31 March, 2012

Review: Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson, I love you.

This is the story of my life, except completely different. A normal conversation between me and just about any other human on the planet goes something like this - "No, that's not the weird part. So then we - what? No that's not the weird part. I will tell you when we get to the weird part. Can you just listen? None of that is important, the important thing is..." Because apparently my entire life differs greatly from the average human experience. People give me the half cocked flopped ear expression of the RCA Victor dog. (You probably have no idea who that is. It's ok. I expect that.) Then they slowly say "You... should write a book." I don't want to write a book.  Jenny Lawson just wrote it for me. (Did I mention I love you?)

Let's Pretend This Never Happened is the best memoir I've ever read. Because it is about me. Except, as I already said, completely different. (Mine had way less taxidermy but far more domestic violence. I'm the ABC AfterSchool Special to her Independent Lens.) I even love the subtitle A Mostly True Memoir. Every person in my life (except my sibling) either has or will at some point turn to me with a horrified expression to say "Wait, you've been telling the truth. Everything you've said is true. All of those things, they happened." Of course they did. Why would I bother to make something like that up? I've learned to be polite about it but it's really kind of offensive. I never understood what they were feeling. Because of what I was feeling, their hand to mouth horror didn't mean anything. Until I read Let's Pretend This Never Happened. (Oh my god. Jenny Lawson. All those things. They happened.) Suddenly I knew what it was like to be a normal person waiting for me to get to the weird part. That was a gift.

It was such a gift I said thank you, because I am polite like that. I also called Let's Pretend This Never Happened something like Angela's Ashes, but for Rednecks. Hopefully that didn't offend her. Rednecks isn't quite the right term, but People Raised By Vaguely Southern Parents With An Affinity For Rural Poverty And Scaring Their Neighbors doesn't roll off the tongue the same way. Folks get what you mean by Rednecks, even if it brings a scary KKKonnotation you didn't intend. (Even Malachy McCourt told me to write a book. Mr. McCourt, if you're reading this - please check out Jenny Lawson. I think you'll like her.) Let's Pretend This Never Happened is much higher on the laughter scale than Angela's Ashes was. There is no dual citizenship or starving Irish children but we can't hold that against Lawson. I am sure if the opportunity to starve in an Irish slum presented itself she would have taken mental notes for her future memoir. She is also not a teacher. (This is a loss to children everywhere but possibly a relief to their parents. People don't understand the importance of diversity in education.)

Look, I don't even want to tell you what's in here. Just buy it. Pre-order it. Make a note. Set a calendar alarm. I don't care. Because if you can't laugh at a book filled with dead animals, vultures digging up graves and a young high school girl giving a cow a pelvic exam, then I don't know what you would enjoy. Frankly, I'm concerned. Because I thought it was hilarious. Yes, this is something of a blog to book experience. It doesn't read like one. While I would have moved a chapter here or there and ended in a different place those are minor quibbles. Jenny Lawson deserves a cabinet full of awards and a truck full of money dumped into an empty swimming pool for her enjoyment. Because I'm not the weird one in the conversation.

29 March, 2012

Archiving The TBR: Genre Edition

When I switched to e-books I had a number of paper books in my TBR. I'm saying goodbye to squinting, to magnifying glasses, to the pretense that these books will someday be read. These are books I bought and never read. It's time to accept I probably never will.  I hope they find a loving home, but I know they're probably going to pass through dozens of hands before they die.

I'm going to do this with some quick and dirty drop and drags. (I totally apologize for the formatting chaos that will likely result!) Let me know if I should regret any of these unread & discarded purchases.





Something tells me I really don't want to think about my TBR's net cost.

26 March, 2012

Review: Paris In Love by Eloisa James

Paris In Love is going to be a tough review for me to write.

First, there's cancer. I hate cancer. I hate cancer so much I don't even like Cancer Memoirs, the exceptional Mom's Cancer aside. In the beginning chapter we discover that Eloisa James has been diagnosed with cancer a short two months after losing her mother to the disease. Furthermore, she herself adores cancer memoirs and has Inspirational Friends with cancer. Look, I gave at the cancer office (more than once) in all sorts of ways. I have Opinions about Cancer and Parenting Post Cancer or With Cancer and all of that. I can't help but bring a giant boxcar of baggage to any cancer book and that is one of the reasons I don't read them.

