Review: In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield

Here is the premise of In Great Waters. It’s a hell of a premise so be prepared. In an alternate version of our world, mermaids and humans live side by side, connected by alliances like regular nations and by the existence of hybrids (bastards) who are half-mermaid and half-human. Such creatures have bifurcated tails and human reproductive organs; they can walk on land and hold their breath for as long as fifteen minutes. They are also, by tradition, the rulers of Europe. In the sixteenth (I think) century, a hybrid child called Henry, cast up on land by his mother, is raised in secret as a rebel claimant to the throne of England. The bloodline of the deepsmen (mermaids) has become corrupted after many centuries of inbreeding, and the presumptive heir to the English throne is severely inbred to the point that he isn’t able to understand much of what goes on around him. Plotting, you understand, is afoot.

If Emma Donoghue, working off a plot outline by Megan Whalen Turner, were to write an alternate-history book set in the sixteenth? I’m guessing? century, about a world where mermaids were a crucial part of the political and military landscape, I expect it would come out a lot like In Great Waters. Half of the book is from Henry’s point of view, as he struggles to adapt to human life and understand human ideas; and the other half is from the point of view of one of the (uselessly female!) princesses of England, Anne, who is caught up among the many intrigues of the English court. The reader gets to see what the English court is like from the inside — Anne’s intelligent, formidable mother working tirelessly to preserve the throne for her daughters — and from the outside — Henry’s keepers struggling to find a way to put him on the throne before some other nation’s prince takes over the English throne.

Henry is not a character designed to be lovable. He is coldly manipulative of the men who take him in (though they, of course, are manipulating him too) and contemptuous of many human ideas and values that you most likely think a lot of. But although his values are not mine, he does have values, and one of the joys of the book is Henry’s developing ideas about what he believes and where he is willing to compromise. Very sensibly, Kit Whitfield gives him a friend, John, the son of one of Henry’s co-conspirators, which gives the reader a chance to see another side of Henry besides just the alien.

Meanwhile, Anne gets all the court intrigue, which of course makes her interesting to me. Anne has cultivated a reputation as a pious idiot, a sensible idea if you want not to be noticed, but problematic should a time arise when you want to be noticed. Just as it was fun to see Henry — a character who manages to be all agency in spite of his circumstances — discover his values, it was fun to see Anne — a character whose values and faith have been important to her all along — develop her agency as a political force to be reckoned with. Clare, who recommended this book a while ago, was a little disappointed by the anticlimactic ending; and although I was too, I didn’t mind as much as I might otherwise have done, because it was so great to see Anne taking care of business.

So yeah! That is In Great Waters. Historical fiction. With mermaids.

Review: Tighter, Adele Griffin

You know who Adele Griffin is not? She is not Adele Geras. I thought she was the whole time I was reading her book Tighter. My bad, Adele Griffin. You can see how I would make that mistake.

Adele Geras is the author of this book my middle school librarian gave me (I helped her in the library so she would often let me pick out a book at Book Fair and she’d buy it for me), a dark retelling of Sleeping Beauty called Watching the Roses in which the protagonist has withdrawn from regular life after being raped by the gardener or something. I don’t remember it that well because it scared the living shit out of me and I hid it in the room farthest away from my bedroom so I’d never have to think about it again. It is probably still there if nobody has found it and donated it to the library book sale yet. I don’t remember anything about the plot except that the Prince Charming character was called Jean-Luc and when the protagonist, Alice, gets raped, the rapist tells her not to scream and he says “Or I’ll cut you, Alice. I’ll cut your pretty face.”

It was very upsetting for middle-school me and still feels upsetting to grown-up me. I never want to read that scary scary book ever again.

