Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Mistress of Trevelyan by Jennifer St. Giles

DNF @ 68%

Normally, I give books I don't finish a one star review, because my logic there is if it's too awful to finish, it's a bad book. There are some special circumstances surrounding THE MISTRESS OF TREVELYAN, though-- I started reading it before I left for Portugal and then never picked it up again when I got back because I had a gigantic stack of ARCs that had come to my house through the post, and few books can stack up against travel or brand new shinies, let alone an old Gothic novel that you're feeling ambivalent about.

Second, THE MISTRESS OF TREVELYAN is leaps and bounds better than the other book I read by Jennifer St. Giles, which was TOUCH A DARK WOLF, a book so bad that it almost takes badness to an artform. Like, I seriously considered deleting THE MISTRESS from my Kindle along with all the author's other books, because I wasn't sure she could possibly write something good. That's how bad TOUCH A DARK WOLF was.

THE MISTRESS OF TREVELYAN is actually okay and starts off pretty good. It's a Gothic novel written in the same style as the ones that were so popular in the 60s and 70s (before bodice-rippers came on the scene to steal the show). Ann Lowell is living in 19th century San Francisco, and takes on the position of governess to have a place to stay and money to burn. In addition to growing attached to her charges, she finds herself (incredibly, furiously, passionately) obsessed with their father, who might or might not have murdered his wife.

This actually is pretty similar in style to some Victoria Holt novels I've read, bar the heroine's lusty persona. Holt was pretty prudish in her writing and kept the bedroom door firmly shut, but man, all that sexual tension you had to read between the lines for in the real things are laid out explicitly before you, as brazenly as, well, Victoria's Secret-- only the secret's out. The problem is it drags forever. Gothic novels are supposed to be slow-paced, but this is really slow-paced, and by 68% in, I wanted more spooky goings-on to tide me over and the idea that closure was on the horizon.

I'm giving this a two-star rating because I was planning on giving this 2-3 stars depending on what the ending was like, but I'm docking a star because it was so boring that I never really got around to finishing the book in the first place although it wasn't quite terrible enough to earn a solid 1-star rating.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

This is a fascinating and tragic story about five girls who basically ended up becoming a sideshow attraction as the wards of the Canadian government. The Dionne Quintuplets, as they came to be known, were five girls born to some low-income French-Canadians. They were two months premature and collectively weighed around 13 pounds. Nobody believed they would survive, at least, not all of them, but due to collective efforts from doctors and nurses and donations from interested third parties, an 18th century incubator that didn't run on electricity was obtained and the quintuplets survived through infancy, childhood, and beyond.

Therein lies the rub-- their survival was part of what made them so famous, because healthcare back then was not great, especially for women's health and natal care. Quintuplets didn't survive. The girls were "kidnapped" (their words, and their parents') from their family and raised in the public view, raised up Lion King style for the paying public's admiration, or else kept in an enclosed play area while (also paying) onlookers observed, Truman Show style.

Eventually, the girls were given back to their family, parents Oliva and Elzire, but their parents were exhausted and resentful of the ordeal, and later, the girls claimed they weren't treated well. Elzire, their mother, allegedly looked for reasons to be short with them and occasionally used physical corrective methods. Oliva, on the other hand, they claimed sexually abused them, and made them terrified to be alone with them. A statement that the Dionnes' other children mostly denied, although it seems at least one of them had observed enough suspicious behavior to be slightly credulous.

Reading this book was quite the rollercoaster. At first, I felt sorry for the parents, for the way they were mocked and made fun of by unsympathetic newspapers. Later on in the book, I read the girls' accusations against their parents with a shock that was like being splashed with cold water. I felt sorry for the girls, whose childhoods were essentially taken away from them; fame is a heavy burden for a child, especially when the guardians are the ones lining their pockets from the gains. Later in life, they also suffered-- not just from the abuse which may have taken place, but also from corrupt guardianship that resulted in their trustfund being leached by the government, their parents, the doctor who "saved" them and then took all the credit, and basically anyone else who had access to it and saw the girls' money as an easy write-off. They never got a break, and that is truly awful.

