Monday, June 22, 2015

I Listened to 'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie' by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Ayana Mathis's first novel, but you wouldn't know that from reading it. She has the gift of holding the reader's attention rapt with masterful character development and expert turns of phrase. She tells the story of Hattie Shepherd in an unconventional way - through the filter of Hattie's 11 children and her granddaughter Sala. It's almost like a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a novel, but it does have consistent themes and interlocking story lines.

In many ways, Hattie and her children are representative of the African American experience in the 20th century. She was born in Georgia to a solidly middle-class family. At age 15, she had a casual fling with August, a 17-year-old she liked but considered too much of a country boy to be a serious relationship prospect. She became pregnant, though, and the two of them married. They moved to Philadelphia to be near Hattie's sister. In that way, they became part of the Great Migration of African-American families from the South to the North.

The young mother gave birth to fraternal twins. Despite August's reservations, she named the boy Philadelphia and the girl Jubilee. Sadly, the twins would succumb to pneumonia before their first birthday. Hattie would never completely recover from the loss of her first- and second-born.

She would, however, go on to give birth to (not in this order) Alice, Bell, Billups, Cassie, Ella, Floyd, Franklin, Ruthie (also known as Margaret), and Six. We get little vignettes about each of them:

- Alice grows up to marry a doctor. He wants children, but she secretly takes birth control pills to delay that from happening. Although she lives in a mansion, her life is empty.

- Bell works in a sleazy bar.

Sidebar: Mathis describes its windows as opaque. That phrase really stuck in my head and bothered me. Opaque windows would essentially be ceramic. Opaque means that light can't pass through it, as we all learned in junior high science class. The glass was probably tinted so that it was translucent without being transparent, but I really don't think it was opaque. It irks both the word nerd and the science nerd in me.

She takes up with a ne'er-do-well in his cockroach-infested apartment in a neighborhood Bell's siblings term "the ghetto." She intends to commit a kind of slow suicide by tuberculosis. (This is the 1970s, mind you, when tuberculosis was highly treatable - before the HIV epidemic contributed to antibiotic-resistant TB.) She is saved by a chance run-in with Willie, a former neighbor who should, by rights, be the Herbology professor at the U.S. equivalent of Hogwarts. She is also saved by discovering that Hattie never stopped loving her - as best Hattie can.

- Billups is terribly abused by a tutor as a child.

- Cassie struggles with mental illness. She's the mother of Sala, whose story makes up the last section of the book. Hattie's last act in the book is to deny a religious calling to the 12-year-old, since Cassie's illness (possibly schizophrenia) takes the form of religious mania (with delusions of persecution). Hattie and August must raise Sala after Cassie must finally be admitted to a mental health hospital.

- Ella is born when Hattie is in her 40s. Because the family is struggling financially when the youngest comes along, Hattie makes the incredibly difficult decision to give Ella to her childless (and financially well-off) sister to raise in Georgia.

- Floyd is musically talented. As a traveling horn player, he's developed a reputation as a ladies' man. This reputation masks the fact that he's gay. When he visits a Southern town and takes part in a wild, Pagan-like festival called the Seven Days, he meets a young man named Lafayette with whom he has a chance to find love. Floyd can't summon the strength to let love overcome his fear.

- Franklin serves in the navy during the Vietnam War. While he is overseas, in charge of patrolling a bay through which weapons are smuggled, he learns in a letter from his ex-wife that they have a daughter. Franklin struggles with alcoholism and wonders if he'll ever have a relationship with his daughter.

- We know very little about the kind of person Ruthie turns out to be, because we see her mostly as a baby. She's the only one of Hattie's children who has a father other than August.

- Six was burned in an accident when he was a child. Given a low chance of survival, he defies the odds. When another child teases him about Hattie having a boyfriend, Six beats the boy savagely. He's sent off down South with the preacher for a few weeks, during which Six discovers he has a talent for preaching from the pulpit, if not an actual inclination to be good.

Throughout the book, Hattie is often portrayed as being aloof, cold, distant, and angry. The revelations of her life story, however, make this attitude seem perfectly reasonable. Hattie has often been given the short end of the stick of life. Even when she tries to leave August (who's a bit of a drunk and a womanizer) for another man, the other man (Lawrence) turns out to be just as bad, if not worse. Her "running away from home" episode (told through Ruthie's story) lasts less than 24 hours.

