Monday, May 18, 2020

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

When Vanessa Wye returns to her private boarding school, Browick, for sophomore year, she's uncertain what the year holds for her.  Having lost the friendship of her freshman year roommate, Jenny, she's starting anew and alone.  A scholarship kid at a wealthy school with high expectations, she's easily overwhelmed by the work and embittered at the loss of her friend.  Isolated and vulnerable, she welcomes a newfound connection with her English teach, Mr. Strane, who singles her out, gives her extracurricular books to read, and makes her feel special.  While it seems to begin innocently enough, Strane's behavior soon begins to edge into the inappropriate, oddly personal compliments, stolen touches, and eventually a whole illicit relationship.  But it's what Vanessa wants....or so she thinks.  As the pair's relationship escalates to an inconceivable pedophilic fantasy, Vanessa, believing herself in love, puts everything on the line.

As soon as he says this, I become someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has already lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I'm worthy of his love.  I feel forced over a threshold, thrust out of my ordinary life into a place where it's possible for grown men to be so pathetically in love with me they fall at my feet.

In alternating chapters, we get a glimpse of Vanessa's adult life as she watches events unfold when another student of Strane's reports his sexual misconduct.  Suddenly, Vanessa's life is in the spotlight as Taylor searches for allies to speak out against Strane, but Vanessa doesn't see herself as a victim, never has.  Her life tells a different story, though.  Struggling under the weight of her wasted potential and broken relationships, Vanessa finally begins to plumb the depths of the damage Strane's attentions did to her.

I think it will be just one of many unbelievable things about 2020 that one of my favorite books of the year will be one about a young girl and the pedophile she loves, but here we are.  My Dark Vanessa is as compelling as it is hard to read.  Vanessa is a marvelously drawn, emotionally complex character, clearly damaged by her high school relationship with Mr. Strane that reaches its tentacles into her adult life, and yet stubbornly unwilling to think of herself or be thought of as a victim.  Russell has achieved that fragile balance of creating a character who really isn't likeable and creating a character who still draws readers' sympathy and hope for redemption.  My Dark Vanessa is a vivid and layered story about power, consent, abuse, victimhood and the far-reaching repercussions of a dark and twisted "romance" that should never have been.  Highly recommended, if you have a stomach for the subject matter.

Copy provided to me by the publisher in exchange for review consideration.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Historical Reviewlettes

These reviewlettes are historical in more ways then one.  First of all, they're all historical fiction.  Secondly, I read them all like a ludicrously long time ago, so the finer plot points are lost to the sands of time and memory.  That said, I seem to be fully incapable of sending them off on their next adventure until I comment on them in some way because they were all so good.  

First up, we have The Gown by Jennifer Robson.  And really do I even need to tell you to read this book?  I mean, look at it, with a cover like that, this book sells itself.  Amiright?

Not convinced?  OK, fine, I'll try to use my words.

The Gown is set in post-World War II London where Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin meet in the embroidery workroom of Norman Hartnell's famed fashion house.  Ann is an English girl who began at Hartnell as an apprentice and risen through the ranks.  Miriam has come from France, having survived the Holocaust, now seeking to put her prodigious embroidery skills to work.  Though the hardship and scarcity of the war linger, the excitement of Princess Elizabeth's upcoming wedding finally gives the British people cause for celebration, and the gown will be made at Hartnell.

The historical tale was so rich, it hardly needed a modern day perspective of Ann's granddaughter unearthing her grandmother's long kept secrets, but the modern perspective didn't take away either.  I loved this tale of friendship, its capturing of England's hesitant first steps away from the war, the setting of the fashion house, and the excitement of the wedding.  The Gown is a beautifully told story of two friends and England's reawakening after the ravages of World War II.

Next up, we've got The Visitors by Sally Beauman.  I've always been a touch fascinated by Egypt and the Pyramids, and I was totally taken in by this historical tale of two young girls who become friends in 1922 Egypt, just at the time that the excavations in the Valley of Kings finally yield the ultimate find.  I loved how this book was told from the perspective of two young girls, one the daughter of expatriate archaeologists.  They're caught up in the middle of the Egypt-mania that has seized the English.  The tensions between the wealthy sponsors of the digs and the ambitious archaeologists determined to find Tutankhamun's tomb are rife.  The girls realize something untoward is afoot but can't quite grasp it.  This is a long book that doesn't feel long.  I relished every page of Beauman's richly drawn Egypt and her cast of characters all entangled in the intrigue of robbing a nation of its treasures at any cost.  If I reread books, I'd reread this one.