Secondly, there's Facebook. (I don't dislike Facebook as much as cancer. Given a choice between eradicating Facebook and eradicating cancer I would totally choose to end cancer. Most days.) Paris In Love is not  a wholly original work. James has retooled her Facebook entries into quick snippets of experience assembled into chapters and interspersed with a few multi page transitions. Wait, you might be asking, if I buy this book I'm essentially getting a curated version of the author's Facebook wall? Yes. You are.

Thirdly, my class issues are triggered. Like Eloisa James, I was not raised in anything like affluence. Like Eloisa James I can travel Europe pretty much at will now and I could also live as an expatriate if I so desired. I think this is the sort of thing that must be acknowledged as it is a deeply abnormal life. Most of America cannot sell their home, live without strong financial concerns in Paris for a year, then return to purchase a property in New York City. (Actually, I can't purchase a property in New York City. Fiscal advantage James.) That's pretty 5% at the bare minimum. The sheer lack of logistics in Paris In Love throws this into sharp focus. Due to the snippet nature of it's telling, there are no practicalities. Nothing on how to find the Paris apartment or acquire the proper paperwork. I wasn't looking for a How To Guide, but some nod to the intricacies would have been welcome. After all, she includes several pages of her favorite shops at the end.

Once I got past judging Paris In Love for what it wasn't, I got around to judging it for what it was. James does not value stability in the same way I do. To me, taking tweenage children (who have recently lost their grandmother then had their mother threatened by the same disease) to a country where they do not speak the language and will almost certainly struggle in the schools is unthinkable. Military obligations aside, the tweenage years are not generally served by upheaval. With the snippet style of recollection, the family life comes across as the things they saw, the things they ate, the homeless they encountered, and the meetings with teachers. While the children eventually adapt, they do so just in time to relocate once again. (I am sure their trilingual abilities will serve them in life, I am sure the breadth of experience they have gained will only benefit. Void where prohibited by law, etc.)

James' way with descriptions and eye for interesting detail save the book from complete tedium. While she makes no revelations about her self or life on the bigger scale her observations of lunch remain compelling enough to keep the pages turning. Paris In Love could be summed up with "I felt lost. I ran away. The hairdressers didn't understand me. The kids were confused. I calmed down. I came back." But I see Paris In Love speaking strongly to a different reader, a reader who wants to sit and dream on a rainy day about a different life. A reader who wonders what it would be like to just toss her cares aside for a year and reinvent herself in another place, without losing the things she loves in her current place. As a wistful daydream Paris In Love works well. I'm just not a daydream kind of girl.

24 March, 2012

Things You Could Eat: Beef Jerky Chocolate Bar by Wild Ophelia

I've been preoccupied with a local murder. (Which I won't name. I really don't want to get blog hits off the death of a teenager.)  I can't cure America's devotion to racism and guns. I can drown my sorrow in overpriced candy. So I did. At $5 for 2 ounces this comes out to about $40 a pound. (If you want to figure it in grams you're on your own. This is being written in America. We don't hold with your newfangled universal weights and measures. Commie.)

It was completely worth $5 to answer the obvious question. What does beef jerky covered in milk chocolate taste like and why would you ever do it? Wild Ophelia, an imprint of Vosges Haut-Chocolat answers the first question but obscures the second in faux-thentic marketing. (Vosges is pretentious on it's best day.) Creating a rural Southern character, giving her a Medusa meets Mucha coif with a name invoking unstable sexual availability fits nicely into modern marketing. (White poverty is super cool when it's set in the past. People are using it for their weddings, their vacations and their family photos. Why not candy?) The design is lovely, bold graphics and striking colors. Ophelia is just like you, she has summer garage sales, relatives that hold her in fear and... wait. She is just like me. On to the eating.

