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Review: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Published March 31, 2014 by Shannon

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

I ended up reading Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi for an upcoming episode of the Book Hoarders podcast. I’d had it on my radar because even though I wasn’t even conceived of during the Manson murders, they’ve entered the cultural zeitgeist, and I wanted to learn why they were so sensational. Believe me, now I know.

Here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

A national bestseller—7 million copies sold.

Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider’s position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders? Here is the gripping story of this famous and haunting crime. 50 pages of b/w photographs.
Both Helter Skelter and Vincent Bugliosi’s subsequent Till Death Us Do Part won Edgar Allan Poe Awards for best true-crime book of the year. Bugliosi is also the author of Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (Norton, 1996) and other books. Curt Gentry, an Edgar winner, is the author of J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (available in Norton paperback) and Frame-Up: The Incredible Case of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings.

I haven’t read any true crime, so I didn’t have high expectations going into this book. I expected to be horrified, possibly a little bored, and definitely bogged down in minutia. I was horrified, but Bugliosi’s account is gripping, and I looked forward to my daily commutes so I could get back to the book.

There was a lot I learned from Helter Skelter. I had no idea that Charles Manson was such a frustrated artist. Luckily for all of us, some thoughtful soul has put some of his music up on Youtube, so you can see why it was that nobody was rushing to give the man a recording contract. I also didn’t realize that Sharon Tate, the most famous of the Manson murder victims, was the wife of Roman Polanski, who himself has become something of a problematic figure in Hollywood, to put it mildly.

As for the Manson family, they held a strange fascination for me. I still can’t believe one man could be charismatic enough to persuade four accomplices that the way to start a revolution was to kill random people, and yet, that’s precisely what he did.

With writing that was engaging and enough personal insight to make what could have been the rather tedious proceedings of the investigation and the trial a fascinating read, I’m on board for any of Bugliosi’s other work. I can’t say I’m precisely glad I read this book, because some of the violent and gruesome images will stick in my head for a long time to come, but I certainly learned a lot.

Final Grade: B+

A Couple of Erotic Romances

Published March 30, 2014 by Shannon

To celebrate the fact that this humble blog has been considered porn by one person’s work computers, it’s time to post a couple of quickie reviews of recent smutty reads. Let us never say that I don’t live down to people’s expectations.

His Roommate's Pleasure

His Roommate’s Pleasure by Lana McGregor:

It started with an accidental click…but where will it end?

Desperate to turn in a paper, Adam borrows his roommate’s computer and mistakenly opens a folder that contains Josh’s collection of porn. Adam had no idea that his jock roommate was gay—and into leashes, paddles and domination. And Adam, an inexperienced virgin who’s only ever kissed one guy, is surprised to find himself curious about submitting…

Josh can’t believe that his roommate discovered his spank bank—and he can’t believe that Adam is so turned on by the thought of giving up control to someone. Taking a chance, he offers to look through the photos with Adam…and maybe try acting some of them out.

Night after night, the boys delve into their darkest fantasies of domination and submission. And as lust and experimentation grow into the promise of something deeper, Adam must decide if he’s brave enough to tell Josh how he feels.

This was a pleasant story about two college age boys, one a jock, one a nerd, who find themselves experimenting with BDSM. It’s the kind of story that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief–you’d think that if Josh was so firmly entrenched in the closet he wouldn’t just leave his porn where anyone could access it quickly, but whatever–but I was able to go with it. Mostly this was because McGregor tells the story in Adam’s third person point of view, and I thought Adam was an engaging character with a fun and often funny voice. I liked the way the two boys communicated as they worked their way through negotiating their fledgling BDSM relationship. Josh wasn’t a super dom who could read Adam’s mind and knew exactly what he wanted. For that alone I give McGregor props.

The sex play is relatively mild. I thought the scenes were pleasant enough, although I wasn’t as engaged as I might have liked, because I noticed a few writing tics. (I feel like Adam “started to come” in almost every scene.) There was also a note of didacticism in the descriptions that at times made me feel I was being preached at.

Of course, it says something about how much terrible BDSM is out there that I’d rather have didactic BDSM where the characters communicate clearly than psychic doms who just know that their subs are really craving a bit of figging because they’re that smart. (Yes, I did read that scene. Yes, it was a couple of years ago. Yes, I am still bitter.)

