Monday, August 17, 2015

Gloria Steinemn Wins Award, Amazon is Roasted by NYT, The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows, Planetfall by Emma Newman and City of Lost Dreams by Magnus Flyte

I've always been a huge fan of Gloria Steinem (and so has my mother). I've read a couple of her books, and I deeply admire her ability to cut through misogynistic BS from politicians and corporate old boys to show the unfairness of the pervasive sexism in America. So congratulations, Gloria on a well deserved award.

Gloria Steinem Wins Dayton Literary Peace Prize
Congratulations to iconic author and activist Gloria Steinem for being
named winner of Dayton Literary Peace Prize's Richard C. Holbrooke
Distinguished Achievement Award
writers whose work uses the power of literature to foster peace, social
justice and global understanding." She will receive the award November 1
in Dayton, Ohio.

"Gloria Steinem's words have changed the world, not only opening
horizons for the female half of the world's population, but also opening
the hearts and minds of men to the issues women have faced from the
beginning of time," said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the Dayton
Literary Peace Prize Foundation. "Her work reflects the issues that have
been the focus of winning Dayton Literary Peace Prize books over the
last decade: issues of race, class, gender, and their connections to

In response to news of the honor, Steinem noted that "as a little girl
reading about Eleanor Roosevelt in a Toledo neighborhood library--or a
grown-up recommending books like Sex and World Peace to all who will
listen--I've learned that words give us our ideas of what is possible.
I'm honored to be any part of a recognition that words and ideas must
lead the way."

My husband worked at Amazon in their epublishing department, and he told me a lot of the things represented in this article are true, or were for his department (he was working on contract there). Co workers were encouraged to "rat out" other employees and managers weren't allowed to praise workers, only to be critical of even the smallest detail that wasn't in line with some perfect ideal that Bezos set up. It was a tense and unforgiving environment, and my husband left when his contract was up. That said, had an even more toxic corporate environment for workers, and I've since known several other people who have gone through the meat grinder of Expedia, only to emerge bitter and disgusted by their cruel treatment. So while I understand Bezos might see things through his own rose-colored glasses of top management, I think he needs to realize that the cut throat environment he's set up and encouraged to flourish is burning and churning out workers who are, after all, only human.
Amazon Under Fire in NYT article.
In a long piece titled "Inside Amazon
Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" and based on interviews
with more than 100 former and current Amazon employees, the New York
Times yesterday outlined the company's corporate culture in grim detail.

 (What follows is a long-form article with many quotes from current and former workers that outlines a workplace in which workers are constantly under pressure to work lots of unpaid overtime and are routinely critical of each other in inter-office memos/emails, and in blistering performance reviews. It also discusses the fact that those who have terminally ill relatives, or are pregnant or have cancer themselves are tossed out on their ear if they try to take time off to recover.)

Still, several Amazonians, including founder and CEO Jeff Bezos himself,
criticized the story. In a company-wide memo posted by GeekWire, Bezos wrote, in part, "The article doesn't describe
the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if
you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to
HR. You can also email me directly at Even if it's rare
or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be
"I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like
the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would
leave such a company."

Bezos, known for his honking, odd-timed laughs, concluded: "But
hopefully, you don't recognize the company described. Hopefully, you're
having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent
the future, and laughing along the way."

