On the Same Page: Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

A couple of years ago, April of 2013, I came up with the idea of “On the Same Page” during a discussion with friends. I conceived of it as a way to make book discussions happen, by announcing what I would be reading ahead of time and inviting others who were interested to read the same book in the same time frame, so we could talk about it. Not quite a read-along, just a sort of “heads up” for people whose TBR looks a lot like mine.

I did four On the Same Page posts in the fall of 2013; there were some good short conversations, and I liked the results. Easier to follow than Twitter conversations, without the pressure of a review deadline. At least one other blogger tried the same thing for a little while. But then stuff happened, my blogging mojo waned, the usual. Now I’m resurrecting the idea.

Book Cover is J. W. Waterhouse, The Soul of the RoseWhen I did my little Twitter poll to choose a book for this month’s TBR Challenge “impulse book” read, a couple of people commented that they had, or were interested in, Mistress Shakespeare, by Karen Harper. Harper is a best-selling author, primarily of mystery/suspense novels. When this book was published in 2009, she was best known for her Queen Elizabeth I mystery series. I have never read a book of hers, and I know that the only reason I own this book is that it was on sale and that it has one of my favorite Waterhouse paintings, “The Soul of the Rose,” on the cover.

I’m probably going to read this book in September. From September 10th to the 20th I am doing a lot of traveling, so any reading will be Kindle and blog posting will be even less likely than usual. There’s a TBR challenge review during that time, with the “historical” theme, but I have something else planned for that slot. So my thoughts on Mistress Shakespeare will probably be posted sometime towards the end of the month. Plenty of time to jump on board, if you have this book or think it looks interesting. (It’s a little pricey in e-book, but used print copies are cheap.)

Summary (from Amazon.com):

In Mistress Shakespeare, Elizabethan beauty Anne Whateley reveals intimate details of her dangerous, daring life and her great love, William Shakespeare. As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton is betrothed to Will just days before he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway of Shottery. The clandestine Whateley/Shakespeare match is a meeting of hearts and heads that no one—not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters—can destroy. From rural Stratford-upon- Avon to teeming London, the passionate pair struggles to stay solvent and remain safe from Elizabeth I’s campaign to hunt down secret Catholics, of whom Shakespeare is rumored to be a part. Often at odds, always in love, the couple sells Will’s first plays and, as he climbs to theatrical power in Elizabeth’s England, they fend off fierce competition from rival London dramatists, ones as treacherous as they are talented. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, bring Anne’s heartrending story to life. Spanning half a century of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and sweeping from the lowest reaches of society to the royal court, this richly textured novel tells the real story of Shakespeare in love.

TBR Challenge: Why Didn’t I Read This Sooner?

The theme for August is “Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!).” I decided to choose among six books that I bought nearly six years ago at an independent bookstore; they were on a sale table. All six were some version of historical fiction, all by women authors whose work I had not read, and all had really interesting covers. (And they have all been on my bookshelf since then, unread.)

A selection of historical fiction

A selection of historical fiction

I posted this photo on Twitter and asked for input, agreeing to read the one that the largest number of people thought looked the most interesting. From a pretty small sample of responses, the choice was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe, published in 2009 by Hyperion.

DeliveranceDane

I have to talk first about what a beautiful book this is. I read mostly e-books these days, and usually when I read a printed book, I’m frustrated by its flimsiness (if it’s paperback) or unwieldiness (big hardbacks). This book is neither, and it is such a well-made and attractive book that I really enjoyed holding it and reading it. I’m sure the story is just as good in electronic format, but especially because this is a book about a book, the lovely print edition really enhanced my reading experience.

Beautiful endpapers

Beautiful endpapers

Evocative use of font

Evocative use of font

The main character in the novel is Connie Goodwin, a graduate student in American Colonial History at Harvard in 1991. In the first chapter she sits for her oral qualifying exam, so for most of the novel she is a PhD candidate at the very beginning of the dissertation process — looking for a project. Connie’s mother, Grace, is a hippy single mother who moved to New Mexico when Connie started college. Early in the book she asks Connie to go to her grandmother’s (Grace’s mother) empty house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to clean it out and ready it for sale. The house has been vacant since Sophia (the grandmother) died, about 20 years before, and now it needs to be sold to pay accrued taxes.

Connie and Grace have a complex relationship. Grace is a free spirit, concerned with healing energies and auras, and Connie’s early years were spend in a commune near Walden Pond.  Connie is actively unlike her mother, working since childhood to be prepared, logical and orderly where Grace is free-spirited and impulsive. They are fond of, but bewildered by, each other. I thought their relationship was depicted really well; I enjoyed their loving conflict. Connie resents Grace putting her in the position of having to take care of the house business, but she agrees to do it.

