Sunday, November 19, 2017

Devil's Cub by Georgegtte Heyer

🎃 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance written by an author who is dead 🎃

There might not be any sex in Georgette Heyer regency romances, but man that woman can pack more drama into these puppies than Julia Quinn at her most malicious. DEVIL'S CUB is downright soap opera-ish in terms of scope and characterization.

The plot is basically this - hold onto your bonnets: Dominic/Dominique (for some reason his name is spelled two different ways here) is a marquis and a rake and a wastrel who has resolved not to marry, instead flitting about with mistresses until he tires of them. His current prospect is a girl named Sophia Challoner. Her mother, foolishly, encourages the affair, thinking that she can use her daughter's pending disgrace as a means of trapping the marquis into marriage. Sophia is more than willing to let Dominique use her. Her sister, Mary, is the only one who thinks this is stupid.


One day, Dominique accidentally sends his plans for elopement to the wrong sister (he's forced to flee the country after mortally wounding a man in a duel). Wanting to save her sister, Mary goes in Sophia's place. At first he plans to use her as well, even making a threat of rape, but Mary shoots him with a gun. For some reason, this makes them get on fairly well and Mary even confesses (privately, in her head) to loving him shortly after....!?

At the same time, there's a character named Frederick Comyn who is in love with a girl named Julianna. They're supposed to be married as well, but Julianna thinks he's too stuffy (she's Dominique's cousin) and constantly provokes him to spark a light under his seat. Instead, she ends up offending him and rather than admitting wrong, loftily declares that being with Comyn would be marrying beneath her, anyway. Comyn ends up making a marriage proposal of convenience to Mary instead, seeing as how Dominique and his proposal to Mary have upset her (?!).

Obviously, there's a happy ending but it's a rough road getting there.

Why? Because all of the characters in this book, with very few exceptions, are odious AF.

Sophia, Mary's sister, is absolutely awful and takes an unpleasant amount of glee at the thought of bad things happening to Mary, even though Mary was attempting to save her honor. She throws tantrums, cries, and insults everyone around her, when she's not acting like a vain little slip. I really could not stand her, and thought it was odd that the book ended with her just dropping out of the plot.

Mrs. Challoner, Mary and Sophia's mother, is also awful, so keen to push Sophia into the arms of the marquis despite his reputation. She's also not very nice to Mary, calling her plan and declaring that she will be impossible to wed (which is rather Mary Sue-ish since Mary receives 2 marriage proposals and is constantly getting praise for being well-spoken and pretty).

Leonie, Dominque's mother, is utterly dismissive of her son's behavior and when she finds out that he may have abducted a girl, immediately blames the victim and makes light of the situation, basically saying, "Well, it's not like he tied her down and raped her." When people call her on her son's behavior, she insults them or their children. She's a truly awful woman. I hated her.

Julianna, Dominique's cousin, is just as spoiled as Sophia. I couldn't stand her for how she treated Comyn, who is the only other character I truly liked apart from Mary. She wants him to be forceful with him so she tries to provoke him into anger to make him "man up." I'm sorry, but that's borderline emotionally abusive, in my opinion; this is exactly how cycles of abuse are perpetuated. (And, disturbingly, several characters say how Julianna could use a beating to correct her behavior.)

Dominique/Dominic the hero was also not really a favorite character of mine. He had the potential to be a good antihero but at the last minute, Heyer pulls the punch and decides to make him fall head-over-heels for Mary (?), offering her anything she wants and basically going around acting like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Too many romance authors want to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to alpha heroes, and it usually doesn't work. It doesn't work here.

I'm giving this book 3 stars because the story was interesting and the dialogue was witty, and Mary was a pretty good heroine (she gave as good as she got, and her properness was quite amusing). If you're new to Georgette Heyer, though, don't start with this one. She has much better books in her bibliography.

