Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker

cover of Thinking Woman;s Guide to Real MagicThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is harrowing and lovely – at times dreamlike and at times gritty.  This is one of the few portal fantasies that deeply explores the ramifications of being transported to an alternate world in terms of mundane things.  There’s magic and adventure and romance, but much more time is spent on matters such as how to get boots that don’t leak, and the importance of knowing the nuances of language instead of just vocabulary.  For this reason, the book is slow-paced, but also thoughtful and interesting.

Nora is a graduate student whose thesis on John Donne is going nowhere.  Her boyfriend dumps her, her thesis advisor is poised to do the same, she’s got no self-esteem or backbone, and she wanders into the woods on a walk and finds herself in faerie.  Suddenly she’s beloved and special and going to wonderful parties every night.  She knows nothing makes any sense but it doesn’t seem matter, and the Prince of Faerie wants to marry her.  It would be perfect if she could just shake the feeling that something is not right.

The book takes it’s time with Faerie, and this part is dreamlike and very slow-paced.  The way the author balances the tone between happy dream and terrible nightmare is adroit – you know that kind of dream where you’re afraid it’s about to become a nightmare?  Like there’s a creepy thing at the very edge of the dream so even though the dream is happy you are still afraid?  That’s what Nora’s experience is like.

The book really gets interesting when Nora leaves Faerie.  She’s not in her world – she’s in the land of Ors, which is somewhat medieval in nature but nothing that is too closely paralleled with our history.  This part is also slow-paced, as Nora struggles to make a home for herself in a place where she has no marketable skills, only rudimentary ability with language, no social skills to speak of (people often complain that she ignores propriety) and no status (she’s a woman without husband, property, money, or family).  The moment when Nora, who’s spent her life studying literature, realizes that she’s illiterate in the language of Ors, is heartbreaking.

What’s great is that this part of the book is well-thought out, and it gives Nora a chance to shine.  We meet her at a low point in her contemporary American life, and in Faerie, her intelligence is forcibly muted (she’s basically roofied the whole time).  But in Ors, she has nothing to rely on but her brains, and she builds confidence as she figures out how to survive.

Meanwhile Nora is under the protection of a magician, and they begin studying Nora’s copy of Pride and Prejudice together.  The magician is a total jerk – rude, arrogant, contemptuous of Nora because of her status, and yet gradually more respectful of her as she shows talent and tenacity.  Could there be some kind of parallel here?  HMMMM?  Note:  I never liked this guy but he’s the kind of hero who is pure catnip to some readers – dark, tortured, and angsty.  There’s an event in his past that I think makes him irredeemable.  Yet I loved watching Nora stand up to him over and over again and I look forward to reading more about him in the upcoming sequel.

This book is being marked as fantasy chick-lit.  I have no problem with fantasy chick-lit (other than the name “chick-lit” which makes me want to claw off my own face) but I don’t feel that description fits.  This is a pretty in-depth, serious fantasy.  I love the way there are dragons and ice monsters but also problems with leaking boots.  Nora spends more time peeling apples than she does casting spells (although once she starts spell-casting it’s pretty awesome).  I found this book easy to put down but a pleasure to pick up again.  There’s a sequel on the way.  Will Nora and the cranky magician get through the second half of Pride and Prejudice?  Will she ever slay that damn dragon?

Emily Croy Barker’s website has a reading guide that includes maps, a list of poems quoted in the book, recipes, and a playlist.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Worst Hard Time

between the lines book club logoThis is our last week with The Grapes of Wrath.  If you are in the Sacramento area, join us at Arden Dimick Library, 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, on September 28, 2014 at 2PM for our in-person meeting.  Meanwhile. share your comments below!

