Category Archives: Fiction

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.


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!



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My Loving Vigil Keeping, by Carla Kelly

My grandma is an avid reader.  When I was little, she had, at the bottom of her basement stairs, tall built-in bookshelves stuffed full of magic.  I loved to browse and, even better, select something to explore.  Though those shelves are gone and I am much older, we still share this love of books and often talk about the things we are reading.  During a recent visit, my grandma told me about a new friend she had made.  This friend was an author and had given my grandma a signed copy of her latest book.  My grandma loved the book.  And my curiosity was further peaked when she said this friend had just moved to Idaho from Utah.

My friends, despite my grandma’s recommendation, I was prepared not to like this book.  But oh, I did.  I did.  My Loving Vigil Keeping is a historical romance that takes place primarily in Scofield, Utah, a mining town, in 1899 and 1900.  The book starts just months before the Scofield Mine Disaster, which was, at the time, the worst mining disaster in the history of the United States.  Our heroine, Della, managed to scrape her way through college to earn a teaching certificate.  Though she has a good job in Salt Lake, she heads to Scofield to teach, to escape her relatives, and to reconnect with her past.

Learning about the mining town and historical facts about Salt Lake and Provo, both near where I currently live, was very interesting.  The character development in general and of the protagonist in particular was lovely.  It was nice to see her grow and to see her find love.  I quite enjoyed the male lead and that there really isn’t any major drama about who will end up with whom. It does take place in a Mormon community, but the religious aspects were not the story. And I did think the ending was a little rushed and convenient, but I raced through this book.  I’ll definitely be reading more by Carla Kelly in the near future.  In fact, I went out and bought Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, so I have it on hand when the need strikes.

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Though Kelly no longer lives in Utah, this counts as a “Utah book” in my book, because it is set in Utah and it was published by Cedar Fort Publishing, a Utah publisher.


The Return of the King, Book 6 #LotRreadalong

We made it! What a fun readalong. Thank you to Jenni and Kami for hosting!

My Reading Process. I listened to much of Book 6, but then, I couldn’t take the suspense any more, and I raced through the end on my iPad. Overall, I really really enjoyed the flexibility that having both the audiobook and the ebook afforded me during this readalong.

My Thoughts on Book 6. I loved this book! The conclusion. The destruction of the ring at last. The wedding and coronation of Aragorn. The scouring of the Shire. The trip to the Grey Havens. Sigh. It is interesting that Tolkien choose to structure the last four books with overlapping timelines, focusing (almost) solely on Sam and Frodo in books 4 and 6. While I loved the books as-is, it might have had more emotional impact had the last stand of the kings alternated with Sam and Frodo’s struggle to get to Mount Doom. I don’t know. I probably shouldn’t second guess such a master.

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, I wholehearted enjoyed this book/series. Such amazing characters and scenes. I cried during large parts of Book 5 and Book 6, which was embarrassing at times because I was often driving to work when that happened.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Book 6:
You want to know what’s sad? There are only a few from the very end, since I listened to most of it. Sorry about that.

But the Queen Arwen said: ‘A gift I will give you. For I am the daughter of Elrond. I shall not go with him now when he departs to the Havens; for mine is the choice of Lúthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter. But in my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West, until all your wounds and weariness are healed. But wear this now in memory of Elfstone and Evenstar with whom your life has been woven!’

Foreshadowing! Also, an interesting reason for why Frodo gets to go.

It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.

‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’

The trees were the worst loss and damage, for at Sharkey’s bidding they had been cut down recklessly far and wide over the Shire; and Sam grieved over this more than anything else. For one thing, this hurt would take long to heal, and only his great-grandchildren, he thought, would see the Shire as it ought to be. Then suddenly one day, for he had been too busy for weeks to give a thought to his adventures, he remembered the gift of Galadriel. He brought the box out and showed it to the other Travellers (for so they were now called by everyone), and asked their advice.


