Review: A Woman Entangled, Cecilia Grant

Okay okay okay. Greed for Cecilia Grant’s new book compels me to admit that this has been the year I’ve started reading romance novels. I have read enough of them now to have a pretty clear idea of what I like in a romance novel. I like historical romance novels in which the characters are constrained in interesting, specific ways by the time they live in. I like it when the primary characters each have other stuff going on, and I especially like it when the reason they like each other is that they’re impressed with some skill set the other one possesses. In Cecilia Grant’s second novel, the two main characters bonded over mutual admiration of the lady’s gift for calculating probabilities very fast in order to win like crazy at blackjack. That is a real thing. Everyone likes people who admire about them the same things they admire about themselves. Oh and also I like it when the characters talk about privilege. Who has it in what brands and whether they’re making good use of it. Those are all things I enjoy in a romance novel.

(I still feel slightly embarrassed about enjoying romance novels, which is why you will find defiant parenthetical acknowledgements of cliches sprinkled throughout this post.)

A Woman Entangled is the third of Cecilia Grant’s novels, all of which have followed a different sibling (yep) in the Blackshear (yep) family. In this one, Nick Blackshear, the barrister brother with important career plans, is trying to get past the shame of his brother having recently married a prostitute (they keep saying Cyprian, but that seems unfair to Cyprus just for having liked Aphrodite a lot in the old days). In a town across town, Kate Westbrook is trying to gain acceptance in polite society, a goal that will provide her sisters with better prospects, but one that eludes her as a result of her slightly dubious parentage (her father married an actress! horrors!). Nick’s kind of her father’s protogee, and she’s preternaturally beautiful (ugh) so the father asks him to keep an eye on her when she goes to polite society parties. You can imagine how matters go on from there.

I will tell you why I like Cecilia Grant. I like Cecilia Grant because she gives all the characters a bunch of different stuff to do. Nobody is just one thing. A Woman Entangled opens with Kate in a bookshop with her sister Viola as Viola — to Kate’s intense embarrassment — goes on to the bookseller at some length about her radical views on the Rights of Women; after which Kate goes to deliver a courteous letter to one of her father’s relations who has never acknowledged their family, and Viola refuses to go with her, but sits proudly on a bench opposite. This is already interesting because it would usually be the heroine going on about women’s rights, and being shushed by her more conventional supporting-character sister. But what’s even more interesting — to me anyway — is Kate’s awareness that dogmaticism like Viola’s doesn’t tell the whole story. There is more to the members of Kate’s extended family than this one action of declining to acknowledge her. (A point driven home, of course, by the fact that Nick, Our Hero, won’t acknowledge his brother and his ex-Cyprian sister-in-law.) Here again, Cecilia Grant could have left it alone, with Viola cloaked in adolescent righteousness and a general embarrassment to her sister. Instead, later in the book we see Viola offering Kate awesome non-judgmental support that’s completely in line with what we’ve seen of Viola so far (and itself calls into question the rule-following that Kate’s been doing all along).

That ended up being quite a long thing about a secondary character. My point is, I like it that the characters aren’t consistently right or wrong by virtue of serving as protagonists or antagonists. There isn’t even a consistent right or wrong to be had, really — Kate adores her parents, and they’re happy together but her father’s decision to marry an actress in the first place makes his children’s prospects, and especially his daughters’ prospects, dubious. Kate’s years of quiet attentiveness to her aunt and uncle, which Viola scorns and her parents don’t particularly care for either, finally do give her the opportunity to attend some events in Society, but not in exactly the capacity she had hoped.

The characters frequently have to choose one among a collection of shitty possibilities, and even the best outcomes are far from perfect. That makes me happy. Actual life is like that. Plus, consequences: Actions have them! Lydia and Will got married at the end of A Gentleman Undone, which hooray?, except that they’re shunned by most of Will’s family and have to go into trade and their children and Will’s siblings’ children are going to face some serious societal consequences. We see some of those in A Woman Entangled, and others we can infer from the difficulties Kate faces because of her parents’ unconventional marriage.

So now you know. I am quite fond of a limited number of romance authors, and Cecilia Grant is one of them.

