Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Do we need six-hours on Hemingway?

I can think of dozens of other authors I'd rather see featured in a long-form documentary series, but maybe I'll be surprised by Hemingway from Burns and Novick.

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is 'Top 10 Books I'd Glad Throw Into the Ocean'; my list would just be hateful ones that used concern trolling to hurt trans*/nonbinary/gender expressive kids and other terrible books that don't deserve to be named. BUT I could be persuaded to smudge this topic a bit to say, Top 10 Authors I Don't Think Need A Six-Hour Documentary Feature.

 Do you plan to watch this? Who would you rather get a six-hour documentary feature?

Monday, April 5, 2021

Book Review: Near the Bone by Christina Henry

The creature roared again, and the person outside was screaming, screaming long horrible cries of pain that seemed to push inside her ears and press against her eyeballs and stop up her throat.

I think because I found Henry's Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook so brilliant and new, I had high expectations for whatever of hers I'd read next; and it turned out to be this book, which is a very fine horror thriller but nothing exceptional or stand out.

Near the Bone by Christina Henry
Berkley, 2021
Digital review copy

It's a creature feature, only there are two monsters: the one in the woods mutilating things and the one Mattie's married to who hurts her relentlessly. Very quickly, Mattie has to decide which monster she fears more, especially when surviving one monster exposes her to the other.

The book is a quick read, and has a very cinematic feel; it hews closely to the standard horror movie formula so well that I could anticipate the next beat. But the quick clip means there's not enough space to breathe into the story, so to speak, so while we get great insight into Mattie and her marriage, everything else is just landscape or tension. The insight, depth, and emotional horror that Henry evoked in Lost Boy is just missing here. It's entertaining and diverting, but on closing the book I felt like I missing half the story somehow.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Book Review: You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson

"I'd love to go to prom with you, Liz. We deserve good things too. No matter how we have to get them."

Never in ten thousand million years would I say a book about becoming high school prom queen would not only reduce me to a blubbering-yet-feel-good-mess, it would also likely be on my top ten reads of 2021, but ha! jokes on me because this book has done both.

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
Scholastic Press, 2020
Copy via my public library
Read Harder 2021 Task 17: Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain

I do not even know where to start in my squeeing.

I picked up this book for Read Harder 2021 Task 17: "Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain" but stayed because it was SO CUTE, so compelling, so bittersweet, so perfect.

Our narrator Liz Lighty is just ... omg, adore her. Her voice is so genuine, consistent, real, compelling, and human. She felt like a person on the cusp of (college-aged) adulthood, someone who had to grow up fast and has all the skills and scars that come with that. Liz's desire to become prom queen starts because of the scholarship it comes with, but as she begins the process of drawing attention toward herself, navigating that very painful and complicated journey of adolescent social interactions, and trusting that she deserves every happiness presented to her, the prize at the end of all this represents something else entirely. I have never been so emotionally invested in any prom, and it's all because of Johnson's writing.

The romance in this book is sweet and cute and bumpy -- I'm #TeamMighty forever -- but I just uh-dored Liz and Jordan's friendship. I have struggled with male friends growing up due to the way people treat male- and female-identified persons in high school being friends -- as in there can only be romantic and/or sexual desire at the root of it -- and seeing how Liz and Jordan rekindled their friendship was escapist and cathartic. I wept for the male-identified friends I lost in high school -- I'm still missing them! -- as I celebrated what Liz and Jordan cemented.

I started this actually via the audiobook, read by Alaska Jackson, and it was wonderful -- Jackson makes a fantabulous Liz. I only quit the audiobook to stay up all night to race to the end and I feared listening would prompt me to fall asleep in a way that holding the book and reading wouldn't.

So either way you want to consume it, this book is worth your time.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Book Review: Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins

"Not happy with this falling-in-love thing. It hurts. Any idea how to make it stop or to stop thinking about him?"

I have so many things to say, but don't know how to be coherent. But this book gave me so many feels:

1) The cover. The. Cover!!! I love that Spring is wearing trousers on the cover, which is so in character for her. And while I would have loved to see her in the burgundy gown from the end of the book, this is so perfect.

