Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

36237289In Denmark, Professor Kristian Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.

Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Kristian is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?

Review:

I read this cover to cover during the most recent Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon.  I did a vlog of the experience, if you’d like to see my thoughts while I was reading.

The good:

  • Epistolary novel!  I love epistolary novels!  Woooo! 🙂
  • It’s a debut but doesn’t feel like one.  The writing is always believable as letters.  Some authors stray off, writing novel scenes in the middle of missives, but no such problem here.
  • Youngson is a retiree and her age proximity to the protagonists only adds to the authentic feel.
  • I like how they arrange to exchange letters – after sending a few through the mail they decide to continue to write longhand, but scan and send them as email attachments.  They also promise to print out each letter before reading it, to preserve the analog feel.
  • I liked learning about the characters and the plot kept me interested.  It wasn’t hard to read it within a day.

The not-so-good:

  • I feel bad bringing this up because it’s a problem with the whole of literature more than this one particular book, but… why can’t a guy and a gal just be friends?  I want more books with platonic friendships, free of “will they/won’t they” overtones and insinuations of romance.  The first three quarters of this book got my hopes up, but sadly platonic love just doesn’t seem to be a thing.

That’s just my hangup, though.  Otherwise it’s a pleasant read and an easy recommend to any and all epistolary fans.

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Mating the Huntress by Talia Hibbert

42034959Chastity Adofo knows a monster when she sees one. As soon as Luke Anthony wanders into her family’s coffee shop, she recognises the evil lurking beneath his charming smile and fantastic arse. The handsome werewolf is determined to have her—but she’s determined to cut out his heart.

Little does she know, Luke’s plans for her are far more pleasurable than murder. And when the full moon rises, all bets are off…

Review:

I’ve enjoyed Hibbert’s writing in the past but each of the two novels I read had something that was not my thing.  In Bad for the Boss it was a suspense storyline I could have done without, and The Princess Trap had some triggering subjects discussed in the here and now, which I need to prepare my heart for.

Mating the Huntress, however, is good paranormal fun.  Chastity comes from a family of werewolf huntresses but hasn’t been allowed to face them herself.  Luke runs into her scent by chance, realizes they’re mates, and manufactures a meeting.  Chas goes along because she sees her chance for her first kill, and also ’cause he’s kinda cute.

It’s hard to say more because this is a novella and while the story didn’t feel overstuffed I wanted more pages.  I wanted a B plot, more characterization, and the world building could use some fleshing out.  Interesting elements are teased, but there’s no room to expand on them.

There’s lots to like, and lots that makes it a quick, easy read – interracial romance by a black woman author, all kinds of consent all over the place, and genuinely funny exchanges that may leave you cackling.  It helped me forgive the fated mate storyline and shorter page length.  I would love to see Hibbert build out a paranormal world from zero over the course of a series – Mating the Huntress is a start but I would love to see something with more depth.

Nonfiction November – New to my TBR

I think this is my favorite prompt of the entire month!

Nonfiction-November-2018It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book.

This was my first year doing Ask the Expert and I’m glad I did – I got so many amazing recommendations from that post alone!  So here’s a bunch of nonfiction by authors from marginalized groups that does not directly relate to their identity:

Here are a couple of other reads that you lovely people put on my radar:

How are you guys doing, here at the end of the month?  Have you read as much nonfiction as you had hoped?  …are you sick of it yet? 😉

Oranges by John McPhee

2799450I learned of this book via 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich, and it’s a neat little find.

John McPhee was tasked with writing a magazine article about oranges.  He went down to Florida, did some research, and came back with a 160 page book instead.

In large part this is because oranges, from their history to their cultivation and processing, is so gosh darn interesting.  The book fills your brain with trivia and “did you know”s.

The taste and aroma of oranges differ by type, season, county, state, and country, and even as a result of the position of the individual orange in the framework of the tree on which it grew.

Carvone, a synthetic spearmint oil which is used to flavor spearmint gum, is made from citrus peel oil.

