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

Friday, November 1, 2019

Choices by Tessa Vidal


Rating: WARTY!

This is volume one in what will evidently be a loosely-connected series called Cherished Choices. It's not a series I will be following after reading about a third of this tired volume.

The story is of Caroline Bullard and Rayna Taylor. Both of them have rather pretentiously changed their names. Caroline, now a Hollywood celebrity goes by Caro Ballad, and Rayna, now a dog trainer for celebrities, goes by Shell Tate. Why either of them changed their name I have no idea and the author doesn't help by offering an explanation in the novel, either. The idiot blurb writer claims that "Down-to-earth Shell refuses to hide who she is or where she came from" - so why the name change? Clearly, and as per frigging usual, the blurb writer never actually read this novel.

Anyway, after one brief fling in a hotel room, paid for by Shell's criminal twin brother as a birthday present while he was off robbing a casino, the two lovers were rent apart and renting apartments in LA, Caro being sent off to Hollywood, where she became an actor, and Shell somehow getting into into dog training. It's a pretty flimsy set up, and for reasons which are touched-on, but hardly really supported in the writing, they neither of them contacted the other even after Caro got out from underneath her mother's 'imprisonment', until Caro ends up somehow with a pound dog - a Chow that I highly suspect Shell's brother has kidnapped for the very purpose of getting these two back together again. But who cares, really?

Naturally she needs a dog trainer and of course it's Shell who gets the gig, and the two of them are instantly into bed the first time they meet - without either of them saying a word about sexual histories. It was right there that I gave this the heave-ho. I know these are supposed to be spicy romances, but sex isn't romance and anyone who jumps into bed on the first meeting without having any idea of what diseases their partner might let loose between the sheets is a moron, period. I don't waste my time reading novels about morons. I'm done with this novel, this series, and this author.


London calling by Claire Lydon


Rating: WARTY!

This was a lesbian romance novel of the genre where more typically, the story is along the lines of a woman finding out her fiancé is a jerk and fleeing back to her tiny home town where of course she meets the love of her life. In a similar vein, this story has Jess discover that Karen is being unfaithful to her and she quits Sydney, Australia to return to London, England for no really good reason other than that the author is probably British. I swore I'd never read one of these, but this one felt different enough (she's fleeing a female, not a male, and going to a large city, not a small village: that makes it different, right?!) that I decided to give it a try and at first I thought it was a good choice, because the story was interesting and amusing, and featured two of my favorite places: Australia and Britain. But over time and despite enjoying the humor, I began to lose interest.

Around a quarter of the way in, Jess did a really low-life kind of thing which made me dislike her. She'd gone to a dinner party given by a close friend who had invited a single lesbian to be a potential blind date for Jess, and the latter really found her very attractive. Her only beef, it would seem, was that this woman, Ange, had a really high-pitched voice and laugh, and it turned Jess off. She knew there would be no future for them, but still she leapt into bed and had unprotected sex with Ange. That felt not only shallow, but dangerous.

Despite the enjoyable sex, in the morning, Jess's negative feelings about Ange's voice reasserted themselves and Ange was not so stupid that she couldn't see that something was seriously off, but Jess never explained what the problem was, so Ange was left feeling like crap, like she'd been used, and beating a hasty retreat. To me though that seemed really shallow of Jess, and a shitty way to treat Ange. I like to project forward when reading and wondering where this will go, and it occurred to me that since Ange is a lawyer, there was justice to be had here! LOL!

I was wondering if the author would have Jess do something wrong and end up in a civil law court, and discover that Ange is the plaintiff's lawyer! Despite having a degree, Jess was working, at least temporarily, at a café, so it would be entirely possible for her to spill hot coffee on a patron and get sued. Strictly speaking, Ange ought to recuse herself in such a case, but it would sure make for an interesting read if the coffee spill happened and she didn't recuse.

Or, Ange could commit suicide, and come back and haunt Jess, but this wasn't a horror story. More realistically, I began to wonder if this was more of a slow, smoldering revenge story. Jess's philandering ex, whom Jess has learned was dumped by her new girlfriend in the same way this woman, Karen, had dumped Jess, sends her an almost laughably contrite email to let her know that she's coming to London (again for no apparent reason), and would like to at least see her as a friend. Meanwhile, Jess has met Lucy and fallen immediately into bed with her. Jess is at high risk of an STD at this point, given her complete lack of concern over her sexual health - and more importantly over the unknown sexual health of her partners, both of whom fell right into bed with her without even one single word of discussion about diseases.

