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. 

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.