Review: Uncommon Knowledge by Judy Lewis

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Judy Lewis was in her thirties before she discovered Hollywood’s best-kept secret–that she was the daughter of Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Set against a backdrop of Beverly Hills mansions and lavish parties, Uncommon Knowledge is a behind-the-scenes memoir of Hollywood in its heyday. But it is also the unforgettable story of a difficult but ultimately triumphant journey of self-discovery.

Normally I wouldn’t use a nonfiction this old to go along with the historical fiction I was reading, but in this case the book coincided so well with the subject of All the Stars in the Heavens that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. While the novel spends a great deal of time focusing on Young and Gable’s thwarted romance, it spends decidedly little relating the relationship between Young and her daughter or the repercussions of Young keeping Lewis’s parentage from her. There’s good reason for that since it was clear the author of All the Stars in the Heavens had read Lewis’s autobiography and wanted to paint a more likable and sympathetic picture of Loretta Young.

The picture Lewis leaves is of a mother, who through fault of religion, abandonment by men, and strict moral code of the time period, was left with few options when finding herself pregnant by a married actor. Lewis doesn’t fault her mother for her choices she was forced to make, but she does question why she wasn’t just given up for adoption rather than embroiled in the elaborate charade of her “adoption” by Young. The image of Young left by her daughter is that of a woman distant in her affection, cold in her disapproval and determined to be the center of attention. That being said, Lewis isn’t as vindictive as many celebrity children writing tell-alls are about their parents, but she spares little pity for Tom Lewis, who was controlling and took his wrath out on Lewis in various ways (much of this stemming from the fact that Young never actually revealed who Lewis’s father was to him). Lewis is trying to excise her demons, some long held from being manipulated by her mother and her desperation to be loved by her parents, so her view of her childhood is from a woman long frustrated by her family. I don’t doubt her impressions of her family, but it’s not a completely rounded picture of a complex situation and Lewis has a tendency to repeat herself over her pain. The book is an interesting counterpoint to the fictional account of Young’s life.

3 out of 5

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Review: The Dress Thief by Natalie Meg Evans

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Alix Gower has a dream: to join the ranks of Coco Chanel to become a designer in the high-stakes world of Parisian haute couture. But Alix also has a secret: she supports her family by stealing designs to create bootlegs for the foreign market. A hidden sketchbook and two minutes inside Hermès is all she needs to create a perfect replica, to be whisked off to production in New York.

Then Alix is given her big break – a chance to finally realize her dream in one of the most prominent Parisian fashion houses – but at the price of copying the breakthrough Spring Collection.

Knowing this could be her only opportunity, Alix accepts the arrangement. But when a mystery from her past resurfaces and a chance meeting has her falling into the arms of a handsome English war reporter, Alix learns that the slightest misstep – or misplaced trust – could be all it takes for her life to begin falling apart at the seams.

I was rather torn about whether to give this book 3 or 4 stars. There was so much good about it, but I disliked the romantic interests so much I’m pulled in the direction of a 3. The story itself of a young woman thrown into a plot to steal designs from one of the famous fashion houses in pre-WWII Paris is fascinating and unique. Alix’s involvement in the fashion industry is thorough interesting and obviously well researched. The backstabbing and high tension of couture design makes for an exciting read as does Alix’s involvement in a little thought about aspect of the industry: knock off pirated design. Alix is desperate for money, but she also thoroughly respects the designer she ends up working for as an artist (which is what designers really are) and is deeply conflicted over stealing his designs. Meanwhile, another excellent plot is going on over who is blackmailing Alix’s patron and just what exactly happened to Alix’s murdered artist grandfather. The secrets of the past make for a good secondary mystery plot that is very well executed. The characters around her are more embroiled in that situation, which works since Alix’s character is taken up with her counterfeit couture and the moral implications of that.

The biggest problems I had were with the love interests. The romance plot plays a big part of the novel and I wish it didn’t because it’s the weakest aspect in my opinion. I would have been perfectly happy with just the mystery and the fashion plots without the emphasis on the romance because all three men put forward had little appeal to me. Serge is supposed to be a thug, so that part isn’t really a problem, though you question why, even with her explanation of wanting companionship and fun, Alix ever even tolerates him at all. Alix’s friendship with Paul is presented as something that seems like it will be a big deal at the onset, but which fades into some awkward jealousy and a male character resentful of Alix’s choices (even if they were wrong). Verrian, who is the “hero”, falls into the same category. He makes demands of Alix, leaves her, won’t reveal his past or about his wife, then voices his displeasure that she didn’t wait for him nor wants to drop everything to hop in bed with him when he shows back up. I might have had less problem with that if he amended his thinking, but the end response by Alix is “I’ve been putting him off and teasing him too much, no wonder he’s angry and sort of aggressive with me”. While I understand that this might be an attempt to copy the mindset of the time period, it was still rather unpleasant to me. He keeps Alix in the dark “for her own good” when it comes to his personal issues and that is sort of left as an “okay” thing. He runs hot and cold, pushing Alix away one minute and professing undying love the next. And ALL the men refuse to respect any decision Alix makes in regards to them. Maybe some readers will find that appealing in a romance, but all that toxic masculinity was a turn off for me.

