London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

26162300Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories but also non-fiction “Letters from London” for The New Yorker. Her New Yorker obituary observed: “Other correspondents were writing about the war, of course, often with great power and conviction, but they dealt with large incidents and events, while Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war, of what the government was doing, of the nervous sound of the air-raid sirens, of the disappearance of the egg, of children being evacuated – of all the things that made life in England bearable and unbearable.” In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field.

Review:

I love primary sources and I’ve been wanting to try a book from Persephone, so London War Notes was just the thing.  Panter-Downes lived in and around London during World War II and wrote weekly articles for The New Yorker, describing the state and mood of the city.  This 459 page book is an edited collection of those pieces.  I’m not big on military tactics or strategy but real, lived experiences on the home front are exactly my thing.

Panter-Downes paints a vivid picture of what London was like from the first rumbles of war, through the Blitz, up to VE Day.   Her attention to detail serves well, and single sentence scenes bring the war to life.

It has always been a strange and startling sight to see middle-aged Kensington matrons in fur coats standing grimly in line waiting for six pennyworth of gumdrops, as though it were Biblical manna.

There were so many things I hadn’t even heard about.  Blackout deaths, where vehicles would strike and kill pedestrians on the dark streets.  Double summer time, a two hour version of daylight savings, was put into effect to try and conserve energy.  And at one point newspapers were forbidden from printing weather reports, as it was feared it’d give the enemy an advantage.

The detail is paired with humor to make each entry pleasantly readable, despite the circumstances.

The Christmas dinner isn’t going to be so particularly festive, either, from all accounts.  Turkeys are difficult to find, though it’s rumored that tinned ones will be available – a bleak prospect for those who can’t work up any suitably seasonable emotions at the thought of getting out the yuletide can-opener.

And when she aims your heartstrings, she hits.

Old men and women call to find out if that can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn’t easy. “Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them” is the official explanation – a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.

Once more London finds itself a blitz city.  A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy night to find out if they’re still there.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend London War Notes to someone with little interest, but if you’re curious about the lived home front experience it’s a great place to start.

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Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

18527222Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail.

Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person—man or woman—to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination. Even those who know of Gatewood don’t know the full story—a story of triumph from pain, rebellion from brutality, hope from suffering.

Review:

Trigger warning for domestic violence. (I wasn’t expecting it, either.)

Complicated thoughts about this one.  I’ve had to sit with it rolling around my head for several days before I was ready to write a review.

I have to start by saying that Emma Gatewood was an amazing woman.  When people hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) nowadays they are kit out to the nines – high-tech lightweight camping gear and freeze dried provisions, smart phones and head lamps.  Gatewood didn’t even have a backpack, just a sack she sewed herself slung over her shoulder.  She slept on the side of the trail in piles of leaves or on rocks she warmed by the fire, or didn’t sleep at all if the howling of the wild dogs was a bit too close.  In this manner, at the age of 67, she walked over 2,000 miles up and down mountains.  And after being the first woman to do it once, she became the first person to do it twice.  Then three times.

So in my book Gatewood gets all the stars.  I don’t think Montgomery did the best job telling her story, though.

Part of it, I’m guessing, has to do with the problem of time.  Gatewood first completed the trail in 1955 and I’m sure that many of the people that met her along the way, along with some of her children, weren’t around to tell their stories. (Gatewood herself died in 1973.)  Montgomery relied on her notebooks, news articles, conversations with family members, and those who remember meeting her on the trail.

Grandma GatewoodMontgomery takes these sources and puts them together into a plodding, paint-by-numbers account of her first AT thru-hike.  On this day she hiked from here to here, and slept beneath a picnic bench.  On the next day she got as far as there, ate some berries along the trail, and stayed the night with Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so.  No emotions, no themes, no heart.

Every now and then there’s asides that are meant to connect us to the time.  A couple make sense – the rise of the automobile leads to a decline in people walking after all – but some are out of left field.  He goes on and on about a hurricane that passes well south and doesn’t affect her progress much.  And notes about McCarthyism in the middle of a book about a hiker? Really?

We flash back and forth between Gatewood’s hiking and her early life in Ohio around the turn of the century, which was jarring at first but didn’t bother me too much.  What did bother me, and what I’m having the hardest time articulating, is the way the domestic violence in her marriage is handled.  It’s back to the rote statements of fact – he hit her at this time, these were her injuries, etc.  Near the end Montgomery writes,

To suggest she was trying to be the first woman means believing that she was walking toward something. I’m not sure that’s wholly true. I’m not sure she was walking toward something so much as walking away.