(Oh, a small complaint: I really hate characters — in all genres — who are universally acknowledged to be breathtakingly beautiful. I don’t think that’s a thing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Different people find different things attractive. Kate can be pretty but I’m not down with her turning all the heads.)

Disclosure: I received this e-book for review from the publisher, via NetGalley.

Review: The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Verdict: Here is a book that deserves all of its accolades and its foundational status.

I’ve hit a point with my TBR reading (seriously, y’all should see these piles, they are ridiculous) where I’ve picked off the low-hanging fruit (the quite-short nonfiction like Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis and Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small) and now there’s a lot of enormous books left, and particularly enormous nonfiction books. And since I have had a rough month, I decided to treat myself by reading the (presumed) loveliest of my nonfiction books first.

And indeed, I chose well! The Madwoman in the Attic is excellent for a nostalgic feminist English major like me. I love reading all about image clusters in Jane Austen (not sarcasm, I really love that). Definitely the book is a little dated, and definitely Gilbert and Gubar can be a little dogmatic about relating everything back to their Central Thesis, but overall, there is some damn good scholarship going on here. I thought I was so clever talking about how Shirley Jackson’s books all involve houses and their constrictions, but if I’d been really clever I would have pointed out that she belongs solidly in the literary tradition noted by Gilbert and Gubar.

Oh well. I will be that clever next time I have a conversation with someone about recurring imagery in Shirley Jackson novels. Because that’s a thing that’s likely to happen soon.

The first chapter discusses ideas of creativity throughout Western history and how the imagery of creativity comes up all dicks, and this I simply cannot understand. Like, obviously if you’re making the book/baby comparison, it’s going to be a little strained because you need to have one each of a man and a woman to make that happen. But I don’t understand how you could look at the contribution dudes make to creating babies (sperm) and the contribution women make (actually producing a whole entire new person from inside their bodies) and conclude that dudes are the ones with all the generative power. This seems totally crazy. That’s like saying John Watson is the crucial member of the partnership because he sometimes says something that plants the seed for a major Sherlock Holmes breakthrough.

(I don’t mean that I think dudes are John Watson and ladies are Sherlock Holmes in the baby-making endeavor. I just mean that a person living in the olden days, witnessing the things they were witnessing where [sex => lady grows large => entire brand new person comes out of her body], might reasonably see it that way, if they weren’t all messed up by societal investment in keeping women boxed in.)

The Jane Austen chapters are really solid. I both understand why Austen contemporaries criticized her — if you dreamed of freedom in a very unfree century, the way Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning both did, it is understandable that you would be less than thrilled about books that seemed to prop up a rotten system — and really love the feminist reading of her novels. Gilbert and Gubar keep on quoting this, my favorite bit of Persuasion:

“I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

[Anne said:] “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Woohoo. Go Jane Austen. Still not as cool as Jane Eyre‘s line about “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me,” but pretty cool.

The Bronte chapters were also fascinating and cool to read. I mentioned in my review of The Woman Upstairs (a book that acknowledges its debt to The Madwoman in the Attic so often it’s like a tic) that I love Jane Eyre’s anger and unflinchingness more than anything else about her, and that quality of Jane’s is taken up and explored in great detail. Gilbert and Gubar basically talk about everything I love about this book, from Jane’s unflinching morality, to her anger, to Mr. Rochester’s attraction to her being based on her unwillingness to act in a subservient way.

There was some stuff about George Eliot too that meh, I don’t care about George Eliot SORRY GEORGE ELIOT YOUR BOOKS BORE ME, and although I do truly love Emily Dickinson I do not love seeing her poems explicated. The talk of “Goblin Market” was again excellent because that poem is damn creepy, and Gilbert and Gubar have this to say about Aurora Leigh:

It certainly deserves some comment, not only because (as Virginia Woolf reports having discovered to her delight) it is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century. [emphasis mine because that’s the part that is true facts]

True, true facts, my friends. If you have not read Aurora Leigh yet, I strongly recommend you get right on it. God damn it is good. It is just so extraordinarily well-observed. You know how very occasionally you come across a line of poetry that describes something perfectly and perfectly succinctly? That is a phenomenon that happens over and over again in Aurora Leigh. It should be required reading in school. I’d be willing to sacrifice Tennyson for Aurora Leigh.

