Beyond Magenta (CBR8 #66)

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Over the past few years I have begun to pay attention to reading books by or about members of the LGBTQ community. In general, I’ve tried to be more aware of my reading habits and expand them generally. It was a boon to me then that one of the tasks for Read Harder challenge was read a book by or about a person who identifies as transgender. I shortlisted three, but decided to go with Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin as it is also on the ALA’s top ten most challenged books of 2015 list.

When scanning the list of frequently challenged books several themes present themselves, and boil down to several ideas for me. One of them is that people are afraid of exposing children to values that they deem to be sinful or wrong, so of course many of the books that are challenged are focused around offensive language, sexuality, homosexuality, and the like. The list of reasons submitted for Beyond Magenta’s challenges include: being anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”). I wish I could say I was surprised.

If I may pull out my soap box for just a minute, by refusing to consider conversations about any of the items above you are only going to Other the group, and that never ends well. I digress.

On its merits Beyond Magenta is a three-star book for me. Kuklin made the choice when working with the teens featured in this book to record conversations and then working with each teen to craft them into essays told from their point of view, with some insights from Kuklin presented in a different text within each essay. While I applaud the decision to place the story into the hands of its owners, and not try to translate it through her own cisgender and heterosexual view of the world it unfortunately left the book a little unpolished. It also hurt the book to pretend that these responses weren’t crafted from interview questions when the author tells us as much in the afterword.

But the biggest problem I had with the book was simply this: it was a book written for other cisgendered readers which focuses heavily on the bodies, hormones, and battles for acceptance (which is a teenage obstacle no matter the gender identity). It does not however focus on the emotional growth of coming to terms with their trans identity, or any of the many other facets of the lives of the interviewees. Perhaps Kuklin’s scope, focusing on teens (although at least a few of her interviewees were by the end in their early 20s) hampered her in this regard, but unfortunately there were many times when I felt that the soap opera people assume transgender teens are having was spotlighted a bit too much.

Still, there are also positives: perhaps most importantly this book shows a diversity of transgender teens. Of the six There is an equal representation of two transgender women, two transgender men, and two gender non-conforming teens. Likewise, at least half of the interviewees are people of color, and all six come from a variety of socioeconomic and familial backgrounds.

I would suggest this book perhaps as a very introductory book, but I think Transparent which I read and reviewed last year is a better place to start.

It Ended Badly (CBR8 #65)

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This book has reviewed several times for the Cannonball Read and is how it ended up on my radar at all (which is how oh so many books end up in front of me). I am a history nerd so a rundown of thirteen historical relationships that did not end well sounded great to me. I have to tell you, I slammed through this book in two sittings.

Quick review: a witty, friendly, informally written but well informed gathering of information that you should absolutely read as a palate cleanser or any other quick read format.

Longer review: All of the above is true, but that doesn’t mean that this book isn’t without its flaws. There are flaws. The tone of this book worked for me perfectly. This is not intended to be a serious historical monograph, this is a longform listicle. AND THAT’S OKAY. Any author who uses parenthetical asides to share personal information about themselves or point out the only time we are likely to feel sympathy for a historical figure is my kind of author. But I understand that this is not for everyone.

The thing that has me rounding this book down to a three star rating instead of the four stars many others have given is that while I was entertained, there were definitely chapters which went on much too long. Looking at you Henry VIII. That’s a well-known tidbit, those two beheadings, we could have moved along. The Nero, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Timothy Dexter, and Edith Wharton chapters were the most interesting to me personally. Eleanor rocks, Nero and Dexter were crazypants, and Wharton just made me sad for her and reminded me I still need to read and/or watch Age of Innocence. You can bet that’s going on our vote for the next Cannonball Read Book Club (voting for Classics with movie/TV adaptations should happen sometime around October 15…)

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

The Brutal Telling (CBR8 #64)

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My chief complaint when I read A Rule Against Murder this summer was that while it was an Inspector Armand Gamache novel with all that entails, and it featured some of the characters who populate Three Pines, the book was not set there and I felt the lack of the world that Louise Penny had spent three books crafting. Well, in book five I got my wish to return to Three Pines, and Penny makes the reader pay mightily for the return.

Mild spoilers for the book and series, I suppose, from this point forward.

Louise Penny crafts incredible prose. I have chosen to listen to the Ralph Cosham read audiobooks for as long as they last (through book 10, I believe) and sometimes while listening I actually lose track of the plot threads because my brain is busy savoring the way the words are put together. The way Penny uses language to describe art, music, and food is simply sumptuous. It is by far the best part of the books, followed closely by the character of Armand Gamache himself.

At the end of book three, The Cruelest Month, the Arnot case has been put to rest and we are left with Gamache in what is perhaps his first time truly being post-Arnot. The books move away from the inner workings and conspiracies of the Sûreté du Québec, and instead focus on the solving of the crimes at hand. I find myself missing that side of the narrative as books four and five have narrowed their focus to the cases at hand. There is some expansion of the story of the residents of Three Pines, specifically the Morrows, but it takes a back seat to the mystery.

