Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet

The titles: A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet
The author: Beverly Cleary
Publication: Yamhill: Dell, 1988; Feet: Morrow Junior Books, 1995
Got it from: Yamhill: The Barrow Bookstore, Concord, Massachusetts, 2013; Feet: Interlibrary loan

In honour of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday this month, I thought it was finally time to crack open my copy of  A Girl from Yamhill, Cleary's autobiography, and its follow-up, My Own Two Feet.  (And I do mean crack open - my copy basically disintegrated while I was reading and pages started to fall out.  Oh well.)  I love autobiographies from the early 20th century, and this one was special to me for two reasons.  One is that she is a beloved author from my childhood, two is that she is a librarian and I was really interested in what library school and being a librarian was like in the 30s and 40s.  

Yamhill starts with Cleary's earliest memories of living on her family's Yamhill farm.  She remembers the bells ringing to mark the end of the First World War, at the tender age of two.  Life is difficult on the farm, and Beverly is constantly reminded (and irritated) by stories of her hardy pioneer ancestors.  Her family's story is really a mirror of the larger American story: the move from agricultural life to urban living.  When the farm becomes too much for too little money, the family moves to Portland, which would later serve as the setting of Cleary's books.  Many of the scenes from school and around her neighbourhood will be familiar to fans of Cleary's work.  Her childhood in the 1920s will seem both familiar and strange to children of today.  Material possessions were fewer, but fun and imagination remained the same.

(As a warning, it's not all innocent fun.  In one awful section, she describes being sexually harassed by a creepy uncle and being unable to tell anyone for a long time.)  

And then the Depression.  Unfortunately for Cleary, it struck just as she entered adolescence, already a difficult time for anyone. Her father lost his job, and her mother became a bitter, controlling, manipulative presence in Beverly's young life.  Those high school scenes of deprivation, hunger and unhappiness at home were particularly difficult to read.  On top of it all, Beverly was dogged by a wet blanket of a "boyfriend," a young man her mother encouraged she she couldn't shake for years, despite not being able to stand.  Yamhill ends with Beverly finally being able to escape by going to college in California.  

My Own Two Feet picks right up where Yamhill ends, with Beverly on the bus to her new life in California.  It's the middle of the Depression, but California is better off economically, and Beverly is finally out from under her mother's thumb.  In many ways this volume is easier to read than the first, consisting of a whirlwind of friends, dates and studies.  She describes living in San Francisco while the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were being built, being courted by Clarence Cleary and how her English teachers gave her writing advice that stayed with her and later helped guide her stories.  

Her library school experience was interesting to read about, especially as I couldn't help comparing it to my own almost 70 years later.  Some of it was familiar, some not so much - a teacher actually gave her a C even though she'd earned A's, because she didn't like the look on Beverly's face!  It's clear she loved her time working in children's departments, where the requests for books about "kids like us" would eventually lead her to write Henry Huggins.  Through the war, she served as a librarian on an army base and later a military hospital, where she had a front-row seat of the action taking place on the Pacific front.  In 1949, she finally settled down to write and the story ends with the successful publication of Henry Huggins.

Because it's a biography, the narrative doesn't flow quite like it would in fiction, and her breaking out from under her mother's thumb is a long, drawn-out process with a lot of frustrating setbacks.  Still, these books are fascinating glimpses into a fascinating few decades of American history, from the perspective of an (extra)ordinary woman's life. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Once Upon a Kiss

The title: Once Upon a Kiss
The author: Robin Palmer
Publication: Speak, 2016
Got it from: The library

I seem to be on a YA kick lately, after a decade-long absence.  Maybe because they're finally publishing something other than paranormal/dystopian Twilight and Hunger Games knockoffs.   Not anything to do with this review, just making an observation.

So, disclaimer:  

I love the 80s.  Love love love love love.  It's the decade I was born in, the first decade I remember and will always be my favourite decade.  I love it all: the artery-clogging fast food and sugary cereal, the music (SO MUCH), the TV and movies, business ladies, the fashion (don't be a hater, it was amazing), and on and on. 

I will read/watch almost anything to do with/from the eighties.  So when I found out about Robin Palmer's Once Upon a Kiss, about a 1986 teen transported to 2016, I was all yaaasssss.  Just like 13 Going on 30, but she stays a teenager in 2016.  I didn't realize until partway in that this was written by the same author as Little Miss Red, a book that I had serious problems with.  Still, like a junkie looking for her fix, I devoured this book because EIGHTIES.

