The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (CBR15 #6)

I’m nearly a decade late to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. It has been on my to read list since 2016 and got pushed to the top tier of the pile last year for the Read Harder challenge (as it does take place in a big way in a bookstore). Then I never got to it but seeing that there was a movie adaptation out I decided to get my proverbial act together and dig into the story.  

The book tells the story of the titular thirty-nine-year-old widower who is at the end of his rope. He had started his professional life with noble ideals, but the realities of life after his wife’s death and coping with a struggling business just shows him all the ways the world does not conform to the way he hoped it would be. On top of everything else his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. A.J. is isolating himself from all the people of his community —from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.  

A.J. is not the most likely romantic hero (although he would fit right into lit fic): he is cranky, he drinks too much, and he is depressed. But the mechanics of the story that Zevin puts into place bring A.J. back to a version of himself. He is given the opportunity to try again, but in a new way with a new goal. Once the big thing happens in the story, we are taking part in a tale of transformation and second chances, an affirmation of why we read, and why we love. Because besides being the story of a man who adopts a little girl who is abandoned in his bookstore and then begins to open himself back up to life it is also a love letter to the joys of reading. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story or a book and a note from Fikry describing what he likes about it. Zevin sets about introducing each character by what they read, allowing the reader in us all to make our own personal connections.  

But I didn’t love it. It is a bit too on the nose for me right now. If it were a capital R romance that would be one thing, but it isn’t. The romance itself, once it settles in, wasn’t particularly gripping. While all the literary allusions worked for me (and I’m sure there are many I missed entirely) the fact that it was wrapped up so neatly, and that Fikry’s end is the end left me with a sour feeling.  

Lakota Woman (CBR13 #70)

Lakota Woman

Like many, my formal education didn’t contain much indigenous history, and certainly almost none about modern indigenous history. Reading Women task 8 was read a memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman which helped move Lakota Woman up my TBR (I had added it in 2015 for a similar Read Harder task but I read Rabbit-Proof Fence instead). It certainly didn’t hurt that it was also the Indigenous Reading Circle’s choice for November (the group that inspired the Reading Women task).

Lakota Woman was published in 1990 and discusses Mary Crow Dog’s experiences in the 1970s as a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). It is a searing autobiography that is at various times audacious, heartfelt, and expressive. It is also a tough read for a variety of reasons. The book opens with Crow Dog’s description of the difficulty of her life as a young Sioux girl, growing up in poverty, suffering at Catholic boarding school, and quitting school to drink, shoplift and rebel. Its at this point that her path crosses AIM’s and she would eventually give birth to a son in 1973 at Wounded Knee while it was under siege by the federal government.

The narrative reminds me of an oral history. The book is written in one person’s lived experiences told in a stream-of-consciousness style and Mary Crow Dog was present at many of the significant events of this civil rights movement in the early 1970s. She writes of AIM’s infiltration by FBI agents and of helping her husband endure prison following his unjust arrest. The book ends with a brief synopsis of events after Leonard was freed and his work on reclaiming the sacred rites and practices of their people.

“I read somewhere in an anthropology book that we Sioux ‘thrive on a culture of excitement.’ During the years from 1973 to 1975 we had more than enough excitement for even the most macho warrior, more than we could handle.” p. 192

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (CBR13 #45)

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky

I picked up Thylias Moss’s Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky through a variety of reading challenge tasks (Read Harder’s read a book of nature poems, Read Women’s tasks about a book about the natural world, a collection of poetry by a black woman), book club squares (Going with The Wilds), and some internet sleuthing. While I find it difficult to review poetry, I can tell you that I agree with the book’s blurb, it is a powerful book with poems that present the black American experience with a heightened intensity. The language both brings the reader incredibly close, but also can fling you to the stratosphere, viewing from far above. There is an immediacy in the language that Moss uses that kept me engaged from poem to poem – something I struggle with as a reader. The poems themselves have conflicting elements that come together to reflect the truth Moss is interested in pursuing: that we exist within chaos. While not all poems in this collection are specifically about nature, you can see Moss illustrating the differences in experience between white Americans and black Americans, specifically what nature means to women descended from slaves versus those descended from slave owners.

