The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, Martin Millar

Note: I received a copy of The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies from the publisher, Soft Skull Press, for review consideration.

Martin Millar writes books like classic British sitcoms, where there is a central organizing event (or several) around which the action is oriented, and the characters all have their separate and incompatible visions for what is to happen at this event, and everything goes magnificently to hell, and then in the end it all turns out okay, or doesn’t. Whether or not this works for you as a structure will most likely be the determining factor in whether you enjoy any Martin Millar book, ever — including his most recent novel, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies.

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is set in ancient Athens, about midway through the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens and Sparta are holding a peace conference, and the city is preparing for the Dionysian festival at which new plays will be presented to the city. Demigods and immortals descend on the city to watch these events unfold (or sabotage them). Aristophanes struggles to get his pro-peace play Peace sorted out, and common-born Luxos does his best to jump-start his career as a poet.

Describing a Martin Millar novel — and this is a very good one — is tricky because all of the adjectives that come to mind come loaded with unwanted connotations. I always say sweet, or charming, and The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is both sweet and charming, but that undersells its cleverness. Clever implies that there isn’t any heart, and there is because it is impossible not to fall for the sincerity of Millar’s characters (and the super simplicity of their motivations). Sincere misses how funny it is.

I’ll go with funny in the end, and also self-aware: Millar clearly recognizes a level of absurdity in writing a comic novel set in ancient Greece, and his book lets the audience in on the joke without getting too winky. The story has simple stakes, but Millar knows that the historical background was far from simple, and this also shows.

Martin Millar is one of my favorite authors in the sense that you know what one of his books is going to be, and it always is most satisfyingly that. The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is as solid an introduction to his particular brand of madcap scheme-making story as any he’s written in the past.

Really important question tho: Do you like Athens or Sparta better? (The correct answer is “Athens, but”.)

The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf, Martin Millar

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Scottish werewolf Kalix MacRinnalch is trying to make her life better. She’s taking remedial classes at a nearby college and trying to cut back on the violence she does to others and herself. But her plans for self-improvement are interrupted when the Guild of Werewolf Hunters — abetted in their work by Fire Queen Malveria’s deadly enemy — begins to hunt down and murder the members of the werewolf clans. And the werewolves are all:

Well, to start with, I am in favor of this ENORMOUS REVENGE PLOTLINE. The first werewolf killed by the Guild — and it’s sort of Kalix’s fault, although not completely — is Thrix’s teacher and mentor, the werewolf enchantress Minerva. Her death plunges Thrix into a spiral of depression and rage, and she becomes the driving force behind the werewolf clans’ efforts to eradicate the Guild once and for all. In past books, Thrix has been very much a voice of reason, but here she becomes someone who must be reasoned with. It’s a fun switch, and it’ll be interesting to see the fallout from it in the next book.

In other snooty werewolves who are getting into the game, The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf featured a satisfying number of people  being impressed with Dominil, Kalix’s frosty, competent cousin who is trying to conceal her own laudanum addiction from the clans. I can never get enough of Dominil getting shit done and not even caring what everyone thinks of her. Although her plans do not fall out exactly as she imagines in this book, she nevertheless gets to do a number of clever and resourceful things in furtherance of werewolf goals. And it’s just nice when someone says “Dominil, can you do X Impossible Thing?” and then goes off in perfect confidence that Dominil will handle it.

A new supernatural wrinkle is added to the supernatural world in the form of Scottish fairies! Hurrah, a new supernatural wrinkle! The werewolves require assistance from the fairies who live in the forests of Scotland, and the fairies are none too pleased that they’ve been neglected so long and only flattered and catered to now that the werewolves want something. There’s a helpful fairy queen as well as an extremely unhelpful fairy called Teinn who poisons the minds of the werewolf clans against their Thane. It’ll be fun to see what Teinn gets to do from here on out, as at the end of the book she heads for London to make mischief there.

