Review: Slammerkin, by Emma Donohue

The interesting thing about working slowly through my TBR pile(s) is that quite often, I find that the reason I haven’t read the fiction books is that they are not quite my jam. It’s all these books that I want to be my jam — like Emma Donohue or CS Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy — but something inside me knows that they will not be. And that is why I have been putting them off. But no longer, friends! I have three huge stacks of TBR books, and I am going to READ THEM ALL BY GOD.

What Slammerkin is not: Steamy. At all. My coworker who gave it to me said it would be, and I think now she was basing that on the cover, rather than having read it. Which is fine. But I was just expecting it to be more like the sexy parts of Tipping the Velvet, and less like the sleazy street parts of Tipping the Velvet.

What Slammerkin is: A book about the damage inflicted by limitations on women’s choices in ye olden days (the 1700s). The protagonist, Mary, is a clever, independent-minded girl born to poor but honest parents. One part dreams of pretty clothing plus three parts RAPE lead her into a life in prostitution in London at the age of fourteen, which is (with gin) okayish until she has to skip town to save her own skin. Thereupon she goes to live in a small town in Wales, working as a servant and assistant to a seamstress who was once a friend of her mother’s. Though Mary perpetually dreams that her life will be more, there is never any way of putting her ideas into practice. And eventually she (spoilers) kills her mistress and gets hanged. The end.

I did not enjoy Slammerkin but writing this review has talked me into it a little. I’ll tell you why that is.

Mary is a basically ideal historical fiction heroine. She’s clever; she likes to read; she’s witty and smart-mouthed; she’s not intimidated by people and their bullshit; she wants her liberty, and she wants to have nice things. She even has a historically useful marketable skill, as she’s a gifted seamstress and is quick to pick up new embroidery patterns and methods. All this is par for the historical fiction heroines course.

But Mary, unlike many heroines of historical fiction, is not ExceptoGirl. Mary lives in a time where these characteristics are far more likely to get a girl killed than rich. Her desire to get more out of her life serves her ill, ill, ill. She’s raped and thrown out of her house, and because she has no money and can’t make money any other way, she turns to a life of prostitution. Maybe she could make her living as a seamstress, but we’ll never know because she cannot get together the capital to make it happen. A smart clever lower-middle-class woman in the 1700s who resents bending her will to people stupider than she is does not, realistically, attain great heights. She ends up in jail. That is how it really probably would go.

Given this, I found it interesting that the reader’s guide at the back of the book seemed to think Mary was such an extremely unlikeable character. The questions were all like, What were the things Mary did that you liked the least? When do you think was Mary’s doom sealed? On a scale of one to ten how much did you hate Mary? (I am exaggerating but not that much.) I kept thinking, yeah, but if she’d been able to get her shit together and open her own dressmaking shop — staying at this same level of ruthlessness, this same level of friendliness — there would have been no talk at all of unsympathetic characters. She’s totally sympathetic, but she’s just in a super shitty situation all the time. Her most relatable, modernest characteristics are often the ones that destroy her.

Basically, if you are ever feeling frustrated with the ExceptoGirls of literature, Slammerkin can be your antidote. You can read it and think about the wretched miserable life your most frustrating ExceptoGirl would actually have had. And either that will vindictively please you, or else (as in my case) you will be like, “You know what? ExceptoGirls are maybe not so bad after all. Maybe I do not want all that much realism in my historical fiction.”

YES. MAYBE YOU DO NOT.

Revisiting Harry Potter: “I am not worried, Harry. I am with you.”

Oh the feelings. Oh I have them. I was reading the end of this book on one end of the couch while Miniature Roommate was reading Good Omens on the other hand, and every time she laughed at something in Good Omens, I would think she was laughing at me for crying. And in my mind I’d be all, THIS BOOK IS SAD OKAY? But I didn’t say it out loud because I recognize that would be irrational. But this book is hella sad.

I forgot how Harry-Dumbledore-heavy the last part of this book is. All my notes on rereading it are about Harry and Dumbledore, although this could reflect my own bias, because I love those two hanging out. They’re my fave. Y’all should be prepared for smoke to come out of my ears when Rita Skeeter tries to make insinuations about Dumbledore’s affection for Harry.

I just with Harry and Dumbledore and they’re friends and they hang out and with the feelings–

Ahem. I’ll try that again.

