Saturday, 1 December 2018

#CBR10 Book 104: "Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It". Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea

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Page count: 186 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR10Bingo: Two Heads Are Better Than One

So my final review of #CBR10Bingo requires some assistance, and I will be joined by my husband Mark ("Hello!"), who also gave me the book we're co-reviewing. I figured I should start with some background. I hadn't watched any of the now hugely popular children's television program Doctor Who until I went to University in Scotland in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Of course, this was because at that point, the show wasn't actually on the air, and anyone who wanted to watch it, or get other friends interested in it, probably had to own the show on VHS.

Some of my Scottish friends did their best to introduce me to a bunch of sci-fi. Before going to St. Andrews, I'd really only watched Babylon 5. (They managed a lot better with Doctor Who than with Star Trek. Even being showed a bunch of episodes of both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I wasn't really all that interested). If memory serves, I was shown Spearhead from Space with Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor and The Curse of Fenric with Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor (there were probably more, but those are the two I can clearly remember).  Nevertheless, I hadn't really watched all that much of it before it was relaunched in 2005, even though it was one of my then-boyfriend, now-husband's favourite shows. As well as being a huge fan of the modern show, in the 18 years my husband and I have been together, I've now also watched a lot of the classic series (but by no means all, probably not even half). I also really enjoy the Verity! podcast - Lynne M. Thomas, one of the contributors to that show, co-edited Chicks Dig Time Lords, and the anthology also features essays from several of the other "Verities". I should probably let my husband contribute a bit, though, shouldn't I?

(cracks fingers)
(Right. This is on now, right? Is this on? Can you hear me at the back? Yes? Good)
OK. So, my Good Lady Wife asked me how long I have been a fan of the Popular British Children's Television Programme Doctor Who. The answer is...quite a while. Yessirreee. Several of your Earth whiles, plus a few more. Since the mid-1980s, to be specific, then a bit more in the 1990s. I can politely but firmly assure you that being a Doctor Who fan during the '90s, when the show wasn't even on the air, was not a surefire way of winning friends. But I stuck with it, thanks largely to a comprehensive lack of anything better to do, and my patience was rewarded in 2005 when the show finally returned to the airwaves. Only this time around, I had a proper, human female, girlfriend to watch it with. The novelty still hasn't entirely worn off.

Is that why you gave me this book for Christmas last year? You wanted me to share in the geeky experiences of long time fans of the show, many of whom are either people whose voices I've heard on podcasts, or authors whose books I've read and enjoyed?

Well, "share in the geeky experiences" is definitely a nicer way of putting it than my usual choice of "bathe together in the stinky nerd-mud of mutual shame", so thanks for that. But...well, sort of yes, and sort of no. After nearly two of your Earth Decades together, we've bonded over our mutual nerdery in many ways, and our respective fondness for The Popular British Children's Television Programme Doctor Who is only one of them. But it's still a biggie, as witnessed by your earlier reviews of Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, Adventures With The Wife In Space, and The Dying Days (which I just went back and verified was my first Cannonball for CBR2!) . And given how much we both enjoy the Verity! podcast, and its still-more-noteworthy-than-it-really-should-be emphasis on a female perspective on this show we both love, I thought this might appeal to you.

Plus, you know, I wanted to read it myself. But not in a Homer-buying-Marge-a-bowling-ball sort of way. Honest. 

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. The book is an anthology containing essays, articles and interviews, and being mostly a fan of the new show, and not super involved in all levels of the fandom (fan fiction, the comics, the fanzines, podcasts, conventions etc.), there were absolutely some bits that didn't really resonate with me, simply because I had very little frame of reference for them. I think the entries that worked the best for me were the ones that talked about sharing the show with family, like those of Carole E. Barrowman (John Barrowman/Jack Harkness' sister), Amy Fritsch (who talks about introducing the show to her daughter, named for actress Elisabeth Sladen, and taking her to conventions). My favourite essay in the whole collection is probably the one by Verity! contributor Lynne M. Thomas, who talks first about how she married a huge fan, and discovered just how warm and accepting the Doctor Who fandom is when they had their disabled daughter). That contribution genuinely had me in tears, I was so moved. Deborah Stanish, another Verity! wrote a good one, and I also enjoyed some from famous fantasy/sci-fi writers Seanan McGuire (who was apparently in love with Adric as a teenager, not to mention thinking the show was a documentary for a while, because it ran on PBS) and Mary Robinette Kowal.