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins
Avon, 2021
Digital review copy from NetGalley

2) Our heroine Spring. I love the spiky-falls-for-lovable trope, and I esp appreciate it when it's grumpy gal and gentle guy. Spring has such a tragic backstory and it makes her spikiness completely understandable. Garrett's un-aggressive manner of being with her is the exact thing she needs.

3) Our hero Garrett. Even though he's a total marshmallow, he's not spineless or anything. He's handy and ethical, quiet and thoughtful, strong without any toxicity which he could understandably have. His own history, including his family background, was so ... another emotional gut punch after Spring's story.

4) The combo of Spring and Garrett. Spring is quiet, inwardly focused, not much for socialising. Garrett is in town doing interview for a newspaper, and he's a curious person. Their navigating each other -- giving when they can, stumbling when they can't -- was so cute.

5) The confession of love! Made me screech out loud with surprise and delight. It was totally unexpected but wholly in character and *chef's kiss*.

6) This could have easily turned into one of those James Michener-like multi-generational sagas because of the richness of the setting, era, characters. I'm excited to go backwards and read the books for the previous characters, and I desperately, desperately hope that Garrett's sister Melody has her own book soon.

7) CHILD FREE HEA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!4EVA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was sooo disappointed when pregnancy showed up in The Rakess because, I don't know, I want more romance novel heroines to reject the 2.5 and picket fence and all that. I loved that Spring was firm about it and it wasn't a 'for now' kind of thing -- it was 'no discussion' boundary and it didn't dissolve once she was in love. YES.

8) This was my first Western romance in addition to being my first Beverly Jenkins read. I loved reading a historical centered on Black people and other people of color. I read this book while listening to the new podcast Black Cowboys, and it's fascinating to learn the myths and stories of the American West from a non-white point of view. For Spring and Garrett, this translated into an additional challenge/tension throughout the entire story that was impossible for me to ignore. Their tender moments felt all the more vulnerable and special for happening within a world that didn't value them (even though their community of Paradise was mostly loyal and protective of them).

Friday, March 12, 2021

Weekend reads, or maple sugar life

 My wife has been doing 16+ hour days at the sugar shack, so we've joined here when we can. It's gone from freezing and snowy to muddy and 60s in the last week or so. I haven't done any reading really; but it's been nice to spend cozy time with the family at the sugar shack (even though the novelty does wear off after the first hour!). I'm hoping to get to return to my reading from last week!

What are you reading this weekend?

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Top 10 Tuesday, March 9: Spring Cleaning - Non-Fiction I Own

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together. Today's theme:  Spring Cleaning Freebie!

I've decided to interpret this as going through my bookshelf to pull out the non-fiction I own that I plan to read.

Top 10 Non-Fiction Books I Own That I Plan to Read *

* It seems I only pulled out 9 books. Oops!

9) Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual Practice
8) Fran Hauser, The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate
7)  Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist
6)  Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

5) Crystal Marie Fleming, How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide

4) Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock

3) Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Women's History of the United States 

2) Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race

1) John Buehrens, Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice

Friday, March 5, 2021

Weekend reads, or plant-related heartbreak

My original post was all sweet about how much I'm enjoying Beverly Jenkins' newest romance, Wild Rain.

And then I discovered my cat has been using my seedling tray as her bed and I lost my ability to think.

I'm going to need this romance novel more than ever. (Which is wonderful. I don't read many Westerns and maybe have never read a Western romance, but I am loving our genuinely fierce heroine and her dreamy love interest.)

What are you reading this weekend?

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Top 10 Tuesday, March 2: Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together. Today's theme: Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had.

Top Ten Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had

10)  John Rodríguez (aka "Control") from Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy): A different me would have to have this job because the shit going on in Area X is too petrifying for current me to handle. But it would be so interesting! Even though I'm a total wimp, I love weird conspiracy X-Files-y type ambiance (in fiction, not real life!) so I imagine there's a fictional me that would enjoy (or "enjoy") working at Southern Reach. All three of the books in this trilogy are gorgeous, and REALLY weird, and very creepy, and worth reading.

