Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Right Swipe

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019), narrated by Summer Morton and Brian Pallino

Rhiannon Hunter was ousted from a dating app company called Swipe after breaking up with one of the executives, and she went on to start a competing company called Crush. Now she's interested in expanding her business by buying Matchmaker, a more traditional old-timey kind of dating company. While attending an industry event, she runs into a guy she hooked up with months ago who ghosted her, and then learns that he works for Matchmaker.

Samson Lima was a pro football player, as was his father and uncle. His father died of CTE, and that is likely also what killed his uncle. Now Samson is working for his aunt, owner of Matchmaker. When he sees Rhiannon for the first time since their night together, he wants nothing more than to apologize and explain what happened, but she won't talk to him.

Rhiannon made a lot of assumptions, which is a thing I find annoying, and she kept doing it right through the end of the book. There were ways in which I could admire her, but I didn't find her interesting. She was an ambitious workaholic who didn't seem to have any interests outside of her business, and I am just not interested in characters whose lives are that empty. Samson was a little more nuanced, I suppose, since he was dealing with the repercussions of how he left his career, the traumatic brain injuries suffered by his father and uncle, and his struggle to figure out what to do with his life next.

The story had some interesting elements: CTE, the harassment Rhiannon experienced at her old company, her decision to make a dating app that is more female-friendly, and the interesting way the owner of Matchmaker decided to let potential new owners make their offers (basically a somewhat mysterious house party.) So I guess it was a solid story, but not especially awesome.

I listened to the audiobook, and both the narrators were good but their voices were almost too different to make it flow easily between their chapters. Brian Pallino's voice was so low and whispery compared to Summer Morton's that I often had to adjust the volume between chapters.

My expectations for this book were set by Alisha Rai's Forbidden Hearts series, which was excellent and made this one disappointing in comparison. This was a totally different book - upbeat and light where that series was  super dark and angsty - so I probably shouldn't compare them but I can't help it. I will continue to love Alisha Rai, but I may just stick with her darker, more serious, books from now on.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Exile From Eden

Exile From Eden by Andrew Smith (2019)

Sixteen years after the events of Grasshopper Jungle, Austin and Shann's son Arek is a teenager and starting to grow attracted to Mel, Robby's younger sister who is close to Arek's age. Austin and Robby often leave the hole together to explore and bring stuff back, but one time they leave and don't come back. Arek can't stand just waiting and decides to go looking for them.

The main story arc is about Arek and Mel leaving the hole to look for Arek's fathers, but discovering what the outside world is really like. They had been told that it was scary and dangerous, and while there were certainly scary and dangerous things out there it was so much more than that. It opened up their world in life-changing ways and neither of them will be able to go back to living in the hole all the time.

Arek's and Mel's story is told in alternating chapters with that of two other characters, Breakfast and Olive. Arek had heard of them because his fathers, during their explorations, had found notes that Breakfast left behind. Breakfast was constantly picking his nose, scratching his balls, farting, and declaring how wild he is, often punctuating his speech with "Ha! Wild!" Olive didn't speak at all but constantly jumped up and down in excitement. That was basically their shtick and it got old really, really fast. I quickly came to dislike reading the chapters about these characters.

The last book ended in a weird spot relationship-wise, and the love triangle between Austin, Robby, and Shann was left unresolved. It was basically the only thing I didn't like about that book. Now sixteen years later, Austin and Robby are a couple though it seems like they hide it from the other adults in the hole. Shann is unhappy and bitter, her mother Wendy a religious nut. But the story is unconcerned with the unhappiness of the women and nothing comes of that. Smith apparently only cares about boys and how all boys want to leave, which he keeps saying, as though nobody female ever got sick of their life and wanted to start fresh. I guess he thinks women are fine with being stuck in a hole and miserable like Shann.

It never explained why Robby and Austin were gone for so long, and I don't understand the title of the book either - doesn't exile mean you are sent away? It is sort of implied that the women made everyone miserable and the guys (and Mel) needed to leave the hole to get away from them. We also never learned how Breakfast and Olive met up. Throughout a lot of the book Breakfast is telling Olive the story of his life before he met her, but he never reaches the part where they met and, knowing what I now know about Olive, I'd like to know how they came to be traveling together.

It was ok enough, not nearly as good as Grasshopper Jungle and as I've mentioned I had a number of specific disappointments. I did like reading about Arek and Mel and their adventures discovering the outside world for the first time. During the course of the story, the Unstoppable Soldiers (the giant praying mantises) that they encountered seemed to be sick or dying, so there is hope that humans may be able to come out of hiding and reclaim the world. I'd like to think Arek and the others would bother to let the rest of the family know it's safe to come out of the hole at that point, but I'm not convinced they would.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Duchess Deal

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1) by Tessa Dare (2017)

I read a book by Tessa Dare several years ago and wasn't impressed. Or rather, I liked it until near the end when everything went kind of stupid. I've shied away from her books since then even though I know a lot of people love them. But recently I heard such good things about The Wallflower Wager that I thought it would be worth trying this series and I wanted to start from the beginning.

