Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

I have this strategy – I’ve mentioned it before – where when I really like an author, I save some of their books.  I haven’t read two (2) of Salman Rushdie’s books.  Martin Millar has written a number of books that I haven’t read, and I haven’t made the small effort it would take to order them used online.  This is not because of any shortage of love in my heart for Martin Millar’s books.  It’s because I’m saving them.  I do it with rereads too.  It’s been at least five years since I last read Persuasion, although (well, actually it’s because) I love Jane Austen, and I like to give myself a little treat every few years.

I haven’t read Mary Renault’s Theseus books in several years.  I haven’t read The Last of the Wine since high school.  And I have never ever read The Praise Singer, and until today I had never read The Mask of Apollo.  I read this book all over the place yesterday and today, and I did it at my parents’ house where (you may have heard) there is also a tiny little puppy who likes to snuggle on laps, chew on curtains, and wrestle with a stuffed koala bear.  Because The Mask of Apollo is so good it’s sick.

The book is about an Athenian actor, Nikeratos, who lives in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.  After a particularly magnificent performance as Apollo, he meets Dion of Syracuse as well as Dion’s close friend, the philosopher Plato.  Thereafter Niko becomes involved in Dion’s political intrigues as he (Dion, not Niko) works in Syracuse to establish the perfect philosopher-state as envisioned by Plato.  This doesn’t work out as fantastically well as you might think, though Mary Renault seems very definitely to think it could have gone better if Alexander the Great, rather than Dionysius II, had been in charge of Syracuse at the time.  (Alexander makes an appearance at the end of the book, and it was like seeing an old friend.  I love Mary Renault’s Alexander books, because nobody has ever loved a protagonist, and I am including Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey, the way that Mary Renault loves her Alexander the Great.)

I’m a little sad that I’ve now read this book.  I’ve read it, and it’s read, and I can’t ever read it for the first time again.  I loved all the stuff about ancient Greek theatre – Niko speaks about how the actors interacted with each other, how the scenery worked, and the special effects, how the audiences responded.  Mary Renault writes beautiful characters, brave and flawed and frightened – you can see that she loves them, the ones she’s made up, but especially the ones she’s found in history.  I also now know a whole lot of things about Dionysius II that I never knew before.

A scene I like – I remember my mother showed me this scene when I was younger, long before I’d read any Mary Renault books in full.  Niko is not quite seven, playing little Astyanax in Euripides’s Women of Troy:

All I remember for certain is my swelling throat, and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.  My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play…Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running.  I hoped I might die, that the earth would open or the skene catch fire before I sobbed aloud.

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted my gently.  I was gathered into the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.  The flute, which had been moaning softly through the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

I also loved how Niko casts everything in theatre terms.  It’s not obnoxious, though it could easily be – yes, we get it, Greek politics are like the theatre – but Niko is wry and a little detached, and it seems natural.  This I liked, when he’s speaking with one of Plato’s students, a woman called Axiothea:

“The philosopher is the pilot.  He knows where the harbor is, and the reef; he knows the constant stars.  But men still pursue illusions.  Their prejudice will not be broken till such a man takes the helm and shows them.  Once he has saved them from the rocks, that will be the end of guesswork.  No man will drown if he sees the remedy, will he?”

She paused for a feed-line, as philosophers do – just like comic actors, though one must not say so.

Other bits I liked:

“A man more precious than empires, both to us and to men still unborn, with who knows what wisdom yet undistilled in him.  He is clear of all misjudgement, except his faith in me.  He had not seen Syracuse for twenty years; Dionysos he had known only as a child who rode upon my shoulder.  For no living man but me would he have gone again to Sicily.  And I sent for him – for this very thing which has made and broken all: his charm that can make discourse beautiful and catch the soul through the heart.  Was Oidipos himself more blind?”


There’s always one more war to win, or one more election, before the good life; meantime they wrangle about the good, those who still believe in it.  So we dream.  Of what?  Some man sent by the gods, first to make us believe in something, if only in him, and then to lead us.  That is it.  We have dreamed a king.

I will now stop raving over Mary Renault.  I love her.  This book was wonderful and I love her.  Internet, read more Mary Renault!  I love her!  I am giving this book five shiny sparkly stars, and I feel like I want to go read every surviving ancient Greek play right now and imagine Niko playing the roles.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

A few days ago, my friend tim mentioned Gaudy Night, and I realized that I wanted nothing in the world more than to read Gaudy Night.  I know I refused to read it or even think about it earlier this year when I was reading Strong Poison, but I have rarely enjoyed a reread as much as I did this one.  Reading Gaudy Night this time was like eating cilantro – you know what it’s going to be like, and you are thinking, man, this is going to be great, but no matter how high your expectations are, you find them exactly justified.  (Did you know there’s a gene for liking cilantro?  If you don’t have the gene, cilantro apparently just tastes like soap.)  I read slowly on purpose to make it last, and every page was like a delicious layer cake made out of rainbows and kittens, with feminism icing and Oxford sprinkles.

