August 2015 Roundup

August was a pretty good reading month, actually.  I worked on the backlists of authors I’ve been meaning to read all the books by (Liane Moriarty, Liza Palmer, Taylor Jenkins Reid), I ticked another book off my Read Harder Challenge checklist, and really, just seemed to have more enjoyment in my reading than I have in a couple of months.  I even wrote up a few reviews.

I did participate in my one annual book event tradition of going to the library book sale this month.  I only came home with one book for myself (My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick), which was super disappointing, but I did snag a few books for my daughter and spent only $5, so I guess I can’t complain too much.  I might have been more successful, but the weekend of the book sale was the hottest weekend of the summer and while it was indoors, I think the crowd/heat got to me and I started feeling like I was going to pass out, so my book-hunting adventure was cut a bit short.  Oh well, there’s always next year.

Let’s see, the other big thing is I announced on the blog that I’m pregnant again and spent a bit of time talking about some of the fears I have about having a second child and a little time getting more personal by discussing my struggle with breastfeeding.  I have been considering getting a little more personal on the blog (again), as it is helpful for me to put some of that out there and well, I don’t read or review quite as steadily as I used to.  We’ll see.  I have some ideas, it is just a matter of putting together coherent posts that hit the right tone and being courageous enough to put myself out there that way.

So, expect a couple of reviews this month and maybe a couple of personal posts and maybe some Top Ten Tuesdays (if I ever remember to draft the posts in advance) in the next month.  I always like to post more at the end of the year, so let’s hope that trend continues this year, as work quiets down some.

Books Read in August:

Bottled Up by Suzanne Barston

A Field Guide To Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Stiff by Mary Roach (audiobook)

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

In the Works: I am currently reading Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben and listening to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Both of these books are for tasks for the Read Harder Challenge (author of the opposite sex and book published before 1850, respectively).  I am also giving serious consideration to joining in the RIP X event this year because well, I already tend to read mysteries/thrillers/spooky books at this time of year anyways (see above where I am reading a mystery and a gothic lit book about a reanimated corpse) and why the heck not make it an official thing?

I don’t really have any other big plans for September, other than enjoy the return of football (well, maybe… I’m not as keen on football as I once was) and the end of baseball (so that I can spend the next six months waiting for it to come back) and hope that maybe we get some weather that is good enough to where we can actually go do outdoor activities again before it gets cold (probably going to have to wait until next month for this, but a girl can dream).

How has your summer been?  What have you been reading lately?

 

Bottled Up- Suzanne Barston

This post is going to be very long and cross into some seriously personal territory and if you are not into reading about breastfeeding, I suggest you skip it.

Let me get the personal background out of the way first.  I have a two year old daughter and am expecting a second child (a boy) in January.  I had an incredibly difficult time breastfeeding my daughter due to low supply due to what the lactation consultant supposed was “insufficient glandular tissue.”  That is, my breasts apparently never developed enough of the glandular tissue required to produce an adequate supply of breastmilk to feed an infant.  I had never heard of this condition and still don’t even know how this is possible as I’ve never had issues with any of my reproductive health and development.  I just have small boobs that are kind of spaced far apart.  I never knew that was abnormal.  And with what little I read about breastfeeding before having a child, I thought that just about everyone could breastfeed, if they actually tried hard enough.  To find out that this was not actually true for me meant facing all kinds of disappointment and anger and guilt.

I’d had some issue towards the end of my pregnancy with my daughter with intrauterine growth restriction– meaning she wasn’t getting enough nutrition to grow on the inside.  I had mostly come to peace with that, I carried her to term, and I was somehow much more prepared for things to not go perfectly during pregnancy/childbirth than I was with things going wrong in breastfeeding.  It was pretty devastating to learn I could not feed my child the way I had planned to, the way I’d been told by well-meaning advocates was natural and healthy and BEST for my child.  It was pretty devastating to take my 5 day old to the ER because she was so dehydrated and jaundiced, I couldn’t wake her up.  It was pretty devastating to try everything that the lactation consultant told me to try (pumping after every feed, supplements, etc.) and everything other well-meaning advice-givers gave me (drink more water, eat more calories, pump, pump, pump) to have it make absolutely no difference in the amount of milk I was producing.  I cried a lot about it, felt so embarrassed taking bottles out in public, tried to avoid (still try to avoid) moms who talk about things like “freezer stashes” and the glories of breastfeeding because it was just too painful to admit and explain that I was a failure at those things that other women worked for, sure, but actually had the capacity to do that I didn’t.

