How Not to Fall & How Not to Let Go (CBR9 #43 & 44)

A note before we get started: I am reviewing both parts of Emily Foster’s duology The Belhaven Series. I will likely get a bit spoilery about these two books, as their author set out to do an interesting thing, and did it.

These books were on my radar because of Malin’s reviews from last year (#BlameMalin). Well, specifically her review of the first book, How Not to Fall. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the book ends both on a cliffhanger, and that it is not a HEA. This is rather rare in Romancelandia, really. I knew from Malin that the story would continue in the second book, so I decided to wait a bit and read them close together, even though I had not read her review of the second book, other than noting that she rated the book highly. Once I finished How Not to Fall in less than 48 hours, I immediately bought the second book How Not to Let Go and started it, needing to see how these characters continued to develop and where the story would go. That book however, took much longer to read.

The two books are quite dissimilar, while managing to tell one story. The first book is in many ways a quick, sexy, erotica leaning romp with bright scientists dealing with a power and age dynamic. Sexily. At about the two-thirds mark though, the emotional undertone of the story breaks wide open and our main characters, Annie and Charles, are forced to reckon with his demons and her naiveté.   They also have to deal with love, and what happens when it cannot be returned even where it exists.

The second book, How Not to Let Go, is structured completely differently from its predecessor. The narration moves between the two characters, where previously we had only gotten the story from Annie’s perspective. It is also a reckoning with trauma, and rebuilding a relationship that nearly destroyed both of its participants based on its depth. It also takes place over the course of two years, while the first covers approximately two months. As I said, very different books. But, somehow it all comes together in a believable manner, even though we’re dealing with extreme wealth and once in a lifetime intellects.

What really got me though, was what I learned after I was done reading these books. You see, all that Emily Foster accomplishes, and it is quite a lot, was done with purpose and precision as an author. She writes on her blog that this entire enterprise was in response to the trash that was 50 Shades of Grey I have never read those books, I don’t have a desire to. My mother and sister have, and when I asked my mother about it at the time she turned to me and said “eh, it’s not good smut, it’s just there.” I think beyond “just being there” it is also damaging to women and Ms. Foster (really Emily Nagoski writing under a pen name) lays it out beautifully.

“It delivers the story – even if the story is awful. And that is not nothing. But the plot fucks up because in the end Ana defies the biology of attachment in order to do what the plot demands she does: a woman who has spent 450 pages worried that she made a guy mad is not going to FIGHT after being spanked with her consent. When she’s in pain, she’ll turn TOWARD her attachment object, not away. That’s what mammals – especially insecurely attached mammals – do. But the plot structure required that she turn away, and so that’s what she does, despite its biological implausibility. And THAT’s why this book is bullshit. Or rather, it’s the final piece of bullshit in The Worst Book I Have Ever Finished. Grey is Ragey McRagington, Ana is the most dishwater heroine I’ve ever read (which is, I suppose, a kind of distinction), and their relationship is abusive, which makes all the sex gross.” Foster goes on to explain the biology of her argument on her blog.

So, feeling so enraged by that book, Foster set out to prove that the basic structure James’ utilized could be done successfully, without devolving into an abusive mess.  She set out to write a novel that featured a virgin college senior experiencing her sexual awakening with an older, more experienced, powerful man who treated her with dignity and respect and affection. What we all got out of the equation is a  hopeful story that is pro-woman, pro-sex, and pro-pleasure. Not only did she do that, but she took her work in her “real life” and grew the story out, while sticking to the structural limitations she gave herself by mimicking the structure of 50 Shades (having to end on a cliffhanger, for example).

The last bit I’ll mention is that this author was already on my radar for her non-fiction work. Under her real name, Emily Nagoski she is the author of Come As You Are a book about the science of female pleasure. That has moved up the list as well.

I realize that I’ve been pretty vague on details after all, and I’ve decided that’s okay.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, review it how we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Before the Fall (CBR9 #42)

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Last month over on Oohlo in discussing the season three finale of Noah Hawley’s television program Fargo I had the following comment: “Hawley is also never just telling us a plot, he’s crafting a story. Not everything we see moves the story along, but everything means something, grows out the larger themes.” As I was reading Before the Fall, I had the same feeling about his literary work.

On the surface this is a story about a plane crash and the people who perished and survived. But there’s much more just under the surface (yep I’m leaving that one in) as the story gets past the initial plot points of crash and survival of painter Scott Burroughs and four year old J.J. Bateman.  Embedded in the book are at least one hero, more than one “bad” guy, as well as survival’s guilt, and how we choose to view and consume media about people.

