit standing in the mists of World of Color, one of my favorite moments of the year
  3. Spending my first anniversary in New York with my husband
    • Visiting the Guggenheim for the first time for the incredibly inspiring "Picasso: Black and White" exhibit
    • Exploring in a more relaxed way, stopping to eat, linger in restaurants, and window-shop along the way
    • Taking in all the holiday display windows on Fifth Avenue, Madison, and at Macy's
    • Seeing Rockefeller Center all lit up at night and watching the ice skaters there and at Bryant Park
    • Celebrating our "paper" anniversary with a Newsies matinee and dinner at the Algonquin Round Table, where Dorothy Parker and other legendary writers and critics used to gather
    • Reading adaptations of 1001 Nights, African folk tales, and Hindu myths in the storybook section of FAO Schwartz
    • Collecting postcards in the "Charles Dickens: Key to Character" and "Lunch Hour NYC" exhibits at the New York Public Library
    • Discovering 92Y and their amazing literary programs, including attending a reading by Junot Diaz and Julie Otsuka, and getting to meet Julie Otsuka and have her sign her book afterward
    • Remembering why I love the city so much and always have
Of course, there were many other great memories made in 2012 and great achievements as well (such as finishing the introduction and first two chapters of my dissertation), but these moments were the ones that will stay with me longest, the ones I will try hardest to hold on to. These are the ones I will wrap around me as I move into 2013, that will continue to inspire me and remind me of how grateful I should be for the opportunities I've had, and for all that are to come. 

Relaxing in the peaceful central courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.
T.J. recreating some of the bridal portraits Jason Angelini shot of me in the Grand Floridian's Basin White shop.
Sharing a milkshake at 50s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios.
One of the many giraffes that decided to get up-close-and-personal with us during the best Kilamanjaro Safari I've ever been on at Animal Kingdom.
Hanging out with Tigger at the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Breakfast at 1900 Park Fare, where we also met Pooh, Mary Poppins, Alice, and the Mad Hatter.

Making friends with the birds at El Matador Beach, Malibu.

Exploring the sunken gardens at the Getty.

Standing on the steps of the Dolby Theater (formerly Kodak Theater), where the Oscars are held.
As close to Radiator Springs Racers as we got that day.

My Cheshire Cat from the "Animation Academy" at DCA.

Step into the Mad T Party.

Alice is "Just a Girl" after all.

Dee and Dum, the coolest/scariest bouncers ever.

An entire arcade of Alice-themed games? Yes, please.

Rocking out with the White Rabbit DJ.

Neon lights of Radiator Springs, Cars Land, DCA.

Bellagio fountains on crack=World of Color

Good-bye, California!

And good-bye, 2012!


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