Empire of Ivory, Naomi Novik

The Temeraire series continues, hooray! I liked this one much more than I did the last two. It was more pulled together than they’ve been, and Laurence was very, very polite, and Temeraire is still a cutie. I’ve been having ongoing concerns that Laurence will get less polite the more he hangs out with the Aerial Corps people (and Jane, who bores me).  He didn’t though.  He might have been the most polite in this book that he’s been in any of the books.  Ah, courtesy.

They flew to Africa, and I felt, of all the places they’ve been, Ms. Novik deals the best with Africa.  It’s full of mushrooms that are the cure for a disease that is killing all of England’s dragons, and Temeraire very fortunately has an immunity to it, so he goes off hunting for the cure.  Unfortunately, the tribe that cultivates the mushrooms is pissed at England because the slave trade’s legal there, so they are none too thrilled with the Brits.  I was pleased in this book to have some other dragons (besides the irritating ferals) for Temeraire to interact with.  I’ve missed Lily and Maximus, and I’m really hoping we get to see more of the bitty dragon that Granby has whose name contains so many vowels and k letters that I always forget it.

*spoilers now*

At the end, the Brits send an infected dragon to France in biological warfare manner, and Laurence and Temeraire go chasing over to France to cure the dragons because they don’t like biological warfare, and then Laurence goes back to England.  To be executed.  Which I’m sure he won’t be, but it was a good ending to the book.  I have the new one on hold at the library, so once I finish reading the other many books I have out, I’ll go and collect it.

Black Powder War, Naomi Novik

The dragons (and Napoleon!) are back.  Temeraire is still angling for dragon liberty.  Laurence is still sorting through his feelings about England and dragons, and still losing his temper when people have bad manners (yay for manners!).  In this book they’re all over the place – it’s all trekking off to Istanbul (and, okay, it’s not Naomi Novik’s fault that this plot thread got that They Might Be Giants song stuck in my head, but damn, I had that song stuck in my head for a while, where it waged a bitter war against the Dr. Horrible songs), and then flying around Europe being defeated by Napoleon.  Napoleon meanwhile, in addition to gaining power in massive big gulps, is now BFF with wicked Celestial dragon Lien, making me feel very uneasy in a way I never used to because Temeraire was always the only Celestial divine-wind-making dragon in town.

I had mixed feelings about this book.  I’m still enjoying the series, and I like it that Temeraire wants independence for dragons.  I was so, so happy when Granby got his own dragon, and I totally love the little fire-breathing dragon (hope to see lots more of her).  And I was pleased that Napoleon finally had a cameo, which, since I know virtually nothing about Napoleon at all, didn’t bug me the way fictional representations of real people sometimes do.

On the other hand, Black Powder War felt a little disconnected.  All through the first section, I was like, Gee, great, some more negotiations with cranky foreigners from countries America is not fond of right now.  Just what I didn’t enjoy at all about the last one.  And then BAM, that episode was totally over and everything was fine, and it was off to fight Napoleon.  Whereupon I discovered that I am still not at all interested in war.  My attention wandered wildly during all the battle scenes, and if I hadn’t been so close to the end last night before bed, I’d’ve ditched the whole thing and read Aurora Leigh instead.

So far, I would say this was my least favorite of the three, except for the bitty new dragon Iskierka.  However, I have extremely high hopes for the next book.  The dragons are all sick!  And there’s going to have to be cure-finding activities!  I anticipate good times.  Plus I looked up spoilers and found out that the next book contains some dovetailing of plot threads, which I’m looking forward to.  Onward and upward.  Screw Aurora Leigh.

(Not really!  My girl-crush on Elizabeth Barrett Browning continues unabated!)

Geek Love and True Love

The past few days have been a bit weird, reading-wise.  I was reading Geek Love – recommended to me by Toryssa as an antidote to the trite blahness of Water for Elephants (Water to Elephants?  I can never remember) – and then when I wasn’t reading that, I was reading the Brownings’ letters to each other when they were a-courting.

