I just counted, and it turns out I am 50 books in the hole.  Never fear.  I’m determined to philosophize at you every bit as oppressively as a garlic-eating professor in a small academic office for at least two more posts, but I’m kind of stuck at the end of my next post about death–you know, the part where I’m supposed to draw conclusions?  So I will take a break from that and tell you about a strange book I read, and make it 49.  It was a fantasy.  It was kind of good, it was kind of not, but I liked it.

The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

Orbit 2010, first published in Ireland 2008

read early March

This book puzzled me on so many fronts.  Once upon a time there were two delectable, expressive, agonized, sensitive-yet-warlike boys, both of them friends to a beautiful, artistic and exquisitely tenderhearted yet tough and politically savvy girl who is clearly going to get her choice of chocolate or vanilla sooner or later.  That was part of the point of the book, but I’m not sure what else was.  There was no physical throne.  There was a torture device shaped like a chair in the dungeons, but nobody said it was poisonous, and it didn’t cary enough dramatic weight to be The Throne of the title.  The atmosphere around the monarchy in Kiernan’s world was so oppressive that for a long time I believed she was planting clues toward something supernaturally evil attached to the kingship, poisoning the minds and morals of rulers.  By the time the book ended, though, I wasn’t so sure.

The most noticeable feature of The Poison Throne was the way every character was turned up to their full emotional volume all the time.  This was probably meant to reflect the unbearable tension of the situation in which they found themselves clear through the book.  In terms of pacing, picture this novel as wind sprint.  After five years roaming the world (why?), a skilled carpenter father and his apprentice carpenter daughter (predictably fetching in boys’ togs) who are also noble folk (noble carpenters?–not explained) return to their home kingdom only to find that the king (who is old friends with papa carpenter) is Being Bad and taking the whole kingdom with him.  Racial prejudice, gallows at the crossroads, all that.  Plus he’s disowned his teenaged son.  No one really talks about why this happened until quite late in the book.  By then you’d think it’s some terribly exotic crime, but no; it’s mostly just that the crown prince got rebellious and ran off with his uncle who objected to the king’s badness, reasonably enough.  So now the king wants to make his bastard son his heir, but his bastard son, who is a physician (though no less young and delectable for this), is loyal to his half brother.  So the king blackmails the bastard into doing his will by inflicting pain on his (the bastard’s) sexually-venturesome maimed gypsy best friend and horse-trainer who may or may not also be his lover.  PSYCHIC AGONY FOR THE BASTARD PHYSICIAN AND HIS FRIENDS!  ESPECIALLY THE GIRL!  WHO HATED THE SEXY GYPSY FOR A LITTLE WHILE WHEN SHE FIRST MET HIM BUT MAY ACTUALLY BE FALLING FOR HIM NOW!

Plus, papa carpenter is sick with a weak heart from rheumatic fever or something.  A surprising lot of the book is devoted to painful descriptions of him dragging himself around the castle trying to look normal because of fraught-but-vague political undercurrents, then collapsing, and the daughter and boys expecting him to die any minute.  In the very midst of their grief and worry and they must keep up appearances and go off and politick among the hostile nobles and bullying king.  More psychic agony.

The best things about The Poison Throne–though I know you won’t believe me when I say so–were the ghosts and the talking cats.  One of the baddest ways the king went bad was to *slight spoiler* kill the cats and make ghosts illegal.  The ghosts are a little bit like the ones in A Tale of Time City, except that they are semi-corporeal and can (if not too upset) converse intelligently.  Since the king can’t kill the ghosts, his subjects have to pretend they don’t exist–ignore them when they speak.  This paranoid fellow doesn’t like talking cats and ghosts because he thinks they will tell his secrets.

What’s the king’s secret?  I’m not sure.  I mean, there is one, but it’s still all mysterious at the end of the book.  Good thing there are two more volumes in the Moorhawke Trilogy to clear everything up.

Another question you may ask:  Why did I not hate this book?  Well, it was overwrought, but the emotions were real–unconvincing only in quantity, not quality.  Likewise, even as it wallowed in minutiae through every description of the boys’ bodies and expressions and injuries and gestures (all in a way to emphasize their hotness), and in its descriptions of the girl’s feelings, the story remained unforced.  Here is an author whose heart is whole and who believes in her world wholeheartedly and has thrown her whole self into it.  I love that; a lot of high fantasy lacks conviction.  I may be one of those people who finds emotion more potent when it’s contained in a mold of poetic restraint, but far more important that it’s there.

Does anyone else remember that place in Daddy Long-legs when Jerusha Abbot has just read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and she cries from the heart: “How can there be a man like Heathcliff?”

I didn’t care for Heathcliff.  In fact, when I first read Wuthering Heights at age fifteen or so, I remember asking pretty much the same question in disgust.  Whatever floats your boat.  It’s just one of those things.  Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.  Heathcliff, or Rochester.  A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

Now that I’ve alienated half of you, I would like to bring up the delicate subject of CUTE SHY GUYS or perhaps, SULKY SMART GUYS WHO ARE SO COOL, or even NAKED WIZARDS IN THE BATHTUB in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones.  I didn’t want to be the first, but . . .

I’m just going to assume that none of you (now that all the Wuthering Heights lovers have left the room; and at this point the straight men can go too, and anyone else so inclined) are so silly as to think I want to leave my my husband for 12-year-old enchanter in training.  What I’m talking about isn’t a fantasy roll in the hay, but personal magnetism.  Diana Wynne Jones does male mystique like no one else!

You will find very little overt romance or love in a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel.  Characters learn about each other, become friends, admire one another, understand one other (sometimes) and have adventures.  Then, rather abruptly from the reader’s perspective, they occasionally announce their engagement–or in the next book they happen to be married.  You could just say Jones doesn’t do lust and standard romantic conflict because her books are written for children who would say ick to those things.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think she is simply inclined to hang her characters’ relationships on a more equivocal framework than “love story” because she finds that more interesting.

Writing about young people (and others whose lives are ruled by forces greater than themselves, like magic-users) gives Jones’ a lot of scope for this preference.  Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents.  Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving.  These are the ones Jones writes about.