Anyways.  All that to say, having another baby has brought so many of these feelings back to the surface.  I can definitely not go through the newborn phase in the emotional stage that I was with my daughter again.  I cannot sit attached to a pump while my baby is in the swing or held by his dad, all to get another third ounce of “liquid gold” to mix into the formula.  And I certainly do not want to go through having another newborn hospitalized.  I have to, for my own sanity, do something differently this time, which means I’ve been thinking very strongly about formula feeding from the start.  And this makes me feel all kinds of guilty.  How can I not even try, especially when I nursed my daughter using a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) for an entire year?  What if they were wrong last time and my issues were due to something other than my own anatomy that is now fixed?  What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t even try to nurse?  What kind of flack will I get from the breastfeeding advocates in my life (in particular, my own mother)?

In the midst of all this angst over things I cannot change or cannot predict, I decided to read Suzanne Barston’s book, after reading an article about her choice to bottle feed her second child from the start.  She wrote this book with women like me in mind.  Women who believe in the benefits of breastfeeding, but, due to whatever personal factors/choices, formula feed their babies.

Bottled Up is a very accessible, very readable book about how harmful the moralism surrounding breastfeeding promotion can be. I am not sure it is as thorough or conclusive or even as hard-lined as I wanted it to be, but this was exactly the book I needed to read with all these latent feelings swirling around in my head. This book somehow made it feel ok to have tried and fail and reminded me that formula was really not a devil. Without it, my child would have died of dehydration or jaundice or starvation or something.

As for the book itself, the first 4 chapters had me glued to the page and nodding continuously. Sometimes breastfeeding is more dangerous to the mother/child than formula and it is ridiculous and uncompassionate to suggest that every individual mother can/wants/should breastfeed.  She mostly focuses on factors like post-partum depression, past rape or sexual trauma, or even a child’s allergy to its mother’s milk (one issue that Barston encountered personally), but does bring up low supply issues and provides a firm reminder that the low estimate of women who are unable to breastfeed is 5%.  That’s 1 in 20 people, which if you extrapolate to the number of the women in the US is in the hundreds of thousands.  That’s a lot of people being done a disservice by the dialog that “breast is best” and the really lackluster support systems in existence for women with breastfeeding issues.  Barston also points out how our society isn’t really the same as it was when breastfeeding was last in vogue. Many more mothers work outside the home and pumping is difficult even in the best of situations (I had a very supportive work environment, but pumping was the worst, it was so isolating and provided a constant visual reminder of how little I was pumping, especially when my bottles sat in the fridge next to those of other users of the lactation room).

The last two chapters were a little more scattered. Barston claims that of course breastfeeding is better, but her chapter on statistics doesn’t do much to show this. I remember coming across an article (I cannot find a link to the exact article that I remember reading, unfortunately) that analyzed breastfeeding studies in much more depth with a much sharper conclusion: breastfeeding can only conclusively be linked to prevention of a couple instances of diarrhea in infants. I expected a similar summary here, but got a much more lukewarm one. As in, Barston points out that most of these studies are impossible to really take seriously because of all the complicating factors at stake (i.e. you can’t control for who breastfeeds vs. who doesn’t and some of these differences may come down to class differences or parental involvement, etc.), but doesn’t bother to draw a larger conclusion that we don’t have many reliable studies, free of bias, to base claims of “breast is best” on.  She just kinda goes with “breast is best” as the inevitable conclusion, making the same mistake most of the researchers she faults do.

In the last chapter, Barston casts her net wider to encompass breastfeeding as an unrealistic choice not for medical, psychological, or health reasons, but for socioeconomic ones. This is a particularly important point, yes, but felt like too much for this little book. That, and Barston’s winding discussion about breastfeeding in the developing world, really draw her away from what made the first chapters so striking– her personal experiences and feelings and the white middle class angst about formula. I know she was trying to bring this around to a discussion of choice rather than a discussion of well, if you tried and failed, then it’s ok to use formula, but I left this book with a little less satisfaction than I felt after the first four chapters.

