26 April, 2013

Review: The Other Side Of Us by Sarah Mayberry

*The Other Side of Us is a book with something interesting to say but character choices kept me from caring about it. On the plus side, it's a free read in the Kindle Store so you won't be out anything if you give Mayberry a shot.

This is a book by an Australian author. This became important because some key cultural differences set me up to question the entirety. Plus there are annoying pet scenes. Look, I'll just come out and say it. Their dogs bang before they do and with possibly more enthusiasm. Afterward Oliver acts like his dog has been roofied and sold into the sex trade. It's kind of weird. Whatever, dog subplot, you freaked me out. Oliver is probably overreacting because his wife cheated on him. Finding out his dog is stepping out too was just overload.

Mackenzie was in a life altering car crash but due to her past success as a television producer is not bankrupted by the experience. She has that easy, unthinking affluence of many a romance heroine. When we meet Mackenzie she worries that she's come across as a bitch to Oliver, despite what seemed to be completely reasonable reactions. Oliver likes to come over unannounced. Mackenzie apologizes for pages over her rude inability to drop everything in her life to focus on whatever whim the stranger next door has come up with. She tells him she needs to answer an important call, he keeps talking. I'd be rude to the guy too.

I couldn't get a handle on Mackenzie. At the beginning of the book she is all about doing her rehab. I know a thing or two about post surgical exhaustion. Her nausea, shaking, sudden extreme fatigue all felt real to me. Her obsession with her scars did not. Mackenzie explores her scars with the careful consideration of a fetishist. She's had them for a year - it's not like they're new. Mayberry wants you to know that Mackenzie is weakened by injury, covered in scars, and unable to conduct her normal life. Suddenly Mackenzie is cleaning out sheds, filling wheelbarrows with gravel and taking long walks in the sand. (If you've had your pelvis rebuilt long walks in the sand are very much not on your To Do list.) The first time she has sex she requires special positioning to avoid severe pain from her hip. The rest of the time she's just up for it however. When Mackenzie was vomiting after using her weights I understood why she couldn't return to her job in television production. When she's walking to the grocer and working a shovel I didn't. Mackenzie has a super hot ex who wants her back but never met her needs. I liked him much more than Oliver.

Oliver was almost as absurd as Mackenzie. The guy is a rock star turned studio man. He left his wife several months ago but isn't divorced. When he takes up with Mackenzie his brother has kittens. Long soulful talks about taking things slow and knowing your limits and not rushing in take place. Oliver is completely unlike every rock star I've met or currently know. I started to understand why his wife (who wants him back, of course) cheated on him. He puts the E in Emo. It's a shame I couldn't buy into the leads because Mayberry has a lot to say about reinventing yourself after failure or disappointment. Oliver and Mackenzie both look to the dreams of their youth to form a dream for their future. This apparently involves rejecting commercial success. So to wrap up, unlikeable and unlikely leads, issues of consent in the canine community, exs that want you back so bad, realistic conflicts and a lot of emo flouncing. I might try another Mayberry but this one didn't move me.

22 April, 2013

Review: Relish by Lucy Knisley

Every book I read this month earned my undying dislike except Relish. I didn't love Relish, but it cleared the bar and for that I salute it. Other people in my life raved about Relish so probably it is way better than I think. I loved the cover. Crisp, clean, graphic, it sets the tone perfectly for these light vignettes from the author's childhood. There are some hyperbolic pull quotes from Big Industry Types hanging out on a clean prairie-esque design. This cover is how you sell me a book.

The interior is as lovely as the exterior. Knisley uses space well. Her art is clean and thoughtful, inviting the reader to linger and appreciate instead of rushing off to the next panel. As an illustrator, she's top notch. I felt the same way looking at one of her pages that I felt reading Herge as a child. (Knisley inspires hyperbolic pull quotes from sporadic bloggers as well.) It's a lovely book.

Content is where I started to fight my Relish love. I appreciated so much (So! Much!) the opportunity to read a coming of age graphic novel that didn't harbor dark secrets or sudden trauma. Knisley beautiful captures the mood of her youth both in the visual representation and her recollection of how things feel when you are at the mercy of people older than you. Each section is themed around a food memory, with an appropriate recipe or cooking tip ending the section. This never feels gimmicky or forced. (It is also unlikely I will ever prepare one. They are more visual than hunger inspiring.) Focused on herself or her mother Knisley tells a strong story. She idolizes her mother. She sees herself in her mother. The changes in their lives that bewildered her at the time added value in the end. When talking about these choices Knisley is on solid ground.

