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!