How pleased and proud are Harry and Dumbledore at each other when Harry finally gets that memory from Slughorn? I love how Dumbledore is all tired when Harry walks in, and then when he finds out about the memory he just lights up at Harry and is so proud, and — this is huge to me — he tells Harry he can come destroy the next Horcrux they find. I’ve said before that I love for people to be respectful of what Harry’s capable of (he’s capable of a damn lot), and Harry getting this respect from Dumbledore of all people just means everything.

When they actually do go get the Horcrux, I love that we get to see Dumbledore in action as the Best and Cleverest Wizard of them all. For most of the series, we only hear about what Dumbledore can do, long after he’s already done it. We know he is definitely the Best and Cleverest Wizard, but I like seeing him prove it. It was awesome watching Dumbledore fight Voldemort in the fifth book. The Horcrux hunt is a different kind of awesome, more methodical, like watching a pro chef recreate a recipe for a dessert he’s only had one bite of. It’s extra great because Dumbledore acts about as chill as if the stakes in all of this were whether the dessert was going to come out delicious. That is how Dumbledore rolls.

Greatest thing Dumbledore ever says in this entire series:

“No, Draco,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.”

Damn. Just about to die and he knows it, and this is what he has to say. I mean, you would name your kid after this man, wouldn’t you? This is the man you name your kids after.

I am realizing belatedly that I should have had a feature in this readalong called “Oh Neville”. Because, Neville.

“We were in trouble, we were losing,” said Tonks in a low voice. “Gibbon was down, but the rest of the Death Eaters seemed ready to fight to the death. Neville had been hurt, Bill had been savaged by Greyback…It was all dark…curses flying everywhere…The Malfoy boy had vanished, he must have slipped past, up the stairs…then more of them ran after him, but one of them blocked the stair behind them with some kind of curse…Neville ran at it and got thrown up into the air–“

Of course he did. Of course he got hurt but still ran after a huge group of Death Eaters alone. Oh Neville.

I know nobody in this readalong likes the Harry-Ginny pairing, but I actually do. Ginny is widely agreed to be awesome, and unlike some of y’all, I love Harry a lot as well. They are both clever and resourceful and they have shared interests like Quidditch and fighting evil. Seems reasonable to me. I was okay with them breaking up (I see the narrative usefulness of that), but this?:

“It’s been like…like something out of someone else’s life, these last few weeks with you.”

This tears at my heart. “Someone else’s life” = “everything doesn’t all the time suck”. On the other hand:

“We’ll be there, Harry,” said Ron… “At your aunt and uncle’s house, and then we’ll go with you wherever you’re going.”

“No–” said Harry quickly; he had not counted on this, he had meant them to understand that he was undertaking this most dangerous journey alone.

“You said to us once before,” said Hermione quietly, “that there was time to turn back if we wanted to. We’ve had time, haven’t we?”

“We’re with you whatever happens,” said Ron.

YOU THREE.

The Adulting of Harry Potter

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew — and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents — that there was all the difference in the world.

This. Just, this. You kids these days and your heroism.

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.

Review: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

Here is a book I purchased for my mother’s birthday although I had not read it and I had read very few if any reviews of it at the time of purchase and I didn’t read it first. I got it for her only on the basis of the short excerpt NetGalley provided in their “Buzz Books” sampler. That is how much I love the narrative voice of Nao Yasutani. A very very lot.

I’m leading with that because the synopsis of this book would not have induced me to read it. One of the two lead characters is — like the author — a writer called Ruth who has a husband called Oliver. They live on a small Canadian island, and one day a package washes up on the beach — Ruth presumes from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Well-wrapped to protect it from water damage, the package contains two diaries, some letters, and an old watch, all inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. One diary is in French but the other — disguised as a Proust novel — is in a teenager’s purple-pen rounded English cursive. It is the diary of a teenager called Nao who is planning to kill herself but wants first to write the life story of her great-grandmother, a radical feminist turned Buddhist nun following the death of her son in World War II.

When writing about this book, Vasilly said there was something about it that felt really special. I felt just the same, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the whole book. There were times, certainly, when it felt like Ruth’s sections of the books were proceeding by rote — she’s interested in the diary, she’s trying to find Nao in real life, she’s talking to her husband about Nao’s life — and I was impatient to get back to Nao. But as the book went on, and Ruth’s life on this island became more fleshed out independent of Nao’s story, I was able to enjoy both sections of the book about equally.