OH MY GOD and they also said this, which is possibly my favorite thing in the whole book:

Many critics have suggested that Dickinson’s reclusiveness was good for her because good for her poetry…Considering how brilliantly she wrote under extraordinarily constraining circumstances, we might more properly wonder what she would have done if she had had Whitman’s freedom and “masculine” self-assurance, just as we might reasonably wonder what kind of verse Rossetti would have written if she had not defined her own artistic pride as wicked “vanity.”

I want to give this passage a standing ovation. I get so tired of people suggesting that it was somehow “better” for artists to have suffered horribly because otherwise they wouldn’t have done art. I don’t buy it. I buy the above argument instead. I buy it in relation to advances in feminism and I buy it in relation to advances in mental health. So there.

Review: The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Verdict: Good, but heavy-handed.

The exciting thing about The Woman Upstairs is the intensity of its protagonist’s anger. Nora is an elementary school teacher and artist manque, who bitterly regrets the opportunities she has given up in her life in the interest of being “a good girl”. Into her life comes the Shahid family: the young son, Reza, is in her class; the mother, Sirena, a video installation artist who befriends Nora; and the father, Skandar, with whom Nora comes to enjoy discussing philosophy and politics. Feeling that she has been brought to life by these new friendships, Nora throws herself into the Shahids’ lives, baby-sitting for Reza and sharing a studio space with Sirena, where they each work on their own art and then, increasingly, more and more just on Sirena’s.

There is, of course, a betrayal coming. The extent to which Nora’s relationships with the Shahids are based in fantasy is not clear. Certainly Nora is projecting an awful lot onto those relationships, and Messud lets the reader sit with that discomfort. Nora of the present day, who narrates the story and looks back on those years with the Shahids, constantly tells us that she knows what we’re thinking, how we’re viewing her.

In a way this makes the uncertainty worse, because we know that we’re probably never ever going to find out what the Shahids thought about all this. Did they truly like her the way she liked them, or were they being kind, or were they using her, or some combination of those things? The uncertainty of this, combined with the certainty that betrayal is heading Nora’s way, infuses the book with (some slightly milder version of) dread. Nora’s describing Pride while acknowledging that she’s in a position from which society demands Humility, so you know that she’s going to pay.

I’ve read some reviews of this book that called it slow-moving which — I guess it is? At least, not a ton of events occur throughout the course of the book, and I am typically the first to complain about not enough events (cf my favorite show on TV right now being The Vampire Diaries on which ONE THOUSAND EVENTS occur every episode). But it didn’t feel slow, I think because Messud does such a good job of creating a sense of dread. You know Nora’s going to pay for the joy she’s experiencing; you just don’t know exactly how.

(I mean, I did. I read the end so I knew exactly how. But I still felt the dread.)

And now for my complaint. The symbolism of this book was, shall we say, a trifle on the nose. Nora’s artist friend, the mother/wife of the Shahid family, whose presence in Nora’s life lures Nora into believing there’s more out there for her, is called Sirena. Nora, meanwhile, has the same name of the protagonist of Ibsen’s The Doll House, an homage that I do not believe needed to be underlined by Nora’s artistic output being — yes! — dollhouses. There was just a lot of stuff like that, stuff that made me feel like Claire Messud did not trust her book to get its message across without slamming you in the face with its resonances.

There were also times at which I could have done without some of the commas. I love commas. You have to put a lot of clauses in a lot of commas before I will complain. Some of Messud’s writing was really lovely and precise:

But as she led me into their apartment, the thought that came unbidden was: Here is someone that I used to love. Or even: Here is someone who resembles, to a large degree but imperfectly, someone that I used to love.

I have felt that feeling before, and it was interesting to have it put into words, but at other times there were too many commas.

HOWEVER: I cannot emphasize enough that I like reading about angry women, and I really really appreciate what Claire Messud was doing in The Woman Upstairs. This is the same reason why I love Jane Eyre and the poetry of June Jordan. Women have a lot to be angry about.

Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

Verdict: An excellent and eclectic collection of essays.

I liked-not-loved the first Anne Fadiman collection I read, her book Ex Libris, which contained essays only about books. I think the problem may have been the similarity in subject matter — when everything’s books, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m in an argument with Anne Fadiman about one thing or another. The essays in At Large and at Small cover a much wider range of topics, from ice cream to Arctic explorers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the constant throughout is Anne Fadiman’s enthusiastic interest in and affection for each of these subjects.

