Review: Blue Is for Nightmares and White Is for Magic, Laurie faria Stolarz

Well. This is not what I expected. Amanda reviewed this series, of which Blue Is for Nightmares and White Is for Magic are the first two, earlier this year, and they are boarding school books and the series is a bunch of books that are matching and color-coded. Y’all know I had to get some of that. How, you inquire, did I manage to resist for eight months? By my home library always having them checked out, that’s how! But I got the first two at Mid-Manhattan when I came into the city last weekend to see the statues at the Onassis Cultural Center. Sadly, they didn’t quite do it for me.

Blue Is for Nightmares is about a psychic girl called Stacey who has been having terrifying nightmares that always culminate with her wetting the bed. She is mortally embarrassed as well as terrified: the last time she had nightmares like these, she ignored them, and they presaged the death of her baby-sitting charge, Maura. This time, as her dreams warn her that her roommate Drea is in peril, Stacey is determined to save her. In White Is for Magic — well, it’s basically the same thing, except this time she’s in peril and there’s a mysterious guy following her around.

I didn’t love these books the way I was hoping to. There is this thing in YA books where the kids don’t tell the adults what’s going on because a) adults are annoying; or b) adults won’t believe them. Although I recognize this is crucial because otherwise the kid protagonists won’t be able to handle their own problems, it can come across as forced, and it does in this case. I just can’t think of a reason not to bring the creepy happenings to the attention of the adults. Drea gets creepy roses and creepy notes, and so does her on-again, off-again boyfriend. You can bring these to boarding school teachers without bringing up Stacey’s psychic dreams! These are creepy happenings! But no, instead of doing that, they burn all the evidence. Really well-played, kids. In the second book they carry on hand-waving the possibility of involving the police. It didn’t work for me.

The first and second book had plots that were a lot alike, which is another thing that bothered me. They were so substantially similar I started worrying I’d picked up two copies of the same book. First it’s Drea in danger, and Stacey has dreams that will make it possible to save her. Then it’s her who’s in danger, and she struggles to figure out what her dreams are telling her that will make it possible to save herself. In both books she’s involved in a slightly complicated romantic situation. Meh. I’d have minded less when I was younger, maybe.

Sorry to end December on such a grumpy note, but you can’t choose what you read! Or, well, yes you can. I just do not always choose well. For those of you who celebrate Christmas, I hope you have an amazing, stress-free holiday! For those who don’t, I hope you have an amazing, stress-free few days when all the shops are closed and everyone sings Christmas carols around you. I will be seeing you after I get back from holidays with my family!

Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart

Have y’all ever seen the film Serendipity? I mean it’s not that great. I’m fond of Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, and I still recognize that this film just isn’t that great. The premise is, they meet once, they have a great date, but Kate Beckinsale wants to leave it to chance whether they meet again. Chance doesn’t work out for them. A few years later, John Cusack’s about to get married or something, and he goes on a mission to track down Kate Beckinsale because she’s the one that got away. He really wants to find her but they keep just missing each other and eventually they find each other and live happily ever after which is sort of a spoiler but not really because it’s a romantic comedy even if not a very good one.

I have known about Frankie Landau-Banks for a while, and I felt it would surely be the perfect book for me. But we just kept missing each other! Ana reviewed it and my library never had it in when I visited. My mother got it on PaperbackSwap (allegedly), yet I never saw it at our house when I was there. I got it for my aunt for her birthday, but because she’s not one of the people I feel okay about reading their presents before giving them to them, I didn’t read it first. For those of you following at home, I am John Cusack in this analogy, and The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks is Kate Beckinsale. Except that I am not about to spend the rest of my life with only one book and if I were, I wouldn’t blow whatever it was off for The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. It isn’t that good an analogy. I’m not really sure why I opened with that. Let’s move past it, shall we?

