Thursday, April 20, 2017

Golden Girls Forever, Indeed!

It was with giddiness that I stumbled upon Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai (2016), Jim Colucci's guide to my all-time, favorite sitcom, the immortal juggernaut, The Golden Girls (1985). For fans of the show, this book is quite a gem as I can testify from how I literally skipped out of Amazon Books after perusing its shelves for the first time.

Packed with hundreds of exclusive interviews with the suits, writers, producers, directors, stars, guest stars from the show, Colucci reveals behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed stories and commentary. The level of detail and insight into various aspects of the show suggest that the author really did his research and is very much a fan of the show.

A Bit of Trivia:

  1. Bea Arthur was "difficult" in that she took her craft seriously and wasn't about appeasing others or being unnecessarily "friendly." As such, though highly respected, she was also intimidating, especially to many of the guest actors on the show. Also, as much as the other ladies were different from the characters they played, Bea and Dorothy were more similar than different.
  2. Details about Estelle Getty brought to mind Alec Baldwin's quote highlighted in Caitlin_D's review of his memoir Nevertheless (2017): "I realized then that the movies really do enhance certain actors, making them seem like something they really aren’t at all." In this case, Estelle Getty was made to seem more with it than she actually was: She was just terrible at remembering her lines, causing many re-shoots and delaying production. It's a wonder she ever considered carrying on by starring in The Golden Palace (1992).
  3. Though in real life the ladies' relationship with each other wasn't as close-knit and easy as would be expected from their on-screen chemistry, they very much respected each other and were professional towards one another.
  4. Betty White is as lovely as she appears. So, too, was Rue.
  5. Cindy Fee was only 23 years old when she recorded the theme song. (I always imagined her to be in her mid-thirties plus, actually). In any case, she was so busy/in demand for singing commercial gingles that she said she'd sing "Thank You for Being a Friend" in one take as she had other songs on her track list for the day. In the book, she is quoted as saying, "'It never stops playing. And so even if I did nothing else, I make a pretty good living from The Golden Girls alone every year.'" The song has been so profitable that it also enabled her to put her two sons through college.
  6. Lizzie Maguire's mom seemed so familiar because she is Blanche's niece Lucy from season 1's "Nice and Easy." ...And the actor who plays the "dumb," Miami Vice-wanna-be cop from that episode went on to become a lawyer, his true passion.
Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai is a true fan's delightful and insightful read.

Crossposted at CBR9.

Unrealistic: Secrets and Sensibilities

Regina Scott's The Lady Emily Capers series features alliterative titles and silhouette-based covers that I love. Reading Secrets and Sensibilities (2013), however, did not pique my interest enough to warrant continuing with the series. This is due, again, to poor characterization and unrealistic plot development.

As far as steamy romances go, Secrets and Sensibilities isn't one, similar to Julia Quinn's romances in which steamy sex scenes have no part in the storyline. Unlike Quinn romances, though, Secrets and Sensibilities also lacks interesting characters, witty dialogue, romantic courtship, and sexual sizzle. Bland, flat, and boring best describe a story that began with great potential.

So what's the story?

At the invitation of the widow of the former Earl of Brentfield, art instructor Hannah Alexander accompanies four of her students on a country visit to the estate of David Tenant, the new Earl of Brentfield. The widow of the late Earl and aunt to one of Hannah's pupils has failed in her attempts to capture the attention of the new earl and hopes that her niece, on the verge of her Seasonal debut, will be more successful. All her plans come to naught when Hannah captures the attention and imagination of David upon their first meeting. It's unclear why because the characters are not developed enough to reveal traits that make them distinct and unique from others. What follows is a nonsensical, unrealistic story. Here are just a couple of examples of what I mean:

