Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Overview: January Reading

This year, I thought it might be fun and enlightening to crunch some numbers at the end of each month. It'll give me - and you - and overview of what I've been reading, and help keep me on track with the resolutions I made at the end of last year: to be better at reviewing diverse fiction I enjoy, and to read and review more Australian and New Zealand literature.

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Books read: 20

Fiction Titles: 17

  • 15 romance (5 historicals, 10 contemporaries)
  • 1 Literary Fiction
  • 1 Short Story Collection

Non-fiction Titles: 3

  • 2 Gender Studies/Feminist Theory
  • 1 History

Setting Statistics

USA: 9



New Zealand:



Fictional setting: 2

Non-Fiction with a setting: 1 (New Zealand History)

Non-Fiction without a setting: 2 (both Gender Studies/Feminist Theory)

I'm interested in the statistics about setting because calssifying my reviews my setting a few months ago really drove home how much of the literature I read is set in the US. 

I just did a quick tally, and of the 234 books I read last year, about 106 were fiction with a US setting (and that's excluding books only partially set in the US, or set in an alternate universe US). I thought that the UK wouldn't be far behind, given how many historical romances I read, but it's pulling a distant second with roughly 33 books. Even though I I've spoken about my disillusion with my Beyond a Single Story Challenge, I still think it's important to be aware of US (and British, and English-language) cultural hegemony in literature, and the effects that it can have.

At this point, I'm not aiming to read less books set in the US this year. I just want to keep an eye on the statistics, rather than being hit with a fait accompli in December. As you can see, 9 out of 17 fiction books I read this month were set in the US; that's 53%. I've also listed the books with real-world non-US settings in case people are interested, and made notes of which ones I intend to review. Hopefully that make me feel accountable and those reviews will get past the draft stage!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Review: Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

4 stars

For all its short length, Coffee Boy is an novella jam-packed with both romance and deep, emotive exploration of things that affect the characters.

The narrator, Kieran, is a young trans man who takes an internship in a politician's office (and Coffee Boy is ownvoices story when it comes to trans representation). The office's campaign strategist, Seth, is prickly and reserved, but his crush on their straight boss Marcus is plain as day to Kieran. With Marcus oblivious to both Seth's crush and the fact that he hasn't exactly provided Kieran with the trans-friendly workplace he promised, Seth and Kieran gradually form a workplace rapport that - on Kieran's part - slowly morphs into a crush of his own. 

I really liked the tentative way a relationship developed between Kieran and Seth. After Kieran gets only his initial dislike of the standoffish Seth, there's a one-step-forward-two-steps-back dynamic. Kieran pushes Seth's boundaries and Seth tries to find a balance between ensuring that Kieran is treated appropriately, and constantly centring Kieran's trans-ness in a way that reminds Kieran of his visibility and difference. 

The two of them are also feeling out each other in terms of being the only two non-cishet people in the workplace, and much of their early interaction includes this: by openly acknowledging Seth's crush on Marcus, Kieran has inadvertently caused Seth to come out to him as bisexual. Their different experiences and age gap mean that Kieran self-identifies as queer; but Seth still associates it with the slur. Kieran is also very aware that he is the one who is visibly non-cishet, who lives with the emotional toll of being constantly misgendered, of people wanting to be patted on the back for accepting him, and of having to pass as female at his job flipping burgers.

Some Goodreads reviewers have made mentions about the 'balance' between the romance and the discussions of gender identity and sexuality, either saying that they found it to be well-balanced or not. Personally, I'm not sure that you can talk about a balance, as though the two things can be separated out and weighed individually on opposite ends of a scale. The fact that Kieran is a trans man attracted to other men and Seth is a bisexual man impacts on who they are, the way they live their lives and interact with each other and the people around them. There is no way to gauge the romance except within that context. 

When Kieran and Seth fall into a relationship at the end, I loved the way that their tentativeness dropped away. They are open with each other; Kieran states that he wants to try dating Seth, and Seth makes it clear that their relationship will not affect Kieran's employment opportunities. The sex occurs organically, without any sense that there is something to be negotiated or figured out. 

