Men Explain Things to Me (CBR9 #17)

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I do not really do New Year’s resolutions, but my informal one this year was to read more about topics I should be more informed about, and specifically more feminist reads. As with most of the good things I read these days, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit was already on my radar. I was familiar with the eponymous essay’s conceit: that Solnit was treated to an older gentleman explaining her book to her without realizing that she had written it, or that it had in fact been written by a woman. But, I hadn’t taken the time to find the essay or this collection. It was time to remedy this.

The best compliment I can give Ms. Solnit is that she has a definitive voice to her writing. I watched an interview that she gave (about climate change and other things), and in it her voice sounded exactly as I had expected it to, based on reading her writing.

This book (a quick 150+ pages) is a collection of essays, nine in total in this updated version, and the first was great. But perhaps the ones that hit closest to my heart were the ones where Solnit talks about the staggering statistics of violence perpetrated against women by men. We aren’t discussing an epidemic. A public health crisis which seemingly never ends in the United States, due in no small part to the fact that we won’t name the beast. The silencing of women is at the core of this book, the concept linking the essays. We are silenced in personal, professional, political, and cultural spaces, and this book gives some discernment into this shared experience. Of course I suggest this book to everyone, but it should absolutely be read by all the men, even the good guys. We need them calling out the “nice guys” and general asshats.

Read it.

And his name is Voldemort, you might as well use it. He’s going to try and kill you either way”. – Minerva McGonagall, Deathly Hallows part 2

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Lord of Scoundrels (CBR9 #16)

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This friends, is why you review books right away. Because I don’t really remember a darn thing about this audio book I finished it last Monday.

You see, I’ve been packing, and moving, and generally trying to survive work. While not the best time to try to read and review, let’s see if I can’t give this book a fair shake. You’ll be getting review in bullet point format.

Overall impressions: it was good. I cranked up the audio speed though because the narrator was a bit laconic in her delivery, but her vocal differentiation worked well. The heroine, Jessica Trent, is the draw here. She has everyone’s number and will bend events to her will.

General Thoughts about this Romance Offering:

  • Our hero, Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain is a tough character to root for. He’s the damaged sort of male who is going to make the world suffer for his lot in life but when Loretta Chase is on, she can make this Alphahole type work. I begrudgingly found myself liking him and rolling my eyes at him the same way that his ladylove did.
    • He also has ISSUES with women, and that can make for a difficult read, be warned.
  • Jessica Trent is the type of sterner stuff you want to see a romance lead be made of. Yes, the various plot points surrounding here can feel far-fetched for even Regency romance reading, but I love her. She starts the book as a spinster bluestocking of no consequence by choice, she’s intelligent, sharp, quick witted, perceptive, and she has interests and (shockingly) a career plan. She grounds the otherwise audacious plot offerings.
  • In the second half of the book Chase does the unfortunately unexpected for the genre and has her characters establish an honest relationship beyond the physical, and its one of the books many strengths.
  • The always present but often unwelcome subplot problem: A note to authors from your very own faintingviolet – you do not have to string the McGuffin that was your meet cute item all the way through the story and have some sort of terrible calamity around it. There was enough calamity with the secondary plot of the by-blow son.
  • When the big reveal about the son happens we aren’t subjected to pages upon pages of misunderstandings, but instead the characters have grown and developed their relationship and instead we get a chapter about dealing with the problem head on. Like grownups.

I’m going to end this review by quoting Mrs. Julien, because she sums up the overall feeling of the book better than I’m going to be able to today.

“ He takes one look at Jessica and wants to lick her from head to toe. She takes one look at Dain and wants to rip all his clothes off. LET THE GAMES BEGIN! It’s beauty and the beast meets reformed rakes make the best husbands meets tortured hero, with a side of moustache twirling by minor characters trying to ruin everyone’s day. “

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Come on over and see what everyone’s reading and reviewing, you never know what you’ll find.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (CBR9 #15)

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The past few years I have been working slowly but surely through the works of Mary Roach. I find her style to be intoxicating, even if her subjects seem a little outside my own personal interests. When announced that her latest book would be about the science of war I was immediately wondering how her light-hearted and comedy heavy style would work with this subject. Once I realized that she was, as usual, going to focus on the weird eddies of science and discovery. In her introduction, she refers to herself as “the goober with a flashlight stumbling into corners and crannies, not looking for anything specific but knowing when I’ve found it.”

Which is how I came to read and enjoy nearly three hundred pages about some of the research and work that goes into keeping our armed forces prepared, and how sometimes they wish we’d all prepare them a little less (seriously, the weights on the army standard armor are just… insane). Roach focuses on what dogs military personnel: panic, exhaustion, heat, noise, illness, injury, and introduces us to the people who work against these plagues.

