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.

Lonely Werewolf Girl, Martin Millar

I was very skeptical about Martin Millar. I heard about Martin Millar from Neil Gaiman’s website, because he (Neil Gaiman) wrote an introduction to The Good Fairies of New York extolling its manifold virtues, so I got it from the library because I liked the title. I didn’t expect much out of it. The last time I trusted Neil Gaiman’s opinion, I read four books by Jonathan Carroll and hated them all desperately. (Yes, the obvious question is why did I read four of them then, and the answer is, I’ve no idea, it was long ago and I can’t remember. I think I hoped that the previous ones were just flukes and I would soon come to love Jonathan Carroll – like when I first read Diana Wynne Jones’s books and hated them – but that never happened.) So I didn’t think I was going to like Martin Millar either.

But I was so, so wrong. Martin Millar is a delight. I want to give Martin Millar a hug because his books please me so much. The Good Fairies of New York was charming, and they found a flower.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is better, however. Which is partly because it’s longer, so there’s more of it to charm me, and partly because all the threads of subplots come together really nicely at the end. It’s about a werewolf girl called Kalix who is very, very dysfunctional and the youngest daughter of the royal MacLannach werewolf family, and all the dreadful and exciting things that befall her family. There are many subplots. They dovetail beautifully at the twins’ gig when the werewolves have a great big knock-down-drag-out. It’s all very impressive.

The thing about Martin Millar’s books, at least the two that I’ve read – which is definitely not enough to qualify me to state this opinion about Martin Millar’s books generally, but is also not my fault because I live in a city in the Deep South where despite the surprisingly wonderful public library system there is a dearth of contemporary British fiction – is that he is very fond of that traditional British humor mechanism in which everything goes spectacularly to hell. In fact I read a study one time that said that British people love sitcoms like Fawlty Towers where things start from a point of order and then descend into chaos, whereas American people – something else that I don’t remember. Anyway, this kind of humor sometimes gives me stressful feelings, but with Martin Millar, I have faith that everything will iron itself out.

Besides which there is just something very sweet about this book. And Good Fairies. They make me want to go enjoy other sweet things, like the Brownings’ letters to each other, and that episode of Angel where he first has little baby Connor and defends him from the vampire cults, and that episode of Buffy where she gets an award at her prom and it always makes me cry, and that book we had when I was little about the persnickety old lady who learns valuable lessons about love from a little Christmas angel. Which, um, may not have been what Martin Millar intended when he wrote it.

Edit to add: I discovered Martin Millar’s blog, and it sounds like he does a lot of reveling in the joy that is Buffy. (Like me.) A man after my own heart.

The Juniper Game, Sherryl Jordan

“What I want to do,” said Juniper, “is an experiment in mental telepathy.”  She hesitated, waiting for his reaction.  There wasn’t one.  “I know I have some telepathic abilities,” she went on more confidently.  “I can go through a pack of cards, face down, and guess about fifteen correctly.  And I often know who it is when the phone rings before I answer it.  But I want to try mental telepathy with someone else.  I want to try giving someone else my thoughts.  Images are easier to receive than words.  They’re more intuitive somehow, not so tied up in logic and reason.  I want to see if I can send images to someone else and whether they can draw what they receive.  I need someone who’s sensitive and a good artist.”

Dylan’s gaze shifted, and his eyes met hers.  “Me, you mean?” he said.

She smiled unexpectedly.  “Who else, Leonardo?  You’re perfect.”

This is one of those books my mum picked up for no special reason for my sisters and me and it turned out to be really good.  Or maybe my sister picked it up for no special reason and it turned out to be really good.  Whatever.

It’s about a boy called Dylan (why Dylan? don’t ask me) who is a bit of a geek and a loser but he’s brilliant at art, that lucky duck, and one day this beautiful popular mysterious girl called Juniper (what a good name!) notices he’s good at art and enlists him for her private psychic image-sending project.  At first they’re just sending images of things she goes and sees, but after a while it turns out that her ultimate goal was to travel mentally through time and send him images from Back In The Day.  The witch-burning day, as it goes.  And things get very intense for everyone.

(I find it tricky to cast a critical eye upon books I’ve been fond of for a while.)

I really, really like this book.  Juniper is a good name, for one thing, and for another thing, I have always wanted to be able to do psychic things.  All my faintly-psychic family members, as well as this book, assure me that this is no desirable thing and in fact can be very annoying for your brain, but still, although I mostly believe them, I am always a teeny bit jealous and wish I were not so completely close-brained.   But I think Ms. Jordan does a good job of integrating the supernatural elements of the plot with Dylan and Juniper’s family lives and the effect of their relationship on everyone else.  And the supernatural elements are most interesting.

It just occurred to me Sherryl Jordan has probably written other books, and – hey!  the library says that indeed, yes she has.  Yay.  There are six books of hers at my university library, and six at the public library, and I forgot to pay attention to the titles, so I don’t know how much overlap we’re looking at, but anyway, there are definitely at least seven of her books that exist and are available to me and I haven’t read them yet.  Oh goody.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

You know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand why The Color Purple is so ridiculously awesome, and why when there are all these really subpar books running around, why people don’t just go ahead and read The Color Purple all the time. Why don’t people just read The Color Purple all the time, and forget about that Atonement crap?

The Color Purple. Wow.

When I was young, my mother had told me once that The Color Purple was one of her favorite books of all time, and I remember her telling me her favorite line (“White folks is a miracle of affliction”), and in early middle school I asked her where her copy was because I wanted to read it. And that’s the only time in my entire life I can remember my mother telling me not to read a book. She said wait a few years and I’d like it better. When I finally did read it (and oh my God, it blew me away), I assumed that she had been trying to steer me clear of it because of the fairly extensive sexual and violent content, but I asked her and she said no, she just thought I’d like it better if I waited a few years. She said that giving it to an eleven-year-old to read would be like giving To Kill a Mockingbird to a precocious kid of eight – the kid might be able to read all the words, but s/he’d be missing out on all the richness that’s there. She said you only get to read a book for the first time once, and there are some books that you just really deserve to have the best first-reading experience possible.

I totally agree with that.  And this is a damn good book.  It’s one of those books that everyone should read.  Everyone in the whole world.  In fact I’m just off to ship a few hundred copies off to world leaders.  Do ’em good.

P.S. Although they are both Important Black American Women writers, I am forced to read Toni Morrison much more often than I am forced to read Alice Walker.  In fact I have never had to read Alice Walker, except for one short story once, whereas I have had to deal with Toni Morrison kind of a lot.  And you know what, you know what?  I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.  Beloved makes me feel queasy.  The Color Purple is a much better book and everyone should just, just, just revise their damn syllabuses.