An Unkindness of Ravens, Ruth Rendell

I confess.  I got this one because it has the same title as the book Lucas writes on One Tree Hill.  And you know what I realized when I was composing this review in my head while washing dishes?  I realized that Lucas’s book title?  Ravens is meant to refer to his basketball team, the Tree Hill Ravens.  Which kind of makes me want to gouge out my eyes.  Like, bad enough he’s written a pretentious book full of pretentious sentences and given it a pretentious title, and bad enough they’re pretending that this idiotic autobiographical book about Lucas and all his closest friends is such a masterpiece.  But see, I actually felt better about the title when I thought it was an abstract title that was with the symbols and everything – pretentious, yes, because it had nothing to do with anything, but I could deal with it.  Now I have realized that it is meant to be clever, I indeed wish centuries of stupid hair on Chad Michael Murray.  (Pointless wish that I know will be granted.)  Plus I feel resentful that I didn’t notice before, because my sister and I watched One Tree Hill all this past season, and I feel like we really missed out on some excellent mockery opportunities with that title.

Well, regardless.  Ruth Rendell’s book is completely unrelated to that.  It’s a totally acceptable title for this book.  Inspector Wexford gets asked by his neighbor to investigate what has happened to her husband Rodney Williams.  At first he thinks Rodney’s up and left her, but then there are all these mysterious circumstances that induce him to change his mind, like a bag of Rodney’s stuff turning up all abandoned, and them finding his body all drugged and stabbed.  And other people are getting stabbed by crazy feminists.  With ravens.

(Plot summary is one of my best skills.)

This book was more engaging than Vanity Dies Hard, less than Anna’s Book.  The plot went along nicely, but some things were a little weirdly resolved, and there weren’t any clever little linguistic tricks going around either.  (Like, oo, when Tom Marvolo Riddle rearranged to spell I am Lord Voldemort – that was my favorite bit of Chamber of Secrets which otherwise I don’t like a bit and I haven’t even bothered to replace my copy now that the spine’s all broken.) I wasn’t as interested in the characters, and I was displeased and surprised that Wexford – all perceptive with the incest thing – didn’t figure out a hundred pages earlier that when the girl said “those two women” she wasn’t talking about the mothers.  Because I knew straight away that she meant the daughters.  And I know that may be not a fair criticism since I’m of a different generation, but still it was frustrating.

I will say this for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I was thinking about the crazy feminists, trying to decide what I thought about her portrayal of them, and it got me thinking about many things regarding women and oppression, and I had a Total Epiphany about the story I’m writing.  It was one of those times when you’re writing a story and you realize something that’s happened in the story without your noticing, and all the indications for it are already there.  Because I had this epiphany, and I went back and reexamined my story, and I was thinking, Oh stupid Jenny, this element is already there, and it seems impossible that you didn’t notice this plot thread that was happening right under your nose.  I seriously only had to add about four paragraphs to the whole story to make the change.  So hurrah for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I am in its debt.

Vanity Dies Hard, Ruth Rendell

I began Vanity Dies Hard with the working hypothesis that Ruth Rendell was infallibly brilliant, and that even if her books were not as emotionally satisfying as Anna’s Book, they would always have satisfying and elegant plots like Anna’s Book did.  I was most disappointed.  Vanity Dies Hard had an ending that was the biggest let-down since the ending of The Machinist.  (Did you see The Machinist?  I already didn’t like Christian Bale, but my God, even for a movie containing Christian Bale, The Machinist was awful.)

Anyway, I had to create a new hypothesis based on my new data.  My new hypothesis was that Barbara Vine was good but Ruth Rendell was awful rubbish and not worth reading.  I am much with the scientific method, so I swiftly fetched the more appealing of the other two books of hers that I had.  Because I am trying to read her books least good to most good, which I’m hoping in this case means earliest to latest, but the library only had one of the early books in large-print, so I checked it out, but I hate large-print.  Thus I read the one that I grabbed randomly because of the title.  And I liked it rather better.

Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer

Spoilers. Many. Nothing but spoilers.