Today’s post doubles as a book review.  The Grapes of Wrath tells a fascinating, harrowing, fictionalized story of those who left the Dust Bowl to come to California.  If you are interested in the history of The Great Depression, than I highly recommend Tim Egan’s nonfiction book about those who did not leave the Dust Bowl:  The Worst Hard Time.

cover of The Worst Hard Time

 

This book is powerful, informative, and memorable.  It will be a long time before I forget how to keep centipedes from invading a dugout home (iron the walls when your wallpaper starts squirming, or douse the walls with boiling water).  This books vividly demonstrates why the Joads are so determined to leave their home and why so many other people were determined to stay.

dust storm hits town

This book contains many helpful tips in addition to the importance of ironing your walls at regular intervals.  To avoid dust pneumonia, keep your windows covered at all times with dampened curtains (a horrifying number of people dies of dust pneumonia, curtains or no curtains).  You can eat tumbleweeds but they aren’t very good – try soaking them or pickling them.  Be friendly with your neighbors – when the bank seizes everything you own, they’ll buy your things at auction and give them back to you.  More importantly, the book points out the human causes of the Dust Bowl, and points to practices today that do further damage to the ravaged plains.

The plains were plowed under by homesteaders throughout the 1920s.  Turns out that sod, that part of the land where grass roots make a mat under the dirt, is essential to keeping the dirt on the ground.  In the 1930’s the dust storms began and by 1935 and estimated 250,000 people had left, having lost their homes.

The worst storm, on Black Sunday, occurred on April 14, 1935.  More than 300,000 tons of topsoil were blown away in one day – twice as much dirt as was dug up to make the Panama Canal.  Egan writes in a matter that is personal (he takes care to include people we come to know and care about) and visceral, as in this passage:

 “Every spike of barbed-wire fence was glowing with electricity, channeling the energy of the storm. Ike and his friends were a few yards out when the dirt got them. It came quicker than most dusters and as deceptive because no wind was ahead of it. Not a sound, not a breeze, and then it was on top of them. They were slammed to the ground and engulfed by a wall, straight up and down, the dust abrasive and strong, boiling up, twisting.”

dust storm aftermath

The Worst Hard Time has the excitement of a Hollywood disaster movie and the intense relatability that comes from the author focusing on the lives of specific people.  It has a story to tell that is both relevant to our past and to our future, as we look at the environmental impact of our activities.  If you enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath, (if enjoyed is the right word for such a moving book) the you will enjoy The Worst Hard Time.

“Nobody knew what to call it, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top.

“It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool.”

- From The Worst Hard Time

man walking through dust

 

 

Guest Post: 10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Compare the Modern Man to Mister Darcy, by Emmy Z. Madrigal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen my writer friend Emmy and I discovered that we both blog and we both love Jane Austen, we cried, “BLOG SWAP!”  I’m the author of Pride, Prejudice and Popcorn: TV and Film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.  Emmy is working on an adaptation of Northanger Abbey.  Here’s Emmy’s post, about the problems with holding out for a Mr. Darcy in the real world

1. Mr. Darcy was written by a woman.Yes, Jane Austen fulfilled our fantasies by writing a delicious character, but he is written from a woman’s point of view. He says the right thing (or wrong thing) at precisely the right time and approaches Lizzy with expressive and romantic language real men don’t use. “Hey, wanna take a trip with me this weekend?” can be just as tantalizing from a real guy as, “I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Read his signs like you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, with care and attention to detail. Asking you to hang out with him, means you are special enough to spend time with. Give him a break on the flowery declarations of love.

2. Even Jane Austen didn’t write the Darcy in your head.

You’ve read her words, but you’ve blown Mr. Darcy into this full-blown fantasy that can’t compare to ANY real man. In your mind he is perfect, much more perfect than Jane’s text could speak of. Remember his faults, like being too uppity and assuming Lizzy is nothing because she is poor and lives with a family of nutjobs. You’ve mentally fast-forwarded through all his distain like you do on the DVD to get to the really juicy bits. Our minds have powerful forgiveness for faults when we’re fantasizing.

