Showing posts with label romance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label romance. Show all posts

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fresh Ink by various authors


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was an anthology put together by Lamar Giles under the Random House Children's Crown Books for Young Readers imprint, but the themes here seemed rather adult, so I'm wondering if young adult might have been better than 'young children's' - to me that's misleading. Worse than this there are os many books out there titled "Fresh Ink" that it's a bit sad the publisher could not have come up with something better and less over-used.

Overall I was not impressed by this. Out of thirteen stories only two were really enjoyable and one was a maybe, but the rest were not interesting, and overall the stories belied the anthology title - there really wasn't anything fresh here at all. Maybe the stories were newly-written, but that doesn't mean they're fresh, and most of the themes featured here have already been done to death. They need really fresh ink to keep these themes alive, and sadly, this wasn't it.

The range of authors was in one way commendably diverse, but the problem with that is that all of these authors are USA authors! Only Melissa de la Cruz and Nicola Yoon were not born here and they apparently got here as soon as they could, and every story was set in the USA, like no other country in the world matters. I found this to be a big indictment of the 'fresh' claim: it really was very much same old, same old, and this made me sad. There's little point in talking about diversity and inclusiveness, and "#ownvoices" when it's all USA all the time, like there is nowhere else in the world worth writing about or setting stories in. It makes the whole enterprise hypocritical.

The blurb on Goodreads and on Net Galley says, "Careful--you are holding fresh ink. And not hot-off-the-press, still-drying-in-your-hands ink. Instead, you are holding twelve stories with endings that are still being written--whose next chapters are up to you." but this is disingenuous bullshit! All of these stories are copyrighted to their authors. You start writing 'chapter two' of any one of these and you will be sued.

The story titles are listed below with my comments on each. I'd heard of only three of these authors before through reading their work, so this felt like a good opportunity to 'meet' the others and see what they can do.

  • Eraser Tattoo by Jason Reynolds
    This story was a poor lead-in for me because it led me nowhere. I'd never heard of this author, so I was interested to see if I liked the story, but it turned out to be a maudlin meandering tale of a young couple who were going to be separated by distance. It felt like fluff to me - like nothing. People split up all the time, so if you're going to relate a story about it, you'd better bring something new to the table: a twist, a new angle, something. There was nothing new revealed here, nothing fresh. I guess there could have been, but a story like this needs to be handled better than it was. I found it boring. The title sounds almost sci-fi, but the eraser tattoo is quite literally a tattoo made from rubbing an eraser on your skin - and painfully so. I have no idea why anyone would want to do that, so from the off these two people struck me as morons and they never changed that opinion. I honestly wondered if this one had been included only because the title of the anthology suggests tattooing, and this is the only story which features it? If I'd known that the author had won the 2016 Kirkus Prize, for As Brave As You I might have skipped this story altogether. Kirkus never met a story they didn't like, which means their reviews are utterly worthless except in their utility in warning me off books I will not like.
  • Meet Cute by Malinda Lo
    After reading Ash and Huntress Malinda Lo was way up there in my esteem, and I was looking forward to reading this more than any other story here. Once again she came through for me with a sweet, gentle easy story about two girls who happily meet by accident at a comic con. While I do recognize the story potential inherent in such scenarios, I'm not a fan of comic cons or of that culture, so for her to bring a story out of that which impressed and pleased me was even more commendable. When I say the story was easy, I mean it was easy on the mind. The story itself was layered and complex with delicious subtle undercurrents. I always felt the ending had to be a happy one, but the author kept it up in the air naturally enough that it made me feel a small sense of panic that it would not. The two girls will not forget that particular comic con in a hurry.
  • Don’t Pass Me By by Eric Gansworth
    This was a story about the American Indian experience which has been an appalling one, and which is still going on far too long, but I didn't think that this was a very good way to relate it. It did make a point about how schools are designed for white folk, as evidenced in the predominantly white (or worse, pink!) appearance of characters in biology books, but aside from that it could have been a story about anyone undergoing acceptance problems, yet it wasn't! By that I mean I think this story would have popped a lot more if there had been two people enduring the same passive bullying and rejection, one of which was American Indian, the other of which was differentiated in some other way. As it was, it was just so-so and I'm not convinced it will achieve its aim which makes me sad to report.
  • Be Cool for Once by Aminah Mae Safi
    This story was ostensibly about a Muslim experience, as exhibited in this case by Shirin, but the story really could have been about anyone in her position Muslim or not, so it failed to make a good impression on me as such a story, and the writing never rose above your standard YA girl main character story. It seemed to have no focus, being much more of a generic story about two girls going to a concert and one of them having a crush on a boy than ever it did about what it felt like to be Muslim, and maybe isolated and different. You could have quite literally put any person in the place of Shirin, anyone who had some sort of issue, male or female, and pretty much told the same story word for word. It's been done! There's nothing fresh here. Because of this, it actually rendered Shirin more 'the same' than ever it did different, and I don't mean that in any positive way. I mean it was not a fresh story, and it didn't cut to the real chase, but instead meandered into some sort of ersatz chase that stood in for and thereby negated the real story that could have been told here.
  • Tags by Walter Dean Myers
    I did not like this one at all. It was written lazily, like it was a movie script, but with speech only, and no scene setting or 'stage' directions at all, and was so boring that I quit reading after a couple of pages. Big fail.
  • Why I Learned to Cook By Sara Farizan
    This was about a girl, Yasaman, who is Persian and a lesbian. She's come out to her family, but not to her grandmother because she doesn't know how grandma will take this news, but she eventually gets around to inviting Hannah, her girlfriend, over to grandmas and it worked out of course. This story I did not find objectionable, but that was the best I could say about it because it really was nothing I haven't read before. If you're going to do a coming out story you need a fresher edge than this one offered. If the story had been set in Iran, that would have made a difference, but the author played it safe. You're not going to hit any balls out of the stadium if you're afraid to really swing that bat.
  • A Stranger at the Bochinche by Daniel José Older
    This oen was really short and so rambling that I honestly glazed-over and could not take in the story assuming there was one to be had. I'm not sure what it was trying to say, but whatever it was, if anything, was lost on me.
  • A Boy’s Duty by Sharon G Flake
    I've read three novels by Sharon Flake and liked two of them, so she was batting a .666 coming into this, but now she's down to .500 because I did not like this one. It was about racism in World War Two, and an idiot kid who seemed to delight in pissing people off. There was nothing here to interest or impress me.
  • One Voice: A Something in Between Story by Melissa de la Cruz
    While I really liked the TV version of this author's Witches of East End, I did not like her original novel, nor did I like one other novel of hers (Frozen) that I read, so I was not expecting to like this, and my expectations were met. This story was like a dear diary with somewhat disconnected episodes in this girl's life. The message was about racism, but if the message is the medium, then the medium was tedium not freedom. It was so boring that the message was blurred beyond recognition which is truly sad.
  • Paladin Samurai by Gene Luen Yang, Illustrations by Thien Pham
    This was a graphic novel which was poorly illustrated (and even more poorly exhibited in Amazon's crappy Kindle app). It wasn't well told at all, which is why I gave up on it after reading two or three pages. I really didn't care about these characters or what happened to them.
  • Catch, Pull, Drive by Schuyler Bailar
    Schuyler (pronounced like Skyler) Bailar is a ftm transgender athlete, and this story felt like a memoir, because he's a swimmer who has been through this change, but it also felt dishonest because it did not reflect what he went through. While a change like this always brings difficulties, he seems to have had the support of coaches and teammates. This story is just the opposite and that doesn't mean there aren't people who suffer through this process; I'm sure there are because we are a long way from where we need to be, but for someone who has come through this change relatively unscathed, this story felt disingenuous. If he'd told his own story, even fictionalized as this was, it would have resonated far more with me, because not every story is negative and because we need an honest balance.
  • Super Human by Nicola Yoon
    This one actually did feel like fresh ink because it took an old problem and one which is still with us, and it needed a new twist. This did the trick, which is why I liked it. The story is of Syrita, who has been chosen to talk with a super hero known only as X, who has been stellar in the past but who is now not willing to be heroic any more. It wasn't clear from the story whether he was planning on simply retiring and letting the world go to hell by simply withholding his help, or if he would actually go over to the dark side and start wreaking revenge on a society he feels (with some reason) is chronically unjust. In the end, the real super hero here is Syrita, who proves to have a lot more faith in him than he does in society! The only flaw in this story was “And those dark black eyes” which is nonsensical. Either one would work, but black is dark do you don't need both!

So I was not impressed overall, and I can't recommend this collection. There are one or two gems in it and if it's worth it to you to buy this load of crude ore in the hope of finding a gem or two in it, then you may like it, but I definitely wouldn't like to buy this, only to find that most of the stories don't really offer what the title suggests they will.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim


Rating: WORTHY!