If you also had trouble breastfeeding (or couldn’t/didn’t want to for any number of reasons) and felt terribly judged and terribly guilty about having to/choosing to use formula, this book is definitely for you. There is something about realizing I am not alone in this experience, something about realizing that the hyped up talk about breastfeeding is, in fact, mostly talk, and something about remembering that feeding an infant is a deeply personal choice and experience that has helped me let go of some of my guilt. I am no further in knowing how I want to proceed with my next child, but I have some more food for thought.  I have some validation for putting my mental health at the forefront in making that decision. And maybe, just maybe, I can make that tough decision with far less guilt and tears than I did the last time around.

The 2015 Read Harder Challenge Update

I have been working my way through Book Riot’s 2015 Read Harder Challenge this year and thought it was about time I did a little update on my progress, since we’re halfway two-thirds of the way through the year and these sorts of posts tend to keep me accountable for my challenges.  It doesn’t hurt that Brandyn recently posted her update and reminded me that I’ve been promising to write this post for two months now.  I’ve already completed 16 of the 24 tasks so far, so I’m doing way better than I’ve expected.  Also, most of the books I chose outside of my comfort zone have proven to be great (or in some cases absolutely amazing).  This has been a good experiment, but I still have some big categories left to tackle throughout the rest of the year.

 What I have left:

Task 1: A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25

I originally thought I’d reread Frankenstein for this category, but think I might move that to the classic book category, so I recently requested The D.U.F.F. from the library.  This is a book I never thought I’d read, but all my friends like it, so I guess I will give it a chance.  Plus it’s YA, so I don’t have to gear myself up for it as much as I do classics.

Task 2: A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65

There are a few titles I’m considering for this– Juliet Marillier’s newest book comes out in November and she’s over 65, Kent Haruf had a book published earlier this year, and then Agatha Christie wrote some books after turning 65.  Still deciding, as none has grabbed my immediate attention.

Task 6: A book by a person whose gender is different from your own

So… I somehow have gone half a year without reading a book by a male author (well, I have, they have all just counted for other Read Harder challenge categories).  This is kind of ridiculous, as I thought I’d do this category on its own without even thinking about it, but I read a lot of genre fiction in genres dominated by women, so I guess I will actually have to work for this one.  I have no idea.  Does a book co-authored by a male (I am currently reading The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg) count?  It might have to.

Task 10: A microhistory

Earlier this year I started a massive book for this, got like 70% of the way through and gave up.  I just could not sit through any more of it.

Now I am listening to Stiff by Mary Roach, a book I’ve wanted to read since forever and I’m going to count it towards this category.  Just can’t listen to it with the kid in the car and I’ve been doing more driving with her lately than I usually do.

Task 12: A sci-fi novel

I think I want to read The Martian for this category.  I keep meaning to get it on Audible and then I choose something else instead.

Task 14: A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade

I still want to read The Emperor of All Maladies for this category, but I can only get it from the library as a physical copy and for some reason that means I’ve had a hard time getting around to it.  It sounds like a total “me” book, though.

Task 19: A book that was originally published in another language

I thought I’d go with the latest Herman Koch book here, but the problem is that I started that one last summer and did not get into it after a few pages.  I was willing to give it another try when I was in more of a thriller mood, but that just hasn’t happened.  I don’t have any other ideas.  I keep forgetting I have this category left, actually.

Task 22: A book published before 1850

As mentioned above, I think I will try to reread Frankenstein for this category.  I already bought it on audio, just haven’t motivated myself to start it yet.

 

So mostly, I have categories left that I am having trouble getting in the mood for or getting excited for.

Anyways, did you sign up for any challenges this year?  How are they coming?  Any other suggestions for these categories or particular encouragement for any of my selections?

July 2015 Roundup

I seem to have kind of settled back in to my average reading speed after a crazy start to the year, but I’m not complaining, I’m still on track to exceed my reading goal.  It’s been a hit or miss summer for me with books.  I’ve been reading a lot of 3 star books lately.  Good, but not great and really, nothing worth writing a review over.  I would just restate the premise and be like this is good, but not setting my world on fire, the end.  So.  I’m trying to jazz things up by reading stuff I think that I know I’ll super like and it kind of works, but I think my mood is as much contributing to my lack of enthusiasm for books than anything else.  I probably need to switch up the genres I’m reading or something just to shake up my attitude.