Now I get that this is supposed to be a rom-com (of sorts) and no one wants to read a boring discourse on STD's in such a novel, but the fact is that STD's are rising scarily. Chlamydia constitutes almost fifty percent of new STD diagnoses in England, with genital warts, gonorrhea, and genital herpes not so far behind. The USA - and I imagine every other so-called developed country - is pretty much in the same boat. These diseases are sexist in the sense that they tend to have more impact on women than on men, so I imagine that real-world lesbians, as opposed to fictional ones, have enough concern about this that, unlike Jess, they don't hurtle into bed on the first date with every new partner they get.

All I can say is that I seriously hope the UK lesbian community is not remotely represented by Jess's behavior. It certainly would not have hurt the author to mention this at least in passing as a way of educating the public and offering a nod to realism in her work, but I guess she doesn't give a shit about women's sexual health, as judged from her writing.

It was this poor attitude, and Jess's appalling behavior which began to turn me off this novel, and this wasn't improved by continued reading. By two-thirds the way through, when Karen reared her ugly head, and Jess went into conniptions about her impending visit, I began to dislike her even more. I knew this novel was heading for the inevitable train-wreck of sorts, before Jess and Lucy finally get it together for their happy ending, but I seriously started losing interest in reading any more about someone like Jess who frequently comes across as not too smart and worse, rather selfish and uncaring (she always makes sure she gets off before her partner, for example, and seems mostly unconcerned whether her partner even gets off at all).

Plus the novel was so diffuse. There was endless fluff included that really contributed nothing to the story and which could have been trimmed or ditched without the story losing anything. As it was, it frequently stalled and lost momentum and that was as annoying as it was dispiriting. When finally Jess and Ange meet up at a shamefully drunken hen party and Ange is commendably conciliatory, Jess still can't even bring herself to say a simple "I'm sorry!" and that was the final straw for me. What a lowlife she truly is. I ditched her then, as should Lucy, Ange, and anyone else Jess looks at with that spark of selfish lust in her eye, lest they come down with some horrible disease - and by disease, I don't mean jess herself.

Based on the two-thirds or so that I read of this I cannot commend it as a worthy read.


Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev


Rating: WORTHY!

The publisher won't tell you this, but this is book one of the "Théâtre Illuminata" trilogy. Once again, not a word on the cover about this being part of a series. That's a huge black mark against it, as well as a testament to Big Publishing™ dishonesty, but I've had this on my print book shelf for several years, still at that point in ignorance of it being the prologue to a trilogy! I decided to give it a try anyway. In the end I wasn't disappointed, but neither was I pointed enough to want to read any more. I'm very much anti-trilogy or any other -ogy, especially anti- the unending 'series'. It has to be something truly special before I will embark on another series. This one volume, however, I'm willing to commend despite some issues with it.

It seemed obvious after getting about fifty percent into this book that it wasn't going to end after one volume, but by that point I'd decided I liked it enough to read it to the end, although about two-thirds the way through I started having doubts. It came back strongly enough from the lull to carry me to the end, but it was precisely this sort of thing that put me off wanting to read more, especially since the ending was a bit flat and a lot cliffhanger. I do not approve of that. If the author can't make the story grip you through one volume, what chance has she when piling the soul-sapping weight of another two on top of it?

The story is about Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, and that 'Shakespeare' portion of her name is important because although she lives in a magical theater which is literally home to real characters who exist in plays in a tome that the theater guards, and who manifest themselves in the theater even when a play is not in progress, Mantchev seems to think, as judged from what she writes, that the only works ever produced in a theater are those by Shakespeare.

Realistically, she could hardly steal characters from more modern plays without getting into copyright issues, but there are scores of well-known plays out of copyright, and she could have could have at least mentioned other characters in passing without anyone suing her, yet all we get is Shakespeare, a mention of The Little Mermaid and from that, some vague love interest named Nate who seemed to think that "Bertie" needed manhandling now and then. The fact that he disappeared at one point in the story and never reappeared when others who had also disappeared returned, told me that this was never going to be resolved in one volume. Barf. So here's another author who's sold out to the YA publishing world's demand that if you don't have a series, or at least a trilogy then you're fucking useless.