This is ostensibly a high-school romance story, but it offered so much more than that. It begins during Shabnam Qureshi's last week of high-school and extends into her last summer before college starts. She is nominally a Muslim, but that speaks more to her heritage than her practice, because she really doesn't practice her faith. The story is more about cultural and religious clashes and about how foolish a first love can be.

Shabnam meets Jamie, a charming, romantic guy who easily knocks sheltered Shabnam off her feet. Because of her sheltered upbringing, she has very little experience of boys and is therefore easy prey for the much more worldly Jamie, who seems a bit 'off' right from the start. While Shabnam is falling in foolish teenage love with him, he's more in love with the idea of an exotic and potentially forbidden femme than ever he is with her for herself, and she is far too inexperienced to see this.

In a way, they have a lot in common: they are both very shallow in their own way, and they both purvey a big lie to the other. The difference is that Shabnam is potentially a much deeper person than ever Jamie could hope to be, and as the story progresses, we see this blossoming in her repeatedly. Shabnam knows she lies, Jamie is too selfishly in love with himself to see that he's a living embodiment of a lie.

On the topic of lies, too many YA novels betray their main female character by insisting that she be validated by a man. I detest novels like that. This was not such a novel. It was about girl power and female friendship and it was the better for it. It was also about culture, religion, and conflict between generations, and in some ways I felt it risked cheapening the very message it was trying to send: about the riots and slaughter in India during partition, by tacking those on to this story.

The Brits are often blamed for the problems they caused in India as they should be, but at least they treated all Indians with equal disdain; they didn't single-out any one ethnic group or religion for abuse, whereas during partition, every religion turned against every other religion, which is one reason why I detest religion. It's divisive by its very nature in its arrogant and unprovable assertion that 'we're the chosen ones and you're doomed to hell' or whatever. That said, the injection of the parts about partition were not overdone, so it didn't feel like a lecture, nor did it disrupt the story, and it did get the word out about an historical tragedy that's been largely forgotten today.

Lending more weight to what is an already heavy subject, Shabnam is also at odds with her once best friend Farah, who is far more deeply religious than is Shabnam, but Farah has her own take on her religion. She approaches it in a far more fluid manner than many other people, adapting it to herself as much as she adapts to it. She's a lot more brash and brave, wise and mature than is Shabnam, and she was my favorite character, but I am often in the position of finding the side-kick more interesting than the main character in YA novels.

This is very much a high-school romance, YA novel, but that said, it's leagues ahead of the usual poorly-written, crappily-plotted story that's out there. That's why it won't sell as well as the others, because the bar is so low in YA books, and this one clears it so handily that it's going to be way above the head of an embarrassingly large number of YA readers. That said, this novel, like many YA novels, does fixate on music which it seems to me, is far more the author's addiction than ever it is the character's. This music will date this novel, so I paid as little attention to it as I did the poetry. The music and the poetry were both overdone and contributed nothing to he story. There was more wisdom came out of Farah's mouth than came out of the mouth of the poets and songwriters featured here!

Shabnam betrayed Farah when her friend chose to start wearing a hijab, but Farah failed to give Shabnam advance warning of her unilateral decision, and this is what caused the rift. Shabnam is embarrassed by Farah's change in habit (as it were!), and Farah feels betrayed by her friend's distancing of herself and her lack of support. They do maintain a prickly contact with each other especially since Farah is the only one Shabnam can turn to over her romance. Farah is often warning her friend about it, but Shabnam won't listen because she claims that Farah doesn't know Jamie like she does. In the end, it turns out that Farah actually knows Jamie better, even though the latter two have never met.

Some reviewers have chastised this novel for its lack of portrayal of Islam accurately, but those reviewers make the blind assumption that everyone practices Islam in exactly the same way and no-one ever makes foolish teenage jokes about aspects of it. I don't know a heck of a lot about Islam, and I am not religious myself. I think it's a serious mistake to blindly put your faith in the scientifically ignorant dictates of relatively primitive people from some two thousand or more years ago, but I do know people, and at least I have the decency to regard practitioners of religion, misguided as they are, as individuals, and not as a monolithic block of clones. Every walk of life and every religion has saints and sinners, and I would be surprised if Islam is somehow fundamentally different given that its practitioners are people just like the rest of us!

One thing which did strike me as odd was the whole hijab issue. My understanding is that it's related to modesty (and in this regard, both men and women are supposed to be modest), so I find it interesting that Farah, who considered wearing it to be pretty much a tenet of her faith, made such a big deal of wearing brightly colored and patterned hujub (the plural of hijab, although most westerners use 'hijabs'). I'm against forcing women to do something which men are never forced to do, but I don't have a lot of time for religion, and especially for rigid and blind religious practices, but that's not my point here.

Note that there is a spectrum of covering for females in the Muslim world from the least which is the hijab, or headscarf as we in the west would call it, to the most, which is the full-body burka. Farah wears only the headscarf and it's that term which is used in this novel for the most part, but the ones she wears are colorful and she also dolls them up as elaborate fashion statements. This whole practice was never discussed other than to mention it, but it occurred to me that this was rather hypocritical in that it can hardly be considered modest to wear such bright colors and to sport designs so elaborate that they can only succeed in drawing more attention to a woman than would otherwise be drawn!

In fact, I'd go further than that, because if the purpose of wearing a hijab is to avoid drawing attention, then wearing a hijab or any such garment in the west fails because it draws more attention! If they were to be rational and consistent (which religion is not, admittedly) then they would wear such things only where the majority wears them, and dispense with them where the majority does not wear them, because this is the only way that they would truly blend in instead of standing out! I know it's not quite that simple, and that modesty and means different things to different people, but in this particular story, Farah seems to be flying in the face of modesty by wearing the things she wears in the style she wears them. This was never raised as an issue, which I felt betrayed the whole point of Farah's choices.

That and the fact that the author doesn't seem to know the difference between tread and trod (the past tense of tread, as in 'take a step', is trod, not treaded, and tread and trod are not interchangeable!) are the only complaints I had about this. Farah was awesome and kick-ass, and I'm tempted to think a whole novel about her (her first year in college would be a great place to stage it) would be a worthy read, but that feeling is tempered by the fact that her power perhaps came from the fact that she was a limited exposure character, and if she had a whole novel to herself it might ruin her(!), unless the writer was me! No I'm kidding, I want to say unless the writer was particularly adept at her craft, which has author seems to be, so maybe it would work. But for now, I thoroughly recommend this as a worthy read and I plan to read more by this author.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen


Rating: WARTY!

Sofonisba Anguissola was a real person who lived during the time of Michelangelo and in fact studied under him for a short time. She was a gifted artist who deserves much better than this author gives her. The prime mover in Sofonisba's life was art yet here, the author reduces her to a love-sick YA character, stupid with anguished love for Tibiero Calcagni, a fictional sculptor she purportedly knew from Michelangelo's studio.

There is an incident with Tiberio, and the book doesn't make clear what happened. Some reviewers believe they had sex, but I am not convinced that they did. Whatever happened, Sofonisba is upset by it and feels shamed, but instead of moving on, she agonizes over this for half the freaking book (which is as far as I could stand to read)! It’s tedious. Tiberio is Michelangelo's boy toy (I'm guessing - I don't know for sure) and you were merely a diversion, Sofi. Move on!

She is put into the service of the French wife of the Spanish king as an art tutor. He is in his thirties and she is barely into her teens. That story could have been interesting, but we’re supposed to be getting Sofinisba's story which is also an interesting one. The author seems to have forgotten this and rather than talk about Sofonisba and her art, she depicts the artist as merely an observer, relating the story of the Spanish triangle between Don Juan, the king, and his wife. It’s boring. Most love triangles are, especially in YA literature.

The book blurb is misleading, as usual. It says, "...after a scandal involving one of Michelangelo's students, she flees Rome and fears she has doomed herself and her family," but this greatly exaggerates what happened. The blurb also tells us that "Sofi yearns only to paint," but this is an outright lie since she's rarely shown painting or even thinking about painting. The way the story is told here, the only real yearning Sofi experiences is over Tiberio.

Set in the mid 1500's, the story is superficially about this remarkable and talented painter struggling to make herself known for her art in a very masculine world where women were tightly constrained everywhere. The story could have been equally remarkable, but this author destroyed it. We got no sense of frustration or struggle from Sofonisba and precious little of her art as she's reduced to being a documentarian of the life at the Spanish court.

That life is tediously repetitive. The foppish young men at court are laughable. The main character in the book could have been anyone, including the chamber maid, and the story would have been largely the same. Don't look here for art; there's precious little of it, neither in the narrow sense of Sofinisba's life ambition, nor in the larger sense of the word. Artless is more accurate.

