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Book Review: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea (Series, #1)

December 18, 2016 1 comment

Book Review: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea (Series, #1)Summary:
Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachussetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they’re somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic.

Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all.

Review:
I feel like if you’re a queer person in New England, you’ve heard of this book. A magical realism read featuring queer characters and a diverse cast set not in Boston but in the nearby town of Chelsea. Its art is gorgeous, and I’ve spotted print versions of it in every single local bookstore. The locals are proud of this book, that’s for sure. With everything I’d heard and the pictures I’d seen when flipping through print copies, I was expecting something a bit different from what I got. Maybe more queer content? Maybe magical rules based in the here rather than in the “old world”? Regardless, I enjoyed it. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.

First, let’s talk about my favorite thing which was how much the author evokes the reality of the place of run-down New England towns in spite (or because of?) the magical content. My skin prickled when I read about Sophie and her best friend going to Revere Beach in the summer. It was just so damn accurate. I had a similar sensation when she talked about the feeling of being in a town that was once booming and now is struggling. There’s no doubt about it, the New England towns that were once booming from manufacturing and are now struggling simply feel dirty, and the author really evokes that. (I should know; I grew up in one). Oddly enough, this magical realism book brings out the feeling of small town struggling New England life more than a lot of realistic fiction I’ve read. If you want to know what it feels like to grow up in one of those towns, read this book.

Second, there’s the magical content. I was expecting something steeped in the local as well, but instead the magic was based entirely in countries parents and grandparents emigrated from. There’s nothing bad about that, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from a book so steeped in place. I also must admit that I found the whole vibe of “magic can only come from other places” to be a bit disappointing. America may be a young nation, but we have our own magic. I’d have liked to have seen a mix of both, rather than the magic be exlusively the domain of immigration.

Third, there’s the queer content. I think I was expecting it to take a more central role, particularly since this is ya (and was talked about a lot in the LGBTQ book reading community) but actually I found it to be more like how the local PCP just so happens to be Asian-American. It’s a thing some people just happen to be and not much is made of that. That’s not a bad thing, again, it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

Overall, this is a fun read steeped in local flavor that I recommend to anyone seeking a fantastical twist on struggling New England town life. That said, the second book in the series promises a journey to Europe, and personally what I liked best about this book was the local flavor, so I don’t think I’ll be continuing along.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter SwansonSummary:
On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. But their game turns dark when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.”

Review:
You know from that description that this is going to be a thriller. I was fairly certain it would be in the vein of Gone Girl, and it certainly was.

This book takes you on a delightful rollercoaster of emotions. It’s hard to determine precisely who to root for because they’re all just so darn despicable. In a way, you’re kind of glad that they’re taking things into their own hands amongst themselves because then society won’t be burdened by dealing with it ourselves. On the other hand, there’s certainly an aspect of “look how off the rails things get when we let just any individual decide who deserves what.” That said it’s never heavy-handed. It has more of a delightful sneaky glance into disastrous lives ala a murdery Lifetime movie.

The plot is kept moving forward and twisty and full of surprises partially through alternate viewpoints (more than two). This is a technique I really enjoy when done well, and it was done quite well here. The transitions felt smooth and natural. Never cheap.

I also must say as a New England local that the author got both the logistics and the vibe of multiple New England locations right, everywhere from the ritziest Boston neighborhoods to central Massachusetts towns to rural Maine. If you want a true sense of the area and can handle some murder, definitely pick this up.

I’m not sure how I feel about how the book ended, which is what kept me from loving it. I knew where it was going by about two-thirds of the way through, and I just don’t think it was as smooth as the rest of the book. That said, I do think it ended at the right point in time (with the particular plot it was telling). It left me perfectly satisfied, unlike quite a few thrillers lately.

If you’re still looking for a quick Halloween read, pick this one up. It’ll keep you up and on the edge of your seat waiting to see who comes out on top.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante

Book Review: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlanteSummary:
Anne Hutchinson, a forty-six- year-old midwife who was pregnant with her sixteenth child, stood before forty male judges of the Massachusetts General Court, charged with heresy and sedition. In a time when women could not vote, hold public office, or teach outside the home, the charismatic Hutchinson wielded remarkable political power. Her unconventional ideas had attracted a following of prominent citizens eager for social reform. Hutchinson defended herself brilliantly, but the judges, faced with a perceived threat to public order, banished her for behaving in a manner “not comely for [her] sex.”