There were quite a few entries I was mostly indifferent about, or that didn't interest me all that much because I've never, for instance, read fan fiction of any kind (so essays covering that were unlikely to thrill me). There are several interviews, which seemed a bit like filler to me, but my least favourite essays were probably the one by Jackie Jenkins about a Bridget Jones type character included in Doctor Who Magazine and Kathryn Sullivan's essay about fanzines (soo dull). What about you, husband o' mine?

Well, I'm grudgingly forced to publicly acknowledge our mutual compatibility - and we both know how much I hate doing that - by admitting that Lynne Thomas' essay was probably my favourite thing in the book too, for reasons relating largely to its obviously heartrending loveliness. I also shared your disinterest in the "Jackie Jenkins" piece (although when it comes to that one I may have to play the "NO GREATER NERD" card and point out that I was failing to be amused by JJ's "what if Bridget Jones But a Doctor Who Fan" gimmick long before you even met me). But yes, Lynne's piece was absolutely lovely - now that the two of us are BONDED FOREVER by our parental duties to a child who will, with any luck, grow into a formidable Doctor Who fan in his own right, it resonated with me in ways that may not have been quite so powerful a couple of years ago.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Verity! host Liz Myles' essay on the experience of being a Doctor Who fan both pre- and post- the 2005 revival, which resonated with me in ways that I suspect largely passed you by. Although Liz and I obviously differ on many specifics - why would anybody, however tentatively, even try to ship the 5th Doctor and Tegan, for example, when the manifestly superior pairing of Tegan/Nyssa is right there, leaping out of the screen and begging to be noticed? - I nonetheless recognise a great many of my own experiences in her story, in much the same frustrating-but-familiar way I experience whenever I'm shouting at the radio in furious agreement with her contributions to the Verity! podcast (Oh, Liz. How dare you be so obviously right, in such an ever-so-slightly wrong way/so obviously wrong, in such an ever-so-nearly-right way! It makes me SO MAD).

So in conclusion, while the husband may in fact have bought me the book as a Christmas present at least 50% because HE wanted to read it (and considering when he went out for the last presents last year, something like 10-15% desperation, just needing to find something appropriate for my last present), I was actually happy to receive it, interested in reading it and ended up very much enjoying most of it. Sadly, the essays only cover the modern series up to the announcement of Matt Smith as the newest Doctor, there's nothing about his era on the show, Peter Capaldi, or obviously the current Doctor, Jodie Whitaker (whom I love, even if the quality of the show in general right now is...questionable). If Mad Norwegian Press were to publish another anthology with similar essays for the Steven Moffat years, I would love to read it.

Hey, does this mean I get the last word? Awesome. I want it to be "bogeys".

Also, while I obviously wholeheartedly deny any implication of desperation attached my purchase of this present, I'm very glad you enjoyed it as much as you apparently did. Given that this book ends on a note of what I would politely suggest may be termed "unwarranted optimism" regarding the potential feminism of the then-impending Steven Moffat era (while I think there are more credible feminist arguments to be made in defence of Moffat's writing than are sometimes acknowledged, I also think it's worth admitting that...well, there are also some good reasons why "defensiveness" might be considered the default stance on that front), I'd also be interested in reading the sister book Chicks Unravel Time, in which several of the same contributors (and a few others of considerable interest to you, not least Diana "those books about that sexy Highlander and his marginally-less-sexy time-travelling wife you love so much" Gabaldon) continue to get their collective Who geek on, alongside you at some point. But don't worry, I'll buy that one for myself. Or let you buy it for yourself. Whichever happens first.

Oh, and "bogeys". Always, and forever, "bogeys".

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is very cute, with a ton of geeky Doctor Who references, obviously. I really like the art style. The title is on the psychic paper, the girl is wearing the old fashioned 3D-glasses used by the Tenth Doctor, and obviously she's got one of the long knitted wool scarves made so famous by the Fourth Doctor. Finally, she has a TARDIS key on a string around her neck.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

#CBR10 Book 103: "Attachments" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 357 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR10Bingo: So Popular!