3 out of 5 stars

#MeToo: Essays About How and Why This Happened, What It Means and How to Make Sure it Never Happens Again by Lori Perkins

The #MeToo movement started originally in 2006 but really gained steam this last year, following the allegations of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein from a number of women. Women all over the world took to social media websites to share their stories, or simply show solidarity, with the hashtag, #MeToo.

I have a #MeToo story. I was seventeen years old and walking home from school. A bunch of men in a car followed me, shouting lewd things (I've forgotten most of them, but one of the most salient was "How much do you cost?"). I was so terrified that they were going to get out of the car and grab me that I began planning several courses of action on how to either run or fight back, all the while staring straight ahead and trying to give no sign that this was bothering me, even though I was blushing and near tears. Eventually the men went away, bored, and I went home, and cried. It was 95-degrees and I was wearing a long skirt and a tank top. I never wore either ever again.

#METOO is a collection of essays written by a variety of contributors. Most are written by women, but there are a few men contributing too, and a few of the writers are also LGBT. Most of the essays are #MeToo stories about the writers' own experiences with sexual harassment, assault, or rape. Some of the essays analyze the toxic cultures that propagate misogyny and abuse. Some analyze the psychology of the abuser. Some discuss potential solutions. One of my favorite essays, written by one of the male authors, is about how important it is for men not to co-opt the movement with secondhand outrage ("this is somebody's daughter!") or the expectation of brownie points ("I would never do this!"). He is properly scornful of such attitudes. I adored him for it.

It's not really possible to say that I enjoyed these essays, because these essays were not written with "entertainment" in mind, and that is certainly not the mindset one should be in while reading them. Some of the stories just about broke my heart. I was able to sympathize with many of the essay writers, and could appreciate many of their points. I'm giving this three stars because, as with any anthology, the collection was uneven. Some of the essays were really short - less than a page - and didn't really have enough room for compelling arguments. One of the essays was sloppily written and felt rushed (it was also the only one with a typo). One of the essays by the male authors was filled with mixed messages and quickly got on my nerves. I didn't hate any of these essays but there were more than a few that I didn't really care for.

The important thing is that this collection of essays represents a fairly broad spectrum of experiences and opinions, despite being less than 100 pages long. Even if you don't like all the essays in here, what didn't work for you might be the balm that somebody else needs, the tale that makes them sit up and realize, "This happened to me, too. I'm not alone."

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf

I'm side-eying the heck out of this book right now because it was a special kind of fail. First, I'm reviewing this as a feminist, and whenever I read a political book, I try to approach it with an open mind - regardless of whether it's being written from a perspective I agree with or not. In this case, I did agree with the basic premise: menstruation should not be a charged or taboo subject. It happens to 50% of the population, it really sucks for the people who experience it, let's talk about it and find ways to make the existing products for it less environmentally harmful and also suck less - especially for low-income individuals and women in other countries who don't have access to the hygienic supplies that they need at all. Totally down with that. How can you disagree?

So the fact that I agreed with this book and still didn't like it says something. What does it say? The author - in my opinion - did not write a very good book. I'd say 85% of the problem was tone. It's super ironic that she quotes Andi Zeisler's WE WERE FEMINISTS, which is a condemnation of people who commandeer the feminist movement to promote their own personal agenda, because Weiss-Wolf toots her own horn in PERIODS GONE PUBLIC a lot. We get to hear about all the projects she participates in - and yes, that's wonderful. But also not what I wanted to read about. And the way she talks about it is a bit difficult to explain, but to me it felt a little smarmy. Especially when she refers to low-income individuals as "the poor." It came across as sounding very privileged to me, which made reading this book unpleasant.

