Story Time, Edward Bloor

Just grabbed this at the library because I had picked up London Calling and I thought, well, hey, if I like that a lot, I’ll want to have another of this author’s books on hand in order to read it, too.  And then when I went to find London Calling in my bag, I guess it was way at the bottom, so I read this one, which was closer to the surface.

It’s about these two kids, George and Kate – George is Kate’s uncle but he’s younger than she is – and due to their great brilliance, they get put in this fancy expensive private school that’s all about regime and standardized tests (lovely).  But it’s sinister!  And they come to realize that there’s all demons in the school possessing people and making them act all crazy.  And George is very, very clever, and Kate is too but she wants to go to her old school and star in the school play.

This is the kind of book that Louis Sachar could pull off, but most people could not.  Including, I’m sad to say, Mr. Bloor.  The plot wasn’t awfully gripping, which was partly because the demons weren’t that scary and neither was the sinister administration, and partly because it (the plot) was on the incoherent side.  It was a bit like Holes in that it was sort of silly but nevertheless creepy, but it didn’t have that same kind of excellent, well-structured plot that Holes had, and plus, again, Edward Bloor is no Louis Sachar.

(I never knew I felt so fond of Louis Sachar.  Object lesson in what an inferior contrast can do for you.)

Here’s what I really didn’t like, though, and here there be spoilers.

All along, the grown-ups are involved in this big cover-up, and the kids (plus the nice grown-ups) are trying to figure out what’s going on, right?  Well, at the end, there’s a big scene in the library, this woman gets dusted (I use the word in its Buffy sense to mean turned all to ash) accidentally, by a machine, no one’s fault, but her skeleton’s still around, and the First Lady, who’s visiting, comes in, gets scared, and shoots the skeleton to pieces.  All of which the kids and nice grown-ups observe, and then the government people come in and say, “That never happened”, which the admin agrees with.  As expected, the kids and nice grown-ups stand up and say “Oh yes it did!” and you know what happens then?

They sell out to the government.  The First Lady’s aide says “I’ll give you all something nice if you sign this affidavit saying that none of this – demons, shooting the skeleton, three corpses – ever happened,” and they all do it!  I mean, they ask for selfless things, like freeing a captive whale and preserving a library as a Historic Landmark, but I really don’t think that makes them any less sell-out-y and dishonest.

I’ll try London Calling, see if it’s any better, and report back.

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Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

I liked Night Watch enough that I got all of Sarah Waters’s other books out of the library in the hopes that I would be getting a grand new favorite author.  Tipping the Velvet was evidently her first, and I didn’t like it as much as Night Watch, sadly, but I still totally enjoyed it.  So much I stayed up until three last night finishing it even though I have a paper to write today.  I’m doing that straightaway after I write this.

Lots of interesting Victorian underworld in this book.  I spent a lot of this book trying to work out what all that mad Victorian slang was about, which was jolly.  Though I did get fed up with Nancy when she was window-shopping at the tobacconist and the dude came up and talked to her and she was dressed as a boy and she like totally talked back.  I was in my room going “Well that’s just GREAT, Nan, you WINDOW-SHOPPING HUSSY.  Hope you’re enjoying offering that UNEQUIVOCAL SEX INVITE with all that crazed WINDOW-SHOPPING TALKING you are doing.  He is OBVIOUSLY trying to pick you up and that might be okay if you weren’t a GIRL, you humongous MORON.”  Not really fair to get so cross about it.  She didn’t know.

I got seriously worked up about Nancy’s behavior and what I wanted to happen.  Like Florence?  I was against Florence from the beginning.  Why’s everyone always ending up with snotty righteous uninteresting people?  It was like that time Dorothea married Casaubon, only more ugh and no dashing young Will for her to hook up with later.  What if Jane Eyre had married St. John?  Ugh.  About forty pages into the book I went and read the end, and there was this random-ass Florence character I’d never met, so I took against from the beginning, and when she finally showed up I was like PFFT, Florence, I hate that bitch.  So it was good really that she was such an aggravatingly virtuous character and I didn’t have to reconsider my early unfriendly assessment of her.

Well, that’s neither here nor there.  Sarah Waters is a good writer.  Tipping the Velvet was good.  We’ll see, won’t we, whether my fondness for her survives reading her other two books.  I’m saving Affinity for last because it’s about spiritualism.  I like spiritualism.  Hester Whatsherface received a whole play all from Oscar Wilde.

Birds in Fall, Brad Kessler

She handed the open tube across the cello.What do I do with this? I asked.

You write your name.

You’re being dramatic.

Am I? she asked.

The name of the lipstick was Japanese Maple. Against her pale skin, the letters looked lurid and blotchy.