9) Millie from Mishell Baker's Arcadia Project trilogy): This is another one where I wouldn't want to be Millie, but I wouldn't mind a job at the Arcadia Project, which is kind of an agency that manages Earth / Faery Realm relationships and all that. Not that Baker's fairy realm is all fluff and fancy; it's deliciously, terrifyingly dark, and I'd like to be someone who could succeed there.

8) Kivrin from Connie Willis' Doomsday Book: In this book, academics do their research via time travel (the book is set in the 21st century) but medievalists like Kivrin aren't really allowed to travel to that era because of the dangers. Imagine how fascinating it would be to do on-location research in various historical eras? (Obviously, lots of ethical questions about academic 'observation' and judgment and all that, which I supposed I'd be wrestling with if I were a time-travelling academic?!). If you haven't read this wonderful book, add it to your TBR because it's also a pandemic thriller on top of fascinating historical novel and sci fi think piece.

7) Philippa from Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede: This book caused me to research becoming a nun and for a few weeks, I did some daydreaming about it. (Then I remembered all the problems I have with the Catholic Church and the ways I don't think convent life does much for the world.) Demi Moore's daughter is named for Godden, and this book launched my deep dive into Godden's backlist (which really varies from quality to trash). But this book reminded me of how I sometimes dream of a monastic kind of life (hello, Hildegard von Bingen...!).

6) Ginger from Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers: First, our heroine here is an heiress, and I have to confess I'm shocked I don't have more heiresses on this list as I'm confident I would make an uh-mah-zing lady of leisure. Second, this is a historical fantasy in which Spiritualism is real and Ginger is a medium whose job it is to debrief soldiers killed on the front. It's a tender, terrifying job but one I'm kind of obsessed with.

5) Nix from Heidi Heilig's The Girl From Everywhere: More time travel! On a ship, too, and with a fascinating crew (save for Nix's terrible father). Heilig's novel is gorgeous and intense and beautifully imagined, and while I don't want Nix's precise journey (pretty much all my responses here are couched in caveats, oops!), I wouldn't mind being able to travel through time by way of historical maps...

4) Claudia from Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger: Claudia is a war correspondent and amateur archaeologist, and those were both pretty much my dream jobs when I was a kid. Add to that the romance of a World War II romance and all that, and yeah, this hits all my Martha Gellhorn-fangirl dreams.

3) Bathsheba Everdene from Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd: My wife would be rolling her eyes so hard right now but whatever, she's not the boss of me. In all actuality, being a farmer is really, really, really hard work so I am being quite precious for including this job on the list, but whatever, Hardy sold me on Bathsheba and her life (in the drama of it all and what not). Bonus if I get to look like Carey Mulligan as I do so.

2) Pauline from Tessa Dare's Any Duchess Will Do: I was telling my wife how surprised I was that more romance novel heroines weren't appearing on this list, and we easily imagined a half dozen I wouldn't mind being. But Pauline really rose to the top for a variety of reasons, mostly that she owns a bookshop, lives in Spindle Cove with some amazing friends, and has a pretty dreamy spouse (terrible past aside that we'll handwave away). 

1) Patricia from Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky: God, this book wrecked me. It's the story of a witch and a scientist, once childhood friends, pitted against each other as adults as they attempt to save the world. You know, ordinary challenges. So flippin' good. Patricia is the witch, and Anders' world-building here had me so desperate to attend Patricia's witch school. (It appears being a witch might be the thing I want to be the most, followed by heiress...) But this isn't a light or comedic story about nature versus science, and it's that deep emotional core that has kept this book with me. Patricia's ability to work right and wrong in a just and fair manner is Goals.

Okay, so there are my 10 -- any characters whose job you wish you had?

Friday, February 26, 2021

Weekend reads, or sugaring season is upon us!

It's finally gotten warm (or "warm") -- above freezing during the day! In our house, this means it's sugaring season! 

