Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create DifferenceDelusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, I think that everyone should read this book.
The book is split into quite a few sections, and the first couple of chapters are very statistic and science heavy. As the book progresses, it continues to cite numerous studies, but the analysis of gender is expanded to a bigger and bigger picture.
So though the first couple of chapters seem at first to be almost too specific to be important, they do in fact set the reader up for better understanding the analysis that follows.
So what’s the bottom line? Well, the author uses a LOT of evidence which left me convinced of her premise that while biology and hormones have a clear influence on developing our male and female body parts, they do NOT demonstrate any kind of a clear causal relationship with gender. In fact, in all the time researchers have been trying to study this, particularly since the 1980’s on, the researchers are actually pretty frustrated because they can’t find much of anything linking male and female hormones with gender roles/preferences/stereotypes.
Unfortunately, several bestselling books out there (and the author gets very specific about this) have given the opposite idea, by misrepresenting the actual science. The disjunction between what the science shows, and what popular authors have claimed it shows, is shocking. The science doesn’t back up what we’re hearing in the popular media.
What science DOES show is that gender is HIGHLY, HIGHLY influenced by culture. Many studies (presented in the book) have shown how very susceptible human beings are to suggestions, both conscious and unconscious, that shape our perceptions of what it means for us to behave as men and women.
After reading this book, I came away with the conclusion that the science we have today indicates that gender is a social construct.
This book also addresses the question of why children raised by parents who are trying to be gender-neutral frequently seem to enact popular western gender stereotypes. Suffice it to say, after reading the entire book, I am not at all surprised that our best attempts at gender-neutral parenting may have no effect on children enacting gender stereotypes. The sad truth is that the society we live in today is so completely saturated with gender stereotypes, that children/babies are exposed to them from all directions, from unconscious and conscious gender biases, etc., and actual gender-neutral parenting is pretty much impossible, despite our best efforts.
Ultimately, this is a very important book, and I’m really glad I read it.

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Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery, #1) by Monica Ferris

Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery, #1)Crewel World by Monica Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I’ve just recently fallen in love with the art of embroidery, and I am always up for a good, escapist, cozy mystery. I sampled Crewel World, the first “Needlecraft Mystery” by Monica Ferris, and was quickly hooked. This book is a quick, light read. I enjoyed the setting, the real town of Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. I enjoyed the characters, and I enjoyed the needlework aspect (plus a free pattern at the end of the book).
What surprised me the most-and what I really loved-was the quality of the writing. Here’s an example of an especially lovely paragraph.
“It had started raining sometime during the play, and was still raining when they came out of the theater. But the farther west they drove, the lighter the rain became, until out in Excelsior it ceased altogether, leaving platinum puddles as markers of its passing, and tree branches hanging lower, their leaves heavy with water.”
The writing style reminded me a bit of a mystery from an earlier time….perhaps something Nancy Drew-ish or even earlier. Anyway, Crewel World was a lot of fun, and I plan to read more in the series.

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Judging A Book By Its Cover

Usually, I write about what’s inside of a book…the words, plot, characters, sense of place, the story.  But recently, I’ve been thinking about how very much book covers impact my perception of a book before I even begin to read.

If I was reviewing movies on this blog, it might seem obvious to talk about the colors and art in the film.  Film is a visual medium, with  the pictures outside us, whereas with books, the images are ostensibly our own, personal visualizations. But I’ve noticed that the cover of a book gives me a starting place in which to ground my imagination.

In part, judging a book by its cover is useful, as when I scroll through Goodreads or NetGalley, and  use the book cover as one clue as to whether the book is something that will appeal to me.  But on the other hand, the cover gives me preconceptions about whether the novel is literature or a beach read, whether it’s self-published or not, etc..  And I think these first impressions affect how I react to the story itself, and  my final opinion of it, in a big way.

Where this becomes especially interesting to me is when publishers put contrasting covers on the same novel, because of their own ideas of what will appeal to the viewing public.

