Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos

Suggested by: My darling Mum

This was good.  Ms. de los Santos writes most truthfully about relationships.  The little girl was very interesting and intense.

I’d write more but I’m too busy trying to get school things done so that I can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer later.

Looking for Alaska, John Green

“When I was born, my mom wanted to name me Harmony Springs Young, and my dad wanted to name me Mary Frances young.”  As she talked, she bobbed her head back and forth to the MTV music, even though the song was the kind of manufactured pop ballad she professed to hate.

“So instead of naming me Harmony or Mary, they agreed to let me decide.  So when I was little, they called me Mary.  I mean, they called me sweetie or whatever, but like on school forms and stuff, they wrote Mary Young.  And then on my seventh birthday, my present was that I got to pick my name.  Cool, huh?  So I spent the whole day looking at my dad’s globe for a really cool name.  And so my first choice was Chad, like the country in Africa.  But then my dad said that was a boy’s name, so I picked Alaska.”

I wish my parents had let me pick my name.  But they went ahead and picked the only name firstborn male Halters have had for a century.  “But why Alaska?” I asked her.

She smiled with the right side of her mouth.  “Well, later, I found out what it means.  It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska.  It means ‘that which the sea breaks against’, and I love that.  But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there.  And it was big, just like I wanted to be.  And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”

Recommended by: SassyMonkey Reads

Looking for Alaska is about a lonely guy who goes to a boarding school so that he will make friends, which he duly does, and one of them is a mad girl named Alaska (mad in both senses of the word; I am in love with the English language), with whom he duly falls in love, and then she is dysfunctional and many things happen, and actually I think it was quite good, and I believe I shall check out that other book by John Green that everyone says is good.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.

Nope, a subsequent anecdote that made me laugh so much I find it worth editing this post to tell it to you, Internet.  My sister was in a YA fiction class at university, and the teacher was super touchy-feely and encouraged everyone to share, and sometimes there was oversharing.  And when they were talking about Looking for Alaska, this one girl said, “OMG, that scene where they’re having that really awkward scene where she’s trying to give him a blow job?  I mean, girls, we’ve all been there!  Hahaha, I must sound like such a slut.  But seriously we’ve all been there.”  Ah, oversharing.

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

Recommended by: I vaguely recall seeing the title and author of this book inside an IM window, so I’m going to go ahead and say that somebody told me about this book, but I don’t actually remember.  Anyway it’s a reread.  I’m giving it four stars because I enjoy it so much.  It maybe doesn’t deserve it.  I have lost all perspective.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty pleasure.  If you are an intellectual snob at whatever level, this book will appeal to you; but if you feel quite guilty about being such a snob, you might find that you can’t enjoy it.  However, although I feel faintly guilty about being an intellectual snob, I don’t feel guilty enough to deny that there is a part of me that wishes that everyone around me had read all the same books I have.  Think how nice that would be.

This is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin” set in a college where everyone has read all the same books everyone else has (lucky them), and they are always quoting Keats and Hamlet at each other.  Which I believe I would find rather trying.  But!  But, but, but!  The heroine (Janet) goes out with a chap called Nick who sets T.S. Eliot poems to (good) music of his own devising; and that I would not find trying in the slightest.  Though I believe he does Wallace Stevens as well, and I hate Wallace Stevens.  Hate him.  Hate.  Hate.  Hate.

Well, anyway, I am fond of the story of Tam Lin.  I like how Janet goes where she’s not meant to and tells all the knights at home to go away and rescues her true love with much fortitude and does not seem to feel terribly anxious about the whole affair.  I like my Fairport Convention song of “Tam Lin”, which is one of the few songs that I almost always put on CDs of songs to sing in my car — it’s a very good car-singing song, much like “O Valencia” and “Sheila Take a Bow”, and I never skip over it when it comes up on shuffle.  I like Fire and Hemlock absolutely vastly, enough to buy the pretty bubble-cover copy when I was in the UK even though I already had a copy at home, and I will review it here when next I reread it.  So I was disposed to like this, as I already knew the story was going to be brilliant.

Tam Lin is not an ordinary kind of fairy-tale retelling, as it spends a lot of time on college-related (but not Faerie-Queene-related) things like what courses people are taking and what they are all about, and why Janet’s roommate is so impossibly tedious that she hasn’t even read “The Hunting of the Snark”, that ridiculous girl! (so you see what I mean about intellectual snobbery)  This (the college things, not the Snark things) is actually rather diverting, and there are just enough mysterious events that you mostly remember there’s a plot going on, in addition to all the romance and reading of books.

