To clarify, I’m not trying to say there’s anything cow-like about the author in question—I had the good fortune of meeting her earlier this year, which is a little tidbit of achievement I carry around with pride (and I totally high-fived her), and quite on the contrary, she was lovely, quite a bundle of eccentricity, wit and joy. It’s always interesting looking at authors as people beside their work and seeing how much of them comes through in their words. Naturally enough, as a good portion of the heart and soul ends up in one’s writing eventually, and the works of Libba Bray are certainly lovely bundles of eccentricity, wit and joy too.
She certainly has a satirical head on her shoulders, or at least, has something strong to say in each of her stories, whether it’s through outright madcap satire or woven through as an underlayer. A favourite topic seems to be a critique and examination of American culture, and the delicious mess of consumerism and contradictions within. She dances in and out of different genres, from urban fantasy to surrealism to contemporary young adult stories gone wacky, but within each she retains a bouncy prose and interesting voice with a message to convey. Beauty Queens, for example, was the first novel of hers I read, the tale of a plane full of teen beauty pageant participants crash landing on a deserted island leading to a game of survival starring shoe catapults, political takeover plots and a representation of just about every issue in modern culture. So there you go.
Going Bovine is possibly slightly more ridiculous, following an apathetic teenaged boy diagnosed with mad cow disease on a road trip across the country to piece together clues that will save the world from supernatural doom. He’s guided by a cute, sweet-toothed angel who dyes and spray-paints her wings and the Viking god Balder trapped in the form of a garden gnome, among others. I think that tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the book.
Except of course that the main character is dying for the better part of the story via dissolving brain, which adds the sombre side to the silliness and also makes him an interesting case of an unreliable narrator. Is all the surreal business with the harbinger of doom, the smoothie-endorsing happiness cult and the god-turned-gnome rescued from a party of stoners actually happening, or, as it’s hinted, is it just an illusion of our hero’s fading mind? And does it really matter, as it feels as if he’s lived it and developed anyway? It would certainly make sense of the sheer bizarreness of most points along the road trip, though what’s the author’s excuse?
There’s certainly a lot of imagination at play here, dancing in loops around the important issues being tackled. Beside Going Bovine’s question of the meaning of life is Beauty Queens’ attack on the media and the surrounding culture, prodding just about every ism you can think of into the ring to be glared at. Which was powerful in the individual stories (one contestant is transgender, for example, others look into issues of media racism, treatment of disabilities and queer sexuality, pressures of body image and ‘purity’…), but as a collective seemed rather heavy-handed at times.
Still, somewhere in the tangled fire-forged sisterhood of the survivalist contestants you’re sure to find someone you relate to, sympathise with or with a story that opens your eyes to the trouble they’re talking about. Or, if not, you could simply enjoy the ‘ad breaks’ between every few chapters, which are hilarious and scathing in their own right.
As a YA writer, Libba Bray certainly doesn’t seem to slip into a lot of the tropes others in the genre stereotypically cling to. I can’t speak for the Gemma Doyle trilogy having not read it (yet, though I’ve heard very good things) but her protagonists seem to swerve from the types I’m used to seeing at the head of teenage stories. Especially in the case of her most recent offering (wording I may have to change given its context in the book… occultist murders are not fun, friends) The Diviners, a supernatural murder mystery set in the 1920s, where the leading lady is about as far away as you can get from the gentle girl-next-door archetype that many urban fantasies employ to lend their innocent but special eyes to the fantastical world at hand.
This book was a gift from on high to me. I do have a weakness for the Jazz Age after all, as does the heroine Evie—she is a quintessential flapper, at least on surface level, and is feisty, frivolous and vain… as well as being kind and clever too, when she comes down to it, but as a starting point she was immediately much more flawed and in-your-face than most YA heroines. No offence to them, of course, but Evie’s differentness and sheer presence of attitude was something I enjoyed a lot about the book (and her out-there-ness made a nice contrast to the complete lack of craps to give on Cameron of Going Bovine’s part).
And she’s just one of a cast of great characters, and a setting that’s crafted so richly you can taste it as well as see it, the sprawling knotted streets of 1926 New York and all the diversity that defines it (who knew, right?). As historical fiction, it feels fantastically well researched, peppered with enough details—everything from name-dropped brands, landmarks and stars to an abundance of jazzy slang—to make it feel three-dimensional, and as worldbuilding in general the book creates its backdrop so well it’s practically another character. Climactic pacing isn’t always a strong point of LB’s, but she can do atmosphere wonderfully when she wishes it, and The Diviners manages to capture the glitz and heat of its setting as well as being magnificently creepy when it gets beneath the surface.
Her description is wonderful as well, and her writing style is pretty modern and easy to read while not being simple or stilted. She has a gentle hand for foreshadowing and rolls out character backstory at the right pace to keep things interesting but not overwhelm. Some of her side characters, especially in the case of the blatant satires, seem caricatures, which worked for the road trip format of Going Bovine but not as well for the stationary Beauty Queens where, for example, a crew of hunky reality TV show ‘pirates’ show up halfway through the book in just the right amount to provide conflict and love interests, which seemed a little mishandled to me but did prove via one heroine that you can like dudes and still be a powerful young woman.
On that note, romance seems to be something LB handles with some grace, with the adorable (eventual) and possibly death-guiding pairing of hero and guardian angel in Going Bovine and a peppering of sweet little side love stories in Beauty Queens (including one between two girls, shock and horror). As for The Diviners, I have yet to see what our heroine is doing… and I have my fingers crossed things won’t plunge into love triangle silliness. Crossed very tightly. I have faith, though. LB hasn’t really let me down yet.
Do I recommend her? Yes, her writing flows straight into your brain and bubbles around there, and has some important and lyrical things to say about the state of being in modern day. Is she an inspiration? Yes, I would quote her as one—when I met her, I mentioned I was looking forward to reading The Diviners, and she immediately lifted her hands to her temples and said “Oh God, I need to keep working on the second one of that.”
Which is something every writer can relate to—I try to remind myself of that if I’m feeling insecure in my own work: writers are writers, whether blogging from a bedroom desk or sashaying around international publishing houses. We’re all one mad and marvellous breed, and hey, if Libba freakin’ Bray can get through her writer’s block and create the wizardry she does, so can you.