We're told that women are not allowed to paint nudes but there is a nude (Minerva Dressing) painted by artist Lavinia Fontana in 1613. Fontana was influenced by Anguissola, so whether things changed in the fifty years between this novel's setting, and Fontana's painting or the author just got it wrong, I don’t know. Fontana does seem to be the first female artist to paint female nudes, so maybe she was a cutting edge girl, in which case, a well-written story about her would be worth reading, and certainly better than this one! I cannot recommend this novel.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Facts of Life by Paula Knight


Rating: WORTHY!

This was another library book. The author, Paula Knight, changed her name to Polly in the book as she changed everyone else's name too, so it wasn't too personal, but it is in fact a very personal story told by a graduate (BA in Graphic Design form Bristol Polytechnic in England about her pursuit of a pregnancy and her grappling with a fatigue syndrome.

Paula/Polly grew up an only child and tells an interesting and moving, and humorous story about her life beginning with hanging out with her best friend, learning about sex, and spending more and more time as she matured, wondering if she ever wanted to have children. In the end she discovered she had ME/CFS, which is myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, a very disabling illness which an come back and bite you often. It resulted in her losing all her energy at times, and feeling like everything was real struggle.

When she finally found the partner she wanted to be with, she was in her mid thirties and starting to feel a 'now or never' imperative to having a child of her own. When they began to seriously try, however, she and her partner repeatedly got the reward of very brief pregnancies ending in miscarriage, After trying IVF, she and her partner gave up. It was only then that she began to notice how pervasive 'pronatalism' - the idea that a family consists of mom, dad, and one or more children - truly is in society.

Illustrated by the author in simple gray-scale line drawings, this novel is well imagined and well executed, and (be warned!) takes a no holds barred approach to telling her story of sexuality, of growing up in Britain in the seventies and eighties, of learning, of struggling, of disappointment, and finally of coming through it all with a new perspective on life. I really liked the story and I recommend it.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen


Rating: WORTHY!

Jane Austen is batting a .6 with me at this stage. I really liked Pride and Prejudice, not so much Emma or Sense and Sensibility, but then I enjoyed Lady Susan and I loved Northanger Abbey! What a lot of people do not seem to get about this novel is that Jane wrote it when she was just 28, and still very much a playful youngster in many ways. It was her first real novel that we know of, but it was put aside as she worked on others. Though she began re-writing it later in life when she was more than a decade older, she died before she could finish it.

The story revolves around Catherine Morland, in her late teens, and fortunate enough to be invited on a trip to Bath (evidently one of Austen's favorite locales) by the Allen family. It's there that she meets two men, the thoroughly detestable James Thorpe, and the delightful Henry Tilney. While Thorpe pursues the naïvely oblivious Catherine, she finds herself very interested in Henry and his sister Eleanor.

In parallel, James has a sister Isabella. They are the children of Mrs Allen's school friend Mrs Thorpe, and Catherine feels quite happy to be befriended by Isabella who seems to be interested in Catherine's brother John - that is until she discovers he has no money when she, like Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, transfers her affection to the older brother - in this case, of Henry Tilney. Captain Tilney, not to be confused with his father, General Tilney, is only interested in bedding Isabella, who is in the final analysis every bit the ingénue that Catherine is. Once he's had his wicked way with the girl, she is of no further interest to him whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Catherine manages to get an invitation to Northanger, the Tilney residence. Catherine is a huge fan of Gothic novels, and Ann Radcliffe's potboiler, The Mysteries of Udolpho is mentioned often. Arriving at Northanger, she is expecting a haunted castle with secret passages, but everything turns out to be mundane - the locked chest contains nothing more exciting than a shopping list, and General Tilney did not murder his wife.

Henry Tilney is a lot less miffed with Catherine in the book than he was depicted as being in the 2007 movie starring the exquisite Felicity Jones and the exemplary JJ Feild, but as also in the movie, the novel depicts a lighter, happier time with General Tilney absent, but when he returns, he makes Eleanor kick Catherine out the next morning to travel home the seventy miles alone, which was shocking and even scandalous for the time, but by this time Catherine has matured enough that she's equal to the burden.

It turns out that the thoroughly James Thorpe (much roe so in the novel than in the movie), who had been unreasonably assuming Catherine would marry him, only to be set straight by her, has lied to General Tilney about her, and whereas the latter had been led initially to believe that she was all-but an heiress, he now believes her to be pretty much a pauper and a liar.

Henry bless him, defies his father and makes sure that Catherine knows (as does Darcy with Lizzie!), that his affections have not changed which (as was the case with Lizzie). This pleases Catherine immensely. Despite initially cutting-off his son, General Tilney later relents, especially when he realizes that Catherine has been misrepresented by Thorpe.

There are a lot of parallels in this book with the later-written Pride and Prejudice. You can see them in the dissolute soldier (Captain Tiney v. Wickham), the rich suitor (Tilney v Darcy), the break and remake between the two lovers, the frivolous young girls (Isabella v. Lydia) and so on. Maybe Northanger Abbey is, in a way, a dry-run for the later and better loved novel, but I think that Northanger Abbey stands on its own. I liked it because it seems to reveal a younger and more delightfully playful author than do her later works. I dearly wish there had been more novels from Austen from this era. She could have shown today's YA authors a thing or two, but I shall be content with this on treasure.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


Rating: WORTHY!

Ti was a long listen on audiobook, and some parts of it were frankly tedious, but overall the majority of it was a very worthy read (or listen in this case). The novel runs to some 400 pages and was originally published as three volumes, which was the done thing at the time it was written. I really enjoyed the movie starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, and the reader of this novel, Josephine Bailey, did a first class job, actually sounding rather like Gainsbourg, which for me made it perfect.

The basic story is no doubt well-known, but briefly: Jane Eyre is an orphan who is sent to live with her uncle on her mother's side after both her parents die. Her uncle dies, her aunt is mean and treats Jane like dirt. Considered to be a problematic child and a liar, she's passed off to Lowood school lorded over by a tyrannical clergyman, but Jane excels there and eventually becomes a teacher.

When her mentor and favorite teacher dies, Jane elects to move into the role of a governess for the daughter, Adela, of Edward Fairfax Rochester. The two grow fond of each other and eventually plan on marrying, but Jane discovers that Rochester has a wife - who is insane, but kept at the house (and not very securely evidently). Jane leaves Rochester and briefly falls on hard times, but eventually discovers she has inherited money from an uncle she knew nothing about for the longest time. She is now financially independent, and learning that Rochester's home has suffered a fire, and he has fallen on hard times, she returns to him and the two of them live out their lives together.

I have to say that Jane has way more forgiveness in her than is healthy for her. Rochester's behavior was inexcusable. He outright lied to her after she had showed him nothing but consideration, kindness, and love. He treated her with hardly more regard than did Lowood school when she first arrived. It made no sense that she went back to him, but this was a nineteenth century novel and this is the way they were written.

That said I liked the story overall, although some parts were hard to listen to because of the cruelty, but Josephine bailey;s voice really did a wonderful job and kept me engaged even when the writing became a bit bogged-down in what was evidently Brontë's idea of romantic banter. I recommend this as a worthy listen!


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Antisocial by Heidi Cullinan


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this was from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum: "A had on Xander's knee" about 79% in should read, I think, "A Hand on Xander's knee".

This was one of the most engaging and beautifully-written novels I've ever read. I was sucked in from the start and swept along with it effortlessly. There were times that I hated to have to stop reading to get back to real life because this was more interesting! But you know it was better that way because this novel was such a tease in so many ways that by denying myself the chance to read it all in one go, I felt I shared a little something with the two main characters.

Skylar Stone is the proverbial 'born with a silver spoon in his mouth' (except that it's more complex than that), and that spoon was a very cold and uncomfortable one. Nevertheless he pressed on in life and was doing well, being both extremely popular and much sought-after as an escort to various functions by campus coeds, but he's living solely to please his father, the chill, efficient, lawyer who wants Skylar, essentially, to become a clone of him, and join his law firm - after he gets accepted to Yale Law college and graduates, of course. Therein lies the problem, because Skylar isn't scoring well on his LSAT test papers and is being tutored with little good result. His heart just isn't in it, but he's in denial about that so desperate is he to keep his father happy.

The aptly-named Xander Fairchild, on the other hand, or more accurately, on the same hand, since he's also alienated from his parents but for different reasons, is almost the polar opposite of Skylar, because he is the eponymous recluse, cantankerous and unaccommodating. He wants to do the bare minimum when it comes to interacting with others, but he has to put on an art show to graduate. The two meet almost accidentally but not quite and slowly, both come to realize they both need each other to finish their senior year projects.

This need, at first purely utilitarian, and at first resented intensely and predictably by Xander, develops into something much more personal over time as they discover that there is something more going on here than helping each other out. They're also each helping to meet a need in the other, and it;s one that one of them resented and the other barely recognized he had.

This romance comes about as the most teasing and taunting of slow-burns, and it's a real pleasure to read because you're never quite sure what will happen next. I could list more than a few YA writers who need to read this and learn from it about how real relationships begin, develop, and grow to fruition.