I was hoping for something more science-based/philosophical/historical, but PERIODS GONE PUBLIC is more of a collection of anecdotes and trivia. The sections about low-income individuals experiencing periods and women in developing countries experiencing periods was interesting, but Weiss-Wolf wrests control of those narratives and they feel like they're being written from a decidedly egocentric perspective. Weiss-Wolf particularly seems to like pop culture, and lists some of the celebrities she admires and credits with furthering the feminist movement. These individuals include Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Schumer, and Rupi Kaur. When I read this passage, things became clear. I thought to myself, "Ah, she's a Tumblr feminist." I call them Tumblr Feminists, but really, they're social media feminists generally, who seem to support a feminism that's bite-sized, neatly labeled, and superficially pleasing brand of feminism. It's the shiny, attractive feminism that celebrities love to embrace: sexual pride, body positivity, free pads for everyone!  I feel that this applies to Weiss-Wolf, and while these things are important, there are far more pressing issues.

Now, to Weiss-Wolf's credit, she does cover some of these less savory issues and she has good taste in books (love Zeisler, love Steinhem - Rupi Kaur? Not so much - ugh, Tumblr poetry). I also like that she took the time to write about periods from a trans perspective, and how we look at menstruation frequently from a straight, cis-gendered perspective (periods = child-bearing, heteronormative experience) . It actually made me think of this video I watched on YouTube, a how-to video for trans women who wanted to create artificial periods with cornstarch and food dye so they could experience that aspect of womanhood, too. I've read a lot of articles and watched a lot of YouTube videos about periods (BuzzFeed has really tapped that well dry - I noticed they had an article about periods today, even), and a lot of what they have said was covered here by Weiss-Wolf, so maybe that was another problem - I'm burned out on periods.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slow Burn by V.J. Chambers

🎃 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance where one of the characters is a murderer 🎃

Oy, this is disappointing. I really enjoyed Chambers's other two books, KILLING MOON and SKIN AND BLOND. Both were in genres that I'm generally highly skeptical about and the author managed to win me over with dark, tight plotting and stellar characterization. Even though I'm generally leery about assassin romances, I thought for sure that SLOW BURN couldn't be anything but good in V.J. Chambers's hands.

I was wrong.

For the first 1/3 of the book, I thought this would be good. It has the hallmarks of her other book - damaged men and broken women who don't really "fix" each other (in fact, you could argue that they even make one another worse), but their love persists despite or because of everything, resulting in train wreck drama that makes it hard to look away. SLOW BURN actually reads like a prototype of SKIN AND BLOND, which also featured a promiscuous heroine and an asexual (or, I guess, demisexual in this case) hero with serious emotional problems. Unfortunately for this book, SKIN AND BLOND is the better book and I read that one first.

Here's what I think the author was going for: something like Anne Stuart's Ice series, only with a sci-fi bent. Because the heroine, Leigh, nearly died in a car accident (too much cocaine and alcohol). Her father, who works for a super secret organization, stole a serum that not only heals but also results in increased strength and regenerative abilities. He gave it to his daughter, and she lived; but now that super secret organization is after Leigh. She hides in plain sight, going to college, and taking her father's calls once a month or so on a disposable cell phone. Only, one day he doesn't call, and a man named Griffin shows up in her life claiming that he's been inoculated with the same serum and that her father has hired him to protect her.

It's an interesting premise, even if it is a bit cheesy in an 80s action hero way. My problems stem primarily from the execution. Leigh is an idiot. I like how drug addiction and sex addiction are portrayed in this book but oh my god, it was so much better in SKIN AND BLOND, where you could tell the heroine was competent even though her life was slowly being torn apart. Here, Leigh lacks all sense. This is a girl who is told "lie low" and immediately throws a party and starts snorting cocaine. Not just once, but multiple times. I get that addiction isn't convenient and I understand why the author did it, but it was really frustrating to read - I don't like TSTL heroines, and it would have been easier to stomach if there was something to her character other than the fact that she was beautiful and unashamed of her sexuality and used that to "cure" the demisexual hero.