So that being said, I do recommend the book because the two main plots were FANTASTIC. Possibly the romance was a personal dislike on my part, but it was enough to leave a bit of a funny taste in my mouth over the “happy” ending.

3 out of 5

Review: Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths by Ryan Britt

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Essayist Ryan Britt got a sex education from dirty pictures of dinosaurs, made out with Jar-Jar Binks at midnight, and figured out how to kick depression with a Doctor Who Netflix-binge. Alternating between personal anecdote, hilarious insight, and smart analysis, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read contends that Barbarella is good for you, that monster movies are just romantic comedies with commitment issues, that Dracula and Sherlock Holmes are total hipsters, and, most shockingly, shows how virtually everyone in the Star Wars universe is functionally illiterate.
Proud fandom aficionado Ryan Britt makes a case for sci-fi and fantasy fandoms as he takes a humorous, but well thought out look at everything from Marty McFly to Star Wars. Britt is affectionate in his love for all things geeky, but he’s also willing to point out flaws and absurdities that sometimes plague much beloved standards of the fandom realms. From the argument that the Star Wars galaxy is doomed to tyranny, rinse, repeat because of their lack of journalism and the written word, to his insight about the nature of regeneration in the fans of Doctor Who, to his valid observation that George Lucas just sort of makes up mythology as he goes, Britt takes his subjects seriously. Why is everyone okay with five thousand remakes of Hamlet, but gets up in arms about remakes of superhero movies? (Britt argues the creation of modern mythology may one day have our superheroes evolve to the level of seriousness people imbue in  Shakespeare). What was the problem with J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek? (The lack of ties to literature is a plausible argument). For anyone who ever wondered why fandom favorites are the way they are and what impact they may have, these essays shed light on the deeper truth of some of the most famous sci-fi and fantasy.

4 out of 5

Review: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.
Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

This was the nonfiction I chose to go along with reading The Determined Heart as it appeared to be one of the most recent biographies of Mary Shelley (whom The Determined Heart was about). I have read several books over Mary Shelley, but I would have to point out this one as the biography I’d send people to if asked to choose one about the author of Frankenstein. Alternating chapters between Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, the book is honest about their flaws as well as their genius. And both women were nearly forgotten for their genius based strictly on their gender and scandalous lifestyles, a situation compounded in Wollstonecraft’s situation by an ill-advised biography courtesy of her husband. Both women defied their time period in their beliefs and lifestyles and both women were given to bouts of depression, a malady that was not recognized or understood at the time, leading Wollstonecraft to garner a reputation as being irrational (and leading to two suicide attempts) and Shelley to come across as “cold” (her last years with Percy Shelley were plagued with conflict between the two and contempt from his friends towards her as she understandably failed to shake the depression of losing two children).

It is a tragedy that these two women never knew each other because their brilliance has changed literary and philosophical history. Shelley is almost entirely responsible for the rehabilitation of her husband’s posthumous career, being careful to paint him in a light that appealed to Victorian sensibilities (and excising his flaws, of which he had a LOT). Wollstonecraft was one of the foremost feminists and an accomplished author herself who is just recently being recognized for her literary innovations. They were complicated, intelligent, little understood women who paid for being ahead of their time. Tangled family situations, complicated love lives, and betrayal followed both women, but neither one ever left their positions as being champions of women throughout their lives.

5 out of 5

Review: The Awesome by Eva Darrows

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Seventeen-year-old Maggie Cunningham is tough, smart, and sassy. She’s also not like other girls her age, but then, who would be when the family business is monster hunting? Combat boots, ratty hooded sweatshirts, and hair worn short so nothing with claws can get a grip, Maggie’s concerns in life slant more toward survival than fashion or boys. Which presents a problem when Maggie’s mother informs Maggie that she can’t get her journeyman’s license for hunting until she loses her virginity.

Something about virgin blood turning vampires into pointy rage monsters. Blood and gore and insides being on the outside and all that.

Maggie’s battled ghosts and goblins and her fair share of house brownies, but finding herself a boy – fitting in with her peers – proves a much more daunting task than any monster hunt. Did you know normal girls don’t stuff their bras with holy water balloons? Nor do they carry wooden stakes in their waistbands. And they care about things like “matching” and “footwear.” Of course, they also can’t clean a gun blindfolded, shoot a crossbow, or exorcise ghosts from a house. Which means they’re lame and Maggie’s not. Because Maggie’s awesome. The Awesome, in fact. Just ask her. She’d be more than happy to tell you.