Teenagers!  All that raw energy going off in all directions!  A lot like magic.  As readers of fantasy know, unharnessed magic can be very dangerous.  It comes on you without warning.  You must learn to harness it.  You must learn how to live with it.  Remind you of anything else?  Despite the lack of overt romance and desire in her fiction, Jones’ books are not asexual.  Drama (good drama, not melodrama) is sexy.  The raw energy of adolescent self-definition is pure aphrodisiac.  Magic is hot.  Why?  Because like the best sex, each of these things creates a raised pitch of emotion, a sense of revelation, and a feeling of commonality.  A metaphor made in heaven.

I will not harp on the mallet-over-the-head trend to capitalize directly on this connection in certain popular fiction.  Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy characters are a different breed.  They are real people first and foremost; they weren’t created as vehicles for magical sexiness, and they never do the same song and dance twice.  Jones can write a novel that appeals to a third grader for its sly humor and inventive plot.  An adult can read the very same book and find deep wells of motivation, multi-faceted characters, scenes full of teasing undercurrents.  That is Jones’ virtuosity.

In her essay (from a 1992 lecture) on heroes, she remarks, “I do find, myself, that the Hero, the protagonist, is the story. This is not to say that the other people in it are of no importance. Before I can write about anyone, I have to consider them as my close personal friends, even the Baddies.”

The more I read Diana Wynne Jones, the more flattered I am by her good opinion of her readers.  Whatever our age, without fail she treats us as if we were smart enough to take as much as we like from her books, be whoever we like in them, and scratch under the surface as deeply as we please–trusting us to find the way (or one of the ways) she has laid out for us.  She repays our enthusiastic blundering by packing her stories with ideas and crafting them on multiple levels.  Reading her comment on submerged alter egos in the essay mentioned above, I suspect she would take it for granted that it is possible both to want to be an eccentric wizard and find him hot at the same time.

Because it does not revolve around wanting a guy to ask you to the prom or turn you into a vampire, the sexiness in a Diana Wynne Jones novel not does not depend on your identifying with one character and desiring a different one.  (Readers aren’t known for their compliance in this department, but still.)  The sexy intensity is embedded in the story and everything that comes together to make it.  When the story is the hero, and the story is sexy, that makes the hero sexy too.

I can only speak from where I’m standing, so you will notice all of the following characters are male.  I don’t doubt there are readers crushing on Mig and Polly, but Jones happens to have a particularly fine hand with men and boys (for reasons that may become clearer if you read the essay I mentioned above), and she has written a lot of them.

So get comfortable and channel your inner fourteen-year-old.  Without further ado I bring you an incomplete list of–

The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie:  An intelligent urchin who gets handed the rawest of raw deals and turns out to have a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.  Triumphs over the odds then gives up his winnings.

Tom Lynn:  Shadowy, prickly professor who refuses to pull his intellectual punches, never condescends to youth, and still knows how to enter unabashedly into the delights of a pretend game.  The man with a secret sorrow.

Nick Mallory:  Here is a cocky trickster who, as a teenager, is willing to dance an impromptu witchy dance in public with his older girl cousin.  Astoundingly healthy self-image, clear goals, good sense, and no illusions about his mother!

Howl:  Gorgeous, mercurial, preening wizard who shelters his shrinking heart behind a multiplicity of just-barely-self-conciously humorous personae, and conceals his virtues from everyone, including himself.  The most powerful sorcerer, but off-handed with it.  Surprisingly good with kids.

Sirius:  Dispossessed angel.  Kindness perfected through suffering.  The empathetic sweetheart.  The otherworldly, perceptive male.  And sometimes is a dog.

Chrestomanci:  Ah, Chrestomanci!  (If I said it a third time I’d be in trouble.)  I am rendered nigh speechless.  Frock coat, I blurt.  Dressing gown.  Tangled mess all better.  Will recklessly risk his life(s) and his impeccable dignity in the pursuit of Sweet Magical Reason.  The steady hand on the pull-rope of the Deus Ex Machina.  The Maestro.  If you find competence sexy . . .  (Unfortunately also a married man.)

Conrad:  Harried, responsible teenager.  The underdog.  The good guy.  The unwilling rebel trying not to get taken for a ride.  Everyman.  With good hair.  In footman’s togs.

Dagner:  Unreliable artist.  The young tragedian with the fatal flaw.  If you ever went through your parents’ or older sibling’s record collection, found an old album with the face of a long-haired young man, played it, and suddenly understood that you were grown up and that the world was a sad place and poetry was its only hope . . .

Moril:  Down-to-earth mystic.  The worried, hardworking soul who attracts the Profoundest Magic.  A boy with his own concerns who tries, but will never quite be able, to give you his whole attention.  The craftsman.  The humble Lancelot.

The Ghost in Aunt Maria:  Harlequin.  Refracted personality.  A self-abnegating jester who knows all the tricks and tries to do what good he can, under the radar.  The martyr.

Charles Morgan:  Mastermind.  Cipher.  The Cold Face of Vengeance. . . and he wears glasses with the same threatening air as a shoulder-holster!

Rupert Venables:  My most recent addition.  I re-read Deep Secret a few months ago.  This time I was struck by his capacity for accurate self-assessment.  A bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows it.  Prejudiced against tiresome people, but owns up to it as prejudice, and is willing to have his mind changed.  Proud of his magical ability, but justifiably so, and equally aware of his limitations.  I had no idea this quality could be so endearing!

So now my big question is: Who is your top Diana Wynne Jones heartthrob?  Is he on the list?  Did I miss one?

And one last:

How can there be an enchanter like Chrestomanci?

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished July 23, 2010

Genre: children’s fantasy with magic in the real world

I liked the cover design for this book with the magic spilling from the skylight as rainbow streamers, especially the way the designer took a blown-up portion of the illustration and wrapped it around the back cover and the flaps.  While I had the book open to read it, rainbows peeped out at me all around the pages.  (A further note on the cover–it looks to me like something is spilling from Aidan’s nose.  I know it is only magic sparkles coming from the glasses he is holding in front of his face.  Still, every time I glanced at it…)

This is worth mentioning, because streaming rainbows and chirping bluebirds of happiness is what it feels like to hold a NEW Diana Wynne Jones novel in my sweaty little hands.  Enchanted Glass doesn’t offer the complex plotting of some of her works that are geared for older readers (though in part that’s moot; all Diana Wynne Jones’ books have something for everyone), and there are a few loose ends, but I enjoyed the homey setting.  Books about people who inherit old, magical country houses full of old, magical stuff in English villages always make me jealous.  There should be more rich old magicians in the world, naming obscure distant relatives as heirs.

