Review: The Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller

In October (or, if you are me writing this post, now) I had this cold where I lost my whole entire voice for several days, and I was all sickly to the point that I stayed home from work, and on the day where I stayed home from work, I sat in my bed under blankets, feeling terribly sad, and I read Year of the Gadfly. This is a very uninteresting story to anyone but me. I don’t get sick that often, so to me this story feels terribly sad, like way overblown sad. Unreasonably sad. Like the death of Little Nell. Poor Jenny. All sickly. Sleeping propped up on pillows like a tubercular Victorian maiden.

Summary per Amazon (y’all, summaries are hard):

Iris Dupont, a budding journalist whose only confidant is the chain-smoking specter of Edward R. Murrow, feels sure she can break into the ranks of The Devil’s Advocate at her exclusive school, Mariana Academy, the Prisom Party’s underground newspaper, and there uncover the source of its blackmail schemes and vilifying rumors. Some involve the school’s new science teacher, who also seems to be investigating the Party. Others point to an albino student who left school abruptly ten years before, never to return. And everything connects to a rare book called Marvelous Species. But the truth comes with its own dangers, and Iris is torn between her allegiances, her reporter’s instinct, and her own troubled past.

I love all the things in this book. Flashbacks. Fancy schools that care a lot about their prestige. Mysteries in the past. Edward R. Murrow. And I tried to go in without expectations so that I wouldn’t be disappointed, which I think I succeeded at! The upshot was that I went through three clear phases:

Phase 1: Crankiness, or, everybody is hateful. Iris is one of those alienated teen protagonists who doesn’t necessarily think she’s better than everyone else she knows, but we don’t get to meet many of the putative peers she doesn’t think she’s better than. The other point of view character, science teacher Jonah Kaplan, thinks he’s better than everyone else and runs his (teenage! teenage!) students through the Milgram experiments. There’s a reason we have IRBs and parental permission forms, MR KAPLAN, and it’s not because we’re mindless sheep.

Phase 2: Acceptance, or, teenagers are like that and I’m going to pretend grown-up Mr. Kaplan is a teenager too because he basically acts like one. About six chapters in, I gave up on worrying about the above annoying things, and instead enjoyed the story. The school has a secret society, the Prisom Party, which claims to want to root out dishonesty and hypocrisy in the school, but does not seem fastidious in its methods. Tapped by students whose faces she cannot see to join them if she roots out the secrets of the past, Iris begins to wonder if she is working for the right side.

Like many books about teenagers, this book about teenagers made me happy that I didn’t go to a cutthroat high school in the manner of those we see in media and in horrific stories about bullying. (My high school was full of geeky people. I could win a lot of arguments using my words.) The flashback sequences have a lot of teenagers being mean, although not necessarily in the ways you think when you start reading. The plot — in flashback and in the present day — really tears along once it gets going. They’re uncovering secrets using old newspapers and people who were there at the time! What happened to Jonah’s twin brother? What made the school close for a while in the older days? How best can Iris live up to her journalistic ethics and the memory of Edward R. Murrow? Secrets, secrets, and still more secrets!

(This was the point in the day at which my cough had mostly abated because I was drinking two gallons of tea, and I was a bit pleased to be sitting in bed reading an entire book.)

Phase 3: Super cranky again; or, I wanted this to play out differently. And just when I thought that the book was going to be more nuanced than I had initially supposed — because the morality of Jonah Kaplan was being heavily questioned, and the morality of the secret society, and the morality of mostly everyone — just when I thought it was going to exceed my Phase 1 expectations, there was the climax portion of the book, in which it gets revealed that (highlight for something that’s not exactly a spoiler but would permit you easily to deduce the ending if you were in the midst of reading the book) one nefarious mustache-twirling sociopath master manipulator is responsible for all the baleful events past and present. Everyone feels better once this person is apprehended. Hooray. Justice is restored. (Hmph.)

I guess I was sad that the book was resolved in such a pat way, because most of what had happened up until that point had resisted — at least to some extent! — the easy explanation. The characters had complicated lives and responded to each other in human ways. They made mistakes and apologized to each other and tried to figure out where to go from there. To have a clear villain at the end felt like a cheat to the rest of the book. And right after that happened, my voice still wasn’t back so I had to go to the urgent care doctor to get helpful anti-sickness drugs at seven PM and then I had to wait for forty-five minutes for the pharmacy to fill the prescription.