Frankie Landau-Banks is entering her sophomore year at college prep boarding school Alabaster. Over the summer she has come true all at once, with the curves and the hair and all the other things that make sophomore girls irresistible to senior guys. Senior Matthew Thornton duly notices her, and they start dating, which is great as far as Frankie’s concerned. But as much as she enjoys dating him, she cannot help noticing certain things about their relationship: that she hangs out with his friends, not he with hers; that she is not necessarily welcome to spend time with his friends independent of him; that he gently and affectionately teases and belittles her, and expects her to behave (as a girl) in a certain way. Most annoying of all is his habit of blowing her off to spend time with his friend Alpha — which, as Frankie gradually realizes, actually means spending time with the school’s secret, all-male society.

Determined to make her mark (to prove herself indelible), Frankie infiltrates the secret society and organizes secret acts of naughtiness around the school. Some of them are just for fun, and some are making genuine comments on the way the school is run. We know at the beginning of the book that Frankie will eventually be caught, so it’s all a question of — what kind of changes is she making to the school, and to her relationship, and to herself?

I liked it that Lockhart doesn’t let Frankie make any of the easy choices. Frankie decides that she is worthy of notice, and sets about proving it. She likes being part of a pair with Matthew Thornton, and wants to maintain that. She just wants them both to know that the two of them stand on equal footing, rather than being Matthew’s subsidiary on account of her age and gender. If this occasionally gets a bit heavy-handed, it’s more than okay with me because I enjoyed Frankie so much. I’ve read several reviews where people said they didn’t necessarily like her, but I really did! I thought she was great! I wish she could age a few years (oh my God, I got really depressed just now thinking of how many years she’d have to age), move to New York, and be my friend. Hooray!

Everyone on my blogroll (practically) has read this book, so I’ll just direct you, once more, to the Book Blogs Search Engine.

Review: Old School, Tobias Wolff

I am going to say my worst thing first. Stand by for enthusiastic praise. Tobias Wolff is a short story writer, and in Old School, his first novel, you can tell. It is less like a novel, and more like a collection of short stories about the same characters on the same theme. Mostly this was fine, but the last two chapters felt weird and abrupt, in a way they wouldn’t have done if this were a collection of short stories. Only if it had been a collection of short stories, I’d probably never have read it. That would have been a shame.

Old School is set at an all-boys boarding school with literary connections. Three prominent writers come to the school each year, and the boys in their final year are encouraged to write poems or stories for these writers. Each writer picks the best poem/story, and the boy who wrote it is permitted a private meeting with that writer. Our unnamed protagonist has reached his final year, and he longs to be chosen by one of the authors: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

This is a book about adolescence and creativity, imitation and influence. Wolff does a superb job of exploring the way teenagers try on different versions of themselves, test-driving personalities to see how they go over with the world. Our unnamed protagonist does unsympathetic things and thinks unsympathetic thoughts, but I didn’t lose sympathy for him. He is clearly searching, almost desperately, for people and ways of thinking to define himself with, or against; and without being terribly explicit about it, Wolff manages to convey that the unsympathetic personas he is trying on are, or could be, temporary.

What made the book wonderful for me was Wolff’s wicked sense of humor about the writers who visit over the course of the year. Robert Frost gets off the easiest, or perhaps I just felt that way because my opinion of him appears to dovetail so nicely with the authors. Hemingway comes off a little crazy, or maybe I just thought that because I think Hemingway was crazy. In any case, what Wolff is really poking fun at here is the way the boys fall under the influence of each of the writers:

Anyway, I myself was in debt to Hemingway – up to my ears. So was Bill. We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of the meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.