This sits wrong with me.  Like, if her husband didn’t beat her badly enough to crack her ribs she never would have attempted the AT?  Women, especially in that era, are defined by their roles as mothers and caretakers. Heck, she was quickly dubbed Grandma Gatewood by the newspapers.  When she was finally old enough – no children at home to take care of, no husband to hold her back – she set out on her walk.  Why don’t you discuss that societal obligation as an insight to the times instead of another aside about the H-bomb?

On Goodreads Kay points out that Montgomery unnecessarily inserted himself into the story, recreating Gatewood’s climb of Katahdin at the end of the AT and giving that more space than her own summit.  Men usurping women’s experiences by inserting themselves into the story is a new thought for me, and I’m going to keep an eye out for it in the future.  I have a feeling it’s one of those things that’s always been there but I haven’t thought to notice it.

In sum: yea Emma Gatewood, meh this book.

Stripped by Zoey Castile (Happy Endings #1)

33009919The day Robyn Flores meets Zac Fallon is one of those days. You know, when you’re already late for work. Mostly because you haven’t really slept since your best friend abandoned you for her fiancé and her exponentially better life. The kind of day you drag yourself to the cleaners to pick up your laundry, only to discover you’ve got the wrong bag—Star Spangled sequined thong, anyone? So Robyn is definitely not ready for the ridiculously gorgeous guy at her front door, except that they have each other’s clothes. But then, is any woman ever ready to meet the love of her life?

Review:

Trigger warnings for incidental drug use and likely depression.

If you’re looking for a rom-com movie of a romance novel this may be just the thing.  Robyn is a 5th grade teacher that falls for her neighbor Fallon after a meet cute over a star spangled, sequined thong.  Imagine her surprise when a bunch of strippers arrive at her friend’s bachelorette party and he is one of them.

The good:

  • The whole story is basically Magic Mike fanfic, which I’m sure will delight many!
  • While some heavy things are touched on the funny scenes keep the book light overall.  Loving and gentle pranks played by supporting characters, odd and comical situations the hero and heroine find themselves in… I found myself laughing in parts.
  • Fallon is an all-around great guy and extremely lovable.  He’s sweet without being saccharine, muscled but not boneheaded, and is good to his family even though some of his family hasn’t always been good to him.
  • Castile takes on some big themes.  How do you do what’s right for you, despite inertia and expectations?  What does it mean when you grow apart from a friend you have a long history with?
  • The heroine is own voices Latinx representation, and other diverse characters are shown as themselves without it being pointed out to as unusual or notable.  Some where I saw this called “casual diversity,” and that may be the name I go with until I find something better. Here’s an example in some texting:

    Me [Fallon]: See you at the gym?
    Ricky: Nah, I have a date.
    Me: The girl or the guy?

The not-as-good:

  • This is a first novel and it shows in the writing. Thanks to Adriana at Boricua Reads for pointing out this isn’t a first novel, but the first novel under this pen name. As Zoraida Córdova she’s written a bunch of YA and NA books, so I guess this is her name for adult contemporary romance? Still, the writing isn’t as strong as I would like, and there are awkward bits and others that just don’t work. For example,

    ..a DJ puts on his big headphones and taps on the mic.
    “Too, two, and to, mic check.”

    That is a visual gag.  I don’t know how anyone could grok that immediately without seeing it, especially after a drink or two, as Robyn had. Characters use hashtags in their internal monologues, which got to me too.  Have you ever thought “#Bless”?

  • StrippedThe first novel-ness less than stellar writing also shows in the plotting.  It’s loosey goosey in parts and while not awful, it was more than I could overlook.  Insta-lust from both the hero and heroine doesn’t help, either.
  • Robyn is showing signs and symptoms of depression but no one brings it up in a meaningful way.  At one point Fallon says “Sounds like you were depressed” but she waves it off and nothing more is said.  I wanted one character, like the best friend that’s covering for her lateness at work, or her boss to say, ‘Hey, it sounds like you’re going through a tough time, have you thought about talking with someone?’  I also didn’t like that a few nights with Fallon cured her sleep problems, made her on time to everything, and lifted her mood.  ‘All I needed was a good bang – I’m cured!’ is a road I don’t want to go down.

If the Magic Mike-esque premise of Stripped is in your romance catnip I’m sure you’ll overlook my quibbles and love it.  I’m not the biggest contemporary person so I didn’t outright love it but I’m curious to read the upcoming book, Hired, and see how Castile grows as a writer.  An okay first effort.

Ice Queen by Joey W. Hill (Nature of Desire #3)

18802544Due to a computer error, Marguerite lacks the mentoring program stipulation required of all Zone Doms, which includes spending a number of hours learning about BDSM from the submissive’s perspective. Tyler considers it an act of fate that Marguerite chooses him to be the Dom who helps her fulfill that requirement. He is convinced she is a “switch”, a closet submissive, but the truth will be even more remarkable than the theory, changing their lives in ways neither of them anticipates.

