Read Women 2014- March

My output this month isn’t as prolific as last month’s. For one, I’m back at work full-time and for another, the first book I chose for March was a massive biography. No quick read there. So for your Read Women 2014 pleasure, here are my March reads:

Book #12: Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations- Georgina Howell

Have you heard of Gertrude Bell? I had not, at least not that I could remember.  She was a scary smart badass. She took a first at Oxford (first women in her subject to do so), she learned Persian Farsi and Arabic along with several other languages like French and German, she was such an accomplished mountain climber there is a peak named after her, after journeying several times to that amorphous region known as “Arabia” (pre-World War I) she decided to become an archeologist as well. Maybe she was bored.

A contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, she spoke better Arabic than him and helped map uncharted lands throughout greater Mesopotamia (yeah, she learned cartography as well). And she worked for the Red Cross and was a spy and was involved in the creation of the nation of Iraq. Ho hum.

Howell’s biography is very thorough and I enjoyed learning about Bell, warts and all. Her accomplishments were made easier (or possible) by independent wealth and the freedom that comes with it but she also lived at a time where women in England did not have the vote or many other rights we take for granted today. Her enlightened father encouraged her at every step of her various journeys and was the biggest influence in her life.

For all that I loved reading about Bell, the structure of the book was odd and made the story disjointed at times and repetitive. Instead of Bell’s life unfolding chronologically, after the early chapters of her life it was sorted into categories. I am not a fan. One chapter was “Desert Travel” and another dealt with her love affair with a British officer. These times in her life overlapped but the chapters had them in their own separate niches and this theme was followed throughout the book. It was disconcerting to read all about a certain part of her life only to get to the next chapter when the same bit was examined through a whole new perspective. A book just about her travels through the Arabian deserts would be amazing all on its own and I wish this part of her life would have received more attention.

Overall I enjoyed learning about this amazing woman and can only imagine what would have happened if she had a publicist as good as Lawrence’s. I wonder who would play her in the movie…

Book #13: Night in Shanghai- Nicole Mones

I want to go back in time and go to Shanghai and I am sad that the place evoked in Mones’s story no longer exists. The descriptions of the international city are so evocative I almost tapped my toes to the scenes of American jazz playing in the hot clubs around town and scrunched up my nose at some of the Chinese delicacies offered at the best restaurants.

Mones’s vivid accounts of Shanghai during the late 1930s and early 1940s are reason enough to read this book. Otherwise, the plot is uneven and jumps around without rhythm. Music is a major theme in the story that follows the life of African-American musician Thomas Greene who escapes the prejudice of his home country and finds freedom in the international jazz scene of Shanghai. The musical references can be heavy handed and a bit precious- Greene’s love is a woman named Song. I have a working knowledge of music theory and composition but I wonder how many scenes in the story would play for someone without that background. A fascinating subplot of the novel revolves around Jewish refugees from Europe resettling in China and I would love to read more about this subject.

Mones spent a lot time getting the Shanghai of this era just right, I would have liked the plot within the setting to be as tight and interesting.

Read Women 2014- February

In February I had a lot of time off work and got to read much more than I usually do, yay! I was off due to surgery on my arm and I couldn’t type or write so I got to read lots and not even feel guilty. I’ve linked each title to its Amazon page so you can read a synopsis on your own if you so wish. No particular endorsement of Amazon, it’s just easy to find pretty much any book on there. I don’t want to regurgitate a summary of each book every time, that’s boring for us both. Instead I’ll try to just give you a few quick observations about each book so I can get back to reading. So continued from January, here’s the next installment of Read Women 2014:

Book #4: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption- Laura Hillenbrand

This book was a natural for me because of my long held interest in World War II and my growing interest in the Pacific theater. If this wasn’t a true story it would be unbelievable. The horrors endured by Louie Zamperini after his plane was lost at sea and the unimaginable conditions of a POW camp in Japan are incredible in the classic sense of the world, straining credulity to the utmost. Humbling and somehow uplifting, this book will become a classic of its type.