It is strange that I had a pretty visceral reaction to them cutting down the party tree? Jerks.

So Sam planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each. He went up and down the Shire in this labour; but if he paid special attention to Hobbiton and Bywater no one blamed him. And at the end he found that he still had a little of the dust left; so he went to the Three-Farthing Stone, which is as near the centre of the Shire as no matter, and cast it in the air with his blessing. The little silver nut he planted in the Party Field where the tree had once been; and he wondered what would come of it. All through the winter he remained as patient as he could, and tried to restrain himself from going round constantly to see if anything was happening.

In the Party Field a beautiful young sapling leaped up: it had silver bark and long leaves and burst into golden flowers in April. It was indeed a mallorn, and it was the wonder of the neighbourhood.

Frodo dropped quietly out of all the doings of the Shire, and Sam was pained to notice how little honour he had in his own country. Few people knew or wanted to know about his deeds and adventures; their admiration and respect were given mostly to Mr. Meriadoc and Mr. Peregrin and (if Sam had known it) to himself.

Elrond wore a mantle of grey and had a star upon his forehead, and a silver harp was in his hand, and upon his finger was a ring of gold with a great blue stone, Vilya, mightiest of the Three.

But Galadriel sat upon a white palfrey and was robed all in glimmering white, like clouds about the Moon; for she herself seemed to shine with a soft light. On her finger was Nenya, the ring wrought of mithril, that bore a single white stone flickering like a frosty star.

As he turned and came towards them Frodo saw that Gandalf now wore openly on his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire. Then those who were to go were glad, for they knew that Gandalf also would take ship with them.

LotR Elven Rings

But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost.

ANSWERS TO DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Has your favorite character changed in The Return of the King? If yes, why?
Nope. Aragorn forever and ever. Amen. BUT, I did gain a greater appreciation for almost all of the other characters. Sam. Frodo. Merry. Pippin. Gandalf. Boramir. Faramir. Eowyn. Tom Bombadil. Elrond. Gollum. Theoden. Even Denethor and Saruman.

2. Which is your favorite book of the series? Why?
Can’t choose. I like them all for different reasons. I like Fellowship because of the set up and Rivendell and whatnot. I like Two Towers because of all the action and character development. I like Return of the King because of all the satisfactory resolutions!

3. Do you like how the series ended? Why?
Yes. Yes I do. I even like the denouement after the destruction of the ring. I thought the scouring of the Shire was kind of an awesome illustration of the lessons the hobbits learned along the way. And the ending at the Grey Havens and the ride home and Sam at Bag End? Perfect.

4. If you could change one thing about the ending what would it be and why?
Could we add in the part from the movie that Jenni and I love so much? “My friends, you bow to no one.”

5. Were there any changes in The Return of the King movie that you liked or disliked?
I’m bummed the movies didn’t include the healing stuff or the Shire stuff, but I understand why they did it. As aforementioned, I like the “my friends, you bow to no one” business.

6. What was your favorite moment in Book 6?
Can I pick three? Destruction of the ring. Reunion of the Fellowship. Coronation of Aragorn.

7. Which death affected you the most?
Apparently none. I can’t even think of a death in Book 6. Well, except Gollum, and I only thought that it was a fitting end.

8. Why do you think Frodo didn’t want to kill Saruman and Wormtongue, even after all the destruction and heartache they caused in the Shire?
Pacifist Frodo kind of annoys me, but it’s also understandable that after being saddled with an object of so much evil and destruction that he now eschews any kind of violence. I also think he learned his lesson with Gollum that every creature is pitiable in some way.

9. If you were in Frodo’s place, would you have done the same thing? (See previous question.)
I don’t know. I might be upset enough about the destruction of the Shire to kill them, but I think Frodo is already removed enough to not have that effect him.

10. If JRR Tolkien were still alive and wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings, which character would you want to see the most and why?
Aragorn!! Because Aragorn.