August is a bad husband, but he's a great father. In the end, as his health begins to fail, he begins attending church regularly, stops seeing other women, and regularly tells Hattie he loves her. His story arc is more redemptive than Hattie's - perhaps because, in many ways, she's stuck as that teenage mother from the 1930s, helpless to care for her own children, no matter how much she loves them and wants the best for them. Life simply overwhelms Hattie. She never seems to achieve her own happiness; rather, the suggestion is that the cycle of familial misery will be broken in Sala.

I bought this 8-disc audiobook at a library used media sale and was not obligated to review it in any way. I chose it because Irish Granny had already read the paperback version and she recommended it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dammit, J.R. Ward!

The Shadows (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #13)The Shadows by J.R. Ward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***SPOILERS*** I enjoyed reading this novel much more than I liked the previous volume in the series, The King. That said, I'm pretty disappointed in the ending. We, the readers of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, had a deal with J.R. Ward. She would do her best to keep the main character and his lover apart as much as possible, up until the very end, and then - somehow, miraculously - all their obstacles would be removed and they'd end up together, forever.

This is the typical romance novel formula, and some of the fun of reading romance novels is the promise of a happily-ever-after. Well, J.R. Ward has busted our deal. Selena and Trez do not get to be together forever - through a bit of authorial sleight-of-hand, another pairing (one that we readers did not anticipate coming into this volume) instead gets that fate. Does it ruin the book for me? No, but I still think it's a little sneaky and underhanded on Ward's part. I suppose I should have guessed from Ward's John Green reference that she intended to go the The Fault in Our Stars route. Have the facial tissues ready.

The other thing that keeps this from being a 5-star BDB installment for me? Layla is still pregnant. Layla, y u no have your twins already? I know vampire pregnancies are supposed to last much longer than human pregnancies, but I'm tired of waiting for Layla and Xcor to get their own HEA. It better happen in The Beast - and none of this bait-and-switch nonsense, Ms. Ward.

A couple of small things I like: Vishous now has a tongue piercing. (H-O-T.) Also, Paradise hears Butch's Boston accent and thinks "Ben Affleck accent."

As for Paradise, it looks as though she will get her own adventure when Ward begins her BDB spinoff series in 2016. I'm actually looking forward to starting the new series. I like that Paradise is a daughter demanding to be treated with the same consideration that would be given to a son. I think her story will be a good one.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Authentically-Told Historical Fiction About Two Amazing Women

Miss Emily: A NovelMiss Emily: A Novel by Nuala O'Connor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First, a caveat: this will be a very difficult book to read for anyone who is sensitive to depictions of sexual assault. An incident of sexual violence is described in detail and becomes a key plot point for the second half of the novel.

That said, this novel is a winning depiction of a fictionalized Emily Dickinson, told in part in Dickinson's own voice and in part through the voice of her Irish-born housemaid, Ada Concannon. Emily sees Ada as a friend and an equal. Over the course of the novel, Emily will confront her own agoraphobia (if we may apply that late 19th-century word to a mid-19th-century woman) and put herself in danger for her new friend. My favorite thing about this novel is its beautiful depiction of female friendship.

The only verified photo of Emily Dickinson, taken in 1847-48. Public domain.
My second-favorite thing about this novel is the fiction Dickinson's characterization. Personally, I believe Emily Dickinson is the English language's second-greatest genius after Mr. William Shakespeare. It's wonderful to spend time with the poet in her home environment, getting peeks into the origins of some of her best-known verse. If you read Seth Grahame-Smith's The Last American Vampire (and I don't necessarily recommend that you do), you may remember a footnote that suggests Emily Dickinson's famous reclusiveness was a result of her being a vampire, and a not-heterosexual one at that. I liked that image, and although this novel has nothing to do with vampirism, it does make it clear that Emily's feelings toward her sister-in-law are of a romantic nature. This Emily may be married to words and to her homestead, but she's clearly neither asexual nor heterosexual. And it works as characterization in this context, whatever one may believe about the historical Emily Dickinson.

Nuala O'Connor is the Anglicized name of Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir (not to be confused with Northern Irish technology expert Nuala O'Connor). I'm not sure why, in the 21st century, an Irish name would need to be Anglicized, even for the American market. That the English tried to ban the speaking of the Irish language and cut my European cousins off from our ancestral tongue is a sad historical fact. Our indigenous language might well have died out if not for the systematic attempt in Irish public schools to reconnect the current generation with the mother tongue. So I say, at the risk of sounding like a Hyperbole and a Half comic: Irish language all the things!

But that's a bit beside the point unless you're a passionate Irish-American word nerd like me. Bottom line: this is a beautifully written novel about two amazing women and the people and things they care about. Whether you're a devoted American literature fan or simply a lover of authentically-told historical fiction, you will find much to appreciate here.