My Grade: I can’t quite decide between a B- and a C+, but I’m feeling generous tonight so we’ll go with the B-.

********************

Grace Under Fire

Grace Under Fire by Jackie Barbosa:

Lady Grace Hannington is the most inaptly named debutante in all of London. Cursed with two left feet, hands that are nothing but thumbs, and a stutter, she’s certain to spend the next five years on the wall and the rest of her life on the shelf. Or so she believes, until her clumsiness pitches her literally into the arms of Lord Colin Fitzgerald and his best friend, Atticus Stilwell.

Colin and Atticus have been inseparable since a shared boyhood tragedy brought them together more than twenty years ago. Though it raises eyebrows, they share everything…including women. This particular quirk has made it all but impossible for Colin, whose title and lands will revert to the crown if he doesn’t have a legitimate heir, to find a respectable lady who’s willing to be his wife.

When a stroke of good fortune—and a little intervention from a well-placed foot—gives the two men a golden opportunity to show the lovely and lonely Lady Grace she’s not quite so gauche as she believes, they play it (and her) for all they’re worth. But once she’s discovered her true talents lie not on the dance floor but in the bedroom, Grace must decide whether a scandalous marriage that’s sure to ruin her reputation is what she really wants.

A couple of weeks ago, Jackie Barbosa’s son was killed in a car accident on his way to school. I can’t even begin to fathom that loss, although I can understand it somewhat, since someone close to my family was killed a couple of years ago in a car accident. The event left us shaken and devastated because it was so sudden. And that person wasn’t even remotely related to me.

In response, Courtney Milan invited people to talk about Jackie Barbosa’s books. It was a good reason to finally read one, even though I have followed Ms. Barbosa on Twitter for a while.

That was quite a lead-in to say that this is exactly the kind of fun and frothy escapist smut I wanted. I am a sucker for a plain Jane heroine, and a woman being courted by two men. There’s a white knight rescue fantasy thing going on, with the men saving Grace from a life of loneliness and being overlooked. Yet, I never felt that Grace was powerless. In fact, the major conflict hinges on her coming to embrace her sexuality, which, given that this is an erotic romance story, she does. The sex scenes were inventive and entertaining. There was even an HEA, which given the last Harlequin Spice Brief story I read was welcome indeed.

That all said, despite the fact that this is totally my catnip, the characters probably won’t stick with me. I wanted more of all of them, especially the motives of the two men for being together. Plus, M/M reader that I am, I was left wondering just how involved the boys were with each other, if you know what I mean. Also, every time a character commented on Grace’s tits and ass, I was thrown out of the story.

I’d definitely read Barbosa again. I’d love to see what she can do with a longer word count and more of a chance to flesh out her characters. As it is, this one also falls in the B range for me.

5 A.M. Bad Ideas

Published March 26, 2014 by Shannon

Shortly before I moved to my quaint little apartment in Seattle, I woke from a sound sleep, realizing I had about three weeks before the move was to occur, and I had neglected what at the time seemed a highly important purchase. I proceeded to get up and go to Amazon.com, and I bought pillows, because I did not want to leave the place where I was living and abscond with the pillows that rightfully belonged to my BFF and partner in crime, Meka, with whom I was living, even though Meka would have gladly parted with them, because she would give the shirt off her back for her friends.
Ever since then, anytime I make a questionable purchasing decision, Meka will ask me, “Were you on Amazon.com again?”

Yesterday, I tweeted that I was looking for blogs that reviewed M/M books that were smart and a little snarky. (The blogs, not the books.) I used to read several, but they’ve all long since ceased being updated.) This morning, at around 5 A.M., I woke with the burning thought: ‘Hey, you could start the kind of blog you want to see.’ I then spent several minutes contemplating my domain name, and wording review policies, comment policies, and requests for co-reviewers in my head.

Thankfully, I failed to come up with a name that I thought fit the image I wanted to project, and fell asleep. When the alarm went off an hour later, I realized that I already don’t post enough on this blog, and I can barely keep up with the other hobbies and projects I’ve taken on. Leading a group blog would be a headache I couldn’t realistically manage. Plus, there’s something about the idea of giving myself a brand that gives me the shudders. I read what I want. If tomorrow I should decide reading romance and YA isn’t my bag and switch to reading Tom Clancy, I want to be able to do that. (This is unlikely to occur; capsule descriptions of Clancy’s books have been known to make me snort with the kind of laughter no author ever wants to inspire–what do you mean, Jack Ryan is still fighting terrorists even when he’s the president of the United States?)

