Monday, July 25, 2016

Devoted

The title: Devoted
The author: Jennifer Mathieu
Publication: Roaring Brook Press, 2015
Got it from: The library

I was sitting here this weekend, trying to figure out why this book was making me feel so many things and why it felt so incredible that I couldn't put it down.  Then it hit me that this book is kind of like the YA version of The Blue Castle, my favourite book of all time.  And I guess it just shows how much I love stories about women who leave their crazy, oppressive families and find supportive people who guide them into doing whatever the hell they want. 

This book has exploded across my consciousness like a bomb.  It feels like such a beautiful, important, amazing expression of what it feels like to be a young woman who realizes that she's better than what her religion tells her and that there's a whole world out there for her.  It's feminist in a way that reminded me of what feminism really means.  It's a wake-up call to remember that there are so many women all over the world who can't dress the way they want, speak their minds, get an education or even show their emotions.  I take it for granted, but this book made me appreciate just what a rare, precious gift it is for me to be a woman who can go anywhere, say anything, and most importantly, spend my free time however I want. 

Rachel Walker grows up in a family where none of those freedoms are available to her.  She lives in a strictly religious community where her family follows the Quiverfull movement, and her life is similar to the one portrayed by the Duggars on 19 Kids and Counting (and I couldn't help thinking of her family as the Duggars when I read the book).  She's homeschooled by religious textbooks, attends church several times a week, is exhausted by raising her many younger siblings, and lives in poverty.  Her family quotes scripture all day, she must always show "cheerful countenance" and her father is the ultimate authority. When the story opens, Rachel is 17 and knows that she must soon follow in the footsteps of her ultra-pious older sister Faith and get married and start having babies. 

But it's clear from the beginning that Rachel isn't like the rest of her family.  She's smart, and she's sensitive.  She sneaks books and reads them secretly, which as we all know is about the most dangerous and powerful thing a young woman can do.  She starts to feel things and question her family, her religion, her whole way of life.  This book does such a lovely job of explaining just what it's like when you start questioning your faith.  I know because I've been there.  I know how it feels when the truth starts making cracks in a lifetime of beliefs, until you can't stop them as they multiply and suddenly the daylight bursts forth.  It's the most wonderful and exhilarating and terrifying feeling. 

Tears are running down my face, and I try to stop them but I can't.  I can't make sense of the words-not all of them-but something about them makes me catch my breath.  Makes me read them again and again.  Especially the final two lines.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The fact that this question now exists in my brain makes me feel like a million bubbles are exploding on my skin all at once.  

How long has this question existed? How many other people have asked themselves these very words?  

What is it that I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?  

My wild life?

My precious life?

To be a godly wife to my future husband and raise my children in the service of the Lord.  

It's been my answer all my life. It's always come so easily.

Maybe because I've never asked the question first.

This is important stuff.  This is powerful stuff.  This is the kind of thing that girls should be asked growing up but they don't.  There's an assumption, even if you don't grow up in a cult, that as woman you're going to get married and have babies.  No one ever talks about how there's a whole world out there, a whole lifetime of other satisfying things you could be doing.  And confining yourself to be a slave to your family is like death to an intelligent woman.   I completely understand when Rachel's so exhausted with taking care of her family and trying to be good that she goes into her closet and screams into her dress.  And I completely, absolutely, 100% get it when Rachel thinks about her soon-to-be life:

Please, Father God, don't give me so many babies I can't find a moment's peace to read or think, or watch the sunset.  

...I think about sitting at my parents' dining room table in a few years, responsible for a baby in my belly and a baby in my arms.

I can't breathe.

I stare at my hands, like they belong to someone else. Someone I don't know but who lately seems intent on making herself known to me...

