Category Archives: Reviews

Review: How To Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran

How To Build A GirlI received this book for free from the publisher via Edelweiss. All content and opinions are my own.

I was inspired by this pre-publication readalong to seek out a copy of How To Build a Girl. And I’m glad I did.

Here’s a portion of the blurb:

What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn’t enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes—and build yourself.

It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontës—but without the dying-young bit.

By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

Johanna. I’m still not sure what I feel for her. It’s something. Something between admiration and pity, leaning toward the admiration side. But, I think, more telling is that I apparently feel more for Caitlin Moran. Clearly, this book is based in someway on her own life, since she lived in similar circumstances as a teen and worked at a music magazine at a young age. It definitely felt more memoir-ish than novel-ish. There were also certain sections that became didactic (like the bit on cynicism), where it seemed the author stepped in and was lecturing. And I often felt that Johanna was not cognizant ad self-aware enough to make the observations she made. (She is, of course, slightly older as she writes the book, but that fact only enhanced the memoir-feel of it.) But I was willing to forgive most of this. It’s funny and blatant and well-written. I highlighted the crap out of it.

I still feel the burn of shame from when I interviewed a band and pronounced “paradigm” as spelled, and they mockingly corrected me. This is the terrible thing about learning everything from books–sometimes you don’t know how to say the words. You know the ideas, but you cannot discuss them with people with any confidence. And so you stay silent. It is the curse of the autodidact. Or “autodidiact,” as I said, on the same shameful day. Oh, that was a conversation that went so wrong.

Is this YA? Johanna is fourteen at the beginning and seventeen by the end. So, if the age of the protagonist is the defining characteristic, yes it is. But the subject matter and descriptions are decidedly not what you currently find in the YA section. Johanna is at once a child and an adult. Compare the following two quotes:

I dealt with this with all the coping mechanisms I knew: lying under the bed with the dog, reading Little Women and eating jam sandwiches dipped in instant hot chocolate.

In the end, I find what works is to stop thinking about what I am thinking about this particular sexual intercourse . . . and start thinking about what he’s thinking, instead. . . . There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck and be fucked. I will realize that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn’t really hear my own voice during this sex. I had no idea what my voice was at all.

The idea in that last quote above is what really stuck with me from the book. There is very little female narrative about sexual experience. Johanna talks about masturbation and a number of sexual interactions. And it made me uncomfortable to read about it. It made me uncomfortable to include that quote above in this review. But I applaud Moran’s willingness to both include it and point it out.

So what do you do when you build yourself — only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years — to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars. To be fearless and endless, in your reinventions — to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust, and dealing in again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.

How To Build a Girl was sad and, well, a bit painful. But I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad I read it. It’s about a teenage girl finding out who she is, building herself. It just made me wish she had had a bit more guidance, a few more friendly influences, and a little bit more help and understanding. Perhaps this book is meant to be a form of guidance to those teenagers who don’t have ready sources of it. I hope this book finds those souls.

How To Build a Girl is available today. Find Caitlin Moran on her website and on Twitter.


Review: The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley. All content and opinions are my own.

I love Ian McEwan. Well, more accurately, I love his writing. He could write about almost anything, and I’d read it. But his newest book, The Children Act, seems to have been written for me. It’s about Fiona Maye, a judge. (I’m a lawyer.) She works in the family division. (I used to practice family law.) She plays the piano. (I play the piano.) Okay, you get the idea. Plus, the similarities end there.

When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.
–Section 1(a), The Children Act, 1989

Fiona and her husband Jack are nearing sixty and are at a turning point in their marriage. Fiona is forced to reevaluate everything, it seems, especially the decision not to have children and to focus instead on her (very successful) career. In the midst of this, she is called on to adjudicate the case of a seventeen year old boy who is refusing blood transfusions that might cure his leukemia on religious grounds. (In Britain, apparently, medical professionals can bring such a situation before the courts and argue that treatment should be ordered despite a child’s or his parent’s wishes.) Not a stranger to difficult and nuanced cases like these, Fiona would typically hear both sides and make a clear, calculated, and legally sound judgment. In the midst of the new fog surrounding her life, she makes an impulsive decision to visit the boy in the hospital prior to making her ruling.

I was fascinated by the accounts of Fiona’s previous cases and her judgments in those cases. The little legal dramas are told in such interesting and tightly woven ways that they cannot help but to fascinate. McEwan describes family law perfectly: “The Family Division teemed with strange differences, special pleading, intimate half-truths, exotic accusation.” I felt I was there, in the family division, in Fiona’s apartment, in her head.

Woven on top of the legal layer is the marital layer, the aging layer. Fiona and her husband are getting older: “[n]ot the full withering, not just yet, but its early promise was shining through.” This aging, both personally and maritally, is a hefty if background piece of this story. It is Fiona’s personal life that makes her professional life – and her choices throughout the book – all the more compelling.

[N]ow came another old theme: self-blame. She was selfish, crabbed, drily ambitious. Pursuing her own ends, pretending to herself that her career was not in essence self-gratification, denying an existence to two or three warm and talented individuals.

McEwan is a masterful storyteller and writer. The characters intrigue me every time. And here, again, I found that the descriptions, like this one, made me tingle with recognition and relish: “a silent young woman with heavy amber beads and a taste for the kind of stilettos that could wreck an old oak floor.” I thoroughly enjoyed this novella (it clocks in at around 55,000 pages). While others of McEwan’s works remain my favorites, The Children Act is a lovely addition to his oeuvre.

Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape by geographical or social accident war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous.

The Children Act is available today. I know I’ll be snatching up a copy to add to my Ian McEwan shrine shelf.

My reviews of other books by Ian McEwan:

Amsterdam
First Love, Last Rites
On Chesil Beach

* I haven’t reviewed Atonement or Sweet Tooth, but I loved them both.


Coloring for Grownups

I received this book for free from the publisher. All content and opinions are my own.

I haven’t colored in years. That is until lately. I’ve been coloring up a storm thanks to a number of “grownup” coloring books. Apparently, adult coloring is all the rage in France – often as a form of therapy. The new coloring craze is even being honed for humor. Just Google “adult coloring” or “grownup coloring” and you’ll get a slew of fun results. Remembering childhood coloring fondly, I was eager to pull out my markers and colored pencils and give this craze a try.

Coloring Animal Mandalas, by Wendy Piersall, is one of the grownup coloring books I’ve checked out lately. It features amazingly detailed animal mandalas for coloring, as you might expect from the name. According to the infallible source, Wikipedia, “mandala has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe.” As you’ll see from the examples below, these illustrations are beautiful on their own and when colored in.

This lion is perhaps my favorite drawing in the book.

CAM Lion

This turtle is the first one I colored.

CAM Turtle 1

CAM Turtle 2

And this seahorse is the one I am currently working on.

CAM Seahorse

For me, at least, there is something very relaxing and enjoyable about the process of coloring in general and of coloring these animal pictures in particular. I love picking a color pallet, working on my shading skills, and knowing that I am creating something beautiful. There is no way to fail at these. If you’d like to try it out, you can download a few animal mandalas from Wendy Piersall’s children’s website as a test. I think you’ll like it.


The Days are Long, but the Years are Short

I received a free 11×14 print from Easy Canvas Prints. All content and opinions are my own.

I don’t often remember quotes from books I’ve read. But this quote, from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project has bounced around in my head ever since I finished the book. “The days are long, but the years are short.” There is such truth there.

I have kind of started a collection of items with this quote on it, like this printable from Pink Ronnie. And then I fell in love with this awesome print from HalfPintPrints. I purchased the digital download, and immediately uploaded it to Easy Canvas Prints to have it printed. The ordering process was extremely easy and straightforward. It took three weeks from the date I ordered to the date I had the canvas in hand, but they were upfront about the turnaround time on the website. When the canvas arrived, I could not have been more pleased. The canvas is thick and good quality and is reinforced by a wood frame inside. My favorite detail is the orange border I chose for the sides. I love the whole thing.

photo 3 (4)

This canvas will last through the long days and the short years, for sure.


Utah Book Month Versus: Edenbrooke vs. Blackmoore

Versus is a feature in which two books face off. Anything goes in the judging, but only one can be the winner.

Welcome to today’s special Utah Book Month edition of Versus. Two books by Utah author Julianne Donaldson battle it out.

I have a history with both of these books. I initially read Edenbrooke in August 2012 and loved it so much I immediately reread almost all of it. I reviewed it here (and talked about how my book club got to Skype with Julianne Donaldson)! I got an advanced copy of Blackmoore in June 2013 and read it in one sitting. I reviewed it here. I recently obtained audio versions of both books via Audible and listened to them back-to-back for Utah Book Month. One just can’t help but compare them.

Let’s start with the similarities. These are both Regency romances that take place around the beginning of the 19th Century. They are both “proper romances,” which means that they are largely clean, with no explicit sex scenes or swearing or violence. They both feature heroines who are struggling with who they are and who they will become in the fairly limited world females faced at the time. And, of course, the titular estates both feature heavily in the books.

And now the differences. Blackmoore definitely has a brooding atmosphere about it, which is enhanced by Blackmoore’s proximity to both the ocean and the moores. I liked Kate as a heroine, though it was sometimes hard to not know her back story until the very end of the book. I liked Henry a lot too. Donaldson did a good job showing how it was not just the women during this time that had limited options. I loathed both of the mothers and Kate’s sisters. I was frustrated by the fact that Kate often references the need to be proper, particularly in light of her sister’s scandals, and Henry even sleeps at a different inn at one point to preserve Kate’s honor, but then they apparently think nothing of flitting about the estate alone every night. But the scene where everything is unleashed is quite intense and good. As for the audio performance, I liked this narrator a bit better.

Edenbrooke, to me, feels lighthearted, in a good way. I love Marianne as a heroine. She has a quick wit and a good heart. And the sparring with Phillip makes me almost giddy. (I laugh every time I just think about the barmaid song.) I love that you see their relationship develop, granted over a pretty short period of time, on shared interests. And the love letter scene? Whew! *fans face* I like that there was no real villain trying to keep the couple apart – it was all relatively reasonable misunderstandings and the social strictures that constrained frank and open exchanges. While I enjoyed the audio performance, the narrator was a bit breathy for my taste. Anyway, I can’t put in to words quite how much I love Edenbrooke. It has earned a place on my shelf both as one of my favorite books of all time and also as an excellent comfort book. For these reasons, it comes out ahead.

Winner: Edenbrooke

I know that not everyone would come down this way on the judging. Vote in the poll below (by the end of August 2014) and leave your reasoning for your decision in the comments. Thanks for playing!



UBM1 Banner 2014