I had heard references to the Dionne Quintuplets and seen some of the ephemera associated with them without actually recognizing what it was. There's also a Simpsons episode that appears to mock the financial straits of the parents and greediness of their guardians, which I believe is called Eight Misbehavin'. Reading this book gave me context for that. I think if you're interested in biographies and the effects of fame on children, you would be interested in this book, too. It's definitely not an easy read, emotionally, but I was too fascinated to put it down. Also, there are two sections of pictures, which I always enjoy in a nonfiction book about history. I had an ARC, so they were not super high quality (printed on thin paper), but I imagine they're going to look great in the finished copies, as even in this format, they were interesting to look at and looked fairly high quality.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets by Feminista Jones

This is a difficult book to review because I really wanted to like it, but so many things about it rubbed me the wrong way that I wasn't able to appreciate it like I wanted to and ended up not really getting that much enjoyment or value out of it.

RECLAIMING OUR SPACE is a book written by Feminista Jones, a black activist on Twitter who has had a hand in a lot of popular social media activism movements. The subtitle "How Black Feminists Are Changing the World" made me think that I was going to get an in-depth look on, well, other black feminists, especially ones who inspired Ms. Jones and her current views, but with a few exceptions, that wasn't the case. This is basically a manifesto, and while there's nothing wrong with a manifesto, I think advertising this book as one thing when it's actually another thing is a bit deceptive and setting up this book for a fall.

This book has several topics, the most notable are, a brief overview of Black Feminism (and how it is similar to and differs from "white feminism" or "traditional feminism," with nods to intersectionality), some of the movements that black feminists championed or pioneered, harmful black stereotypes and white feminism (accidentally or purposefully) being exclusionary to women of color, and sexual empowerment and how that fits in to feminism, specifically black feminism.

There were some things that I really liked about this book. I thought the history of the movements themselves were really interesting, and I was interested in seeing her views on how mainstream feminism can improve and be more inclusive to women of color and the LGBT+. On the other hand, I raised my eyebrow at the idea of "womanism," since that term itself feels kind of exclusionary to the LGBT+ and specifically black members of the LGBT+ who might not identify as women (thinking in particular of trans and intersex). She also said some other things that made me raise my eyebrow, and couldn't help but make me question some of her own personal attitudes about allyship and feminism.

I learned a lot from this book and I think it's always important to check your privilege and make sure that your own experiences aren't blinding you to the experiences of others, who may be facing far more immediate and pressing difficulties. I also think it's important to read a lot of different views about the platforms you believe in, and try to understand where the people who have those views might be coming from. I also get that this book is probably not written for me, or people like me, and so my views are biased. That said, I just didn't really enjoy this book or the way it was organized, and while there were elements I appreciated, my overall experience reading this was one of disappointment.

Hopefully your experience reading this is better than mine.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

When I was in college, one of my (male) instructors said something to the effect that premenstrual syndrome was a first-world construct and largely psychosomatic, and that women in "other" countries didn't have this problem. Setting aside that this statement is problematic for several reasons, I remember hearing this and being utterly flummoxed. It was the first time it occurred to me that not only could I be more knowledgeable about something than someone considered a "professional," but also, that someone utterly uninformed could make such a blanket incorrect statement and confidently assume to go unchallenged.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine is a book written as a challenge. Women's bodies and minds are often forced into boxes, and with this book, Pine attempts to squirm her way out of the box by taking on topics that squick most people out when they're coming out of a woman's mouth. The book opens with a harrowing story of her father suffering from organ failure in a Greek hospital due to alcoholism, and she writes about her stunned horror and the gross conditions she found herself in as she had to take on much of his care herself for a time. She then segues into other topics-- the nitty-gritty of infertility, miscarriage, and ending up child-free; going through a parent's separation; being a proverbial wild child and experiencing depression, rape, and an eating disorder; menstruation; and lastly, being a career woman in a world with a high glass ceiling, where being a workaholic seems like the only way to get ahead, if not, at the very least, an addictive escape for emotional pain.