Her voice as an essayist is enthusiastic and subjective and intelligent and wry (all qualities I like in an essayist). She moves easily from her own childhood to the Darkest Polar North, as comfortable poking fun at herself as at arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose abandonment of his family troubles her about as much as his abandonment of his men on one arctic mission. (It’s not clear whether he intended to come back for them; Fadiman believes that he did, but who knows?)

Some of the essays — like the ice cream one and the butterfly collecting — were less aligned with my interests, but Anne Fadiman’s writing puts it over. She’s so interested in things, and if there is one thing I can consistently say about my opinions on people, it’s that I like people who like liking things. (Yes, I used the verb “like” three times in one clause. Deal with it.) Even when she’s writing an essay that’s critical of her subject, like “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” she’s clearly delighted with her metaphor (not in an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing way! in an endearing way!). And the writing is just fun to read:

I do not suggest that the attractions of a single set of marching orders are easy to resist. It is far more work to start from scratch every time you open a book than to let someone else make up your mind before you read the first word.

This, y’all. This right here. I admit that I have let myself fall victim to this with particular authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, hated women writers. Good. Me and Nathaniel Hawthorne have no further business to transact. He will not like that I exist, and I will not read any of his books or stories. That frees me up to read other nineteen-century writers. I like this kind of exclusion because it makes my life simpler, and I have made up my mind about all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books without the bother of reading them (except The Scarlet Letter and some of his short stories, which I did not care for).

Anne Fadiman argues (persuasively, but I stick to my guns because SHUT UP NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE) that this is maybe a lousy idea:

But if you believe, as I do, that great literature can be written by bad people, then your library can remain intact, no matter how much respect you lose for the authors as individuals.

It’s hard for me though! Respect and love are intertwined for me in this really instinctive way, and I’ve never figured out how to separate them. It is hard for me to bother about people I don’t admire or at least respect. I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones (like Charles Dickens or Anne Sexton), for instance — it’s not that I would never read them, but it’s that I sort of veer away from them. Even Milton I did not feel the same way about after learning how he treated his daughters. I still like Paradise Lost a lot, but it’s impossible for me to be unreservedly enthusiastic about it, the way I was when I read it for the first time in college. You know?

(To take it to a sports place: Watching Drew Brees play football (or like, Jimmy Graham or Adrian Peterson) fills my heart with unabated happiness. He is a good person and good at his job. When he throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing in me but joy. If I discovered that he or one of those other guys had beaten his girlfriend or wife, I would stop enjoying watching them succeed. I am not in control of this. It’s just what happens, willy-nilly. When I discover that someone is an actively good person, I enjoy watching them play football more.)

I guess the exception is funny people? If people are funny? Funny, or admirable. One of those two things. Ideally both, like Stephen Colbert or Amy Poehler or W. Kamau Bell. But funniness goes a long way. I love Oscar Wilde with a fierce and unrelenting love, and he is not really the dude you admire.

Fadiman also takes up a question that I’ve discussed in this space before, which is how to deal with books whose authors appear not to want you. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway, for example — that he not only wasn’t writing for me but that he doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone like me. And there are authors like this throughout the Western canon. (More on this later! I am reading The Madwoman in the Attic and I have a lot of thoughts.) Anne Fadiman says:

What should you do when a work’s language excludes you? If the very words leave you on the sidelines — because, for instance, they are addressed to men and you are a woman — should you stick your tongue out and say, “Well if that’s the way you feel about it, I reject you too”?

And I still don’t know the answer. Should you do that? Should you say, reasonably enough, “There are plenty of fascinating and beautiful books in this world that don’t exclude the possibility of me as a reader, and the number of books I am able to read in my life is finite. I am not going to be bothered with Hemingway anymore”? Or should you persist because you want to be able to participate in the cultural conversation?

