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Book Review: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles

February 15, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien CharlesSummary:
Daria loves the city of Odessa in her home country of the Ukraine. The history of the city, the architecture, and the food. But she’s a highly educated engineer unable to find a job in her field, so she’s stuck working as a secretary for an Israeli import business, dodging the advances of both her own boss and the boss of the local mob. She takes on a second job translating for an online dating agency that matches Ukrainian women with American men. Soon she gets swept up in the idea of escaping to America, where she could actually work as an engineer and get treated like a queen by a man who won’t drink too much or keep mistresses or leave her. But will the reality of America match her dreams? And will living there ever be able to compare to her life in Odessa?

Review:
Confession. I have a thing for mail order bride / arranged marriage stories. I also have a thing for watching reality tv shows about marriages that will inevitably be trainwrecks (I’m looking at you, 90 Day Fiance). I was expecting this book to basically be the equivalent of 90 Day Fiance only on paper. Delightful, yet trashy. What I found was a book that was indeed truly delightful, but that also brought a realistic, humanizing face to modern day marriages that are not for love.

The book lingers in Odessa much longer than I was initially expecting, and I’m so glad it did. This gives a firm basis for who Daria is before she comes to America and really puts the reader in her shoes. The author clearly has a love for and strong knowledge of Odessa, Ukrainian culture, and the Russian language. Within just a few pages, it immediately becomes clear that Daria is whip-smart. Her understanding of the ins and outs of both English and Russian are amazing. She is witty, and it’s easy to see how she would have succeeded in any life circumstance. But it also quickly becomes apparent that although she loves Odessa, it doesn’t let her truly grow into who she wants to be. Every life experience she has had has taught her that Odessan/Ukrainian men will only use her and leave her, and she wants a lifetime partner and commitment. Similarly, she can’t use her engineering degree in Odessa, due to the economy, and she wants to live someplace where she can. The clear and slow unveiling of these conjoining life situations helps the reader to come to understand why she is willing to have a business-style marriage, rather than a love marriage. The American man she meets needs a wife, and she needs a life partner and a ticket to a better life.

Of course, not all is as it seems with the American man. The second half of the book dives into life in America for Daria and depicts the harsh realities of using a business-style marriage to immigrate. Even if her marriage had been perfect (which wow it isn’t), Daria still suffers culture-shock and the realization that America is definitely not perfect. There are pros and cons to living anywhere in the world.

Although her marriage is on the worse side of the arranged marriage bell curve, the author still shows the variety of marriages that can result from this type of arrangement by having Daria naturally seek out other women who came to America in similar ways. She thus meets women in both better and worse marriages than her own, and so the reader sees how, although it can possibly work out, the whole situation is ripe for abuse. For instance, if a marriage that included a K1 visa (bringing a non-US citizen into the US) is dissolved within 3 years then the spouse who was brought over on the K1 visa loses their citizenship. This means that women in these types of marriages are afraid to leave abusive situations because they believe that they will automatically be deported. There are exceptions for cases of abuse, but the women often do not know that, and the men in these situations often threaten the women with deportation. This information is all given within the book with subtlety and within the context of what will Daria do now, which lends a human face to the situation.

Given how interesting and realistic most of the book was, I must admit that I felt the end of the book went a bit soap opera, and the ending in general left me wanting. I can’t put my finger on what exactly about it left me feeling as if the story was incomplete, but it did. I don’t have any regrets about reading the book, though, because I so enjoyed seeing the world through Daria’s eyes.

Overall, anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction and is interested in either the Ukraine or the modern day “mail order bride” as done through online agencies will enjoy this book. The main character is rich and well-rounded and brings a human face to the often underrepresented immigrant side of the K1 visa story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Unreal City by A.R. Meyering

December 2, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Unreal City by A.R. MeyeringSummary:
Sarah Wilkes can hardly believe she’s going away to freshman year of college without her twin sister Lea–who was discovered dead from drowning far away from any water.  She moves through life in a haze until a cat-like creature shows up on one of her walks through campus.  He claims to be a familiar spirit who can bring her to Unreal City, a place where she can make her dreams come true.  There’s only one catch. The price of permanent admission is drinking her blood.  Unable to resist, Sarah journeys to Unreal City but the dream world soon takes on a sinister tone.

Review:
This book piqued my curiosity when it was submitted to me as a possibility for review last year.  I knew when I read the summary that a plot such as this could only go either well-rendered and touching or flat and ridiculous.  I took a chance, and I’m glad I did.  The book offers a look at grief in the young, but wrapped in a fantastical setting that makes encountering such a big topic more palatable.

