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.

Just In Case, Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff’s second book is about a boy called David Case who becomes obsessed with the idea that he is doomed.  He changes his name to Justin as part of a general attempt to disguise himself so that his bad fate cannot find him; he makes friends with a boy called Peter; he has an imaginary dog called Boy; he gets taken up by a rather ruthless photographer girl called Agnes; and a number of things happen to him.

I have just finished this book, and here are the two thoughts I had about it:

1. Meg Rosoff has written a book that is completely entirely unlike her first book.  Except that Justin’s baby brother has childlike wisdom and is psychic, like Daisy’s cousins, this book is just a completely different animal.  Which is quite an impressive thing for Meg Rosoff to have done.

2. This book was not aimed at me.  At first I thought it was going to be, because of all the unfocused but serious anxiety the protagonist was having, but then he kept on not worrying about being crazy.  He didn’t worry about being crazy!  Even when he was sort of worrying about being crazy, he was mostly thinking no, I am not crazy, it’s everybody else who is crazy because they don’t understand.  I don’t understand this.  I worry constantly about being crazy.  And I thought about this the entire time I was reading.  I know people are different, but still I could not make myself believe that somebody who was acting as crazy as Justin could fail to notice that he was crazy.

(I’ve just written crazy so many times that it’s become a random collection of letters.  How good.  I wish crazy could lose all meaning for me permanently and then I’d never have to worry about it anymore.)

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff

I will preface this by saying that I liked this book a lot.  However, due to that habit I have of forming expectations when I read about things, it was also not at all what I thought it was going to be.  Because I forgot about the whole second half of Nymeth’s review or something, but the only thing that stuck with me was a girl goes off to live with her cousins (there is really no phrase I find more appealing in a book synopsis than goes off to live with) and I had a vague sense that they also frolic around in the country and ignore the war.  Which yes, that is exactly what happens, but then they get discovered, because even in slightly-future English countryside it isn’t easy for a bunch of kids to live by themselves and not have anyone interfere; and then a number of very unpleasant things happens.

So my plot synopsis, revised from the plot synopsis I had in my head when I got the book out of the library, is as follows: A dysfunctional fifteen-year-old girl called Daisy goes off to live with her slightly-telepathic and insane cousins in slightly-future England, and this is fun for them all until the war they have been ignoring becomes unignorable, and Daisy has to grow up and be tough and fend for herself.  Also she has a slightly-incestuous relationship with her cousin.

(Amazon felt angry about the underage sex and slightly-incest plotline.  However, since they are both very young, and this is a weird-ass family, I don’t care about that; and after the year and a half I spent listening to that awful song and making electrocution jokes about the whole Jonathan & Tammy plotline on Guiding Light, I have had every ounce of anti-cousin-sex prejudice mashed out of my brain.  I think there may be a touch of unhealthy dependence on each other, but on the other hand, Daisy handles being on her own just fine.  Unlike some unhealthily dependent heroines I could mention.)

I think that unsettling is an excellent quality for a book to have.  I seem to have only ever used that particular adjective in reference to books I liked, and quite rightly.  How I Live Now possesses that quality.  I’ve never been in a war, so I of course don’t know how it would be, but I think the way that Daisy talks about the war is exactly how it would be for a bunch of teenagers living without any parents.  She says this, which I think is perfect:

The first thing that happened wasn’t our fault.  That was a bomb that went off in the middle of a big train station in London the day after Aunt Penn went to Oslo and something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed.

Seven or seventy thousand.  Excellent.

The vagueness of the war is fantastic – though I’m inclined to think the vaguer the better in general, since I hate war and I can’t read war books because they make me sick to my stomach (a reason that I will not be buying this book myself).  The closest Daisy gets to talking about specifics is when she’s referring to The Enemy.  She spends a lot of time talking about how it’s nearly impossible to tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys, since they all seem to be doing the exact same things.

On the downside, I thought the cousins were a bit too-too.  Daisy was such a strong, solid character, and easy to identify with, and it was obvious why she adored them, because she belonged with them in a way she didn’t at home.  That worked really well.  But the cousins were so airy-fairy that I couldn’t invest that much in her relationships with them (probably another reason I wasn’t fussed about the underage incest).

I have to stop staying up late reading!  Sleep is important too!  But thanks to Nymeth for the recommendation.  I cleverly have what I thought was Meg Rosoff’s only other book, Just in Case, out from the library too; though it turns out (hurrah!) it’s one of two other books by her.  Yay.