Friday, April 26, 2019

REDEFINING REALNESS


Review of REDEFINING REALNESS: MY PATH TO WOMANHOOD, IDENTITY, LOVE & SO MUCH MORE by JANET MOCK

This memoir relays a trans woman’s journey from childhood into becoming the woman she is today. While I can imagine that a lifetime of being told who you are by others does indeed make one very thoughtful, the level of insightful self-reflection in this memoir truly amazed me. Mock distills complicated experiences, emotions, and preconceptions into powerful phrases. She’s incredibly articulate in analyzing not only herself but this complex, horrible, wonderful world.

Mock does share about some dark experiences in her life, so I would warn any sensitive readers about that, especially those who feel they can be easily triggered by others’ stories. I am wary about seeking too much darkness in the books I read as I find plenty in real life. However, I often say that it’s not a matter of avoiding darkness as there being a proportional, emotional payoff for exposing yourself to it. Watching or reading some terribly dark, gratuitous story does not appeal to me, unless there’s some deeper meaning woven into the darkness. Mock makes exploring her demons with her well worth it. She has clearly had an abundance of opportunity to think in depth about some of the worst moments and people in her life. As with many survivors, Mock comes to the conclusion (through an abundance of much more memorable quotes) that she wouldn’t be the woman she is today had she not gone through the experiences that she did.

I hesitate telling people this a memoir about a trans woman, because I think many consider that experience not relevant to their own. It would be far more accurate to say this a memoir about discovering and claiming your own identity even as others try to tell you that you’re mistaken. It’s not all about gender, not by a long shot. For starters there’s the whole victim versus survivor debate. An integral part of recovering from any tragedy is to shift from seeing oneself as a pitiable victim of misfortune into viewing oneself instead as a brave and resilient survivor. Mock is also multi-racial and grew up extremely poor, two other identities that the world thrust upon her to do with what she could and would.

Honestly, Mock is so impressively articulate about such complex topics that I find myself anxious I can’t possibly write a review that fully does her memoir justice. I would caution that some might opt to avoid books with darker, traumatic material, but aside from that I feel this is one of those books that everyone can benefit from reading. She filters her insight through the perspective of a trans woman, but most of her revelations are applicable to all humankind: about discovering and claiming your identity.

Friday, April 19, 2019

THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE


Review of THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE by PHILIPPA GREGORY

I adore Philippa Gregory. She’s my favorite historical fiction author and, as such, I use her as my measuring stick for other historical fiction, asking myself, “Did I like that as much as a Philippa Gregory novel?”

After THE CONSTANT PRINCESS, which focused on Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon, and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which focused on the infamous Anne Boleyn as well as her less well-known sister Mary, Gregory follows with THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE. This novel continues the saga of Henry VIII’s many unfortunate wives, as told through three perspectives: his fourth and fives wives, respectively, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, as well as Jane Rochford, widow of Anne Boleyn’s brother.

What makes Gregory’s novels exceptional are the characters. Each feels like a living, breathing human with complex emotions and understandable motivations. My issue with some historical fiction novels comes when a character follows history…but why? Their decision doesn’t make sense for the personality the author has created. Gregory sticks to the major historical facts, but crafts such compelling, convincing characters that, even knowing the ending and likely “twists,” I’m riveted to the page.

Gregory’s version of Anne of Cleaves is a timid young woman desperate for any opportunity that will free her from her brother’s tyrannical control. Like Katherine of Aragon, she’s easily underestimated, but proves herself worthy of admiration over time. Anne may be quiet and unassuming, but she’s smarter than she’s been given credit for and she learns to make the best of her circumstances.

Meanwhile, Katherine Howard, even younger, lives fast and wild. She’s a vain, selfish, thoughtless child of a young woman who snatches at forbidden fruit without thinking any further ahead to possible repercussions. She innocently believes life will work out in her favor, because…well, so far it always has.

Last, there’s Jane, reduced to an existence of memories, regret, and self-torture. Her testimony sent Anne Boleyn and her brother (Jane’s husband) to their deaths. Jane has always told herself whatever she most needs to believe is the truth and she’s reaching the point where she cannot remember what the real truth is.

Whether these woman are anywhere close to accurate depictions of the true historical figures, Gregory’s novels are so enjoyable precisely because she makes these character her own. Each one is captivatingly compelling and distinctive.

Friday, April 12, 2019

LEAGUE OF DRAGONS


Review of LEAGUE OF DRAGONS by NAOMI NOVIK
(ninth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I feel sad even writing this review. Why? Because it’s the last book in the Temeraire series, one of those series I wish could keep going forever. Laurence, Temeraire, and their many other comrades – human and dragon alike – have come to feel like familiar friends. I enjoy their casual banter almost as much, and in some cases even more, than their high stakes adventures.

This last installment sees a weakened Napoleon retreating. The opportunity to end his reign of terror is clear, but still threatened by debate about treatment of dragons. In a desperate ploy to maintain his control, Napoleon promises the sun and moon to dragons who join or defect to his cause.

These books have always been skilled at examining the complexities of war and politics. Laurence and Temeraire do not merely need to plan a strategic battle plan for approaching and fighting Napoleon’s troops. More importantly, they need to maintain the morale and support of their own ranks.

The ending of this final Temeraire story could only ever be bittersweet for me. Except for one amnesia twist miss, I enjoyed every book in this series immensely and would have happily continued reading as many as Novik wanted to write. Laurence, but Temeraire especially, carved out places for themselves as some of my top-memorable characters.

Friday, April 5, 2019

INKDEATH


Review of INKDEATH by CORNELIA FUNKE
(third in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

This final installment in the captivating INKHEART trilogy finds our heroes trapped within the beautiful but dangerous (and fictional) world of Inkheart. The entire novel has a very somber tone, with clear “the grass is always greener” themes. Meggie, among others, yearned for this magical world and, now here, she yearns for home. Neither will ever fulfill her completely.

This series features a huge cast of interesting characters and unfolds through short chapters in alternating viewpoints. I will confess that multiple viewpoints is never my preference. Funke is a master with her material, but nevertheless I find that when the viewpoint splits so does my investment. Rarely do I invest as strongly in multiple viewpoint stories as I do with one perspective. It lends too much to the idea of each character as an almost insignificant piece in an overwhelmingly huge puzzle.

I would like to back up and describe the premise of this third installment, but with so many characters and plot lines it feels too complex to summarize. Of course, those who read the first two novels have an idea of where the story’s headed. To do my best, I’ll suggest that this entire third book is a long and dramatic showdown between Meggie’s family (among others) and the evil Adderhead.

As always I adore that books play an active role in both the story and the magic of this series. An exceptional book becomes the key for either success or failure in overcoming the Adderhead.

Despite my disinclination for series with so many viewpoint characters, the INKHEART trilogy will go down in my memory as a classic favorite. I, too, understand the perhaps misguided yearning for the magical world of Inkheart.