Anyways, I wrote a few posts in July.  Nothing spectacular, but slowly trying to get myself back in the game.  I really try not to stress over hit or miss posting, but there is something so sweet about having reviews scheduled out for weeks.  Maybe someday I’ll get back to that point.  Maybe.

Books Read in July:

Endlessly by Kiersten White

It’s Not Me,  It’s You by Mhairi McFarlane

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa (audiobook)

Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid

In the Works: I’m in a bit of a weird phase where I keep picking up books about death/dying/grief/dead bodies.  In that spirit I’m currently reading A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer and listening to Stiff by Mary Roach.  This upcoming weekend is my library’s book sale and I’m dying to go, but we’re supposed to have company and I am not sure how to fit a book sale into a visit with the in-laws.  We’ll see.  Other than that,  this month promises to be busy, as school starts back in less than three weeks and I will be back to fighting students for a parking space and a table to eat my lunch at.  The ever-so glamorous lifestyle of higher education staff, ya’ll.

I am kind of sporadically blogging when I can/feel like it and expect to remain hit or miss for at least this month.  I make no promises.

What’s going on in your reading/blogging/regular lives?

 

Summer Mini-Reviews: Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater

Look guys!  I am actually posting a review!  Ok, it’s a mini-review.  But I realized recently that I keep picking up books where the heroine gets cheated on by her boyfriend and it sets in motion a series of life-changing events.  I actually put down a book after two pages when realizing it had this same conceit.  Anyways, here are my reviews of two cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater books that I have read somewhat recently.

Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend by Sarra Manning

Hope Delafield has been with Jack, her childhood sweetheart, for over a decade.  Their mothers are best friends who have high hopes for their relationship.  Hope and Jack own a home together and Hope is certain that engagement is on the horizon for them.  That is, until Hope catches Jack kissing her best friend in a more-than-friendly, definitely-not-the-first-time kind of way.  Hope is crushed, but still loves Jack and believes his assertions that he loves her, too.  They decide to give it another go and Hope takes her share of emotional beatings on her journey to decide what she really wants for herself.

What I liked: Sarra Manning is one of my favorite authors and this book had a lot of the elements that I have come to expect from a Sarra Manning book.  Hope is flawed, insecure, and messy, but also very likeable.  She is forced by circumstances to determine what she wants out of life, as she has kind of coasted by picking both the career and boy her mother wanted for her.  She is also a total pushover, who has yet to grow a backbone, and she lets Jack walk all over her, giving him way more second chances than he deserves.  Her eventual non-Jack love interest, Wilson, is very much a Sarra Manning hero– he’s prickly and hot.  Hope could be a bit of a frustrating character, but I did like her and root for her and enjoyed seeing her grow over the course of the story.
What I felt meh about: This is an exhausting book.  Absolutely exhausting with the will they-won’t they between Hope and Jack.  It was appropriate for Hope’s character to not immediately end things and to keep giving Jack another chance, but it got frustrating to watch.  I really wanted more of the story to focus on things with Wilson and I wish Hope had grown her backbone a little earlier on in the story.
All in all: I am glad I read this book, as I really do like Sarra Manning’s characters, but this is probably my least favorite of hers so far.

It’s Not Me, It’s You by Mhairi McFarlane

Delia Moss decides it is finally time to get the ball rolling with her boyfriend of nine years, Paul.  They own a home together and a dog together and Delia is ready to get married. So she proposes to Paul.  He is bewildered, but accepts and the two go to a pub to celebrate.  At the pub, Delia gets a text from Paul that is clearly meant for another woman.  She confronts Paul and finds he has been seeing someone else for the past few months.  She isn’t ready to the end the relationship, but she also can’t stand the sight of Paul right now, especially as she finds he keeps lying to her about little things.  When her boring, but safe job goes up in flames, she decides to move from Newcastle to London to stay with her best friend, Emma.  In London, Delia lands a job in PR and her boss is a bit… shady, but Delia wants a new life and tries to learn what she can at this new job.  That is, until she keeps running into a handsome investigative journalist who is hell-bent on ruining the reputation of Delia’s shady boss.  Delia’s life is up in the air and she has to decide who she is and what she wants out of life.  Does she want the relative safety of a relationship with Paul?  Does she want to be someone who bends (or breaks) the rules to be successful in business?  Or is she ready to take some risks and do what she knows is right?