I expected more and less from this bar. Given the company's self promoted stance on elevating American candy I was looking for a fairly superior chocolate. While it's leagues above most candy coatings I'd place it closer to Cadbury than Marcolini on the Meoskop Candy Scale. The texture is familiar. Wild Ophelia has shaved the jerky very thin, it is only a ribbon running through the bar. The result is a familiar chew not unlike the last bits of a Curly-Wurly caramel bar. Like Vosges Mo's Bacon Bar my first thought on this offering is that they skimped on the meat. Eating only one piece at a time you want a bit more chew and a bit less smooth candy. Even to eat the bar in one go I think a smaller size with a better balance would be welcome. Still, the taste is successful. I've had some exotic candy combinations that made me rethink a number of life choices. The Beef Jerky Milk Chocolate Bar does not go on the regret side. Starting smooth and unobjectionable, the flavor increases in smoke and spice as you chew. It's an interesting combination of taste. Perhaps this is the candy equivalent of the potato chip's popular BBQ conceit.

So many pricey candy bars end up thrown away, a bitter half eaten disappointment. Vosges Haut Chocolat has overcome my rejection of the Wild Ophelia marketing to deliver a bar we fought over. While I would not specifically seek it out, members of the household are already scheming for a new delivery. I think you can do equally well for a candy splurge (perhaps even at lower price points) but I don't think you would be wrong to check the Beef Jerky Milk Chocolate Bar out. Pair it with the upcoming book Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. I think she'd probably want it that way.

20 March, 2012

Review: Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

If the art doesn't overcome reader objection to the source material is it the fault of the art or the reader? Chicken With Plums is getting rave reviews as a film so I thought I'd check the source material out. As always, Satrapi has a beautiful approach to her tale. A few of the art panels (our main character ruminating on Sophia Loren, for example) are exceptional. Her ear for multi-generational family dynamics is solid. The difficulty I have while reading Chicken With Plums is my absolute loathing for the main character.

Satrapi is telling a fictionalized version of a true tale. Her great uncle, Nassar Ali Khan, suffers a disappointment in life and wills himself to die. Satrapi walks a fine line here. One one side of the coin she wants the reader to engage with and feel for Nassar. On the other, he's a terrible human being. He's not evil, he's a self involved child. The reader is told fairly early that he's going to die and I was completely okay with that outcome. At no point did I find it tragic, at no point did I wish he could have a happier ending. Nassar decides to give up on life and I think "Well, okay. That's fine." I don't think that's the reaction I was supposed to have. On the sympathy side, Nassar was estranged from his family, obsessed with a woman he could not have. His only solace in life was his music. Eventually, that is denied him. (Or he chooses to deny it to himself. It's a matter for debate.) Obviously, Nassar is a deeply depressed man. He is probably chemically depressed and all the other things one would have to be to lie down one morning and decide never to get back up.

He's still a self indulgent child who completely shafted his family. Once, decades ago, he was denied the woman he wanted. Therefore he makes another woman suffer. Once, decades ago, his mother didn't favor him. So he chooses not to favor his own son. I don't buy that there is always a golden child, that for every Abel a Cain is required. These are choices we make as people. If the story of Nassar had been told from another viewpoint I would have felt more sympathy for him. Unfortunately the unloved son isn't treated well in the book either. He is disparaged for his weight, the weight of his eventual children, and the perceived lack of moral fiber in Nassar's granddaughter. Is this to say Nassar was right? To somehow justify his poor parenting? I couldn't get behind it.

Satrapi does a beautiful job of showing the tragedy of Nassar being lost in youthful dreams and refusing (or being unable) to create a satisfying life with the woman and children he had. His wife is the catalyst for his decision to die, but can we blame her? I spent only a few pages with Nassar yet I was willing to drive him over the edge. Chicken With Plums may be slow in places but the tale it tells definitely has punch. If it's the punch the author intended, I can't say. I don't think I will seek the movie out. Nassar and I, we just don't get along.