I received this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for this review.

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Another book that's available for Amazon Vine review is Amherst: A Novel by William Nicholson. It centers on Alice Dickinson, an English advertising agent who's researching the story of an affair involving Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin. While conducting her research, she begins her own torrid affair with an Amherst College professor.

But I shouldn't order another free book for review from Amazon Vine because I need to finish my library book (The Shadows by J.R. Ward - you know I can't stop reading the Black Dagger Brotherhood series).

On top of that, I have two more Vine books already coming: The Originals: The Loss by Julie Plec (a book based on the TV series The Originals spun off from the TV show The Vampire Diaries based on L.J. Smith's book series) and Unmasking Juliet by Teri Wilson, a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet centering on two rival chocolate-making families. Amazon Vine knows my dirty little secret: that I love books that are intertextual with books I've already read.

Friday, June 12, 2015

I Finally Saw the Divergent Series 'Insurgent' Film

Here there be spoilers.

The BF and I finally saw Insurgent, at the dollar theater, last night. I liked the movie more than I thought I would, and it reminded me of why I loved Veronica Roth's novel so much.

It starts out in the Amity compound. If I could choose to live in a fictional place - well, my first choice might be Howl's Moving Castle, but near the top of the list would be the Amity compound. I'd eat the bread. It wasn't really clear in the movie that the bread was spiked with feel-good chemicals, but it's obvious from the books. I don't even care, though. I'd happily put on the red clothes and push kids in swings all day, no worries.

But Tris, Four, and Caleb can't stay there, because the Jeanine-led Dauntless come looking for the Divergent. Jeanine is using Divergent people to unlock the box she found in the Prior home, which she believes will reinforce her power-hungry, evil schemes to control the city.

Creative Commons image by Andrea Raffin
It's so easy to hate Jeanine, but so hard to hate Kate Winslet. I have the same conflict with Ansel Elgort. How dare he be so attractive whilst Caleb commits his shocking and cowardly betrayal? Caleb's weasely reluctance to lift a finger to help his sister while she's being tortured and near-killed makes Tris's you-know-what in the third installment (which will be the fourth movie) all the more sad.

Creative Commons image by Mingle Media TV
Oh, my brave Tris. Shailene Woodley may not understand why it's important to be an outspoken feminist, but good goddesses, that gal can act. My brain knows she's the same actor who played Hazel Grace Lancaster, but my heart knows they're two completely, utterly different people - and that's a great tribute to Woodley's ability to inhabit a character and a fictional world. I'm not even going to pretend like I don't love her, because plainly I do. That fourth movie is going to shatter my heart like safety glass.

Creative Commons image by Georges Biard
Tris gets to be a bit sexy in her on-screen incarnation. The novel version of Insurgent would have you believe that Tris and Four's physical relationship is somewhat limited, because she fears emotional intimacy - understandable, given her personal traumas. The movie strongly implies that Tris and Four's bed-sharing isn't simply for comfort (he helps relieve her PTSD-induced nightmares). Maybe it's just because Woodley and Theo James have mad onscreen chemistry, but their relationship in the film seems very much hands-on.

Creative Commons image by Christopher William Adach from London, U.K.
Of course, I am grateful for every moment of screen time that Theo James is shirtless. Or talking. Like Jim Caviezel and Christian Bale before him, James is gifted with the Voice of Pure Sex. Side effect of a British actor speaking with an American accent? I don't know, but it works for me. I like his whole...everything. He's part Greek too, and you can tell his Mediterranean-ness by the fatness of his bottom lip, which I would very much like to bite.

The other actor whose performance is devastating in this movie is the lovely and talented Ms. Zoe Kravitz as Christina. Her face when Tris confesses she killed Will gave me heart pangs. I actually hope the third and fourth movies don't dwell on the budding relationship between Christina and Uriah, because we all know how that ends. But I do want a little epilogue with Christina and Four holding hands, in a friendship way, future relationship left up to the viewer's imagination. Personally I'm pro-Fourstina (it seems like a healthy part of the healing process), but it's okay if you're not.

Creative Commons image by Mingle Media TV
Other actors who play the faction leaders also give worthy performances, notably the lovely Olivia Spencer (Oscar-winning actress of The Help fame, presented her award by Oscar-winning Christian Bale) as Amity leader Johanna (I really liked the way they did her scars with makeup) and Daniel Dae Kim as Candor leader Jack Kang. Four's mom Evelyn, leader of the Factionless, was played by Naomi Watts. T. and I recently saw her in Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, a strange meta-fictional movie about actors performing a Raymond Carver short story ("What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") as a play. She's good, if a bit young-looking. It looks like Evelyn gave birth to Four when she was four. I wish their back story wasn't so bad.