Our story begins with Emma Gladstone paying a call to the Duke of Ashbury. She's a seamstress, appearing in a dress commissioned by the Duke's now-ex-fiance. Emma is desperate for payment, though I don't understand why she couldn't simply carry the dress with her. At any rate, the Duke makes her a counter-offer: marriage.

The Duke returned from war with hideous scars covering one side of his face and body, which is the reason his fiance changed her mind about marriage. It was a huge blow to his self-esteem and he's a bitter, brooding man. But he still needs an heir so he offers Emma a way out of poverty. The deal is that as soon as she gets pregnant, he'll give her a house in the country and she'll never have to see him again. This has an appeal to Emma because, in addition to wanting financial security, she has just learned that one of her unmarried friends is pregnant and needs a place to go during the final months of her pregnancy.

Emma is fairly attracted to the Duke early on, and all the sex they're having to try and produce an heir only increases that attraction. The Duke, though he tries very hard to retain his cynical outer shell, also begins falling for Emma. But he's not convinced he's worth loving, and his former fiance isn't entirely out of the picture, plus Emma's plans to hide away her pregnant friend begin to complicate things. It was a pretty good story that I was invested in from the start. I love a marriage of convenience, and a hero or heroine who has a physical or mental disability (not that his scars disable him, exactly.) Additionally, the Duke's staff really wanted him to fall in love with Emma and they would contrive situations to throw them together and it was kind of hilarious and cute.

There was a lot of humor actually, which seems to be the case with most romances I end up reading - are they all that way? Emma doesn't know what to call her new husband, refusing to call him the Duke, or Ash, or his real first name, George, because it's her father's name. So she resorts to making up silly little nicknames which he hates, but she is fond of torturing him in this way. I liked some of their wry observations about society too. For instance, when Emma insists on using her seamstress skills to make her own clothing, the Duke will not hear of it. She tries to reason with him, saying that ladies are supposed to do needlework. His response is "Fine ladies make useless things, like wretched pillows, and samplers no one wants, and disturbing covers for the commode. They don't use their skills to perform common labor."

Which brings me to one of the things I liked most about this hero. He was very conscientious about how his decisions affected others. So when he shows Emma her house in the country and tells her to hire people to fix it up and she insists it's perfect the way it is, he tells her how that doesn't matter because the important thing is giving work to people who need jobs. That is something she understands.

What he did that I didn't like was threaten Emma's father on her behalf and without her consent. When the Duke learned why Emma was so poor, that her father had thrown her out of the house and let her make her own way (starving and freezing and even losing a toe) he was outraged. He snuck away, found her father's house, and slipped into the guy's bedroom in the middle of the night to threatened that he'd go to hell. I appreciate the gesture, but I hate when men act like their female partners are helpless and need protecting and don't even ask before seeking out those who have wronged them. Maybe she wants you to stay the hell out of it.

I liked Emma too. She was clever and resourceful and didn't take shit from anyone. She was down-to-earth and forgiving and could see the good in people even when it was hard for others to. I also like the women she befriends, who are all unconventional and interesting, and who I think are the subjects of the other books in this series, which I now want to continue reading.

This was a fun story about an unlikely match and I was happy that I liked it a lot more than the last book by Tessa Dare that I read. I was really in the mood for something light and escapist, and this really fit the bill.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mother of All Questions

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit (2017)

I impulsively borrowed this from a friend when I was at his house, despite having plenty to read and only moments before refusing his offer to borrow "anything I'd like" when he saw me browsing his shelves. But Rebecca Solnit is so smart and I so enjoyed Men Explain Things To Me that I couldn't pass up this book.

It actually took me a while to get through the first essay, "A Short History of Silence," which at 50-something pages is a pretty substantial chunk of the book. It was also probably the most abstract, and abstract is not something I am good at. It was about the many ways in which people (and more specifically, women) are silenced and even though it was a bit long and may be too broad and all-emcompassing for me, there were still passages I noted. One example is when she talks about how films primarily featuring men are just films, while those with primarily female characters are considered girls' or womens' films. She says "Men are not expected to engage in the empathic extension of identifying with a different gender, just as white people are not asked, the way people of color are, to identify with other races. Being dominant means seeing yourself and not seeing others; privilege often limits or obstructs imagination."

After this lengthy essay, which took me a few days to read, I read the rest of the book in probably a 24-hour period. As expected, having read Solnit's essays before, I was worked up into a rage, but also couldn't help smile at how clever, erudite, and articulate she is. I'm not great at expressing my thoughts and it's so satisfying to read the words of someone who can pinpoint exactly what it is about something that is so unjust or infuriating.