Originally published in 1967, McPhee caught the industry at a turning point where American consumers started to prefer orange juice concentrate over the fresh stuff.  Concentrate is consistent in taste and texture and doesn’t go bad, making it a hit in mid-century homes.  He talks about the manufacturing process, the technical discoveries that allow concentrate to actually taste good, and how it was starting to change the industry.  I think it’s especially interesting because we have since turned back to fresh orange juice, and out of all the “how it’s made” videos on Youtube I can’t find one that shows concentrate being made.

The writing is light and easy and often Bill Bryson-esque, though without his self-deprecating humor. There are still funny bits, though. When a farmer picks McPhee up by helicopter to show him the groves:

The helicopter was yawing and swaying in a gusty head wind, and Adams – a youthful man wearing an open-necked shirt and a fiber hat with madras band – was having trouble keeping it on a true course.  The problem didn’t seem to bother him. “Isn’t this thing great?” he shouted.

“It sure is,” I said. “How long have you had it?”

“Almost three months.”

“What did you fly before that?”

“Never flown before. There’s nothing like it!”

I liked these adventures and profiles best – talking with scientists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, walking the groves with growers, and visiting an orange baron who was born in a town that wasn’t affected by cold snaps, so much so that it was named Frostproof, Florida.

That being said the middle part of the book, covering orange history, dragged me down. He gives example after example of anachronistic oranges in Renaissance paintings, details the introduction of oranges into different regions over time, and lists their myriad uses over the centuries. There were interesting facts in there but the list-y nature bored me. And do know that this book is a product of its times, so expect some casual and fleeting racism towards native peoples and African-Americans.

Oranges is good for the next time you want a light, interesting, fact-filled read, especially if you need a break from heavier stuff.

The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark (Fairwick Chronicles #1)

11436723Since accepting a teaching position at remote Fairwick College in upstate New York, Callie McFay has experienced the same disturbingly sensual dream every night. Callie’s lifelong passion is the intersection of lurid fairy tales and Gothic literature—which is why she’s found herself at Fairwick’s renowned folklore department, living in a once-stately Victorian house that, at first sight, seemed to call her name.

But Callie soon realizes that her dreams are alarmingly real. She has a demon lover—an incubus—and he will seduce her, pleasure her, and eventually suck the very life from her. Then Callie makes another startling discovery: Her incubus is not the only mythical creature in Fairwick.

Review:

When life gets crazy and migraines threaten I turn to paranormal romance.  I’m not looking for a mind-blowing read, necessarily, just something to take my mind off the pain while being entertaining.  The Demon Lover was more urban fantasy than romance, kind of entertaining but also full of faults.

The good:

  • The story takes place in upstate New York and the author nails the ambience and setting.  I’m happy to see she lives in the area – she gets it.
  • At its core the book has an interesting story that may get better through the later books.  The execution, though….

The not-so-good:

  • The author goes for a lot of meta and it’s heavy-handed.  Look, our protagonist writes about Gothic novels, then finds herself in one!  Let’s point out every way the story mirrors elements found in Jane Eyre! Let’s have asides like:

    Great, now I was becoming like one of the heroines of the books I wrote about, jumping at noises and imagining faces in the mist.

    And:

    “I’m just pointing out that you always had the setup to turn into the heroine of one of those Gothic romances you’re always reading… and now you have.”

  • The worldbuilding is haphazard and unsatisfying.  Many different creatures are thrown at us and we’re not given a chance to get to know or feel comfortable with them.
  • Likewise, a lot of characters are introduced quickly and in bunches.  They are rather flat, often serving one key purpose and fading into the background after that.  If there were a hierarchy of some sort, with minor characters staying minor, it may have been fine, but all are given equal weight, muddying the narrative.
  • Callie doesn’t make many decisions, more often than not they’re made for her and she goes along.  It probably fits well into the classic Gothic romance theme but it happens so often I got annoyed.
  • As a professor Callie interacts with students and she gives them Sage Advice about Life ~eye roll~ that doesn’t ring true.
  • The plot is segmented and broken into pieces, leaving this reader unsatisfied.

