Drab lunacy

My older sister is a big fan of the simple food. She likes rice, and cheese, and meat. You would think that Mexican food would be perfect for her, since it’s all just different ways of putting together rice and meat and cheese and sometimes potatoes and beans. But she hates Mexican food. All of it. Won’t eat it. The ingredients are perfect for her, but somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

That is how I felt about Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans. Its component parts were all good: Matthew Kneale, award-winning author; family drama; unreliable narrator; road trip; narrator fond of stories about ancient Romans. Nine-year-old Lawrence and his sister Jemima are taken by their mother on a trip to Rome, trying to escape from their father, who is trying to poison them (or something). Lawrence’s mother used to live in Rome, so she has plenty of friends able to take them in for a few days at a time, while they try to figure out what to do next. But the trouble that they feared in Scotland may have followed them to Rome.

Still, the book just didn’t do it for me. I was dissatisfied. Either the unreliability of the narrator was too obvious or too vague. The stories from ancient Rome that Lawrence told were too plainly applicable, or insufficiently so. Mostly, and y’all know this is true from how much I liked White Is for Witching, my preferences lie in the latter direction, vague over obvious, even if that means I end up not knowing what’s up. When We Were Romans tended to tilt the other way, and I turned up my nose. Another problem for me was that I didn’t find the story compelling enough. It was drab, in spite of the craziness the family was facing, and I like my running-away-from-home stories to be colorful. This is the second running away from home story I’ve failed to enjoy in the month of August. Any suggestions for a better one? I like running away from home stories! I’m sure I do, I always have!

I would also appreciate suggestions for a good book about the Brontës. Lynne Reid Banks’s Dark Quartet was as unsatisfying as When We Were Romans, or more so. This lent strength to two things I already suspected: first, that I am in the mood for fantasy right now, and second, that the Brontës were an unpleasing combination of lunacy and drabness. But I may be wrong. The Brontës may be far more interesting than I’m giving them credit for. So I would like your recommendations. I will read any book about any Brontë (not right now; later, when I’m no longer in the mood for only fantasy), if y’all think it’s good.

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25 thoughts on “Drab lunacy

  1. Brontes met fantasy:

    Have you ever read The Brontes Go To Woolworths, which is fantasy? Many people like it lots I didn’t, but not because it wasn’t a good book…I don’t want to say more, cause of spoilers.

    Or if you are in the mood for something younger, there is The Return of the Twelves, about modern kids’ lives intersecting with the Brontes’ imaginary worlds.

    Or, if you can get a hold of it, a Bronte ish not quite but almost fantasy read is Peter’s Room, by Antonia Forest, which is Brilliant.

    • I love Peter’s Room! Antonia Forest is just brilliant; it’s a pity that so few people have heard of her.

      Have you read Merlin’s Magic? It’s by the author of The Return of the Twelves, but writing under the name Helen Clare, and I think it’s much, much better than The Return of the Twelves. But it’s pretty much impossible to get hold of these days.

    • I have read Peter’s Room, and I really enjoyed all the things they said about the Brontes. I thought it was quite insightful.

      I’ll have to check out this Helen Clare person. I love new authors!

  2. Bummer. I won this one in a giveaway contest a while back, and it’s been gathering dust ever since. I mostly forget it’s there, but maybe I’ll give it a go just to see if it blows my skirt up.

  3. Oh, I am sorry you didn’t like this one! I thought it was pretty good, but it was sort of obvious at times. Hopefully your next read will be a bit more exciting for you!!

  4. I read this a couple of years ago and had a very similar reaction. It seemed like it should have worked, but it didn’t. It’ll be interesting to see if Kneale’s other stuff is better.

    • English Passengers is supposed to be very good, but I didn’t want to read that one because I’m not the world’s biggest historical fiction person. Maybe I’ll get to it soon.

  5. Sorry it didn’t work out for you. It’s sounds promising which only makes it more disappointing.

    I couldn’t get into White Is for Witching. What do you like about it?

    • I would say, with White is for Witching, I had an idea of what to expect because I had read Oyeyemi’s other two books first. I liked the shifting points of view; I liked the spooky flavor the book had; I thought the writing was gorgeous. Also, I went into the book not expecting it to be perfectly clear what was going on every minute, because that’s just the way Oyeyemi writes. That said, I would be reluctant to recommend it to anyone whose reading tastes I wasn’t very sure of, because it is confusing and unclear, and I can see why a lot of people disliked it.

  6. Now I’m picking my brains for runaway stories and there’s nothing there. Senior moments for a quite youngish brain. Must be the coffee. Or lots of beer I drank during my heydays. Hey, I’m still in my heyday. Sort of. Anyway, great analogy. Your first paragraph was just perfect!

    • All I can think of is the Boxcar Children! But I think I am a little past the age of enjoying those, and I didn’t like them that much even when I was a kid. :/

  7. I must say, I should be mad at you. (but I don’t like to be mean.) but I have this book and I got sucked into reading your post when I realized you were going to chat about the book that I have and I don’t want to know that you didn’t like it. So, I’ll not read it for awhile and I’ll forget that you wrote a post on it and I’ll remember after. Deal?
    Have a great September. (I must say, the title ‘Drab Lunacy’ has a nice ring to it.)
    I seem to like saying “I must say…”

    • Deal! (I like saying “I must say” too.) In future I will try to be more clear about what books I am reviewing. Only I’m way behind on reviews and trying to cram several reviews into each post. :p

  8. And I feel bad that your sister doesn’t like Mexican Food and yet likes the ingredients. I adore mex food and can’t get it in New England. Makes me sad just to realize that. *sniff*

    • I love Mexican food so, so much. When I did my year abroad in England, and I couldn’t find Mexican food anywhere, I realized how much I loved it. It is delicious. All that cilantro.

  9. A good book about the Brontes is The Brontes. A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker. It’s a collection of letters, but there are explanations and a lot of background information given about them as well. It’s a long book, but I enjoyed it. Then again, I love the Brontes and collections of letters. I also have another Brontes biography somewhere, I can look for it later and check the title if you would prefer that.

    • Oh, that sounds good. I love reading other people’s letters too, especially the Victorians. Thanks for the recommendation! I can always depend on the Internet to help me find books. 😀

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