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Tits McGee CBRIII Reviews 10 – 26

I finally finished up the reviews for my half-cannonball, and I couldn’t be more proud. Congratulations to everyone else out there who has participated! I hope to see you all again for the CBR IV.

See below for the reviews:

Book 10 – BossyPants by Tina Fey

Book 11 – Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler

Book 12 – Fauna by Alissa York

Books 13 to 17 – Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Book 18 – Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Book 19 to 21 – The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Book 22 to 24 – The last three Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

Book 25 – The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Book 26 – Eragon by Christopher Paolini

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Tits MCGee CBR III 9 Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century

I love celebrity gossip. Love. I’m not really interested in the Kardasians of the world, but give me an article about the Brange, or George Clooney’s Italian porn star girlfriend (yes!), and I will give you 5 minutes of quiet while I get my fix. You’d think, and I did, that this vice, especially my obsession with actual movie stars, would lead me to know some knowledge about celebrity culture. After reading Furious Love, one thing was clear: I had no fucking clue.  You’ll have to forgive me because it’s impossible to write about the Burtons without making sweeping statements. They were loved nearly to death and reviled passionately. Ultimately, they would become the mold for celebrity culture and set the bar for drama and opulence. They truly have no equal (no, not even the Brange) and I had very little sense of who they were and what they meant to celebrity culture.

Before Furious Love, I knew that Elizabeth Taylor loved jewelry, had more husbands than the average person, marketed perfume and was one of the first real movie stars, but I didn’t even know Richard Burton’s name. Apparently I’m not alone. According to the authors, the main reason that Elizabeth Taylor provided information and old love letters for Furious Love was because she was worried that Burton’s legacy was slowly being forgotten.

As many of you probably already know, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor met on the set of Cleopatra when both were married to other people. They carried on a very public affair and eventually divorced their respective spouses before getting married. Then divorced. Then married again and divorced again. Together, they lived an astonishingly opulent lifestyle and captured the public’s interest like no two people had before. From their love letters to their many public declarations, it’s clear that these two people loved each other nearly to death. However, they weren’t good for each other; she preferred him drunk and abusive, and he brought out a violent side in her. The phrase “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” was invented for these two

This book chronicles their very public relationship, and their equally real very private relationship, which the Burtons tried desperately to keep separate. As we all know, they failed and the dirty details of their relationship were laid bare for everyone to see. This book also chronicled the very public and heartbreaking alcohol addiction that plagued Burton throughout his life in a time where alcoholism wasn’t considered a disease. The authors handle this, and Elizabeth’s health problems, with sensitivity and grace. They never stoop to judge Burton for his addiction or Elizabeth for nearly working herself into an early grave. Nor do the authors give into the temptation to gush over the Burtons – clearly a difficult task. It’s clear why Elizabeth entrusted her letters, history and the story of her life to these authors, and they certainly did her relationship justice.

My favourite part of the book, the letters between Burton and Taylor were fascinating and certainly made me nostalgic for a time long before I was born when writing love letters didn’t consist of keeping things under 140 characters and posting them for the whole world to see. However, Elizabeth did hold back on one thing. Richard wrote her a final letter just before he passed away, one that she did not share with anyone. After reading this book, there is a part of me that is desperate to know what was in that letter, and another part, the better part, that hopes the public never gets to share in that final exchange, that this couple will get some privacy, whether they wanted it or not.

If you enjoy celebrity culture, this book provides an observant and thoughtful look into the lives of one very intriguing public couple and I would highly recommend picking up a copy. As for me, I’m off to re-watch Cleopatra and track down a copy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.

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Tits MCGee CBR III 8 Jitterbug Perfume

I walked into a Munroe’s books with no idea what I wanted and had a pleasant surprise when I ran into Debbie Willis, a local author who wrote Vanishing and Other Stories. I asked for a little bit of advice, the only parameter was that it needed to be fun and light-hearted. The last few books I’ve read (with the exception of the Night’s Dawn Trilogy) have been really serious, even verging on depressing. She suggested Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, and since I’ve always wanted to check out his books, I picked it up.