Coffee Boy didn't go much past Kieran and Seth establishing their relationship. Objectively, I feel like that makes sense, since the book was really centred around them sounding each other out, both as queer colleagues and in a romantic sense. But that doesn't mean that, subjectively, I wouldn't have liked to see them further down the track, or have the novella be longer. But that's pretty standard for me and novellas, for all that I try not to judge them as though they were novels. 

As a novella, Coffee Boy had exceptional depth. I've talked about the relationship dynamic and the exploration of gender and sexuality, particularly in the workplace, but the other stand-out aspect for me was Kieran's dry, dark sense of humour, which is used to show his expectations about how people will treat him: 
Seth actually turns and scribbles something down on a pad of paper in front of him. Kieran can’t imagine what he’s writing. “Remind everyone in the office that new intern is a dude”? Or, probably more likely, “Fire whiny trans guy at earliest opportunity.” (8%)
Later in the story, Kieran also deploys his humour to keep Seth from taking himself too seriously, in a way that demonstrates how well-matched the two are. 

Overall, I really loved Coffee Boy, and the only thing that stopped me from giving it 4.5 stars is the fact that it's written in third-person present tense, which gives me a lot of trouble, as I wrote in the last review for a book I read in this style. This is obviously an intensely personal thing, so if it's not something that bothers you, mentally bump the rating up that half star. 

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

2 stars

Vinegar Girl was a cautionary tale about straying into literary fiction. As a retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, it had a high chance of an HEA and relied on the popular romance trope of a marriage of convenience, so I thought it wouldn't be too taxing. But, not only was it taxing, the similarities to romance made me hyper-aware of just how lacking it was.

As well as being a assistant in a preschool, Kate Battista keeps house for her eccentric professor father and air-headed teenaged sister. When Professor Battista's Russian research assistant, Pyotr, cannot get a visa extension, the two men hatch a plan: Pyotr will marry Kate so that he can get a green card. Kate resists initially, but ultimately agrees to the idea. Now, I should have some suspenseful "but is it really a marriage of convenience?" line, but I can't bring myself to write it, because I am just so confused and dismayed at everything that happened after that. The blurb describes Professor Battista and Pyotr's marriage of convenience plan as "touchingly ludicrous", but it's not, it's horrible and agency-robbing - despite Kate's reluctant consent - and everything keeps going downhill from there. 

Inside Romancelandia, we spend a lot of time shouting into the void about the feminism of the genre. I can - and frequently do - make this argument to non-romance people, and yet it wasn't until I read Vinegar Girl that I fully realised how much I had come to consider literature and heroines that are tacitly but undeniably feminist as the norm. 

Vinegar Girl's source material, The Taming of the Shrew, is considered by some to be a grossly misogynistic play, but has also been reinterpreted as some kind of stealthy proto-feminism. Whichever way you see it and whatever you think Shakespeare's opinions were, The Taming of the Shrew reflects its society. Again, some people say that it's social commentary on the treatment of women in Shakespeare's society; others say that the comedic aspect trivialises Kate's abuse and her presentation as the shrewish wife is a source of cheap laughs, rather than a treatise on domestic abuse (Grzadkowska 2014). 

I don't think Vinegar Girl reflects our society in the same way. Maybe it reflects the 1950s; despite her supposed social awkwardness, Kate does a lot of cooking and gardening and looking after her men. Or, maybe it does make a point about our society. It is possible I found one, but it's ambiguous and mired in things that undermine it. Perhaps that means - in literary fiction terms - it's subtle and subversive and this romance reader just isn't clever enough to work it all out. I've been thinking and writing the whole thing in circles for weeks now, and it's made me very tired. 