Anyway! Adele Griffin is not affiliated with that book! Adele Griffin is the author of Picture the Dead, a spooky book I have been wanting to read for a while. Tighter is also spooky although I did not end up loving it that much. It’s about a teenager called Jamie who goes to work as an au pair to a little girl called Isa on the island of Little Bly. Before leaving home, Jamie stole a bunch of undifferentiated pills (sleeping pills, pain pills, etc) from her mother and takes them to cope with the deaths by suicide of two of her family members, whose ghosts have been haunting her. After a short time on Little Bly, she learns that she bears an uncanny resemblance to her charge’s last au pair, who died in a plane crash with her boyfriend. Jamie cannot stop thinking about the dead couple, Jessie and Peter, and she begins to believe that Isa’s older brother, Milo, is being possessed by Peter’s spirit.

I love a ghost story, and I thought I would love this one. It did not prove to be the case, however. The atmosphere of the house and the island didn’t chill me the way I wanted them to, and the climax of the book felt sudden and unearned. And plus, the major twist(s) of the story, which I will spoil for you in this paragraph so stop reading if you don’t want to know, has been done before enough times that it’s not so interesting to me anymore. It turns out Milo isn’t real. Isa never had a brother but just played a game about having a brother called Milo, and everyone thought Jamie was just playing along with Isa. This would have been fine as a plot twist if Milo had been a ghost, but instead he was a hallucination. Because Jamie is schizophrenic.

I’m interested in mental illness and I like reading books with mentally ill characters, as I do think there should be a wider range of representation of mental illness in popular culture. But to bring it in at the end like that, as the resolution to the mystery, irritated me. If it’s a ghost story then let it be a ghost story, or if it’s a story about, like, abuse of prescription drugs then let it be that. Introducing schizophrenia as the solution to everything at the eleventh hour is not treating it with the respect it deserves to be treated with. (I felt.)

Of course, I could just be angry that it didn’t turn out to have real ghosts, and I’m shifting that anger to something I can be self-righteous about. WHO KNOWS.

Apart from that, which, since I read the end before I read the  middle, was pissing me off throughout most of the book, it was a serviceable spooky story. Jamie’s kind of a Gillian-Flynn-style heroine, and I was willing to spend some time watching her kick around the island trying to figure out what was going on with Jessie and Peter and poor little Isa. If everyone had ended up being ghosts this review would still have been a 3-star review but it might not have been such a cranky 3-star review.

Missing the window on kids’ books

Amidst the enormous pile of cullable books in my bedroom right now were these two books by Kit Pearson about British children evacuated to Canada. They’ve been there for a while because I started reading one of them and got bored, and then I never finished because I didn’t want to face the fact that I have these books about British children evacuated to Canada during World War II that I would not enjoy. That was sad for me. I like books about children being evacuated because of the Blitz. See also Michelle Magorian. Did you like Good Night Mr. Tom better, or Back Home better? Why didn’t Michelle Magorian ever write any other books?

So anyway these books are The Sky Is Falling and Looking at the Moon. They are about a girl called Norah who gets evacuated with her little brother Gavin to Canada. They go to live with two weird rich women who live Gavin much better than Norah because the mother rich lady lost her son in the First World War. Norah struggles to make new friends at school, and the one friend she does make is strenuously disapproved of by her host family. That is the first book. Since this is a book for children, everything eventually turns out okay, and Norah becomes a better big sister. In the second book she gets a crush on a much-older pacifist who ends up realizing that everyone hates war and it’s shirking not to go.

(As a pacifist, that kinda irritated me.)

I missed the window, is all I can say. If I’d read these books when I was a little girl, I bet I’d have liked them. I liked almost any book where the protagonists went off to live with a new party because their parents for some reason couldn’t keep them. But now I am old enough that I want more stuff to be going on. I want there to be themes. Like in Back Home (a book I feel awfully awfully fond of and would like to reread) there are all these themes about independence and returning to an old version of yourself after you’ve experienced another way of being. There was all this tension between the protagonist and her mother where the mother expected her to be the same after all those years but the protagonist had changed tremendously and basically thought of herself as American and wanted to have all these freedoms that her mother wasn’t expecting to have to give her; and there was something really similar happening between her mother and grandmother. And just, oh, Back Home. That book wrecks me. It is heartbreaking.

