In some ways/at some moments I liked this more than I liked Journey to the Center of the Earth, because some of the descriptions of underwater/oceanic sights were vivid or lovely—but sometimes it felt like more of a slog.

When the novel opens, it’s 1866 and boats have been seeing something big in the water: “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.” Is it a previously-unknown kind of whale or some other sea monster/sea creature? Everyone wonders; no one knows. In 1867, it collides with a boat and damages it: suddenly it seems like maybe it’s a submarine. Spoiler alert: it is a submarine, and our narrator (Pierre Aronnax, “Assistant Professor in the Museum of Natural History in Paris”) ends up as its passenger/prisoner, along with his servant (Conseil) and a sailor who’s served as a harpooner on whaling ships (Ned Land). They are the prisoners/guests of Captain Nemo, who has built this vessel (the Nautilus) and lives on it full-time with his crew, having “broken all the ties of humanity” for reasons we will learn as the book proceeds.

Aronnax, as a scientist who studies the ocean, doesn’t really mind being trapped on this submarine. Nemo has a whole library, and there’s a collection of art and natural specimens to look at, and, of course, there are the underwater vistas and experiences: there are retractable panels that open to give a view of the submarine landscape the Nautilus is passing through, and Nemo invites his prisoners/guests to try out the diving suits he and his crew use for underwater hunting/fishing expeditions. And the vessel itself (which runs on electricity) is interesting to Aronnax from a scientific perspective. Ned Land, meanwhile, just wants to go home, by any means necessary; Conseil sort of agrees with Ned, though he can also see why Aronnax isn’t as bothered by their captivity. So: we get scenes of Aronnax’s wonder at various sights—sunlight refracting through water (or, later, icebergs), shells and jellyfish and seaweed and corals, phosphorescence and underwater forests and underwater volcanoes and shipwrecks. There are some moments of humor, like when the Nautilus is stranded on a reef near an island and Ned wants to go ashore and hunt because he’s tired of eating only things that come from the ocean (“on that island there are trees; under those trees, terrestrial animals, bearers of cutlets and roast beef, to which I would willingly give a trial” + “until I have killed an animal with cutlets I shall not be content”). There are moments of adventure and peril, but there are also a lot of passages where the Nautilus is just making its way underwater and Verne is just kind of listing different varieties of fish. I’m glad to have read this, and I’m a little curious about The Mysterious Island, but I might need a break from Verne for a while.

(Spoilers ahead/maybe don’t read this if you haven’t read this book and are planning to.)

There’s a moment in The Roommate Risk that gave me Mastermind vibes, but different: our female lead, Jasmine, admits to Rahul—her best friend of seven years—that she saw him at the library when they were at uni, a week before they actually met. She goes on to explain that she didn’t just see him: she saw him and followed him upstairs, but didn’t talk to him. And then made a point of going to his usual spot in the library the next day, and the day after that, until, eventually, they ended up talking. Rahul is sensible enough to know that the moment after Jasmine’s confession is definitely not the moment to tell her that he has in fact been love with her for their entire friendship (they had sex once, soon after meeting, after which she explained to him that she doesn’t date, but that she also doesn’t have sex with her friends: at which point he chose friendship). That comes later. But he does tell her that she was his first time, which freaks her out a little bit: Jasmine is freaked out by anything that might complicate things. And her current situation is making her feel extra-skittish: she’s been staying at Rahul’s place because her room in a shared flat was damaged by a flood, and they’ve been hooking up, and it’s been great, but she’s convinced he’ll get bored, or she’ll fuck it up somehow, and then she will have lost a best friend as well as a lover. As of now, the blurb for this book on Goodreads includes this: “This book is 75,000 words of fluff, angst, and extreme pleasure, with NO cliffhangers, NO cheating, and a guaranteed HEA.” So, I mean, I knew Jasmine and Rahul would end up together, but that didn’t make the angst any less angsty, and I definitely found it hard to put down.