I'm surprised so many people disliked this book and seem to regard it as being self-indulgent. I encountered similar reviews for Janice Erlbaum's book GIRLBOMB, and came to the conclusion that people just seem to ferociously gate-keep who gets to write about their childhood being depressing or dysfunctional, and that if it doesn't reach a certain milestone of horrific abuse (which the author then heroically and inspirationally must overcome-- otherwise the memoir is branded as too depressing), the author doesn't deserve to write about these things, let alone feel bad about them.

I thought NOTES TO SELF did a really good job talking about things that people don't want to talk about in an informed and interesting way. I may not have agreed with everything she said, but I agreed with a lot of it. She's a good writer and an interesting person, and she seems to have suffered a lot, although she seems to be in a better place now emotionally. There's nothing raunchy about this book; she pushes the line of social acceptability, but with such eloquent prose that you'll probably find yourself listening to whatever point she's making, even if it's grossing you out. Anyone who enjoys a good memoir-- especially memoirs written by women-- should pick up this book.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 12, 2019

Memes to Movements: How the World's Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power by An Xiao Mina

MEMES TO MOVEMENTS is a really interesting book about how memes, and their highly transmittable and salient nature, are effecting political movements and social change. An Xiao Mina presents a variety of memes and hashtags that have been part of huge political movements, including #BlackLivesMatter and #MAGA, discussing their origin when possible, why they're important, and also why memes are so effective in gaining stream and becoming viral.

The author focuses primarily on American and Chinese memes, and to be honest, while I was expecting to be completely lost, I actually ended up enjoying the sections about Chinese memes the most. Two of the most interesting were the Umbrella Movement and the Grass Mud Horse. Because of censorship in China, it can be difficult for protesters to even break through China's firewall, so they have become really sneaky, using characters that are phonemes when pronounced (but contain different tones) or characters that resemble other characters. I had no idea how much subterfuge went on to get a revolutionary Chinese meme off the ground, and it really made me appreciate the cleverness and determination of the people involved in these political movements.

Regarding the U.S. memes, they were more familiar to me, although some of them were still so recent as to be painful. The easiest chapter to read is the one about LOLcats and animal memes. Harder to read are the ones about how the alt-right embraces memes to spread their message and basically sow chaos, and the ones that call attention to the racial injustice that is far too prevalent to this day. I thought the author did a really good job trying to be objective when writing about such sensitive topics, which is definitely not an easy task in this day an age.

I liked the pixel art on each new chapter, but I really, really wish this book had come with illustrations. Maybe they were concerned about copyright issues, or including the pictures would have made this book too expensive for its budget, but I would have really enjoyed seeing illustrations of some of these memes instead of continually having to look up the ones that weren't familiar. Overall, though, MEMES TO MOVEMENTS is a fascinating book and I think anyone who is interested in online politics should read it, because it does a great job talking about people becoming mobilized on social media and how they create and appropriate symbols and hashtags to give their movements more steam.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 11, 2019

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

I was ambivalent about Alyssa Cole's earliest novellas, but I liked the concept of them. Shorter stories did not really seem to be her forte, and in my review of one of her earliest works, I wrote that she was an author I'd want to revisit if she ever did a full length novel. Well, she did, and that was a while ago, and I've been coming back over and over again, ever since. Alyssa Cole is walking proof that it pays to be an author who is receptive to feedback and works tirelessly to write fresh and engaging stories with developed and diverse characters-- especially strong women.

The Loyal League series is about a secret group of people during the time of the Civil War who go undercover to infiltrate and stymie the Confederacy. The first book in this series, AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION, which is about a woman who poses as a slave and ends up finding romance and wild success as a spy, was good, but this book, AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM, is even better. Part of that is due to the heroine, Janeta, who is one of my favorite recent romance heroines.

Janeta is Cuban, and the daughter of a plantation owner and a freed slave. All her life, she has been told that she is better than those working in the fields. She has a white lover who is a Confederate supporter, and when her father is imprisoned, this lover encourages her to gather intelligence on the North so she can name names and give information in exchange for her father's freedom.

