Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review: Bliss

Lauren Myracle
2008; Amulet Books (Harry N. Abrams); 978-0-8109-7071-7 (hardcover)

Summary: It's 1969, and after years of living with her free-spirit parents, Bliss has been dumped on her grandmother. Atlanta is very different to life on the commune, and Bliss has to figure out how to navigate through a society that's changing rapidly. Who will guide her through this? Thelma, Dee Dee, and Jolene, typical good girls? Sarah Lynn, the shining star? Or Sandy, the misunderstood outcast? Bliss needs to choose wisely . . . for the wrong choice could end up being very wrong.

Four Things To Know About Bliss

#1: In historical fiction, you want to get the feel of the period right.

Bliss reflects the sense that 1969 was a time of change in America. As hippies, integration, and women's liberation dominated the headlines, the mainstream realized that life was different now. Yet change doesn't happen overnight . . . and sometimes it never happens, as we see in the novel. For example, Crestview Academy has a "token black" student, Lawrence. Bliss and a few other students are able to accept him easily; Thelma and Dee Dee only accept Lawrence because he's "different from other Negroes." And then there are people like Mr. Lancaster, who wants to keep African-Americans "in their place." Such a continuum of opinions are atmosphere, helping bring the reader further into the story and the time period.

#2: In historical fiction, you also have to get the details right.

Not unlike consistency, facts are a hobgoblin of historical fiction. And there are some problems with the facts in this novel, as I discussed with Liz. Many of the characters have names that didn't become common and/or popular until the late 1970s. Considering that the characters would have been born in the mid-1950s, names like Melissa, Heather, and Lacy are rather anachronistic. In addition, Bliss' personal timeline seems to suffer from the same problem. There's a mention of Bliss' parents being involved with SDS--Students for a Democratic Society, but not enough information to help place this involvment when SDS was actually active. These are minor points, I know, but it's just as important to get the facts right as it is for the atmosphere to feel right.

#3: Horror takes many forms.

Lauren Myracle seems to have a real understanding of horror. Various forms are utilized in this book: ghosts and spirits, strange voices that few can hear, blood, psychological cat and mouse games. They're all here. While I admit I'm no horror expert, it seemed like most ways you could be scared, it happened in the course of this novel. Perhaps this dilutes the intensity and the suspense, by having these different forms, but it definitely ensures that if one method doesn't work, another one probably will.

#4: Real life can be scarier than any novel.

The Manson Family and their famous 1969 murders-in particular, the 8 1/2 month pregnant victim Sharon Tate--serves as the inspiration for the events in Bliss. In fact, Myracle even condenses the events of the investigation and the trial to parallel her story. Teens who read up on the Manson Family, whether it's through Wikipedia or books like Helter Skelter, are in for a real surprise. Reality definitely trumps the imaginary horror. When Sandy voyeuristically tells Bliss about some of the Manson murders, your skin crawls. It doesn't seem possible that such horrible things really happened. But they did.

Bliss is a slowly-unfolding novel, giving horror a historical setting. While the book might have been improved with a tightened, streamlined story, it will still attract attention thanks to its intriguing cover and enticing description. Once teens start reading, they will find a novel that might call to mind Stephen King's Carrie.

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