What weakened Relish for me was the inclusion of her father. As a reader, he felt unconnected and out of place to the narrative. Apparently Knisley's parents are Somebody in the food world. Being unfamiliar with them I didn't have the added thrill that might come with peeking behind an idol's curtain. Knisley's depiction of her father reads like an author pulling her punches. I gained little understanding of him as a person or of Knisley's role as his daughter. Relish might have been the stronger for leaving him to another volume. (I also vehemently disagreed with the author's defense of tube dough crescent rolls in a chapter about European croissants, but that's a rant for another day.)

04 April, 2013

Master Of His Domain

Master Of His Domain by meoskop
This week I read something on Twitter that made me reconsider a number of cherished beliefs.

Wondering if romancelandia is an escape into privilege and not an escape from reality - @MerrianOW

(I'm not going to define privilege as I trust everyone to do their own reading.)

Merrian stopped me in my tracks. One of the things we frequently discuss in the genre is why certain time periods / plots / races are so popular. What she has said is so blindingly obvious that I'm surprised I haven't considered it sooner. Speaking from my own US perspective, I've often argued that the lack of Civil War based books (as opposed to Napoleonic) is tied into the genre not wanting to deal with slavery now that the plantation novel has fallen out of favor. It did not occur to me that a loss of the privilege in that read - the freedom to have characters so enslaved, to freely treat them as commodities, to have no obligation to turn them into fully developed individuals - was the reason for their demise.

In my own reading I become frustrated with appropriation or racism in the very white section of Romanceland I live in but I don't leave my self defined space very often. I may appreciate a genre novel driven solely by non-white characters but I am unlikely to emotionally connect with it. This is not true of non genre reading, where I am most likely to identify and connect with non-white leads. As well, I am always seeking out the working class historical, but in my contemporary reading affluence is the norm. I appreciate a hero or heroine struggling to balance the budget but a true portrait of life on the edge of (contemporary) poverty doesn't hold me.

Recently I knocked the very popular Jacquelin Thomas for what I saw as a pointless listing of party favors. Looking at that scene (and others from the book) in light of Merrian's comment causes me to revaluate. If I am reading for a restoration of my existing privilege or for access to a higher tier of it, the scene fails. But if I were reading from a different privilege than the ones I currently have (racially and economically) that scene takes on a different meaning. If I had read that scene from a different point in my class history I might have not been so quick to dismiss it as pointless. Yes, it was pointless to the plot, but was it truly pointless to the reading experience of the intended audience? The narrow confines of the genre market make sense if viewed not as escapes from reality, our general perception, but as reinforcements of underlying assumptions of how life should be.

Escaping into one's privilege is not inherently bad. I think it's important to consider this motivation in genre reading because I am fascinated by why we respond to texts the way that we do. In applying this to what is to me the truly bewildering rise (return?) of emotionally abusive relationships in the genre I wonder how privilege could be driving the differing reading experiences. An expectation of emotional safety is a privilege I have never experienced. I cannot assume that Christian / Edward / Tack has anyone's best interests at heart. I cannot assume that they are other than they appear to me on the page - predators. I am not reading from a position of privilege that would allow me to assume such a benign interpretation possible. I find these men conceptually terrifying and the adoration of them by seemingly sensible women inexplicable. Viewed through the lens of varied privilege, the escape these works offer changes. Are they father figures? Patriarchal constructs to be conquered through obedience? Is the strong emotional divide between the fans and the pans driven not by the books but by different expectations of reality?

Obviously my thoughts are not fully formed on this. But I believe I will be considering Merrian's words far longer than she likely intended when she composed them. I will certainly be examining my own preferences through that lens as I consider what drives my genre choices.

* Merrian's comment arose during a discussion of recent events in the blog world, specific thoughts about which I considered elsewhere.

* Editing to add some interesting links provided to me in current Twitter conversation. 
From Ars Marginal.
From the former Vacuous Minx.

03 April, 2013

Review: Wii-U

Before the Wii-U came out it was firmly at the top of my household's holiday list. As Nintendo devotees we were early adopters of every platform they've released. When the Wii-U hit stores, it was quickly removed from the holiday list and replaced by iPads. The Wii-U, with Nintendo's bizarre DRM, seemed overpriced and underwhelming. Store displays did not allow you to play the game, relying on prerecorded commercials to sell you on the new concept. It was the exact opposite of their Wii launch and it was a disaster

I've listened to store clerks who have not played the Wii-U struggle to explain it to parents before directing them to other consoles. I've watched Nintendo issue press releases about the supposed supply shortage while my local retailers heavily promoted an excess of stock. Individual game titles went from $60 USD down to $19. The Wii-U made me think my time with Nintendo had come to an end. Nintendo is trying to make an improbable world happen. In this world you pay for a virtual version of a game which you can only play on one device. You cannot share it with a sibling or a friend. You cannot carry it to a friend's house. If you lose your device, or it dies, you lose all of your games. Nintendo makes no price concessions for this. You pay full price for a crippled version of a game. Apple charges small amounts for games you can put on any of your devices anytime. You can upgrade or change devices at will. Replace a device and Apple will load all your settings for you. Buy one copy and both kids can play. This is a battle Nintendo is going to lose and in my house they lost it long ago. We have no WiiWare. No 3DS paid downloads.

