Monday, March 30, 2020

The Wallflower Wager

The Wallflower Wager (Girl Meets Duke #3) by Tessa Dare (2019)

We've met Lady Penelope Campion earlier in this series. She is an animal lover - her house full of a whole menagerie of animals from a dog to a goat to a hedgehog - and a vegetarian who is constantly foisting her creations, such as her "sham" sandwiches on her friends. She is also (unsurprisingly?) single. When the book opens, her Aunt Caroline tells her that her brother is on his way to come collect her and take her back to the country since she has no marriage prospects and has pretty much squandered her opportunities in society. Penny panics, and makes a deal with her aunt that she'll get rid of all her animals and appear in the society pages at least once if it means she can stay.

Meanwhile, the house next to hers has been newly purchased by Gabriel Duke, also known as the Duke of Ruin. He has a tragic backstory of growing up in a workhouse and making himself rich, I guess by financially ruining other people. He has a terrible reputation, but Penny is irresistibly drawn to him and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. He's planning to resell the house after it's remodeled and wants Penny to stay in her house because apparently having a Lady next door makes the property more valuable, so he ends up agreeing to help her rehome her menagerie and make it into the society pages.

I read all three books in this series because I had heard such good reviews of this one, but it turns out to be the book I liked least. The premise wasn't very strong to begin with and somehow the romance between Penny and Gabriel didn't have enough tension for me. The latter part of the book, where things ramp up before the finale, was not very satisfying. Without spoiling too much, it involves a part where Gabriel threatens another person on Penny's behalf and without her approval, which is thing I hate, and which also happened in the first book in the series. Here though, it was worse and he could have gotten himself killed, which makes it clear it's something he's doing to satisfy his own anger and not actually for her (which I think is usually the case when men get all self-righteous about going after someone who wronged their woman.)

Also, this all came to a head in the middle of a ball, and things were kind of left hanging. When the person arrived who had wronged Penny in the past, Gabriel took him to his study and Penny followed and it got all dramatic, but then the story skipped ahead to the morning. First of all, Gabriel was going to announce their engagement at this ball. But did they even return to the ball after this meeting? I mean, they must have since it was at Gabriel's house. Or did he make everyone leave? It was weird to not even mention this. Also, just before this thing happened, Penny's friend Nicola freaked out because she spotted someone in the ballroom who she said was her fiance, and everyone was shocked and asked her to explain. They all went to discuss this surprise, but Penny followed Gabe instead and this thread of Nicola's secret relationship was never picked up again. I assume that's what the next book will be about, but it was handled rather clumsily here.

I know a lot of people loved this book, and I didn't dislike it enough to stop reading it - mostly, it was fairly amusing and I do love Penny's character. But when all was said and done, it fell rather flat for me.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (2018)

Frances Price is well known because twenty years ago when her husband died at home, she responded by leaving on her planned ski trip and didn't report his death until she returned. Now, she and her adult son Malcolm have lost all their money, and are moving to Paris to live in Frances's friend Joan's apartment. Coming with them is their cat, Small Frank, who Frances is convinced is actually her dead husband in feline form.

They are a strange pair, Frances and Malcolm. Mother and child BFFs, more devoted to each other than anyone else, including Malcolm's fiance who he left behind to go to Paris. No question he'd choose his mother over her, which was fine with Frances, who didn't even like Susan to begin with.

On the way over, they meet a psychic aboard their ship (they are the sort of people who travel by ship) with whom Malcolm has a brief affair. Her name is Madeleine and when she sees their cat, she knows he's not a regular cat. Once settled in Paris, Small Frank run away and Frances decides she needs to find Madeleine, who could help them find, or communicate with, Small Frank. She hires a private investigator to find Madeline and soon, both of them are hanging out at the apartment with Frances and Malcolm, along with Joan (the owner of the apartment), a wine seller, Malcolm's ex-fiance and her boyfriend, and I think a couple of other people I can't even remember. It's a bizarre assortment of people, and unclear why they all remain hanging about, but it adds to the comedy of the situation.