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky is celebrating its 30th birthday this year as a 1991 National Poetry Series selection. The National Poetry Series is a literary awards program that sponsors the publication of five books of poetry each year, since the late 1970s. The goals of the program are to meaningfully add to the number of poetry books published each year, making possible books which might not otherwise be published. Heightening poetry’s visibility among readers, and giving American poets, of all ethnic and racial groups, gender, religion, and poetic style, access to publishing outlets not ordinarily available to them.

All the Feels (CBR13 #31)

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

All the Feels publishes October 26th, 2021.

All the Feels (Spoiler Alert, #2)

Last year I read and loved Spoiler Alert and was excited to see that there would be another book in the universe. All the Feels takes everything I loved about the first book and deepens it, makes it stronger and better. All the Feels is very likely going to make it into my top three books of the year.

All the Feels is born in the sidelines of Spoiler Alert, but I don’t think you necessarily need to have read the first to enjoy the second. When Alex Woodroe, best friend of Marcus Caster-Rupp and Cupid on the extremely popular God of the Gates, managed to get arrested in a bar fight, the show’s producers saddle him with a minder to keep him on the straight and narrow through the end of filming and the show’s eventual airing. Enter into Alex’s life Lauren Clegg, cousin to one of the producer’s and a former ER therapist who just wants to take a vacation after burning out at work but instead finds that she can’t say no to the job being offered to her. Lauren is not overawed or intimidated by his fame.The plot of the first half of All the Feels runs parallel to Spoiler Alert, and then we are off to the races. On the basis of a friendship that has developed over their months spent together when Alex does implode his career he makes it his mission to keep Lauren in his life, and as they are no longer employed by the same company he lets himself pursue her romantically.

I was charmed immediately by the nature of Alex and Lauren’s relationship with each other. Alex has ADHD and it makes him hyperverbal, while Lauren has closed herself off from the world in a subconscious way to protect herself from the constant onslaught of trauma she saw in the ER and the lack of resources available to her to help those who crossed her path. Alex makes it his goal to coax Lauren’s personality out because he finds her captivating (he is enthralled by her Big Harpy Energy t-shirt). I laughed so hard I snorted during the early portions of the book and the banter between the two just gets better and better. Dade writes such human characters, Alex and Lauren each have baggage they are working through, traumas that haunt their pasts and influence their actions, and neither fixes the other, but their growing love inspires each to make the growth they need.

Fanfiction plays an important role in the book. Alex writes and reads fanfiction for various purposes (venting his anger about the character assassination and downright dangerous messaging in his character’s final season arc as well as reading to blow off steam). Alex is also highly conversant in tropes which proves a delight in the back half of the book as he calls out the tropes as they are occurring and talks Lauren into role playing a few. I’m telling you – this book is a hoot with a big damn heart.

I can’t wait for it to come out and everyone else to get a chance to read it, nor can I wait to dive into my personal copy when it comes in the mail, since I had already pre-ordered this anyway. I immediately wanted to go back and read this story again, I don’t know a better compliment I can pay it.

One Last Stop (CBR13 #26 – Half Cannonball!)

One Last Stop

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Early last year I read and loved Casey McQuiston’s debut Red, White, & Royal Blue like many a Cannonballer before me. Upon its completion I knew McQuiston was an author to add to my must reads list – they were writing the kind of queer romance I was looking for in the world. Once announced I put One Last Stop on my to read list having faith in the author, if not exactly the premise.

One Last Stop is the story of August and Jane. August, a young recent NYC transplant with a complicated history, falls head over heels for a woman she keeps running into on the Q train, Jane. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her.

So much of the story is about the fear of letting someone love you, of being brave enough to think you won’t let them down. August and Jane spend time circling around the growing love between them, afraid of what it means. August uses her focus on solving the mystery of Jane to hide behind and it takes her entire found family unit to help build the confidence she needs to step out from behind that. But it happens multiple places along the narrative, Wes (honestly my favorite character by a long, long measure) is also running from how he feels about Isaiah and accepting the love being freely offered to him, exactly as and who he is.

