The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

The reason for the brevity of those last two reviews is that I am really mostly just excited about The Graveyard Book, which came out today.  At last!  The Graveyard Book!  I have been yearning and yearning and yearning for it, and at last it came out, and I read it all outside on a blanket in my side yard, and it was nice and shady and breezy, and I felt very, very, very happy!

I went to Bongs & Noodles today to get The Graveyard Book, and they had not yet even opened up the box with the display that The Graveyard Book was going to be on.  The salesperson had to get a pair of scissors and open the box up just for me.  (I offered her my keys, which would have been more effective actually, but she insisted on using the scissors.)  It was very exciting.  I love it when Neil Gaiman writes a new book.  He should write a new book every day, and then I would be happy every day, and I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of them, so that when he died way off in the future I would still have dozens of new books by Neil Gaiman to read.

That would be nice.

The Graveyard Book is all about a boy whose family is killed when he is very wee, but he escapes and toddles away into a graveyard, and the graveyard decides to adopt him.  The ghosts all look after him and teach him useful lessons like Fading and Dreamwalking, and he has got a guardian called Silas, who consumes only one food, and it is not bananas.  He grows up gradually, and they call him Bod (with a D), short for Nobody.  The man Jack, who killed his family, remains interested in killing him, so Silas and the rest of the ghosts do their utmost best to keep him safe until he is a grown-up.  He becomes clever and resourceful, and he doesn’t like people who are wicked.

How I loved The Graveyard Book!  It was such a dear book!  There are all these ghosts you don’t get to know nearly well enough, and every chapter is a little story, and Bod gets into all kinds of trouble and learns valuable lessons and sometimes makes a friend.  I only wished there were more of it.  More Silas and more of the poet ghost, who was extravagant and helpful.  I am not usually overcome with sadness when a book ends, but I was extremely sad when I got to the end of The Graveyard Book.  I suppose because it was rather episodic, I expected it to go on and on and on, and then instead of that it ended, and I felt really sad because I was sure there were more bits that could have happened in the middle before it got to the end.  I was insupportable.  I had to lie on my back and stare at the humongous sky for a while before I was able to overcome my grief and start reading it all over.

Read it!  Neil Gaiman is wonderful!  I am glad he is still so young and can continue to write for many years still!

The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue

Recommended by my mother.  Of course.

This is a book about a girl in 1920s New Orleans who dies prematurely, before anything about her life gets properly decided, particularly before she makes a decision about her boyfriend Andrew, a fact that proves troublesome to her after she dies.  She is called Razi, and she haunts a Baton Rouge couple, Amy and Scott, who are dealing with the fallout from a loss of their own.  The story flips back and forth between their story and Razi’s life as a – for lack of a better word – ghost, over the years, and Razi’s life when she was properly alive.  She is a really excellent character.  When she is alive she says to her Andrew, “One lifetime isn’t enough to make all the trouble of which I am capable.”

I really love the main character’s name – it’s Raziela, the meaning of which I’ve seen alternately given as God’s secret and My secret is God, both of which are wonderful.  I like My secret is God particularly, to be honest.  My secret is God.  That is a good sentence.  I will have to find a use for that sentence.

The Mercy of Thin Air was good.  I like books about people successfully coming to terms with things that have been problematic to them.  This was melancholy in bits and joyful in bits and with good characters and good dialogue and I just liked it a lot.  Plus, you know, sister’s from the home state and her characters are always going to places that I have been, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans.  Hooray for Louisiana!  We have good food!  We have streetcars!  If anywhere in this country was going to have ghosts, it would be us!  Up with Louisiana!

Blankets, Craig Thompson

On reflection, I believe I am glad I didn’t buy this in my recent spate of bookbuying, because I have still not decided whether I want to own it forever.  It’s very good – a graphic novel memoir about first love and losing faith – and I enjoyed it both times I read it, and I am looking forward to Craig Thompson’s next, whenever that may be.  I don’t have anything bad to say about it, actually.  The drawings are black and white, line drawings, and Mr. Thompson makes excellent use of the whole graphic novel form to do things with implication and without words, which is something I so adore about graphic novels.  For someone who loves words as much as I do, I am incredibly pleased when an author can make something go without saying.

I suppose the reason I haven’t bought this even though it’s excellent is that it’s also awfully sad.  Awfully awfully sad.  I mean not depressing, but just very sad.  Plus memoirs make me a little anxious – which is funny considering how many memoirs I read – but it’s just that people write these books that tell dreadful stories about them and their family members, and it makes me anxious for their family.  Even though I’m sure they asked permission about everything they wrote.

Still it’s very well worth reading.  I shall probably continue to check it out of the library periodically until I eventually cave and buy it so I won’t have to keep getting it at the library every few years.  We’ll see.