This was helped, of course, by the increasing sadness of Nao’s life, which at times it was a relief to escape from for a little while. Although Nao tries to talk about her great-grandmother, Jiko, she is frequently sidetracked into stories of her own difficulties. Her father was fired from his Silicon Valley job when the dot-com bubble burst, and Nao, who thinks of herself as American in many ways, has never fit in with her Japanese schoolmates. She is brutally bullied in school (really, it gets pretty upsetting), and at home her father is becoming increasingly depressed over his inability to provide for his wife and family. Nao is terrified that her father will kill himself, and her fear expresses itself in anger with him.

Though Nao’s story is tragic, there kept being moments of light that saved it from being too much for me. Nao’s voice, as I’ve said, is captivating and warm and lovely. And old Jiko is a wonderful, wonderful character. She is just the right combination of mystical and down-to-earth, and there’s never any doubt why Nao admires and loves her so much. For instance, this, when Jiko has asked Nao if she feels angry.

“Of course I feel angry,” I said, angrily. “What do you expect? It was a stupid thing to ask.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It was a stupid thing to ask. I see that you’re angry. I don’t need to ask such a stupid thing to understand that.”

“So why did you ask?”

Slowly she turned herself around, pivoting on her knees, until finally, she was facing me. “I asked for you,” she said.

“For me?”

“So you could hear the answer.”

I just loved that.

As well, Ozeki has a knack for keeping you invested in characters you might be inclined to write off or stop thinking about. I was as frustrated as Nao was with her father, and thinking many critical thoughts about him, and then Ruth found a posting about suicide on the internet, which she suspects was written by Nao’s father:

Recently I am reading some philosophical books written by great Western minds all about the meaning of life. Those are very interesting, and I hope I will find some good answers there.

I don’t care for myself, but I am afraid my attitude is unhealthy for my daughter. At first I thought I should commit suicide so she will not feel shame on account of my failure to find a good job with big salary…Now I think I must try to stay alive, but I have no confidence to do so. Please teach me a simple American way to live my life so I do not have to think of suicide ever again. I want to find the meaning of life for my daughter.

I got all choked up.

Finally, the end. Ah the end. How I loved it. This is the sort of ending that will not please everybody, but it greatly pleased me. It has a quality of semi-deniable magic, which — given the slightly magical feel of the book in the first place — did not feel out of place to me. It’s also an ending with some ambiguity to it. We don’t really find out what happened to Nao, but the book ends on a note of hope. I like a hopeful ending. It doesn’t feel like a cheat to end a sad book on a hopeful note.

If I had to sum up the reason I loved this book, apart from Nao’s really wonderful narrative voice, I would say, I guess, that I admire a book that can look at sadness and still feel hope. I admire a book that suggests — even in the midst of sorrow — that all systems tend towards love.

I received this free e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Revisiting Harry Potter: Dumbledore has a purple suit and psychic paper

Oh God, it’s so wonderful to have Hogwarts back to normal. I never realize how miserable Umbridge’s reign at Hogwarts was really making me until I get to the sixth book and McGonagall’s bossing everyone around without a mean toad lady going “Hem hem” at her shoulder all the time. Yes, Snape is teaching Defense against the Dark Arts, and yes, I think that blows and also, isn’t it sort of irresponsible of Dumbledore to keep giving that job to people when it’s plainly jinxed? Like, couldn’t he knock the subject of Defense against the Dark Arts on the head and invent a brand new subject called, like, Nefariousness Prevention, and get around the jinx that way?

I want to call Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince “The Book in which Harry is Right”. I love it when Harry’s right, and usually if there’s a conflict between him and Hermione, Hermione’s going to win. But not in this book! In this book Harry gets to be right on a number of different occasions, and Hermione gets to screw up. It’s not that I don’t like for Hermione to be right — I do! But it’s also good to see that she’s not infallible. She sometimes fails at sneakiness, and she sometimes resists available evidence that points to a conclusion she does not wish to reach. Such as that Harry is right about Malfoy, in particulars as well as just the general thing of Malfoy being Up to Something.

In the ongoing Harry-Dumbledore buddy comedy that is Book Six, Harry ribs his buddy-comedy-buddy for his fashion sense sixty years ago — props, Harry, there’s no reason for anyone of any time period to wear a purple velvet suit while not being Oscar Wilde. Or maybe Dumbledore’s just wearing it to alarm the orphanage superintendent who is so fond of gin. I cannot blame her. I am fond of gin myself, and I do not have daily responsibility for a tiny magical psychopath. If I did, I would probably drink quite as much gin as this lady does after Dumbledore does his psychic-paper spell.