18 March, 2012

Review: She Tempts The Duke by Lorraine Heath

If you are ever in Indiana I suggest you check out a place called Arni's. On the rare occasions I find myself in Lafayette I HAVE to go and get a pizza. I don't know why. Nothing about it seems like a good idea. I generally eat way too much and regret it for a week or two after. On paper, there is so much wrong with their pizza I can hardly tell where to start. On my plate, it's delicious and devoured.

There is so very much wrong with She Tempts The Duke. I read it cover to cover. (I wish I had an Arni's to go with it. In a different location there's this cute little train that delivers drinks to the tables and... oh right. Books.) She Tempts The Duke takes a basic Beauty & the Beast plot then turns the melodrama up past eleventy. Add to that a completely wonky sense of place and a fairly stale trilogy framework. On paper, this thing is a disaster. We start with three young orphans locked in a tower awaiting their murderous uncle. (As they do) Escape presents itself and the lads scatter to the far corners of plotsville to determine their future narratives.

Our Duke, whose name I've already forgotten, joins the military and fights in a few bazillion wars, leading to his scarred and sinister appearance. He carries a bag of dirt around in his pocket so he can huff it and dream of the land he lost, the land he will reclaim, the property that not even foreclosure by murder could wrest from his hands. (Super melodrama. I am telling you.) On the way he dropped one brother off at a workhouse so he could rise through the ranks of the underworld to become a gaming hell mob lord. (Yawn.) I don't know why our young Duke thought a workhouse was a great idea. I can't imagine my go to girl Paris Hilton thinking "Hey, we totally need to drop Baron off in juvvie, that's going to work out fine." Next he sells his twin brother to a ship. Because ship captains will totally buy your brother off you, especially when the two of you are completely interchangeable. (Now we have our Pirate.) He leaves behind his childhood sweetheart. (I had to go look her name up. Mary and Sebastian, those are our young lovers.) Mary tells her dad that she thinks Sebastian's uncle might be totally evil. Her dad's response is to lock her in a convent and become an alcoholic. As you do.

Pop quiz! What's our time period?

I cannot believe how many of you got it right. YES, shortly after the marriage of Queen Victoria. God, you people are good. I had no idea. When they started talking about Vic's dress I was totally blindsided. Sebastian comes to reclaim his heritage, which happens off the canvas. He and his brothers meet back up after umpteen years apart to have their revenge. Their uncle hasn't declared them dead because he thought it might look bad to accept they aren't just missing until all of them are of legal age. Apparently with all those properties, servants and employees the suddenly missing sons of a suddenly dead Duke didn't raise any red flags before that. Days before he is to declare his spoils well won, those pesky kids show up to keep him from getting away with it. Somehow Sebastian has taken steps to "secure his inheritance" without tipping off his Uncle. I'm not sure how he did that. It was apparently really quick and easy, taking just a couple of days and no legal folk involved at all. So reclaiming his London home is just a matter of a surprise appearance, a melodramatic speech, and a call for the vile one to vacate at once. Of course Sebastian flies into a murderous rage in the process so the gentle hand of Mary can stay him.

Mary just got sprung from the nunnery herownself and is marrying up with a pretty decent guy. Lord Whoever doesn't want much, but he would appreciate it if she'd stop letting herself into Sebastian's house and charging his bedroom. Chaperones still seem pretty important too. Right, so fast forward to (huge spoiler!) Mary and Sebastian getting married. Mary is all we should totally have sex. Sebastian is all wow, sex would be great but it must be on my land because that will make it way hotter for me. Also, I'm really into total darkness. I've got body issues like woah. Mary is like, ok dude, whatever gets you going, but it's just a house. Then they fight. Then Sebastian has the sorts of emotional breakdowns you will after running away from home for like, ever and getting a shot and burned and stabbed in the process. Eventually there is a near death experience and a villain unmasked and all the rest. Then it's baby time!

*PS - Avon cracked on the Agency price with this title, so you can check it out for $5 USD instead of $8. I think that's a better price point.

*PPS - Further reflection on this title makes the choice to send the youngest brother to a workhouse even less understandable. White poverty was criminalized in a way that black poverty is today. The white poor were often sterilized, they were considered mentally deficient and innately immoral. Especially in the early Victorian age, when this sort of social judgement was picking up the steam that would eventually lead to measuring skulls and eugenic theory. I know, it's a romance but C'mon son.

