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Friday, May 16, 2008

"The Year of Disappearances" by Susan Hubbard w/BonusQ&A

Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “The Society of S

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Susan Hubbard is the author of “The Society of S”, two chick-lit novels, and two short story collections including “Blue Money”, winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Susan is also an award-winning Professor of English at the University of Central Florida, and is an advocate for animal rights, social justice, academic etiquette, and literacy.

PLOT SUMMARY: Picking up the story of 14-year-old Ariella Montero, a half-human, half-vampire crossbreed, “The Year of Disappearances” finds Ari living with her mother in Homosassa Springs, Florida, and navigating the emotional torrents of an adolescence made all the more complicated by her secret vampirism. Over the course of a dramatic year, Ari will learn more about her heritage, encounter abduction and murder, leave for college, and be immersed in a new world of political engagement with international implications…

CLASSIFICATION: Like “The Society of S”, “The Year of Disappearances” is not your typical vampire tale. So readers hoping for scares, gore, or eroticism will have to look elsewhere. Instead, “The Year of Disappearances” offers a mystery-thriller twisted up inside a literary coming-of-age tale that covers such diverse topics as environmentalism, presidential politics, society integration, educational philosophies, the disappearances of teens, mythology, and so on…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 286 pages divided over three ‘Parts’ and eighteen chapters. Narration is in the first-person via Ariella Montero, but is past-tense. “The Year of Disappearances” is a direct sequel to “The Society of S”, and since there is little recapping in the book, it’s recommended that readers finish “The Society of S” first. And like “The Society of S”, “The Year of Disappearances” concludes with many threads left unresolved that will hopefully be explored in future volumes…

May 6, 2008 marks the North American hardcover publication for “The Year of Disappearances” via Simon & Schuster. The wonderful cover art is designed by Patti Ratchford with the photo taken by
Jeffrey Coolidge.

ANALYSIS: In “The Society of S”, Susan Hubbard really impressed me with her wonderful prose and intelligence, the charming character of Ari, and I especially loved the author’s original take on vampires: their different societies—there’s a chart on Page 54 :)—that range from celibate ethicists/environmentalists to bloodsuckers; emutation (invisibility); the way they can see words in color; how they suffer from periodic sensory overload syndrome (SOS); and how sunlight only causes sunburn, among many other unique distinctions. Unfortunately, even though the prose remains wonderful, we get to learn more about Susan’s vampires, and the book is another smart and relevant offering from the author, “The Year of Disappearances” just did not have the same impact on me…

Basically, it all comes down to one problem: there is way too much going on in the book. I mean between Ari trying to act like a normal teenager—she’s half-vampire and half-human, making new friends, thinking about sex, going to college, and all of the additional subplots involving the mysterious death of honeybees, her father getting sick, the disappearance or murder of her friends, brain-altering drugs, a vampire running for president, sasas—spiritual power that inhabits a person or animal as a demon—harbingers, confronting her nemesis Malcolm Lynch, contaminated drinking water, and so forth . . . it’s just overload, especially for a book that is only 286 pages long. As a result, many of the ideas are underdeveloped and fail to make a lasting impression, which is a shame because Susan comes up with some really neat stuff like Vunderworld (Vampire Underworld), COVE (Council on Vampire Ethics), vampire sex, sasas, and the measures that vampires undertake to coexist with humans; concepts that deserved much greater attention than they received.

Additionally, the chaotic mixture of ideas caused problems with the pacing, namely how jarring it was, while the novel’s conclusion was inexplicably sudden, convenient, and unsatisfying. Then there’s the characterization of Ari who seemed to lose a lot of the charm and personality that made her so appealing in “The Society of S”. Part of it I think has to do with the novel covering such a vast array of topics, but also there’s something a little unsettling about a 14-year-old girl who can pass for a 21-year-old with ease, while being sexually attracted to men that are significantly older than she is.

CONCLUSION: Compared to “The Society of S”, “The Year of Disappearances” was a disappointment, not because it was a bad book, but because it was an uneven one. In other words, “The Year of Disappearances” may be teeming with a wealth of intelligent and thought-provoking concepts, but because none of the ideas are developed to their fullest potential, the novel suffers from a distinctive lack of identity, not to mention the story and characterization being overwhelmed by everything else. Personally, I think if Susan had concentrated on just two or three core ideas and further developed them rather than trying to fit in so much, the book would have been much stronger. That said, there’s no denying that Susan Hubbard is a really talented author and I just hope that her next offering will be more to my liking…

BONUS FEATURE — Susan Hubbard Author Q&A:

Q: Following two acclaimed short story collections and two chick lit novels, you wrote “The Society of S” which is basically a coming-of-age tale, just with vampires. In an interview I read, you distinctly stated that “The Society of S” is not a vampire novel; it just had characters in it who happened to be vampires and I can see that. Nevertheless, the inclusion of vampires definitely added a unique dimension to your book. So what made you decide to use vampires in “The Society of S” and what are your thoughts on vampires in general, particularly their popularity and peoples' fascination with the mythology?