Book #5: Carthage- Joyce Carol Oates

Carthage is the story of a young woman who goes missing and the effects it has on her family. At the beginning of this novel I felt despair-not because of the sad story but because I can’t imagine being able to write like Joyce Carol Oates. But I believe most people feel like that so I’m sure I’m not alone.

The feelings evoked by the disappearance of the daughter and her presumed murder are intense and masterfully portrayed by the author. So much so I often felt real pain for the family as the story unfolded. Not an easy book to read but a compelling one.

Book #6: The Haunting of Hill House- Shirley Jackson

I’ve long wanted to read this story. A classic of the “dare-you-to-stay-in-the-haunted-house” genre, this story creeped me out from start to finish. No gratuitous violence or gore, just a straight up mind f*ck, just the way I like it. If you like scary/sinister but are bored by buckets of blood, this story is for you.

Book #7: The Wicked Girls- Alex Marwood

This novel reminded me of the movie Beautiful Creatures, another story (based on fact) of young girls who commit a murder. However, in this book the author explores the life of the girls after they grow up and leave their respective detention centers and the tale picks up about 25 years after the precipitating event. This murder tale is unusual both because of who the murderers are (young girls) and how the story begins with their arrest rather than ending there. It’s a nice touch and makes this story stand out.

Book #8: Alena- Rachel Pastan

Alena is a modern retelling of Rebecca, the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier. I read the original Rebecca after reading so many books over the years that referenced it or paid homage to it by describing a particular type of nasty older woman as being like Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca was compelling enough although the ever unnamed main character was milquetoast and rather annoying.

Alena could not have the same impact because the secret wasn’t so secret if one had already read Rebecca. The secret was my biggest problem with this story. When unveiled my reaction was ho-hum. I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to care what happened to them. But, I didn’t care that much about Rebecca’s characters either. I find this is often the case in “must read” books. The hype is so large that I’m frequently disappointed in the reality.

Book #9: Pavilion of Women- Pearl S. Buck

The protagonist of this novel is Madame Wu, who is about to turn 40 and is done with the physical aspects of her marriage. She arranges a concubine for her husband so he won’t be neglected and sets in motion a chain of events. As usual with Buck, her characters are of a depth not apparent at first glance but so layered and nuanced that it is a pleasure to explore them. Madame Wu is very much a traditionalist with a goal of keeping her family happy and stable but she throws tradition aside when it becomes burdensome and threatens her family’s happiness. Like her China, Madame Wu has one foot in the past and tradition and another in a future of progressive and unsettling changes.

Book #10: Die a Little- Megan Abbott

I discovered this book when googling “tart noir,” a type of noir featuring female protagonists. All sorts of “best of” and “favorites” lists are out there in the Internet void so I took a gamble and ordered this up on my trusty Kindle. I’m so glad I did.

Die a Little is set in barely post-war Los Angeles. Characters smoke and drink so much I swear I got a buzz just from reading about the parties. So yeah, I loved it.

Book #11: Legwork- Katy Munger

I enjoyed Die a Little so much I decided to read another tart noir adventure. Legwork is more a straight up detective novel than Die a Little. Casey Jones, unofficial detective, is a woman after my own heart. The book opens with Casey and an occasional (and much younger) lover asleep in bed after an adventurous night. Munger had me right there. I’ll be reading more about Casey and her, umm, cases.

Read Women 2014- January

I came across the idea of Read Women 2014 in a Guardian article titled the “Year of reading women” which discusses a bias toward male (especially white) authors in the literary community. I’m not sure why this is a surprise to anyone but I liked the idea of dedicating a year to reading books by women and writers of color to try and even up the scales a bit. I didn’t read the article until the beginning of February but since the last few books I had read had been by women anyway I thought I could backdate my year to cover those. I won’t promise to read no books by men in 2014 (doesn’t seem any more fair to entirely boycott them than it was to ignore female authors) but I’ll keep it to a 5:1 ratio at most. Deal?

Now you’ll get to see the glorious randomness of my reading habits, including anything from serious histories of World War I to the latest serial killer in a page turning thriller. I won’t apologize for anything, I love to read and have never read a book and not learned something from it.

