Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review: Ask A Queer Chick

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book free for review from NetGalley.

I've been putting off reviewing this book for five days now, which is pretty unlike my usual habits. I try to review everything as soon as I finish (unless it's like 2am and I have to get to sleep because I have work in the morning and need to actually use my brain for something other than filling the vacuum of my skull cavity), and it really bugs me to have unreviewed books staring at me every day from my Goodreads homepage.

But... I am a little daunted by this review. I have so much that I want to say and quote and point out... and I know that no matter how hard I try, all of that greatness is just not going to appear as part of this review. The longer I put it off, the less I'll be able to put into words all of the things that I want to say, and it might already be too late. Oh well, c'est la vie, right?

I just happened to be browsing NetGalley one day and this bright yellow cover caught my eye, as I'm sure, it was designed to do. Then the title hooked me, and I was instantly curious as to what this book might contain. I've never heard of The Hairpin, the site that contains the Ask A Queer Chick column. I had no idea what to expect, other than the obvious LGBTQ content. Would this be a lesbian manifesto? Or would it be a hilarious collection of questions and answers that, while funny, are relatable and insightful and meaningful? Would this just be another one of those blog-to-book conversions that just takes a bunch of the content of an existing successful project and re-publishes it in book form? Turns out, it was all of those things and more.

So… No, this is not just a book that consisted of "Export blog/Publish book". King-Miller mentions in the introduction that she decided to go for more of a narrative form than a question and answer form, which, I admit that I was a teensy bit disappointed by initially, because I thought that it might preclude possibility number two from existing, there being no questions to answer, after all. But it turned out to be the best of both worlds, the advice and answers to questions that could be asked, rather than just cherry picking interesting questions and answering them specifically. I feel like there was a lot more ground covered and information provided this way.

There was much of that relatable, insightful, and meaningful content, and quite a lot of humor as well. I really enjoyed it and found it entertaining as well as informative. There was a delightful tongue-in-cheek tone to the writing that had me giggling unexpectedly. I really enjoyed that.

However, some of the "humor" came about in the form of crudeness and vulgarity. I realize that the previous sentence makes me sound like I should put down the Prude Juice, but I promise you that I don't have a problem with it for the language or crassness itself (on the contrary, I'm the target audience), but rather for the image that it presents of the work, the writer, and the culture. Being a lesbian doesn't automatically mean that one is vulgar and crass, does it?

I believe that the author tried, and succeeded, at aiming this book towards the hip and cool people of her generation. The problem is that that's not the only type of person who might read or find this book useful, and the language and tone may turn away people who might truly benefit from it.

Part of what this book is about is inclusiveness and acceptance, yet I think that the casual crassness could alienate some readers. And that's the crux of my language and tone complaint with this book. I would expect this book to be a professional piece of writing, and for the most part it is - except when it isn't. It doesn't bother ME, but I can see some, perhaps older women who are figuring themselves out later in life, who have lived for decades in a heteronormative society, who are more traditional-minded, etc, reading this book for help and guidance through their questions - and feeling that this book really isn't for them after all. And that makes me somewhat sad.

Now I understand that the whole "accept me for who I am and who I present myself to be" argument is valid. But that's an idealistic, perfect world situation that doesn't exist right now (or ever) - and honestly I don't think that one's sexual preference or gender identity has anything to do with how professionally they present themselves in their work. And that's why I think that a book like this, one that's hoping to cross boundary and party lines, provide advice and guidance and support for everyone who may need or want it, should try to be as neutral as possible to include anyone who may potentially find it.

I only criticize for this because I think that this was a very informative, very interesting, and I think helpful book, and could benefit a lot of people who might be curious or struggling with how to deal with their sexuality or gender representation. I learned quite a lot myself, even though I'm not struggling with either of those things. This is a book that I think many, many people should read, regardless of their identification, and I want it to not offend them away by poor language choices.

Speaking of word choices, I did think that it was a bit strange that "elide" was used twice in place of the more common "omit" or "remove". Just seemed like a strange choice to me when so much of the book was straightforward, common language, and yet here's this uncommon word that just felt out of place.

Finally, and I know that this is perhaps not fair to bring up, but I am sorely disappointed in the version of the book that I got from NetGalley for review. At the end of the book, there's a whole slew of resources provided. The websites are OK, but the phone numbers are a horrible mess.

"GLBT National Hotline Hotline Hotline Hotline 4564): peer counseling, information, and local resources"
"GLBT Youth TalkLine alkLine alkLine alkLine 7743): youthspecific [sic] (under twenty-five) peer counseling, information, and local resources"

There are six of those that are just like that. I really don't understand how that happens. It really seems like the number was formatted out or copied over or something. The little conspiracy theorist on my shoulder is whispering that it's to sell the book for the complete resource list, but that doesn't make much sense since anyone getting a NetGalley freebie would have access to the internet and could easily Google these resources for free.