Gaudy Night, easily the best of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, features Harriet Vane trying to put her past behind her.  She receives several unpleasant  anonymous notes while attending a reunion at her old Oxford college (the fictional Shrewsbury, modeled on Sayers’s college Somerville), and some time later gets word from her college that its fellows and students are the targets of an unrelenting campaign of anonymous nastiness.  Down Harriet goes to investigate, and after a while Peter Wimsey joins her.  There are many hijinks.

Oh this book is so much more than a mystery novel.  Oh how I love it.  It explores attitudes towards women and scholarship in its time (Agatha Christie Time), and the nature of integrity in writing and in one’s personal life.  Harriet and Peter have to confront their situation properly – the way that he has approached their relationship, as pursuer of a desired object, and the way that she has approached it, grudgingly enjoying his company while resenting him fiercely as a tie to her quite miserable past.

I do not like it in serials (book series, as well as TV shows) when something terrible happens and then everyone just forgets about it.  Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoilers for the pilot of Buffy), which is normally good about keeping its characters emotionally honest, we lose Jesse, and then nobody ever talks about him again, even though he was supposedly Xander and Willow’s BFF.  Gaudy Night gives Harriet a chance to face her past (the nasty murdering parts and the inescapable gratitude parts) on her own terms, resolving quite nicely, but not at all glibly, the internal and with-Peter conflicts begun in Strong Poison.

Spoilers in this paragraph, but only for one scene: Every time I read Gaudy Night, I hope that Harriet will put her Chinese chessmen away and not let them get smashed.  They sound so beautiful, and it was the first proper present he ever gave her.  I can hardly read that scene, it makes me so sad.  It is like watching the casino scene in Empire Records – except of course money can be replaced, and the chessmen were singular.

In the aforementioned chat with tim when Gaudy Night came up, I mentioned I had Murder on the Orient Express out from the library, and all the clues are highlighted in orange.  And tim said that she doesn’t really try to figure out mysteries as she’s going along, which I don’t either.  I am fine with this way of reading mysteries – if I enjoy them, it’s not because of the clues and the cleverness of the mystery.  I like finding out about all the characters and their dirty little secrets and what they kept hidden from the detectives for what reasons.  This is the fun of mysteries to me.  The reveal of the murderer is fine, but not particularly more interesting than the reveal that the society girl had an abortion or the lawyer is sleeping with his secretary, or whatever.

Which, incidentally, makes it perfectly agreeable to me to reread mysteries without having to forget who the guilty party is.

How do you read mysteries?  Do you try to solve the mystery before Poirot does, or do you just toodle along admiring the scenery like me?  Do you find you can reread mysteries, or are you done with them once you’ve read them once?  If you do spot clues, do you have to make the effort, as you are reading, to work out how each piece fits in the puzzle, or do the events of the book just churn round in your subconscious and eventually pop out an answer?  (And if the latter, why aren’t the subconscious minds of tim and me doing it?  At least one of us is very, very clever (snever) (hi, tim!), so I cannot put it down to lack of intelligence.)

Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland

Ah, the book that Started It All, The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, the transcripts of his libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry.  Yes, if it weren’t for my having seen this book in a Bongs & Noodles in Atlanta, I would never have had this wild (ha, ha, ha) fascination with Oscar Wilde.  At that time I was very interested in the Scopes trial (I still am!  It was interesting!) & spending lots of time trying to find excerpts from Scopes trial transcripts.  I expect that is partly to blame for the fact that I saw this book and said I MUST HAVE THIS and subsequently decided to learn everything about Oscar Wilde.  Which is nice because Oscar Wilde is brilliant.

Lacking all perspective myself, I have no idea how much normal people know about Oscar Wilde.  So as background to this book (I swear I am going to do this really succinctly), he had a boyfriendy thing called Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), and Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was a raging lunatic jackass who hated Oscar Wilde and one time left a card for him that said “To Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite [sic] [idiot]”.  And Oscar Wilde, who despite being brilliant was very silly sometimes, egged on by Bosie, decided to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  That didn’t work out for him, and he ended up getting in trouble with the law himself and sent to jail for two years for gross indecency between males, and they would hardly let him have any books.

The bulk of the trial is simply Wilde being examined by the attorney for the defense, Edward Carson, and the attorney for the prosecution, Edward Clarke.  It’s strangely entrancing.  The libel is so vague – “posing as a sodomite” – that Carson is all over the place with his interrogation, trying to make Oscar Wilde sound like a bad guy.  The result is an incongruous mishmash of literary criticism and seedy insinuating backstairs gossip.

Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s only surviving grandson, is the editor of this book.  (It must be interesting to be Oscar Wilde’s grandson – but not all the time – don’t you think?)  He does a wonderful job of putting this all together, for the first time uncensored!, and with a lovely succinct introduction and informative, occasionally wry, endnotes!  For instance, when they are eading out Queensberry’s [yes, of the Queensberry rules – funny, eh?] letters to Bosie, which are quite hateful –

I have received your postcard, which I presume is from you, but as the writing is utterly unreadable [true] to me have been unable to make out hardly one sentence….My friend I am staying with has made out some of your letter, and wished to read it to me, but I declined to hear a word.  However, according to his advice I shall keep it as a specimen, and also as a protection in case I ever feel tempted to give you the thrashing you really deserve.  You reptile.  You are no son of mine and I never thought you were.

Bit rich accusing his wife of infidelity when he was constantly bringing his mistresses home – well, never mind.  Just you take my word for it that the Marquess of Queensberry was not a very nice person in his private life.  Or anywhere.  And did not fight fair at all.  From another letter to Bosie:

If you are my son, it is only confirming proof to me, if I needed any, how right I was to face every horror and misery I have done rather than run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself, and that was the entire and only reason of my breaking with your mother as a wife, so intensely was I dissatisfied with her as the mother of you children, and particularly yourself, whom, when quite a baby, I cried over you the bitterest tears a man ever shed, that I had brought such a creature into this world, and unwittingly had committed such a crime.

The endnote about these letters excerpts part of the coverage of the trial by The Sun:

Throughout the reading of these letters the scene in court was one of the most painful and astounding character.  Sir Edward [Clarke – Wilde’s lawyer] read on imperturbably, just in the tone he would have read a bill of costs.  But the Marquis of Queensberry stood up, gazing alternately at Mr. Wilde in one corner, and at his son at the opposite end of the court.  Every now and then he turned to the man in the witness-box [Wilde] and ground his teeth together and shook his head at the witness in the most violent manner.  Then when the more pathetic parts of the letters came, the poor old nobleman had the greatest difficulty in restraining the tears which welled into his eyes, and forced him to bite his lips to keep them back.

Well, really.  I think the Sun should consider the far more likely possibility that the poor old nobleman is crying because he is mentally unhinged and has somehow realized how improbable it is that anyone’s going to invent Seroquel in his lifetime.

If you know anything about Oscar Wilde in 1895 (a year that started out more promisingly for him than it ended), you are quivering with suspense, because you know what happens next.  You can see how complacent Oscar Wilde gets about his Views on Art, and how annoyed with Carson’s repeated questions about the boys he was friends with, and you want to scream OSCAR PLEASE DO NOT SAY IT, and in the crucial moment –

Carson: Did you ever kiss him?
Wilde: Oh, no, never in my life; he was a peculiarly plain boy.

– you want to be all, TURN BACK TIME QUICK but (I have it on good authority) the world only spins forward, so instead of having a quick rewind and giving Oscar Wilde a second to control his pique, the trial keeps spinning forward, and it’s –

Carson: He was what?
Wilde: I said I thought him unfortunately – his appearance was so very unfortunately – very ugly – I mean – I pitied him for it.
Carson: Very ugly?
Wilde: Yes.
Carson: Do you say that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?

– the beginning of the end.  Or anyway the end of the beginning of the end.  It’s like the moment in Inherit the Wind when (er, spoilers, but you knew this, right?) Brady says, “The day referred to is not necessarily a twenty-four hour day”, and Drummond won’t leave it alone, and the momentum of the trial shifts; but instead of being a (fictional, anyway) ideological win for liberalism, this with Oscar Wilde is true and exactly what happened.

And all you can think about is that it’s going to be really sad for Oscar Wilde when, after years and years of everyone liking him (because he’s delightful!), suddenly nobody does.  Even his friends and sometime lovers.  John Gray, whom Oscar Wilde sometimes teasingly called “Dorian”, would write a poem years later that said:

A night alarm, a weaponed mob,
One blow and with the rest I ran.
I warmed my hands and said aloud,
“I never knew the man.”

Which, when I first read it in 2004, made me so cross at John Gray, and so sad for Oscar Wilde, that I remember it verbatim five years later.  And then after being utterly rejected by the city he loved (poor him!  I would be crushed, crushed, if London hated me), it’s all pathetic stories about missing his children, and asking everyone for money, and words about curtains not really his last, and finally converting to Catholicism as he’d been wanting to do since college.  And being buried outside of Paris actually originally, but Robbie (bless him) swung it so he could be moved to Pere Lachaise with an epitaph he wrote for himself really –

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn;
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

– and have his grave smooched by (the world only spins forward) ever-less-outcast men & women.

Just this second I went to Wikipedia to double-check that I’d remembered the epitaph poem correctly (I had – but I checked my beloved and long-neglected Schmidgall and I had the John Gray poem wrong by one word in the first line), and Wikipedia said, “Jenny, do you ever wonder why you like Oscar Wilde so much?  You don’t need to wonder because I will tell you.  Here it is.  Here’s why.”

