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!

Empire of Ivory, Naomi Novik

The Temeraire series continues, hooray! I liked this one much more than I did the last two. It was more pulled together than they’ve been, and Laurence was very, very polite, and Temeraire is still a cutie. I’ve been having ongoing concerns that Laurence will get less polite the more he hangs out with the Aerial Corps people (and Jane, who bores me).  He didn’t though.  He might have been the most polite in this book that he’s been in any of the books.  Ah, courtesy.

They flew to Africa, and I felt, of all the places they’ve been, Ms. Novik deals the best with Africa.  It’s full of mushrooms that are the cure for a disease that is killing all of England’s dragons, and Temeraire very fortunately has an immunity to it, so he goes off hunting for the cure.  Unfortunately, the tribe that cultivates the mushrooms is pissed at England because the slave trade’s legal there, so they are none too thrilled with the Brits.  I was pleased in this book to have some other dragons (besides the irritating ferals) for Temeraire to interact with.  I’ve missed Lily and Maximus, and I’m really hoping we get to see more of the bitty dragon that Granby has whose name contains so many vowels and k letters that I always forget it.

*spoilers now*

At the end, the Brits send an infected dragon to France in biological warfare manner, and Laurence and Temeraire go chasing over to France to cure the dragons because they don’t like biological warfare, and then Laurence goes back to England.  To be executed.  Which I’m sure he won’t be, but it was a good ending to the book.  I have the new one on hold at the library, so once I finish reading the other many books I have out, I’ll go and collect it.

Black Powder War, Naomi Novik

The dragons (and Napoleon!) are back.  Temeraire is still angling for dragon liberty.  Laurence is still sorting through his feelings about England and dragons, and still losing his temper when people have bad manners (yay for manners!).  In this book they’re all over the place – it’s all trekking off to Istanbul (and, okay, it’s not Naomi Novik’s fault that this plot thread got that They Might Be Giants song stuck in my head, but damn, I had that song stuck in my head for a while, where it waged a bitter war against the Dr. Horrible songs), and then flying around Europe being defeated by Napoleon.  Napoleon meanwhile, in addition to gaining power in massive big gulps, is now BFF with wicked Celestial dragon Lien, making me feel very uneasy in a way I never used to because Temeraire was always the only Celestial divine-wind-making dragon in town.

I had mixed feelings about this book.  I’m still enjoying the series, and I like it that Temeraire wants independence for dragons.  I was so, so happy when Granby got his own dragon, and I totally love the little fire-breathing dragon (hope to see lots more of her).  And I was pleased that Napoleon finally had a cameo, which, since I know virtually nothing about Napoleon at all, didn’t bug me the way fictional representations of real people sometimes do.

On the other hand, Black Powder War felt a little disconnected.  All through the first section, I was like, Gee, great, some more negotiations with cranky foreigners from countries America is not fond of right now.  Just what I didn’t enjoy at all about the last one.  And then BAM, that episode was totally over and everything was fine, and it was off to fight Napoleon.  Whereupon I discovered that I am still not at all interested in war.  My attention wandered wildly during all the battle scenes, and if I hadn’t been so close to the end last night before bed, I’d’ve ditched the whole thing and read Aurora Leigh instead.

So far, I would say this was my least favorite of the three, except for the bitty new dragon Iskierka.  However, I have extremely high hopes for the next book.  The dragons are all sick!  And there’s going to have to be cure-finding activities!  I anticipate good times.  Plus I looked up spoilers and found out that the next book contains some dovetailing of plot threads, which I’m looking forward to.  Onward and upward.  Screw Aurora Leigh.

(Not really!  My girl-crush on Elizabeth Barrett Browning continues unabated!)

Geek Love and True Love

The past few days have been a bit weird, reading-wise.  I was reading Geek Love – recommended to me by Toryssa as an antidote to the trite blahness of Water for Elephants (Water to Elephants?  I can never remember) – and then when I wasn’t reading that, I was reading the Brownings’ letters to each other when they were a-courting.

It’s been strange.  Geek Love is two stories running consecutively: the main character, Olympia, is a hunchback dwarf from a family that deliberately bred freaks in order to make their circus all interesting, and she’s telling the story of her childhood.  And then she’s also got things going on in the present with her tail-having daughter and this woman who wants to give the daughter surgery to de-tail her.  Oh, and Olympia’s brother Arty (who has flippers instead of hands and feet) has a cult of people that get their limbs cut off.  But then *spoiler* the circus blows up.  So oh well.

