Married by Morning & Love in the Afternoon (CBR9 #34 & 35)

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The Hathaways series by Lisa Kleypas was supposed to be my “read during the year” romance series for 2017. Five books spaced out over 12 months would give me something to look forward to and get some more classic Kleypas under my belt. But then I read book three, Tempt Me at Twilight and realized that book four took place immediately thereafter and decided why bother savoring? Give me all the books right now.

I am so glad I did, and it is probably why I’ve rated Married by Morning higher than some of Our Ladies of the Kissing Books, because its links to the stories around it helped to buoy it in to steady 4.5 stars territory for me. While Love in the Afternoon takes place a few years later than the middle three books in the series, it is also aided I think by having the previous plots, characterizations, and memories of its heroine so firmly in the mind’s eye.

It is nearly impossible to summarize these two outside the other three, so I won’t bother and instead give you a series rundown.  The Hathaway family have been elevated in society by a seemingly cursed estate (the males keep dying). Leo Hathaway inherits, and as he is hell-bent on self-destruction, his sister Amelia takes over – the events of Mine Till Midnight cover this time.  Once the family gets its feet under it, and Leo chaperones second sister Win to France so that she can regain her health (and to a lesser extent his) they return and the should be skipped or at worst skimmed for the  Amelia and Cam parts book two, Seduce Me at Sunrise takes over. (Seriously, just… Merripen in that book is terrible and it feels off entirely to who that character is in the rest of the series.) In order to get the family into society for the benefit of the younger sisters, Poppy and Beatrix, a chaperone and governess is brought on, one Miss Catherine Marks. She helps, but that does not stop Poppy from marrying the manipulating hotelier Harry Rutledge in what is perhaps the most twee, and certainly has a premise that should be beyond frustrating but is instead delightful (Kleypas writes great characters).

Which brings us to book four. It is uncovered that Catherine Marks is really Harry Rutledge’s half-sister and is in hiding from something terrible in her past. She and Leo Hathaway have spent the previous two books bickering in only the way that people who are going to end up together do. Now Leo is set on discovering why Marks has been lying, and eventually putting himself on the line to protect her. Once those two are settled in (your mileage may vary on how Kleypas makes that all work) we are off to book five, a few years later, when a now 23 year old Beatrix is probably firmly on the shelf and declining another London season, but has accidentally fallen in love with a soldier in the Crimea. Now she has fallen in love with Christopher, but he thinks she is someone else, and she has sworn not to reveal the secret. That is, until it is impossible for Christopher not to realize that the woman he believed himself to have fallen in love with possess none of the qualities he fell for.

Married by Morning and Love in the Afternoon do not stand out in a plot summary, but rather in the execution of what Kleypas is after. She builds strong characters with strong familial ties, who are bucking the system (whether that be Society, Family Expectations, or the Limelight) and places them in a situation where the reader is able to happily ride along. It is difficult to find the words for why I found these two so lovely and enjoyable (partly because I put this combined review off for nearly a week), but also because what Kleypas achieves is so subtle as to be difficult to describe. I wanted more time with these characters; to see them improve over time and be strengthened by their relationships, and enjoy a good bit of smolder as well.

What greater compliment could I pay them but to say I wished to reread them almost immediately?

These books were read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it however we see fit, and raise money for the American Cancer Society in memory of a fallen friend.

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Life Moves Pretty Fast (CBR9 #33)

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I read a decent amount of non-fiction in my life, so Cannonball Read’s June Book Club book, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies was right up my alley. I also really enjoy the process, the lore, and the production decisions surrounding Hollywood and the film industry, which is why I decided to skew our non-fiction selections a certain way.

I liked this book fine, but I think Hadley Freeman (while an accomplished writer) had quite a few missteps, which prevented me from rating this anything above three stars. Freeman attempts to explain how the big movies of the 80s (which is a VERY broad starting point) are worthy of study and teach us something. She also discusses the ways in which the process of film production and marketing have changed the quality and type of movies we see. All in 300 pages.

It’s too much. Freeman’s scope prevents her from putting together a detailed looks at her chosen movie subjects, and by adhering to the “lessons taught” subtitle Freeman ends up with chapters which do not argue the point she is trying to make. There are two chapters in particular which drive home the weaknesses of the book to me: the Ghostbusters chapter and the Eddie Murphy chapter.

