Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Crewel

Farrar Straus Giroux" Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar Straus Giroux: Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar Straus Giroux: Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar Straus Giroux: Crewel by Gennifer Albin


by Gennifer Albin

What would it be like to be born with a talent that could help shape the world, and then be told to hide it? That is Adelice Lewys's predicament in Gennifer Albin's gripping debut novel, the first in a planned trilogy, about Adelice growing up and taking responsibility for the gift she is given.

The people of Arras revere the Spinsters, the skilled weavers who create and maintain their world. They want to touch them for their talent and their beauty. With her natural weaving skills, Adelice could be one of them. But from the time she turned 11, Adelice's parents have trained her to hide her abilities, to hone the appearance of clumsiness. The story begins as 16-year-old Adelice goes to be tested along with her peers to see if she has a talent for weaving. On the last day of the test, her urge to weave overrides her parents' years of training, and she reveals herself to be one of the most talented weavers the Guild of Twelve has ever seen. When Cormac Patton, the Coventry Ambassador for the Guild of Twelve, and his team come to collect Adelice, her family attempts to hide her and her 12-year-old sister, Amie, in hidden tunnels they've created in the cellar. But Adelice is captured, her father killed, and the fates of her mother and sister are unknown.

Albin takes readers deep inside the belly of the beast, to a government that elevates some of its most prized Spinsters and relegates others to dungeon cells. That's where the Guild places Adelice at the start--in the bowels of the Western Compound, the largest Coventry of Spinsters in Arras. She is assumed to be a rebel by her parents' actions, but her skills are too great to keep her sequestered there for long. Instead, the Guild finds other ways to isolate her. Each Spinster gets a makeover, skin that's smooth, clothes of silk. Maela, whose job is to welcome and train the Eligibles, tells Adelice, "You have power… but, Adelice... you must not presume you are in control." Maela has it out for Adelice; Cormac Patton, too, has his eye on Adelice. Adelice finds herself caught between Maela and Cormac, who have a smoldering history. Meanwhile, Maela's "assistant," gorgeous Erik, flirts dangerously with Adelice--is it because he knows her powers? And Jost, the head valet, recognizes a kindred rebellious spirit in Adelice. "Play dumb," Jost tells her in those first days of her imprisonment at Coventry. "There are worse things than death here."

The author asks probing questions about whether Adelice's rare talent is a blessing or a curse. Adelice must make her own way in the world, realizing that her parents did not disclose the whole truth about the Guild and the way society worked. The heroine's gift has always isolated her from others. From a very early age, she could see things others could not see--or never looked closely enough to notice. Adelice, bullied by a next-door neighbor who turned all their classmates against her, stood up to the bully at age eight in order to rescue two unborn birds in a nest. In her desperation to save them, Adelice noticed the fabric that made the world around her. She noticed gold threads moving in a horizontal direction, and understood that they must represent time itself. Adelice reached for the strands, attempting to turn back time through the manipulation of the golden thread, to the moment before the mother bird left the nest. But she discovered that time only moves forward.

Adelice's sense of isolation only grew as her parents taught her to keep her skill hidden. Even high in her luxurious tower room at the Coventry, Adelice must keep her secret. She realizes the views from the windows are not real, reaches out to touch the fabric and forms a storm. Enora, her kind mentor, walks in on Adelice and warns her, "You must never tell anyone else you can do that. Always use a loom to weave--try not to do it without one, even when you are alone." Maela does all she can to keep Adelice isolated and alone. Maela orchestrates a rivalry between Adelice and Pryana, another skilled Spinster, when she asks Adelice to remove a thread. Each thread represents a life, and Adelice challenges Maela, saying there's no risk posed by the thread in question. As a rebuttal, Maela rips an entire section out of the loom--the academy attended by Pryana's younger sister. This plants a seed of hatred in Pryana for Adelice. And it gets Adelice thinking about whether a ripped thread can be repaired. It's a moment that resonates with poignancy later in the novel, when Loricel, the Creweler, the most powerful Spinster in Arras, who spins raw materials into the fabric of their world, asks Adelice to remove the thread of an older woman. "Removing this strand feels like a violation--an act against nature," Adelice tells Loricel. "It's the life force of this piece, and everything this thread touches, regardless of our attempts to repair around it, will be irrevocably damaged once it's gone."

