Review | The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: a novel in pictures, Caroline Preston

I love the concept behind Caroline Preston’s The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt! The “first-ever scrapbook novel,” the novel takes the form of a scrapbook Frankie keeps from her high school graduation in 1920, through her days at Vassar, her struggle to be a writer in Greenwich Village and in Paris, and finally her return home in 1927. Somewhat similar in form to Griffin and Sabine, Scrapbook contains vintage memorabilia, designed as if they had been glued to the page. Pages include amusement park tickets, graduation invitations, photos cut from fashion magazine, even a magazine ad for Palmolive soap. Unlike in Griffin and Sabine, the memorabilia in Scrapbook are only images on the page, and therefore cannot be removed, but the entire look of the page is almost three dimensional.

Have you ever kept a scrapbook? Back in 2005, right before I moved to Canada, my sister gave me a scrapbook so that I would always have a piece of the Philippines with me. I turned that book into a record of my entire life — as many pictures and memorabilia as I could cram in. My scrapbook ended up looking nowhere near as artistic as Frankie Pratt’s, but it’s definitely one of my most treasured possessions. I flip through it every once in a while, and the book transports me instantly to my past, to people and memories that mean something to me.

Scrapbook transports us to the 1920s, a fascinating era in history. Frankie, voted the “smartest girl” of her graduating class, dreams of becoming a writer and finding the love of her life. Because of her ambition to be a writer, she gets to meet some of the literary luminaries of her time, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and James Joyce. Including such significant historical figures, especially when they aren’t the subject of your story, is usually a delicate task, and it sometimes comes off as name-dropping. Preston, however pulls it off and it feels plausible. The scrapbook format also works really well, because giving each writer encounter a page or two of beautifully laid out snapshots, letters and typed lines acknowledges each encounter’s significance without either overwhelming us or trying too hard to be casual about it. Frankie’s scrapbook gives the impression that meeting James Joyce for work is as important to her as a letter she receives from a beau. I also love that Frankie is a reader. I love vintage book covers, and seeing 1920s cover art for This Side of Paradise and To the Lighthouse was just amazing. I especially love the feeling that while, for me, viewing these book covers was a trip to the past, for Frankie, these were contemporary titles, and she would have no way of knowing how significant they’d be over time.

Reading Scrapbook made me want to travel back in time to the 1920s. Well-written novels can certainly transport my imagination to the past, but the beauty of Scrapbook’s unique format is that it puts me as a reader into an interesting dual position. On one hand, I feel like a 21st century woman who happened upon an old scrapbook in an attic or a garage sale, and am viewing the significant moments in the life of someone from the past. On the other hand, I am also Frankie Pratt, viewing these things for the first time and being so excited by Beau Brummel with Mary Astor and John Barrymore that I simply must include the theatre program in my scrapbook. When I think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I picture a heavy tome of classic literature that, because of its narrative style, is going to be a difficult read. In contrast, Frankie knows Ulysses as “the notorious banned novel!” Ulysses is the controversial novel that everyone talks about, but that is practically impossible to find. She reads it not because she wants to tackle a classic, but because it has for her the thrill of the illicit. The vintage memorabilia in the pages creates an atmosphere of magic, of passion and possibility, and I at least wished I could have been there with Frankie, experiencing all these adventures with her.

Scrapbook is also such a romantic novel! The question of whom Frankie will end up with isn’t too difficult to guess, but the relationships she forms are all so fascinating. Again, the scrapbook format enhances the romance. Images of dapper men in suits, of love letters, movie tickets and telegrams all work together to create a lush, evocative world, where a gentleman can come knocking at your door or a rogue can invite you for a spin in his brand new automobile. The scrapbook format also softens the edges of emotion. When a man breaks Frankie’s heart, we know this because of a couple of photographs and a few typed lines, over a two-page spread. Frankie has a great sense of humour, and so another painful experience is countered by a lighthearted image from a magazine ad. It is almost too easy to miss the pain behind these images, and the book forces us to stop at moments and discern all the layers of emotions revealed by Frankie’s choice of memorabilia.