The fantastical plot at first seems simple.  A familiar spirit who reads as sinister comes to Sarah and offers her a bargain.  Feed him (preferably with her blood, but her hair will do in the meantime), and he will bring her to a world where she can escape her grief.  It seems that he is targeting her for sinister reasons, but slowly over the course of the plot the reader realizes there is more to it than this.  This is one of my favorite types of fantasy.  One that reads initially as simple but becomes increasingly complex over the course of the book.  The fantastical plot slowly takes the reader first deep into Sarah’s grief then into her trying to solve her sister’s death and finally into forgiveness and healing.  It perhaps sounds heavy-handed when I put it that way, but the book makes it so it is not at all.  The reader realizes initially they are encountering a young person’s grief, but then gets pulled into the fantastical world of Unreal City.  Sarah’s grief process then becomes part of that fantasy, so it is more subtle.

The fantasy world is interesting.  It takes the basic concept of a familiar spirit (traditionally, a spirit that a witch would allow to suckle from her in exchange for its magical service) and expands upon it.  There are a set number of familiars in Unreal city, each of whom is correlated with a certain sector of the city.  They each must find a person from our world to feed them and even give them an identity and appearance.  That person can control their own sector, and I do mean control.  They dictate its appearance and are able to defy all scientific laws.  But they can’t control what happens in other people’s sectors, and that’s where Unreal City becomes more complex.  It’s a mix of parallel universes and familiar spirits.

The mystery of Lea’s death kept me guessing, and its resolution is eloquent.  The only thing holding me back from five stars is that for me, personally, at the time I read this, I did not have the level of experience with the book that is necessary for me to consider a book a five star read.  It needs to be something life-changing or that I know I will think of over and over again.  I am sure I would have felt differently though if I was either younger when I read it or had recently experienced a close loss.  (Interestingly, I read this only a couple of weeks before my father passed.  I am certain I would have had a more powerful experience with it if the order had been reversed).

Overall, this is a relatable rendering of grief and loss in the young, particularly in the late teen years, wrapped in a fantastical world that is engaging and keeps the plot from becoming too heavy-handed.  Recommended to readers suffering from recent loss or looking for a unique fantastical world. Especially those who are interested in a new adult setting.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Categories: Book, contemporary, Genre, Review, YA

Book Review: Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella

August 25, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Remember Me? by Sophie KinsellaSummary:
The last thing Lexi remembers she’s a 24 year old in the year 2004 with bad teeth, a bad boyfriend, and at the bottom of the totem pole in a new job where she hasn’t been working long enough to be able to get the annual bonus.  When she wakes up in hospital, though, she’s told that the year is 2007, she’s 28, the boss of her department, and married to a millionaire!  She’s told she was in a car accident that gave her amnesia, and now she has to piece together just how she got to this place in her life, especially when not everything is as rosy as it seems at first.  Her millionaire husband is controlling, her once best friends give her the cold shoulder, and everyone at work seems to think that she’s a bitch.

Review:
True story. I spotted this sitting on top of a neighbor’s recycling bin and snatched it up as soon as I recognized the author’s name.  I was a big fan of Sophie Kinsella’s in high school, and I just couldn’t bear to see a perfectly nice condition hardcover of one of her books get recycled.  I wondered if I would enjoy her contemporary romance as much now as a late 20-something as I did as a teen.  I’m happy to say I certainly enjoyed this one just as much, although in a slightly different way than I used to.

I wonder how much I would have appreciated this book a few years ago.  As a late-20 something myself, I laughed out loud at how the 24 year old version of me would react if she was plunked into my current life.  A lot really does change in 4 years in your 20s, especially with regards to your career and your love life.  The plot kind of reminded me a bit of the plot of one of my favorite romcoms 13 Going On 30.  Someone who is (or perceives of themselves as) much younger and less experienced than the person whose life they are now living.  How that affects them and how they react to it is really interesting.  Both stories show how important actually going through the growing pains really are.  You can’t just suddenly handle a more adult life; you have to grow into it.

I also appreciated that, although Lexi’s husband is drop-dead gorgeous, both she and he believe she should not sleep with him until she is comfortable with him again.  She may be married to him, but she doesn’t remember who he is, and she shouldn’t do anything until she’s ready.  If she ever is.  Her husband is definitely controlling of her when it comes to how their household is run and how they spend money, but he is very respectful of her sexually.  He doesn’t touch her unless invited to, and he stops when she says to.  I was really happy to see this focus on positive, enthusiastic consent portrayed in the book.