Watching Rachel's growth as she comes to see the truth about her family and her cult is a truly moving experience.  As she slowly connects with someone from the outside world who has managed to escape from the same religion, you just want to cheer her on in her mental and physical escape.  I particularly love Rachel's growing awareness that women can have lustful feelings, and that she has them too.  There's a certain scene when Rachel thinks about a boy she likes that really encapsulates the incredible feeling of romantic attraction:

I think about [him] looking at me like that. And about what it would feel like to know his eyes were on me, unable to look away.

Suddenly, there's a fuzzy tingle running through every fine hair on my arms, down my skin, like a million fuzzy tingles at once. And there's a gentle thud between my legs that makes me catch my breath.

If you want to read a book about what it feels like to realize that you are human for the first time, and experience what true freedom feels like for the first time, I couldn't recommend a better book than Devoted.  Now excuse me while I go revel in my quiet, peaceful, undemanding household where I can research and read and think whatever I want.

Mother-Daughter Book Camp




The title: Mother-Daughter Book Camp
The author:  Heather Vogel Frederick
Publication: Simon & Schuster, 2016
Got it from: The library

We were told back in 2012 that Wish You Were Eyre would be the last in the Mother-Daughter Book Camp series, but here it is four years later and we get an installment that Heather Vogel Frederick swears is positively, definitely the last one. For the final outing, Emma, Jess, Megan, Cassidy and Becca are counselors at Camp Lovejoy in New Hampshire.  Sharp readers may remember the name Lovejoy from the author's previous title Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery. Yep: the two worlds cross each other, with a few characters from the Pumpkin Falls story appearing in this one, including the town of Pumpkin Falls and Lovejoy's Books.  You don't have to have read Absolutely Truly to enjoy this, but it helps.

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of camps, either attending them or reading about them.  However, I was willing to follow the girls there.  This book has a definite summer holiday feel that I would have loved reading about when I was young and on summer break.  In a way it showcases how the girls, now about to enter college, have come full circle and become mentors themselves.  In fact, the "mothers" of the Mother-Daughter Book Club are almost entirely absent.  Instead the girls themselves take over that role by teaching the camp children and organizing a camp book club where they read Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (which I listened to on audiobook before I read this book).

I don't think this was a particularly necessary installment in the series, but I was happy to spend more time with the gang and see how their lives were going.  Fans will enjoy it. I'm just looking forward to more Pumpkin Falls mysteries.

Monday, July 4, 2016

In Total Surrender

The title: In Total Surrender
The author:  Anne Mallory
Publication: Avon, 2011
Got it from: Library book sale

This is one of those books that I have had sitting on my shelves for a few years, and I kept telling myself I should read it.  And then I did, and I have to tell you: this book is INSANE.  It was not what I expected AT ALL.  I thought, yeah yeah, it's going to be your typical dark romance, he's king of the underworld, she's the light that will redeem him, it will be enjoyable and predictable and safe.  I don't even know how to describe how much that did not happen.  It was like stepping on a monorail and expecting a monorail ride, but instead finding yourself upside down in the Scrambler and hanging on for dear life and screaming, "what the hell is happening to meeeeee?"

This book was crack.  I honestly had no idea what to expect from one page to the next.  I mean, beyond that the hero and heroine would get together eventually, of course.  But other than that, this book took every single romantic trope, turned it upside down, whacked it with a stick, and then turned the trope inside out and sewed it back together and still left you going,WHAT IS THIS?

Andreas Merrick is bad.  Really bad.  A bad and mysterious head of a murky crime underworld in Georgian Regency Victorian old times?  Phoebe Pace needs his help to save her family's company from ruination.  Also, because she is a woman with a pulse, she finds his hotness/badness intriguing and sexy.  It's obvious from the very first scene that she wants him bad, and the rest of the book is basically her trying to wear him down while he resists, resists, resists letting her get close.  Her attraction only intensifies in the opening scene when five men come to kill him and Andreas takes them out without a second thought, saving her life in the process.
Most of this book is actually from Andreas's perspective, which is great because otherwise he would be unfathomable.  The book does a fantastic job right away at establishing his character. In the opening pages, he's reading a letter from his brother, who is on his honeymoon (he's the hero of the previous book):

Dear Brother,

Charlotte and I arrived in Italy to a bloody fantastic...