Andrew inherits Melstone House from the grandfather with whom he spent summers as a boy.  This means he can retire from his university teaching job and finally write the history that’s been on his back burner.  The book Andrew means to write is one of those loose ends I was talking about; because really, though Andrew is slow to realize it, Melstone isn’t just an inherited house, it’s an inherited post.

I had a couple of different favorite things about Enchanted Glass, and one of them was how the magic comes slowly on Andrew.  Diana Wynne Jones perfectly conveys the way you can forget things from childhood without really forgetting them; the feeling of things you remember without exactly remembering.  Sorry that is vague, but if you want to know what I’m talking about you should read the book!

Andrew is both admirably businesslike (no stagey skepticism, which I hate) and sweetly surprised as he rediscovers the magic around Melstone House.  A sense of wonder for grownups, in a book for kids that is also about about a grownup growing up–don’t you just love that?  And what other writer could pull it off so well?

I suppose his age is why I find Andrew more interesting than Aidan, the orphaned boy who shows up on Melstone House’s doorstep with magical peril on his heels.  The simple fact that I am no longer 12 (or 16, or 20, or even 30) means I can sympathize with a middle-aged professor more than a kid.  Aidan is nice, and it’s easy to get into his head, but he is definitely more of a children’s-literature-style protagonist than a young adult one.  He’s reflective, but not complicated.  His problems are pretty straightforward.

Which brings me to my other favorite thing about this book.  Melstone is what’s referred to as a “field-of-care.”  When Aidan and Andrew go out to walk the boundary (borders and boundaries are a theme in lots of Jone’s work, if anyone wants to jump in and discuss), we get Aiden’s kid-like take on it:

When there were no cars coming either way, Andrew led the way down the bank, to cross the road just beside the dip where the ghost had been.  Going as slowly as he dared, in case someone was speeding, he wove up and down the slight rise in the road, until he had fixed in his mind what the boundary felt like.  The side where the field-of-care was felt like what he now thought of as normal: deep and slightly exciting.  The other side–

“Oh!” Aidan exclaimed.  “It’s all boring and dangerous on this side!  Like standing on a runway in the path of an airplane.  Flat, but you’re lucky you’re not dead.”

This passage, and others, had me in raptures.  In giving us the magician’s perspective on the magical vs. the non-magical, Jones is also giving us a perfect metaphor for literature vs. real life.  Entering the world of a fantasy novel as fine as Diana Wynne Jones’, whether writing it or reading it, is much like entering a field-of-care where everything is “deep and slightly exciting.”  Take it that way, and he dry humor in “flat, but you’re lucky your not dead,” as an assessment of real life: priceless.  And Jones all over!

If all this sounds good to you so far, and you can get behind the idea of cauliflower casserole as a tool of revenge, a giant zucchini as a deadly weapon, giant vegetables (and giants in general), I’m sure you will enjoy this book.

Viking, 2008

Finished: April-ish 2010

Source: checking library catalog

Genre: YA fantasy with a moral and several Issues

On the Scales: welterweight

Don’t read this book.  If you haven’t read any other Graham Joyce novels, skip it and read Dark Sister or The Limits of Enchantment.  Then, if you are brave and have a strong stomach and stronger nerves, read Indigo.  Chase it with The Facts of Life so you can get to sleep that night.

Joyce writes what they were calling interstitial fiction a while back–a term designed to repel all boarders if ever there was one.  It applies to Mr. Joyce because (this frustrates me so much!) he is the sort of uncategorizable writer who keeps getting swept into the cracks.

It’s also worth mentioning that he’s British, because more than most, his sensibility for 20th century British cultural history is a big part of what makes his books so great.

Points In Favor of Graham Joyce

1.  Atmosphere:  Local, complex, and pregnant.

2. Characters:  Lively and believable, especially when he takes you inside their heads.

3.  Plotting and Pacing:  Flawless, tight.

4.  Description:  Concise.  Almost magically evocative.  Rich visual details never bore or overwhelm the reader.  And he does macro and micro equally well.

5.  Dialog:  Wry, charged, and individually tailored to the character.  Often very funny when juxtaposed with characters’ thoughts (see 2).

6.  Ideas:  Diabolical.  Moving.  Mythic.  Weird.  Feminist.  Fantastical.  Reassuring.

Points Against Graham Joyce

Just one–he shouldn’t be using the YA template.  Joyce’s YA novels are exceptional.  You won’t find better “issues” books.  With coming-of-age themes evident in so much of his work, he’s a natural candidate for the current crop of suspense/magical realist YA writers…it’s just not what he does best.  Which we all know is what every author ought to be doing.  Chain him to his desk and crack the whip.

Entertain, minon!

Joyce allows himself the frayed children’s lit device of a magical object that teaches a lesson.  That’s okay; he’s one of the few authors who could pull it off.  The real problem with The Exchange was that it was too short.  There simply wasn’t enough time for him to give Caz and her magic bracelet his usual treatment.  Aside from Caz and a couple of classmates, all the charachers are loosely sketched grownups–not looking too closely at the inner workings of grownups (ick!) being a YA tradition.  I enjoyed them anyway: lovelorn tatooist, bossy old lady, depressed mom, painfully nerdy male teacher.  Joyce couldn’t help help making them real.

For example:

The next day in school, Caz is called to see Mrs Crabb, the Head.  Mrs Crabb is a kindly old stick, but she takes no nonsense.  She reeks of cigarette smoke because outside of lesson times she is a chain smoker.  The fingertips of her right hand are the colour of acorns because of the nicotine, and her teeth look like a mouthful of autumn leaves.  Aside from that, the kids like her, and Caz does, too.