The only thing I really didn't care for in this movie was the device that measures how divergent a person is, and what his or her or their faction is. I thought faction was a free choice? How can it be measured, even with a genetic scan? I mean, we do find out in Allegiant that the factions were part of a genetics experiment, but seemed like a cheesy sci-fi movie thing.

I recall the book being an exciting page-turner with a cliffhanger ending (what's outside the fence?). The movie lived up to that. It was thrilling, twisty, and a tease for the next film. T. slow-clapped when Four shot Eric, and the other people in the theater laughed at that.

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Hollywood Classics Title Index to All Movies Reviewed in Books 1 - 24 by John Howard Reid. $0.99 from
Another essential book for a film buff's library, this one is packed with information and reviews. Some of the entries are quite extensive. JHR provides all the information you need, including complete cast and production staff. I find JHR's information invaluable. I like to read not only who acted in a movie, but who made it, both top-billed and lesser mortals. -- Ross Adams in DRESS CIRCLE mag.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

'Wild Girls' by Mary Atwell - Audiobook Review

Wild GirlsWild Girls by Mary S Atwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kate Reardon is a high school freshman. Her father has passed away when Kate was small. She lives with her mother, her mom's boyfriend Travis (the local sheriff's deputy, and a nice guy although a bit of a stoner), and her older sister Maggie. They live in the small Southern town of Swan River. The river is the town's predominant feature. Many of the residents spend their whole lives without crossing the bridge out of town, but not Kate and Maggie. Mother Reardon is an administrative assistant for Dr. Bell, the dean of the local girls' academy. Through her, the working-class Reardon girls are able to attend the fancy-pants preparatory academy.

But as one might expect in an atmospheric piece of Southern gothic/borderline horror fiction, Swan River is a town with a secret. It's an open secret and a mystery among the residents, but hidden from the outside world: Swan River is the home of the Wild Girls. These paranormal creatures start out as ordinary teenager girls, generally between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. (Dangerous 16th Birthday trope, anyone?) Seemingly at random, they're transformed: glowing skin, the ability to spark fire with their bare fingertips, extraordinary strength and violence, and the propensity to fly away. Then, just as suddenly, they return to normal girls, left to deal with the consequences of their supernatural mayhem and, occasionally, murder.

Kate is terrified she'll become a Wild Girl, and at the same time, she's a little afraid that she won't.

In the book's prologue, Kate and Maggie attend the town's yearly festival with Mom and Travis. It's held on the local commune, Bloodwort Farm, home of the Deadnecks. The nickname is a portmanteau of Deadhead (used as a general term for hippie types, whether they actually listen to the Grateful Dead or not) and redneck (used as a general term for socioeconomically disadvantaged Caucasian-Americans). Although Kate and her friend Willow aren't aware of it at first, it will be the town's last summer festival because of the strange events that occur that night. A seemingly innocent(ish) prank by local bully Crystal Lemons involving Roman candles turns into something far more sinister and threatening. By the morning, Crystal is dead, the commune-dwelling Bird Man (so called for his tattoo) is grievously injured, and the commune has mostly burned down.

An equally important development that night is that Kate and Willow meet Mason Lemons, Crystal's bad-boy brother. The three of them will become something of a love triangle, but all the relationships in the triangle are doomed from the start. Dr. Bell is a student of folklore and mythology, and he knows much more than he's letting on about the Wild Girls. He theorizes a connection between them and the Maenads of ancient Greek myth. (You may remember the Maenads from such literary works as Charlaine Harris's Living Dead in Dallas.)

An important literary reference - and one which, I admit, I haven't read - is The Bacchae by the ancient Athenian playwright Euripides. The play describes an attempt by a king to outlaw the worship of the god Dionysus and the subsequent revenge enacted upon that king by Dionysus's followers, the crazed Maenads. Dr. Bell fancies himself a modern Dionysus, but it turns out he is merely the king.

One of the interesting themes throughout this novel is the relationship between male authority and female wildness. We see it in the relationship between Mama Reardon and Travis, in the relationship between banjo-playing Maggie and her bandmate/lover Kevin (a.k.a. Kayak Boy), and we see it in the relationships between Kate, Willow, Mason, and Mason's pal/organic gardening enthusiast Clancy. (Clancy may or may not become the great love of Kate's life - the novel leaves it open-ended. They do share a passion for the environment.) We even see glimpses of it in the relationship between Willow and her parents. To what extent is a woman to put aside her own wildness, her own passions and enthusiasms, in exchange for the love and/or civilizing influence of a man? The author's answer seems to be, "It is a delicate balance. Different women will land of different sides of the equation."