With the Wii-U falling off the holiday list it seemed that Nintendo was going to follow Little People and Playmobil out to the dustbin of growing up. The kids took their holiday cash and bought iThings. We didn't look back. Birthdays rolled around and the kids found themselves kicking around Gamestop with giftcards they weren't sure how to use. Skylanders? iCases? Like a Pixar film come to life, a fully functional Wii-U made it's play. Once it was in the kids hands their hearts beat a little faster. They remembered Mario and all the good times they'd had. The cumbersome iClone control pad stopped confusing and started to make sense. This is the marketing experience Nintendo should have opened with. Giftcards hit the counter with a clatter. Birthday money flew out of pockets. Frantic counting led to begging, then cajoling and finally pleading. iTunes and Target cards were sold on the spot to an agreeable parent. Promises destined to be broken were made. Allowance was forsworn. Spring Break belonged to Nintendo and times thought past.

Is the Wii-U more fun to play than it's weird kid averse marketing leads you to expect? Yes. Absolutely.  It's the Wii, with some added features. Unfortunately one of the added features is a cumbersome load time. I expected a dial up modem soundtrack to accompany each interminable wait. Want to start the system? That multi hour update and load thing isn't a myth. (Do NOT buy the base model, you will fill it with the first update.) Want to play a game? Wait for another system update. Now wait for the disc to load. Now wait for the .... and so on. Want to switch games? It's going to take a while. You might take this chance to fix a snack or catch up on your favorite magazines. While the Wii-U may be underpriced for it's components it is overpriced for it's out of the box experience. If you love Mario like our house does the investment may still be worth it. Super Mario Bros U is much more challenging than recent Mario games. NintendoLand beats WiiSports. Pikmin 3 is coming. If you are not a Nintendo devotee the frustration factor may drive you to another console. Perhaps that explains the lack of playable systems in the stores - a fear that encountering load times would discourage sales. It's a fair concern. If I hadn't wanted to get my Mario on I might well have said screw it and flipped the unit back to the store. The Wii-U has been a very enjoyable purchase but it certainly isn't a necessary one.

02 April, 2013

Review: BBC History Magazine Delivery Options

As a long time fan of BBC History Magazine I was frustrated when my bifocals were no longer up to the challenge of it's text. It is a beautifully designed magazine, the sort I enjoy flipping through as much as I enjoy reading. Unfortunately the effect of small fonts and bold colors meant slow going. So last year I started exploring my iPad options.

My first stop was Zinio. The subscription price was reasonable and I read other magazines with this app. Unfortunately, the thing that makes Zinio ideal for those is not enabled for the BHM. When reading articles in some magazines, Zinio brings the selected article up in a pop up window, allowing you to enjoy the layout without sacrificing readability. For BHM you can only pinch and zoom - moving the entire page and being forced to zoom it back before turning the page. It's tedious, but not impossible. My life doesn't lend itself to tedium, so I have 12 issues all half read in my Zinio library. A big change from my cover to cover preference.

Next I gave Amazon a shot. With the Kindle Fire on the market I assumed the BHM would be a full color magazine with all the detailing I adore. It was very much not. Large blocks of black and white text, tiny tokens of art begging for space on the page, the effect was to make me appreciate even more the artistry of BHM's staff. Kindle for iPad rendered BHM high school textbook dull. I quickly abandoned it. It was a can of Ensure when I wanted a full meal.

The last option under consideration was the native iPad app. I use a few Newsstand apps. The lack of consistency across them is similar to the lack of consistency across Zinio, but with a further irksome aspect. Each Newsstand app requires it's own password and it's own operation quirks. While the magazine in the iPad app is the most attractive (and possibly the most readable) it still lacks complete immersion. The iPad native version of BHM is my favorite, so I committed for a year. We'll see how that stacks up against my Zinio experience.

I didn't try Google Play out - but there is always next year. BHM has a roundup of your delivery options with prices per country as well. It's interesting to me that unlike American based magazines UK Print subscribers have to pay extra for a digital version. The U.S. market has a weird convention that buying a paper version means free access to the digital one. I think digital delivery is a medium that hasn't quite matured but my eyes hope we find the right balance soon.