OK, and just because I'm on a roll with the criticisms, there's no treasure map in The Lord of the Rings. There is one in The Hobbit, but only if one considers a regular map showing the way back to one's dragon-infested mountain home, and the way to get inside where there happens to be treasure, to be a "treasure map". (I don't… I think of pirates and The Goonies when I think of "treasure maps". But maybe that's just me.)

And since that now seems like a SUPER random comment, I'll provide the text that I'm referring to (bear in mind, that this is obviously an uncorrected edition, and this may have changed in the final copy):
"Some people will try to convince you that you have only one true identity, and that your job is to find it, possibly by acquiring and following some sort of Lord of the Rings-style treasure map."
You may now begin yelling "Nerd!" in my general direction.

And just ONE more, because this one really could have used some elaboration for me, but why is Google Chat and texting taboo as methods of coming out, when Facebook or Twitter status updates are A-OK? I just don't understand. I need more info than just "Girl. Don't."

OK, Now I'm really done with the negatives (I think). I really found everything else about this book to be pretty great. I think quite a lot of it, from the 'figure out who you are' and 'figure out what you want' bits to the 'don't settle for crap' and 'you're not alone' bits can all apply to everyone. But the segments that really do apply only to the LGBTQ community were great as well. Informative for me, at least, in how to relate to people in the way that makes them the most comfortable, and to see things from different perspectives than the one that exists inside my own head. It even validated some things for me that, I admit, I thought were just attention-seeking behaviors on Facebook. That's ignorant of me, and I'm glad that I read this because I've now had my eyes opened to a whole spectrum of possibilities. That alone is well worth the read.

So... all in all, I think that this is a book that everyone should read, even if you feel that you are open and accepting and forward-thinking. I thought that I was, but even I learned some new things from this book.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

I picked up this book from Audible purely because of the setting and the fact that I'm somewhat fascinated by Centralia, Pa, which is what I thought it was based on. It's creepy, and I love the whole "ghost town" aspect of it, and the fact that it's been the basis for horror settings like Silent Hill just makes me even more fascinated by it. But I've never been there. I've lived in the Anthracite Coal region of Pennsylvania since 2004, and have visited some of the historical sites of that industry (Concrete City, the Mauch Chunk Museum in Jim Thorpe, the Anthracite Museum in Scranton, and used to drive past this abandoned coal breaker every day for work... etc), but though I only live an hour or so from Centralia, I haven't yet been to see the town, or what's left of it, for myself.

In fact, until right now, I thought Centralia was unique in being, you know, on fire. I came all gung-ho to this review to talk about how many liberties this author took with just setting towns on fire for dramatic settings for her book... You know, something like: "How much of the state did she think was on fire? Because it seems like 'all of it' is the appropriate answer - at least three different fire zones?? Come on..." and here is the point where I have to admit that, no. I'm the ignorant one. According to this article from 2014, there are currently 8 moderate to serious mine fires in my county and the neighboring county directly north of me, and if a comment on that article is to be believed, there are as many as FORTY-FIVE fires throughout the state.

Let me reiterate that in case you blinked and missed it. That's 2014. Two years ago.

And Google, EVER so helpful, informs me one of those fires is just a few miles from me, in a town called Laurel Run. That's been burning since 1915, and caused the entire town to be demolished and relocated in the 60s until it was contained in the 70s. And I could WALK to it right now. I can practically see it from my house and ohmyshit IT'S STILL ON FUCKING FIRE.

Thanks Google. So much. Really.

Well, shit. On the bright side, since I'll never sleep again, I guess I'll get a lot more reading in.

OK, I'll stop being dramatic and actually talk about the book a bit. So, like I said, I picked this up because of the setting. I listened to a sample, and the first line hooked me, and the cover didn't hurt either. I REALLY wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be creepy because of the setting, and heartbreaking, because what else COULD it be? And I wanted it to be well-written and historically accurate (or at least close) because, even though I didn't grow up here and have no roots here, I love the history of the area and wanted this book to represent that history well.

In other words, I set myself up for disappointment.

It's almost not fair to rate this book because of the high expectations I had. (Though when has that stopped me before?) In this case, it just fell short for me. I think, possibly because of the interest I had in the setting, it is almost like this should be rated on two different levels. The setting, and the story plopped down on top of it.

So let's talk about that. I live in this area, and so, perhaps, I have a bit of an advantage when it comes to picturing it. I could see the mountains and the valleys as I listened, and I know many of the actual real-life towns mentioned (Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Allentown, etc), though I can't say that I know how they'd have been in the 60s. I know the way the light shines through the trees, and how the snow falls, and how different the area looks in each of the seasons. (Not so pretty now, mid-winter with no snow to cover the brown and dead trees, but in a few weeks, or in the fall, it will be one of the prettiest areas you could find.)

I know the pride that people have in their homes and land here, so it's not hard for me to imagine people staying despite the ground beneath them burning, despite poisonous gases seeping up through their basements and homes, despite the risk of cave-ins and sinkholes, etc.

