The Stolen Child, Keith Donohue

Don’t call me a fairy.  We don’t like to be called fairies anymore….I am a changeling – a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do.  We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own.  The hobgoblin becomes the child, and the child becomes a hobgoblin.  Not any boy or girl will do, but only those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world.  The changelings select carefully, for such opportunities might come along only once a decade or so.  A child who becomes part of our society might have to wait a century before his turn in the cycle arrives, when he can become a changeling and reenter the human world.

Recommended by: A Life in Books

The Stolen Child is about the lives of the changeling who takes the place of Henry Day in the human world, and the child who becomes Aniday in the changeling world.  They are both writing.  It is quite cool.

There are so many things you could do wrong with a plot like this, and Mr. Donohue steers clear of most of these things; or if he doesn’t quite steer clear of them, he has the excellent sense not to linger on them.  Like: Henry Day in the human world becomes paranoid and insane (but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you).  I think insanity must be so much more fun to write about than to read about.  I am not a fan of crazy person stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” being an exception (but it is brief!), so I was glad that he didn’t properly Descend Into Madness.  I was also glad that the whole plotline of the fairies frantically trying to find a place to live didn’t go on for too long, because it got boring fastishly.

This wasn’t one of those books that you can’t put down – unlike with Looking for Alaska, I had no problem closing this book at the end of a chapter and going to sleep – but it had its own appeal.  It was somewhat wistful, which I am in favor of, and although the fairies could easily have been soulless and aggravating (pitfall alert! and well played, Mr. Donohue), in the end they were endearing and melancholy.

Actually melancholy is a good word.  This is a melancholy book.  It creates a mood.  Now I am melancholy. But I liked this book.

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), Jerome K. Jerome

I’m sure someone told me about this book – probably a number of someones, as it is old and famous – but I haven’t got the faintest idea who. It is also an impossible book to review; so I will just say, It was very funny (as it intended to be), and I enjoyed it a lot. Here is an excerpt. The whole thing is like this:

The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the River Thames altogether. They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered: “Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.”

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this bloodthirsty strain. We never ought to allow our instincts of justice to degenerate into mere vindictiveness. It was a long while before I could get Harris to take a more Christian view of the subject, but I succeeded at last, and he promised me that he would spare the friends and relations at all events, and would not sing comic songs on the ruins.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.

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.

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.

OMG SIZZLING GYPSIES

Or, I didn’t know the third Libba Bray book was out already!

Actually, ultimately, I am not that huge a fan of these books.  They entertain me but I can’t remember a single character’s name except Gemma.  I can’t even remember the sexy gypsy boy’s name, just that Gemma was having Totally Shocking Dreams about him the likes of which no nice Victorian girl would repeat to a biographer.  So basically I am not going to live or die by what happens in The Sweet Far Thing (not sure about this title), but I will be chagrined if the sexy gypsy and Gemma don’t hook up in the end.

Er, I am not shallow.  I do not require happy tidy romantic endings to all of my books.  I was really, really glad that I Capture the Castle ended the way it did.  I was!  And the same for I’m sure many other books and films where the two characters who were having sexual tension did not get together and live happily ever after, but I’m just having a hard time thinking of them right now.   All I can think of is things that caused me chagrin, like how Tashi went insane after the end of The Color Purple and Adam had an affair.  (Poo.)

Well, this steaming rollercoaster of a novel with some sizzling gypsies thrown in will have to wait, because my library isn’t letting us put holds on it yet on account of its being so new.  Perhaps I will pay a visit to Barnes & Noble and read it there.  Under plain covers.  Also (I blush to confess it) The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants fourth book, which I actually don’t think is a very good series but I am curious about what happens.  If only one could depend on not seeing anyone one knows.

(Just looked it up on Wikipedia – the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye – and apparently what happens is sex.  Sex, sex, sex.  I don’t think these girls are the role models they should be.  I am shocked, shocked, at their behavior, and I don’t think the author should be propagating nasty myths like about young girls not even in their twenties having extramarital sex.  Unless they are Victorian girls with massive crushes on sexy gypsy boys.)

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

Recommended by: http://poodlerat.bellonae.com

Aw, this book was cute.  I liked it.  There were some things about it that could have been improved, but it was a quite endearing story.  It’s set in an alternate Victorian universe where everyone flies about on tremendous flying machines that run on a particular kind of gas; the main character is this kid Matt Cruse who flies on a passenger airship for a living, having lost his father, also an airship crewman.  He meets a high-spirited girl called Kate who is on a hunt for these flying cloud creatures that her now-dead grandfather always wanted to discover, and they get up to all kinds of hijinks.   And there are pirates.

Of course the sky pirate thing has been done to perfection by the film of Stardust, and after that any other sky pirates are just not quite the same, much like all other pirate movies aren’t ever going to touch the first Pirates of the Caribbean because it was perfect and contained all the perfect things you need for a perfect pirate movie (including, it turns out, and I don’t know how anyone could have predicted that this was necessary, Geoffrey Rush.  Apparently it’s just no go making a pirate movie without Geoffrey Rush).  But I digress.

I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but it’s a pleasant one, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and stayed up late to finish it.  The cloud cats were very cool, and the ship people were entertaining and amusing.