Blah, blah, some festival drivel, blah, blah, happiness, blah.  Andreas skimmed the barely legible note - a page full of sentiment.

As the plot moves along, more and more backstory gets revealed, including Phoebe's motives and her reasons for trusting Andreas.  The interactions between the two are hilarious, with her cheerful unflappability up against his stoniness. Their interactions in the first few chapters are priceless.  You have to give Phoebe credit for standing up to him when he acts like a total ass to her for the first half of the book.  She meets his bad humour with the best of spirits:

"I am a vile man."  He gave her a feral smile, letting the darkness rise.  "The absolute worst you will ever meet."

"That is absurd, Mr. Merrick."  The darkness froze, then began undulating, snapping at an unseen threat.  "How do you know what kind of men I might meet in the future?"

Tilting head, tilting head, tilting head...it would feature prominently in his nightmares tonight.

The fun ratchets up when Phoebe infiltrates his world by winning his men over with smiles and baked goods, much to Andreas's annoyance.  The amusing "win over the thugs" plot is a favourite trope of mine.  It leads to some un-romancelike swearing on Andreas's part, which I found totally hilarious and which I know will probably horrify a lot of romance readers.  In one of my favourite scenes, Andreas is questioning his lackeys to determine just how much Phoebe has won them over and is very displeased with the findings:

Two boys tumbled into the room, one large and fearful, one reedy and eager...The third stalked behind, small arms crossed, jagged scar the length of his forehead.  Belligerent little fuck.

...He turned to the little shit, Tommy, to continue his questions, but a croak emerged from the hulking boy.

"She said my cooking is good," the low voice whispered, some sort of apology edged with defiance, then wrapped in a terrified package.

He looked closely at all three faces, eyes narrowed.  His lips pressed together hard enough to hurt due to what he read there.  They had claimed her as one of their own.

He thought of six ways to insult a man's mother.

I also loved, in another chapter, how frustrated Andreas is by the difference between himself and Phoebe.  After a night of arson, fighting off assassins, and protecting Phoebe's home, he turns up in the morning looking like crap and finds her there:

And here Miss Bleeding Sunshine sat, looking as if just this morning she'd been attended by fairies, baked with elves, and had tea with a unicorn.

This book is not without its problems.  For instance, the business aspect is discussed in great detail at the beginning of the book, but there's not a lot more about it later on to justify all the explanation.  There's also the problem, as many reviewers have pointed out, that the sex scenes are vague and disappointing, especially given all the tension before it.  Phoebe also tilts her head a lot, so much so I was worried she was going to get neck cramps.  The ending also left something to be desired.  Things got wrapped up much too neatly, and I really didn't need a "twenty years later" scene.  It's a pet peeve of mine, and I wish romance authors would stop doing that.  I also know that the fact that Andreas is pretty much a villain will turn a lot of people off.  But I still love this book.  Not in spite of its weirdness, but because of it.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Once and Always


The title: Once and Always
The author:  Julia Harper (aka Elizabeth Hoyt)
Publication: Hachette, 2015
Got it from: The library

Wait a minute?  This book, which is the third in Julia Harper/Elizabeth Hoyt's contemporary series, was just written in 2015?  The other two (1, 2) were written back in 2008!  My mind is blown!  So she's writing contemporaries again, maybe?  Not that I would complain if she just kept coming out with new Maiden Lane books (although, holy crap, I cannot keep up.  There are already 12!)  Well, that at least explains the recent re-release of the other two in the series.  

