Sunday, December 29, 2019

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (2019)

When Lori Gottlieb was blindsided by a breakup, she started seeing a therapist named Wendell to help her work through her feelings. A therapist herself, she shares her experience of being in therapy as well as the stories of some of her own patients (disguised, of course, for their privacy.)

Getting the perspective of both therapist and patient made for an excellent read, especially if you're not familiar with the inner workings on therapy. It was interesting to see Gottlieb fall into the same traps as her patients, and to see her therapist help her in ways she recognized as they were happening. Her self-awareness during the process made it all the more educational.

I really liked the stories about her patients. I'm trying not to overthink which parts are real and how the real stories are different, but at any rate they are all great character studies. One is a young newlywed named Julie who is dying of cancer and trying to make the most of the time she has left, while rejecting the uber-positive cancer culture. John is an asshole Hollywood writer who Lori finds very difficult to empathize with at first, but it turns out he's keeping a major tragedy a secret from her and it is only after he is willing to talk about it than any real growth can occur. He was probably the most interesting character. An older woman named Rita is - I'm pretty sure - the person I'm going to end up being someday. She is alone and bitter and feels that she has nothing to look forward to. She has kids, but they are estranged, and she just pushes people away and now that she is old she is isolated and unhappy. All of these people experienced positive growth through their therapy, and it was fascinating to hear the conversations that made them able to change their lives for the better.

There was also a patient she made no headway with and she stopped seeing, which kept it real. This situation highlighted the ways that therapy doesn't work for everyone, and how it only works if you actually keep an open mind and do the work. I'm glad she included this story, or else I would have been skeptical because it all went so much better for the other patients.

This was a lot of book. It was over 400 pages which seems excessive and I started to feel very eager to be done with it, while still dying to know how things turned out for everybody. Mostly it just made me want to see a therapist, since it resulted in major positive life changes for everyone in the book.

To be honest, this book was only vaguely on my radar - it's very popular and I keep seeing it around at the library but I didn't really intend to read it. But one day I saw an available copy and impulsively grabbed it, and I'm very glad I did. It was such an interesting look at the way our views of the world and people around us, and everything that goes on in our heads, affect our lives. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

It Takes Two to Tumble

It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian (2017)

Captain Phillip Dacre has been away at sea for 2 years, but wants to make his visit home as short as possible. His wife is dead, his children running wild, and he's basically a stranger in his own home. Ben Sedgwick, the vicar, has been enlisted to to take care of the three hellions after they drove away every governess or tutor to be found. He has a way with them, it turns out, and now it looks like he might have a way with their stern father as well.

Phillip is all about order and following commands, and when he sees the way Ben indulges his children's whims, he doesn't approve. But he soon sees that Ben just knows how to engage them and direct their energies in less destructive ways. He also can't help but see how attractive Ben is.

Ben is also not blind to Phillip's charms. Although he's a vicar he's unconcerned about this sort of sin because he interprets the Bible in his own way. His worry is that Phillip will just be leaving again soon and will be gone for who knows how long. Other unrelated worries also start to plague Ben, regarding his family history and how it may affect his present and future.

Everything about this story was pretty charming. I liked the personalities of both the men and was definitely rooting for them. The problems with the kids gave them something to focus on and bond over, while still keeping things fairly light-hearted. They both had interesting histories too. Phillip was clearly mourning and Ben thought at first it was for his dead wife, but it was actually for a man aboard his ship. Ben has a tense relationship with his father, whose lifestyle we'd probably describe as Bohemian these days. It was a strange childhood, living with his father who essentially had two wives, and Ben isn't quite over it.

It wasn't too hard for them to come together, and I'd say the conflict is mostly about them trying to figure out what their relationship will be. Phillip assumed it would be purely physical, because that's all he thought possible, but he became so fond of Ben right away. He also worked hard at his relationship with his kids, which made him reluctant to leave again for his ship. Of course they eventually worked it all out and I found everything to be quite satisfying. I've heard of Cat Sebastian for years but had never read any of her books, and now I'm glad that I finally picked one up!

Monday, December 23, 2019

2019 TBR Pile Challenge Wrap-Up

It is the end of the year, and time to look back at my reading challenge for this year. My original post is here, but I'll copy and paste the list here if you don't want to click through.

Here is my list, with links to reviews and the dates I finished reading the books.

1. Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen (failed in 4/19)
2. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (finished 1/18/19)
3. Version Control by Dexter Palmer (finished 8/11/19)
4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (finished 3/17/19)
5. We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle (finished 5/18/19)
6. Caroline: Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller (finished 2/19/19)
7. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (finished 2/3/19)
8. Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
9. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (finished 3/10/19)
10. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (finished 5/28/19)
11. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright (admitted defeat 2/17/19)
12. Paradox Bound by Peter Clines (finished 4/28/19)

My two alternates:

1. The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (finished 8/24/19)
2. My One and Only by Kristan Higgins (finished 7/4/19)

It was quite successful in that I finished 12 books, but technically unsuccessful in that one of them was actually published a couple of days too late to qualify (they were supposed to be published before 2018, but The Wolves of Winter was published on January 2, 2018. Whoops.)

There were two that I just couldn't get through, but luckily that's why there are alternates. All the others I not only finished, but liked, which is a great success. It's hard to pick favorites, but there were two that I gave 5 stars to: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Caroline: Little House Revisited. And now I'm going back changing my rating for Version Control from 4 to 5 stars, because I don't think I've stopped thinking or talking about it since I finished it back in August. It was a very strong list, other than the ones I couldn't finish. I really liked and would recommend every other book I read.

The person who runs the challenge won't be doing it in 2020 as he's focusing on other projects. There have been other years when he didn't do this challenge and I just did it on my own, and I considered that for 2020. But I don't actually have a ton of books languishing on my To Read list that I'm still super interested in. So I probably will be prioritizing some of those but I won't do a formal challenge.

