Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

Title: How to Ditch Your Fairy
Author: Justine Larbalestier
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: WORTHY!

There are at least two covers for this novel. The one I depict here isn't the one on the library book that I got, but it is the best one. Finally a publisher gets it right, after totally blowing it with the other loser cover (which I now unfortunately have to carry around with me in public as I read this...!).

I got interested in Larbalestier after I'd read about the so-called YA Mafia and read the air-headed 'response' by Holly Black (fortunately for her, I've favorably reviewed three of her novels: White Cat, Red Glove, and Black Heart, so she's safe from me for now!). Larbalestier (bizarre name! It's pronounced lar-bal-est-ee-air) was mentioned in tandem with Black's and I have nothing on her, so I decided I'd better get some dirt! I'm not a fan of (literal) fairy tales, although I confess I've favorably reviewed one this year, so it's odd that I'd pick this one, but the title won me over; then the novel did, too.

This book is written in Australian, which may sound like English, but it really isn’t! Plus, Larbalestier appears to have created her own lexicon of teen terms, so it’s hard (for me at least) to know how much of this is common Australian slang and how much she just made up. Either way it’s hilarious. Here's a partial glossary:

  • Dobbing - ratting out, tattle-tale-ing
  • Doos - sweet, good, positive, pleasurable
  • Doxy - the polar opposite of doos
  • Inside her self/his self - self-obsessed, narcissistic, self-important
  • On the nose - smelly
  • Pulchritudinous, pulchy (and other variations) - gorgeous, adorable, desirable
  • Torpid - dumb

The joke in this novel is that most everyone has an invisible undetectable fairy who gives them an edge in one thing or another, but the edge you get is random and rather whimsical. Some people, for example have a fairy which grants them luck in buying doos clothes at rock-bottom prices. Another has a fairy which attracts of around her own age. There are loose-change-finding fairies and good-hair fairies. The main character of this novel, who isn't old-enough to drive, has a fairy which can find parking spaces anywhere at any time, which means she's frequently kidnapped just so others can avail themselves of her talent. This is important for what happens later, and indeed for one of her motivations in the story. I do, however, have a theory that this fairy business is all in the mind of the befuddled, and there really are no fairies in this world, just blind, gullible belief in them. What? Me, wrong? Never!

This novel is many more things than it seems on the surface. It’s a dystopian teen novel that's rather more subtle than your typical dystopian YA story. It’s a satire on being a teen and on growing up, and it’s a satire on religion, gullibility, and other blind beliefs, with some elements of Catch-22 tossed in and mixed with Frances Hardinge. It’s also a comedy and a wry commentary on hero-worship and blind micro-patriotism, with a nod-and-a-wink to Disney's Freaky Friday tossed in for good measure, except that here it’s fairy-swapping rather than person swapping.

Charlotte Adel Donna Seto Steele is a young adult named Charlie who lives in New Avalon and attends an obsessive-compulsive sports school, where discipline is beyond strict. The children who attend the school accept the discipline because discipline (although not at this wack-a-loon level!) is an integral part of sports. There are 811 infractions, each of which merits a demerit if you're caught. If you accumulate enough demerits, you’re suspended from your next game, and further infractions could lead to expulsion from the school altogether. About a fifth of the student body has been expelled for this reason. You can get demerits for running in the hallways, for being late for class, for not being early enough for an event even if you're not late for the event, for not wearing correct attire for the sport you're doing, for not wearing clean attire, for wearing on the nose attire, for kissing, for talking, and for having your tie in disarray!

When Charlie's demerit level climbs dangerously to eight, she earns her first missed game and is effectively forced into long hours of community service (cleaning up a grave yard in her case!) in order to try and wipe out the demerits. Her two besties, Sandra Leigh Petaculo, and Rochelle, stage an "intervention"! In turn, this necessitates her visiting her arch-enemy's home to meet her fairy-wise parents. Since Charlie's ambition is to rid herself of her parking fairy (that's why she walks everywhere - she believes that if the fairy - which makes Charlie smell of gasoline - becomes bored, Charlie will be rid of her). Her arch-enemy is called Stupid-Name (but is really Fiorenze Burnham-Stone). Given Fiorenze's behavior towards Charlie, this arch-enemy stuff is entirely in Charlie's head and eventually, Charlie realizes this. Fiorenze is also on community service, but we’re not told why. She works pulling weeds and collecting trash at the graveyard with Charlie and the two of them end up having their first conversation there.

Each chapter begins with Charlie's score to date, starting out merely by detailing her days spent walking rather than riding, the number of times she's talked with Steffi, aka Stefan, who is the guy she likes in school, her demerits, and her doos clothing acquisition (which is zero). This list grows somewhat, and the reported numbers change as the story progresses. Chapter 20, for example, begins:

Days Walking: 68
Demerits: 4
Conversations with Steffi: 9
Game suspensions: 1
Public service Hours: 16
Hours spent enduring Fiorenze
   Stupid name's company: 2.75
Kidnappings thwarted: 1
Number of Steffi kisses: 2
Fights with Steffi: 1

Stefan is from a different town, and so acts as a bit of an intermediary for the reader with Charlie's life and the decidedly odd society in which she lives (and I get the impression that her city is a special case, where people are rather different from all other populations). Of course, Stefan is sucked into Fiorenze's sphere of influence because of her boy-attracting fairy, so we’re told, but the lie to this is given when he and she break-up, get together, break-up in repeated cycles.