3. Perfect men are obnoxious.

Do you really want to be tied to a man so perfect, only his man servant sees him naked? Who knows how many girdles are beneath those perfect suits and that pants bulge might not equal happiness in the bedroom. Will he be as uptight while undressing you, or will his servants do that for him? If you think about it, Darcy is kinda creepy. He follows Lizzy around, being all uppity and superior and then involves himself in a family scandal. No one is that psychic to cater to your every need before you even ask. It’s rare to find that much gallantry in a man, especially one too perfect to be in the same room with your loud-mouthed mother.

4. Showing emotion is not a fault.

Being with someone so stoic could drive a person mad. This brings up images of dancing in front of him to make him smile like the royal guard dudes with the big fuzzy black caps. Will he show emotion while bedding you, or will you just receive a nice tap on the head and off you go? You want a man who shows chinks in his armor every once in awhile. You want one you can smile and laugh with, one who shows his passion for you and sometimes makes a fool of himself in the process.

5. No real man is free of fault.

And his faults are never as tame as being so proud he’s prejudiced! Let real men have faults and don’t compare them to Darcy unless you want them to fail every time. Find a man you can love despite his faults. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to find his faults cute or romantic. If you can adore Darcy’s snobby attitude, making fun of Lizzy, calling her names, and putting down her family, maybe you can let Joe Schmoe’s fetish for baseball cards slide, eh? And just remember, women have faults too. Find someone who thinks yours are adorable and not to be corrected.

6. Times have changed.

10,000 pounds a year ain’t what it used to be. Falling for a man because of his wealth is like signing up for disaster. In the olden days, rich men tended to stay that way and if they didn’t, they still had their title to make doors open for them. In this day and age wealth is something that can change quickly. What if he loses an account, his mansion, or his job? Will you still love him when he’s jobless or his life situation changes? Are you wishing for riches to make your life easier or to truly be happy? Money doesn’t breed happiness and if the relationship isn’t built on something stronger, it’s doomed to fail.

7. Looks are fleeting.

What happens when Mr. Darcy turns 50, has the comfortable couch gut and starts losing his hair? You want someone you love for qualities other than looks. Ten to twenty years from now, do you want to be looking at him thinking, “Geez he WAS gorgeous, but now he’s a bit chubby and has rather odd ears.” Or do you want someone who you can love despite his graying temples and age spots?

8. What will you have to measure up to?

Do you want to be with someone that you constantly don’t feel good enough for? What will be expected of a girlfriend or wife of Darcy? Are you ready to manage Pemberley? Will you be expected to have perfect children before you’re ready? Will you have to raise your children as heirs to vast wealth, thinking only of riches and status? Would you be able to still live your own life, go out with the girls, or finish school? You want someone who appreciates your talents and has just as much fun discussing your interests as recounting his smelly old fox hunt!

9. What’s so great about Darcy anyway?

Does he have any hobbies? Does he do or accomplish anything besides keeping up his family estate? What are any of his accomplishments beyond being born into a rich, titled family? What is Darcy when these days you can have a musician, artist, techy genius, or an architect? An evening at Pemberley seems rather drab, sitting around reading, pretending to enjoy whist… in a corset no less! Wouldn’t you rather be in your comfy leggings, dancing at a concert or strolling the boardwalk?

10. You might be missing out on your Mr. Right.

Just because the guys you date don’t fit your cookie-cutter hero costume, doesn’t mean they’re unworthy. What if Mr. Wrong is Mr. Right for you? What if the jeans and t-shirt guy from the laundromat turns out to be the love of your life? Sure, you don’t want to struggle through life, you’d like to find rich Mr. Darcy, but how do you know that you plus t-shirt guy doesn’t equal success unless you give him a shot?