I hope you've all had a great reading year!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017)

It's New Year's Eve of 1984, and Lillian Boxfish is setting out for a walk that will take her all over New York, meeting new people as she visits places where significant milestones took place and thinking back over her life. She's in her 80s now (and yes, she still loves to walk everywhere), and in her youth she was the highest paid woman in advertising. She wrote ad copy in the form of poems, and also published some books of poetry. She got married, and then divorced. She had a son who is trying to get her to move to Maine, but she loves New York with all her heart, even after a subway vigilante attack that still has everyone in the city on edge.

This meandering story was nostalgic, but Lillian is anything but stuck in the past. In fact, her past has some pretty dark episodes she'd like to forget. No, even in her eighties she is interested in meeting people and will strike up a conversation with anyone: a photographer in a park, a clerk in a bodega, a teenager who is currently mugging her. She's truly interested in other people. She also admits to liking rap music, which makes sense since she's a poet but she does lament that other people her age aren't interested in it. During the course of the evening she has dinner with complete strangers, attends a party with a friend who is in her thirties, and of course walks miles and miles. I was dying to know what she wears for shoes, to be honest.

Lillian was not a marriage-and-family kind of woman. She never planned to become a wife or mother, but wanted to focus on her own career and interests, which really set her apart from other women of her time. But when she fell madly in love with a coworker from another department at Macy's she didn't hesitate to marry him. She resented having to give up her job, but she kept freelancing, which worked out pretty well. At any rate, when the marriage fell apart, she never remarried and was very content to stay alone. She really knew herself and wasn't afraid to live her life the way she wanted to, regardless of what other people might think.

I liked how open-minded Lillian is, while still having opinions. She was once invited onto a tv show with some younger women in advertising, where they basically insulted how advertising was done in her day. Lillian said she thought advertising was "to communicate and persuade, but now it seems like you just prod at a brain stem to get someone to buy a thing without even knowing why." I think she's onto something. I also sympathized with her displeasure when she visited a bar to find that they had installed a tv. And it isn't that she doesn't like tv, it's that she highly values being social. She is opinionated without being a curmudgeon. I also like that she walks everywhere because I do a lot of walking myself.

Despite not really being in the mood for this book when I started it, I did end up enjoying it. I had just finished Henry, Himself and two books about older people looking back over their lives is a bit much, but that was the book I had available at the time. It was pretty fun and enjoyable.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Bride Test

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (2019), narrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Khai isn't interested in relationships. He's content with his house and his job and his daily routine. His very specific routine that is set up exactly the way he likes, in his life that is also set up the exact way that he likes. Esme cleans bathrooms in Vietnam, trying to help support her family, including her little girl who she is raising alone. A chance encounter offers her an irresistible deal: she is to travel to America to meet a potential husband and if it works out, she gets to stay in America and make a better life for herself and her family. She just has to convince the guy - who happens to be Khai - to marry her.

Khai's mom has made the arrangements and moves Esme into Khai's home. Esme is nervous because she wants Khai to actually fall for her. She doesn't want to bring her daughter into an unhappy family situation. She also hasn't told Khai (or his mom) that she has a daughter. She also has another motive for coming to California - she doesn't know her own father, but the scant information she has about him includes time spent at the University of California at Berkeley. If she finds her father, she has an alternate path to citizenship and won't need to marry Khai.

Esme and Khai become attracted to each other pretty early on, but of course there are obstacles. The primary one is that Khai is autistic - communication between them isn't great, Esme doesn't know anything about autism, and Khai is convinced that he is not able to feel love and therefore can't give Esme what she deserves. It is a deliciously painful setup.

There are some very sweet and sexy moments. The one that stands out most to me is when Esme offers to cut Khai's hair for him. Because he has sensory issues, he explains in detail how she has to touch him - firmly, no light touches, pull his hair very taut - and they proceed to experiment a bit, Khai showing Esme how to touch and his hair and face. She is nervous of doing something wrong at first, but then becomes more confident as she touches his face and hair. There's nothing explicitly sexual in this scene, but it was very sexy and very memorable.

It's funny too. Khai's brother Quan helps him out a lot with advice over the course of the novel. At one point he is giving Khai much-needed advice about sex, but Khai is skeptical. When Quan tells him about the clitoris, Khai thinks: "It doesn't even sound real. For all he knew it was an urban myth like the chupacabra or Roswell aliens." I almost died laughing.

This book was a delight the whole way through, and I have to give a major shoutout to the narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, who did the male voices so well that at one point I checked to see if there was also a male narrator. I couldn't reconcile the male voices with her female voice. I liked this even better than Helen Hoang's first book, The Kiss Quotient. She's got a third one coming out, but not until 2021. It's going to be a painful wait, especially because it's about Khai's brother Quan, who I love a lot and I'm so glad he's getting his own book!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Henry, Himself

Henry, Himself by Stewart O'Nan (2019)

Henry Maxwell's wife was the star of O'Nan's book Emily, Alone which took place after Henry's death. Now we get a close-up of their life together that focuses on Henry. There's no real plot here, it's just a detailed year in Henry's life, beginning in the winter and ending early the following year. They go to their summer place in Chautauqua, along with their kids and grandkids, and see them all again at various holidays. In between, we get their day-to-day life at home, all their chores and routines and everyday life with their long-lived dog Rufus.

It's not worry-free, though. Their daughter Margaret, who has battled substance abuse, is having a rough time in her marriage, and Emily has a tense relationship with their son Kenny's wife. Henry's doctor is ill too, so Henry has to reschedule a needed appointment and go to another doctor, all the while worrying about Dr. Runco, who is around his own age and who he has been seeing for decades.

