Closing the book on spoiler-free September

My verdict: Never again.

There is this one episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor is standing around waiting for a monster to show up, and he says “Is this how time normally passes? Reeeeally slowly, in the right order?” and if you substitute “books” for “time” (and “pass” for “passes”, to retain proper grammar), that is exactly how I felt throughout the month of September. Except more depressed. I think part of the reason I have been lax about writing up reviews is that my reading was so dreary and depressing compared to normally, I couldn’t face writing reviews.

I want y’all to know, you readers of books in the proper order, that I gave this the old college try. I gave it, like, the old grad school try. I put effort into enjoying reading books this way. When I was reading a book, and I started wanting to flip to the end, I assured myself that it was exciting not to know what was coming. Exciting! Not terrible! Exciting! But set against that is the fact that I have been reading the ends of books since I was eight years old, and old habits die hard even in flexible, adaptable, calm people, let alone in neurotic routine-obsessed personalities like me. In this case, my old habits – and, if I may say so, the obvious superiority of my usual reading method – won out over my attempts to brainwash myself into enjoying books as they usually pass: very slowly and in the right order.

Here is an analogy: Reading the end before you read the middle is a little like doing the edge pieces of a puzzle first. It organizes the book into a general shape, and you spend the rest of your reading time filling in the picture in the middle. And when a middle piece connects to an edge piece, you have this extra little thrill of seeing everything come together: Aha, so this is why Character A won’t speak to Character B in the final chapter; or, ho, ho, I see what the author is doing here with this foreshadowing. It focuses your attention because you know what you’re looking for: If Character C ends up betraying everyone, you get to have the fun of reading wickedness into all the things s/he says throughout the book. You can decide if the author’s being too heavy-handed with it, or using too light a touch, or striking the perfect balance. It is fun!

Why I will never try a project like this ever again. During the month of September, I found that reading books in the correct order is exactly like reading them in the wrong order, except that it makes reading slightly less fun and awesome. I wasn’t unable to enjoy books (the month of September was a pretty good reading month for me, actually), but the experience of reading wasn’t as joyful. I am now back to my old ways and I shall never deviate from them again because they are better. I strongly suspect that society has been brainwashed out of reading the fun way.

Waking up on October 1st was amazing. I grabbed Tooth and Claw and The Little Friend, which were the two fiction books lying on my bed, and I read the hell out of the ends of them both. It was like I had been locked out of my house in a rain storm for hours and hours, and someone had finally come home and let me in.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I recently reread this book, and I was planning to wait on writing about it until I could see the movie, but the people I see movies with are either like “Are you nuts?  I saw it the first instant it came out!” or else “I can’t watch it!  The book is too precious to me!” or else (more rarely) “Looks mushy.  Let’s go see (500) Days of Summer instead.”  (And we did.  And it was excellent.  But I am still curious about The Time Traveler’s Wife film, because I loved the book so much.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife I feel like is famous enough that I don’t need to give a synopsis?  But here one is anyway: Henry is a time-traveler.  In times of stress or just for no reason at all, he vanishes from his own time and goes somewhere else – could be his childhood, his wife’s childhood, his future, or (we don’t see much of this but) any time at all.  He meets his wife Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, but Clare has known him since she was six years old.  So this is the story of their relationship from start to finish.

I like so many things about this book!  I love it that Clare and Henry start out by having a completely different story of their relationship – to Clare it’s something she has always known (destiny!), and to Henry it’s a complete, unexpected, amazing surprise.  Then gradually, as he spends more and more time with Clare at all different ages, her version of the story becomes the true one for him, too.  I also like it how they create each other – Clare has grown up with Henry, and (like it or not!) he shapes her into who she is; and when she meets him “in real life”, he is able to see himself the way she sees him, and try to become that person.  There is a scene where Clare goes dancing with Henry, not long after they meet in real time, and runs into an ex of his in the bathroom, who says all sorts of unpleasant things about him.  Shaken, she wanders back out and runs into a version of Henry from farther on, a Henry she recognizes and knows.  This Henry says of his past self:

“When I met you, I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a real human being and I would like to be one too.  And I have been trying to do it without you noticing, because I still haven’t figured out that all pretense is useless between us.  But it’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with here in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996.  You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”

I love that.  They invent each other!  It’s brilliant!  Slightly weird, but brilliant.