The Ghostbusters chapter doesn’t actually prove her point in its duration. The lesson that Freeman ascribes to the movie is “How to Be a Man”, which is honestly not even a lesson I think is accurate to the movie in the first place. But Freeman spends time wandering on and on about Top Gun (perhaps the movie she should have built this chapter around) and fails to make even the most basic connection to Ghostbusters and the lesson. In fact, in quoting Bill Murray, Freeman stumbles across the movie’s likely lesson: that friendship which doesn’t depend on misogyny or insecurity is the root of its long term appeal (139). And in a way this leads to her argument of an idealized sort of masculinity that’s neither patrician nor man-boy. Just funny and warm but she doesn’t actually connect the dots.

The other troublesome chapter, to me, is the one about Eddie Murphy. Not because of what she is discussing, the way in which the Hollywood machine functions on tokenism, but the fact that she doesn’t pick a single movie to highlight and even more egregiously, she saves this for the final chapter. If Hadley had structured her book differently, and moved this broader chapter to the beginning and used it to highlight the issues, we see in the other movies she discusses it would have served the book better and made Freeman look more in tune with the critiques she is attempting.

Other random thoughts:

  • Pretty in Pink is NOT BETTER THAN THE BREAKFAST CLUB.
  • The “perfect” aesthetic. Who else missed people looking like people on the big screen?
  • It is still so rare for a movie to be focused on the female gaze.
  • About Dirty Dancing: “It is nothing new for a women’s movie – or book, or TV show – to be dismissed by male film critics as frothy nothingness” (24)We have seen this so recently with Big Little Lies
  • The Princess Bride becomes more than a RomCom because it’s a multilayered look at love, particularly in the story lines of Fezzik and Inigo: good people sometimes do bad things, but are still good, have stories of their own, and are capable of love (49)
  • Woody Allen has always been gross.
  • In When Harry Met Sally, Sally doesn’t perform any of the three usual tasks of women in RomComs – pine desperately for the man, make the man grow up by being a nagging shrew, or be liberated from her frigid bitchiness (95)
  • We cannot bear as a society that each generation being more successful than the last by seeming guarantee is over (Ferris Bueller wouldn’t be made now).
  • We haven’t had a classic womens movie since the 90s: Fried Green Tomatoes and A League of Their Own. The Help doesn’t count since it deals in the whites solving racism trope (171) they have instead been replaced by negative sisterhood movies
  • Parents in teen films have evolved as teens have from someone to be aspired to, to someone to be distanced from, to sentimentalized, but in the 80s good films captured parental figures as flawed, honest people.

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

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (CBR9 #32)

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The great re-read continues.

I feel that I owe this story an apology. I have long stated that its movie counterpart was my least favorite in the series (yes, even more so than all of that camping in movie 7 which I’ve also come around to), and had let that color my memory of the actual book. Friends – I do not remotely hate this book! I might even love it. I’ve been debating with myself for days whether this 4.5 rounds up or down.

In my review of Career of Evil, I extolled Rowling’s ability to build out her universes, and go back to the seeds left in the beginning to grow the middle. This is, perhaps (maybe?), her single greatest strength as an author because she also does it with the Harry Potter books from the very beginning. Here at the halfway point we are seeing the fruits of those earlier seeds, and more seeds are being laid for the final harvest in book seven.

Goblet of Fire is the turning point of the entire series. Voldemort returns and we discover the Wizarding World is much larger, and much darker than we had previously expected. New dangers are introduced, new components of people’s characters are unveiled, and we get our first real taste of the unforgiveable curses. J. K. Rowling also foreshadows the HECK out of this book. Whether its Voldemort telling Wormtail that other of his followers would give their right hands to be of aid, or alluding to the lengths he has gone to extend his lifetime (horcruxes, anyone?) the reader is being guided to what we need to be looking for.

