27 July, 2012

Review: I'd Like To Apologize To Every Teacher I Ever Had By Tony Danza

First, the title. This thing is Fiona Apple long. I'd Like To Apologize To Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year As A Rookie Teacher At Northeast High. That's like, 19 words. Let's just call it My Bad and move on. You know, the way one of Danza's students tells him her name and he thinks "Oh, I'll just call her Nick." (But Black Nick cause we already have White Nick.) My Bad is kind of awesome. It sidesteps most of the Rich Man Teaching pitfalls to deliver a straightforward look at what standardized testing has done to American's teachers and students. Of course Danza's students need more resources, better home lives and a more supportive system. But Danza doesn't condescend. When he encourages his kids to grab the opportunities they do have he never comes off as above them. Danza speaks to the students and the reader directly, as an imperfect man in an imperfect world.

In doing so he does the teaching memoir a great service. People who would never read a book about schools (unless it had recently been made into an uplifting Oscar film) will read My Bad because Tony Danza wrote it. His celebrity will illustrate that the grades given your child's school are not an indication of the passion or performances within it. His writing style is open and engaging. While nothing in the book is particularly surprising, the journey is pleasant. Danza admits that he struggled greatly with 20% of the average teacher workload and far more resources. He illustrates how the tasks we are asking our teachers to perform are impossible. As well, he doesn't fall for the One Teacher Who Cares myth that many teaching memoirs do. He recognizes that the teachers care. It is our society that does not.

My Bad is imperfect, like the subject it covers. Danza is a product of his times. While he works to keep race out of the book there are times he slips. Faced with a racist parent he blames "the culture" of the other children. A student on a downward slide demonstrates her unhappiness through the "extreme hairstyles" of an afro or cornrows. His good old days are of a certain tiny slice of American life. These things appear to be based more in ignorance than bias, as Danza otherwise presents himself as an open and rational man. Danza admits his imperfections to the reader, often harsher on himself than we would be. As a result he comes across as sincere and charismatic. Working in the story of a failed reality series (the excuse for his year at Northeast) Danza is desperate not to fail his students. He certainly doesn't fail the reader. My Bad is well worth checking out.

22 July, 2012

Review: Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel

DNF books rarely get a review from me. If I didn't finish it, I can't really assess how it all comes together. I've read books that made choices I found inexplicable at page 50 which made perfect sense by page 350. In the case of Are You My Mother nothing could happen in the remaining pages to overcome the first 143. I don't even know how to talk about Are You My Mother without committing class warfare. Bechdel is not really talking about her mother in Are You My Mother, she is talking about herself.

The first 143 pages deal almost exclusively with Bechdel's emotional turmoil over writing. Her thoughts on therapy are covered extensively as are her therapy sessions. Theories are trotted out and highlighted as though Bechdel is taking notes for a midterm. In the world of Are You My Mother everything is required to hold deeper meaning. I once had a relative say to me, completely serious, that my cousin's headaches were caused by his mother hitting the brakes too hard in the car while pregnant. If (he went on at length) she had been a softer and more cautious driver then her son wouldn't have headaches. Bechdel's book is exactly like that. (In the case of my relative, I thought his son's headaches were probably due to an excessive intake of beer.)  Bechdel considers every injury, every thought, every dream to have a message from the universe inside. This is not terribly far from tin foil hat territory for me and this is where the class warfare comes in. Bechdel doesn't just seek a therapist. Once committed to therapy she embarks on a study of the field. She transfers into analysis. Therapy (and her therapists) become the security blanket she clutches against the rest of her life. Nothing, judging by the first 143 pages of Are You My Mother, could ever be as fascinating to Bechdel as thinking about herself is. The luxury of this both in terms of time and energy is staggering.

