Unreliable Narrators, Part 2

29 04 2010

Confession #1: I realized after my last post that I have not mentioned the one major gap in my reading. I’ll confess, I haven’t read that many adult books. Especially the classics. I mean, I probably read more adult books as a teenager than I do now, mostly because the young adult section of my library did not actually exist when I was a teenager. And now my focus is so much on teen and children’s books, that I don’t read many new adult books–unless I’ve been reading that author since my teenage years.

Confession #2: I am addicted to Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series, which is soon to be a new TV show on ABC Family. I think that may be more embarrassing than my lack of education in the classics. I mean, I have to tell you–I hate this series. I hate the characters, they are MEAN! Without exception. The parents are exceedingly cruel to their children, the four main characters are mean girls, hiding things from each other for their own gain (and a little out of embarrassment and fear of retribution) and the girl who died (not really a spoiler, we find out about this early in the first book) was the queen of mean. I’m not really sure if these books have any redeeming qualities–and yet I keep reading them! I think it’s the mystery (which I swear I’ve solved!) that keeps me reading the books. I mean, how will I know if I’m right if I stop reading now?

Anyway, I was reading Flawless, the second book in the series when I happened upon a particular passage. An English teacher is giving an assignment to one of the girls–a side project on unreliable narrators in literature. He says: “Well, the narrator tells us the story in a book, right? But what if…the narrator isn’t telling us the truth? Maybe he’s telling his skewed version of the story to get you on his side. Or to scare you. Or maybe he’s crazy!” (p. 123) That’s what I’ve been talking about, Mr. Fictional Teacher Man! That stopped me in my tracks. Aside from the fact that this is probably a clue in the series, given by our omniscient narrator, it made me realize–what am I missing by just reading teen books? How many adult books, maybe even classics, have I not read that might be relevant to these teen books I’m reading now? How can I recommend similar books to teens if I haven’t read them? How can I even claim to be an expert on books?

Answer: I don’t claim to be an expert on books, though I do know a hell of a lot about teen books. Knowing what you don’t know is the first step to learning more. So, I’m still looking for adult books with unreliable narrators. Anyone?


Good Girl/Bad Girl

16 04 2010

How much do you know about your narrator?  Is she a good girl or bad girl?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.  The answer is usually a lot, since as a reader, you often spend the novel in that person’s head (I’m talking about novels written in the first person here).  But in the past week or so, I’ve found myself reading books where the narrator may not be who you think she is.  The first is Liar by Justine Larbalestier, a book that created a lot of buzz last year but I only got my hands on recently.  The second is The Deadly Sister by Eliot Schrefer, a book that doesn’t come out until May 2010 (and I was lucky enough to get a second-hand ARC).

Let’s start with the similarities: mysterious covers, female narrators, and a death right at the beginning of the book.  In both cases, this is a boy who is the romantic interest of many people–a popular kid.  And again in both cases, these girls are confused and kind of angry.  But that’s where the perfect similarities stop.  In Liar, it’s fairly obvious and fairly clear that our narrator, Micah, is a liar.  She’s been called a liar her whole life and she demonstrates the ridiculous lies she has told to people which include her being a hermaphrodite.  Nothing to mess with there.  On the other hand, in The Deadly Sister, our narrator Abby is the good girl–the good sister to her drug-addicted runaway younger sister Maya who has most likely killed her GED tutor/boyfriend-type-person (who isn’t really her boyfriend at all).  But somehow, both of these narrators are telling a story that feels a little bit off.  A little bit contrived.  A little bit perfect.

Now, if I go much further, I am going to start to spoil the crap out of these books.  And let me tell you, The Deadly Sister was so creepily good, I would rather you read it yourself (and maybe scare yourself in the middle of the night like I did, to the point where I had to watch an episode of Ugly Betty to make the creepy feelings go away).  I’m not that into creepy books but this is a creepy mystery/thriller and that appeals to me.  Eliot Schrefer is the author of another thrillingly creepy book–and serious page-turner–The School for Dangerous GirlsThe Deadly Sister is a great follow-up and a perfect read-alike.

On the other hand, I found Liar to be almost confusing.  You know something is up and you know have to read closely from the beginning–especially if you paid any attention to the buzz around the content of this book (not the cover!).  But maybe there wasn’t enough urgency in the book for me.  Liar was more of a literary work.  I could feel the way Larbalestier wove the various threads of the story together to give the reader a way to figure out what was going on.  Schrefer just planted a lot of suspicion–and perhaps some threads that the real detail hounds would have noted early on.  In some ways, these two books are perfect complements–you can watch the same beginning lead you down different paths.  Beyond the initial similarities, the plots of these books are quite different and I think you’ll come to shockingly different conclusions about each narrator and story.

Bottom line: I love books that play with the narrator’s reliability as a storyteller.  I’ve seen this a lot in recent teen books (including older titles like Inexcusable by Chris Lynch or Touch by Francine Prose) and it makes for so much fun reading, especially for writers and storytellers.  I would love to know if there are great titles for adults that have the same type of narration that could be paired with these teen titles.