I like the flashback of little Voldemort better than the flashbacks that involve the Gaunt family as a whole. Little Voldemort is just the right amount creepy, whereas the Gaunts are over the top if you ask me. If they’d lived a few decades into the future, I bet they’d have had their own reality show. They could have talked about Mudbloods and hissed at snakes, and all the wizards watching the show would shake their heads judgmentally and talk about what is wizarding television coming to these days.

Do you notice, by the way, that all evil wizards in this world seem to have the habit of doing mocking singsong voices as a sign of disrespect? Is that a thing? Voldemort’s grandfather did it and Bellatrix Lestrange is prone to it too, if you’ll recall. Either this is a thing they teach you in Taunting Class at Durmstrang, or JK Rowling’s sister used to do this to her on car trips and JK Rowling really, really hated it. Fair enough if the latter.

Are y’all fans of the incorporation into this book of hilarious romantic subplots involving Cormac McLaggen and Lavender Brown, whose name I inexplicably keep on typing as “Lavendar”? I AM. Ron’s defense of starting to go out with Lavender when he was supposed to be going to Slughorn’s party with Hermione is hilariously belligerent. In fact everything about the Ron-Lavender relationship is hilarious, from its onset to its eventual demise. Quidditch is apparently a great aphrodisiac in these books — Ron and Lavender are, ahem, not the only couple to start making out in the immediate aftermath of a successful Quidditch game.

I love everything about this exchange:

“But you are normal!” said Harry fiercely. “You’ve just got a — a problem–”

Lupin burst out laughing. “Sometimes you remind me a lot of James. He called it my ‘furry little problem’ in company. Many people were under the impression that I owned a badly behaved rabbit.”

Aw. Harry being loyal; us getting a non-douchey memory of James; Lupin laughing. Bless them.

The Adulting of Harry Potter

1. It rocks that Harry tells McGonagall (and Dumbledore, and everyone) what he suspects about Malfoy after Katie Bell gets attacked. McGonagall was obviously not going to believe him, but still, Harry has come a long way from the early books when he never told anything to anyone.

2. Asking Luna to Slughorn’s party is a delightful thing for Harry to have done. It’s extra delightful that he asks because he enjoys her company. As who wouldn’t, you know? He’s really clear with her about what the invitation portends (nothing romantic!), which is also good. And Luna’s response is so sweet and so completely Luna.

“Oh, no, I’d love to go with you as friends! Nobody’s ever asked me to a party before, as a friend! Is that why you dyed your eyebrow, for the party? Should I do mine too?”

Plus, when they’re at the party, Harry doesn’t ditch her and go hunting for other people to hang out with, as he did when he asked Parvati to the Yule Ball. He stays with Luna for the bulk of the party, and when he’s ducking out to eavesdrop on Snape he’s like, Hey Luna, I’ll be right back, okay? which is fine, because she’s engaged in a conversation anyway. Good job, Harry! Your social skills are coming along in leaps and bounds!

3. The conversation Harry has with Scrimgeour at Christmas might very well be my favorite bit of this entire series. I love how adorably obvious it is that Harry’s using Dumbledore as his model for how to behave with bullies. I love that his criticism of Scrimgeour is biting and on point and pretty calm even when Harry’s getting pissed. And, of course:

“Well, it is clear to me that he has done a very good job on you,” said Scrimgeour, his eyes cold and hard behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “Dumbledore’s man through and through, aren’t you, Potter?”

“Yeah, I am,” said Harry. “Glad we straightened that out.”

Never ever EVER gets old. Of course it is wonderful when Harry defends his belief and his people. But it is huge extra piles of awesome that he’s so consistently been a person who Will Not Abide with Your Bullshit, and now he’s the grown-up version of that person. Yay. I love Integrity Harry!

Review: Quintana of Charyn, Melina Marchetta

I actually forgot this book was happening, even though I read and loved Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles just last summer. I saw this one mentioned on Romance Novels for Feminists and immediately emailed Candlewick for a review copy. Which I now have! And it is up for grabs if anyone wants it, so ask in the comments if you’re interested. I’ll do a draw if I have more than one request. I beg you will not enter if you plan to try and read this book without reading the first two books first. You are only hurting yourself if you do that. [ETA: I’ve posted the book away now but you should still buy a copy because it’s good.] The series is kiiiiiind of like a much darker Queen’s Thief series. Speaking of that, when will Megan Whalen Turner have another book? I WANT ONE SO MUCH.

