The River of No Return, Bee Ridgway

The beginning: I was so excited about the premise of The River of No Return that I checked it out from the library the self-same day I read Alice’s review! It is about a Guild made up of people who have the power to jump forward in time. People usually do it when they are under threat of death; and upon their arrival in the future, the Guild finds them, teaches them how to live in modern times, and sets them loose with a stipend to cover their expenses. This is the only option for people who jump forward in time, because there is no jumping backward.

Except, of course, that it turns out there is. Nick Falcott, once a British aristocrat in the Napoleonic era, has been living in the twenty-first century for a decade before the Guild comes to him and says that they need his help. A group called the Ofan are trying to disrupt the flow of the river of Time; and the Guild is devoted to stopping them, and thereby protecting history.

River of No Return

Cover report: Pretty and unremarkable. I like the incorporation of the tree that means so much to Nick and Julia, but I also feel that this cover is trying a little too hard to yell MAINSTREAM BOOK HERE NOT GENRE AT ALL.

The end (spoilers in this section only; skip them if you don’t want to know): Nick’s neighbor from 1815, Julia Percy, is in a relationship with Nick and apparently has stupendous powers of manipulating time. To nobody’s surprise, Nick is now siding with the Guild’s enemies (ish? this seems open-ended). This ending is clearly setting up a sequel, which is fine by me.

The whole: The River of No Return is a fun and winning book. It has time travel and the attendant fun character perspectives on different times and different social norms. It has a fun romance between a guy I enjoyed and a lady who was mostly reactive in this book but seems to have a lot of potential for becoming awesomely fierce and unstoppable. There are moral dilemmas. There is a looming and unresolved Doom heading for our characters that has something to do with the flow of time, but nobody knows what. The characters are funny and interesting.

The problem for me is that I’ve already read Kage Baker’s Company novels, and the premise of those books is so similar to the premise of this one that I couldn’t stop comparing them in my mind. Both feature a shadowy Company/Guild that wants to control everyone and will punish those they can’t control. Both feature worlds where time appears to end after a certain point (called the Silence in the Company Novels; here referred to as the Pale), and everyone is scrambling to figure out why and whether the danger (they assume it’s danger) can be prevented. After only one book, it’s impossible for me to say whether Bee Ridgway’s series will turn out to be uniquely its own thing; but I know that my love for the Company novels rendered me more skeptical of Ridgway’s plot than I might otherwise have been.

That said, I cheerfully sped through The River of No Return, and I intend to read the sequel when it appears. Derivative or not, it’s awfully fun.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

Verdict: Not as good as Rebecca.

Philip, the protagonist of My Cousin Rachel, has been raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose.  Ambrose goes away to Italy, marries there, and a few years later sends a letter to Philip intimating that he is in danger, and asking Philip to come to Italy straight away.  When Philip gets there, Ambrose has died, and Rachel is gone.  He conceives a hatred for her, believing that she was responsible for Ambrose’s death; but when she comes to stay with him in England, he falls for her straight away.  Is she evil?  Did she poison Ambrose, and is she poisoning Philip now?  Spooooooky.

I liked Rachel.  You can see why Philip falls in love with her – like Rebecca, she absolutely deserves to have the book called after her.  And like the protagonist of Rebecca, Philip is never completely sure where he stands, but unlike poor Mrs. de Winter, Philip is determined to be sure (act sure).  For me, this made all the difference – he drove me insane and I wanted to slap him.  Seriously, guy, ever hear of black and white thinking?  Also called splitting?  This is symptomatic of some really unpleasant personality disorders, and you could maybe think about curbing that tendency.  I couldn’t figure out why his godfather’s daughter liked him so much, good heavens.

On the other hand, Philip’s extremism makes possible something I love, which is that we see Rachel through his eyes, but that the rest of the characters all have things to say about her too.  So we can see that other people are reacting to her charm, the same way Philip does, but we can also see things that Philip refuses to look at or acknowledge – her extravagance, the way it looks to have her living in the house with him.  It keeps you guessing, and you never are sure whether she’s poisoning him, and poisoned Ambrose.  Per usual Daphne du Maurier writes beautifully and uses some gorgeous images.

Er, but it’s still not as good as Rebecca.  I love me some Rebecca.

