Saturday, November 28, 2015

'A Little in Love' by Susan Fletcher #Review

A Little in LoveA Little in Love by Susan Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ok, I admit it - I didn't read Les Misérables. My French is lousy, and - well, I haven't even attempted to read it in English. That book is like a brick, and I already have a beloved brick-like classic translated from the French (The Count of Monte Cristo). I saw the Hugh Jackman movie, though. I may not have caught all the finer plot points, but I think I got the gist. Overall I enjoyed the opera more than I thought I would.

I knew nothing about the background of Eponine. I knew she was a tragic heroine whose love for our hero, Marius, was destined to go unrequited. I felt bad for Eponine.

So, when the opportunity to read an adaptation that starred the unfortunate teenager as the heroine of her own story, I took that opportunity. I really enjoyed this book, even with my sketchy knowledge of Victor Hugo's original.

Susan Fletcher has done a really nice job of imagining Eponine's world. Through Eponine's voice, she gives us a lot of sensory details about what it must have been like to be a poor woman in 1830s France.

Eponine clearly knows the difference between right and wrong, and most often she chooses to do what is right. Sometimes, though, she goes along with her family's unfortunate habits of lying, cheating, and stealing. She treats her would-be friend, Cosette, quite horribly when they are small children. When they are teens on the verge of adulthood, Eponine is indirectly responsible for Cosette's beloved foster father, Jean Valjean, being gravely wounded.

Determined to reclaim her own soul, Eponine uses her intelligence and kindness to protect Cosette. This is especially painful since Cosette and Eponine are both in love with the same man. But in order for Cosette and Marius to get their happy ending - frankly, one of the only redeeming plotlines in this tale of misery and woe - Eponine has to make a sad, sad sacrifice. This isn't really a spoiler, since we know from the first page of the novel that Eponine is dying because she saved Marius's life.

The ending isn't as sad as it could have been, though. As far as Eponine knows, her little brother Gavroche is still alive. In the opera, Gavroche dies too.

Eponine in this novel is a fully developed, well-rounded character who isn't entirely good and isn't entirely bad. She's a person, with a past and interesting point of view. She's definitely well worth reading about, and Fletcher has written a narrative that flows smoothly and seems authentic. I read this in four short sittings. It's quite fast-paced.

FYI, there are some non-explicit threats of sexual assault in this novel. Readers who are sensitive to this type of content should be aware before reading it.

I received this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review through the Amazon Vine program.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Three Review Quickies

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored this book. I love that Celia and her beloved Marco got a happy(ish) ending, and so did Bailey and Penelope (Poppet). I'm still sad and little horrified by the story of Tsukiko and Hinata. The straight white people got to be together, but the queer women of color were horrifically separated. The one LGBTQ+ male character of color in the book, Chandresh Christoff LeFevre, only gets an unrequited love.

Chandresh loves Marco. Isobel loves Marco. Celia loves Marco. Everybody loves Marco.

Now I need to know what happened to Isobel after she left the circus. And what happened to her engagement before she met Marco. Basically I need an entire book about Isobel.

I purchased this audiobook on CD from a library used media sale with my own funds. I was not obligated to review it in any way.

Don't Sing at the Table: Life Lessons from My GrandmothersDon't Sing at the Table: Life Lessons from My Grandmothers by Adriana Trigiani

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had mixed feelings. I really loved the first chapters, full of really good sensory details surrounding the author's memories of her grandmothers. The latter chapters also had some beautiful writing, but they were advice-heavy. The somewhat judgmental tone marred an otherwise moving true-life portrait of two 20th century Italian-American women.

I borrowed this book from my mom. I was not obligated in any way to review it. Full disclosure: Adriana Trigiani and I are both graduates of St. Mary's College, although in different years.

When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another book I don't know if I can do justice with my words. Miranda is a thoroughly likeable heroine - she gets steadily more likeable throughout. Her adventure may not be on as grand a scale as Megs' in A Wrinkle in Time, but it is still an enjoyable journey.

I bought this book from Better World Books with my own funds and was not obligated in any way to review it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'Carry On' by Rainbow Rowell

This book discussion is not spoiler-free. If you haven’t read Fangirl and Carry On yet, I strongly recommend you read no further.

I bought my copy of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell on the day it was released: Tues. October 6th. I couldn’t wait to dig in and start reading the boy-boy love story. (I say “boy,” but understand I’m talking about 18-year-old adults.) I finished it a week later, on Monday the 12th. In a way, I still can’t believe I’ve finished it. Reading Carry On was an incredibly enjoyable experience. I’m not sure I can entirely explain why, but I’ll try.