I read with fascination this post on Dear Author about online reviewing. I’ve been trying to figure out my own opinions, and have come to the conclusion that I enjoy reviewing, but over the past six or seven years that I’ve participated in online book blogger communities, I’ve had to adjust what I do constantly to keep it fun. I liked writing for a group review blog, but don’t know if I could do it again, because I have enough homework reading as it is. I used to try to review consistently on Goodreads, but then they started deleting reviews, and now I basically use it as a means to catalogue my books. (I’ve caught the librarian bug! Oh noes!) Even this blog has gone through lots of different evolutions. (I had to learn not to be too worried about posting daily, because I learned quickly that that leads to burn-out, which is, well, not fun.

I have also managed to avoid all the author and reader drama that’s been so prevalent. I haven’t gotten a nasty comment from any butthurt people about something I wrote since I started blogging more consistently. I suspect if I were to write for a larger blog, that would happen more often and I’d find it disheartening.

I am grateful for the half dozen or so of you who stop in when I post. I’ve had good conversations in my comment spaces, and I think I wouldn’t enjoy having to moderate a larger community.

Now I just have to look back on this post the next time I get a brilliant idea for a website. What I’ve got is lovely and more than sufficient for my needs.

Thanks for continuing to visit my little corner of these often terrifying Internets. You guys rock!

Recent Reads: Books that Make Me Happy Edition

Published March 23, 2014 by Shannon

Having realized I was super behind on writing reviews, I’ve decided to just do quickie thoughts about a bunch of books and call the slate clean.

  1. The Blue Castle by L M Montgomery:

    Why I Read it: Because the Anne of Green Gables books are absolutely delightful and I wanted to try more Montgomery.

    Synopsis: Valancy, a timid spinster, decides to live life to the fullest after she’s been told she has a year to live, with results beyond her imagining.
    What I Liked: Valancy was a delight. I ended up identifying very strongly with her, and rooting for her success. Montgomery’s wry humor is very much in evidence, and the love interest was swoon worthy.

    What I Didn’t Like: Besides Valancy, most of the characters don’t rise far from stereotypes and general flat characterization. I couldn’t really take any of them seriously.

    Should you Read It: We all know I like sweet and whimsical. That’s what this book has in spades. Some of the themes–about living life to its fullest and taking risks–are universal and still very much applicable. If you’ve not read Montgomery, this would be a good place to figure out if she’s for you. For me, this gets an A.

  2. Ask the Passengers by A S King:

    Why I Read it: It’s the March pick for the Forever Young Adult book club.

    Synopsis: Astrid lives in small-town America and is dealing with questions of her sexuality.

    What I Liked: Astrid’s voice is snarky and self-aware, but not without a little whimsy. I love that one of the things she does is send her love up to passengers in planes as they fly overhead. There’s a great relationship between Astrid and her sister Ellis.

    What didn’t Work for Me: I thought Astrid could have done better than her love interest. I was satisfied with how that arc resolved itself at the end, but I didn’t feel the swoon.

    Should You Read It: If you like smart, self-aware YA that handles complicated topics with a light touch without making them trivial, then yes. I had fun with this one, and am hoping for a good discussion at the book club. For me, this rates a B.

  3. One True Thing by Piper Vaughn and M. J. O’Shea:

    Why I Read it: The previous book in this duology, One Small Thing was the perfect sort of comfort reading M/M that I like, so I was delighted there was a sequel.

    Synopsis: Dusty falls in insta-lust with a cute boy on his first day in California, but it turns out the cute boy has an identical twin brother. Wacky hijinks ensue.

    What I Liked: Despite that flippant summary, there’s a lot of heart in this story. Dusty and Asher spend a lot of time circling around each other, and when they get together, it is sweet, though not always smooth sailing. I also loved the presence of Eric and Rue from the previous book. The authors deal with questions of family in ways that indicate that sometimes family is just complicated. The fact that not everything is fine with everyone in both protagonists’ families was a nice touch of realism.
    What Didn’t Work: I think the pacing could have been a little tighter. The boys circle around each other far too long, considering their instant connection. That instant connection was cheesy, too, and I’m not quite sure what I think of the final resolution of the major conflict.