As soon as I started reading, I knew I was in the hands of a master story-teller and writer. One with a sense of humour at that.

“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious… The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…”

Jitterbug Perfume is a story about beets, immortality, perfume, body odour, nature, sex, and bathing habits. It’s not really a fantasy, but it’s not without fantasy either. The story weaves its roots through human history, starting with an ancient aging king who discovers individuality, much to the confusion of those around him, and ending in the present with an oddball assortment of perfumers. It’s interesting, but not gripping, and I found that while the writing pulled me in, the plot wasn’t compelling enough to keep my attention through the whole book.

Despite the slow-move plot, Robbins’s writing combined with well written and interesting characters make for a fun read. The characters’ lives fold together in believable and natural ways given the subject matter, and while they weren’t easy to relate to, they were believably and enjoyably eccentric. The book certainly met my criteria. It wasn’t even remotely depressing, and managed to make light of some of humanity’s most furious philosophical debates, including our relationship with nature, god and death.

While I was in awe of his writing ability, I also felt a bit like Robbins was toying with me. It was as though he has achieved everything he wanted to as a writer and is simply having fun at this point, playing with combinations of words and making vaguely philosophical statements about religion and individuality. I would read another book by Robbins, but it would have to be at the right time and when I was in the right mood. I’d also like to experience his first novel to see if there is a bit more spark to compliment his talent.

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Tits MCGee CBR III 5-7 The Night’s Dawn Trilogy

[I’ve had a number of reviews completed and sitting on my desktop for a few months now and am only now getting around to posting them. My apologies for flooding the Cannonball blog with posts.]

After reading the Jewel of St. Petersburg for my second Cannonball read, I got cold feet. I didn’t want to pick up a book unless I knew in advance that I’d like it. Luckily for me, when I was looking for book number 5, my husband was buried in Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, and working hard to convince me to read it. Every so often, he’d poke his head over the top of the first book and say, “you have to read this. You’re going to read this next, right?” or “wait till you get to the part about the Ly-cilph. You’ll love the Ly-cilph.” So when he finished the first book, I eagerly started reading. What I didn’t think through was that each book is 1,000 pages and the series would completely de-rail me from my cannonball goal of 52 books in one year. Indeed, after making my way through the trilogy, I’m well behind and with wounded pride, I’m going to have to change my goal to 26 books this year.  It was worth it.

I’m going to review all three books together because they’re not written as three separate stories that make up a trilogy. They’re one book that had to be split into three to prevent broken wrists and strained fingers.

Hamilton’s version of humanity’s journey into the stars and the aliens (xenocs) they encounter was unlike anything I have come across before. His vision of our technological advancement and divisive nature is unique and highly convincing. It’s possible that I simply haven’t come across another author who has the creativity and talent to envision species so far outside of those found on our own planet’s that reading about them is both off-putting and intriguing. The scale, culture, psychology, life cycles and mobility of the different xenoc species are all completely different from us. He also gives most of the xenoc species an evolutionary basis so that it’s clear how their specific characteristics and cultures developed, which adds strength and intelligence to his vision.

The plot itself and the characters that drive it were equally intriguing. The Reality Dysfunction, a problem that all sentient species must solve in their own unique way, is an interesting paradox. As it plays out, the story crosses from science fiction to horror to war and back again. The final solution to the problem was not only a surprise to me, but I couldn’t imagine a single solution that could work for humanity myself, despite my best efforts.  I was impressed and relieved when the author came up with something that was satisfying, though maybe the solution was a bit too simple.