Breaking Dawn is an extravagant symphony of screwed-up sexuality and dysfunction. (Enjoyable because of the funny, loathsome because of all the people who think it’s romantic.) I had to stop about every twenty pages and update my sister, who, lucky duck, was the only one home, and we would have a long moan about how insane this book was, and how dismayed we were that people were all, Oo, she’s the next Harry Potter and – still less forgivable – Oo, she’s the next Buffy. Next Buffy. HA. When people are dysfunctional on Buffy, they know they’re dysfunctional. Even Spike – seriously, even Spike – had the grace to be ashamed of himself when Buffy caught him with the Buffy robot. Whereas Edward’s totally fine offering sick pregnant Bella to Jacob for the purposes of getting her preggers with Jacob’s baby instead, so that she won’t view Killer Vamp Baby as Her Only Chance Baby and will agree to abort it like Edward wants her to. Jacob, who has evidently not read the story of Hagar and Ishmael, is sort of up for it even though he knows it will destroy him emotionally. Again with the healthy relationships: because true love is all about ignoring everything you need and dissolving all your boundaries to make the other person happy. Sure, Bella doesn’t agree to this plan, but she also doesn’t say anything to Edward about how incredibly insulting this offer was to her, him, Jacob, and the baby that’s busy breaking her ribs. On account of how nobody in this book sets any boundaries, ever. Bella can’t even tell Edward that she doesn’t want the baby aborted; they don’t even have the conversation until Rosalie’s there to advocate for her.

Ahem.

I didn’t mean to get into that quite so thoroughly. I was going to start by making fun of how Edward won’t have sex with Bella after the first time because she’s all covered in bruises (teehee) and how she’s just so irresistible that she seduces him with her beautifulness and they break things. From there I was going to segue into how completely irritated I am by Stephenie Meyer’s female characters, who are all impossibly irritating, and how they would offend me if it weren’t for the fact that her male characters are just as bad. I was also going to mock vampire & werewolf science – cause, really? We’re going there with it? Talking about chromosomes? Vampires and werewolves just need chromosomes to tip them into believability?

But the best part of this book, for me, is the bit where Jacob imprints on the baby. Her name’s Renesmee, by the way. It’s far too easy to mock that name, so I’m not going to do it. You can mock it yourself. I can’t even be bothered. I’m too distracted by the fact that Jacob imprints on the infant daughter of the girl he’s in love with. Just in case you haven’t been reading these books, that means that he’s in total love with her forever and will mate with her someday (“her” being the DAY-OLD INFANT). There’s this really creepy scene where Bella wants to see the baby, and Jacob’s all reluctant to let her, and they have to growl at him to make him let Bella see her own baby. I don’t know – I get that it’s all in the context, and Bella’s a newborn vampire and might eat the baby, but I found that scene really disturbing. Jasper and Emmett and Jacob are all lined up in a row to stop Bella from seeing the baby.

But whatever, whatever, whatever, that all pales into insignificance next to the fact that Renesmee (really?) is going to grow up being groomed to marry Jacob and produce his little werewolf spawn. And all through her life as she’s growing up, everyone will be all, Here’s your future husband, little Renesmee (really?) From her infancy. Ick. She’s like those FLDS girls married to guys with like six wives, who won’t meet your eyes and mumble things while they look down, and ever since they were teensy little tots they’ve been raised to marry these guys and produce many, many children.

That’s not even mentioning how alarming it is that Jacob transfers his affections Woody-Allen-like to the daughter of the girl he used to be in love with. This whole imprinting-on-babies thing is so very deeply disturbing and cannot be made okay no matter how nice Jacob and Quil are to baby Renesmee (I feel like the MST3K gang felt about Grignr) and baby Claire. And it’s just made creepier because Jacob used to spend all his time picturing Bella naked but now doesn’t care about her at all because her day-old daughter has replaced Bella in his heart. When I try to explain my unhappiness at this development, I only make little babbling noises of disgust and despair and dismay, so I’ll leave this topic.

