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.

I’m funny!

Says Box of Books.  (Though I think I’m only very occasionally funny.)  But I still like filling up questiony things.  Oo, except for when you have to bubble in bubbles like on standardized tests.  Once I knew what the pattern of my name was – up-spike at the E, drastic down-spike for the Y – which was around first grade – it got boring.

What kind of a book are you comfortable reading?

To be honest, the ones I’ve read before.  And every now and again, I come across a new book that feels comfortable, but there doesn’t seem to be any pattern about what kind of book it is.  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell felt very comfortable, and so did Greensleeves the first time I read it; and His Majesty’s Dragon, as I’ve said, was like taking a nice hot bath (if you like hot baths…I don’t.  But I hear some people do.  So I guess it’s more like someone else taking a nice hot bath).  But I guess with new books, maybe memoirs?  I tend to like good memoirs.

What kind of a book do you love to hate?

Those inspirationaly books like A Purpose-Driven Life.  Kind of unfair since I’ve no idea what the guy has to say, but every time I see books that look like that, I want to hide them behind other, better books.  (Sometimes I do.)

What was the last book you surprised yourself by liking?

The Satanic Verses.  I was completely expecting to hate it.  I was reading it to get it over with so I could move on to reading Salman Rushdie’s other, better books, because I thought I was going to really, really dislike The Satanic Verses.  I started it once and didn’t care for it, that’s why.  But now, of course, having liked it a lot, I’m loath to read his other books (The Moor’s Last Sigh and Shalimar the Clown, that would be), in case they don’t measure up like how Fury and Shame didn’t measure up, and I’ll go off Salman Rushdie again.  Yes, I think a lot of thoughts.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by disliking?

I would say Waiting for Daisy, but the review I read of it before I read it kind of prepared me for the possibility of not liking it.  Before that, I guess Affinity by Sarah Waters.  I like Sarah Waters and I like spiritualism, so I don’t know where the bad was, but I couldn’t be bothered finishing it.

What would be the worst book to be marooned on a desert island with?

See, my first thought was Moby Dick.  But really, that wouldn’t be so bad.  It’s long, it’s got layers – I hate it now, but I can see growing to love it.  So now I don’t know.  I’m thinking – Barbara Cartland, The Sun Also Rises, a book of Wallace Stevens’ poems… I’m going to have to go with The Sun Also Rises.  I know it doesn’t say anything good about me that I’d rather have Barbara Cartland than Ernest Hemingway, but there it is.  The Sun Also Rises is short, it’s sexist, it’s dull, and I can’t stand Ernest Hemingway.

(Ernest Hemingway anecdote: One time I was walking past the civics classroom at my high school, which was taught by this insane woman who told us that when her daughter got kissed at the altar “it was very, very special because it was her very first kiss” (doubtful), and the woman was in there talking about expatriates.  She said, “I know a lot of you like Johnny Depp, but you should all know he’s an expatriate.  Anyone know any others?” and someone said Ernest Hemingway, and she said, “And look what happened to him!  (Pause) Suicide!”)

What book would you take with you if you suspected you might be marooned in the near future?

While this would depend on what size bag I had with me, I have to be unoriginal here and say the Bible.  It’s very long and written by a lot of different authors, giving it an edge over 1001 Nights or a complete works of Shakespeare.  But I might also consider taking the complete Sandman if I could get such a thing.

What forces you to read outside your comfort zone?

I don’t know.  I guess having read all my comforting books really, really recently, and desperately wanting something new to read, and being aware that a new book could become a comforting book very quickly like that time we went camping over Easter my junior year of high school and I spent the entire time in the cabin reading the Amelia Peabody series (wow, that was fun).  That’s pretty much the driving force behind reading other people’s book blogs.

Waiting for Daisy, Peggy Orenstein

Oh, how distressing I found this book, and oh, how I wished that Peggy Orenstein had kept this whole distressing story to herself.

I got annoyed with Ms. Orenstein straight away when she said that in her pre-baby-mania days, she used to say that women who made pre-Betty Friedan choices shouldn’t be surprised when they end up with pre-Betty Friedan results. Which is to say, women shouldn’t choose to be stay-at-home mums, as that is a choice that could never be feminist, and if they do make that atavistic choice, they just deserve all they get. Nasty.