17 March, 2012

Review: Gone To Amerikay by Derek McCulloch, Colleen Doran, Jose Villarrubia

I would call this one a tale often told, but told entertainingly.

While Gone To Amerikay doesn't release until early April it seems appropriate to talk about an Irish tale on St. Patrick's Day. As an imprint Vertigo means brightly colored and often slick commercially appealing work to me. Gone To Amerikay fits nicely into that target. Divided into three parts it takes Irish immigrants from 1870, 1960 and an Irish billionaire from today to tell a story anyone who's ever cued up a playlist of ballads could recognize. The book is strongest in all areas when it's dealing with the 1870's story of Ciara O'Dwyer. Focusing on the Gangs of New York era Five Points, the issue of anti-Irish bias is largely avoided. I really wanted more of this section, as Ciara lands in America ahead of a husband who may or may not arrive. Working a variety of jobs to keep her young daughter fed and safe, Ciara travels through different levels of New York society.

Gone To Amerikay's tales are told in unison, with the art serving to distinguish them on the page. This aspect of the book was so well done. Even without the visual cues of clothing it smoothly transitioned between the time periods. Colleen Doran has done some lovely things with the backgrounds, making the time register naturally. (I'd consider Gone to Amerikay for some of the panels alone.) In the 1960's we meet a folk musician named Johnny McCormack. His story is not quite as engaging as Ciara's, but it's a story we don't encounter in many graphic novels. The details work, the characters (Is that a John Barrowman inspiration I see there?) ring true. If the stories of 1870 and 1960 were tied together by a different thread, I think I'd like both much better. While the twist that knots them is also in keeping with classic ballads, it feels forced. I don't want to give away the story. Having enjoyed it, I hope you would as well. The connection between Ciara and Johnny is too easy for me. Making it requires the inclusion of the third, and least successful, time period. If those pages had been dedicated to more of Ciara and Johnny I'd have preferred it.

The advance copy reports that Lewis Healy, our modern day Irishman, will have a connection between himself and them revealed. That's a bit of a stretch. Lewis is a fan of McCormack's whose wife takes him through a Who Do You Think You Are style reveal of their times and places. You know those comics they used to hand out in the 70's telling you not to light forest fires? Or maybe the ones where a superhero stumps for RIF? The time spent with Lewis feels like that. It's not bad, and as a narrative thread it ties everything together while giving the author a way to move forward. The difficulty lies in it feeling like a commercial for the joys of genealogy. Lewis isn't important to the plot except as a conveyance for the readers. He's a Harlequin Presents piece of perfection with a loving wife who uses their well funded accounts to research a pet project for him. Unlike Johnny and Ciara,  there's nothing at stake for Lewis either emotionally or physically. I think Lewis would work better with a deeper investment, allowing the reader to invest in him.

Overall, I enjoyed Gone To Amerikay. Frequently I admired it. This is the sort of graphic novel that can easily slip through the market unnoticed. Commercial work tends to cause less of a splash than something perceived as indie or edgy. While not completely successful, I'd check it out. When it's working, it's as lovely as lovely gets.

16 March, 2012

Things You Should Listen To: Adelaide by Meg Myers

I don't do music reviews because if I started I would never get anything else done. Music and me, we have a deep personal relationship. Sometimes we hurt each other. It's hard to talk about. (Ok, not at all but that sounded deep and dramatic which is absolutely required for musical discussion.) Right. Just listen to Adelaide by Meg Myers (which you will love) and then go download her EP. Thank me when she's famous and you get to say "Oh, Myers? Right. I started with her when she was fronting that band..." which will totally be a lie, like people who say they bought Tori Amos as a metal head, but it will impress the gullible. Play Adelaide again. You know you want to.

14 March, 2012

Review: Third Grave Dead Ahead by Darynda Jones

I didn't like it.