It's a dark comedy though, which is the kind of comedy I like best. Frances and Malcolm are not likable people at all, so even though you're left not caring what kind of end they come to, it's fascinating to watch it happen. Their friends and hangers-on comprise a motley assortment and I've just realized what an amusing and entertaining movie this would make. I've also heard that the audiobook version is spectacular. There are so many strange and quirkly personalities here, and such a great premise, it was bound to be a lot of fun. Dark, twisted fun.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren (2018)

The first time Josh and Hazel met, she was drunk and propositioned him before throwing up on his shoes. She has no restraint whatsoever, says whatever she's thinking, and is totally wild and carefree. Josh, in contrast, is mellow and sensible and not at all her type, obviously. Many years after college they meet again, unexpectedly, and become friends. Platonic friends. They start going on double blind dates, fixing each other up with a series of increasingly unsuitable potential partners. But of course, they really just want each other.

Hazel was great. She's a third grade teacher who definitely understands eight-year-olds and lives in an apartment with a dog, a rabbit (Janis Hoplin!), a parrot, and a fish. She is the sort of person who is considered "too much" by many people, even "embarrassing." She knows this and she knows why, but also doesn't try to change who she is. I love that her mother is the same way. They have a great relationship that I really enjoyed, and seeing how people like her father treated her mother only makes Hazel more determined to stay true to herself.

Although Josh is totally different, he finds Hazel to be a lot of fun. She's genuine and a great person and seems to like his family. She's best friends with his sister Emily, also a teacher, and makes an effort to get to know his parents, unlike his recent ex-girlfriend Tabby who was totally uninterested in his family. When he and Hazel get together, it is always an adventure.

So what's keeping them apart? Their newly-developed friendship is so important to both of them that they don't dare risk losing it. Hazel worries about being way to obnoxious for Josh and Josh thinks he might not be enough for Hazel. Of course, they can only put their feelings aside for so long.

The only thing I didn't love about this book was that the epilogue is several years in the future, which is something I almost never like. Otherwise, it was just exactly what I needed right now. So funny, so sweet, so quick to read - I think I read it in about 36 hours. I almost wish I had slowed down to make it last longer, but it's like candy and I couldn't resist.

I also really liked Christina Lauren's book Dating You / Hating You so I guess now I can consider myself a fan. I'm definitely in a space where I'll probably be reading a lot more romance so I may check out their other books.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Giver of Stars

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (2019)

Jojo Moyes became very popular with Me Before You, a book that I am still very uninterested in reading. I've not been interested in any of her books until this one, a historical novel about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky during the Depression. Librarians, you say? Why yes, yes this does interest me. It helps that one of my coworkers who doesn't like her older books told me that this one was good.

It begins with Alice, a young English woman who meets and marries an American named Bennett Van Cleve, partly just to escape her unsatisfying life in which she is constantly disappointing her parents. So she moves to rural Kentucky with Bennett and his father, and proceeds to disappoint both of them. But! She meets Margery O'Hare, who is running the local packhorse library and signs up to help with book deliveries to poor families who aren't able to come into town. It's hard work, but very satisfying, unlike her lackluster marriage, which has basically fizzled before it even got started.

The Van Cleves don't like Margery because of her family and disapprove of Alice being associated with her. I don't think Bennett actually cares that much, but he just goes along with whatever his father wants because he's a total wuss. But his father continues to get riled up and starts complaining pretty publicly about the library, disapproving of the effects of all this book readin' on local women who are no longer doing their housework because they are instead reading novels (yeah!) and also there's a rumor of a very inappropriate book about sex being passed around. In short, Mr. Van Cleve is an ass, and also a total hypocrite since he owns the local mines and is not looking out for the well-being of the people who risk their lives working for him.

