Tag Archives: Contemporary Literature

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.


The Awakening of Miss Prim, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

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

When I read the blurb about this book, I was intrigued and ready to be charmed. Here’s the blurb:

Prudencia Prim is a young woman of intelligence and achievement, with a deep knowledge of literature and several letters after her name. But when she accepts the post of private librarian in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois, she is unprepared for what she encounters there. Her employer, a book-loving intellectual, is dashing yet contrarian, always ready with a critique of her cherished Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. The neighbors, too, are capable of charm and eccentricity in equal measure, determined as they are to preserve their singular little community from the modern world outside.

Prudencia hoped for friendship in San Ireneo but she didn’t suspect that she might find love—nor that the course of her new life would run quite so rocky or would offer challenge and heartache as well as joy, discovery, and fireside debate. Set against a backdrop of steaming cups of tea, freshly baked cakes, and lovely company, The Awakening of Miss Prim is a distinctive and delightfully entertaining tale of literature, philosophy, and the search for happiness.

Unfortunately, I was not particularly charmed by this book, though I did like aspects of it. Ooh. I feel a pro/con list coming on.

Pros

  • Interesting characters! I enjoyed a lot of the characters, including Miss Prim, but I didn’t quite get to spend enough time with any of them.
  • Small town charm! And a bit of mystery (and confusion) about why this little enclave was founded and how it worked.
  • Relatively readability! I read this very slowly during my work lunches. I wasn’t compelled to read more, but I did look forward to reading it.
  • A library and a librarian! Need I say more?

Cons

  • Confusion! I was confused about pretty much everything in this book. What time period were we in? Where were we? How old is the main character? Why is everyone here in this village?
  • Disjointedness! The scenes seemed choppy and didn’t flow well together.
  • Annoying name of the love interest! The man in the book is referred to constantly as “the Man in the Wingchair.” It was cute for a second and then just made me cringe.
  • Confusing philosophical, educational, religious, and feminist views! I still have no idea where this book lands on the questions it raises.
  • Open-ended ending! I felt like the ending was a bit of a cop-out.  It came too abruptly and did not resolve any of the issues posed by the book.

I know some of these problems could be attributed to the fact that this is a work in translation, but the fact remains that The Awakening of Miss Prim just didn’t work very well for me.


Review: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

You’ve undoubtedly heard about this book by now. There is a surprise Thing at the end of this that makes it rather impossible to talk about in detail in a review. But I’m going to give it my best.

Cadence “Cady” Sinclair is a member of the elite and wealthy Sinclair family. They are old money, complete with a private island, European looks, and a preferred brand of purebred dogs. Cady is the eldest grandchild, with two of her cousins just weeks and months behind her, Johnny and Mirren. Completing the “Liars” is Gat, the nephew of Johnny’s mom’s live-in Indian boyfriend. Each summer, the family spends the summer on the private island, and the Liars become inseparable. Then, during Summer Fifteen, Cady suffers an accident.

I liked We Were Liars. I read through it in one sitting (the reading time clocking in at just under three hours). It is undoubtedly compelling. And the descriptions of love and teenaged perceptions of love were so spot on, particularly in the first twenty pages or so, that they made me sigh out loud in happiness.

Turns out I liked it much more than I did the only other Lockhart I’ve read, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I read that one in a day as well, but it came across as much more preachy and message-y. Still, We Were Liars was not without its imperfections.

In light of the ubiquitous talk lately about diversity in books, this one gave me pause with the constant descriptions of the blonde Sinclair family, the matching golden retrievers, and the private island empire complete with squabbles about who will inherit what. To top it off, the “other” is present in the form of the poor(ish) and Indian Gat, whom no one really tries to understand outside the scope of summers at the island. While the book does point out some of the issues with the wealthy and entitled Sinclairs and the grandfather’s obvious racism, I didn’t feel that it really did enough to address them.

One other minor complaint is that after the Thing is revealed, the book ends rather abruptly. The story arc of the book is about Cady figuring out the Thing. None of the other issues are resolved. While that is probably rather true to life, I would have liked to see a bit more about how Cady deals with the Thing and how the rest of the family deals with the Thing. (Oh, also, I felt like the term “Liars” as it applied to the four was never adequately explained.)

Past all of that, I enjoyed being in Cady’s head, unreliable as that head was. And I particularly enjoyed her fairy tale retellings, sprinkled throughout the last section. I recommend this one, particularly if you like short, twisty books.