I like the way the book is structured, in little slices of their lives, the present and past and future.  There are brief moments between them that are really lovely, and not nearly enough of the gentle, quiet times together that Henry says he loves the best.  Not enough, but that’s why it works – because, of course, it never is enough (for them), and Henry always vanishes, and leaves Clare behind waiting (like Penelope, she says) (“yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths”).  The book has its fair share of unhappiness, and you can see it curving in that direction as Clare and Henry carry on with their relationship.

Also, oh!  Here’s something else that is good!  Although the book is about a relationship, and in that sense it’s a romance, it doesn’t do any of the romantic thing of skirting around physical stuff.  I’m not talking about just sex, though there is sex, but about the physicality of Henry’s condition, their difficulties in having a baby, and – er, well, other depressing things that happen later on in the book, which I won’t spoil for you even though it made me really sad.  Henry’s condition brings Clare and Henry together, but it also makes them suffer terribly.  So the fact that his condition has brought them together feels less like destiny and more like the law of averages – it can’t be all bad, but there is a lot of permanent, bad stuff too.

I wish I could excerpt all the scenes I love best, but it would take too long.  I love it when Clare runs into a future version of Henry when she’s out dancing, and when Clare finds her mum’s poem, and when Henry meets Alba for the first time, and the very last scene of the whole book.  I think those are my favorite ones.

An open letter to Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Wow, Patrick Ness, color me super impressed.  Way to create a distinctive, consistent, memorable voice for your protagonist.  That isn’t easy.  I have not read a book where I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much since, mm, The Book Thief, and before that The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  Which are two of my all-time favorite books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is based on a fantastic premise, that the aliens in this settled world have given the settlers the disease of Noise, which killed all the women and left the men able to hear each other’s thoughts; and then the youngest boy in the settlement of Prentisstown finds a girl.  A live girl!  The book is fast-paced and exciting and frightening.  The title is perfect.  The relationship between Todd and Viola is utterly real – all the relationships are, actually, and even though this is a plot-driven book, damn, Patrick Ness, you just nail those emotional moments every single time.  Like this?  (Major spoilers in the block text below, so skip to the subsequent paragraph if you haven’t read the book.  Even if you don’t care about spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know how great this is because all the context isn’t there, but trust me, it is great.)

Ben nods again, slow and sad, and I notice now that he’s dirty and there’s blood clotted on his nose and he looks like he ain’t eaten for a week but it’s still Ben and he can still read me like no other cuz his Noise is already asking me bout  Manchee and I’m already showing him and here at last my eyes properly fill and rush over and he takes me in his arms again and I cry for real over the loss of my dog and of Cillian and of the life that was.

“I left him,” I say and keep saying, snot-filled and coughing.  “I left him.”

“I know,” he says and I can tell it’s true cuz I hear the same words in his Noise.  I left him, he thinks.

Ouch.  Also, chills.

And you know what else, Patrick Ness?  Since I have gotten started talking about the good things about your book, and how it’s just everything that’s great about being great?  What else is, hooray for you, portraying a gay couple without making a big thing of it – we know they’re a couple because they act like a couple, not because you (the author) gets all THESE ARE TWO GAY PEOPLE THAT ARE GAY; they are just a couple, and that is nice, and it is normalizing, and there should be more of that going on in literature.  Oo, and, okay, also?  Aaron was about the dreadfullest villain I ever read about in my life.  (That isn’t a spoiler – you can always tell he’s insane.)