Susan: Traditionally, vampires are others: outsiders, children of the night. I think it's easy to identify with them. American mainstream culture seems so contrived and stagnant right now. And realism, accordingly, is not all that appealing. Who wants to be part of a dead culture when you can affiliate with the undead?

But a good deal of vampire fiction also strikes me as contrived and stagnant, with predictable plots and two-dimensional characters, and a lot of pandering to readers who want gore and garish sex scenes. I wanted to use my vampires in a more subtle, less formulaic kind of story, with themes that went beyond good vs. evil. The readers who like my books say they find them intellectually provocative as well as entertaining. The readers who don't like my books tend to crave more blood-sucking and bodice-ripping than I care to write about.

Q: Staying on this subject, your take on vampires is quite unique with scientifically-grounded abilities (hypnosis, emutation, etc) and different hierarchies like Colonists, Reformers, Nebulists, and Environmentalists. Could you tell us a bit more these different societies, where you got the inspiration for your vision of vampires?

Susan: Colonists are vampires who cultivate and harvest humans as crops, and they consume human blood. Sanguinists, on the other hand, believe in equal rights for vampires and mortals; they're environmentalists. They don't eat meat, and they subsist on special sera and artificial blood. Nebulists are harder to pin down; some vampires think they're extremists who want to eliminate the human race, while others think they're visionaries. Nebulists are proponents of vampire rights. And Reformers are a splinter group of the Nebulists, prone to preaching the superiority of vampires in evangelical style. I mentioned them in the first book, but didn't include them in the second. The new book goes into greater detail about the other sects, particularly the Nebulists.

My vision of vampire societies reflects contemporary Western culture to some extent. If you look analytically at American and British political parties, for instance, you'll see certain parallels among their ideologies and those of my vampires.

Q: Politics play a big role in your new book “The Year of Disappearances” which is timely because of the Presidential Election. Were you trying to make any kind of political statement with this subplot, and what other themes does your novel explore?

Susan: The influence of third parties on more established political groups has always intrigued me, and I let myself create a third-party caucus in the book to explore that. And in creating a college that reflects some of my own pedagogical preferences, I was able to involve students in the political process, as well as satirize academic politics.

A central question of the book is identity: what makes you what you are? And by what criteria are you perceived and judged by others?

Q: Does “The Year of Disappearances” complete the story of Ariella 'Ari' Montero that began in "The Society of S"?

Susan: No, I don't think “The Year of Disappearances” completes Ari's story. At the moment I'm in the early stages of researching a book about identity theft; I haven't decided yet whether Ari will be the central character.

Q: You're a professor of English at the University of Central Florida; have received teaching awards from Syracuse University, Cornell University, UCF, and the South Atlantic Administrators of Departments of English; and, as mentioned earlier, you've written short fiction. Does your profession, having a degree and writing in different formats make a difference in the way you write and if so, how?

Susan: Studying and teaching creative writing probably makes a writer more self-conscious of craft. I know the conventions of fiction, and if I break the rules, I do it on purpose. But I think my essential style and sensibility were formed long before I went to a university. I think that teaching makes me a better person and a better writer, because it's taught me how to listen. And students can be so helpful in terms of bringing me new perspectives and ideas. Right now I'm on a book tour, and today I discussed writing with high school students in San Diego who gave me some great ideas for future writing.

Q: Lastly, with technology advancing at an astonishing rate, how do you think the print format will be affected in the near future and is this a positive or negative thing for writers & publishers?

Susan: So many people tell me that print is on its way out, and if they're right, its disappearance will be positive for people who care about saving trees and hard for traditionalists who love books as physical objects. And it will hardest for people like me, who fall into both categories. I like the way books feel and smell and look. I love bookstores. And I'm not eager to bring yet another “essential” piece of technology into my life, no matter how useful it is. But I'm trying to keep an open mind until I've thought through all the implications of going digital.

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