It’s because when you are investigating Oscar Wilde, you find out the most brilliant and insane things.  Ever.  Most brilliant and insane things EVER.  Listen, internet: In 1912, they erected a monument to Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise, right?  And it was an angel sphinx thing like this:


We apparently don’t know precisely what happened, but someone came to the grave and presumably felt it was a filthy way to commemorate a filthy man and hammered off the angel sphinx thing’s genitals.  And [Wikipedia says] the cemetery keepers used them for a paperweight for years and years and now they are lost.

See, if this were a Someone Else story, that would be the end of the story right there.  And it would be a good story.  I would tell that story whenever Someone Else’s name came up in conversation, because I think it’s interesting, the things people do to take a stand, and because the paperweight thing is funny.  But it isn’t a Someone Else story.  It is an Oscar Wilde story, which means there is more and oh does it get better.

In 2000, an artist called Leon Johnson commissioned a silversmith called Rebecca Scheer to create shiny new silver genitals.  New shiny silver genitals to attach to the monument in Pere Lachaise Cemetery.  Which they went to France and did.  In a ceremony.  And made a video about it.  And called it [Re]membering Wilde.

Bayou, Vol. 1, Jeremy Love & Patrick Morgan

Jeremy Love‘s Bayou, evidently the first physical book to be created from DC Comics’ webcomic imprint Zuda, is about a little girl named Lee who lives in 1930s Mississippi with her father.  When he is accused of raping and murdering Lee’s young white friend Lily (who actually got eaten by an enormous monster in the bayou), and carted off to jail, Lee sets out fearlessly to find Lily and thus save her father from death.

Before I head off to bed*, I just wanted to say, Holy God, this book was scary.  I read about it (where else, for my graphic novel recommendations?) on Nymeth’s blog, and nowhere did she say anything like, In addition to its beautiful art and plucky protagonist, this book has the SCARIEST SCARINESS OF ALL TIME.  You know why I didn’t buy this book immediately after I finished reading it at Bongs & Noodles this evening?  Because I want to have kids eventually, and I don’t want them to find this book and read it and be scarred for life, as would inevitably happen, and then they’d get taken from me by CPS for abuse which I would deserve because that’s how scary this book is.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system – hang on, wait, I don’t feel like I have adequately conveyed how scary it is.  The kids thing wasn’t a good example.  Kids scare easy.  Let me try again.  Imagine the most terrifying nightmare you have ever had.  Now multiply it times six, and add a shark attack salad, a side of being-buried-alive, and a large scoop of public speaking.  Are you imagining that?  Because the scariness you are imagining right now has to go sleep in its parents’ bed when it has nightmares about Bayou.

You have now officially been warned, so when you pick up this book and start reading it, you will not be thinking, la la la, aren’t these illustrations beautiful; la la la, there’s going to be an enormous rabbit; la la la – trust me, you won’t be thinking any la la la at all.  And if you were (which you won’t be, once you read the rest of this paragraph), it would get knocked out of you the second you realized that the reason that child is diving into that bayou is to fish up the body of a kid that got lynched.  And that is not the scariest thing that happens in this book.

And now for something completely different: This book is so good.  How good, you ask?  Very, very, very good.  (Help, I can feel myself going into gush mode – this can happen when I shriek complaints about things for a while – it is like the universe needs to balance me back out – here we go…)

Bayou may be the best graphic novel I’ve read this year, and I read Fun Home and Ordinary Victories this year.  It is relentlessly wonderful with its beauty and brilliance and wonderfulness.  In the first place, Love and Morgan have made about the most gorgeous illustrations you ever saw.  The art is dreamy and cartoony and exactly real – it doesn’t feel that incongruous to see Lee (our heroine!) one second being knocked unconscious while her father is taken away, and the next second talking to a giant rabbit.  Lee’s journey to save her father takes her to some weird places (and, I’m given to understand, will be taking her to even weirder ones), in a rather Alice in Wonderlandy way, but the emotional grounding of the story means that you need Lee to succeed.

Bringing me to my next point: Jeremy Love’s ear for dialogue.  This book has perfectly perfect dialogue, and when you’re writing a story set in the past, it’s crucial to succeed at this.  Love’s dialogue does, of course, give the reader an incredible sense of place.  What’s even better, he gives his characters such distinctive, genuine voices that only a few lines between, for instance, Lee and Lily, or Lee and her father, convey their relationships perfectly.

If I haven’t put you off by going on and on about how pissingly terrifying it is, you should read it in book form (which is nice because it’s beautiful) or online here.  My computer is too slow to read it online, which is frustrating because I desperately want to know what happens next.  And if you are reading this and thinking, Oh, that Jenny.  She is exaggerating.  Nothing is scary enough to scare six times my worst nightmare plus shark attack & public speaking & being buried alive, just you look at pages 40-50 and you will see that I was not exaggerating.  At.  All.