Here's what I liked: The eighties references, obviously.  There are a ton of them, especially the music.  I'd be hard-pressed to find a more 80s moment than the main character time-travelling because she chokes on a Fun Dip stick while trying on a Lycra mini dress at the mall.  

No, really.  I just checked, and there is no way that scene could get more Eighties.

This is also one of those "best friends discover they are soulmates," book, which I doubt is a spoiler because 1) it's glaringly obvious from page one and 2) it's a standard teen book and movie trope.  It's also one that I like, especially in YA.  

But oh boy, did I have problems with this book.

Okay, first of all: the logistics.  Now, I don't expect anything but silliness from time travel.  Whether it's a time-travelling DeLorean, magic fairy dust, a futuristic phone booth - heck, even a hot tub, I expect there to be some means for the protagonist to time travel.  But there's none of that here.  Just choking on a Fun Dip stick and mouth-to-mouth from the most popular jock in school doesn't count.  I want some explanation, damnit!

And while we're at it, can I ask why the heroine, Zoe, actually time-travelled?  Even as I was enjoying the eighties references and the silly fun of her discovering 2016 technology, I just couldn't figure it out.  See, Zoe and her best friend/love interest Jonah are outcasts, made fun of by the popular crowd at school.  But they're cool with that.  They think the popular kids are shallow and they're happy with their outcast status.  All well and good.  So what exactly is the lesson Zoe learns by waking up in 2016 as the most popular girl in school?  It only confirms to her that being popular often makes you shallow, empty and isolated.  But she already knew that.  It also doesn't make her appreciate Jonah any more, although she does miss him in her Queen Bee persona.  She already appreciated him.  So, the question is why?

And why, for that matter, is there a time-travel element anyway?  Was the whole plot just an excuse to imagine an eighties teen discovering iPhones and Facebook?  There's zero attempt at explanation for why Zoe, her family and school are all exactly the same thirty years later, having not aged at all.  Couldn't she just have woken up popular without the time jumping, if that was the point?  And she "got" 2016 technology and pop culture so quickly (read: impossibly quickly) to make the fish-out-of-water element fun for more than half the book.

Also, can I talk about Jonah?  As I said before, I enjoy best friend romances.  It makes a lot of sense for teenagers to find romance this way.  But this kid is so derpy.  It's pretty hard to feel swoony over a guy who is described as having food gunk stuck in his braces and farting when he eats beans.  And his 2016 persona wears a fedora and has a goatee....ugggghhh.  On second thought, let's forget about teen romances ever being actually romantic.  Teen boys are too gross.

Look, I like my YA light and fun, and it was.  I like my protagonists to reject shallowness, and they did.  But actual motivation and character growth would have been nice.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Notorious RBG

The title: Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The authors: Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhik
Publication: Dey Street Books, 2015
Got it from: The library

I had this book checked out and waiting for me on my coffee table when Antonin Scalia died - perfect timing, I thought, to read the biography of his ideological opposite.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become extremely popular in recent years for her spot-on dissents and no-nonsense takedowns of conservative views.  Although she's only recently become a rock star, RBG has been fighting the social justice fight for decades.  As this slight but entertaining biography chronicles, she pushed herself through law school at a time when there were almost no women lawyers, all while raising a family and helping her husband through law school himself. 

Although at the time she was not as famous as fellow feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan*, RBG chose to fight for women's rights in the courts during the second-wave feminism era.  She brought several discriminatory cases to the Supreme Court and refused to be intimidated by the all-male justices.  Appointed to the SC by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, she has helped judged some of the most important cases in U.S. history, and famously dissented on decisions like Bush v. Gore, Lilly Ledbetter and Hobby Lobby.  Despite some seriously scathing (and awesome) dissents, the book continually points out that she has never come in with guns blazing.  Instead, Ginsburg has worked to chip away at discrimination one law at a time, in cases she knows have a chance of winning. 

Her approach may dismay the young social justice warriors (among who I consider myself, partially) but her dismantle-from-the-inside technique is remarkably effective, if exhausting.  I have a ton of admiration for women like her, who've been putting up with BS for years but still manage to maintain their sass and class well into old age.  Oh, and did I mention she had a swoon-worthy romance with her husband for over fifty years, and that her daily workouts put my own to shame?  RBG is an inspiration to women everyone everywhere. 