Here’s the thing, Patrick Ness.  You already did it!  You already created Todd’s voice!  You did it using only your words!  Your achievement is a remarkable achievement, because it is damn hard to create a voice like that, and you did it ever so beautifully.  Why, why, why did you need to do that silly dialect thing?  “Yer” is not necessary!  “Cuz” is not really necessary either!  And I can assure you that there is no possible world in which “conversayshun” would ever be necessary, because that is how the word is already pronounced.  It’s not an accent.  It’s how you say the word.  And “an asking” instead of “a question” is both silly and jarring.  It mildly chagrins my dazzle to see you relying on dialecty crutches this way, when Todd’s voice, and the atmosphere of the world you’ve created, are already just about perfect.

Since I am having a moan anyway, here’s my other (teeny-tiny) gripe, which contains massive spoilers.  I feel like the Big Prentisstown Reveal could have happened sooner.  At least part of it could have happened sooner.  I say, tell about how they killed all the women earlier on in the book (have one of the townspeople tell Todd, or something) – we pretty much figure that out anyway, right?  It’s part of the emotional arc of the story, but it’s not the central part.  The reveal you want to save for close to the end is that Prentisstown keeps on killing their own, to allow the boys to become men.  That is what’s crucial to the events that occur immediately after Ben tells it to Todd – plotwise and emotional-story-arc-wise.  Plus, if we already had the reveal about the women, we would think, okay, we’re done, now we know why nobody likes Prentisstown, and then the other thing would really slap us in the face, because it is pretty chilling.

(I mean, it wouldn’t slap me in the face.  I would already know because I would have read the end (as indeed I did!) and found out what was what.  This was helpful to me in making judgments about where each reveal should have occurred.  Reading the end: the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye.)

Once I get started complaining, I can’t stop, so here’s my last complaint.  Patrick Ness, WHY ARE YOU BRITISH?  And also WHY DID I NOT READ THIS BOOK SOONER?  My sister has just now returned from Ireland, and if I had read this book like, like two days sooner, I could have told her to buy me the sequel, which is out in the UK now but not out in the US until September.  I really loved the books I read last week, but I would have loved them a few days later, and then I could have had The Ask and the Answer on Thursday when my sister comes all the way properly home.

To conclude, Patrick Ness, you are awesome, and future books would not suffer if you eighty-sixed the fakey dialect bit.  Also (spoilers!  Spoilers!), given that this book turned me into an emotional wreck, you, um, you could go ahead and have it turn out that Ben is still alive.  And, um, I mean, Cillian too.  That would be fine.  It wouldn’t mess up anything!  I would be happy!  Todd and Ben would be happy!  We would all be happy!  I wouldn’t feel like you had cheated!  Just if you wanted to have it turn out that way.  I only mention it.

Kisses and hugs,
Jenny

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Bart’s Bookshelf
books i done read
Becky’s Book Reviews
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Fantasy Book Critic
Librarilly Blonde
The Well-Read Child
Wands and Worlds
YA Reads
YA Fabulous
Karin’s Book Nook
The Page Flipper
Reading the Leaves
Bookannelid
Lisa the Nerd
Kids Lit
Bitten by Books
Books and So Many More Books
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Interloper, Antoine Wilson

Recommended by: an adventure in reading

When I say that this book reminded me of how much I love to read, I don’t want you to take that as too much of a compliment to the book. With that caveat – The Interloper really reminded me of how much I love to read. I went to the library today with a massive big list of books to get, and all the ones I wanted most, they hadn’t got (ain’t it always the way). But this was the one I was most interested to read so I sat down and read it; and when I had to get up and clean the kitchen, I did that thing where you do all the tasks you can do while reading, which takes ages because you are only using one hand and not very much of your brain, and then you have to actually put the book down so you do the other stuff lickety-split with maximum efficiency so you can quickly get back to reading your book.