It’s been strange.  Geek Love is two stories running consecutively: the main character, Olympia, is a hunchback dwarf from a family that deliberately bred freaks in order to make their circus all interesting, and she’s telling the story of her childhood.  And then she’s also got things going on in the present with her tail-having daughter and this woman who wants to give the daughter surgery to de-tail her.  Oh, and Olympia’s brother Arty (who has flippers instead of hands and feet) has a cult of people that get their limbs cut off.  But then *spoiler* the circus blows up.  So oh well.

Interspersed with letters from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, in which they are so damn cute that my brain perpetually explodes.  Every time I think I can’t love Robert Browning any more, he says something even sweeter and I have to reset the scale.

And then back to Geek Love with the amputations and the telekinetic Chick kid.  The transitions have been weird.

Sorting through this confusion, I find that I do not care for Geek Love very much.  I didn’t like the family dynamic.  It was creepy, of course, the creepy parents with their creepy plans for the kids, and the creepy siblings with their creepy behavior, but it was sort of predictably creepy.  Creepy in ways you really could have anticipated.  Geek Love was such a strange book that I kept losing track of how blah the family dynamic actually was, but after a while I’d notice some discontentment feelings and discover that the source of the feelings was that the relationships between the family, while dysfunctional, were not interestingly dysfunctional.  You always knew what everyone was going to do.  I lost interest long before the book ended.

Oh, and?  I was also displeased with how the *spoiler* circus exploded.  It was like the author just got sick of the Binewski family and was trying to figure out what she could do to get rid of everyone so that she could get back to Olympia in the present in order to end that storyline unsatisfactorily too, so she was like, Well, hey, I’ll just blow everyone up.

Hmph.

I am much happier when I contemplate the Brownings.  Do you know about the Brownings?  If not, it is definitely worth your while to go and look up the Brownings and learn a little bit about them.  And go ahead and read The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  And then go ahead and read their letters to each other.  The ones from 1845-1846 are all the letters there ever were, because after they were married, says their son, they were never separated.

A sad (but nice) story: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last day (of life, I mean), she was sickly and he was fretting, and when he offered to bathe her feet to soothe her she said, “Well, you are determined to make an exaggerated case of it!” and she died in his arms and the last thing she said was that when he asked her how she felt, she said, “Beautiful.”

(That story makes me teary-eyed.)

The Brownings are lovely.  I always want to give them a hug.  They’re so brave and humble and affectionate and dear, and they always send letters to tell each other how much they love them.  When I read their letters I feel like that episode of Buffy where she’s all upset about Xander and Anya having a fight and she’s all, “THEY HAVE A MIRACULOUS LOVE!”

That’s me.  About the Brownings.  Darling Brownings!

…I’m not bragging or anything.  I’m just mentioning.  Robert Browning?  He was born on my birthday.  So unless you were born on 9 December or 23 April, and actually even if you were born on 9 December or 23 April, I still pretty much win at Best Birthday.  Because Robert Browning was a gifted writer and also a completely lovely person.

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Well, I was slightly less thrilled with this than the last one.  I know it’s good for Laurence to chill out a little bit because yes, he did in some respects have a stick up his ass, and I appreciate that’s not necessarily an ideal state for a stalwart hero to be in – but I got sad when he started to feel disenchanted with the British government and the Navy and everyone, and how he started thinking sedition mutiny thoughts.  I liked His Majesty’s Dragon because of how proper and British he was, and now he’s all different.  I don’t feel like I know him anymore.  *tear*

Laurence and Temeraire are off to China in Throne of Jade.  It’s all about what a rare and unusual dragon Temeraire is, and the Chinese are very cross that their most rare and unusual dragon, which was meant for an emperor (Napoleon), is being minded by an ordinary guy and being sent off to war.  In order to avoid irritating China so much that they start giving out dragons to France willy-nilly, Britain ships Laurence and Temeraire to China to sort the whole mess out.  It’s a long journey, so most of the book takes place on the ship’s journey to get there.