Basically, my problem is that Kate does massive amounts of unrecognised emotional labour, first for her father, and then for her father and Pyotr, both of whom are emotionally stunted and completely thoughtless about the way their actions impact others. This is explored somewhat through the way that the Professor talks about his deceased wife, and Kate's mother, who clearly became depressed because of her husband's high expectations and emotional neglect. But then it seems as though a similar dynamic is created between Kate and Pyotr. In the end, Kate makes a big speech - the equivalent of Katherina's final speech in The Taming of the Shrew, where she encourages women to be submissive to their husbands - in which she says:
“It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or they’re about to fail big-time at something—‘Oh, I’m okay,’ they say. ‘Everything’s just fine.’ They’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it.” 
It's not that Kate - and Tyler - don't have a point. Toxic masculinity, which makes men suppress their feelings, is a problem. But this is a result of sexism: the flip-side is that women are meant to be emotionally literate and supportive. And she does nothing to challenge or dismantle that assumption. In fact, she buys into it massively. From the beginning to the end of the book, it is Kate who does all the emotional labour in her relationships. 

The speech is meant to be about Pyotr - Kate's sister has accused her of "backing down" to him - but Pyotr falls seems to deal with strong emotion more by man-babying than bottling, leaving Kate to do the damage control.

To be honest, I had problems with the way Tyler constructed Pyotr in general. His halting speech and bumbling nature strip him of his full humanity. Somehow it's even worse that Tyler is aware of what she's doing; perhaps halfway through the book, Kate has a realisation that Pyotr has thoughts and feelings just as complex as hers, even if he can't communicate them successfully in English. At first, I wrote off his inconsistent English abilities as a quirk; he works in academia, so he must have a solid grasp of English, even if he does not always employ it. However, later in the book, a secondary character called Mrs Liu is introduced, who is presented as having similar language problems as Pyotr: she has a grasp of complicated phrases and obscure words, but forgets or misuses basic, everyday language in ways that are not culturally specific (for example, I don't object to Pyotr dropping articles, as many native Russian speakers with excellent English do this). Anyway, once Mrs Liu made her appearance, it was hard to see the speech thing as anything other than racist or xenophobic. 

Quite apart from the whole ambiguous point about gender roles, Vinegar Girl was slow-moving and had pacing problems towards the end. There was no chemistry between Kate and Pyotr, and their decision to have a 'real' marriage was completely incomprehensible, particularly from Kate's perspective. I did enjoy the writing, except for the racist speech thing, and the odd turn of phrase that was overly florid. 

Really, the most I can say about this book is that it was thought-provoking. But I didn't really want my thoughts provoked into going around in circles with no clear answer, and I can get a clearer, less ambiguous point about gender roles by reading a romance, the newspaper or even just looking out the window. And I don't need to read fiction which takes the pain, suffering and forbearance of women as one of its foundations. That sucks, and maybe the next time some literary fiction snob sneers at my romance, I'll be able to tell them that.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Review: Due South by Tamsen Parker

4 stars

Lucy Miller has mixed feelings about going home to the Midwest for Christmas, but then there is a forced change of plan: thanks to other people's incompetence, she and the shy Chanoch Evans will have to work through the holiday on a project. When they are accidental voyeurs to their boss and her husband getting hot and heavy late one night at work, something sparks between them, and they decide that - despite their firm's 'no fraternisation' policy - a Christmas fling won't harm anyone. 

Due South and its characters struck a serious chord with me on so many levels. I seriously related to the way that both Lucy and Evans are shy, anxious and slightly socially awkward. Lucy faces derision from her family for being "just a secretary", in the same way I absolutely loathe being called "just a receptionist". Lucy has also faced a lifetime of having her sexuality policed, being told that she is responsible for the way men respond to her body, something that I think most women can relate to. Evans' family dynamic also hit quite close to home for me.