I will sum up: The protagonist’s wife’s brother was murdered by this guy, Henry Joseph Raven, and the wife, Patty, has been very unhappy ever since then, and the protagonist (Owen – I hate the name Owen) decides to help his wife come to terms with it by getting a sneaky revenge on Raven. He invents this persona, Lily, and writes letters to Raven to make him fall in love with her, and the Plan is that when Raven is totally in love with Lily, Owen will crush him completely by revealing that Lily isn’t real. And instead of that he

SPOILER

finds out Raven’s been lying in all of his letters too and then he (Owen) gets all crazy and winds up killing Raven’s girlfriend in a fit of rage.

/SPOILER

The Interloper is very interesting, and in a way it’s not badly done. Mr. Wilson does a good Unreliable Narrator Guy, with the dropping of the hints and the filtering stuff through crazy eyes. I wanted to know what would happen.

As I typed that just now, I realized that I didn’t read the end of this book. Dude! I didn’t skip to the end! Huh. Turns out I was reading so absorbedly that I actually forgot to read the end. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Obviously my brain has ceased to function. This is an object lesson in never ever ever getting so attached to cross-stitching and guitar-playing that you cut back drastically on your normal reading habits.

I know! I’m making it sound so good! But here’s the thing (the two things): This book, it was totally creepy. The blog where I read about this book compares it to Lolita, by comparison with which any book would suffer, but Lolita does creepy in way that doesn’t make my flesh crawl – which you’d think pedophilia would, if anything was going to – whereas The Interloper was kinda icky and unpleasant to read.

Plus, there’s this also, if you are not a person who is phased by creepy: The whole plot was just entirely unbelievable. Really. And you are getting this verdict from a girl who 1) is entirely conversant with Crazy as she has two therapist parents; and 2) has a deep knowledge of the power of talking the talk until you are walking the walk. One time, my driver’s ed teacher was awful and made me cry and I feared and hated driving and then I started saying “I love driving! Driving is my favorite thing in the world! Driving is amazing and wonderful!” until I really felt that way and now I love driving so, so, so much. (This is a victory story as far as I’m concerned, but I told it to my ex one time and he seemed very perturbed by it.) But in spite of my experiences with crazy and brainwashing, I still found this completely silly.

I don’t even know what categories to file this under. Hmph.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

I have mixed feeling about this book.  I really do.  Because on one hand, I enjoyed it a lot and I liked all the twists and turns it took.  Except that um, when part one ended, it wasn’t quite what I expected, because I’m a big romantic, and although I (of course) had already read the end, it didn’t so much let me in on all the stuff that was going to happen in the middle.  And I was all going along, dee dee dee, and all of a sudden it was part one ending and WHAM KIDNEY PUNCH.  Seriously, that’s the way you people like to read books?

I don’t get it.  Why would you want that?  So that when they repeat the serpent’s tooth line later, you feel a joyous twinge of recognition about what happened earlier on?  I had that joyous twinge of recognition, and first I thought, oh, hey, this must be why people don’t look up what’s going to happen, but then I remembered that it was far outweighed by the unpleasant surprising thing that happened earlier.  And, y’know, if you knew what was coming, you’d have appreciated that line the first time around, and still appreciated it when it was reiterated.  Just saying.

Ugh.  I don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen.  Unless it’s an emotional moment.  I don’t like finding out what emotional moments are going to happen – like, if I were reading the Harry Potter books for the first time, I wouldn’t at all mind being told that Lupin is going to (spoiler) die ultimately, but I would be very very furious with someone who told me, I don’t know, the story of how Lupin and Harry have that argument they have in the seventh book.  Likewise, I want to know that Wesley’s going to (spoiler) die at the end of Angel (HA!  SERVE YOU RIGHT!), but I don’t in any way want to know whatever touching moment Social Sister was going to tell me about but I stopped her because I don’t want to know these things.

Well, and that’s why I got cross with Fingersmith.  I felt like it cheated me.  I read the entire emotional end of the story, got cross because I was still angry with Sue for being such a lying bitch, and never saw anything coming that was coming.  Besides which, I couldn’t really get behind a romance that occurs between two such unpleasant characters.  I know I know, necessity and oppression and Victorian girls had no choices, but I don’t care!  They were just too unpleasant!  I was interested in what was going to happen but I was not in any way invested in their romance.