I like the way we get Jasmine and Rahul’s story in bits and pieces, with present-day chapters focused on each of them interspersed with chapters that show us past moments, from the first time Rahul noticed her at the library to the time, ten months prior to the book’s opening, when they almost had sex but didn’t. And I like Jasmine and Rahul’s chemistry, which is excellent. My only complaint was that for a lot of the book the setting felt quite generic: I think they’re meant to be in Nottingham, but I didn’t get much of a sense of place at all. Partly that’s because Jasmine and Rahul spend a lot of time in his apartment/in beed, and partly I guess it’s because this isn’t that kind of book, but setting is something I tend to appreciate in general, so when it’s lacking I tend to notice/want more.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

October 16th, 2023

When I’m on my way home from a trip in another country, if I find myself with a little cash left in some foreign currency, I like to stop at the airport bookshop and see if there’s anything that catches my eye. This time, coming back from Rome, what caught my eye was Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, which I’d been vaguely curious about since, um, 2009, not that I actually remembered that when I saw it in W.H. Smith.

When the book opens we meet Alison Hart and her business partner, Colette, in the car on their way to a gig. Alison is a medium, and not just someone who claims to have messages from the dead: someone who really gets messages from the spirit world, which she passes on to the paying public from the stage at psychic fayres or in phone consultations or in one-on-one in-person readings. But the dead hanging around Alison aren’t just any ghosts: her “spirit guide,” Morris, is one of the “fiends” from her youth—one of the lowlife/criminal/gangster types (guys who have fighting dogs; also guys who are rapists or murderers) who were always coming and going from her mom’s house. (Her mom, a sex worker, neglects Alison when she’s very little—though that neglect seems better than the abuse that comes later.Though the back cover describes this novel as “darkly comic,” parts of it just felt dark to me.) We get bits of Alison’s back-story, and bits of Colette’s, and bits of their day-to-day life over the seven years when they’re working together. (When Alison and Colette meet, Colette has just left her husband and is looking for a career change; Alison, who is often drained by her encounters with the spirit world (and, um, her childhood trauma) is looking for someone to help with the logistics of her work and life, and Colette capably steps in.)

I guess the darkly comic parts of this book are the parts about Alison and Colette’s life on the road and their life in the suburbs, particularly when they buy a new-build house in a still-in-progress development. (And OK, there are some funny parts about certain aspects of the afterlife, particularly near the book’s end.) Mantel writes vividly about the scenery of all the in-between places: “The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon.” Or the “crumbling civic buildings from the sixties and seventies, their exoskeletons in constant need of patching: tiles raining from their roofs, murals stickily ungluing from their walls” where Al performs. Or “towns where nobody comes from, these south-eastern towns with their floating populations and their car parks where the centre should be.” As suburban sprawl erases the past, the past is still there, all the unseen dead with the same preoccupations they had in life: Morris is always looking for a racetrack or a pub; as Al puts it, “they don’t become decent people just because they’re dead.” “On this side it looks the same as ever,” a recently-departed soul says about her hometown (and Al’s). Meanwhile, Al and Colette are both, in different ways at different moments, trying to change their circumstances—and it’s interesting to think about the ways in which they do or don’t succeed.

I read a lot of this book on an airplane a few weeks ago and it was excellent plane reading for me: the plot speeds along and I was pretty engrossed. The premise: Evelyn Hugo is a major movie star who hasn’t given an interview in years, but who, when the book opens, has just reached out to a magazine to say she wants to do an exclusive piece with them—but only if one of their junior writers, Monique Grant, will write it. So Monique’s boss sends her over to talk to Evelyn, and Evelyn explains that actually, she doesn’t want to do an interview with the magazine: she wants to tell Monique her life story, and she wants Monique to write a book about it—to be published after Evelyn’s death. This is the career break Monique has been waiting for, but she can’t figure out why, exactly, Evelyn asked for her, and she’s not sure how she’s going to tell her boss at the magazine about the situation. But no matter: Monique sits down with Evelyn for a series of interviews, in which Evelyn talks about her film career, her ambition, her seven marriages, and the love of her life. I like how the book alternates between first-person narration by Evelyn and first-person narration by Monique, with magazine/tabloid articles about Evelyn and her career thrown in periodically so we get a sense of how Evelyn and her relationships were discussed in earlier decades, and a sense of how/why public perception might have influenced some of Evelyn’s actions and choices. The subject matter/style did sometimes make me roll my eyes: an early passage where Monique is talking about her weight made me cringe, and there were too many descriptions of outfits I didn’t care about (I mean: I don’t mind the descriptions of Evelyn’s awards ceremony dresses, but I didn’t care about what she was wearing when Monique was interviewing her—or about what Monique was wearing). And the writing sometimes felt clunky: there’s one point when Monique says “Enough with the vagaries, Evelyn” when what it seems she’s trying to say is “stop being vague,” which isn’t what vagaries means at all. (And I feel like Monique, as a writer, should know that, which makes me feel like it’s the author’s mistake that a copy editor should have caught.) But the story is such a page-turner that I didn’t mind that much.

Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis

September 6th, 2023

I found Dykette an extremely cringe-inducing read, which I think is intentional. So do I think the book is successful as a novel? Yes. Did I enjoy reading it? Sometimes. Would I recommend it? I guess it depends on your feelings about gross-out performance art and “High-Femme Camp Antics.” (Personally, I think my tolerance for “High-Femme Camp Antics” in actual life is extremely low; my tolerance for them in fiction is only a little higher.)

But let me back up: I really like the premise of Dykette, which is mostly set over a ten-day period in late December 2019/early January 2020, with occasional flashbacks to earlier moments. The book centers around three butch/femme couples: Jesse and Sasha (who have been dating for a year), and Jesse’s best friend Lou and their girlfriend Darcy (whose relationship is newer) are in Hudson, NY, spending the holidays with Jules and Miranda, “their queer elders” (who have been together for five years). Jules is a Rachel Maddow-esque newscaster; Miranda is a licensed social worker. Jesse works as a set decorator for movies and TV shows; Sasha is getting her PhD in literature/gender studies. Lou runs a “design-oriented home goods shop in Bushwick”; Darcy is internet-famous and works “at a Lower East Side atelier called waïfhewn,” selling “waif-hewn pants and beaded purses for a couple hundred dollars apiece.” While they’re in Hudson, Jesse and Darcy are going to live-stream a performance piece from the backyard sauna; the performance piece is based on an essay Sasha wrote that made her mildly internet-famous, and Sasha is very jealous about this artistic collaboration. Oh, and Sasha’s emotional support pug, Vivienne, is spending the holidays in Hudson with them too.

All of which sounds like it could be super-funny—and sometimes it is. But also, Sasha is pretty insufferable in her bitchiness and neediness and jealousy, and the whole milieu of all these characters is very much not my scene. I don’t care about the suitcase of clothes Sasha has brought upstate, or the very impractical boots Darcy wears for a walk by Kaaterskill Falls, or Sasha’s skincare and make-up routine (which is described for almost a whole page); I have never watched an episode of Vanderpump Rules or Gossip Girl. At one point Sasha is described as someone who doesn’t “notice things like birds singing or the moon changing shape in the sky,” which I think is part of why I find her so unrelatable. Not that the point of a novel is necessarily to have relatable characters. But as far as friends-at-a-country-house books go, I liked Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends much more than I liked this one (and it was also filled with characters I didn’t relate to in various ways).

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

August 27th, 2023

The last two books I read before Pitch Dark were both narratively-straightforward romances—very different in style and from very different times, but they were both the kind of book where the central couple gets a happily-ever-after ending and the reader gets warm and fuzzy feelings. Pitch Dark is not that kind of book at all. Its narrator has been having a multi-year affair with a married man; the affair is ending, or has ended. We don’t really get the story of the affair but we get a sense of how it feels, to the narrator, to be the one who isn’t the wife, the one who spends holidays alone, the one who is tired of how her lover consumes her thoughts, the one who is thinking of “all the little steps and phases and maneuvers, stratagems, of trying to leave him now, without breaking my own heart, or maybe his, or scaring myself to death, or bounding back.”