This is my second re-read of Attachments. I first read it back in 2011, and my original review can be found here. Considering how much I loved the book back then (and still do), it's a fairly short and unenthusiastic review. But it'll give you the basics of what the book is about.

When it came to selecting a book for the "So popular!" square, all ten choices (among the most reviewed books of the ten years on the Cannonball blog) were ones I'd already read at least once. Some, like Divergent, The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, I really just didn't feel like reading again. Some, I'd already read more than once, and it seemed unnecessary to revisit them. I had decided to reread Eleanor & Park, the only Rainbow Rowell novel that I've only read once before. However, only about fifteen pages in, the main reason why I've never really wanted to pick it back up (and why it's my lowest rated of all of her books) started upsetting me too much (Eleanor's incredibly horrible home life, especially her awful stepfather) and I realised that I just had to pick one of the other books on the list if I was to be able to complete my bingo card.

Hence I picked up Attachments once more. Goodreads helpfully showed me that it's been more than five years since I last read it and I was interested in seeing if I still loved it. Short answer, yes. I am a huge fan of the romantic comedy as a genre and am so very ready for it to come back into popularity (Netflix seems to be doing what they can to help, I am grateful). This book would make a great film, as long as it was adapted by the right people. I'd be terrified that they'd mess something up and ruin it, but recently, there's been a lot of good romantic book adaptations, so with any luck, I'd end up with something that was possibly EVEN better than the source material (like Crazy Rich Asians or To All the Boys I've Loved Before)

This was Rowell's debut novel, and when I read it, I had no idea that she would become one of my favourite writers, with each and every new book just resonating with me on a special level. In each and every one of her books, there seems to be scenes that speak directly to me, and in some, I possibly identify a little bit too much. The book where this most holds true, is Fangirl, but with this book, I see so much of myself and my best friend Lydia in Beth and Jennifer's friendship. While they e-mail each other daily, she and I became friends through letters (because this was in the before times, when the internet was not readily available and we had to wait weeks for a letter from the other one). Now of course, we have not one, but two different Facebook chats going (one also includes our husbands) at any given time and we try to video chat at least once every week or so. Technology is a wonderful thing. If we worked in the same place, though, we would totally be sending the sort of e-mails that Beth and Jennifer exchange, and you'd best believe we'd trigger any filter that looked for inappropriate words or content.

I absolutely adore this book, and the fact that I can still be friends with Lydia, even if she found the book "just ok" is a testament to the length and strength of our connection. Cause not loving Rainbow Rowell should quite possibly be some sort of deal breaker. Are Lincoln's actions in the book a bit uncomfortable? Yes. This is addressed within the story. Is the fact that he falls in love with Beth without even knowing what she looks like still super romantic? Yes. Does it all possibly end a little bit too conveniently? Probably, but that's a staple of the romantic comedy genre.

Rereading Attachments made me feel the need to immediately listen to my audiobook copies of Fangirl and then Carry On right after. I have no intention of reviewing either of those books again, because frankly, having just returned to work a little over a week ago, I'm pretty much constantly tired and it's a miracle I'm getting any reading, let alone blogging done. Suffice to say, I still love them just as much as before too. I will at some point be at a place where I'm mentally and emotionally strong enough to tackle Eleanor's home life in Eleanor & Park again and then I will reread that too. But I'm not there yet.

Judging a book by its cover: I have the UK paperback of this book, and much prefer it to the original American edition with the paperclips and empty office chairs. I like the bright colours and the little silhouettes, although I'm not entirely sure why the little man character is wearing a suit, something I'm pretty sure Lincoln never had to do, working the night shift and mainly reading other people's e-mails.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 26 November 2018

#CBR10 Book 102: "Pretty Face" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is a re-read of one of my favourites. My original review (which is quite lengthy) can be found here.

We're pretty much in the coldest and darkest part of the year here in Norway now and it gets harder to motivate oneself for anything except hibernation, really. So with an ever more attentive and demanding baby and preparing to go back to work as a teacher for the first time in over a year, I'm not really up for anything very challenging to read in my spare time. Hence the need for comfort reading.