Part of it was the extent to which I enjoyed Rowell’s 2013 book, Fangirl. Recall that I didn’t just LIKE Cath Avery, but also felt like I WAS Cath Avery. Because Cath loved Simon Snow and his vampire classmate Baz, I loved Simon Snow and his beloved/enemy Baz.

Another part of the puzzle is that Simon and Baz are based, in part, on Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.  I’ve never personally been a Drarry shipper – I’m satisfied with J.K. Rowling’s choice of Ginny Weasley as Harry Potter’s lifemate. Even if Rowling herself sometimes wishes she’d made Harry and Hermione more than friends. Let’s face it: I’m a grown adult who wears Harry Potter socks and a golden snitch necklace and whenever I hear plumbing make a funny noise my first thought is still “Chamber of Secrets!” I consider myself a member of the Harry Potter fandom. I understand the fandom impulse.

And yes, it is exciting to read a mainstream novel in which the featured romantic subplot involves a same-sex couple. It IS important to me as an out bisexual woman to have non-heterosexual (I’d say queer, but I don’t want to use that word if it will offend some readers. I personally do not have a problem with “queer”), positive representation in the media. Especially in the traditional media.

Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling went back and wrote a book about Albus Dumbledore’s unrequited love for Gellert Grindelwald? It would be heartbreaking and poignant and I would love that so much, even while it was torturing my poor little heart.

But until we get Carry On, Albus, we have to settle for SnowBaz.

In my review of Fangirl, I wrote, “Let's talk about Simon Snow. I honestly would love it if someone wrote Carry On, Simon as Cath, because the little bits of fan fiction that we get in the novel are tasty. Cath left her magnum opus unfinished (and, may I just say, I think the ending of this novel is perfection and I wouldn't want it any other way), but I still want to know if she decided to kill Baz or to let Simon and Baz live happily ever after. We're somewhat left hanging in a Hazel Grace Lancaster-type fashion. This book is meta to begin with - fiction about a fiction writer writing fan fiction about fiction - would it just be too incredibly meta for someone to write Carry On, Simon?”

Rowell hasn’t written Carry On, Simon, but she’s written something even better. Carry On isn’t written as Cath Avery writing Simon Snow fan fiction, nor is it written as if it were the original novel Cath based her fan fiction on (written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie). Instead it’s a Simon Snow novel written in Rowell’s own authorial voice. But I no longer feel disappointed or Peter Van Houtened by Fangirl. I’ve gotten my SnowBaz story – and (spoiler alert!) Baz doesn’t even die.

Of course, I would not be sad if Rowell somehow extended this to a 7- or 8-book series…I’m just sayin’.

Ultimately, Simon Snow owes his existence to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Because Rowling’s world-building is so thorough, and we’re already assumed to be familiar with it, Simon Snow’s Watford School already seems like familiar territory – yet it is its own unique world. Further, Rowling and Rowell are brilliant writers, each in unique ways. As I’ve discussed in my reviews of the Robert Galbraith novels, Rowling is intimately familiar with all 400+ years of English-language literature, plus the Latin language, plus Classical mythology and a veritable buffet of multicultural world mythologies.  She’s wonderfully erudite and such a natural storyteller, she can write a children’s book filled with scholarly Classical references without either boring the reader or showing off.

I’m not implying that Rowell isn’t as brilliant or as educated as Rowling, but Rowell’s storytelling style is more inwardly oriented, more personal and intimate and less world-traveling. She writes with her tongue in her cheek, tossing in pop cultural references that might be not-so-subtly winking puns, meaningful allusions, or a combination of the two. In an early chapter, for example, Simon is nearly taken out by a taxi driver who turns out to be a goblin. In the mirror’s reflection he appears to have green skin and blood-red lips, but otherwise he’s “handsome as a pop star.” Any goblin who manages to kill Simon will become the goblin king. Wait a minute: goblin king, handsome as a pop star? Is she talking about David Bowie in the film Labyrinth, in which the pop star plays the Goblin King?

I have no doubt Rowell is making references to a wide variety of fantasy novels, films, and tropes throughout her novel. I half-suspect the surname Snow is a reference to Game of Thrones – Simon, like Jon Snow, was abandoned by his parents. Of course, it’s revealed in Carry On that Snow is his middle name. Maybe Simon officially has his mother Lucy’s last name. It’s unclear whether Davy (the Mage) and Lucy ever married – not that that would necessarily require her to change her name. I don’t recall the Mage’s last name ever being given.

