12

The Book With the Pretty Cover that Falls Flat

It’s official; I have finished my first book of the year. I started reading it on the plane when I flew back here on the 27th of December, and it took me until January 4th to finish. So, get ready for the first book review of the year: The Earth Hums in B-Flat, by Mari Strachan.

 

Before I left Madison to come home, I was browsing in the library, in the same row where Scarlett Thomas’s novels first caught my eye, and after pulling out about a hundred books and reading their covers and dust jackets, I chose two, one of which being this one, which I decided to bring with me to read on the plane.

The Earth Hums in B-Flat is a sort of cross-genre novel, straddling fiction, mystery, and young-adult. The cover is beautiful, and the dust jacket description is compelling. It centers on Gwenni Morgan, a 12-year-old girl in 1950s Wales, who lives a relatively simple rural existence with her friends and family, until a local man turns up dead. What unfolds over the next 300 pages include family secrets being exposed, loyalties tested, and Gwenni growing up amidst all the drama unraveling.

Maybe I got lucky with PopCo and the subsequent Scarlett Thomas books, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I wanted to finish it anyway just to see what happened, and because it was a relatively easy read, I did. Not really a spoiler, but a lot of situations are still up in the air at the end, and it’s kind of sad. I really liked Gwenni and how Strachan described her world – I imagined an Avatar-like environment full of misty blues, forest greens, and deep purples – but it seemed like everyone else was kind of doltish in comparison.

The biggest disappointment/shock about this book is that out of the first three sentences of the dust jacket’s description, only about one and a half of them are at all consequential. It reads: “Young Gwenni Morgan has a gift. She can fly in her sleep. She’s also fond of strawberry whip, detective stories and asking difficult questions.” Okay, so the first sentence is on point. The second sentence? It’s mentioned a few times in the book, mostly in Gwenni trying to convince everyone else that she can indeed fly in her sleep, but we don’t really get many flying sequences or chances to see how that affects her. And in the third sentence? I think strawberry whip is mentioned maybe twice in the book, detective stories are not really mentioned at all (she does, however, write an adventure story for a little girl, which plays a role), but she does ask some difficult questions. Mostly questions that are difficult to answer because either there is no answer or she asks them to the wrong person. Isn’t that annoying when it’s like whoever made the dust jacket had no idea of the book’s contents?

Although I don’t think reading it was a waste of time – I got lost in Gwenni’s world so often – I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to pick up the author’s other novel (she lives in Wales and this was her first book).

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1

The Wonderful Wizard of…Wales

I usually read two books at a time, and this semester’s long slog was no different. I started this one back when I could still sit on Memorial Union Terrace in a t-shirt and jeans, and I finished it shortly before I left Madison. Unlike River Cross My Heart, this one actually kept me wanting more. I’m talking about another book from the one and only Scarlett ThomasGoing Out.

My copy was actually a different cover, but I think that this one’s much more interesting and relevant to this early 21st century twenty-something adventure/journey novel.

The characters – which there are way too many of, in true Scarlett Thomas fashion – are by and large an interesting bunch of flawed specimens. At first, we meet best friends Luke and Julie, who live in . Luke’s problems are evident; Julie’s not so much. Luke has some sort of condition that prevents him from going outside. Therefore, he has spent his entire life inside his house, learning about life from the TV and the computer. Julie is a waitress at a local cafe, where she is perfectly content to serve salads and solve complicated math theorems in her head. When Wei, a healer with whom Luke’s been communicating, ends up in Wales, Julie and her friends hatch a plan to sneak Luke out of the house and across England so he can see the healer. The crew of six is assembled rather haphazardly, expanding to include David, a co-worker of Julie’s who has cancer; Leanne, a mutual childhood friend and her cousin, Chantel, who’s just won the lottery; and Charlotte, an ex-girlfriend of a now-deceased neighbor who has gotten close with Julie.

The story drags for the first hundred pages or so, introducing us to all the characters and their families and everyone else, but once all the niceties are out of the way, Julie hatches her plan to cure Luke once and for all, with Leanne creating a special “spacesuit” for Luke; Chantel renting a van and being the money behind the operation; and David and Charlotte…joining in for the ride and helping navigate, but not doing a very good job of it. Not their fault, though; the more we learn about Julie, the more we learn about her little psychoses: fear of large highways, fear of travel, fear of ingesting poison through packaged foods. It’s the former two that make the journey a challenge; they must drive on smaller roads (Julie is the only one of them who knows how to drive), most of which keep getting flooded out due to the apparent monsoon that’s overtaken Britain. When they finally get to Wales – small spoiler: not everyone makes it, but no one dies, though – they meet the mysterious Wei, and what ends up happening is not quite what anyone expected.

“Charlotte?”

“Yeah?”

“What the hell are we doing here? I mean…”

“What, why are we standing on the edge of Epping Forest with a Scooby Doo van, a Lottery winner, a guy with cancer and someone dressed in a space-suit – that we made – having just waved a tearful goodbye to a domineering retail-assistant who’s gone into the words to ‘fulfil her destiny’ and learn how to channel her humungous [sic] witch powers?”

“Yeah,” says Julie.”

– Scarlett Thomas, Going Out, p. 242

I would say that this is probably up there with PopCo as my favorite Scarlett Thomas novel. Even in the slower beginning, it is clear that something amazing is about to occur. There’s a sense of urgency that seems to come with the rain, and it’s only through quick and rash decisions by the characters that anything happens. The second part of the book is really where the fun begins; Julie and her crew are really a set of young, modern-day adventurers in the purest sense, driving around England in what one of them refers to as “the van from Scooby Doo.” There is something special in the fact that they aren’t really that special; other than Chantel, who just won the lottery (which could happen in real life, improbable as it may be), nobody has any sort of magic or super-strength to get them where they need to go. I mean, if you don’t count a lot of weed and cigarettes. It’s just the six of them and one old van against the rain. Sometimes the group members take gambles that pay off, and sometimes Julie almost kills everyone. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I realized what a Wizard of Oz quality it maintains, and I guess I was right, since the final epigraph is a long quote from L. Frank Baum’s novel.

The world needs more Julies, more Lukes, more Charlottes, more Leannes in its current literature; people who have shit to deal with and no witch or werewolf or vampire powers to help them. Because sometimes life sucks. Life sucks a lot in Scarlett Thomas’s novels, which is, I think, why they work, and why I like them so much.

“Anyway, going back to our discussion, then: whatever happens to you, there are two possible outcomes, apart from the infinite one where you turn yourself into a die, throw yourself a billion times, and come up with the number six every time.” He laughs. “You must realise that, in your predicament, when you have too much fear, even the infinite outcomes boil down to two basic ones. Essentially, you’ll either survive, or you won’t. Even the Schrodinger experiment demonstrates that. There really is no such thing as being fifty percent alive. You accept that?”

Julie has to accept elegant maths. “Yes.”

– Scarlett Thomas, Going Out, p. 347.

But then you get moments like this, which seem magical in their own simplicity.