I was struck by how busy Henry was all the time, all the little tasks and chores he had to do around the house. To some extent, he probably should have hired people to do some of the household repairs as he was almost 75 and installing a new mailbox himself was a bit too much. But it also made me feel better about how busy I feel, because I work full time and find household chores overwhelming most of the time. Henry is retired and all the requirements of life still keep him pretty busy.

It's strange to read it knowing that he will die and leave Emily a widow, and I spent some time trying to remember if his cause of death was ever mentioned in Emily, Alone. It doesn't matter though; he spends enough time thinking about his own mortality, I don't need to rush him along. Life changes are a common theme in the novel, as Henry thinks about family traditions and how they may change and who may be absent in the future. People die, grandchildren grow up; it's bittersweet.

As with most of O'Nan's books that I've read, the beauty is in the details. I don't know why it's so wonderful to hear every single mundane detail of life, but it is somehow very affirming as a human being. I've really enjoyed several of his books, though I think the last I tried to read was West of Sunset, which I abandoned 70 pages in. Now I realize that his book with the highest rating on Goodreads is A Prayer for the Dying, which I haven't read, so that's going on my list to read next.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Death by Dumpling

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (2018)

After dramatically quitting her job, Lane Lee finds herself waiting tables at Ho-Lee Noodle House, her parents' restaurant in Asia Village. One day she makes a delivery of dumplings to Mr. Feng, owner of the plaza, and later he is found dead. Everyone at Ho-Lee Noodle House knew about his shrimp allergy and there's no way they'd make such a deadly mistake. All eyes point to Ho-Lee's cook, Peter, but Lana knows he would never intentionally kill anyone. As the investigation heats up, Lana and her roommate Megan decide to do some investigating of their own.

I heard about this on the Get Booked podcast from Book Riot, a podcast that I really didn't need to know about because it is only informing me about more and more books that I need to read. But I heard this episode at the perfect time - I had gone from Midnight in Chernobyl to Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen and needed a light, fun palate cleanser.

Lana was in a bad place when the story opens, having come through a bad breakup from which she has clearly not yet recovered, plus more recently quitting her job. We never get details about the old job or why she quit, just that it was sudden and dramatic and working in a restaurant is a big change from whatever she was doing. She was 27 but felt younger to me, a little naive. But I liked how she made this murder case into a project, determined to find out who killed this person she liked so much. She was so organized, and would write out all the facts in her notebook to lay it all out and make sure she had everything right before going any further. She also made sure her list of suspects was thorough and logical, even if it meant including people she liked and wanted to think wouldn't murder anyone. She really cared about all of the people involved. She was a fun character too; she harbored a deep and abiding love for doughnuts. And once after the murder when the press tried to get her attention she pretended she couldn't speak English. There's also a minor romance plotline going on in the background too, which I quite liked.

The writing isn't perfect. The dialogue has plenty of moments that don't feel natural, and there were even a few errors that a proofreader should have caught. But when all was said and done, those are pretty insignificant. Chien has created a great storyline with interesting characters and enough red herrings that I was kept guessing throughout the novel. It's a fun, quick read!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mary Toft

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

There's a story from the 18th century about a woman named Mary Toft, who gave birth to 17 dead rabbits, confounding the medical community. In this novel, Dexter Palmer has taken that story and added a rich cast of characters and created a narrative that makes readers think about the nature of truth, and all the ways in which we deceive ourselves and others.

It begins in the town of Godalming, England with a kid named Zachary, brought by his mother to Dr. John Howard, who treats his tonsil abscess so successfully that Zachary is inspired to pursue medicine himself and becomes Dr. Howard's apprentice. He begins learning the trade, and then observes a case which confounds even the experienced Dr. Howard: they are called to the house of a woman in labor, and she gives birth to a mass of rabbit parts. Then, a week later, she does so again. And again every few days. Out of desperation, Dr. Howard writes to some medical colleagues in London, and here the story begins to spread and take on a life of its own.

Along the way, Zachary meets Anne, an intriguing young woman with a port-wine birthmark across most of her face, who travels with her father's "curiosity show." It's basically a freakshow when Zachary goes to see it in Godalming, a parade of people with unfortunate and shocking conditions. Zachary and John Howard watch it together and then discuss which people were real and which were hoaxes. Later, when they are in London, Zachary sees a darker version of this show, one which features shocking animal cruelty and reveals a very disturbing desire among London's very wealthy.

This book contains a lot of fodder for thought and discussion about human nature. It questions the very nature of truth, and suggests that if enough people believe something, then it becomes true, and illustrates the power of groups to influence how we think and act. One character presents the idea that humanity is a finite resource that some people try to take from other to make themselves more human and, in so doing, make those others less so (think slavery.) It is clear that at least some of the doctors thought themselves more human than poor Mary Toft, a subject of curiosity and awe to them, but not an actual person with feelings, whose welfare they cared about.

It's easy to forget while reading this that the same author wrote Version Control, because they are so very different from each other. But it's clear that Dexter Palmer is an incredibly talented and creative writer, one whose books I will continue to anticipate.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019)

I was on the cusp of 13 when the disaster at Chernobyl occurred so I was completely unaware of it until probably years later, and even then I didn't know much about it. But I heard a lot about this book recently and was further inspired to read it after Baba Dunja's Last Love, a novel that took place with the Chernobyl disaster as a backdrop.

Higginbotham has put together a detailed account of the time leading up to the disaster, how things went wrong, and the aftermath. It was fascinating and stressful to watch it all unfold, even though I knew it ended in disaster. It's so hard to watch that train wreck coming.

I appreciate that we didn't get the entire history of the Soviet Union or of nuclear energy before getting to the real story. Too many nonfiction books dump far more background information than needed, and though I did get a little bit bogged down in the explanation of how the reactors work, that was tough because of my poor understanding of science, not because it was unnecessary. There was enough story here to not have to pad it. This might be a good time to mention that the book isn't as daunting as it first appears; although it's over 500 pages, the main part of the book is 372 pages, with the rest being the afterward, notes, and even an index (how I love an index in any nonfiction book!) There were SO many people in this story it was hard to keep them straight, but there's a helpful list of everyone in the front of the book, which I also appreciate.