And then there’s all this build-up to the Hugest Battle Ever with the Volturi, and the last third of the book is all building up to this mighty battle but then! somehow! fortunately! it gets cancelled because they’re all like, Let’s hug it out, bitches. And also because Bella is Mighty Shield Girl (yes, she finally gets to do something – exciting, eh?) And everyone lives happily ever after, with lots of S.A. all around and many swoony kisses.

Go Fug Yourself, a website I completely adore, had a post about the Twilight movie and how entirely unappealing Cedric Diggory looks as Edward, while Bella looks all heavy-lidded and has an apple. And they (the Fug Girls, not Edward and Bella) said they missed Buffy because Buffy would have made a snide remark about Edward’s chest pubes and then staked his ass instead of fondling produce. I always think of that when I am reading Stephenie Meyer. How happy I would be if Buffy could indeed show up and stake Edward. Buffy could totally take the Cullens. It would be beautiful and she and the Scoobies could call everybody on how ridiculously badly they handle everything all the time and then when they had finished bawling them out for being imbeciles they could stake them and it would be amazing

can’t continue review

lost in joyous reverie

Why She Left Us, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

At the library the other day, I did two things that I never do.  First, I walked in with a self-imposed limit to get no more than ten books.  Then when I was looking for the books I wanted, I grabbed random books off the shelves because they looked interesting.  This is so not me.  I am not that girl.  Indie Sister is that girl, but I am not that girl.  I get books I’ve heard of, or at least books I’ve seen around several times before and I can’t take the curiosity anymore.

Well, this isn’t like that.  I liked the title and I liked the cover and the blurb so I just grabbed it, and I read it while I was waiting for the Cox people to come set up cable at my brand-new! closet-and-counter-space-rich! townhouse! apartment!

Why She Left Us is all about a Japanese-American family and their secrets.  During the second World War they were all in internment camps (or whatever they’re being called these days), and it was damaging for everyone.  The story goes back and forth between past and present, and between the points of view of different family members at different times in their lives.  The grandmother is telling the story to her granddaughter Mariko, and Mariko is finding out secrets as an adult; and then you have the points of view of Mariko’s mother’s brother, Jack, and Mariko’s brother Eric, at different points in their lives.

In a way this works really well.  I have this ceaseless obsession with point of view.  It’s something I loved about Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead – how you have the human point of view and then when you discover how the pequeninos see the same events, everything shifts.  Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and especially The Moonstone charm me, the way they use different narrators to tell different bits of the story.  Barbara Kingsolver does it in Poisonwood Bible with amazing facility.  Juggling points of view was one of the first things I remember mimicking when I was a kid.  Why She Left Us does a cool thing – you get the points of view of the characters who react, but not the characters to whom people are reacting.  The two most active characters, who create most of what everyone else responds to, you never know what they’re thinking; you only see how they affect the people around them.  Wilkie Collins does it in The Moonstone, never using Rachel’s point of view, and it’s a technique I really like a lot.

On the other hand, I didn’t like it how one character narrated in first person while all the others are in third.  I found the use of the present tense in the third-person characters sections jarring.  It distracted me from enjoying the book as much.  And then the whole thing was really sad and made me feel ashamed of our country.  Especially Michelle Malkin, who still thinks internment camps were good.

I think I come out just about neutral on this one.  The book was sad and in some ways disturbing, and I don’t know if I’d necessarily recommend it.

Why I Don’t Like Those Vampire Books by Stephenie Meyer

I’m getting so much anger from Twilight fans I thought I’d go ahead and actually say why I think these books are bad. It’s not because they contain vampires (you’re talking to a girl who owns all seven seasons of Buffy and all but the last one of Angel), and it’s not because the characters contemplate having sex (I’m all for sex – plus, see above with the Buffy and the Angel, cause Buffy at least has people having sex all over the place, and not infrequently sex with vampires), and it’s certainly not anything to do with any belief of mine that teenagers don’t have to make difficult choices about relationship and a zillion other things (cause, you know, I was a teenager lo these many years ago).