I found this book really, really creepy. She didn’t want a baby until it was suggested to her that she couldn’t have one, and then she didn’t want anything else but that. Superfastreader, on whose blog I read about this, says that Ms. Orenstein views having a pregnancy as an accomplishment she can’t live without, and that is exactly it. It’s as if the baby she envisions isn’t a baby, but some magic solution to all her problems. Like she needs the baby to fix her, instead of for its own sake; like her identity can’t be true without this baby. This passage made me queasy:

I no longer knew how to find my way back to my marriage unless I was pregnant. I needed a baby to restore faith in my defective body, heal my wounded sexuality, assuage my grief, relieve my feelings of failure – to make me whole again.

Ick.

But probably the most creepy thing of all to me was this: There’s a twenty-one-year-old girl that Ms. Orenstein has been in contact with since the girl was sixteen, a relationship that developed based on a book Ms. Orenstein wrote previously that meant a lot to the girl. And the girl, Jess, offers to donate eggs, and the author lets her and Jess’s parents support this, and Ms. Orenstein hopes that one day she’ll be that kind of parent to her own child.

Dude. Boundaries. I’m sorry, but there’s an extreme balance of power issue here with Ms. Orenstein and this girl, and I cannot imagine how it would be possible to be so self-absorbed as to subject a young woman, a young woman who trusts you and looks to you as a mentor, to this upsetting, painful (and, as it goes, unsuccessful in this case) process, so that you could have a baby to fulfill all your own needs. To be honest, it’s not unlike these creepy math teachers at my high school who used to make friends with all the high school girls and then have sex with them when they hit eighteen.

I’ve seen dozens of reviews that say this is so searingly honest and funny and tragic – and yes, it’s honest, so snaps to her for that, I guess, but funny? Not so much. In any spot. Ever. Too much instability in sense of self. Too much using of other people for her own ends.

Matrimony, Joshua Henkin

Recommended by: Books and Cooks, who reads good books and has pictures of pretty food that makes me feel envious. I finished this today, and then I went ahead and read Waiting for Daisy, and I had such a strong reaction to Waiting for Daisy that I’m having a hard time remembering what I thought of Matrimony.

This is one of those that doesn’t have a catchy plot. It starts with the main character, Julian, and he meets a friend called Carter in his freshman year writing seminar. Julian meets a girl called Mia and Carter meets a girl called Pilar (I really have a hard time believing that’s a name), and then it’s about what happens with them. Mainly Julian and Mia. Lots of cancer and fertility issues and marriage problems – so actually, not entirely unlike Waiting for Daisy.

I thought this book was spotty. In bits I was greatly enjoying it – the first segment, for instance, when Carter and Julian are in writing class together, I thought was excellent – and in bits I was just plodding along wanting to get to the end. Sometimes everyone got way much omphaloskeptic. Sometimes I was quite invested in what was going to happen. Sometimes just not at all.

In sum: better, actually, than I expected, but I won’t ever find it necessary to read this again.

A Charmed Life: Growing up in Macbeth’s Castle, Liza Campbell

Recommended by: A Garden Carried in the Pocket, who always seems to read such interesting books, that lucky duck.

I am very, very fond of dysfunctional family memoirs.  Or crazy people memoirs are also fine too.  Both types of memoirs make me feel grateful for my own lovely family, which is not at all dysfunctional and handles crazy extremely well.  So I enjoyed this, and it was also an interesting insight into the ways of the toffs.  (Cause I’m all lower-middle-class American South girl.)  When I started reading it, I thought that Liza Campbell didn’t compare well to people like, I don’t know, Catherine Gildiner who wrote Too Close to the Falls – but as I went on, her writing style grew on me.

Her father was the twenty-fifth Thane of Cawdor, and he was much with The Crazy.  He became convinced his mother-in-law was a witch, a real witch, and he put scissors all over the place in Cawdor Castle as counter-hexes, to protect himself.  (This is a minor incident in the book – it was just one of those moments of Crazy that made me pause and say a little thank-you prayer to the Lord for my mental health.)  Oh, and I also learned that apparently in France the second twin out is considered to be the older twin.  Because of being conceived first is the notion.  And all about the proper etiquette if you shoot someone when you’re out hunting.  (I won’t make a Dick Cheney joke about that.)