What most surprised me about how this disaster went down was that even though there was an explosion, it wasn't especially dramatic. Nobody knew how bad it was just after, so people were still going about their business in the nearby town of Pripyat for quite a while before being evacuated. Although radiation traveled quickly to Scandinavia and other areas, you do need special equipment to detect it, so it wasn't always obvious right away. Of course, the government cover-up didn't help, but there was a real lack of information and poor communication also. The seriousness of the situation wasn't known until later, and the consequences definitely weren't dealt with for far longer than they should have. I couldn't believe how long they debated where or not to evacuate people who lived in the area. And even then, people were willing to still work at the plant to try and get the other reactors back up and running. I actually have questions about this still, because I don't quite understand how people were going to work here every day when nearby Pripyat had been permanently evacuated because of the danger.

I was also surprised to learn how many other disasters had occurred before Chernobyl. This, too, was covered up as part of maintaining the illusion of Soviet superiority when it came to nuclear power. They just kept blaming it on operator error and continuing on with other nuclear projects, though eventually they had to admit there were serious problems with the design of the type of reactor they were building. (There were human errors as well, to be sure.) But Chernobyl was a larger disaster that was impossible to keep secret, and it resulted in a legal trial and changes to the way reactors were built.

I thought Adam Higginbotham did a great job of giving us a full picture of this disaster and the circumstances surrounding it, without getting bogged down in too much extraneous detail. For a nonfiction book about a well-known historical event about which we all know the ending, it was quite a page-turner.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The End of Night

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard (2013)

Several years ago, probably in 2013 when the book came out, I heard Paul Bogard interviewed and I've never forgotten it. He talked about how we have lit the world so brightly that it is difficult (if not impossible) to ever see stars, and that maybe we should reconsider the need to use lights everywhere, all the time. What stuck with me most was what he said about safety and security: that we often use these as reasoning for adding lights everywhere, but that it may actually make us less safe. I've thought about it ever since, but didn't think I'd ever have the motivation or stamina to read an entire book on the subject. What inspired me to pick it up was a recent trip I took to Maine; one of the things I was most looking forward to was seeing stars. It was overcast the whole time so there were none to be seen, and it made me think more about what I'm missing in the night sky by living in a city.

Surprisingly, I not only made it through the entire book, but I found it pretty interesting. Sometimes nonfiction books really could have been articles and they are heavily padded with excessive background information and tangents. When things started to get tangential here, though, it always retained at least some relevance and was always interesting. So although the book is about light pollution, I learned that there are still gas lamps and lamplighters in London, that once a Luna moth emerges from its cocoon it never eats again, and that when bats fly too close to turbines the pressure drop makes their lungs burst.

I learned about all the ways in which artificial light at night is bad for us and for animals. It upset circadian rhythms in most species, it negatively affects visibility with shadows and glare, and makes it easier to commit crimes at night because the people committing them can see what they're doing. There is apparently a possible connection between working night shifts and certain kinds of cancer, because we only produce melatonin while in natural darkness, and melatonin plays a role in preventing the growth of these types of cancer.

Paul Bogard visited many of the darkest places so he could see the natural night sky, and spoke often of the International Dark Sky Association which works to recognize places that have little or no artificial light at night. Some communities have taken steps to improve their lighting so it reduces the associated problems. It was surprising to learn about how inefficient and badly-planned lighting is in most places. But it was heartening to hear how many people are concerned about it and working to educate the public about these issues and make improvements in how we use light.

Part of me feels discouraged that I now have one more thing to worry about, but another part of me sees how easily the problems associated with light pollution could be solved with more education. We cling to our current practices out of ignorance about the issues. I found this book very easy to read for a nonfiction book without a linear story, and highly recommend it. Bogard makes a compelling case for preserving natural darkness, one that should interest anyone who cares about the environment and public health.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Baba Dunja's Last Love

Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky (2015)

Baba Dunja had to leave her village of Tschernowo after the Chernobyl disaster, but a year ago she came back despite warnings that radiation levels were still too dangerous. Some of her fellow villagers followed her and now they are living out their remaining years in relative peace. But a stranger shows up in their midst with a little girl and seems ready to stay there, and Baba Dunja will not hear of a healthy child being brought to such a place.

At just 135 pages, this novella is a quick, fun read and packs in quite a lot. It opens with Baba Dunja being awoken by Konstantin, her neighbor's rooster, which is a great introduction to the way this small group of people put up with each other every day. There are fewer than a dozen people in this village and they rely on each other, so they must get along. Because of the radiation, their families can't visit and Baba Dunja writes to her daughter in Germany frequently and receives packages from her, but her greatest sadness is that she has never met her granddaughter Laura, and is unlikely to.

I thought the title must refer to a late-in-life romance, but that's not at all what this is about. I thought for a while it might refer to her granddaughter, but I think her greatest love is for her home. It's a hard life in Tschernowo too, with no stores, no telephones, and no buses. When Baba Dunja wants to go to the nearest town for supplies, she must walk a couple of hours to a bus stop so it becomes an all-day affair. The rest of the time she subsists on vegetables from her garden, in which she takes great pride. It's not an easy life, but she still loves it.

Although I read and loved another book by Alina Bronsky, I had no real plans to read more of hers. But one day I was looking for something on the library shelves nearby and came across this and felt inspired to read it. The dark humor is similar to that of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but Baba Dunja is not cruel like that book's protagonist, making the tone of this one much more positive. If you like dark humor, quirky characters, or Russian literature, I highly recommend this author.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017), narrated by Rachael Tidd

Sandra Pankhurst makes a living cleaning other people's houses, but only if there's been a death or a hoarding situation. She has specialized knowledge and equipment to deal with intense cleaning needs like bodily fluids, feces, and decomposition. This would all make her interesting enough, but she's also a transgender woman who transitioned back in a day when most people didn't realize that was possible.