Not finding Bechdel's time on the couch as fascinating as she does made me think I was not the market for this book. Are You My Mother could have strong appeal to women of a certain income level and assumptive entitlement. Bechdel's issues with her upbringing are her own. Whatever works for her in her life is her business. As a reader I needed a narrative to carry me through Are You My Mother that simply didn't exist. Certainly I sympathize with Bechdel seeking enlightenment in the great works of philosophy and literature. So do we all. The fact that her deepest revelations come from The Drama of the Gifted Child (a book I loathe) and Dr. Seuss' Sleep Book is telling. After six weeks struggling to finish Are You My Mother I have to walk away. My relationship with the book is probably toxic for us both. I don't wonder what God is trying to tell me when I scratch my arm. I get a band-aid and keep pruning the hedge.

20 July, 2012

Review: The Rose of Fire by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Having two TBR piles is a quirk of mine. The first one is books I bought, or mean to read, or read a review of and purchased but might never actually get around to reading. When they were in paper, if they overflowed the shelf I'd bundle them up and ship them off to the library because life is short and obviously I wasn't going to read them. The other is books I have agreed to review various places via promises or promo copies. That I have hard and fast rules about. If I get 20 books in that pile No Books May Arrive Until Finished. We are so underwater right now in review land. I keep reading books from the other TBR pile and ignoring the Pile Of Doom. It's saving me money but I do need to catch up. So when Harper Collins asked me if I would review The Prisoner of Heaven, I had to say no. After all, we are in NBMAUF territory. Harper Collins, being the sneaky mofos that they are, said ok thanks, but there is a free short if you want to read it. Technically a short is not a book. Nor does an ebook have to arrive. So I decided in the middle of the night that Rose Of Fire was totally not a violation of the NBMAUF law and downloaded that bad boy.

I tell you that to tell you this. Now I want to read The Prisoner Of Heaven. It is a slippery slope, these free shorts. They sew the seeds from which massive TBR piles grow. On it's own, Rose of Fire didn't do much for me. It's a little bombastic, a little overblown. I cared exactly not at all for it's main characters. This is probably because I don't read the series. I love Barcelona, I love (in a totally not really love but am obsessed with) the Spanish Inquisition, and hey, a dragon? What! But it was a bit Umberto Eco for me. You know, it feels good for you instead of just good. I ended the short feeling absolutely fantastic about passing up The Prisoner Of Heaven. I decided to just go ahead and read the enclosed excerpt, to see if it continued the events of Rose of Fire or if it was it's own thing.



It totally sucked me in. I had to stop myself from hitting Kindle's-Buy-This-Right-Now-And-Stay-Up-All-Night-OMG button. Because that would be a blatant violation of the NBMAUF rule and my personal ethics. (Like I have them. Hah! I laugh at myself a little. Ok, lots.) The style was different, the pacing was different, it didn't feel good for me at all. It just felt good. That way lies infidelity. I have pledged allegiance to the TBR Review pile and all it holds dear, Amen. But I did click to add The Prisoner Of Heaven to my list of books to buy when NBMAUF is lifted. Because that's an opening few chapters, that is. It even overcame two of my biggest biases - no longwinded series and no books with bookstore owners. Guilt over cheating on my NBMAUF makes me come here and tell you that Rose of Fire is a free download just about everywhere right now. Be careful about that sample though. It's hard to walk away.

18 July, 2012

Review: Rape Girl by Alina Klein

Rape Girl is a young adult novel actually intended for tweens and teens.  With so many adults reading YA these days it can be challenging to find books thematically appropriate for actual 10 to 14 year olds. I was given an advance copy of Rape Girl to review but it took it's time getting to the top of my TBR pile. I find it difficult to read about rape, especially date rape or the abuse of a child. I shouldn't have worried. Rape Girl is not really about rape. While the description of what occurs during a rape kit is somewhat detailed, it is not graphic. The rape itself occurs largely off the page. Rape Girl is concerned with what happens after you speak up. I would love to see Rape Girl adopted as a discussion book for groups of both genders. Valerie's experience is not limited to girls who report their attacker. When Adam (Valerie's rapist) explains himself he speaks words that have been spoken to many girls in many places. Overall, Rape Girl gets the details right and deserves to find a wide audience.