A great example of this is Starter House, by Sonja Condit.  I read the UK version of this book, which features a wistful, pastel-colored view of a curtain fluttering in a window.  To me, the writing in the novel held up to this delicate, lyrical, quality, which was part of what I loved about it. I saw Starter House as a shivery ghost story, rather than an in-your-face horror novel. However, the recent US publication of The Starter House has a cover with a completely different feel. This cover features bold red and blue writing, with a rocking horse planted in the center of in a white room. Right away, this cover reminded me of the twisted, disturbing, psychological thrillers by authors like Sophie Hannah.

Take a look at the two covers below.



Having loved Starter House, I think the garish US cover may have done it a disservice. Several negative reviews I’ve read about this novel expressed disappointment that it was not the horror story they had expected. I think that if I had seen the US cover first, I would have been predisposed to think of the novel in that way, myself.  The cover of a novel can either enhance the mood of the writing, or do the story a disservice.  Readers derive some initial impressions of a novel by its cover, and as such, the cover is powerful stuff!

Here’s another example of book covers (Australian, and US) that portray the tone of the same novel differently:

17317855  17802724









And here’s one more good example: (note the change in title in the US version as well).










What do you think? Are there any book covers that you feel have strongly affected your perception of the story, or that you think give a misleading first impression? I’d love to hear your thoughts.









Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Mind of WinterMind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is very, very difficult to write a review of this book without giving away major spoilers, thus…
My first recommendation would be that if you are at all interested in Mind of Winter, avoid anything beyond the Goodreads or cover blurb you’ve seen about it, until after you’ve read the book yourself.
That said (and I will try to completely avoid any spoilers here) I found Mind of Winter to be atmospheric, disturbing, haunting, lyrical, and sad.
For most of the novel, I really, really had no idea what was going on. I give author Laura Kasischke and her publishers credit that in this day and age, when thrillers with twists are almost the norm, that I did not realize the plot twist until near the end of the novel.
This said, part of being so in the dark meant that, for most of the book, I was unsure where the author was going, and whether I was reading a colossal mess.
The entire novel takes place during one Christmas day, while Holly and her daughter Tatiana are snowed in to their home by an unexpected blizzard. Although we are privy to Holly’s memories, as well as phone calls she makes to the outside world, the story has a slow, bland, insulated feel, much like the rising snow that surrounds the characters.
Author Laura Kasischke, who is a university professor and award-winning poet, makes references to poetry and fairy tale images throughout the novel. Many of these seemed repetitive and slightly bombastic to me, however, this style to some extent reinforced the atmosphere of claustrophobia that I believe Kasischke was aiming for.
After finishing the novel, I feel like the poetic references are not the simply the show of intellect that I feared they might be, but neither am I convinced that the writing was brilliant.
Mind of Winter had a satisfying ending, one which for me, justified reading the novel. However, despite having many great elements, such as a strong sense of place and of unease, I didn’t love it. For me, Mind of Winter was an intriguing, but imperfectly executed, novel.

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You Can Never Go Back(?): books that make me feel like a child again

Over my coffee this morning, I was pondering books that I really love. Books that feel like a hug, or a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night, or looking at a starry sky up in the mountains.

As a child, I read like a maniac…picking up picture books and “reading” them to myself in baby language before I could speak properly. Once I had  a basic grasp of a language other than my own, and then, a few years later, when I could read, I gobbled up everything I could. I especially remember looking forward to summertime, and the library reading club, when I would spend most of each day engrossed in a book, eyes tired, legs cramped, but in absolute bliss.

As an adult, one of my disappointments is realizing that in many ways I have lost that ability to fully immerse myself in the world of books. And I don’t mean fantasy worlds, specifically (though Peter Pan’s Neverland will always be a personal favorite). The intense absorption that I felt as Nancy Drew climbed the hidden staircase, or Harold stalked, and “steaked” seemingly harmless Bunnicula, or the little princess discovered her attic room transformed, has never been equaled as an adult.  A few times, recently, I have reread childhood favorites, and found, to my dismay, that I do not experience the same enchantment as I did 25 years ago.

