Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Missing Men's Books

The title of this post is a little misleading. I have thought about it, and I can honestly say I do not miss men's books.

Yesterday I was flipping through channels on TV when I saw a preview for one of the Rabbit movies. The Rabbit books were a series by John Updike. Rabbit Engstrom starts out as a young college basketball player. By the end of the series, he has grown old.

"That looks interesting," I thought, flicking past the preview, "but it's not really my thing."

Being reminded of the Updike books gave me no desire to read Updike. To give you some background, I work at a used book store. We have thousands of books, and quite often I used to pick up a book and thumb through it or even read it all, just because it looked interesting or something reminded me of the author.

That still happens, but usually the book with the intriguing cover, or the familiar author, is by a woman.

Maybe I am becoming sexist towards men. I don't know if that's even possible for a man, but I find women to be better writers. I know it's all personal preference.

So I don't miss men's books. Maybe a little. What I miss more is the autonomy to choose my own books. I only read books that other people recommend for me. I still want to pick up books I'm supposed to be shelving, flip through them, and perhaps borrow them. I have to stop quite a bit and remind myself- "you can't read that. Nobody told you to."

It's hard, but it's getting easier. And it makes me a better employee- I'm working instead of reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: I'll Be Watching

Pamela Porter. Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2011.
Young Adult. 280 pages, paperback.

Buy from House of Anansi

About the author

Winter, 1941. Canada has entered World War II. Resources are scarce in the small prairie town of Anger. How long can four children, ages 7 to 16, survive in a house with no electricity, running water, or living parents to provide for them?

Though Addie, Jim, Nora, and Ran Loney have simple needs- food, firewood, education, love- Porter’s book about them is complex and intricate. It is a young adult novel, but it is also a prose poem along the lines of Ellen Hopkins’s Crank. It is a coming-of-age story, a work of historical fiction, and a ghost story, since the Loney kids’ parents Margaret and George stick around and add to the ongoing dialogue after their hardscrabble existence claims both their lives.

That dialogue is mostly one-sided narration, though recalled conversations between characters are important too. At times the book seems like a court document, with each character explaining how she or he helped or abandoned the Loney children in their time of need. If Porter ever decides to write a true oral history, of any era or event, I will want to read it. She has crafted a credible fictional one here.

The large cast of characters, and Porter’s efforts to combine so many different types of books, are sometimes problematic. For example, the citizens of Anger persecute Franz Lahr, the town’s schoolmaster. He is of German descent and was only begrudgingly tolerated even before the start of the war. In one scene, Franz tries to teach the children about propaganda and is met with blank stares. Since the subject never comes up again, and since Franz is soon removed from the narrative, one wonders whether Porter wants to make a point or is just giving her townspeople reason to further ostracize the unfortunate teacher. Either way, I would have liked to see Franz’s story developed more fully, and to see how his students dealt or failed to deal with the subject of propaganda.

In spite of such shortcomings, Porter does a superior job of pulling components from diverse types of texts and integrating them into a seamless unit. I could not find a reading level label on I’ll Be Watching, but I recommend it for eighth graders and up. Its multiple viewpoints and sparse exposition can discourage younger readers. I would definitely use it in my classroom to teach genres, voice, poetic devices, and even types and elements of sentences.

Friday, November 18, 2011


By Teresa Morgan. Self-published, 2011.

Kindle ebook.

Buy on Amazon

Follow Teresa on twitter

When Teresa sent me this book, I did not know there was such a thing as sheikh romances, or that Teresa’s other book, Handcuffed to the Sheikh, was the number two sheikh romance on Amazon. I didn’t know that self-publishing, under the right conditions, could be more lucrative for an author than the traditional route. I certainly didn’t know that I would love Cinderella and the Sheikh as much as I do, or that this book would mark a turning point in my relationship with romance novels. I learned all these things from talking to Teresa and reading her book.