The Japanese maple on our roof was slightly more purple than the lipstick. Its leaves in fall the color “of bruises” Ana once said. She would have looked good wearing that pigment. I held the glistening tube in my hand, not knowing what to write or where. I wanted to write Ana’s name, or both our names, as though we were a piece of luggage that, lost, would find its way back to the loft. So I put our address down, taking care with each number, each letter: 150 First Avenue; and then I showed my arm to the cellist, and she said: Your name. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to write it down.

Recommended by: A Reader’s Journal

Basically I chose to read Birds in Fall because I’ve been rereading a bunch of old books lately, and I thought, You know, I have this massive long list of books to read that I’ve been at some pains to compile, and here I am doing nothing but reading stuff I’ve read before a million times. So I glanced at my List, picked a few things at random, and checked them out of the library; and then I read this one first because it has a pretty cover.

Birds in Fall is about a plane that crashes off the coast of Nova Scotia. The families of the people who died come to the wee island where it crashed, and they all stay in the little inn together while they are waiting for news. I thought it was going to be extremely depressing. If it hadn’t had postage stamp birds on the cover, I might never have read it and devoted my time entirely to the watching of Angel until my eyeballs fell out.  (He hit Buffy in the face.)

However, there were postage stamp birds on the cover, and for the first two-thirds I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was – and you’ll have to excuse the adjectives and be aware that I hate myself a little bit for using them – haunting and elegiac.  The whole thing of becoming a community on the basis of their mutual loss worked very well, and Mr. Kessler created the mood quite perfectly, the boredom and the grieving more or less put on hold until bodies could be found.  Excellent.

Then around chapter nineteen or twenty, everything went to hell.  Well, not to hell, but the book experienced a sudden drastic drop-off in interestingness.  Everyone went home and I got bored and kept wanting to skim, and I read the end like five times, but it didn’t help because the end wasn’t that interesting either.  Everyone went home.  I didn’t even care about Ana getting closure, and previously I’d been unable to put the book down, I was so involved in whether Ana (and everyone) got closure.  So humph.  I was all set to recommend this book to my mother and put a lot of energy into persuading her to read it, and then it got less interesting and saved me the trouble.

Still, it’s worth reading, and I can see reading it again.  For one thing, the drop-off in interesting was so drastic and sudden that I have some concerns that I, not it, might be the issue.  Perchance I just suddenly became not in the mood for this book, and in fact it didn’t change at all.  So I’ll probably read it again sometime, to see if that’s the problem.  I can see that being the problem; the more I think about it, the more likely it seems.

HUMPH (or, The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray)

HUMPH.  I AM DISPLEASED.

Spoilers to follow.

But first: This is the third book in a trilogy that basically, for me, has been the Gemma-and-Kartik (that’s his name) show, with some other stuff about magic or something going on as well.  To be brutally honest, I haven’t been terribly interested in the main story, so I’ve just been carrying on reading in the hopes that Gemma and Kartik would move to The Land Where People Don’t Care About Race and get married and have lots of little babies.

AND THEN KARTIK WENT AND DIED, DAMMIT.

I mean, I knew that was going to happen, because I read the end before I read the middle, but I was still extremely outraged when I got to it in real time.  And I’m still cross.

And you know what else?  You know what else I’m cross about?  I’ll tell you!  I’m cross about the unsubtle foreshadowing of Felicity’s tendencies by mentioning Oscar Wilde.  I mean COME ON.  I already figured it out anyway but then Ms. Bray went and put that in and it’s not that I don’t support Oscar Wilde whole-heartedly, because God knows I do, but seriously, once she said that it was glaringly obvious and thus she completely prevented me from feeling smug and clever when The Truth Was Revealed.  And, you know, I like feeling clever about plot points that I predict without reading them at the end of the book; because as a trend, I am not using my brain to predict things when I am reading, so I very very rarely guess things before they happen, including really obvious things like that the guy named Lupin who got sick all the time during the full moon and had to have Snape take over his class and teach about werewolves, was a werewolf.

Yeah, that was dumb.  But I did have an incredibly brilliant epiphany about this plot point in the fifth Harry Potter book, and damn, that was smart of me.

Anyway, I don’t like it that Libba Bray messed up my high opinion of myself.

AND ALSO KARTIK DIED.  I mean what was the point of all those saucy dreams she kept having about kissing him (with tongue, the scandalous wench!) if he was just going to die at the end?  THERE ARE RULES about these things (that exist in my brain) whereby the hero of the story, and I think we can agree that Kartik was the only candidate for that, is supposed to survive.  DEVIANCE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.

The Semi-Attached Couple, Emily Eden

“Don’t you think Reginald Stuart very much out of spirits?” said Lady Portmore, when she was lingering over the breakfast-table, after the other ladies had withdrawn and Lord Teviot and Stuart had gone out shooting.”Yes, I think he is,” said Ernest, “rather out of spirits, and very much out of cash, I suspect; the old story of cause and effect.”