I laughed out loud at so many parts of this book. I wish I could just type out the first few chapters for you, because they’re so, so funny. When Wolff wants to make you cringe, or ache with sympathy, he’ll do it, but a lot of the time he just makes you (well, me) remember adolescence, and giggle. More:

I had been holed up most of the weekend trying to finish my poem for the competition. What I’d been working on was a hunter’s elegiac meditation over the body of an elk he’s killed after tracking it for days through the mountains. This wasn’t typical of my poems, abstract and void of narrative as they tended to be. It fell into the pattern of a group of my stories in which a young fellow named Sam evaded the civilizing demands of his socialite mother and logger-baron father by fleeing into the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where he did much hunting and fishing and laconic romancing with free-spirited women he met on the trail….

But this poem was giving me a headache. For one thing, how was the hunter, having trailed the elk so far into the woods, going to get it out? How big was an elk, anyway? Really big, I guessed — so after offering thanks to the spirit of the elk for giving him all that meat, the hunter was going to look ridiculous walking away with one lousy haunch over his shoulder. Maybe I should’ve made it a regular deer. But deer didn’t have the majesty of elk.

and (I’m stopping after this)

I was discovering the force of my will. To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a dammed-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running. I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires — nothing between me and greatness itself — but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability.

Oh, Lord. Tobias Wolff is a funny man. I may even make an exception to my general rule of avoiding short stories like the plague, and investigate one of his volumes of short stories.

I wish I had read Ayn Rand. Not–and please don’t misunderstand me on this point–because I have any interest whatsoever in reading Ayn Rand, but because Tobias Wolff skewers Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway so skewily, and I am sure his skewering of Ayn Rand was equally wicked, but it partly passed over my head, because I have never read Ayn Rand. The chapter on her was still very very funny, but part of me also felt sad for Ayn Rand for being so mercilessly mocked. Even though she probably deserves it! Which I would not know if she did or not because I have never read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

(I just remembered one of my favorite lines from one of the best scenes in my all-time favorite play Angels in America. One of the characters has just had the crap kicked out of him by his significant other, and as he’s lying on the floor bleeding he croaks, “It was like a sex scene from an Ayn Rand novel, huh?”) (Holy crap, y’all, that scene in Angels in America is superb. If you haven’t seen the HBO miniseries of Angels in America, go forth and do so. You may report back to me afterward with appropriate expressions of delight.)

Oh, yeah, and Tobias Wolff inexplicably doesn’t use quotation marks. Why? Don’t ask me. I never understand this impulse to ignore quotation marks. If you’re not Celie from The Color Purple, you should use damn quotation marks.

Thanks to Frances and Emily for reviewing this book and making it sound so great I put a hold on it at the library that very day. I thoroughly enjoyed it! For other reviews, see here.

I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.

The Dragonfly Pool, Eva Ibbotson

Lovely Darla at Books and Other Thoughts reviewed this book a while ago, and I was thrilled to find Eva Ibbotson had written a new book – I love her, and actually, I like her non-fantasy books best.  Still I didn’t read it for ages, and then at Charing Cross Road the other day, I almost didn’t buy it.  I’m glad I bought it!  It was wonderful!

Tally is a determined little girl who gets sent off to a boarding school called Delderton as Hitler’s growing power brings the threat of war to London, where she lives with her father.  At first she is not thrilled, but she soon falls in love with Delderton, its teachers and students and its carefree joyous approach to learning.  Later, Delderton sends a convoy of children to a folk dancing festival in the fictional country of Bergania, where Tally befriends Berganian prince Karil, who is in danger from the Nazis.

Aw, The Dragonfly Pool was wonderful.  Karil and Tally were total dears, and Eva Ibbotson of course included some rich posh mean people, as she often does.  The bit of the story where Karil has to live with his dreadful posh relatives is quite awful, and the descriptions of Tally’s life at Delderton correspondingly lovely.  When they are in Bergania trying to help Karil get away from the Nazis, I found myself getting quite choked up.  I am easily choked up about people standing up to the Nazis.