Emmy Z. Madrigal is the author of the Sweet Dreams Musical Romance Series and Anime Girl 1 and 2. Her love for Regency romances goes back to the days when she first discovered Mr. Darcy and was instantly besotted. Emmy believes that love can conquer all and that sometimes, love comes when you least expect it. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her own Mr. Darcy and son. To find out more, go to: sweetdreamsnovel.com

Book Review: The Guinevere Trilogy, by Lavinia Collins

cover of Day of DestinyI have a love/hate relationship with Lavinia Collins’ Guinevere series.   I loved that I couldn’t put it down and I loved the fact that Guinevere is a whole, complicated, pretty messed up person.  I also hated it the fact that Guinevere is a pretty messed up person, because I was so frustrated with her, although I enjoyed seeing Kay call her out on it.  I like that she is able to love more than one man fully and the critique of forced monogamy.  If any problem could be solved easily, it would be Guinevere’s, given that she would thrive in an openly polyandrous marriage.  I also hated it that Guinevere is so so selfish and frankly so, so dumb on so many occasions.  She is so drunk with love and fueled by frustration at her limited role that she careens around wreaking havoc while everyone says to her, “Hey Guinevere, you want to tone it down a bit?”

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  This series has covers that initially I regarded as simply dreadful and now regard as thought-provoking (except Book 2, which simply dull).  The first book, The Warrior Queen, features a naked Guinevere (I assume) leaning on, or possibly emerging from, a tree.  On the Amazon page, her bosom is artfully covered by strategically placed type.  Other versions don’t include the type, which can be a bit startling.  Behold:

cover of Warrior Queen

Why?  Why is she hanging out in the woods semi-nude?  Is she actually emerging from the tree, like a woodland faerie, or is she just tired?  It’s not that I object to hanging out in the woods semi-nude (although I have to say – BUG SPRAY, people!)  it’s just that it doesn’t connect in any way to the story.  Guinevere has lots and lots of sex in this trilogy but I don’t recall her hanging out in the woods shirtless.  I don’t think the cover matches the content, but I did think that this post by author Lavinia Collins, about the double-standards regarding nudity, is thoughtful and interesting.  She points out that Amazon insisted on the “modesty panel” for the shirtless female, but had no problems with this shirtless male on the cover of the second book, A Champion’s Duty.  I have the same problem here on WordPress – I have to show the Amazon version cover to remain PG-13 as a blog but I can show off Lancelot’s naked torso with impunity.  Here it is:

cover of A Champion's duty

This is your basic, bland, erotic cover of a guy who looks sort of angry and sort of stoned and very wet.  While the first cover is weird and gratuitous, at least it’s creative, interesting art.  I prefer it to the bland quality of A Champion’s Duty.

I actually love the cover of the third book, The Day of Destiny, but again I don’t think it relates much to the book.  Here you go:

cover of Day of Destiny

Those of us in science fiction, fantasy, and romance know all too well that the cover of a book does not necessarily reflect the quality of the book, and this trilogy is far better than the covers suggest.  It has enough explicit sex to qualify as erotica but it also has plenty of plot.  Guinevere is forced to marry Arthur when he conquers her father’s lands as part of his early days of kingship.  Arthur is a loving husband and Guinevere returns that love.  Initially Arthur welcomes her into his war councils and as a soldier in battle.  When she is wounded in battle, Arthur concludes that he can’t bear to have to worry about her and against her protests he sends her home.  This marks a rift between them and sparks a deep frustration and resentment on her part that never heals despite their reconciliation after the battles end.

While Guinevere’s love for Arthur is warm (they have very comforting sex), her love for Lancelot is blindingly passionate.  It’s fueled by lust and also by Guinevere’s need to rebel, to take some kind of control over her own life.  She is told by an unreliable source that Arthur sleeps with other women while away at war and she believes it because no one expects a king to be monogamous.  Being banned from war, she refuses to be banned from sex with whoever the heck she wants to sleep with.

This aspect of Guinevere was the one I related too.  She’s bored and she’s trapped and she’s lonely and she’s all, “Fuck it, I’ll sleep with this hot guy because it’s my life, yo”.  She wants to be a warrior queen, and for a while she’s allowed to be just that, and then she’s banished to being a piece of furniture.  No wonder she wants some autonomy.