Review:
I love US History. I have a degree in it, and I particularly enjoy reading about women in US History. I remembered studying a bit about Anne Hutchinson in some of my coursework, so when I saw this book going more in-depth into her life in a used book basement, I picked it up. I ultimately was disappointed to find a book that somehow managed to make reading about a woman with such an interesting life boring.

Anne Hutchinson was what I like to think of as a quiet rebel. She did things like hide the birth of a grotesquely malformed stillborn so that the mother wouldn’t be judged by the community as somehow entangled with Satan or being punished by God. She led Bible studies/prayer meetings in her home, and these groups she led didn’t consist of just women. Men sought her out for advice and knowledge in these groups in a culture where women were only supposed to advise other women. Most fascinating to me was the dynamic between her and her husband. He clearly loved her and gave her basically the reins over their lives. He was known as a quiet person and happily stepped back and let her make the noise. When she was banished, instead of complaining, he just packed up and moved with her to Rhode Island. It’s not that I think that’s the ideal marriage but I do think it went directly against the gender norms of the time, and they were both brave for being true to themselves and what worked best for their own relationship.

However, the writing in this book somehow managed to take such an interesting woman and bore me to tears. I dreaded picking up this book. I eagerly anticipated when the author would quote primary texts because they were exponentially more interesting than her own. The other issue I had with the book was that the author is a descendant of Hutchinson and clearly lets this bias her own perception of Hutchinson the historic situation. On top of this, there’s a lot of talk about genealogy (far too much for my taste), and sections read like someone writing a family history for their own family, not for public consumption. I understand being interested in someone you are descended from, but who you are descended from doesn’t automatically make you a cooler person. People who are proud of themselves because of who they happen to be descended from infuriate me to no end. Do something worthy of being proud of yourself. Don’t rest on your ancestor’s laurels.

Overall, while the historic facts are accurate and Anne Hutchinson herself is an interesting historical figure who deserves to be talked about, the writing of this book is boring and it is colored by the author’s obsession with being descended from Hutchinson. Readers interested in Hutchinson should consider looking elsewhere, perhaps starting with Unafraid: A Life of Anne Hutchinson, which is available in its entirety thanks to Hathi Trust Digital Library.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Announcement: I Am Married!!!!

October 11, 2015 11 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

You may have noticed things have been kind of quiet around here the last month or two.  That’s because I GOT MARRIED!!!

On September 26th I married my best friend, and our wedding was amaaaaazing!!!  It was more than I ever dared to hope for.

weddingshot1We had a small wedding at a girl’s summer camp in Massachusetts.  What mattered the most to us was that our wedding matched our personalities. Every time we had a choice, we just basically did what suited our personalities the best.  Phil’s shoes he found while we were thrift shopping one day the year before the wedding.  For me, I knew I wanted go-go boots, and I think yoga pants are the most comfortable thing, so going with that plus a mini-dress was practically a no-brainer.  Where our personalities really shined through though was our ceremony.

ceremonyshotWe each had one person stand up with us.  We walked to the fire ring at the camp (rather than “down the aisle”) together.  We each came around the corner of the dining hall, which had a beautiful wrap-around porch, and saw each other for the first time then walked down the steps to the fire ring holding hands while “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes played.  Our good friend officiated for us (this is legal in Massachusetts), and the ceremony opened with our maid of honor and best man playing drums and digeridoo.  We had a handfasting (since we are both of Irish descent) and a san san kudo ceremony (since my husband is baptized Shinto).  We wrote our own wedding vows and didn’t know each other’s ahead of time, and yet they matched up incredibly well.

I will write a few more posts about the wedding.  I’ll write one with more details about exactly how it went and how we planned it.  I also plan to write a post on wedding planning tips with all of the many things I learned about the horror that is wedding planning (on a budget–we threw our wedding for under $5,000).  I also plan to write a post about some of my favorite parts of the wedding, and the things that were the biggest hit the day of.

