Closing the book on spoiler-free September

My verdict: Never again.

There is this one episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor is standing around waiting for a monster to show up, and he says “Is this how time normally passes? Reeeeally slowly, in the right order?” and if you substitute “books” for “time” (and “pass” for “passes”, to retain proper grammar), that is exactly how I felt throughout the month of September. Except more depressed. I think part of the reason I have been lax about writing up reviews is that my reading was so dreary and depressing compared to normally, I couldn’t face writing reviews.

I want y’all to know, you readers of books in the proper order, that I gave this the old college try. I gave it, like, the old grad school try. I put effort into enjoying reading books this way. When I was reading a book, and I started wanting to flip to the end, I assured myself that it was exciting not to know what was coming. Exciting! Not terrible! Exciting! But set against that is the fact that I have been reading the ends of books since I was eight years old, and old habits die hard even in flexible, adaptable, calm people, let alone in neurotic routine-obsessed personalities like me. In this case, my old habits – and, if I may say so, the obvious superiority of my usual reading method – won out over my attempts to brainwash myself into enjoying books as they usually pass: very slowly and in the right order.

Here is an analogy: Reading the end before you read the middle is a little like doing the edge pieces of a puzzle first. It organizes the book into a general shape, and you spend the rest of your reading time filling in the picture in the middle. And when a middle piece connects to an edge piece, you have this extra little thrill of seeing everything come together: Aha, so this is why Character A won’t speak to Character B in the final chapter; or, ho, ho, I see what the author is doing here with this foreshadowing. It focuses your attention because you know what you’re looking for: If Character C ends up betraying everyone, you get to have the fun of reading wickedness into all the things s/he says throughout the book. You can decide if the author’s being too heavy-handed with it, or using too light a touch, or striking the perfect balance. It is fun!

Why I will never try a project like this ever again. During the month of September, I found that reading books in the correct order is exactly like reading them in the wrong order, except that it makes reading slightly less fun and awesome. I wasn’t unable to enjoy books (the month of September was a pretty good reading month for me, actually), but the experience of reading wasn’t as joyful. I am now back to my old ways and I shall never deviate from them again because they are better. I strongly suspect that society has been brainwashed out of reading the fun way.

Waking up on October 1st was amazing. I grabbed Tooth and Claw and The Little Friend, which were the two fiction books lying on my bed, and I read the hell out of the ends of them both. It was like I had been locked out of my house in a rain storm for hours and hours, and someone had finally come home and let me in.

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Review: Still Life with Fascists trilogy, Jo Walton

Britain didn’t declare war on Germany. Instead they made peace, and Britain slid gradually into fascism. One might call the trilogy the Small Change trilogy instead, as the books are called Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown, but I like the Still Life with Fascists title better. Each book has two narrators, one the first-person narration of a young upper-class English woman, and one the third-person narration of a morally compromised policeman called Carmichael. Don’t you love a morally compromised narrator?

The first book, Farthing, is a country house murder mystery. The so-called “Farthing set”, famed for their integral role in negotiating peace between Germany and Britain, is all together for the weekend when one of their number, high-ranking minister James Thirkie, is found dead in his bedroom. When Carmichael, the not-yet-morally-compromised-but-oh-he-will-be police inspector man, comes to investigate, he finds that suspicion is being cast upon David Kahn, the Jewish husband of Lucy Kahn (our upper-class English woman first person narrator). I loved the hell out of Farthing. I loved Carmichael and I loved Lucy and I loved the plot. Plus, Lucy? She refers to people as Athenian (which means gay), Macedonian (which means bi), and Roman (which means straight). When I discovered that she was not featured in the second book, I almost cried.

Briefly. Then I began reading Ha’Penny and found that it was interesting in its own right. In it, actress Viola Lark, one of the famous/notorious Larkin sisters (“the one who acts”) (yes, these are fictionalized Mitfords), becomes involved almost accidentally with a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister of Britain. I won’t tell you how this works out, but I will say that Carmichael? Does not respond in a way that makes him feel good about being him. Because he’s morally compromised, yo. Morally compromised protagonists are never happy with anything they do, which is why I like them so much.