City of Lost Dreams by Magnus Flyte (the non de plume of authors Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch) is the sequel to their book (reviewed here previously) City of Dark Magic.  In this installment, our over-sexed heroine Sarah Weston races around Vienna with the 400 year old dwarf Nico in search of the golden fleece as a cure for her blind piano prodigy friend, teenager Pollina, while dodging another evil immortal and romping in the sack with any handsome guy she encounters because she just can't keep her raging libido under control. Here's the blurb:
In this action-packed sequel to City of Dark Magic, we find musicologist Sarah Weston in Vienna in search of a cure for her friend Pollina, who is now gravely ill and who may not have much time left. Meanwhile, Nicolas Pertusato, in London in search of an ancient alchemical cure for the girl, discovers an old enemy is one step ahead of him. In Prague, Prince Max tries to unravel the strange reappearance of a long dead saint while being pursued by a seductive red-headed historian with dark motives of her own.
In the city of Beethoven, Mozart, and Freud, Sarah becomes the target in a deadly web of intrigue that involves a scientist on the run, stolen art, seductive pastries, a few surprises from long-dead alchemists, a distractingly attractive horseman who’s more than a little bloodthirsty, and a trail of secrets and lies. But nothing will be more dangerous than the brilliant and vindictive villain who seeks to bend time itself. Sarah must travel deep into an ancient mystery to save the people she loves.
As in their last novel, which is actually a paranormal romantic adventure, the authors provide clean and swift prose and a whirlwind plot to keep readers intrigued. However, the characters are nearly cliches, and Sarah seems right out of most men's dreams of a heroine who isn't picky about who she has sex with when the mood strikes, which is often and in odd places (like a horse barn that's on fire). While she continually muses on her "love" of Max, the prince from the last book, both Sarah and Max (who also muses on his love of Sarah while having sex with other women) only decided to be a couple toward the end of the novel, and then only after Max's bed partner has proven to be in the hire of the evil immortal, and a drug addicted spy and saboteur. Sarah's lover turns out to be an epileptic and a blind and stupid patsy for his evil murdering brother, so obviously he won't do as a permanent mate. Sarah discovers that she has the ability to travel through time, and she finds her new path after (SPOILER) saving Pollina and routing the evil immortal, and all is well at the castle on Christmas. While Flyte's books are fun and fast reads, I am always left unsatisfied after reading their works, probably because they're the equivalent of a cupcake, all sweetness and no nutritional value. Still, I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to anyone who wants something engrossing to read for a few hours, and who likes history and music.

I received an advanced reader copy (ARC) of Planetfall by Emma Newman from  Ace/Roc publishers in their Roc Stars reader program. 
Planetfall is something that is fairly rare nowadays, social science fiction that doesn't automatically begin with a dystopian Earth filled with people struggling to survive. Here's the blurb:
From Emma Newman, the award-nominated author of Between Two Thorns, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing…
Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.
More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony's 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.
Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.
The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…
God's City colony has everything it needs to survive, and thrive. Everyone recycles, their homes are all bio engineered to keep them cool and comfortable and they have 'printers' that recycle old things to keep them all in new clothing and food. The only problem is that they've built a religion on a lie, one that is perpetuated by Mack, the colonist's politician and PR guy, and Ren, the mentally-ill lesbian engineer who builds everything and keeps it running. SPOILERS follow.
I know that readers are supposed to like Ren, who is vulnerable yet competent, tough yet weak, etc. I didn't like her from the outset, because she seemed to do most things against her better judgement at the behest of Mack, who is a real tool. Though Ren is 77, apparently on this new world people don't age fast, and she's expecting to live another 50 years, at least. However, having lost a child back on Earth and followed her lover Suh to this planet years later, Ren has become a hoarder whose home and the tunnels beneath are packed with refuse and filth. She even has a corpse packed away down there, and while her shy and retiring nature (which borders on Aspergers, in my opinion) keeps her secret for over 20 years, a young man from outside the colony slowly insinuates himself into her life and brings all the colony secrets to light, including Rens. The fact that he is doing so only to destroy the colony and its residents out of revenge doesn't become clear until the books final pages, when Ren decides to just lay down and die inside God's City, for some unknown, bizarre reason. I became frustrated with the book after the first chapter, looking for a protagonist I could understand or empathize with or like, and I remained frustrated for the entire novel. Newman gave us little reason to care about Ren, unless the reader is suffering from OCD/hoarders syndrome or Autism and doesn't mind reading about a pathetic protagonist who lives among piles of disgusting filth and doesn't recognize that she has a problem. Most social science fiction that I've read in the past 45 years has been written with a moral in mind, some message that we're supposed to discern from the chaos of the novel itself. The only message I discerned from Planetfall was that humans are weak and stupid creatures who need religion (which is a sham) to keep any society together. When that religion is proven false, society devolves into barbarism. If this is, indeed, the message Newman is pushing, it's a rather grim one, and it leaves the novel with an unsatisfying, depressing ending. The prose is clean and the plot moves along at a mechanical pace, but the characters are unlikable, weak or cruel. I'd give this science fiction novel a C+, and only recommend it to those who are interested in social experiments on new worlds but have no faith in humanity as a whole.