I will also write up a post about our incredible 2 week honeymoon we just got back from! We went to Mexico, Nashville, and the Smokey Mountains (where we motorcycled the Tail of the Dragon).

For right now, though, just know that I got to marry my best friend, and while wedding planning was terrible, the wedding itself was incredible, the honeymoon was awesome, and being married is amazing.  Also, my married name is Amanda Nevius, but I will still be publishing under my maiden name, which I now dub my pen name, Amanda McNeil.

Book Review: Thieves’ Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)

September 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)Summary:
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion.  Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good.  He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring.  The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.

Review:
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much.  (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy.  It is awesome).  This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.

Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first.  Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way.  It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders.  I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew.  I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t.  This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.

Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot.  I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship.  Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other.  Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do.  Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize.  It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.

All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook.  I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect.  The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed.  I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things.  It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.

The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating.  This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series.  I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.

Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series.  Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere.  But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Thieftaker, review

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)Summary:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe; gave her mother forty whacks….”
Any New Englander knows the nursery rhyme based on the true crime story of Mr. and Mrs. Borden who were murdered with an axe in 1892.  In spite of being tried and acquitted for the murders, their daughter (in the case of Mrs. Borden, step-daughter), was widely believed to actually be responsible for the murders.  In this book, she definitely was, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
A darkness is trying to take over Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie and her ailing sister Emma are all that might stand between the town and oblivion, with Lizzie’s parents being the first casualties in the battle.

Review:
I grew up chanting the nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden the first half of which is quoted above (this perhaps says an awful lot about New Englanders, but I digress), and I also love tales from the Lovecraft universe, which also originated in New England.  When I heard about this book that mashed up the two, I put it on my wishlist.  Lo and behold, my future sister-in-law, who had never even seen my wishlist, bought it for me for Christmas last year.  I thought this would be the perfect read for the fantasy challenge, and although it was a bit different than what I was expecting, I still enjoyed the mix of Lovecraft and women’s history that Priest has woven and am eagerly anticipating reading the sequel.

The story is told through a combination of first person accounts from Lizzie, Emma, and Nance, diary-style entries by their neighbor doctor, letters, police and fire reports, and first person ramblings of a professor from Miskatonic University (another Lovecraft element).  Some readers may be put off by the combination of first person perspectives, but I’ve always enjoyed this style, particularly when it includes things like letters and police reports.  I felt that it was one of the strengths of the book, and I also particularly enjoyed getting to see both Emma’s and Lizzie’s perspectives, as well as that of Lizzie’s lover, Nance.

The Lovecraft mash-up basically is that some sort of Dark One in the deep is out to turn everyone on the seacoast either into worshippers or victims or literally turn them into monstrous ones who live in the deep.  Emma and Lizzie’s parents were among the first to begin succumbing to this infection and that is why Lizzie had to kill them.  Lizzie and Emma now are conducting research, trying to figure out how to prevent the Dark One from actually rising up.  This is all extremely Lovecraftian, including the fact that some of these developments don’t make a ton of sense, but things just don’t make sense in the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft, so I was ok with that.  Readers new to the world of Lovecraft might be a bit more frustrated by how inexplicable most things to do with the Dark Ones and the deep are, however.

I particularly enjoyed how Priest explores how societal and cultural norms of 1890s New England affects women’s lives.  Emma could be a scientist now that women are being accepted into colleges, but she chooses to instead write her scientific papers under a male pseudonym because she believes she would never garner respect otherwise.  Lizzie and Nance are in love and must hide it, although Lizzie often feels why should she bother when she is already disgraced after the trial.  The clashes between Lizzie and Emma regarding both her affair with Nance and the fact that Lizzie believes in trying out magical and fantastical defenses against the Dark One whereas Emma believes purely in science are interesting reading.  They are two very different people who are thrust together both by virtue of being siblings and by the fact that as women in the 1890s their lives are limited.