    Should You Read It: If you like your M/M on the cheesy side, then by all means, pick this one up. It gave me all the feels for the afternoon that I read it, and both authors have substantial backlists, a lot of which are free, so I’m glad I rediscovered them. This one rates an A.

  4. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler:

    Why I Read It: I think this one got on my TBR pile because of my friend Lauren. (The sci-fi geek Lauren, as opposed to the Lauren who writes long, involved fanfic about shows I don’t watch and who reads similar YA to me).) Sometimes I like reading food writing because it allows me to dream that one day I will finally be like, “Yes! Cooking is magical!” and then I’ll want to do it more.

    Synopsis: The author asserts that even you can learn to cook well.
    What I Liked: The author’s voice seems gentle and reassuring. She did make everything sound easy.

    What Didn’t Work for Me: The likelihood that I will try anything from this cookbook is infinitesimal. But that’s on me, not the book.

    Should you Read It: If you like cookbooks, you might enjoy this one. It never made me terribly excited about cooking, so it gets a C.

  5. Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon:

    Why I Read It: Rachel Simon has been on my radar for a while, but I think it was one of my fellow Shannons who recommended this one.

    Synopsis: Workaholic Rachel takes a year to ride the city buses with her mentally disabled sister, Beth, and learns life lessons.

    What I Liked: This was a feel-good read with some elements of realism. Rachel’s relationship with Beth isn’t always easy, and I appreciated her honesty about that. Also, I’m glad she learned about self-determination and discussed its importance even while she acknowledges its pitfalls.
    What Didn’t Work for Me: I mean, it’s still a narrative about what the disabled can teach normal people. There’s no way that can be made not problematic for a disabled reader. That said, I never felt like Rachel was condescending about her sister.

    Should You Read It: It was engrossing for me, and I like “Person stops to do unusual stuff” memoirs. I pretty much devoured it in a single sitting, and I suspect that my non-disabled readers can probably get past the niggling, “Oh, man, another disabled person being inspiring” reaction. For me this rates a B.

  6. His Kind of Woman by Nona Raines:
    Why I Read It: It was a nominee in this year’s Dabwaha tournament. Seeing that it had a trans* character as one of the leads made it a guaranteed sale.

    Synopsis: Roy wants to make amends to one of the people his brother Travis bullied in high school, but it turns out that Victor is now Venetia.

    What I Liked: This was another sweet novella. Both Roy and Venetia were likable characters, and they had to do a lot of talking before they could reach a satisfactory ending. I also liked that the ending didn’t wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow of forgiveness, and that the author dealt with bullying in a sensitive and thoughtful manner.

    What Didn’t Work for Me: It was a little didactic in places. I guess that’s to be expected, but the preachiness was there. Also, of course Venetia had all her surgeries. It must be nice to be able to pay for such expensive procedures.I know that’s kind of a silly complaint because fictional characters being privileged is kind of par for the course, but I found myself wondering if this was a way to have a trans character without squicking people out about the thought of reading about a woman with a penis.

    Should You Read It: It’ll take an hour of your life. It’s a sweet story, and I’m glad to see something a little different. Also yay trans characters. For me, this rates a B.

  7. Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson:

    Why I Read It: This book got a lot of buzz when it first came out, and has been languishing in obscurity in my TBR for years.

    Synopsis: Scarlett Martin lives with her family in a historic hotel in New York City. When Mrs. Amberson, a former starlet, moves into the hotel, Scarlett is tasked with being her assistant. Mrs. Amberson becomes the manic pixie dream girl that causes wacky hijinks in the lives of all the Martins.

    What I Liked: Johnson is doubtless funny, and the third-person narration was witty and smart, and the screwball comedy aspects of the book were a pleasure. I loved the relationships between Scarlett and her family, particularly between Scarlett and her older brother Spencer.

    What I Didn’t Like: Another YA where the romantic interest didn’t bring the swoon. In the end, that conflict just petered out. Also, the Martin parents were too of the most useless adults I’ve encountered in YA in quite a while.

    Should You Read It: If you like screwball comedies, and interesting settings, this won’t take you long. It’s funny, and the bits with Scarlett’s family have a lot of heart. Just don’t read for the romance. For me, this rates a B.