Baz – short for Tyrannus Basilton – has his mother’s last name. His mother, Natasha Pitch-Grimm, was headmistress of Watford before The Mage. Baz’s father isn’t a bully like Lucius Malfoy; he’s more of a neglectful parent than an abusive one. He’s not happy that Baz is gay. Baz doesn’t identify much with his father, so he doesn’t use the Grimm last name. He’s chummy with his Grimm cousins, though.

Naming traditions are more conventional in the household of Simon’s best friend, Penelope Bunce. Penelope is a British girl with a British-ethnicity dad and an Indian-ethnicity mom. She has some of the traits of Ron Weasley (including ginger hair, in their first year at Watford) and some of the traits of Hermione Granger, yet she managers to be her own unique character. Her siblings, including brother Premal and sister Priya, have Indian personal names, but they all have the Bunce family name. Penelope is technically a name from Greek mythology, but it’s not that uncommon in the English-speaking world.

Rowell, of course, is from the United States. She’s writing English characters who speak U.K. English, and occasionally (to my North American ears) this rings a little false. For example, I’ve never heard a person from the U.K. or Ireland refer to a “bag of crisps.” The familiar expression is “a packet of crisps” where we Americans would say “a bag of chips.” But U.K. readers will have to weigh in on that matter.

(I can say that E.L. James, writing in the voices of U.S. characters, uses an occasional phrase that rings very British. It works both ways – as if we can understand, but not quite reproduce, one another’s dialects.)

The witches and wizards of Simon’s world are a bit more modern than those in Harry’s, who seem a bit stuck in the 19th century in some of their customs. Simon doesn’t speak Latin. Heck, he barely speaks English. (His dad really did a number on him when he dumped Simon in that orphanage.) Rowell’s witches cast spells in English, using concentration and intent to turn common phrases into spells. Any phrase can become a spell, theoretically, but some have caught on and are common. Song titles and lyrics often work well, and nursery rhymes are said to be the most powerful spells of all.

Baz’s family – the Pitch side – is unusually gifted with fire magic. This is a shame, since Baz (made a vampire, not born a vampire) is more flammable than the average human, something his dad and aunt (a somewhat Bellatrix LeStrange-like character, but not quite as evil) consistently remind him of. Baz is aristocratic, worldly, handsome, charming, and completely in love with Simon since their fifth year of school.

Yet it’s Simon who initiates their first kiss, in a moment of despair when Baz seems on the verge of suicide by self-immolation. Simon hasn’t quite worked out his sexuality yet. He knows he’s attracted to Baz – Baz’s huge vampire fangs impress him. It’s unclear whether he’s sexually attracted to Agatha Wellbelove or simply socially attracted to her. It’s a question the author chose to leave open. It’s entirely possible Simon is bisexual or pansexual, though.

The first kiss is magickal. Please don’t judge me, but I may have done a slight dance shortly after reading it. I really do love SnowBaz as a couple.

Of course, the dramatic climax is a traumatic climax. Not Allegiant traumatic, but still…Simon loses a person and a thing, both very dear to him. The person, Ebb the goatherd, is sort of a combination of Rubeus Hagrid and Sybil Trelawney, in a very wonderful way. Her nickname is short for Ebeneza. She’s a very powerful magician but must sacrifice herself (which she does willingly) to save Agatha.

Agatha Wellbelove doesn’t closely resemble any of the characters in the Harry Potter series. Her family name is vaguely reminiscent of Luna Lovegood’s, but she’s not quirky like Luna. In fact, she’s quite the opposite: she’d rather be with her Normal friends (the equivalent of Muggles – apparently, magicians can hear the difference between Normal and normal) than at a magickal school. She has a slight crush on Baz – one that’s destined to be unrequited, obviously. But it is not a typical young adult novel love triangle, not at all. In fact, Agatha breaks off her relationship with Simon because she realizes they’re both only going through the motions.

Penelope – Penny – has an American boyfriend named Micah. I have a deep desire to watch a sitcom starring Mindy Kaling as an older Penny living in the U.S.A. with Micah and their kids. Seems unlikely to happen, though.

Penny’s roommate, Trixie the pixie (the ridiculous name is lampshaded by the characters), is also LGBTQ+. Her girlfriend is another female Watford student, and the fact that dorm rules do nothing to keep them from snogging and flinging pixie dust 24/7 annoys Penny to no end. Technically she isn’t allowed in Baz and Simon’s shared suite, but through some unknown method she circumvents this policy – a feat never attempted by policy-respecting Hermione Granger.