One (minor) complaint is the character development. Hamilton set up a group of compelling and complex characters, with someone to relate to for everyone. My personal favourite was Syrinx, the Edenist voidhawk captain.  She was all at once naive, adventurous and eventually a little bit damaged. If I lived in this universe, I would want her life, minus the whole reality dysfunction nastiness. Also, my favourite villain from any story may now be Quinn Dexter. I still get shivers and glance over my shoulder when I think of him. He even has the potential to be a sex symbol among a certain demographic. If this series were ever made into a movie, Quinn Dexter would quickly top the list of villains you’d want to sleep with, and probably spark a wave of BDSM fetishes. While the characters were complete and well rounded, they didn’t grow throughout the series in a way that I felt was realistic. Those that did change seemed to do so overnight, and others simply stalled out. One could argue that this is fairly realistic given the situation, but I didn’t feel it was as realistic as gradual personal growth would be.

My main complaint for all three books is the editing. In this day and age, it’s just sloppy to miss a punctuation mark or to have a spelling mistake. I’m no grammar Nazi and I’m definitely not perfect, but I don’t like getting ripped out of an intense starship battle because I’m trying to figure out where the dialogue ends and the narration begins because a quotation mark is missing. Once or twice would be forgivable, but when it’s a chronic problem through a 3,000 page series, it starts to distract from the story.

All said and done, Night’s Dawn is an epic, creative rip and a genuinely fun read. It’s not the series for someone who isn’t sure if they’ll enjoy a science fiction (check out Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness first), but for someone like me who was looking to dive further into the genre, it was the perfect choice. This trilogy isn’t a fling; it’s a long-term commitment, but well worth your time in the end. I loved this series, flaws and all, and will definitely check out more work by Hamilton.

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Tits McGee’s CBR III Review # 3 – Super Sad True Love Story

Reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is like spending an evening cruising lamebook and STFU couples. It’s ironic, terrifying and a lot of fun.

Shteyngart has created a future where people scan texts instead of reading smelly “printed media artifacts,” where you are immediately ranked against everyone else in a room according to fuckability and wealth, and where see-through onion-skin jeans are the height of fashion. Our society’s obsession with adolescence has reached full throttle and the economy is collapsing yet again. Shteyngart has created a terrifying world and I am still trying to convince myself that it’s completely impossible.

The story centers on Lenny Abramov, a 39-year-old man who works at a place called Post-Human Services wooing super-rich clients who want to reach immortality. Lenny is caught between his love of printed media artifacts and his obsession with fitting into a world where he is usually the ugliest man in the room.

When Lenny meets Eunice Park, he totally falls in love. She is a young, beautiful, and cool Korean American with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness. Like Lenny, Eunice is the child of hard-working immigrant parents who refuse to assimilate into the modern world, and this common ground plays a defining role in their relationship. They meet in Barcelona where he is trying to find clients and she is on vacation. She remains uninterested but flattered and bored enough to go along with him. They return to New York separately, but wind up in a one-sided and awkward courtship that follows through the remainder of the book.

Given the title, I was expecting a more romantic love story, but I was happily surprised to find that the story is not about two lovers beating the odds to be together. The story of this particular future, the destruction of language, dependency on media, and the complete obsession with youth, is the most interesting part of the novel. If I read the book a second time, I might be able to better connect the love story with the world around it. However, I found myself looking past the characters and plotline for glimpses at the world that Shteyngart has created. I found the political background even more fascinating. I wont’ spoil the story, but the international economic chess game occurring in the background was both terrifying and fantastically imagined.

One of the strongest points of the novel is the imperfection and humanity of Shteyngart’s characters. I don’t believe that Lenny was ever described as having a weak chin, but it’s essentially impossible to imagine him with a strong one. He is pathetic, grasping for acceptance and approval and obsessing over Eunice, over death, and over his status. While he still struggles against the pull of the rapidly changing culture around him, he succumbs to societal pressure and tries to assimilate through Eunice. They are both perfect examples of the kind of person this world would create. Eunice’s character is developed similarly, though she is young, beautiful and more integrated into the culture and so more self-possessed and confident in her own standing.

The story is told using text obtained from Lenny’s diary, interspersed with electronic messages send from Eunice’s to her family, friends and Lenny. Initially I was concerned that I would become annoyed with the writing style, but aside from how intentionally off-putting the style of the electronic messages had to be, it served the story well, without overpowering it. He creates a fantastic parody of the text message language so pervasive today.