The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I recently reread this book, and I was planning to wait on writing about it until I could see the movie, but the people I see movies with are either like “Are you nuts?  I saw it the first instant it came out!” or else “I can’t watch it!  The book is too precious to me!” or else (more rarely) “Looks mushy.  Let’s go see (500) Days of Summer instead.”  (And we did.  And it was excellent.  But I am still curious about The Time Traveler’s Wife film, because I loved the book so much.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife I feel like is famous enough that I don’t need to give a synopsis?  But here one is anyway: Henry is a time-traveler.  In times of stress or just for no reason at all, he vanishes from his own time and goes somewhere else – could be his childhood, his wife’s childhood, his future, or (we don’t see much of this but) any time at all.  He meets his wife Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, but Clare has known him since she was six years old.  So this is the story of their relationship from start to finish.

I like so many things about this book!  I love it that Clare and Henry start out by having a completely different story of their relationship – to Clare it’s something she has always known (destiny!), and to Henry it’s a complete, unexpected, amazing surprise.  Then gradually, as he spends more and more time with Clare at all different ages, her version of the story becomes the true one for him, too.  I also like it how they create each other – Clare has grown up with Henry, and (like it or not!) he shapes her into who she is; and when she meets him “in real life”, he is able to see himself the way she sees him, and try to become that person.  There is a scene where Clare goes dancing with Henry, not long after they meet in real time, and runs into an ex of his in the bathroom, who says all sorts of unpleasant things about him.  Shaken, she wanders back out and runs into a version of Henry from farther on, a Henry she recognizes and knows.  This Henry says of his past self:

“When I met you, I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a real human being and I would like to be one too.  And I have been trying to do it without you noticing, because I still haven’t figured out that all pretense is useless between us.  But it’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with here in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996.  You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”

I love that.  They invent each other!  It’s brilliant!  Slightly weird, but brilliant.

I like the way the book is structured, in little slices of their lives, the present and past and future.  There are brief moments between them that are really lovely, and not nearly enough of the gentle, quiet times together that Henry says he loves the best.  Not enough, but that’s why it works – because, of course, it never is enough (for them), and Henry always vanishes, and leaves Clare behind waiting (like Penelope, she says) (“yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths”).  The book has its fair share of unhappiness, and you can see it curving in that direction as Clare and Henry carry on with their relationship.

Also, oh!  Here’s something else that is good!  Although the book is about a relationship, and in that sense it’s a romance, it doesn’t do any of the romantic thing of skirting around physical stuff.  I’m not talking about just sex, though there is sex, but about the physicality of Henry’s condition, their difficulties in having a baby, and – er, well, other depressing things that happen later on in the book, which I won’t spoil for you even though it made me really sad.  Henry’s condition brings Clare and Henry together, but it also makes them suffer terribly.  So the fact that his condition has brought them together feels less like destiny and more like the law of averages – it can’t be all bad, but there is a lot of permanent, bad stuff too.

I wish I could excerpt all the scenes I love best, but it would take too long.  I love it when Clare runs into a future version of Henry when she’s out dancing, and when Clare finds her mum’s poem, and when Henry meets Alba for the first time, and the very last scene of the whole book.  I think those are my favorite ones.

Saffy’s Angel and Indigo’s Star, Hilary McKay

Oh I just love Hilary McKay.  She has written these Casson books, which are among the most endearing books I have ever read.  I organize my bookshelves (more or less) by how much I couldn’t do without the books, with the books on the right being the absolutely most essential ones, and then getting less and less essential moving to the left.  And the Casson books, despite being a recent discovery, are on the far right of my children’s books section, along with the likes of The Ordinary Princess and Peter Pan and Indian Captive, which I read when I was tiny.  So there you go.

Having had a stressful week of (joyously successful) job interviewing and hospital visiting, I ditched Cat’s Eye and switched over to reading Saffy’s Angel and Indigo’s Star.  They are lovely.  Clever me for discovering them.  The Casson family consists of two artist parents – Bill, who is always taking himself off to his studio in London, and Eve, who buys squashed paint tubes and does all sorts of different things that Bill says are “Not Exactly Art”, and their children, all named after paint colors – Cadmium (Caddy), Indigo, Saffron, and Permanent Rose.

One day Saffy discovers that her name, Saffron, is not on the paint colors chart, and this proves to be because she is really Eve’s twin sister’s daughter, born in Italy and only transferred into Eve and Bill’s family when her mother died in a car accident.  And years later, when their grandfather dies, they discover a note attached to his will that says “For Saffron.  Her angel in the garden.  The stone angel,” and Saffy, fierce and lonely, becomes determined to find it.  And Caddy is learning to drive, and trying to pass her exams, and being in love with her driving instructor Michael, and Indigo is learning not to be afraid of heights, and Saffy makes friends with Sarah, a girl in a wheelchair who lives close by.