There have been several reviews of this book on Cannonball Read already, but I find myself agreeing most closely with bonnie in my overall thoughts about the book. For instance, I agree that this is actually badly billed as a suspense novel, or really as a thriller. I would perhaps argue that it is closer in execution to Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books. There is something we don’t know, and the characters in this book are rooted in truth. Hawley does an admirable job of giving enough backstory and detail on each character that they become individuals in your mind, rather than a stream of names and titles, much the same way he is able to create characters in his television work.

Once we move past the initial telling of the lead up to the crash and Scott and J.J.’s survival, the rest of the novel travels between the past and the present. The questions of who these people truly are, why were they on this plane, and what caused the crash unfold as the survivors and the investigators piece together what happened and how to move forward.

While this novel hit some fantastic strengths (its commentary on toxic masculinity) it also had a lackluster resolution and was probably in deep need of another round of edits focusing on pacing. There are some truly interesting components in this novel, but I’m landing on a 3.5 star rating.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it however we want (with some guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

When Life Happened (CBR9 #41)

This is the story of a book.

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This was a book which I would never have found on my own, but Cannonball Read‘s dynamic reviewing duo PattyKates located it in their literary travels and recommended, nay demanded, that we citizens of Romancelandia experience.

But alas, it was not available to me via library or Nook and I thought I would perhaps be left out of the reading and the discussion. But, our very own Prolixity Julien procured the book for me via Kindle and once more I was back in the game. Read over the course of thirty hours while I was fighting off a migraine, my thoughts are scattered and a bit fevered.

This book should not work. It simply should not be able to pull you in based on what happens in the first half of the story. Cheating is not something one expects to encounter in a book that purports to be a romance. There are some who have tried to read When Life Happened who could not get through it, and I cannot fault them. I wonder if the fact that I knew there was a twist kept me involved long enough that I was won over by the characters themselves, not their actions. I also wonder how much of my programming as a reader had me accepting things I would not otherwise. I was simply along for a story, and what if this one fell a little more along something that would be found in the regular literary fiction aisle, but with a romance feel?

With that feeling in mind, Jewel E. Ann (that has got to be someone named Julianne using a pen name, right?) weaves in larger philosophical discussion about the gray areas in life and desire versus love. Somehow, it all came together to form a story I enjoyed.

Some overview thoughts:

  1. Even though I knew there was a twist coming I didn’t guess that was it. I actually backed up and read it again to be sure I read it correctly. This is not the first book I’ve read that employed this twist, so there was a moment of “oh, THIS” but I kept right on going.
  2. I am struggling with not hating the cheating that happened in the first half of the book. This should have pissed me off. But the author did a darn good job of laying out the emotions and reservations and guilt all around. She didn’t make all parties likeable, but she did a decent job of laying in the emotional lives of her characters.
  3. The female lead doesn’t have a job in the second half of the book, and it’s just a bit squicky given the other aspects of the plot.
  4. There is ridiculous wealth, but the character with it is just as interesting as his counterpart, if not more so, and that was very important to my overall enjoyment of the book.
  5. The plotting and timelines are intricate; this book could easily have been twice as long. I feel or this books editor.

I don’t know that I would suggest reading this to any of you, but there is an interesting perspective to be gained if you feel like giving it a chance.

This book was read and reviewed as a part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, we review as we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Evicted (CBR9 #40)

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In April of 2017 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. I am relieved to discover that, because the idea that there was a better, more eloquent, well researched, and presented book released in the competition period I would have eaten my hat. Or your hat, I have trouble finding one that fits me.

Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and a MacArthur “Genius” grant winner, which is shorthand for this dude is awesome (he’s in the same class as Ta-Nehisi Coates). This book is based on his research and creation of the Milwaukee Area Renters Survey where the team he headed examined court records and conducted extensive fieldwork interviews to build a complex picture of what the high rates of eviction do to disrupt the lives of low-income Americans, and specifically African Americans. Desmond is shedding light on how entrenched poverty and racial inequality are built and sustained by housing policies in large American cities.

Evictions used to be rare. But now with many poor families spending more than half of their income on rent (and you can forget owning a home) and evictions becoming an ordinary occurrence for which families plan for which, is demonstrated by the stories of the eight families Desmond highlights in Evicted.