On a less personal note, I loved the way Evans' was so sweet, and tries so hard to be honorable. After he and Lucy kiss for the first time - which he initiates - he has this internal monologue:
As soon as this massive and increasingly achy erection goes away, I am going to offer her the most profound and profuse apology that has been offered to anyone ever. And if she’s uncomfortable with me—and who could blame her?—I’ll offer to hand in my resignation. It’s the only proper thing to do. Sure, I’d have to find something else right away because of my family, but I can’t bear the idea of Lucy having to work with someone who violated her. If I kept a sword in my office, I’d throw myself on it. As things are, I’ve only got some pencils that are in desperate need of a sharpening, a ruler, and some paperclips. I couldn’t even injure myself in a dignified manner. (loc. 385)
The whole book is as droll and funny as that excerpt, both from Evans and Lucy's perspectives. The chemistry and romantic compatibility between the two was also suberb.

Another thing that I really appreciated was the three dimensional portrayal of Lucy and Evans' boss, who runs the gamut from ball-busting dragon lady to sympathetic, caring and overwhelmed. While both Lucy and Evans' have some sentimental attachment to their workplace, Due South is also wonderfully realistic about the ups and downs of being a heavily-relied on employee.

While I enjoyed the heck out of Due South, I didn't feel like the ending was as strong as the rest of the book. It was a bit run-of-the-mill, when both the MCs had been such beautifully complex and different characters throughout. I also felt it undermined everything that preceded it: the story very much revolves around Lucy and Evans as shy, introverted characters and the epilogue somewhat overturned that. 

While Evans does have second thoughts about proposing to Lucy in a semi-public place, it's to do with his nerves and not how it might be for her, which I felt was at odds with the way he is normally so considerate of her. Similarly, the resolution sees Evans taking a particular decision out of Lucy's hands, and - while it showed that he cared for her enough to solve a problem for her, potentially at his own expense - it did rankle that he robbed her of agency. However, I was happy that, through Evans actions, the two of them avoided a potential Big Misunderstanding.

Lastly, I know that it's rare for authors to have a say on their books covers, but I'm not a fan of this one. The book makes a point of Lucy being a beautiful, curvaceous woman, and the model is so...angular. She's all jawbone and scapula and absolutely no boobs. Ughh. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Non-Fiction Review: A Time to Dance, A Time to Die by John Waller

I picked up A Time to Dance, A Time to Die because I briefly studied the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 at university as a supposed example of emotional contagion, and, when I flicked through it in the shop, I saw that Waller also favoured psychological explanations. 

His thesis is that the plague was a form of psychological mass hysteria stemming from the supernaturalism, helplessness and despair of late Middle-Age Strasbourg and its surroundings. Although it takes a while to establish convincingly, it ends up being a surprisingly compelling theory, especially since Waller links the 1518 epidemic to other similar dancing plagues that occurred elsewhere in Europe in the preceding centuries. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this means that the book's real strength is placing the plague within its social context: the poverty and hardship suffered by the third estate, the corruption and excess of the medieval Church and bourgeoisie, and the way this conflict manifested itself in not just the dancing plague, but anti-clericalism, the Bundschuch Movement and, a few years later, Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. 

However, the focus on social factors meant that, for me, the exploration of the zeitgeist was more absorbing than some of the analysis of the plague itself, which could be a bit repetitive, and also seemed facile in some places and unnecessarily deep in others. 

The last chapter is where Waller really clinches his argument about the suggestibility and power of the subconscious mind, and the way that it can express psychological distress in pre-progammed ways specific to a society, its belief system, norms and stigmas. He draws in a wide ranges of other incidences as examples, such as the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, shell shock and tarantism, and explores the science behind these somatic expressions of pyschological distress. Although it makes sense for this to be the concluding chapter, in some ways I wish the discussion of neurosicence had come earlier, because it was essential to the whole thesis, and it is this context that makes the thesis so plausible. 

Overall, this was a solid exploration of the Dancing Plague, which was very impressive when it came to explaining the social unrest of early 16th century Strasbourg. However, one thing that did annoy me was the lack of footnotes, made worse by the fact that the notes are acutally in the back of the book, just not referenced to anything in particular. Maybe it's because it's meant to be a popular history and so the publisher didn't want to make it seem intimidatingly academic, but there is nothing pretensious about making sure that people can access information easily. 
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