She has a “study,” which is actually just a stockroom piled high with dusty old books from the 1960s.  There’s a small desk and two chairs.  Even though no smoking is allowed inside the school, Caz thinks the “study” smells like a pub ashtray.

Caz and her friend get underage jobs bussing tables at a bar.  I especially liked this walk-on part for a amatuer rock singer:

It’s a strange night at the pub.  The band playing that evening are spectacularly bad– so awful that people drift away–and by ten o’clock only a handful of drinkers are left.   The sound less like a rock band than a group of road diggers in hard helmets.  Caz hears Frank Swear.  “That’s it!” he shouts above the industrial din.  He marches to the side of the stage and suddenly the guitars go dead.  The drummer plays on regardless.  He’s in his own world, drumming with his eyes closed.  The singer, a guy with eyebrows that join in the middle and a ratty fringe hanging in his eyes, bellows away for a few moments until he catches the sound of his own miserable wailing.  He looks astonished at how bad his voice is, as if he’s never heard it before.  Then the drummer opens his eyes and drops one of his drumsticks.

The band all turn and look at each other.  Then they all look at Frank.  He’s holding the main supply plug high up in the air for them to see.  The entire pub goes quiet, as do Caz, Lucy, and the rest of the bar staff.  The silence is broken by someone who claps and cheers Franks intervention.

“You’ll thank me for this one day,” Frank says.

“What?” spits the singer.

“Every young band needs to be told the truth of how bad they are if they’re to get better.  That’s why I say you’ll thank me when I tell you that you are the biggest pile of garbage ever to stand on that stage.  And believe me we’ve had some crap here at The Black Dog.”

“I’ll second that!” shouts one of the stalwart drinkers.

I just got the papercut of my life.  Shirt cardboard.  Between writing the above and coming back to the computer to post it, I went to start a load of wash, and I wanted to put a new T-shirt in the load.  It was wrapped in plastic, folded on a piece of cardboard.

I ripped it open, and it ripped me open.

I pulled the full length of the long edge of the cardboard through my pinky.  Ow, ow, ow!  I always forget how much these things hurt.

Disclaimer: I’ve seen reviews of this book on several blogs I enjoy.  I haven’t read them.  At first I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to risk a spoiler.  Later I didn’t read them because I knew I was going to do some nit picking here. I expect some of the nits I pick will be things other readers particularly liked about this book.  I wanted to be sure you know: I’m not responding to your reviews contrary-wise.  Just being my nit picky self.

Turner neophytes: No spoilers.  Read with confidence.

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished: late April

Genre: YA fantasy that reads like historical fiction

On the Scales: middleweight

Inside the room, opposite the glass doors, were carved wooden ones that remained closed in all my visits.  I had no idea what might be beyond them, probably because I had no interest.  Everything I desired was in the room with me.  Between these doors, and on  every other space of wall, were shelves for books and scrolls and packets of papers and every kind of writing you can imagine, even tablets impressed with minute scratches that I not only knew were writing but could read, by the magic of dreams.

You may be shocked to learn how badly things have gone for Sophos since we saw him in The Thief.  A quest for a magic talisman is just the thing to set a boy on track, isn’t it?  And he’s still got the Magus, hasn’t he?  But as so often happens after adventures, Sophos’ home is still what it was when he left it.  Life remains a series of humiliations for the worst-case-scenario back-up heir of a petty king.  Now in his late teens, with the Magus’ excellent education under his belt, is it any surprise that Sophos’ coldly reasoned self-knowledge has hobbled his spirit?  Failure is so inevitable he hardly bothers about it anymore.  Sophos is a poet and thinker rather than a bully.  In Sounis, bullies make good rulers.  Sophos father and uncle are bullies.  Their noblemen are bullies who have to be bullied to be kept in check.  Sophos’ sword master is a bully, too.  He is surrounded by them.  He suffers them in shamed silence.

Ah ha!  But in Megan Whalen Turner’s world, rulers must rule whether they are suited to the job or not!  This is what creates the dramatic tension in her books.  For the kings and queens who maintain the delicate balance of power between the Classical Greek-themed kingdoms of Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis–with the Medes looming on one side and the occidental kingdoms on the other–the personal and the political are always intertwined.

As soon A Conspiracy of Kings began, I could it was going to take a big jolt to shake Sophos out of his rut.  In fact, it took slavery and a third of the book.

This was the third of the book I enjoyed.

Now, in the eyes of Ochto, sitting on a stool by the door, slurping his own soup, I was no different than any of the men around me.  My freedom was like my missing tooth, a hole where something had been that was now gone.  I worried at the idea of it, just as I slid my tongue back and forth across the already healing hole in my gum.  I tasted the last bloody spot and tried to remember the feel of the tooth that had been there.  I had been a free man.  Now I was not.

To explain why this novel disappointed me so, I will have to explain why I think Megan Whalen Turner’s skills and sensibilities as a writer are on a par with Ursula Le Guin or Katherine Paterson–far exceeding (with the exception of Elizabeth Wein) any other American author of her generation whose books are marketed for children and young adults.

So here goes.

Imagine a mystery in which no crime was committed and no detective solves it.  There are no red herrings.  In fact, the author leaves no clues.  The characters leave them instead.  I say the characters rather than the author because–unlike a mystery novelist–there is no catching them out, no learning their game. They aren’t playing one.  They’re living their lives as they find them.

Until you learn to track these characters’ emotions and motivations like wild animals in a forest, you will feel like you are just reading a “normal” fantasy adventure–a children’s story.  The scenes and pacing will be familiar.  You will recognize the cast at a glance: impatient scholar, bluff soldier, haughty noble son, weakling.  Amazon.  Trickster.

I was lying when I said the characters aren’t playing a game.  They are playing Turner’s game!  By submerging her construction so completely in her characters and setting, Turner plays the deepest game of all.  Chances are you won’t even see it until the story is over and the book is shut.  If you are lucky, you’ll be left with a strange, rubbing-your-eyes feeling that you missed something because . . . you did.  Everything was a clue to a deeper emotional reality.  Every choice of words, every gesture, every odd detail you just put down to atmosphere was part of the overall construction.  Then, as though a ruined temple had just risen out of the sea, you will begin to see Turner’s genius.  You will marvel that she was able to build this huge thing, and at the same deploy her characters so confidently and compassionately to do all the work of hiding it: secret agents in stock-character disguise.

