22 July, 2013

Review: Life Is Short Laundry Is Eternal by Scott Benner

Parenting memoirs swing between kid worshipping eye crossers and bitterly frustrated justifications of career abandonment. It's pretty rare to find one that doesn't wear it's welcome out long before the final chapter. I wanted Life Is Short Laundry Is Eternal to be that memoir, but it wasn't. Instead Benner offers a weird hybrid of both ends of the genre, leaving the reader struggling to catch up. I still think you should consider reading it.

In the last third of the book Benner's infant daughter is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which is sort of like being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Without diligent management Type 1 diabetes will kill you fast. With diligent management Type 1 diabetes will kill you slowly, quietly eroding your body despite all your efforts. The terror of a parent facing the disease is well captured and Benner is matter of fact in his explanation of what is required to keep his daughter alive. He might have been better served to narrow the memoirs focus to this topic, abandoning the first two thirds of the book as extraneous.

When we first meet Benner he's right out of a Hollywood movie. Who gave me this kid? how do I keep it alive? Hey, I changed a diaper, am I awesome or am I awesome? Why is my wife mad? Should I be nicer to her? Wow, I'm a jerk! My wife works hard and misses everything. The sunlight on a tear in my child's eyelashes is a metaphor for the ephemeral beauty of the impermanent world. Stay at home moms keep the world running, am I right or am I right, ladies? It's a scattershot blog to book style read. His kids are awesome, fatherhood satisfies his soul, he's a frail imperfect man doing his best and occasionally stricken with panic. Great blog content but not a page turner in book form. When Benner is down on himself the reader feels like he's looking for validation. When Benner praises himself the reader wants him to slow his roll. It's probably a realistic look at his life but Enjoyment of Life Is Short Laundry Is Eternal will depend on the reader's tolerance for our narrator explaining it all.

18 July, 2013

Review: Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard

The opening chapters of Serving Victoria are a total slog. Hubbard seems unable to choose between too much background and too little. The reader skips between eras with abandon, as Hubbard references different points in Victoria's life without warning. By the time Serving Victoria rolls into the middle chapters the reader has adapted and is engrossed. Courtiers in Victoria's world had to deal with a mercurial and self centered monarch who saw herself as steadily benevolent. Court life was tedious at best, with those called into service treating it as a holy obligation meant to strengthen their spirit. Duty overrides the narrative as Victoria's servants find themselves in roles their station in life hasn't prepared them for. Her middle class members have an advantage here, as service to the queen conferred benefits to them they might not have otherwise achieved.

Seen through the prism of limited writings from a selection of her staff, Victoria emerges as a complex woman lacking self awareness. She seems fortunate in her support system and almost willfully obtuse in her daily life. Hubbard is forced to leave some questions for a true biographer of the queen while she illuminates what being by Victoria's side entailed. While the reader emerges with a clear picture of the almost suburban isolation of Victoria's world, one occasionally wishes for further insight. Why, after Albert's death, did Victoria so enjoy the drunken disrespect of the Brown brothers? Was it a personal fetish? A rejection of the rigid morality she demanded from others? Alternating between complimentary and condemning, this look at Victoria through the eyes of those serving her is ultimately a look at the business of monarchy. Victoria, for all her freedoms, is as imprisoned as her court.

I found Serving Victoria a rewarding read at the close. The disconnect between her true self and her public image informs the delicate dance still required of the British Monarchy today. Her rejection of her successor (the Prince couldn't win with his parents) and favoring of her daughter is played out in her shuffle of favored ministers. Victoria's court is one where those in waiting do just that for hour upon stultifying hour, dolls in a game of house with far reaching consequences.  I ended with a deeper appreciation for both Alberts and a respect for Victoria's attempts to bridge her idealized world with her actual one. No one in Serving Victoria seems truly happy save (perhaps) the Browns. Respect is a far easier emotion to grant than love or satisfaction.

17 July, 2013

Review: Valentine's Day by David Bowie

As much as I enjoyed The Next Day it wasn't until I heard Where Are We Now playing in a shop in Essen that I understood how little of the album I'd considered. On my iPod, Where Are We Now was a pleasant tune with a nice tinge of nostalgia. In Germany, it was suddenly heartbreaking. "Fingers are crossed, just in case" plays differently when the the person in front of you might be East German. I walked out to a bench, thinking about that moment. What was it like, to be the East Germans when the wall fell? Walking freely into West Germany, was it surreal? Frightening? Welcome? A relief? A burden? An East German is currently the face of Germany, but the wealth divide between Ossi and Wessi remains.