The writing throughout this novel is beautiful and strange, even more poetic and lovely than the Southern-style writing I admired in Beautiful Creatures. Kate is a smart, savvy heroine well able to handle the dangers that creep into her world. She thinks she's not as tough as her sister Maggie, but she's wrong. She is both physically and emotionally stronger than she ever imagined.

I would recommend this book to anyone with the caveat that it contains scenes of graphic violence and an attempted rape scene. Those who are sensitive to violence may want to sit this one out.

In the novel, Willow and the other women drink bloodwort tea. Bloodwort, also known as bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is a real plant, and like tansy it has been used in traditional medicinal practices. However, it should be noted that ingesting bloodroot extracts is NOT recommended, since it contains substances that are known to be toxic to animal cells. (It is, however, being studied as a potential cancer treatment.) Perhaps the best traditional use of bloodroot is as a red dye; it is so used by some American Indian basket weavers.

I checked this audiobook out of my local public library and wasn't obligated to review it in any way.

Creative Commons image by Shawn Caza (

Monday, June 8, 2015

I Catch Up With 'The Vampire Diaries' (SPOILERS)

Today I watched (well, listened to) the TVD episodes currently available on Hulu, which were the last 5 episodes of Season 6. I hadn't watched the show since perhaps the middle of Season 5, when Katherine (presumably) died. These were the new developments to me:

- Alaric Salzman is not dead anymore. He has a fiancee named Jo; she used to belong to a witch coven, but she's no longer any kind of supernatural being. She's pregnant - with twins. They're getting married.

- Tyler and Caroline aren't together anymore and haven't been for a while. Her mother died. She shut off her humanity and manipulated Stefan into turning his off as well. Stefan and Caroline have something of a relationship.

- Tyler and Matt are training to be police officers. Somehow Tyler is not a werewolf anymore, although he'll become one again if he kills someone. (He used to be a vampire/werewolf hybrid like Klaus, right? Is he still a vampire? I'm unclear on the finer points.)

Creative Commons image by Vamplady01
- Damon and Stefan's mother is a vampire, but they only found this out recently. She was stuck in a temporal prison that kept her trapped in 1903. Her companions there were six very dangerous vampires who have some of the powers of witches, even though witch/vampire hybrids are normally against the rules of TVD worldbuilding.

- Damon has the cure for vampirism. He gave it to Elena and she became human again. Damon was more reluctant to give up his immortality. Damon and Elena are still in/back in a relationship.

Creative Commons image by JJ Duncan
In the penultimate episode of the season, a bad vamp/witch (they are called The Heretics) named Kai has attacked the wedding, killing the bride and her unborn babies. (So sad!) Human!Elena is injured and in some kind of a coma.

The season 6 finale has Tyler triggering his werewolf curse, so any vampire he bites will be poisoned and die. It turns out Elena's coma is a spell cast by Kai. He has some kind of grudge against Bonnie, so he magically links Bonnie's life to Elena's. As long as Bonnie is alive, Elena will remain asleep. Tyler bites Kai, but Heretics are not killed by werewolf bites. Damon has the opportunity to let Bonnie die by doing nothing, but instead he kills Kai and saves her. So now Elena is in a coma for the rest of Bonnie's life. Elena's friends place her in a coffin; the Salvatore brothers will guard her until Bonnie dies. The episode almost ends with Stefan declaring his love for Caroline as, inside Elena's mind, Damon and Elena dance.

Then there's a short flash forward to a future in which cop!Matt is patrolling the seemingly-deserted town of Mystic Falls, watched over by a solitary Damon.

Season 7 is most likely to be the final TVD season, and it's already been established that Nina Dobrev will not be returning. Further, Michael Trevino will not return in the role of Tyler Lockwood.

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I'm not nearly as interested in this series as I once was, but still, it was nice to get a little caught up.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Mini-Review: 'The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History' by John Ortved

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized HistoryThe Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The beginning is a bit slow, but once it gets into the actual show and not just the participants' backgrounds, it gets more interesting. The last chapters are quite harsh on the show's latter seasons, and even the Simpsons movie, which I think is fairly brilliant. I liked Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation better - it is more personal and reverential. Comprehensive and factual, but lacking in heart.

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