  1. Characterized as an awkward spinster who retreats into her art at the all girls' school to avoid interacting with them, within the week she spends at the Earl's estate with four of her students, Hannah is suddenly open to having children because she learned that all they need is love. This, despite telling David within day one or two of meeting him that she is not interested in being a mother.
  2. A self-taught artist/painter, Hannah is expected by the new earl to be the best candidate to help him locate and identify precious works of art. This plot point was meant to be a mystery but was again a flat and not-so-mysterious plot point.
  3. The plot element that annoyed me the most is the development of the romance. It seems like within two or three days, with minimal contact, David was already pledging loyalty and devotion to Hannah by promising her marriage. Again, they had barely interacted with each other, and the little interaction they did have had not made either of them so extraordinary that their attraction to each other would have made sense. In addition, the conflict what would have arisen from their unequal social status was brushed over. I understand that to explain this element Scott created an outsider in David, a leather craftsman from Boston who found himself heir to an earldom and who didn't care to adhere to British society norms. Still, the shoulder shrug given to this aspect of the story just seemed ridiculous.
Regina Scott had a good set up; however, the delivery is amateurish and unrealistic mainly because the plot evolves and conflicts get resolved all within the span of one week.

This is a CBR9 crossposted review.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Surreal, for Sure

"I just don't get it," was my response to reading my first  Haruki Murakami, his six-story collection, After the Quake (2002), set in the aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake of 1995. Prior to reading this book--the result of a work-related book club--all I was aware of was that his novel 1Q84 (2013) was quite the sensation and is still on many's "To Read" pile. As such, my expectations for this author were high.

I quickly began to readjust my expectations, however, after reading the first story, "UFO in Kushiro" which left me feeling incomplete and confused. Though the lead-in story, I thought it was the weakest of the collection.

After the Quake is the kind of book I think I'd appreciate more from conversing about it with others. Unfortunately, I didn't make my book group discussion, so my ambivalence about this collection and Murakami's writing style remains.

Marie K. who reviewed this book on Amazon, wrote that this story collection "bear[s] all the hallmarks of Murakami's style: clean prose, sparing detail and surreal flourish." For readers to whom this style is appealing, this collection is a winner.

This is a CBR9 review.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hidden Figures: Black Women Who Had "Leaned In"

One of the strongest arguments made in support of same-sex education relates to the benefits for girls. During the middle school years, pre-teens become more attuned to where they fit in the social order. For many girls, this means that being perceived to be "smart"--particularly in math and science--is not an asset. As such, they begin to "dumb down" in math and science to become more desirable to the male sex.

It is no wonder, then, that I was thrilled that Hidden Figures (2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly was turned into a feature film. Not only did it feature females in a traditionally male-dominated field, but it also featured black females in ways not previously depicted in Hollywood productions. That this film is based on real-life people was even more appealing.

Hidden Figures, Young Readers' Edition (2016), I assume, is the more accessible 8-12 year-olds' version of the biography. Similar to the adult version, it relates the experiences of the black female mathematician pioneers during NASA's aeronautic golden age: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden--who was not featured in the film. 

As a secondary source documenting the extraordinary challenges and successes of NASA and the black women who broke barriers at a time when opportunities were limited to them, the young readers' edition to Hidden Figures does an effective job of providing historical race-based context of the U.S. at the time, along with the history of what became NASA. As an engrossing piece of narrative nonfiction, however, this version misses the mark. From a technical standpoint, this text is redundant and disjointed for the age group. I imagine that those who are not strong readers would have a hard time keeping track of the people and details related. Assuming that the adult version is related in a similar style, the film improved on the actual text. 

One of the interesting aspects of reading this book was in being able to compare what I was reading to what was presented in the film. Interestingly, while the film centered around Taraji P. Henson's Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan is strongly featured. In fact, she seems to be the cornerstone of the successes experienced by the women featured. 

In all, because Shetterly shines the spotlight on a group whose contribution to air and space travel was previously in the dark, Hidden Figures, Young Readers' Edition is recommended.