  8. Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir:

    Why I Read It: Another Dabwaha nominee. Also, it featured a beta guy, and that is my crack.

    Synopsis: Shy Emerson works at a music repair shop and is totally hot for Lola. He only gets up the courage to make a move on her after he rescues a stray cat named Sam.

    What I Liked: Shy hero. Heroine who’d been burned by love. These two were adorable. I read the novella with a smile on my face the entire time.

    What didn’t Work: The cat veered into cutesy way too often. I wanted Lola to realize Emerson didn’t, like, randomly turn into an asshole, but, “Oh, he’s really socially awkward” never really seems to cross her mind.

    Should You Read It: Again, it’ll take an hour or so. The romance is sweet, and you’ll enjoy it if you’re a cat person. For me, it’s another B.

State of the Shannon: Wallowing in awesome

Published March 17, 2014 by Shannon

I’ve been feeling more than a little resentful over the obligation reading I’ve taken on. I’m trying to scale it back, because reading is a thing that ought to be fun, and since our last book club book was one I never would have finished otherwise, I’m trying to be more gentle with myself regarding my pleasure reading and reminding myself that even if a book is meh and not actively terrible, if I’m not feeling it, no one is going to stand over me and make me finish.

Put another way, I loved the way Memory talks about wallowing in awesome. Since for the time being, I always will have obligation reading, I am going to try this approach for anything I haven’t taken on to read. I have therefore declared this week to be my week of awesome reading.

Thus far, it’s working out well. Yesterday, I read a sweet and cheesy M/M romance. I also started a lovely nonfiction book that is giving me much more feels than I expected. Today, I did the select-a-random-book-from-Goodreads trick, since I had no idea what to read. My first selection was Gone with the Wind which I would like to read someday, but not today. Off my TBR it went. Next was Remake by Connie Willis, which I read about a quarter of before deciding I didn’t actually care. Now, though, I’m reading Jennifer Donnelly’s The Winter Rose and I just want to wallow in it.
So there you have it. Hopefully, my week of awesome reading will continue to be nothing but fabulous. And in the meantime… I just have to remind myself that no one is giving me any kind of prizes for reading leisure reading that isn’t good.

Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Published March 12, 2014 by Shannon

The Other Typist

Ever since my friend Meka (whom you may remember from such blog events as our attempt to read The Last Hour of Gann) started reviewing books more frequently, we have had occasion to have the following conversation at least twice.

Her: “I hated everything about this book. I hated the characters. The plot was dumb, and the writing style was pretty much like word vomit on a page.”

Me: “So you’re going to give it an F?”

Meka: “Oh… No. I mean, it wasn’t *that* bad. Maybe I should give it a D.”

Me: “But you hated it. Smoke is coming out of your ears as you talk about this book. It’s an F book.”

I had reason to remember this conversation when I went to write up a review for Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist. I had prepared to call it a D book, but I can literally think of nothing positive to say about the hot mess that was this novel. Congratulations, Ms. Rindell. I had to create a category for F reviews, just for you.

But before we get there, here’s the synopsis:

New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin.

Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.

But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.

But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?

Sometimes when I read book club books (and it was my turn to attend the Seattle Low Vision book group that meets every other month) I’m glad I had the experience of trying something new. This month, though, I entertained fantasies of informing my boss she couldn’t make me go to another meeting and furthermore entertaining fantasies of defenestrating the next person who suggested I might enjoy a particular book club.

My personal taste doesn’t tend to run toward books set in the 1920’s. I haven’t enjoyed any of the books I’ve read set in that era. Even, say, Libba Bray’s much-lauded The Diviners which is exactly the sort of book I like, failed to work for me. Maybe there are books set in the Prohibition Era that are right up my alley, but The Other Typist certainly wasn’t one.

My problem with The Other Typist is simple: I loathe unreliable narrators. It’s not that I’m too stupid to get what the author is doing when she uses that technique. It’s simply that I can think of exactly one book where the unreliable narrator didn’t drive me batshit by the time I was done. (For the record, that book was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, which come to think of it was also set during Prohibition Times. But the narrator of Loos’s book isn’t evil and psychotic, merely shallow and self-obsessed, and Loos is laugh-out-loud funny, so that makes all the difference.)It becomes clear early on that Rose isn’t nearly as reliable as she would like you to think. Even if she had been, I loathed being in her headspace. She is a self-righteous snob with a tendency to belittle everyone else around her, particularly other women. Ugh. When Odalie comes to work for the police precinct at which Rose is a typist, Rose’s obsession with her begins immediately. It’s easy to read Rose as a queer woman, though Rose herself denies there’s anything sexual going on where Odalie is concerned, but like I said, unreliable narrator.