It’s hard to pin down if I had a favorite section, or chapter, but I appreciated Roach’s approach of discussing things warts and all. For example, no one in the U.S. government seems to want to fund sexual therapy for soldiers returning with injuries to their sexual organs, but she is certainly going to highlight it, the need, and waggle her eyebrows for us all to get over our prudishness and think about quality of life.

I’m rating this one four stars, its everything good that she displayed in some of her previous books such as Packing for Mars and Gulp without the early mistakes in style that appear in Stiff (which is still a fascinating book that you should all read.)

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Pretty Face (CBR9 #14)

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First, a note: read this in as few sittings as possible. Lucy Parker’s writing is best in long drinks, not short sips. I should NOT have read this before bed over a series of nights, but I just didn’t want to read Grunt by Mary Roach, nor can I do audio before I sleep.

Next: If you are a contemporary romance reader, or someone who wants to flirt with reading the genre run out right now and get your hands on this, its predecessor Act Like It, or Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game.

Now, for this actual book that I’m supposed to be reviewing. I have a fondness for the way in which Lucy Parker builds her world, it’s quick, and quiet, and with a deft hand she plunks you in the middle of an environment without paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition. Her word choice and well-chosen details build out the world and its people so that you know what you are reading and where they are, without being bogged down. Parker allows your imagination room to play and fill in the details for yourself.

Moreover, the details she does provide are delicious. In the case of our male lead: “Luc Savage looked like Gregory Peck, circa some dapper time between Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird. There was more bulk in the shoulders, silver in the hair and darkness in the soul; otherwise, the resemblance was uncanny.”

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The story is rather straightforward, Luc is one of the London theatre’s best directors and he is reopening his family’s theatre after much familial difficulty with a new play, 1553, which is a character study of Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Lady Jane Grey. He needs an Elizabeth and after much struggle in filling the role he agrees – under pressure – to see Lily Lamprey. The problem with Lily is that she has spent the past several years playing a bubbly, porn voiced, sex kitten on a period drama. Her reputation is not good, and Luc has serious concerns about her vocal strength. Lily nails the audition and is cast, but from the moment go each is trying to ignore sparks between them.

The budding romance between these two characters should have made me shake my head no. On paper, it is not great. There is a 14-year age gap, he is her boss and employer, he just got out of an eight-year relationship, and she has massive trust issues. Yet… it works precisely because the characters name all the issues, which should keep them apart and spend a more than usual time for romance books apart from each other because of them.

Even though this is a rather slim volume, Parker still manages to work in some great cultural commentary into her book. Sexism, like in Career of Evil, is the underlying plot. Parker portrays for the reader the unrelenting sexism that Lily puts up with based on her looks and her previous role. She is all too often presumed to be an airhead and merely an object for others to look upon.  The way she, and Luc once he gets his head on straight, withstands the constant wave of our culture’s casual sexism is a the kind of character detail which I am growing to expect from Parker.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

4 stars, do read.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (CBR9 #13)

I have been thinking about rereading these books for several years. I have comments on Halbs and ingres77’s reviews to back it up. But the desire to do so started before 2015… I’m pretty sure it’s one of the many things that pulled me into Cannonball in the first place. But in my five previous cannonball outings I haven’t done it. What’s different now? The world, I think. But also knowing that I am not embarking on this journey alone. Caitlin D and emmalita (and the always wonderful Angry Dimples) are undertaking this as well. There was something about emmalita’s titles “ReReading Harry Potter for Sanity and Resistance” which finally pushed me over the proverbial edge – I too could use a little sanity and resistance.

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I’m not a huge rereader, but it’s not something I eschew either. However, until now I have never gone back to any of these books, and I think it’s because they exist in this weird emotional vacuum in my life. My mother purchased the first couple of books for my younger sister in preparation for the first movie to be released. It was probably late 2000 or 2001 (my sister would have been about 9 or 10), but I just don’t know for sure. My sister was a reluctant reader and my mom was trying that “hip new thing/what all the other kids are doing” parent trick… it did eventually work for Colleen, but in the meantime my mom and I devoured the available books in the series. These were still good days for me, but like for Harry, there was a darkness coming.

Coming back to the book sixteen years after my previous reading (but many movie viewings) the aspect of the book which stood out to me was how much of the book’s narrative structure takes place outside of Harry Potter. The book is named for him (as the rest of the series will also be) but much of the first third of this book is about the fallout of the battles with Voldemort, the deaths of James and Lily Potter, Dumbledore’s plans and hopes for baby Harry to have a normal life, the realities of life with the Dursleys and what is important to them, and eventually we get to the boy who lives in the cupboard under the stairs.