Book #1: Chances by Jackie Collins

What can I say? I love a guilty pleasure and it doesn’t get much guiltier than Jackie Collins. I devoured her books when I was a teenager and they’re a great time as an adult. I had just been through a rough patch in my life and need a good escapist read. When I saw a copy of Chances at my local book warehouse I knew it was just what I was looking for.

Chances is the first book of the Santangelo family series and tells the story of Gino Santangelo and his rise from a dirt poor immigrant kid to millionaire as well as the story of his daughter, Lucky, who is trying to make her name in a world of strong men, none as tough as her mob connected father. Other characters include a child prostitute turned New York society matron, a spoiled Greek heiress, a straight as an arrow District Attorney, and dozens of others from two bit hustlers looking for a deal to a Unites States Senator with a secret.

Jackie Collins’ books are fast-paced and her dialogue is slangy. She never uses “said” when she can use “gasped” “stormed,” or “fumed” instead which would drive me crazy except I plow through the book so fast I don’t even notice. While the author in real life moves in movie and entertainment circles (some of the fun of reading her books is trying to decide what movie or pop star a character is based on), Chances has its share of poor and desperate characters like prostitutes and starving artists. She cares for her downtrodden characters as much as her high rollers and they often are more likable than her pampered rich people or bratty movie stars.

I’m not going to defend Chances as serious literature or declare it peopled with multi-faceted and deep characters but I will declare it as fun, fun, fun. So if you need a break between reading the first volume of War and Peace and the second, give Jackie Collins a whirl.

Book #2: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I’m not sure how I came across this first book in this young adult dystopian series. I was looking for a book to read and when I checked out my Amazon wishlist I found Divergent saved there. I do this a lot, I’ll read a brief review about a book or someone will mention a title to me and I’ll save it in the Amazon list for later and when later comes have no idea what that book is. In any case, although I’m a 40ish (shhh!) woman who leans more to mystery/thrillers for my fun reads, I like to sample all sorts of genres. I read and enjoyed the Hunger Games books so I thought why not and loaded Divergent up on the trusty Kindle. Any book with a teenaged girl who is not obsessed with finding the perfect boyfriend is already ahead in my eyes.

Divergent is set in a future post-apocalyptic Chicago where people have divided up into factions dependent on their most defining traits. The Dauntless are brave, the Abnegation are selfless, the Amity are kind, the Candor are honest, and the Erudite are smart. When children turn sixteen they are tested for their aptitude for a faction but are allowed to make the final choice of which to join on their own.

Our heroine Beatrice is conflicted and when tested is shown to be Divergent, a shamed and feared condition that her tester is so horrified by she fudges the results and tells Beatrice she should keep her condition a secret or risk fear and condemnation from all members of society, but I’m never quite sure why. Heeding her advice, the adventurous Beatrice hides her Divergent nature and forges her own way during the initiation period even while the fragile society is breaking down around her.

I liked this story and I especially liked how strong Beatrice (who later goes by Tris) is while not even realizing it. Her self doubts make her real even while her fellow initiates are intimidated by her abilities. She’s not big or strong but her perseverance and stubbornness and innate abilities carry her through her initiation ordeals.

There is a love interest in the story but it’s a side plot and not the main focus of the novel. The story is focused on Tris’s struggles to succeed in her harsh environment and even thrive.

I did have a few problems with the book. I found many of the scene descriptions confusing and couldn’t visualize some of the complex settings found in the story. Another problem was that of numbers. This was set in a future Chicago and while much of the city was abandoned, the number of initiates for each faction still seemed woefully low. Where there really only a few dozen 16 year olds each year making their all important choices of which factions to join? These problems weren’t overwhelming but did distract me at times from what was otherwise an enjoyable and quick read. I’ll probably read the next one but won’t make it a priority.

Book #3: How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore

The key word in this book is research. If you happen to read the Kindle version of the book, just know that it actually ends about 2/3 of the way in, the rest of the book consists of notes. It was enough to make the history major in me swoon.