The narrator thinks maybe travel is the thing: some time alone, somewhere by the sea. Orcas Island, or Ireland, or, as it turns out, both. But a change of scenery doesn’t always change one’s mental scenery, and in Ireland, in particular, the narrator has a weird time. She’s staying at a big old house that belongs to an ambassador she knows; no one on the house’s staff is particularly friendly or helpful; everything is a bit off.

Throughout the book there are bits of other stories and other moments, some repeated and elaborated, others not. I liked a lot of these fragments and vignettes, especially the ones with some humor. There’s this, about a literature class the narrator took in grad school: “Fairly late in the semester, when we were asked what our papers were going to be about, this young man said he wanted to write about the sound of corpses floating through literature. Oh, the professor said with some enthusiasm, after just a moment’s hesitation, you mean Ophelia. No, the young man replied, I want the sound of the sea.” Or this, from just after a story about a political figure who said “Clamsmen” instead of “Klansmen”: “I remember a young radical, in the sixties, denouncing her roommates as prawns of imperialism.”

I liked the last section of the book a lot, the way the narrator talks about law and the whole thing of legal precedent, and how in a trial, both lawyers are generally making the argument that the case before the court now is like some other case (and therefore should be decided in the same way), and how that’s different from fiction, where writers are often telling readers that this story is a new one, different from the rest (though of course there are literary precedents, too). But then what about the stories we tell about our own lives, to ourselves or to others? Earlier in the book there’s this: “Is it always the same story, then? Somebody loves and somebody doesn’t, or loves less, or loves someone else.”

I’m glad to have read Pitch Dark at last, having been meaning to read it for, um, ten years now. I found the actual reading experience alternately a delight and a slog, but I also find myself, two days after having finished the book, thinking about it a bunch, and wondering if I’ll re-read it in the future.

The Nanny by Lana Ferguson

August 19th, 2023

This was a book club read for me, and I wasn’t necessarily expecting to like it as much as I did. I mean – bonking the nanny is such a stereotypical trope, and even with the twist (this nanny used to perform on OnlyFans, and her new employer turns out to have been someone she interacted with there—a lot) I wasn’t sure the DILF trope was going to be my thing. But the combination of sweetness and spice in the story worked for me. Cassie, the nanny, is working her way through grad school; Aiden, the dad, is an executive chef who’s new to full-time parenthood (his daughter is nine, but she’d spent more time with her mom and aunt – until her mom’s sudden death the year before the book opens). Cassie and Aiden are both immediately attracted to each other but try to tamp their attraction down—neither wants the other to see them as creepy—but there’s a lot of tension, which only gets worse when Cassie realizes that Aiden was one of her OnlyFans subscribers. And not just any subscriber, but one she’d done private shows for, and one she was falling for … until he ghosted her at a planned in-person meeting. Cassie freaks out and decides she can’t let him find out who she is, but this gets harder once they confess their mutual attraction and start getting it on. Drama of various kinds ensues, until Cassie gets some sense talked into her by Wanda (her 72-year-old friend/former neighbor/mom figure—she’s estranged from her own parents).

I like the way we get some chapters from Aiden’s POV interspersed with the chapters from Cassie’s, and I like the way their OnlyFans history is worked into the book in the form of screenshots showing their past exchanges on the site. There were a few typos and some clunky spots that could have benefited from closer attention from a copy editor, but overall this was a really quick and fun read for me.

At the start of The Blue Castle we meet Valancy Stirling, who’s 29 and single, in a time and place “where the unmarried are simply those who have failed to get a man.” Her family looks down on her because of her timid nature and her “hopeless old maidenhood” and her lack of conventional good looks; her home life is rigid and dull, thanks to her strict mother and cousin, neither of whom has any conception of Valancy’s inner life. (Representative sentiment: “People who wanted to be alone, so Mrs. Frederick Stirling and Cousin Stickles believed, could only want to be alone for some sinister purpose.”) Valancy isn’t allowed to read novels, and the nature books she loves by her favorite author, John Foster, are only just barely allowed. But then Valancy gets some news that changes how she feels and how she acts, much to her family’s shock and dismay.