Since I reviewed neither Finnikin of the Rock nor Froi of the Exiles at the time, I will quickly run through the premise of the series. The premise is that many years ago, the country of Charyn invaded the country of Lumatere. The Lumateran royal family were brutally murdered, as were thousands of other residents of Lumatere, and a Charynite imposter took the throne. Furious at the slaughter of her people, a witch of Lumatere called down a terrible curse that prevented anyone from getting in or out of Lumatere, and stopped any Charynite women from having babies from that day forward. So that is the backstory, and then the series itself is about the aftermath of all this — how the Lumaterans and the Charynites have struggled to put themselves back together since the time of these horrors.

You know what I love, my dears? Conflicts about values! And also I love the Scouring of the Shire and Among Others. Which is why this series — and Melina Marchetta generally — is pleasing to me in spite of being (the lovely Julia might pull for the inclusion of a modifier like “cartoonishly” or “over the top” here) dark and full of sadness and pain. Marchetta’s books are not typically about The Event (whatever it might have been; in this case the war and its aftermath), but rather the fallout from The Event.

Marchetta is good at making you love characters who at first seem rotten through and through. At the end of Finnikin of the Rock, you may just about be willing to admit the possibility of Froi’s redemption, but you know you still hate all of Charyn. At the end of Froi of the Exiles, you adore Froi and totally understand why Finn and Isabel are so devoted to him, and you think Charyn might not be so bad after all but there definitely isn’t any way for it to ever have peace with Lumatere because it’s still mostly hateful. And, er, I won’t spoil the end of Quintana of Charyn, but I will say again that Melina Marchetta is wonderful and makes her characters act with painful, but believable, grace.

Like many Melina Marchetta books, there’s some barrier to entry with Quintana of Charyn. Marchetta jumps straight back into the action without a lot of “previously on” to assist you (which is why you should read it right after reading the first two! in a glorious binge, Ana!). She eventually does provide some background — like, this is who this guy is to Froi, this is what happened with Lucian and Phaedra, and so on — and I was able to jump back in the swing of things without too much difficulty. In the beginning our characters are much divided, by emotional and physical distance. Early in the book, Finnikin said Froi was dead to him, and I was just spiraling into premise denial when this happened:

“You returned for me, Finn. After everything you said…I’m surprised you were able to convince Perri and your father to return.”

Finnikin laughed. “All I had to do was stop the horse and say, ‘I think…’ and they were racing back into the woods to you.”

So then I was back in. I just hate it when people I love are in a fight. I do not read Melina Marchetta books for people to hate each other. I read them because people in Melina Marchetta books are — once they’ve bestowed their love — unswervingly loyal. My fave!

In a way, I enjoyed this third book less than the first two, maybe because a few things felt like a retread of emotional territory that was already covered in Froi of the Exiles and even in Finnikin of the Rock. But that’s okay. It’s been a while since those two books came out, and I had forgotten a lot of the stuff that happened in them.

As in the first two books, I loved watching the development of a cautious respect, then an intense love and loyalty, between the characters — in this case, between Quintana and the women who were guarding her. It’s great that Marchetta doesn’t feel the need to soften Quintana’s nastiness and weirdness, but just shows you that there are other sides to this damaged woman that make other characters’ devotion to her understandable.

And, of course, as with all Melina Marchetta books, I loved it that the thrust of the book seemed like it was going to be toward revenge and war, but instead it was toward forgiveness. (In the words of the super great Tony Kushner, forgiveness is where love and justice finally meet. Oh Tony Kushner you glorious genius.) And that is why I like Melina Marchetta even though many sad things (perhaps too many? one might argue?) occur in her books.

Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Review: The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue

The Mapmaker’s War is hokey but not in the way I expected it to be. And it is a lot like Ronlyn Domingue’s first book, The Mercy of Thin Air, except with that book’s good qualities deployed in a much less awesome way. All in all I’m glad I didn’t get it for Mumsy for her birthday, because I think she will like A Tale for the Time Being much better.

The Mapmaker’s War‘s “magic bean” — a term I’ve stolen from Clare! — is that it’s written in the second person. An older version of the protagonist, Aoife, is writing as if to a younger version of herself, recalling the events of her life from some distance. Lucky in her youth to have been trained as a mapmaker, Aoife is out mapping different lands when she comes across a settlement that guards a dragon’s hoard and lives in utter, utter peace. Though Aoife tries to guard the secret of these people, their existence is discovered and her own kingdom decides to go to war with them. Aoife is cast out from her home and her children as a traitor, and she must find a way to live among the people whose existence she kiiiiiinda (but unwillingly) betrayed to her own warlike kingdom.

