Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I actually finished reading ANNABEL yesterday, but I wanted to think about the book. At the end of a long workday, I don't really have the brain power to ponder weighty topics before bed, and this book deals with an intersex (i.e. hermaphrodite) character.

Wayne was born with an ovary, a testicle, a penis, and a uterus. He is a true hermaphrodite, and his state at birth shocks everyone. Because of the length of his penis, he qualifies as being able to be raised as a boy, which is what his father, Treadway, wants. His mother, Jacinta, wants Wayne to grow up intact, but Treadway insists on his way, so Wayne's vagina is sewed up, his penis is lengthened, he is given pills to take, and is labeled as a boy.

But Wayne is not gender typical. He likes to build things and fish, but he also likes to sing and dance, and isn't put off by the idea of wearing makeup or girl clothes. His father doesn't approve and pushes him to be masculine, as though overcompensating for his son's perceived shortcomings. Some reviewers said he was made out to be a villain, but considering that this takes place in rural Canada with trappers and men who participate in the machismo culture that comes with it, I found his father to be surprisingly liberal. Except for one moment of cruelty, which he regretted immediately (and did not involve abuse), Treadway tried really hard to be understanding -- even though it was so clearly obvious that he didn't understand, and never would be able to understand, because Wayne's unique situation was so out of his universe. Which is why, I think, he started trying to run away from his problems: to escape.

There are a lot of triggers in this book. There is a very unpleasant scene during Wayne's entrance to puberty where his abdomen bloats, and we learn that his abdomen is filled with blood that couldn't escape because his vagina was sewed up. Apparently, he got himself pregnant, because he has both parts and they are in such close proximity to one another, and when the doctors removed the blood, they found a fetus lodged in his Fallopian tubes (ew). I kind of wish this scene hadn't been included because not only is it gross, it also has the feel of an urban legend ... and not in a good way.

Another thing that bothered me about ANNABEL is its reliance on stereotypes. For example, in elementary school, Wayne runs into a gay pedophile who likes pretty boys and comes onto him. Wayne is also raped by a group of boys who think he's too pretty, and who have heard about his various sex change operations and want to test the merchandise. These scenes were cringeworthy and even though I understand why the author included them -- because intersex and trans men and women receive far more discrimination than LGB members, and are more likely to be sexually abused (at least according to this thing I read that I can't remember) -- it was still very upsetting and detracted, rather than added, to the storyline for me.

Overall, I liked ANNABEL. I liked the idea of Wayne's shadow self. It reminded me of this nonfiction book I read, which was called THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A GIRL. It features a boy with the opposite problem: a botched circumcision left him with a nub of a penis, and the doctors figured, "Oh, hey, obviously the penis makes the man (which happened in ANNABEL), so let's just raise him as a girl. He'll be fine." But the boy -- he was a boy -- wasn't fine. He didn't like dresses, and he wanted to play with boy toys and do sports. During puberty, he was attracted to girls, not boys, and the conflict between what he felt inside and what his parents and society and his doctors were telling him about his outsides, really fucked him up. He actually ended up committing suicide.

It just goes to show that we can't help how we're born. Whether we're male, female, or somewhere in between, the only one who ought to decide what label, if any, we're provided with is us. Because who knows us better than we know ourselves? I also think that in vague cases, like in this book and the one in TBWWRAAG, parents and doctors ought to wait until puberty, to see what happens when the natural hormones kick in and also to see what the child wants when they are in a position to decide for themselves.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Lick My Cheese: And Other Real Notes from the Roommate Frontlines by Oonagh O'Hagan

I am surprised I managed to read a book. It has been a very exhausting week. As you may or may not know, I have started a new job, and my first week they gave me like thirty hours. (Which is awesome -- I wanted the hours, but that is a lot of hours, especially with people beaning information at you all the time, from every which way. @_@) I've been super busy, basically, and haven't had time to write, much less read.

