A Year of Themed Reviews – July: Breaking Barriers: No Place for a Lady by Barbara Hodgson

No Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women TravellersNo Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women Travellers by Barbara Hodgson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Covering the mid-seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, Hodgson’s work introduces us to the women who made a name for themselves travelling the world. It’s divided by country, so rather than really getting to know the individual women, you see a kaleidoscope of perspectives on each country before moving on to the next. Which can be interesting. But it also becomes a superficial overview of the ground-breaking women who were opening up the world as a place that women were capable of exploring. It could be a good introduction to travel history, but there’s not really enough information for it to stand by itself. Furthermore, the writing leaves something to be desired. It’s lackluster and very basic and not at all the caliber I was expecting from a book where every leaf of paper is thick and glossy as a magazine. This is a book that feels like it’s going to be college-course-caliber reading, but turns out to be a mass market paperback experience.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only FruitOranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oranges are not the Only Fruit brings us through Jeanette’s childhood in a fundamentalist Christian home, preaching hellfire and brimstone to her distressed classmates and writing pulpit-filling speeches for her family parish. She was adopted as an infant and pledged to the Lord as a missionary, and it’s a missionary she will be. Until the discovery that she is a lesbian. Something the church cannot abide. Winterson relates the ensuing battle for the integrity of Jeanette’s soul through equal parts fairy tale, Arthurian legend, and memory. She’s only a child, and all the forces of her church are arrayed against her. And happy endings are for fairy tales.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by JC Lillis

How to Repair a Mechanical HeartHow to Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A cute YA romance that reads like fanfic. Brandon has finally worked up the courage to come out to his very religious family. They do not take it well. They are hoping a summer road trip with his childhood friend Rebecca will remind him where his priorities are supposed to lie. But Bec isn’t the only one coming. Brandon is also travelling across the states with his friend and co-vlogger host Abel, hitting a series of cons for their favourite tv show Castaway Planet. Abel is determined to set Brandon up with some nice young man to help him get over the broken heart he doesn’t really have. Brandon is trying to decide if he wants to be an android, rather than deal with his guilt and complicated emotions. An excellent light summer read, especially if you’re going on a road trip.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent MillaySavage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay is a force of nature and Nancy Milford writes like one. Seldom do I finish a book and find that not a word of praise said about it has been exaggerated. Milford reveals so wholly the life and person of Millay in this compelling, insightful biography it is as if we were childhood friends of Millay’s looking over our own memories. Starting with Millay’s poverty-stricken childhood caring for her two sisters while their single mother worked as a travelling nurse, to her bisexual, sexually free adulthood decades before the free-love sixties, the stratospheric heights of renown she and her writing achieved, her later addiction to alcohol, morphine, and other drugs and the havoc wrecked on her life by those addictions, Milford shies from no dark corner. But it’s not all sex and addiction. Millay demonstrated in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, men accused of taking part in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and sentenced to death for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. She refused awards proffered her by prestigious Literary groups, if they refused on the grounds of “moral failings” to honor her accomplished female friends. (For of course, male poets weren’t held to this standard; a male poet could abandon his wife and run off with another woman and provided his poetry was good enough no one would flicker an eyelash.) She spoke out exhaustingly against American isolationism as Hitler’s thugs vomited atrocities in Europe, sacrificing her health and personal standards to write what she believed was desperately needed propaganda in favour of America entering the war:

“If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook…what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman?…I used to think it very important to write only good poetry. Over and over I worked to make it as flawless as I could. What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and their ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.” (452)

She stood up for what she believed in. She was passionate about everything she loved. She loved wildly and widely. Savage Beauty is an incredible book about an incredible woman. An inestimable pleasure.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister ed. by Helena Whitbread

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840 by Anne Lister
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*This is not the exact edition I read. My edition was 360 pages and only included 6 years of Anne’s diary.

Actually, let’s start off with that. Including the years of Anne’s birth and death suggested (to me) that this book was going to include the entirety of her diaries. I heard about Anne Lister from an episode of the wonderful Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which referenced I Know My Own Heart and made me determined to include it in June’s reviews honoring Pride month. Anne lived in early 1800’s England, helping her aunt and uncle run Shibden Hall and assuming its management entirely after their deaths in the 1820s. She was well-educated, flirtatious, and sassy. Anne wrote frankly about being attracted exclusively to women – she doesn’t use the word lesbian and I believe her diaries predate the inclusion of that word in the lexicon – and had many romantic and sexual relationships. In her later years she, and the lifelong companion she finally found, travelled extensively until Anne’s death from fever at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains. The travel portion of her life especially piqued my interest. I was decidedly non-plussed to discover the edition I had borrowed ended before she was able to indulge her wanderlust. There’s even a note saying the diaries from that part of her life “are beyond the scope of this book.” WHY? ARE YOU PUBLISHING A SEQUEL?? (Apparently not?) Furthermore, language has evolved somewhat since the 1800’s. Anne’s word choices and sentence structure are often baffling. There aren’t really enough footnotes to make her writing completely accessible to a modern reader. Though Anne’s handwriting is often unintelligible when she’s not writing in code so I can only imagine what the editors went through to make even a small portion of her diaries readable. For which they have my gratitude. This was an interesting snap shot into the minutiae of an interesting woman’s life, but if you are going to pick it up see if you can find a copy that includes a larger portion of her life and has more foot notes.