Your discovery will be all the more delightful if you realize that she has chosen to build her temple inside a young person’s novel not for the shock value of the contrast between big ideas and little heads, but because she truly respects the form.  She didn’t see its conventions as a handicap; they were a natural set of tools for her as a writer.  It didn’t seem at all strange to her to build her temple on Atlantis where it would sink beneath most grownups’ notice.

The problem with builder-architect type authors is that their work takes an enormous amount of energy and focus.  Contrast this with yarn-spinning authors, with the literary equivalent of amateur carpenters (there are a lot of these), or even authors who just sit around playing Sim City.  If an author sets out to hammer up a tool shed of a book and things go badly, chances are they’ll still end up with a tool shed.  It may be leaning sideways and there may be gaps between the boards, but it will keep the rain off their tools.  If an author runs short of focus or energy when she is trying to raise a temple out of quarried stone. . .

Four books take place in Turner’s world of The Thief.  The first two, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia were completed buildings, the second two, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings were construction sites.  Right now I’m trying to figure out how a writer for whom I have such profound respect could have written two books that never came together, when her first two books were all about things coming together.

In The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, quite apart from the hidden structure of the story and hidden depths of the characters, Turner handles the interplay between love, friendship and statecraft with a conjuror’s lightness.  Because this kind of close interplay is peculiar to the “time” she’s writing about in her fantasy world, pulling it off requires a firm–even academic–sense of history most fantasists lack.  In the both The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings the political situation is more settled.  The stories concentrate on the personal burden of rule and the social forces that determine the success or failure of a head of state.  I don’t think Turner’s history failed her in these recent books.  Rather, I think her careful creation of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis as realistic ancient kingdoms forced her kings and queens into such tight corners of royal responsibility, they had no more room to maneuver the plot.  Now the derring-do is done, how can they break out?  How can they surprise us?  How can they turn on a dime and change the whole story?

I see Turner trying to solve this problem with her naïve first-person narrators.  The young palace guard Costis watches events unfold in The King of Attolia, providing a sense of dramatic irony (we know something is up that he doesn’t; we just don’t know what it is), and in Conspiracy of Kings, there is Sophos.  It isn’t enough.  Sophos may be at the center of political events, but because of his deliberate intellect and morals, there is really never any question of what he’ll do, only what will happen to him–and by the second part of the book, we are no longer in much doubt about that.

Gen and Attolia were capable of anything.  Sophos is another breed.  That doesn’t make me like him any less, but it does make it necessary to write him as the hero a different kind of book, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen with A Conspiracy of Kings.  Turner’s trademarks are her reversal and her reveal.  Whole interpersonal crises turn out to be edifices of deceit.  Whole characters.  Whole strategies.  Whole relationships.  The two reveals in A Conspiracy of Kings–the contents of a heart, and the contents of a box–were quite small and forced.

The prologue in A Conspiracy of Kings hinted at the possibility a much greater reversal, like the ones in The Thief or The Queen of Attolia (think Judas kiss).  It would have booted Sophos off center stage, which seemed unfair after all he’d suffered, but halfway through the book, I was still trusting her to have something so amazing up her sleeve that it would make the odd switch from Sophos’ first-person narrative to an authorial third-person narrative worthwhile.  The third-person section takes place entirely in Attolia’s palace, and features cool, uninformative descriptions of political negotiations with a couple of cryptic forays into the Queen of Eddis’ head.  It was not compelling reading.  I couldn’t believe that Turner would mark time so awkwardly unless it was for a good reason.

The reversal never materialized.  Changing the narrator was a big mistake.  It had the same effect as ripping a microphone out of Sophos’ hands when he had just started telling his story.  It was an even bigger mistake to suddenly give it back to him for the last part of the book.  At that point we are shown how it was all part of the plan, but in my opinion the plan was too unformed to be worth the stylistic bumps.

Perhaps if Turner had taken this book through more drafts it would have turned out quite differently.  I can think of several versions encompassing the same characters and events.  For example, Sophos could have been a truly naive narrator–an imperiled pawn as he pleads his case in Attolia and the threat of the Mede slowly materializes on every side.  Or she could have focussed on the military campaign.  Instead of a book standing still it could have been a book in motion, with the rulers frantically massing their troops and acting out their personal dramas on the fly.

My vote would have been to trust Sophos’ voice, trust him to carry the book, and let him spend most of it as a slave.  There’s no reason he couldn’t have stepped up to his responsibilities while he was still in captivity (or later pretending to be, as at the Baron’s banquet).  A slave moved to another household, perhaps?  Taken along on a trip?  This would have been a good way to put Sophos’ inner transformation at the center of the story and add a little much-needed intrigue.  I believe the other characters could have fallen in line with the slightly altered plot, and perhaps grown in some surprising ways themselves as a result.

The strongest conventional fantasy element in Turner’s books are her gods.  They are subtle: just a whisper of the supernatural that raise the moral stakes and clarify the inner lives of her characters.  Sophos dreams of the library in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review.  With his past life buried in days of mind-numbing labor, Sophos’ intelligence bursts out in vivid dreams where he argues with his new “tutor” amid the books of the library.

She was amused by my interest in the system of natural categorization that the magus had taught me.  I explained the importance of understanding how things are connected.

She only smiled at my earnestness and said, “Everything is connected, Bunny, to everything else.  If a man tries to transcribe each connection, thread by thread, he will only make a copy of the world and be no closer to understanding it.”

I am afraid Turner got a little lost in her own connecting threads.  The dream-tutor is a beautiful concept she used only briefly, for a specific purpose, before racing on to other things.  Sophos could have learned more from his tutor.  Their talks could have been the mortar that stuck the story together and let it stand whole.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
first published in UK, 2001
Margaret K. McElderry of Simon and Schuster, 2002
Finished: late February 2010
Source:  Nymeth’s blog and Jenny’s Books
Genre: Children’s or Young Adult fiction

Several of you spoke up for a review of Saffy’s Angel when I did my Reader’s Request post, in which I mentioned that I hadn’t enjoyed this deserving book much because “it poked a stick in all my childhood complexes.”