Well, this post turned into a discussion of authorial biography, which I did not exactly intend. But weigh in please! Does admiration factor into your reading enjoyment, and if so, how much? Do you, like me, rejoice to hear stories about the kindness of your beloved authors? Does it sadden your heart to hear about their failings? Do you wish Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had not trash-talked each other because it forces you to take sides in your mind? (I love Charlotte Bronte better but find her criticism of Jane Austen unfair.) Are you able to completely separate an author’s biography from his or her writing?

Elinor Lipman Redux

And now we return to the subject of my newest comfort author, Elinor Lipman! Acquiring comfort authors as an adult can be difficult because there’s such a vast universe of books to read, and I have the internet as an endless recommendation machine, whereas young Jenny often checked out the same book from the library over and over again until it became as familiar as a teddy bear. But Elinor Lipman’s books were like a teddy bear right away, so I was very excited to see two — a new novel and a collection of essays — pop up on Netgalley earlier this year. Essays first!

Essays: I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays

The essays in this book are divided into essays on family, essays on writing, essays from a column at the Boston Globe that Lipman wrote regularly, and essays about life since losing her husband. Of these, I enjoyed the writing ones probably the most. The ones about her family were affectionate and touching, particularly the essay about losing her husband to a “rare, untreatable, and fatal” form of dementia. Though the essay — like all of the essays in the collection — was short, Lipman said a lot about what it’s like to see someone you love fall victim to dementia.

Anyway her essays about writing were the ones I enjoyed most unreservedly. It’s fun to hear about the process creative artists go through to make their [whatever — novel, play, production, movie, etc]. Lipman talks about naming characters, about how finding the right name can make a previously fuzzy character snap into focus.

In any carton of manuscripts entered in a competition I am judging, the strong, young, sympathetic, attractive protagonists tend to be named Kate. Runner-up is Anne, Annie, Anna: old-fashioned yet modern, feminine yet strong. Kates and Annas can ride horses, drink, and change tires, but will still look beautiful in their understated wedding dresses, freckled shoulders gleaming at their beach nuptials.

Heeheehee. NB two of my favorite people in the universe are called Kate and Anna. But, see? How Elinor Lipman is charming and funny when writing about writing?

The Boston Globe columns were much my least favorite, so I won’t say as much about them. “May I Recommend”, Lipman notes, was the reason she was eased out of the column-writing rotation, and while that was probably a disproportionate response, and although I understood that Lipman meant to talk about parenthood being the right decision for her, I could see why people got annoyed:

What if we’d been the husband and wife in my cautionary tale, a true one, about a childless couple who stuck to their guns? They spearheaded a support group called Nonparents Anonymous and were quoted in the Boston Globe decades ago describing the freedom, the spontaneity, the money saved, the creativity nurtured, blah blah blah. Today I know through mutual friends that they are divorced. But not just divorced: divorced and furious. The ex-wife claims he ruined her life with his nonparental nonsense. He says it’s her own damn fault. She left town, postmenopausal, never to be heard from again. He’s single, eligible, and searching for a wife of childbearing age.

When I got to the end of the essay collection, I felt that these were not essays that needed to be collected. Some of them were quite good, but they were all magazine pieces, if that makes sense. They were designed to amuse you as you page through the New York Times or whatever; they weren’t meant to be read one after another. Or maybe I am just biased against reading tons of short things by one author all in one gulp; cf., I never read short story collections ever.

And now on to the book I enjoyed v.v. much, Lipman’s new novel, The View from Penthouse B.

Recent widow Gwen-Laura has moved in with her younger sister Margot following Margot’s very public, very scandalous divorce. Though they live in a penthouse Margot owns outright, they’re both struggling financially following the loss of their husbands to death and prison. To make ends meet, they take in a boarder called Anthony, who makes them cupcakes and gossips with them about their love lives and money-making potential. Margot’s ex gets out of prison and moves into the apartment downstairs from their penthouse, and Gwen contemplates starting a dating service for people who don’t necessarily want to have sex.

Of Lipman’s books, this is probably the one that’s the most like The Family Man, although The Family Man remains my favorite if only by virtue of being the first delightful Lipman surprise in my life. Anthony is a Thalia-like force in Gwen-Laura’s life, and Margot is the inevitable (I don’t mean that in a nasty way, I again emphasize that I love lovely Elinor Lipman) Elinor Lipman character who’s wacky and impractical and sort of annoying and flaky at times and sometimes the protagonists want them out of their lives but they are basically good-hearted.