Having no equal except one another in their skills at stripping a sub’s defenses bare, these two Dominants will turn their considerable talents on each other and discover that who is Master and who is slave doesn’t matter, not when two souls have found their mate.

Review:

Trigger warnings for descriptions of abuse, including that of a child, and dubious consent.

In general I love Hill’s work but this book bothers me a ton, for reasons that can be illustrated in one scene. Background: Marguerite, a highly regarded Domme, needs to undergo sub experience training in order to keep her credentials at the club. She sets up a weekend with Tyler to complete it. She sets ground rules – no kissing, no sex (though they never clarified beyond that, which strikes me as odd), and no asking about her scars.

Tyler doesn’t hold much regard for her ground rules, kissing and performing oral sex early on. But in preparation for a sensory deprivation scene he sees cigarette burns on her back and continues, regardless. He keeps attributing her anxiety, reluctance, and defense mechanisms to the Dom/sub dynamic, that she needs to learn how to trust. Not, you know, the fact that she was very likely abused in her past and she’s being tied up, effectively gagged, and has no way to give a safe word or signal.

“How do I tell you if something is wrong, if I need to stop?”

“I’ll be watching you very closely.” Tyler knew a safe word or gesture would do her no good at this juncture because everything was panicking her.

I may have felt some extra sympathy because the situation she’s in would likely give me a panic attack, but not having a safe word because that’s somehow ‘better’, against the sub’s wishes? Oh hell no.

And to add more nope-age, the text needs editing^ , there’s careless confusion and appropriation of Japanese and other Asian cultures, and near the end there’s a literal tea party of plot moppets with Very Deep Things being said at a gathering for seven-year-olds. Considering the next book is a continuation of this one I may be out of the series, which is a shame as Natural Law, #2 in the series, is so good. Sigh. Oh well.


^ One example: “…drew her attention to a shallow square tub filled with steaming water about three feet deep.” Shallow for a pool, maybe, but not for a bathroom.

Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham

38820052I’m not a fashionista by any stretch but I like me a good fashion documentary.  The September Issue gave me a grounding in this topsy turvy world, after which I gravitated to Bill Cunningham New York.  Cunningham was a private person, almost to the point of being a loner, so when I saw his posthumous memoir would be published the first week of September (natch) I snapped it up.

I knew Cunningham as a fashion photographer for the New York Times who did lovely On the Street videos. Treat yourself to a few here, here, and here – I dare you to watch without smiling.  But before he picked up a camera he was a Boston boy who loved clothes, was drafted into the Army, and became a milliner upon his return.  This memoir covers this early period of his life, so if you’re looking for info on his photography or modern day notables like Anna Wintour you will be disappointed.

Cunningham starts with his childhood, growing up as part of an Irish Catholic family that did not approve of his playing dress up in his sister’s clothes.  In fact, his family approved of little that he did, from dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York to becoming a hat designer.  Reading between the lines you can infer the pain that must have caused but Cunningham rarely discusses his inner life.  We get all the action instead – working as a stock boy in Boston department stores, getting a lucky posting in France during the Korean War, and moving to New York and feasting his eyes on fashion.

The account appears to be written around 1970 and I had to keep reminding myself that.  Modern me bristled at women designers being called “girls”.  He crashed party after party to look at the clothes the women were wearing, and I had to tell myself that 60 years ago that was more of a social faux pas than a criminal one.

Cunningham’s writing is down to earth, and in the book he says kitchen-table style is preferable to sending the reader to the dictionary.  As a result the tone is almost conversational and kept drawing me back to the page.

You will find many insights into his thinking here, such as why he never accepted anything while working, not even a glass of water.  As the narrative catches up to the time of writing the telling slows down, going over each collection of hats, each year in the fashion world.  While I would have liked more info about his early life I get the feeling that he only shared what he wanted to, and I respect that.

I enjoyed the read but if you’ve never heard of Cunningham this is probably not the place to start. First watch Bill Cunningham New York, become smitten, then read this memoir to fill in the gaps.

Thanks to Penguin Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises by Rebecca Solnit

39688744In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, “with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.” To get to the root of these American crises, she contends that “to acknowledge this state of war is to admit the need for peace,” countering the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.

Review:

Solnit, perhaps best known for Men Explain Things to Me, is back with another essay collection.  While her past two books centered on feminism this one is about social justice of all sorts, touching on climate change, police brutality, gentrification, wrongful imprisonment, and more.

