Saturday, September 24, 2016

This Above All---A Girl Portrays Shakespeare's Romeo

This Above All by Lindsey Roth Culli is a  contemporary YA novel which is a potent stew of Shakespeare, gender, sexuality, religion and growing up in the American Midwest.   I received a free copy from the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.

I have previously reviewed two other Curiosity Quills releases Alice Takes Back Wonderland, a rather wonderful fairy tale mashup and The Heartless City , an alternate history dystopia based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I found compelling and enjoyable.  I expected This Above All to be more conventional compared to those previous outings.  In some ways, it was very much like a standard YA novel, but in others it very definitely wasn't.


The conventional aspect of this book was high school.   I tend to avoid YA novels that take place in high school.   Most of these have predictable character types, dynamics and plots.   This Above All contained those elements.  There were false rumors, bullying and relationships plagued by miscommunication.  Juliet was played by a stereotypical popular mean girl.  It seems that the director of this Romeo and Juliet didn't prioritize chemistry between the leads.

Sexuality was a theme, but This Above All didn't really focus on sexual relationships as is appropriate in a YA novel. While the specter of lesbianism fueled controversy, there was no actual lesbianism. Heterosexual romance played a role in the plot of this novel, but it wasn't predominant.   There was a gay character named Tony, but his life wasn't front and center either.  I read a review on Goodreads that was disappointed that we didn't find out more about Tony's family interactions.   Tony played Mercutio.  If it's true that Shakespeare needed to kill off Mercutio to prevent him from taking over the play, as is stated in this book, it's probably also true that Culli wanted to make certain that Tony didn't upstage Piper, her protagonist.

I felt that the way Piper deals with her real female identity while portraying a male role is the most interesting aspect of this book.  She initially had her doubts about whether she could or should be Romeo.  Yet once she became accustomed to the idea, she threw herself into her fictive male identity.   I wouldn't say that Piper is a transgender character.   It seemed to me that Culli wanted to show that it's possible for a girl to play with masculine gender traits in a theatrical context while still retaining a core self-concept of being female.  Piper has more in common with historical women who dressed as men to achieve career goals than with individuals who seek to transition to another gender.

Piper's fundamentalist Christian family brings religion into the mix of themes.  It is they who stir the cauldron of outrage over Piper playing a male role.  Her pastor father is shown as being sincerely concerned about Piper's spiritual well being.   As I am not a Christian myself, I wouldn't presume to make statements about the true nature of Christianity.   Over the course of the narrative, Piper changes her own views about religion.  She ponders how she can maintain a relationship with God, and comes to her own independent conclusions.   It seems to me that for Piper developing a personal approach to religion is part of the process of becoming an adult.

This Above All is a book that will cause readers to reflect on a number of topics, but I think they will also be moved by the courage of Piper and Tony, and the  chosen family they found in the cast of Romeo and Juliet.   As we have seen in the TV series, Glee, communities of performers can be powerful support systems for teens who feel like outsiders in a hostile world.  Anyone who has felt at odds with their families, or with society in general will be able to relate to Piper.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Renting Silence: A Roaring Twenties Mystery

Renting Silence by Mary MileyI read the first book in this series and loved it. Due to the high price, I never did get around to book two. However, I didn't feel as if I'd missed a beat as I happily engrossed myself in book three.

Our heroine, former vaudeville star, is now working for Mary Pickford and husband. When Mary asks her to investigate a possible false arrest and prove a fellow actress's innocence, this gal is on the case, funded by the suspect's lover.

Everything points to the suspect having done it, despite what gut instinct says. The heroine hits vaudeville again to find some answers, therefore the story gives us a view of life on the road as the circuit tours town to town, even having a run-in with the KKK in Indiana. The author very skillfully brought real-life historical problems into the tale.

I became somewhat bored with the vaudeville. It got a tad repetitive. The train incident felt out of place and somewhat frustrating too. It didn't tie in enough with the rest of the tale. Those are my only quibbles. I enjoyed the heroine, her humor, the mystery and trying to guess whodunit as clues slowly unfolded.

All in all, a good addition to the series. I'm sorry I missed book two.

I received a digital ARC of this via Netgalley. Thank you.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evalina--The First Woman To Run For U.S. President

Feminist Victoria Woodhull is one of the irresistible historical personages for me.  She was the first woman to run a brokerage on Wall Street as well as being the first woman to run for President. Tara and I joint reviewed Seance in Sepia, a book that contained Woodhull as a side character, on this blog here.  I admit to not having been enthusiastic about the last book I reviewed by Nicole Evalina, Daughter of Destiny . Yet all the aspects of Victoria Woodhull's life that got short shrift in Seance in Sepia  are fully realized in Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evalina.  I obtained this book for free from the author in return for this honest review.


We find out about Victoria's childhood as the daughter of Buck Claflin, an abusive and self-destructive con man.  Earlier this year, I read a mystery called The Saints of the Lost and Found in which the central character came from a family very much like Victoria's.   I wouldn't be surprised if the author loosely  based her protagonist's childhood on Victoria's because her parents were so outrageous that they'd be more believable as fictional characters.
In  Madame Presidentess we get the full story about Victoria's spiritualism including her visions and how they impacted her life.  For Evalina's Victoria, spiritualism was not the widely promoted fakery of her day.  It was a deeply felt religious practice. She was absolutely convinced that the ancient Greek historical personage Demosthenes  was guiding her life.   I am not so convinced.  There is no indication that Demosthenes ever advocated for women's rights during his lifetime.  The playwright Euripides would have been a more believable spirit ally from the ancient Greek world.  Euripides wrote powerful plays that centered on women.  He might conceivably have encouraged Victoria in her feminist political activity.   I am willing to believe that Victoria was a sincere practitioner who was duped by a spirit pretending to be Demosthenes for unknown purposes.

Yet Victoria wasn't always above pretending to receive messages from the spirits.  I suspect that she was deceiving herself about having escaped completely from her family's influence.  Evalina  depicted Victoria as capable of being a grifter like her father, and a blackmailer like her mother.   These tendencies eventually wrecked her Wall Street career, and her campaign for President.  In Madame Presidentess Victoria thought that her family betrayed her, but she also made some poor choices from an ethical perspective.  My conclusion is that Victoria was largely responsible for her own downfall.  Like many male Wall Streeters and the overwhelming majority of politicians, she probably felt that the ends justified the means.   Her more idealistic allies in the suffrage and labor movements probably felt that she had used them.

Victoria Woodhull is shown to be a complex individual in Madame Presidentess.  Whether Victoria inspired me or disappointed me, she always engaged me as a character even when I didn't agree with her choices.  I liked the thoroughness of this biographical novel and particularly appreciated the spiritualist content.