Anyway, I worked a split shift that ended just before midnight, and when I came home I was too sore to sleep so I picked up this book. ENTERTAIN ME, I demanded, and the poor book, it tried to comply, but it just couldn't live up to my expectations. I mean, with a title like I LICK MY CHEESE, I was expecting something hilarious and brilliant ... but instead, I received a "meh."

The notes themselves were pretty amusing. I've lived with roommates and, like, 75% of the time, I'd say everything is fine, and you're just doing your thing. But then there's that 25% of the time where everything the other person (or persons) does just makes you want to pull a Norman Bates and stab them in the shower. Some of these notes made me nod knowingly. Some of them seemed to suggest a half-told story that made me wonder what the deal with the other half was. Some were cute. Some were frightening. And some just weren't all that remarkable.

I think what bothered me the most about I LICK MY CHEESE is Oonagh O Hagan's commentary. She seems to think she's hilarious, but she is not. It's like watching America's Funniest Home Videos on an off-day. The person doing the narrating thinks they're a hoot, the audience has been paid to laugh, and the viewer is just sitting there, going, "What the fuck?"

Maybe if the commentary had been removed to make room for more notes, this would have been a better book. I was hoping for an art book in the style of PostSecret and instead I got ... I don't know. A Myspace picture slideshow before Myspace died, looking at a not-so-good friend's painfully unsuccessful attempts at being funny. That's what this is.


2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return by Ian Doescher

Let me start with a caveat: I won this in a giveaway but I didn't really apply for it for me. I have a friend who teaches Shakespeare and I thought that this would be a fun teaching tool to help familiarize her students with the language in a safe, fun, and friendly context. So my main goal in applying for this book was so I could give it to a friend as a present.

Let me start with another caveat. I'm not a huge Star Wars fan. I really liked the movies but I haven't seen them in over ten years, so a lot of the references and names were a total blur. For a hardcore fan, though, I think THE JEDI DOTH RETURN would be a really fun book to read.

Quirk Classics always publishes stuff like this, and it's one of the reasons I love them as a publisher; they aren't afraid to go against the grain and try something different. It's why even though I don't always like their books, I always keep coming back for more; it's just a question of what resonates with your personal tastes.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Black Lyon by Jude Deveraux

Note: bodices actually were ripped in this book.

***Warning: contains major spoilers***

This is the second Jude Deveraux book I read. The first was THE TAMING, a.k.a. "the book with the lice."  As I read, I noticed many similarities: dumb as dirt heroines, emotionally disturbed heroes who self-medicate by liberally raping any woman stupid enough to "love" (read: lust after) him; jealous bitches who want to destroy teh world (read: break up the Hero and heroine), and so on.

We start out with Disney Reject, who finds out that her parents have a visitor coming to the castle. This visitor is Beast Man, one of the king's earls, rich as sin, and apparently dangerous as all get out. Everyone calls him The Black Lyon because he is as fearsome as a lion. Did you see what Ms. Deveraux did there? DO U C?

Disney Reject meets Beast Man and it is lust--I mean, love--at first sight. Because as it turns out, Beast Man was ill-used by his first wife, Dis Bitch, who was several years older than him and ran circles around him with her adultery. Also she killed her daughter and was like "trololo now nobody loves you, that's what you get for not letting me marry my farm boy, Money Bags!" So Beast Man hates women, and has sworn that he won't get married, except to the woman who can make him laugh and/or smile, which Disney Reject does--so marriage tiem!!!!1

They are engaged then and Beast Man undergoes a total personality transplant. Before he was flirtatious and charming (except for this creepy moment when he sneaks into DR's bedroom and watches her sleep and touches her threateningly and says, "I FEEL FEELINGS FOR YOU. IF YOU LOOK AT ANOTHER MAN I KEEL YOU. K?"); now he is just rapey and rapier. He rapes her on their wedding night and then a few days later, because how dare she make him feel feels.