SnowBaz ends more happily-for-now than happily-ever-after. They both have such grave insecurities. But I’ll take it. It’s better than being stuck, not knowing whether Baz even survives the end of Cath’s fan fiction rendition of Gemma T. Leslie’s world. (It’s not even entirely clear that Baz CAN be killed.) I like knowing Rainbow Rowell’s take.

I purchased Carry On with my own funds and was obligated to review it in any way. But I really, really, really liked it.

See what I did there?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: 'Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy'

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and CannibalsDear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals by Dinty W. Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this out from Blogging for Books (free book in exchange for review), although I was not familiar with the writer Dinty W. Moore. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the essayist is actually named Dinty W. Moore, not after the Canadian hockey player (or the corned beef sandwich) but after a character in the comic strip 'Bringing Up Father.' That makes him sound ancient, but he is in fact a Baby Boomer, a few years younger than my parents.

Moore won me over early in this essay collection, with this sentence, "I believe the best way to avoid coming off as a male chauvinist pig might be to not be a male chauvinist pig?" The question mark is unnecessary; the advice is sound.

The questions that spark each essay (or, in some cases, doodle) come from other nonfiction writers, including Cheryl Strayed, Diane Ackerman, and Roxane Gay. My personal favorites include Moore's anecdotes about other writers; he has one on George Plimpton and another with Nelson Algren.

It's on my TBR list.

Moore is funny. Quite funny. He has a quirky sense of humor, which happens to be the kind of sense of humor that most appeals to me. This is one of those books I laughed out loud to, causing my husband to ask, "What are you laughing at?" Just the thing I'm usually laughing at, dear: writers' meta jokes about punctuation and non sequiturs.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Banned Books Week: Is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ Morally Destructive?

On August 17, 2012, I wrote the following two paragraphs:

From Here to Eternity is on page 131. I'm pretty sure I read this section before, but I didn't mean as much to me before I finished FHTE…I also learned that the book FHTE beat out when it won the National Book Award was The Catcher in the Rye.

Catcher in the Rye is a favorite subject of the conspiracy theory bloggers, by the way. See this post at MK Culture, for example, or this post at Pseudo-Occult Media implicating the cartoon ‘Family Guy’ (a cartoon I personally dislike, for the record). The Wikipedia entry on the book mentions that it's been linked to John Hinckley Jr.'s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Mark David Chapman's shooting of John Lennon, and Robert John Bardo's shooting of Rebecca Shaeffer.”

The Wikipedia article doesn’t go into any great detail, and for these past three years I haven’t really strongly understood the connection between the book I read as a teen and real-life incidents of violence. Then I stumbled across this video:

…and then, subsequently:

In these videos, Joseph Atwill discusses a blog post he’s written about Holden’s relationship with his younger sister and other post called "The Freemason in the Rye." In the articles and subsequently in the video, he attempts to explain how he interprets some of the more cryptic passages in J.D. Salinger’s text.

Who is Joseph Atwill? If you search for Joseph Atwill within Wikipedia, you’ll find two relevant results. One is the entry for “Christ myth theory,” and the other is the entry for Emilia Lanier. Atwill’s 2013 book Caesar’s Messiah is cited as a source for the former. In the latter, he is credited along with John Hudson as having discovered that Emilie Lanier, the first English woman to publish a book of poetry, was possibly the identity of the “Dark Lady” to whom William Shakespeare’s poems were addressed. The citation there is Atwill’s 2014 self-published book Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah.

According to Goodreads, Atwill also wrote The Roman Origins of Christianity in 2003. His Goodreads author page links to Atwill’s blog,

In the videos, Atwill summarizes his interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye, basically, as follows:

In the novel, Holden Caulfield (Salinger’s protagonist) mentions being in a secret fraternity.
Atwill connects that fraternity to the Freemasons because Holden mentions studying the Egyptians (for a test) for 28 days, elements of Freemasonic initiation rituals.
Holden lying down on Eli’s bed is mentioned three times, which Atwill takes to be a Freemasonic signal.
The most obvious reason why CITR is connected with various assassinations is that Holden calls his deer-hunting hat a people-shooting hat. Atwill connects the hat with the traditional hoodwink of Freemasonic initiation.
The titular allusion of CITR is a mishearing of the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” Atwill says a different word ("fuck") is used in the original Robert Burns poem in place of “meet” a body coming through the rye. Thus, it has an explicit sexual connotation. Wikipedia agrees that there is an explicit version:

Atwill contends passages where the 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, is described as being in states of undress are intended to imply an inappropriate relationship between brother and sister. I suppose it makes sense, then, that Holden was studying the Egyptians, since among ancient Egyptian royalty, brother-sister marriages were common.
He says the last paragraph of the book is the warning that anyone who tells the secret will be killed. He says Mark Twain put the same warning into the end of Tom Sawyer.