London is terribly bad for me.  I have bought so many books here – I bought three more again yesterday at an Oxfam Books, and we are heading off to Foyle’s in a little while (again!), and furthermore there are the book stalls on the South Bank that I haven’t yet visited, and my beloved Book and Comic Exchange in Notting Hill.  We’ll see how this plays out.  Still I’m so glad I bought The Dragonfly Pool.  Absolutely well worth owning.

Other reviews:

Darla at Books and Other Thoughts (thank you!!!)
The Bookling who thinks it should be made into a film and I couldn’t agree more
Bookworm 4 Life who did not love it but did enjoy the descriptions of life during WWII especially the barrage balloons, and it’s so true, I absolutely love the barrage balloons
Book Nut who found it a good sick day book 🙂
Never Jam Today, who did not love it as heard on audio, but then discovered it was abridged on audio and will now need to reconsider

Tell me if I missed yours!

Three books about dumb kids

Just finished reading three books I’d been looking forward to, and none of them wholly pleased me.

What I Was, Meg Rosoff – All about a boy called Hilary (bless) who goes to a British boarding school and becomes a bit obsessed with another young boy called Finn, who lives by himself in a little hut that can only be reached during low tide.  I thought the revelation about Finn at the end was a bit of a let-down, since the rest of the book didn’t at all seem a revelation-type book.  Besides which I do not appreciate stories in which people’s childhood homes have sunk under the water when they return to them in old age.  This hits too close to home.

Spies, Michael Frayn – I put off and put off reading this because I thought I would really like it and I wanted to give myself a treat.  Spies is about a boy called Stephen during the Second World War, and how he and his entrancing, bossy friend Keith start spying on Keith’s mother because Keith says his mother is a spy – rather to the detriment of everyone involved.  Everything was vague and not terribly interesting, and it drove me wild when the grown-up Stephen would narrate about the young Stephen in third person for a little while, even though the bulk of the story was in first person.  Never talk about yourself in third person, world.  It reminds me of John Smith talking about how brave and handsome Captaine Smith was and how much the Savages admired him for his cleverness and general virtue.

The Servants, Michael Marshall Smith – Read about this book here ages ago, and have been trying to get it from the library ever since.  Of the three books I read today, I liked this one much the best.  It was absorbing and genuine and simple, all about an eleven-year-old boy called Mark whose mother has remarried and they’ve all moved from London to Brighton, and he’s discontented with the whole affair.  He meets an old lady who shows him some old servants’ quarters, and eventually he discovers that he can go into them and meet real proper old servants from Back In The Day, who are having a trying time getting their house in order.  I liked the book a lot – the Back In The Day bits aren’t as well-developed as I would have preferred, that’s all, but then they are metaphorical and that’s what you would expect.

Year of the Griffin, Diana Wynne Jones

I didn’t exactly mean to read this.  I am still intending to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, which I had forgotten about until just now.  I am in the middle of rereading the entire Sandman.  I have a whole bunch of books out of the library about sexual ethics and other interesting things – art controversies, STDs, Bohemians – and instead of reading any of those things, I’ve been reading Diana Wynne Jones.  Once I read The Dark Lord of Derkholm I yearned and yearned for Year of the Griffin and couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

In Year of the Griffin, Derk’s youngest griffin daughter Elda goes to University to learn how to be a wizard.   The book is all about the troubles that she and (mostly) her University friends have.  All of her friends have troubles.  Lukin is an impoverished Prince, and his father doesn’t want him to come; Felim has crept away from the Emirates in secret and has assassins after him; Ruskin has been sent by a tribe of dwarf revolutionaries; Olga is the daughter of a totally wicked pirate; and Claudia is the half-sister of the Emperor of the South, and she is a half-breed so the Senators all don’t want her.

Completely good book.  The characters I liked from The Dark Lord of Derkholm are back in this, and the ones I don’t aren’t.  The students are taught by teachers who don’t want them thinking freely, and they all become very clever at thinking of the possibilities their magic has.  Hurrah for free thinking!  I love Diana Wynne Jones!