Gentlemen and Players, Joanne Harris

Recommended by actually a number of book blogs – A Reader’s Journal and the other Jenny Claire from my lovely home state both reviewed it well.  I’ve been putting off reading this because I didn’t like Chocolat at all – I thought the film was better.  A terrifying and rare thing for me to say, and I generally only say it about The Princess Bride and Cold Comfort Farm; my opinion swayed in the latter case by how adorable I think Kate Beckinsale is, and how all the jokes surprised me in the film but not in the book, which I read subsequently.

However, I eventually decided to check this out when I discovered it was all about someone secretly trying to bring down a British public school.  It made me think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed very much, and besides British schoolchildren fascinate me with their dreadfulness.  How can they be so dreadful?  And I discovered I like this quite a lot more than Chocolat, all the nasty revenge things that went on, and Roy Straitley’s rude Latin asides (hurrah for Latin! the Latin teacher was the cleverest!).

I will now commence to spoil everything, so stop reading if you don’t wish to be spoiled.

You get alternating points of view of Roy Straitley, the old and venerable Latin teacher at St. Oswald’s, an old British public boys’ school that is snobby and unassailable, and one of the new teachers at St. Oswald’s, once unhappily a regular school kid looking in from the borders of St. Oswald’s, now back to seek reeeee-venge against everyone, everyone, everyone at St. Oswald’s.  It’s all very cunning and insinuating.  You think it’s Chris Keane all along, but in the end it turns out it’s a girl! Who pretended to be a boy when she was younger so she could sneak into St. Oswald’s and pretend to go there!

I don’t know how well this worked.  I didn’t know she was a girl until the end.  It sort of spoiled the book for me – when the new teachers first showed up, I thought, Well, obviously she’s suggesting it’s Keane, I’ll just skip to the end and discover whether it is really someone else, and I glanced at the end of one of the closing chapters, and someone said “KEANE?” in shocked tones right at the end of the chapter, and I assumed that that meant yes, Keane was the perpetrator of these wicked crimes.  It made me feel very fond of Joanne Harris, as I thought she was putting all the fun into how and why things were being done, rather than by whom.  Which is what I prefer anyway, when you know who did it, you can catch how and why straight along as you’re reading through.  But I didn’t get to have the fun of doing that.  I felt sad and let down when I got to the end and all was revealed.  Pooh.

But I enjoyed all the wicked things she did to everyone.  I did think the sex scandals were a little uninventive – it would have been more fun if she had managed to implicate maybe one or two people with the suggestion of pedophilia and then done something completely different for the others.  And, as I say, I was pleased that the Latin teacher was cleverest of all.  Up with Latin!

All in all, fun and engaging, and maybe sometime when I get over being cross with Joanne Harris for tricking me I will read it again and see how well I feel her twist-at-the-end I’m-really-a-girl device worked.  At the moment I think it was a little cheaty, but since I didn’t know throughout the entire book, I can’t really say.

Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik

For some reason I had it in my head that this was going to be the last of the Temeraire series.  Not really sure why I thought that – evidently Ms. Novik plans to have probably nine of them before she’s done.  She must have many, many facts in her brain to want to write so many books (even though she’s now ditched history entirely).

Yes, at this point she has abandoned real history in favor of stuff that’s more fun, which, hey, I’m completely fine with.  It would be silly to accept dragons and then complain that Napoleon had invaded London, so I have no complaints about Napoleon invading London.  Unless he starts tearing down things that I like, or doing something wicked on the area that will someday grow into the South Bank, my favorite bit of the world.

I enjoyed this book nearly as much as I did the first one.  Temeraire’s a point-of-view character now, off and on, which was fun given how cute Temeraire has always been.  He’s a mighty community organizer dragon these days, organizing the breeding ground dragons into a bunch of fighters for fighting off the wicked French armies.  It was refreshing to have everybody winning battles and having clever ideas, instead of all systems devolving into chaos, as has been the case so much in the last few books.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Iskierska in this book, I thought she was wasted.  You saw a good bit of her, but she wasn’t really doing that much – or no, I guess what I would say is that I wanted to see her grow up and become useful and clever and do cunning things, and she really didn’t.  She was just a nuisance, requiring to be watched and rescued, and I wanted her to be a mighty fightin’ power!  Maybe in the next one.  I like her and I want her to come into her own at some point.

The books continue to be entertaining.  I continue to like them enough to reserve them at the library but not enough to actually purchase them at the store.

The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott

There has never been a more picked-up-at-random than this book.  Basically I was at Bongs & Noodles before the storm, trying to pick out a good hurricane book.  And I kind of wanted to get Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I had already read it.  And I kind of wanted to get The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, because of how haunting I remember Never Let Me Go was, but I felt doubtful about it.  So I sat on a chair gazing at my options, and then I realized that what I really wanted was to read The Far Pavilions again for the first time.  Darling Far Pavilions!  Or I would have settled for Shadow of the Moon.  I greatly wished for some sort of machine that would have allowed me to revert to my pre-reading-Far-Pavilions self.  (Or my pre-Diana-Wynne-Jones self.  Then I could have looked at my bookshelves and had all these brilliant new books to read.)