Boys are supposed to identify with Holden and girls are supposed to identify with Phoebe. Thus, boys are being conditioned to be violent abusers and girls are being conditioned to be victims.
Atwill’s call to action in this interview is the request for people who have children in the school systems to bring up these issues with the school boards, ultimately to get books that serve as “weaponized anthropology” out of the schools.

Atwill did not invent the term “weaponized anthropology” to describe cultural artifacts intended to have psychological effects upon those who consume them. He refers to a book by David H. Price called Weaponizing Anthropology published in 2011. Price is an anthropology professor whose scholarly works examine the history of the intersection between military intelligence and ethnography/anthropology. Atwill contends that J.D. Salinger worked on military intelligence during World War II.

(There is another university professor/author named David H. Price who is a historian, but they are not the same person.)

If you want to read further into the connection between military intelligence and Mark David Chapman, you can do so with our old friend Visup. (You may remember him from the Buddy Holly human sacrifice conspiracy post.) Atwill’s Freemason article also provides the following link:

But basically, Atwill is saying that CITR is a military experiment explicitly written by Salinger to be morally destructive to U.S. culture.

On a slightly different subject, in one of the videos Atwill calls Lewis Carroll a “Freemasonic monster” and refers to an analysis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Along with Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, the article discusses the Beatles song “I Am the Walrus.” Atwill contends the poem is about the Biblical book of Revelation (Lewis Carroll was a clergyman, after all) and that Lennon’s song lyrics are about genocide.

So, are the critics right when they want to ban CITR? Should we ban Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass from schools also?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

'The Threesome Handbook: A Practical Guide to Sleeping with Three' by Vicki Vantoch

I love nonfiction books about sexuality in general, and I wanted to read this one specifically because I thought it might be good research for future short stories and novel scenes. I’ve written threesomes before, but I could always learn to write them hotter.

I started reading this book ages ago, but I kept putting it away when guests came over and then getting distracted by other books. That's not to say that it's uninteresting or boring - far from it. Granted, I did skip a few passages that didn't apply to me, but overall, I enjoyed this very much. It's really more 4.5 stars than 4.

Vicki Vantoch is the kind of smart girl who makes me want to do stupid things. She’s brilliant and witty. I laughed out loud several times throughout the book, just like I do with Lemony Snicket things. She has one of the best jobs I could imagine: anthropologist and historian who specializes in the history of sex. In physical appearance, she reminds me of the singer Sara Bareilles. Funny, smart, cute, openly bisexual – Vicki Vantoch is my kind of writer.

She’s also the mom of two adorable kidlings, son West and daughter Maison. Their dad is Vantoch’s life partner since they were 16 years old, the actor Dimitri Krushnik. But, as she writes on page 328, “Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino argues we are all pressured to ‘cover’ or to downplay stigmatized traits to blend into the mainstream. We do this in various ways—by hiding hearing aids or changing ethnic-sounding names to commercially viable ones.” In that exact manner, Dimitri is better known as Misha Collins. Which, I suppose, is not quite as Russian-sounding, even though Misha is still the traditional Russian nickname for Dimitri. (Didn’t Dimitri Belikov’s sisters call him Misha in the Vampire Academy novels?)

Vantoch is candid about her own three-way relationship with her husband and her female best friend, but Collins is more guarded. She writes in the Acknowledgments, “And finally, M, my sweet coadventurer in love and life. Even though this book wasn’t his cup of tea, he was supportive from the beginning and was always there when I needed him with encouragement, egg sandwiches, and a brutally-honest critical eye. His patience, humor, openness to change, and super-human ability to love me without crushing me, continues to amaze me. I feel enormously lucky to be sharing this journey with him.”

My favorite chapter is Chapter 5, which gets into some of the issues that not-bisexuals might face when in multiple partner relationships. It encourages people who consider themselves straight to be open to a range of experiences that might be pleasurable even if a bit outside their usual comfort zone, without obsessing about labels. Human beings seem to have an innate tendency to want everything neatly categorized, but our sexuality is much too fluid and varied for that. Vantoch gets that, and she’s able to write about it in a way that’s not only humorous but also quite sexy.

Whether they read it for research, for practical tips, or simply out of curiosity, readers who are brave enough to pick this one up will be rewarded. 

I purchased this book with my own funds and was not obligated in any way to review it.