Although this is exciting news, I'm going to be honest and admit that Once and Always didn't blow me away.  I needed something to read while I was away on holiday, and I knew EH wouldn't let me down.  Most times I they're page-turners for me, but this one wasn't.  The first chapter is clever: Maisa Burnsey is driving through a snowstorm in Coot Lake, Minnesota.  She's pulled over by cop Sam West.  But uh-oh!  He's not just any cop, he's the man she had a hot one-night stand with the summer before.  And it's not the first time he's pulled her over.  In fact, he's done it a lot.  Maisa brushes him off, but the storm traps her in Coot Lake.  So far, so good.

Elizabeth Hoyt is great at writing cah-razy secondary characters and funny dialogue from said character's POV.  But oh my goodness, there were a LOT of secondary characters crammed into this book.  I had difficulty keeping track of who was who, as we were introduced to pretty much the whole damn town.  It was like an extra zany episode of Northern Exposure, with a "Russian mafiya chasing after some stolen diamonds B plot" thrown in.  The problem with spending so much time jumping from character to character is that I never ended up connecting with anyone.  Not even, unfortunately, the hero or heroine.  The whole book just felt okay, but never really clicked for me.  I'm hoping that the next contemporary she writes will be imbued with a little more EP magic and feel less formulaic.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Double review: Necessary Risk and The Luckiest Lady in London

The title: Necessary Risk
The author: Tara Wyatt
Publication: Hachette, 2016
Got it from: The library


The title: Necessary Risk
The author: Sherry Thomas
Publication: Berkley, 2013
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks

Since I just finished two books (one in paperback, one in audiobook), I thought I'd do a double review.  These two romances couldn't be more different.  Necessary Risk is a contemporary romance set in L.A. featuring Sierra Blake, a former child star who is an advocate for a women's reproductive health center called Choices (think Planned Parenthood.)  When she's targeted by hateful anti-choice activists, she hires hunky private security bodyguard Sean Owens to protect her.  If you love bodyguard romance (and I know I do), this one is for you.  With a refreshingly feminist political agenda, intelligent protagonists, lots of excitement, action, and scorching hot sex, this was a real page-turner.  If only I didn't feel so inadequate that this was written by a fellow librarian who works near me (although I don't know her personally.)  Highly recommended, and I can't wait to see what she does with the other books in the series (this being the first.)

The Luckiest Lady in London was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  There was no external conflict facing the protagonists, which was something of a disappointment, since I love that "hero and heroine against the world" aspect of romance.  All the obstacles faced by the main couple came from their own emotional conflict.  Louisa Cantwell is smart but poor, and faces ruin if she doesn't marry soon.  Felix, the Duke of Wrenworth, is a bored and jaded aristocrat who is intrigued by Louisa's intelligence and obvious lust for him.  He's closed off, though, because of his mother's emotional distance despite his love for her.  Felix and Louisa play a cat-and-mouse dance until Felix realizes he must propose to her in order to "win" the game.  The rest of the book is them learning to trust each other as husband and wife, despite some rather cruel emotional manipulation on Felix's part to spare his own feelings.  Despite great dialogue and an interesting foray into Victorian astronomy, I can't say this book hit quite the right note for me.  It was a little bit too angsty for my liking, but I can see how people who prefer the emotional roller coaster aspect of a romance would like it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Feminine Mystique

The title: The Feminine Mystique
The author: Betty Friedan
Publication: Norton, 1963 (50th anniversary edition, 2013)
Got it from: Talking Leaves, Buffalo, 2015

I've finally gotten around to reading the big one, the grandmother of the modern feminist movement.  The one that "pulled the trigger on history," an awesome phrase that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.  I've read the reviews and the criticism: it's too focused on white women's experiences, it's too middle-class.  The sections on Freud and Margaret Mead are a slog, and not as important to the average woman's experience.  

All valid, of course.  And yet, despite having jumped into the deep end of feminism a long time ago, this book was a revelation to me.  Far from feeling like an anachronism, an inconsequential relic from another era, this book should be required reading for everyone entering adulthood.  Yes, it's written for women, but the message about living up to your potential is a powerful message everyone should take to heart.