Anyway, that was impossible, so instead of that I went and put “the raj fiction” into the Bongs & Noodles computer search thing, and it pulled up The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and I blew thirty-five dollars on the first two of the four.  Essentially because, you know, the Raj is interesting, and because I just wanted something long to get me through the hurricane, and because I figured if I hated it I could always return it before the two weeks was up.

(I hate the new B&N return policy.)

I actually really, really, really liked it.  It’s a story about stuff that happens towards the end of the Raj.  Basically, a British girl has an Indian lover, and she gets raped by a bunch of not-her-lover Indians.  And that bit of plot is dealt with pretty thoroughly, but what I liked about the book, actually, was the way Paul Scott writes.  He spends the bulk of the book looping around the primary events, having all these different narrators tell different bits of the story, and they’re all telling completely different bits.  Compared to all the background you get, the bones of the story – how Daphne & Hari fall in love, and what happens That Night – only takes up a few pages.  And Mr. Scott didn’t do the looping and swirling in a boring way.  It was all very interesting, with many, many people saying what they thought about The Incident, and also what they thought about the Raj anyway, generally.  Very, very cool.

I wish I knew more about the Raj, because I had a bit of a hard time with some of the politics, not knowing the facts of what was happening at this time.  It was interesting that Mr. Scott wrote almost entirely from the point of view of the British characters – I guess you could see it as him being racist and only giving voices to the Brits, but as a white girl who writes, I wouldn’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking for people whose experiences I could never, ever have had, so maybe that’s how he felt too.

Salman Rushdie was angry at this book because Daphne Manners gets raped, and she’s white, and he thought it wasn’t a good metaphor for the violence Britain was doing to India.  Which I can see.  And I realize that Mr. Scott was saying many other things besides just “A white girl got raped by brown people” when he wrote this story.  But still, there was a fair bit of classism to the whole affair, I thought, messily entangled with the kind of unrecognized racism that’s addressed throughout the book, and it was not very nice to read.

In addition, I found it unsettling because she – this is a spoiler though you’ll probably have figured it out by the time she explains just what happened – gets attacked and raped by a bunch of Indian hooligans when they spot her having sex with her (Indian) lover Hari.  And that was scary and I don’t like rape scenes.

All of which is to say, I enjoyed the bulk of this book enough to think it worth my while to read the second one.  I am interested in what Paul Scott has to say.  It is very difficult to deal fairly with racism and oppression when you are liberal-minded but still, inevitably, one of the oppressors.  As this is something that troubles me (a lot), I enjoy to read books that deal with it.

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.)

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.

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 Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

I heard about this from um. You know. Everywhere.

Before I went to England, I went to the bookstore to pick out three books for myself. They were leaving-home presents to myself, and I was going to read one of them before leaving America, and one of them on the plane to England, and one of them right before I left England. So I got a stack of several books, and I was going to decide which I wanted to buy. I sat down on the chair and read the beginnings of all of them, and The Satanic Verses was one of the ones I discarded.

You know what I bought instead? A Hundred Years of Solitude. It starts out really well and I hated it so, so much when I read the whole thing. I disliked it so much that after reading it on trains to and from Cambridge in the week before I left England, I took it to a thrift store in England and I left it there. I didn’t even care enough to bring it home. That’s true.

Anyway, now I really wish I’d brought The Satanic Verses instead. I’ve been so convinced that I was going to hate it that I’ve been refusing to read it, but I finally decided to straighten up and fly right. So voila, I finished reading it last night.

Totally, totally liked it. Not as much as The Ground Beneath Her Feet – i.e., I might reread it but I’ll probably never buy it – but I liked it a lot. It’s about these two guys who fall out of an airplane and they somehow miraculously survive because one of them flaps his arms and they sing and sing, and when they get back to regular life, one of them starts to turn into an angel and the other one into a devil.

Quite interesting. Many, many things happened. Very many exciting plot things. Gibreel’s girlfriend was called Alleluia, and Allie for short, which charmed me. And I felt so happy at the end when Saladin got his proper name back and made up with his father and everyone was friends. I felt so, so happy. I felt just like I felt towards the end of Breakfast on Pluto. And oh, I liked it the nasty revenge that Saladin got on Gibreel, even though it was very wicked and poor Allie didn’t deserve it.

And not to be a jerk, and I don’t in any way think that Salman Rushdie should’ve had a fatwa out on him because that is totally ridiculous, but I can kinda see Ayatollah Khomeini’s point, dude. (But not really.) Because it’s not just about the verses, although that would be upsetting if it were true (apparently it’s apocryphal, you will rejoice to learn), it’s about how that book is for serious not very nice about Muhammed. If I were Muslim and I loved the Muhammed more than my luggage because he’s the Prophet of Allah, this book would sort of hurt my feelings. Actually, even with me not being one tiny bit Muslim, this book made me a little sad how it portrayed Muhammed.

However, Salman Rushdie can write what he damn well wants, and it is just the silliest thing ever that he spent years and years in hiding with security people just because he wrote a book that wasn’t very nice about the Prophet.

The end.