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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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Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters, ed. Michael T. Wise

I love reading other people’s letters.  It is probably the fault of the Jolly Postman.  (Incidentally, Allan and Janet Ahlberg rocked my world as a little kid, and I only wish I’d known their names so I could have investigated their other books that were not Jolly Postman or Each Peach Pear Plum.)  I think it’s fascinating when two people correspond regularly over a long period of time – much more fascinating than just reading collected letters of a single person, although that can be really really interesting too.

Joy Street is the collected letters of the editor’s mother, Mirren, and her gentleman caller, Jock.  They are both a bit high-strung and well-educated, and for the time when they were exchanging letters regularly, this was extremely engaging.  Jock (John really) sounds like the kind of person who thinks way a lot about everything and loves to hear himself talk about all the thoughts he has been thinking in his head.

Somerville [her college at Oxford] in an air-raid must be a weird sight indeed – strange enough to female eyes who know the secrets of woman off her guard: an absolute fantasy to masculine imagination.  And yet it is the sudden night hours that are the touchstone of truth and beauty.  What has been discerned by human foresight can be prepared for by human artifice.  Art and artificiality are among the most entrancing adjuncts to human pleasures: they are not either truthful or beautiful.  At best they are only the human, and therefore material expression of their spiritual realities, truth and beauty; at worst a vain albeit very human attempt to conceal their absence.  There are those people whom, if their art is good, we highly estimate correctly, because – except in the sudden night hurs (I like that phrase) – we never see the core of the goodly apple.

It got a little irritating (for me – Mirren seems to have liked it), but every time I wanted to smack him, he would say something that displayed startling self-awareness, or humor at his own expense.  And as well, their letters used all these (I feel unkind saying this) cutesy codes to each other, which sometimes got to be a bit much.  I wasn’t always sure what they were on about, and I couldn’t tell whether it was because they were referring to some inside joke, or because I don’t know anything about sexual mores in the 1940s, or what.

After Jock was shipped off to Africa, and they weren’t getting each other’s letters regularly, it all got much less interesting, and I skimmed through the rest of the letters.  (He died in Africa.  It was sad.)  What intrigues me about their correspondence is how clearly their personalities come through, or rather, I guess, their personalities as they wanted to present them to each other.  They didn’t talk awfully much about the war, being too involved in discussing Serious Matters at length, including the nature of their relationship and what they both wanted from it.  I’m pleased I read it, even though I feel guilty reading people’s private letters.  Not, you know, enough to stop, but still, there’s guilt.

The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue

Recommended by my mother.  Of course.

This is a book about a girl in 1920s New Orleans who dies prematurely, before anything about her life gets properly decided, particularly before she makes a decision about her boyfriend Andrew, a fact that proves troublesome to her after she dies.  She is called Razi, and she haunts a Baton Rouge couple, Amy and Scott, who are dealing with the fallout from a loss of their own.  The story flips back and forth between their story and Razi’s life as a – for lack of a better word – ghost, over the years, and Razi’s life when she was properly alive.  She is a really excellent character.  When she is alive she says to her Andrew, “One lifetime isn’t enough to make all the trouble of which I am capable.”

I really love the main character’s name – it’s Raziela, the meaning of which I’ve seen alternately given as God’s secret and My secret is God, both of which are wonderful.  I like My secret is God particularly, to be honest.  My secret is God.  That is a good sentence.  I will have to find a use for that sentence.

The Mercy of Thin Air was good.  I like books about people successfully coming to terms with things that have been problematic to them.  This was melancholy in bits and joyful in bits and with good characters and good dialogue and I just liked it a lot.  Plus, you know, sister’s from the home state and her characters are always going to places that I have been, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans.  Hooray for Louisiana!  We have good food!  We have streetcars!  If anywhere in this country was going to have ghosts, it would be us!  Up with Louisiana!

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.

Liszt’s Kiss, by Suzanne Dunlap

Recommended (again) by: http://melissasbookreviews.com

You know, books like these are the reason I am so convinced that I don’t like historical fiction. It’s just not my thing, I assure myself, and then something comes along (like The Book Thief, or Indian Captive, or The Poisonwood Bible, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell if that counts) and screws up that whole idea and makes me think, You enormous dumbass, of course you love historical fiction. And then I read something like Liszt’s Kiss and realize I was right the first time.

I guess what I don’t like is historical romances. And I would never, ever have read this, it being a historical romance, if the aforementioned Melissa, who liked The Blue Castle, hadn’t said that Liszt’s Kiss made her want to play the piano again. What a recommendation. And it made me think, well, hey, this is probably less a historical romance than a love song to piano-playing, and I like music, so what the hell.