Overall Demon Lover was a disappointing read.  There’s a chance things will pick up in the following books now that the world has been introduced, but I’m not sticking around to find out.

Nonfiction November – Reads Like Fiction

Rennie at What’s Nonfiction brings us this week’s prompt:

Nonfiction-November-2018Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I do love a nonfiction book that reads like an exciting novel!  It isn’t a requirement, though.

Some genres lend themselves to an exciting, novel-like treatment. True crime comes to mind, as well as history books about a specific event.  Characters are introduced, a plot is set into motion, and descriptive writing keeps us interested and engaged. One of my favorite books in this vein is Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. I listened to it on audio and was riveted, finishing the book in a few days.

I don’t require it though. Essay collections by their nature rarely read like fiction, nor books that recommend books like The Novel Cure.  And nerd that I am I sometimes dive into straight up textbooks – Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry, I’m looking at you! As much as I enjoy fiction-y nonfiction, it doesn’t work well in all cases.

Narrative nonfiction gets a lot of love so I want to ask you guys – what’s a favorite nonfiction book that doesn’t read like fiction?

Unbuttoning the CEO by Mia Sosa (The Suits Undone #1)

27477568As the CEO of a large tech company and a semi-reformed bad boy, Ethan Hill is used to calling the shots. But when he’s sentenced to work two hundred hours of community service-for reckless driving, of all things-this chief executive needs to keep his real identity under wraps. Which gets increasingly difficult when he can’t stop thinking about his sexy new (temporary) boss.

The moment Graciela Ramirez meets Ethan, she’s tempted to throw all professionalism out the window. She can’t afford to get emotionally involved, but after a steamy session behind office doors, a no-strings-attached fling might be exactly what they need. He’ll protect his secret. She’ll protect her heart. What could possibly go wrong?

Review:

I loved Sosa’s Acting on Impulse and wanted some breathing room before picking up the next book so I jumped to this series instead.  It turns out Unbuttoning the CEO is Sosa’s first novel, and it feels like it.  Not bad – it won a Golden Heart award after all – but uneven plot and character motivations as well as a lack of communication annoyed me.

I was surprised to find the basic setup is exactly the same as Impulse – a powerful/rich guy who goes by his middle name in business uses his first name for Reasons, and meets a beautiful lady under these barely false pretenses.

Acting on Impulse uses the tropes well – when the guy is “outed” the hero and heroine get around to talking and working through it.  Here Ethan keeps his secret much longer while having a ‘no strings’ relationship with Gracie, and neither is all that interested in communicating.  They do things to provoke reactions in each other and read too deeply into the results.  Gracie in particular does things that make little sense, like dropping a bunch of cash on a birthday present for her no-strings lover.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book first.  It reminds me that a so-so first novel can easily lead to great reads down the line, something always worth remembering.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

26073085Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House.

Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage.

Review:

When I was taught African-American history in school the overall impression was that things were bad, but courts or Congress would swoop in and save the day.  There was segregation… but the Supreme Court fixed it!  There were racist policies like poll taxes and literacy tests… but they were made illegal!

White Rage makes it painfully, powerfully clear that wasn’t the case.

For example, I knew about redlining, where non-whites would be directed to housing in certain (poor) districts, creating de facto segregation at the neighborhood level. It was taught in an economic, almost geometric sense in the classroom, but Anderson shows us how slow things were to change for the better via the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

A successful Howard-trained doctor, he and his family moved into a bungalow in a white, working class neighborhood in 1925.  The next day hundreds of people formed a mob around his house while the police watched from a distance, even when rocks were thrown.  When the mob rushed the house some men inside, including Sweet’s brothers, grabbed guns and fired into the crowd. At this point the police arrested the entire Sweet family and the friends that had come to support them… not the mob. Natch.

Two white men were dead, the police downplayed the mob, and witnesses perjured themselves to high heaven.  It took two trials to settle the matter, and while the Sweets were eventually acquitted the doctor’s brother, wife, and baby daughter all contracted tuberculosis while in jail and died. Dr. Sweet did his best to carry on but he lost his house, was forced to move back into a redlined district, and completed suicide.  It’s the first time I’ve read about the human dimension that goes along with the awful policy.

