The Five (CBR12 #27)

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

When I think back to my experiences as an undergrad history major I was often one of very few, if not the only, women in the room. Each course was the same; walk in, pick a position near the front of the room, but off to the side so as to not be considered aggressive but not be lost in the sea of testosterone, and hunker down to have to talk over those who would talk over you. I eventually got to a place of confidence to push back against the mansplainers, the re-staters, and all the other blowhards I ran across. I also had the benefit as a night student of having the same professors multiple times who got to know me and would give me the opportunity to smack down the worst offenders and defend my intellectual territory.

This walk down memory lane of the early 2000s is not navel-gazing, its to show you how I found a kindred spirit on the pages of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper in its author Hallie Rubenhold. Rubenhold spends three hundred pages absolutely thrashing the established, predominantly male, scholarship on Jack the Ripper and his victims and it is a wonder to behold.

“Today there is only one reason why we would continue to embrace the belief that Jack the Ripper was a killer of prostitutes: because it supports an industry that has grown, in part, out of this mythology.”

(Rubenhold, 292)

In this exquisitely researched work (its for sure an academic history monograph trying to hide as pop-history) Rubenhold takes the reader through the lives of the five women from birth to death. In the stories of these five women we find the social history of London in the second half of the nineteenth century – there were several forces at work that placed these women in Whitechapel in the fall of 1888 and in the path of a murderer. Rubenhold slowly and deliberately unpacks the various strands that weave the stories, one woman at a time, all the while lacing in the larger subtext of the time and how it effected their lives, but also the investigating and reporting after their deaths.

“Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, the were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they even attempted to prove it.”

(ibid, 288)

This was a slightly tough work to read right now – economic insecurity is the main cause of these women’s deaths, the shared thread that puts them in the path of a serial killer. As millions in the United States file for unemployment each week of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I wait to see if my industry survives the inevitable restructuring that will come in how we work as a society, I am all to aware of how the loss of my paycheck, the loss of the support I have in my life, would upend my existence, again, just as it did time after time for the five.

“If a husband, father, or partner left or died, a working-class woman with dependents would find it almost impossible to survive. The structure of society ensured that a woman without a man was superfluous.”

(ibid, 288)

I can easily recommend this one to anyone with interest in the Ripper murders in 1888, or just the general history of the time and area through a different lens than they may have seen it before. Rubenhold unpacks education, poor reform, prostitution laws, the Workhouse system, and the growth and death of industries while telling the very personal stories of five women who lived lives that have been mostly erased by the story of the man who murdered them. In telling their story, Rubenhold also tells the story of the women who lived their lives around them.

“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place. Labelling the victims as ‘just prostitutes’ permits those writing about Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualize, and dehumanize them; to continue to reinforce the values of madonna/whore.”

(ibid, 294)

The Ruin of a Rake (CBR12 #26)

The Ruin of a Rake (The Turner Series, #3)

I should have read this one much closer to the previous two in the series, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Brown Affair because so many of our previous characters reappear here and are woven into the plot. As a reader you can tell that Sebastian was getting more comfortable in her writing, overall, this book is stronger than the previous two, even if Sebastian shortchanges the plot a smidge in the final third. I continue to really like how Cat Sebastian builds her stories: they are steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the characters help heal or fill in the weaknesses in their partners, or in this case how the world around them sees them.

Cat Sebastian’s Turner Series are queer historical romances – her books feature complex and exceedingly lovable gay, bisexual, nonbinary, and otherwise diverse characters. The Ruin of a Rake is the story of Julian Medlock and Lord Courtenay. Lord Courtenay is the titular rake and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel which looks to be based on his exploits, he finds himself unable to see his nephew, and is willing to do anything to improve his reputation. Enter Julian Medlock, possibly the most proper man in al of London who has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes, and lusts after, most. With time spent in each other’s company their mutual interest grows and eventually Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve; and Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety.