Desmond brought fresh eyes to the survival strategies of struggling families, overturning the longstanding assumption that people in economic disaster turn to their extended family for assistance. Policymakers and pundits have long stated that family and faith should be able to step in, but what if you don’t have the perfect nuclear family they imagine you have? What if your kin or faith family is in no position to help you? Desmond has the answer for that: today, poor families often form intense, but brief relationships with strangers, creating a network of “disposable ties” to meet needs. Near strangers watch over each other’s homes, children, and decide to cohabitate based on need and these relationships come apart as fast as they went together, further destabilizing primary relationships needed for both survival and success.

This is a difficult read, don’t for a minute think it is not. But it is so important. During my childhood my family’s fortunes turned dramatically downward. I remember vividly going on free and reduced lunch, checking the mail to see if the check came so we could go buy new shoes for school, eating meals based more on their price per serving than anything else. The stories told here could have easily been mine if we hadn’t started slightly ahead – if my parents hadn’t been helped with their first home, and then before it all came crashing down sell their next house for enough to be able to buy the house I grew up in outright when we moved states. I think back now that if we’d had a mortgage payment, or a car loan, in those tight years things would have turned out very differently. We are all in good places now, but things are often still tight with my siblings and I often living paycheck to paycheck with very little cushion. Just six months ago I was facing the reality of living on my own in my current city costing me half of my take home income. It would have possibly destroyed me financially. I managed to find another housing solution, only spending a third of my take home on rent, but it was a scary time and balancing student loan debts (hello rising education costs!) as well as other debts and basic cost of living… it is still scary.

But I’m not trying to take care of a family of three with $20 left over after rent. I have it pretty good. There is even now privilege at play in my story, and this book brings it into an even more defined light.

All of this to say – read this book as fast as you can.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money in honor of our fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Lobster is the Best Medicine (CBR9 #39)

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When crystalclear reviewed Lobster is the Best Medicine, she suggested passing along this book about friendship to your friends. I am lucky enough to call her friend – and I am the same friend who moved recently and had the naked refrigerator in need of fun Liz Climo magnets – so when she was over my house the other night she handed me this book and I immediately blew through it.

Reviewing this one is a bit tough, as it is very straightforward in its purpose. If you aren’t familiar with Liz Climo’s art, and I hope you are because it is delightful, it is set up in two panel “set ‘em up, knock ‘em down” jokes with clean backgrounds and simple but evocative illustrations. Climo has centered this collection around friendship and trots out her usual suspect characters, and highlights the similarities and differences amongst the animals to find resonate humor about our relationships. The panels are as simple as their base level and can be viewed simply for a quick pick me up, but they also speak softly and intentionally about the power and value of friendship. These quick comics are more often than not highlighting how the ways in which we care for each other are the glue that holds the whole darn thing together.

Why am I placing so much value on the meaning behind the comics, which Climo spells out in her introduction? Because I believe wholeheartedly in the message it sends. Love your people, love them well, and make sure they have had a smile today. And who wouldn’t love a rabbit who makes sure a bear has pizza for dinner instead of carrots?

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, review how we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel (CBR9 #38)

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The past few years I’ve been attempting the Read Harder Challenge put on by Book Riot, and hile I’ve completed it the past two years, I am not on track to do that this year. But, one of the tasks is LGBTQ romance, and there are always a TON of suggestions for Romance around the Cannonball Read. So, while on vacation I made sure I moved one to the head of the list.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel  is a historical m/m romance. It strikes me as in the Lisa Kleypas school of recognizable history with lovely smoldery romance woven in. Is it up to the high, HIGH standards of Kleypas’ Wallflowers and Hathaways series which I have just completed? Not quite. But Cat Sebastian is a relatively new author (this is her debut), which means she has room to grow. I like her modus operandi though: Cat writes steamy, upbeat historical romances. They usually take place in the Regency, generally have at least one LGBTQ+ main character, and always have happy endings.

As to the story itself, I thought the romance was delightful. We have Oliver and Jack, two men from different class in the society who find them selves crossing paths as war injured Oliver returns home to find his married sister has paid Jack Turner a large sum of money, and he is determined to find out what for. Turner, making his living filling in the gaps in the justice system in Regency England, will not be sharing that information if he can avoid it, and is put out when Oliver Rivington inserts himself in his latest case. This is a well-written enemies-to-lovers where the relationship progress is slow-burn with undeniable sexual chemistry and tension. My main problem with the book, taking away a full star, is pacing. While the slow burn requires a slow start this one is a bit too slow, and the end moves a bit too fast. But I did love how Cat Sebastian decided to anuever these two characters into closer social circles for their happily ever after (which is strengthened by the characters ability to be accurate about their situations).

This is first in a series, and I’ve added book two The Lawrence Brown Affair featuring Jack Turner’s brother Georgie to my to read list.

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

Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

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One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

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