Sandra's story is told by Sarah Krasnostein, who alternates between stories of Sandra's present-day work and her life growing up. She's in her 60s now and suffering from some pretty serious health problems, but she's still as lively and salty and competent as ever. This woman is super organized, knows how to talk to people who are justifying living in squalor, and has a deep compassion which is often tempered with an honest and often harsh attitude.

Krasnostein says that Sandra is not the most reliable narrator because she has a lot of problems with her memory and it made writing this book difficult. She did have help though, notably through interviewing Sandra's ex-wife Linda. They were together back when Sandra was living as a man and had two children before Sandra left. Their story was quite a sad one, with Linda's un-requited love for Sandra and the rift it left between Sandra and her children, who she was no longer allowed to see after the divorce.

But the worst part of Sandra's life had to be her childhood. Adopted by a couple with a daughter who weren't able to have more children, Sandra was welcome in the family until they were surprised by two more natural children, at which point Sandra was made to move into a shed in the yard and not allowed in the house after 4:30pm. They also apparently didn't feed her anymore. I don't know how parents can just stop loving a kid, or maybe they never really loved her, but they were just awful people. It was clear Sandra just wanted their love and acceptance and couldn't get it, and it only got worse once she came out as transgender.

I should mention this book takes place in Australia, but it sounds like the attitudes toward gay and transgender people is similar to in the U.S. It only makes Sandra's story more remarkable. There was a point in her 20s or 30s when she was working as a prostitute and she was raped and abused by a client - the most difficult part of the book to listen to - and she reported the crime. Shockingly, even though she was a transgender prostitute and this was the 1980s, the guy ended up sentenced to 6 years for the crime. What it must have taken for her to essentially lay herself bare in a court of law in order to see this case through really gives me pause. But Sandra was so matter-of-fact about everything; she knew how people felt about people like her, but at the same time had a strong enough sense of self-worth she didn't ever back down from a challenge.

Rachael Tidd reads the book with just the right notes of respect and empathy, as well as an Australian accent. I can't help but admire Sandra Pankhurst after learning so much about her, and the juxtaposition of her story and those of the clients she is helping gave me a lot to think about.

Friday, November 15, 2019

These Shallow Graves

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (2015)

Jo Montfort is the daughter of a wealthy family in late 19th-century New York and her life is totally planned out. When she graduates from finishing school she'll marry Bram Aldrich, a plan that's been in place since they were children. But when Jo's father is killed, allegedly while cleaning his revolver, she suspects there is more to the story. So she starts digging, enlisting the help of reporter Eddie Gallagher, medical student and morgue employee Oscar Rubin, and a pickpocket called Fairy Fay. Following the long and winding trail of clues, Jo learns that there are more secrets in her family's business than she could ever have imagined and people who will go to any lengths to keep that information hidden.

As is the case with most heroines in novels, Jo is different from many other girls of her age and class. She wants to be a reporter like Nellie Bly, but her future has no room to pursue her own interests. The idea of marrying Bram isn't awful - they've been friends their whole lives and he's a genuinely good guy - but it doesn't excite her. Now, Eddie Gallagher excites her. She knows they can't have a future together unless she is willing to dash the hopes and dreams of both her family and Bram's, who have been long looking forward to uniting. She is trapped between what she wants and what is planned for her future, but right now she can't think about anything else except uncovering the web of lies and murder she has discovered. No matter how many warnings she gets from her uncle Phillip or from Eddie, she is compelled to keep looking.

Along the way she meets a young ruffian named Tumbler and a picketpocket her own age named Fay, both of whom Eddie knew growing up, and who work for a guy named The Tailor who provides them with food and shelter as long as they steal for him. He's compared to Fagan in Oliver Twist, but it hardly needs to be pointed out, the similarities are so glaring. There's even a scene in which Fay gives Jo a lesson in picking pockets that is almost straight out of the Dickens novel. I can't decide if it's a charming homage or a rip-off.

This isn't the only unoriginal part of this story, and I found some aspects of it completely predictable. For the intended audience of teenagers, though, I don't know if it would be. Presumably they haven't read lots of other stories yet that follow some of the paths this one does. Still, it was enjoyable and fun. I loved how Jo and Fay's friendship developed, and especially the conversation they had one night about their lives and freedom while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and smoking. Their lives were so different it was difficult to understand each other in some ways, yet they both yearned for the same things and were both trapped in different ways. I liked Jo's ambitions to be a reporter, and how her knowledge of Nellie Bly helped her later in the book, and the way she struggled with the idea of marrying Bram, which wouldn't be terrible, but still not what she wanted. How hard was she willing to fight against a fate that was not bad, but only ok? This was a much better story than those in which young women are set to marry mean men they hate. Jo's life with Bram would be a comfortable one, and possibly even happy.

I've read a number of books by Jennifer Donnelly including the Tea Rose series and, most recently, Stepsister. While this book was maybe not as good as the others, I am happy to read anything she writes. She brings her historical settings alive, creates compelling characters, and always keeps me immersed in her stories.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)

I'm really pretty late to this party. This novel came out years ago and was very popular and I don't know why I never read it but it was probably because the title is so twee? But something made me add it to my To Read list recently and I ended up grabbing a copy when I was looking for something historical and cozy.

Just after WWII ends, an author named Juliet is casting about for a book idea when she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams on the island of Guernsey. He came across a used copy of a book that used to belong to Juliet (and had her name and address inside the cover) and wrote to her to ask if she knew what else the author had written. He also mentioned a literary group on Guernsey that started up during the war, which intrigues Juliet so much that she asks for letters and stories from other members of the group and, eventually, goes to Guernsey to meet them all. The novel is told through letters between Juliet and the inhabitants of Guernsey, her friend Sophie, her editor, and various other people.