Daniel is a friend of Elle from the first book. He is a free man and had studied to be a lawyer, only to be caught and sold into slavery by two evil men posing as abolitionists. Now he is free again and hungry for revenge. When the Loyal League assigns Janeta to him as his partner, he's skeptical of her and her motivations, and unwilling to trust her. But despite his suspicions, he ends up falling for her because of her strong will and their shared pain brought on by slavery and the war; both of them have been caught between their own desires and what society wants for them their whole lives, and in working to save a Nation and its people, they end up finding the agency to also save themselves.

I. Loved. This. Book. First, I love that Janeta was allowed to be so flawed, and that she had to figure out her own privileges and biases. I love that she did that without help. Daniel didn't have to "teach" her; she was canny enough to figure out that she'd been fed a pack of harmful lies her whole life. The double-agent angle provided so much tension, and it was so well done. Plus, there were no big misunderstandings. Everything had a sound reason and I never felt like Cole was playing things up for drama. The action scenes were intense, and there were some fantastic discussions about humanity, inequality, and privilege that fit the scenes and didn't come across as heavy-handed.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

"We can be intelligent, we can accrue wealth, we can strive to make this country better, and lose everything at the whim of some pale sir or madam. It doesn't even require much effort on their part. That's the worst of it. They don't even have to try hard to ruin us" (61).

"I care because as long as slavery is sanctioned in this world, either directly or tacitly, we are a doomed species. There is no hope for progress, no hope for a world of peace and prosperity, if some men are allowed dominion over others for as arbitrary a reason as skin color" (190).

Then there's Daniel-- the textbook example of a tortured hero. I loved him so very much. He was kind and noble, but also selfish in his own ways; he had taken his suffering and made his pain into a selfish drive for revenge, even at the cost of his personal relationships and self-love. The love-hate relationship between him and Janeta in the beginning was catnip for my fangirl self. I'm a sucker for the tsundere model of shipping (read: cranky character pretends not to care, but secretly does-- a lot), and he and Janeta were such an easy couple to root for, and an HEA that was easy to smile about.

If you enjoy historical fiction and want to read one that's empowering for and stars people of color in roles of agency, replete with excellent character development, The Loyal League is the way to go.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Hitorijime My Hero, Vol. 1 by Memeko Arii

I don't read as much manga as I did when I was younger, but I still occasionally read the odd volume-- especially the ones aimed at older audiences, like josei and seinen (basically, the "new adult" versions of shoujo and shounen). HITORIJIME MY HERO was an especially nice surprise, because for once, I feel like the cover did a pretty good job not just representing what the art is like, but also conveying the tone of the manga.

Setagawa (the blonde) is a jaded and sullen teenager who works as a gofer for a petty gang. I feel like it's implied that his mother is a prostitute. He doesn't do particularly well in school, and his closest friend (an outgoing, immature young man) is the younger brother of the hot new teacher, who also happens to be a champion street fighter called "the bear killer" (lol).

One day, Setagawa ends up working for Kousuke instead, and even though his feelings are initially rejected, it turns out that Kousuke had feelings for him all along. Their relationship is taboo, but both of them feel alone and need each other.

I guess how you feel about this book depends on how you feel about student/teacher romances. I don't feel particularly great about them, but the fact that this is a cartoon makes it an extra level removed from reality, which I guess makes it more comfortable to swallow as fantasy. Setagawa is drawn as being much older than he actually is, so I originally thought they were around the same age or that Setagawa was a recent graduate. Kousuke also looks young, too.

As a romance, I feel like this was pretty well done. It's got a silly, manic vibe (captured on the cover), but also some darker, more provoking moments. The sexual tension was pretty well done, and although this is nothing near as explicit as the June Yaoi titles, there are some romantic and sexual scenes in here (although not explicitly drawn). There doesn't appear to be much tension, so I'm curious to see how this will make it as a series. In my opinion, a good manga needs a villain.

Two other things to note: this is apparently a spin off of another manga title called Hitorijime My Boyfriend. It doesn't appear that reading that other series is necessary to enjoy this one, as these leads were actually side characters from the original series. Second, I loved the translation/cultural reference section at the back that defined not just certain words and brands, but also gave cultural context for some of the scenes and references happening. I really, really appreciated that.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars