First of all, kudos to Camille Griep in writing such a starkly different novel from debut Letters to Zell. I say this not because I disliked Letters to Zell; quite the opposite as you see from my reflections, more reflections , and review. (I pre-ordered New Charity Blues without knowing anything about it simply based on my love for Letters to Zell.) Rather, she avoided the temptation to play it safe and to be pegged as a certain kind of writer or the tried-and-true route of writing a sequel. Granted, this is still speculative fiction; there are, after all, magical elements, but her previous world was fantasy grounded in overlapping reality whereas this novel provides a gritty, post-apocalyptic reality with magical elements. Moreover, the overall tone is grittier (while remaining less dark than the prevalent writing fashion of the day) even as she deals with similar issues of community and individuality such as: Where do our roles and obligations start and stop and when does feeling obligated result from self-abuse? How do we communicate and remain connected in the midst of having made different/difficult choices over which others differ or disapprove? When does cooperation roll-over into selling out? As much as this book is about fighting the status quo, it also speaks to how we fight. How do we avoid adopting our enemy’s worst characteristics when there seems to be no other way to “win?” Finally, how the heck can a writer so deftly handle these humorous riffs on fairy tales and gritty post-apocalyptic tinged with hope stories? Seriously, if Ms. Griep was considered an up-and-coming writer before, New Charity Blues announces her as a force with which to be reckoned. Simply consider that she has pulled this 50+-year-old man into stories tied around twenty-something fairy tale princess and a twenty-something former ballerina (not a huge call for dance after the plague) and her friends.
The book opens up in a world in which many have died through the plague. The city is bereft of power and running water; at this point, people have moved into a survival groove; it is the new normal. It’s no longer all out panic, but life as they’ve known it has come to an end. There is an enclosed, cultish community called New Charity. Said community has also closed off the only water supplies to the city and other regions downstream and has, seemingly miraculously, avoided the plague. The grass is literally greener on the other side of that fence (or wall in this case). Maybe they can give Mr. Trump some wall building lessons and its relative effectiveness, but I digress. So you could imagine those downstream are more than a little miffed at New Charity. The story wraps around the journey of a former New Charitan and the confusing fact that she has a foot in both worlds of the city and New Charity.
Like the princesses before her, Cress finds herself in these two worlds with conflicting obligations and wrenching demands. Unlike the princesses, she makes little effort to live within “the lines,” however, even she feels the pull of expectations. We see the heavy yoke of expectations placed upon one family and it tears it apart. We see lines drawn between people based on their expectations of each other and their lack of trust. We see all this through the lives of the relatively young who receive a fast education through intense experience. We also see the relatively old not dealing with it. Both hold risk.
All of this sounds intense, maybe too heavy and not all that fun. Ms. Griep weaves in her lively sense of humor throughout the book within the circumstances and in the characters. Yes, there’s pain and heartache. There are misunderstandings and comedies of errors that become less comedic. But there’s also a girl and her friends and relationships that grow in the midst of this intense round.
What do I like about this book?
- Oh, the characters, so many great characters. Even the baddies are great characters.
- If two books make a pattern, you will never be bored in a Camille Griep book. She continues to encourage deeper reflection for any that read at all beyond the surface. So like Letters to Zell could have been read for a mostly fun light story, New Charity Blues could be read as a page-turning post-apocalyptic thriller more focused on relationships than most. Both of those reading experiences are good, but both represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Even old guys like me are encouraged to reflect on how I manage that tight wire of true obligation and inappropriate expectations and the consequences of inaction.
- Intriguing world building. While this doesn’t present a new world with totally new rules ala Hogwarts in the Harry Potter world or The Name of the Wind, it does build out its speculative elements in an interesting and disciplined manner. She does allow us to fully breathe in the worlds of both the city but especially New Charity and the challenging social structure with it.
- This doesn’t have plot twists in the traditional sense, but every time I thought I had things figured out, much like real life, I was sadly mistaken. Ms. Griep keeps one on one’s toes
- Who knew Camille Griep could be brutal, cruel and a torturer of puppies? You see that seemingly angelic and sweet look in the author’s picture above; sheer deception. OK, that last bit might be over the top but she does have a ruthless side. She’ll do things to her characters I can only hope to have the courage to do to mine someday. Talk about your tough love!
- Finally, Ms. Griep presents an empathetic and deep understanding of the disenfranchised. And let’s face it, we all feel disenfranchised at times.
What don’t I like? Yanking my emotional chain around! OK, that’s what good authors are supposed to do but maybe Camille Griep could do it just a little less well. Tone down the connection with the characters! Make me care a bit less. Stopping sucking me fully into her worlds and her books. I’m a grown man after all; we need to preserve a little dignity. Oh wait, that’s also why I bought the book. Ok, I got one – a little bit of a spoiler coming up – I thought James was going to be a good guy. Are you trying to teach us something about first impressions?
Whitney Dykhouse & Lauren Ezzo
As is my wont, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book using that lovely Whispersync for Voice feature. The audiobook version is performed by Lauren Ezzo and Whitney Dykhouse alternating between the primary points of view of Cress and Cass. This works well. If you like audiobooks, you’ll like this performance
Seriously, read the book. Recognize your own tendency to live up to expectations or at least their influence on you, even if it’s to rebel against them. Think of your own clever way of managing said expectations. Our dear Cress was a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop, there may be alternatives. Of course, her bullish nature is part of her charm, definitely set things in motion and saved lives, so not such a bad method. New Charity Blues has sealed it – I have an unmitigated love for Ms. Griep’s work and am an unabashed fan. And yes, I will preorder pretty much anything Camille Griep pens.