Recommended by: Box of Books

Now, if I recall correctly (as of course I unfailingly do), the recommending book blog said that Emily Eden was a lot like Jane Austen but bitchier, and I am not particularly finding that. I think her characterization is a little less delicate, and there are some passages that are quite satisfyingly bitchy – like when Mrs. Douglas snubs Lady Portmore, which I wished would happen on every single page because it was hilarious – but not particularly more satisfyingly bitchy than when, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet sorts out Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or (I’m sorry to be so mean but I can’t help it and I felt bad for laughing but oh my God Miss Bates was so damn annoying) Emma is rude to Miss Bates. So I don’t find the more bitchy thing to be true, and I think Emily Eden is not as fantastic as Jane Austen.

However, if I were doing book reviews based on who is better than Jane Austen, I would not have very many positive ones. And I quite enjoyed The Semi-Attached Couple, and I will shortly read The Semi-Detached House, which I have also obtained from the library. I read this book in fits and starts, on account of having about three dozen books in my room and wanting to read them all but actually having time for none, because of classes and work (dem those classes! dem them!), and so it seems to have taken untold ages to read but anyway I have just read it.

It’s about a girl called Helen who is very devoted to her family and has always been the pet, and anyway she becomes engaged to Lord Teviot, realizes she doesn’t love him that much, marries him anyway, and proceeds to have all kinds of domestic unfelicity and Lord Teviot gets cross about everything – I was getting bored with them at this point – and then, happily, they have a big bunch of people come to their house, and things started picking up beautifully. Lady Portmore is, actually, extremely funny, and Ernest Beaufort makes me smile against my will.

The only thing was, and dude, it totally took me by surprise, the book was carrying on, la la la, very Jane Austeny, dee dee dee, everyone’s in love, there’s problems, bitches and cads, hum de dum, lovely innocent girls and their sweet innocent amours, all very well, doop de doop de doop de doo –

And then BAM. There’s an ELECTION. That the characters are INVOLVED IN.   Like they are HARDCORE INVOLVED IN IT.  I was totally not prepared for it. I was left sitting staring at the book like, Hey! You were supposed to be a bitchier Jane Austen! Why are you suddenly a political novel, you slumbitch book?

Which is all part of my averseness to change, especially sudden startling unexpected change of genre in books I am reading, which is one reason I didn’t like Lizst’s Kiss and the reason I was so dismayed by Special Topics in Calamity Physics which I thought was a coming-of-age novel but was actually a mystery.

Happily the election went away pretty promptly, but then it was back to wrapping things up extremely tidily, and I found the ending unsatisfying, and my stars, how boring was Helen when Lord Teviot was sick?  But otherwise I enjoyed it a lot, and I will probably never ever read it again.

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

It was full dark….I knew he could see in the dark; I knew vampires can smell live blood….No, I thought.  That hardly matters.  He isn’t going to forget about me any more than I am going to forget about him, even if I can’t see or hear him – even if I’ve got so used to the vampire smell I’m not noticing it any more.  Which just made it worse.  I thought I would have to see him cross the gray rectangle between him and me – I was pretty sure his chain wasn’t long enough to let him go round – I knew I wouldn’t hear him.  But…I hadn’t seen him drink either.  I bit down on my lips.  I wasn’t going to cry, and I wasn’t going to scream…

And speaking of non-trashy vampire books, I give you Sunshine, by Robin McKinley.  The eponymous Sunshine, baker at a local coffeehouse, gets abducted by vampires for nefarious purposes I won’t go into here, and what with one thing and another, she gets sort of sucked in (ho, ho, ho) to some goings-on in the vampire world, and it’s tricky for her because in fact she would sort of prefer to be a coffeehouse baker.  Rather than Defeating Evil.  And there are some desserts and a vampire of much greater elegance and better mastery of language than Edward of Twilight.

As I say, a non-trashy vampire book, though reading the trashy one and watching Dark Shadows (best show ever, by the way, with Lt. Nathan Forbes (Joe in the present day) as the absolute best character on there, though we like Carolyn quite a lot too) did have a lot to do with the timing of me rereading this one.  I’ve not read it in ages, actually – the first time was on one of our “camping trips”, where we basically make a ton of food and eat it over the weekend while the more adventurous of us go hiking or boating and the lazier of us (this always includes me) sit home and read things.  Sunshine was an excellent find, definitely better in quality than this past year’s major book undertaking, which was Forever Amber (and also Purple Hibiscus and Cordelia Underwood, but those took up much less of my time and emotional involvement).