As a young tween and teen I went to many of the parents-out-of-town parties that Valerie throws at the beginning of the book. I was never invited to the all ages block party she experiences later, although I throw them myself. The drunken party gone wrong is rooted in truth but still a cliche. Rape Girl neatly sidesteps this pitfall. In a sense, the party is the roller coaster ride and the rape occurs when the reader thinks Valerie has safely navigated the turns. Details are revealed in a bit of a haze. This makes sense for Valerie's state of mind. She is a pitch perfect teen, confrontational, reclusive, resentful. Because is the victim of a non-violent rape, she has trouble articulating her own feelings about what has happened to her. While she did not consent, does she have a prosecutable case? Is a failure to physically fight a type of consent? If Adam considers it consensual sex does she have the right to call it rape? These are things young date rape victims struggle with for years.

While Rape Girl gets the big details right, there are some smaller details that don't come together. For a young reader unfamiliar with Utah or Mormons, the setting will be lost. An adult reader will understand the importance of Adam becoming a missionary, but a tween or teen might not know what a religious mission is. Valerie's father is dead. His death seems irrelevant to their lives. Valerie doesn't reflect on him being gone in the context of what has happened to her.  In a very strong scene Valerie's mother gives her a car, but afterward Valerie is primarily driven by her mother. Valerie's time was slightly off for me too. I am not sure, for example, that waterbeds are still prevalent. In my part of the country they were once commonplace but currently unheard of. She checks Facebook from her shared family computer instead of her iPod or smart phone. These are minor  (and possibly regional) things but they gave Rape Girl a hybrid 90/10's feel. The small disconnects kept Rape Girl from being a truly exceptional book and placed it firmly in the good category.

For a young adult reader, none of these details may matter. I hope Rape Girl is adopted as a summer read for many girls. Beyond the rape itself Valerie's commitment to standing up for herself is a valuable example. The social price she pays (and the unexpected allies she finds) reach beyond her specific events. There is a universal appeal to Rape Girl that will allow young readers to easily identify with Valerie's struggle.

16 July, 2012

Review: Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story by Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson

Booker Wright was a man.

I don't know if he was a perfect man. I doubt he was. From my own life I know that overcoming obstacles and perfection rarely walk hand in hand. Booker Wright was a man who kept his eye on the prize. Work hard. Save up. Build something better. Then NBC came to town. What do you do if you've been silent your whole life and someone asks you to speak? A man speaks. So Booker Wright did. To modern ears what he said may not seem very strong. His short speech is available on the internet and was recently featured in various stories about this film. The important part of Booker Wright's story is that he waited. He waited until his speech would be documented, until his speech could endure. Booker's words were a pebble in his own life, a pebble in the lives of those who heard him on the night his words aired. The ripples slowly faded.

Just as Booker's life collided with filmmaker Frank De Felitta's, so Booker's granddaughter collides with Frank's son Raymond. The resulting film, Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story gives voice to the hundreds of Bookers that America held in the recent past. There were Booker Wrights standing up across the south and refusing to Yassir another day. We are taught about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King not because these men were alone in their work, but because they were the most recorded, the most organized, the most eloquent. The black men of America are not made up of the nightly news. The black men of America are Booker Wright. If you ask them to speak, they will.

Booker knew there was a price to his words and he paid it. While he survived the initial attack, he was later murdered. The film, like the family, have their own suspicious about the event. I don't know if I agree. It is tempting to believe in something grand conspiring to put Booker back in his place. It's even reasonable. But sometimes the greatest story can end for senseless reasons. Someone gets drunk. Someone gets even. There may be a broader narrative at work but there doesn't have to be. Booker Wright is enough. We don't need more. The film, however, does. Using the scant source material of Booker Wright available to them the filmmakers rely on a repetition of key scenes or phrases to drive various points home. It's both effective and off-putting. While it doesn't damage the viewing experience it does make the film seem lighter in content than it is. De Felitta interviews many principals of the time and of his father's earlier NBC documentary.