When I'd read a third of this and had decided, barring disaster, that I would be favorably reviewing this novel, I sought out a bunch of negative reviews to see if I'd missed something, and I was rather disturbed to find that the bulk of the negative reviews - where they actually said something other than a two-sentence whine that they didn't like it - just did not appear to have paid attention to what they were reading, because their reviews were way off base, complaining about things that are not in the novel at all, or that are incidental to where this novel was going. I don’t think they grasped that this isn't a novel about fairies, it’s a novel about a young teenage girl finding her way in the world and learning to stand on her own feet.

For example, one reviewer said that Charlie had no motivation other than ridding herself of her 'fairy', when it was repeatedly made clear that her life was sports, and she wanted to be a professional - that's why she was attending the sports school. Duhh! Another complained about the 'fake teen lingo' and then used some rather bizarre lingo of their own! Another review began with a whine that this book isn’t meant for adult enjoyment! Wow! I never would have thought such a thing of a novel which is clearly identified as young-adult novel! One reviewer accused Justine Larbalestier or trying to create 'British slang'. I'm sorry but if you're too torpid to grasp that Larbalestier is Australian, and this has nothing to do with British slang, then that's an automatic eight demerits and you're on the bench for the next novel!

One reviewer claimed that academics in this story write books by hand and then keep them locked away unpublished! No! The truth is that one academic (Fiorenze's mother, Tamsin, who was explicitly described as an oddball in the novel itself) wrote one book by hand and kept that locked away. If a reviewer is going to outright lie - or at best review a novel with such a poor recollection - why in hell should I pay any attention to such a review?! Another reviewer completely went overboard, accusing Larbalestier of misleading young girls by suggesting that they could change! I am not making this up. This deluded individual went on to pretty much state outright that young girls cannot change and shouldn't even try! I guess he thinks young women must stay in traditional roles and not even, for example, aspire to doing anything we manly men do! Why even bother growing up? Stay a subservient little girl, it’s all you can do! I can't even begin to (politely) describe the wrong-headedness of a clueless opinion like that. Clearly all reviews of the nature of the ones I've mentioned above can be completely disregarded. Having thus satisfied my curiosity, I moved on!

Charlie's dream of dispatching her fairy post-haste took a hit when she visited Tamsin Burnham-Stone. My own theory seemed to take a hit too, because Tamsin surrounded Charlie with mirrors and got her to see her "aura" which was a double one. Tamsin interpreted this to mean that Charlie's original parking fairy was fading, and about to be replaced by a new "proto-fairy". She advised Charlie to continue expelling the parking fairy, but also to try encouraging the new fairy by doing things to welcome it. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, answer any of Charlie's questions, or tell her what the proto-fairy might be, or how it could be encouraged.

However, I stick to my theory! Even assuming that Tamsin could see auras and wasn't just delusional (and deluding Charlie into the bargain), this really means that what she was telling Charlie was that she's the master (mistress?!) of her own destiny - no one else. If Charlie encourages the right "fairy" (read: attitude), she can be whatever she wants. I suspected that Tamsin's locked-away book tells exactly this story, which is why she's afraid to publish it and rob people of their fairy-tales. Was I right? You'll have to read this novel to find out!

Although the first kidnap attempt upon Charlie is thwarted, the second assault succeeds. Danders Anders, the massive deranged jock grabs her and uses her to find an ace space right in front of an apartment block that he needs to visit. We have no idea why, and even less idea why Charlie doesn't report him. Given how pro-active she is on tackling her fairy issue, and how furious she is about being kidnapped (not because she's been kidnapped per se, but because she's been forced to ride in a car, thereby reactivating her all-but-dormant fairy), Charlie's behavior now is rather contradictory.

This is where this novel almost left the rails rather for me. At first blush, her acceptance of the kidnapping made no sense within Charlie's framework, although it did provide a powerful impetus for Charlie to take up the next offer she gets from Fiorenze, which is to to sneak in and take a look at her mother's hand-written book while Tamsin is away at a conference. When I thought about this a bit, I realized that it does fit within the framework, because Charlie knows full-well that she'd probably get a demerit for dobbing if she did report it. I mean how many times has she reported boys who are overly amorous towards her and got in trouble for excessive whining? So yes, this does make sense in that context.

What Charlie and Fiorenze learn is a trick using salt and incised thumbs, undertaken in darkness, which will result in them swapping their fairies, each one for the other's, but you know as well as I do that it's not going to be that easy! And that's enough spoilers. I recommend this novel.