Well, there is so much more to this story but of course I don't want to give it all away. A lot of things come up about the conditions of women in this place and time, and I really rooted for all the librarians who were bucking tradition in various ways. I loved Margery O'Hare especially, the leader of the library and pariah in the town, who very much lived her life the way she wanted without a care for appearance or expectations. Of course it hurts her, but she is a very strong woman. Alice had a transformation throughout the book and it was great to see how she navigated her terrible marriage and her friendships and family expectations, and figured out what she really wanted for herself.

My only criticism is that it all wrapped up so very quickly at the end. I hoped things would be pretty neat and tidy (we're in the midst of a pandemic and I don't need more bad news) but I just wish more time had been allotted to the ending and how everything turned out for everyone. But that didn't put much of a damper on my enjoyment.

This story has it all - adventure, romance, even a murder trial - and I had a great time immersing myself in it.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Coupla graphic novels

Recently I read two very different graphic novels, which I'm combining into one post.

Swimsuit by Rachel Ang (2018)

In this quiet story, a young woman named Jenny meets up with a former love interest at a local pool. They have some awkward conversation, go swimming for a bit, then sit next to the pool. They witness a traumatic event happen to another person, at which her ex says, "This sort of thing seems to always happen when we're together." Then they part ways, Jenny goes home, and is sad.

It's a very moody story, made more so by the blue-on-pale-yellow drawings on every page. Jenny is clearly self-conscious in her bathing suit, especially as her ex shows her photos of his new girlfriend. Watching someone come close to death does not lighten the mood. It was all very uncomfortable, yet relatable.

Mostly told through sparse conversation and simple but emotional drawings, it was very understated yet powerful.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (2018)

My coworkers have been raving about this one for a while! It's about a prince whose parents are trying to find a wife for him, and the dressmaker he hires to make dresses for him. He has a whole secret life where he dresses as a very fashionable woman and he needs to keep it a secret. Frances is happy for the opportunity to work for a prince and her work is really getting noticed - but she has to stay out of the spotlight because people know she works for Prince Sebastian and they can't know that this fashionable woman wearing such amazing creations is also Sebastian.

This story is very sweet and I love how their friendship bloomed and how Frances accepted Sebastian for who he is without question. The art was colorful and dramatic and everything about it was so much fun.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper (2019)

We all know what Westboro Baptist Church is famous for - I'm not even going to repeat their hateful potty-mouthed slogans here, so you can Google them if you're unfamiliar. Started by pastor Fred Phelps, the church is made up primarily of his family members. Until a few years ago that included his granddaughter Megan. From the time she was 5, she was out on picket lines spewing hate. By the time she was in her 20s she was the most recognized voice from the church on social media, where she seemed to enjoy sparring with their detractors. But then something changed, and once she began to question everything she was raised to believe, there was no going back. This memoir is about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church and the very painful, but necessary, decision to leave the church and her family for good.

A lot of things that I learned here surprised me. First, Megan's family was very kind and loving and supportive of one another. They had fun, joked around, and were very closed to one another. Given the things they say publicly, I did not expect them to be nice people. Second, Fred Phelps was a well-known civil rights lawyer. Why someone would be a strong proponent of civil rights - an unpopular stance in that place and time - but be so committed to hatred of the LGBT community seems very inconsistent. He also required that all of his children and their spouses be lawyers and work for the family law firm. I'll admit I was surprised to learn how well-educated WBC members are.

I heard about this book on a podcast (I think it was Get Booked) and the host mentioned that it was Megan's conversations with people on Twitter that led her to leave the church, remarking "It's probably the only good thing that's ever come out of Twitter." Reading this story, I don't know that I'd give all the credit to the conversations on Twitter, but it's true that some very kind people took the time to get to know Megan as a person, which was way more effective at helping her see why WBC is bad then just ranting at her. There were changes at WBC at the time that also contributed to her questioning their direction and their adherence to scripture. I think she's not even entirely sure what happened, but it seems like a lot of little things added up and she knew she could no longer live that way.