Odalie herself is painted as an evil slut and a sociopath, so it’s not like I have any sympathy for her, either. In fact, I felt the two of them deserved each other. The evil lesbian should totally be paired off with the sociopathic slut. I wish them joy of each other. I just wish I didn’t have to read all of Rose’s creepily obsessive thoughts about Odalie in the process.

What really cinched the book for me, though, was the ending. Fairly early on, the hammer of Foreshadowing strikes with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head, and I knew there would be a Major Twist. (TM). Indeed, there was. The problem with major twist endings is that, once revealed, the reader should be able to look back on everything she’s read and think, “Oh. Yeah. That totally puts a whole different light on this conversation.” This didn’t happen. I kept trying to go back through the text to see if I could figure out if Rindell had dropped any clues leading to the big reveal. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t, and the reveal left me aware of massive inconsistencies and plot holes. I felt manipulated by the author, and that’s not a good feeling.

So yeah. Unreliable narrators. Ambiguous endings. Awful characters. Those are not deal breakers for everyone, but they are for me. Ugh.

Grade: F

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Published March 11, 2014 by Shannon

Shanghai Girls (Shanghai Girls #1)

I first heard of Lisa See when my mom and sister read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I can remember them waxing poetic about how awesome that book was. I’m sure they hit on many of the book’s stellar qualities, but my mind fixated on one of them talking about the gruesome process of Chinese foot binding, and that was about the time I got on board the Nope Train, next stop Nopeville. Oh, the book ended up on my TBR, and I think it survived the massive Goodreads shelf purge of 2013, but I told myself I was simply waiting to get into the right headspace to read something so harrowing. Then my boss at work announced that for our quarterly book club at the library, we’d be reading Shanghai Girls. I was not excited about this prospect and went into the book expecting it to be full of graphic torture scenes and lots and lots of pathos. To my delight, however, I found an engaging story that, while it does contain plenty that is harrowing, also features one of the best depictions of sister love I’ve read in a while.

Here’s what Goodreads tells us:

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

First off, reading books like this makes the case for why white readers should read more diversely. I know nothing about Chinese history, and I guess in my headChina went fromThe Good Earth to amazing world power overnight. I was shocked to learn what a cosmopolitan city 1930’s Shanghai was. Pearl and May are beautiful girls, living a modern and carefree existence. May is the pretty one, and Pearl the smart one, or so it seems. Then their father announces that his business has failed and he’s marrying the girls off to a couple of brothers who live in America. Pearl and May are horrified, and protest, but they’re forced into it. Still, they figure they’ll just live as they always have while their husbands return to America.

Then the Japanese invade China and everything changes. Their father disappears, and their mother marshals the resources to get them out of Shanghai. After a grueling journey through the Chinese countryside, they end up on a ship bound for America. After being detained on Angel Island the girls eventually end up in Los Angeles, where they find themselves trying to carve out a new family for themselves.

I loved these characters. Pearl and May had my heart from their first appearances. As I said above, See writes about the bond between sisters in a way I found beautiful and poignant. I have a deep and fierce loyalty to my sister, but my sister and I can say the exact right thing to hurt each other. That’s the dynamic See plays with here, and certainly Pearl and May endure quite a lot more than most sisters. I loved their unwavering loyalty to each other, and I loved how it was made clear that they both saw the same events rather differently.

The rest of the characters were lovely as well. Sam, Pearl’s husband, is a particular favorite of mine, with his steady, gentle nature and his determination to do right by his family. The love that gradually develops between Sam and Pearl isn’t one of deep passion, but they worked hard for it and the two of them shared some incredibly sweet moments.

There are other characters as well. Joy, Pearl’s daughter, is the subject of the sequel to this novel, and I can’t wait to read her story. Pearl’s mother and her mother-in-law were both women of great strength and convictions. Even Old Man Louie, Pearl’s father-in-law, who starts the book as something of an antagonist, is more layered the longer one reads.