Besides the voluminous notes and painstaking details of this story, the premise itself is very interesting. The main focus of the book is the search of the 18th century philosopher, poet, and writer Thomas Day for the perfect wife but when he fails in this endeavor, he changes tactics and tries to create the perfect wife instead. It’s crazy and it sure keeps you reading to see what happens. One thing I love about nonfiction is the stuff an author can get away with. Thomas Day walks into an orphanage one day and walks out with a pre-teen girl not long after to be the guinea pig in his experiment fashioned from Rousseau’s early ideas on education. Hedging his bets, he picks up another orphan a short time later so he can double his luck. If this had been a novel I might have been shaking my head by this point, my suspension of belief wavering. But this actually happened.

At times Moore belabors her Pygmalion analogy (the statue coming to life i.e., the orphan girl, and falling in love with her creator, i.e., Day) and gets a bit repetitious but I think this might be in part to emphasize the factual aspect of this story. I really wanted to find out the results of Day’s experiments and what happened to everyone involved.

I didn’t like this book quite as much as Moore’s Wedlock:  The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. That story was black/white, good/bad and it was easier to root whole heartedly for the poor wife at the center of the awful marriage. The characters in How to Create a Wife were more ambiguous. While my sympathies were with the orphan girls and his other love interests, Day had some redeeming qualities such as giving vast sums of money to the poor which made him not so much a pure villain as the husband of Mary Eleanor Bowes.

Dazzled by the research and the entertained by the scandalous nature of the story, I was sad when I reached the end. I’m two for two now with Wendy Moore and will certainly be reading more of her work.

Coming Up

I don’t have my whole book list for February, I often don’t know what I’m going to read next until I start it, but I have begun the first book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

Billy Goats Gruff

Time for the latest terribleminds challenge. This one is called Fairy Tales Remixed. You take a fairy tale and a random sub-genre and 1000 words later, voila! In my case I chose The Billy Goats Gruff with a detective sub-genre.

I was fumbling in my bottom desk drawer for my bottle of corn when I felt a presence. I looked up and there she stood. She was tall with a knockout body but with a face that had been knocked around with an ugly stick. She gazed coolly at me and waited for my move.

“May I help you?” I asked. Damn Phyllis must have stepped out to buy a deck of Luckies or else I wouldn’t have been caught with my hand in the cookie jar.

“I’m looking for Frank Sweetwater,” she said.

“Yeah, lady, I’m Frank. And who might you be?”

“My name is Lillian LaTrolle. My friends call me Lillie,” she looked at me, seeing the stubble on my cheeks and the network of broken capillaries marching across my nose. Her nostrils flared as the stale air of my office reached them. Traces of old bourbon and desperation make a potent mix. “You may call me Mrs. LaTrolle.”

“What can I do for you, Mrs. LaTrolle?” I didn’t like her or her ugly mug but I hadn’t had a client walk through the door in weeks.

“I would like you to find my three brothers. They’re missing, and everyone tells me don’t worry,” she said. “But it’s not like them, Mr. Sweetwater. They know I worry but I haven’t heard a thing in weeks and I’m so frightened that something has happened.” Her eyes welled up, magnified by unshed tears and I noticed how beautiful they were. Large and dark and fringed with thick black lashes…

I shook my head. I had been in danger of drowning in those eyes. Get your head back in business, Frank.

“What can you tell me about them?” I motioned to a chair and she sat down slowly, giving me an eyeful of some amazing getaway sticks.

“Their name is Gruff.” She gave me details about their descriptions, last known whereabouts, usual haunts. We agreed on terms (a 10% surcharge added to my fee for that ‘Mrs. LaTrolle’ business) and shook hands. Phyllis could type the contract later.

Lillie rose, giving me another look at those legs. She walked to the doorway and paused.

“Mr. Sweetwater… could you please keep my name out of this? If you find the boys and they’ve just been out for a lark they’d be furious that I’d hired you.”

“Mum’s the word,” I said.

It had been too long and I was ready to hit the streets. This job should be duck soup and I’d be paying my rent in no time.