Like The Family Man, The View from Penthouse B is about a group of people whose lives have room to get better, and do get better. They experience missteps and unhappiness along the way, and the futures they build for themselves are far from perfect. Although they have all been hurt by people they loved, they only improve their lots by being open to other people again. And because it is Elinor Lipman, that openness pays off in happiness dividends as the book goes on.

I basically have no complaints here. I want to reread some of Elinor Lipman’s backlist now. I shall read The Inn at Lake Devine because that one was especially lovely.

Note: I received these e-books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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 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.

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor; or, the Official Worldbuilding Committee

The original subtitle of this post was “Laini Taylor should build all the worlds,” but I reconsidered. I guess I don’t want Laini Taylor to build all the worlds, but she should at least be on the official worldbuilding committee. It would be her, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Susanna Clarke, and NK Jemisin. And some other people. TBD. You’ll notice I left George R.R. Martin off this list. I did that on purpose. My official worldbuilding committee will consist of authors whose worlds ARE NOT SUPER RAPEY SO THERE. (On that subject see also this and this.)

What I thought Daughter of Smoke and Bone was about: Some sort of magic with blue feathers. No, I don’t know what I thought it was about. Something with disguises.

What it’s about: Actually a quite cool premise! The premise is that there’s this girl, Karou, who has been raised by magical monsters (chimera). They have raised her and cared for her and given her small wishes now and again (she gets a language for each birthday; she wished her hair blue); and in exchange she runs errands for them where she procures teeth. This is necessary for their magic. The rest of the time she lives a fairly normal life in Prague, attending art school, spending time with her friends. And then a stranger comes to town and starts leaving blackened handprints on all the magic doors that lead to the place where the chimera live; and a little while after that, everything changes.

I love it when writers are brave enough to shake up the status quo in a really fundamental way, especially when it would be easy to take an “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach. And I was already in for Daughter of Smoke and Bone before the major change occurred. I would have kept reading regardless. But now I will really really keep reading, all the way to the sequel and most likely into a third book which I assume there will be one of because everything’s a damn trilogy these days. Ballsy plot twists are kinda my jam. I almost wrote a post welcoming Vampire Diaries back to its former glory of ballsy plot twists after the two back-to-back episodes before February sweeps, but I didn’t because I was afraid Season 4 was going to go right back to being boring.

Aspects of the second half of the book were actually less interesting to me, because I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in the premise — Memory says this will change in the second book! — and the second half was more character-driven with romances and backstories and things. I…could live without the romance. I do not like books with angels in them. The very mention of an angel in a book is enough to put me off of it, which is why I didn’t mention angels in my above synopsis. Luckily these angels’ righteousness is not clear-cut at all, nor is it a straightforward God-is-the-dictator situation. This book pays more attention to the world of the chimeras, and I’m looking forward to the second half dealing more with the world of the angels. I think there’s good stuff there.

My other criticism is, like, did there need to be a romance? And if yes couldn’t it have been fleshed out a little more? I’m hoping the second book gets me more interested in this aspect of the story. At the moment I keep thinking how it would have been a perfect book if the two characters and their Forbidden Love ™ had been platonic (at least to start with!). That would have been cool, right? If they just thought each other were fun and interesting and cool? I ha-a-ate this thing where the people have one moment and now they’re in deathly sacrifice-everything-for-each-other love. Not a thing, writers of fiction! Not at all a thing.

But the ending of this book left me very excited for the sequel. It’s the kind of sequel set-up where the author has put all the pieces on the board in a manner that promises many permutations of conflict both external and internal. The two main characters are on opposite sides of a war they’re both ambivalent about at best. Woooooo, can’t wait for the sequel. Except I hope the blazing eyes and physical perfection talk will be kept to a minimum. I get what’s happening, I just think it’s boring. Let’s focus on their prickly damaged imperfections instead, shall we?

I will now accept nominations to the Official Worldbuilding Committee. Unrapey worlds will be favored because I just have had enough of that nonsense.