As I mentioned in my review of The Wedding Date, neither 2017, nor 2018 have been especially great years for romance, but Pretty Face, released early last year, was absolutely one of the exceptions. I remembered it being very good, and re-reading it, I started wondering whether I should actually change my rating to a full five stars. Having thought about it some more, I'm going to leave my rating the same, mainly because great as it is, I would have preferred a bit more time reading about Luc and Lily as an established couple before the book ended, not just the very sweet epilogue.

In her London Celebrities series, Lucy Parker is working her way through her favourite romantic tropes. In the wonderful Act Like It, she covers the "fake dating" trope, in this, she covers "the age gap", which can be extremely tricky to manage properly. Romance with a substantial age difference is difficult to write convincingly, because done badly, this trope can be reading about a guy having a midlife crisis with someone young enough to be his daughter, or some slightly damaged woman with daddy issues trying to work through them with someone inappropriately old for her.

Interestingly, while Luc is certainly going through something resembling crisis (trying to refurbish the family theatre, having recently very publicly broken up with his famous partner), he's in no way having a midlife crisis. Lily certainly has a complex emotional relationship with regards to her father, considering she's the product of his adulterous affair with her mother, and while she knows deep down that he loves her, she's never really been welcome in his home while her stepmother was there and frequently, her father puts himself and his business ventures ahead of spending time with Lily. As does Lily's mother, and for a time, Lily's ex-roommate Trix. Yet it never feels like she's throwing herself at Luc, she is in fact trying very hard to fight the attraction, for a number of reasons (see my original review for her three relationship rules).

Having revisited this, I'm very excited that Lucy Parker has another novel out next year (starring Freddie Carlton, Lily's co-star in this book), but also sad that it's not out until April. That's a long time to wait for what I am hopeful is going to become another favoured comfort read in years to come.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

#CBR10 Book 101: "The Wedding Date" by Jasmine Guillory

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Alexa Monroe is in San Francisco to celebrate her sister's promotion when she gets stuck in an elevator for an extended period of time with an attractive stranger. Naturally, they strike up a conversation and Alexa learns that the hot guy, Drew Nichols, is a paediatric surgeon, in town to go to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend and one of his best friends. Obviously, he's not exactly thrilled, and the woman supposed to be his plus one cancelled on him. While they eat some of Alexa's purse snacks (she has cheese and crackers in there to bring to her sister's room), Alexa is persuaded to be Drew's fake girlfriend for the weekend.

While they barely know one another, it's clear that Alexa and Drew have chemistry in spades. After the wedding, they hook up, but rather than go their separate ways the morning after, they spend the day together and agree to keep seeing one another. Alexa works in Berkeley, as the Mayor's chief of staff, while Drew works at a hospital in Los Angeles. So they can only really see one another on weekends, when either one can afford to fly to see the other. Alexa really likes Drew, but he made it very clear at their very first meeting that he doesn't really do long term relationships (he tends to bail when things start getting really serious, but always stays friends with his exes). How long can she keep flying to LA for a guy who will eventually present her with the "Let's just be friends" talk?

Representation is hugely important, and there just aren't enough romances written by or featuring women (or men, for that matter) of colour. The Wedding Date has a female protagonist who is black (she's also described as curvy and larger than your average woman - which I found incredibly refreshing, plus size heroines are also few and far between), while the male love interest is white. While his best friend and fellow doctor at the hospital in LA is Latino (and a great supporting character, whose book I'm very excited to read), it's quite obvious that Drew doesn't really know a lot of people of colour and that he has never really had to think about what it's like to be one in a large group of mostly white strangers (this is the situation Alexa faces when going with him to the wedding). Being a handsome white man, Drew just isn't very aware of his privilege and it's nice that the differences in their experience are covered early on in the book.

Being from different ethnicities is only one of the challenges facing Alexa and Drew. They are both professionals who care deeply for their jobs (and it's refreshing to have book characters who actually seem to do something for a living). It's difficult for them to find the time to see each other, since they live in different cities and plane tickets cost quite a bit of money. When communicating via text, nuances are lost and there's a couple of times when they have some fairly tense arguments based on a text message that could have been cleared up fairly easily if they were speaking face to face.