It doesn't help matters when Disney Reject's childhood friend, Whiny Bitchboy, comes along and starts saying, "You only married him for his money! WE were supposed to get married!" He comes up with this brilliant (read: idiotic) scheme where he fudges some love letters the heroine had written to an imaginary husband-to-be and conveniently left lying around (read: deus ex machina) and says, "I WILL SHOW YOUR HUSBAND THESE LOVE LETTERS YOU WROTE TO 'ME' IF YOU DON'T GIVE ME MONEY. OR MAYBE I WILL JUST KILL HIM. SO GIVE ME MONEY."

And despite knowing that her husband is super insecure about women marrying him for his wealth and title (read: paranoid and psychotically violent), she steals one of the gemstones he happens to conveniently keep lying around (read: deus ex machina) and pays off Whiny Bitchboy under the cloak of night. Now, to be fair, Disney actually tries to talk to her husband about this, but he goes psycho and says, "DON'T YOU DARE TALK ABOUT OTHER MEN TO ME. EVER." So I can understand her helplessness and frustration. It's not easy being a Disney Reject without any helpful Deus Ex Machina Bluebirds and Mice to help you out in a pinch. (She has a horse later on in the book, but he's mostly just good at showing them bitches what's what--more on this later.)

Obviously, Beast Man is pissed off when he discovers what's happened. He kills Whiny Bitchboy with his sword and informs her that the marriage is off, and that he's going off to fight some shit (read: Welshmen). He also manages to work in the fact that this is all her own fault because she probably committed some adultery along the lines, conveniently forgetting that she was a virgin when he bedded her, and that he was so rough with the way he used her that he actually felt guilty (read: Jackson Pollock painting on the marital sheets). Disney Reject defends her honor, and Beast Man punches her in the face, splitting her lip, and is like, "We're through, bitch!"

Disney Reject decides that this unfortunate series of events means that she hasn't tried hard enough to love him, and that she must up her game in order to be number one bitch in her man's life. She dresses up as a surf and follows her husband. She ends up striking up a frenemy relationship with one of Beast Man's old lovers, a half-Arab woman named Maude. Maude knows Disney wants to impress Beast Man, so she opens up a trunk to reveal an XXX-rated Jasmine costume, which she then allows Disney to wear while teaching her how to dance sexily. The Jasmine Costume originally belonged to Maude's mother, who then passed it on down to Maude, and she makes this grody comment about how the costume has seen all kinds of passionate nights, & I'm like, "I really hope you washed those."

So Disney dances for Beast Man and he gets aroused, and Disney is like, "How can he enjoy watching another woman dance? Even though it's me, he doesn't know, and that's cheating, boo hoo hoo," and she flees, and Maude must placate the cockblocked and angry Beast Man. Eventually he realizes that Sexy Jasmine Costume is actually Disney Reject, when his men (including his brother) are molestering her and her hood comes off. He's still angry (and jelus!) but secretly pleased that she would follow him all this like a lost puppy. Then the Welshmen come and Beast Man comes close to taking an arrow to the knee, but Disney Reject jumps in front of him, somehow managing to out-run the arrow, and they end up pinned together by the arrow like a human shishkebab.

Disney Reject almost dies, and Beast Man is like, "Wait, I've decided I love you!"

Sexings ensue.

Then Disney Reject suffers another scare when her husband goes on a boat and jumps overboard to save a drowning person. His crew are about to leave him, because this is the medieval times and nobody swims except witches (and also bits of wood). But Disney is like, "MOTHERFUCKERS, MY HUSBAND IS DOWN IN THAT SHIT AND IF YOU LEAVE HIM BEHIND I'MMA FUCK ALL OF YOU UP." Beast Man is safe and sound, and laughs at her for being so scared, which results in Disney's feelings getting hurt. Again. Also, it turns out that the "sailor" he saved was actually a Frankish woman named Amica, who has decided that she has a major lady hard-on for Beast Man.