That's another thing I took issue with in this book: sexuality. This was present in SKIN AND BLOND, but to a much lesser extent. The "asexual" hero keeps referring to himself as broken. In this case, it's a result of sexual abuse, but I don't really like asexuality being compared to a disability: in psychologically healthy human beings, it isn't. Since Griffin was a victim of abuse, it's natural that he wouldn't want sexual contact but that's not really asexuality, that's PTSD. The hero in SKIN AND BLOND referred to himself as broken too, but in that book, it was clear that he was a true asexual (but not aromantic) and just felt frustrated at not being able to live up to the sexually active, heteronormative standards set by society, and that his "brokenness" was an expression of that sentiment. Here, it felt muddled and weird. There's also a strange line from the heroine about the movie, Boys Don't Cry, in which she refers to the trans hero of that movie as a "girl dressing up as a boy." Which, again, I'd like to give the author the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that this is her way of showing the heroine's ignorance (she was, very), but it came off as sounding very misinformed.

Lastly, the pacing. The story just felt way too jumbled and uneven. The sci-fi element ended up making this book really cheesy, and not in a good way. There was too much emphasis placed on the sex, and it detracted from the action sequences. The "grand reveals" felt cliche. It really upset me because SKIN AND BLOND, in comparison, was tight and perfectly paced, with great reveals, excellent sexual tension, and a really smart and flawed heroine, who I didn't always like but always secretly rooted for.

One of the things I like best about Chambers is that she allows her heroines to make mistakes. There are too many books out there that demand perfection from their heroines: they must be beautiful, pure, and good, held to completely different standards than the hero, from whom we're far more quick to forgive much greater flaws. Chambers, like Gillian Flynn, has a penchant for flawed heroines who often do the unforgivable while somehow managing to appear human and even relatable. She just needs to tighten her pacing and omit some of the weird, unnecessary asides from her books in the cutting room.

2 to 2.5 stars

Monday, November 13, 2017

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

There's a ton of comic book nonfiction coming out this year, and with all the superhero movies pouring through theaters, it's no small wonder. I actually just read and reviewed an ARC of Stan Lee's biography, written by Bob Batchelor, and even though it comes across as pretty fan-boyish, it definitely delves into the infamous Marvel vs. DC wars and touches upon some of the pettiness and poor decision-making that resulted from this. Reed Tucker, however, goes into way more detail, like the Crisis on Infinite Earths vs. Secret Wars launches, and the "Fuck Marvel" incident. Tucker definitely tries his best to remain impartial, and really shows the relationship between Marvel and DC to be something between an older brother/younger brother-type rivalry to something like two arch-nemeses in a comic book for whom the constant battle serves as the answer to that existential question: "what is my purpose?"

DC is unquestionably the bigger brother in this story, since Marvel was created much later. Tucker chronicles their inception and growth and how many artists and creators ping-ponged between Marvel and DC, depending on who was giving out more pay and/or creative control at the time. Tucker takes us through the silver age, the bronze age, the crash in the 80s, and the box office boom of the 21st century with superheroes emerging in a new silver age: that of the silver screen, with blockbuster hits like The Avengers and Wonder Woman (which isn't mentioned in this book, which is ironic because Tucker was talking about how Dark Knight was the last really good DC movie, with both Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman being major disappointments - Wonder Woman was the next big hit that DC desperately needed).

I really enjoyed this book. I mean, obviously. I don't read a lot of comic books, but I enjoy most of the ones that I can get my hands on and I like watching super hero movies. Like many comic book commenters, Tucker takes cheap shots at Halle Barry's Catwoman and, of course, Batman & Robin - which, okay, I get it, but I actually like that movie and I've probably re-watched it more than Dark Knight OR Dark Knight Rises, which I find too dark and too disturbing. Batman & Robin is pure fun and mirrors the cheesiness of the animated series, which I adored growing up in the 90s (and still watch, to this day, courtesy of a DVD collection). Personally, I think DC's biggest mistake was Superman 64. Apart from disagreements over which was the better - or worse - adaption of the franchise, I loved learning so many new facts and trivia - like how the Men in Black movie was based off an indie black and white comic, or how direct distribution saved comics at a time when sales weren't doing so well, or that Stan Lee - "face" man of Marvel - at one point worked for DC(!).