In The Brutal Telling Gamache is called in when a body is found at Olivier’s bistro. From the beginning the reader knows that Olivier knew the dead man, whose name we do not know, while Gamache does not. Over the course of the book we watch Gamache, with his team of Beauvoir and Lacoste, and the new man Moran, piece together the seeming impossible mystery of the hermit, his cabin filled with unspeakable treasures, and who moved his body after his death, not to mention who actually murdered him.

At the end of the book I’m not sure the man who was found guilty of the crime of manslaughter actually did it, and there are plenty of characters in the book who agree with me, perhaps even Gamache. It’s interesting to watch a character we trust implicitly, Gamache, have no choice but to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it means arresting someone he considers a friend.

This book wasn’t perfect, there was a decidedly ridiculous portion of time where highly esteemed cryptographer doesn’t just do a very simple check to solve a code, and when the thing is solved it matters not to the overall case, it felt like a needless eddy in a book full of interesting eddies. There is also the problem of the case left seemingly dangling. My personal plan for these books is to read them in the time of year they are set, which means I won’t be reading Bury Your Dead until January and that is a long time to wait to find out what happens to Three Pines with one of its own in jail, and Inspector Gamache left with an unsatisfying conclusion to this case.

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

Waiting for Clark & Served Hot (CBR8 #62-63)

Mrs. Julien’s review of Waiting for Clark reminded me that I had picked up two Annabeth Albert books following ellepkay’s reviews, and should probably read them in between library books. While owning my romance reading habits, I have also been attempting to be more LGBTQ inclusive in my reading overall (with varying degrees of success), and felt overdue in that department.

Let’s start with the good.

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Waiting for Clark is based on a prompt and image given to Albert as part of the Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s “Love is an Open Road” event last year where members were asked to write a story prompt inspired by a photo of their choice. Albert got:

Dear Author,
My friends and I love cosplay, and this year we’re going all out for our city’s con. Yup, we’re going to go as members of the Justice League. I’m going as Batman, but I can’t figure out who’s going as a Superman. My friends are being a little cagey. What’s going on? How did I go from not knowing who Superman is to making out with the guy?

Photo Description:
In a cartoon drawing, Batman and Superman are locked in an embrace, kissing. Superman is taller and clutching Batman to him. Batman has more muscles and has visible tattoos on his arms. Superman has broader shoulders and dark hair. Batman is stretching up to meet him and has one foot kicked behind him. Behind them is a graffiti-covered wall, and Superman’s rainbow-lined cape swirls around them. The prompter specified that the picture is two men in cosplay costumes at a Comic Con convention.

Kept short and crisply paced, this story (under 100 pages) shows a balanced approach to its character development, giving us flashbacks to their college days and rooted in the here and now. Clark and Bryce (yep, Albert went all in on the Batman/Superman theme) had feelings for each other, but between not want to ruin their friendship and roommate relationship, dating other people, or living on different sides of the country if not ocean – things just didn’t work out. Enter our meet cute 5 years later, and Clark shows back up in his life, at a Comic Con with Bryce dressed as Batman and Clark as Superman.  Bryce doesn’t know how to trust it Clark, and Clark has to convince Bryce that they should give a relationship a try.

I appreciated the second chance tropes running through, the rounded out world of background characters, the steamy sex scenes (this does not have cuddling like The Hating Game), and the fact that both characters were out.

Three Stars

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As to the less good, the other Albert short that I picked up based on ellepkay’s review was Served Hot, first in the Portland Heat series. This one is the story of Robby ad David. Robby is a coffee cart owner and David is one of his regular customers, who walks several blocks, past several other coffee options, to see Robby. Set up with seasonal check-ins, it’s the story of Robby and David dating and falling for each other, and unpacking ALL of David’s considerable small-town closeted baggage.

This one had too much angst for me, too much trouble with communication, and ultimately suffered at only being told from Robby’s perspective. I can appreciate that Albert is trying to tell a variety of experiences, and that Robby is a POC protagonist (woo!) but this one felt like a slog, and nothing cruising it at right around 100 pages should feel that way. I don’t know that I’ll be checking back in with Albert’s writing any time soon.

2 stars.

These books were read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (CBR8 #61)

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The Read Harder Challenge this year included a task to read a play. I  never really enjoy reading plays, and I have read quite a few over the years. In high school, as an IB kid, I read no less than 10 Shakespeare plays. It was… grueling? It is this particular understanding of myself that made me immediately turn away from the idea of studying to be a dramaturg while my friend Gina was in grad school at Yale.

But, I signed up for the challenge, so I decided that reading something I had already seen and enjoyed was the ticket, enter my love of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I have seen the movie, I’ve seen it live, my friend has worked on it, and I am often guilty of making jokes at these characters’ expense. The reading experience was enjoyable (or as enjoyable as I had any hope of it being), and it was fun to read the stage directions, and remembering how different versions I have seen have either been faithful or not to them.

For those not in the know, Stoppard created a work which follows the easily mixed up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet and sees what happens to them off-page. Think, Longbourn. In addition to that layer, Stoppard creates a dialogue with the audience about art, and its limitations.