Shteyngart manages to put together a full and deep world that, to me, represents one of the worst possible iterations of our future. I will be reading more of his work through the cannonball read, and well beyond.

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Tits McGee’s CBR III Review # 2 – The Jewel of St. Petersburg

When I looked at the book stand in the airport drugstore, I knew that my options were pretty dire. Then I saw it there. Sandwiched between the pink chick lit books and the murder mysteries: a historical fiction called the Jewel of St. Petersburg. It didn’t look great, but I refused to let my second cannonball read out me as a chick lit reader on pajiba. Clearly I was being snobby enough to be taught a lesson. I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling with this review. While I have no problem ranting verbally, I tend to pull my punches in print. In case it isn’t clear, I did not enjoy this book. I do not recommend it, and I feel really sorry for the person who picks it up off of the hostel bookshelf where I left it and decides to waste their valuable holiday time reading it. Damn, now I feel guilty for leaving it there.

The Jewel of St. Petersburg is about a young, beautiful, rich woman named Valentina who socializes in the Romanov inner circle, but falls in love with a lowly engineer against her family’s wishes. To complicate matters further, she needs to protect her sister from the revolutionaries. Of course, it’s such a well-worn plot that it’s practically threadbare. However, I’ve read other books equally as predictable that were still entertaining and thought provoking or at the very least sexy. Unfortunately this book completely missed the mark on all accounts.

The story begins with an attempt at a dramatic scene in which Valentina is found in the woods by a group of revolutionaries who are a part of the party bombing her family’s home. She escapes and arrives at the house just in time to see it blow up and finds her father holding her now legless sister.

While the scene didn’t occur on the page, it is made clear that Valentina has a regular habit of riding her horse out into the woods to look out over her father’s land and think deep thoughts. This is why she wasn’t there to protect her sister, though what she would have done to stop the bombing is unclear. This is the first of many attempts at characterizing Valentina. Over the course of the novel it becomes clear that she is beautiful, resourceful, deep, humble, hard working, intelligent and loving. Most of us could only wish to be even a fraction as wonderful as Valentina.

Even if she does the main character a great disservice by denying her any real faults, the author does a great job of filling out the other female characters. If Valentina was more tempted by opulence, concerned by her own personal welfare, or prone to vanity, she would be much easier to relate to and much more realistic. In reality, Valentina would probably have fallen for her own hype. She wouldn’t have simply used her beauty as a tool, she would have been proud of it, and rightly so. Give me a protagonist with some flaws and I’ll be far more interested in the story than I will in following a perfect individuals stumbling around an imperfect world.

I won’t go into the characterization of the men in the book, because there really isn’t any. The men are neither three-dimensional nor interesting and this weakens the story considerably. This is a problem that I have come across in many books written for women, and it’s incredibly unfortunate. It’s not that we can’t write books with both full and complete male and female characters. Hell, Helen Fielding gave Mark Darcy more personality and intrigue on one page than the engineer gets in this whole book. Yet, we’re supposed to buy that the most desirable young woman in St. Petersburg is in love with him? At the risk of getting ranty here, if it’s not obvious why these two personalities make a good pair, it’s not convincing that they are.

I was initially intrigued by the author’s decision to use an engineer as the love interest. Engineers simply don’t get enough action in literature, and at first I thought it was an interesting choice. However, as the novel plodded along and it became clear that the author didn’t plan to fill out his character any further, the novelty soon wore off. Moreover, as the novel reached its climax, the reason for this choice became increasingly clear. He is a sewage engineer who knows the tunnels under the city better than anyone. Of course, this is how they escape when the revolutionaries come for them. This tied things up all too neatly for my taste and took away from what was the one unique trait of character otherwise devoid of personality.

Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of this novel is how the author paces the revolution. It is always there, grinding along towards the inevitable, though I would have liked to have met more sympathetic and relatable revolutionaries. If this were a first person narrative, it would have made sense that the revolutionaries be portrayed as dirty, corrupt and without conscience. Valentina has no love for the tsar but she feels that the revolutionaries are destroying what is great about Russia as well as what is bad. She’s also from a rich family and so her perspective would have been skewed. Given that the novel is not told from Valentina’s perspective, and it’s made clear that she is decent enough, despite her upbringing, to look past their low class grime, the author could have done a much better job of portraying the revolutionaries as sympathetic characters.

Perhaps I am being a little bit too harsh on a book that is meant to be escapist fiction, but I think that this book, like the main character, tried to be too many things to too many people. It attempted to be a legitimate historical fiction and at the same time a modern fantasy about the every-woman succeeding against overwhelming odds. It failed on both accounts.

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Tits McGee’s CBR III Review # 1- Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go Book Cover

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Like many other canon ball readers, I picked Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for my inaugural read in January. This decision meant that I found myself on an airplane flying somewhere between Vancouver and Costa Rica curled over wet pages, crying as quietly as I could manage. For me, this novel was powerful without being triumphant or depressing, and I was floored.

Never Let Me Go follows the story of 3 students at Hailsham, a secluded boarding school in England. The school, at first, seems like any other boarding schools. However, Ishiguro deftly reveals the differences between Hailsham and the rest of the world and the reader learns what makes Hailsham special slowly, at the same pace as the students.

As the story progressed, I found myself in awe of the precision and intent of the author. His world mirrors so closely the bittersweet memories of adolescence, and I found it easy to identify some aspect of each of the characters in my own adolescence. Every small betrayal, every whispered secret and stifled giggle, seemed rooted in a very real, very possible world. Even the larger plot around who and what the students are seemed possible. In fact, considering how good we all are at justifying and closing our eyes to injustices that are carefully and quietly occurring to someone else, it seems possible, even probable that schools like this could exist.

One of the things that makes this book so special is that the characters never make a decision that they wouldn’t naturally make. The characters don’t follow the plot, the plot follows the characters and this is something that is becoming too rare in a world where books are written with the intent of being made into a blockbuster. I believed that Ruth would betray Kath and that Kath, unasked, would forgive her, even help her. That Ruth would eventually make things right and that Tommy would make the wrong decisions, then the right one, and then ones that I wasn’t so sure about. I believed that the teachers would try and then fail, but still make things somewhat palatable. I believed that the other character, the outside world, would stiffen at the sight of these children. That it would turn it’s back and shut its eyes.

There is no room for heroics, or easy answers in Ishiguro’s world. While I found myself praying to the literary gods that someone would show up and play this role, it would have done the story a great disservice. Instead the author opted for quiet heroes and small triumphs, and this makes the story all the more powerful. It isn’t about the heroes, it’s about how these children grow up, how they live their lives and how they come to terms with their purpose and even find happiness within the constraints that they are given.

The narrative flow is beautifully constructed. The author shifts back and forth between the past and the present without making the reader feel pulled through time. Ishiguro managed to construct a first person narrative that carries the reader through a typical awkward adolescence through to a tarnished adulthood. Given that the book has been made into a movie and that the premise is hinted at towards the beginning of the novel, the reader likely knows more about the characters’ lives than the characters do, which makes it all the more painful and poignant as the characters start to realize their purpose and how little power they actually have over the path of their own lives.

While Ishiguro plays with some very heavy and sad themes, he never dives into despair, though he could easily have taken this route. He chooses to write about Hailsham rather than the other boarding schools with similar students where the conditions were much worse. He chooses a main character who is resilient and capable instead of one who would weaken and fall apart with the realization of their purpose, or one who would attempt heroics and fail dramatically. Ishiguro has written a novel that in the hands of inferior talent would becoming either depressing or unrealistically triumphant, and by dancing somewhere in between, I believe he has created a classic.

I wish I could find something to criticize, but this novel has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf, and I suspect that high school English students will be writing book reports on this novel for some time to come.

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