I found this book rather unputdownable the first time I read it, particularly as the end drew near, to the extent that I did something I never, ever, ever do at university, which is I read it during my Christian and Byzantine art class, under my desk, even though I was sitting up in the front row in plain view of my professor.  This time, having acquired it through PaperbackSwap, I’ve been reading quite at my leisure, during commercial breaks while watching Guiding Light and House, under my desk during my CLST class (yes, yes, but I don’t sit in the front and it’s not necessary for me to take notes in this one anyway), while I munch on my mid-day quesadilla, and so forth.  It is still friendly and pleasant.  If it had not come up at an opportune time on PaperbackSwap, I might well have bothered to spend money in order to obtain a used copy.

I would say ultimately that it isn’t as pulled-together a book as it might be.  Fair enough, as “Tam Lin” isn’t an awfully pulled-together ballad, but still there were some plot kinks that aren’t well explained, things that don’t iron out nicely once everything sorts out at the end.  Good fun nevertheless.  I wouldn’t peddle this book to others, but I do enjoy it myself.

P.S. I really hate Wallace Stevens.  I really, really do.

P.P.S. Whenever I read “Tam Lin”, I sort of wish my name were Janet.  But then I suppose very few people would sing “Tam Lin” to me, whereas hordes of people would sing “PLANET SCHMANET JANET” to me.  In fact I know this to be true because I have a friend called Janet and I have always said PLANET SCHMANET JANET to her and never “Tam Lin” one single bit.  So.

P.P.P.S. Sometimes when I feel that words or phrases I like are being underused (such as “cross” to mean angry and “upset” to mean “tipped over”), I work them into my everyday conversation, thus returning them to (my) everyday life.  I have long felt that I would love to bring back the exhortative form “Do you” (“Do you ask Mumsy whether we may pour ketchup into the back of the piano.”), which the Robin character uses sometimes in this book, but I know that it would just make life difficult for my auditors.  And, in fairness, if someone used it to me, I imagine I would be perplexed too, as it has fallen out of general usage and I would not be expecting someone to use it.  Oh well.

The Semi-Detached House, Emily Eden

Which can be read here, as it is out of copyright, and also this website is brilliant and I am all in favor of celebrating women writers.

Recommended by: Box of Books (whom I owe an apology)

I am sorry for griping abut The Semi-Attached Couple and its unbitchy nature.  Emily Eden is very amusing, and in many ways she is quite like Jane Austen but bitchier.  So I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions even though Helen in The Semi-Attached Couple was very annoying.  Now I have just finished The Semi-Detached House, and it was completely charming.  Everyone in it was so endearing, and they had such pleasant conversations, and everything worked out so neatly, although frankly I was hoping that a certain person and another certain person wouldn’t get engaged, and I thought briefly that Emily Eden was going to dare to leave one of the women single.  But she didn’t.  Oh well.

Here is what the sweet old mother says that made me laugh while I was waiting in line at the post office to send an envelope that will Decide My Future:

Lord Chester and Doctor Ayscough said such clever things about poisons; I thought I would remember them for fear of accidents; but I am not quite certain whether I have not forgotten part.  However, I know it is not wholesome to take strychnine in any great quantity, so mind that, girls; arsenic, which is very apt to get into puddings and gruel, should be avoided, and you should take something after it, if you do swallow any – but I forget what.  It was really very interesting, and I like a good murder that can’t be found out; that is, of course, it is very shocking, but I like to hear about it.

Awww.  She’s cute.  Whenever anyone says “shocking” now, I think of that adorable BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey (which has already come on Masterpiece Theatre, so you’ve missed it if you didn’t see it) and adorable Felicity Whatsit who plays Catherine, with her big wide eyes and Isabella telling her “It is the most shocking and horrid thing in all the world!”  Oh, and also, the sweet old mother has two daughters, and one time they are talking to a girl who is in some difficulties, and

They were induced to adopt their usual resource, and to call to mamma to come and satisfy the disastrous state of Miss Monteneros’s existence.

Story of my LIFE.  And here is a description of a boat called an outrigger which I don’t know what that is, but the description sounds exactly like my views of kayaks:

It may be necessary to explain that [it is] an apology for a boat, and, apparently, a feeble imitation of a plank – that the individual who hazards his own life in it is happily prevented, by its absurd form, from making any other person a sharer in his danger – that he is liable to be overset by any passing steamer, or by the slightest change of his own posture – that it is difficult to conceive how he ever got into such a thing, or how he is ever to get out of it again, and that the effect he produces on an unprejudiced spectator is that of an aquatic mouse caught in a boat-trap, from which he will never emerge alive, notwithstanding the continual struggle he appears to keep up.

