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.

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card

The public librarian recommended Ender’s Game to my eighth-grade class, lo these many years ago, and from there I read just about all of Orson Scott Card’s books except the ones I thought looked lame.  And including several I thought wouldn’t be lame but were, after all.

Just reread these two.  I also recently reread Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead and Children of the Mind, and I guess it’s because I most recently read Children of the Mind that I felt like I never wanted to read anything by Orson Scott Card ever again as long as I lived and even if I died and dead people brought me books in the graveyard and the only book I had at all was Speaker for the Dead still even then I would reject it totally and just lie all dead and read nothing whatsoever.

Yeah, that was weird.  But the feeling passed, and I reread Ender’s Shadow first and then Ender’s Game.  And I was really struck by how much more I liked Ender’s Game than a) I remembered and b) Ender’s Shadow.  Really.  It’s a pretty good book.

However, reading all this Orson Scott Card has made me realize how dreadfully smug and self-righteous everybody is.  They really are.  All the characters are, they all are, not a single one of them isn’t.  They just all think they’re totally right and they say many smug and self-righteous things in defense of their positions.  I thought that the reason I didn’t ever want to read OSC again was that I had just overdosed on his books, but I think now it was overdosing on smugness and self-righteousness.

Which is funny because those are two qualities I possess in spades.

This isn’t much of a review.  I’ll go again.

Basically, the humans are under attack by these aliens they call buggers (or formics sometimes), and the most brilliant children of all the children are being recruited to learn to be commanders so that they can fight the buggers off, and the most brilliant child of all the children is Ender.  (Except in Ender’s Shadow it turns out that the most brilliant child of all the children is actually its protagonist, Bean.)  And because Ender is so brilliant, they are grooming him to command the entire space army that will destroy the buggers, and his life’s really unhappy in learning-to-defeat-aliens school.

It’s good.  I don’t mean to put anyone off by saying that all the characters are smug.  They’re still fun to read about, because you know, a lot of times you have a good idea but when people say snide things about it, you can’t immediately think of the clever thing to say to prove what a good idea your idea is; but the characters in these books?  They can always think of the clever thing to say to prove what good ideas their ideas are.

The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Seriously, how can it be that I have never before known about this book?  This is exactly my kind of book, and I am in total love with its amazing greatness, and I am way, way psyched about reading the thrilling continuation of the story in its sequel, Robin.

Basically there is little angelic Robin and her standoffish airhead twit of a mother, Feather, and Robin is sweet and innocent and only ever makes one friend, the manly gallant eight-year-old Donal, who is promptly whisked away from her because of how sinful and naughty Feather is, being supported financially by the presumably-sleeping-with-her Lord Coombe.  And Robin grows up and gets kidnapped by German spies and then rescued – no, it’s true.  She does.  German spies.  You can’t make that shit up.  It ruins her sweet innocence and rosy outlook on life, which I don’t know why she had one in the first place considering how vile her life was.

There are just so many good things about this book.  Like when Robin, who has been living in a crappy attic room with a wicked pinching nurse while her mother parties downstairs, asks Donal, “What is – a mother?” and also, my personal favorite, “What is – loves you?”  God, it’s amazing.  Oh yeah, and when you find out that Lord Coombe is the way he is because of this lovely frail woman he used to be in love with that looks just like Feather and got beaten to death by her brutal brute of a husband?  That was SO AWESOME.

This is not your mother’s Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I mean, it is my mother’s Frances Hodgson Burnett, because my mum knew about this all along, but it is way not the same as The Secret Garden and The Little Princess.  This is a for-real two-volume novel with young lovers and trials and tribulations.  Loves it.  In some small measure it helps to ease my Ligeia-paper pain, and I will be a-reading Robin (the sequel! in which Robin scandalously gets herself PREGNANT and Donal unsurprisingly gets himself DEAD) this evening before I go to sleep.

Night Watch, Sarah Waters

Recommended by: A Life in Books, sort of, in that she said she loved anything by Sarah Waters and I randomly grabbed Night Watch when I went to the library.

I don’t know if it’s just because I love Britain in World War II or what, but I really, really loved Night Watch.  It was swell.  I so much didn’t want it to end that I put it down and left it alone for ages before returning to it today and finishing it all up in one gobble.

Basically it’s about four (Kay, Viv, Helen, Duncan – yes, four) people in London during and after World War II.  I am really shocking rubbish at plot synopses, but there’s not a lot more to say on this one.  It’s all about them, and it goes in three sections: one in 1947, one in 1944, and one in 1941, in that order.  So you’re reading to find out how things came about, rather than to see where things are going.  In a way I really like this – I love those films or episodes of TV shows where you see people carrying on doing things, where you see things that are clearly significant but you don’t know why, and then they flash back to a previous thing and you find out why it was so significant.

Which is why I loved this book to pieces all through the 1947 section and the 1944 section.  It was just the 1941 section that I thought fell off a little bit.  In a way, it felt really unnecessary – we find out how Kay and Helen met, how Viv and Reggie met, and what happened with Duncan and Alex.  And it was a bad finish to the book, I thought.  Not that I wasn’t interested to know all these things, but that it was a bad way to leave it, because we weren’t finding out anything that washed backward over the rest of the book and imbued it with new meaning, which I guess is what I was hoping for.  The 1944 section did this gorgeously to the 1947 section, but the 1941 stuff?  Neg.  I was sad and let down and depressed.