The exploration of Lexi’s career path from lower level to high-powered boss is fascinating.  Lexi is torn up that now that she’s a boss those under her think she’s a bitch.  There’s a nuanced exploration of how women in power are often perceived of as bitches, even if they’re just being assertive.  However, there’s also a nice exploration of how to still be true to yourself when in power.  You don’t necessarily have to lead in the traditional “masculine” way if you don’t want to.  This combined with the exploration of aging gave a depth to the romance that kicked it up a notch for me.

It says a lot for how much the book made me like Lexi that I was able to get past one plot point that usually spoils romances for me.  However, that plot point did knock the book down from 5 to 4 stars for me.

*spoilers*
It turns out that 28 year old Lexi is cheating on her husband.  24 year old Lexi is just as horrified by this as I always am by cheating.  The exploration of how she wound up cheating on him didn’t make it ok to me, but I did appreciate that 24 year old Lexi took agency and addressed the situation, rather than lingering in married but cheating land.  I appreciated that Lexi was able to acknowledge her mistakes, forgive herself for them, and grow and change.
*end spoilers*

Overall, fans of contemporary romance will enjoy this fun take on the amnesia plot.  The plot doesn’t just cover a romance, it also covers the growing pains of being in your 20s, the challenges women face when they become the boss, and how to learn from your mistakes.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Rescued from a recycling bin

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Book Review: The Kitchen Witch by Annette Blair (Series, #1)

November 6, 2014 2 comments

Book Review: The Kitchen Witch by Annette Blair (Series, #1)Summary:
Logan finds himself a single dad after his young son’s mother abandons him on his doorstep, so he moves back to his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, looking to provide his young son with some stability.  He has a bad rep from his teen years in Salem to get over, though, and he hopes his new job as a television producer at the local tv station will help.  He wasn’t expecting his downstairs neighbor Melody Seabright, however.

Melody, who seems incapable of holding onto a job for any length of time, gets him to get her a meeting with the owner of the tv station and somehow convinces him to give her her own tv show, The Kitchen Witch.  The only problem is she can’t cook, and whether or not she’s really a witch is up for debate.

Can Melody learn how to cook and hold onto the job? Or are both of their jobs now in jeopardy?  And why does Logan keep thinking about such an unpredictable woman when he knows he needs to provide stability for his son?

Review:
I picked this up on a free book cart at a local library because the cover and title were cute, and I definitely am periodically in the mood for some lighthearted paranormal romance.  I was a bit disappointed to find this isn’t really a paranormal romance, but I still enjoyed the contemporary tale it told, primarily due to its featuring a good-hearted single dad.

Logan is a contemporary romance character who will make many readers’ hearts beat a bit faster.  He’s cute, young, has a high-powered job, lives in the quirky town of Salem and enjoys it, and is an awesome single dad to his young son.  Having him be a bad boy who overcame it for his son is the perfect last touch for a contemporary romance.  I can see many readers enjoying fantasizing about him.

Melody may be a bit more hit and miss with readers.  The delightfully clumsy bit has been used a lot in romance recently and may feel a bit been there done that.  Her apartment is divinely adorable, though, and she has some curves that are always looked upon as a good thing.  Her difficult relationship with her own father adds some depth to the character, but some readers might have trouble sympathizing with a poor little rich girl, although I do think that Blair handled this particular aspect well.

Blair also writes children characters beautifully.  The son sounds like a child, and yet still has the proper astuteness and vocabulary for his age.  The only negative I can say about him is that I honestly already forgot his name.  However, I enjoyed his presence every time he popped up into the story.

The plot is where things get a bit shaky.  The book is definitely marketed as a paranormal romance, and there are hints at the beginning of the book that Melody might be a witch, but that never comes to fruition.  The best I can tell is that she’s learned how to act and sound like a witch by virtue of living and working in Salem.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but it was disappointing given that I thought I was getting a paranormal story.  I also thought that if the book is going to have Logan suspicious Melody is a witch, at some point he should definitely find out once and for all whether she is one.  I think perhaps the book was trying to say she’s just a regular girl with some knowledge of Wicca (which isn’t the same thing as being a paranormal romance witch, since Wicca is a religion and doesn’t actually involve paranormal romance style magic but it’s still a reveal I would have been happier with).  However, that also is never firmly revealed.  Just what type of witch, if any, Melody is is just a plot idea that is dropped and never fully dealt with, which is a bit frustrating.

A bigger plot issue to me though is that this book falls into the romance trope of everyone can see the couple should be together but the couple makes up fake obstacles to stand in their way and they just have to come to their senses and deal with their own stupidity to get over it.  (I really wish there was a shorter way to describe that particular trope…..)  It is just a trope that really bugs me.  I don’t mind real obstacles in the way of a couple, but the couple just being idiotic and making up their own obstacles feels to me like the author stirring up fake drama to make the book longer.  Also, I am 100% a-ok with a couple meeting, working out some realistic difficulties, and then being together.  Things that are overly dramatic for the sake of drama just rub me the wrong way.  Some readers may be ok with this trope, but for those who aren’t, be aware that this is where the plot eventually goes.