The essays were largely written between 2016 and 2018.  The most powerful theme is the idea that names and language truly matter.  If you cannot name a problem you cannot begin to solve it.  A couple of the essays take a phrase – like “preach to the choir” or “break a news story” – and examine it from various angles.  If preaching to the choir is useless, does that mean we have to try and convert those utterly opposed to our views? Other essays hew closely to reportage, covering the killing of Alex Nieto in San Francisco and the failings of the legal system in the case of Jarvis Masters.

The writing is good but I had fewer “wow” moments than usual.  Solnit is great at stretching your brain and making you look at things from a different perspective but there wasn’t as much of it compared with her earlier essays.  Perhaps if this were my first Solnit, or if I were less versed with the issues, I would have felt differently.

In sum it’s a solid collection, as you would expect from such a good writer, but not my favorite nor her best.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

How to Bang a Billionaire by Alexis Hall (Arden St. Ives #1)

31445002If England had yearbooks, I’d probably be “Arden St. Ives: Man Least Likely to Set the World on Fire.” So far, I haven’t. I’ve no idea what I’m doing at Oxford, no idea what I’m going to do next and, until a week ago, I had no idea who Caspian Hart was. Turns out, he’s brilliant, beautiful . . . oh yeah, and a billionaire.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by someone like that. But Caspian Hart makes his own rules. And he has a lot of them. About when I can be with him. What I can do with him. And when he’ll be through with me.

I’m good at doing what I’m told in the bedroom. The rest of the time, not so much. And now that Caspian’s shown me glimpses of the man behind the billionaire I know it’s him I want. Not his wealth, not his status. Him. Except that might be the one thing he doesn’t have the power to give me.

Review:

This is the second Hall book I’ve read and man, I like the way he writes romance.  The characters are well-formed, situations and feelings ring true, and any silly or crazy is enjoyed in the spirit it’s given.  I read How to Bang a Billionaire in a day during a readathon and put it down happy, excited to read the next book in the series.

Then I looked at the reviews.

It turns out it’s a retelling of Fifty Shades!  I have stayed away from any and all Gray so I had no idea.

I’m happy to report it’s an improvement of a retelling – gay as hell, written by a bi author, and not problematic (as far as I can see).  But learning the Fifty Shades connection was like a dunk in ice water – I needed to towel off and reevaluate.

The verdict:  I’m glad I read Hall’s retelling instead of the real thing.  I still want to see how these two get to an HEA, and I’m excited to keep digging into Hall’s backlist.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

18726080The United States government is given a warning by the pre-eminent biophysicists in the country: current sterilization procedures applied to returning space probes may be inadequate to guarantee uncontaminated re-entry to the atmosphere. Two years later, seventeen satellites are sent into the outer fringes of space to collect organisms and dust for study. One of them falls to earth, landing in a desolate area of Arizona. Twelve miles from the landing site, in the town of Piedmont, a shocking discovery is made: the streets are littered with the dead bodies of the town’s inhabitants, as if they dropped dead in their tracks.

Review:

While I’ve watched Crichton before (ER, Jurassic Park) I hadn’t read any of his novels.  The Andromeda Strain is a natural entry point for me – medicine! science fiction! – and I ended up really liking it. The story is easy to sum up: the US government searches for organisms in space… and finds them.

The good:

  • The plot starts coming and it just keeps coming.
  • Medicine and doctors are important in figuring out what the Andromeda strain is and I got a kick out of thinking about diagnoses along with the doctors.  In that sense it’s puzzle mystery, and we get much of the info needed to reason things out as the story moves along, often in primary source format.  Huzzah for MDs writing fiction!
  • The book was written almost 50 years ago and it’s interesting to see what aged well and what didn’t.  Many of the medical gadgets still feel high tech while the computer references come off as quaint.  I don’t hold this against Crichton, quite the opposite, it strikes my fancy.
  • Andromeda StrainWhile the writing isn’t amazing it fits the mold aimed for, namely narrative nonfiction of a past event many people may have forgotten or never known about.  In that sense it reminded me of Command and Control.
  • Despite that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There are a couple of moments I said “Oh.” along with a character, and there are some laugh out loud funny lines as well.  And the “References” listed at the end are a fun touch.
  • Crichton respects the reader.  He hints and points at things obliquely for us to figure out… and lets them be.  No knocking facts over our heads, no “did ya see that there, hmmmm?”  When a writer respects the reader I’m much more likely to respect them.