Like most of these memoirs about The Crazy, this was interesting and sometimes funny and also really, really sad and a little creepy.  I obligingly passed it on to my mother, and I’m sure my little sister – also a fan of books about Crazy – will be in line to read it too, since I kept distracting her from Sunshine yesterday night by reading her bits of A Charmed Life.

Sisterland, Linda Newbery

Ah, Linda Newbery. I’ve been meaning to read one of her books for about a year and a half – I very vaguely remember wanting to buy it at the Foyle’s on the South Bank when I was there in January 2007 with the family. Something with clocks.

Sisterland is about a girl called Hilly who has a problematic sister that’s got a crush on a racist kid (British kids are scary! I’m never raising my kids in England cause those British kids are way too frightening!), and her grandmother has got Alzheimer’s and is forever talking about someone called Rachel (on account of how she was secretly Jewish when she was a kid and she had a sister called Rachel who she lost touch with), and also there’s Hilly’s BFF Reuben who has a crush on a Palestinian kid called Saeed, and Hilly gets a crush on Saeed’s brother Rashid.

I enjoyed this, but my God, it dealt with a lot of issues. In that ostentatious way, like, And now, I will be dealing with the issue of – racism! Hey, don’t worry, homosexuality, you’ll get your turn! And look at the Holocaust crowding in on the side! Hold your horses, Holocaust, you’re our main event! I’m all in favor of YA books Dealing with Issues and everything, but I thought that Ms. Newbery was too clearly trying to Deal with Issues, rather than just letting them happen as they happened. And there was a lot going on here, so that none of them were really very thoroughly handled. Lots of juxtaposing of different kinds of intolerance, but not enough to where you really had time to get a ton of sympathy for anybody dealing with the intolerance.

Still, it was good. Not as good as I bet that book of Linda Newbery’s is that I saw at the Foyle’s but my library doesn’t have and I can’t remember its title and will thus never find it … but pretty good.

His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik

Recommended by some book blog somewhere, though damned if I remember where. I’ve been meaning to get this out of the library for ages, and it was very fortunately not checked out last time I went.

Oh, it was such fun to read! I was so pleased by it! It’s all about the Brits during the Napoleonic Wars, only they’ve put in dragons also. Laurence, the main guy, is a captain in the Royal Navy and he’s all got his duty and good manners and his ship captures a dragon’s egg from a French ship, and the egg hatches and he gets stuck with the dragon. But happily for everyone, it’s a lovely dragon with a sweet temper and many nice skills, and furthermore it is the Rarest Kind of Dragon Ever.

The book charmed me. I like reading books where people are being all British and courteous and duty-to-the-crown and “Surely, sir, you are not questioning my loyalty?” It wasn’t one of those books with a thrilling plot and you can’t put it down because you simply must find out what happens, but it was one of those books that’s just totally nice and friendly. His Majesty’s Dragon is like the Ramen noodles of books: not the greatest thing you’ve ever had, but so pleasant and comforting and possessing the capacity of making you feel like everything’s totally fine.

I’m in such a good mood now. I may go outside and skip.

The Door to Time, Pierdomenico Baccalorio

Recommended by: Books and Other Thoughts

One of those books I wish I’d read when I was a kid. I would really have enjoyed this book as a kid. These twins, Jason and Julia (must people’s names match?) move into a great big house on the ocean. Their parents immediately leave, they meet another kid who lives nearby (Rick), and the three of them are plunged into exciting adventures with codes and clues and dark passageways and boats that take them to ancient Egypt.

If I were about ten years younger, I would have – well, probably still not thought this was the best book ever, but I would definitely have read the other ones in the series. Because, you know – plucky kids! Who decipher codes and solve riddles! And Egypt! Lovely Egypt! But as it is, I’m more critical of the writing style, and I want more out of the kids’ interactions with each other, so the book was fine but I can’t be bothered reading the other ones. Too busy reading His Majesty’s Dragon, which I’m enjoying a surprising lot so far.

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.