My main gripe is that there was a massive build-up for not much conclusion.  They spend all this time on the ship fretting about everything, whether Temeraire will be taken from Laurence, whether the Chinese are going to get angry with their wicked British dragon-having ways and kill them all, who’s evil and who’s okay, and then at the very tail end everything gets resolved really, really quickly.  (Except for the problem of dragon liberty, which is obviously meant for future books.)

That issue aside, however, I did enjoy the book.  Not as much as His Majesty’s Dragon, of course, but still quite a fair bit.  I still don’t like Jane Roland, but she wasn’t around much.  Although the book wasn’t fast-paced, it was interesting, all the conflicts that arose on the ship.  Just the kind of thing that would happen in these circumstances – different branches of the armed forces getting in each other’s way and being irritated with each other, the dragon being stubborn, culture conflicts – it was interesting.

Overall, I’d say – second book in a series with all the attendant problems.  Not bad, but not good enough that I feel compelled to read Black Powder War straight away.  It’s in my library bag and all, but I’ll just wait.  I think that will be better.

Lonely Werewolf Girl, Martin Millar

I was very skeptical about Martin Millar. I heard about Martin Millar from Neil Gaiman’s website, because he (Neil Gaiman) wrote an introduction to The Good Fairies of New York extolling its manifold virtues, so I got it from the library because I liked the title. I didn’t expect much out of it. The last time I trusted Neil Gaiman’s opinion, I read four books by Jonathan Carroll and hated them all desperately. (Yes, the obvious question is why did I read four of them then, and the answer is, I’ve no idea, it was long ago and I can’t remember. I think I hoped that the previous ones were just flukes and I would soon come to love Jonathan Carroll – like when I first read Diana Wynne Jones’s books and hated them – but that never happened.) So I didn’t think I was going to like Martin Millar either.

But I was so, so wrong. Martin Millar is a delight. I want to give Martin Millar a hug because his books please me so much. The Good Fairies of New York was charming, and they found a flower.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is better, however. Which is partly because it’s longer, so there’s more of it to charm me, and partly because all the threads of subplots come together really nicely at the end. It’s about a werewolf girl called Kalix who is very, very dysfunctional and the youngest daughter of the royal MacLannach werewolf family, and all the dreadful and exciting things that befall her family. There are many subplots. They dovetail beautifully at the twins’ gig when the werewolves have a great big knock-down-drag-out. It’s all very impressive.

The thing about Martin Millar’s books, at least the two that I’ve read – which is definitely not enough to qualify me to state this opinion about Martin Millar’s books generally, but is also not my fault because I live in a city in the Deep South where despite the surprisingly wonderful public library system there is a dearth of contemporary British fiction – is that he is very fond of that traditional British humor mechanism in which everything goes spectacularly to hell. In fact I read a study one time that said that British people love sitcoms like Fawlty Towers where things start from a point of order and then descend into chaos, whereas American people – something else that I don’t remember. Anyway, this kind of humor sometimes gives me stressful feelings, but with Martin Millar, I have faith that everything will iron itself out.

Besides which there is just something very sweet about this book. And Good Fairies. They make me want to go enjoy other sweet things, like the Brownings’ letters to each other, and that episode of Angel where he first has little baby Connor and defends him from the vampire cults, and that episode of Buffy where she gets an award at her prom and it always makes me cry, and that book we had when I was little about the persnickety old lady who learns valuable lessons about love from a little Christmas angel. Which, um, may not have been what Martin Millar intended when he wrote it.

Edit to add: I discovered Martin Millar’s blog, and it sounds like he does a lot of reveling in the joy that is Buffy. (Like me.) A man after my own heart.

I’m funny!

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

What kind of a book are you comfortable reading?

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

What kind of a book do you love to hate?

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

What was the last book you surprised yourself by liking?

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

What was the last book you surprised yourself by disliking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What forces you to read outside your comfort zone?

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

Waiting for Daisy, Peggy Orenstein

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

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

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

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

Ick.

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

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

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

Matrimony, Joshua Henkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sisterland, Linda Newbery

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

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

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

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