I think when I first read these books I couldn’t fully fathom how Rowling could make this fantasy series so complex and expertly planned out in terms of plot and world building while also keeping it appropriate for its audience. My brain just refused to acknowledge the work and artistry that goes into this kind of writing.   As I went through this time, I can see that she was confident of the story from the time she started writing the first book. Her attention to detail is more than impressive even at this point in the series, and the variety and authenticity of her characters are perhaps underrated even now. Every single character (even inanimate ones) is fully developed, or has the potential to be if Rowling had decided to pursue another avenue. All the pieces are in place, all she would have to do is go back to her files and make a left hand turn instead of a right.

Goblet of Fire is a long and dense book with so many plots and subplots as to make a person a bit crazy, and if I don’t end up over 2,500 words in this review it will be a minor miracle. I will be attempting this review in chunks, so here we go.

Goblet of Fire collage

The Goblet of Fire and Tri-Wizard drama:

The book is named for the wizarding competition that Harry will be forced to compete in during his fourth year. But, we spend the first third of the book knowing nothing about it. Instead, Rowling spends time building out her world by having Harry attend the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys. (A moment of comic relief comes early in the book when the Weasley men attempt to retrieve Harry from Privet Drive via the floo network. Too bad the Dursleys have a walled off fireplace with an insert. A scene that I wish had made it into the movie.) While Harry is there we are introduced to portkeys, Cedric and his father, veelas, Viktor Krum, Mr. Crouch, and Weezy, all of whom will be vitally important to the plot. We also see the unrest of the Death Eaters and the beginnings of their danger to those we love.

Once our characters are at school we are introduced to the tournament and the competing schools Durmstrang and Beauxbatons – I forgot they were both co-ed since the movie makes them single gender schools! However, Fleur is the rare character that I actually prefer in the movies. She’s a bit of a weak competitor, which if Harry hadn’t been aided he would also have been. But it was disappointing to have a character who doesn’t compete well and is seen almost exclusively through the male gaze.

As to the actual Tri-Wizard tournament. I still don’t really like it. It is the weak point in the story – not the intrigue surrounding how Harry got pulled into this nightmare in the first place, but the actual tasks. I couldn’t find myself invested fully in the tasks themselves or their various outcomes. What did matter to me was how being forced to compete effected Harry’s relationships. His fight with Ron made me feel terribly for both of them. Rowling perfectly captures the feeling of anger and frustration on both sides, which are entirely relatable to anyone who has ever experienced a similar situation of confusion and mistrust with your closest friend. We can see why Ron is so hurt, and Hermione does a respectable job of navigating the waters without becoming too firmly entrenched on one side or the other. However, that does not stop her from being relentlessly supportive of Harry, which is great because he desperately needs all the help he can get.

When Ron and Harry finally get over their fight, and the way each handles it following the “Caught on, have you? Took you long enough” remark from Harry was priceless. Ron can be a bit himself, but then so can Harry as he completely ignores Hermione and Sirius’s valid concerns. All the danger signs are there: his dreams, painful scar, and his name mysteriously out of the Goblet. But Harry is Rowling’s stubborn fourteen year old boy who is more used to being alone than being supported, even this far in (and we know that mindset will continue) and he cannot quite accept help the first time it is offered and he simply doesn’t want to live in a world where he’s constantly in danger. Even the pretending will be taken away from him by the end of this book.

Cedric’s death hit me a lot harder than it ever has before. I’ve always felt that his good guy character was a little underdeveloped by Rowling, and even though we get so much more in the book (him reprimanding his father for being belittling to Harry at the World Cup), he is in so many ways still a cipher. But, that serves the endgame well. We are sad to see such a positive force lost to the world, but it allows Dumbledore’s end of term speech to resonate perhaps a little more as we are able to place our own thoughts of Cedric-like people into our mind’s eye.

“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

Rowling gets a bad rap sometimes for the way and amount of characters who die in this series. Its more that she isn’t afraid to show that good, loyal, moral characters will die in the pursuit of defeating Lord Voldemort and all he stands for. We lose Cedric, we have lost others before, and we will lose more before it is all over. Fear and inaction have effects, but sometimes we lose innocents who did not realize that they were fighting in the first place.