Well, not quite all, as there are far too many of them for one book.  But how I disliked disliking it!  Do I get any points for that?  Such a disappointment to be barred from the Hilary McKay fan club.  Saffy’s Angel is just the kind of story I usually love: a British children’s novel bound to confuse American publishers.  See, American book marketers have a lot of trouble understanding kids as thinking human beings, because they are also a dragon’s hoard of potential cash, to be handled with kid gloves.  Saffy’s Angel is heavy with everyday British cultural references, and (gasp!) the action isn’t centered exclusively around a 8-12 year old protagonist.  There are grownups with grownup concerns as well, and teenagers, but no easily pinned-down “teen issues” that would place it in the YA category.  “ARRGGH!  HOW DO WE MAKE THIS SEEM LIKE HARRY POTTER SO WE CAN SELL IT?”

My impression of Hilary McKay is that she is old school, going back to the conventions (if you can call them that) of Penelope Farmer, Mary Norton, Phillipa Pearce, Barbara Sleigh, K.M. Peyton and others: a particular kind of middle-20th-century slice-of-life British children’s writing.  (The other side of the coin would be outright fantasists like Peter Dickinson and Joan Aiken.) Reading Saffy’s Angel, I felt I could be reading a book written 50 or more years ago, instead of just 10.  At first I assumed McKay was setting her story in the 70’s or early 80’s:  no computers, no saturating pop culture.  No television that I can recall.  I was quite startled when cell phones were used and I realized the book was meant to be contemporary!

What I’m saying, though, is that this didn’t bother me.  The reverse: the atmosphere was familiar and comfortable.  I grew up on British children’s books in yellowed dust-jackets.  I should have been able to settle down right away and enjoy her fine writing and deceptively broad-brush character portraits.  Like an expert painter, McKay has the talent for rendering whole, vivid people in a few strokes.

Maybe that’s the problem.  If the Cassons had felt less real, there would have been less cognitive dissonance when I entered in their world.  My family was to the Cassons what The Simpsons were to The Andy Griffith Show.  What The Addams Family were to The Wonder Years.

Parallels between me and Saffy

Parent died when tot: check

One current parent arty and spacey: check

Lots of half-siblings (Saffy’s siblings are her cousins, which I find interesting): double check

In hopelessly chaotic house: check

I mean, like, you can’t actually do anything in it, unless you perform pile archeology first, and then there’s no room to do it in because you spread out the piles: check

A feeling of not fitting in with the rest of the family: check

These basic similarities contributed to a creepy sense that Saffy’s experiences were a twisted-alternate-universe version of my own.  Or I should say, MINE was the twisted alternate universe, though it’s surprisingly hard to wrap my brain around that.  So many things were shown as loving and jolly for Saffy that were not loving and jolly for me.  And even when things weren’t strictly jolly in the Casson family, they were at least funny.  One sensed that they were just one step away from being able to laugh over it all when it was over, or else cry over it and comfort each other and move on.  Even the jerky father was no big deal.  Everyone knew that he was a jerk (except Eve, maddeningly) and went on from there.  Their interconnected, benign relationships let them present a unified front to their problems.

What’s not to love in an example like that?  Well, for starters, I don’t really believe a family like Saffy’s can work that way because I’ve never seen one that did.  O me of little faith.  I probably wouldn’t even believe in a happy artistic family if I saw it; if I were Doubting Thomas in the Bible and Jesus showed me the spike holes in his hands, I would have scratched at them and said, “What’s this?  Some kind of paint?”

Even the Wyeths had their dark side.  Even the Cheaper by the Dozen family (By glaring omission.  Ask me.).  I have the same reaction as a victim of violence who sees violence glamorized, when I see dysfunction jollified.  It makes me want to tell the world dreary things like:

Eccentrics are exhausting, both to be and to live with.

Sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in to your family because you don’t fit in.

Sometimes no one will support you in what you need, even when you are young.

Not all bossy, manipulative little girls are good-natured dictators; they are not an ideal place for the inexperienced to seek bosom friendship.

Messy/dirty houses where nothing gets thrown out aren’t funny in real life–not even darkly funny.

Hoarding is often a symptom of mental illness.

Spaceyness can be a voluntary offensive and defensive tactic.  It is not a necessary by-product of an artistic nature, to be coddled.

Of course the world already knows all these things, so no need to tell it.  And there are tons of books about miserable childhoods in intellectual / artistic families, so kudos to McKay for writing something different.  I did laugh at the signs in the car.

sequel to The Hunger Games
Read by Carolyn McCormick
Scholastic audiobooks, 2009
Finished: late march 2010
Source: the aether
Genre: dystopic YA novel
On the Scales: welterweight

“Katniss, Katniss!  Just when we thought you’d made up your mind!”

I must have said this twenty times while I was listening to the audio version of Catching Fire.  Well, not actually said it; I was thinking it, groaning and holding my hands over my ears and wagging my head from side to side.

Katniss emotes a lot in Catching Fire, which is different from having emotions.  She emotes more than in the Hunger Games.  Strange, because it seems to me she’s forfeited some of her emoting rights by not facing mortal danger the whole time.  I’m no longer a fan of Carolyn McCormick.  She gives Katniss this throb in her voice, as though every decision puts her into complete bewilderment, and every conflict inspires her to desperate pleading.  It made some sense in the arena, but not anymore.

I can’t write a review of Catching Fire that isn’t a spoiler.  It’s very existence is a spoiler for The Hunger Games: by now you know that Katniss survives the arena in that book.  I wasn’t sure she would.  I didn’t know if she’d show up in the sequel, and I purposely didn’t find out.  I like to come to a book totally raw.  My atrocious memory helps me with this, since I can read a review, and as long as there are no earth-shattering spoilers, the plot details are all gone in a couple of weeks.  How about you?  Do you mind knowing the plot ahead of time, even when it’s a popular novel?