What I liked: Delia is a very sweet and likeable character and the rest of the cast of characters (with the exceptions of Paul and shady boss, Kurt) were also fun to read about.  I particularly liked that McFarlane wrote in some seriously geeky characters, like Delia’s brother and the computer genius, Peshwari Naan, who were perfectly themselves, even though that meant they didn’t really fit into the roles that Delia hopes for them.  There is a lot of scheming between Delia and the cute journalist, Adam, to take down Kurt and while it definitely approaches a silly and ridiculous level of antics, I had a lot of fun with this plot line.  It was a cute, original way to bring two characters onto the same side and allow them to get a little closer.  Really, this book was fun and readable and had great leading characters.
What I felt meh about: I kind of got tired of the whole Paul story.  He cheats, he lies, Delia tells him she wants some time off, and he will just not take no for an answer.  He keeps sending her things to remind her of their relationship and begging for another chance.  Delia has started moving on already, though maybe she doesn’t quite realize it, and I just got sick of seeing Paul pop back into the story.  Probably, this would have bothered me less if I hadn’t read it with Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend in mind, but what can you do?
All in all: I really enjoy Mhairi McFarlane’s books.  They are funny and smart and just great chick lit.  I had high hopes that this would top Here’s Looking at You for me.  It didn’t, but it was a good book nonetheless.  I will definitely be back for more Mhairi McFarlane in the future.

Top Ten Tuesday: Diverse Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature/meme brought to you by the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish (the button also belongs to them).  This week’s theme is Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity/Diverse Characters (example: features minority/religious minority, socioeconomic diversity, disabled MC,  neurotypical character, LGBTQ etc etc.).

I LOVE this topic, as this has been an area I’ve been trying to work on in my own reading this year and it has been really interesting for me to grow as a person and a reader by reading more diverse books.

Here are some of my favorite discoveries:

         

1. Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern– While the plotline of this gets a little whacky, this was an interesting and addictive story about a girl with cerebral palsy and a boy with serious anxiety issues.  I enjoyed seeing how these limitations affected their friendship and their lives as they move from high school to the “real world.”

2. Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White– Gosh, I love Kiersten White for fun paranormal YA.  I liked that her story in the short story collection, My True Love Gave to Me, featured a Hispanic girl.  I was pleasantly surprised that the first novel of hers that I tried also had a main character who is dark-skinned (not that you can tell from that cover) and from an island colony of the country she is studying in.

3. I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios– I absolutely adored and raced through this cute YA contemporary.  It features a character with a disability and a character of low socioeconomic status. Josh has lost his leg serving as a Marine in Afghanistan.  Skylar and her mom live in a trailer park and live paycheck to paycheck.  Money is a constant worry for Skylar and really limits what she can see for herself in her future.

4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– I read this as part of a challenge I’m working on this year, which involved reading a book by an author from Africa.  Adichie is Nigerian and this book is about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who comes to live in the United States and eventually writes a blog about race and the immigrant experience in America.  It also revolves quite a bit around the man Ifemelu left behind in Nigeria and their desire to rekindle their romance.  I really loved the social commentary on the black experience in America that figures heavily into this book.

5. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson– This beautiful memoir in verse is the story of Woodson’s childhood as she grows up black in the 1960s and 1970s, splitting time between the North and the South.  This is seriously such a good book and Woodson’s experience is shaped by both her race and religion (Jehovah’s Witness) and the major goings-on of the Civil Rights movement are strongly present in the background of this mostly personal tale.

         

6. Trade Me by Courtney Milan– This romance was a fun little New Adult about a second generation Chinese American girl who simultaneously attends college and takes on the burden of supporting her family economically.  Tina gets the chance to swap places with Blake, a white guy who is super rich because his dad is the founder of an Apple-like technology company.  Oh yeah, and he’s a guy with an eating disorder.  Of course Tina and Blake become involved romantically over the course of their agreement.  I also like how Milan so subtly dropped in a transsexual side character (who will be the lead in the next book in this series!) that I got confused later in the story when it was brought up.

7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie– I love Alexie’s work for his take on the contemporary Native American experience and particularly his ability to be funny and awkward and genuine all at the same time, but his YA novel is probably my favorite of his works.  This is the story of Junior, a tween/teen boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

8. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz–  This book is an absolutely beautiful, excellent coming of age story about two boys growing up in 1980s El Paso.  It gets the LGBT tag, but that enters spoiler territory, so I’ll just say this story is mostly about Ari and Dante’s friendship, their families (LOVE their parents), and how they grow into themselves.

9. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth–  Cameron comes of age in Montana in the early 90s, dealing with coming to terms with her sexuality and the death of her parents.  Her conservative, religious aunt finds out that Cameron has been experimenting with girls and sends her off to a de-gaying school in the wilderness.

10. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling– I picked this one because Rowling portrays Pagford’s poor in such an honest, frank way that was deeply affecting for me.  I had so much compassion for Krystal and the horrible home life she faced and her limited life choices.  She’s cast as the town troublemaker by everyone else in town, but Rowling shows Krystal is a more complex (and tragic) person than the town would believe.

What are some of your favorite diverse books?  Do you try to make a point of reading diversely?  I’d love to see your lists so I can try out even more diverse books!

May/June 2015 Roundup

I’ve taken a month-long hiatus from the blog, sort of by accident.  Every now and then I get major blogging burn-out and I’ve been very meticulous about keeping up with my reviews in the last year and hit a point recently where I just could not make myself care.  But, as is always case, I end up missing blogging after a while and drag myself out of the funk to write something up.

May and June were not particularly incredible reading months, by any means, but I’ve been working on my Read Harder challenge and some of those books tend to be a bit on the slow side for me, as they require me to step outside my comfort zone.  Also, I’ve been enduring some rather frustrating toddler sleep struggles which have left me wiped out in the evenings and cut into a lot of my evening me time.  In any case, I’m hoping to get back on track with both reading and blogging as this summer continues, but we’ll see if life cooperates with me.

Books Read in May:

It Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning (reread)

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend by Sarra Manning (audio)

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (audio)

Books Read in June:

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting by Jennifer Senior (audio)

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Trade Me by Courtney Milan

In the Works: I’m currently reading Endlessly by Kiersten White and listening to The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa (I guess I’m having a YA paranormal moment).  Not sure what is up next, but I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’m looking forward to on hold from the library, so we’ll see what becomes available first.  Blogging-wise, I’ve got a ton of reviews to catch up on, so probably look for some mini (or mini-mini) reviews when I get around to writing them.  I also hope to do a mid-year recap of the Read Harder challenge as I’ve made some really awesome progress with it.  I also want to jump in on Top Ten Tuesdays when the topics are fun, but that is kind of my last priority, so we’ll see how it goes.

What’s going on in your reading/blogging/regular lives?

 

Illusions of Fate- Kiersten White

I picked this book up on a whim (and also that gorgeous cover) because I’d enjoyed Kiersten White’s story in My True Love Gave to Me and had promised to try out some of her other works.  This is a historical fantasy-paranormal romance mash-up.  Jessamin is in school in Albion (a very English-feeling country) and works herself to the bone trying to get the education she needs to rise out of poverty and servitude.  Jessamin is from Melei, an island colony of Albion, and her dark skin, gender, and national origin put her at a disadvantage for surviving and succeeding in Albion and in school.  Things change for Jessamin when she meets the handsome, rich, and mysterious Finn and is introduced to his world– the wealth, the politics, and the magic.  But, of course, their relationship is in peril due to Finn’s mortal enemy who will stop at nothing to obtain the magical secrets and power that he believes Finn possesses.

What I liked: This was smart fluff– somehow managing to be both serious and fluffy at the same time.  Both Jessamin and Finn are YA stereotypes, but somehow they are more than just the cliche.  Jessamin is smart and beautiful and doesn’t fit in, while Finn is rich and has a paranormal secret and wants to protect Jessamin from his complicated and dangerous political/paranormal dealings.  And they’re destined by fate to be together… except Jessamin is determined to not leave anything to fate and demands to make her own choices and to be in control of her own destiny.  I liked Jessamin’s stubborn determination to get an education and make it on her own without accepting handouts from anyone.  I also enjoyed the post-colonial dialogue in the book and the plot twist at the end surprised me.

What I felt meh about:  Most of this story skimmed the surface when there was definite potential for more depth– more political intrigue, more romance, more character development.

All in all: I have gone on to read more Kiersten White because of this book.  White is clever and writes diverse characters and is just plain fun to read.