I sort of was.

But mostly not.  Because of how unpleasant they both were.

I liked Fingersmith a lot.  Like Sarah Waters’ other books – I wouldn’t buy them but I am happy to know the library has them, and if I reread them enough times I may well grow to love them deeply and purchase them all for my personal library.  Except Tipping the Velvet which has been my least favorite so far.  And I care enough to read Affinity (spiritualism! woooooooo!) and check Amazon to see if she has any new books coming out.  And enough to give her a favored authors tag.  Sarah Waters writes well and tells me lots of interesting things about the seamy underbelly of Victorian England; and I am all about the seamy underbelly of Victorian England.

Now I’m all interested in Victorian erotica.  How totally interesting.  If I were going into academia, I would be studying Victorian erotica.

…That might be hard to get a job in.  English 4069: Victorians <3 Porn.

Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

I liked Night Watch enough that I got all of Sarah Waters’s other books out of the library in the hopes that I would be getting a grand new favorite author.  Tipping the Velvet was evidently her first, and I didn’t like it as much as Night Watch, sadly, but I still totally enjoyed it.  So much I stayed up until three last night finishing it even though I have a paper to write today.  I’m doing that straightaway after I write this.

Lots of interesting Victorian underworld in this book.  I spent a lot of this book trying to work out what all that mad Victorian slang was about, which was jolly.  Though I did get fed up with Nancy when she was window-shopping at the tobacconist and the dude came up and talked to her and she was dressed as a boy and she like totally talked back.  I was in my room going “Well that’s just GREAT, Nan, you WINDOW-SHOPPING HUSSY.  Hope you’re enjoying offering that UNEQUIVOCAL SEX INVITE with all that crazed WINDOW-SHOPPING TALKING you are doing.  He is OBVIOUSLY trying to pick you up and that might be okay if you weren’t a GIRL, you humongous MORON.”  Not really fair to get so cross about it.  She didn’t know.

I got seriously worked up about Nancy’s behavior and what I wanted to happen.  Like Florence?  I was against Florence from the beginning.  Why’s everyone always ending up with snotty righteous uninteresting people?  It was like that time Dorothea married Casaubon, only more ugh and no dashing young Will for her to hook up with later.  What if Jane Eyre had married St. John?  Ugh.  About forty pages into the book I went and read the end, and there was this random-ass Florence character I’d never met, so I took against from the beginning, and when she finally showed up I was like PFFT, Florence, I hate that bitch.  So it was good really that she was such an aggravatingly virtuous character and I didn’t have to reconsider my early unfriendly assessment of her.

Well, that’s neither here nor there.  Sarah Waters is a good writer.  Tipping the Velvet was good.  We’ll see, won’t we, whether my fondness for her survives reading her other two books.  I’m saving Affinity for last because it’s about spiritualism.  I like spiritualism.  Hester Whatsherface received a whole play all from Oscar Wilde.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

To quote the bit that charmed me into buying it:

[D]ue to her “troubles”, she’d voluntarily admitted herself to a “Narnia kind of place” where people talked about their feelings and learned to watercolor fruit. Jade hinted excitedly that a “really huge rock star” had been in residence on her floor, the comparatively well-adjusted third floor (“not as suicidal as the fourth or as manic as the second”) and they’d become “close,” but to reveal his name would be to forsake everything she’d learned during her ten-month “growth period” at Heathridge Park. (Jade now, I realized, saw herself as some sort of herbaceous vine or creeper.) One of the parameters of her “graduation,” she explained (she used this world, probably because it was preferable to “release”) was that she tie up Loose Ends.

I was a loose End.

Recommended by: http://estellasrevenge.blogspot.com

I have just this minute finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and I am in the process of deciding what I think. I went to some trouble to obtain it – first buying it at the bookstore and then getting it from the library in order to screen it and decide whether I want to own it – and I intended to have a definitive answer (I’ll be honest, I was expecting a definitive yes) as soon as I finished it.