I laugh about these books because they’re badly written and very, very silly, but I seriously do have problems with them. To wit:

The main one: The fact that there are dozens and hundreds and thousands of girls who are reading these books and finding Edward sexy and romantic. This creeps me out and gives me concern that they are going to grow up and not notice when their boyfriends are acting weird and stalkery. Stalkers = bad. Cause let’s review. In the first place, he desperately wants to kill her. (Bad.) Plus he’s scary and threatening and says things that suggest he’s up for killing people and is dangerous to her. (Bad.) He also tells her massive lies and treats her like an idiot, all the time, but especially when she suspects he’s lying. (Bad.) But she disregards all of these things because she “feels safe” with him. Balance of power issues much?

He eavesdrops on her conversations with her friends by listening to their minds. She doesn’t seem awfully bothered about how intrusive that is to her, and she’s completely unphased by how intrusive it is to her friends. (Which makes sense since she really doesn’t ever seem to give a crap about them anyway.) The boy is listening to people’s brains to make sure Bella’s safe, and by this means he saves her from four more of the Washington State men who can’t resist her charms. And, you know, that’s nice, that he saves her life, but think about it: If you knew a guy and you kinda liked him and then you discovered he’d, I don’t know, tapped your phone and was listening to all your phone conversations, would you think, That’s sweet, he must be trying to save my life, or would you think, Damn, he’s a stalker. Better watch out for stalker boy there, with all the stalking.

Oh, right, and he comes into her room without her permission or knowledge and watches her sleep. She knows she should be outraged, but instead she’s just flattered. Because he cares enough about her to break into her house and spy on her.

When she’s with Edward, she isolates herself from every other person in her life – friends and family – and spends all her time only with him. Again with the bad, because when the relationship breaks up, she has no one to support her. They’re constantly claiming that they need each other – neediness isn’t romantic, people! – to the extent that when they lose each other in New Moon they sink into deep depressions, can’t do anything normal ever again, and have much contemplating of suicide.

Uh-huh. That’s a functional relationship.

And here’s another thing: Gender roles. Nobody ever strays from theirs. Bella requires lots of rescuing and isn’t so good about the making of decisions. She doesn’t like sports or fishing because these things, they are boring (unless it’s sexy vampires playing sports). Know what she is good at? Cooking! Aaaaaaaaaaand dress-shopping! Her father can’t cook but he can fix cars. So can Jacob. And Edward. Much with the car-fixing among the dudes in these books.

The trashy accusation I stand by pretty firmly. Again not because of vampires and not because of the mad sexual tension (I can deal), but because these characters are never even remotely developed – what does Bella ever do apart from swoon over Edward and fall over her own feet? Edward’s handsome and reads minds, and he loves Bella and he doesn’t want to be a monster – voila, I’ve summed up Edward for you right there. And of course, with cardboard characters, you’re not likely to end up with fascinating relationships, and indeed, there’s no attempt to deal with relationships honestly. People who are in love get very, very worried when their significant other is in danger. And, uh, they tell each other lies to manipulate each other into doing what they want, and they never call each other on this behavior, ever. They’re just like, Oh, ha, ha, ha, you’ve outwitted me this time, you vixen! This peaks in Eclipse but happens, really, throughout the series.

And it is badly written. It’s just cliche after cliche after cliche. And not even any irony about the using of the cliches. Sheesh.

Most of this, honestly, I don’t care about. Nobody’s making me read books I don’t like, and if I don’t like Ms. Meyer’s books I don’t have to carry on reading them. (I may read the last one though – I don’t do that attacking-books-I-haven’t-read thing, as a trend. At least not seriously.) But I am genuinely bothered by the bad messages the book’s sending to its readers. Books are mighty and help many people to normalize. Life reflects art (as my beloved Oscar Wilde says). I have great fear that these books are creating a generation of women who’ll think stalking is sexy and exciting.

It’s not. Stalking = bad. It doesn’t generally lead to the saving of the stalked person’s life, as in Bella’s case. More heads in the direction of heightened emotional and physical abuse. Of which we are not fans.