On the down side, I discovered that I’ve stopped caring about Daniel and Moonglow. Or to be more accurate, I’ve stopped caring about whether they date or not, and the question of whether they were going to date or not was pretty much the only thing either of them had going on in this book. They’re more sort of satellites orbiting Kalix and Vex. It’s okay for now, I guess, but in the next book I’d like to see them working to achieve goals of their own (school goals? work goals? anything is fine, really). My utterly favorite thing about Martin Millar (this may be in conflict with some other thing I’ve said in the past is my favorite thing about Martin Millar, but who are you, the Continuity Police? Favorite things change! Shut up!) is the way he places the magical side-by-side with the utterly banal.

American cover
British cover
British cover
American cover

Cover report: Are cover reports making me a crankier person? Surely there are covers in this world that I admire? Anyway, neither of these covers pleases me. I dislike the American one less actually, but I’m angry with it for depicting Kalix with fair hair. She has dark hair. The book says it like twelve hundred times. British cover wins on a technicality.

Edit to add: Mumsy has pointed out that the British cover uses the exact same cover photo as If I Stay. So never mind. Nobody wins. Everyone loses.

Review: Ruby and the Stone Age Diet, Martin Millar

 

The beginning: An unnamed narrator and his flatmate Ruby come home one day to find that a girl has died outside of their squat.

“What it needs now,” says Ruby, “is for the radio to start playing ‘You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine.'”

 

“Yes,” I agree. “If that was to happen it would be immensely poignant.”

 

But when I switch on the radio the only station we can find is broadcasting a report from the Tokyo stock market instead, and no matter how we try we cannot work this up into any really effective kind of imagery.

 

I try humming it, but it’s not the same.

That is a very Martin-Millar-y passage, which is why I have quoted it. Ruby and the Stone Age Diet (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) continues to ennumerate the many sadnesses and disappointments of the narrator and his best friend Ruby; as well as, rather occasionally, their triumphs.

The end (no spoilers this time): About the same really. Not much change.

The whole: I will tell you the three things I admire about Martin Millar. First, I love his characters’ ability to admit weakness. A Martin Millar character tends to be very, very open about his/her insecurities even when self-deluded in many other ways. This is a trait that I greatly admire and do not naturally possess.

Second (as pertains to the passage above), I love the matter-of-fact way he depicts the internal narratives that sustain and diminish his characters. In The Good Fairies of New York, Kerry struggles with the certainty that nobody will love her because she has a colostomy bag, and Magenta is convinced that she is the ancient Greek general Xenophon. Although other characters have remarks to make about both of these narratives and their relationship to reality, Millar seems to regard them both as about equally likely; which is to say, their likeliness or otherwise does not appear to be of particular concern to him.

The unknown narrator of Ruby is permanently depressed at having been dumped by his lover Cis, and he constantly frets about how he can win her back. He also reads from Ruby’s book of myths and legends and hallucinates? imagines? dreams? wishes? that he is visited by the gods he reads about in the book. Though it is clear that none of this is real in the traditional sense (Ruby, if not the narrator, knows that Cis is never coming back and the gods aren’t really visiting), it is taken seriously by the narrator and seriously by the author. (Where seriously does not preclude humor, as Millar always seems to be poking mild, lugubrious fun at everyone, always.)

Third, and the reason Ruby and the Stone Age Diet will not be among my favorite Millar books, I love the simplicity and clarity of the stakes in a Martin Millar book. The Good Fairies of New York is about whether Kerry or her worthless ex-lover Cal will win the Arts Association Prize. Lonely Werewolf Girl is about the success or otherwise of one musical gig. At his best, Martin Millar produces a load of characters and storylines in varying degrees of insanity, permits everything to go to spectacularly to hell for all of them, and then brings them all together in a glorious extended cymbal-crash of a finale.