Interspersed with letters from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, in which they are so damn cute that my brain perpetually explodes.  Every time I think I can’t love Robert Browning any more, he says something even sweeter and I have to reset the scale.

And then back to Geek Love with the amputations and the telekinetic Chick kid.  The transitions have been weird.

Sorting through this confusion, I find that I do not care for Geek Love very much.  I didn’t like the family dynamic.  It was creepy, of course, the creepy parents with their creepy plans for the kids, and the creepy siblings with their creepy behavior, but it was sort of predictably creepy.  Creepy in ways you really could have anticipated.  Geek Love was such a strange book that I kept losing track of how blah the family dynamic actually was, but after a while I’d notice some discontentment feelings and discover that the source of the feelings was that the relationships between the family, while dysfunctional, were not interestingly dysfunctional.  You always knew what everyone was going to do.  I lost interest long before the book ended.

Oh, and?  I was also displeased with how the *spoiler* circus exploded.  It was like the author just got sick of the Binewski family and was trying to figure out what she could do to get rid of everyone so that she could get back to Olympia in the present in order to end that storyline unsatisfactorily too, so she was like, Well, hey, I’ll just blow everyone up.

Hmph.

I am much happier when I contemplate the Brownings.  Do you know about the Brownings?  If not, it is definitely worth your while to go and look up the Brownings and learn a little bit about them.  And go ahead and read The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  And then go ahead and read their letters to each other.  The ones from 1845-1846 are all the letters there ever were, because after they were married, says their son, they were never separated.

A sad (but nice) story: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last day (of life, I mean), she was sickly and he was fretting, and when he offered to bathe her feet to soothe her she said, “Well, you are determined to make an exaggerated case of it!” and she died in his arms and the last thing she said was that when he asked her how she felt, she said, “Beautiful.”

(That story makes me teary-eyed.)

The Brownings are lovely.  I always want to give them a hug.  They’re so brave and humble and affectionate and dear, and they always send letters to tell each other how much they love them.  When I read their letters I feel like that episode of Buffy where she’s all upset about Xander and Anya having a fight and she’s all, “THEY HAVE A MIRACULOUS LOVE!”

That’s me.  About the Brownings.  Darling Brownings!

…I’m not bragging or anything.  I’m just mentioning.  Robert Browning?  He was born on my birthday.  So unless you were born on 9 December or 23 April, and actually even if you were born on 9 December or 23 April, I still pretty much win at Best Birthday.  Because Robert Browning was a gifted writer and also a completely lovely person.

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Well, I was slightly less thrilled with this than the last one.  I know it’s good for Laurence to chill out a little bit because yes, he did in some respects have a stick up his ass, and I appreciate that’s not necessarily an ideal state for a stalwart hero to be in – but I got sad when he started to feel disenchanted with the British government and the Navy and everyone, and how he started thinking sedition mutiny thoughts.  I liked His Majesty’s Dragon because of how proper and British he was, and now he’s all different.  I don’t feel like I know him anymore.  *tear*

Laurence and Temeraire are off to China in Throne of Jade.  It’s all about what a rare and unusual dragon Temeraire is, and the Chinese are very cross that their most rare and unusual dragon, which was meant for an emperor (Napoleon), is being minded by an ordinary guy and being sent off to war.  In order to avoid irritating China so much that they start giving out dragons to France willy-nilly, Britain ships Laurence and Temeraire to China to sort the whole mess out.  It’s a long journey, so most of the book takes place on the ship’s journey to get there.

My main gripe is that there was a massive build-up for not much conclusion.  They spend all this time on the ship fretting about everything, whether Temeraire will be taken from Laurence, whether the Chinese are going to get angry with their wicked British dragon-having ways and kill them all, who’s evil and who’s okay, and then at the very tail end everything gets resolved really, really quickly.  (Except for the problem of dragon liberty, which is obviously meant for future books.)

That issue aside, however, I did enjoy the book.  Not as much as His Majesty’s Dragon, of course, but still quite a fair bit.  I still don’t like Jane Roland, but she wasn’t around much.  Although the book wasn’t fast-paced, it was interesting, all the conflicts that arose on the ship.  Just the kind of thing that would happen in these circumstances – different branches of the armed forces getting in each other’s way and being irritated with each other, the dragon being stubborn, culture conflicts – it was interesting.

Overall, I’d say – second book in a series with all the attendant problems.  Not bad, but not good enough that I feel compelled to read Black Powder War straight away.  It’s in my library bag and all, but I’ll just wait.  I think that will be better.

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.