The not-so-good:

  • Not a lot of time is spent on characterization.  The space given is used well, but I’d like to see more.
  • Major Bechdel test fail, and I don’t remember a single character of color.  The 1971 movie took steps to correct this, making one of the scientists female and casting several people of color.
  • The “Odd-Man Hypothesis” is stupid idea and needs to die like now.
  • The ending is abrupt and bound to annoy some people.

All in all an engrossing read, perfect for a lazy summer day, a plane ride, or breaking a reading slump.  Especially recommended if you’re into medicine, or science fiction with a side of thriller.

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard

25111005A former paramedic’s visceral, poignant, and mordantly funny account of a decade spent on Atlanta’s mean streets saving lives and connecting with the drama and occasional beauty that lies inside catastrophe.

In the aftermath of 9/11 Kevin Hazzard felt that something was missing from his life—his days were too safe, too routine. He signed up for emergency medical training and became, at age twenty-six, a newly minted EMT running calls in the worst sections of Atlanta.

Combining indelible scenes that remind us of life’s fragile beauty with laugh-out-loud moments that keep us smiling through the worst, A Thousand Naked Strangers is an absorbing read about one man’s journey of self-discovery—a trip that also teaches us about ourselves.

Review:

Being an EMT is a crazy job.  It’s your duty to keep people alive long enough to get to the hospital.  Sometimes they’re dead before you arrive at the scene.  Other times it’s a spry-looking man complaining about a toothache.  And sometimes you drive past the address you were given because the shooting hasn’t stopped yet.

Hazzard joined this world for ten years and takes us along for the ride.  A word of warning for the squeamish – there’s a fair share of gore and gallows humor, and know that the nature of the job doesn’t lend itself to overflowing empathy.  I didn’t bother me but I work in medicine so your mileage may vary.

The writing is good and the crazy stories are indeed batshit crazy.  Hazzard gets at the soul of the job when he writes,

Medics don’t have to be heroic or tough or even good people.  They simply have to enjoy the madness…. [It’s] a willingness to walk in unprotected when we clearly should walk away.  A desire to take part but just as often to bear witness.

But mainly he does it

Because it’s fun.

I listened on audio and am so glad I did – Hazzard is a natural storyteller and George Newbern does an amazing job with the narration.  He gets all the jokes, the pauses and nuances right on, to the point that I thought the author was reading his own work.

A Thousand Naked Strangers may not be for everyone but I really enjoyed it – a nice addition to my first responder memoir shelf.

The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert (Dirty British Romance #1)

40785611Prince Ruben of Helgmøre knows exactly what he wants—and his current obsession is Cherry Neita. Everything from her rollercoaster curves to her fearsome attitude commands his attention. And best of all? She has no idea who Ruben is.

Until the paparazzi catch them in a dark alley, her scarlet lipstick smudged, and his hands somewhere naughty…

All Cherry wanted was a night or two with the hottest man she’d ever seen. Turns out, that man is actually a prince, and now he needs her to play princess. Well, princess-to-be. One year as his fake fiancée, and he’ll make all her problems disappear. Easy. Right?

Wrong.

Review:

Trigger warning for child abuse and domestic abuse as well as some racist remarks.

At one point I was reading five books, none of them romance. (I don’t know how it happened, either.)  So as soon as I finished one I dove into my digital to-be-read pile and came up with The Princess Trap.

The last Hibbert book I tried to read opens with scenes of abuse and I had to put it down.  I’m okay with mentions, especially when they’re of past events, but extended scenes told in the present tense are hard for me to read.  Luckily the opening of this book is fine – heroine working at a job she doesn’t care for meets a “hidden royalty” hero, sparks fly, etc.  Being discovered in a compromising pose leads to an engagement of convenience, jetting to an island kingdom, and some steamy scenes as they fall in love.

So lots of good stuff.  The author is a woman of color, the relationship is interracial, the hero is bisexual, and side characters indentify as LGBTQIA+ in slick, ‘this is totally normal’ ways.

She’d never brought a boy home.  Her sister had never brought a girl home.  They had no point of reference for [how their parents would react].

Love it.

the-princess-trap.jpgFurther on in the book, though, we flashback to child abuse (present tense), domestic violence is insinuated, and we see the aftereffects of more child abuse to a different character.  As a result I struggled.  I love that the author has hotline numbers and encouraging words in the acknowledgements, and the whole situation is handled incredibly well, but still.  I had a hard time getting through.

The only other thing that bothered me was the hero’s convenient BDSM-lite.  It allowed him to show an alpha side early on and hint at delicious wickedness, but it wasn’t revisited after the first sex scene.

Despite the personal minuses I still started and finished The Princess Trap within 24 hours, so… ~shrug~.  I learned my lesson though – I’ll be checking reviews for trigger warnings before I pick up another book by this author, as much as I like her work.