It was all very charming, though also filled with pain as so many of the characters were at the beginning of recovering from the war. Notably absent was Elizabeth McKenna, a member of the Literary society and mother to a young girl named Kit whose father was a German soldier. Elisabeth was caught harboring a prisoner and taken away and nobody yet knows what happened to her.

The characters were all quite delightful and Juliet quickly came to love them and their home. During the course of the book, before she leaves London for Guernsey, she is courted by a publisher whose name I've already forgotten, but it's clear from the beginning that he's not right for her. He's all about fancy dinners and flowers and parties and is completely uninterested in her newfound interest in the people of Guernsey and their stories. You can guess early on who she's actually going to end up with, which isn't a criticism, but my real criticism is that it came about so abruptly. They pined for each other in silence and then in the course of one page they declared their undying love with no buildup whatsoever.

But the romance wasn't the important part of the book, and I did quite enjoy getting to know all the characters and hoping that Elizabeth would stay there after completing her book research. There were a lot of funny moments and some very sweet ones, and all in all it was satisfying. I don't think I loved it as much as most people (it was a bit twee) but it was fun and a good choice of reading during a weekend when I was sick.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Life's Work

Life's Work by Dr. Willie Parker (2017)

A fundamentalist Christian from the South, Willie Parker became an ob/gyn doctor. For a while he didn't perform abortions, but after being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s interpretation of the Good Samaritan, he focused his career entirely on providing abortions. His philosophy is that he should be helping women who need it without judging them, and given how few doctors there are in the South who will perform abortions he now spends all his time there, traveling from clinic to clinic.

I was struck by a number of things while reading Dr. Parker's story. One was his complete and utter devotion to his work. Despite being legal and upheld by the Constitution, abortion remains controversial and a target, which means that Dr. Parker is also a target. He has had colleagues who perform abortion and have been murdered for it, or whose families have been threatened. This is one reason, he says, why he has not married or had children. I do wish he had talked a bit more about that because I didn't get a sense of how much of a sacrifice that was. Was he even interested in marriage? Did he avoid dating because of his job? It honestly sounds like he's so busy in his career that he doesn't have time for anything else.

Also, I was struck by his respect for women. He talks about how they know their own lives better than anyone else, and how by the time they get to the clinic (which is not easy, given how far some have to travel, and how hard it can be to scrape together the money) they've spent a lot of time thinking about their choice and he is confident that they're making the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. He doesn't question or judge those decisions.

There are situations, however, in which he will not perform an abortion. He won't do them after 25 weeks, but will refer the woman to someone who will. He won't do one if he thinks the woman doesn't actually want it, if he thinks she's being pressured by her partner or by a parent. Interestingly, he also won't do it if the choice is based on the gender or race of the fetus.

Another surprising thing about this book that I appreciated was that he explained the whole process of an abortion, which is something that nobody ever really talks about specifically. Although something like one third of women have had abortions, I imagine a lot of them go into it not knowing what to expect and for everyone else the whole process remains a mystery. It was good to see it all explained and know what is actually involved.

The book is about more than just his experiences; he also talks about political and societal issues. For instance, he is disappointed that the left has adopted the idea that abortion is always a sad, tragic choice. He feels like it doesn't do the pro-choice movement any good to assign such moral weight to a medical, practical procedure. He also talks about the fetishization of motherhood and children in our culture, and how we so often view birth as a miracle, when in fact it's just an ordinary biological process. This also only serves to fuel the anti-abortion movement. He feels that there's no intrinsic moral value to becoming a mother, or not becoming a mother. I totally agree with all of these views.

I found this whole book very enlightening and thoughtful and thought-provoking. I'm not very interested in religion, but I even found his religious evolution interesting. I can't help but admire Dr. Parker for his respect for women and commitment to justice. Many of us talk the talk about abortion rights, but he is really walking the walk. This is a great complement to another book I read not long ago, Pro by Katha Pollitt.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey (2018)

So it's 1985 and Pony Darlene Fontaine is the first of three narrators of this novel, the second two being a dog and a teenage boy. Pony lives in a place known as The Territory and nobody there has ever been outside except for Pony's mother, Billie Jean Fontaine, who arrived under mysterious circumstances. The book takes places over just a couple of days when Billie Jean goes missing, but it includes much more story than just two days worth.

The timeline can be hard to follow and it also gets a little difficult to keep everyone's relationships straight because they're all having affairs with each other and are also related to others in unexpected ways because of the affairs and the resulting secrets regarding who is who else's parents. I kept thinking something was happening in the present, but it turns out it was happening during some past event, or vice versa, which definitely affected my understanding of the story.

A lot about this book was confusing. This town was originally settled by a cult, but we don't know much about that cult. The people have some odd traditions and ways of speaking, which I assume is related to that cult that we know very little about. Also...ok, it's kind of a spoiler but it needs to be said: it doesn't actually take place in 1985, which I suspected from the beginning because nobody has contact with the outside world so how would they know about 80s trends and music? But it doesn't explain why they all have failed to keep track of what year it is. I mean, is it ALWAYS 1985? Or did they just restart their calendars in some weird year at some point? This is not explained and it bothers me.

At the same time, it's such a unique, unusual book that I can't help but admire this author's imagination. The traditions of the community are odd and mundane at the same time. The men all have nicknames given to them when they're teenagers or a little older, and those are the names they are always called afterward. Pony's father is known as The Heavy, and some of the other guys are Traps, Supernatural, Neon Dean, and Sexeteria. The girls wear necklaces with their names on it, and they are expected to own two tracksuits: one for inside and one for outside, but even the outside one is just for at home like if you're working in the yard. They always refer to coats as their "outerwear" and pajamas as "nightpants," both of which contribute to how stilted their language sounds sometimes. The teenagers all have to donate blood regularly, which is sold to the outside world and this is how the Territory survives financially. But they don't have any especially colorful beliefs about life, their origins, or the world.