Review: World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF

It’s fitting to have this post publishing on April Fool’s Day because it seems like nonsense that I am writing this glowing review of a zombie novel. That’s weird. I hate zombies. I’ve never liked a zombie book a day in my life. Nor a zombie movie. Nor a zombie song probably. I hate zombies. I can’t wait for them to be all the way played out so I can get back to the life I had before we were all so weirdly obsessed with zombies.

World War Z, is is the processest dystopia in the history of process dystopias. Brooks presents it as an oral history of the war against the zombies, with something like forty narrators weighing to tell their stories. It’s awfully good. Max Brooks details the impact of the zombie apocalypse on the entire world (a bit light on South America, but mostly the book is great about discussing what goes on in a lot of different countries), starting from the very first awareness that something horrific is going on and proceeding to the first battles with the zombies, the early defeats, the different challenges each country faces, and the strategies they come up with for facing the threat.

I don’t know how to review this book without getting into very spoilery details! Just, it’s really amazingly cool to see Brooks shade in this war-ridden world. He constructs some absolutely spectacular set pieces, and while I’m not sure what to expect from the move adaptation, I can definitely see some parts of it being really, really cool to see on film. The scene in — I believe — India, where thousands of people are trying to get themselves and their families onto boats, and there aren’t enough boats, and people are getting dragged into the water — SO COOL AND SCARY.

What’s great, I think, and what makes the book so chilling to me, is the combination of denial, lack of preparation, and general incompetence that lets the zombie outbreak spread as far and as fast as it does. The disaster isn’t just zombies. It’s national pride and it’s greed and it’s reliance on tradition in situations where tradition has become meaningless. It’s believing that you are somehow exempt from what’s happening to the rest of the world. It’s short-term thinking and fear and and miscommunication and failing supply chains and major, major psychological damage. These are all aspects of disasters, and I loved that Max Brooks dealt with all of them in scary, interesting, insightful ways.

Again I would like to emphasize how cool the international stuff was. I can’t imagine how much research this book must have required, but it really, really paid off. I can’t remember all the things that came up, but basically it’s made clear that every country has different political, geographical, and cultural strengths and weaknesses in the battle against the zombies. Once specific weapons are developed for fighting them, for example, the US is kind of in clover; whereas countries with no standing army and less capacity for building fancy weapons and body armor face enormous struggles. Zombies freeze in the cold (but thaw when the weather warms up) and eventually rot to pieces in the heat, and each of these outcomes has its benefits and drawbacks. It was just a lot of cool things to think about. Way to go Max Brooks!

However, I did have one fairly major complaint, and I cannot believe nobody in the entire editing process said, “Hey Max Brooks, shape up about this.” There are no damn women. And I just don’t buy it. I just don’t. It’s fine for a bunch of the soldiers to be men, because those are the people who would overwhelmingly have the training and whatnot if a world war started today (which is the book’s premise). I can accept that. But in a book with something like forty narrators (I’m estimating), there are (and here I’m not estimating) five women. Five. One of them is a beautiful feral teenager and that’s all she does. One of them is part of the group of civilians that is deliberately abandoned by the government to distract the zombies.

And, like, fine? That’s fine? I have no special problem with either of those things except insofar as those two passive victims make up forty percent of the women who get to narrate sections of this book. So many of the characters could have been women. The blind Japanese guy could have been a woman. The guy from the canine unit could have been a woman. The Brazilian doctor who did the organ transplants, the guy who came up with the pretend zombie vaccine, the Chinese doctor who we hear from first about the outbreak, the British historian, the disabled neighborhood watch guy, the guy who talks about the lack of skilled tradesmen in America, the space station guy, the guy who tells about the Indian beaches, the dirigible pilot–

Seriously, so many of these characters could have been women. It really started to piss me off that none of them were. Even in the stories where all that’s happening is the person is describing one of the cool set pieces — not a combat thing at all because blah blah more men in the military blah which would only work as an excuse if everyone in the book were soldiers — the narrators are almost all guys.

It made me sad. I really did love this book. I’ve never read a work of dystopian fiction that had such an international focus, and as you can imagine, it made the story just fascinating. I only wish Max Brooks had brought the same creativity and thoughtfulness to gender diversity as he did to national diversity. That is what I wish had happened. Then this would have been a very close to perfect book.

Review: Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice; or, A nearly unified theory of everything (that makes me enjoy a book)

Two things:

One, I really really liked this book.

