The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe

I told Colleen at Foreign Circus Library that I love books about research, and she ever so kindly sent it to me in the post!  Lucky me, I read it over the weekend.  Poor Connie has just got through with her qualifying exams – sounds like a nightmare, that lot, I don’t think I was sufficiently sympathetic to my dear friend tim when she was having quals (sorry tim!) – and her scatty New Age mother demands she go fix up her (Connie’s) late grandmother’s old house and get it sold.  While living at the house, Connie finds a little key inside a Bible, and a name, Deliverance Dane; and this leads to all kinds of mad research into the Salem witch trials.

Although I enjoyed The Physick Book a lot, there were some smallish things that I thought could have been improved.  I was not in love with the Boston accent approximations – I know these things are difficult to do, so I give her mostly a break on that.  I thought the book telegraphed punches a bit, with Connie failing to pick up clues that even I caught, even though she was supposed to be doing a dissertation on colonial America and I, um, took American history when I was in high school.

Throughout the book we flash back to Deliverance Dane and her daughter and her daughter’s daughter and this was really excellent – I wanted more of it!  The sections from the past felt much more immediate and real than the bits with Connie doing her researching and having her rather unbelievable fling with Sam.  Deliverance and her daughter Mercy, in particular, made me get a bit sniffly since, of course, it being the Salem Witch trials, Deliverance gets hanged. Oh well.

Final verdict: This book sounded like one of Barbara Michaels’ books, and it really was a lot like that.  Only less polished.  Barbara Michaels but less polished.  I’d love to see Katherine Howe write an entire book set Back in the Day.  I bet that would be really good, although I don’t tend to love books set in colonial America.  I would read one if Katherine Howe wrote it.  I believe in you, Katherine Howe!

Other thoughts:

Tara at Books and Cooks
Wendy at Caribousmom
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
book-a-rama
S. Krishna’s Books
Devourer of Books
Medieval Bookworm
Booking Mama
3 Evil Cousins
Joyfully Retired
TV and Book Addict
Bookfoolery and Babble
In Search of Giants
Shelf Love
I Smell Books
LitBites
Literary Fangirl
We Be Reading
The Book Splot
My Two Blessings
The Burton Review
Reading Rocks
Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner

Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation, Martin Millar

I hope Martin Millar never reads this blog post and decides that I’m a jerk, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation is his first book and you can tell.  I wish you could not tell – I love it when I can’t tell – but you could tell.  You could also tell it was absolutely definitely Martin Millar and nobody else whatsoever, what with all the shifts in point of view, and the brief, brief little snippets of action at one time.  (My short attention span thanks you for that, Martin Millar.)  Like all of Martin Millar’s books, Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation was amusing and enjoyable and a bit frenetic.  It was just a smidge rougher than his others.  Lux the Poet was the same.  I still liked them both.

A Map of Home, Randa Jarrar

I just spent five minutes combing through my “Reference” page trying to figure out where I heard about this book.  I have no idea, but apparently it wasn’t from someone’s website.  I guess I must have just grabbed it off the new books shelf at the library.  A Map of Home is all about a girl called Nidali whose father is Palestinian and her mother is Greek-Egyptian, and they live in Kuwait first, and then Egypt, and then eventually America.  While she is growing up.  It’s a coming-of-age thing.

Really, this book was excellent.  The concept wasn’t the most original one ever, but the execution was superb.  Nidali was a wonderful narrator, giving these little details about her life that made it seem so clear and immediate.  She writes with affection and frustration for her parents, and they are very vivid – not her little brother though, who says virtually nothing throughout the entire book.  He seemed sort of stuck into the book without any real reason.

I thought the end, in particular, was really very good.  And I say this as a particular compliment because I have a hell of a time writing good endings to my stories.  It is hard to wrap up a story, even a story with a more cohesive plot than this one has.  I’m not having a go at the plot, saying that; the book really is interesting, and Nidali grows up, and it works, but it just must be incredibly difficult to come up with an ending to a bildungsroman-type story like this.  A good ending that sums up the book and leaves you feeling satisfied.  But Randa Jarrar not only wrapped up the story in a way that was very moving, but also told a final anecdote that left you feeling that yes, the book was over now.  It didn’t just stop, it ended.