There are several back and forths between the pair and the associated characters in each of their backstories as the figure out what life could look like if they can sort out what kind of life it is that they want. I’ll leave you with an answer that Sebastian gave in an interview said about writing to reflect identity “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better! When I’m writing outside my identity, I either hire a sensitivity reader or ask someone who shares the character’s identity to do a sensitivity read. Every time […], the reader has found things I never in a million years would have considered problematic.”

Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; P.S. I Still Love You; Always and Forever, Lara Jean (CBR #13-15)

Image result for to all the boys series covers

With the release of the To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love You on Netflix this week I decided to give in and read the series. I really liked the first movie in 2018 but didn’t pick the books up then. I was smitten with the movie and didn’t want to mess with that feeling. But eighteen months later I felt the time had come.

In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before we are introduced to Lara Jean Song Covey, middle sister of three, and a dyed in the wool romantic. Older sister Margot has stepped into the mother role following the accidental death of their mom years earlier. But Margot is about to go to university in Scotland, and just broke up with Josh, her boyfriend of two years who has served as a de facto Covey sibling, so Lara Jean will have to step up to take care of youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty is sassy and the best character in the series, I love her the most. Our other main player is Peter Kavinsky, the most handsome boy in town (with possibly the largest ego) Lara Jean’s first kiss and soon to be fake boyfriend. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The meat of the story is Lara Jean’s love life or lack thereof. Lara Jean has never been on a date, or had a boyfriend, but she writes letters to the boys she has crushes on and puts them in a hatbox her mother gave her in order to get over the feelings. (Lara Jean is focused on protecting herself, which the series deals with over time.) The letters aren’t meant to be read, but someone sends them anyway. Peter Kavinsky, confronts Lara Jean – he’s a recipient of one of the letters – and as Margot’s ex Josh heads towards them, another letter recipient, Lara Jean kisses Peter in a moment of panic and runs. Following some drama with Peter’s ex girlfriend (and Lara Jean’s former friend) Peter and Lara Jean agree to pretend they are dating. Peter wants to make Gen jealous and get her back. Lara Jean is using Peter to show that she is over her crush on Josh. Fake emotions turn into real ones and Peter and Lara Jean have to decide what they want from each other and if they can salvage something from the deceptions.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before very quietly crafts its complex relationships, taking the time to set up the intricate web of emotions at play. Han dives into the inner life of Lara Jean. We’re with her through her ups and downs and things progress much slower. While the reader never gets inside his head, Peter has as complex an inner life as Lara Jean. The first book ends on New Year’s Eve, with several plot points that the movie adaptation resolved still being up in the air.

P.S. I Still Love You follows immediately picking up on New Years Day. Though Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship has changed from a contracted fake relationship to romantic real one, things do not go smoothly. Freshly after making up (in a scene I liked much better than the movie’s version), a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s romantic moment in a hot tub on the school ski trip (which gets pulled into the first movie) surfaces and goes viral on social media. The book expands the hot tub tape aspect of the story, giving it much of the first half of the book, which felt accurate.

Beyond the tape and all its attendant drama, Lara Jean is having difficulty controlling her feelings about Peter’s continuing relationship with Genevieve. Peter tells Lara Jean that she’s going through a “rough time” and needs him as a friend.  Lara Jean internalized this as Peter putting Gen first even though he is in a relationship with her. As things get complicated, Lara Jean finds herself distracted by the appearance of John Ambrose McLaren, another letter recipient.  As they begin to reconnect, Lara Jean wonders if she can have feelings for two boys at one time, and what that means about her relationship with Peter. This is a book full of teenage jealousy and hormones and misunderstandings and those great aspects of a young adult novel. The second half of the book picks up with the introduction of the Assassin’s game (I’m not a huge fan of the John Ambrose sections), which pits Lara Jean and Peter against each other and their friends. All those messy young adult emotions are in action and moving the plot the way you would expect in a well-written YA.