The play, through one interpretation, can be seen as the attempts of Ros and Guil to come to terms with Shakespeare, who is standing in for the forces greater than ourselves. As the ghosts haunt Hamlet, so too does the ghost of Shakespeare haunt Ros and Guil, through the course of the three acts of this work they struggle to act independently of Shakespeare’s plot, to operate outside of Shakespearean boundaries, and much of the play centers on the potential of the characters in direct opposition to the limitations imposed by their original author. Stoppard includes another group, besides the Hamlet characters themselves, to serve as foil to this idea: the Tragedians who are all too accepting of their roles.

This work won four Tonys including Best Play. If you haven’t seen or read it, I say give it a shot.

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

Devil in Winter (CBR8 #60)

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My affection for Lisa Kleypas was slow in arriving. I was generally pleased with Secrets of a Summer Night, my only real drawback being the secondary storyline with the heroine’s mother. Simon and Annabelle were a delight. It Happened One Autumn was a step in the wrong direction for me, while the individual characters of Lillian and Westcliff worked I was bored during the first half and had serious reservations about the characterization of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. Trusting other romance readers, I kept going, but I was nervous.

Spoilers for book two:

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You see, in that book St. Vincent is part of a kidnapping scheme and threatens marital rape in order to get Lillian’s compliance. It was… a problem for me in that book. While I do enjoy that Kleypas writes with more historical accuracy than many of the other romance writers I’ve come across, it doesn’t mean that ALL of the historically accurate things are wanted on the page, or that I felt at all comfortable with the idea that I would be asked, in the very next book, to forgive the character this enormous transgression since all romance books end with a coupled happily ever after.

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But somehow, Kleypas made it work. Or I’m a sucker, and I think I’m okay with either answer.

Devil in Winter picks up immediately following the events of It Happened One Autumn, and our third wallflower Evie has decided that the only possible solution to her familial problems is the safety of marriage to St. Vincent, knowing full well what he just attempted. Evie knows it will likely cost her the only friends she has, but her circumstances are that dire. The first two books in the series hint at Evie’s family situation, but this book elucidates the very real problems of being under someone else’s hand and their wishing you only harm and no care for you as an individual with feelings, emotions, or rights. Evie’s stand for herself and the deal she strikes with St. Vincent completely pulled me in to her world, and through her eyes we get the redemption of the epitome of rakes.

I was sold on these two during the very early parts of the novel, as they head to Gretna Green and everything after that point was just bonus points. There was a side plot I could do without and I’m sure on rereads I’ll just skip it entirely. I was however very excited to find out that Cam Rohan appears in the Hathaway series and am even more intent on finishing this series so I can move onto that one next year.

To sum up, Kleypas sets up a romance where each character gets to find the best version of themselves, both leads are sexual equals (not in experience, but in openness and appetite), and secondary characters are developed but do not overtake the plot. And its steamy. SOLD.

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

Live and Let Die (CBR8 #59)

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I had fallen off pace for my goal this year, and an Audible coupon delivered a few, short, James Bond books to my queue. Surely I could knock out an under 7-hour book in under a week of commuting? Well, that plan only works if the book is enjoyable and you can make yourself listen to it.

A quick note: my problems with this book were not the narration stylings of Rory Kinnear. That has been a problem with other audios I’ve listened to this year, but it was not the trouble with this book. The series I’m listening to is recorded by actors (Dan Stevens read Casino Royale), and Kinnear’s experience with the Bond movie franchise seems to have influenced his delivery. It was occasionally paced a bit slowly, but I think that had more to do with the text itself than his interpretation of it.

My biggest issue with reading this book, and what placed it all the way down at two stars, is the pacing. Casino Royale had a nice three act structure that kept it moving right along, and kept the experience easy. These are spy novels with derring-do, but they aren’t behemoth texts. As I settled in initially with Live and Let Die, I was anticipating the same basic structure, which honestly befits its 1954 publication date. Initially, things were on track. What I would coin Act 1, the info dump, opened with us picking up with Bond several months after the events of Casino Royale, and learning along with him the intricacies of the Harlem underworld, Haiti, and voodoo.

But then Acts 2 & 3 never properly materialized. Based on my expectations of the previous book, and the movies which were then based on them, there should have been a meet cute, spy shenanigans, and then escalation and romance. These things happened, but in an extremely disjointed and overly languorous manner.

There were other things which troubled as well, one being the racial language used (which I know full well is of a time and place but I can’t make my brain not be 62 years later) and the other being the instalove between Bond and Solitaire. I just… I think I’m still loyal to Vesper and annoyed that Fleming used “love” for both these. Vesper and Bond felt earned, Solitaire feels like arm candy. There, I said it.

Also, I missed some of the stuff from the movie which was invented just for it. Basically anything with Sheriff Pepper. He might be a problematic character, but he brings some sorely needed levity.

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The bayou around New Orleans in the movie stepped in for Florida in the book. Oh! Which reminds me of my favorite “pull you out of the narrative” moment… Rory Kinnear totally mispronouncing Ocala, where I used to live. OH-cala, guys. Or Slow-cala from those of us who resided there.

We’ll see if things pick up with Moonracker read by Bill Nighy later this autumn.

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