These essays examine events like the O.J. Simpson murders, Gamergate, and sexual harassment by men from Bill Cosby to Jian Ghomeshi. She talks about how women who have already been treated poorly by men are further harassed, often receiving rape and death threats online. She says "...the plethora of men attacking women and anyone who stands up for women in order to prove that women are not under attack and feminism has no basis in reality are apparently unaware that they're handily proving the opposite."  She always provides interesting statistics, such as that 38% of women murdered are killed by their partners, a sad but unsurprising fact.

In "Men Explain Lolita To Me," Solnit discusses the Esquire article "80 Books Every Man Should Read" (79 of which were written by men) and posits the merits of learning about others through reading, an idea that seems to upset some men. She says "Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don't know it. They just think you're wrong and sometimes also evil." (In that same essay she discusses the way that magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan feel the need to constantly instruct how to be your gender. "Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.") She points out the way that white men are forever talking about other people who can't take a joke or need to be coddled, when in fact they are the ones who react to jokes about themselves with rage and threats, and respond to criticisms about, say, male video game culture by threatening rape, death, doxxing, and bombs to the women who dare voice this criticism.

Rebecca Solnit gets at so many ideas in surprisingly few pages, and puts voice to things that are dancing on the periphery of my vision that I can't quite express. She's a lot smarter than I am, and I'm grateful that she shares her brilliance with the world. I was interested to learn from one of her essays that she has written a book about the history of walking, called Wanderlust, which I'd like to think I will read someday.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Peace Is Every Step

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness In Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh (1990)

This slim volume is basically a collection of short essays about finding peace, compassion, and harmony in everyday life by slowing down and living mindfully. It's divided into three sections. "Breathe! You Are Alive" is very much about the everyday: how to live in the moment and focus on the little things like breathing, walking, eating, or even doing the dishes. "Transformation and Healing" applies these principles to dealing with difficult emotions like anger and transforming them into more productive ones. It talks a lot about dealing with other people, such as parents or romantic partners, and emphasizes the importance of community. "Peace Is Every Step" takes this philosophy even farther outside of ourselves to look at world problems with a lens of kindness, compassion, peace and justice.

 At this point I've read a few things about mindfulness and about Buddhism and it's starting to get interesting to see how they complement or contradict each other. For instance, one thing that has stuck with me from The Wise Heart is noticing your feelings but realizing that they are not part of you, and will come and go like the weather. Here, in a piece called "Mindfulness of Anger" Nhat Hanh says "When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress it or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self." He compares it to garbage and compost: you can take something unwanted and transform it into something useful and nurturing. I'm not sure that the two perspectives are actually contradictory in terms of what Buddhism is about because the important thing, I think, is being aware of your emotions and recognizing that some of them are not helpful. Perhaps whether you wait for them to pass or transform them is not important.

He uses garbage in his writing a lot actually. Another passage I liked is about how if you want to live peacefully with a person you need to recognize the whole person. He says "We do not expect a person always to be a flower. We have to understand his or her garbage as well."

I also like how he talks about engaging with the world. Buddhism isn't all about staying inside your own head all the time, despite the emphasis on meditation. Meditation is to help with focus and clarity and should help you see the world. Once you see it, you need to act on what you see. And he sees us as all interdependent. In a passage entitled "Flowers and Garbage" (I told you he likes garbage!) he writes about prostitution and how we look down on prostitutes and how prostitutes may feel badly when they compare themselves to "good girls" from good family. Nhat Hanh says that the prostitute is the way she is because others are the way they are and asks "How can a 'good girl,' belonging to a good family, be proud? Because the 'good family's' way of life is the way it is, the prostitute has to live as a prostitute. No one among us has clean hands." The same is true with wealth and poverty.

He talks about war and peace and the environment. He talks about writing positive letters to our congressional representatives, letters they will want to read and not just throw away, and he acknowledges the need for understanding the constraints of doing their jobs. He talks about all the little ways that what we do every day affects the world; the way we speak to people, what we throw in the trash. He talks about looking at people who do bad things - like pirates who rape young girls - and considering what conditions in the world contributed to them becoming how they are; he thinks that if he had faced the same conditions in his life, perhaps he would also have ended up a pirate.

Thich Nhat Hanh is very well-known and popular for his views and his writing, and this book feels like one it would be good to own and turn to now and again to try and soak up more of his advice. It's the first book by Nhat Hanh that I've read but I am interested in reading more as I really like how he views the world, and the way he writes about it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Toil & Trouble

Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe (2018)

I am feeling very pleased with myself about actually reading this book at a somewhat seasonal time! This is a teen anthology of stories about witchy girls, and there's a lot of diversity as I have come to expect from Jessica Spotswood's anthologies. They're a mix of contemporary and historical with characters of different backgrounds, but always strong females and a lot of sisterhood.

