Saturday, April 22, 2017

Mistress Suffragette - not every girl wants to be "respected"

If you are craving a good courtesan story in the tradition of Fanny Hill and Moll Flanders, Mistress Suffragette is just what you are looking for. Personally, I am a little weary of novels featuring heroines who stomp their feet and claim that they will "not be treated like property" and demand to be "respected" and talk about "dignity". It seems like some authors put their own 21st century thoughts into the heads of 19th century women. It's a form of wishful thinking and projection. Newsflash: not every woman objects to being objectified or treated like property. I know we are not supposed to talk about it, but it's true. Penelope Forbes, the heroine of "Mistress Suffragette" - almost an oxymoron title - is someone who looks at her family's financial predicament without needless pathos. She does throw a temporary pity-party after her father loses his fortune and her fiance/cousin breaks the engagement, but she also recognizes the opportunities for social advancement - and sexual gratification - that life throws her way. The novel explores the benefits and perils of the mistress position. The fact is that mistresses of influential men had a lot more latitude and mobility than official wives. But what happens if you fall out of favor with your benefactor? The novel is original and refreshing because it highlights the market crash of the 1890s, a topic that is not frequently explored in literature. It is also refreshing that the novel is not set primarily in New York. This is not an Edith Wharton knock-off. 

My thoughts:
A young woman without prospects at a ball in Gilded Age Newport, Rhode Island is a target for a certain kind of “suitor.” At the Memorial Day Ball during the Panic of 1893, impoverished but feisty Penelope Stanton draws the unwanted advances of a villainous millionaire banker who preys on distressed women—the incorrigible Edgar Daggers. Over a series of encounters, he promises Penelope the financial security she craves, but at what cost? Skilled in the art of flirtation, Edgar is not without his charms, and Penelope is attracted to him against her better judgment. Initially, as Penelope grows into her own in the burgeoning early Women’s Suffrage Movement, Edgar exerts pressure, promising to use his power and access to help her advance. But can he be trusted, or are his words part of an elaborate mind game played between him and his wife? During a glittering age where a woman’s reputation is her most valuable possession, Penelope must decide whether to compromise her principles for love, lust, and the allure of an easier life.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Beauty & the Beast - a tale rescued from the clutches of Disney

Rachel L. Demeter's Beauty and the Beast was one novel I anticipated. I knew she was going to strip the unnecessary coatings of sugar that Disney and Hollywood persistently put on the classic tale. I applaud the author for not shying away from killing innocent children or having her heroines survive sexual assaults. A superhero is not going to show up last minute and rescue the victimized party. I really don't understand people who read fairy tales to "escape" and complain about having their G-rate expectations shattered. People who are that triggered and that disturbed by violence should read Hallmark cards. At least you know there will be no unpleasant surprises. Like it or not, but infant death and violence against women were elements of reality. Classic fairy tales reflected that reality - before the politically correct producers got hold of them. If you ask any psychologist or any expert in European folklore, and they'll tell you that the story of Beauty and the Beast centers around the Stockholm syndrome. The Beast's inner humanity does not become apparent right away. You need to spend some time in closed quarters with the monster before you start seeing the Man in him.

I really loved how the author developed the back story for her Beauty. The wicked stepsisters are actually orphaned and younger than her, which gives them some grievance leverage. The two teenage girls have to band together to capitalize on their stepfather's physical vulnerability. They know his end is near, so they try to milk him financially while they can. It's an interesting insight into female and sibling psychology. There should be a separate spinoff novel about the wicked stepsisters. They are not just stock characters. Their predicament makes them borderline sympathetic, because you know where they are coming from.

Because this novel violates so many traditional romance taboos, it's not a romance. Rather, it's romantic grind house.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Unholy Alliance - a romantic suspense by Kathleen Rowland

Greetings, commies!

Every once in a while I like to challenge myself by reading work outside of my comfort zone. Being sarcastic and pessimistic, I don't generally read books that have "romantic" in the genre, because you know there is going to be steamy sex between consensual adults, pillow talk and some semblance of a happy ending. Nevertheless, every once in a while a review copy lands in my lap. Anything that has to do with the Irish mob is fascinating. The Irish mob does not get as much coverage in fiction. Kathleen Rowland's Unholy Alliance is a second book in the Donahue Cousins series. The first book Deadly Alliance is the first one in the series, and I haven't read it yet, but there is enough of a back story in the second book to set the scene. Given that Unholy Alliance is a romantic suspense, a genre piece, there is only so much latitude the author can allow herself. It means that the rough edges have to be smoothed over. The crime cannot be too seedy, and the sex cannot be too smutty or kinky (although, there are some rather explicit descriptions of various body parts fitting into each other). The novel's protagonist, Tori/Victoria, has a criminal past, but it has to be for a crime she did not commit. So Tori is not a sympathetic redemption seeker. She is, essentially, a damsel in distress with a veil of martyrdom around her. And the man who pulls her out of jail, Attorney Grady Fletcher, whose only blemish is being a divorced guilt-ridden dad, is her knight in shining armor. So if you take comfort in this particular genre, then Unholy Alliance will prove a very satisfying read.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Girl Like You - a Depression era mystery that reads like an escape fantasy