Last but not least, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.  Tipping the Velvet is the first Sarah Waters novel I read but I hope it won't be the last because it was fantastic.

In it, oyster girl, Nan King, falls in love with Kitty Butler, a girl playing a boy in a music hall act.  Nan is swept away to London where the two perform together and carry on a covert love affair, The two are desperately in love but too afraid of being discovered to last.  Abandoned by Kitty, Nan finds herself alone in gritty Victorian London with nothing but a broken heart and a trunk full of male clothes from the act.  As a boy, Nan works the streets.  At loose ends, she takes up with all manner of characters, and the story reveals the dirty underbelly of Victorian London as Nan embarks on a number of troubling sexual "adventures."  This book, too, is the richest of historical portrayals and Nan is a remarkable character.  Her story from its beginnings with a sweet and exciting love affair to her search for love and belonging in all the wrong places and on to the redemption that seemed unreachable but perhaps is not, is totally compelling.

All of these reads are so remarkable that even years after reading, I still remember them well!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Inside Out by Terry Trueman

In this very short novel, we meet Zach just at the moment the coffee shop he's sitting in is being robbed by two desperate young men.  It quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right about Zach.  He's not scared, he doesn't seem to know when it's best to keep quiet, he's much more interested in getting a maple bar than in getting out of harm's way, and, honestly, he's not quite sure the situation he's in is even real.  When the police arrive, the robbery escalates to hostage situation.  Over the course of the next few hours, secrets will emerge.  Zach is sick, and he needs his medicine, but the people in the back room of the coffee shop need a hero, and Zach might just be the only guy who can be one.

Inside Out is a fast paced book that grips from the very first page.  In addition to the action and suspense of the coffee shop hostage situation, there's a lot going on in these few pages not the least of which is Zach's struggle against his mental illness.  In Zach's narration and intervening notes from his medical file, a door is opened into living with mental illness.  While the book is intended for a young adult audience, I found Zach's perspective illuminating, giving me a better understanding of his disease.

At the risk of spoiling such a short book, I'll say no more about the plot.  What I will say is that I was impressed with how Trueman brought a plot rich book together with a strong portrayal of a mentally ill character and gave sympathetic eye to all three of his male main characters.  If you're looking for a quick read that packs a punch, give this one a try!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Loose Leafing: Corona Currently

What better than a pandemic for me to just wander by my blog and pretend I never left it by picking up a totally random blog posting habit?  Honestly, it was really nice Readathonning last weekend and catching up with the bookish community.  I appreciate all of you who stopped by and left a comment and assured me that despite my blog's dormancy I might not be totally shouting into the void.

A few weeks ago (maybe a month?  I don't know.  Time has no meaning anymore), one of my co-workers texted me something like "we should journal during this historic time!" I, being a cynical  jerk, replied something on the order of, "Yeah, that should be stimulating.  Uh, so I woke up.  I ate some food.  Then I ate some more food.  I scrolled the news.  I took a nap. I woke up and it was still daylight out, so I took another nap.   I woke up and tried to watch a briefing from my nation's leader about a widespread crisis.  After only a few minutes, I was forced to turn it off because listening to petty, self-aggrandizing prattle and outright lies was really too much to take on top of the whole killer virus thing.  Then I cooked and ate more food and went to bed after playing a few hours' worth of Cooking Craze on my iPhone to dull the anxious thoughts in my brain to a dull roar."  Clearly, the world has been missing this exciting account of life during the coronapocalypse.

But I don't know, maybe she had a point about the journaling.  So here we are, and here's a little "currently" for the corona age.

Reading: If there's one thing I can say for the quarantine period, it definitely has given a boost to my reading life.  Spending so much time in the company of all my unread books steadily glowering at me has finally made me dig into that TBR stack.  While my concentration was off for the first few weeks in March, April has lead to excellent reading.  I'm well ahead of my usual pace of the last few years and I feel like I'm just reading....better.  With more uninterrupted time, I've found it way easier to get lost in books like I used to before the demands of my job started sucking up so much of my headspace.  I just finished My Dark Vanessa which was hard to read but also amazing, and this morning I'm starting Nation by Terry Pratchett to kick off a month-long Litsy challenge.