But I didn’t like it.

Now, of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that I just don’t like historical romances. They’re not the kind of books I like to read, and they never have been. I don’t care for this whole genre of writing about the thrilling (but fictional) amours of real historical figures; I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but I can’t think of any right now. I like it much better when it’s all fictional characters in a historical setting, and there really is no part of me that gets all excited when there’s a cameo, or a bit part, or a long part, by someone I love In History. I always want to write a letter to the author and say “Is that seriously what you think Oscar Wilde [or whoever] was like?  You have just totally missed the point, you crazy wacko.”

(Which is unfair.  Not in the case of Oscar Wilde, because no one writes about Oscar Wilde right in fiction, but in many other cases.)

Mary Renault being a massive exception that I have just thought of, because I’ve been in love with Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy for many moons now, and her Alexander is wonderful, and she writes relationships better than anyone else ever (that I can think of right now), so I shouldn’t really go by her. And his affairs are true.

Well, my point is that I wasn’t the target audience for this, so no surprise I didn’t enjoy it, plus I was in Atlanta for my grandfather’s funeral and in no mood to branch out into new genres (the other things I read while I was there were The Nuremberg Interviews and the entire Betsy-Tacy series from start to finish except for Betsy and the Great World because I felt too sad about Betsy and Joe having a fight after all the time it took for them to get together).

Liszt’s Kiss wasn’t badly written or stupid or annoying. Just not my thing at all. My only rational objection, actually, was that – and this may easily have had to do with the fact that my brain was tired – I got really cross when I reached the end and found out the father was good all along. I was like, “Hey! You said he was evil!” because all along the book had carried on being all Intrigue & Deception and then suddenly it went all mystery-novel-surprise-ending on me. Which annoyed me very much when it happened and I was composing scathing comments in my head, but I’ve had time to cool off and I don’t think it was that much of a sudden unfair genre switch as I was thinking when I read it.

Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Heard about in: Die for Love, by Elizabeth Peters

Apparently this book got edited down to one-fifth of its original length, for which I can only say praise God (though it must be thrilling for Forever Amber scholars to get their hands on the original manuscript, if it still exists). I cannot imagine how she could have gotten four times that much again into the silly book. Amber gets married FOUR TIMES over the course of the book and has lots of silly affairs and moans a lot about how her true love Bruce Carlton thinks she’s too trashy for him which is a bit rich I think considering that he’s sleeping around as much as she is and repeatedly shows himself incapable of resisting her trashy charms. However, I would not marry her either because a) I would not want to catch a nasty disease; and b) she is damn annoying and although he keeps assuring her he will never, never, never marry her, she still keeps bursting into tears and smacking him in the face every time the subject comes up.

In case this all sounds like I didn’t enjoy Forever Amber, let me just assure you, that is completely not the case. I read it on Saturday from start to finish, with a short break in between to read Purple Hibiscus (better quality novel but sad) and frequent pauses to update my family on Amber’s latest doings, and it was most absorbing. My family members kept asking me what she was up to if I didn’t let them know with a promptness, and towards the end Indie Sister and I were sitting on one of the couches reading the last few pages over each other’s shoulders (starting with the naked dress, the details of which I was not explaining to Indie Sister with adequate eloquence, and going on until she sails off at the end).

Just to give you an idea of how this book goes, I was explaining to my cousin and my mother how Amber had run away from her tedious rural life with her true love Bruce Carlton and how she had gotten pregnant and married (not to her true love) and dumped in the debtor’s prison and placed under the protection of Black Jack the Highwayman who made her help with his heists and was never very much use at paying off her debts, and my cousin said, “That can’t all have happened! You’re not even a quarter of the way through the book!”

I was, but it did.

Apparently this was written by an American (or Canadian?) lady during World War II, and apparently it got banned in several states and the Catholic Church had some severe things to say about it; and because it is an old and classic and genre-creating historical romance, and because actually it is not badly written (the descriptions of Amber’s clothes are yummy), I feel justified in assuring myself that I am not in fact a trashy-romance-novel-reader, but an Ardent Lover of the Classics.

P.S. My grandmother remembers when this book came out. She didn’t read it because it was too scandalous and she was a good Catholic girl (having embraced the one true faith).