Dec 1, 2014

Reading Notes: Midnight is a Place; The Sleeper and the Spindle; Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Reading Notes: Midnight is a Place; The Sleeper and the Spindle; Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Alternate title for this one: the almost entirely made of awesome edition.
Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken: Aiken never fails to make me happy, and this was a tremendous joy to read. Midnight is a Place is set in a Dickensian world of corrupt mill owners, dispossessed orphans, menacing and foggy city streets, people with hidden identities, and ordinary workers trying to make ends meet. It features the linguistic exuberance and warm characterisation I so love about her books, and the opening paragraph sets the tone perfectly:
It had been raining all day. Even in good weather the park around Midnight Court was not a cheerful place. Smoke from the city’s many chimneys had blackened and half killed most of the great chestnut trees which stood like chess-pieces from a half-finished game dotted at distant intervals over the sooty grass. It seemed hard to believe that sheep had ever grazed or ladies lolled with parasols under those branches, now so grimy and dripping, or that children had climbed the rocks which came like bared teeth through the ground as if it were too scanty to cover them. And the smoke was always in the sky. Even on a clear day it hung like a thin layer of tissue above the hollow which held the city of Blastburn.
(Blastburn! Oh Joan Aiken, I love you.)

The first character we meet is young Lucas, an orphan sent to live with a strange and distant guardian in the lonely mansion at Midnight Court. He’s soon joined by the delightful Anna-Marie, who never shies away from saying things like,
‘I do not wish to hear. I do not like boys. Tell me about a girl who has adventures.’
‘Girls don’t have adventures.’
‘Yes they do! Just as much as boys.’
‘Girls stay at home and do sewing,’ Lucas began to say, but suddenly, out of nowhere, there flashed into his mind the image of the little snatcher, yesterday, at the Mill, dashing out under the huge descending press to gather up the fragment of cotton waste in her metal tongs.
One thing I especially liked was that even though Midnight is a Place is critical of industrialism, it doesn’t attempt to compare it to an idealised bucolic past (and this being Joan Aiken, some of the novel’s antagonists turn out to call themselves the Bludites). When the novel opens, Lucas is in his schoolroom struggling over an assignment that requires him to write about why “industry is a good thing”:
‘Industry is a good thing because it is better to work in a carpet factory than to be out in the rain with nothing to eat.’
But suppose the owner of the factory cut your wages by half? Suppose you had six children? Suppose three of them had been badly injured by the press? Would you think industry such a good thing then?
These are all questions worth asking, with answers that involve workers’ rights. And as our two orphans find themselves out in the streets with an injured friend to look after, they cease to be abstract. Lucas and Anna-Marie explore the limited options people in such circumstances have, and face the pitfalls that accompany each of them. What saves them in the end is not some naive notion of “hard work”, but a lucky break. Midnight is a Place never goes for oversimplification, and the result is a compassionate, smart, and immensely fun novel.

In short, great book. I’d recommend it to fans of Dodger, if only because they drawn inspiration from the same place and include more details about being a tosher than I’ve ever found in a novel (and I mean this in the best possible way).

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell: Two things — the first is that all in all I liked this book a lot. It’s a gorgeously illustrated original fairy tale with elements of “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”, and it’s all about a queen who isn’t happy with the traditional role she’s being pushed into and goes off on an adventure instead. She leaves her prince at the altar, rescues another woman, and saves a series of kingdoms from a mysterious curse along the way. Also, I think I’ve spent long enough reading Neil Gaiman that by now his language feels like home to me, and that was very much the feeling I got when I started The Sleeper and the Spindle. There was just something about the rhythm of the story that was instantly familiar to me, in the most comforting way.

The second thing is about thwarted expectations, and I almost feel bad saying it because it’s not really The Sleeper and the Spindle’s fault that the illustration above was widely circulated online before its release, leading me to expect a lesbian love story. What happens instead is that while the queen does wake another woman with a kiss, which is lovely to see, that’s pretty much that. Expectations are tricky things, so it’s best not to go in hoping that this will be the f/f fairy tale you’ve always dreamed of.

There is, however, another complicating factor — and this one will involve spoilers, so be warned. I wanted more from the villain than “she was an evil creature who wanted to be young and beautiful forever, the end”. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place in stories for indistinctly evil threats that mostly work at a symbolic level; it’s just that this particular type of villain (female and hungry for power, beauty and youth) is one I’m extremely suspicious of. Once you’ve seen a feminist deconstruction of this kind of character, it’s hard to settle for anything else. So as I was reading it was impossible to shut down the part of my brain that was going, “Yes, but why? Why does ageing seem so terrible to women? Why did the queen’s stepmother ‘like to be adored’? What’s the context in which we’re taught we’re of no worth without youth and conventional beauty?”. I was also constantly wondering what Margo Lanagan, Helen Oyeyemi or Kate Forsyth might have done with a character like this. I think I would have liked their version better.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater: The third book in the Raven Cycle, which I’d been waiting for so anxiously, did not disappoint in the least, but once again words fail me when I try to write about this series.