My wife started the pan this week to begin boiling sap into syrup. The kids love sugaring season for a variety of reasons: the sugar shack is always warm and steamy and smells good; there are mugs of warm sap to drink (at various levels of sweetness, depending on how much water has been boiled off); everyone stays up late waiting for the pan to finish; and usually, there's a crowd of visitors and friends hanging out in the warm, steamy, sweet-smelling shack (less so this year with the pandemic). 

I'm alternating between romance novels and other genres these days; while I haven't started another romance yet, I've just begun Riku Onda's The Aosawa Murders and I'm loving it. I picked it up as it works for a task for both of my reading challenges and I guiltily hope there's a ton of boiling this weekend so I can have a long stretch of alone time to finish it!

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book Review: The Worst Duke in the World by Lisa Berne

Now that Anthony was in closer proximity to her, his brain not only failed to return to its usual state of semi-coherence, his body had yet to cool to its normal temperature. He was burning up inside himself, he was more than a little agitated, his mouth had suddenly gone dry, and altogether he felt, in fact, as if he'd come down with the influenza which two years ago had felled Wakefield, but in an extremely nice way.

This was a very adorable PG-13 historical romance. My first time reading Berne, I snagged this digital review copy via NetGalley, unaware it was the 5th in a series. However, reading it cold wasn't an issue as the main characters seem to have little connection to characters from earlier books.

The Worst Duke in the World by Lisa Berne
Avon, 2021
Digital review copy via NetGalley

Our hero Anthony is a widower who suffered an unhappy marriage that resulted in a beloved, precocious child, Wakefield. Our heroine Jane is the illegitimate great-granddaughter of a Penhallow ancestor, warmly welcomed by her family. Anthony wants to focus on his estate while his widowed sister is determined he make another marriage -- and not to Jane.

Berne's writing style had me laughing out loud more than once, as it's a little fussy in a wonderfully fun way. Anthony's point of view -- and his child Wakefield -- were both delightful, and Jane was a bland but fine love interest. Their conflict was pretty low stakes, all things considered, and they both knew they were into each other and the story was just waiting out the rest of their families. Honestly, it was kind of what I needed right now. And I enjoyed it enough that I'm going to seek out Berne's backlist for when I need fluffy low-stakes reads for the future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Book Review: Madame President by Helene Cooper

This book exemplifies why I love my reading challenges; I wouldn't have picked this up without the impetus of my reading challenges and it's launched my deep dive into contemporary Liberia.

I am ashamed to admit I was unfamiliar with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf before searching out books for this challenge; and as I started reading, I realized I knew nothing about Liberia aside from some vague tidbits I recalled from popular culture.  (For a great, evenhanded intro into Sirleaf, this video is really helpful.)

Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper
Simon Schuster, 2017
Copy from public library
Read Harder 2021 and Reading Women 2021 Challenges

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Liberia's first female president as well as the first female president in Africa. When elected president in 2006, she inherited a country traumatized from decades of war and violent human rights abuses; a country whose infrastructure and economy was so destroyed that 80% of Liberia's residents were under the international poverty level. And like so many other countries, Liberia had a history of classism and bias, with an upperclass population of families descended from freed American slaves and an underclass of Liberian indigenous groups. 

The work needed to transform Liberia beggars belief and and in her twelve years as president, Sirleaf managed the impossible.

(There's a hilarious/heartbreaking anecdote about Sirleaf, newly elected, calling on a pay-as-you-go phone to then US President George W Bush to accept congratulations, when her phone drops the call. Her calling card had run out of minutes, so her staff frantically drive to a roadside market stand to buy all the calling cards, and staff frantically scratch off the codes so Sirleaf can finish speaking to Bush.)

However, Sirleaf's legacy is complicated, and as stated in a 2019 Al Jazeera English interview, she might be better admired internationally than in Liberia. This biography, however, doesn't dig into that, and it's the only reason this isn't a five star read for me.