But I digress! This tunnel vision on the author's part with regard to 'what's a play' has imposed a severe limitation on the novel, and while I must grant that the author did well, even confined solely to Shakespeare, this confinement meant she lost a huge opportunity to have interesting and amusing interactions in this world she created. So, while parts of it were highly amusing, particularly her banter with the four fairies from A Midsummer's Night Dream: Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed, and Peaseblossom, who seemed to like to hang with Bertie because of the chaos and mischief she caused, there were also parts that were tedious to read, and an often insufferable Ariel (from The Tempest), who was the penis leg of the inevitable YA lust tripod that all these YA stories are inevitably cursed with.

Bertie was, she's been told, left at the theater as a baby by her mother, yet she never really questions why her mother left her there as opposed to say, a convent or an orphanage. Instead she makes up stories - performed as plays, in which she watches various random characters act out her origin story. But Bertie's days are numbered precisely because of her ill-behavior, and at seventeen, she's given an ultimatum: prove herself invaluable to the theater, or leave. For reasons which escape me, she decides that if she can put on a production of Hamlet set in ancient Egypt this will make her case! She sets out to organize the performance, but first has to deal with Ariel's mischief in setting loose the entire cast of every play by ripping out the pages of the magical play-book. The only page he can't rip out is his own.

The characters are recovered, of course, and nary a word is spoken about this imprisonment, so issues there, but that aside, the story was interesting enough and amusing often enough that I was able to stay with it. So I commend this as a worthy read, but like I said, I have no stomach for pursing Bertie in any further adventures. She's not that interesting of a character. If the next volume had been about Cob, Moth, Mus, and Pease, I might have changed my mind!


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë


Rating: WARTY!

In this novel there's trouble at t' mill. Robert, the mill owner is forced to lay-off some employees, and there are threats against him. Meanwhile, little orphan Caroline comes to live with her uncle the Reverend Helstone - if you can believe that. Sounds like a cuss word. She falls for Robert greatly and gets sick when she thinks he's for someone else. She also becomes great friends with a fellow orphan, now wealthy girl about town, Shirley. Note that this was in an era when Shirley was a man's name. I know what you're thinking: Surely, you're Joe King? I jest ye not.

Anyway, Shirley tries to help the laid-off mill workers both out of charity and out of fear for Robert's life. Caroline thus imagines Shirley and Robert ending-up together in a tryst and it's too much for her poor fluttering heart to bear. Thus are the comings and goings which ramble on forever, but of course Caroline weds Robert in the end.

It's really a redux of Jane Eyre, with a few details changed, and nowhere near as entertaining. Robert ain't Rochester. He's more like Gravesend, which is northeast of Rochester, but still in the same county of Kent. I grew utterly bored with Bob the Blunderer in the first twenty percent and ditched it. Caroline is no Jane. I can't commend it based on the tedious portion I mistakenly subjected myself to.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

One of Fred's Girls by Elisabeth Hamilton Friermood


Rating: WORTHY!

This isn't normally the kind of book I read, leaning toward the old west and romance, but it was told in such a sweet and realistic way that I was able to overlook my reservations and enjoy it as a story about life in the old west rather than as a romance. The author puts to shame so many other YA writers who think people fall in love instantly ('instadore' as I call it). She even has a love triangle - after a fashion - going on here without making it farcical and ridiculous. YA authors could learn a lot about how to write realistic romance from reading this, and some of them sorely need an education if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem.

Another draw for me was that Fred Harvey's girls were a really thing. I have a distaste for novels that are titled after the fashion 'The ______'s Daughter' or 'The ______'s Wife', labeling these women like this one does, as though they're a possession of Fred Harvey. It's an annoyance, but this is how they were known back then. Harvey really did have a chain of restaurants tied to the railroad network, where he (or rather the girls he hired) served fine food quickly; it was not the same as the larded, calorie-laden, obesity-driving fast food we eat today! These restaurants had a good, solid reputation, and the girls were highly trained and had standards imbued into them, so they were considered a 'catch' by the men who encountered them. Consequently, many of them got married and made good matches, but there was a penalty for those who quit their job before the year's contract was up: they had half their year's wages docked.