Ruby and the Stone Age Diet lacked the stakes. The narrator is fixated on winning Cis back but is too unfocused to make an execute any sort of plan, however insane, about how to do this. As the book begins, so it ends, almost exactly the same. Only sadder (I think) even if slightly more together financially. The narrator meanders about getting jobs and losing them, eating food or going hungry, getting or not getting his unemployment benefit, and after a while the book is over. No event on which everything hinges.

If you are going to read Martin Millar, and you should because he’s a delight, I’d go with Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me or else with The Good Fairies of New York. Those are a better showcase of his particular brand of crazy.

Cover report: American cover wins. The British cover makes everything look much more cartoony than the book merits, in my opinion. I like the way the American cover combines a very bright color for the bowl of rocks with a very dreary color for the background.

Fool on the Hill, Matt Ruff

I have said before that I love both Martin Millar and Douglas Coupland quite a lot.  Well, Matt Ruff’s Fool on the Hill is like if Martin Millar and Douglas Coupland had a love child, and Douglas Coupland  raised the kid because Martin Millar lived too far away, but the kid  grew up reading Martin Millar’s books obsessively, and then the kid  went to Cornell for college.  I feel like that sequence of events  could have produced Fool on the Hill.

Fool on the Hill is a story about Cornell University (ever heard of it?), if Cornell University had fairies and sword-fighting rats.  There are oodles of characters, and they are all amusing, and the different sets of characters eventually come together – much like in Lonely Werewolf Girl, so in case you are thinking that I’m only making the Martin Millar comparison because of the  fairies I AM NOT.  There’s Stephen George, a writer; his muse,  Calliope, who comes and goes; the beautiful Aurora Borealis Smith and her revolutionary father; Luther and Blackjack, a dog and cat on a quest to find Heaven; Ragnarok and the Bohemians, with an unimpeachable sense of justice; a wicked fraternity that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize didn’t actually exist; and Cornell fairies prepared to fight a war for Cornell against a foe they all thought to be dead.

I won this book from Nicki at Fyrefly’s Book Blog (thank you!), and she most brilliantly sent me along a map of Cornell to go with it, with relevant locations circled in aquamarine-colored pen.  Possibly the reason I read it so gradually is that I was constantly putting the book down and inspecting the map to orient myself on the campus.  That, and the fact that it was on my bedside table.  For some reason I never fetch books from my bedside table and curl up with them downstairs to finish them. Once they are on my bedside table they are only going to get read for about twenty minutes each night before I fall asleep.

But that is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I really did.  I was making it last by reading it slowly.  It’s such a lark that it’s fun to make it last: how there’s a “writer” called Mr. Sunshine inventing the whole story as they go, and that makes it possible for Matt Ruff to toss in little remarks about antiheroes and dei ex machinis (oo, useful Latin there).  I loved Jinsei & Ragnarok – because Matt Ruff is right, you need a hero that’s not all sweetness and light sometimes – and the whole thing of Tolkien House and their Lothlorien.  Fun.  Read it!  (But you can’t have my copy.  I’m greedy and I’m keeping it.)

(Maybe the ending is a little rushed.  But it is so much fun that I don’t mind.)

Link me if you reviewed it too!

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.

Threshold, Caitlin R. Kiernan

I got this book out of the library because I put Martin Millar’s name into the Literature-Map website, and Caitlin Kiernan’s name was close to his.  This is one of those things that I should know straight away isn’t going to work out for me: every time I do this, I find that the closest authors to the name I’ve entered are people I either haven’t heard of or don’t like, whereas the names of authors I do like are farther out to the perimeter.  Douglas Coupland, Neil Gaiman, T.S. Eliot, and Alexandre Dumas are all well out at the borders of Martin Millar.

Threshold is about an unhappy geologist called Chance, and her unhappy psychic alcoholic ex-boyfriend, Deacon; and how an albino teenager called Dancy finds them and asks for their help fighting monsters.  They are not really into this because they are busy being unhappy, but eventually the evidence that monsters are happening becomes overwhelming.