For all that has changed, not much has. Faced with black pain, the white response is still a bewildered "Ain't I been good to you?" One white man stands to talk about that old canard, the black mother. Faced with a black perspective he becomes very emotional. He says he wouldn't have given up that relationship for anything, that he was equally important to the black woman, that he treated her well and she loved him. This is America in a nutshell. Faced with the reality of black life, white America won't give up it's privileges for anything. We are still, in so very many ways, the plantation owner of the 1966 film. And Booker Wright's words are as brave and important now as they were then.

Yvette Johnson, the granddaughter in the film, has collected her blog posts about Booker and Booker's Place into an ebook. I scanned her blog after writing this review and I may cover the book at a later time. As well, there is an excellent review of Booker's Place from the Chicago Sun-Times blog. I don't usually do links, but these are worth a glance.

12 July, 2012

Notes From The Road.....

I am in transit, with an Internet connection too unreliable for image uploading or post formatting. This happens more than you'd expect. Making notes for a review it occurred to me that my review notes rarely line up with the actual review. I don't write in drafts. Since this isn't a paying gig it is a one and done transaction. Sure, I hope the review is useful or entertaining or not a complete waste of our collective time, but I save the sweat and tears. I need that for profitable endeavors. Back to my point. In situations like this I often make a few notes in case I've forgotten what I wanted to say about the just finished book by the time I get around to the review. Enjoy this look at how little those notes translate into a finished product. In this case the notes were for Milan's The Governess Affair,I believe.
TGA Who he is vs who he is in response,  parent hopes,  his hopes.  Her mother? Her astute assessment of soap market. Identifying with a mother procuring education for a son. Consent,  shades of. Unhappy ending. Crazy people think they're sane. Robert is the villain. Dealing with Richard via Robert? Jobs that just are not worth it. Past cannot be preserved, broken glass jar. Letting things go, Hugo vs Serena's sister.
Back when my brain worked all of that would have been five words, tops. I have pages of notes I no longer understand. Back in the day I could recreate five pages of thoughts from less than five words. I miss that!

08 July, 2012

Review: The Last Victim by Karen Robards

Let's get the petty complaint out of the way quickly. In the opening pages of The Last Victim our heroine, Charlie Stone, is regretting drinking the booze laden "Goofy Grape Kool-Aid". Ok, two points. Maybe three. Goofy Grape was a Funny Face flavor that ended production in 1983. The events are taking place in 1997. Our heroine was born in 1980. It is possible she was so fond of Goofy Grape at the age of three that she adopted it as her generic name for grape flavored drink mixes, but it bugged me. Like I said, petty. Fast forward 15 years and I've got some issues with The Last Victim that are far from petty. I'm writing this in early June, so my entry into the book was cold, not an advance review in sight. If you go into the book knowing the basic plot you may enjoy it far more than I did. Robards has good pacing, she has distinct characters, their actions are consistent and logical to who they are. Unfortunately there is one element of The Last Victim I couldn't get past for all the Goofy Grape in the world.

