The Diviners by Libba Bray
Libba Bray’s books are really hit and miss for me. I liked the Great and Terrible Beauty series at first and then lost interest. I loathed the Printz-winning Going Bovine; it’s probably the worst book I ever finished (I really should have given up on it but I persevered, to my misery). But many acquaintances loved The Diviners and I myself love some historical fiction, so I gave this a try, with the promise to myself that I’d give up on it if it was more Going Bovine than Great and Terrible Beauty. To my delight, it wasn’t either. The main character is Evie O’Neill, a spoiled and headstrong teen who embraces the flapper life of 1920s New York, where she’s sent from Ohio after accidentally-on-purpose (alcohol was involved) revealing that she has the ability to learn things about people by holding objects that belong to them. Of course, people think it was just a party trick, but Evie knows better. She’s sent to live with her uncle, who runs an occult museum and who is soon tasked by the police to help solve murders that have occult overtones. Evie becomes involved, naturally, as she’s not about to let her uncle have all the “fun.”
I loved Evie a lot as a character, though I’m not sure I could handle being her friend. She’s outspoken and stands up for herself and her friends. She’s energetic and embraces life, but she uses a lot of that energy to hide significant unhappiness. The story is told in third person and occasionally switches perspectives to other “diviners” like Evie who have supernatural powers and are connected to the murders in some way. It also occasionally switches to the murderer, and these sections are truly creepy (the murders themselves are paranormal in nature as well). Whereas in Going Bovine, I felt like Bray just threw a bunch of things together and hoped it would stick (it didn’t), The Diviners was planned and executed so well, with sophisticated writing, multiple interesting subplots, layered characters, and extraordinary period detail, plus a good dose of humor. The 1920s aren’t my favorite years to read about, but I was fascinated with the New York Bray portrayed. This is a winner and the first book by Libba Bray that I truly loved.
A Madness so Discreet by Mindy McGinnis
I usually avoid stories about insane asylums since I find them really depressing (yet I still love reading dystopias, go figure). But I’m working my way through all of my library’s YA audiobooks rather quickly and this one at least involved historical crime-fighting and, more to the point, was currently available, so I checked it out. I’m glad I did – it was excellent, though certainly not a happy read. It’s the late 19th century and Grace’s family has put her in the “care” of an insane asylum because she’s pregnant – by her own father. The asylum is a miserable place that regularly abuses its patients, dispensing dubious “treatment” that’s more like torture. Such treatment was common at the time, though as McGinnis writes in her author’s note at the end, better asylums did exist. Such an asylum is where Grace lands after she’s rescued by a doctor – a psychologist – who is pioneering what we now regard as criminal profiling. He noticed Grace’s sharp observational skills and that she does not belong in an asylum and takes her on as an apprentice. In order to keep her away from her sociopathic father, they fake her death. Of course, she’s still living in an asylum, since it’s where Dr. Thornhollow practices, but she has a purpose to her life and a reason to live, something she thought she’d never have – she would have been handed right back to her father after giving birth.
There’s a lot going on in this book, but it’s all tied together so well. There’s the historical aspects: the infancy of criminal profiling, treatment for the insane, how asylums were often used as a way of disposing of “inconvenient” women (pregnant, outspoken, or odd). There’s a central murder mystery which Grace and Dr. Thornhollow work together to solve. And there’s Grace’s personal story, which comes to a head at the end and combines elements of the murder mystery and criminal profiling, pulling everything together. It’s a dark book with a dark ending, though ultimately hopeful as well. It’s feminist throughout, marked by deep and meaningful female friendships, unconventional justice, and a feminist man in Dr. Thornhollow, who doesn’t demand recognition for simply being decent. Not gory, but also not for the faint of heart due to its disturbing subject matter, this is well-written historical fiction, a stellar example of its genre.
This was a re-read from my childhood. I remember being delighted by the mystery when I was a kid (sometime in late elementary school, probably); it was likely one of the first mysteries I ever read aside from Nancy Drew, and it was a much more dangerous one with much more risk than Nancy ever encountered. This time around, I was curious to see if the story as a whole held up (it did) and I was fascinated much more by the historical aspects and Charlotte’s character arc. Charlotte is not particularly likable at first. She’s naive and snobbish and buys completely into the worldview she’s been taught, even when it goes against her own instincts. But she changes, she grows, and by the end of the story, she’s taken her life entirely into her own hands, not to mention made amends for her previous actions. This is perfectly written for its target age group of late elementary/middle school kids, with plenty of twists and turns and enough clues for a savvy kid to pick up on what’s going on – just before Charlotte does. Still a winner.