Author Helene Cooper is a Liberian herself but opted to focus on US politics in her journalism rather than Liberia and West Africa. Still, her cultural connection to Liberia created a warmth in this biography that I appreciated; it wasn't the gaze of an outsider. However, it felt to me that connection also impacted the way she wrote about Sirleaf -- the book had touches of being an 'authorized' biography (although Cooper says she wouldn't let Sirleaf read any of the draft). There's a lack of critical analysis of Sirleaf that I've come across in other summaries of Sirleaf's life and presidency.

An interesting reader moment happened for me during the sections around Liberian responses to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As this book was published in 2017, Cooper's section justifying why Liberians violated quarantine protocols during the Ebola outbreak reads so differently in 2021 than it probably did in 2018. As I read now, after a year of watching people protest over wearing masks, closing public areas, and suggesting social distancing, it wasn't surprising to me that some Liberians rushed to care for their sick family members or why some were in denial about the seriousness of the outbreak. 

I'm counting this read for both Read Harder Task 18: Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader and Reading Women Task 17: a book about a Woman in Politics.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Book Review: Crazy Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

"Hitting you was unforgivable."

"It doesn't have to be."


That's our hero telling his mother that maybe she can forgive her boyfriend who has spent decades engaging in verbal and emotional abuse toward our hero and then mere pages before the novel's end, PUNCHES our hero for backtalk. 

That pretty much sealed my dislike of this book, which already was hovering around a C- or so.

Book Review: Crazy Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams
Berkley, 2020
Copy via public library
Read Harder 2021 Reading Challenge: Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die

I honestly don't even know where to start in terms of reviewing this book. Overall, I found the writing to be meh: the characterization is wicked thin and the plot emotionally draining with terrible morals (aka forgive everyone no matter what terribly shitty thing they do). 

I'm also genuinely shocked at all the positive reviews because this book has such a toxic message at the heart of the story and harmful interpersonal life decisions (for a book that wants to be all feminist-y and all that). I was prepared for so-so read given that Smart Bitches gave the first book in this series a C; and generally, this was a C or so level read for me. But my rating dropped to the floor as it became clear that there would be nothing nuanced or interesting about the forgiveness theme that was starting to be hammered home.

So, the gist of these books is that a bunch of cishet men use romance novels to guide their relationships with women, which is SUCH a cute idea. But in this book, the romance novel is a secret baby trope, which the guys say is all about forgiveness (as we learn in the one page where the guys have book club -- disappointed book club was such a tiny part of this book!). That translates into a hero and heroine who forgive people for a variety of transgressions that range from worthy of forgiveness (misunderstandings) to unforgivable (emotional, verbal, physical abuse).

Overall the characterization was thin -- perhaps because this is the third book in the series -- and it was impossible to understand why either Alexis, our heroine, or Noah, our hero, were into each other. We're told over and over how much they love each other as friends, and how important they are to each other, but there's not much demonstration of it, nor is there any sexual attraction simmering on the pages. When they finally have sex, I just skipped them because I was not invested. The shorthand for both Alexis and Noah are their careers, which feature about three pages total in terms of relevance to the story -- until one conflict between the lovers which hinges on Noah's professional life. (Noah is the one person exempt from forgiveness as Alexis is constantly dumping and ignoring him for things that are, overall, pretty mild and understandable.)

There's a massive cast of secondary characters who get tons of peanut gallery time, and I suspect longtime fans probably find it charming but as someone new to the franchise, they were just irritating. I love me some heroes who eschew toxic masculinity but it's super performative here.

And the plot was exhausting, with one of those blood-trumps-all plot lines I really hate. (And in this case, it's literal, as Alexis is a genetic match with an unknown family member who needs an organ transplant.) Decades of dysfunction and weeks of shitty assed behavior are handwaved away for forgiveness.