Frankly, I suspect the only reason I haven’t got a definitive answer is that I gave in to the brainwashing by modern society. All through the book I was thinking, I really want to read the end of this book, and every time I thought it, I said to myself, Now Jenny, this is just irrational. You know about delayed gratification, and it’s going to be so much better if you let yourself be surprised.

This is a mindset that has arisen since the Harry Potter books, namely since the sixth one, when I just glanced at the end to check whether Ginny was going to be okay – for God’s sake, Harry deserves a little happiness! I was thinking hysterically, it being extremely late and myself being the only one awake and in a foreign country – and of course my eye fell on the sentence that said who died. Sheesh. Though in a way it was good because I didn’t have to worry about anyone else dying, but in some ways it was really unfortunate, because every time that character was around I’d be like This is it! This is the end! This is the last time I will ever see you! And I regretted it in that one instance, but the Harry Potter books are an exception to my general read-the-end-as-soon-as-you-logically-can policy, and I shouldn’t have let them throw me off to this extent.

It’s gone too far and I have to stop it. Some people don’t like reading the end; I am the kind of person who likes to read the endings. When you read the end, you enjoy the middle a lot more. Especially in mysteries of the non-Agatha Christie variety. And if I had read the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I believe quite firmly that I would presently be writing a glowing review of the book. As it is I’m not sure that it was quite fair of Ms. Pessl (I wrote “far of Ms. Pessl”, which is certainly also true) to have the tremendous long build-up in the first two-thirds of the book before beginning the dizzying descent into comprehending all of the events you more or less thought you already comprehended anyway. See, if I had read the end and I knew everything, I’d have been like, Whoa, dude, this is prettttttty craaaaazy right here and I am enjoying it A LOT.

So thanks, world, for brainwashing me into reading books your boring-ass pedestrian way of reading books. Don’t take this as criticism. I’m just saying that when you don’t know what shit means until you finish the book, then that incredibly valuable and wondrous thing, The First Time You Read It, gets completely screwed up and ruined because you’ve missed all the layers even though they were there all along. Which is too bad because I’m completely in love with the end of this book. I love insanity. The greater the scope of (book-based) insanity, the better, because I am a sucker for the grandeur of the fictional and insane. I just would have loved this book more if I’d known how completely insane it was in the first place.

I seriously can’t decide if I want to keep my purchased copy. Can’t decide, can’t decide. I love the madness of the end. I really do. I’m just not sure if it makes up for the bits in the middle where I was thinking, Oh my God, get over your frantic desire to make shiny new similes because although sometimes they are very nice and really clever, there are also times when I want to PULL OFF YOUR FACE for the assaults you are perpetrating on English prose.

That reaction was unfairly vehement – only because the stakes were high on account of my having spent some of my Christmas Bongs & Noodles credit on this book and being stressed about whether to Keep It or Return It. It is, however, true that Ms. Pessl occasionally allows herself to become enamored of her prose to the exclusion, or at least partial exclusion, of moving the plot along in an interesting manner. This is, mind you, only before – well, I’d say before the bit where Milton and Blue go over to Hannah’s house. Page 389ish.

I think what would have made this book drastically better for the first two-thirds would have been the fleshing-out of the Bluebloods. We see a lot of them, but they aren’t ultimately all that interesting. Cardboard cut-outs a bit. They’re too focused on Hannah without ever really being very much themselves, which may be because they’re not ultimately relevant, but shit, if they’re going to be in there for such a quantity of pages, at least make them fun to read about.

Nevertheless, I think I will probably read this again sometime. It’s only a question of whether I’ll be reading my own purchased-Christmas-2007 copy or a copy belonging to my local library.