The virtue of The Mercy of Thin Air, a book I liked quite a bit when I read it a few years ago, was its evocation of everyday magic, the way the space between two regular people can be magical in itself. When Domingue’s writing waxed luminous about relationships, it felt reasonable and earned, because all the readers know about how lucky and amazing it can feel to find someone — romantic or friendly — who makes sense to you and to whom you make sense. In The Mapmaker’s War, Domingue is rhapsodizing about a culture of total peace and joy and cooperation, which not only doesn’t exist but franklycouldn’t exist; and it’s like pinging a tuning fork that resonates at a pitch humans can’t hear. It may have an exceptionally beautiful timbre, but I am not profiting by it.

So much of the book’s energy goes into evoking the magic of the frustratingly implausible utopia Aoife finds herself in, that not much space is left for fleshing out believable, interesting characters. There are some genuinely moving moments toward the end, when Aoife realizes that she gave up her two children without much fight, and that she lost by it something important and valuable. Overall, though, the characters felt cardboardy. None of them ever told another of them a joke. Aoife says she enjoyed certain characters’ company, and that they enjoyed hers, but it’s not clear why.

I was sad not to enjoy this book as much as I expected to, but it did make me want to reread The Mercy of Thin Air! Domingue has a unique and interesting voice as a writer, and The Mercy of Thin Air deserves a better review than I gave it when I read it for the first time a few years ago.

Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher through NetGalley.

Revisiting Harry Potter: The Harry-Dumbledore Buddy Comedy Commences

Okay, “buddy comedy” may be putting it a trifle too strongly. But you know what I mean? When they go off to make Slughorn come to Hogwarts, and Dumbledore goes off to have a poop while Harry (metaphorically) seduces Slughorn with his fame, courage, and loyalty to Hogwarts? And Dumbledore’s all, “Knitting patterns! Well, we must be off,” and cracks wise about his jam preferences. (Raspberry jam is delicious; good call, Dumbledore.) All the trappings of a classic buddy comedy! (Ish.)

It is also about damn time someone told off the Dursleys for being terrible child-rearers. I don’t know why Dumbledore wasn’t keeping a closer eye on that situation. Couldn’t the wizarding world have taken up a collection to pay Petunia and Vernon for Harry’s upkeep? They’d still have been jerks to him but at least they would have been accountable to someone and Dumbledore could have stopped by now and then to stop them putting Harry in the cupboard under the stairs. But what’s past is past, I guess. I’m glad something was said about how awful the Dursleys are, and I’m glad that Dumbledore tells Harry he’s proud of him for how he’s dealt with losing Sirius.

How do people feel about the chapter with Snape and Bellatrix and Narcissa? Personally I do not care for it. I am pleased to know all the ways Snape has been explaining to Lord V. his behavior over the years, but I’d have preferred that information to come out slowly instead of in one big infodump. Also, are you extremely curious what role Snape played in Emmeline Vance’s death? I AM. Do you think it was the kind of situation where Voldemort had found out information about Emmeline from another source, and Dumbledore knew he had, so he had Snape give Voldemort basically that same information? Or do you think an element of self-sacrifice on Emmeline Vance’s part was involved? Inquiring minds want to know.

You know who sucks? Fleur. I think she’s one of those people who’s all like, “Oh, you know, I don’t really have any friends who are girls,” and she thinks the reason for this is that she’s so beautiful and other girls are jealous, but the real reason is that if there’s a guy around she immediately stops paying attention to her girl friends. I would deeply resent having to be her bridesmaid, if I were Ginny.

This book amps up the everyday scariness of Voldemort, which I appreciate — you don’t want a toothless villain! I always thought we were going to find out why Florean Fortescue got taken, but we never did. I guess we’ll have to wait for the Encyclopedia that JK Rowling better not have decided against because that would make me sad. I posit that it’s because Florean knew some information about History that Voldemort wanted (because remember he knew all about medieval witch-burnings in the third book?), and I guess if you’re Voldemort and you want to know something you abduct and torture an expert on that subject. That is the Voldemort version of going to the library.

(Like, it’s either that, or Voldemort stopped in for ice cream and Florean Fortescue spit in his milkshake.)

Fred and George’s joke shop includes this product:

“One simple incantation and you will enter a top-quality, highly realistic, thirty-minute daydream, easy to fit into the average school lesson and virtually undetectable (side effects include vacant expresion and minor drooling). Not for sale to under-sixteens.”

Not for sale to under-sixteens EH? Real talk for a second here, y’all: They’re sex daydreams, right? This is a sex product?

The Adulting of Harry Potter: I’m making this a feature for Book Six, because Harry has grown up so much since the last book, and I think it deserves its own special feature. Let’s compare some Harry behaviors to their equivalents in earlier books.