Girl Before a Mirror- Liza Palmer

I was super excited about this book.  I’d read Liza Palmer in the past and liked her books and saw the potential for her to write my new favorite book.  The premise sounded interesting– a 40 year old woman turning things around at work, in her love life, and in her friendships and family relationships.  The early reviews were mostly 4 and 5 stars and from reviewers whom I trust to approach the work of a familiar author with critical eyes.  All that to say, I had very high hopes coming into this book and I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite as disappointed with a book as I was with this one.

Girl Before a Mirror is about Anna.  Anna has just turned 40, is divorced and has been on a dating timeout for a couple of years, and works in advertising.  She’s been trying to reshape her life– getting rid of toxic relationships and trying to go after what she really wants.  One thing she really wants is a big, important account at work.  She’s tired of getting no respect for working on ads for women’s products.  She gets a great idea to pitch to Lumineux Shower Gel, to totally rebrand the under-the-radar item and get it into every woman’s shopping cart.  She figures if this is a success, she has a shot at landing Quincy Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of Lumineux.  Part of her ad campaign involves getting a romance novel cover model to be the man in the Lumineux ads.  So off she and her younger coworker, Sasha, go to Phoenix to attend RomCom, the romance novel convention.  In Phoenix, Anna meets Lincoln, a consultant in Phoenix on business and the two hit it off quickly, but while they find intimacy between one another easy, true commitment is another story.  These events set the background to Anna’s journey of self-discovery, as she tries to remake herself into the woman she wants to be, free of the insecurities of her youth.

All of that sounds like a book I would have liked to read, but I did not like reading this book at all.  The plot was very convoluted.  The ad campaign made very little sense to me– its tagline was “just be” and it was supposed to be about women accepting themselves as is, and this somehow had something to do with romance novels and the male models on their covers.  Anna’s relationship with Lincoln felt like instalove.  They meet in the hotel bar, barely talk, then end up making out in the elevator, and suddenly they’re sleeping together and talking about their insecurities and thinking about love.  All over the course of a couple of days.  I don’t want to dismiss whirlwind relationships, but these are two very closed-off people with walls built up all around them.  It was impossible for me to buy that they reached the level of emotional intimacy that they did so quickly and with so few interactions that weren’t just sex.  In addition, most of Anna’s friend/work relationships seemed to suffer from the same feeling of false intimacy.  Anna and Sasha declare themselves friends, but I didn’t really see the building of that relationship.  They are working closely enough together that it seemed reasonable for them to become friends and they acted like friends in the end, but the close confidences and intimacies between the two happened before it felt natural for them to occur, especially with Anna being so afraid to let people in.  On top of Anna’s work and her love life, there is a side plot about Anna’s brother, Ferdie, who ends up in drug rehab and both his problems and Anna’s issues all end up being blamed on their parents who just sort of magically appear as awful and absent people midway into the book.

All of these threads were going on and weren’t handled in way that made it easy to keep things straight… at times I felt like I was missing something– a chapter, a previous book, a conversation, something– that would have explained why Anna felt or acted in certain ways.  The issue with her childhood and parents felt like it came out of nowhere.  And there is a scene where she is rebuffed by the big name romance novelist for dismissing romance novels and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a time where Anna verbally dismissed romance novels.  After all, it was her (and Sasha’s) idea to come to RomCom in the first place.

Palmer tries very hard to make important points about how society undervalues women– as consumers, as workers, as people, as readers.  I nodded my head at most of these points– at how women’s products aren’t important advertising accounts, yet women are the ones spending money.  How ads aimed at women talk down to them or try to make them feel inadequate, rather than trying to speak to them like equals worthy of great things.  How romance novels or pop music are routinely dismissed as trivial or guilty pleasures, when there is value in stories about love and value in pleasure, no matter its source.  But… as important as these points are, they felt out of place in this book.  They are things Anna thinks or talks about, but they didn’t feel organically incorporated into the story.  It isn’t necessary to have Anna say advertising is sexist because it is obvious from the way her bosses treat her accounts, for example.