What bugged me is that she’s so freaking self-centered.  She can’t seem to grasp that there is an entire kingdom which will be totally ruined if she can’t control her libido.  She pressures Lancelot when he says no (I did enjoy the gender reversal, in which she is the initiator of a sexual relationship).  She’s callous towards others, including her lovers.  She can’t see or doesn’t care that all these acts of personal rebellion don’t get her any further towards self-determination but they do hurt a ton of people.

I’m confused about why this series is marked as a romance series.  A romance novel carries with it the promise of a happy ending – and not just a happy ending but one in which the primary couple will end up together.  If you know your King Arthur lore, and most of us do, it’s not a spoiler to say that Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot do not end up practicing open love in Avalon while dining on cake.  It’s a tragic romance series, it’s an erotic series, and it’s a love story, but it’s not a “romance” series and it drives me crazy that it’s marketed as such.

Overall, I enjoyed this series – certainly I read it avidly, although that was partly because I was trying to figure out how the author would pull a happy ending out of this particular hat.  I was frustrated by Guinevere but I also enjoyed having a main female character who is neither passive nor perfect, and I loved that the author was sufficiently aware of Guinevere’s flaws to have Sir Kay point them out frequently (I adored Sir Kay).  I’d grade this series as a B- with a strong mileage may vary component.

Between The Lines Book Club: The Banning of the Grapes of Wrath

between the lines book club logoWelcome to another Friday with Between the Lines Book Club!  We’re discussing The Grapes of Wrath this month.  Please join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864, at 2PM on September 28, 2014 for our in-person book club meeting, and leave comments here so we can have on-line discussion as well!

The Grapes of Wrath was the number one seller in the year it was published, selling 430,000 copies by the winter of 1940.  It received immediate and future critical acclaim.  but not everyone likes it – it was banned and burned in the year it was released and it continues to be banned or opposed in school and libraries as recently as 1993.

The Grapes of Wrath ends in Kern County, California.  Residents of Kern County were outraged that their county was portrayed in a negative light.  The county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to ban the book from libraries and schools.  The board was lobbied intensively by the Associated Farmers, a group of large-scale landowning farmers.  Bill Camp, head of the Associated Farmers, made one of his workers, Cluell Pruitt, to burn the book, as depicted in the photo below.

3ae8ccdaa80b6cd53833d264ae79ca24-orig

 

As stated in an NPR article about the burning of the book in Kern County:

Meanwhile, local librarian Gretchen Knief was working quietly to get the ban overturned. At the risk of losing her job, she stood up to the county supervisors and wrote a letter asking them to reverse their decision.

“It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin,” she wrote. “Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.”

Cover of "Obscene in the Extreme"

 

Kern County was not the only place that banned or attempted to ban The Grapes of Wrath.

You can find a more complete list of all the time The Grapes of Wrath was banned or challenged at The American Library Association page “Frequently Challenged Books”.  It’s been challenged for its political and social views, its language, sexual content, and use of profanity.  It’s been banned in Ireland (in 1953) and Turkey (1973).  It was burned by the East St. Louis Illinois Public Library in 1939 and challenged as required reading in Tennessee in 1993.

Partly because of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck was held under suspicion of being a communist by the FBI.  According to Steinbeck’s son, the FBI could find no reason to legally prosecute Steinbeck so instead they ordered that his taxes be audited every year “just to be politically annoying” (Thomas Steinbeck, in an article for Huffington Post).  Incidentally, one of the books strongest advocates was Eleanor Roosevelt.  She visited migrant camps in 1940 and maintained that contrary to accusations, she did not find that the conditions of the camps had been exaggerated in The Grapes of Wrath.

My sources for this entry were two great articles:  “Banned Books Awareness: The Grapes of Wrath” and “Grapes of Wrath and the Politics of Book Burning” from NPR.