Edit later to add: The more I think about Special Topics, the more I think I really like it.  (Too bad I already returned it.)  I believe that my difficulty was that I was under the impression that it was a coming-of-age novel, and if it had been primarily a coming-of-age novel, it would have had to be more tightly written, and I got frustrated when it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Actually it’s a mystery.  See, if I’d known, I don’t think I’d have bogged down in the same way.  So I am going to go with, This is a very excellent book (except the Bluebloods could still have been more interesting).

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.

Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski

Recommended by: imani, more or less. Or rather, she mentioned The Victorian Chaise-Longue, also by Marghanita Laski, and I picked up Little Boy Lost at the library at the same time. So “recommended” is actually a pretty big stretch on this, but whatever.

For a while I was convinced that this book had to be in translation. It just had these weird bits that you get when you are reading books in translation, and the author’s name is unusual and might quite easily have been foreign; and anyway I was all set to write this review and say I hate reading books in translation.

Which is absolutely true, and probably the reason I have never got on well with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or any Russian writers ever (not counting Nabokov who wrote in English and I claim him as an American writer).

Instead I guess I have to say that Little Boy Lost just baffled me. It’s about an Englishman called Hilary whose Polish wife Lisa died at the hands of the Nazis, and whose son, who was with Lisa until shortly before the Gestapo got her, is missing. And might be dead. Or might not. During the war, Lisa’s friend’s husband Pierre is in France trying to find the kid, and at the end of the war Hilary comes to France to check how it’s going and go meet the only kid it could possibly be. And it’s very weird because one moment he’s all in total agony about everything, and the next moment he’s like, Whatevs, glad you’re handling that tracking-the-kid-down thing, and just let me know what you find out. Or one moment he’s bitter and miserable and thinks that finding his son is his only chance for happiness, and then two pages later it’ll be this:

He added with a kind of delight, “It’s a splendidly romantic place to begin a search from.”

And okay, officially I can excuse this in a lot of different ways. Like: Losing a kid is very baffling, and a lot of time has gone by, and he doesn’t know what to feel. Or: You can’t be in total agony all the time and you might as well take pleasure where you can like in how romantic a place is.

But I’m sorry. He sounds like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane having fun tracking down the murderer in Have His Carcase, which is officially Very Serious Business but is not infrequently just an excuse for them to enjoy themselves and be silly and humorously appreciate the drama of the situation. And that’s what Hilary sounds like he’s doing here, although actually he’s looking for his kid. He carries on being silly for another minute or two and then back he goes into misery, without seeming to notice that his mood changed at all.

(Sidebar: Audrey Niffenegger says that Henry and Clare were based on Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I just can hardly imagine two people less like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, which I’m sure is partly due to the characters’ developing a great deal during the writing process but is also indicative of how amazingly differently people read. John Tregarth and Peter Wimsey is a fair enough connection, but Henry DeTamble and Peter Wimsey, I can’t see it.)

What was good – excellent, actually – about this book were the interactions between Hilary and the little orphanage boy who might or might not be his son. These bits of the book were tense and interesting and moving, and if they hadn’t been there I would have gone straight to the end, discovered what was going to happen, and chucked the book down without finishing it, because the rest of the bits (mostly) were not interesting at all. I think this is because Hilary never really settles into a clear character and that made it difficult to care much what happened to him. Jean, the little boy, is a real boy, and that, I believe, is why the bits with him come off gorgeously.

SPOILER

BIG ONE

The other thing I didn’t like was that Hilary decides at the end that he can love this boy as a son even though he isn’t sure it’s his son, and then when he’s going back to the orphanage to fetch him, Jean says something that makes it entirely clear he’s the right kid. I think ambiguity would have been better, to have Jean say something that suggests he’s remembering something about his life before the orphanage that indicates he’s Hilary’s son, but still leave the reader in some doubt.

Nonetheless I enjoyed Little Boy Lost, and I can easily see picking it up again sometime. At the library. I wouldn’t buy it, unless, I suppose, I had a massive library and lots of money to buy books just on the strength of feeling that I might possibly someday want to read them again maybe.