While I enjoyed Catching Fire, I found I couldn’t listen to it while I was eating dinner because I was apt to snort and cringe.  The Hunger Games was a very tightly focussed story, whereas Catching Fire covers a lot of time and space.  This is often a problem for me.  It is hard for an author, unless she is Jean Webster, to write the kind of chapter that begins “It was a chilly spring,” then proceeds to cover several months in several pages, and do it well.  As a reader I usually feel alienated by this device.  I can’t believe nothing much worth mentioning happened in a whole three months.  And if it didn’t, that’s your fault, author lady, for not making every moment count!  You’re the one who decides when character-developing incidents take place, and how!  You could have done a lot more with that spring than just making it chilly, and having a lot of people get whipped half to death!

Oops.  Spoiler.  Sorry.

Well, not so much of a spoiler, because if you read Hunger Games you knew the Districts of Panem were a powder keg.  That’s the way trilogies go:  First book: personal.  Second book: personal and political.  Third book: political with frantic action, then personal at the very end.

Yeah, it’s a trilogy.  At least.  I didn’t know that for sure, coming in.  Not on a conscious level, but I soon realized there wasn’t going to be time to wrap everything up in Catching Fire–beside the fact that publishers don’t believe in duologies when the first book is a smash-hit-sensation.  Then I kept thinking, “How is there going to be a third book, the way things are going?  The pacing is all wrong.”  Then right at the end it became pretty clear how there was going to be a third book, and just what it was going to be about.

Half an hour after we popped out the last CD, Der Mann and I looked at each other.  “It’s just like Star Wars.”  And then I had an uncontrollable urge to go listen to “Fists Up” by the Blow because of the lines:

The vigilantes can’t agree on who’s in charge.
They gave their souls for the cause,
but the love that they were after’s still at large.
See this faith in which they found allegiance
Ripping at the seams as hope is running its course.
The rebels just can’t muster the force…

Really, the whole song is perfect for the Hunger Games series.  I am listening to it now.  I proclaim it the official Katniss anthem.  Or maybe Suzanne Collins’.

I don’t want to come to the point of this song, because the point of this song would have to be so long (long long long long long long long)…

Tor, 2008

Finished: late February 2010

Source: end of year reviews on Nymeth’s blog

Genre: YA near-future dystopic adventure

On the Scales: middleweight

I’ve sat down to review this and I’m having a hard time.  It’s about the kind of privileged teenagers I’ve never met, in a city I’ve never visited, with consuming interests that overlap very little with my own.  Why did I love it so much?

Here’s me trying to explain it to myself:  Even though this book is set in San Francisco, instead of using things you already know about San Francisco or being a teenager or politics to grab your sympathies, reel you in, and get you interested in the story, Doctorow builds everything from scratch like a fantasy world.

It helps that he’s not from the U.S.  As a Canadian currently living in Europe, Doctorow’s own culture runs parallel to the one he’s using for his near-future dystopia.  He’s got that insider knowledge / outsider objectivity I always enjoy so much in an author’s voice.

It works for the narrator, too.  Marcus is a popular, well-adjusted techno-geek with a past weakness for live action role playing games.  He has a keen sense of fairness–something his his loving parents have clearly had a hand in.  He is part of a close knit group of friends.  By the end of the book he is a hunted revolutionary facing prison and worse.

Doctorow is saying, put someone normal like Marcus in the furnace of injustice and he may very well come out red hot.  He’s saying, understanding and caring what the system is doing right now is the first line of defense when people start making it a tool for evil.  I don’t think evil is too strong a word.  Doctorow unfolds all the little ways apathy and paternalism erode freedom.  Most of all: blind trust.  In Marcus’ world, the ones who don’t trouble themselves to understand the ways technology is being used by those in authority, and who rely on the established media for information, are the adults.  They tend to assume everything that’s being done is okay, because isn’t it being done to protect us?  The teenagers in Little Brother get their information from each other.  They are used to questioning authority and thinking about the world not in terms of what’s safe, but what’s right.  They are the ones who see Big Brother taking over.

Yes, this is a politically charged book.  It’s about the teenagers of San Francisco against a DHS gone wild in the aftermath of another terrorist disaster.  But there are silly, fun parts too.  In the midst of a surveillance nightmare there are rock concerts, LARP, Mexican food, and interviews with clockwork pirates.  Little Brother is also a fascinating introduction to privacy ethics and cryptology.

Or, in this case, statistics:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first.  It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-Aids.  Only one in a million people gets Super-Aids.  You develop a test for Super-AIDs that’s 99 percent accurate.  I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result–true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy.  You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people will have Super-AIDS.  One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive”—the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t.  That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000 / 100 =10,000.

One in a million people has Super-AIDS.  If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS.  But your test won’t identify one person as having Super-AIDS.  It will identify ten thousand people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

I knew about the paradox of the false positive–vaguely–but I never heard it explained so well, or it’s implications framed as incisively as Doctorow does in his novel.  Actually, he’s doing a ton of different things at once in Little Brother, and it’s seamless.  That rarely, rarely happens!  The mini-lectures are never misplaced as interruptions.  The humor is perfectly timed.  The romance doesn’t feel sappy or tacked-on.  The violence could easily become a caricature of itself, destroying our empathy for the sufferers, but it doesn’t.  His ideology isn’t heavy handed.

If Little Brother were a preachy book, Marcus’ parents would be the enemy and Marcus would be a bronze statue of a revolutionary hero.  I love how Marcus makes convincingly teenager-y miscalculations.  And when his movement gains its own momentum, we get to see how he responds to that.  Doctorow doesn’t gloss over the stupidities inherent in blind rebellion any more than the ones in blind trust.

“This is California Live and we’re talking to an anonymous caller at a pay phone in San Francisco.  He has is own information about the slowdowns we’ve been facing around town this week.  Caller, you’re on the air.”

“Yeah, yo, this is just the beginning, you know?  I mean, like, we’re just getting started.  Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner.  We’ll jam them all!  And like, all this crap about terrorists?  We’re not terrorists!  Give me a break, I mean really!  We’re jamming up the system because we hate the Homeland Security, and because we love our city.  Terrorists?  I can’t even spell jihad.  Peace out.”