Note that while this author likes happy endings, she certainly doesn't like ones loaded with sugar, so if you've been getting force-fed a debilitating diet of too much sugar and fat with your reads lately, this healthy nutritional blend of wholesome writing and fiber-filled characters should please you immensely. It did me. I recommend it unreservedly. I will be looking for more novels by this author (and secretly hoping she might be contemplating writing one about one of the characters featured in this one: Zelda! I just know they have a story to tell!).


Friday, August 11, 2017

Two Will Come by Kang Kyeong Ok


Rating: WARTY!

Translated by Jennifer Park, this Korean graphic novel (and thus a manwha rather than a manga) was the first in a series. It consists of black and white line drawings, often veering towards the type of illustration I most thoroughly detest: the pointy nose, pointy chin, and giant eyes - in short, characters who look not even remotely Asian.

While we in the west bemoan the lack of diversity in our graphic novels (and other media) - particularly in the poor showing of women and people of color, I have to wonder why are so many comic books written by Asians who are apparently afraid to depict themselves in all their authentic beauty. That said, a lot of the art work was very pleasant, some of it truly captivating. But a lot of poses even on the same page were so similar that they could almost have been photocopied, shrunk and moved over a panel or two.

It was also odd though in that there were, interspersed with the main panels, miniatures which looked weird since they were in a small and very simplified style - rather reminiscent of how an old and very formal Asian form of writing might be compared with a more modern, casual, and simplified one. it made me wonder why this was a graphic novel rather than simply a novel. If you're not going to push yourself with the illustrations, and make it a magical journey as well as a story, then why not simply tell the tale in words and omit the pretentious pictures? In this case, I have to say that - with a few exceptions which might have merited inclusion in what would otherwise be a pure text book - they graphic part of this novel contributed very little beyond pretension, notwithstanding artistic merit.

The biggest problem with the book though, was that the blurb completely lied! The claim was that it's a story about a family curse, handed-down over generations because of the slaying of a large serpent that was awaiting going to heaven. Just the day before it was due to leave, Jina's ancestors killed it because they thought it was cursing their family. Don't you just hate it when this happens? You're waiting to go to heaven and someone sticks you with spears and chops off your head? If I had a Band-Aid for every time that happened to me....

Once the serpent saw it would was doomed to die it actually did curse the family, and the curse is that one family member in each generation will slay another family member. We get very little by way of explanation as to how this has played out over the centuries, but now in Seoul in 1999, Jina is the one upon whom the curse falls, but the predictors cannot say if she will be the perp or the victim, nor do they know who the other member of this generation's fated but not feted pair is.

The End.

I am not kidding. That's not the end of the volume, but it is the end of the curse story. There is barely a word spoken of it after the first third of the novel. The rest of this volume is nothing but a tediously slow-moving high-school romance between the girls and this guy from the USA - a Korean emigrant, who has returned for a visit. He looks more like a girl than the girls do, and so the girls naturally all fall for him.

Frankly I would rather watch a cowpat dry. Or even fry, as I first ham-fistedly typed it. So while some of the art was great, a lot of it felt xeroxed, and the miniatures were just plain weird. The story had little to do with the blurb's claim for the most part and the interaction between the two main characters was utterly tedious, blank, flat and uninventive.

Plus, as if all that wasn't bad enough, the story moved at a glacial pace. I optimistically borrowed volumes one and two from the library, but I quit reading volume one at about half way and I skimmed the rest, and I sure am not going to even start volume two. I cannot in good faith recommend this. It was bait and switch, and stunk like baited breath so rank you could cut it with a switch-blade.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher

Jamie Ford's novel ought to be required reading for any YA author who is thinking (god forbid) of including a love triangle in their story. This is a tour-de-force of how to do it right if you must do it! Not that this is a YA novel by any means. This is a novel for grown-ups who appreciate intelligent and beautifully-written stories.

It was a charming historical story of an immigrant to North America, coming from a tragically impoverished background in China. It begins in about as depressing a manner as is possible, with a wretchedly poor and starving Chinese mother forced to suffocate her baby daughter and leave her son, appropriately named Yung (although in Chinese the name means brave or perpetual, both appropriate to the character), in a cemetery, for pick-up by an "importer" who transports Chinese children to the US and delivers them into servitude.

The story is told from two alternating perspectives, book-ended by world fairs, Both perspectives are held by the same person, who goes by Ernest despite this not being remotely like his Chinese name, which he takes as his surname, modifying it to Young. The 1902-1911 portion covers his early days traveling to the US and settling in Seattle, and the 1962 portion covers his twilight years where the love of his life is suffering senile dementia evidently brought on by a misspent youth. Here he is married with two intriguing daughters who are leading their own full lives. One of them is a reporter who is interested in his story, and it is this link which keeps us tied to his origins in the US.

I kept reading in reviews written by others that this is based on a true story, but no one goes into any detail as to exactly what it is that's true, so it felt like these reviews were merely parroting what others had written! Here, for the first time, it can be publicly revealed! The truth is that I can find no reference to the truth or consequences of this story on the author's blog which is, I am sorry to report, far more interested in promoting the book than in conveying anything of interest about its historicity, nor is there anything in the book itself to indicate what might have inspired it.

According to http://old.seattletimes.com/html/television/2010080063_kcts17.html there actually was a baby exhibition and one infant, apparently named Ernest, was offered in a raffle, but no one claimed the winning ticket, so the story of an eleven-year-old being raffled to a whore-house while very loosely rooted in real events, seems to be pure fiction.

The 'Author's Note' (which I typically never read anyway) in my ebook copy was blank, so it was of no use in illuminating the 'based on a true story angle'. This web page https://www.seattlemet.com/articles/2010/1/29/red-light-history-0210" reveals some details of Seattle's intriguing red light history, but in it, the Tenderloin seems to be the name of a district rather than the name of a specific house as is depicted in the book.

So my best guess (and this is only a guess) is that the truth of the story lies in that it depicts real events (such as world fairs and morality battles), but that none of the details of the Tenderloin (as a bordello), or Ernest, or Fahn or Maisie are true in the sense that they tell any real and specific person's story.

They are true in that god-awful things happened to people in those neighborhoods, but quite honestly this story rather whitewashes the sordid side of a working girl's life in depicting the elegant and refined 'House of Flora' while sweeping under the carpet the bleeding raw open nerveiendings of most imported children's truth in the prostitution business (and it was, and still is, a big business). It also makes no mention either, focused as it is on the Asian-American experience, of the American Indians who were also there.

That said, it does tell a fine tale of how some things might have been for those who got lucky. Ernest is raffled off from his orphanage and ends up at Madam Flora's Tenderloin house of pleasure, where heartbreakingly young prostitutes, most of whom we never get to know, are taught refinement and who 'come out' on their sixteenth birthday, their virginity sold to the highest bidder, whereinafter they take their place as a regular "Gibson Girl" purveying their skills to whichever rich and influential men select them for the night. There may well have been houses of this nature, but my guess is they were few and far between if they existed at all, and most of them were like the one we hear all-too-briefly about from one of the female characters.

But for this novel, that's not the point. The story is about one such fictional house where Ernest, for the first time in his life, paradoxically finds happiness and a family in the good-natured people who live and work there. He makes two close friends: the tomboyish Maisie, and the exotic Fahn, neither of whom is yet 'out'.

The trio bond charmingly, and despite the immorality pervading their every waking moment, they remain innocent between themselves, with nothing more than a stolen first kiss to count as a sin. Since we know from the 1962 portion of the story, that Ernest ends up with one of them, the question, and the author hides it well (or at least he did from me!), is which one, and what happens to the other one. I normally dislike flashbacks, but here they worked perfectly, and were integrated exceedingly-well with what I considered to be the main story set back at the turn of the century.

Since my blog is primarily about writing, I have to say that the writing in general here was very good - well-done and engrossing. There were some parts where it seemed to bog down a little, but overall it was great. I noticed only one or two writing oddities. The first was this phrase: "decked out in a dark black suit" I guess dark black is really black! LOL! "Decked out in a dark gray suit" would have sounded better, but that's a very minor quibble. The only other thing was that author seemed too enamored of this word form, because there were two other instances which felt wrong to me, where the word 'deckled' put in an appearance.

This actually is a word. A deckle is a book press used in hand-made books, and by association has come to describe the rough edge of the open side of the book. I hate those, as it happens because it makes it hard to turn the pages, but the author uses this word in the form of something being 'deckled' with lights and this seemed entirely wrong to me. Decked would have made more sense, or if he'd used deckled to describe the rough ocean surface rather than the lights on the boats floating on it, it would have made more sense. He uses the same word again when he writes, "fairy lights that deckled the storefronts." I think this was wrong, too, and arguably more wrong than the boat lights, but like I said, it's a minor quibble that reasonable people can disagree on if they wish!