After she finds herself a date.

Some writers you can just feel the potential with. Eva Darrows is one such writer. Her strength is her witty writing and the truly believable voice she gives her main heroine Maggie. Maggie is witty and has tons of self confidence, but she’s also socially awkward and insecure in the way all teenagers are. She has a weird life of monster hunting with a weird mother and something of a weird personality on her own, but she finds a nice dude willing to put up with her strange life almost in spite of herself. Darrows’ writing sparkles with sarcasm and pop culture references that feel natural unlike some YA writers who try to add pop culture references and betray that they’re really not all that “hip to the young people”. Maggie is nothing if not honest about herself, part “The Awesome” and part insecure that her boyfriend thinks she’s a freak. Add to that her and her mother pissing off a vampire prince and suddenly Maggie’s life is thoroughly complicated.

The main complaint is that Maggie’s love life and her hunting life don’t really mesh all that well. Her boyfriend is nice, but he isn’t involved with the hunting life and gets sidelined, making him rather flavorless. It almost felt like the plot was jumping between two different story lines, one a romance and one an action/adventure. The action/adventure was better, but when most of the point of the book is the main character being “deflowered” so she can continue hunting, that makes neglecting the romance hard. And that part of the plot, in and of itself, makes this book fall in an odd category of YA, but WAY too adult to really be considered typical YA fare for a school library. If she’d just tweaked the ages a little this would have fallen right into the category of typical urban paranormal fantasy, but Maggie isn’t quite old enough to really firmly be considered for that genre yet the plot is too adult to really be considered YA. So the book straddles its own weird line somewhere in the middle. That being said, it’s worth a read just for the good voice of the heroine.

4 out of 5

Review: All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

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The movie business is booming in 1935 when twenty-one-year-old Loretta Young meets thirty-four-year-old Clark Gable on the set of The Call of the Wild. Though he’s already married, Gable falls for the stunning and vivacious young actress instantly.

Far from the glittering lights of Hollywood, Sister Alda Ducci has been forced to leave her convent and begin a new journey that leads her to Loretta. Becoming Miss Young’s assistant, the innocent and pious young Alda must navigate the wild terrain of Hollywood with fierce determination and a moral code that derives from her Italian roots. Over the course of decades, she and Loretta encounter scandal and adventure, choose love and passion, and forge an enduring bond of love and loyalty that will be put to the test when they eventually face the greatest obstacle of their lives.

It’s a bit hard to objectively judge fictional books about recent well known people for me. There is a certain level of closeness to the subject of the fiction that puts the plot in an area that is a little hard to judge. For example, Loretta Young, the subject of this novel, hasn’t been deceased all that long and we almost know an over abundance about her. That makes reading a fictional take on her slightly harder to differentiate from what we know about her factually. And Loretta and her turbulent love affair with Clark Gable is the whole focus of this book. Loretta herself is portrayed as hard working and charming and trying her best to stay true to her Catholic faith while negotiating Hollywood and claiming her illegitimate child with Gable without tipping anyone off that Judy was actually her biological daughter. Any person at this time would tell you that refusing to enlighten Judy Lewis about her parentage would be an understandable place for conflict to build between the two women, especially when Young chose to marry a man who clearly resented her daughter and when Young herself seemed to consider her daughter’s existence as partially a “punishment” for her actions with Gable. The book tends to gloss over this part though and only skims Lewis and Young’s turbulent relationship.

Gable is portrayed as the love of Young’s life. How much truth there is to that is questionable. As is the claim that Young was the love of Spencer Tracey’s life (most would probably consider Katherine Hepburn to be his soulmate). The men in Hollywood’s golden age are shown to be cads who are hardly even expected to be faithful to anyone and even the fictional characters are allowed to have this mentality (Alda’s husband isn’t faithful and she is shown as the “bigger person” by never letting him confess to her of his infidelity). It’s all a bit jarring, but even the characters admit that this is the way their world works and that it’s not necessarily real or good. Taking away the foreknowledge of anything about Young, the novel itself is an enjoyable read that tries to be candid about the tight grip studios had on their stars and the double standard in play between actors and actresses. The characters aren’t angels, but one has the feeling that they’ve been cleaned up a bit from their actual selves (I know for a fact that Gable made little effort to financially help his daughter and most of what I’ve read about him make Young seem like a footnote in his romantic career rather than a true love). The ending seems a little choppy for the very reason that the author is trying to rush through several characters’ lives while spending a great deal of time discussing what was really a small time period between the two main characters.

That all being said, the book is a good read if one that the reader has to take from a more objective standpoint.

4 out of 5