The Mystery and the Media

Again, because it has been so long since I actually read the book, I had forgotten that the identity of the person who placed Harry’s name in the cup was a mystery until the bitter end of the tournament. It is one of Rowling’s best-laid mysteries in the series, I think upon reflection. The layers of deception and the way she layers in our knowledge over the length of the book (I have no idea how many hours I listened to, but it was 17 discs worth) keep us in the dark and confused just long enough to keep the suspense up. So, even though I found the tournament itself uninspiring, there was still plenty to unpack.

We also have the problem of the media in the character of one Rita Skeeter. Her reporting is the stuff to make readers of this series seriously doubt anything they read in the media. Which lately, could be a good thing.  I love to hate her and I think adding her in as a foe was an important move in this book. She inherently broadens the scope and gives us a new adult to doubt and distrust as the adults in Harry’s life are getting better at communicating with him about the things that are important. Don’t get too excited though, it won’t last to the end.

But Rita Skeeter’s end, and Hermione’s triumph over a vicious beetle, is the stuff of legend.

Also, we have to deal with the fact that Lord Voldemort is back and he, along with his death eaters, will dominate the remainder of the series. The entire scene after Cedric’s death is even more frightening to me now, in my mid-30s, than it was when I read this book 13 years ago. Perhaps most importantly the refusal of the Minister of Magic to believe and accept what he is told, and the destroying of evidence (in this case the mind of Barty Crouch) is even more frightening to me now. The world we live in is also a dark and scary place, Rowling was just getting us ready.

Dobby, Hermione, and the Will of the Good:

Dobby, and his life as a free elf, are centerpieces to the B storylines running through the book. I put off discussing Dobby in my review of Chamber of Secrets because I knew he reappeared in a big way here. Rowling uses a character we met two books ago to give us a toe-hold into the larger environment of the story, easily moving her readers along the path of greater understanding. Rowling is aware that she has an audience of young readers, and she continues  to use her platform for good with the introduction to Winky, the house elf for the Crouches, as well as the elves working in the kitchens of Hogwarts and Hermione’s warm hearted, but perhaps not fully thought, S.P.E.W. initiative for the “freeing” of all house elves.

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The physical world of Hogwarts is expanded, including the way to the Hufflepuff common room and the kitchens. Hermione becomes in this book focused on the welfare of the elves, and with the formation of S.P.E.W. Rowling is weaving additional layers for her readers to think about. Do we treat people a certain way because we think it is what they want? Or be being fair and equitable? This all brings us to:

Hermione Granger, lady hero. I love how much Hermione stands up for what she believes in. She wants justice for the house-elves, she will not let Ron get away with being an idiot (”So basically, you’re going to take the best-looking girl who’ll have you, even if she’s completely horrible?”). She will also not be made to feel less than, she moves through life as confidently as she can, knowing that if she works hard enough, tries her best, and doesn’t sink to the level of her enemies (Draco, Pansy, Snape) and instead will rise above.

And Everything Else:

The Yule Ball continues to make me happy because it is the perfect microcosm of all the things teenagers love and hate. Parties, food, music, dancing, getting dressed up. Some love, some hate, all have opinions. I also take umbrage with those people that don’t like the Hermione/Ron endgame (spoiler?)  because Rowling makes it so obvious that Ron and Hermione are developing romantic feelings for each other alongside their friendship, and they just don’t want to admit it because teenage reasons. It continues to give me all the feels, especially their fight (“Next time there’s a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!”).

I also get a kick out of the fact that Harry thinks Hermione is a girl he has never seen before. I also love that once Harry and Hermione talk about it, she explains the work that went into making that look happen and how its just too much bother to do it all the time and Harry just lets it be. Because it’s entirely Hermione’s decision what she looks like.

I also got a bit weepy at the end of the book, when Harry’s chosen family is all there. Molly Weasley, Bill, Ron, Hermione, and Sirius. When he chooses to invest in Fred and George and give him the winnings from the tournament since the Diggorys won’t take it.

Because I love all things Molly Weasley, I got a laugh out of how Mrs. Weasley is very disapproving of Bill’s looks. I love that Bill stood up for himself and was able to bring the outside world to bear with his mother, highlighting that no one at Gringott’s was bothered by his hair or earring, thank you very much. It was a nice thing to throw in there, that even young adults, five years out of Hogwarts are still defining their boundaries with their parents and it should be something the younger readers are on the lookout for (it matters what your boss thinks, but not necessarily what your parent thinks).