If you enjoy comic book history and trivia, this will be a good addition to your knowledge banks. It's well-written, gossipy fun, and manages to make you appreciate the things that make comic books so wonderful while also revealing some of the flaws of creators and creations alike... and somehow, that touch of reality actually makes the comic books and writers even more whimsical. I guess it's kind of like Stan Lee's editorials, back when he wrote for Marvel: Tucker makes you feel like you're part of the comic book "Mean Girls" gang, and that taste of the geeky elite is totally worth it.

P.S. Obviously, that means Stan Lee is Regina George.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons by Lynn Peril

Speaking as a third-wave feminist, I will say that it's tough trying to argue your views to people who consider this a "post-sexism" era, and attempt to use that as a rationalization and a defense for some very sexist, misogynistic thinking: basically, "shut up, you've won the right to free speech and equality - now flash your tits or get back to the kitchen." Even if not phrased in such explicit terms, the mindset among these "post-sexism" individuals seems to suggest that feminists have "won" and are now demanding more than their "fair share." I said this in my review of MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME, and I'll say it again now: that third-wave feminism isn't just some over-entitled mindset where women are demanding special treatment - unless you believe that equal treatment is "special" treatment. There is still a wage gap, and that wage gap is particularly bad when it comes to women of color. Women in many states still do not have access to safe abortion, either because of state-imposed limits or because it isn't covered by an insurer. Women are still hyper-sexualized in a way that men are not, in a number of venues ranging from the religious to commercial, and still largely blamed for their own assaults. Yes, things are better than they were 100, 50, 20, or even 10 years ago - but it isn't perfect, and we aren't even close to being done.

But back to the book: I love nonfiction and I love feminism, so picking up PINK THINK was a no-brainer. I'll read any feminist title I can get my hands on, because I love being informed and getting access to the popular and unpopular ideas of the movement. PINK THINK focuses on the indoctrination of girls into womanhood via pop culture and cultural norms, focusing particularly on the 1940s-1970s, when mass-production created a number of affordable products for the growing middle class but before Title IX and the Civil Rights era came into play. The result? Some very questionable products and advice that make you wonder what the hell the last generation was thinking. Obviously, as a feminist and pop culture aficionado, I thought this was bomb.

Peril cites some questionable definitions taken from "experts" that seem horribly dated (81):

Hermaphrodite: "A female bisexual"

Masturbation: "A tyrant that robs its [female] victims of the incentives and radiant energy for worthy accomplishments.... Oftentimes the remedy for this situation consists of a minor surgical operation spoken of as circumcision."

Orgasm (female): "No more essential for conception than a mink coat or a lipstick."

These definitions are so horrible that they're almost comical - until you remember that people actually thought that way, and that some to this day still do. Peril covers a number of other topics, such as toys shaped like house cleaning products so that little girls can be just like mommy; dating advice books for boys that read like some of the pick-up books of today, suggesting to boys that no does not always mean "no" and that they should press ahead as far as they can, sexually, because that means they'll only get further next time; douching with Lysol for feminine freshness (ugh!); and the idea that female sexuality is something undesirable that not only tarnishes a woman's reputation but that should also be suppressed if not being used for procreation and the begetting of offspring as seen in this excerpt from a book by Ann Landers from the 1960s:

Housework, particularly floor-scrubbing is not only good for the female figure, but it's good for the soul. And it will help take the edge off your sex appetite. Cooking, baking and sewing will prepare you for homemaking. Energy siphoned into these constructive channels will leave less energy for erotic fantasies (89).