Greetings, commies!
There is no right or wrong way to interpret a great novel.  A well-written multilayered mystery is open to interpretation. Michelle Cox's debut A Girl Like You is one of such novels. When people feel disempowered and cornered, they often start fantasizing about other people's lives to get distracted from their own misery. They start concocting fanciful plots. It's one of the coping mechanisms with the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This is why I wanted to share my personal interpretation of this novel as an escape fantasy that takes place in the head of a young woman who ends up with too much on her shoulders.

Henrietta Von Harmon works as a 26 girl at a corner bar on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s 1935, but things still aren’t looking up since the big crash and her father’s subsequent suicide, leaving Henrietta to care for her antagonistic mother and younger siblings. Henrietta is eventually persuaded to take a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall—and just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the floor matron turns up dead.

When aloof Inspector Clive Howard appears on the scene, Henrietta agrees to go undercover for him—and is plunged into Chicago’s grittier underworld. Meanwhile, she’s still busy playing mother hen to her younger siblings, as well as to pesky neighborhood boy Stanley, who believes himself in love with her and keeps popping up in the most unlikely places, determined to keep Henrietta safe—even from the Inspector, if need be. Despite his efforts, however, and his penchant for messing up the Inspector’s investigation, the lovely Henrietta and the impenetrable Inspector find themselves drawn to each other in most unsuitable ways.

My thoughts:
Michelle Cox's debut novel "A Girl Like You" reads like an escape fantasy. I am not sure if I am the first reader who got this impression, but I can almost see this entire story happening inside Henrietta's head. At nineteen, Henrietta finds herself with so many burdens upon her shoulders. The systemic economic depression that affects the whole country, the personal stigma of having a father who had committed suicide, the pressure from her guilt-tripping mother, the physical needs of her younger siblings who are much too young to be sympathetic. But the greatest burden of all, perhaps, is her beauty. She really hasn't figured out what to do with it, how to use to her advantage. So far, being beautiful has brought more trouble than gain. Committed as she is to helping her family survive, poor Henrietta cannot seem to keep a job. She is stuck in the vicious cycle of being assaulted by male coworkers and rowdy clients, and getting fired for sticking up for herself. She clings to her instinctive chastity and her principles, but is being chaste a luxury "a girl like her" cannot afford under the circumstances? So when Henrietta's life starts taking unexpected turns, veering off into the world of danger and mystery, as a reader, I could not help but wonder how much of it was real, and how much was imaginary. Perhaps, she never leaves the drudgery of her physical existence, and the thrilling murder mystery and her romance with Inspector Howard are mere figments of her frustrated imagination? Regardless of how you interpret Henrietta's adventures, "A Girl Like You" is an exciting read that combines gritty realism with mystery and romance.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Accidental Adulthood - proof that men have feelings too

Greetings, commies!

Relationship fiction has been dominated by female authors. Here is a refreshing change of pace. A humorous novel by a male author. It proves that yes, men have feelings, and they are just as prone to overnalyzing and overthinking as women. Today's guest is Jeff Gephart, author of Accidental Adulthood: One Man's Adventure with Dating and Other Friggin' Nonsense.

Mick's adult life is not turning out the way he'd hoped. His twenties are over, and instead of being the acclaimed novelist and family man he thought he'd be, Mick is stuck running a second-rate California motel and fumbling through an endless succession of hilarious dating misadventures. Most of his friends are married with children, and he feels they look down upon single people like him as being merely a fraction of a whole being. During his version of the modern single man's search for what completes him, Mick must contend with a cast of quirky and memorable characters that both frustrate and sustain him as he navigates his way toward having to make a momentous career decision that will affect all of their lives. Accidental Adulthood is a coming-of-age story for the Tinder generation. As Mick begins to face up to his own flaws and struggles to ascertain his place in the adult world, some universal truths are illuminated about family, ambition, responsibility, loyalty, and relationships.