Unfortunately, the execution of P.S. I Still Love You is a little uneven, and weaker than the first. And my least favorite of the series.  Han sells the subplot on social media bullying and sexual double standards very well, but most of the rest fell flat. I particularly struggled with Peter’s characterization. He is emotionally flat and unavailable in this one and seems unaware of how his actions affect Lara Jean emotionally, and not paying attention to how Lara Jean is negatively comparing herself to Genevieve at every turn.  This doesn’t track with the character development Peter went through in the previous book. Initially Jenny Han was planning to end the series with this book and I’m glad she didn’t.

In the final book, Always and Forever, Lara Jean, Lara Jean and Peter have recovered from their temporary break up in the second book and are a real couple, dealing with real couple things. It’s spring of senior year and a staple of young adult novels comes into play: college decisions. There are also changes on the home front, when her father shares his intention to marry their neighbor, Trina. Lara Jean navigates a lot of adult decisions here, from her choices regarding college to balancing Margot’s dislike for Trina against their father’s love for his new fiancée and her own affection for her. She and Peter also get close to having sex, which is something that had not really been brought up in the books before, although the movies have been dealing with it. Han’s use of it as a plot point is handled in a way I haven’t really run across in YA and I was interested in the way it was woven in.

Overall, the series was as expected, they are sweet and funny and that’s a good thing. The plot of these three novels follow a lot of the topics that YA novels typically hit: conflicts with family, jealousy in relationships, the prospect of college, big decisions regarding life and sex and love. For the depth she manages, Han also keeps the writing light – these are incredibly quick reads, even when they are focused on serious and heavy topics. As to the characters, Peter and Lara Jean felt like teenagers — they made dumb choices and said stupid things and didn’t know how to manage their emotions or communicate them very well. The friendships, especially Lara Jean’s with Chris and Lucas and Peter’s friends on the lacrosse team, dove into the complicated networks that make up our lives. I also appreciated that Margot — who hadn’t been around while her dad and Trina fell in love — resented the engagement and wasn’t interested in the wedding, it all rings true. Thematically I appreciated how much their mother’s Korean culture and family history is woven into the books and how the strong bonds of sisterhood, which are tested several times throughout the book, are never broken. While these books are all three stars for me, I can see their appeal on the larger scale, and look forward to the third book’s movie adaptation which is already filmed and listed with a 2020 release year… so maybe this fall? A girl can hope.

It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) (CBR12 #6)

It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)

Other than knowing I had initially picked this book out to be my Far and Away CBR Bingo square I have no idea how this book got on my radar. I didn’t read this before Bingo ended, so this book has been hanging around my house since late October (thanks library extensions!) waiting for me to get to it. Its due back in two days, so now is the time.

Since this was my Far and Away square it was picked because its so different from my own life experience. Nora McInerny and I are the same age and are both Irish Catholic but that is where the similarities end. It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) is McInerny’s memoir about the worst imaginable six weeks where she lost a pregnancy and both her father and husband died after battling cancers. Its an unimaginable amount of grief, compounded by the fact that Aaron Purmort’s brain tumor haunted their entire marriage.

The book is a series of essays brought together under the umbrella of McInerny’s beginning to process her losses. She tells the story of her childhood, of deciding to marry and have a family with Aaron knowing that they were doing it against a clock, and what the first few months after November 2014 looked and felt like. I’ve never been married, I don’t have children nor have I ever been pregnant, but I have lost loved ones and battled grief and there were passages in this book that resonated as true deep in me, ones that brought me to tears, and also ones that made me laugh – the contents live up to the title.

A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year (CBR12 #5)

A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year (Holidays with the Wongs, #3)

I continue to 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 based on the tropes in the romance novels that their mother and grandmother read. The initial matches go terribly, but as the holidays progress each Wong sibling finds love in different romantic tropey ways. For A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year Lau combined the friends to lovers and fake relationship tropes for the third Wong sibling Zach’s book.