Charlie Stone  is about the dumbest heroine I've ever read. (I know Robards likes the name, she's used it before, but if you're going to write a series about a woman who sees dead people the names Charley and Harper are taken.) Charlie Stone is self destructive in a completely new and original way for me. She is sexually attracted to serial killers. Ok, that might not be fair to Charlie. She is sexually attracted to a dead serial killer. Our supposed love triangle is between Mr. Great On Paper who leaves her unaffected and Mr. Rocking Body Dead Guy who killed seven women before he was placed on Death Row. Charlie muses to herself that the attraction is sick (YES) and unwise (YES) and maybe even a bad idea (DO YOU THINK?) yet finds herself unable to resist his rock hard abs. Because if a man is hot, even if you know he is evil, sex is what you can't stop thinking about (NO). This aspect of the book is so problematic that the rest of it doesn't even matter. If you can get past the hero being a serial killer, if inmate fantasy is your thing, The Last Victim is going to rock your world. If you think a woman who survived a serial killer, studies serial killers and is trying to save a young girl from a serial killer overlooking a serial killer's crimes for his hot body is reasonable, have I got a book for you. We've seen this dynamic before. Let's do a quick compare and contrast between Robard's Charlie and Darynda Jones' Charley. For Robards, we will use CS, for Jones we will use CD. Ready?

Sees dead people. CS / CD
Is the Grim Reaper. CD
Has super hot physical encounters when asleep. CS / CD
Is normal human who should know better. CS
Boyfriend has been in jail. CS / CD
Boyfriend killed or tried to kill parent. CS / CD
Boyfriend pursued by apparent demons from hell CD / CS
Boyfriend appears to protect her when needed, even against own will. CD / CS
Boyfriend admits to having done great evil. CD / CS
Boyfriend claims innocence of murder. CS

So yea, the paranormal girl and the super bad boy from hell is a thing, apparently. It's better than Charlaine Harris and her incest-lite sibling couple... ok it's not. I am more comfortable with the high ick factor in the Grave Sight series than I am with Charlie Stone and her boy toy. I completely get that Robards is going to pull a switcheroo in the second book and reveal that Garland is not a serial killer. (He hints at it enough.) But you have to go with what is on the page. On the page Garland is a man being drawn into Hell who threatens, who intimidates, who admits to having done very bad things and who has been convicted by DNA and other evidence. Charlie actually wonders, while getting frisky, if sexual gratification is what flips his psycho switch. The reader may suspect Garland will turn out to just be an average criminal, but Charlie believes him to be otherwise and there lies a very dangerous thing indeed. A serial killer is not a child who went wrong one day. They are not a misunderstood person in need of compassion. A serial killer is a predator who sees other humans as prey. A love affair between Charlie and Garland is like a chicken loving Colonel Sanders. How can a reader buy into that?

Garland is shown to have an explosive temper and a bad past. But he watches ESPN! And he is physically attractive! He can't be so evil as that, can he? Look! He engages in grooming behavior with Charlie! He protects her and berates her! He compliments her! He's a good guy gone wrong! He can be saved, right? No! It doesn't matter if Garland turns out to be innocent in a later book. We are in this book. And in The Last Victim he is the last person I'd consider a hero. That Charlie, with the information she has at hand, falls for him makes her impossible to root for. She can never overcome my personal judgement of Dumber Than A Rock by a later revelation of innocence. It's like the old Regencies where the girl dresses up as a guy so the hero can run around saying NoHomoTho while checking out her ass. I'm not interested in any trend that requires me to go NoPsychoTho.

All of that said, this book is going to have devoted fans. I think it will spark a lot of conversation in romance about where the boundaries of mainstream couples are and what leeway we will and won't give an author in telling her story. I know what side I'm on.

06 July, 2012

Review: Raised By Wolves by Christie Mellor

 Harper likes this book so much they titled it twice. With this being the time of year that well meaning adults buy comedic life skills books for their departing progeny (or the progeny of others) I checked out this new to me book. Please don't buy it for anyone you like. This is the self help guide to adulthood you buy for someone you dislike, possibly even for someone you loathe.

However you title it, Mellor's Wolves  is written in that sort of ha-ha lightly abusive passive aggressive tone that people use to tell you you're fat. She takes the position that you are probably an overindulged child that others find tedious. With the will to change that reading her book has demonstrated, she can teach you to half ass your way to a responsible adulthood. Along the way she has proven tips, theoretical tips, and tips she heard other people talk about. It's like all the clippings your drunk grandmother ever sent anyone in the 1970's when she was tweaking her way through a Reader's Digest backlog.