On the other hand, in spite of liking the characters of the neighbor doctor and the Miskatonic professor and enjoying the exploration of Lizzie’s and Emma’s relationship and getting to see some of Emma’s character, I couldn’t help but feel that Lizzie didn’t get a chance to be enough in this book.  Lizzie Borden is such a looming large figure in local history, even on the book cover she presents as a bad-ass in a period skirt holding a bloody axe.  In contrast in the book she spends a lot of time dealing with her annoying sister.  Similarly, I’m not a fan of the fact that Lizzie does very little of rescuing herself in this book, which is, I believe, if the historic Lizzie really did kill her parents, what she actually did in real life.  To me Lizzie has always been a woman who said fucking enough and took an axe and dealt violently and finally with her problems.  Whereas in the book, she starts off off-screen that way (we don’t actually see her kill her parents) and she sort of tapers off.  Much as I enjoyed seeing her messed up relationship with Emma, I couldn’t help but feel it would have ended more powerfully if she’d said fucking enough and whacked Emma through the skull for being such an insufferable bitch and in the way all the time.  This was my main issue with the book.

My second, more minor, issue is that I felt the plot takes too long to build up to actual horrifying events and/or murders.  The first murders, as I mentioned before, happened off-screen.  The beginning of the book then is a build-up of a lot of tension with not much actual gore or murder occurring.  I should mention that I was watching “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” on tv at the same time as I was reading this book.  In that show, Lizzie kills at least one person an episode.  Now, some of that gets over the top, but it does get the idea of the pacing one would expect from this type of story right. More mayhem. More murder. More danger. More often.

On a positive note, the scenes between Lizzie and Nance are beautifully done, and while I was frustrated to see Lizzie turn a bit into a lovesick fool, I was very glad it was happening with Nance.  Their relationship and dynamic jumped off the page and really brightened up the book for me.

The set-up at the end of the book for the sequel is well-done, although I’m uncertain how the series can proceed forward so far removed from the actual historical event, I am excited to read it and see what happens.

Overall, this Lovecraft fantastical take on the Lizzie Borden of history and what led to the murders of her parents hits just the right note for Lovecraft fans.  Readers who are new to the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft may be a bit surprised by the slow burn of the horror and how much of it winds up not making much sense, but those readers who can embrace this style of dark fantasy will enjoy it.  Those looking for a bad-ass Lizzie should be aware that this Lizzie only acts when absolutely necessary and then with restraint, and they should perhaps tune into the made for tv movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax instead.  Recommended to fans of Lovecraft who are interested in getting some local history woven in to the New England settings they are familiar with from the Lovecraft universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Counts For:
Once Upon a Time IX

Friday Fun! (October: Orchards, Hay Rides, Motorcycles, and Hiking)

October 31, 2013 Leave a comment
Copyright Amanda McNeil. Image of a hay ride down a country road surrounded by fall colors.

One of my film shots from the orchard of the hay ride going by us.

Hello my lovely readers!  Happy Halloween!

We had a rather oddly warm October here in New England right up until this week.  Which was ok by me because a) cheaper heating bills and b) more motorcycle rides and outdoor activities.  A particularly nasty cold has been going around the city, and unfortunately both myself and my partner caught it.  I wound up having cold symptoms for two weeks.  Since I started focusing on health a few years ago, it has become rare for me to have a cold for more than a few days to a week.  This one knocked out pretty much everyone who got it.  I am pleased to say it is finally gone, but it definitely put a damper on some of our activities this month.

In spite of the doom cold, I still managed to get out and enjoy fall!  My partner and I took a motorcycle ride out to Western Mass to go to an apple orchard.  Since we were on the bike, we didn’t buy bunches of apples (also, we get lots from our CSA anyway), but we did drink cider, eat cider donuts, take a hay ride, and do some old-fashioned film photography.  My bf bought me a sardine can film camera recently, and I am enjoying starting to get into this photography thing.  The orchard was the perfect place to try out my first roll. 🙂  The hay ride was also fun, as were the apples we picked to eat on our walk.

I also go to go for an old-fashioned hike on some state land with my bf and a friend.  It was so so much fun to scramble up rocks again and be out in the fall colors up close.  We had a lovely picnic with curry egg sandwiches and the salad I made that I mentioned in yesterday’s review.  Then when we got off the trail, I warmed up with a salted caramel latte. Yummm

I hope you all have a lovely Halloween tonight! My plan is to go to the gym then have dinner and a scary movie at home with the bf. The perfect Halloween celebration for this introvert. 🙂