1. When Harry suspected Snape was up to no good in the first book, he didn’t tell anyone because he was all “We’ve got no proof!” When he suspects Malfoy is up to no good in this book, he tells everyone. It doesn’t do him any good — because everyone’s like, “You’ve got no proof!”, but still, way to go, Harry. If you see something say something.

2. He deals with his grief over losing Sirius like a MOTHERFUCKING CHAMP. Whereas with Cedric he couldn’t figure out a way to process what had happened (again I say, shouldn’t someone be in charge of slapping this kid into wizard therapy?), he admits to Dumbledore that he feels terribly sad about Sirius and misses having a parent but he knows Sirius wouldn’t have wanted him to just curl up into a ball o’ sadness, and that’s why he’s going to keep on fighting evil because it’s what he wants and what Sirius would have wanted.

(Truth. Also, sniffle.)

3. In the fifth book, a pretty girl finds Harry in the company of Neville and Luna and Harry wishes he could die. In the sixth when the same situation occurs, Harry’s like, “Piss off, these are my friends.” Plus:

“People expect you to have cooler friends than us,” said Luna, once again displaying her knack for embarrassing honesty.

“You are cool,” said Harry shortly. “None of them was at the Ministry. They didn’t fight with me.”

Damn straight, Harry. I am glad you and I have both come around to appreciating Luna’s charms. She was wasted on us both in the previous book.

Review: The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

I have been wanting to read this book foooooooreeeeeeeveeeeer. I mean, ever since I heard of it. The plot is that this carer, Oscar Lowe, is walking through Cambridge one day and is lured into a church by the sounds of heavenly organ music. In short order he falls in love with the organist’s sister Iris, from whom he eventually learns that the organist himself, Eden, believes that he has the power to heal people with music, maybe even to bring them back from the dead. Or, in the short version of this synopsis, everyone’s in Cambridge doing creepy experiments. HOORAY.

The (better) American cover

The Bellwether Revivals is a case where my love for this type of genre — a group of friends, one who feels like an outsider in particular, coming to realize that there’s Danger in their Midst, and maybe Impending Doom — blinded me to the book’s flaws, and then when I sat down to write about it I talked myself out of it more and more. So let me start by saying what was good about the book:

I liked that Eden Bellwether, while he does do some quite sinister things over the course of the novel, doesn’t especially come across as dangerous. He believes that he can compose and play music that will have healing powers, healing anything from a cut hand to a broken leg to, possibly, a brain tumor. The scenes where he does this — carefully documented on camera as a good horror film would! — are wonderfully restrained. There are no incantations, just the playing of music and the laying on of hands. But there is, nevertheless, an air of menace about the whole thing, and about Eden. Though nothing particularly terrible happens, the reader feels that something has to, and will, give.

Very good indeed were the scenes with the Bellwether parents. Like many of the secondary characters — about whom more in a minute — they are poorly fleshed out as people. Still, the scenes where Oscar attends meals with them are deliciously uncomfortable in the way that it really is uncomfortable to eat dinner with someone else’s family when that family is weird in a way that’s completely unfamiliar to you. These scenes aren’t a major part of the novel.  I just liked them every time they showed up.

I’d have loved to have seen more stuff about the research done by Dr. Paulsen — one of Oscar’s patients at the care facility where he works — and Dr. Crest. The book didn’t need this to improve it. I just really liked Paulsen and Crest a lot. I liked it that they were both straightforward people who also had things to keep to themselves. Where many of the other secondary characters seemed to exist as satellites for the primary folks, Paulsen and Crest felt like they might realistically have lives outside of the Bellwethers.

Which brings me to the criticisms! Here they come. One, the secondary characters are barely people. Eden and Iris have three friends called Yin, Marcus, and Jane, who get a few nice descriptions — I quite liked this one of Jane —

She had a knack for diffusing the tension in a room. Oscar could see what the others liked about her: she was self-deprecating, constantly downplaying her intelligence and positioning herself as the slowest member of the group, when she might well have been the brightest of them all. She had a sense of humour that seemed naive, but he recognised it as something more than that. It was her way of forging her own identity within the group: an endearing, calculated dumbness.

–but who aren’t well-realized overall. At the end of the book I saw no reason for Oscar to keep hanging out with them, except that they had accepted him generously as an adjunct to their group. I couldn’t see what they had in common, because I didn’t know anything about them as people.