That aside, I really liked this book - the way it was written, the pacing, the story, the relationships and the characters. No book is perfect by any means (especially not my own), but you really can't expect a better read than this, told elegantly, paced well, organized beautifully, and with a bitter-sweet tale to tell of a world where women are commodities and rich men can buy pretty much anything they want and it's considered normal, but sometimes if you want something enough, and you are willing to truly love it and bide your time, perhaps you can get it without your acquisition being sordid and demeaning and with it bringing you the Earth instead of costing it to you. I recommend it as a highly worthy read.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Cute Girl Network by Greg Means, MK Reed, Joe Flood


Rating: WORTHY!

This is the last of three graphic novels I'll be reviewing this weekend. This one ca,me form my excellent local library and I think it's my favorite of the three. The story is of Jane and Jack. It's illustrated with black and white line drawings by Flood. I was a little disappointed that writers Means and Reed didn't go the whole hog and name her Jill, since she introduces herself with a tumble.
It's not down a hill, but nothing is perfect, right?

Skateboarder Jane has been in town for about a month when she wipes out in front of Jack's soup cart. He supplies a free ice tea (in a bottle!) for her to soothe her injured coccyx. As the two interact more, they end up on a date and start liking each other, even though she's feisty as all hell and he is highly-prone to complete disasters.

Two of Jane's vampire romance-obsessed roommates freak-out when they learn she's dating Jack. Actually the vampire romance thing is pretty much a story all in itself, and I appreciated that; however, suddenly Jane finds herself introduced to the Cute Girls Network (not to be confused with the cukegirls network) - a loose alliance of women who dish out the skinny on guys you should avoid like the plague. Jane hears several embarrassingly gauche stories of Jack's history of bad conduct, but despite these dire warnings, she decides to stay the course.

The story is cutely illustrated and amusingly written, and it tells a fascinating and unusual story. I really liked the character Jane. She was definitely my kind of fictional girl. Jack was hilarious, as were the various roommates of both main characters. This was an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen


Rating: WORTHY!

This is the first of this author's works I've ever encountered and it left a favorable enough impression that I want to read something else by her. I tend to take more risks with audiobooks than other formats, because I'm a captive audience in my car and I'm not fully focused on the audio when in traffic, so I tend to be a bit more tolerant - within limits! - when I'm stuck with this one book until I get back home! In this case the book was easy on the ears as was Karen White, the actor who read this book and who successfully avoided annoying me!

It's set in a fictional North Carolina location called improbably 'Walls of Water' because of the cataracts in the area, but sometimes you have to wonder if the cataracts are on people's eyes rather than cascading down the rocky hills. In this small town lives Willa Jackson, whose family used to be important, but now are just another family, and Paxton Osgood, whose family is still important, from old money, and quite snooty. Paxton's family runs to three generations here, while Willa and her grandmother, who is seriously ill, seem to be the only two of their lineage left.

Each of these two women is crippled in the same way, but for different reasons. They both suffer from chronic inertia, having settled into a rut and being either incapable of, or beyond caring if they ever escape. Willa runs a sporting goods shop, and Paxton despite being thirty, has failed to flee the nest, having made it only as far as the pool house where she currently lives. Neither of these women struck me as being particularly smart, which was a disappointment, although they were not outright dumb, either.

They're the same age and though they were both at the same high school together, they were never friends. Paxton was part of the moneyed crowd, and Willa was the school prankster, although no one knew it was she until the last day of school. The pranks were totally lame, though, so she wasn't much of a prankster. The only thing special about it is that she keeps it a secret for so long, and someone else gets the blame. The person the school thought was the prankster was Colin, Paxton's twin brother, who left town after high school and pretty much never came back until now, and only because he's supervising the landscaping on The Blue Madam - a local landmark building which Paxton is overseeing the restoration of.

It's obvious from the start that Willa and Colin are going to end up together and while this was somewhat boring and had some creepy elements to it, in the end it was a harmless relationship and far better than most YA authors bullshit 'romance' attempts, so I let that slide. Paxton's was a much more interesting relationship.

She's been lifelong friends with Sebastian, but having seen him, back in their high school days, kiss another guy on the mouth, she wrote him off as a prospect (despite having the hots for him), thinking he's gay. While this was a nice pothole to put in her road because it leaves the reader never quite sure if this is going to work or if someone else will come along for one or other of them, it's also the reason why I felt Paxton wasn't too smart. They've been close for some twenty years, yet she never figured out he's not gay, nor has she ever heard of a sexual preference called 'Bi', apparently!

So! Not a brilliant story, nor a disaster, and it did fall off the rails a bit towards the end. The murder mystery part of it is more of a hiccup than an actual plot. If it had been shorter (for example by dispensing with the "mystery" and trimming the drawn-out ending, it would have been better.

I didn't like that Willa was so very easily led by the nose and in effect controlled by Colin. It's never a good sign for a relationship when one party comes into it evidently intent upon changing the other, but as I said, in this case it was relatively harmless, so I let it slide. I recommend this if you like an easy, reasonably well-written, and quite charming story that never reaches great heights, but successfully avoids numbing depths. It has a southern charm and a country living air pervading it and overall, I liked it.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Emma by Po Tse, Cystal S Chan, Stacy King


Rating: WARTY!

With line drawings by by Po Tse (aka Lemon Po), story adapted by Cystal S Chan (aka Crystal Silvermoon), and English script by Stacy King (aka Stacy King), this manga version of Jane Austen's Emma failed to please me. The adaptation wasn't bad, but reading it backwards isn't natural for we Westerners, and though I liked a manga version of Pride and Prejudice, I feel that i, like Po Tse, have to draw a line here!

In some supplementary material at the back (aka front) of the book, Po's art is praised for his "uncanny talent," but to me every drawing looked the same. It was hard to distinguish the characters except by their hairstyle, and I have never been a fan of that pointed nose, pointed chin, ridiculously large-eye mangled - er manga - style. It strikes me as lazy, where every face is merely a clone of every other, and the only actual difference between them is in the eyes and hair. After this experience I think this is the last manga of this nature I will read.

I have a few observations on the story, too. This is one of Austen's later novels. It was not her last, but it has been praised for good plotting, yet no one seems interested in saying a word about how snobbish and elitist it is. Yes, I get that this is how society was back then, and Austen is merely reporting it, but this only serves my point. Where is the daring, the invention, the scandalous skirting of the rules? I use the word 'skirting' advisedly because Austen no doubt wore skirts. Her book really isn't much more than a dear diary, is it though, in the final analysis?

The snobbery, even from the "heroic" Mr Knightley, is shameful, and it makes it only more obnoxious knowing that this was the acceptable norm back then. The talk is endlessly of people above their station, and poor matches. Love has no place in this world whatsoever, so where is the romance? It cannot breathe here, starved of oxygen as it is.

Emma is a frivolous, immature, vindictive, interfering and very stupid woman, and not at all pleasant to read about. She fails to grow and learn, yet ends up with everything despite her foolish meddlesome behavior, yet we're expected to condemn characters like frank Churchill, Philip Elton and August Hawkins, who are in reality just like Emma, if somewhat more exaggerated. While I confess I do like the movie featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, and I like even more the one featuring Alicia Silverstone, I really can't recommend the story of Emma or this graphic novel version of it.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak


Rating: WORTHY!

Erratum:
At one point there's a woman described who is wearing a T-shirt with an inscription on it referring to a breed of dog. Now it's entirely possible given the appalling grasp of good English in this country that a T-shirt could be misspelled, but I'm not convinced this was intended by the author - if it had been, I feel something would have been said about it in the test. The misspelling is of the name of a dog breed: Pekingnese. It should be 'Pekingese'

Note that this is a review of an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is the kind of novel which I don't normally like, because in a real sense, it's just an author's trip down memory lane, which is as boring to me as a memoir usually is. Such trips are very personal and not all that meaningful to others unless those readers led a similar lifestyle and are of a similar age - and grew up in the US. In this case, we get a lot of references to 80's culture, but either the author doesn't remember the era very well, or he hasn't properly researched it.

For example at one point, one of the characters is surveying magazines on a rack in a store while waiting for someone, and he mentions that there are articles on the trial of Bernard Goetz, who shot four passengers on a subway rain, and on Gary Hart suspending his presidential campaign because of the smell of scandal. Yes, Gary Hart ran in the 1984 campaign, but the scandal with Donna Rice was during the 1988 campaign, and the shooting by Bernard Goetz took place in late December 1984 after the November election. His trial was in 1986 (with a civil trial a decade later).

All of this took place in the novel during a boring and dumb sequence in which the young boys were trying to get their hands on a Playboy which featured Vanna White, but that edition came out in 1987, so the timeline is wrong if we're trying to encompass all three of these events. This definitely has to be 1987 based on the arrival of the IBM PS/2 computer, so the Goetz reference was the confusing part.