The setting, I think, was OK... but it still felt like it was given short shrift. I wanted area and the time and the peril to be a character on its own. I wanted it to feel alive and real... And to a point it did, but I think that much of that was me projecting my knowledge of the area and its history onto the info given in the book. I brought more to it than it offered me, if that makes sense.

The story felt detached from the setting. Which is odd because it was tied so closely with the mines, specifically THESE mines, and tried to be more meaningful than it was. Brigid, the main character and narrator, knows quite a bit about mining because her daddy and uncle and grandpa were miners, and she's grown up in it. Her grandpa is dying of the Black Lung, and her uncle died in the mines during a cave in - one in which her father was also injured.

But the story around the family and its secrets felt like it was separate from the area. I wanted a profound tie, something that would be unique here, something poignant and interesting, and instead it was the same kind of story I've read a thousand times before, only set in the Pennsylvania Anthracite region. It felt... cheap. I wanted the story and the setting to meld, to be parts of a whole... but if you take the setting away or change it to anywhere else, the story wouldn't change that much. Just the details. I was disappointed by that.

That being said, the family story was well-written. I liked the characters and feel of the story, even though it was massively predictable. As I listened to this while driving to Pittsburgh and back, I called events and revelations well before they were revealed in the book.

I did like the circularity and the familial themes in the book, though. I liked how the title can both refer to the literal ground, and also familial foundation. I liked that it was somewhat realistic in that things don't always work out to be a happy ending.

Also, I liked the writing, for the most part. This is a beautifully descriptive book, though maybe a bit too much so, given the fact that an 11 year old girl is narrating it. It just felt a bit too... precocious. Especially given the way the brother is depicted. He seemed to be somewhat mentally or developmentally disabled, seemingly unable to form full sentences even at nearly 7 years old (and actually, the only things I remember him actually saying are "No!" and "Want home."), yet here's his sister describing things like this:

  Through the kitchen window came this light, the color of swallowtail or goldfinch wings. I've never seen a light like that again. It felt like it shot through the slats of my ribs, searing me with a kind of happiness maybe all kids feel 'cause they don't know any better. But then deep in Brother's plump little throat formed this squeal of delight. Within seconds he was up, standing all on his own, and charging toward us with his first steps.

Ma turned, spreading her arms, cooing like a mourning dove. But when he fell into her, sobs shot from her mouth like the fire itself had flamed up through the floor and singed the skin from her bones.
And this:

  When I woke that February morning, the morning that changed our lives, the pinkish air pushing in the opened window told of snow. I snuggled closer underneath the covers toward Auntie and pictured the mine fire flaming along the veins of coal beneath our town, veins as numerous and intricate as the blue ones on Auntie's legs.

What eleven year old thinks or talks like that? I get that she's smart, and reads historical romance and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a book I've seen this compared to - I see what you did there.), I still don't think that THAT kind of descriptiveness fits.

I'm a little ambivalent about the mystical aspect of this book. This is an Irish Catholic family, and they believe they are cursed. Brigid also becomes friends with a Puerto Rican girl who believes that she can see spirits. This is interpretable as being superstition and mysticism, or you could take it literally, if you were so inclined... I wasn't. I thought that it was a little trying on my patience. I would have liked the story to live strictly in the realm of the real. This aspect of the story felt out of place and distracting. It was almost like, because the main character is a young girl, the story didn't know what it wanted to be, and kept losing itself in this "fantasy" realm. So for the most part, I just rolled my eyes and waited for the story to move on.

Finally, because I need to wrap this up... I did not like the reader of the audiobook. She did that "little girl" voice that I freaking HATE. It annoys me that audiobook producers think that stories narrated by young girls (or teens, or young women) have to sound like they are 8 years old. The voice doesn't match the personality. Brigid is strong, independent, intelligent, and insightful. She's not a vapid little girl, so I found it annoying as hell that she was read that way. I didn't like the way that some of the adults were read either. All of the grandmother aged women sounded alike. All of the mother aged women sounded alike, except for Ma, and that was only because Ma was given so much description of her tone and expression and personality that to read her in the way the other women were read would be completely out of character. But all of the other women sounded "southern gentlewomanly". Makes sense, because the reader, Luci Christian, is from Texas. But that's not at ALL how accents around here sound. Aggravating. I really wish that they'd have gotten someone from the area (or at least who would understand the dialect) to read this.

Anyway... Overall, I liked this. I'm not disappointed that I spent an Audible credit on it, but I did want a bit more out of it. I think that, for the right kind of reader, this could be a great book. And for a debut, it's definitely not the worst I've read. (Well that sounds like a shining endorsement, doesn't it? LOL)

OK, in summation... I have a fair amount of complaints, but when I wasn't able to listen to this, I was thinking about it, so that's a good thing, right? I'm going with 3 stars for that, but if I drop it down to two in the coming weeks or so, I think that would be fair, too.

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