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

It was full dark….I knew he could see in the dark; I knew vampires can smell live blood….No, I thought.  That hardly matters.  He isn’t going to forget about me any more than I am going to forget about him, even if I can’t see or hear him – even if I’ve got so used to the vampire smell I’m not noticing it any more.  Which just made it worse.  I thought I would have to see him cross the gray rectangle between him and me – I was pretty sure his chain wasn’t long enough to let him go round – I knew I wouldn’t hear him.  But…I hadn’t seen him drink either.  I bit down on my lips.  I wasn’t going to cry, and I wasn’t going to scream…

And speaking of non-trashy vampire books, I give you Sunshine, by Robin McKinley.  The eponymous Sunshine, baker at a local coffeehouse, gets abducted by vampires for nefarious purposes I won’t go into here, and what with one thing and another, she gets sort of sucked in (ho, ho, ho) to some goings-on in the vampire world, and it’s tricky for her because in fact she would sort of prefer to be a coffeehouse baker.  Rather than Defeating Evil.  And there are some desserts and a vampire of much greater elegance and better mastery of language than Edward of Twilight.

As I say, a non-trashy vampire book, though reading the trashy one and watching Dark Shadows (best show ever, by the way, with Lt. Nathan Forbes (Joe in the present day) as the absolute best character on there, though we like Carolyn quite a lot too) did have a lot to do with the timing of me rereading this one.  I’ve not read it in ages, actually – the first time was on one of our “camping trips”, where we basically make a ton of food and eat it over the weekend while the more adventurous of us go hiking or boating and the lazier of us (this always includes me) sit home and read things.  Sunshine was an excellent find, definitely better in quality than this past year’s major book undertaking, which was Forever Amber (and also Purple Hibiscus and Cordelia Underwood, but those took up much less of my time and emotional involvement).

What I would say about this book is that it leaves you still wondering about a lot of things.  A lot of things.  And some of them are good things to wonder about, like, Why is Constantine such a cool name, and why is the world so constructed that it would be unacceptable for me to name my kid Constantine?, but some of them are things you don’t want to be wondering about at the end of a book, like, What’s the damn difference between Con and Bo anyway (apart from the obvious nice/mean distinction)?

However, I find upon rereading that these are less frantically crucial issues than I thought they were last time I read the book.  Last time I finished it and I was like, Well for Christ’s sake thanks for nothing! and I was particularly cross, may I just say, about not finding out anything interesting about the goddess of pain.   Actually I’m still a little cross about that.  But this latest rereading, which as I say is a good long while on from when I read it last, has made me feel better about the general construction of the book and advancement of the plot.

There is definitely that thing that Robin McKinley is prone to, where she has to describe the way people are feeling and the entire background story to a remark someone’s about to make/just finished making, in unreal amounts of detail.  She sometimes sacrifices the plot for this (see: Dragon Haven (but not really, I read it before I started this website)), but not in the case of Sunshine.  It is occasionally too much but mostly quite interesting because hey! vampires!

So I vote yes to this book.  Indeed I would say her best since Beauty.  Though Deerskin was also quite good.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

To quote the bit that charmed me into buying it:

[D]ue to her “troubles”, she’d voluntarily admitted herself to a “Narnia kind of place” where people talked about their feelings and learned to watercolor fruit. Jade hinted excitedly that a “really huge rock star” had been in residence on her floor, the comparatively well-adjusted third floor (“not as suicidal as the fourth or as manic as the second”) and they’d become “close,” but to reveal his name would be to forsake everything she’d learned during her ten-month “growth period” at Heathridge Park. (Jade now, I realized, saw herself as some sort of herbaceous vine or creeper.) One of the parameters of her “graduation,” she explained (she used this world, probably because it was preferable to “release”) was that she tie up Loose Ends.

I was a loose End.

Recommended by: http://estellasrevenge.blogspot.com

I have just this minute finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and I am in the process of deciding what I think. I went to some trouble to obtain it – first buying it at the bookstore and then getting it from the library in order to screen it and decide whether I want to own it – and I intended to have a definitive answer (I’ll be honest, I was expecting a definitive yes) as soon as I finished it.