The biggest problem facing them, however, is Drew's rather baffling unwillingness to commit. As seems to be the norm for me this year, I'm reviewing this book almost a month after I finished it, and as such, some of the finer details are fuzzy to me. I forget whether we actually get a good explanation as to why he consistently bails on a relationship the minute it starts getting serious. Apart from his insistence that he can't be someone's life partner and only wants something casual, he's clearly a smart, handsome, successful guy. He's devoted his life to curing children, for heaven's sake. But the whole "can't commit" thing makes him seem rather immature. Another thing I disliked about him is how insecure he was about Alexa's relationship with her colleague (and one of her best friends) Theo. No matter how many times Alexa assured him that she had no romantic (or sexual) feelings towards her friend, he seemed needlessly suspicious of their friendship. Men and women can be friends without wanting to jump in the sack with one another. If Drew can't accept and not be threatened by Alexa's friendships, I don't see a long term future for them - it wouldn't be healthy.

Alexa was pretty much great, and I liked her friendships with both Theo and Maddie, as well as how passionate she was about her job, not to mention the reasons she wanted her special project for at risk youths launched. I could very much identify with her insecurities about her body and figure, but like that mostly, she was happy to be who she was, and didn't constantly limit what she allowed herself to eat or drink what she wanted, not afraid to enjoy life. You really got a feel for her life outside of her romantic relationship, which made her seem like more of a complete human, not just a stock character.

I also loved Carlos, Drew's colleague, who sees that he's found a great thing in Alexa from pretty much their first meeting and keeps trying to convince his friend that he's a complete idiot if he doesn't take good care of her, thanking his lucky stars he was fortunate enough to find such a great girlfriend. As I frankly liked him more than Drew in the scenes they shared, I was very glad to discover that he's the hero in Guillory's follow-up to this (which is already out, because I waited most of a year to finally picking this up).

I read a lot of rave reviews about this when it came out in January. Sadly, I think neither 2017 nor 2018 have been particularly good years for memorable romance, destined to become much beloved classics. This book is fine, and I enjoyed it, but in previous years, when great romance seemed to be everywhere, it would not even have made it into my top ten. Nevertheless, I'm always glad to discover a new author. Of the hyped about novels by women of colour, I liked this about a million times more than the sadly very disappointing A Duke by Default. I will read more of Guillory's contemporary romances. I can't say the same for Alyssa Cole.

Judging a book by its cover: When I first saw the cover for this book, I was convinced it must be a historical romance. The curly font and the silhouettes just seem to indicate a historical to me, and I'm surprised this is how Guillory's publisher chose to sell her first, contemporary, romance. Yes, there are tiny details that tell you it is in fact not set in the Regency era (the little air planes probably being the most obvious hint), but you only see those if you look more closely. It's a pretty cover, but I still think it's a strange choice by the publisher.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

#CBR10 Book 100: "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith

Page count: 550 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR10Bingo: Award Winner (LA Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller 2013 and an Anthony Award for Best Audio Book in 2014)

Supermodel Lula Landry topples from her third floor balcony and cracks her head open on the snow-covered pavement far below. Strangely, the paparazzi that were surrounding her apartment building earlier in the evening were nowhere to be seen when it happened. After careful investigation, the police rule the death a suicide, although the tabloids have all manner of conspiracy theories, the most popular being that she was murdered by her equally famous boyfriend. Lula's adopted brother disagrees with the police's verdict and is willing to pay a large amount of money to Cormoran Strike, a private detective and war veteran.

As Strike has recently broken up with his girlfriend of many years and is literally living in his office, knowing full well that he's about to have to declare bankruptcy, the case comes as a bit of a lifesaver. Nevertheless, he's not sure that his new client isn't delusional, and nobly tries to pass on the case to begin with. Lula's brother is adamant, and Strike is persuaded to look into the death, quickly discovering that there are things that the police seem to have missed and a lot of conflicting stories surrounding the event.

Along as an assistant, Strike has Robin Ellacott, as temporary secretary sent by an agency (because he forgot to tell them he couldn't afford anyone anymore) who turns out to be a lot more skilled and efficient that any of his previous ones. She's just got engaged to her long time boyfriend, who can't really see why Robin wants to keep working for Strike when she has a lot of other attractive job offers available. Robin seems to really enjoy her forays into investigating and gathering information, however, and while Strike is initially doubtful about even having her in the office (where they both pretend that it's not obvious that he's sleeping every night), he comes to really value her help.