I remember Ana reading the Chronicles of Narnia a while ago and saying that she felt specifically, personally excluded by C. S. Lewis. That made me sad and it made me think that if I read the Narnia books for the first time now, I’m sure they would feel that way to me as well. I’m Catholic, which Lewis wasn’t and didn’t care for; and I’m a feminist, ditto times infinity, and I don’t like smoking and my sister’s a vegetarian, and these books are not set up to welcome me in. But because C. S. Lewis taught me what stories are starting at age three, this stuff isn’t what strikes me about the books. They feel like coming home (I’ve said this before but it remains true) no matter how many times I read them. I could not read them for the first time now and expect to ever have that experience when rereading them.

So what are some kids’ books on which you missed the window? Or books you loved as a kid and suspect you wouldn’t love quite so much if you read them for the first time now?

Review: Let’s Kill Uncle, Rohan O’Grady

I have made up a poem. Would you like to hear it?

Rohan O’Grady
Is really a lady.

It’s true! Her name is actually June Skinner, which in my opinion is a name much better suited to the tone and contents of Let’s Kill Uncle than the rosy-cheeked-and-jocular-sounding “Rohan O’Grady.” But nobody asked for my opinion.

Let’s Kill Uncle is about a pair of children, a boy called Barnaby and a girl called Chrissie, who have both come to live on a little island off the coast of Canada. Because all but one of the men on the island died in World War II, there are no children at all besides just these two. Barnaby, who will inherit $10 million on attaining his majority, believes that his uncle is a psychotic madman trying to kill him; and nobody but Chrissie believes him. Together they hatch a plan to kill Uncle before he can kill them.

You know what doesn’t happen in this book? Uncle doesn’t turn out to be a sweet eccentric like so many presumed-dangerous adults in fiction about anxious children. He actually wants to kill the children. If they don’t kill him first, he’s going to get them. He has the crazy eyes and he wants Barnaby’s money. That’s because June Skinner is more like Shirley Jackson than she is like Edward Eager. Let’s Kill Uncle isn’t creepy to quite the same degree as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it’s still sort of disturbing, albeit in a mostly-humorous way.

In completely different comparisons, June Skinner is sort of similar to Noel Streatfeild insofar as she doesn’t romanticize the characters of the children. They’re scared of the circumstances they’ve found themselves in, and they want adult approval, and at times they display flashes of integrity on certain points; but as a rule, they’re naughty the way children are, and practical the way children are. Their scheme for carrying out the murder is cold-blooded, and they spend a lot of time thinking about how not to get hanged once they’ve done it. So, um, I guess my comparison is to a very much darker and more gothic Noel Streatfeild, the point being that kids (like anyone) can be amoral monsters if nobody’s making them behave.

June Skinner! I would like to read another book by her to see how it compares. And I would like her to use her real name. Her real name is better than her pretend name. I’m sure she’s much swayed by this argument and will get right on the phone to her publisher to let them know that she would like all her books reissued under her given name.

Review: Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis; or, I am never going to read the other books in this series ever

That’s right, NEVER. It’s not because I hated Out of the Silent Planet (I didn’t). It’s because I think if I read them, I would be in a huge fight with C.S. Lewis, and I hate to be in a fight with C.S. Lewis. I’d rather focus on his agreeablest qualities, viz.:

  1. I love how crazy in love he was with his wife. That is touching. If you can read A Grief Observed without crying you are just not human.
  2. I love how crazy in love he was with God. That is also touching. I love that he’s able to speak about God with pure sincerity and not a hint of ironic edge. It’s not that I don’t love an ironic edge — I do, truly. But I love it that C.S. Lewis doesn’t need this as a shield. I love it that he can speak with such naked, vulnerably honesty about how God makes him feel. And especially because he was, you know, this British male academic in the early to mid-twentieth century; his life would not, I expect, tend to teach the value of emotional sincerity.
  3. I love how crazy in love he was with stories. He was an exceptionally generous reader who could write persuasively and affectionately about a wide range of different books, and I love that about him. Case in point, the sweet paragraph that appears at the beginning of Out of the Silent Planet:

Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type which will be found in the following pages have been put there for purely dramatic purposes. The author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H. G. Wells’s fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.