2013 Audiobook Roundup

Of the 19 audiobooks I listened to in 2013, I reviewed exactly one of them. I think it’s time we remedied that, no?

Purple Cow, by Seth Godin (Audio) – 1/2/2013
A slightly outdated business book by one of the gods of the internet, Seth Godin. It was about the fact that you need to make your product really stand out – like a purple cow. This one just didn’t do much for me.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling (Audio) – 2/5/2013
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling (Audio) – 3/20/2013
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling (Audio) – 4/17/2013
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling (Audio) – 5/29/2013

Sigh. Harry Potter. How do I love thee? I really just love this series, and I really enjoyed my first time through the audiobooks. The narrator, Jim Dale, is great. And the stories are great too. What’s not to love? I highly highly recommend these and will be looking to purchase them.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (Audio) – 3/25/2013
I had read the book before and really liked it. The audiobook confirmed it. I am in like with this book.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell (Audio) – 6/20/2013
From the Mixed-Up Fixes of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (Audio) – 7/11/2013

These two were nostalgia rereads for me. My brother and I both loved these two books as kids (and still do as adults). It is clear that these two books deserved the Newbery Awards they received. Interesting, too, that they share the theme of kids fending for themselves – one a girl left alone on an island, the other two siblings living alone in the Met. Such great books. Read them!

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner (Audio) – 7/29/2013
This was a bit of summer fluff for me. I enjoyed it for the most part, but thought it went on entirely too long. I can remember only the slightest hints of plot now, so it didn’t make that big of an impression either way.

Of Mice and Magic, by David Farland (Audio) – 8/19/2013
I “read” this for Utah Book Month, since this author is local. Sadly, I did not enjoy this book. It was a little too weird for my tastes. It’s about a boy who inadvertently gets turned into a mouse.

A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (Audio) – 9/23/2013
The Teacher’s Funeral, by Richard Peck (Audio) – 10/15/2013

These were my first experiences with Richard Peck. I truly loved A Year Down Yonder. What a lovely book. It’s about a teenage girl who goes to live out in the country with her grandmother during the depression, because her family cannot afford to feed her. So good. I did not, however, particularly enjoy The Teacher’s Funeral. It was a little too tongue-in-cheek for me. This one was mostly about pre-adolescent boys, so maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy it as much.

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park (Audio) – 10/1/2013
Another win for the Newbery! This book was riveting and so so good. It’s about a homeless orphan in Korea trying to survive. All he wants to be when he grows up is a potter, but he has little-to-no chance of being one because of his lack of class status. When he is caught spying on the best local potter, his life is completely changed.

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt (Audio) – 10/28/2013
I never did read this as a kid. And I wish I had. The magic was a little lost on me in favor of the practical repercussions of everything. This is about a family who drinks from a particular well and becomes immortal and the little girl who discovers their secret. I liked it but did not love it.

Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers (Audio) – 11/4/2013
Pretty good, though completely different from the Disney version. The parents in this one are completely disinterested in their children, and Mary Poppins comes off as a bit harsh. But still a fun book. I don’t know if I’ll be seeking out the other books in the series on my own, but it might be fun to read to my daughter at some point.

The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Audio) – 11/13/2013
Loved this book! So many twists and turns here. The main character, Sage, is an orphan and about to run away when he gets an offer he can’t refuse. This was really well written (and read). I’m so pleased both because of the joy of discovering a great book and because Jennifer A. Nielsen is a local Utah author.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo (Audio) – 11/17/2013
I really enjoyed The Tale of Despereaux, the only other work I’ve read by Kate DiCamillo. But I felt like this one was a little uneven. There were times that I cared deeply about Edward, and other times when I didn’t care at all. That said, I do think this would be an awesome one to read aloud to kids. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that all of Kate DiCamillo’s books are that way. I am currently reading Because of Winn-Dixie to my daughter, and it is a hit.

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie (Audio) – 11/25/2013
Here’s the entirety of the mini-review I posted previously: “I was eager to read this source material, since I was previously only familiar with the Disney version. Surprisingly, the Disney version is fairly true to the material. I liked the asides in the book about how Peter Pan is very selfish – as most children are.” After hours and hours of Harry Potter, it was a little disconcerting to have Jim Dale read this too, but I ended up liking the narration.

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck (Audio) – 12/20/2013
Still reigning as my favorite Steinbeck book, I really enjoyed listening to this one. This time around, though, I got more irritated with Mack and the boys and their selfishness. Poor Doc. This is a great entry into Steinbeck, if you haven’t tried him yet. It’s short and awesome.