I don't suppose it's much of a spoiler that Lula didn't, in fact, commit suicide. It wouldn't be a very good, or especially long, book if she did. PI checks if police's theory is correct. It is. The end. No one would bother reading that, no matter how famous the author was.

Because of course, as everyone knows by now, this is the first mystery novel that J.K "one of the richest people in the world" Rowling wrote, under a pseudonym. The book had been published, sold pretty well and received a fair amount of good reviews before the truth came out and the sales rocketed.

I'm one of these people who likes the Harry Potter books just fine, but they were not a transformative experience for me, and I don't love them as wholeheartedly and fiercely as a lot of my friends, both in real life and online. When ruthlessly culling my book collection when we moved, I got rid of all but the first three, because with book 4, the series starts getting needlessly bloated (book 5 is especially bad) and I just don't see myself wanting to reread them any time soon. When Gabriel is old enough, if he's interested in fantasy (which I hope to God he is, or we may have to leave him in the woods and try for another) we can always get copies at the library (or I can buy them second hand at a charity shop).

OK, my digression about HP over - I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book. As Cannonball Bingo turned into a bit of a challenge for me to tackle some books that have been on my backlist for a long time, it seemed like the right time to finally read this one. I used to love mysteries  as a teenager and in my early twenties and read them all the time. As I got older and the world has gotten more depressing, I find myself unable to deal with blood, gore misery and horribleness (which sadly often features in mysteries nowadays) and I want my escapism with a guaranteed happy ending. With the exception of J.D. Robb's futuristic In Death books or the occasional Victorian lady solves crimes with some handsome and probably surly gentleman by her side (all of these have a strong romantic element), I don't really read mysteries anymore.

I liked my first taste of Cormoran and Robin enough that I am curious to keep going with this series. This book could just as easily have been a "Cannonballer Recommends" choice, there are certainly enough of Rowling/Galbraith's fans among the other Cannonballers. While it can take me a good long while, I usually eventually get round to anything so beloved by others on the group blog. I already own the second book in the series, but doubt I'll get round to reading it until sometime next year. Having grown up watching British set mystery series on telly with my Mum, I'm also curious about the TV adaptations now. Can't watch it until I'm caught up with the books, though, don't want to be spoiled.

Judging a book by its cover: Since this book has been out for a good long while now, it's had a number of covers over the years. My copy is the original British paperback, I'm pretty sure, with a fairly generic city at night cover. There's some fancy buildings, a cast iron fence in the foreground, a hunched man in an overcoat walking away from us (I'm assuming this is Cormoran Strike himself), with a fancy streetlight casting the whole thing in a golden and atmospheric glow. I much prefer this to the more recent "TV series" tie-in covers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

#CBR10 Book 99: "Tante Ulrikkes vei" by Zeshan Shakar

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR10Bingo: Home, Something, Home (this book is set at Stovner in Oslo, three stops away from where I live on the metro. It also concerns exactly the sort of pupils that I teach.)

Two youths, both living in the same tower block in a suburb on the east side of Oslo, in Stovner (where the large majority of inhabitants are immigrants or the children of immigrants). They start out going to the same high school. Starting in the year 2000, the framing device consists of these two teenagers, later young men, being asked to take part in a social studies survey, to map out the formative conditions for children and teens in these eastern suburbs, where the social divide between the white inhabitants of Norwegian descent and the poorer residents (mostly from minority language backgrounds, either first or second generation immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and/or African countries) keeps getting bigger and more pronounced.

Mohammed ("It is tradition to name the first born Mohammed, and the Prophet is revered by all Muslims, but really, if they are so concerned with me going out and getting a good job and everything, I'm not entirely sure why they would give me that name"), who goes by Mo, writes his answers to the survey as e-mails. He is articulate, intelligent, rather shy and does very well in school. His parents have extremely high expectations of him, and early on, at least, they seem well on course to being fulfilled. Mo does well enough at high school that he wins a special scholarship, established for academically gifted children of immigrants, enabling him to go to University. He even gets to shake the prime minister's hand during the scholarship ceremony.