Harry doesn’t have much to define himself that comes from within when we first meet him. He is an unwanted child who is housed but not cared for. He wears oversized hand me downs, does not receive birthday or Christmas gifts, is bullied at school and at home. He doesn’t have many hobbies or interests. He is merely surviving, and making the best of it as he can. He is so excited to be able to go to the zoo with the Dursleys for Dudley’s birthday that your heart aches for the boy.

When Hagrid reappears following the (slightly over) long battle to get Harry’s Hogwarts letter to him, and makes his dramatic pronouncement: “You’re a wizard, Harry” suddenly there’s something inside Harry that he can begin to piece together. All those occurences he couldn’t explain, events which didn’t make sense now have a reason he can put his finger on. He is also burdened almost immediately with the truth of his parents’ death.

One of my favorite fan theories which bats around the internet is that Mrs. Weasley spots Harry looking confused on the way to platform 9 and ¾ and makes sure to pitch her voice towards him to help this young boy find his way. We don’t know much about the wizarding world yet (Hagrid does an okay job with the intro) but as the reader we can easily believe that this mother of seven is going to see a boy alone, confused, and in possession of an owl and know that he needs help, and in the case of our Harry, he needs her and her family.

There are two parallel story arcs in this book which stand out to me: discovering your identity and found family. Throughout the course of his first year at Hogwarts (the second two thirds of the book) Harry is learning about himself, his interests, his strengths, and is making friends for the first time in his life. He’s also finding the family that is going to carry him through the next six books. It’s as large as Hogwarts itself, or Gryffindor House, but really it’s his close relationships with Hermione, Ron, and the rest of the Weasley unit. Molly is mothering him (he does receive a Weasley sweater for Christmas after all), the boys are his brothers in more than arms, and Harry finally has the supportive network he needs to develop into the person he will someday be (McGonagall will accept no substitute for actual growth).

Rowling is giving us hints and nods, laying in groundwork for what’s coming in the future. (One of my favorite moments is Neville receiving his ten points for standing up to his friends.) She’s also kept her story narrow and her characters easily definable to help the young readers this book was aimed for. The series grows with the readers, but it’s a beautiful benefit to read a work so well crafted that adults can find so much in it as well.

I’m listening to the audio version read by Jim Dale, and it is as delightful as I was lead to believe. The only problem I ran into is that he reads Hermione a bit breathier than I expected. I’m also rewatching the movies as I go, and the adaptation from book to screen was well-handled with this one, sacrificing the non-Hogwarts portions to get down to a two and a half hour runtime.

The Devourers (CBR9 #12)

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In my reading habits, I do not read too much fantasy. I have never been a fan of high fantasy, those works that are set in an alternate world. I struggled with The Hobbit for years before finally managing to get through the audiobook last year, for example. I do better with “low” fantasy, stories set in the recognizable world which include magical or mythological elements, which is where books like Daughter of Smoke and Bone work much better for me. The Devourers, Cannonball Read’s Fantasy book club pick, should fit into that niche as well, but it really felt genre-defying while I was reading. I described it as historical magical realism in the book club chat, which is something that falls into fantasy, like The Night Circus, which I love, but this book is also working with some larger themes that felt much more akin to lit fic.

The rest of this review is going to jump around a bunch, be warned.

The book has the structure as a story within a story. Our entrance into the larger world of werewolves/shapeshifters is Alok. Alok is a history professor out for the evening when he meets the character who will be known throughout most of the book as the Stranger. The Stranger introduces himself as half-werewolf, hypnotizes Alok with stories of his past, and in a promised second meeting convinces him to transcribe a translation of scrolls for him. The scrolls tell the stories of Fenrir, Gevaudin, and Cyrah.

All that to say that Alok’s first interaction with the stranger made me think the book was dumb. It was not, but its framing device is possibly the weakest part of the entire novel. The book was strongest during the Cyrah centered section in the middle, but the constant POV switching early in the book led me to do a lot of skimming. This, as well as some of the other weaknesses in this book feel like debut novel mistakes to me. Das was going to show us all his tricks up front, but instead it made the beginning of the book simultaneously dense and barren.

Fenrir and Gevaudin are the stories prominent shapeshifters, I felt Das positioned Fenrir both the poster boy for toxic masculinity and a complete denial of self-acceptance and knowledge. Unfortunately, I thought the structure was god-awful. The reader is presented the Alok section, and then Fenrir post rape, and then Fenrir pre rape just made for an unwelcome entry into the larger ideas of the narrative.

Das makes a big and interesting leap in his werewolf/shapeshift story by tying together several different mythologies into one larger myth. It works, but I feel like Das was dropping bread crumbs, or assuming more knowledge on his reader’s behalf than I actually had, which left a lot of unanswered questions and possibilities. The book comes in right around 300 pages, so there was room to expand into the mythos, and specifically spend more time on Cyrah from her own point of view. I wish Das was a little clearer, a little stronger in his world building.