Without getting too much into the plot and its twists (some of which I saw coming, and others of which I did not) I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I like Valancy’s late-blooming determination, and I like the moments of humor (especially the ones involving Valancy’s many horrible/annoying relatives), and I like the romantic elements, and I especially like the descriptions of the natural world and the way the landscape changes with the seasons: I like that Valancy gets to have boat rides and snow-shoes and ice skates. “December. Early snows and Orion. The pale fires of the Milky Way.” Or: “the evanescent beauty of wild young trees in early leaf; frost-like loveliness of the new foliage of juniper trees; the woods putting on a fashion of spring flowers, dainty, spiritual things akin to the soul of the wilderness; red mist on the maples.”

Roger Gard’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Red and the Black describes the book as “a thrilling double love story” and also as “satirical and sharp,” a “picture of corruption, grossness, illiberality and deceit in municipality, Church and state” and of “a tottering reactionary monarchy.” All of which I maybe would have appreciated more if I knew more about the politics of the era. I mean, I get it: our young peasant hero/anti-hero, Julien Sorel, reveres Napoleon; his employers, first in the countryside and then in Paris, do not. Meanwhile, two very different rich ladies are bored by the men of their own class and attracted to Julien’s delicate good looks. Julien, who is ambitious, laments the fact that it’s no longer the time of Napoleon: he thinks he would have been a soldier and made his fortune that way; now the path to success seems to be through priesthood, despite “his perfect lack of belief,” and with some echoes of/references to Tartuffe.

Honestly, I found this to be slow-going, though maybe I read it at the wrong time: I would say any book with end-notes is probably not a beach read, and yet the beach is where I found myself reading a whole lot of The Red and the Black. I liked certain things about the book, especially the humorous parts, like the descriptions of small-town life and small-town politics near the beginning, or the part where Julien sends love letters that are just copied from someone else but forgets to change a reference to “London” to “Paris,” leaving the recipient a little confused. And I liked aspects of the “double love story” mentioned in the introduction, though other aspects (like the misalignment in affection between Julien and his second love interest, where he’s most interested when she’s not and vice versa) got a bit tedious.

This book, which is the sequel to Keeper of Enchanted Rooms, was perfect for my current reading mood: I wanted something plot-driven that would keep my attention and distract me from some minor physical annoyances (the end of a case of poison sumac, plus some kind of blepharitis) and it did its job admirably. We pick up in early November, 1846, with Hulda Larkin and Merritt Fernsby both having to deal with the aftermath of various events from the last book. It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers for that one, so maybe stop reading if you haven’t read that one yet and think you might.

Anyway: Merritt is overwhelmed and exhausted by his experience of his newfound magical powers, and Hulda is worried about the future of her workplace, BIKER (the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms) since its former director/her former supervisor has resigned and disappeared. When three staff members arrive from LIKER (which is BIKER’s London equivalent), things get more complicated still: Hulda is trying to find her old boss and also keep her old boss’s secrets, while also hoping she’ll get tapped to be BIKER’s next director. Meanwhile, back at Whimbrel House with Merritt, Owein (the dead boy-wizard whose spirit was in the house itself in the last book) is now inhabiting the body of a dog, which has its challenges as well as its delights. Oh, and Merritt is also coming to terms with some new knowledge about his family, which prompts him to take a trip back to his hometown. And, as in the last book, Merritt and Hulda are also in the midst of a growing romance, so there’s that plot thread too.

Highlights of the book for me: the romance, which is pretty sweet, and Owein, who is even more excellent in dog form than he was in house form.

Minor quibbles: there’s a whole scene where Hulda uses her “dousing rods”—surely that should be “dowsing”? And at the end of the book, when Merritt gets a letter with his sisters’ mailing addresses in it, the addresses are given with ZIP codes … which weren’t introduced until 1963 in our world, and it’s 1846 here, and I see no reason that they would have been introduced sooner in this world.