My goodness, it's like something out of Handmaid's Tale or Stepford Wives, and I don't think it's a coincidence that both those books were written by people who were alive at a time when these products and ideas were in full rotation. And while things are changing, the damage is still there. Go to any toy department often enough and I guarantee you that you'll hear parents telling their boys, "You can't have that, that's for girls!" or "That's a boy toy, girls don't play with that!" to their girls. I've heard moms and dads scolding their children about wanting to play with everything from Weebles, to Lipsmackers, to Hot Wheels. You still see cooking and cleaning toys marketed to girls, and tool kits and action hero toys being marketed to boys - and rumor has it that at one point, a pole-dancing doll circulated the toy dept. of an unmentioned store, until it was (I imagine) very quickly recalled for an innumerable amount of reasons.

There are a lot of illustrations in this book that are great - I especially loved the pictures of vintage products, particularly the full color ones in the middle (there were not nearly enough). Kind of shocked that bodice rippers, the treatment for "hysteric" women (hint: masturbation machines), and certain fashion ads weren't even mentioned, though! But then, there's so many salient examples of sexist advice and products from these time periods that I'm sure the author was forced to pick and choose, at the risk of compiling a 1,000+ page encyclopedia of "Sexism through the ages." I wish there were more pictures of out-of-touch products, although if you read this book and would like to learn more on the topics presented in here, I can recommend three videos to you right off the bat: Vox's How did pink become a girly color?, Buzzfeed's Women Review Sexist Vintage Ads, and anything by Sarah Haskins via her "Target Women" series, for more modern examples.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Must Love Ghosts by Ani Gonzalez

🎃 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance novel romance about ghosts 🎃

I have a love-hate relationship with reading challenges. On the one hand, sometimes I find new gems I never would have thought to pick up otherwise (for example, this year's challenge led me to discover a new favorite author, V.J. Chambers). On the other hand, sometimes they have me scrambling around in the Daily Deals/Free sections of the Kindle Store in a panic, desperately seeking free or cheap books to complete a category I do not like.

MUST LOVE GHOSTS sort of falls into the later category. I went through this very brief period in college where I was reading romances that fell more on the supernatural side of the paranormal romance fence, i.e. psychics, realistic ghost novels, etc. I liked them because they felt more plausible than werewolves, because it's easier to believe in inexplicable occurrences in an old house than it is a hulking GQ model who turns into a furry once a month. (And no, I have nothing against furries or GQ models.) Then I got sick of them and haven't picked up another since...UNTIL NOW.

I picked up MUST LOVE GHOSTS two Halloweens ago because I thought the jack-o-lantern satchel on the cover was cute. The premise was also intriguing. Abby is a girl who lives in a small Virginia town called Banshee Creek that is rife with history. It's a destination location for those interested in the occult and paranormal and many who live there have built their lives around capitalizing on that. Not Abby, though, who's a singer in a folk/country band (although not by choice). This whole time she's been trying to get over the grief of losing her fiance in Afghanistan.

Mike was a friend to both Abby and Cole, the fiance. He's also been in love with her since the day he met her and has tried to hide his feelings out of respect to both his friends. Now that Cole has been dead for two years, though, it's getting harder - especially because he has to deliver an important momento to Abby that he's been holding onto her for years, from Cole. What makes hiding his feelings even more difficult is the possibility that they might not be unrequited.

This was a pretty good story, honestly. It doesn't have a very significant paranormal element. Most of the story focuses on Mike and Abby and their growing attraction to one another, set against the backdrop of this small town vibe. The writing was solid and I don't think I spotted any typos. Both characters felt real in a way that romance characters sometimes don't, by which I mean they are annoying human beings. Mike, especially, got on my nerves with his Debbie Downer routine, and the fact that he was constantly playing Officer Safety, and telling everyone, "that's not safe!" I'm the same way, but he even got on my nerves - and that says something.

MUST LOVE GHOSTS is a fun, light read though. It kind of reminds me of those "cozy mysteries." There isn't a lot of tension and it's mostly written for light entertainment and feeling good. I think this would be a good rainy-day read in a warm, cafe setting. Possibly with a cinnamon flavored pastry.

3 out of 5 stars