The House at Riverton, Kate Morton

I am not able to steer myself away from books that deal with the dying aristocracy in Britain before and during and after the World Wars.  Or just books set in Britain before and during and after the World Wars (recently before and recently after, obviously; otherwise that would comprehend the whole of British history).  I love them.  I love books set in Britain in this time period even more than I love books set in the Victorian times.  At least more reliably – there are some books with Victorian settings that are shocking tedious crap.

The House at Riverton is all about a woman called Grace who was a lady’s maid back in the day and is now in an old folks’ home talking to a film-maker about her history at Riverton; particularly, about the suicide of a young poet in front of the two Hartford sisters.  Hannah, the older girl, has yearned for freedom all her life, while Emmeline, the younger, wants to marry and settle down.

The House at Riverton isn’t the best book of its kind imaginable.  Although it’s clear that Hannah finds herself trapped, this book doesn’t do a fantastic job of creating sympathy for her.  Taken out of context, some of the things she does are really unsympathetic, but it would have been fine if we’d really had a vivid sense of the way she’s trapped by her times.  Not so much with that.  Sarah Waters does it more better in Fingersmith.  As well, some of the big reveals were predictable, and some of the plot devices strained credulity.

This is a guilty pleasure.  I devoured it at Costa, on the Tube, on benches on the South Bank, and in bed before I went to sleep.  Until about five-sixths of the way through, at which point, for some reason, the writing became madly choppy.  I couldn’t enjoy the book anymore!  Because the writing got so choppy!  It was all things like this:

She’d never felt such rushing freedom.  She turned her face towards the night sky; closed her eyes, felt the kiss of cold air on her warm lids, warm cheeks.  She opened them again, looked for Robbie as they went.  Longed to dance with him.  Be held by him.

Then he started to call out and she was worried someone on the embankment might hear.  Might come to their aid.  Might contact someone.  The police, or worse.

Seriously, there was so much of this, it was ridiculous.

That’s fine once or twice, but it was happening every second paragraph towards the end of the book.  I don’t know it suddenly got like this, when it wasn’t doing that for the majority of the book.  I didn’t like it.  This is why God made editors.  I know this book is long – did the writer and/or editor just get tired of making the effort as the book went on?  Seriously, the writing was way better in the beginning.

Anyway, I can definitely see this book progressing to the status of comfort book, and I look forward to reading her second book, The Forgotten Garden, assuming it ever, ever gets in at the library.

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Perfect Match and Vanishing Acts, Jodi Picoult

Sigh.

I know she’s better than this.  Ms. Picoult is an excellent writer.  She does good dialogue, her characters are generally consistent, the little kids are really good little kids.  In each case where I have begun reading a book of hers, I have stayed up way past my bedtime finishing it.  (In the case of Vanishing Acts, I was already up thoroughly late because I was introducing my friend Teacher to Firefly and I didn’t want to let her leave until she totally liked it and had stopped saying snide things about Kaylee.  Victory!)  So I will not suggest that she is a bad writer, at all.

Here’s the thing.  Sister loves her some dramatic irony.  And, um, also just some irony.  Also just some drama.  She is much with the drama and the irony and the dramatic irony.  It detracts from her books.  I mean, I didn’t even think it was possible to use the adjective “silly” to describe a book all about child sex abuse, but I can’t use any other adjective to describe Perfect Match.  I don’t even know where to begin spoiling it.  I mean, there’s the part where Nina shoots the priest in court and then acts crazy; there’s the part where it turns out that not he but a similarly-named priest from Loosiana (of course) who happens to be the dead priest’s half-brother who donated bone marrow to him to cure him of leukemia.  I mean, because why not?  And then there’s the part where the husband, who’s spent the whole book being all judgey-judge, secretly flies down to Loosiana and poisons the real perpetrator with antifreeze.  Oh, and the requisite guy in love with the female protagonist, hovering sadly in the wings.

It’s a shame, you know?  I feel like Jodi Picoult could write much better books than she is actually writing – though I suppose she’s feeling if it’s not broke don’t fix it.  (That expression never fails to make me think of that moment in the Disney Beauty and the Beast where Cogsworth and Lumiere are showing Belle around the castle and he’s talking about the baroque tapestries and he says “And as I always saaaay, if it’s not baroque – don’t fix it!”  Anyone else?  Anyone?)  It’s not the writing, it’s the plots.  She can’t resist high drama, and she can’t resist crazy plot twists, and it detracts from her books.  Making them into guilty pleasure type books, when I really think they could be a lot more.

Which of course isn’t stopping me from being on my massive Jodi Picoult kick, so I’m just off to read Nineteen Minutes now.  I am sure I will feel much the same about that one.

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.