All of Disney's joy at finding out she's pregnant vanishes because This Other Bitch is like, "Ooh, your husband sent me a love letter the other day." Or, "Ooh, your husband fucks so good, but you already know that, right?" She follows Disney around being all like, "And then I showed him my O face. O! O! O!" Until Disney is like, "SHUT UP OR I'LL PUT YOU UP IN THE GARRISON." And then This Other Bitch be like, "ENIGMATIC THREATS." So Disney settles for having her horse throw her and laughing about it. But then, oh noez!, This Other Bitch claims that she got knocked up by Beast Man and that she's pregnant too, and since he loves her more, Disney Reject's child will be declared a bastard. And if Disney contests the inevitable marriage between This Other Bitch and Beast Man, the Frankish King will declare war on the English King and the apocalypse will happen.

But that's okay, because she has a plan. Disney will go to Ireland with relatives of her father and give birth to the child there and then This Other Bitch will take the child back to live with her and Beast Man and This Other Bitchbaby. Everyone will live happily ever after, except for Disney Reject.

Now, why Disney Reject is so quick to believe that this other woman who so clearly has it out for her would do anything to help her is beyond me, but believe her she does, and she doesn't realize anything is wrong until the "man" of Lord Beast Man's--let's call him Rapey McPriss--starts making some very suggestive comments about how he's the only thing standing between her and a gang rape.

Disney Reject ends up seasick and by faking how sick she actually is (read: the villains are morons), she learns that Disney Reject propositioned Beast Man and was summarily told to fuck off. So she decided to get revenge on him by holding his wife and unborn baby for ransom. Also, Rapey McPriss plans to rape the shit out of Disney Reject just as soon as she's not sick (or pregnant--although he contradicts himself a lot here; he doesn't want to bang a pregnant chick, but then he does...make up your mind, bro!). Apparently, he has a major germ phobia, so Disney makes a point to throw up lots and lots just to really squick out Rapey McPriss. They end up at the cottage of Filthy Cougar, who likes taking advantage of young men and making people suffer. Perfect arrangement for all!

Except...Beast Man has snuck into their fold in disguise by chopping firewood. He has given his men orders to distract Prissy McRape, who has gone to see why the ransom is taking so long to arrive. Disney Reject gives birth, and they take a breather from running for their lives to admire how perfect the baby is because OMG BABIEZ!!!! Then they escape to freedom, and end up at Disney Reject's parents'. We don't ever find out what happened to This Other Bitch, Filthy Cougar, or Rapey McPriss; Disney Reject makes it a point to assure us that she didn't bother asking. Why? Why not? I know if I were kidnapped by a bunch of perverted creepholes, I'd want to see them all suffer. But there you go.

And then everyone lives happily ever after.

The end.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

What just happened...?

SWIMMING HOME is a very mystifying book, and looking at the low average rating of it, I'm guessing a lot of people just didn't get it. No, I'm not being pretentious. I didn't get it, either. But I can still appreciate good writing and storytelling.

SWIMMING HOME takes place in a tiny French village just north of Nice. A man (Joe) is renting with his family and two family friends (Laura and Mitchell). They are shocked when they see a body floating in the pool. They are even more shocked when the body is very much alive...and naked.

Kitty Finch is as flighty as the bird she's named for, and crazy as a bag of mixed nuts. She stutters from quitting her meds cold turkey, she goes into rages, she picks right to the core of people's insecurities and then picks and picks some more until they bleed (figuratively--and literally). She's fascinating.

Joe feels some attraction towards her, which makes it all the weirder that his wife, sensing this, would offer to let Kitty stay with them. Maybe she knew that the guilt would tip her husband over the edge? Even Nina, their daughter, has complicated feelings towards Kitty, who looks like how Nina would like to look herself but acts like an overgrown child in an adult's body. Which makes it even creepier that Joe wants to sleep with her, because that's a little bit pedophilic, in a way. Maybe it's Freudian; maybe it's supposed to suggest that Joe wants to fuck his own daughter, but Kitty will do just as well.