That last part is unrelated to the book. I had finished it by then and moved on to something else. I just wanted to complain about that because it made me very cranky and a little girl at the pharmacy sneezed on me. Gross.t

Other reviews, uninformed by minor viral infections (not the flu! I had my flu shot!), may be found here. And now please tell me what your tolerance level is for protagonists who think they are smarter than everyone. Is it fine if the protagonist is under a certain age? Is it always fine, never fine? Do you have to see them doing six really, really smart things right away and then you’ll be on board forever? Tell, please! I think that I am ashamed of being such an arrogant kid, so my tolerance for arrogant kid narrators is lower than it might otherwise be.

Review: Still Life with Fascists trilogy, Jo Walton

Britain didn’t declare war on Germany. Instead they made peace, and Britain slid gradually into fascism. One might call the trilogy the Small Change trilogy instead, as the books are called Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown, but I like the Still Life with Fascists title better. Each book has two narrators, one the first-person narration of a young upper-class English woman, and one the third-person narration of a morally compromised policeman called Carmichael. Don’t you love a morally compromised narrator?

The first book, Farthing, is a country house murder mystery. The so-called “Farthing set”, famed for their integral role in negotiating peace between Germany and Britain, is all together for the weekend when one of their number, high-ranking minister James Thirkie, is found dead in his bedroom. When Carmichael, the not-yet-morally-compromised-but-oh-he-will-be police inspector man, comes to investigate, he finds that suspicion is being cast upon David Kahn, the Jewish husband of Lucy Kahn (our upper-class English woman first person narrator). I loved the hell out of Farthing. I loved Carmichael and I loved Lucy and I loved the plot. Plus, Lucy? She refers to people as Athenian (which means gay), Macedonian (which means bi), and Roman (which means straight). When I discovered that she was not featured in the second book, I almost cried.

Briefly. Then I began reading Ha’Penny and found that it was interesting in its own right. In it, actress Viola Lark, one of the famous/notorious Larkin sisters (“the one who acts”) (yes, these are fictionalized Mitfords), becomes involved almost accidentally with a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister of Britain. I won’t tell you how this works out, but I will say that Carmichael? Does not respond in a way that makes him feel good about being him. Because he’s morally compromised, yo. Morally compromised protagonists are never happy with anything they do, which is why I like them so much.

And then there was Half a Crown. Which I loved all the way through until about twenty pages from the end. I mean it’s just so grim. It’s set in 1960, and fascism has become deeply entrenched in Britain, to the point that our narrator, Elvira Royston, calls it “such fun” and eagerly attends fascist rallies. The environment in Britain is shocking to read about, because it’s so far removed from what Britain is really like, and because it’s easy to imagine it being that way if history had gone differently. This is how the best alternate history works, though, right? Moral compromising abounds! I couldn’t put the book down because everything seemed to be going all to hell, and I couldn’t imagine how things were ever going to work out. Apparently Jo Walton couldn’t either. It was a total deus ex machina ending, and it made me sad because the books deserved better.

But never mind. I will just pretend that everything ended after Elvira [REDACTED FOR SPOILER-FREE SEPTEMBER], leaving the reader to contemplate the probable collapse of Britain and ruin of every character we cared about. Because that, depressing though it would be, at least would be an ending that paid out the darkness of the rest of the books.

Oh, dear, I sound terribly grumpy. I swear, these books are worth it, even with the bad ending. The writing is wonderful, the premise feels frighteningly realistic, and the characters are a joy to read about. Just go into it with the awareness that the ending will not satisfy, and resign yourself early on to that reality, and then perhaps you will not be disappointed, as I was. Many thanks to Memory for recommending these books. I loved them! I can’t wait to read Walton’s earlier series, as well as Tooth and Claw!

Review: Stern Men, Elizabeth Gilbert

Ruth Thomas lives on Fort Niles, an island off the coast of Maine, where the main occupation is lobster-hunting.  Raised mainly on Fort Niles by her father and her neighbor Mrs. Pommeroy, Ruth’s upbringing is punctuated with time spent in Delaware boarding school.  Upon her graduation she returns to Fort Niles determined to start a life there, despite the apparent wishes of her mother’s family, the posh Ellises who only summer in Fort Niles.