Anyway, I read this because it was a hot romance release in 2020 and it seemed like it would work for a Read Harder 2021 Task 24: Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die. Having finished, I'd say it's a real stretch to count this book toward that task, but there you go.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Book Review: Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir by Padma Lakshmi

I am not fond of memoirs. With novels, when characters behave in a way that makes me bananas, there's at least some reason for it: some artistic flourish, or some plotty setup, or even philosophical what-is-art-and-who-am-I musings. With memoirs, there's no guarantee of payoff at the end, and the inexplicable things people do isn't tempered by, say, my genuine love for them (in the event of best friends who do things I wouldn't do) or the dictates of society that prevent me from demanding "What were you thinking?" when eavesdropping on strangers.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir by Padma Lakshmi
HarperAudio, 2016

Digital audiobook via my public library
Read Harder 2021: Read a food memoir by an author of color

I read this for this year's Read Harder challenge -- a food memoir by an author of color -- and I was torn between this and Tembi Locke's From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. (I'm still going to read Locke's book since I've lived in Sicily but Lakshmi's book was available as an audiobook at the moment I needed something to listen to while I was knitting.)

I am a fan of Lakshmi from Top Chef and briefly noted some of the gossip following her divorce from Salman Rushdie. However, I wasn't otherwise familiar with her career nor her deep connection with food, and her memoir is a delightful mix of life event, beautifully drawn reflection, and musings on food, memory, and identity. In fact, very little of the book covers Top Chef, and certainly there's no behind-the-scenes gossip or tattling. I thought I would be disappointed, but what Lakshmi serves instead is far more delicious.

In a non-linear manner, Lakshmi explores her identity as an Indian-American woman, a model who loves food, a devoted reader yearning to exercise her mind more. She opens with her meeting and marriage to Salman Rushdie, then dips back into her childhood. Asides bloom into episodes of luminous musings before returning to the more mundane '...and then this happened...' narrative.

Lakshmi reads her book, which makes the experience feel all the more intimate. It's also what made the interpersonal stuff she shares seem more intense. Listening was like being with a friend, updating you on their life, and I couldn't help but have some knee jerk feelings about the decisions she was making and the company she was keeping! (Seriously -- the Teddy Forstmann anecdotes she shared were not charming at all! Despite claiming he was great with boundaries, she literally talks about how he'd call and demand she'd leave meetings to talk to him; and when she didn't, he'd call her friends and pull them from meetings so she'd call him. And don't get me started about Adam Dell! I guess I'm glad she's reconciled with the man who is the father of her daughter, but damn, he pulled some seriously awful shit! See -- this is why I can't do memoir!)

Still, Lakshmi managed to beautifully knit together a life still happening into a narrative that felt compelling and interesting. Her thoughtful introspection and almost awe-struck pleasure in food was palpable and has considering how food and identity intersect in my life.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Weekend reads, or surviving a weekend with a windchill of negative numbers

The last week of January might be my least favorite week in New England. Today is blindingly sunny and bitterly cold (current real feel of -11). 

So I'm comforting myself with pouring over my seeds and plotting my sprouting schedule, and cuddling with two good reads: Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad and The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George.

What are you planning this weekend? Any good reads on your horizon?

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book Review: Waiting for a Scot Like You by Eva Leigh

Widowhood is by far the preferable state," she continued with a rueful smile. "For women, in any regard. It is the most freedom we are permitted."

Last year, My Fake Rake, the first book in Eva Leigh's The Union of the Rakes trilogy, made my top reads of 2020. I've been on tenterhooks for this one, the final in the series, and it did not disappoint.

Waiting for a Scot Like You by Eva Leigh
Avon, 2012
Digital review copy via Netgalley

All three of Leigh's novels are loosely inspired by films from the 1980s; this one very clearly of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (right down to our heroine Lady Farris). 

(Brief aside to confess that the '80s homage in all three books really irked me until I reminded myself that it's the same as all the Pride and Prejudice-inspired novels I so enjoy. Put that way, I was less annoyed by some of the inserted-only-for-genre-and-not-really-for-plot elements that I found jarring in this book.)

Major Duncan McCameron, a grumpy Scottish veteran who has appeared in both books one and two, is our romantic lead in this one, and damn, he's just delicious. Military life suited him but in peacetime, he's at a loss. He just wants something to be committed to, but his fiancee threw him over and his friends are all settling down to wedded bliss. Lady Beatrice Farris is a widow and mother of three who is determined to take pleasure when life offers it. This means that at the novel's open, she's on her way to an orgy.