The story would have been just as good with the Vanna White nonsense left out, and the with timeline touches of color omitted. Maybe some people will like that, but for me they were way overdone, and I could have also done without the constant references to music. It was like the author was showing off how much research he'd done, but we know how well that worked! Taht said, there was a point wher eosme of the music references had a purpose, but that was overdone as well, for me.

I say this because for me the story became interesting not because of all the endless, annoying timeline references, but in spite of them. To me they were distractions and irritations and the endless Vanna White obsession cheapened the story. The power of this novel came through the interaction of Mary Zelinsky - a commendably strong female figure, and an unusual one in a story like this - and main male character, Billy. Mary is one of the coolest characters I've read about in a book like this in a long time. I quickly reached a point where I was willing to positively review this based on her alone! LOL! The boys let down the story but she stood above all that and rescued it for me.

One thing which troubled me is how much access to endless ready cash these boys seemed to have and how profligate they were with it. Whenever they needed money they always had it, and lots of it, yet only one of them seemed to hail from wealthy circumstances. That felt unrealistic, but these things are offset by cool stuff, such as when Billy first meets Mary and notices that she has her nails painted with binary digits, reading 01111101010. The problem with this is that they go to eleven! Unless Mary has eleven fingers and thumbs, there's one too many digits! Or from a different perspective, one too few. Binary is based on multiples of two, so whereas decimal - the system we routinely use - goes up in multiples of ten when reading digits from right to left (the number 100 quite literally equals zero units, zero tens and one 'one hundred'), binary goes up in multiples of two, so 100 in binary would be zero units, zero twos, and one four, equaling four in decimal.

Eleven characters makes no sense in terms of translating the numbers to letters, all of which have an eight character code (or would have back then). At best it should be eight or sixteen, or if divided into groups of four, it should be eight or twelve. If she'd had a binary digits on each finger, this would have given the expected eight. As it was I couldn't translate it to any text (I had initially thought it might be her initials).

The decimal equivalent of the binary number we're given is 1,002, and you don't need the preceding zero, so maybe that's a typo. I guessed that it had something to do with Mary's mother - maybe she died on October 2nd? You'll have to read it to discover what those numbers really meant, and to discover that they were used in two ways. There's an old but amusing binary joke for which you have to keep in mind how the numbers are translated (multiples of two). It goes like this: there are only 10 kinds of people in the world - those who understand binary and those who don't!

Assuming the book is printed as it appeared in the ebook format, it's horribly wasteful of trees! It has seven pages to swipe past (or 21 screens, depending on whether you're reading on your phone or on a tablet), and most of this is not necessary. A lot of it is disgustingly gushing mini-reviews and recommendations, which to me are as pointless as they are nauseating. If you already have the book, what is the point of these? Why are they even there?

Does the publisher think that reviewers are so weak-willed that the opinion of others will sway them into liking a book they might have disliked otherwise? Maybe they appear only in the ARC, but to me they're a waste of time. I want to read this and decide for myself; I honestly don't care what others think, no matter who they are! But this is on the publisher, not the author, so it's not his fault. For me, it's yet another reason to self-publish.

The chapters are numbered with stretches of numbered BASIC programming code which is amusing and brings back some memories for me. When you're programming in that style, which is antique, you number the lines in tens not in units, so if you later realize that you missed something between lines ten and twenty, you can add it as line fifteen, and escape having to renumber every line. In terms of numbering chapters, this meant that chapter one for example, began with half-a-dozen lines of code numbered 10, 20, 30, etc., which was a bit of a cheat since it ought to have been numbered in the 100's.

All the other chapters were numbered appropriately - chapter two using 200 and above, chapter three using 300, and so on. I thought that was cute, although the programming syntax on each numbered line will be completely obscure to anyone who has no programming experience and perhaps to many who do if all they know is modern stuff like Java. Even Visual Basic and VB .NET are a different world from those older languages. It was fun though, and about the only memory lane portion of this book that I liked!

The story - finally, yes I'm getting to it! is that Billy has his own Commodore 64 computer which was all that and a bag of chips in its day, but he realizes that it's an amateur machine (and was half-way through its lifetime in 1987) when compared with the brand new PS/2 which boasted the power of IBM behind it. He's into programming games, and his school work is suffering because of it. When he learns, from Mary, of a competition in which he could win the IBM computer, he starts seriously working on his game, but his program is sluggish.

He turns to Mary for help and discovers that she is better than he is at programming, and she delightfully knows the names of some stellar female forebears from the earliest days of computing: Dona Bailey, Jean Bartik, Fran Bilas, Margaret Hamilton, Brenda Romero, Marlyn Wescoff, and Roberta Williams. The two begin working together and this is where the story really took-off for me. The time they share is quite wonderful, and you can see them growing towards each other. Call 'em software moments if you like!

These parts are written well, and make a refreshing break from the ridiculous instadore encounters typical of YA literature. This is only bordering on the young edge of YA and is more akin to middle-grade, but the romance is handled in a very mature and realistic fashion which is at times truly magical, such as the time when the lights go out in the back of her dad's store where they meet to program, and the two have a few moments in total darkness and close proximity. This was beautifully written.

Of course, you know there are going to be potholes in this road, and at one point the story got too dumb, and I feared I was going to have to rate it negatively, but after that part, it turned around again, and really settled back into a pleasing cadence. I liked the way life imitated art towards the end when Billy was trying to get back with a rather distant Mary.

She has a secret that juvenile Bill has been blind to, and her behavior is less than exemplary, but in the end, they both come to understand each other at a deeper level, and realize that there is more to them than juvenile attraction. I really liked the ending and it was this, and Mary as a character, which were what made me want to positively rate this story. I loved the way it worked out, and how well the Billy-Mary interactions were written. I recommend this as a worthy read.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

A January Bride by Deborah Raney


Rating: WARTY!

I got his audio book because it sounded like it might be interesting, but the story was so badly told that it wasn't worth the listening, and I gave up halfway through. This is evidently part of a series "A Year of Weddings". How January got to be number two in that system is a mystery, but this story was definitely number two, trust me.

The plot was farcical. Two people never meet initially, communicating instead through a series of notes, each thinking the other person is older than themselves. The woman, Maddie Houser, is a novelist who is working on a romance novel "A January Bride" (and becomes one? I don't know). The guy is the owner of the inn where she's staying temporarily while renovations are carried out to her house. The artificiality by which the two are kept apart was tedious and served no purpose other than to keep reminding me that this was a badly-written novel.

Plus there were religious overtones to the story which spoiled it for me. I didn't expect to be reading fantasy! These people are putting their faith in a god who robbed one of them of his spouse prematurely, yet they're supposed to believe that it's all for the best? If this god wanted the two of them to get together, why did he not put them together to begin with instead of putting the guy with someone else, and then tearing her away from him? I have no faith in a capricious god like that. A god which would do things like that, to me, is at best juvenile and at worst, an outright evil god.

The best thing I can say about this story is that it was short, but it was so poorly-written, artificial in the extreme, and boring, that I couldn't even stand to listen to all of it even as short as it was. I can't recommend it based on what I listened to because there was no romance here, not in the best tradition of the word.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict


Rating: WARTY!

Note that this was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

While I applaud the sentiment to write a book about Einstein's first wife, I have to say I was disappointed in the result. When I requested an advance review copy of this novel, I had initially thought it was a biography of her life, and I was very interested to read it, but it turned out to be a novel: a highly-fictionalized account of her life and as such, I think it did the real Mileva Marić a disservice. Note that her name is pronounced like Me-levv-ah Marityu as far as I can tell, but I'm not Serbian so caveat lector!

The first problem for me was first person voice, which is rarely a good voice in which to tell a story. It’s far too self-important, self-indulgent, breathless, and "YA" for my taste. It makes the mistake of imbuing a real person with thoughts, feelings, and opinions that were not hers and in this case, which are in fact alien to her, shaded as they are by modern American thought projected over a century backwards onto Eastern sensibilities. A good example of this appeared very early when I read, "Mama gifted me..."! That took me right out of the turn-of-century Switzerland into modern USA, and it wasn't the only instance of totally modern idiom pervading these pages.

Another problem for me was that first person also says something about the main character's sense of self-importance, and it felt wrong to imply that someone as evidently retiring as Mileva would promote herself with a book like this one. Not that she actually did in real life, but the suggestion is there in the writing: I, Mileva, did this! I, Mileva thought that! I, Mileva, am baring my soul to the world, and it didn't honestly feel like her to me. Not that I'm an exert on her by any means. I know only what I've read, but it felt inauthentic.

I had no choice but to try to overlook that and read on, ever onwards; however, in the end I couldn't make it to the end. I made it only sixty percent of the way through before giving it up as a bad job (which was before Einstein gave up the marriage as a bad job!), so please keep that in mind when reading this review. And please don't assume the arrogance or the impertinence to tell me that I can't review a book when I haven't read it all. Yes, I can, and the proof of the Slivovitz is right here!