Gentlemen and Players, Joanne Harris

Recommended by actually a number of book blogs – A Reader’s Journal and the other Jenny Claire from my lovely home state both reviewed it well.  I’ve been putting off reading this because I didn’t like Chocolat at all – I thought the film was better.  A terrifying and rare thing for me to say, and I generally only say it about The Princess Bride and Cold Comfort Farm; my opinion swayed in the latter case by how adorable I think Kate Beckinsale is, and how all the jokes surprised me in the film but not in the book, which I read subsequently.

However, I eventually decided to check this out when I discovered it was all about someone secretly trying to bring down a British public school.  It made me think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed very much, and besides British schoolchildren fascinate me with their dreadfulness.  How can they be so dreadful?  And I discovered I like this quite a lot more than Chocolat, all the nasty revenge things that went on, and Roy Straitley’s rude Latin asides (hurrah for Latin! the Latin teacher was the cleverest!).

I will now commence to spoil everything, so stop reading if you don’t wish to be spoiled.

You get alternating points of view of Roy Straitley, the old and venerable Latin teacher at St. Oswald’s, an old British public boys’ school that is snobby and unassailable, and one of the new teachers at St. Oswald’s, once unhappily a regular school kid looking in from the borders of St. Oswald’s, now back to seek reeeee-venge against everyone, everyone, everyone at St. Oswald’s.  It’s all very cunning and insinuating.  You think it’s Chris Keane all along, but in the end it turns out it’s a girl! Who pretended to be a boy when she was younger so she could sneak into St. Oswald’s and pretend to go there!

I don’t know how well this worked.  I didn’t know she was a girl until the end.  It sort of spoiled the book for me – when the new teachers first showed up, I thought, Well, obviously she’s suggesting it’s Keane, I’ll just skip to the end and discover whether it is really someone else, and I glanced at the end of one of the closing chapters, and someone said “KEANE?” in shocked tones right at the end of the chapter, and I assumed that that meant yes, Keane was the perpetrator of these wicked crimes.  It made me feel very fond of Joanne Harris, as I thought she was putting all the fun into how and why things were being done, rather than by whom.  Which is what I prefer anyway, when you know who did it, you can catch how and why straight along as you’re reading through.  But I didn’t get to have the fun of doing that.  I felt sad and let down when I got to the end and all was revealed.  Pooh.

But I enjoyed all the wicked things she did to everyone.  I did think the sex scandals were a little uninventive – it would have been more fun if she had managed to implicate maybe one or two people with the suggestion of pedophilia and then done something completely different for the others.  And, as I say, I was pleased that the Latin teacher was cleverest of all.  Up with Latin!

All in all, fun and engaging, and maybe sometime when I get over being cross with Joanne Harris for tricking me I will read it again and see how well I feel her twist-at-the-end I’m-really-a-girl device worked.  At the moment I think it was a little cheaty, but since I didn’t know throughout the entire book, I can’t really say.

The Chatham School Affair, Thomas H. Cook


Everyone kept comparing other books to The Chatham School Affair with favorable-sounding opinions, so I picked it up at the library a little while ago and started reading it, and I have to confess that I found it somewhat trying.  I couldn’t get into the story because of all the frantic foreshadowing.  It kept being all Little did we know when first we beheld that peaceful landscape how much BLOOD AND DEATH AND MISERY there would be there later on, and I only read a little bit of it, but I just got fed up with the way Mr. Cook was caking on the foreshadowing.  Like those cakes with that vanilla frosting where normal people have to scrape off the flowers and leaves but some people love it so much that they demand to have the pieces with flowers and leaves on top and even accept your discarded frosting flowers and leaves.  I am scraper-offer, and this foreshadowing was way the hell too much.

(I am apparently really really into dessert similes.  I am now putting a one-month embargo on dessert similes.  Or metaphors.)

Maybe sometime I’ll try to read this again.  Maybe not.  We’ll see.