The video for Valentine's Day provides a similar experience. On the iPod it's a sweetly swooping song, maybe you don't listen to the lyric's too closely. The content might elude you. The video is confrontational, contemptuous. The singer has no love for Valentine. This is the Goblin King in all his cruel glory. Part of me finds it all too easy. Valentine's Day. Massacre. School Shootings. Part of me finds it a refutation of Pearl Jam's Jeremy. This is not a song looking for sympathy. The narrator isn't wondering what went wrong when he focuses on Valentine's icy heart. Unlike the bullied and suicidal Jeremy, Valentine fantasizes about murder. He loves contemplating the power of it all.

As a visual artist Bowie is hit or miss for me. His theatrical tendencies can take him to conceptual places that border on the obvious or overwrought. It's always interesting to see what he comes up with. I never interpret a song quite the same way after seeing one but I don't consider them definitive statements on the track. Bowie makes the album he wants, whether it's the Adler Diaries or a video game soundtrack. The joy of being a Bowie fan is watching them unfurl through your life, changing as you change, revealing new aspects of even the most familiar tracks. With the video for Valentine's Day Bowie urges the listener to understand. Valentine isn't okay.

16 July, 2013

Review: That Scandalous Summer by Meredith Duran

*Someone at Pocket really likes the Angelina Jolie look.

I started this review and then I totally forgot what the book was about. True story.

Duran is not getting enough credit for working outside the Regency period. Sure, Victorian England is the new Regency, but still. She's also diversifying her heroines, replacing the typical virginal heiress with a borderline alcoholic. Our meet cute here finds the heroine passed out drunk in the street and our hero winding his way home from another hard day at the office. Call it the party girl meets the medic. There was something Courtney Milan in the set up, but aspects of the story I expected to find more fully developed slipped away into a conventional resolution.

Liza is down a lover, down a fortune and racing the clock to find herself a new man. With a strong sense of responsibility to her dependents, Liza is the standard Regency hero in a skirt. She's sewn her oats and she's ready to re-don the ball and chain. Duran flirts with the way Liza numbs herself through drink yet she never fully commits to the concept. Liza drinks enough to wake up in strange shrubbery unattended. It's a bit unexpected to find she actually can stop whenever she wants. Happiness easily sobers her up. Overall she's a refreshing change from an uncomplicated heroine but her sadness seemed more assumed than truly heart-wrenching.

Michael has family problems. He's been care-taking his mentally unbalanced brother since the death of said brother's wife and he just can't take it anymore. His brother is destroying himself with grief and suspicion. Here, too, Duran pulls the punch. While the Duke gets a few wonderful lines about the completeness of his power, his resolution makes almost no sense. Liza has the key to breaking through his madness and she comes by it accidentally. She uses that key to blackmail him in a last minute plot twist that doesn't bear deep thought. It works because the story needs it to work and a veil is drawn over any issues. The relationship between Michael and his brother was fairly strong until the easy resolution. The Duke's decline was too total, his radical demands of Michael too intense for the resolution to satisfy. Michael himself becomes an afterthought for me. While he has a number of interesting qualities I wasn't compelled by him.

Overall That Scandalous Summer was a decent but to required read. I enjoyed it as quickly as I forgot it. With a few changes Duran would've had something epic here. I hope next time she dips into mental illness she commits more fully. For me the Duke's cure was akin to Balogh's Silent Melody and equally unsatisfying.

09 July, 2013

Review: Fifth Grave Past The Light by Darynda Jones

I'm as surprised as y'all that I read book five of this series. Truly. I'm even more surprised I was given an ARC.

Fifth Grave repairs a lot of what was going wrong with the Charley Davidson series before magnifying new flaws. I find Jones so frustrating as an author. There is a great series here, with a strong point of view and a compelling frame, but it doesn't quite hit the page. She constantly uses one pound of story for a five pound bag. The Charley Davidson series is part Charlaine Harris, part Jenny Lawson, part Janet Evonavich. This should be an adorable cracktastic thrill ride, not a misaligned wooden coaster.