I left this book feeling like I had read a first draft, like there was something to be fleshed out of this story, but it hadn’t happened yet.  I generally enjoy introspective, smart chick lit and I feel like this was an attempt to be just that, but the lack of cohesion in the plot, the characters, and the deeper message left me disappointed.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post- emily m. danforth

Cameron Post lives in small-town Montana in the early 1990s and is just discovering and exploring her attraction to girls when her parents die and her aunt, Ruth, moves to Montana to care for Cameron.  Ruth has different ideas of what is appropriate behavior for Cameron and is a bit bewildered by Cameron in general.  Ruth is more traditional and conservative and is very involved in her evangelical Christian church.  Cameron is able to coast and hide her lesbianism from everyone.  That is, until she meets Coley Taylor.  Coley and Cameron become friends, but their relationship is super-charged and intense and eventually it leads to some sexual experimentation.  However, they get caught and Coley blames Cameron for everything, insisting she’s been seduced and manipulated.  Ruth sends Cameron off to a de-gaying Christian school, called Promise, out in the Montana wilderness.  Cameron goes into survival mode and has to decide for herself who she wants to be in the face of a system determined to eradicate part of her identity.

There is so much to like about this book.  Cameron felt like a well-developed and authentic teen.  She drinks, smokes pot, shoplifts, and experiments with sex… and with the exception of being shipped off to Promise, there aren’t any real earth-shattering consequences for her rebellious behavior.  She loves movies, swimming, usually ends up being one of the guys, and is quite sarcastic, but there is always a feeling of isolation for her.  One thing that made Cameron different from some of the other LGBTQ characters I’ve read in YA is that she doesn’t really struggle with coming to terms with her own sexuality.  She’s attracted to women, not so much men (though she does give kissing a boy a half-hearted try), she’s a lesbian and that’s the end of that.  For Cameron it is much more a struggle with the outside world and being able to present her true self, sexuality and all, to other people.  In a way, she has a bit more freedom after being sent off to school… her actions and feelings are out in the open and she is able to make friends with a few people who are happy with the whole package.

Not to excuse the reprehensible goal of Promise, but this school wasn’t really what I expected it was going to be.  It was portrayed with a lot of nuance… it’s not a clear-cut horrible place, nor is it the cure that its leaders hope it is.  The intentions of the school’s leaders, Lydia and Rick, are not evil.  They really believe they are saving their students from a worse fate if they change them and they aren’t abusive or neglectful.  Perhaps the best way to see Rick and Lydia is as misunderstanding.  They want to help, but approach it in a way that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of homosexuality.  There is a lot of therapy and pseudoscience, which of course can be dangerous, but Cameron is strong and finds a way to stand against it, while complying with the rules and keeping herself afloat.  An awful way to live, for sure, but I think there are parts of the therapy and self-reflection that were beneficial to Cameron, whose grief over the loss of her parents and anger with Ruth and Coley need to be addressed so that she can move on.  At the same time, the message of the therapy and the school is that there is a part of Cameron’s identity that needs to be eliminated or changed and while Cameron doesn’t really question who she is in the face of it, it does take its toll and wears on her.  We see the harm the school can do much more in Cameron’s classmates, who believe that who they are and how they feel is sinful and that they must change who they are at the core in order to be accepted by God.

Another highlight of this book was its setting– both in time and place.  The events of this book didn’t take place that long ago (1992), but it is amazing to see how different Cameron’s experience is than the experience of LGBTQ characters whose stories take place 20 years after her’s.  There is no coming out in high school in the 1990s.  There is no wide cultural acceptance of homosexuality or gay marriage.  And it’s not to say that attitudes are completely different now, but for Cameron, there is no real choice except isolation, fear of discovery, and lack of acceptance, particularly in her small, conservative town.  I also really enjoyed the Montana setting, from the dusty cowtown where Cameron grows up to the mountains and woods in western Montana, where Promise is located.  Quake Lake, a lake formed by an earthquake in western Montana, plays an important role in Cameron’s family history and becomes a powerful image in the story.

My biggest complaint with this story had to do with its pacing and length.  It takes over half of the book for Cameron to be sent to Promise and I think a lot of Cameron’s early history could have been cut out without hurting the overall story.  At the same time, most of the story is slow, detailed, and drawn-out, but the ending came very quickly and left so much unresolved.  I really wished that the story began when Cameron met Coley and that the ending would have been fleshed out a bit more, giving us some idea what happened to Cameron after Promise.

All in all, I feel like this is a book that will stick with me.  Cameron is an admirable and memorable character in YA.  I liked danforth’s writing and would happily read another book from her, especially if she sets it in the West again.  It’s a story that gives you a lot to think about and even if it was too long and slow, is one I’d recommend to those looking for a good LGBTQ/coming of age story.