*Review of The Feminine Mystique coming soon

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

The title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
The author: Susanna Clarke
Publication: Bloomsbury, 2004
Got it from: NB, 2007

I had originally read JS&MN almost ten years ago, back in 2007.  But last year the TV mini-series came out, my husband wanted to read it, and I thought it was time to dust off my paperback and re-read.

My impressions are going to be mostly about my experience reading it for a second time, and inevitably it will be compared to the first time.  In order to understand why I loved this book back then, you have to also understand that I was deep into my Regency-loving phase, as well as my magic realism phase.  I also read it swiftly and deeply.  This time the demands of work and other responsibilities meant I read this in a five-month stretch, divided in chunks.

Unfortunately the book didn't hold up as well the second time around.  Maybe I was just feeling impatient, but the whole thing just felt too darn long.  The first time I think I was projecting emotions on the characters that weren't there.  With a few minor exceptions, I didn't connect emotionally with any of the characters.  At all.   Having read the Mrs. Quent series in the last five years, which was probably 2/3 longer than JS&MN's hefty 1000 pages (although divided over three volumes), I feel the former series did it so much better.  Fantasy world building and 19th century manners are fine, but if I can't relate to the characters, forget it.  The Mrs. Quent series had me turning the pages because I cared about the people and felt involved in their lives.  Clarke's writing feels remote and standoffish in comparison.  It's a deliberate choice on the author's part to make it feel more like writing from the era, but it doesn't sit well with my modern sensibilities.  Mrs. Quent had a formal Victorian feel, but the characters felt modern enough to make me feel I was experiencing everything with them.

The other thing that the Mrs. Quent books had was an actual female heroine.  JS&MN didn't, and it bothered me so much more this time around.  It shouldn't be surprising - I mean, the book has two dudes in the title, but I wish the women had been more than just passive, helpless victims.  I know The Ladies of Grace Adieu helps make up for this, but it's a separate book and by the end of JS&MN I was totally sick of reading about dude magicians, dude ministers, dude dandies, dude servants, dude soldiers and dude fairies. 

There's no doubt that Clarke did an enormous amount of research in terms of historical detail - events, people and places are all accurate, with the addition of magic.  The book is actually at its best when it diverts from the main plot for witty, amusing footnotes of magical history grounded in England's real past.  (And an anecdote about Napoleon being outwitted by a charlatan and his honking goose is comedy gold.)  But something about it just felt off, like a stuffy piece of furniture that no longer appeals to me.  I realize the book hasn't changed.  I have.  Maybe in another ten years it will be the right time in my life to appreciate it again.  Or maybe it belongs in my past forever.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Kissing in America

The title: Kissing in America
The author: Margo Rabb
Publication: Harper, 2015
Got it from: The library

It's no big secret that I am drawn to stories about women like me, but rare is the YA book that captures - I mean truly captures - what it felt like to be a teenager.  Particularly a sensitive, romantic one.  And that's just what the heroine of Kissing in America, 16-year-old New Yorker Eva Roth, is.  She's a romantic in a way that no one - not her workaholic mother, or her genius best friend Annie, or any other of her friends and teachers - gets.  Her father, a fellow poetry lover, did get it, but he died in a plane crash two years earlier, leaving Eva detached and isolated under the weight of her grief.  To cope with the pain, Eva turns to romance novels and their promise of happy endings.  Then she meets Will, and in him Eva finds someone who finally understands her feelings.  Will reawakens Eva's love of writing and poetry, and she naturally falls head over heels in love with him.  When he moves to L.A., Eva convinces her friend Annie to compete on the show Smartest Girl in America so she can take a road trip and see him. 

I was expecting to read a book about a girl who reads romance novels.  I was not expecting to read a book about the nature and heartache of grief, or that the novel would have no easy answers.  It's easy to see why Eva turns to romance novels to feed that side of herself she's desperately missing, and it's easy to see why Will, who shares so many of her feelings, is so attractive to her.  This novel also gets the incredibly complex and overwhelming experience  of what it's like to be a teenage girl in love for the first time, and why those feelings help you cope with the scariness of growing up.