I do not like scary stories.  I don’t need films and books to scare me – I already scare me plenty.  It’s not the fantasy parts of this book that frighten me, it’s the real-life parts.  (That is almost always the case.)  I couldn’t decide how I felt about the writing in the book either.  It’s nonlinear, and a tiny bit like Rumer Godden (whom I love), and there are bits that you aren’t sure at first whether it’s dreams or really happening.  And there are lines I really liked, like “arguing in smaller and smaller circles, and Chance always wrong, always the one who isn’t making sense”, and “the truth and her mind push each other away, opposing magnetic poles”.

Possibly because the book was frightening, I never really engaged with any of the characters.  I actively didn’t engage with them, which is my fault, not the book’s, but I was feeling jumpy when I was reading it, and I didn’t want to fall too far in.  (Like I do when I read The Scarlet Pimpernel, for example.)  The end was strange and unresolved, and I feel very ambivalent about this book, and I can’t decide if I want to read more of Caitlin Kiernan’s books.

Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, Martin Millar

Yes, yes, I finally caved and read this.  I have been delaying gratification for quite a while, but I just couldn’t resist the siren call of this book anymore.  It has been sitting so alluringly on my bookshelf.  Last night I was reading The Sixteen Pleasures and suddenly it became clear to me that if I went another second without reading Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, my brain would explode.  (Nothing against The Sixteen Pleasures, which I’m enjoying.)  I am beginning to entertain the notion that my great dislike of everything else I’ve been reading is all to do with the fact that I really wanted to be reading Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me.  I mean really reading it, not reading two pages and then putting it away, delaying gratification some more.

Anyway, it was definitely worth the wait.  What a totally excellent book.  Martin Millar is brilliant.  It’s weird because last year around this same time I didn’t care about Martin Millar at all, and now when people ask me who my favorite author is, Martin Millar springs immediately to mind.  I wish Neil Gaiman and Martin Millar had a Time-Turner like Hermione and they could sit around and turn back time all over the place, and write dozens and dozens of books for me to read.  That would be great.  Right now there are only, like, four?  five? books of Martin Millar’s that I haven’t read already.  Four or five is an extremely small number.  I have to dole them out to myself slowly, one by one, over several years, to prolong my enjoyment.

(But not the sequel to Lonely Werewolf Girl.  When that comes out I’m going to buy it straight away.)

Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me is all about a young Martin Millar being in love with a girl called Suzy, and going to see Led Zeppelin play a gig in Glasgow, and then talking about it many years later with his friend Manx.  I liked it a lot.  (Spoilers) He mentioned Buffy and the geeky girl met Led Zeppelin and got advice about life from Robert Plant.  How good!  An altogether totally pleasing book.  And I didn’t even read the end before I got there.  (Not the right kind of book for that to be necessary.)  This book was funny and also poignant.  I like the word poignant.  I never get to use it enough.

I’m a bit sad that I’ve read this book and now I haven’t got any other Martin Millar books to read.  Our library only has books I’ve already read.  But at least now I’m not yearning for it tragically, and hopefully I will be able to enjoy other books.

Or maybe I will just watch Doctor Who a lot, as it’s Christmas and I’m trying to make my big sister who is just home from law school learn to love Doctor Who like my younger sister and I do.  This would be more successful if the TV at my parents’ house were in the living room, not the bedroom, because the living room is more comfortable to watch films in.  I am pleased about starting the fourth series, as I got tired of Martha not being fierce enough (she was always much cooler when the Doctor wasn’t around), and Donna looks like she will be clever and make the Doctor laugh but not put up with any crap.

P.S. Just can’t say this enough.  Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for writing an introduction to The Good Fairies of New York and making me decide to read it.  Also, thank you, Amazon.com, for bringing up The Good Fairies of New York when I did a search for Neil Gaiman, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known it existed.