Having been to Salem multiple times, I can say that the author clearly did her research, as she depicts the culture and feel of Salem quite well.  She also understands the layout of the town and even gives a realistic vague-ish location for Logan and Melody’s house.  (In the few blocks nearish the House of the Seven Gables, in case you’re wondering).

The sex scenes were good, not ridiculous.  They weren’t mind-blowingly hot, but they were fun to read and well-written.

Overall, this is a good contemporary romance featuring a lovable single dad love interest that is mismarketed as a paranormal romance.  Those looking for paranormal romance should be aware that this fits in much better with the contemporary romance crowd.  Additionally, those who are frustrated by couples keeping themselves apart for no reason should be aware that this is the romance trope found in this particular book.  Recommended to those looking for a steamy contemporary read featuring a heartthrob single dad and a realistically quirky New England town.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library free book cart

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Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Blue cover with four diplomas on it.  The cover contains the title and author's name in purple.Summary:
Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College.  Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic.  Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand.  Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor.  Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for.  Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.

Review:
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college.  It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues.  Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.

What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation.  Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college.  This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future.  After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year.  The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace.  It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood.  It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read.  However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.

First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse.  They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person.  Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea.  Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now.  Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.

The book has a real GLBTQ problem.  One of the characters has two relationships.  One is with a man and one with a woman.  She is happy in both and attracted to both.  She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well.  Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book.  The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her.  She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian.  The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend.  It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual.  This is why she is uncomfortable with the label.  But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia.  The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is.  It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.

The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss.  It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic.  Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship.  Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.

Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read.  However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar.  Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book.  The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers.  Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending.  For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Listening To Dust by Brandon Shire

August 24, 2013 1 comment

Sepia image of dust floating up into the sky in the countryside with the book's title "Listening To Dust" in brown in the foreground and the author's name "Brandon Shire" in black at the top.Summary:
A chance meeting between orphaned British writer, Stephen, and American soldier, Dustin, leads to a passionate love affair in England.  But when Dustin chooses to go back home to his small Southern town to care for his mentally challenged brother, Stephen is left behind, sending letters that are never answered.  He finally decides to follow Dustin home and arrives only to discover that Dustin is no more.

Review:
This is my second read by Brandon Shire.  The first, The Value Of Rain (review), blew me way with its passionate, multi-generational family drama featuring a gay main character.  I was thus eager to accept a second arc from Shire, and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.

There are some commonalities in the stories.  Both feature a gay man who grew up in an unaccepting family and show the impact that has on their lives.  But that’s where the similarities cease.  Listening To Dust is really about a gay man who grew up with an accepting and loving grandmother trying to come to terms with who his lover is and was and how his lover’s family affects and affected him.  This book is really more about what it is to love someone who suffers from deep childhood wounds.  The difficult path that is to follow and how many pitfalls exist in it.  Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Stephen’s voice, I still respected his experiences and the difficult situations he found himself in.  I also appreciated seeing the far-reaching impact lack of love and family acceptance has.  It doesn’t just affect the people raised in that family.

The writing is again gorgeous.  Even now I can feel the hot dustiness of Dustin’s hometown and also the comforting cool greenery of Stephen’s grandmother’s French cottage.  Shire elicits both place and emotions so powerfully that it is impossible not to be moved by the story.

I also really enjoyed the various commentary throughout the book on love, words, and actions.  What love is, what it does, and whether words or actions are worth more.

So I guess we were both right, and both wrong about actions and words.  Like the two of us, one is empty without the other. (location 1014)

The sex scenes manage to be steamy and emotional.  What I might call literary sex scenes.  When I read them, I felt them in my knees.

Even now I can feel the heat from your palm as you cupped the back of my head and pulled my lips those last few inches, how you opened your body and begged me with your soul. (location 1726)

Damn.

So what held me back from 5 stars?  As previously stated, I wasn’t a huge fan of Stephen’s voice, although I respected his experiences.  He sometimes grated on me a bit.  I’m not sure if it was his slight Britishisms or how much he got hung up in his own head but he sometimes irritated me in a way that kept me from getting completely engrossed in the story.  But this is a small thing, really, when compared to the story as a whole and the beautiful writing.

Overall, this is a book that sweeps the reader away to multiple, disparate places to explore both love and the far-reaching affects of a harsh family life.  It should appeal to any who enjoy a heart-breaking contemporary GLBTQ romance.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Note: 10% of all proceeds donated to LGBT Youth Charities combating homelessness.