When I last read The Ordinary Princess, and I said that it sounded like it could be saccharine?  But every time it could have been saccharine, it stopped being saccharine and be awesome instead?  Same is true of Saffy’s Angel.  It isn’t saccharine because it’s wry.  When Caddy and Rose and Indigo decide to go to Wales to look for Saffy’s angel, Caddy says she can’t because she can only do left turns; and Rose fetches a map and says “Wales is left!  Look!  It’s left all the way!”  Which is exactly how I view the world.  Everything is either left or right.

Also, I like it when Caddy is studying for her exams, and not wanting to read Hamlet (I totally sympathize):

“He was a prince,” said Caddy.  “Of Denmark.”

“I’ve been there,” said Michael, sounding very pleased with himself.  “I went to a concert in Denmark, years ago!  In a sea of mud.  Never stopped raining for three days.  Terrible place, Denmark!”

“Hamlet went mad.”

“So did a lot of us.”

“And his girlfriend drowned.”

“Not surprised at all.  Wettest place I’ve ever seen.”

“She was called Ophelia.”

“And she couldn’t swim?”


“Poor old Oph.”

“Yes,” agreed Caddy, beginning to feel a bit better, “and poor old Ham, in all that mud.”

Other reviews of Saffy’s Angel: Book Nut, ten cent notes, Framed and Booked, Semicolon

And then Indigo’s Star is about Indigo being bullied by British schoolchildren and making friends with an American boy called Tom who plays guitar and goes up on high places, and does not miss his family in America, and wants a new black guitar that he does not have the money for.  Rose, missing her father, writes him letters intended to be terrifying and make him come home.  And she gets glasses, right at the start, and I love it when she gets glasses:

Rose had the sort of eyes that manage perfectly well with things close by, but entirely blur out things far away.  Because of this even the brightest stars had only appeared as silvery smudges in the darkness.  In all her life Rose had never properly seen a star.

Tonight there was a sky full.

Rose looked up, and it was like walking into a dark room and someone switching on the universe.

The stars flung themselves at her with the impact of a gale of wind.  She swayed under the shock, and for a time she was speechless, blown away by stars.

And then there are bits that I like because I have a big family and sometimes conversations get exactly like this (also the reason my family continues to love While You Were Sleeping – because the way that family talks is exactly how my family talks when we are all together eating dinner):

“There’s your breakfast, Rose!”

“It looks just like hot concrete,” observed Rose.  “I’ve got to describe a day in the life of an Ancient Egyptian.  What shall I put?”

“Is this your holiday homework?” asked Sarah.  “Don’t do it, Rose!  Eve will write you a note to say it’s iniquitous to give eight-year-olds homework in the school holidays!  You will, won’t you, Eve?”

“I could never spell ‘iniquitous’, Sarah darling!”

“Hot concrete,” said Rose mournfully, prodding her porridge.

“Write this,” ordered Saffron.  “‘The Ancient Egyptians are all dead.  Their days are very quiet.’  Porridge is meant to look like hot concrete.  Eat it up.”

“Full of vitamins,” remarked Eve hopefully, scratching another gluey chunk out of the saucepan and shaking it into a bowl.

Heeheehee.  Hilary McKay is great.  I have read very few alive-authored British children’s books anywhere near as good as Hilary McKay.  Which is why I didn’t mind that there is written a sequel to A Little Princess even though normally I absolutely hate for people to try to write sequels to books that I like a lot (I mean, different people, other than the original author – I am not opposed to sequels qua sequels!).  I concluded that if anybody could ever write a sequel to A Little Princess and have it not be awful, it would be Hilary McKay.  But I will let you know when it comes out.

Other reviews: Book Nut, bookshelves of doom, Library Queue, and I can’t imagine why more people haven’t read it!

Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers

Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, together again, hooray!  Harriet Vane has gone off for a vacation in a watering-place (watering-place.  Brits are so weird.), and she happens upon a dead body, all throat-cut and bloody.  The corpse is dancer Paul Alexis, who is engaged (slightly sordidly) to an extremely rich older woman called Mrs. Weldon, and appears to have been part of a strange Bolshevik type plot.  All of the possible suspects have unbreakable alibis.  Harriet will still not marry Peter, but he carries on badgering her to marry him anyway.

I am mildly bothered by Peter’s continual badgering of Harriet to marry him even though she says no, no, no.

I love Peter and Harriet.  If I had not already put my book upstairs, I would excerpt a brief bit of it where Harriet and Peter are out merrily detecting.  The only thing is, I wasn’t in the mood for Have His Carcase at all.  I was totally in the mood for Strong Poison, and I guess I just assumed I was in the mood for Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night and even Busman’s Honeymoon.  Turns out, not a bit of it!  I got tired of Have His Carcase, but I know I love it so I didn’t stop reading it, and when I got done, I still didn’t feel satisfied.  Just not in the mood.

But it’s wonderful though.  If you haven’t read it, don’t take my cranky mood to mean that you shouldn’t read it straight away after rereading Strong Poison.  Just don’t assume that you should always, always read all the sequels to a book for which you are in the mood, because sometimes you are only in the mood to read the original book itself.  I think I am tired of mysteries for now.  I’m going to read something totally different that isn’t Gaudy Night or Busman’s Honeymoon or that other Peter Wimsey mystery I got out of the library.

Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison is a comfort book of mine.  I bought it at Bongs & Noodles one time on the way back from a doctor’s appointment regarding my tendonitis.  It was a very trying year – I was doing four AP courses and two honors ones, and I was very stressed about getting good grades so I could get into college – and anyway, we stopped by Bongs & Noodles and my mother suggested Strong Poison if I was after a new book.  I read it under my desk in calculus (bad, I know, but trust me, nobody was learning anything in that class).  Those books still feel like a haven in the middle of a storm to me, even if no storm is happening.

Peter Wimsey had already starred in several of Dorothy Sayers’s (less good, I believe) mysteries, but Strong Poison is the first one where the delightful and intelligent Harriet Vane shows up.  She’s on trial for murdering her lover, and Lord Wimsey falls madly in love with her at the trial, and decides to solve the mystery and clear her name and marry her.

I love, love, love this book.  I loved it from the second Lord Wimsey started quoting Alice in Wonderland at Harriet’s trial.  Ella over at Box of Books was not in love with the first bit, where Harriet’s at her trial and all the evidence in the case is being set forth, and I can see how that part could seem tedious and expository.  When I first read it, though, I was using it to drown out lessons on differentiating sine and cosine.  You can see how, in those circumstances, just about anything would seem like a thrilling adventure novel by comparison.  It’s kept that feeling of excitement for me even after multiple rereadings.

Peter and Harriet charm me, and their relationship continues to be just as fun and brilliant all through the rest of the books.  I get irritated with Peter a little bit in Busman’s Honeymoon – take a Valium and get over it, guy! – but mostly I find him and Harriet tremendously entertaining.  Because Harriet’s not available to go out solving the mystery, Peter engages the assistance of two women from his personal secretary agency, whose exploits cause me much tension and amusement.  There is a certain element, since I am paying attention for it, of things being excessively convenient, like the secretary Peter engages happening to know about a Trust that’s gone bust, or one of the other spies happening to know all about spiritualism and how to fake seances – but it’s not too jarring.

Do you have books that never get old, no matter how many times you read them?

Lux the Poet, Martin Millar

I am afraid that if I keep saying sweet to describe Martin Millar’s book, it will seem to be that I am damning him with faint praise and denying that he has any edge. Because his books contain themes about racism and drugs and sex and whatnot, and these aren’t things generally associated with books that are sweet. On the other hand, if Martin Millar didn’t want his books to be described as sweet, he should not have written such extremely sweet books. So it’s not really my fault.

Lux the Poet is about several things. It’s about a poet called Lux who is incredibly vain, and to whom nobody will listen when he tries to recite his poems. He is in love with a girl called Pearl, who has made a film and is (sort of) dating a girl called Nicky, who is manic-depressive and has irritated the vengeful leaders of a company that was trying to breed genius babies, by stealing their genetic programme so they can’t carry on with their plan to breed genius babies. Also, there is a fallen heavenly person called Kalia who has to do a million good deeds before she can get back into heaven, and she continues to be reincarnated until she has done this. Her plans are being thwarted by wicked Yasmin, who in this incarnation is hunting down Nicky and Pearl to get the genetic programme back. Um, and also Lux is being hunted down by an angry thrash metal band called the Jane Austen Mercenaries, because he stole their demo tape which is now wanted by a record company. Also there is a book reviewer trying to get back a manuscript he left with Nicky. Oh, and also – I forgot this until just now, which you wouldn’t think I would have because it’s the whole point – they are all in Brixton during the reportedly very unpleasant Brixton riot in 1981. It was a great big riot, and it contained racial tension. Apparently. I wasn’t born yet. Anyway there is a big riot and everybody is going round and round Brixton trying not to get burned up or intimidated or arrested.

And it was very sweet. Mostly. Apart from a wee bit in which this woman got raped – but because that’s upsetting to me I’ve decided to believe Nicky was hallucinating it, which, hey, she may have been – and apart from how occasionally some unpleasant people used a word I don’t use and really, really, really don’t like (it’s a racial slur – you know what I mean). It is one of very few words I actively dislike. In fact it is my least favorite word. If I ever get interviewed by James Lipton – which is unlikely – I will tell him this word is my least favorite word. Ugh, I really hate it. I decline to write it because I dislike it so much.

I read Lux the Poet in order to make myself not dislike Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me. In case I haven’t said so, I am greatly looking forward to reading Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, but I’m holding off until I have finished reading my new Markus Zusak books (which are short), and the two Douglas Coupland books I have out of the library, and The Vampire Tapestry. It’s all about delaying gratification. However, I have noticed a trend with new authors where I really like the first two books I read by them and then the third one is a letdown (this has held true with Martine Leavitt and Salman Rushdie and Mary Renault and probably others but I can’t remember), and since I already bought Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, I didn’t want it to be a letdown. So I read Lux the Poet as my number three Martin Millar book. It wasn’t a letdown but it was less good than the first two books I read by him, and therefore I am now safe to read Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me.