There's tragedy though, so much tragedy. From The Heavy, who was burned badly when he tried in vain to save his parents and sister from their burning house, to the suicide of Pony's best friend's mom, to the death of a baby that is alluded to all through the book and about which we finally learn the truth near the end. Imagine living in a small, insular community where there are (almost) no newcomers and nobody ever leaves. You'll never meet anyone who you haven't always known.

In summary, I don't even know how to summarize my thoughts about this very odd book. I definitely enjoyed reading it, even though I didn't always quite understand what was going on, and it is certainly pretty different from any other book I've read. It's flawed, or maybe the flaws have more to do with my understanding than the book itself. It's hard to say. I'm sure this book is not for everyone, but if you want something really different, you might give this one a try.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway (2017), narrated by Julia Whelan

Robin Benway has really outdone herself and I have no idea why it took me so long to check out this book, given all the enthusiastic reviews I've read of it in the last couple of years.

It begins with Grace, who accidentally became pregnant and gave her baby up for adoption, spurring her to seek out her own birth mother. Instead, her parents put her in touch with her biological sister, Maya, and the two of them find their older biological brother, Joaquin. Grace and Maya were adopted as babies, but Joaquin, now 17, has been in foster care the whole time. His current foster parents want to adopt him, but he's afraid of what might happen based on past experiences. Maya is also having kind of a rough time, dealing with her mother's secret alcoholism and her parents' unhappy marriage. But all three are stronger now that they have the support of their newfound siblings.

I loved everything about this book. All of it. The characters were amazing and imperfect and different from each other, and I loved how the siblings are in totally different family situations but understand one another fundamentally because they were given up by the same mother. It was believable how they all hesitated to share their deepest secrets with each other for fear of rejection. Most of all I loved how they were there for each other when it really mattered.

We started with Grace and I found her story the most painful of all, I think. She was viewed by Maya and Joaquin as a total good girl, and she probably was. She had supportive parents, did well in school, and never got into trouble. But when she became pregnant by her boyfriend Max, his parents made it clear that they wouldn't let her pregnancy - which they viewed as totally Grace's fault - get in the way of his future success. While Grace labored to have their baby, Max was being crowned homecoming king. He had a new girlfriend and everything was perfect for him. Meanwhile, Grace no longer had friends, the other kids called her "baby mama" and a slut. She knew that giving her baby (who she thought of as "Peach") to a more adult, stable couple was the right thing to do, but she also felt guilty and worried so much about what would happen to her. Her desperate need to find her birth mother was partly just so she could let her know that she is ok.

Each one of these kids had a great story, made up of bad luck and misguided decisions, and it was really fantastic to see how they came together and helped each other, and to see their joined story unfold. Julia Whelan is an excellent narrator and I was glad to see her name on this book. If you like teen books or books about sibling relationships I highly recommend this one, and I also suggest you check out Robin Benway's other books because they're all great!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (2019)

My excitement when I learned that Becky Chambers had a new book out quickly turned to disappointment when I saw that it was a novella. After reading the three thick books that make up the Wayfarers series I was hoping for another big story, and as someone who tends to enjoy short books I don't know why I was afraid it wouldn't be good. Spoiler alert: it was very good.

It opens with a plea to read it to the end. It's from an astronaut, Ariadne O'Neill, who left Earth fifty years ago with her crew. The other three are Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka. Their mission was to visit four habitable worlds called Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum, and their communique is coming from the last one. What follows is the story of their flight and their experiences on all of those planets, and then at the end you get the explanation for why they are sending this missive, which of course I won't spoil for you but it is not disappointing. It is kind of open-ended, if you care about that kind of thing, and I am already sorta dying to know if there will be a sequel but mostly I just care that Becky Chambers writes more books about something.

I love reading books that contain alien life because it's so fascinating to see what comes of writers' imaginations. There was life of some sort on all the planets they visited, as they suspected, and I loved seeing them described. (Oh, if only there were illustrations!) The characters were great too, which is one of this author's strengths. They are pretty diverse in terms of sexual orientation and race, though it's not actually spelled out and is kind of irrelevant to the plot. Which I like because diversity should just be a thing that exists and not there for the sake of being diverse, if you know what I mean. If you want specifics, there was bi/poly/ace representation, and the racial diversity is obvious from (and only identified by) their names.

Throughout the book I kept wondering what the crisis would be. Like, they were just visiting these planets and making amazing discoveries and as much as I loved reading about this, it's not a story. I kept wondering when the actual plot would start. The conflict comes very late, and it's great!

I hope we don't have to wait very long for another book by Becky Chambers because her books are so imaginative and fun to read. Anyone who likes science fiction in the style of The Martian would probably enjoy Becky Chambers. If you haven't read anything by her, please consider it!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Way Home

The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle (2019)

It feels strange to be writing a blog post about a book that is all about stepping away from technology and getting in touch with the actual world, but it's one I want to recommend and if I had to tell everyone in person, it just wouldn't happen.

Mark Boyle moved to a smallholding in Ireland to make a life for himself in a way that was not damaging to the earth or to himself. Rather than working for someone else all day to earn money to buy things for himself, he spends his days working for himself. Gardening, foraging, hunting, chopping firewood, whittling, doing laundry by hand, making everything he needs himself. He's not alone - his girlfriend Kristy lives with him in his cabin and there's also a farmhouse on the property. They have a free hostel where people can come and stay to experience the same sort of life.