Anna’s Book, Barbara Vine

I have dreams like this.

I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I should be very calm and relaxed. I shall probably go to the library tomorrow, get sixteen of Ruth Rendell’s books, and find I don’t like a single other one of them.

I liked Anna’s Book.  I read it because I keep hearing everyone going on about Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.  So the last time I was at the library I went to the Barbara Vine section, as I like that name better, and got Anna’s Book because my sister is called Anna.  And it was quite good.  A most satisfying mystery.  I read the end but didn’t catch exactly everything, and I felt clever about noticing that Hansine was on her period.  That’s right.  I can recognize old-timey euphemisms for menstruation.

Anna’s Book is about a woman called Anna (Asta actually, but they changed it for some reason when the book came to the U.S.) who came to England as a Danish immigrant before the first World War, and she kept diaries.  And ages and ages later her diaries got really famous and published, and a mean person wrote a letter to Anna’s oldest daughter, Swanny, to tell her that Swanny was not really Anna’s daughter.  And the book goes back and forth, with excerpts from the diaries and bits about what Swanny did, and bits about what Swanny’s niece Ann did to find out what was what.  Very much with the good structure.

I like these nice tidy mysteries.  Not just because I like to have things squared away neatly, but also because books are fun when they have intricate plots that come together well.  Holes was really good about this, and so was Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  And I liked them both.  And, actually, The Chosen, which was a totally different kind of book.

I finished up Anna’s Book and I looked up Ruth Rendell on the internet and do you know how many novels she’s written, DO YOU KNOW?

You probably don’t know.  I will tell you.

FIFTY-SIX.

And I’ve only read one of them.  Oh, and also, she’s written another one that will be released in November, and another one again (called The BIrthday Present) that’s getting released in March of next year.  That one, The Birthday Present, will be her fifty-eighth book.  This almost shows that it was meant for her to be my next big thing, because my birthday is May 7th (five seven), and the book’s called The Birthday Present.

Actually, she’s British.  So it works out perfectly.  In Britain my birthday is May 8th.  I was born quite late at night on the 7th of May, in America, which means rather early in the morning on the 8th of May, in Britain.  Voila.  The Birthday Present and its number are Signs.  I shall check out and read loads of her other books and it will be exactly like when we went camping and I read all of Elizabeth Peters’ books for the first time.  And I need that kind of cheering-up because my big sister just moved away.

(I’ve gotten a lot of play out of this May 7th-May 8th America-Britain thing.  My mum thought of it when I was away in England.  It is also the means by which I claim that my confirmation name saint has her feast day on my birthday, because she’s British.  Though in fact that doesn’t work at all, because I’m Catholic, and her Catholic feast day is May 13th, not May 8th.  But whatever.  It’s close enough for government work.)

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, ever since it was in the New Books section at Bongs & Noodles and I almost but didn’t quite buy it.  It’s all about an Australian girl whose mother dies, and she comes to work in a bookshop in New York that is a very good and famous bookshop and contains many strange people who are albinos and trannies and emotionally unavailable snobs.  They are a motley crew. I had high hopes.

All dashed, unfortunately.  It’s not the worst book ever, but I could hardly be bothered finishing it.  I only finished it at all because I had some vague stubborn feeling that my judging-a-book-by-its-title-and-cover instincts were not as catastrophically wrong as all that.  I think that these literary suspensey books are very difficult to pull off.  Thinking of some that I’ve read – I found Possession quite gripping as I recall, but I’ve never had any desire to read it again though now that I bring it up I might check it out; The Archivist wasn’t bad, and I liked it when he said existence is infinitely cross-referenced; I liked Arturo Perez-Reverte (and he knew about Rafael Sabatini!) but I got too fed up with the translation to carry on – so, yes, I think that kind of book is just tricky to write.  Maybe not the best genre to write your very first novel in.