Our second protagonist, Jamal, doesn't really like to write, so he records his answers on tapes that are sent to the researcher in pre-paid envelopes. His answers are informal, irreverent, full of vernacular slang - a sociolect. His father is out of the picture, after a history of domestic violence. There's just him, his increasingly depressed and ineffectual mother and his much younger little brother, whom Jamal has to step up and help raise. He has to take him to nursery every day and pick him up in the afternoons. He does most of the shopping, and even occasionally attends meetings at the nursery, and later his little brother's school, because his mother isn't really up to the job. While he complains in his reports, he doesn't do it too loudly and swears the researcher to secrecy - no one wants the state to come and take his brother away from the family. After years of struggling through primary and secondary school and getting nowhere, only to find things harder and even more frustrating in high school, one day he has enough and just quits. He gets a job washing cars at a local garage, and is initially, at least, happy to be earning money.

The book follows these two young men over a period of about six years. We see how they view the world, and how they feel about the attitudes towards immigrants prevalent in society. We learn about their hopes, their dreams, their fears and how they feel about their families. Mo studies statistics and economics at the University of Oslo and loves it (at least to begin with). Jamal works at the car wash, gets stoned with his friends, listens to rap music and wants to be a gangster. At the same time, however, he's doing his best to make sure his little brother is fed and that the staff at nursery and later, school, doesn't report that the boy has problems speaking and occasionally wets himself when he's nervous. Jamal gets frustrated at his mother's refusal to be a proper parent.

In addition to winning a prestigious literary award for debutant writers, Tante Ulrikkes vei (the address of the tower block that both the protagonists live in) has sold a phenomenal amount of copies in Norway. A crowd funding effort has ensured that every member of Parliament receives their own copy (which is good, because far too many politicians have no idea what the day to day life of some of the poorer kids in the "wrong part of town" is actually like). It has garnered rave reviews in pretty much everywhere, and once I started reading, I could easily see why. Not only is it a very engaging and well-written book, it's so incredibly important, because the politicians in Parliament are not the only ones who could use an insight in what growing up as the child of immigrants, especially in a both socially and economically disadvantaged families.

Mo's family are not exactly poor, but various circumstances mean they need to rely on support from the government to get by. Tuition fees at Norwegian colleges and universities are less than what it costs to buy a 30-day travel ticket on Oslo public transport, but the scholarship Mo receives allows him to focus entirely on his studies, without needing to work part-time on the side (something he initially suggests doing, but his father is vehemently against. Nothing should take the focus away from his studies, the rest of the family will get by with less, if it means making sure Mo has what he needs at Uni.

Jamal's family, on the other hand, sometimes barely have the money to pay rent and/or get groceries. While he's still in high school, he gets a small stipend to help him, but once he drops out, Jamal has to get a job to help supplement his mother's increasingly meagre benefits. Due to the stigma surrounding mental illness and the fear of child protective services, Jamal and his mother work very hard to hide just how dismal the family's home life actually is, and due to the very poor communication between school, social services and others who could get clued in and intervene (probably making the lives of both Jamal and his brother much better), nothing really changes. For a brief while, Jamal is promised help from a discretionary fund at the local mosque, but after some negative press articles, the mosque loses its additional funding, and it all comes to naught.

Both youths struggle with their families' and society's expectations of them. They are children of immigrants, growing up in Norway, bombarded with two very different and often disparate cultures. Representation is hugely important in fiction, and the two protagonists in this novel could not feel more real to me. In my ten years as a teacher in the Oslo educational system, teaching kids mainly from the east side of the city, I have met several examples of both of these boys. I have seen these kids graduate our secondary school several times.

Some are academically gifted and do well, fulfilling their families' hopes and expectations. Some are gifted and can't take the pressure, dropping out and struggling. Some are like Jamal, functionally illiterate, abrasive, taught to feel inferior and like losers from an early age, because they cannot keep up with the increasingly harder demands both of what they're to learn and how they're to behave in school. They are naturally fed up, and many (especially the boys) drop out of school. Yet others, who get sufficient support, either at school or from other places, manage to find the motivation and eventually mature enough to apply themselves, and end up doing well. I'm never happier than when I meet a former student of mine, often the ones who were very challenging and seen as "trouble", very much like Jamal in this book, and can catch up with them about how they are doing - which tends to be very well indeed.