I was really looking forward to reading The Truth About Us by Annie Barrows, co author of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which I loved reading with my book group). For 3/4 of the novel, I was delighted. Unfortunately, the last 1/4 of the book is awful. Here's the blurb: 
Annie Barrows once again evokes the charm and eccentricity of a small town filled with extraordinary characters. Her new novel, The Truth According to Us, brings to life an inquisitive young girl, her beloved aunt, and the alluring visitor who changes the course of their destiny forever.

In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.

At the Romeyn house, twelve-year-old Willa is desperate to learn everything in her quest to acquire her favorite virtues of ferocity and devotion—a search that leads her into a thicket of mysteries, including the questionable business that occupies her charismatic father and the reason her adored aunt Jottie remains unmarried. Layla’s arrival strikes a match to the family veneer, bringing to light buried secrets that will tell a new tale about the Romeyns. As Willa peels back the layers of her family’s past, and Layla delves deeper into town legend, everyone involved is transformed—and their personal histories completely rewritten.

Honestly, Barrow's storytelling abilities are tremendous, and set her well within the pantheon of great writers like Carson McCullers and Flannery O' Connor. Her child protagonist (there are three female protagonists in this novel, Jottie, Layla and Willa) Willa is reminiscent of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, all niaviete and raw emotions. Jottie is the aunt every child wishes they had, kind and caring and a good cook, and Layla is the traditional superficial rich girl who learns who she is from Jottie and the other characters in the novel.There are charming letters written by Layla, and funny stories told by Jottie about her family's past, and Willa's childish spying on the adults to learn their secrets. All this is wonderful, with the exception of Willa and her sister Bird's father, Felix. Felix was heir to the family sock factory until his best friend (and Jotties boyfriend) Vause Hamilton supposedly took thousands from the company safe and burned down the factory, effectively killing Jottie and Felix's much beloved father, as well as the town hero Vause, while casting suspicion onto Felix for the whole disaster. Felix, being the slick womanizer and liar that he is, denies the allegations, and forces Jottie to relinquish any contact with Sol, the young man who accused Felix of setting the fire and stealing the cash. Because there's no concrete proof, Felix is never held accountable, and he essentially loses the family business, blackmails Jottie into becoming a spinster aunt caring for his two daughters (because their mother left his two-timing arse, and it is never clear whether they divorced) while he lies and says he's a chemical salesman when he's actually running bootleg liquor (the book takes place during prohibition in 1938) during his long absences from home. 
Though readers are supposed to fall for this charming jerk, I never liked him, and I was especially sad to see Layla fall into bed with him when it was obvious he was only using her, as he uses all the other women in his life. When Willa finds evidence that her father actually did burn down the factory and steal the money, she blurts it out, only to have Felix  whine that he hates himself for killing Vause, but he couldn't bring himself to confess to his crimes because he couldn't bear to lose his sister and his children. The fact that he's blackmailed his sister and kept her thinking that the love of her life was a bad guy means nothing to this asshat. So while he's banished from the house (for all of a month or so) Jottie plans on marrying Sol and having her own life for a change, but then Felix interferes again, and gives her Vause's jacket, and for some bizarre reason, Jottie then chooses to cleve to the ghost of her boyfriend rather than start a family of her own and have a real life, which makes no sense at all. Then, Willa invites her father back into the house, and gives a speech about how to not forgive and forget is ashes, and suddenly Jottie and Willa and even Layla, who felt like a fool for believing Felix was in love with her and would marry her, all forgive Felix for destroying the family name and their lives, and he just goes back to being a creep and a criminal. WTF? Felix is a narcissist who only cares about himself, and uses people to get what he wants. He's evil, and should be kept away from his children, who need to learn that actions that harm or kill others have consequences! But this loathsome toad gets away with everything. Horrible ending that made no sense at all, and has left me with a sour taste in my mouth that will make me wary of reading anything else that Annie Barrow writes. Shame on you, Annie Barrow, for breaking reader's trust that justice will prevail. While most of the book deserves an A, the last 30 pages get a D, leaving this book with a grade of C+, and I recommend it to those who enjoy Southern fiction with crazy characters and bad endings.   

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