My thoughts:
Despite the length, Gephart's Accidental Adulthood is a smooth, entertaining and effortless read. Effortless - but far from brainless.  Every chapter is bursting with grit, texture, flavor, references to pop culture, world history and dark humor. The author beats himself up with one hand and then strokes with another. It's a self-deprecating stream of consciousness, a celebration of Peter Pan inside every middle-aged man. It reads like a stand-up comedy skit worthy of Eric Bogosian.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Before and After Zachariah - Fern Kupfer's confessional memoir on raising a brain-damaged child

Greetings, commies!
As we celebrate March 8th, Women's Day, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the whole concept of women's solidarity and their treatment of each other. It's no secret that women can be each other's greatest allies, but they can also be each other's cruelest judges. Mommy Wars seem to have gotten more intense over the years. It's not just about working versus stay-at-home moms. It's about mothers of neurotypical children and special needs children. As a first (and only) time mother, I struggled with the new responsibility. My child was fairly healthy, and I continued working, but I had to make some adjustments to my schedule because of some transient medical needs that he had. Still, on those days when I was at home with a sick child, I felt incredibly isolated. I cannot even imagine what it feels like being stuck at home with a child who has serious medical or developmental issues. I'll be the first one to admit that I am NOT a super mom who thinks that "a special child is a special blessing". When I hear ultra religious people say those things, I cannot help but question their sincerity. Do they really fill this way? Have they convinced themselves that they were chosen by God to parent this un-parentable child? Or are they just ashamed to admit how they really feel? Do they regret having this child? Do they secretly wish the child would "go away"?

A woman from a parenting group I belong to recommended this book by Fern Kupfer, Before & After Zachariah. Even though Kupfer cites many confessional passages from other mothers who had severely handicapped children, she does not speak on behalf of all women. She gives every woman a voice, but she does not become a mouth piece. It's something I respect and appreciate. She does not put herself on the pedestal of martyrdom. Every experience is unique, and every mother's emotional bandwidth varies. Until it happens to you, you don't know your strong spots, and you don't know your fragile spots. Sometimes you break in places you did not expect to break.

Warning: this book uses the word "retarded", which has seems to fallen out of favor with the politically correct crowd. This book is also not for those from the "what doesn't break you makes you stronger" camp or from the "God won't give you more than you can handle."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Magdalen Girls - predictable vanilla Blarney

Greetings, Deplorables!

I am back to reviewing fine historical fiction. I rarely post about a book that I give anything less than 4 stars, but I wanted to share my review of The Magdalen Girls, in light of recent debates about "women's rights" and how "American women don't know how good they have it". This book tells you more about the sad state of medium-size publishing and what kind of books publishers like Kensington are willing to produce. The trend for headless women on the covers persists, as does the usage of word "girl/s" in the title.

Dublin, 1962. Within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption lies one of the city’s Magdalen Laundries. Once places of refuge, the laundries have evolved into grim workhouses. Some inmates are “fallen” women—unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals. Most are ordinary girls whose only sin lies in being too pretty, too independent, or tempting the wrong man. Among them is sixteen-year-old Teagan Tiernan, sent by her family when her beauty provokes a lustful revelation from a young priest.

Teagan soon befriends Nora Craven, a new arrival who thought nothing could be worse than living in a squalid tenement flat. Stripped of their freedom and dignity, the girls are given new names and denied contact with the outside world. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, who has secrets of her own, inflicts cruel, dehumanizing punishments—but always in the name of love. Finally, Nora and Teagan find an ally in the reclusive Lea, who helps them endure—and plot an escape. But as they will discover, the outside world has dangers too, especially for young women with soiled reputations.

Told with candor, compassion, and vivid historical detail, The Magdalen Girls is a masterfully written novel of life within the era’s notorious institutions—and an inspiring story of friendship, hope, and unyielding courage.

My thoughts
In 1960s, as the rest of the Western world was in the throes of sexual revolution, Ireland was in a weird place. A recently liberated country, still working to define its statehood, it was slipping into theocracy. "The Magdalen Girls" doesn't get any points for originality. This is the kind of vanilla Blarney that a skittish, play-it-safe publisher like Kensington would churn out. Totally predictable and unimaginative, capitalizing on the proven cliches, "The Magdalen Girls" is a deja-vue from start to finish. Maeve Binchy died and left a void in that needed to be filled with more white bread. The stereotypical portrayal of the Irish father as a heartless, misogynistic drunk will make pseudo-feminists very happy. And of course, making the Catholic church look like a bunch of hypocritical predators will make secular humanists have that nice and fuzzy feeling. There are some parts that are just butt-clenchingly bad, like a 17-year old girl saying out loud: "I want to do more than just cook and clean." Really, sweetie? Never heard that before. That being said, I'm not going to knock the book too much. It is what it is. If you don't want to take chances and read serious books with the right balance of drama and grim humor, this is a book for you.