Crossposted at CBR9.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Short Stories in Novel Attire

Edwidge Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light (2013) is consistent in that it showcases Danticat's wonderfully vivid, poetic prose. Set in the fictional seaside town of Ville Rose in Haiti, the novel narrates the intertwined stories of the titular Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin and a few other characters who inhabit the town. Kamila Shamsie who reviewed the book for The Guardian captured the essence of the novel by writing the following:
Danticat shows us a town scarred by violence, corruption, class disparities and social taboo, which is also a town of hope, dreams, love and sensuality. But these are enmeshed rather than opposing elements. Love leads to violence, dreams lead to corruption.
Assessed from a technical standpoint, Danticat's storytelling is rich, nuanced, and complex. Her characters are fully developed, infused with a certain dignity in spite of their challenges. Similarly, the setting is expansive and fully envisioned, a symbolic character throughout the novel, made up of eight interlocking stories comprising of love, loss, and redemption, of sorts.

My biggest critique of Claire of the Sea Light is its packaging: It is presented as a novel when really, it works best as a collection of short stories. This is due to the eight stories included being related but independent of each other. The titular Claire is only seen in chapters one and eight, and while her disappearance on her seventh birthday is presented as the catalyst for the subsequent chapters, it really isn't. As such, this specific aspect of the story becomes a gimmick, one which spins a convoluted narrative that really need not have been structured as it was.

Claire of the Sea Light is altogether a successful and enchanting story, well worth the read, not only because of the beauty and richness of Danticat's use of language but also because her story gives insight into a people and culture not so well-known or represented in western literature. Compared to its predecessors from the author, however, Claire of the Sea Light falls slightly short of expectations.

Crossposted CBR9 review.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Good Writer, Not So Good Story

The struggle, often times, with writing a review is that the energy required to write one is more than the experience of having read the book. This is the case for me with Gretchen Galway's Love Handles (2011), claimed to be a "Romantic Comedy." It is neither.

Love Handles is book 1 of the "Oakland Hills" series and stars Beverly Lewis, a trained teacher, and Liam Johnson, former Olympic swimmer. Beverly has just inherited her estranged grandfather's fitness company, of which Liam is executive vice president. After more than ten years working for the company and having had a close relationship with Bev's grandfather, Liam expected that he would inherit the company. Grandpa had other plans.

The story is essentially about...I'm not sure.

Bev is a supposed nice girl who is out to prove to her critical family that she's no pushover and can save her grandfather's company by creating a positive work climate. Liam, her aunt, and everyone else seem to be in her way. 

At 361 pages, this story is too long, especially because it's hard to identify what was driving the plot. Most of the characters are unlikeable and character development is also unclear: Bev is still a sucker from beginning to end, allowing family members to criticize and walk all over her. 

Though categorized as a romance, Love Handles doesn't follow the script. Beverly and Liam do get together, but not as the result of any actual courtship. They just admit that they're attracted to each other and choose to sleep together. They end up together but romance played no part. 

Gretchen Galway is a good writer. Love Handles is just not a good story.

Crossposted CBR9 review.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Thor in Public, Loki in the Bedroom

What's the best way to get over the ex who dumped you for being overweight? Hook up with a hot physical trainer, of course!

Except, N.R. Walker's The Weight of It All (2016) isn't a romance about revenge but about self-love and acceptance.

Henry Beckett is 35 and has just been dumped by his live-in boyfriend of eight years for being "old" and overweight.  Apparently, he lived a life that did not include going to clubs, running in the park, or hiking in the weekends but rather one of strolling through the park, reading books, drinking wine, and cooking.

The shock from being dumped propels Henry to take action, however, so after some drinking and a lot of crying, he joins a gym two days later. There, he meets Reed Henske, his Thor-like personal trainer. What follows is a delightful romance populated by a core of wonderfully lovable characters.

What I  loved about this story is that it wasn't filled with angst or bitterness. While it opens up with Henry wanting to lose weight to get his boyfriend back, that motivation quickly fell to the side. This story, essentially, is about a man learning to love himself enough to accept the love of the people in his life--especially that of Asgardian god Reed who Henry just felt was out of his league. I also loved that this story develops like a good-old romance rather than highlights of a sex Olympics. I have found that some M/M romances sacrifice the romance for the sake of being steamy. This story has both, but in a way that is balanced and true-to-life.