When we meet Charley this time her PTSD has died down and so have the abuse dynamics of her relationship with Reyes. He still tries to kill those close to her but Charley finds it endearing instead of traumatic. He's working on his communication skills while still keeping Charley in the dark as often as possible. (No, that wasn't a play on words.) His position of manipulation is absolute. He knows the answers to all of Charley's questions but refuses to tell them. He insists she make choices without being fully informed of the outcomes. Jones moves Reyes out of the Bad Boy mold and into the Benevolent Billionaire a little more in this chapter. Reyes is still the guy all the girls want, who only wants Charley. He is a trophy mate with a taste for terror.

Also disturbing me is an uptick in ghost children. Charley is attracting dead children who don't want to leave. Her assistant, Angel, has shadowed his mother for longer than he was alive. Her (special needs?) assistant Rocket lives in an abandoned building with his traumatized sister Blue and the somewhat disturbed sister of a living cop. In book four a formerly possessed living deaf boy was added and in this volume we meet a murdered elementary school girl. I find a child ghost far less charming than Charley does. There is a horror in early death. There is a horror in children trying to comfort parents who cannot see or respond to them. It it no mystery that most of Charley's young ghosts are disturbed, they are trapped in a cycle of perpetual neglect. It is an interesting choice, this army of dead children, but it's not necessarily a good one.

The weight of the mythology this series wants to hold is pushing the Ghosts Du Jour to the side. With deliberate ADD pacing, action pinballs from terrorized female ghosts to a new therapist, to her sister's side story, to Reyes sister's side story, to Garrett, and so on. At this point Jones needs to drop the mythology or the crime of the day and get serious about one of them. (She also might want to ease up some on the whimsical humor. It's reading like a lack of ideas instead of a style choice.)  I've got that 50 volume series feeling happening and there isn't enough at stake to hang in that long. Add in Surprise Bondage plus Pointless Heroine Assault and you've got why I wasn't going to buy Fifth Grave. I'd probably read Sixth Grave if it was free, but I can't promise I'd finish it.

05 July, 2013

Review: Monsters University

If you have a kid you've probably already seen this but I want to talk about it anyway. I find the American relationship with children's cinema fascinating because we are so completely uncritical of it. Kid's films are either "bad" or "good enough" or "adult worthy" and not much discussion about the rest of their content occurs. If we do discuss a film aimed at children, we do so (generally) from a point of parenting rather than as a reflection of society. I would argue that children's cinema has more to say than we choose to consider.

To truly review Monsters University I would need three or four viewings. Like other successful Pixar projects it's a blending of standard cinema fare with a candy coating. A little Mission Impossible, a little Rudy, a touch of Generic Frat Film and the time honored odd coupling blend into what falls somewhere between "good enough" and "adult worthy" on the kid scale. At it's heart MU is a sports story. Instead of the kid with a dream making the big leagues he comes to understand that team work is the key to success and a great player is nothing without a great coach. As with other Pixar works there are some lines aimed firmly at Mom and Dad which mostly work well.

Monsters University is selling the American myth of meritocracy. Sully enters MU as a legacy student with a strong family history of success. Used to falling upward, Sully is quickly weeded out and finds his future in danger. He and the little kid with the big dream find themselves on the same footing. Although they succeed at redeeming themselves, they initially do so as a result of Sully's flexible ethics (no surprise to viewers of Monsters Inc.) then as a result of Mike's strong work ethic. Expelled from college,  their dream of being in the big leagues is achieved by starting in the mail room and working upwards. This is a key part of the Pixar success story. Their films often reinforce the myths we tell ourselves as a people while giving them a tweak. Mike won't be a star quarterback but teams need coaches too. Sometimes breaking and entering is the only way to inspire your friends. No matter what you do, you will never look like the Abercrombie models. Standard stuff. Kid's films love to tell you that the least popular are the most worthy. Monsters University dials that up to 11. It's a little too far.