In A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year Zach is afraid of a repeat performance from Thanksgiving and now that his two brothers are in relationships he knows he is the likely target for a second try at blind date setups (I appreciate how Lau makes this his fear, not the plans his mom and grandmother have). To keep that from happening he approaches his friend Jo with a favor – would she be willing to pretend to be his girlfriend for a few weeks to keep the pressure off from his family. The both live in Mosquito Bay and have a friendship built on broken engagements and hobbies, so Zach thinks this is safe for both of them. What he doesn’t know if that Jo has secretly been falling for him for the past two years of their four-year friendship and that he has some feelings for her that he is being dumb about.

As emmalita said in her review of the ARC people “will be dumb about their feelings” and as someone who is often dumb about her feelings I enjoyed reading along as two people were dumb about their feelings, got less dumb about those feelings but at different rates, and then finally stopped being completely dumb about their feelings for each other. Like in Second Chance the obstacle is resolved much closer to the ending, which makes sense for a novella clocking it at 90 pages, but still left me a smidge unsatisfied so I’m rating this one 3.5. That said, this still had what I’m looking for in a romance at the end of the day – to care about the characters and enjoy spending time with them which I’m continuing to discover is Lau’s gift.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing (CBR11 #64)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

I don’t read all that much alternative history, so it took a bit of digging through my to read list in order to find something to read for Read Harder’s Task 2. But, sure enough I had one and while I let it sit to very late (although not the latest on my to read list for this year’s challenges) it was an enjoyable, if slightly unexpected, read.

For plot summary purposes I’m going to borrow from Goodreads, since I’m not sure I could do it more succinctly:

“Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved, not by the cost of blood and theft but by effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a novel of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world. Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process —just like the first Queen Victoria.”

For the first 65 pages of this one confused as to some of the mechanics of Johnston’s story. The chapters are broken up with interstitial tidbits that after that mark do a great job expanding the universe of the story and layering in details that help build the narrative but up to that point are hinting at a hidden plot point but instead confuses matters. Once Johnston gets out of her own way there (really, if she had saved the text message chats for slightly later or broken them up with the more world building stuff it would have been better) things progress well. The next 200 pages go great, characters are well developed, the world continues to solidify, and Johnston very deliberately plots out an incredibly diverse and inclusive world. And then… the final 60 or so pages wrap up too quickly. It’s a bit of a spoiler to discuss what about the ending didn’t work for me so if you keep reading it’s on you…

…. seriously…

… I am on board with the polyamorous relationship as the solution to these characters wants and responsibilities. What I wanted to hit my head against the table about was the combined choice of not laying in more track for August’s attraction to Margaret or giving August more hesitation about the proposal being made to him by Helena and Margaret. We see on page why this marriage and court position work for the women, and why they would concoct it, but we aren’t given enough of August’s inner choice about becoming the prince consort.

With all that I’m still rounding this up to four stars, because what Johnston gets right, she gets very right. I would love more books in this universe, and I’m even more interested in her other works than I was before.

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.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (CBR11 #60)

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

I definitely only picked this up because I was a recommended selection for Read Women challenge task 4 – read a book about or set in Appalachia. I was hoping to find something fictional, but here we are. Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is written as a rebuttal to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book I have not read and have no intention of reading. Watching from the cheap seats I’ve seen Elegy get pulled apart as Vance’s inconsistencies and frankly racist sources get exposed. While it is certainly a memoir, it isn’t a reliable history.

Which brings me to my only major detraction when it comes to What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte wrote this riled up in the immediate aftermath of her home territory getting labelled “Trump Country”. Catte refutes Vance and his warped picture of Appalachia (which it should be noted is not a new warped view, it’s the same old same old that was used to get affluent whites to care about poverty in the 1930s and later and edges into eugenics) by bringing in a more well rounded account of modern Appalachia. But that doesn’t prevent her from running over to polemic instead of social history on occasion. Catte doesn’t pretend that the negative parts of Appalachia don’t exist, she instead unpacks all the ways that those negative aspects have been oversold and used to erase the other more multicultural and middle-class stories that exist.

This is a good, dense, read and the bibliography alone is worth a look. The U.S. is a big, complex place and the overarching narratives of our regions need to be unpacked and this book certainly does that.