shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass


what she said, did, thought

I?ve been thinking lately about my favorite female narrators in young adult novels. (Not least because of the book I?m finishing.) That?s a pretty large category, so I?ve narrowed it in scope to the narrators with the strongest voices, and whose voices are tinged with smart cynicism, wry depression, or that indefinable, riveting quality I can only think to call knowing. These are the six I like best, and interestingly enough only one of them (I believe) was originally published as book for young adults, but they all certainly meet my definition of what a good YA novel is. (Which is just a subset of good novels; in fact, teenagers are tougher than tough audiences and good YA novels must, of course, be good novels foremost.) I'm just loving lists lately, so let's have it, in no particular order.

1. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith. It has one of the best first lines ever: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." How much does that tell you about the character right off the bat? Not that much, but it gives you an exquisite sense of Cassandra, romantic and sharp-eyed and funny as hell. Here's a Guardian piece about the book from last year. The thing I love most about this book is Cassandra's voice; Smith had absolute control over it, and it's pitch perfect. I'm still bitter that I didn't discover this book until several years ago, when it came back into print and Kelly sent it as a birthday present. I have no doubt it would have been my favorite book in the whole world when I was twelve or fourteen. It's not that far down the list now.

2. THE BASIC EIGHT by Daniel Handler. Another marvel of voice and authorial command over it -- which is Handler's greatest strength, to me, and why A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS works so well, and why WATCH YOUR MOUTH ditto. THE BASIC EIGHT is a tart treat of a book, a well-crafted murder mystery(esque), with Flan's unique flourishes such as quizzes at the end of the chapters. I enjoy the hell out of this book, not least for its spot-on rendering of a certain kind of really intelligent, possibly pretentious teenager who likes to party. You can read the first chapter here. The book starts off with a priceless quote from a faux book within the book: "One of the reasons the teenage years are so agonizing is that in most societies, particularly ours, the adolescent is emotionally neither fish nor fowl."

3. LIKE THE RED PANDA by Andrea Seigel. Yeah, yeah, so I just read it. But this really is the teenage girl's (even the grown-up ones) CATCHER-IN-THE-RYE only better in many ways and Stella's not so obnoxious and cringe-inducing a character to read after the age of 17. And this is the book that started me thinking about this little list in the first place. Seigel perfectly captures the syntax and the synapse workings of Stella and, again, renders a voice that is fully developed as only, only, only belonging to this particular narrator but still speaking to many aspects of life in general and life in high school. So, read it. And go over to her blog and read the first chapter of her second book, which she just put up a couple of days ago.

4. GHOST WORLD by Daniel Clowes. This one really is cheating a bit (don't you think I know that?), because the narrator isn't either of the two main characters. But you have to love Enid, right? So it counts. And this book hits that bizarre dynamic between high school girls who are "best friends" and what happens when it gets ugly and falls apart. (Seigel's book also captures this dynamic, but sideways from Stella's own journey.)

5. MISSING ANGEL JUAN by Francesca Lia Block. It's probably not cool to like these anymore and if that bothered me then we'd be in trouble. But it doesn't, so we're not. The Weetzie Bat books will always hold a special place in my heart, for just being themselves, and for the time in my life when I discovered them. MISSING ANGEL JUAN is the most mature of them, the most heartbreaking and funny, and I think I like it best in no small part because it takes one of the Weetzie Bat tribe, in this case Witch Baby (who's my favorite of the characters because she has spiderweb cowboy boot roller skates and I also happen to have spiderweb cowboy boots -- and wish they were roller skates), and drops her into a realer place where she has to cope on her own (well, and with a ghost's help). Block can do some pretty remarkable things with language, things I wouldn't want to read all the time, but appreciate greatly every now and then. And Witch Baby is a great character, with her obsessive nature rendered through her camera lens and her collection of horrible news clippings.

6. WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson. This list was only supposed to be five, but this was as close as I could get it. Shirley Jackson, how do I love thee? And how do I love this book? Merricat is a divine narrator, so clever and naive and arch all at the same time. Not to mention unhinged. This book is one of the most masterfully taut short novels I've ever read and it's in no small part due to Merricat's narration. I don't think I have to sell anyone on a Jackson novel, so I'll knock it off. If you haven't read this, you're missing out. It's a beautiful dark novel. And apparently, a film version's in development at Dreamworks, which scares me a little. Andy Duncan told me about Jackson's nonfiction book THE WITCHCRAFT OF SALEM VILLAGE earlier this year and this reminds me to seek it out. (Searching for Andy's website, I found a fantastic interview with him, so expect an Andy Duncan bon mot post soon.) You can read this in an afternoon and have no excuse for not doing so.

And well, list! Item! Complete! Thoughts? Your own recommendations or conspiracy theories? Any guess who barely missed the cut?

worm "I Don't Blame You," Cat Power

namecheck Alan "Googlemeister" DeNiro


  • At 1:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    So apparently one way to get on Gwenda's book list is to start your title with a pronoun, tack on a verb, and end it with "the Castle." Proposed future additions to the list:

    They Became the Castle

    You Wander Around the Castle

    She Blew Up the Castle

    Y'all Better Steer Clear of the Castle

    ...Agreed that the notion of a film version of the Jackson book is a kinda scary idea. I'm thinkin' buckets of blood, a chainsaw murderer, and a climactic scene in which a giant magical whirlwind appears and sweeps all the surviving characters off to hell. Merricat will be played by one of the stars of _I Know What You Did Last Summer_ and will wear less and less clothing as the movie goes on.

    --jed, who has thus far successfully avoided both movies of _The Haunting of Hill House_

  • At 1:45 PM , Blogger Gwenda said...

    This is officially my favorite comment ever.

    Y'all Better Steer Clear of the Castle made me laugh so hard I almost cried.

  • At 10:10 PM , Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

    I think your next YA novel should be a Southern rewrite of Jackson's novel. I would soo buy a book called "Y'all Better Steer Clear of the Castle".

    And my list of girl narrators for coming of age novels is pretty much the same. I love the Weetzie Bat books, and Jackson's my hero in general. And if I can ever write a book half as good as "I Capture the Castle" I'll just be happy with that and stop writing afterward.


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