Even if Cinderella and the Sheikh had taught me nothing, I would still recommend it. It opens with this line: the happiness of one woman was a small sacrifice compared to the fate of a country. It is part of Sheik Rasyn ibn Bakr ibn Rahman al Jabar’s internal monologue as he watches Libby Fay from across the dining room of a restaurant. Rasyn has come to New York City from his home country of Abbas to find a bride. He does not need a queen; he wants to marry a “commoner” so he can be disgraced and avoid inheriting his uncle Anwar’s throne. Rasyn has no confidence in himself as a leader.

From the beginning, Rasyn deceives Libby about his true motives. She believes she is the obsession of a generous but somewhat uncompromising man. The reader knows this is not quite true, but Libby does not. The irony drew me in, and so did that opening line. I knew no romance novelist would let her male lead get away with such an elitist attitude. I was not disappointed- Libby falls for the exotic Rasyn and gradually uncovers his scheme at the same time. Along the way, she upsets a few Middle Eastern rulers, makes valuable alliances, and even gets Rasyn to update some of his thinking. My favorite romances always include a male lead who is willing to evolve.

I say this book is a turning point because, before I read it, I saw romance novels as part of my project. I want to learn about women’s books; romances are women’s books; they are part of my research. But as I told Teresa, Cinderella and the Sheikh compelled me to put aside my other readings until I finished it. I want that experience again. I used to get it from authors like Stephen King or John D. McDonald. Now I get it from romance novels. They are my favorite books, and I would read them even if I didn’t have a blog called “Women’s Lit Book Club.”

I wanted to document how reading women exclusively would change me. This is the first evidence of that. I am starting to think of my commitment to women’s books as a permanent thing, not a temporary project. Will I ever go back to men’s books? No, not as my first preference. The word that keeps coming up is balance.

How do you decide what books to read? Do you have a bias towards a certain gender? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Q&A With Daniela Sacerdoti

Daniela Sacerdoti's novel Watch Over Me is now available on Amazon. This is Daniela's first novel. She lives in Glasgow, where she writes and works as a teacher.

Stevie: What is the book about, and what do you think readers will like about it?

Daniela: The book is about a woman looking for a place to belong, for love and motherhood. It’s also the story of a mother’s fundamental impulse to look after her son even after her own death, and of a man who’s struggling with loneliness. I think readers will be able to identify with Eilidh, Jamie and Elizabeth and the characters around them because the book talks about life, really.

Stevie: Many writers nowadays are choosing to self-publish. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to signing with a publisher instead?

Daniela: I have never self-published, so I can’t give an informed answer in terms of the advantages and disadvantages. I know that I wouldn’t look at self-publishing because I’d find the distribution and marketing a nightmare. I’d definitely stick with traditional publishing, also because of the advantages of the creative relationship with your publishers when it comes to editing.

Stevie: Do you write primarily for women, or is it something you don't think about?

Daniela: Not at all, I write the stories I want to write, and I’d love men to read and appreciate my book too, though it’s less likely for them to pick up a story about love. But then, why not? Why should men be less interested in these matters? Most men are partners and fathers, and all men are sons: their lives are very much steeped in this sort of stories, as much as women’s.

Stevie: I saw in your biography that you have a degree in classics. Has that informed your writing or helped you to evolve as a writer?

Daniela: Very much so. I’ve studied Latin and Greek since I was thirteen, and it gave me a great love of language and stories. Also it gave me a head start when it comes to languages, which was a help when learning English.

Stevie: You have been given a magic wand that will make every man on the planet read any 3 books. What books will you choose, and why?

Daniela: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, to open their eyes about prejudice; Lord of the Flies by William Golding, to unmask the mechanism of tribalism and aggression; and 1984, by George Orwell, to warn against totalitarian regimes and how easily they can come about. Very political, I know...but I think it’s important that all women and men are aware of these issues.

Visit Daniela's Website

Follow Daniela on Twitter

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bridget Jones's Diary

I finally finished this book a few days ago. Stephanie at Chick Lit Club suggested it for me back in September.

I was supposed to like this. I know enough about chick lit to know that Fielding's book is a basic text. Bridget created some themes and motifs that show up in nearly every work of the genre. Bridget is a fish out of water who does not feel at home at work, with her family, or in an intimate relationship. Her only salvation is her friends. They are her chosen family.