I can keep going on about all the things that fascinated me in this novel, but Scrapbook is definitely better seen in person than read about. The book trailer is a bit too long, in my opinion, but it does give you an idea of how the pages in the novel look:

Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a beautiful, beautiful book. Frankie is a charming, intelligent, utterly delightful woman, and her personality shines through on every page. I just fell in love with this book, and I hope you will too.

Author Encounter | Jo Walton

Some of you may have already read this blog post or seen my enthusiastic tweets and know how much I adore Jo Walton’s Among Others. Dan Wagstaff from Raincoast Books had called it a “novel for book nerds” — indeed, Among Others is a love letter to books, to libraries and particularly to science fiction. I especially love its ambiguous portrayal of magic — there is always a rational explanation, but that’s just how magic works in the real world. This book blew me away, and I’d been recommending it like crazy to anyone who loves books.

So when Dan tweeted me to let me know Jo Walton would be doing a signing at Bakka Phoenix Books, I immediately entered the event into my calendar. No way was I passing up the opportunity to meet this author!

It was a great experience, meeting Jo Walton. She read from the beginning of Among Others, ending with one of my favourite quotes: “I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.” Then she opened up the floor to questions.

Will there be a sequel to Among Others? She toyed with the idea, but decided against having another book from Mor’s point of view. She explained that Among Others begins after Mor had saved the world — it’s the story of what happens after the adventure that is usually what a book is about. Then, in Among Others, Mor gets to save the world again. “You can only save the world so many times before it gets boring,” Jo said.

The book she is currently working on is about the Congress of Vienna. “Ooooh,” the audience said. “I love you guys!” Jo exclaimed. She is so used to receiving blank stares when she mentions the Congress of Vienna that she sometimes just describes her next book as being about a giant lizard monster. “Same book,” she said.

I asked her about the magic in Among Others — why did she choose to portray magic in this way, neither completely rational nor completely magical? She said it’s because the story is set in the real world, and magic doesn’t exist in the real world. Therefore, she needed “non-falsifiable magic.” She doesn’t like it when books are set in the real world, and actual magic exists but no one notices it — “Do they think I’m stupid?” For her story, she needed to create the kind of magic that could actually exist in the real world.

Then, as she continued to think about it, she realized there was a kind of magic in ordinary objects as well. She gave the example of a favourite household object — a knife, I think? If we have an old knife that we’ve used for cooking for years and has some sentimental value to us, then even if someone gives us a brand new knife, we still usually prefer our old one. “It’s not actually magic,” she said. “But there is a connection.” And that connection in itself is a form of magic. In fact, she found out that the more you observe, the more you really look around, the more you will be aware of the kind of magic that does exist in the real world.

She is also amused at how many reviewers have been reluctant to use the word “fairies.” Instead, they call the fairies in the book elves, or spirits, or if they do use the word fairies, they spell it faeries. “Fairies” is a childish word; even Mor feels awkward using it. But Mor did meet them when she was a child, and trying to pin them down with a more adult term feels awkward. Jo says that the more childish term is actually the most fitting for the fairies in this book. (Immediately, I wondered how I referred to them in my review. A quick check reveals, to my relief, that I did spell the word “fairies”, as the book does. But I do remember feeling awkward typing it.)

Jo added that, to her surprise, some readers thought there was no magic at all in the book. It had never occurred to her that some readers would think Mor was just delusional. “This book is about magic,” she said. “As you can tell from the swirl on the cover.”
I got to chat with her a bit more when I brought my book up to be signed. I told her that Dan had called Among Others a novel for book nerds, and she laughed and said that was quite accurate. I also asked if she’d actually read all the books she references in Among Others. “Absolutely,” she said. “I wouldn’t talk about a book I hadn’t read, because I wouldn’t know what to say.” She may not have read them at fifteen, like Mor has, but she has read them all. I told her that upon finishing Among Others, I immediately rushed out to get a copy of Samuel Delany’s Triton. “My job is complete!” Jo said. She’d also once read a review of Among Others on a blog where the next review was Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, which, like me with Triton, the blogger had read because of Among Others.
The bonus of having written a book for book nerds: a librarian had actually compiled the Among Others reading list, and, after a few corrections from Jo, the publisher included the list on back of the book’s poster!
Wonderful to have met Jo Walton, and to have actually had the chance to chat with her about such an incredible book! Thank you, Bakka Phoenix, for the event, and thank you, Dan Wagstaff, for telling me about it!