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

Hagrid and Madam Maxine. How could you not root for our boy Hagrid as he gets himself fancied up for his lady friend, only to have her turn on him when she finds out that he is half Giant? The entire scene in the garden broke my heart.

For such a dark book and series, Rowling wasn’t afraid to bring the humor. For example, when is Vicky short for Viktor? When Ron’s jealous. Socks that screamed loudly when they became too smelly-Harry’s sweetest gift to Dobby and that Dobby calls Ron “Wheezy!”

As we leave this book we are set to head into the Order of the Phoenix. We know why Harry can’t just stay with the Weasleys, even though Molly wants him to, we see Dumbledore sending out the word to bring in those that are loyal and will fight against Dumbledore even though the Ministry officially will not, and Snape being sent to work as a double agent again. These books take a long time to read and for me, a long time to review, but I will be starting in on book five in a couple weeks.

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

This review is preceded by The Prisoner of Azkaban and will be followed by The Order of the Phoenix which until this reread has always been my favorite. We’ll see if it stays at the top of the leaderboard or is supplanted by another.

Wonder Woman and Break from the Usual

Mostly this blog space is dominated by my work for Cannonball Read. Over the years more and more of my free time and energy has been placed in that wonderful community and our goals.

Over there, many are comics aficionados. It was never something that worked for me as a reader. I did not grow up going to the comic book shop, I never read the stories of the legions of heroes.

I also spent my cartoon years in a Disney rabbit hole. Gummie Bears. The Rescuers. Darkwing Duck. What can I say, I’m a child of the early 80s. Batman: the Animated Series was just not on my radar even though by rights it should have been.

But as an adult I have found and crafted an interest in the mechanics of pop culture. I am endlessly fascinated with actor’s processes, the production web, black listed scripts, Hollywood history, media representation, and the comings and goings of each year’s movie offerings by major studios. I have probably consumed 6 hours of podcasts and many articles on Alien: Covenant and I have never watched a single Alien movie. But the process, the lore, and the production decisions interest me. I’m the gal having an in depth discussion about sequels v universe stories with friends and colleagues, regardless of whether I’ve watched the product in question. The theory is enough.

It also means that over the past decade (thanks Marvel Cinematic Universe) that I have educated myself in the worlds of comic characters. I am by no means a scholar on the subject, but I am conversant. My experience as an MCU fan though, has taught me that sometimes the theory isn’t always enough.

Marvel has its fair share of powerful female characters. Sometimes we even get to see them on screen. But in its 25 years of existence Marvel Studios (formerly Marvel Films) has never produced a female led property. Reasons are given, excuses are made, media forecasters have their opinions and we are left without even this much in representation.

I admit to being late to fully understanding the disparity in representation and its cornerstone in modern feminist movements. As a young person I had Leia. She already was. Many of the books I read as a young person (after being a late reader to begin with) were female focused and driven. My movie and television intake was relatively limited, but in all honesty the “token girl” in movies and television shows didn’t feel weird to me because I was so often the only girl hanging out with the boys in my neighborhood.

Then we moved and I went through puberty and I started to see the world through slightly different eyes. But in my immediate life I was more concerned with racial issues with my best friend being of a different race than me, and dealing with constant blow back in some cultural arenas (that friend and I – over the course of 26 years – have rarely NOT been separated in a crowd. People assume we aren’t together).

But now my focus has been brought to seeing women as we are, and as heroes. Jessica Chastain in the closing ceremonies at Cannes just railed against the way women are portrayed, still, in media. 

So I will be going to see Wonder Woman. Even though I have never seen the 1970s series or read a single word over her many stories.

It might feel small, like a pebble tossed into the ocean, and in some ways it is. But, it is also me using my limited consumer dollars to support something I believe in. The MCU has done its fans a disservice, and for that I will take my money to the competitor for the first time since the current model DC Cinematic Universe has been underway. I was going either way, but I am ecstatic that the reviews are so glowing. It will make those dollars even more sweetly used.

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