Beyond the main romance plot focusing on Jane and August this book is about found family, and the way we create our identity by the community we make around ourselves, especially in our twenties (although I did it again in my thirties). The characters are infused with hope and joy, even when battling depression and anxiety, which I appreciate from deep within my soul. McQuiston writes like a motherfucker. Even when I was bored (which happened at about the one third mark) I was enthralled by the writing. McQuiston created a world that is fully fleshed out with a variety of people and is explicitly queer. MCQuiston did their research and it shows, both in Jane’s past and August’s present.

This book is a four-star read for me; at times it was three, and times it was four, but it never reached a point where I thought it was a five-star read. I struggled to get myself into the book and read an entire other book (the very good People We Meet on Vacation) before picking this one back up. The problem was relatively simple upon reflection – the pacing was uneven and at times the plot stalled. But once it got going again, I was in, but it still sometimes felt like work, and that makes me a little sad. McQuiston has said their next book is going to be a YA ensemble piece about coming out in the religious South and I am still on board for whatever book they want to write.

“… thinking of Wes and how determined he is not to let Isaiah hand him his heart, of Myla holding Niko’s hand while he talks to things she can’t see, of her mom and a whole life searching, of herself, of Jane, of hours on the train – all the things they put themselves through for love. Okay, I get it.”

The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (CBR11 #63)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

While I like to think of myself as generally well-read there are definite gaps in the more classic authors of certain genres. Authors I enjoy, including Neil Gaiman, have pointed to Angela Carter as an immense influence on their own work. Thankfully someone had gifted The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories to me a few years ago. The stories in the collection share a theme of being closely based upon fairytales or folk tales and Carter toys with Gothic fiction and gender, utilizing classic Gothic symbolism to push the narrative forward. These short stories emphasize terror and the gruesome, in order to build an atmosphere, while also working to flip certain gendered tropes on their heads. My quick assessment is: sometimes it worked too well and I didn’t care to continue.

A bit of digging around tells me that Carter’s fairy tale retellings are well known for being feminist. And I have to admit that while the stories didn’t always feel modern forty years after their initial publication, that doesn’t mean that Carter wasn’t doing important work that pushes us to work like Her Body & Other Parties. Carter’s feminism is tinged with wanting women to seize what they needed—power, freedom, sex—and seeing no fundamental difference between the sexes that could prevent that. In The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories Carter examines the traditional stories we tell through that lens, but it can mean that her female characters fall flat, or feel a bit one dimensional – she doesn’t allow her heroines much softness or weakness.

I find myself simultaneously running hot and cold with this collection. I appreciate the duality of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, “The Tiger’s Bride”  and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, wherein she gives us the original ending where the beast transforms and also a reversal as the heroine transforms into a glorious tiger who is the proper mate to the Beast, who will from now on be true to his own nature and not disguise himself as a human. I can also trace the Gothic symbolism latent in “The Bloody Chamber,” as emphasis is placed on images of the ominous castle, the blood on the key, or a blood-red choker awarded the heroine as a wedding gift foreshadowing the story to come. However, I found the story itself dreadfully boring.

Carter doesn’t seem to have cared much about character development or plot, and instead focuses on emotion and creating images in the reader’s mind. Her technique and craft support her ability to do just that, leave sentences burned on the mind, so while this isn’t for me at the end of the day I was happy to pass it along to another friend whom I think might enjoy it much more.  

A Match Made for Thanksgiving & A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas (CBR11 #61-62)

A Match Made for Thanksgiving (Holidays with the Wongs, #1)

We’ve reached the time of year where I usually plow through a couple holiday romance novellas while traveling and wind up my Cannonball year. I’ve read two such novellas (and have emmalita to thank for getting them on my radar) and I couldn’t be happier about it. It has also added a new to me author to my buy list so thank goodness I just got a gift card for books in my work Secret Santa!