I'm so incredibly disappointed by this that I can't think how to begin. I've been cheerleading the Charley Davidson series as the best thing to happen to light and ridiculous paranormal since Sookie Stackhouse. Third Grave Dead Ahead has me wondering if I will ever read another volume. Remember that moment in the Harper Connelly series where you realized Harris really was going all in on the pseudo incest? It's sort of like that. The abuse dynamics in Third Grave are turned way, way up. Intolerably hot. It's not even the sort of abuse dynamic where you can say "But he doesn't hit her!" because he does. He absolutely does. Then there's the painful info dumping. (If you want to hear 23 times that Charley bound Reyes into his corporeal form, then be my guest. Walk right past this review and get to reading.)

Everything you'd need to know for a book four can be extracted from book three and summarized into two sentences. The overall plot gets two sentences of advancement. Possibly one if I chose my words carefully. From the opening chapter to the last third of the book the story drags it's heels. Opening with a clown named Ronald (classic Charley but not an attention grabber) the reader is bogged down in multiple and lengthy asides recapping the prior two books. This is not an author who has grasped the delicate art of giving just enough to keep the new reader engaged without destroying the very soul of the established fan. Not even a little bit. So, strike one for Holy Info Dump, strike two for plodding pace (for the first 2/3) and strike three for abuse dynamics. Adding insult to injury is the final plot reveal.

Charley gets off on Reyes being the super bad boy son of Satan guy. Attempts are made at establishing triangles but it's always been clear that Charley is as hung up on Reyes as Bella is on Edward. He is the one boy in all the world for her. While Reyes was in a coma all the dire warnings from people that knew him better fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Charley had crazy incorporeal sex or was saved from imminent harm by her dark lover. (Can we take a second here for a PSA? I don't care how great the guy is in the sack, if people are telling you that you don't know him, that he isn't the guy you think he is, that he is bad news and the ultimate destroyer you better wake up to face some reality. Every damn time the news story starts with "She thought she understood his soul" and ends with caskets.) Ok, so Charley, banging Reyes. Reyes so misunderstood. Reyes so damaged. In this book Reyes is awake and angry at Charley. If she tries to sleep for even a second, she is instantly having "angry sex" or as I like to call it, rape. Her enjoyment is not her consent. If she was consenting, she'd be sleeping. Mainlining coffee for 14 days is not consent. Reyes claims she is raping him, as he cannot stop his actions. According to Reyes, Charley is totally asking for it, controlling his actions, and forcing him to come to her when she slumbers. He is angry at her for her actions in waking life, for her lack of knowledge of her supernatural side and her having nonconsensual sex with him. All of this is deeply problematic. Then he starts hurting her. Which she punishes him for by kissing someone else. FFS, really? He kidnaps her, threatens to kill her family (oh, but he doesn't MEAN it), knocks her out, blackens her eye, duct tapes her mouth, ties her, handcuffs her,  sets her up to be stalked and tortured by a crazed killer and tells her she brought it on herself. She's too attractive. She's too independent. She forces him to hurt her. The author tries to offset this by showing Reyes being horribly abused in childhood (after coming to earth seeking out Charley) and being badly injured when Charley naps (forcing him asleep as well). So when he is injured, it is her fault. When she is injured, it is her fault. Things are Charley's fault. All the time. How hot is that?

Right. Not at all.

Charley's response is to get angry and ... not much else. She still cries over him, she still obsesses over him, cusses him out and kisses a biker. She's so independent and self actualized! Charley has gone from interesting character to absolute victim. As always, Jones telegraphs her plot moves. Given that the Davidson books are WTF popcorn reads, I can't really fault her for that. I can fault her that one of those moves had me silently begging her to stop. I absolutely never use the phrase "jump the shark". I hate it. I hated the Happy Days episode it's based on, I hate the way it's used like salt on the salad of internet conversations. I loathe it. You know what I loathe more? The spoiler I'm about to reveal. Charley picks up a guardian. The angels of Heaven have sent her a Caretaker for protection against non-living beings. Yes, Charley gets a dead dog. A Rottweiler to be precise. Consider that shark well and truly jumped.