This story is about a fictional girl named Bonny who is looking for a better life and when she sees Harvey's ad in a newspaper looking for girls to go out west and work in the restaurants she sees it as a chance to earn money to buy her mother a new porch for the farmhouse, so off she goes. She travels alone initially, and we have the trope of her running into someone famous - Horatio Alger in this case - which seemed a bit much to me. This was a more civilized time and traveling alone not so bad, if a little scary for her, but after she pairs up with another girl heading for the same life she has chosen, things look up. At first she feels a bit lost and homesick at eh new restaurant, especially since it's so new it hasn't even been built yet. Food is served in some converted railroad cars, but soon she's working the job without a second thought, and meeting men.

Will is the railroad telegraph operator, but soon he moves up to become a representative of Fred Harvey's with regard to a new trade that he and Bonny helped originate: selling Indian crafts and wares at the restaurants, which turns into a profitable sideline. It's so successful that Will is soon coopted into setting-up an Indian camp at the upcoming Chicago world's fair, but when measles strikes the Indian village, Bonny's other acquaintance, a doctor named Joshua, comes to the fore. Bonny doesn't feel especially drawn to either of these men, although Will seems to occupy her thoughts more and more since she's become such good friends with him and he's a real gentleman.

Seeing her two closest friends happily marry two very different guys - one a wealthy rancher and the other a poor, down-to-Earth gold prospector yet to strike anything, Bonny is stuck wondering if she's expecting too much in waiting for her idealized man to put in an appearance, and whether she ought to take Joshua or Will more seriously or at least quit giving either the inadvertent impression that she might be seriously interested in them.

I really enjoyed this novel despite it being a bit out of my usual fare, and I commend it as a worthy read.



Saturday, February 9, 2019

A Love Haunting by Suzi Albracht


Rating: WARTY!

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

I thought this might make for an interesting read, but I could not get into it at all. The haunting husband came off to me as a very selfish person, stalking his wife for his own needs and not expending an ounce of thought for her, and the writing style felt juvenile to me, like the kind of thing I would have written in my teens. It did not appeal to me at all.

The story is of Jordan, who is in a deadly car accident with his wife Emily, who was pregnant. Jordan is a doctor. Emily was planning on being a nurse. Jordan discovers he is still 'alive' after the accident and he doesn't present as being too smart at this point because it takes him forever to discover he's a ghost. From that point on, the story goes downhill. Everyone and their uncle can apparently see ghosts in this world, yet it takes an age before Jordan himself actually sees another ghost. When Luke comes along, he's unbearable. At least he was for me.

Luke is a skateboarder and his language simply nauseated me. Here's how Luke addresses Jordan when the two have barely met: "Jords, my man, the world is our oyster." No! Just no. That was when I quit reading this because I simply could not bear the thought of reading another word of Luke's dialog at all. Luke reminded me of that idiot guy Harry Ellis in the movie Die Hard who snorts coke and tries to negotiate with the terrorists - and is summarily shot by Hans Gruber. I was simultaneously wondering if this is how Luke met his end and begging for Gruber's ghost to show up and shoot Luke. He was obnoxious.

I'd been turned off the story prior to that though. Authors routinely dis nurses in stories where hospitals are featured as part of the story because it's all about the doctor, isn't it? As it happens, this appears to be the very theme of this story: Jordan's needs. So this novel went down that sewer when I read this grotesque insult: "I wanted to convince Allie to shoot bigger and become a doctor." Yes! The take-home message here is that nurses are substandard and contribute nothing compared with the doctor gods! Barf.

So I am sorry. I started out hoping for the best, but was more and more turned off by the story the further I read, and in the end I DNF'd it. I can't commend it as a worthy read based on my experience.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers by Sara Ackerman


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment which looked superficially good but which turned out to be just another idiot romance in the telling. It’s been only a short while, but the novel is already a vague memory to me. So this woman on Hawaii at the outbreak of WW2, which for the US began on December 7th, two years after everyone else signed up!

This woman whose name I happily have forgot, is supposedly widowed - her husband was at the dock, blood was found, but no body - which typically means he’s still alive, is evidently not that caring about him because she easily falls for a smooth-talking soldier who is stationed on the island and becomes way too familiar with her way too fast. That’s when I ditched this as a waste of my time. I'm guessing the husband is alive and having an affair with some other woman, which gives the main character the freedom to carry on with the soldier. There are better-written and even badly-written yet still more entertaining stories out there which I’m not going to get to if I waste more time than is necessary on one’s like this. Based on about a third of this that I could stand to listen to, I can’t commend it.


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.