Frankly, I suspect the only reason I haven’t got a definitive answer is that I gave in to the brainwashing by modern society. All through the book I was thinking, I really want to read the end of this book, and every time I thought it, I said to myself, Now Jenny, this is just irrational. You know about delayed gratification, and it’s going to be so much better if you let yourself be surprised.

This is a mindset that has arisen since the Harry Potter books, namely since the sixth one, when I just glanced at the end to check whether Ginny was going to be okay – for God’s sake, Harry deserves a little happiness! I was thinking hysterically, it being extremely late and myself being the only one awake and in a foreign country – and of course my eye fell on the sentence that said who died. Sheesh. Though in a way it was good because I didn’t have to worry about anyone else dying, but in some ways it was really unfortunate, because every time that character was around I’d be like This is it! This is the end! This is the last time I will ever see you! And I regretted it in that one instance, but the Harry Potter books are an exception to my general read-the-end-as-soon-as-you-logically-can policy, and I shouldn’t have let them throw me off to this extent.

It’s gone too far and I have to stop it. Some people don’t like reading the end; I am the kind of person who likes to read the endings. When you read the end, you enjoy the middle a lot more. Especially in mysteries of the non-Agatha Christie variety. And if I had read the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I believe quite firmly that I would presently be writing a glowing review of the book. As it is I’m not sure that it was quite fair of Ms. Pessl (I wrote “far of Ms. Pessl”, which is certainly also true) to have the tremendous long build-up in the first two-thirds of the book before beginning the dizzying descent into comprehending all of the events you more or less thought you already comprehended anyway. See, if I had read the end and I knew everything, I’d have been like, Whoa, dude, this is prettttttty craaaaazy right here and I am enjoying it A LOT.

So thanks, world, for brainwashing me into reading books your boring-ass pedestrian way of reading books. Don’t take this as criticism. I’m just saying that when you don’t know what shit means until you finish the book, then that incredibly valuable and wondrous thing, The First Time You Read It, gets completely screwed up and ruined because you’ve missed all the layers even though they were there all along. Which is too bad because I’m completely in love with the end of this book. I love insanity. The greater the scope of (book-based) insanity, the better, because I am a sucker for the grandeur of the fictional and insane. I just would have loved this book more if I’d known how completely insane it was in the first place.

I seriously can’t decide if I want to keep my purchased copy. Can’t decide, can’t decide. I love the madness of the end. I really do. I’m just not sure if it makes up for the bits in the middle where I was thinking, Oh my God, get over your frantic desire to make shiny new similes because although sometimes they are very nice and really clever, there are also times when I want to PULL OFF YOUR FACE for the assaults you are perpetrating on English prose.

That reaction was unfairly vehement – only because the stakes were high on account of my having spent some of my Christmas Bongs & Noodles credit on this book and being stressed about whether to Keep It or Return It. It is, however, true that Ms. Pessl occasionally allows herself to become enamored of her prose to the exclusion, or at least partial exclusion, of moving the plot along in an interesting manner. This is, mind you, only before – well, I’d say before the bit where Milton and Blue go over to Hannah’s house. Page 389ish.

I think what would have made this book drastically better for the first two-thirds would have been the fleshing-out of the Bluebloods. We see a lot of them, but they aren’t ultimately all that interesting. Cardboard cut-outs a bit. They’re too focused on Hannah without ever really being very much themselves, which may be because they’re not ultimately relevant, but shit, if they’re going to be in there for such a quantity of pages, at least make them fun to read about.

Nevertheless, I think I will probably read this again sometime. It’s only a question of whether I’ll be reading my own purchased-Christmas-2007 copy or a copy belonging to my local library.

Edit later to add: The more I think about Special Topics, the more I think I really like it.  (Too bad I already returned it.)  I believe that my difficulty was that I was under the impression that it was a coming-of-age novel, and if it had been primarily a coming-of-age novel, it would have had to be more tightly written, and I got frustrated when it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Actually it’s a mystery.  See, if I’d known, I don’t think I’d have bogged down in the same way.  So I am going to go with, This is a very excellent book (except the Bluebloods could still have been more interesting).

The Wednesday Wars, Gary D. Schmidt

Recommended by: http://melissasbookreviews.com

I really don’t know how to explain this book. I liked it a lot, but anything I could say about it would make it sound like the kind of book that doesn’t appeal to me at all.

Like: A teenage boy learns lessons about life during the period of turmoil and chance in the 1960s.

(Ugh.)

Or: A teenage boy finds the plays of William Shakespeare surprisingly relevant to his life.

(Hm. Did you think of that one all by yourself, Gary D. Schmidt?)