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Monstress Volume II: The Blood by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood (Monstress, #2)Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Volume II of this ongoing series follows our anti-heroine Maika Halfwolf on her quest to reveal the secrets of her late mother Moriko Halfwolf and evade the disparate groups determined to harness the power of the monster living within her – or destroy it. The cast of characters from Volume I has only gotten larger, the story more complex. Every page is densely packed with intricate images rendered in a dark, eerie palette that needs to be read in a well lit room to get the full impact. It should also be read with a face shield to protect from the blood spatter on every page. Super gory and not for the faint of heart, though I gather it’s pretty standard for graphic novels/comic books. I have to space the books out when I read them, but I can certainly tell you I’m looking forwards to volume III.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – May: Mother’s Day: Happy Family by Tracey Barone

Happy FamilyHappy Family by Tracy Barone
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When we first meet Cheri Matzner, she is moments away from being born. Her drug addicted mother has hobbled into the hospital in the throes of active labour; after Cheri has been born she will slip out into the rain. That will be the last we hear of her. Cheri will be taken in by a foster family for a few months, then adopted by a married couple desperate to heal from their own tragedy. A hop, skip and a jump later and Cheri is forty years old. Her marriage is strained, she’s been on fertility treatments for a year, her academic career is on shaky ground after a complaint of religious discrimination by one of her students, the son of one of the university’s wealthy donors, and the burgeoning Iraq war is threatening her hopes to translate some ancient tablets unearthed recently in the Middle East. Then things really go south. It’s a train derailment of a story. Nothing exploded but several cars have definitely come off the tracks. Despite all these problems, the bulk of Barone’s novel is concerned with only one tragic revelation. It’s eventually resolved. But little else is and Matzner has hardly started to grow as a person by the time you flip the last page. The writing is sexually and sometimes violently explicit and often positively portrays substance abuse. Happy Family is either a warmhearted, witty and honest novel or a trite, preachy, and ultimately unsatisfying glimpse into one woman’s fender-bender of a life, depending on your attitude and whether you got a good breakfast before you sat down to read it.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – May: Mother’s Day: Diamond Head by Cecily Wong

Diamond HeadDiamond Head by Cecily Wong
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Diamond Head relates the history of three generations of the wealthy, troubled Leong family, émigrées from China to Hawaii after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Wong’s story opens in 1964. At a funeral held at Diamond Head. This is the location of the Leong family mansion, and the name of the story which ping-pongs back and forth through time and narrators to weave a complicated tale of damaged people making the best decisions they can. It bears a vague resemblance to the overleaf; which makes this book sound like a mystery revolving around a murder that doesn’t actually show up until page 210. There’s also child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual assault, forced pregnancy and victim-blaming. To be honest, while the plot was interesting and the writing was high in quality, the victim-blaming and lifelong punishments for women who made romantic choices that weren’t aligned with the plans inscrutable fate had for them, while the same fate was apparently content to let men who committed actual, literal crimes get off scott-free kind of ruined what was supposed to be a heart-warming resolution for me. Though to be completely fair this book is focused around and told by the women of the Leong family,, so it may have been outside Wong’s desired scope to go into what happened to the criminals. Or even give it a cursory mention. If you can put all this aside – and maybe whip up a quick family tree so you can keep the characters straight while the narration and setting bounce around like a trapped fly on a meth binge – then Diamond Head is a great summer vacation read. Can’t put it aside? Maybe give Diamond Head a pass.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – MAY: Cinco de Mayo: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango StreetThe House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Young Esperanza Cordero lives in a house on Mango Street with her brothers, sister, and parents. It’s small and red and has “windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” (4) Through a series of the smallest stories possible, many of them a page or less, we will meet the other denizens of Mango Street and get to know Esperanza as she gets to know herself. Some of these vignettes are violent or tragic; Cisneros writes obliquely about spousal abuse, child abuse, and rape. Other vignettes are lighthearted; children skipping rope, riding a bicycle, and making rhymes. All of them are inventively written. Cisneros crafts the kinds of metaphors of which other writers only dream. The whole book is a tall glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. Wonderful and refreshing.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – Extremely Belated April: Poetry Month: Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry Volume II ed: Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, & Robert O’Clair

I swear to you May’s books are coming. In the mean time, a helpful list so you can decide if you want to read the most poetry ever.
The Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry, Vol 2: Contemporary PoetryThe Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry, Vol 2: Contemporary Poetry by Jahan Ramazani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pros:
-You get an excellent overview of ground-breaking, influential poetry written from 1940 to the new
millennium.
-Huge range of poetic styles; if you don’t like what you’re reading it will be different in at most 5
pages
-Includes bios of each poet at the beginning of their section so you can learn a little about their
lives, what influenced their writing, and how many awards they won.
-Good range of diversity in ethnicity and sexuality
-Copious footnotes explaining terms and historical events

Cons
-over 1000 pages of poetry followed by 100 pages of essays
-footnotes can be inconsistent: repeatedly explaining a basic definition that is used by multiple
authors in multiple poems but not explaining a much more obscure word that is only used once
-I feel the fact that this is over 1000 pages of poems bears repeating

In short: If you’ve got lots of time on your hands and want to get a really solid idea of who the current poets are and the works of the last half-century this could be the book for you. Find it at your local library and be prepared to renew it at least twice. Maybe read just two poems per poet, and do all the submissions for the ones you especially enjoyed. Because this is a lot of poetry.

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