I thought the characters – who should have carried the book, the way it was written – were much less interesting than they should have been.  They never really rounded out and became people, and I found the heroine frustrating.  Which, actually, upon reflection, is because she never really rounded out either.  I couldn’t ever predict what she was going to do, which wasn’t because she was unpredictable the way that people are unpredictable, but because she was such a cipher.  And they were all like that really, like Sheridan Hay wrote “Oscar – snobby asexual guy” and “Walter – weird albino” and then didn’t bother taking it any further.

Life is like this.  I’m quite liking Anna’s Book, which I didn’t expect to care about at all, and The Secret of Lost Things, which I expected to love, doesn’t even rate an “Enjoyed” tag.

Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden

Recommended by: GeraniumCat’s great big list of children’s books you should have read as a kid

Nothing as appealing as people mentioning things that you might have missed but they hope you haven’t.  Unfortunately most of the books on the list weren’t at the library on account of, I assume, being wildly out of print and based in the United Kingdom, but I got Carrie’s War.  It’s about two little Blitz evacuee kids (I love books about evacuee kids) who get evacuated to Wales and live with a family and the older girl, Carrie, does a terrible thing.

I like books about children who go away to strange places.  This wasn’t an adventurey book so much as a people book, and it was charming.  I may read more things by Nina Bawden.  I foolishly got all of Penelope Farmer’s books from the library (and then didn’t like The Summer Sparrows), and didn’t get any of Nina Bawden’s books except for this one.  Bah.

The Camel Bookmobile, Masha Hamilton

Recommended by: Read-Warbler

This book is about an American librarian who brings books to rural African places using camels.

I’ll give you that again: She uses CAMELS to bring people BOOKS.

There are no words that adequately express how sad I am that I wasn’t able to finish this book.  It contains BOOKS and CAMELS.  Bringing books to people via camels.  I love books (obviously), and God knows I love camels more than my luggage.  One time I went to a RenFest, and THEY HAD CAMELS there and I RODE ON ONE.  Didn’t even remotely know that I cared about camels until I got there and saw the sign for camels and instead of being like “Medieval Europe wasn’t exactly camelpalooza” in a snide voice, I seized my sister’s arm and plowed in the direction of the camels going CAMELS CAMELS CAMELS CAMELS.

But camels didn’t feature very much in the bits of the book I did get through, and anyway I couldn’t get through it.  There was much bashing the reader over the head with unsubtle things that the characters are thinking, like, Why does the American lady want to bring us books so much?  Doesn’t she know that here in Africa we are educated in other ways?  Books and reading are not the only ways of knowing things.

Practically in those words.  It gave me a headache.  I had to take two tylenol and an aspirin.

The Shell House, Linda Newbery

My second try with Linda Newbery.  I really want to love her!  The covers of her book are always so appealing!  This one had bits that were set in Chelmsford, and I lived in Essex for nine months!  But still, the only strong reaction I had to her books – like last time – was, Jesus God, I’m so glad I’m not raising children in England.  British schoolchildren are awful.  They are awful.  My flatmates thought I was from the scary ghetto because I have sketchy neighbors and got mugged one time; this in spite of the fact that they got the shit beaten out of them by their classmates in school.  I love England like a fat kid loves cake, but I could never ever raise kids there, ever.  Ever.  BECAUSE THEY WOULD DIE.

The Shell House is actually not about awful British schoolchildren.  Sisterland had much more awful British schoolchildren.  The Shell House is about a boy who is struggling with his sexuality, and a girl who is struggling with her faith, and a back-in-the-day World War I guy who’s struggling with both.  It had bits that were good, but there were also bits that were just blah.  Faith (the girl who’s um, struggling with her – I don’t know why I bothered with this sentence) isn’t terribly likeable, ever, and the two plots don’t come together very neatly either.  They’re thematically linked, but they aren’t juxtaposed in an interesting way, and Edmund himself, the World War I guy, wasn’t that interesting, or fleshed-out.  I felt sort of gipped on the Edmund front.

Okay.  I have Linda Newbery’s Set in Stone out of the library too.  If I don’t like that, I’m just giving her up forever as Not My Thing.  I wouldn’t be being so persistent if the covers weren’t so nice!