I think what I liked best about SWIMMING HOME is that it has so many layers for interpretation. This would make a great book for a book club because, despite being such a short book, there is so much to discuss. Is the book about class? About the mentally ill? About how sometimes the most sane-seeming people are really the most damaged? About xenophobia? About Freudian theory and the Electra complex? About penis envy? Male castration? Manic pixie dream girls?

The possibilities are endless.

What a great palate cleanser this was.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kitty Kitty by Michele Jaffe

I really liked the first book in this series, BAD KITTY. Unfortunately, the second book, KITTY KITTY, suffers from a major case of second book syndrome.

So Jas is grounded, as per usual, and her father is going into Dadzilla overdrive because of her new rockstar boyfriend, Jack. His solution? To whisk her off to Italy on the pretext of writing a scholarly text about the history of...soap.

And ordinarily, this wouldn't be so bad because sunny Italy, hot men, Italian classes, new friends. But Jas's new friend, Arabella, is super paranoid and convinced that somebody is going to kill her. Jas laughs this off a little ha-ha-ha, right, but then Arabella really does turn up dead and Jasmin can't help but feel responsible.

Now what do I mean from second book syndrome?

Remember the Stephanie Plum series? Remember how awesome and dark the first couple books were, and then how, around book four or five or so, they suddenly dissolved into unintelligible zaniness, in which cars exploded, terrible neon leopard outfits were worn, and Stephanie just couldn't decide, dammit, between Ranger and Joe? Also, naked perverts?

That is what happened with this book. Jack, the boyfriend, doesn't make an appearance at all, except for, like, a heartbeat at the end. The character development with her cousin, Alyson, and her cousin's friend, Veronique, was completely undone. All the made-up faux Italian words just made me roll my eyes, and the sparkling wit was just bitchy sarcasm and random non-sequiturs. I was so disappoint.

I ended up skimming the last hundred pages, because I was so bored.

1 out of 5 stars.

Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen by Serena Valentino

I love fairytale retellings. I'd had my eye on this one for a while, and was intrigued by the drag queen-like makeup on the cover. I even hoped that maybe the Evil Queen would be a drag queen...but then I realized that FAIREST was published by Disney Press and that seemed unlikely.

FAIREST OF ALL is a prequel to Snow White, and yes, since it is published by Disney it relies heavily on imagery from the movie, like the box with the heart-and-sword clasp, the floating mask in the magic mirror, the dress of rags.

The main character in this book is, of course, the nameless Queen. She grew up with an abusive father who resented her because his wife died giving birth to her. We learn that he constantly called her ugly, told her that nobody would ever love her, and even beat her fairly regularly.

All of these things have given the Queen a complex about her looks, although she has a good heart and a loving husband and step-daughter, so she does her best not to think of these things and to try and be grateful for what she has. Her husband is often going off to war, and his three witchy cousins decide to stop by. Their horrific tales and threats terrify Snow White, and the Queen banishes them from the castle because of the way they treat her beloved step-daughter. But then, when her husband dies, they return with a gift. A magic mirror...with a very special inhabitant.

The inclusion of the three witches reminded me of Macbeth. I thought making the Queen a victim of abuse and fate was an interesting--albeit unoriginal--touch. I think what Disney was trying to do here with Snow White and the Evil Queen was what they were trying to do for Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty. The ending was very similar, in the sense that maternal love can be enough to break a curse and transcend evil. I even teared up a little, because OMG SO SAD BOO HOO HOO.

That said, I think FAIREST OF ALL is a cash cow at heart. Shallow characterization, straightforward writing, and the lack of new material in the book really made FAIREST OF ALL fluff. It was a good palate-cleanser, and not offensive or badly-written, but it wasn't particularly good, either. I'm not sure how much of this is the author's fault; I'm sure Disney gave her an outline and said, "Write this," leaving her with little creative leeway. I'd have to read her original work to make a solid judgment.

If you are a fan of redeemed villains and fairytale retellings, FAIREST OF ALL will be a light, pleasant read for you. Don't expect anything magnificent or life-changing, though.

3 out of 5 stars.