I liked Eat Pray Love – not unreservedly, but a lot.  I liked it when God told her to go back to bed, and I cried when the medicine man remembered her.  (I don’t know why that made me cry but it did.)  I thought Elizabeth Gilbert wrote most beautifully.  When I started Stern Men, I truly expected not to like it, and I was surprised to find it engaging as well as well-written.  I don’t know why I was surprised!  I liked Eat Pray Love!  In Stern Men, Elizabeth Gilbert creates vivid characters and then makes incisive observation after incisive observation about them.

As I got further and further through the book, though, I was increasingly bothered by the shortage of plot.  So yeah, Ruth loves Mrs. Pommeroy; she finds her china-shop mother and the Ellis family difficult; she is attracted to Owney Wishnell of the Wishnell Lobster Dynasty.  This went along, not exactly in circles, but it went around a little bit, interspersed with backstory.  A lot of backstory happened, backstory on Ruth’s parents, on Fort Niles and its lobster wars with the nearby Courne Haven Island.  It felt like adding texture to the story, but then suddenly at the end, every piece of backstory and every piece of normal story got resolved lickety-split in a tidy little bow.

Aggravating.  There is a part of me that loves a happy, tidy ending.  It’s a big part.  I want everyone to live happily ever after.  But most of me finds it frustrating.  Life is not tidy!  That’s why it’s interesting.  I like me an ambiguous ending, that suggests the possibilities of happiness and pain – I always assume it’s happiness (that happy ending part of me!), but at least the writer’s not pretending pain’s not one of the options.

So here’s what I am wondering – what does an ending need to resolve?  I don’t like a book that just stops, but I also don’t like it to take every single element of the plot and tie them all up together.  How much resolution has to happen?

Siberia; August 15th

It’s August 15th!  Happy Independence Day, India!  Where my excellent friend is and I hope she is having a good time teaching children!  And Happy Assumption of the Virgin Day, Catholics!  I didn’t go to church today despite its being a holy day of obligation, but never mind, I will go another time.  And, says my newspaper, and Wikipedia agrees with me, it is also happy birthday to Phyllis Schlafly, which I normally wouldn’t mention except it’s such a coincidence because I was just thinking about her the other day reading The Handmaid’s Tale!

(When I was in high school and my mum was getting her degree in theology, she had this book called Texts of Terror, by an excellent scholar of Biblical feminism called Phyllis Trible.  And I always scowled at it blackly on the bookshelf when I saw it because I thought it was Phyllis Schlafly, and I knew I didn’t care for Phyllis Schlafly.  And then one time I pulled it out and looked at it properly, and discovered it was close readings of several Biblical incidents involving harm to women.  Not Phyllis Schlafly at all.  Phyllis Trible is someone totally different.)

But on to Ann Halam‘s Siberia, which I read about on Sharry’s blog.  Another YA dystopia book – apparently I can’t get enough of these.  In this case, Sloe and her mother grow up in a snowy wasteland of wretchedness, having been banished thither due to her mother’s scientist proclivities.  The unpleasant future here includes not only lots of hateful government taking people off and killing/banishing them, but no wild animals at all left in the world.  Sloe’s mum is the secret guardian of “seed kits”, which contain the seeds of animals that will allow the earth to be repopulated someday.  Their mission is to bring the kits eventually to a city where they will be safe.

This didn’t really work for me.  Maybe I am dystopia’d out.  This world didn’t feel real, and neither did Sloe’s quest to bring her little seed animals to safety – how could they really use them to repopulate the earth, with the government in power?  They’d just get shot!  I didn’t get a sense of the way the government works, or how the world had ironed itself out (like where were the luxury people that apparently exist?  I don’t know!  It was confusing!), and I didn’t think the seed kit animals were well-explained.  Plus, here are some spoilers for you, I was mad that Sloe’s mum was alive in the end.  I thought the story lacked an emotional punch, and I think it was partly because the environment didn’t seem terribly threatening (as evidenced by Sloe’s mum’s survival).

On the other hand, I was reading it at the hospital, an atmosphere not conducive to reading pleasure, and I have to admit, I was flying through and possibly not paying much attention to it.  I think it could have done with some more fleshing out of the world they live in, but my other criticisms may be completely unfair.  And why am I mad that the mum survived?  I always want people’s loved ones to survive in dystopian books!  Sheesh.

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult

My mum told me to read this.  I love my darling mum.  She must never, never, never become sick.  And neither must my father or any of my sisters.  They must stay in perfect health until they are very, very old, and then I will accept that as part of the circle of life they must die peacefully in their sleep after first ringing me up to say a satisfactory goodbye.