I've never understand many of the church's positions and Megan did her best to explain them. Picketing the funerals of soldiers is one that has always mystified me, and apparently they also celebrated deaths of children, such as those killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. It had to do with punishing people for their sins, and something about God's will - I don't know. It kind of sense in a twisted way when she explained it, but only for a moment. That's the thing about many of their beliefs. They are based on the Bible, but really twisted and manipulated.

It must have been terrifying to leave the only home she had ever known. She knew she would be cut off from family, because that's what happened to the few others who had left. But her sister Grace also left with her, so at least they had each other. Phelps-Roper clearly still loves her parents deeply and mourns the loss of their relationship, and holds out hope that they will come around. And the same for her remaining siblings. I was struck by how she wrote about death of her grandfather, Fred Phelps. He was actually kicked out of the church just before he died and was in hospice all alone because he had been abandoned by his family. I don't know how anyone who calls themselves Christians can treat family the way the Phelps clan does.

I found the earlier parts of the book a bit slow, I think because it was all about growing up in the church and what they believed and there were a lot of Bible verses quoted, and they just make my eyes glaze over. Otherwise it was thoughtful and hopeful, and mostly I'm just glad this person was able to get out of the cult in which she was raised. I hope more of her family follow her.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Sundial

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958)

The Halloran family is gathered together for a funeral - poor Lionel, apparently pushed down the stairs by his mother, Mrs. Halloran. While they are gathered, eccentric Aunt Fanny receives a communication from her dead father, warning the family that the world is going to end and only they will be saved. They must remain in the house together to await the apocalypse.

I didn't actually know what this book was going to be about, but luckily I am unbothered by reading about people hoarding food and supplies for their isolation period at home while it is happening all around me in real life. It is never a bad time for a Shirley Jackson novel.

Honestly, the matriarch of the family murdering her own son became quite beside the point, but lent a lot of dark humor to the story. Lionel's widow and daughter brought it up a lot at first, but then everyone became consumed by the dead Mr. Halloran's prophecy. Everyone had to decide whether or not they were on board with the plan to hunker down and wait for the world to end, and most of the family went along with it. They also had some hangers-on who weren't family - Essex, who had been hired to catalog the library but who the family ended up treating as a general servant and source of advice. A late arrival known only as "the captain" was the only other male aside from Essex and the unwell Mr. Halloran who kept to his wheelchair and seemed very confused most of the time. This is important because after the apocalypse this group would need to repopulate the world and there were more ladies than gentlemen so there was a bit of competition for attention.

The subject is dark, but like I said it was pretty funny too. People just outwardly insulted each other in a fairly carefree way, and there was a good deal of ridiculous melodrama. It was slightly creepy and ominous and enough was left open to maintain an air of mystery. I thought it was great - I continue to love Shirley Jackson's work more and more.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Gentleman's Guide to Getting Lucky

The Gentleman's Guide to Getting Lucky by Mackenzi Lee (2019), narrated by Christian Coulson

This novella takes place between The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, both of which I loved. In this story, Monty, Percy, and Felicity are in Santorini and although Monty and Percy are definitively a couple, they have not had sex yet. The entire two hours of this audiobook is the two of them feeling anxious about having sex, wanting to do it, not feeling ready, lather, rinse, repeat.

Percy is a virgin and feels a lot of pressure about his first time. Monty is very much not a virgin and feels like expectations about his performance may be high. Plus, he's never before been with someone with whom he is in love. Hilariously, his sister Felicity tries to help him out by orchestrating activities for the rest of the party to leave the couple alone, and by furnishing the place with flowers, wine, and pastries. But all of that just creates more pressure and the two lovebirds really need to come to this on their own.