A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas (Holidays with the Wongs, #2)

A Match Made for Thanksgiving and A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas are the first two books in Jackie Lau’s Holidays with the Wongs series. I love the conceit of these novellas; there are four Wong children, all unattached, and their parents and grandparents hatch a plan to set them up with potential partners at (Canadian) Thanksgiving. Lau is writing the types of books she (and I) wants to see – holiday romances featuring people of color. I’ve read several romances featuring people of color this year and was happy to add two more to the list, specifically to check off my unofficial holiday tradition.

Of the two I preferred A Match Made for Thanksgiving over A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas, but both were very solid novellas. In Match we are with Nick Wong, fancypants advertising executive and Lily Tseng who is looking to try new things coming out of a period of complacency in her life. One of those new things is a one-night stand with Nick, whom she runs into the next weekend at his family’s Thanksgiving as the blind date of his older brother Greg.  In what is really a masterstroke of plotting Lau has Mrs. Wong and Ah Ma set up the blind dates based on romance novel tropes and then goes ahead and unpacks different tropes then what the “match” had been. I hooted with laughter when Ah Ma explained their reasoning to the table of Wongs and their blind dates.

What I liked best about Match is that the “obstacle” in the way of this relationship was hurdled early which gave us a chance to see the pair grow past it and into a functional relationship which showed growth for both parties.  Which is probably why I liked Second Chance a little less, as the obstacle is resolved much closer to the ending. We get Lau playing with the second chance (its right there in the title) and one bed tropes in this one and those also aren’t really my favorites but Lau did manage to make me care if Greg managed to rekindle in Tasha the feelings they had for each other fifteen years ago and possibly try again, and that’s what I’m looking for in a romance at the end of the day – to care.

Up next is A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year which is being published in two weeks (and already on my CBR12 list) and a novella set for Valentines Day featuring the sole Wong sister. I’m looking forward to both immensely.

Wordslut (CBR11 #44)

Image result for wordslut

Cannonballer kdm posted on Facebook about reading Wordslut and based on her recommendation and its bright eye-catching cover I immediately requested it from my library. I’ve read my share of feminist books over the past several years, trying to build my own repertoire of experience and knowledge whether it be in the form of a treatise on Single Ladies, the recollections of a self-described Bad Feminist, or feminist geeks, or the story of a heroine of mine the Notorious RBG. Amanda Montell’s Wordslut is a worthy addition to those other books, it covers hundreds of years of linguistic history and today’s cutting-edge research in sociolinguistics.

How often do we really think about language, specifically the language we ourselves use? Thankfully there’s entire fields of scientists studying just that – tracking how language develops and how we use it. Building from her own degree in Linguistics and her interest in feminism and inclusive language Montell gives us 10 chapters exploring how we got to the language we have and suggestions for ways to reclaim certain phrases, find more inclusive alternatives, and generally being comfortable with how our word choices and sentence structures tell the world who we are.

Listen, I have a lot of space to grow myself, just today I was putting some chickens away in their hen house and when speaking to them called them “guys”. They are all laying hens – they are girls. But this book pulls apart why my brain went to “guys” instead of “ladies”, or even better “folks” or “friends”. Montell also gives fantastic, well-researched, and inclusive arguments for the singular they, non-binary pronouns, and using y’all because English is missing a second person plural pronoun.

My two favorite sections of the book marry nicely – the first discussing how words go through the process of amelioration or pejoration, either gaining more positive or more negative meanings over time. The second is all about cursing while female presenting. Apparently, we tend to curse for humor, for emphasis, and in a category almost exclusive to us: as part of our personality. In that way so many of the perjorized words that have become vulgar are feminine we’re actively using them (and others) to express who we see ourselves to be. But, we are also using language differently in single-sex situations, really letting the f-bombs fly to show intimacy and trust. I know I do this, as I got more comfortable with one of my previous coworkers my vulgar language use skyrocketed (as, it should probably be noted, did hers).   

So why for the I Love This Bingo square?  I’m a logophile, a lover of words. I love finding very specific words, I love learning new words, and I really love foul words. I also love a book that takes on a non-fiction topic (in this case language) through an historical lens and isn’t afraid to be humorous while deconstructing social norms. Read this book, won’t you?