Winning a court battle, even at the Supreme Court level, did not bring the instant, inevitable change I was lead to believe.  Every right won had to be fought for again, and the lives ruined and potential lost in that time is immeasurable.  A quick look at the most recent US election shows that the cycle is still going strong – a white candidate for Georgia governor used his position as Secretary of State to disenfranchise African Americans at every turn.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act several years ago meant that polling stations in African American neighborhoods could be closed with short notice and photo IDs could be made mandatory to vote. And until a few days ago former felons in the Sunshine State lost the right to vote for life.

In Florida, stunningly, felonies are not confined to burglaries and robberies but include offenses such as letting a helium balloon float up in the air, walking through a construction zone, or “catching lobsters with tails too short.”

My reading experience was good, if you can call being infuriated, shocked, and heart-broken in turns counts as good.  Everything is meticulously researched with end notes to match, and while I had trouble getting into the first chapter or two the rest flew by.

I’m grateful for a look at African American history through this specific lens, and I look forward to Anderson’s next book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.


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Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

Nonfiction November – Ask the Expert

This is one of my favorite prompts and I’m so glad to see it come back. It has a ton of choice:

Nonfiction-November-2018

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This year I’m going to ask you guys for some help!

I love finding and reading books by authors from marginalized groups. This includes people of color, LGBTIA+ folx, those who practice a non-Christian religion, those with disabilities, and more. Most often these diverse authors are called to write about issues and experiences relating to their identity – a black person discussing racism, someone with a chronic disease examining the health care system, or an LGBTQIA+ person writing about marriage equality.

I want to be clear – this is awesome. We need the voices of those affected by all kinds of issues to write books about them. I’m totally here for it.

However, diverse people have been pigeonholed into this role.

That’s not cool. So I want to know – what are your favorite nonfiction books by diverse authors where the subject is not related to their identity? Here are a few to start us off:

The Checklist Manifesto (or anything else) by Atul Gawande

Medical nonfiction written by a man of color.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

A deep, riveting account of the Columbine shooting, written by a gay man.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

An examination of book design by a woman of color.

I’d like to add to this list – give me your suggestions!

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

38643164A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.

In these eleven stories, the individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, the fantastic, the alien–and, through it, find a way to liberation.

Review:

These surreal yet grounded stories are exactly my kind of thing.

Many start in the mundane – a happy or unhappy marriage, a scene at work. One strange but believable thing happens, then something slightly more outrageous, until Motoya leads you down a path to the absolutely absurd.  It’s ridiculous, but you can’t imagine the story spinning out any other way.

Themes include knowing yourself, how we are changed by contact with other people, and the place of women in Japanese society.  Even more so than in the West, Japanese women are expected to be wives and mothers first, putting husbands and children before themselves. These women are the protagonists and navigate their way through a world where many things don’t go as planned.

The centerpiece, and one of my favorite stories, is the novella An Exotic Marriage.  A wife realizes that she and her husband look more similar as time goes on. At first she thinks it’s learned mannerisms or maybe sharing a taste in clothes, but one day she looks in the mirror and sees that her features have slipped slightly out of place, closer to those of her husband.  As soon as she notices they jump back into position, like kids caught doing something they shouldn’t, and the story spins on from there.

I was worried the longer length would mean absurdities would pile up to the point of being unbearable, but instead they’re more nuanced and layered. The page count is a strength, giving Motoya more room to develop characters and sub-plots and draw us into the world.  An Exotic Marriage won the Akutagawa Prize, arguably the highest literary honor in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

Yoneda is an accomplished translator and her skill is well applied here.  I am in the unusual position of being able to read in both the source and target languages, but I never felt the Japanese poke through nor the need to back-translate. The reader is in good hands.

All in all I immensely enjoyed The Lonesome Bodybuilder. It’s perfect for when you want to read something delightfully different.

Thanks to Soft Skull Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.