Only Loricel understands the tremendous burden that her gift places upon Adelice-- the yin and yang of creation and destruction, and the responsibility of carrying out the decision of who lives or dies. Is it Adelice's responsibility to tell others the truth? Or must they discover it on their own, as she did? Can she assume this godlike responsibility, or must she find a way to escape? In this first installment, Adelice must choose her path. Readers will be eager to return to the coming episodes to see how her choice affects the world around her. --Jennifer M. Brown

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 12-up, 9780374316419, October 16, 2012

Farrar Straus Giroux: Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Gennifer Albin: The Heroic Dilemma

One day, when Gennifer Albin's daughter was eight weeks old, her mother-in-law called. She said, "I was thinking, you always talk about writing books, and I'm going to ask you every time I see you how your book is coming." Albin met her "ridiculously supportive" husband in high school, so she's known her mother-in-law a very long time. "She knew I'd take it as a challenge," Albin says. So Gennifer went to the library every day and in seventy minute intervals (that’s how long she was allowed to use the computer before getting booted off for other patrons), she wrote Crewel. It changed her life. Gennifer Albin lives in Kansas with her husband, two young children and a Tuesday cat.

Where did this idea come from?

I think it stemmed from a painting, Embroidering the Earth's Mantle by Remedios Varo. It's referenced in a Thomas Pynchon novel [The Crying of Lot 49]. It's quite a beautiful painting. A group of women are embroidering the world, in a tower. I'd had the book on my shelf for years, and one day I looked at it, and I was working on a very different idea at the library that wasn't going anywhere. I opened up a new document and almost word for word the prologue came out.

I thought of Lord Alfred Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott."

It's not something I thought of when I was writing this book, but it must be in the gray matter of my brain. I was a member of the National Forensic League. I did Medea as a dramatic presentation and I did "The Lady of Shalott" as poetry. I also did a paper in college about "The Lady of Shalott."

Crewel is such a terrific double entendre. Did the title come to you first? Or as you were writing?

I am obsessive about titles. Even for my second and third book in the series, I couldn't move forward until I had the right title for it. With Crewel, I didn't want it to be so sewing-based that it would be off-putting. I stumbled upon "crewel," and I thought, obviously this is the title. I take liberties with it. There's someone out there who does crewel who's going to say, "There isn't one crewel work in the book."

Even though the men in the Guild abuse their power, you do have sympathetic males, such as Adelice's father and Jost, and even the villains are complex--Cormac Patton and Maela, too, as the older woman who's getting pushed aside by the young talent.

Writing the villains, I always saw Maela as the more straight, easy-to-read evil of the two. I think all villains have their reasons. She has the sad backstory of being set aside and needing power to feel complete. Cormac was interesting because there were times when I wanted him to be good and, in the long run, surprise everyone. I think that made him more likable. Even if you don't want to like him, you do in a weird way that feels wrong. Cormac doesn't mind treating most women like second-class citizens, but he realizes that they have as much power as the men.

Tell us about Pryana.

I think Pryana is a complicated character. If Adelice was raised to reject the Spinster lifestyle and her skills, Pryana was pushed toward it by a mother who thought it could be the best thing that could happen to her. This is one of those moments where you think you have a choice: you could be a hero or a villain. Pryana seems to be headed down the Maela course. Is ambition the same as being evil? Erik raises that question, too.

You also get at the nature of trust. Adelice says, "Never in the years my parents were training me did I understand why they were doing it." We never know how much they knew.

That's something she's going to struggle with; there's a certain amount of "How right were her parents, and how involved were they?" There's something about that as a universal teen experience. For as much as you get pushback from teens, "I'm not going to take out the trash" and talking back to your parents, many teens tend to adopt their parents' political and religious philosophies almost wholesale. As you start to grow as a person and are more exposed to the world, you're forced to stop and consider all the things that make up your experiences, and look at how you view the world.

She also has to reconcile what her parents have told her with the larger world that she's experiencing.

She has to grapple with that through the whole book. She's been told she's special by her parents, by others. I think that plays into her father's words to her: "I knew we could never hide how special you are" and also "Remember who you are." In so many books, a character comes of age and they think "I could never have that kind of power." But I wanted to explore a character who thinks, "I do have that power, but how do I deal with that?" In a basic way, we all have the power to effect change in some way. It's about personal responsibility and how far are you willing to go to be a Universalist or to worry about yourself and your own personal needs.

That conflict you describe comes up again when Adelice is told to remove the old woman's thread: "It's the life force of this piece, and everything this thread touches, regardless of our attempts to repair around it, will be irrevocably damaged once it's gone."

That's the crux of Adelice's dilemma throughout the series. If she walks away from this, someone else with less ethics and morality and critical thinking skills will be in charge. That's always the heroic dilemma--me versus what's best for everyone.

If you're a god, do you have a choice? It's a perplexing question. It's probably something theologists and philosophers debate all the time. It's not as simple as that. That makes it so you're never all-powerful. If you were all-powerful, there is no solution. It comes down to humanity and our place in this world and our consciousness, nature and the way the universe works. Certain choices we make mean there is no humanity left. What are the repercussions of that? --Jennifer M. Brown

author photo: Tessa Elwood

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