I grabbed my hat, took a swig from my bottle, and walked into the outer office. Phyllis was back and was behind her desk with a gasper hanging from her mouth.

“Phyllis, I got a job,” I said. “Spare me a Lucky for the road.”

“Mr. Sweetwater, you’re always telling me not to smoke so much and now you’re wanting butts off me.”

“And you tell me not to drink so much but you know where my corn is kept don’t you.”

She blushed and handed over the cigarette.

As I made my rounds around the hangouts of the brothers Gruff, the picture cleared. Innocent lambs they were not. Their haunts were dives, the cheap ones where pro skirts hung out with hoods and redhots.

I got my break when a little birdie told me those boys had pulled a major flimflam involving a fancy nightclub called Bridge to Heaven. The brothers weren’t lost, they were laying low.

The job was tough- I wasn’t looking for lost sheep, I was looking for the didn’t want to be found. But I wasn’t born yesterday and I had been working these streets for longer than those Gruff boys had been alive. Damn right I found them.

I met Lillie at my office to tell her the good news. Her frosty air thawed when I gave her the address of the boys’ hideout, a flophouse where they were registered under the name Caprine.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Sweetwater!” she said. “I was out of my mind.”

“It’s my job, Mrs. LaTrolle. I’m good at what I do,” I said.

“Quite,” she said, looking around the dingy office. “I’m sorry I doubted you. How much do I owe?”

I told her the final bill and she wrote out a check, saying she was giving me a bonus for my quick work.

“Thank you again, Mr. Sweetwater,” she said.

“Thank you, Mrs. LaTrolle, let me know if you need anything else.”

“I’ll do that, Mr. Sweetwater,“ she said as she walked to the door. “You really don’t know how grateful I am.”

The next morning I was in my apartment, drinking my joe, and shaking out the morning paper.


            “Police have reported the shooting deaths of three men in the Bowery Hotel on the lower south side. Buck Gruff, 28, Billy Gruff, 24, and Charles “Kid” Gruff, 19, were found in their hotel room shot execution style in the back of the head. There are no known suspects at this time.”

I made it to my office in record time. I needed to find that check. When Lillie had handed it to me yesterday I only had eyes for all the zeroes. The bank had been closed so I left the check in my desk until morning.

When I found it I looked at the upper left corner. “Lillian LaTrolle,” it read. Underneath was “Proprietor, Bridge to Heaven Nightclub.” Distracted by those legs and eyes and my empty wallet, I had not paid enough attention to her, only her green.

She had set me up. If I went to the cops, she would tell them I was in on it, that’s what the bonus was for. If I accused her of murder, she would say I was the paid hitman. She knew my reputation, knew that I had been a loser down on his luck for a while. A drunk versus a high class lady, no contest. And, after all, what business was it of mine? Those boys were no-goods, they had ripped her off with that nightclub job. I could cash that check and be set for a while. And let a murderer go free.

My stomach churned.

I opened my bottom desk drawer, pulled out my bottle, drank, and waited for the bank to open.

The Lovestruck Rider

Time for another of Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds flash fiction challenges. For this challenge we had to take two randomly chosen words from two columns and make that our 1000 word story’s title. I got “Lovestruck Rider.” Cheers. 

Big Jake was in trouble. Big Jake was in love. The first followed the second as naturally as bees followed the scent of flowers or Tuesday followed Monday.

The trouble began shortly after Big Jake started making his rounds, collecting payouts here, threatening beatings there, a normal day. On his list (typed up the night before by the gang secretary, Marge) was a new place, Suzanne’s Siren Salon. Next to the name was an address and a note “refuses to pay (p).” The (p) stood for protection, a lucrative sideline for the gang and it was not offered- it was levied on businesses whose owners wanted to stay in business. Big Jake stepped in when a foolhardy owner refused to pay. Big Jake was the muscle, the enforcer, the man who struck fear into the hearts of other men and made them empty their wallets and their bank accounts if required.

Strolling into the salon, he took a look around. Lots of mirrors with adjustable stools in front and various contraptions on counters nearby. Dryers and curling wands he could figure out but some devices looked like they might have been used by Torquemada.