The plot was fascinating. The story has the feel of a saga, only in a much shorter page count. There were a few horrific scenes, as I’d feared, but I found them presented tastefully. The end is a lead-up to the sequel, Dreams of Joy, which I found to be somewhat off-putting, as I hadn’t realized this wasn’t a standalone story. And now that I’ve read something by Lisa See, I’m definitely willing to rescue Snow Flower and the Secret Fan from TBR obscurity.

Final Grade: B

The month that was February, 2014

Published March 9, 2014 by Shannon

Oh, you guys, I’m so glad February is over. I hate this time of year, where even in Washington, which missed all the crazy winter shenanigans that afflicted the rest of the country, the cold and lack of sunlight left me feeling like I didn’t want to do much of anything.

I did read a fair bit though. Links lead to full reviews.

  1. Your Hate Mail Will be Graded by John Scalzi: Interesting collection of essays I would have loved more if I hadn’t mainlined them in one sitting.
  2. Dirty Laundry by Heidi Cullinan: I loved this book. I thought the romance was sexy and for once I understood what everyone was getting out of the BDSM play. Of course, I fangirl Heidi Cullinan hardcore, so I’m pretty much going to say that about anything she writes.
  3. The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders by Corinne Holt Sawyer: A charming mystery involving old people solving crimes that actually went to a couple of places I didn’t expect. Recommended for fans of The Golden Girls. Also our pick for the Book Hoarders podcast.
  4. Marked by Kit Rocha, Vivian Arend and Lauren Dane: An anthology which pretty much was a hit all the way around. In retrospect, I am waiting eagerly to not have so many books in the hopper so I can read more of all of these authors.
  5. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan: A charming young adult novel about growing up and falling in love. I wish the audiobook production hadn’t been distractingly bad, because despite that, I enjoyed the story of Paul and Noah and their fun and quirky group of friends.
  6. Dreams of Dark and Light by Tanith Lee: A mixed bag of an anthology. What I loved I want more of. But there were too many evil seductresses running around for my taste.
  7. Shell Shocked by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks: So far this book, with its disabled hero who literally GETS CARRIED AROUND EVERYWHERE is my candidate for the worst book I’ve read in 2014.
  8. Heat of the Moment by Elle Kennedy: A fun little erotic romance novella. I didn’t quite understand what kept the hero and heroine apart for so long, and I was a little annoyed that the black moment got resolved by the heroine apologizing profusely for being “unreasonable”, which I didn’t think she had been. I guess women be nags, though, amirite?
  9. One Week Girlfriend by Monica Murphy: My other candidate for worst book of the year. It might not have made the cut except for the end where the heroine literally said something about how secretly she knew the hero wanted her to save him. Blech. That’s not sexy. It is an actively harmful narrative and I do not approve.
  10. Beautifully Unique Sparkle Ponies by Chris Cluwe: Another book that probably didn’t want to be read in a single sitting. I liked it, but would have liked a bit more continuity and a few less abstract poems.
  11. Heat of Passion by Elle Kennedy: Again, a pleasant little diversion. Again, I felt like the final conflict was resolved by “The woman was wrong again and has to admit that.” The next book looks to feature a psychic, and the blurb indicates that she is wrong, too. I think I’ll pass.
  12. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Hayden Elgin: I thought this had some really practical advice. It was slightly dated, but the advice was still useful. I wish I’d actually done the journaling she suggests, but this one might merit a closer reread.
  13. The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang: Another interesting collection of fairy tales. I particularly liked that a few of the stories were from classical mythology.

    Not a bad reading month. And my author breakdown is 11 female authors to 4 male.

    The search terms that brought people to my humble abode this month:

    1. Flight into Fantasy in conflict: Not that I know of.
    2. How many chapters does Reaper’s Property have?: I wouldn’t know. Too many?
    3. Alex Haley fantasy: I don’t know about that, but I do know Avery Brooks narrates the audiobook version of Roots. Oh, Commander Sisko, declaim at me some more! (Please note: As much as I loved Sisko, my heart belongs to uptight, honorable Odo, and Rene Auberjonois
      narrates the Pendergast books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and he is literally the only reason those books are on my TBR pile.) Ahem, where was I?

    4. The Final Hour of Gann: It can’t come soon enough.

    Let’s hope March is a lot more pleasant for everyone than February!

    How are you all? Surviving the Winterpocalypse of 2014? Reading anything good lately?