That is the plan.  Deviance will not be tolerated.

I really don’t like thinking about my family members dying.  Because of Jodi Picoult, I thought about it a lot last night when I was finishing up My Sister’s Keeper, and so I cried and cried and cried and cried until I fell asleep.  (I was very tired; when my alarm went off, I was dreaming about hanging out with Social Sister, and she said, “Don’t listen to that stupid news guy!  Let’s watch The Office,” and I said, “No, no, I have to wake up,” and she said, “Let’s watch Buffy!  Hey, let’s get pizza from Papa Murphy’s and have a great big Buffy and Angel marathon!” and I said, “But my alarm is going off,” and she said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you!  Anna Banana’s in town!  We can all three eat pizza and watch Buffy and Angel together!  Just like old times!”  And then I realized what my subconscious was trying to do, and I think it was a pretty cheap trick, frankly, pretending that my much-missed sister was back in town just to keep me asleep.)

Er, but back to Ms. Picoult’s book.  It’s all about a girl called Anna (hmph) who was conceived in order to be a donor for her older sister Kate, who has a particularly virulent form of leukemia; she has donated various body parts her whole life and is now (she’s thirteen) being asked for a kidney.  So she goes to a lawyer and asks him to represent her so that she can become medically emancipated from her parents and make her own decisions about her kidneys.  And quite rightly.

The story’s told from the viewpoints of all the involved parties – Anna, each of her parents, her older brother Jesse, the lawyer in question (Campbell Alexander), and her appointed guardian ad litem (Julia Romano, who has a History with Campbell Alexander).  I was surprised by how naturally Jodi Picoult writes; everything flows much more nicely than I was expecting, and the characters are all sympathetic.  I started reading this because I stopped by my parents’ house to tell my parents some good news and then we decided to go get dinner to celebrate but we couldn’t go until six and I didn’t have The Hills at Home with me so I swiped this from Mumsy and read it instead.  I read it for an hour there, and then when we were done with dinner, I washed my hair and read it until I was done.  In spite of being very tired.  So it is a good book, and a most absorbing read.

However – spoilers to follow – there were a few things I thought were a bit device-y.  Namely, the whole plotline with Campbell Alexander’s top-secret medical condition that caused him to break up with Julia even though he truly, truly loved her.  That felt contrived.  I mean, I’m not necessarily against those hurt-them-to-save-them plotlines, as long as you’re saving them from, I don’t know, getting shot, or eaten by you in werewolf form.  In this case he didn’t want her to have to stop being a free spirit – which even then wouldn’t have been so bad (because young people are stupid and do dramatic gesture things), but it got made into this big mystery that you’re wondering about all through the book.  (I mean, I wasn’t – I checked the end – but other people might have been.)  And it’s a bit soapy – the rest of the book is all with the tension and the moral dilemmas, and this plotline took away from that.

Okay, and can we discuss the end for a second?  I knew the ending before I started reading, because my mother told me, but I still felt cheated once I got there.  Here you have this book all about making choices and living with the consequences, about a kid whose life has been eaten up by the needs of her sick sibling and her struggles to form an independent identity, and then at the moment of victory, she dies and they take her kidney after all?  Oh, it was so unfair to the rest of the book.  The natural end to this book is, Kate dies.  Of course she dies!  Anna doesn’t donate the kidney, and Kate dies; Anna does donate the kidney, and Kate dies anyway; they find another donor and for a while it’s a miracle but then Kate dies anyway.  Grrr.

Geek Love and True Love

The past few days have been a bit weird, reading-wise.  I was reading Geek Love – recommended to me by Toryssa as an antidote to the trite blahness of Water for Elephants (Water to Elephants?  I can never remember) – and then when I wasn’t reading that, I was reading the Brownings’ letters to each other when they were a-courting.

It’s been strange.  Geek Love is two stories running consecutively: the main character, Olympia, is a hunchback dwarf from a family that deliberately bred freaks in order to make their circus all interesting, and she’s telling the story of her childhood.  And then she’s also got things going on in the present with her tail-having daughter and this woman who wants to give the daughter surgery to de-tail her.  Oh, and Olympia’s brother Arty (who has flippers instead of hands and feet) has a cult of people that get their limbs cut off.  But then *spoiler* the circus blows up.  So oh well.

Interspersed with letters from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, in which they are so damn cute that my brain perpetually explodes.  Every time I think I can’t love Robert Browning any more, he says something even sweeter and I have to reset the scale.