Current reads with a cameo from Mo the Surviving Succulent

Feeling Guilty:  I'm still working, and I hate it.  I work for healthcare IT, and the demands on my productivity level are still sky high.  While other people are binging their 18th Netflix show, I'm spending even the waning hours of Friday afternoon discussing the vagaries of how to interface next generation sequencing results to a new lab system and lamenting a to do list as long as my arm.  I should be (and in my mind, if not my heart, I am) glad to have a job, glad to be able to work from home, glad for a lot of blessings that have been bestowed upon me during this time.  But being expected to work at a very high functioning level with added roadblocks of remote work during this emotionally taxing time is hard.  It's getting easier as my focus returns to pre-pandemic levels, but still hard. 

On Spending Wisely: Lately I've been trying to do some good with what I've got.  Like it or not, I am still working, so I've been trying to make at least a small difference with the proceeds.  So many people and organizations are in need right now.  This is a tough headspace, too.  With so much need, it's hard to know where to direct your money to have the greatest impact.  That said, directing it anywhere is better than being overwhelmed by need and not directing it all, so I think I'll probably soon be making another round of donations and probably buying some more local takeout and otherwise trying to be purposeful and thoughtful with my funds during this time. 

Watching: Next to nothing, oddly.  I've been trying to keep up with the shows that are going on over at Andrew Lloyd Webber's channel and also with John Krasinski's Some Good News.  Other than that it's usually one random show on Hulu a day while I eat dinner and scroll the news after work.  TV binges have oddly not been a part of my quarantine life.  I'm gravitating more toward music and audiobooks and the occasional podcast for some reason.

Really Missing:  1 - Making travel plans.  I worked myself beyond the point of burnout this past winter and spring hoping for the promise of some time away, you know, now-ish.  Time away that I thankfully didn't lock in because of the niggling worry back in February that that virus everybody wa talking about might become...a thing.   So now that I have honed my burnout to fine point and am still grinding away at work, the potential loss of any vacation at all has been particularly painful.  2 - Baseball.  I hope there is some sort of baseball season eventually.  Summer isn't summer without baseball.  3 -Seeing other humans in person (I mean, duh).  I live on my own so isolation is very, very isolating.  I think some people long for my situation, but I long to have somebody to talk to to get out of my own head.  4 - Decent weather.  But for this weekend, Pennsylvania has not had much great weather on offer.  Great weather makes everything so much more bearable. 

Ok, so my favorite HelloFresh meal is not photogenic at all.  It's delicious, ok?  

Appreciating: 1 - HelloFresh.  I've been a subscriber for quite a while now, and now more than ever it's been great to have the fixings for meals just delivered to my door, and stopping the working/news scrolling grind to cook myself a real meal every other day has been consistently refreshing.  That said, I've taken to calling it "hot zone" fresh because it gets packed and delivered from Newark, New Jersey.  No, the irony of my living in rural Pennsylvania and getting my "fresh" food delivered from Newark doesn't escape me.  Thanks for asking.  2 - Technology.  I'd much rather meet for church in person, but I love that even though we can't, I can still stream a church service or few every Sunday.  3 - this is idiotic, but my aunt got me this punny calendar for Christmas, and I love it.  I don't know what it says about this year that stupid calendar puns are really a high point for me, but they are.

So wonderful, so terrible the puns.

On Stopping the Madness: I consumed a lot of news in March.  I stopped consuming so much in April.  It has made a very big difference in my quality of life between the two months.  Next up, I'd like to stop spending so much time with iPhone in general.  But sometimes the social media scrolling yields up some true gems and the brain numbing of a phone game or two can occasionally prove helpful.  I feel.....conflicted.

Coming Soon: Yellow!  Having read up on the privileges of being a yellow county...I have discerned no actual change for my own life.  However, it seems some other people get to go back to work, though, so I guess that's good....?  Here's hoping the slow opening achieves its ends and we can have both a functioning economy and health.

Quote of the Week (see all "Things You Thought You'd Never Say in Real Life"):  "The grocery store was much better this week even though I kept missing things and having to take laps of the one-way aisles. At least they were playing music, so I could listen to Ed Sheeran instead of a constant dystopian loop of social distancing instructions."  

That's all from me for now.  How's the coronapocalypse been treating you?