Mike and Sully are forced to join the fraternity no one wants. They compete against the status obsessed old guard, who give Randall the acceptance he craves. It's a strange subtext in Monsters University.  He is not Mike and Sully, therefore his desire to achieve a higher social status is unworthy, it is tainted by the preordained future known to the viewer. Although it is Mike and Sully who impede Randall's successes, it is Randall we are asked to blame. To a viewer who has not seen the prior film, it's an inexplicable shunning that reflects poorly on the lead duo. The other groups are equally cliched. There are the grey toned punks, the beautiful and beautifully matched sorority sisters with terrifying interiors, and the averagely popular. Although some make what appear to be genuine overtures to the misfits, the film makes sure we know it is only to set them up for ever greater humiliations. Outcasts are genuine and supportive, the socially successful are cold to the core. So, at it's heart and despite Randall, Monsters University wants to be an anti-bullying film. Unless you are a bed wetter.

While I did not, a fair number of the world's children suffer from enuresis. All the Pull-Ups and Good-Nites in the world can't cover the societal shame we've inexplicably assigned to the condition. Parents vary wildly, from accepting to enraged. Where some children are taken for medical evaluation, others end up dead. Every year there's an abuse headline with bedwetting as the trigger point. Help boards for parents are full of discipline stories, as though a child's physical development can be changed with the proper chastisement. (My kid is not of average height, so I took away his toys. Why hasn't he started to grow?) Every parent either has a child who struggled with dry nights or has a friend who did. Like any bullying point, the stigma outlasts the ignorance. We know a great deal more about this medical condition than we did in the past. All of that leads up to this - there is a point in the movie where a scare simulator is prepared. The device uses "bedwetter" as the lowest difficulty setting and "heavy sleeper" as the highest. This is like saying you can set the oven at 300 degrees or at 300 degrees. That aside, how many kids in the theater felt that shot in the gut? Here they are, watching an anti-bullying film about hard work leading to success and they get sideswiped by a bedwetting gag. A little shame to sprinkle on their popcorn. Pixar knows better than this and they disappoint me by taking a cheap shot at these kids.

Beyond that, Monsters University is perfectly acceptable. It's a boy-centric crowd pleaser with plenty of comedic moments. (There is no Boo here, all the female characters are either adult authority figures or so far to the side as to be irrelevant.) Your kids will love it. It's unlikely you'll hate it even as the dvd hits the drive for the 15,000th time. It is a perfectly fine film with a lot to say about how we see ourselves and how little we examine our assumptions about who the hero of a story may be.

01 July, 2013

Review: At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran

I can't explain this cover. It's wrong for the era and vaguely disturbing. She looks like a vacant doll. Of course, Nora kind of is a vacant doll at times but still....

Wait, what? This isn't a Regency? At Your Pleasure is set at the end of Queen Anne's reign? This is a Jacobean / Georgian that never goes to Scotland? Shut! Up! I'd say how did I miss this when it came out but I already know the answer. Despite being one of my favorite authors Duran fell on the Agency Pricing sword. Anything priced higher than MMPB I neither purchased nor requested for review. Recently there's been some more realistic pricing for Duran's books so I grabbed the ones I'd missed.


Where do we start? Nora is a widow holding her brother's estate after her father's conviction for treason. With George the 1st coming to assume the throne, her family has chosen to remain Jacobites. Adrian, her former lover, is a Catholic lord fighting to maintain his own properties in a time of religious intolerance and upheaval. George sends him to capture Nora's brother, a task he's very willing to undertake. And with that set up, Duran is quickly off to the races. This is old school romance in the sense that the stakes are far higher than someone being embarrassed. The lives of Adrian and Nora, as well as those of their people, are very much in play. Nora's loyalty to her brother could end up costing all of them everything.

Nora is a woman of both limited and limitless power. Her actual standing is small but her ability to influence the elements at play is huge. Her conflict is choosing between her family or her future. Have they gambled on the right side of the royal cause? Does it matter? Does she owe more to herself or to her brother and father? Whose version of history is true - Adrian's or Nora's? Or neither? There was so much in Nora's conflict I responded to as the age old problem of family interest versus personal interest played out. Even more engaging was Adrian, stuck as he was playing all things to all people while trying to protect those determined to self destruct. It's too rare that I really love a romance, but I loved At Your Pleasure and was sorry to see it end. This is the kind of book I want when I say I want something different in the genre that's also exactly the same.