No, but seriously. Both of these things are true, but The Wednesday Wars is excellent. It does a lot of things that have been done before, and I kept thinking, Oh, Jesus, just when I was starting to think this book was original, but then it turned out to be indeed quite unexpected and interesting.  I guess what kept surprising me was that it carried on being genuine even when I thought it couldn’t possibly be.

That’s the best I can explain it. But I quite enjoyed it. I wouldn’t buy it but I would certainly reread, and after a certain number of rereads I might conceivably become fond enough of it to buy it then.

East, by Edith Pattou

Recommended by: http://melissasbookreviews.blogspot.com/

I say definitely yes to this.  If I had read it when I was small, it would have become one of my favorite books and I would have read it over and over again.  As it is, I liked it but I probably wouldn’t buy it.

Basically it’s a retelling of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, which is not my favorite fairy tale at all because the girl is such a silly brat.  I always think of Fire and Hemlock (ah, Fire and Hemlock), because Polly had a rather scathing view of the girl even though, of course, the girl was Polly.  As it were.  But this is quite good.  The girl Rose goes away with the white bear in exchange for having her sister cured of a sickness, and they hang out in his weird domicile where she has lots of books to read.  I would say that East owes a lot to Robin McKinley’s Beauty, which is why I’m not buying it, because I can just read Beauty, which is superb.

That said, I enjoyed the book a lot.  I suppose the idea of “east-born”, “north-born”, etc., seems a little forced and gimmicky, when you think about it, but when I was reading I didn’t feel that way at all.  I thought it was cool.  Quite nicely fleshed-out relationships also.  And a not-unsympathetic villain, which I support as well.  Good times.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

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

I totally love this woman’s name. Her book was sad. All about a controlling abusive Catholic Nigerian (what a string of adjectives) father and his wife and two children; the young girl narrates the story. That’s it, really. I wish I had more to say about this book. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was very very sad. And also melancholy. Ms. Adichie is good at evoking a mood. However, this book was very very sad and never will I ever read it again although I enjoyed it. It’s a fast read – I read it during a short break from Forever Amber when we were camping– so don’t avoid it because you fear hours and hours of misery.

Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Heard about in: Die for Love, by Elizabeth Peters

Apparently this book got edited down to one-fifth of its original length, for which I can only say praise God (though it must be thrilling for Forever Amber scholars to get their hands on the original manuscript, if it still exists). I cannot imagine how she could have gotten four times that much again into the silly book. Amber gets married FOUR TIMES over the course of the book and has lots of silly affairs and moans a lot about how her true love Bruce Carlton thinks she’s too trashy for him which is a bit rich I think considering that he’s sleeping around as much as she is and repeatedly shows himself incapable of resisting her trashy charms. However, I would not marry her either because a) I would not want to catch a nasty disease; and b) she is damn annoying and although he keeps assuring her he will never, never, never marry her, she still keeps bursting into tears and smacking him in the face every time the subject comes up.

In case this all sounds like I didn’t enjoy Forever Amber, let me just assure you, that is completely not the case. I read it on Saturday from start to finish, with a short break in between to read Purple Hibiscus (better quality novel but sad) and frequent pauses to update my family on Amber’s latest doings, and it was most absorbing. My family members kept asking me what she was up to if I didn’t let them know with a promptness, and towards the end Indie Sister and I were sitting on one of the couches reading the last few pages over each other’s shoulders (starting with the naked dress, the details of which I was not explaining to Indie Sister with adequate eloquence, and going on until she sails off at the end).

Just to give you an idea of how this book goes, I was explaining to my cousin and my mother how Amber had run away from her tedious rural life with her true love Bruce Carlton and how she had gotten pregnant and married (not to her true love) and dumped in the debtor’s prison and placed under the protection of Black Jack the Highwayman who made her help with his heists and was never very much use at paying off her debts, and my cousin said, “That can’t all have happened! You’re not even a quarter of the way through the book!”

I was, but it did.

Apparently this was written by an American (or Canadian?) lady during World War II, and apparently it got banned in several states and the Catholic Church had some severe things to say about it; and because it is an old and classic and genre-creating historical romance, and because actually it is not badly written (the descriptions of Amber’s clothes are yummy), I feel justified in assuring myself that I am not in fact a trashy-romance-novel-reader, but an Ardent Lover of the Classics.

P.S. My grandmother remembers when this book came out. She didn’t read it because it was too scandalous and she was a good Catholic girl (having embraced the one true faith).