As of yet, this book is not available in English, but I've read several articles telling me that it will be. There will be an area (or areas) like Stovner, and kids like Mo and Jamal in most cities in most countries around the world. While this book is set in Oslo, the themes it covers are universal.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is a sort of a pinkish beige, almost the colour of a pale brick. It's very simplistic, with a cover drawing that looks pretty much like something a child would draw if asked what their house looked like. We see a tower block and a small swing set. The rest is blank, except for the title of the novel, which is printed on what looks to be a street sign. This is a novel that has sold on word of mouth, not exactly because of the flashy cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

#CBR Book 98: "Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Hazel Bradford is rather intense and most people, certainly the guys she's ever shown any interest in, can't really handle her, or prefer to deal with her in small doses. Her spirited enthusiasm and quirky personality is ideal in her work as a fourth grade teacher, however, and the friends she does have love her to bits and appreciate her for who she is.

Josh Im may be one of the most laid back men Hazel has ever met. They got to know each other in college, when Josh was Hazel's TA, but lost touch and only reconnect at a barbecue seven years later, as Hazel's best friend Emily turns out to be Josh's sister. Hazel announces happily that she and Josh will also be best friends and doesn't win any time working towards making this happen. When Josh discovers that his girlfriend of two years has been cheating on him, Hazel is a rock of support. When Hazel's apartment is accidentally flooded, Josh allows her to stay at his place, even though he's a neat freak and she's a total mess.

She starts trying to set him up on dates, and he wants to return the favour. Josh and Hazel keep going on strange and often catastrophic double dates, repeatedly ignoring everyone else's suggestion that perhaps they should just date each other? They're completely and utterly wrong for one another, after all.

People who have read Christina Lauren's earliest romances may be a bit disappointed with the direction they seem to be taking their current books, which all seem to be standalone romances with a fairly low number of actual sex scenes, and usually long, slow build-ups of the romantic tension between the hero and heroine. While last year's Roomies didn't really work too well for me (it's now been optioned into a movie, and I hope they fix some of the things I was unhappy about in the adaptation), I was glad to find that this was as sweet, diverting and entertaining as I was hoping for.

The romance trope the co-authors are working with here is 'friends to lovers', but there's also absolutely an 'opposites attract' element to the story as well. I also think that the authors are playing with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character trope in their creation of Hazel. While I enjoyed reading about her in this book, and she was clearly adorable and very caring, she was also a LOT extra and I suspect that in real life, I would find her exhausting to be around. Apparently her mother is much the same, which her father could never really handle and it led to the dissolution of Hazel's parents' marriage and has left her wary of guys her entire life. It's not like Hazel isn't aware of how different she is from most other people, she's very open about it (the book is narrated from both her and Josh' alternating POVs). Hence, while she'd love a long term relationship, she's not very hopeful she'll ever find one.

She certainly doesn't expect to find it with someone like Josh. He's a physical therapist and likes things neat and tidy. Unlike Hazel, he thinks carefully before he speaks and doesn't seem to end up in crazy and/or embarrassing situations every time he's out in public. He's a caring brother and son (he and his sister Emily are of Korean descent, with very strong expectations from their parents about their careers and personal life) and while his family pretty much hate his girlfriend, he's pretty upset when he discovers her betrayal. Subsequently, he's not really looking for anything serious for the first half of the book, just trying to "get back on the horse", so to speak, dating-wise.

Josh and Hazel are both very engaging characters, and as always, Christina Lauren includes a strong supporting cast to help flesh out the story. If you're looking for a really steamy read, this is probably not the book for you, but if you want a funny, sweet and quick read, not too bothered about a lot of *insert funky bass line here*, this is an excellent book to spend some time with. I could absolutely have done without the "surprise" element causing some complications towards the end of the book, and especially the developments of the epilogue, but those are minor niggles. The authors have a new book coming out at the start of December, I hope it's as good.

Judging a book by its cover: I think the warm candy colours of the sunset on the cover are very happy and cute. I forget which city the story is set in (or if it was even mentioned in the book - it doesn't really matter all that much), but the skyline is also nice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.