I love spending time with these characters, and I love how Maggie Stiefvater makes the space between them practically vibrate with tension and unspoken emotions. I loved that some questions were answered and others were raised. I looooved the Adam and Ronan hangout times, and I loved having my heart destroyed in a variety of ways by moments such as these:
“…You know what else is temporary? Life.”
“Oh, please, don’t you think you’re taking this a bit—”
“So maybe I should have spread my love out through some other mothers too!” Blue snatched up her jacket and stormed down the hall towards the door. “If I didn’t love her as much, then it wouldn’t feel so bad when she was gone! I could have some fallback parents, each containing a tiny piece of my affection so that when one goes away, I barely notice! Or maybe I should just not love anyone or anything! That makes it the easiest, really, because then I’ll never get let down. I will build a tower for my heart!”

Adam finally sat down on one of the pews. Laying his check against the smooth back of it, he looked at Ronan. Strangely enough, Ronan belonged here, too, just as he had at the Barns. This noisy, lush religion had created him just as much as his father’s world of dreams; it seemed impossible for all of Ronan to exist in one person. Adam was beginning to realize that he hadn’t known Ronan at all. Or rather, he had known part of him and assumed it was all of him.

Blue had never believed in death until then.
Not in a real way.
It happened to other people, other families, in other places. It happened in hospitals or automobile crashes or battle zones. It happened — now she remembered Gansey’s words outside Gwenllian’s tomb — with ceremony. With some announcement of itself.
It didn’t just happen in the attic on a sunny day while she was sitting in the reading room. It didn’t just happen, in only a moment, an irreversible moment.
It didn’t happen to people she had always known.
But it did.
And there would now for ever be two Blues: the Blue that was before, and the Blue that was after. The one who didn’t believe, and the one who did.
Who knows; maybe I’ll be able to write something about this series once it's finished. In the meantime, Jenny, Aarti, Jill and Teresa were able to be smart and coherent about the third instalment, so go read their words instead.



  2. I enjoyed reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue but the parts you quote seem derivative to me, from other novels, which is largely the way I reacted to the book. The best parts draw on lots of other books, which is talented of the writer but doesn't give me that thrill of recognition--oh yes, life is like that--that reading about these situations in other places must have given me the first time.
    One example is the bit you quote about Blue saying she shouldn't have put so much feeling into her relationship with her mother. It seems straight out of Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, when her baby got sick and almost died and she thought she needed another and then when the second and third were born, her heart was even more endangered.
    I feel like I've read too much and lived too long to love this book as much as some of you younger folk.

  3. I'm so glad you loved Midnight Is a Place. It's one of my favorite books!

  4. I read the first book in the Raven Cycle and have just decided that it's time to try book 2. I really enjoyed the first book. So I'm glad to see Book 3 is as good, though also interested that some commentators are picking up that this series might not be as original as it is trying to be.

    Yaay for Midnight is a Place and you liking it so much! I read it as a young adult, which means I have to go back and reread it now, and get all the things I missed in it then.

    I want to read the Neil Gaiman book despite the limitations. I enjoyed Malificent because we got to see that she was more than just a woman afraid of aging. I'd like to see a story where we see how the society makes it so that women are only wanted young....wait, we live in it! lol it would be good if we had a fairy tale that was as evocative as the originals are, but from the aging woman's point of view. Maybe one day one of our current crop of female fairy tale writers will write it.

  5. sorry, I meant Malificent the film, my daughter and I saw it in the theatres and I thought it was quite good and an original view on the fairy tale. What did you think of it? Did I miss a review?

  6. Jeanne: I can definitely understand how feeling you've seen something before can take the shine out of things. That passage about Blue's mother really moved me, and now of course I want to read more Anne Tyler. I absolutely loved Breathing Lessons when I read it a few years ago, so clearly I need to get my hands on Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

    Lory: It was so much fun!

    Susan: I haven't seen Malificent yet, but it's funny you should mention it. I went to a Marina Warner talk last weekend and she highly recommended it - especially, she said, as "someone who's spend the last 20+ years looking at what fairy tales say about girls and women". Definitely one for me to watch over the Christmas holidays.

  7. I read Midnight is a Place when I was nine or so....and even though I was repulsed by the grim and grit of the setting, it was one of my often re-read books (not as much as Black Hearts in Battersea, but still). The pictures it made in my mind are still clear as day...


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.