Another problem for me was the author's gushing cheerleading for her main character. Mileva Marić was indeed a remarkable woman who beat the adversely-stacked odds of her time. She deserves a book, but she was not a superhero or a goddess, or even a towering intellect, and it does her no favors to pretend that she was! I'm not in the habit of reading introductions, forewords, prefaces or author's notes, but in the case I did skim the preface material and in my opinion, the author exaggerated her abilities to an embarrassing degree.

I read that she was a "brilliant woman" and if that was meant as a metaphor for the light she shone as an achiever in an age where women were pretty much condemned to exist only in the long shadows cast by men then I’d agree, but I rather suspect it was meant in an intellectual sense and I don’t see any evidence for this. Yes, she was smart. Yes, she achieved a lot which most women did not even imagine, let alone dream of back then, but does this equate with true intellectual brilliance? I don’t think it does. At another point I read: "Mileva Marić, who was a brilliant physicist in her own right" and I had to ask: "By what criteria?" On a point of order, she never actually was a physicist, despite her equaling Einstein's grade in physics in at least one exam!

What went wrong academically is hard to say. Mileva seemed to have experienced a roller-coaster ride with her math scores. Prior to the university, she passed final exams in 1894 with the highest grades, including those in math. She was an excellent student, who would no doubt put many modern students to shame, so it’s a bit of a mystery what happened with her diploma efforts. After she quit the academic world because of her pregnancy with the mysteriously vanishing child Liserl, she never really pursued her studies again.

She did not, contrary to popular opinion, contribute intellectually to Einstein's "miracle year" work nor to his later work. She never published any papers. In contrast, Einstein continued his work long after they separated. Correspondence between Mileva and Albert talking of "our work" referred not to work for which Einstein became known and for which he won wide acclaim and awards, but to the work they were doing as students on their diploma dissertations, which happened to be on the same topic.

This is not to demean Mileva Marić at all. She was a very capable and distinguished student by all accounts, and a smart and remarkable woman, but "brilliant"? I think you’d have to carefully define your criteria to make a statement like that because I also think that it demeans her far more to present a misleading view of her life than it does to tell the plain and simple truth about her which is quite remarkable enough.

In this light, I have to question the beginning of the novel which represents her erroneously arriving in Zurich as a naïf about to start on her higher academic life, when in fact Mileva was well-traveled before then, and had actually been living in Zurich prior to this. Nor was this her first exposure as a woman in a male institution. She had attended the all-male (until she arrived - albeit as a private student!) Royal Classical High School in Zagreb (a city I've visited myself and loved), and she'd subsequently attended the Girls High School in Zurich. After that, she began studying medicine at the University of Zurich. So no, she was not in any sense new to this "civilized" world, nor to this city, nor to this university!

But back to her physics credentials! She was not studying to be a physicist. She was training to be a teacher which is why she became a student in a teaching diploma course where she shared a class with five other students, all male, one of whom was Einstein. She never taught, having failed to pass the final teaching diploma examinations because of poor performance in math. Twice! So to suggest she brilliant and perhaps some sort of contributing partner in Einstein's work is misleading at best. They no doubt discussed some of his thoughts on those topics, and perhaps she helped him with his studies (as perhaps he helped her) in school and later with research, but to intimate that she was some sort of equal partner in his scientific life is not true. She herself never made any such claims, and there's no correspondence from her or to her indicating any such thing. To suggest otherwise is to detract from what she actually did achieve which was praiseworthy enough in itself

I also read that "Mileva was forced to subsume her academic ambitions and intellect to Albert’s ascent" and again I had to ask, where is the evidence for this? She dropped out to raise a family, but was she forced? Was this Albert's dictum? I don't think you can argue a good case for that. I have to wonder why an author would do this to Mileva. Are we to take home from this the idea that her ambition to raise a family (if that was her ambition) instead of pursuing a career in science was abnormal or beneath her, or that she was pressured and browbeaten into it? That she had no alternative? She took a final while she was pregnant for goodness sakes! She was not being dictated to or subjugated by anyone, and to suggest that she was is an insult to her. It's also an insult to anyone who's raised a decent family, male or female, and especially to women back then, and especially as a single parent - at least in the early months.

Mileva's withdrawal from academic life for anything other than illness was through her first pregnancy. Their daughter was named Liserl. What became of this girl is a mystery, but the best guess is that she died, possibly from scarlet fever when she was still an infant. While pregnant, Mileva failed in her second attempt at passing her diploma and gave up on her PhD ambitions at that point. It would seem clear that she was not forced into anything. It seems from the available evidence that she was not academically up to pursuing what she had initially aimed at, and she gave up that pursuit in favor of pursuing a family, which is an equally worthy endeavor.

So what bothered me most about this novel was the inconsistency, On the one hand we're being told she's brilliant and was somehow prevented from pursuing academics, but on the other we're shown an air-headed girl who can't focus on school-work because of her giddy obsession with Albert, which has her mindlessly blowing money on a trip to be at a village near him and sitting around, too distracted to even read, and doing nothing but wait in the desperate hope he will come visit! I resented this picture of Mileva and I found it demeaning. Brilliant people of course can be giddy, but this isn't math: there is no Commutative Law here. You cannot equally argue that if truly brilliant people are giddy, then giddy people must be smart!

The inconsistency (that serious student was somehow robbed of her career) falls apart when we read, "It didn't help that I kept drifting off into daydreams about the trip to Como..." I found it insulting to Mileva that she purportedly had such an adolescent crush on Albert that it was affecting her schoolwork. Personally I cannot credit that; not with a woman like this one, but even if it were all true, it still flies in the face of what's said elsewhere about her being brilliant and being a strong student. I'd believe those latter two traits long before I'd believe the rather vacuous starry-eyed version of Mileva Marić with whom we're far too frequently presented here. We get too much of this with poor maligned Mileva: "Stomach fluttered" (location 825 on Kindle), "stomach churned" (841), "stomach lurched" (1132), "Stomach fluttered" (1191), "stomach lurching" (1252), knot in my stomach hadn't untangled (1303). Seriously? At the same time we hear nothing of Albert's inner feelings. It felt biased at best, genderist at worst.

I wanted to like this and view it favorably, but I can't in good conscience approve of such a young-adult, even 'Harlequin romance' version of a woman who stood out in her own time as different for a variety of reasons. This was a woman who was strong, self-possessed, competent, and dedicated to her chosen aims, whether academic or family. I think her life is remarkable and it think it should have been much better served than it was here - or at least than it was in the first sixty percent!


Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Butch and the Beautiful by Kris Ripper


Rating: WORTHY!

This novel proved to be every bit what I'd hoped for. It was such a pleasure to read. Thanks to the publisher and author for a chance to get in on an advance review copy! That's not to say that it was all plain sailing. I had a couple of issues (when don't I?!), but overall it was fun, entertaining, well-written, and very engaging. I didn't even mind that the ending was entirely predictable, because that was kind of the point!

This novel is part of a loosely connected series known as "Queers of La Vista," and it's set in a fictional California town. I haven't read any others in the series since I was unaware the series existed until I encountered this volume. Given that we're told more than once in this novel that the gay community in La Vista is small, it's a bit of a stretch that we already have five novels in derived from it! Like Pianosa in the Joseph Heller classic Catch-22, is highly unlikely to be able to accommodate all of the activity depicted in the series, but it's no more of a stretch that a TV crime show has a murder rate that exceeds Chicago of the prohibition era, either, so I'm not going to worry about that!

All the volumes in the series twist their titles from US TV soap operas: As La Vista Turns, Gays of Our Lives, One life to Lose, The Queer and the Restless. As I said, I haven't read these, but only two of them, including the one I'm reviewing, are about female relationships if we're to judge a book by its cover (which I normally don't!). Jaq and not Jill, but Hannah, meet at a wedding and immediately get the hots for each other. Neither is looking for a deep entanglement, but they had no way of knowing where this would lead.

The fact is that they click immediately, but since Hannah is going through a divorce - and not a pretty one - the prospects for this interaction don't look too rosy. The story follows them as they navigate a slightly thorny path through the relationship, through the well-meaning intentions of close friends, and through issues which try to steal time from the relationship even though they are not a part of it: such as Jaq's teaching duties and high-school relationship issues, and Hannah and her ex's fight over selling their house.

There was a bit of a Nora Ephron vibe to this, but this isn't your parent's Nora Ephron as the next paragraph will confirm. It did have that upbeat, liberal, well-to-do aura about it, though: people who were well-off enough to not have a worry about where the next penny would come from. As I said, I've not read any other of the stories, so I can't say if they are all like this. I hope not, because it would be nice to find a story in this series about a less well-off couple, or one which doesn't have such an easy trajectory to follow. Maybe that's just me!