Two, I love the Wish List feature on Overdrive. Overdrive is a flawed and buggy system that forces you to use a very buggy program to access its content (Adobe Digital Editions you are the worst), but it is awesome to be able to add things to my TBR pile with just a click and access them anywhere with an internet connection. I know this sounds slightly like I am doing a commercial for OverDrive, but I’m not. It is my genuine opinion. If OverDrive were paying me to say nice things about them, they’d probably want me to be nicer about their interface. The Wish List feature is why I finally finally read this book after having it on my TBR list for a hundred years.

Children of the Waters is about two half-sisters, one white and one biracial, who grow up unaware of each other’s existence. Trish, the white sister, was raised by her mother’s parents; she’s now divorced from her (black) husband and raising her teenage son Will, who is encountering blatant racism for the first time in Trish’s consciousness (though not, of course, for the first time in Will’s life). Billie, the biracial sister, was adopted by a black family (she doesn’t know she’s adopted), and she’s now fallen pregnant unexpectedly and is struggling with her boyfriend’s unwillingness to be a father. Trish discovers from a neighbor that the half-sister she never met, whom she believed died in a car accident, has been alive all along. She’s at a place in her life where she feels the lack of a sister; Billie, with her close and loving family, is not.

There’s a lot in this book, and I’ve read some reviews that say it’s too many things: Billie has a chronic illness, Will freaks Trish out by discovering religion, Trish is thinking about opening her own vet clinic, there’s a ton of stuff about race and prejudice and traditional religions and fertility and masculinity and parenting. It’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s too many things. It’s all things that people’s lives hold. You don’t get to stop dealing with prejudice for a few weeks while you figure out your problematic pregnancy, you know?

The initial premise of Children of the Waters is a teeny bit soapy, although not particularly improbable (an opinion of mine confirmed by an interview I read with Carleen Brice in which she says that something quite similar to this happened to her sister-in-law). What I really loved was that all the problems, and all the characters’ reactions to them, felt incredibly recognizable to me. Yes, these are things that happen to people; these are stupid, careless things that get said; these are the feelings you would have if you already had a large loving family and some stranger showed up suddenly and said, Now you are my sister, let’s be sisters now. I liked it that the characters are all trying to be good and having a hard time figuring out how. And I liked it that they thought and talked to each other about the actions they were taking, and I loved it that when they became able to see that they had done a wrong, they apologized and tried to make it right. Nothing was easy but everyone tried to do the right thing.

I also loved it so much that Carleen Brice doesn’t stack the deck against any of her characters. Trish and Billie are very, very different people with different ideas about what the world is or should be, and it would be easy for Brice to hint that one of them is doing it righter than the other one. But she really doesn’t. When they — or any of the other characters — are arguing or disagreeing with each other, I sometimes agreed with one of them more than the other (like really, you should just know what Juneteenth is, that is just a thing people should know), but often I thought both sides were making good points. Or at least that both sides had good reasons for holding the positions they held and thinking the thoughts they thought.

And, just, why isn’t more fiction like that? (I’ll get to my unified theory of everything in a second.) Why do people have to be mysterious and brooding about aqueducts all the time? I like books in which decent characters are forced by circumstance to take long, hard looks at their values and figure out how they apply to real life in situations that are not terribly clear-cut. That is my ABSOLUTE DAMN FAVORITE.

So the closest I think I shall ever come to a unified theory of my own reading taste is this: I like books in which principles and values are challenged by a changing reality in interesting ways and the holders of those values have to figure out what to do about it. This is a pretty broad scope of things. But looking at my “About” page, which man, I have not updated in years, where I list some of my favorite books, they pretty much all fall into this rubric. And all the books I’ve given one or two stars to in the past few years have been books that appeared like they would have interesting values/reality conflicts, but did not. It’s also why I do not enjoy books about how stifling the status quo is and the search for meaning within a routine world. Boring! Boring! Boring! Have some new situation for your characters to confront and then we can talk.

What do y’all think of my theory? Too obvious? Too broad? Doesn’t encompass Shirley Jackson and Beau Geste enough? Not useful in finding books because I won’t know until you try the books whether they’ve done the values/reality conflict in an interesting way? Do you have a unified theory of what interests you in books?