My only quibble is with Reed's back story, for it was a bit of a cop out, a bit of an, "Of course! Why else would this hunky physical trainer be willing and able to love this Average Joe body type? The larger message it conveys about who is capable of loving whom (body-wise) gave me pause.

In all, I greatly enjoyed the story of Henry and Reed and the romance that develops from what begins as friendship. Henry was a wonderful protagonist and narrator who made himself easy to root for and love. His humor, insecurities, and desires made him very relatable. As such, N.R. Walker's The Weight of It All is thoroughly enjoyable and kept me smiling from beginning to end. I imagine I'll reread it quite often, for the characters feel like people I'd actually want to spend time with in real life. This was a wonderful romance to start off the year.

Crossposted at CBR9.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Read but Not Reviewed for 2016's CBR8: Part 2

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library (2013) by Chris Grabenstein is one of the very few children's books I've read this year. For me, it is a mix of Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and Raskin's The Westing Game (1978).

Mr. Lemoncello is a modern day Willy Wonka who loves puzzles and books, and the story Grabenstein spins is a captivating one. The book is a page turner, an overall good update to Willy Wonka, with a very likable narrator in Kyle Keeley. The English teacher in me appreciates the author's goal to encourage kids to read by understanding and experiencing libraries as magical places. (Rating: 3.5/5).

A rare male POV contemporary romance, Ready to Fall (2013) by Daisy Prescott was not a fun read. I think I skimmed it after the halfway point because I didn't know where the story was heading and I found myself not being invested enough to be patient. (Rating: 1/5)

Tessa Dare's The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright is a novella I picked up after reading a review on CBR. What can I say? While a perfectly fine story, I didn't quite love it. Something about the banter between Mr. Wright and Ms. Elizabeth Cade on their brief encounters over the years felt a bit too precious. (Rating: 2/5)

Waiting for Clark (2015) by Annabeth Albert was another read based on a CBR review. It's also another of those m/m romances that I absolutely loved. At ninety-five pages, the story was wholly satisfying and just about the right length.

Five years ago, as college roomies, Bryce Weyland and Clark Kenmore shared a kiss, one that changed everything. Clark went away to pursue a prestigious academic opportunity and is now back in town, ready to reconnect with his best friend. Clark surprises Bryce by meeting him at a comic convention where Bryce is dressed up as Batman and he as Superman. From that moment on, the chemistry between the two is magnetic, the kryptonite being only their fear of being honest and open about their real desires.

Waiting for Clark was a great read. I loved the two characters and their chemistry. Tender and sweet, there was no real angst or melodrama. Unrelated: I love the book's cover. (Rating: 3/5).

I'm not sure how I came upon Verismo (2015) by E.M. Lindsey, but it was quite an interesting and different read...quite different from the few other m/m romances I've read this year.

Nicholas and Cedric are musical prodigies who've suffered from emotional abuse at the hands of their parents. The two meet when they both attend the University of Washington: Nicholas as an accomplished guest lecturer and Cedric as a student. The story of how these two come together while healing from their past is wonderful.

There's a lot going on with this story. Though I loved it and thought it well-written, it's not one I'm likely to re-read when I need to be uplifted. That's because a lot of emotional suffering at the hands of parents are included and the psychological damage that results is truly upsetting.

Lindsey does an effective job of creating what I think to be a very original story, one that is complex, nuanced, and showcases her knowledge of music. Another aspect of this story that I really appreciate is that it's one of the few m/m romances I've read where the focus isn't on writing a steamy sex scene every other page. (Rating: 3/5)

Read but Not Reviewed for 2016's CBR8: Part 1

Sarina Bowen's  The Understatement of the Year (2014) was the first m/m romance I ever read. It wasn't a genre of romance that I ever really thought about, especially because I'm more into historical romances. Nonetheless, I read it after reading a CBR review of it.

Reading this story of Michael Graham and John Rikker made me think of some of my former male students who came out after high school. I remember thinking how wonderful it would have been for them to have had stories like this to read because the features characters were close to their own age and had relatable fears and experiences.