Of course I had a few favorites. "Afterbirth" by Andrea Cremer was a chilling tale about midwives in Puritan New England. A young apprentice assists with an unusual birth that turns tragic, and the midwife is held responsible. "The Heart In Her Hands" by Tess Sharpe is set in a world where a sort of magical tattoo appears on young women, telling them the first words that will be spoken to them by their soulmate. But Brenna already has a soulmate, a girl, and she refuses the boy who speaks the prophetic words to her. "The Truth About Queenie" by Brandy Colbert is about a young witch who wants to keep her powers secret; also secret is that she's in love with her best friend, Webb. When he brings home a girlfriend for her to meet, her hopes are crushed. This story made me want more, in a good way. There's enough here about Queenie and Webb's friendship, and Queenie's powers and her family, for a full-length novel and I would definitely read it. "The Legend of Stone Mary" by Robin Talley was a creepy small-town legend about a mysterious statue that is said to come to life under the right circumstances, and a teenaged girl who is a descendant of the subject of the statue.

Now I'm realizing I have too many favorites to relate them all in details, but others include "The One Who Stayed" by Nova Ren Suma, "Divine Are the Stars" by Zoraida Cordova, "Daughters of Baba Yaga" by Brenna Yovanoff, "The Well Witch" by Kate Hart, "Beware of Girls With Crooked Mouths," by Jessica Spotswood, and "Love Spell" by Anna-Marie McLemore. There were really only a few stories I wasn't really into, and in a couple of those cases I think I just shouldn't have started a story when I was already tired. It takes some focus to get into a new story and that's one of the difficulties of reading a short story collection.

All in all, I really enjoyed this collection and recommend it if you're looking for some witchy-themed fall reading!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019)

Margaret Atwood's long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by three women: Aunt Lydia, the daughter of a Commander, and a young woman in Canada. The events take place fifteen years after the first book and give us much more insight into parts of Gilead we didn't see before. We've gotten some of it from the show, but there is still more to discover here.

Aunt Lydia's chapters are written in secret and hidden in a book to be discovered at some later time. She speculates about whether she'll be dead then, or if their discovery will lead to her death or downfall because of her explosive secrets. Agnes Jemima is the Commander's daughter and if you watch the show you will recognize her as Offred/June's daughter, originally called Hannah. Her chapters are labeled Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A. Our third character's story is told through Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B, and she is a sixteen-year-old named Daisy, living in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie, and in her opening story she is just learning, through a tragic event, that much of what she knew about herself is a lie. The stories of all three of these characters come to intersect in important ways that may change Gilead forever.

Even though I've been watching the show, there is a lot to learn here about Gilead. A Commander's daughter provides an enlightening perspective on how the privileged live and view their world. Although the show does follow some characters who have escaped to Canada, that's different than this viewpoint of a teenager for whom Gilead has been a neighbor her whole life, and has grown up hearing about Baby Nicole, baby of legend, stolen from Gilead and hidden in Canada. And of course Aunt Lydia's writings reveal a great deal about the inner workings of those who set up this society and keep it running, plus the details of how her life changed when the American government fell and how she became an Aunt.

Especially interesting to me is how the characters view the handmaids. In The Handmaid's Tale we have only 's Offred's perspective, and therefore believe that the handmaids are revered because they produce babies, the society's most precious commodity. Imagine my surprise when I began reading and heard the way people talked about the handmaids as sluts who are good for nothing else. Well! That was something I didn't expect from such a pious, baby-centric society. This novel was pretty eye-opening, to say the least.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, of course, so I'll just summarize my experience by saying that it was very satisfying. Throughout the show I have been dying to know just how evil Aunt Lydia is - there have been times that I could swear I see glimmers of a good person hidden in there, especially when she protects the handmaids or forces them to behave in ways that will be safer for them in the long run. But then she would do something awful and I would think that no, in fact, she is all for Gilead's way of life, a true believer. This book finally gives me the answers I have sought about her character. A fun discovery was that part of the book takes place on Campobello Island, which is a tiny Canadian island connected by a bridge to my hometown and where I spent a great deal of time when I was growing up.

Of course I can't help but think about the present atmosphere in the United States, with an authoritarian president, an election system that's not currently as free and fair as it should be, and the distinct possibility of political instability. Atwood has been very open about how everything in Gilead has existed somewhere at some time in the real world. As she says late in this novel "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." It left me with a lot to think about.

I had only read one review of this book before reading it because I knew I would read it no matter what - that review was from Kirkus and was predictably Kirkus-like (it said something to the effect that the book was good but unnecessary, whatever the heck that means.) Of course I thought it was great, and I am trying to figure out the trajectory of the show given that this takes place several years later and I don't know how many seasons they have planned. But no matter: I'm happy to have this story now!