What I would say about this book is that it leaves you still wondering about a lot of things.  A lot of things.  And some of them are good things to wonder about, like, Why is Constantine such a cool name, and why is the world so constructed that it would be unacceptable for me to name my kid Constantine?, but some of them are things you don’t want to be wondering about at the end of a book, like, What’s the damn difference between Con and Bo anyway (apart from the obvious nice/mean distinction)?

However, I find upon rereading that these are less frantically crucial issues than I thought they were last time I read the book.  Last time I finished it and I was like, Well for Christ’s sake thanks for nothing! and I was particularly cross, may I just say, about not finding out anything interesting about the goddess of pain.   Actually I’m still a little cross about that.  But this latest rereading, which as I say is a good long while on from when I read it last, has made me feel better about the general construction of the book and advancement of the plot.

There is definitely that thing that Robin McKinley is prone to, where she has to describe the way people are feeling and the entire background story to a remark someone’s about to make/just finished making, in unreal amounts of detail.  She sometimes sacrifices the plot for this (see: Dragon Haven (but not really, I read it before I started this website)), but not in the case of Sunshine.  It is occasionally too much but mostly quite interesting because hey! vampires!

So I vote yes to this book.  Indeed I would say her best since Beauty.  Though Deerskin was also quite good.

Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski

Recommended by: imani, more or less. Or rather, she mentioned The Victorian Chaise-Longue, also by Marghanita Laski, and I picked up Little Boy Lost at the library at the same time. So “recommended” is actually a pretty big stretch on this, but whatever.

For a while I was convinced that this book had to be in translation. It just had these weird bits that you get when you are reading books in translation, and the author’s name is unusual and might quite easily have been foreign; and anyway I was all set to write this review and say I hate reading books in translation.

Which is absolutely true, and probably the reason I have never got on well with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or any Russian writers ever (not counting Nabokov who wrote in English and I claim him as an American writer).

Instead I guess I have to say that Little Boy Lost just baffled me. It’s about an Englishman called Hilary whose Polish wife Lisa died at the hands of the Nazis, and whose son, who was with Lisa until shortly before the Gestapo got her, is missing. And might be dead. Or might not. During the war, Lisa’s friend’s husband Pierre is in France trying to find the kid, and at the end of the war Hilary comes to France to check how it’s going and go meet the only kid it could possibly be. And it’s very weird because one moment he’s all in total agony about everything, and the next moment he’s like, Whatevs, glad you’re handling that tracking-the-kid-down thing, and just let me know what you find out. Or one moment he’s bitter and miserable and thinks that finding his son is his only chance for happiness, and then two pages later it’ll be this:

He added with a kind of delight, “It’s a splendidly romantic place to begin a search from.”

And okay, officially I can excuse this in a lot of different ways. Like: Losing a kid is very baffling, and a lot of time has gone by, and he doesn’t know what to feel. Or: You can’t be in total agony all the time and you might as well take pleasure where you can like in how romantic a place is.

But I’m sorry. He sounds like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane having fun tracking down the murderer in Have His Carcase, which is officially Very Serious Business but is not infrequently just an excuse for them to enjoy themselves and be silly and humorously appreciate the drama of the situation. And that’s what Hilary sounds like he’s doing here, although actually he’s looking for his kid. He carries on being silly for another minute or two and then back he goes into misery, without seeming to notice that his mood changed at all.

(Sidebar: Audrey Niffenegger says that Henry and Clare were based on Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I just can hardly imagine two people less like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, which I’m sure is partly due to the characters’ developing a great deal during the writing process but is also indicative of how amazingly differently people read. John Tregarth and Peter Wimsey is a fair enough connection, but Henry DeTamble and Peter Wimsey, I can’t see it.)

What was good – excellent, actually – about this book were the interactions between Hilary and the little orphanage boy who might or might not be his son. These bits of the book were tense and interesting and moving, and if they hadn’t been there I would have gone straight to the end, discovered what was going to happen, and chucked the book down without finishing it, because the rest of the bits (mostly) were not interesting at all. I think this is because Hilary never really settles into a clear character and that made it difficult to care much what happened to him. Jean, the little boy, is a real boy, and that, I believe, is why the bits with him come off gorgeously.

SPOILER

BIG ONE

The other thing I didn’t like was that Hilary decides at the end that he can love this boy as a son even though he isn’t sure it’s his son, and then when he’s going back to the orphanage to fetch him, Jean says something that makes it entirely clear he’s the right kid. I think ambiguity would have been better, to have Jean say something that suggests he’s remembering something about his life before the orphanage that indicates he’s Hilary’s son, but still leave the reader in some doubt.

Nonetheless I enjoyed Little Boy Lost, and I can easily see picking it up again sometime. At the library. I wouldn’t buy it, unless, I suppose, I had a massive library and lots of money to buy books just on the strength of feeling that I might possibly someday want to read them again maybe.