Yep, an orgy.

Duncan agrees to escort Lady Farris on her journey -- not knowing the destination -- and both are grumpy at the prospect. Duncan sees the lady as too frivolous and wild; Farris sees the major as too unyielding and humorless. Obviously, they're going to be marvelous together.

Enemies-to-lovers is a favorite trope of mine, as is forced proximity -- in this case, the long journey from London to the far off estate where this orgy is to occur. In the duration of this trip, many things happen that force Duncan and Beatrice to see how badly they've misjudged each other and how brilliant they are at sex together.

I think I'm just at the cusp of people around my age to not be nostalgic or sentimental for the '80s and so I was less invested in those nods through the story (like the Footloose interlude that didn't seem to add anything to the plot or character development). Still, this was a fun, fluffy novel that provided a very welcome diversion to the start of my year.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Book Review: In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce

This is how curses are made: someone does something to another, and traps that person in a web with threads so fine they can hardly be seen. There is no escaping that web.

I have to walk carefully in the stacks when I'm looking to be scared: I love gothic creepiness and I adore a good ghost story but I can't really tolerate gore or anything that is too realistic. True crime is way too much for me.

In this historical novel imagining the life of 19th century serial killer Belle Gunness, Camilla Bruce manages to make a liar out of me.

In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce
Berkley, 2012
Digital review copy via NetGalley

The key to this novel's almost shameful deliciousness is in Bruce's careful humanizing of Belle Gunness. Born Brynhild in a rural village in Norway, her life is marked by violence, lack of care, and cruelty. One atrocious act causes Brynhild to wrest revenge, and for a moment, I was almost with her.

But as Brynhild becomes Belle, and then Bella, things grow increasingly more grotesque, more suspicious, more terrifying, and it becomes impossible not to see just how terrible this monster is.

The novel alternates between Belle's point of view and that of Nellie, her older sister, and we walk the line between appreciating just how this monster came to be before being reminded of just how very wrong it is to sympathise with the monster. For me, that was the most masterful part of this novel: Bruce manages to make Belle feel realistic while also alien, and we're present for the horror without forgetting the actual victims. Everything is horrifying, but it isn't gross or gruesome. Belle's un-empathetic hunger is what gave me goosebumps while reading.

In the wonderful author's note at the end, Bruce discusses what she invented and what is known; as someone only vaguely familiar with Belle Gunness, I appreciated Bruce's postulations about how things might have happened.

Perfectly creepy, chilling, and impossible to put down.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Podcast Review: Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest

My now six-year-old is a devoted podcast fan; and happily, there is some amazing stuff out there for kids and families. 

A new favorite is the Pinna original podcast, Grimm Grimmer Grimmest.

Narrated by author Adam Gidwitz, each episode is of one of the Grimm Brothers' classic tales with a full cast and sound effects. 

Unabridged Kid is pretty imaginative and hasn't been exposed to much 'scary' stuff, but he's been begging for scary things, so this podcast has been perfect, especially as Gidwitz ranks each story by Grimm (weird), Grimmer (weird, maybe gross), and Grimmest (weird, gross, maybe creepy). 

Additionally, interspersed in the retelling is the reaction from a group of child listeners, which cuts through some of the scariness of the stories and gives everyone some breathing room.

But it isn't just the fabulous production values and wonderful storytelling that makes this a win for our household; it's also that Gidwitz actually addresses the problematic stuff found in fairy tales. In one episode, "Little Chick" (Season 1, Episode 9), the story's heroine is asked by an evil adult to keep a secret. The story cuts to Gidwitz and the group of children then discussing how inappropriate and creepy and wrong this is. Same with other elements of questionable or non-consent, cruelty, etc. 

Currently there are about 20 episodes, with Season 3 being released now. Each episode clocks between 18-26 minutes, so they're perfect for listening while running errands. While the first season appears to be available widely, you have to subscribe to Pinna to access the entire series. (Pinna is basically an audio-content subscription service, like a kids audio material Netflix. It has audiobooks, podcasts, music, and other original content.) I'll be doing a review of the Pinna service later, but so far, we're enjoying it. 