I find these books interesting because I did leave my far from indulgent childhood home lacking most basic life skills. Cleaning, cooking, job holding, socializing, all of those were skills rapidly learned to function in the larger world. Post, Martin, Bombeck, I read them all. I found that there are two kinds of books. The first is useful, it clearly teaches you some basic knowledge. The second makes a buck for it's author and lets the giver feel superior. Under either title Raised By Wolves is far more the latter than the former. Fittingly, it's pricing is all over the map. Want the US trade paperback with the retro glam's feel? $5.60. Want it on Kindle? $10.99. Hardcover on clearance with the 1960's edutainment cocktail hour graphics? $7.98. Because Publisher Price Fixing* is all about helping you, the consumer, have choices. Buy and ship their dead stock or pay for the right to avoid storing pulp.

*I will now refer to Agency Pricing by the more accurate Publisher Price Fixing term. I never should have bowed to peer pressure and adopted the A word. what can I say, I'm weak like that.

01 July, 2012

Review: Barnes & Noble vs Anyone Else

No. Really.
This is a US-centric tale told in reverse order. It begins yesterday. 

I very rarely do business with Barnes & Noble.  I don't like the way they conduct themselves. As of today, I won't bother with them until the going out of business sale. The kids saw a book and craft combo for $16 during a kill some time browsing session. I told them before I opened it I wanted to check the online reviews. Turns out the chain exclusive set is available for $7 online. With free store pickup. From the same location.

Yes, I'm returning it. It's the final straw in my Barnes & Noble coffin. I differ from many readers in my choice of retailer. Here are my standards. Don't screw me over and I will shower you with money. That's it, that is the full list. You don't need rock bottom prices (although I love a bargain as much as the next girl.) You don't need the fanciest or most stylish location. You need to have the item I want to buy (or get it in a timely fashion) and not screw me. Barnes & Noble has repeatedly failed the test. 

The blogworld asks me to shower my money upon different vendors. In the beginning, I was as anti-Amazon as the next girl. I thought their discounted prices were a result of their inflated shipping costs and I ordered from other sources. Then Amazon stopped screwing me on shipping. I was a strong supporter of Waldenbooks until they closed, then Borders until they did the same. During these years the blogworld begged me to shop at my local indie retailer. I didn't have one. Haven't had one for a good 25 years. So thanks, blogworld, but I can't sign on. Then they wanted me to mail order from my local indie retailer, chosen apparently at random. I tried a few. I had an 80% order correct completion rate. I went digital. I supported digital indie retailers. Then Agency publishing driven by Apple and Barnes & Noble screwed me. And them. I stopped showering those publishers with money. I went Harlequin and Amazon. (Most of my big six reviews are library or ARC driven. I considered dropping all reviews for those publishers, but with book buying dollars more important honest reviews seemed more important to me.) Avon revised their pricing  and I said ok, Avon can get showered with my money again. 

The big trend in blogworld now is begging me to support Barnes & Noble. I don't see why. They screw me every chance they get. They screw me in the store by charging me double what they charge me if I don't impulse buy. (That is some messed up retail logic right there.) They screw me with the worst digital customer service of anyone I've dealt with ever. They screwed me with price fixing in the digital world which was preceded by price fixing in the paper world. None of the tactics they are currently in hot water for, that I am currently being asked to support them through, are new. Barnes & Noble has never been a retail white knight, ever. I'm done showering them with money and I'm done with being asked to. Stick a fork in them and let's all move on. You know what I would support? Here's a small business idea. Open a kiosk with a computer terminal and one copy of a few hundred books. Let me browse them. I'll pick the ones I want and you'll send a download link to my email. Don't screw me and I'll shower you with money. Just make sure the books aren't Agency, because until the DOJ is done with them I am as well.