Also, Bridget is on a quest. She wants to love and be loved, to have a career where she is fulfilled, and to be comfortable in her own skin. She imagines she can accomplish these things by losing weight, quitting smoking, learning to cook, and generally turning herself into the kind of woman she believes men will find desirable.

She is wrong, of course, and that is what saves Bridget from being a caricature. She is our Gilgamesh- one of the first characters to exemplify the elements of chick lit, and an archetype who has a presence in other works of the genre.

That's why I say I was supposed to like Bridget Jones's Diary. I am a student of women's books, and this is an important part of that canon. I will probably revisit this book at some point, but this time it was a struggle to get through. I kept wanting Bridget to see how worthwhile she was and stop making herself vulnerable for the wrong people (like her boss Daniel, if you've read the book).

What about you? What was the last popular book that you found challenging? Is there more to Bridget Jones than I can see?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

5 Things I Learned...

from reading Shallow Water, by Cathryn Grant

1. Paper books are over. I was able to follow Cathryn on twitter, download her book for only $1.99, and start reading it immediately from my computer. Also, paperback romance sells for 6 or 8 dollars at my local bookstore; I can get Carina Press ebooks for less than half that. In twenty years paper books will be like vinyl records are now.

2. I need to support indie authors. Cathyrn's book is just as readable as anything by Sue Grafton, and Cathryn herself recommended Shallow Water to me. I haven't found many well-known authors who will reach out to their fans this way.

3. Woman detectives are very human. Madison doubts herself, struggles to quit smoking, and worries about whether her current crush likes her back. She is also pushing thirty and still single. I know how that can be in American society from talking to friends. I can't imagine one of James Patterson's leading men expressing such vulnerability.

4. Novellas are good. My kindle is weird, so I don't know exactly how many pages Shallow Water is, but you can easily read it in one sitting. It is still a fully developed story, with realistic characters, suspense, subplots, and conflicts. It must be challenging to write something that way; all writing is a challenge, but brevity creates special problems.

5. I might never go back to men's books. They used to be my comfort zone, but not anymore. Reading women has had an effect on what I want from a book. And there are women writers in every conceivable form of literature (except maybe Westerns). I could never read them all in a lifetime.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Review: dancergirl

Carol M. Tanzman

Release Date: 11/29/2011; HarlequinTEEN. 249 pages.

The internet is a fantastic tool for teaching and learning, but it can also be dangerous. Teenage dance enthusiast Alicia Ruffino learns firsthand just how true this can be in Carol Tanzman’s gripping and compelling new young adult novel. The book is a good cautionary tale for young people, but Tanzman’s voice is never preachy. Her approach makes dancergirl suspenseful enough to captivate even jaded readers.

Alicia’s problems start when she agrees to let a friend tape her dancing at a party. The friend- with Alicia’s permission- posts the video on a youtube-like site, where it garners thousands of views almost overnight. Alicia finds the attention frightening but exhilarating as friends point out the value of publicity for her future dance career.

As she becomes instantly recognizable, Alicia’s luck takes a turn for the worse. Videos she never agreed to start popping up. They include some of her dancing in her bedroom. She and her friends investigate, knowing there has to be a hidden camera and a digital peeping tom somewhere. Against Alicia’s will, her fame multiplies with each compromising video.

In one scene, a stranger at a restaurant approaches Alicia and asks, “aren’t you dancergirl?” before snapping Alicia’s picture. Alicia knows this picture will go on the internet. She cannot stop it. That aspect of the story gives it a postmodern quality- how do we define our identities when others make those decisions for us without our consent?

This question, and the tension of not knowing who is spying on Alicia, lead to a frightening climax and a conclusion that is worth the effort of reading. Tanzman uses misdirection and subterfuge to keep the reader in the dark along with Alicia. This book will resonate with high school students who might be grappling with self-image and internet boundaries. It is engaging enough for adult readers, including teachers and parents who have an interest in protecting young people online.