And then back to Geek Love with the amputations and the telekinetic Chick kid.  The transitions have been weird.

Sorting through this confusion, I find that I do not care for Geek Love very much.  I didn’t like the family dynamic.  It was creepy, of course, the creepy parents with their creepy plans for the kids, and the creepy siblings with their creepy behavior, but it was sort of predictably creepy.  Creepy in ways you really could have anticipated.  Geek Love was such a strange book that I kept losing track of how blah the family dynamic actually was, but after a while I’d notice some discontentment feelings and discover that the source of the feelings was that the relationships between the family, while dysfunctional, were not interestingly dysfunctional.  You always knew what everyone was going to do.  I lost interest long before the book ended.

Oh, and?  I was also displeased with how the *spoiler* circus exploded.  It was like the author just got sick of the Binewski family and was trying to figure out what she could do to get rid of everyone so that she could get back to Olympia in the present in order to end that storyline unsatisfactorily too, so she was like, Well, hey, I’ll just blow everyone up.

Hmph.

I am much happier when I contemplate the Brownings.  Do you know about the Brownings?  If not, it is definitely worth your while to go and look up the Brownings and learn a little bit about them.  And go ahead and read The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  And then go ahead and read their letters to each other.  The ones from 1845-1846 are all the letters there ever were, because after they were married, says their son, they were never separated.

A sad (but nice) story: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last day (of life, I mean), she was sickly and he was fretting, and when he offered to bathe her feet to soothe her she said, “Well, you are determined to make an exaggerated case of it!” and she died in his arms and the last thing she said was that when he asked her how she felt, she said, “Beautiful.”

(That story makes me teary-eyed.)

The Brownings are lovely.  I always want to give them a hug.  They’re so brave and humble and affectionate and dear, and they always send letters to tell each other how much they love them.  When I read their letters I feel like that episode of Buffy where she’s all upset about Xander and Anya having a fight and she’s all, “THEY HAVE A MIRACULOUS LOVE!”

That’s me.  About the Brownings.  Darling Brownings!

…I’m not bragging or anything.  I’m just mentioning.  Robert Browning?  He was born on my birthday.  So unless you were born on 9 December or 23 April, and actually even if you were born on 9 December or 23 April, I still pretty much win at Best Birthday.  Because Robert Browning was a gifted writer and also a completely lovely person.

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Well, I was slightly less thrilled with this than the last one.  I know it’s good for Laurence to chill out a little bit because yes, he did in some respects have a stick up his ass, and I appreciate that’s not necessarily an ideal state for a stalwart hero to be in – but I got sad when he started to feel disenchanted with the British government and the Navy and everyone, and how he started thinking sedition mutiny thoughts.  I liked His Majesty’s Dragon because of how proper and British he was, and now he’s all different.  I don’t feel like I know him anymore.  *tear*

Laurence and Temeraire are off to China in Throne of Jade.  It’s all about what a rare and unusual dragon Temeraire is, and the Chinese are very cross that their most rare and unusual dragon, which was meant for an emperor (Napoleon), is being minded by an ordinary guy and being sent off to war.  In order to avoid irritating China so much that they start giving out dragons to France willy-nilly, Britain ships Laurence and Temeraire to China to sort the whole mess out.  It’s a long journey, so most of the book takes place on the ship’s journey to get there.

My main gripe is that there was a massive build-up for not much conclusion.  They spend all this time on the ship fretting about everything, whether Temeraire will be taken from Laurence, whether the Chinese are going to get angry with their wicked British dragon-having ways and kill them all, who’s evil and who’s okay, and then at the very tail end everything gets resolved really, really quickly.  (Except for the problem of dragon liberty, which is obviously meant for future books.)

That issue aside, however, I did enjoy the book.  Not as much as His Majesty’s Dragon, of course, but still quite a fair bit.  I still don’t like Jane Roland, but she wasn’t around much.  Although the book wasn’t fast-paced, it was interesting, all the conflicts that arose on the ship.  Just the kind of thing that would happen in these circumstances – different branches of the armed forces getting in each other’s way and being irritated with each other, the dragon being stubborn, culture conflicts – it was interesting.

Overall, I’d say – second book in a series with all the attendant problems.  Not bad, but not good enough that I feel compelled to read Black Powder War straight away.  It’s in my library bag and all, but I’ll just wait.  I think that will be better.