I found this story funny and sweet and totally enjoyable, all the more because of the great narration. Mackenzi Lee writes such fun stories, and I'm very excited to see that she's got another novel in this series coming out later this year. Yay!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Oona Out of Order

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (2020)

It's New Year's Eve and when the clock strikes midnight, it will be 1983 and Oona will be 19 years old. Except that's not what happens. Instead, it's 2015 and she's 51 years old. She is with her personal assistant, Kenzie, who explains everything to her. Each year when it becomes midnight on New Year's Eve she leaps to a different year of her life. Of course she's never met this man before and doesn't believe that this mansion is her house, and she flees. But soon she realizes that it really is 2015 and her life makes no sense anymore.

This all sounded very gimmicky, but I assure you it's actually a great story! When Oona leaves 1982 she was on the precipice of making a major decision about her life. Go to London for school, or stay in New York with her boyfriend Dale and tour with their band. She has no idea what is the right decision and now that decision is delayed. I mean, she made it back in early 1983 but she hasn't experienced that year for herself yet. She sometimes writes notes to herself on New Year's Eve so the following morning, whichever Oona is inhabiting her body will have some guidance for that year or clues about who she is with at the time. It can get very complicated. I cannot understand time travel and there were times I was figuratively scratching my head but I think it all makes sense.

Living life with no continuity means that it's extremely difficult to maintain friendships and relationships. Her mother Madeleine is a constant, and she and Kenzie are the only two people who know the truth about what happens with Oona. It can be a lonely existance in many ways. But it's also a great lesson in living in the moment and not worrying too much about the consequences of your decisions or what is going to come next. Oona really needs to roll with it. There are some perks. If a person dies, she'll probably still see them again. And youth isn't wasted on her because she has been much older and knows to appreciate being young. It was fascinating to experience this and learn these lessons along with Oona.

If anything, I wanted more. This isn't a long book so we can only get so many years. It jumped around, obviously, but there were some years that were near other years we read about, which filled in the blanks on some of the storylines and kept the whole thing feeling more like a story rather than a series of vignettes. It was a pretty quick, light read even though it tackled some serious themes. It was a whole lot of fun and very satisfying!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow (2019), narrated by the author

Ronan Farrow is the journalist who broke the story about Harvey Weinstein's pattern of abuse, pursuing his leads despite pushback from NBC. He documents the whole crazy story here, including his interviews with Weinstein's victims, interactions with NBC executives who refused to run the story, and a creeping sense of paranoia that turned out to be very well-founded when he discovered he was being watched by a surveillance team hired by Weinstein.

It's hard to know where to start here, and I don't want to recount the whole story because there's too much of it and you should really read it, so I'll pull out a few things I found especially interesting. One is that he worked closely with NBC News producer Rich McHugh on this story, and McHugh was the only person at NBC who really stood by him through all of it. The two continued to be confused about why NBC kept telling them they didn't have enough, even though they had women on camera telling their stories and a recording of Weinstein admitting to his behavior. Which is the second thing - the audiobook actually included this clip from an NYPD sting operation, in which Weinstein tried to get Ambra Gutierrez to go to his hotel room with him, admitting that he was "used to" forcing himself on women the way he had done with her the day before. That was really hard to listen to. I felt really gross just from hearing it. I was shocked and heartened that when Gutierrez went to the police, they believed her. Another heartening part of the book was that Farrow often went to veteran news anchor Tom Brokaw for advice, and he supported Farrow and his work and kept encouraging him to make sure the story was told.

Mostly I found the story horrifying and enraging. That Rose McGowan's lawyer told her she wouldn't be believed because she had once done a sex scene. (What does that have to do with it?) That tabloids like the National Enquirer helped Weinstein by smearing his victims and buying stories about his abuse and not running them (which is what "catch and kill" refers to.) That so many people helped cover up this guy's crimes. Even Hillary Clinton refused an interview with Farrow about something entirely different when she learned he was working on a story about Weinstein. Women who helped protect Weinstein was mystifying. The fact that non-disclosure agreements are a thing that is legal - Weinstein would regularly pay off women who he hurt and make them sign an agreement they wouldn't talk about it. What kind of a world do we live in where that is ok? Beyond the legal agreement, all the women were terrified to speak because they knew Weinstein was powerful enough to kill their careers and their reputations. And there were just so many parts in which men hemmed and hawed over whether or not any of this was enough of a big deal to be news. We're talking about rape here. I wanted to punch these guys. And it's all a great lesson about bias in the news, and why you should get news from a variety of sources.