The book isn't a straight-up memoir; there are vignettes about the way he lives interspersed with his thoughts about technology, nature, and people. A third element, set apart by italics, is the story of Great Blasket Island, inhabited by people living the old ways until it was evacuated in 1953. He spends a lot of time thinking about how he lives and how he used to live, how everything he does affects the natural world, and how technology affects us. It's very thoughtful and introspective. When I began reading and realized there wasn't really a story, just fragments of story mixed in with thoughts, I thought I might not like it. But it turns out that his thoughts are so compelling and well-expressed, and his life so interesting, that I had no trouble at all. The bits about Great Blasket Island didn't hold my interest quite as well, but even that was fairly interesting.

Doing everything the hard way means that Boyle has thought a lot about the easy way and its cost. There's also a cost for him to do things slowly and painstakingly, but one of the results is that you make time for the things that are really important and don't bother with the rest, a lesson we could all probably stand to take to heart. When he was using social media he was, of course, in touch with people he never saw otherwise, but in his new life he relied on the mail. At first, his mailbox was stuffed and keeping up with it was overwhelming, but over time it dwindled, which was a relief. He says "Inconvenience is a great filter." In terms of producing food and making things that he needs, it also filters out those things which are unnecessary but which we wouldn't think twice about acquiring when it's easy or cheap. But those things have a large cost to the environment and to the people getting paid pennies to produce them.

Sometimes it can sound like he's pining for the "good old days" but he has very good points about where our attention is these days, the number of distractions, and how removed from the natural world we are. This would be a good place to mention the value of some of our modern developments like antibiotics, but we have misused and overused them irresponsibly and I'm allergic to most of them anyway so they don't do me any good. In Boyle's case, he says he hasn't been to a doctor in ten years which I think he's trying to attribute to his healthy lifestyle and I'm sure that helps, but not having health issues is also a privilege that allows him to take on this strenuous self-reliant lifestyle. He also complains a lot about government regulations, some of which I'm sure are ridiculous, but at other times he comes across a bit like he's criticizing something just because he doesn't understand it. This isn't a complaint about the book, just a way of pointing out that although I feel pretty convinced that he's on the right track, he's imperfect like the rest of us.

Surprisingly, my favorite thing about his life is that he doesn't have any clocks and never knows what time it is. I'm a total clock-watcher because, like everyone else in our society, my life is ruled by having to be at work at a certain time which means having to get up a certain time, which means needing to be in bed at a certain time. It's a kind of prison and I have often wondered what my days would be like if I could just go to sleep and get up and eat when I feel like it rather than when my clock dictates. I was so jealous of this part of his life, but I'll probably have to wait until retirement to experience it for myself.

Look, I could probably talk about this book and its related ideas all day. I haven't even touched on the meditative aspects of picking nettles, the way advertising invades our privacy by constantly forcing its way into our heads, or many of the valid criticisms he has about capitalism. There's just too much here. I've always been a little obsessed with old-timey ways of life and people who live off the land, so this is very much up my alley. He's got a nice bibliography at the end of the book and although I'm unlikely to pick up a copy of Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Natural Materials,  I'd probably be interested in Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, especially since I've already read their memoir The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living and found it quite inspiring. I'm unlikely to go live in the woods and start making my own soap and whittling my own spoons, but I do hope to be more thoughtful about the way I live my life.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

I won this book in a mini-challenge which was part of this year's TBR Pile Challenge. I had my choice of books and picked Outlander because I'm so intrigued by the show but had an idea that I might like the book so I wanted to try it first before watching.

Although I've known about this series for years, I had no idea it involved time travel at all. If you don't know the premise, it begins in 1945 when Claire and her husband, newly married before the war, travel to Scotland for a very belated honeymoon. While there, Claire walks through a mysterious ring of stones and is transported to 1743, beginning a series of adventures that span 8 books so far.

She arrives in the midst of a battle, which she first mistakes for a reenactment of some sort. Next thing she knows, she's a "guest" (more like a prisoner) at a castle, with everyone wanting to know where she came from and not believing her. They think she's a spy, and eventually a witch, and although all she wants is to get back to her own time, it's impossible to get away with everyone watching her. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that she's forced into a marriage for her own protection, and it turns into a genuine romance.

This was a very long book. My edition was around 630 pages, but it read really slowly. It wasn't boring or hard to get through, just slow-moving. And I'm not sure why because it was missing a lot of the introspection I was expecting. Claire spent very little time pining away after her old life with it's cars and flush toilets, and she barely struggled at all to figure out how to live life in 1743. She seemed to fit in easily once she got some appropriate clothing. I would think if I were in that position I'd be bumbling about trying to figure out how to do basic daily tasks, while constantly panicking about the loss of my old life and comparing the two. It seemed like most days she just went about her business with barely a thought about how much she missed her husband or anything else.

So that was a bit strange, but still I mostly liked reading it. Oh, Claire could be a bit stupid, refusing to listen to other people who knew more than she did about living in that time period, but I liked her well enough. Jamie, her sudden husband, took a bit of getting used to but seemed like a decent guy and I liked how their relationship unfolded. Claire also made acquaintance with an interesting woman named Geilie who had some secrets of her own, as it turned out.

There was a great conversation at one point in which Claire has confided in a clergyman and asks for advice regarding her potential to change the future. He responds to her with something I've been thinking about recently after - and I hate to admit this - I saw it in a meme. I don't remember the meme exactly, but it said that when we think about time travel we always worry about how the tiniest action could affect the future in major ways, but we don't think about how in regular life our small actions can also affect the future. The future is the future, whether we've been there already or not. So the clergyman tells Claire basically the same thing, that everybody's actions affect the future and she shouldn't overthink things.

I went into this with the intention of just reading the one book, and I don't know that I loved it enough to read more, but also I'm a bit intrigued. I read the descriptions on Goodreads of the next two books and they sound kind of interesting, but also I'm confused about how the timeline fits together (although there's time travel, so.) At any rate, it was a pretty engrossing and enjoyable book.

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.