Big Jake leaned on the reception desk and gave the teenager seated behind it a hard look.

“I need to talk to Suzanne,” he said, scowling and rolling his muscular shoulders inside his leather jacket, making it creak ominously.

“Ummm…ummmm, we’re not actually open yet. We don’t open until ten,” the teenager squeaked.

“NOW!” He pounded on the desk.

The girl began to cry and fled across the salon and through a discreet door in back.

Big Jake looked around again and caught the eye of a stylist setting up her station, getting ready for her first client. He stared and she grabbed her purse and went out the front door, muttering about needing a goddamn cigarette anyway.

Now alone in the salon, he preened in the mirrors, turning this way and that, admiring the newly embroidered “Fists of Thunder” patch on his back. He was busy flexing his muscles and practicing his scowl when the rear door opened and a woman came out.

She was as tiny as he was big, maybe topping five feet on her tippy toes. Dark red hair curled and bounced around a pixieish face as she strode through the salon, stopping a few feet in front of Big Jake. She couldn’t be more than thirty.

“I’m Suzanne, how may I help you?” she asked, her voice low and sweet.

“Look lady, I don’t need no games. You know what I’m here for. You owe us a payment and it’s overdue,” he said, his meanest glare on display.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Suzanne said.

“Afraid not? Whaddaya mean, afraid not?”

“Look, Mr….,” she paused.

“Big Jake,” he offered.

“Look, Mr. Big Jake, this is my business and I run it my way. I do not require your services and therefore I will not be paying for them, no matter how generous your offer is,” she said, her voice still sweet as honey.

“Lady. You don’t understand. We ain’t offering, we’re telling.” Big Jake cracked his knuckles. “You pay or things could happen… unpleasant things.” He loomed over her at his intimidating best.

“How dare you! What would your mother think, you threatening a woman like that! I bet she’d die of shame if she knew her baby boy was going around acting like a lout and trying to scare women like you’re doing!” her honey voiced darkened into molasses.

“Lady, leave my mother out of this, she ain’t got nothing to do with it. Pay up or else,” he said. Why was she talking about his mama? That wasn’t nice.

“Or else what? You’ll knock me around? Break my legs? What an occupation for a big grown man, frightening women. Do you go kick puppies in your spare time?” she asked with such venom Big Jake took a step back.

“Lady, I ain’t like that. C’mon, be nice and just pay up and I’ll be on my way.” Big Jake shifted his feet, why was he trying to explain himself to her?

Suzanne wasn’t buying it. She scolded him up and down and sideways, his face turning scarlet, her tongue giving him whiplash.

Big Jake had had it. “Lady!” he bellowed. “Enough!”

Suzanne took a step back, then defiantly stepped forward.

Big Jake stopped. He wasn’t sure what to say. He started toward Suzanne, he was going to throttle her goddamned neck and keep her viperous mouth from saying another word. He was going to grab her shoulders and…and…draw her into his arms for a kiss. Big Jake shook his head and arranged the scowl back on his face. He was going to show her what happened to people who talked to Big Jake like she had. He was going to show her all right. Show her the time of her life when he took her to the fanciest places in town. Damnit! Big Jake wondered if some of the salon chemicals had gotten to his brain, eating it away and turning it into Swiss cheese.

Suzanne stood waiting, her arms crossed and her chin tilted up.

“You! You… damn woman!” Suzanne watched as Big Jake’s glare crumbled into confusion as he turned and fled the store.

Outside the salon, Big Jake leapt onto his Harley and raced away, the heavy motorcycle’s engine roaring. He rode and rode and rode, hoping the deafening throb of the chopper would drown out the crazy thoughts in his head. No woman he had ever met could compare to the tiny, fearless, ferocious Suzanne. And now he was going to go back to the Fists of Thunder’s headquarters without all the money he was supposed to collect, with every name on his list neatly checked off except Suzanne’s Siren Salon. What could he tell them? Excuses would only work for so long.

Big Jake was in trouble. Big Jake was in love.


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