Another difficulty about the book is that you never want to believe in Eden. The author does a nice job letting you sit with the possibility that Eden can genuinely use music to heal people, although I think it’s ultimately made clear that he can’t and is nuts, but what you want — because it’s what Oscar wants — is to find out that Eden is nuts and see him get help. It would have been a much much more interesting book if Eden had spent more time engaging Oscar and trying to make him believe in what he can do.

What is that now? You think I am just saying that because it’s what Henry from The Secret History does so spectacularly well with Richard? NONSENSE. Except, yeah. That’s why I’m saying that. The Secret History is amazing, and its amazingness consists in how much you want to get behind Henry even though you know that buying into his version of events would make you sort of a sociopath.

On that note, who’s excited for Night Film? I mean The Goldfinch? Who’s excited for both? I am! 2013 is such an amazing year for books! So many authors beloved by me are publishing new books.

Review: The Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman

Nice cover, no?

Things I do not like in books include:

  • Dudes wandering around trying to get laid
  • Jokey nods to historical situational irony
  • Unrepentant asshole protagonists

And yet here is the first paragraph of The Teleportation Accident.

When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriend’s lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex. When the telephone rings in the night because a stranger has given a wrong extension to the operator, it is a homage to the inadvertent substitution of telegrams that terminated your adulterous cousin’s marriage, just as the resonant alcove between the counterpoised struts of your new girlfriend’s clavicle is a rebuttal to the apparent beauty of your last girlfriend’s fleshier decolletage. Or this is how it seemed to Egon Loeser, anyway, because the two subjects most hostile to his sense of a man’s life as an essentially steady, comprehensible and Newtonian-mechanical undertaking were accidents and women. And it sometimes seemed as if the only way to prevent that dread pair from toppling him all the way over into derangement was to treat them not as prodigies but rather as texts to be studied. Hence the principle: accidents, like women, allude. These allusions are no less witty or astute for being unconscious; indeed, they are more so, which is one reason why it’s probably a mistake to construct them deliberately. The other reason is that everyone might conclude you’re a total prick.

I read that and it was like that thing that happens occasionally when you meet somebody and you get along brilliantly and are friends right away, and they laugh at all your jokes and tell good stories and you aren’t so much worried about running out of mutually engaging conversation topics as running out of time in which to talk about the zillions of available conversation topics. I read the opening paragraph of The Teleportation Accident and felt like, Oh, hello, friend!

It’s lucky that I had that reaction, because there were times when the insane and farcical (by design!) plot of The Teleportation Accident got a little wearing. I truly don’t like stories about dudes wandering around feeling sorry for themselves about not getting laid enough, even when (as in this case), there is the counterbalancing charming thing of the point-of-view character admitting insecurity and being honest about the effort and anxiety that arises from wanting people to think well of you.

Having just two seconds ago said that the point of a book can’t be its prose, I really enjoyed this book on the strength of its prose. That wasn’t the only thing I liked about it — I do like farce quite a bit, when it’s fun farce (your mileage may vary, obviously), and there were aspects of this book that made me laugh out loud, like the millionaire who has severe visual agnosia and can’t tell the difference between a picture of a thing (like an elephant) and the thing itself. Everything that happened was so gleefully, unapologetically insane.

Still, the primary pleasure of the book is, in fact, the writing. It’s all things like this:

The next morning they were both awoken by the determined slamming against the apartment’s front door of what sounded like a gravestone, jewellery safe, bust of Napoleon, or similar object of medium size and considerable mass, but what turned out — upon Scramsfield’s displacing himself from his bed by a sort of gastropodous undulatory motion, rising to his feet, and reluctantly unbolting the portal — to be nothing but the dainty gloved fist of Miss Margaret Norb.

and this:

Rackenham’s novel was by all accounts a very thinly disguised sketch of the Berlin experimental theatre scene circa 1931, and since nobody had been willing to answer Loeser’s oblique enquiries about the way he had been portrayed — even Brogmann had been too tactful to take the piss out of him — Loeser could only conclude that his fictional analogue was a golem of spite and libel, the sort of character assassination where they have to have a closed casket at the wake. He felt quite excited to have been the victim of the kind of affair you read about in interesting people’s biographies, and he was already looking forward to confronting Rackenham about it.

Further, to my excessive joy, there are four endings! And three of them are really good and one of them is…extremely weird. Y’all know how I love a good ending. It’s not a Clue situation, where the endings are mutually exclusive. Each one closes out the story in a particular way, so rather than getting to choose how your story ends, you get to choose, in a way, what kind of story you were reading all along. I love shit like that.