Review | Beautiful Creatures, Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit of YA fatigue lately. I’m a huge fan of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, I have read quite a few really good YA books, and to be honest, I wish we had this much variety available when I was younger. That being said, it feels like wherever I turn, there’s the Next Big YA Series coming out, the one perfect for fans of Hunger Games. After a while, even the well-written ones start to sound the same to me — yet another dystopian world, yet another kick-ass heroine, yet love triangle, and so on. Full respect to the writers who create these stories and to the readers who love them, but I, at least, need a break.

So when my sister brought home Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures, finished it (all 563 pages!) in a single day, and suggested I read it, I was hesitant. Beyond my YA fatigue, there’s also a movie version coming out, so I was expecting to soon be overwhelmed by online buzz. Still, I figured I might as well give it a try. And I am so glad I did.

Beautiful Creatures is a brilliant Southern gothic — atmospheric, romantic, and haunting. I love that Garcia and Stohl tell the story from the guy’s perspective, and that there is no love triangle. I especially love that, while the focus of the story is the romance, there is an entire world beyond the love story, and the characters’ actions have significance far beyond their relationship. From the first chapter, I felt myself drawn into this world, and I wanted to find out more. The book did strike me as long, but the story is fascinating. It’s also really scary — I can definitely imagine it playing out well on screen, and I can just picture myself covering my eyes in the theatre.

When Lena Duchannes moves into the mysterious Ravenwood house in the small Southern town of Gatlin, Ethan Wate recognizes her from his dreams and is immediately drawn to her. Her family is cursed. They are Casters (they can cast spells), and while other Casters can choose their destiny, each Duchannes is Claimed at the age of 16 by either Light or Dark. As a powerful Natural Caster, Lena is a prize to both the Light and the Dark, and a prophecy later in the book reveals exactly how significant she is. Ethan is an ordinary boy, but he’s determined to protect Lena from the Dark as much as he can. At the very least, he fights to protect her from the other kids in school who have labelled Lena a witch simply because her uncle is the town recluse.

Beautiful Creatures has romance, but more than that, it has curses, ghosts, mystery, and, well, very real emotions. I love how, even though Lena has to deal with Dark Casters and curses, one of her major concerns is how to have a normal teenaged life before she is Claimed. Like an ordinary teenager, she just wants to have a good time at the school dance and to face a school day without being teased. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, she is invited to a party by the popular girls in her class. Lena knows they are under a spell by another Caster, but she pleads with her uncle to let her go anyway: “I want to go to a party I’m invited to. I mean, I know it’s all Ridley [casting a spell], but is it wrong if I don’t care?” As Ethan notes, “She wants to be part of all this, even if it wasn’t real.” How sad is that, and how much can we all relate to it?

Speaking of Ridley, I found myself very fascinated by her character. A childhood friend of Lena’s, she was Claimed by Dark at 16 and is now no longer welcome to her own family. She seems genuinely pained by this rejection, which makes me wonder if being Claimed as a Dark Caster makes one as absolutely evil as everyone seems to think. I love that Garcia and Stohl made her character a bit ambiguous; in her own way, she appears just as vulnerable as Lena, and I’d love to find out more of her thoughts.

The secondary characters in this book were also fascinating. I love Amma and Macon, both mentor figures who seem to have exciting pasts of their own. I also love Ethan’s best friend Link, the comic relief who I hope may be able to get through to Ridley. Finally, I love how much of this book revolves around a library — the town librarian works at a Caster library on bank holidays, and that just seems like such a magical, fascinating place.

Beautiful Creatures is such a fascinating book, and I can only begin to imagine where Garcia and Stohl will take the rest of the series!