And then there was Half a Crown. Which I loved all the way through until about twenty pages from the end. I mean it’s just so grim. It’s set in 1960, and fascism has become deeply entrenched in Britain, to the point that our narrator, Elvira Royston, calls it “such fun” and eagerly attends fascist rallies. The environment in Britain is shocking to read about, because it’s so far removed from what Britain is really like, and because it’s easy to imagine it being that way if history had gone differently. This is how the best alternate history works, though, right? Moral compromising abounds! I couldn’t put the book down because everything seemed to be going all to hell, and I couldn’t imagine how things were ever going to work out. Apparently Jo Walton couldn’t either. It was a total deus ex machina ending, and it made me sad because the books deserved better.

But never mind. I will just pretend that everything ended after Elvira [REDACTED FOR SPOILER-FREE SEPTEMBER], leaving the reader to contemplate the probable collapse of Britain and ruin of every character we cared about. Because that, depressing though it would be, at least would be an ending that paid out the darkness of the rest of the books.

Oh, dear, I sound terribly grumpy. I swear, these books are worth it, even with the bad ending. The writing is wonderful, the premise feels frighteningly realistic, and the characters are a joy to read about. Just go into it with the awareness that the ending will not satisfy, and resign yourself early on to that reality, and then perhaps you will not be disappointed, as I was. Many thanks to Memory for recommending these books. I loved them! I can’t wait to read Walton’s earlier series, as well as Tooth and Claw!

Review: Jellicoe Road, Melina Marchetta

One definite conclusion I have reached from the first half of no-spoilers September is that reading the end sometime saves you misunderstanding the point of a book. I was sure Jellicoe Road was a good fit for the RIP Challenge, a dark gothic fantasy orphan boarding school book. When really all along it was a dark family tragedy orphan boarding school book. Happily for me and my reading experience, I like family tragedy nearly as much as gothic fantasy, so this disparity made me merely muddled, and not ultimately dissatisfied.

Orphan Taylor Markham is the leader of the Jellicoe School army, which must defend its territory against the Cadets and the Townies in a war that has been going on since long before any of them were born. But the lines between the students, the Townies, and the Cadets become fuzzy when Taylor’s longtime guardian Hannah disappears without a word, and Taylor begins to learn more about her own past, and how it relates to a car accident that happened on the Jellicoe Road over two decades ago.

While I was reading this book, I was sometimes bewildered and flipping backward (but never forth! I am a woman of my word!) because of how many characters there were. I was not always immediately able to keep them straight. Fortunately a quick glance at the other reviews, using the Book Blogs Search Engine created by the lovely and brilliant Fyrefly (this blatant plug brought to you by Book Blogger Appreciation Week because I seriously appreciate the hell out of that search engine), revealed to me that everyone found this book bewildering. Hooray! Or, well, semi-hooray. Hooray that I am not alone, and unhooray that when you read this book, and I think you should, you may experience some confusion because the characters are many and sometimes difficult to keep straight.

Apart from that one problem, I loved Jellicoe Road. Once I got past the first couple of chapters, I was absolutely sucked in and couldn’t stop reading. Marchetta manages to make the reader feel that a lot is at stake in the characters’ relationships, without any of them becoming overwrought. High-stakes relationships are lovely to read about, but hard to sustain, and Marchetta manages it at least partly by never giving anyone a pause to catch their breath. The characters suffer, fairly endlessly, but not unreasonably much, not so much that you start thinking, Oh, come on, you’re just trying to think of more and more and more things to do to them; which is something I start thinking pretty quickly with depressing books.

Rereading may turn up a different reaction, because the more I think about it, the more I cannot believe how much pain and suffering the characters all go through. But on this first reading, I was whipping through at a breakneck pace because I was dying to find out what happened the kids in Hannah’s book, and what was going to happen to Taylor and Hannah and Jonah Griggs and the Brigadier. I am excited to read more by this author, and I have checked out a book by her that actually is fantasy and I assume from past experience is dark, so I can read that for the RIP Challenge instead of this.

Who else read it:

Book Addiction
Necromancy Never Pays
Emily and Her Little Pink Notes
Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading?
It’s All About Books
Angieville
The Happy Nappy Bookseller
bookshelves of doom
Persnickety Snark
my fluttering heart
Inkweaver Review
The Children’s Literature Book Club
Wordbird
The YA YA YAs
YAnnabe
Teen Book Review
Maggie Reads
Random Thoughts from a Random Teen
Dear Author

If I have missed yours I will gladly add a link!