He sounded like an idiot.  Not just the incoherent words, but also his gloating tone.  He sounded like a kid who was indecently proud of himself.

The Xnet flamed out over this.  Lots of people thought he was an idiot for calling in, while others thought he was a hero.  I worried that there was probably a camera aimed at the pay phone he’d used.  Or an arphid reader that might have sniffed his Fast Pass.  I hoped he’d had the smarts to wipe his fingerprints off the quarter, keep his hood up and leave all his arphids at home.  But I doubted it.  I wondered if he’d get a knock on the door sometime soon.

I even liked the ending: bringing in the adults and discovering they’re good for something after all.  Thank heaven they are, since when the last door gets knocked on, as Marcus would say, “it’s a doozy.”

read by Lincoln Hoppe

Listening Library, Random House, 2009

Finished: March 19, 2010

Source: Jenny’s Books

Genre: YA issues novel tackling multiple issues

On the Scales: Lightweight

Hi, commenters.  Reader’s Request next time.  I wanted to post this one while it was fresh in my mind.

Marcelo is looking forward to senior year at Paterson, his private school.  In the mean time he has lined up his summer dream job at Paterson’s therapeutic riding stables.  Marcelo’s father, a high-profile patent lawyer, thinks Marcelo should switch to public high school because it will make him act less weird if he rubs elbows with normal high school kids.

So Papa Arturo exercises the eternal parental prerogative.  He proposes a “deal” with Marcelo that is no deal at all: Marcelo must spend the summer working in Arturo’s Boston law firm instead of at the stables.  If Marcelo refuses to do this, he must go to public high school in the fall.  If he works at the law firm and his performance meets Arturo’s standards, Marcelo may choose where he goes to high school.  If his performance at the law firm doesn’t satisfy his father, he must go to public school.

Beside the fact that it is rigged, I had several objections to Arturo’s deal.

1. As if, by senior year, there was enough time left for it to make any material difference where Marcello went to school!

2. Arturo springs his proposal on Marcelo a few days before he’s arranged for him to start work at the law firm, which seems devious and self-serving.

3.  Correct me if I’m remembering this wrong, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned what (or if) Marcelo would get paid?  What’s more real world than a paycheck?

I liked this book, and eventually found Arturo a sympathetic character, but I just hate it when parents do that thing. Better to say, “You’re going to work at the law firm this summer,” than to frame your command as a bargain between equals.  That’s an abuse of power.  If you exercise your right to have your will over child’s, but frame it as something else, you are taking away your child’s right to protest your decision and try to change your mind.  And Aurora the mom is not much of a mediator.  So, not an auspicious beginning, for me.

The audiobook reader was decent but really slow.  No doubt this was Lincoln Hoppe’s interpretation of Marcelo’s character, but for me a laggy reading widens the gap between reading silently and reading aloud even further.  It obscures the author’s pacing–so important in a YA-length novel.  I also think it was just a bad choice in terms of character.  Marcelo has something resembling mild Asperger’s, but while the plot hinges on this fact, Marcelo coping with his brain stuff is not the point of the book.

Verbal tics aside, Marcelo could be any sheltered, odd teenager.  His hurdles could be anybody’s, growing out of innocence.  This made Marcelo in the Real World different from “into the mind of an Autistic” type books I’ve read.  For me, the best way to approach it was not to think of Marcelo as someone with a specific condition.  Marcelo himself muses about how he feels when people try to find a clinical term for What He’s Got.  Among other things he feels guilty because he understands the suffering that goes with more severe Autism, because he’s seen it at Paterson–as if he were claiming a pain to which he had no right.

His concern is typical of mature, balanced Marcelo, whose “special interest” is pondering religious and moral questions.  Marcelo is a likable guy even at Lincoln Hoppe’s snail’s pace.  He was even kind of funny–it didn’t come across in the audio version, but I bet it would have done in print.

Many of Stork’s readers will know a teenager who, like Marcelo, is not in step.  My half-brother is one of them.  I thought Marcelo’s insider-but-also-outsider descriptions of “special interests” and “internal music” were compassion-inducing alternatives to obsessing, perseverating, and zoning out.  When you have a real reason to use them, terms for Asperger’s-type behaviors quickly become tinted by the frustration and anxiety of the helpless observer.  Marcelo is like a local guide: great at showing us how a place might inconvenient for tourists but has its compensations for the people who live there.

Then again, Marcelo is imaginary.  I’m wary of wish-fulfillment endings when I read books featuring characters with cognitive or developmental disorders.  They are so easy for authors to fall into.  Stork dodged the bullet because he was able to convince me Marcelo’s difficulties were moderate enough that he might actually hit on an achievable life-plan while he was still in high school.  I was also willing to accept that he was personally appealing enough to find the right person and right place to help him make those plans a reality.  But it was a close call.

I first heard about Marcelo In the Real World at Jenny’s Books.  Jenny found something a little disturbing in the way his Asperger’s-or-whatever-it-was got treated like something he only needed to grow out of (paraphrasing freely, here).  I got that too.  Mostly I objected to the idea that a mail room job in a law firm qualified as the real world, or that Marcelo’s interactions with slimy, believable Wendell Holmes (loved the name for the character) would be what set off the sudden growth spurt!  Or even Jasmine.  I enjoyed her, but she wasn’t alive to me.

I liked the writing, I liked the dialog.  I liked the Rabbi, but not the nuns or Aurora.  The social activist / humanist stuff went a bit overboard.  That’s personal preference: it makes me uncomfortable when doing the right thing is dramatized in a certain way, but I can say with conviction that Stork did a good job of writing the book he set out to write.

My favorite bit of dialog was near the end, when Marcelo asks Jasmine if Belinda was a better worker than Marcelo.  Jasmine says that Belinda was faster, but whatever Marcelo did, he did well.  (Again paraphrasing.)  Marcelo accepts this and muses, “in the real world, faster is better.”

And I thought, “Ah ha!  Living in the real world is a choice.  You can live with the idealists instead.  You can live with the nuns.  You can live in your music.  You can live in backwoods Vermont.”

I’m glad I don’t live in the real world.