C. S. L.

Oh C. S. Lewis. I am awfully fond of you sometimes.

The problem with C. S. Lewis is that he’ll say something like this and make me feel fond of him, and I’ll read his book all the way through, and maybe it’s not exactly my thing? Because maybe it goes on and on describing the new planet and not a lot happens storywise? But C. S. Lewis has won my heart with this sweet tribute to H. G. Wells, so I’ll be trying to see the good in this book. I’ll like the writing because I do love the way this guy writes, and I’ll think the new planet is weird in interesting ways, and all in all I’ll be feeling very amiably towards C. S. Lewis. But the problem is that as soon as I’ve been lulled into this affectionate way of feeling, C. S. Lewis will often be like, “You know who sucks, though? LADIES,” and then we’re in a fight again.

Why couldn’t he have met his wife like much much sooner? I think it would have made him a nicer person for a longer number of years.

Out of the Silent Planet doesn’t really have any ladies, so I didn’t have to deal with any of that sort of thing in this book, but when I got through with it and went to pick up Perelandra, I remembered that Perelandra was the name the aliens in this book had given to the planet we call Venus. And Venus was, you know, a lady. The lady goddess of ladies and their lady parts.

So I checked with Mumsy:

me: OH REAL QUICK
me: is Perelandra super sexist?
Mumsy: OMG
me: oh, maybe I’d better skip it
Mumsy: SO SEXIST. I cringe at the thought
me: oh dear.
Mumsy: Please do skip it. you will never love CS any more if you read it.

and decided to give it a miss. Forever.

Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris

David Sedaris comes to Louisiana on book tours. And I want to tell you that right now, because nobody comes to Louisiana on book tours because publishers I guess think that we are stupid and illiterate. If they do come to Louisiana, they only come to New Orleans, but not David Sedaris. David Sedaris has been known to come to Louisiana and go to more than one town. He does it so regularly that I was convinced he must be from Louisiana. Which he’s not. He just comes there on book tours because we are not illiterate and we buy his books just like people in other states.

That is why I have really strong positive feelings for David Sedaris while only liking his books a medium amount.

I read Me Talk Pretty One Day in tenth grade. It was lent me by one of the many book-crazy people in the state of Louisiana, my friend Nezabeth, and I thought parts of it were really funny — like this one story he told about going into a bathroom at a party and finding a huge poop in the toilet and not wanting to leave because he didn’t want people to think he had left a big poop in the toilet and not flushed — because yes, I am predictable and poop stories always make me laugh — and parts of it really stressed me out because I didn’t know what was true and what he was making up.

Many years on, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I felt exactly the same way. I mightily enjoyed a number of the essays, like the one about obsessively keeping a diary and the one about having his passport stolen and the one about medical and dental care in France. His love for his sisters and for his boyfriend, Hugh, are obvious and touching. I felt fine about all that. It is cool with me that David Sedaris exaggerates for comedic effect the things his dentist said and how many baby turtles he accidentally killed as a child.

What really, really, really stresses me out are the essays that talk smack about his parents. Maybe his parents are awful. Maybe they are great. Maybe he had a happy childhood and these jokes he makes with them about how inadequate his father finds him and how much of a bully his father was are fine with everyone. Maybe they all laugh merrily about it at Sedaris family dinners. Like, probably so, right? Probably he wouldn’t make these jokes if it wasn’t all fine with everyone? Surely? Except when I read some of these essays it kind of feels like kidding on the square, like HA HA HA YOU NEVER REALLY LOVED ME DAD HA HA. But it must be all joke. Not serious at all. Right?