Anyway, Lux the Poet was good. Except too short. I can envision a world in which one would find Martin Millar’s writing to be choppy and disjointed, but I’m glad to report I don’t live in that unfriendly depressing world. I liked this book, and I especially liked Kalia, who was the fallen heavenly creature trying to find her way home. I liked it how Lux was very okay with discovering this about Kalia, and I liked it that major problems throughout the book sometimes got resolved suddenly and easily (it’s so relaxing). Lux reminded me a bit of the poet ghost in The Graveyard Book, one of several characters in The Graveyard Book that there was not enough of, so it was quite convenient to have read this straight away after reading The Graveyard Book. I’m sad I have to return Lux the Poet to the library. Maybe I will steal it.

I’m sort of sad that Lonely Werewolf Girl was only released last year. It appears to take four or five years for Martin Millar to write a new book, which is fine but sad for me because now I have to wait until 2012 for his next one. 2012. That is a long time away, and it seems like a very improbable year to me. 2012. Like 2012 could ever happen.

Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Omens are medieval.  But – so are masks and dominoes, and a merrie singing cuckoo and a song called Greensleeves that will probably haunt me all my life.  To me that whole fading summer has rather the flavor of medieval music.  It had the shifting key changes, the gay, skipping rhythm and minor melody, and that unresolved, inconclusive end.

I never feel that any review I could write of Greensleeves will ever be adequate.  But I lent it to my friend Teacher to read during the hurricane, and she loved it a lot, and it made me jealous that I didn’t have it with me, so I read my mum’s copy, and damn, is it ever a good book.  It’s my favorite book, my desert-island book.

Greensleeves is about a girl called Shannon Lightley who has spent her whole life in transit, shuttling back and forth between separate parents, schools, and continents.  She’s eighteen years old, and when she pictures her entire life ahead of her, she is filled with dread and misery.  So her uncle Frosty offers her a job, to live in a little apartment and keep an eye on the people in the area.  He’s a lawyer, and he’s got a really weird will from one Mrs. Elizabeth Dunningham, who left people weird-shit bequests like scholarships to study subjects of no practical use and money to take skydiving lessons.  So Shannon’s job, basically, is to meet the people and check out whether there’s grounds for contesting the will.

It’s brilliant because Shannon is so tired of being herself that she decides to become someone different.  She changes her hair and her clothes and her accent and is a completely different person altogether.  And she meets all the people in the will – the taxi driver with the dependent family; the professor of Greek who yearns to go to Greece but keeps putting it off to finish writing his textbook; the overweight girl who wants to be a sexy flight attendant; the delightful Sherry who draws wavery cartoons and wants to know everything about everything.  And so forth.

This book is terribly successful at what it does – both in bringing to life all the characters, as well as Mrs. Dunningham, but as well in reflecting on the nature of cages and the things we let stop us from doing what we want.  Greensleeves resonates with me in a way that few books do, I suppose because Shannon’s so confused by life, and really – life is damn confusing.


Eloise Jarvis McGraw is so mysterious.  She has written what is probably my favorite book of all time ever – I wish she were still alive so I could tell her so, or that I had read Greensleeves earlier than 2000 instead of waiting until I was in high school, though it was a singular joy to suddenly discover it – but most of her other books, I can totally take or leave.  Heavy on the leave.  I remember quite liking The Moorchild, but I’ve never been able to get through Pharaoh, and many of her books for kids I just can’t be bothered with.  They’re not bad, they’re just not that interesting.  I loved Mara, Daughter of the Nile when I was twelve or so, but I think now I’m rereading it for nostalgic reasons rather than because it’s such a good book.  But then she has written Greensleeves, which completely speaks to me and contains possibly my favorite fictional couple since Jane Eyre & Edward Rochester.

If you read it, tell me what you thought.  You will of course love it.  Nobody could not love it.  I wish J.K. Rowling would read it and then shortly before the release of whatever her next book is, I wish that she would say, “You know what’s a good book?  Greensleeves.  Wish that were in print,” and then two days later it would be BAM back in print and probably optioned for a movie, as was the case with I Capture the Castle (for which, may I say, very very many thanks, J.K. Rowling).  I would rather have Greensleeves back in print than The Ghost of Opalina, and that’s saying something.

(In selfish terms I’d rather have The Ghost of Opalina, because I don’t own my own copy of The Ghost of Opalina and I do have a copy of Greensleeves – though I always want to buy more copies of it, just in case.  Backup copies.  You never know what’s going to happen.  What if I got in a huge fight with one of my friends and they decided to hit me where it hurts and shred Greensleeves?  YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN.)

Anyway.  Read it.  I swear.  I wouldn’t lie to you.