Here's the thing: and this is where I will deviate from my usual book review and into my own personal experience, because this book, to paraphrase one of my husband's favourite musical phrases, kicked at the darkness until it bled daylight in me. When you read it, everything in this book sounds so obvious.  But it needs to be said, now as much as ever.  Despite everything that feminism has done for us in the last fifty years and how hard Friedan and the other feminists fought, we have a long, long, long way to go.  Reading about how women lived their lives as 1950s housewives cut off from the world, I just thought, I know these women.  How can it be that fifty and sixty years later, this is still the archetype for ideal womanhood?  How did we go so far and yet still be back there now?

I'll tell you what I see us having now.  We have women "choosing" to be housewives rather than educating themselves or using their educations in a career.  We have women not striving or working for anything beyond marrying a rich husband and having children.  The Kardashians and the Real Housewives (all of them selfish, greedy, spoiled, and vapid) are held up as our role models.  We have Mommy Bloggers, the alternative medicine movement, helicopter parenting, worrying over The Food Babe and Dr. Oz's latest scare tactics, making crafts, canning preserves, and one-upping each other on Facebook and Pinterest considered perfectly acceptable - no, imperative - ways to fill our time.  As Friedan points out, almost none of the "important" tasks we are expected to perform as women would be difficult for an eight-year-old.  Let that sink in for a few minutes.

If this is all your life consists of, you are not living a whole life, any more than the 1950s housewives were.  And this is the crux of the whole book.  Whether you hate what it says about your life or refuse to believe it is irrelevant.  You cannot be a fully developed, happy human being as just a housewife.  Without meaningful work in the outside world, your growth will be stunted as a human being.  There will be a hole there that you will try to fill, usually in destructive ways: overparenting your children, arguing with your spouse, drugs, alcohol, affairs.  

Reading this, I wanted to cry.  It was something I have felt my whole life but have never been able to articulate.  I have always abhorred the idea of being a housewife.  I hated the thought of being confined because I was a woman, stuck inside doing boring, thankless chores, away from the human interactions and activities I craved.  It's one of the many reasons I've chosen not to have children, because even the thought of being trapped and isolated with a small child makes me feel like I can't breathe.  I don't mind being a woman, but I want to be a human being first and foremost, with all the pain and struggle and joy and rewards that come with it. 

So I read the stories in this book with so much sadness.  Because that could have been me.  And I felt horrified and angry the more I read.  What a waste, all those years and even centuries, because women couldn't work.  I read about the woman who felt alive for the first time when she studied science in university and then was brainwashed into becoming a housewife.  Or all the women who took drugs and sometimes ran naked through the streets because they couldn't take it any more.  It sounds funny, but it shouldn't. It's horrifying.  Most heartbreaking of all were the women who saw no way out - always the most intelligent, most promising women - who became trapped by the Feminine Mystique and took their own lives because the shadow life they led held no purpose for them.

I read this, and watched the recent documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry on Netflix, and I wanted to start my own revolution here and now.  It still do. I want to tell women to wake up and fight to be heard.  I want to tear down the walls of the religious institutions that say women are subservient and should be kept in the kitchen.  Instead of shutting down abortion clinics, I want to shut down all the plastic surgery clinics and sleazy doctors who tell us we're not good enough.  I want to fill social media with pictures of women's office party promotions instead of their bridal showers.  I want to fire all the men in charge of the media and replace them with women who will greenlight stories that are relevant to me and show women in competent roles.  I want to celebrate women who've smashed glass ceilings and talk about them at work instead of pointless celebrities.  I want women to share political ideas instead of Pinterest ideas.  I want to spend 1% of my day on grooming and 99% on making the world a better place.

If Betty Friedan can make me feel these things with a book written fifty years ago, it's no wonder she changed the world.   

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.