You can see me getting anxious about it before your eyes. I can’t help it. If I said anything remotely negative about any of my sisters in a published essay, I would fret about  it extensively and probably end up taking it out and instead saying “Social Sister is a beautiful goddess.” Because, you know, once you’ve written something down you can’t take it back. It’s out there!

And that is how I feel when I read David Sedaris, and is why, in spite of how great it is that he regularly visits Louisiana, I don’t read his books very often.

Cf. other reviews.

Review: Days of Blood and Starlight, Laini Taylor

I have some serious reservations about Days of Blood and Starlight, which I will enumerate, but let me start by saying some nice things about it, because I enjoyed it very very much. Spoilers follow for Daughter of Smoke and Bone but not (unless marked) for Days of Blood and Starlight.

First of all, Laini Taylor’s worldbuilding talents are still very much in evidence. Although we already know the outline of this world from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Taylor presents a lot of cool new details about what the world has been like all along, and she sets up more vivid places and ideas for the new reality the characters find themselves in. For example, it was neat to see the chimera that aren’t involved in the war — the small, unimportant demons who live in communities and couldn’t make war if they wanted to. Though not everyone in this world is a soldier, everyone becomes involved in the soldiers’ war.

I loved as well the way the characters were perpetually forced to reexamine their values to adjust to changing circumstances. THAT IS WHAT I LIKE OKAY.

But for real though. The second book opens months after the end of the first one. Karou has become a resurrectionist in the service of the chimera who once — in her former life — was her (terrifying) intended husband. Alive again, the White Wolf begins to make guerrilla warfare upon the angels, while Karou resurrects the dead as quickly as she’s able to build new bodies for them. This is obviously less than great for Karou, but as she feels it’s her fault that all her people are dead, she is grimly determined to keep going. However, she does not control the chimera once they’ve been resurrected. The battles the White Wolf chooses aren’t the battles Karou would choose, and she has to deal with that over and over again throughout the book. It’s great.

(Akiva has his stuff too, but he is not as interesting to me with his angsty godlike wingsiness. Whatever dude. So you saved a deer girl one time. That doesn’t make us friends. I wish his sister or brother had been the point-of-view character instead of him.)

Another piece of awesomeness in the worldbuilding department is the sudden importance of this third party, the Stelians, about whom we know practically nothing except that Akiva’s mother was one and that they write impeccable and scary no-thank-you notes. In the hands of another writer I’d worry that the Stelians would prove an anticlimax when we meet them properly in the third book, but Laini Taylor has proved impressively creative and ballsy about introducing new sections of her universe, new insane plot twists, and dumping of enormous chunks of the status quo to make way for something new.

I hardcore loved the way the book ended. I don’t mind a cliffhanger when it feels like a natural end to the book rather than a ploy to keep you in over the course of the years before the next book comes out. This ending made sense. It’s what the book was building toward all along. Akiva and Karou have been, in their different ways, fighting a war they never wanted to fight, and trying to imagine another way to live. If you’re going to end a book on a cliffhanger, I like it to be the sort of cliffhanger where you can see that the game has completely changed. (Rather than, for instance, an old-school Doctor Who cliffhanger where you know they’re going to get out of it within the first two minutes of the next episode through clever means, and then carry on with what they were doing before. And I say that with great love for Doctor Who.)

Why I am cross: Things are looking ominously love triangley. I would like to place a moratorium on love triangles for the next, like, two years. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable term for which to deprive ourselves of love triangles. There is also an attempted rape. Goddammit Laini Taylor, I was just saying hooray about how unrapey your world was. I came very close to throwing the book across the room when this occurred, but luckily I had read the end and remembered what the outcome of that particular event was going to be.

I will definitely still read the third book though. Probably really soon after it comes out. Because of the worldbuilding and crazy plot gambits.

Cf. all these reviews.