In some ways it wasn't the best choice for audio for me because there were SO many people and it was hard to keep track. But I don't know if I ever would have picked up the print book, and Farrow does a great job of narrating. I was listening to this while reading The People in the Trees, which is about a man in prison for sexual assault, and still listening to it when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race leaving us with old white guys as the only remaining viable candidates. So I was (am) pretty full up on patriarchy and really honestly glad to be done hearing this story.

Still, it's such an important story to tell and Farrow faced so much difficulty in doing so. I wasn't familiar with him before this book, but I can't help admiring him after what he went through to get this story out there. Of course the outcome wasn't known at the time of publishing, but I'm glad I read it knowing that Weinstein was heading to prison.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The People in the Trees

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (2013)

Norton Perina graduated from medical school and didn't know what to do with himself, so he accepted an offer to accompany an anthropologist on an expedition to a small island in Micronesia. There they hoped to find a tribe that had been rumored about but never studied. They found the tribe, as well as some others who lived apart from them in the forest and appeared to be in a state of mental deterioration. Perina's discovery about the secrets of these long-lived people launch his career and even win him a Nobel prize. However, the book begins with Norton having been arrested for sexual abuse, and most of the book is his story he has written from prison, introduced and edited by his good friend Ronald Kubodera.

It sounds like it would be very interesting, but in fact I found most of it quite tedious. It was initially kind of interesting, a young Perina traveling to such a remote place and learning about a new culture, and detailed descriptions of the jungle and the people and their rituals. A lot of the book was this initial trip, which was significant, but eventually it got kind boring, and there's a lot more story that was rather glossed over later. He made many other trips to this and other locations; he adopted dozens of children; presumably other things happened in his life, but we only ever hear about his work, and after that initial visit several decades were basically summed up in a blur. It honestly felt rather pointless.

Of course what the reader wants to know is about the alleged sexual abuse of these children, which doesn't get addressed at all until the very end. Late in the story, which was full of footnotes with explanations by Kubodera, a footnote says that he decided as editor to remove the next passage. Ok. But then he presents that missing passage at the very end, and it is the part of Perina's story that addresses the abuse. I don't know what Yanagihara thought would be gained by leaving it out and then including it just a few pages later, but whatever it was I don't think it worked. Also, I don't understand why both Perina and Kubodera insist on Perina's innocence.

But it's hard to know what Perina thought or felt about anything. He tells his story in such a logical way, and it is clear that he doesn't have a normal range of human emotions, nor does he seem to have any sort of moral or ethical beliefs. This might be a good spot to mention the many instances of animal cruelty described in the book, which I found very unpleasant and which Perina is completely unbothered by. He is a scientist through and through and only wants knowledge and data and clearly does not care who is hurt in order to get it. He also talks about the people he studies as "backwards" and describes them in ways that are unfeeling at best, often mentioning how ugly people are. I often like an unpleasant characters, but his schtick wore pretty thin. Possibly because I am tired of old white men who feel entitled to do whatever they want to anyone they want and he is just one more of these. We have enough of those in real life, I don't need more of them (and from a female author, no less.)

I read Yanagihara's other book, A Little Life, and loved it. Loved it. I knew this was going to be a very different book, and did not go into it expecting it to be anything like her second book. But I did hope it would be good, and populated with compelling characters, and in that I was disappointed. About halfway through I actually considered putting it down, but decided to continue, and I kind of wish I hadn't. The story has a great premise but the execution really fell flat.