However, I still enjoy reading immensely, and once in a blue moon, I stumble upon a magical book that reminds me of how reading used to make me feel. Here are a few recent finds that have managed to take this clock-checking, calorie-counting, responsible(ish) adult back, for a little while, to never, never land.

  1. Darling Jim– by Christian Moerk- a tale based on true events in Ireland, it has an adult fairytale quality. Colors that describe it would be red and black, and despite being about obsession and murder, remembering it makes me feel like my heart is getting a hug.  A delight.
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane– by Neil Gaiman- captures the feel of being a child, and allowed me to experience that possibility again as an adult. I quickly forgot the specifics (which is interesting, given the story itself) but the joy I felt remained.
  3. Nine Coaches Waiting – by Mary Stewart- First published in 1958, Nine Coaches Waiting delighted me with a safer, more innocent world, where people do their best, and midnight picnics after a ball seem possible. Set in the Rhone-Alpes region of France, this gothic romance is pure escape.
  4. Tethered– Amy MacKinnon -strange, strange, strange. The front cover, which shows a girl floating in water with her hair spread out behind her, captures the feel of the story to me. I didn’t give Tethered a high rating at first, and I didn’t get the “twist” until I read it in others’ reviews. However, Amy MacKinnon’s utterly unique voice, and the mournful, quiet, mood she creates with her fragrant greenhouse and tortured heroine have stayed with me over time.
  5. Starter House – Sonja Condit- I just loved this book. A gorgeously described drama that also happens to contain a murderous ghost.
  6. The Girl on the Stairs– Louise Welsh- Another purely escapist read. A solitary mind-f*ck of a novel with crumbling graveyards, broken hearts, and a pregnant, lesbian protagonist who may or may not be losing her mind. Utterly unique- I have yet to find another novel like it.
  7. A Summer of Drowning – John Burnside (who is also a poet)- I have no idea what this book is really about, but it transported me to a strange, bright world of danger and freedom, where reality and fantasy merge and sunlight dances on the sea.
  8. The Falcons of Fire and Ice– Karen Maitland- a world of ice and beauty, and of blood, mud, and tears. Lust, torture, witchcraft, murder, but also, somehow, love. Karen Maitland’s world is visceral; you smell it, you feel it, and you will delight in it.

What books have brought the magic of childhood reading back to you as an adult? I’d love to hear.

Don’t Try To Find Me (8 July 2014) by Holly Brown


Don't Try to Find MeDon’t Try to Find Me by Holly Brown

4 out of 5 stars

I would like to thank William Morrow/HarperCollins publishers for my advance reader’s copy of Don’t Try To Find Me. This novel was interesting to read and review, in part because it was not what I expected.
Don’t Try To Find Me is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Marley, a 13-year-old girl who is “missing,” and her mother Rachel, who is desperately trying to find out what has happened to her daughter. Given the promotional comparisons to Gone Girl, Don’t Try to Find Me was a lot less edgy than I thought it would be. However, this novel, which straddled the line between adult and young adult fiction, was still a pleasure to read.
What I found most compelling about Don’t Try To Find Me was the character development of Marley, Rachel, and the father and husband, Paul. They are all, in their own ways, trying to find themselves, as well as exploring how their relationships with each other may have led to Marley’s disappearance. So to me, this book was more about relationships, self-respect, and identity, than about shock value or violence. However, this focus meant that at times, the discussions between Rachel and Paul, or Rachel’s own muddled self-evaluation, seemed overlong.
I definitely found the chapters narrated by Marley to be most intriguing. Her character, angry, smart, but also full of the self-doubt of being a young teenager, was relatable and easy to care about. Rachel, on the other hand, was so self-absorbed and scatterbrained, that I often cringed at her actions and thoughts.
It’s difficult to go into more detail about Don’t Try To Find Me without giving away key elements of the plot, but what I will say is that I was surprised by how tame the story turned out to be. This is not to say that some truly terrible things did not occur, but, given the buildup at the beginning, as well as the reactions Marley and Rachel had to their experiences, I had expected things would get worse than they did. Especially in the case of Rachel, her own concept of how traumatizing her marriage was did not impress me.
One reason I was initially attracted to Don’t Try To Find Me was that promotional descriptions implied a cutting edge use of the internet in the novel. While emails and Facebook played a part in the story, social media was not utilized in any way that I found especially ground-breaking.
For all this, I did enjoy Holly Brown’s debut novel. My main critique, which is not one that I have often, is that it could have had more impact if it had played it less safe. I never felt much of a sense of true danger. More than anything, Don’t Try To Find Me was a novel about finding oneself, and about growing up. In this, it was a satisfying read.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid


Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first page, I adored this rewrite of Northanger Abbey by author Val McDermid.  McDermid, better known as an award-winning crime writer, has here taken on the task of reimagining Jane Austen’s heroine Cat Morland in the present day. McDermid states in her prologue that she hopes Jane Austen would enjoy her take on the classic novel, and I think McDermid has succeeded in this aim.
Val McDermid is clearly an author who is intimately familiar with Jane Austen’s work. Happily, I had just finished reading the original Northanger Abbey, as well as watching the Masterpiece Theater film adaptation, so I had many of the sentences, and the particular wit that Austen employs, fresh in my mind. Thus, I was truly impressed with the way that McDermid captures the essence of Austen’s classic so succinctly. Using her own words, McDermid somehow manages to convey the sound, rhythm, and tone of the original Northanger Abbey. And even more remarkable is how she is able to do this within a contemporary setting.
What McDermid has achieved here is no small feat, as I can attest to, having read, and been disappointed by, numerous novels by contemporary authors which fail to achieve an authentic sense of the past. The problem of a superficial gloss of old buildings and costumes over disappointingly contemporary characters is also apparent in popular television series. One example is Lost in Austen, in which a present-day heroine goes back in time to visit the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. What these artistic attempts, and quite a few others, show, more than anything, is how difficult it is for contemporary writers and filmmakers to capture a convincing sense of the past. Somehow, Val McDermid has reached that difficult goal, creating modern characters who manage to almost seamlessly capture the essence of an Austen novel. Basically, Northanger Abbey feels like the novel Austen would have written herself, if she was alive in 2014.
That said, Northanger Abbey stays true to the plot of the original novel. It is a credit to this rewrite that, despite having recently read the original, I was completely enchanted with McDermid’s version, even knowing every conversation and situation the characters would encounter. This is indeed high praise from someone who rarely rereads a book or rewatches a movie.
The only slight quibbles I would have, which are not really complaints, but just interesting observations, were that to me, the Henry Tilney of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey lacked the charm, self-effacing humor, and integrity that made him such an endearing character in Austen’s novel. McDermid’s Henry was a pretty nice guy, but he didn’t seem quite so intelligent, gallant, or mature as Austen’s character. At times, he came across as harsh. The same goes for Ellie, and for Cat. Ellie seemed a little less graceful and angelic, and Cat seemed a little less ingenuous. The closest thing I can compare it to is how different actors portray characters in film adaptations of a novel. An example would be Johnny Lee Miller and Jeremy Northam in the different Emma adaptations. Each actor had slightly different takes on the character of Mr. Knightley, though I must say, in that instance, I would have a difficult time deciding which one I would rather fall in love with.
All said, McDermid’s Northanger Abbey was a delight to read and a worthy tribute to the Jane Austen classic. It will definitely be more fully appreciated by readers familiar with the original novel. And I was so impressed by McDermid’s writing that I began her crime novel, A Place of Execution, while still in the middle of Northanger Abbey. Though utterly different in tone, I am happily engrossed in this mystery, and am so glad to finally become familiar with this truly gifted and versatile author.

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