Even though story had heavy moments, there were some lighter and funny touches, like Eva's paranoid and germophobe aunt who joins them on their trip.  My only disappointment was that the author seems to have an outdated view of romance novels.  The ones Eva reads seem to be of the cheesy old school type, not the newer, better ones a real teenager nowadays would read.  The book falls just short of making the connection between romance as comfort and romance as mental training ground for real relationships.  Instead it goes for the cheap, easy stereotypes of barbaric alpha heroes and unrealistic stories.

In terms of character, I don't think I've ever read a YA heroine I've loved more than Eva.  She's smart and funny and vulnerable and strong all at once.  It's a refreshing change from so many of the current selfish, whiny YA heroines.  I wanted to reach through the pages of the book and give her a big hug and tell her everything was going to be okay.  And even though there was no big, happy ending, there was a hopeful one.  You knew that in the end, the girl was going to be alright.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Something About You

The title: Something About You
The author: Julie James
Publication: Berkley Sensation, 2010
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks, 2016

Readers of this blog know I love a romance heroine who has a job with authority, and her protective hero.  Something About You has both those elements.  Well-paced, well-plotted, funny, and super hot: I loved this book.  The first in the author's FBI/US attorney series opens with the heroine, Cameron Lynde, taking time out from her stressful job as an assistant US Attorney by staying at a fancy hotel.  Unfortunately she can't sleep because of the couple gettin' it on next door.  When she calls hotel security, they discover not sexy times, but a dead body.  Bad: Cameron spied the killer through the door's peep hole.  Worse: the FBI are called because it implicates a prominent US senator.  Even worse: the agent who shows up to interrogate Cameron is Jack Pallas, the same agent who worked with Cameron three years earlier on a case that went south.  Because of a big misunderstanding, the case ended up getting thrown out and Jack blames Cameron for the three years he got transferred to Nebraska.

Some of the real highlights of this book are the scenes where Jack and his partner are interrogating Cameron: it's right out of a 1940s screwball comedy.  Cameron's got sass, Jack is straightlaced, and Jack's partner Wilkins is the laid-back good cop.  Naturally Jack and Cameron are totally hot for each other, and it takes a good long time to clear up the big misunderstanding, as they fight their unwanted sexual attraction by trading barbs.  As you might expect, Jack soon becomes extra protective while they try to identify the killer, who the reader knows but the characters don't.  There's some pretty funny moments, often brought about by Jack's partner Wilkins getting involved in his love life (and a certain hilarious mistaken male stripper incident), Cameron's hired cop protectors who also become involved in her love life, and Cameron's gay friend Colin who Jack is jealous of. 

I listened to this on audiobook, read by Karen White, who did a great job bringing the the different characters to life (I particularly enjoyed her Agent Wilkins' happy-go-lucky voice) and made the sex scenes sound really sexy.  The danger wasn't super intense, allowing the relationship to take its rightful place at the forefront.  I do enjoy an edge-of-your seat, on-the-run romance, but this was different and it worked for me. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Crossfire Christmas

The title: Crossfire Christmas
The author: Julie Miller
Publication: Harlequin, 2014
Got it from: Overdrive

December is one of those periods I just don't have the time or energy to read anything really heavy.  I want something light and fast-paced, preferably a romance with a winter setting.  Crossfire Christmas was a perfectly serviceable book in that regard.  It didn't really stand out for me, but it was a nice distraction.  It's part of the "Kansas City Precinct" series that I haven't read but apparently involves a lot of characters who are cops.  Both the hero and heroine appeared as characters earlier in the series.  The hero, Charlie Nash, is a DEA agent whose cover has been blown inside a big-time drug cartel.  Wounded and on the run, he stumbles across  Teresa Rodriguez, a nurse, who he basically kidnaps to keep himself alive.

I'm not sure why this book was just okay for me.  It had some elements I liked, but neither the hero or heroine really grabbed me.  They weren't annoying, but they didn't sparkle with personality either.  It also had some road trip elements, which I like, but they never really left Kansas City so that sort of fizzled out.  I also really enjoy the hurt/comfort trope, but I never really believed Nash was in any danger of dying.  And maybe that is the source of my lukewarm reaction: there were no edge-of-my seat moments where I felt the main characters were in any serious danger.   It was overall a paint-by-numbers pleasant experience.