The Fire Fighter, Francis Cottam

The Fire Fighter is about a guy who is good at putting out fires, so good in fact that he gets taken away from the front in Africa, and has to come back to London and protect these five buildings in London, during the Blitz.  He is not best pleased about this as it’s not clear to him what’s so good about these five buildings, and the mysterious Military Intelligence people are extremely vague and un-forthcoming.  He has a painful past, worries about his mother and brother, and falls in love with a German woman who works as a translator for the British (OR DOES SHE?).

I got this at the library without really wanting to, and I only started reading it this one night because I didn’t want to start reading a book that would be totally absorbing and would keep me up late; and once I’d started reading it I wanted to see it through to the end.  Often I will abandon books about which I feel this blah, but I read the end of the book after I’d gotten about twenty pages in (early even for me), and it seemed a singularly unsatisfying ending, and I wanted to read the rest of the book to see if contextual things in the rest of the book would make it better.  They did not however.

It’s not that Francis Cottam is a bad writer, but this is a first novel, and it shows.  There are all these disparate elements – his family life, his Dark Past, his relationship with the military intelligence folks, the buildings he’s protecting, his relationship with Rebecca Lange, the German woman – so many, in fact, that they never really come together.  No one element gets dealt with comprehensively or effectively, and there’s not much there thematically to bind all of them together anyway.  Except a general notion that life is bleak, bleak, bleak.  I should’ve quit reading it when I read the end.  That’s what reading the end is for.  Will I never learn?

Preludes and Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman

Riot’s blog, Burning Leaves, reminded me yesterday of how much I love the Sandman.  I went into the hallway and gazed admiringly at my very nice Sandman poster.  I just now went to find a small picture of it on the internet, so I could link to it, and I couldn’t find one anywhere.  I couldn’t even find one for sale on eBay.  So I’m glad I have this one, and if I had batteries in my camera I would take a picture of it and post it here.  It reminds me of when my love for Sandman was new.

I actually read The Doll’s House first.  I bought it from Bongs & Noodles, and the check-out guy said, “You read the first one, right?” and I said, “Well, y’all don’t have it.  Do I really need to read the first one first?  I can’t start with this one?” and you could see him trying to decide whether it was more important to him to tell the truth or to sell books.  He eventually said, “Yeah.  You really have to read the first one first.”  I didn’t.  You really have to read the first one first.  Or at least, you have to read the first one before the second one.  In the end I gave up on the whole Sandman for a while, then decided that I was going to damn well read them and I was going to damn well like them, and I bought all ten volumes with my high school graduation money.

Preludes and Nocturnes is not Neil Gaiman’s best work, but it is still pretty good.  I was thinking while I was reading it – damn, Neil Gaiman is good at coming up with incantations.  The spell they say to summon Death, while ineffective, is an excellent spell

I give you a coin I made from a stone. I give you a song I stole from the dirt.  I give you a knife from under the hills, and a stick that I stuck through a dead man’s eye.  I give you a claw I ripped from a rat.  I give you a name, and the name is lost.  I give you blood from out of my vein, and a feather I pulled from an angel’s wing.  I call you with names of my lord, of my lord.  I summon with poison and summon with pain.  I open the way and I open the gates.

How good’s that?  It’s evocative, and it scans.

At this point in the comic’s life, it was still mostly horror.  Particularly “24 Hours”.  Generally when I am reading Preludes and Nocturnes, I start reading “24 Hours”, and I get to the part where the waitress is considering her philosophy of storytelling.  She says that every story ends in death if you keep going long enough; and the trick is to know when to stop.  I usually consider this to be Neil Gaiman’s way of telling me that he doesn’t mind if I skip “24 Hours”, so I do.  This time, I was in a completist mood, and I read it.  It is well unsettling.  Feel free to skip it.  I will tell you what happens: Everybody dies in nasty ways, and at the end Dream shows up in a bad mood.

However, “The Sound of Her Wings” – I say unoriginally – makes up for any flaws in the foregoing seven issues.  Death is a delightful character, of whom we just never see enough.  I like it when she throws bread at him and talks about Mary Poppins.  Thanks to my wonderful sister Anna, I have this in a single issue, which I fetched down from my bookshelf and read.  I love having single issues of the Sandman.  Looking at the ones I have flashes me back to this little used comics & books shop on Portobello Market Road, which I visited almost every day of July 2005.  I was living in Notting Hill that month, so it was close by.  (On Pembridge Gardens, a street that was very easy to get to from the Notting Hill Tube Station, but it took me an hour and a half with two suitcases, because I made a wrong turn and every street within a ten-mile radius was called Pembridge something, and Londoners are crap at giving directions.  All except for this one street-cleaner, and at the time I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, though in retrospect I realize that he was giving me perfect directions.)  I wanted to buy all the issues because of the extreme beauty of Dave McKean’s covers.  I spent so much money at that shop.

If I could draw, I would want to be able to draw like Dave McKean.  I have recently decided to take King of Hearts off of my desert island five movies, and substitute MirrorMask.  Definitely.  If you haven’t seen it, see it.  It’s charming.  Especially the end.

Henry VI, Part II, William Shakespeare

Ah, this is more like it.  Not – you know – exactly like it, but more.  Much more political intrigue than fighting battles, and that always makes for a jollier play.  It’s all about the political machinations going on around Henry VI’s rule – everybody wants to rebel against everybody else. Gloucester wants to carry on being Lord Protector but the queen and her lover don’t want that because they want to be the power behind the throne.  The Duke of York and his pals want Henry deposed, because they feel that their claim to the throne is superior – which, in case you’re interested, it really is. Everyone is doing evil things, and it ends up with York sending King Henry running back to London. I know nothing good is coming for King Henry.

Once again, this play isn’t as together as future plays will be, and that could have to do with its being a history play.  Maybe Shakespeare just didn’t feel comfortable leaving out John Cade’s rebellion, given when it happened, so he had to stick it in and use it as comic relief even though it didn’t really fit with a lot of the other stuff that was going on.  I should read some of his later history plays and see how he does with those.  It was interesting to see shades of later plays here – cryptic prophecies and Gloucester’s power-hungry wife are clearly going to grow into Macbeth, the changeability of a rebellious crowd is much like Coriolanus, which I recall not liking as much as I liked Henry VI, Part II (though to be fair I read Coriolanus when I was depressed, so it may be better than I thought it was).

Holy Mother of God, King Henry is such a Victorian maiden auntie in this! He’s all, Oh, nobody could ever possibly do anything wrong, and when something bad happens, you know what he does, do you know? He passes out! Excuse me, swoons. The man swoons. I’m not even kidding. He swoons because he’s Miss Drusilla Clack. Oh, and then when he revives, he’s all weepy and hysterical and he’s all like Nobody talk to me, okay, I’m having my sad time right now! And when people try to talk to him he’s like LEAVE ME ALONE LEAVE ME ALONE LEAVE ME ALONE. What a wuss. No wonder the Plantagenets took over.

But parts of this play were so, so funny. Like, like when Warwick is accusing Suffolk of killing Humphrey, and Suffolk’s really angry about it, and he says (I’m paraphrasing here) Your mother was a big slut!, and Warwick gets angry back and says (again, I paraphrase), That would make me angry if I didn’t know that the real truth was that your mother was the big slut, you bastard son of a great big slut. Hahahaha, they got into the your-mama jokes. Classic.

Oo, and the bit where John Cade (he’s a Commie rebel from Kent) was doing his demagogue thing, and there were all these comments from the peanut gallery while he’s giving his speech, and then he knights himself – it’s obviously comic relief and everything, but all the bits with John Cade in are very funny. Did you know this is the play from which we have “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”? I did not know this.  Here is part of the John Cade bits:

It can be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear … Away with him, away with him!  He speaks Latin.

Teehee.  But there were also some lines I really liked – “Let him shun castles” is oddly haunting for something so short, and I found this quite creepy:

Patience, good lady; wizards know their times;
Deep night, dark night, the silence of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire;
The time when screech-owls cry and barn-dogs howl,
And spirits walk, and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.

There were others but I’ve just spent ages copying them all down in my commonplace book, and now I am too tired to write them all over again here.  You will just have to trust me when I tell you that Shakespeare?  He is hitting his stride.