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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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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Wine Runs Deep by Patrick Ember

Wine Runs DeepWine Runs Deep by Patrick Ember
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Local Focus! Canadian author Patrick Ember
This wine-soaked thriller stars Beckett Jensen, the orphaned owner of a ritzy Paso Robles winery, whose pleasant but lonely and stagnant life is upended by the unexpected arrival of some bad-egg former school mates. They were trouble then and time has not improved them. At first Beckett hopes this is a social visit; an unwanted one but surely he can move them on after a couple of days of drunken hijinks. This is not the case. They want Beckett’s help to line their pockets, and they are not above blackmail and threats to get what they want. Beckett has no desire to help them rob anyone. But if he doesn’t help them pull off this scheme, he could lose his winery, the people he loves, and the new life he has built himself in California. Ember has crafted a solid story in Wine Runs Deep. He’s got a range of interesting characters, some racial and sexual diversity, beautiful women, handsome men, and just enough danger to keep the story humming. It’s a fast-paced page turner, a perfect choice for your summer vacation or any wine-loving thrill-readers in your life.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Poetry Month: Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems

The Complete PoemsThe Complete Poems by Anne Sexton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anne Sexton tackles some difficult and controversial topics in her poetry. She writes frankly about suicide, death, breasts, incest, the holocaust, abortion, pregnancy, god, and mental health issues. Hers is not work for the faint hearted reader, or the one longing for a straightforward composition with easily understandable imagery. It, and her choice of subjects, were ground-breaking when they were first published. Poets, and women poets in particular, did not write about suicide. Or abortions. Sexton was one of the group who opened that door for greater honesty in their work. Her style seems to be very consistent throughout her career; while poets naturally improve with practice the changes to Sexton’s capabilities don’t appear to be the kind easily detectable by the lay reader. Her first works are as surreal and evocative as her last. So if you enjoy her first book of poems, you will probably enjoy her last ones. If you don’t like her first book of poems…six hundred pages is a lot to get through on white-knuckled willpower. For readers who want a taste of her style but are uncertain about some of her subjects, I would recommend her Transformations. A collection of classic fairy tales retold as poems, they have all of Sexton’s creative chops with minimal need for content warnings. And minimal time commitment. Because we’re all busy people.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember reading this book in high school and one iconic scene has always stuck in my head: Frankenstein’s monster is wandering in the forest and comes across a little girl throwing flowers in a pond and watching them float around. He joins her and the two of them have a lovely time floating daisies until, sadly, the flowers are all gone. The monster is saddened that there are no more pretty things to float on the water until it occurs to him to throw the pretty little girl in the pond. Unfortunately, because she is not a flower she does not float. I looked forward to resituating this scene in the context of the novel when I finally re-read it. It’s not in there. I have no idea where I read it, but the scene I just related does not appear in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
What does happen in Frankenstein takes place on a ship captained by one Robert Walton, in search of fame and glory at the North pole. The ship has become mired in ice and is waiting for a break up when they are passed by a giant figure of a man ensconced in a sledge and being towed by a dog team; a mere half day later they meet another man and dog team in pursuit of the traveller they saw before, but trapped on an ice floe and on the brink of destruction. This man, it is revealed to Captain Walton, is Victor Frankenstein and here in this barren seascape he is pursuing his monster. Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, who shares it with his sister via letters, through which we are introduced to it. It is a tale of tragedy and vengeance, of murdered children and wrongful accusations. It’s also a brilliant expose of the hypocrisy of humanity. Victor and the monster are the same, but one of them is accepted and welcomed in society and the other is shunned. Frankenstein is as fascinating now as it was when it was published.

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The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The ProphetThe Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sermon on the mount if Jesus took subject requests. Almustafa has spent twelve years in the city of Orphalese before a ship arrives to bring him home to his people. In that time he has grown into a wise and beloved prophet. On his last day among the Orphalesians, with the ship waiting for him in the harbour, he gives a speech to the citizens on the nature of love, friendship, pain, work, death, all the things you can imagine people asking their departing spiritual adviser for advice on one last time. It’s very poetic, mystical, and short. If you love to meditate on the nature of life and ruminate deeply on metaphysical subjects, this book could be an excellent base for your meditations. If you are a black and white, no-nonsense kind of person this book could annoy the snot out of you. Or maybe expand your horizons, you never know. But even if you don’t like it, at least it’s short.

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