Note: I started Pinna with their free trial and we decided to pay for it because we're enjoying the commercial-free content. Pinna has not compensated me in any way for this review.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Best Reads of 2020

In a year of erratic, inconsistent reading, I was lucky that most of what I read was pretty much awesome. Books had to compete against a great deal of stress, anxiety, and distraction -- and these eight reads really captured me this year. 

You'll see most provided deep escapism -- romances were the genre of the year, no question -- but others stretched me and educated me.

Some of my Best Reads in 2020

Tessa Dare, The Wallflower Wager

I think Tessa Dare might be the author of the year for me: I read thirteen of her books, and three of them at least twice, if not three times this year. This one I probably read about five times, to be honest, because it was sexy and fun and deliciously escapist. 

Tessa Dare, A Week to Be Wicked

The second book in Dare's Spindle Cove series, this was my very favorite of the five books. I loved both characters, I loved their romance, and I especially loved the resolution to their conflict. It helps that I love the entire Spindle Cove universe, and so the details of all the side/secondary characters was enjoyable, too. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

I actually double fisted this one, so to speak: I listened to the original edition and read the Young Adult edition. Both were fabulous and incredibly eye-opening and illuminating. Much of the history was new to me, but even more shocking was the way our current military has drawn from, and continues to draw from, our treatment of Indigenous peoples. I will not forget this book soon.

Jennifer Kincheloe, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc

I reviewed the audiobook of this and both the story itself by Kincheloe and the narration by Moira Quirk are fantastic. I ended up inhaling the other two Anna Blanc books and I am d-y-i-n-g for the fourth. Our heroine Anna is so effing adorable/clever and her determination for professional satisfaction is admirable, especially since women weren't given much professional freedom in 1907.

Eva Leigh, My Fake Rake

Apparently the three books in Leigh's series, The Union of Rakes, are each based on or inspired by classic '80s movies. I immediately 'got' the opening flashback in this one, which pays direct homage to The Breakfast Club, but couldn't say which movie this one was connected to, and thankfully, that doesn't matter. I've mixed opinions on transformation-of-self as a plot device, especially in romance, but Leigh does it well -- there's more than one conversation about why our hero wasn't enough for our heroine before his rakish transformation, and I love me some real conversations in my romances.

Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

As I said in my review, this book has the vibe of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House meets Lovecraft Country (the book, not the show) with a dash of Grace Kelly-in-a-Hitchcock-thriller. It's a perfect read full of mystery and mood, and I could not put it down.

Richard Powers, The Overstory

As I said in my review, I fully anticipated hated this book and damn if I wasn't wrong. From the first handful of pages, I was swept up into this story of ecology, revolution, and change. I've recommended it over and over for its mix of plot, character, and moral arc. 

Marcie R. Rendon, "SongCatcher"

I picked this play for Read Harder 2020 (6: Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author), which I found in Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women's Theater, edited by Jaye T. Darby and Stephanie Fitzgerald. As with the Read Harder challenge, I'm not sure I would have necessarily read this play but ohemgee, I am so glad I did. Jack, a Native man who wasn't raised with a connection to his community, desires to learn more about his culture; at the same time, he's visited by the spectre of Frances Densmore, a 20th century 'ethnologist' who worked to 'preserve' Indigenous culture. (Which wouldn't need preserving, of course, if US white supremacy culture wasn't so keen to eradicate Indigenous communities.) A beautiful piece I would love to see performed, and a fab parallel read with Dunbar-Ortiz's book.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

January literary "diet" from Claire Armitstead

Claire Armitstead shares 31-days of literary tidbits in The Guardian, and I'm making a point of engaging with each day. 

I'm going to try to share quick reflections on my Insta, and if anything catches you, I'd love to talk about it.

I'm excited about the wide range of options: poetry one day, a film another; even music! I doubt I'll watch the films as sitting down to watch an entire movie is almost impossible these days but everything else should be doable. After a year of reading 'catch-as-catch-can', making time to pause and read each day is very welcome!