Well-written with likable characters and a reasonable plot, I loved The Understatement of the Year and highly recommend it as a romance and not just as porn on the page, which I've found to be the case with many m/m "romances."  (Rating: 4/5)

Looking at my orders history on Amazon, I followed up my purchase of The Understatement of the Year with Him (2015) the very next day. I think I read these stories one after the other, and in not reviewing them immediately after reading each, I got confused about the details, mixing each story up since they both featured hockey players, a separation, and wild sex.

Similarly, I loved Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, which made me question how it is that two females could be so knowledgeable about the ins and outs (pun unintended) of gay sex.

Again, loved the two leads and the story which really sustained my interest. (Rating: 4/5)

After having read and reviewed Paterka's The Other Wife earlier in the year, I remember wondering why stories about unhappy marriages had to be so soap opera-ish. When I got to read Juliette Fay's Deep Down True (2011) in October, I remember being pleasantly surprised. There was no melodrama. It was a simple story that revealed the aftermath of divorce from a woman's perspective in a realistic, mature way. No drama.

It's a slow read. I don't have any direct experience with the specifics detailed, and yet, I found the story of newly divorced Dana Stellgarten as she tries to adjust to her new normal wholly relatable. A truthful satisfying read overall. (Rating: 3/5)

In contrast to Fay's Deep Down True, Kate Moretti's Thought I Knew You (2012) is pure Lifetime Television for Women. I could not stop rolling my eyes with this one. So cliché.

One morning, Claire Barnes' husband goes on a business trip and never returns. She goes on the hunt with her trusted sidekick Drew, her best friend/subconscious love interest whose love for Claire had been unrequited since they've known each other. Along the way, Claire unearths unsettling truths about her husband, gains a deeper sense of her identity unrelated to being a wife and mother, blah, blah, blah.

I didn't care for Claire Barnes. Maybe it had to do with this "romance" being told in first person. In the end, I just couldn't get past the melodrama, which also features amnesia. A positive: I love the book's cover. (Rating: 1/5)

China's One-Child Policy: A Primer

What would China's population be today if the government had not stepped in to control the population growth? In 1979, China faced a problem: With one billion people, the country made up 25% of world's population. In 1980, to combat this problem, China instituted its population-control program: the one child per family policy, an unprecedented, radical take on population control. Mei Fong's One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment (2016) details the unintended consequences of that policy.

Part memoir and more investigative journalism, Fong does a serviceable job of providing context for understanding the why and how of the policy before examining its short and long-term consequences:

  • An estimated 13 million people live as undocumented children because they were born out of "plan."
  • China is a bachelor society creating an imbalance of young men who feel aimless, hopeless, sad, and lonely.
  • China has more than 40% of the world's sufferers of Parkinson's with that number expected to increase.
  • Many nursing homes will not admit couples who lost their only child because they have no progeny to authorize treatment or payment.
The more horrifying aspects of the stories included are those that highlight the hypocrisy and injustices, and corruption that came along with maintaining this program, for it seems that women and the poor were the ones who suffered the most: Women were fined for living with a man out of wedlock, for not using contraception, or for attempting to have more than one child--to the point where some were forced to have late term abortions. In contrast, those in high government positions or who were more affluent (and could therefore afford the fines) birthed multiple children. Stories of infanticide, late-term abortions, forced sterilization, and child kidnapping abound.

Emphasized throughout is Fong's thesis: This radical experiment has destabilized the social order and family structure of China to the point that long-term growth and productivity are not possible due to an aging population and a decline in fertility rate. Fong, in the end, proposes that the greatest effect of the policy is this:
"...[T]he one child policy can be judged as a huge success, for it changed the mindset of Chinese people...[In] demographer Ma's survey on why Chinese parents have one child, 60% said that the one-child policy had nothing to do with their decision... In the end, the greatest damage inflicted by the one-child policy is how it forced people to think rationally--perhaps too rationally-- about parenthood, a great leap into the unknown with an infinite capacity to stretch our understanding of what it means to live and love."
Well-researched and related accessibly, One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment is informative and worth reading though it's a bit repetitive.

A CBR8 crossposted review.