Also, Das works identity throughout the novel and there’s an interesting concept to a second self creating a hermaphroditic nature, but then why default Male? That’s where Das lost me, and even being presented with a shifter who defaulted female did not solve my issues since she (like a lot of how Cyrah was treated) was focused entirely on her ability to mother/nourish. There could have been more here.

The werewolves used their non-humanness as a shield, as a way to protect themselves from any identity attributes that don’t fit into the accepted. Throughout the novel the very behaviors and emotions they are disavowing as human as the ones they are demonstrating. I also was struck by Gevaudin’s struggle with keeping true to his second self’s nature, but his obvious care and affection for others, which should have been something that didn’t happen. Gevaudin presents his arguments against Fenrir as “love is stupid and humans are stupid”. But, Gevaudin is in love with Fenrir and then forms a years long close emotional bond with Cyrah. But again, Das doesn’t completely follow through.

I would like to take a moment and sing the praises of Cyrah: she was amazing. Initially I was concerned that Das would blow the landing on a character first introduced by her rapist, but she’s complicated and angry, hard and fragile. The character overcame my low expectations. Cyrah’s honest appraisal of her situation, both in the micro of the rape and the macro of her life situation made her a fantastic character. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the book served her well. The reader doesn’t get to read more about her and how her friendship with Gevaudin developed after Fenrir leaves for the final time. How did she end up becoming this sort of jungle goddess? Why did her life need to end the way that it did, and what point was there in taking that much strength and power into one being?

Finally, at the end when Alok starts exploring his own gender fluidity I was left more confused than anything else.  Perhaps I simply missed the signposts that Das had laid in, I had assumed that his bisexuality was enough for his fiancée and family to shun him, but apparently, I was supposed to see this coming. Again, I think Das tried too many things, all good ideas, but he just couldn’t balance it properly He needed more pages to do all the things he was attempting. However, I don’t know that I wanted to read more pages.

I think the best parts of the book are when the various main characters -across the multiple timelines- are ruminating on what their lives mean. Cyrah is vested neither in dying or in staying alive, based on her life experiences. Fenrir and Gevaudin are struggling with staying within the stereotypes of their werewolfness. Alok and the stranger are finding their own ways to survive, and Alok is working through the fluidity of his wants and needs. This is all so interesting.

3.5, rounded down.

 

 

Moonraker (CBR9 #11)

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It would appear that I am in the minority as regards my opinions regarding Moonraker, the third James Bond novel by Sir Ian Fleming.

I didn’t much enjoy it.

Moonraker is back to the three-act structure we found in Casino Royale, and the three acts are decidedly similar. Act one is background knowledge via gambling, act two is the discovery of the mission and its true scope, act three is the part where Bond makes his moves and recovers from the physical cost of the mission (Fleming should be commended for not flinching from the realities of the physical suffering).

There are people, and people I trust (Cannonball Read’s own Halbs!), who rank this book as “the platonic ideal of a Bond novel”. In fairness, I see their arguments, I respect their arguments, but I simply do not agree that the final product should rank anything above three stars.

Arguments in favor of this book are usually based around these points. I have opinions:

  • The Baddie. Sure, there’s a believable, larger than life baddie with an amazing name. But he’s cartoonish.
  • It’s a classic Cold War anxiety plot about the lurking nuclear threat. Okay, this one they get.
  • Our heroine: she’s calm, cool, collected, and an intelligence agent that Bond respects, but also puts the moves on (spoiler: he fails!). Gala did nothing for me except for the brief scenes when she is trying to extract crucial information about the Moonraker launch and gets caught. It’s the only time I felt she had distinguishable characterization. I’ll admit she’s more like Vesper from Casino Royale than Solitaire from Live and Let Die but she’s still nowhere as good as Vesper.
  • Henchmen whose uniformity makes sense. But, everything about them felt off to me and only made sense after the preposterous explanation of the cartoonish baddie.
  • A gambling scene, which as a demonstration of understanding and of Bond’s skills works, but it stalls the book.

I’m listening to these, so some of Fleming’s wordcraft hits me differently, but my goodness Bill Nighy might be the best match yet to voice to Bond. Even when the story was loosing my interest Nighy’s voice pulled me back in.

Also, it should be noted I am a fan of the complete ridiculousness that is the movie version of Moonraker. What can I say, I love Jaws and ridiculous Roger Moore as Bond action. You can judge for yourself whether to trust my opinions.

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read books and write reviews in order to say fuck you to cancer. Join us, won’t you?