Absolutely spoiler-free review of Mockingjay

I have had Carly Simon’s “Mockingbird” stuck in my head for the past week and a half. Except instead of “bird” I keep hearing “jay”. Mock–ye-ah; ing–ye-ah; jay–ye-ah. It’s gotten kind of old. All the time I was reading Mockingjay I’ve had this song in my head, and ever since then. To my joy, I read the end of Mockingjay at the bookshop ages before I started reading the library copy for real, so it didn’t fall under no-spoilers September. This worked out nicely for me because the rest of the book is pretty intense, and I am not positive I wouldn’t have cracked under pressure and read the end in spite of my no-spoilers rule.

(No, I wouldn’t have. I didn’t with Jellicoe Road and I didn’t with Half a Crown.)

Right now I just decided that no-spoilers September means NO SPOILERS WHATSOEVER. No spoilers in my reviews either. Yeah, I can totally do it. Here is my spoiler-free summary of Mockingjay, which also contains no spoilers for the first two books. Following the events of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are both in difficult situations. Gale too. (Y’all, the background of my laptop just turned Mockingjay blue. Is this a sign that I’m doing right by avoiding spoilers?) After some further difficult situations, each more fraught with moral implications than the last, the characters who survive carry on in the world created by the way they acted.

(Is no-spoilers September as unreservedly awesome for you so far as it is for me?)

Many have been the complaints and mighty the displeasure at the bleak turn the Hunger Games trilogy takes as it approaches its end. But I thought the bleakness made sense. You can’t have a difficult situation of the Mockingjay sort (I am consistent like a piston with this no-spoilers month) (yes, “consistent like a piston” doesn’t make sense. But neither does “chilling like a villain”, and people still carry on saying that) without it working out poorly for a certain number of the characters. Or, to steal the words of Mssrs. Croup and Vandemar, you can’t make an omelet without killing a few people. Mockingjay takes a direction that is consistent with the first two books and, artistically speaking, inevitable.

Yes. Artistically speaking, inevitable. When I’m forced to avoid spoilers, I start to sound like a slightly douchy creative writing undergrad. True story about me: I’m better with spoilers.

(This review is mostly a joke about how lame my life is without spoilers. If you want to read proper and spoilery reviews, hit up the Book Blogs Search Engine, because everyone has been reading this book in the last couple of weeks, and they have had a lot of feelings about it.)

Challenges and a request for advice

As you have probably all heard, the R(eaders) I(mbibing) P(eril) Challenge has returned! September and October are the months for the blogosphere to be reading books that are spooky and mythic. I have made up a tentative list of books for myself, and I shall pick the best ones to read this month and next month.

On Jellicoe Road, Melina Marchetta
Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett
Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve (does this count? I can’t decide)
Affinity, Sarah Waters
Blue is for Nightmares, Laurie Faria Stolarz
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
…and others as they occur to me

My personal challenge for the month of September is to be spoiler-free all month. I will be reading books in the right order. I will not be looking up what happens in films and TV shows on Wikipedia while I am watching them. So far this is going okay. It is much like reading in the wrong order, except that it sucks slightly more. But I’m hoping that as the month progresses, I will find virtues in this style of reading.

And now, a request for advice. I have unpierced ears, and I have always been perfectly happy with this state of affairs. My main reason for leaving my ears unpierced is that earrings would just be one more thing to worry about in the morning, one more thing to store on my dresser, one more thing to box up and transfer from place to place when I move. I am grossed out when I behold people taking out and putting in earrings. I have heard many horror stories about ear-piercings and do not want them to happen to me.

BUT.

I was at an arts event the other day and I saw the most beautiful earrings I have ever seen in all my life. They were made out of old watch parts, and they dangled in a fetching, steampunk-aesthetic sort of way. I covet them.

Please advise. Those of you without pierced ears, how come? Those of you with, did you have similar fears to mine and find them unfounded? Or find them very founded indeed? Is it worth it to have one pair of earrings that I love, when I am mainly unmoved by earrings? Would I, once pierced, find myself in love with other earrings although I have never felt this way before? Help help help.