Lux the Poet, Martin Millar

I am afraid that if I keep saying sweet to describe Martin Millar’s book, it will seem to be that I am damning him with faint praise and denying that he has any edge. Because his books contain themes about racism and drugs and sex and whatnot, and these aren’t things generally associated with books that are sweet. On the other hand, if Martin Millar didn’t want his books to be described as sweet, he should not have written such extremely sweet books. So it’s not really my fault.

Lux the Poet is about several things. It’s about a poet called Lux who is incredibly vain, and to whom nobody will listen when he tries to recite his poems. He is in love with a girl called Pearl, who has made a film and is (sort of) dating a girl called Nicky, who is manic-depressive and has irritated the vengeful leaders of a company that was trying to breed genius babies, by stealing their genetic programme so they can’t carry on with their plan to breed genius babies. Also, there is a fallen heavenly person called Kalia who has to do a million good deeds before she can get back into heaven, and she continues to be reincarnated until she has done this. Her plans are being thwarted by wicked Yasmin, who in this incarnation is hunting down Nicky and Pearl to get the genetic programme back. Um, and also Lux is being hunted down by an angry thrash metal band called the Jane Austen Mercenaries, because he stole their demo tape which is now wanted by a record company. Also there is a book reviewer trying to get back a manuscript he left with Nicky. Oh, and also – I forgot this until just now, which you wouldn’t think I would have because it’s the whole point – they are all in Brixton during the reportedly very unpleasant Brixton riot in 1981. It was a great big riot, and it contained racial tension. Apparently. I wasn’t born yet. Anyway there is a big riot and everybody is going round and round Brixton trying not to get burned up or intimidated or arrested.

And it was very sweet. Mostly. Apart from a wee bit in which this woman got raped – but because that’s upsetting to me I’ve decided to believe Nicky was hallucinating it, which, hey, she may have been – and apart from how occasionally some unpleasant people used a word I don’t use and really, really, really don’t like (it’s a racial slur – you know what I mean). It is one of very few words I actively dislike. In fact it is my least favorite word. If I ever get interviewed by James Lipton – which is unlikely – I will tell him this word is my least favorite word. Ugh, I really hate it. I decline to write it because I dislike it so much.

I read Lux the Poet in order to make myself not dislike Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me. In case I haven’t said so, I am greatly looking forward to reading Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, but I’m holding off until I have finished reading my new Markus Zusak books (which are short), and the two Douglas Coupland books I have out of the library, and The Vampire Tapestry. It’s all about delaying gratification. However, I have noticed a trend with new authors where I really like the first two books I read by them and then the third one is a letdown (this has held true with Martine Leavitt and Salman Rushdie and Mary Renault and probably others but I can’t remember), and since I already bought Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, I didn’t want it to be a letdown. So I read Lux the Poet as my number three Martin Millar book. It wasn’t a letdown but it was less good than the first two books I read by him, and therefore I am now safe to read Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me.

Anyway, Lux the Poet was good. Except too short. I can envision a world in which one would find Martin Millar’s writing to be choppy and disjointed, but I’m glad to report I don’t live in that unfriendly depressing world. I liked this book, and I especially liked Kalia, who was the fallen heavenly creature trying to find her way home. I liked it how Lux was very okay with discovering this about Kalia, and I liked it that major problems throughout the book sometimes got resolved suddenly and easily (it’s so relaxing). Lux reminded me a bit of the poet ghost in The Graveyard Book, one of several characters in The Graveyard Book that there was not enough of, so it was quite convenient to have read this straight away after reading The Graveyard Book. I’m sad I have to return Lux the Poet to the library. Maybe I will steal it.

I’m sort of sad that Lonely Werewolf Girl was only released last year. It appears to take four or five years for Martin Millar to write a new book, which is fine but sad for me because now I have to wait until 2012 for his next one. 2012. That is a long time away, and it seems like a very improbable year to me. 2012. Like 2012 could ever happen.

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.