Issues? I mentioned them so let's look at one more (the first was the improbability that all of this was going on in such a small LGBTQ community). I was not happy with the fact that these two fell into bed after knowing each other for an hour and proceeded to have unprotected sex. Yes, reality isn't quite such a turn-on I know, but I would have expected that both of these people would have been more grown-up and responsible, and a bit more cautious than they were. They are not teenagers, after all. The problem for me was that they didn't even mention risks, let alone discuss them or take precautions! Yeah, not sexy, and sexy is what this novel aims at - and gets there, be warned. It's very graphic and explicit, and it does not pussy-foot around (so to speak). There is liberal use of four-letter words and depictions of lesbian sex, but I would have preferred a note of caution to be sounded at least, even if it wasn't satisfied.

Having just published my own LGBTQ novel, it was fun to read a different story - a contemporary one which was written so well, and with such good humor and a positive vibe. It was an easy read and a rewarding one. The characters were wonderful, and based on the overall story and the quality of the writing, I recommend this.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sawbones by Melissa Lenhardt


Rating: WARTY!

Errata:
"She came to sit by the bed of a dying man despite her own infirmary." ("infirmity" was needed here. The guy was already in the infirmary!)
"Is so, you give them too much credit." ("If so" was needed here)
"I hear a great many things people do not intend me to her." (intend me to "hear" was needed)

Sawbones is perhaps not surprisingly, a common title. Don't confuse this one with Sawbones by Lawrence BoarerPitchford, which has some similarities, or Sawbones by Catherine Johnson which is a rather different kind of story, but set in a similar period, or with Sawbones by Stuart MacBride, which is a completely different kind of story. Frankly, given the way the main character is treated, and in rather graphic detail, the title for this one perhaps should have been Sabines!

Set in the early 1870's (as near as I can gauge), this tells the story of Catherine Bennett, a prideful and prejudiced medical doctor who had a modest but thriving practice in New York City until she was made (by the victim's wife) the scapegoat in a murder. Fearful that she will not get a fair trial given the wife's powerful connections, she takes a rather cowardly way out and flees to Texas posing as one Laura Elliston, and making her way via Austin to a wagon train heading out to a newly-founded town in Colorado.

She never makes it out of Texas. After a savage attack by Kiowa or Comanche (it's unclear), she finds herself the sole survivor and also in charge of a wounded cavalry officer who came with his men belatedly to the rescue of the wagon train. It's rather sickeningly obvious from this point on that she has her love interest. That was one of my problems with this novel: events are telegraphed so far in advance that it's no surprise what happens to her and therefore no spoiler to give it away.

Another issue was that it's in first person which is the weakest and most irritating voice in which to write a novel, and it's completely unrealistic in this case given what brutality the author forces on this woman at the hands of men. It's simply not credible that she could tell this story the way she does. Initially, it made sense what happened to her, given her gender and the period in which she lived, and I was appreciating that this was a strong woman and looking forward to learning about her, but that rapidly fell apart after she ran away from the crime she never committed. From that point on she became not stronger, but weaker and more stupid, and the sorry plaything of a cavalry Lieutenant, subsuming her entire self to him.

Her protestations of moving on alone in her desire to be a doctor were so vacuous, especially given that you knew they were never going to happen, that I felt I was reading a young adult novel at this point. I'd have actually enjoyed the story if she had gone on alone, but we have to have all of our women validated by a guy in these tales don't we, otherwise how can she be a real woman? Her credentials as a doctor were called into question when she kept rambling on about "...trying to staunch the flow of blood" when she really meant "stanch," which is something that young adult writers of today do not know, but which a doctor would have known back then.

The male interest is Lieutenant Kindle, presumably because you could read him like an open book. He ought to have been named Lieutenant Nook (as in nookie) given his overbearing and single-mindedly physical approach to her. At one juncture, she outright tells him 'No!' (in one form or another) on four separate occasions and still he will not leave her alone. The fact that she was partly drunk and emotionally compromised offered no barrier to this guy whose name, we're told, is William, but which ought to be Dick. He sickened me with his non-stop pressing of himself upon her.

Having saved his life, you'd think this would have made him offer some respect, or show some deference, but instead he seems to have fallen victim to some early form of Stockholm Syndrome and he stalks her until 'she can't refuse him anymore', and has his way with her. The relationship at this point had become so co-dependent that it turned my stomach and I almost quit reading. But they get it on in a library, so I guess this made it okay for him to become a tenant of her Wildfell Hall. When they discuss "Laura's" previous sexcapade, Kindle actually has the hypocrisy to say, "He took advantage of you."! I am not making this up. But "Laura" is a hypocrite too. After repeatedly dissing and dismissing men, she says, “I refuse to believe men do the things they do for no reason other than they can.” Why would she say that when she's made is quite clear that she thinks they're the lowest of the low anyway?

Yes, this is the book "Laura" was reading, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I had to question this. The novel came out in 1848, so it seems highly unlikely that it would have found its way into a library in a remote (and new) Texas fort by 1870 or so. Who knows? Maybe it's possible. This is fiction after all, but I found it even harder to believe that the "reading room" at this remote fort would have been so well-stocked with books that "All available wall space was taken up by floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with books." While the US was quite literate (if you were white) by the 1870's, it beggars belief that a library in a remote fort in The South would be so well stocked, especially so soon after a (not so) civil war.

Purely because of her work on saving Kindle's life, "Laura" is made the acting head physician at Fort Richardson in North Texas, where Nook, er Kindle, is based. This is definitely not where she imagined her life would take her, and especially not into his own house where she lodges upstairs on the pretense that he's more safely out of the way of infection in his own room than he is in the hospital, and she can take care of him. The hell with the rest of the patients! How bizarre is that? What about their risk of infection?

Bizarre is how this novel struck me, time after time. At one point "Laura" visits the bakery in town "...where a fat woman was setting out loaves of warm bread." What? Yes, you read it right. Why was it necessary to describe this woman as fat? Well this was a first person PoV, so we can take this as "Laura's" bigoted attitude to everything and everyone, but all this served to do was to make me dislike her more. Another problem I had was with her blind hatred of American Indians. In a way, it was understandable that she should have some PTSD from her experience, but her hatred was so rife and raised so often, it became quickly obvious that the next thing which would happen would be that she has an interaction directly with the Indians, and that it would not be a pleasant one.

This marked the second point at which I felt I really needed to ditch this novel. It was only, it seemed, the unintentional humor which was what kept me going at this point. For example, "Laura" thinks this of the overly amorous Kindle: "It'll give you the big head." I'm sure what he was doing to her did give him a big head, but I really didn't need to know that! Obviously she didn't mean it that way, but this phrase was just so in the wrong place.

"Laura" simply doesn't seem to understand men. She repeatedly downgrades men to nothing save vain idiots, then she falls for Kindle! What's worse than this though, is that at one point she thinks this of another army officer: " It beggared belief Wallace Strong would prefer an ignorant dreamer like Ruth to a strong, intelligent woman like Alice." Why would she think this given how often we learn of her opinion that the men around her are exactly that shallow? It made no sense for her to have this opinion given everything else she's expressed about men, who were evidently only one step above 'them dad-blamed redskins' to hear her talk and think.

She isn't very smart either. She repeatedly fails to appreciate how precarious her position is even when someone other than Kindle is obviously stalking her. This is another episode of telegraphing exactly what's going on, but it takes "Laura" forever to figure it out. I'm usually bad at this, but even I figured out exactly who this guy was long before she did.

Our doctor isn't above slut-shaming either. Of a prostitute, she thought this: "She would lay with multiple men out of wedlock but she would not swear on the Bible. It always amazed me where people drew their moral line in the sand," and this was from a woman who wanted to be treated like a man, yet who has no problem being subsumed as " Mrs William Kindle" when discussing marriage, and who herself has already had one lover 'out of wedlock' and is about to take another? I simply did not get her character at all. It seemed like the more I read, the further she strayed from the woman she appeared to be when the novel began, and none of this straying was into interesting, engaging, or even pleasant territory.

The oddities kept on coming. At one point Kindle is teaching Laura to shoot, a sadly clichéd way for a writer to get her main male character up close and personal with her main female, but the issue here that I found interesting was the plethora of bottles which were available in the middle of nowhere for her target practice! We're told the soldiers out on this patrol are allowed a tot of whisky each day, so no doubt some bottles came from there, but unless they're getting drunk each night, I doubt there would be crates of bottles for her to shoot up. Maybe they actually were getting drunk each night. This would certainly account for their poor performance during what happened later. It would not account for how you can tie someone to a horse when you "...rode through the night without stopping." Those Indians certainly do have powerful medicine!

At this point I did quit reading. There wasn't much left to read, but to be honest I could not bear the thought of reading any more. I wish the author the best of luck, but I cannot recommend a novel like this one.