Oh, but I really liked the book anyway.  Okay, it didn’t end with a bang, but it was mighty interesting all the same.  And I love the Brits during World War II.  Finest hour, man.  Sarah Waters draws these interactions with such nuance.  I was in love with it.  Actually it reminded me a lot of The Charioteer, and I swear it’s not just because they’re both gay-themed WWII books; it’s the delicacy of the relationships and conversations.

Yay for Sarah Waters.  I checked out her other three books from the library, so I will let you know about those.  I was sad to find there were only three.  I know she’s only 42 and there’s no reason she should have dozens of books all written and if she did it might not suggest something flattering about the quality of her writing, but still, I liked Night Watch a lot and I wished there were lots more like it.  I’d like to give her a Favored Authors tag but it seems premature.

The Juniper Game, Sherryl Jordan

“What I want to do,” said Juniper, “is an experiment in mental telepathy.”  She hesitated, waiting for his reaction.  There wasn’t one.  “I know I have some telepathic abilities,” she went on more confidently.  “I can go through a pack of cards, face down, and guess about fifteen correctly.  And I often know who it is when the phone rings before I answer it.  But I want to try mental telepathy with someone else.  I want to try giving someone else my thoughts.  Images are easier to receive than words.  They’re more intuitive somehow, not so tied up in logic and reason.  I want to see if I can send images to someone else and whether they can draw what they receive.  I need someone who’s sensitive and a good artist.”

Dylan’s gaze shifted, and his eyes met hers.  “Me, you mean?” he said.

She smiled unexpectedly.  “Who else, Leonardo?  You’re perfect.”

This is one of those books my mum picked up for no special reason for my sisters and me and it turned out to be really good.  Or maybe my sister picked it up for no special reason and it turned out to be really good.  Whatever.

It’s about a boy called Dylan (why Dylan? don’t ask me) who is a bit of a geek and a loser but he’s brilliant at art, that lucky duck, and one day this beautiful popular mysterious girl called Juniper (what a good name!) notices he’s good at art and enlists him for her private psychic image-sending project.  At first they’re just sending images of things she goes and sees, but after a while it turns out that her ultimate goal was to travel mentally through time and send him images from Back In The Day.  The witch-burning day, as it goes.  And things get very intense for everyone.

(I find it tricky to cast a critical eye upon books I’ve been fond of for a while.)

I really, really like this book.  Juniper is a good name, for one thing, and for another thing, I have always wanted to be able to do psychic things.  All my faintly-psychic family members, as well as this book, assure me that this is no desirable thing and in fact can be very annoying for your brain, but still, although I mostly believe them, I am always a teeny bit jealous and wish I were not so completely close-brained.   But I think Ms. Jordan does a good job of integrating the supernatural elements of the plot with Dylan and Juniper’s family lives and the effect of their relationship on everyone else.  And the supernatural elements are most interesting.

It just occurred to me Sherryl Jordan has probably written other books, and – hey!  the library says that indeed, yes she has.  Yay.  There are six books of hers at my university library, and six at the public library, and I forgot to pay attention to the titles, so I don’t know how much overlap we’re looking at, but anyway, there are definitely at least seven of her books that exist and are available to me and I haven’t read them yet.  Oh goody.

Emily’s Quest, L.M. Montgomery

A really sad story: One time when I was in England I developed this mad craving to read all the Emily of New Moon books, so I went to great trouble to obtain them.  As things ended up, I had the first two on loan, and the third one I bought at a charity shop, so I read the first two lickety-split and returned them, at which point my yearning to read Emily’s Quest surpassed all imagining.  At this point it was late May, I think.  I was into exams and all.  And I had the bright idea – being a hardcore delayed gratification girl – of delaying gratification with Emily’s Quest, taking the book with me on the airplane home and reading it then, at which point it would be incredibly satisfying because I would have been craving it all the while in the interim.  But by the time the flight home rolled around, my primary emotions were excitement about seeing my family and soul-deep joy at the existence of my hat (oh, my lovely Ascot hat), and I was sort of no longer in the mood to read Emily’s Quest.

Well, never mind.  Here we are a year on, and I really enjoyed it a lot this go-round.  Teddy’s still boring, bless him.  I don’t know why L.M. Montgomery can’t write any interesting romantic leads.  All Teddy has going for him is that he draws pretty pictures.  Lame.  Not that she should have married Dean, but she maybe should have married that author guy who came and proposed to her and hurled a goblet at her.

The other thing I noticed this time – I was saying this to my mum – is that it’s funny how the main plotline throughout the series is Emily’s writing, and that’s the thing that drives everything else really, but she publishes her novel well before the end of the book.  The book only ends when she gets together with Teddy (at last).  Her man.  And I was saying it like those girls in The Ten Commandments.  And it’s sooooorta antifeminist, and you’d be hearing me complain about it with much greater anger if not for the fact that I remembered this: If the book had ended after Emily published her book (I don’t approve of the title The Moral of the Rose, by the way), we would never have had all those reviews, and that’s one of my favorite bits in all three books.

And you know what?  DEAN PRIEST JUST SUCKS SHIT.  The end.