The house is overgrown and spooky, with neither a telephone nor electricity. It is also still fully furnished and full of Sophia’s possessions. Connie plans to spend the summer living there, sorting through the contents and cleaning the place up, while still commuting into Cambridge for meetings with her advisory about her dissertation project.  Her plan takes a turn when, her first night in the house, she finds a key in an old Bible. Inside the hollow shaft of the key is a piece of paper bearing the words “Deliverance Dane.” Connie decides fairly quickly that this might be someone’s name, and so she begins researching to find out whom it could have been. She learns that Deliverance was accused of witchcraft and excommunicated during the Salem witch trials in 1692.

Running parallel to Connie’s story is the story of Deliverance, her daughter Mercy, and her granddaughter Prudence, between 1681 and 1749. Prudence was a midwife, and Constance finds her diary while researching, but it really provides little insight into the questions about Deliverance. The book contains “interlude” chapters giving the reader glimpses of these other women’s lives; while Connie’s story proceeds in chronological order, the interludes do not, but instead sort of circle around Connie’s research and eventually come together in Deliverance’s execution for witchcraft near the end of the book.

The Physick Book mentioned in the title is Deliverance’s book, handed down to Mercy and then to Prudence. Connie and her academic advisor, Professor Chilton, come to believe that the book is in fact a spell book, and that Deliverance actually practiced a form of witchcraft. Chilton urges Connie to find the book and make it the center of her dissertation research.

Early in her search for Deliverance, Connie meets Sam, a restoration specialist working on the steeple of a local church. He helps with her research and they develop a romantic relationship. Then Sam meets with a horrible accident and is hospitalized, and Connie realizes that she needs to find Deliverance’s book in order to save Sam’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. The history is well-researched and fascinating, the academic research/detective work is involving, and the paranormal elements are handled with a matter-of-fact touch and an integration with the rest of the story that I appreciated. The romance doesn’t dominate the book, but it is important and satisfying. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the book was a best-seller, and I’m looking forward to reading the three books Howe has written since this debut.

The historical fiction aspect of this novel was a nice palate cleanser, showing that a good writer can add fictional elements to a historical setting without making bad history or erasing the authenticity of the historical experience. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about the Salem witch trials that starts with the premise, “what if they were witches?,” and I’m really glad I read this one.

Standing Up

As you may well already know, there’s been a recent controversy in romance publishing about a particular book, For Such a Time, by Kate Breslin, published by Bethany House. The book was entered in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest and was a finalist in two categories, Inspirational Romance and Best First Book (the second an almost automatic effect of the first). Many people were outraged to learn that this book, featuring a romantic relationship between a concentration camp commander and a Jewish woman, was under consideration for the award. The book received positive coverage from RT and from Library Journal, and had overwhelmingly positive responses on GoodReads and Amazon, but that was when it was under the radar of anyone except readers of inspirational romance. Once it had broader exposure, others had a lot to say. Sara Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books wrote a letter to the RWA that really got the ball rolling, and soon there were a lot of other voices raised in criticism and condemnation.

I decided to read the book because I wanted to be able to say that I had; I wanted to be able to make criticism from an informed perspective. I was horrified by the premise, particularly by the idea that this situation could EVER result in a consensual romance — I have BIG ISSUES with power difference in romance. I even joined a group of other readers, some of them authors, who were reading the book at the same time and keeping a shared document of their reactions. I had requested the book from my local library, and that took a few days; I read what the others had to say, but couldn’t really contribute.

Then the book arrived, and I read the first few chapters. At this point, I wondered if I would have anything substantive to add to the discussion — others have expressed, eloquently, pretty much everything I felt about the first part of the book. I read a bit more, and it was just too much. I cannot bring myself to finish it, although I’m skimming to confirm various aspects.

However, conversation with others, especially Janine Ballard, convinced me that I should still write this post. I want to stand up and say “me too,” in solidarity with other voices. I want people to know that I, too, found this book offensive, and I think that its publication, the initial positive response, and the stubborn refusal of its author or publisher to see how offensive it is, are all signs worth noting and decrying.

First, I agree with others that the “Stockholm Syndrome” romance in this novel is not its worst aspect. Wendy points out that problematic power differences abound in romance, and Sunita notes that there are other instances of Nazi heroes in romance, so the book is hardly unique in that aspect. I still decry the severe power imbalance; Aric has literally the power of life and death over Hadassah/Stella, and i don’t think she has the freedom to make a real choice about how to respond to him. But the first few chapters, where she is wondering what will happen to her and why he is acting the way he is, and he is thinking about how beautiful she is, felt familiar from other romances. It takes a more skilled author than this one to bring such a pairing to a place where I believe that the heroine has both agency and other options, so that this is really a relationship she has freely chosen.
ETA: Keira Soleore has a great analysis of the romance, just posted today.

Far worse than this is the way that the Jewish faith and culture are misrepresented in this book. Errors of terminology, practice, thought and theology abound, although the author has supposedly researched extensively. I am not Jewish myself, and my undergraduate minor in religious studies is a few decades old, but it’s clear that the book presents a poor picture of what it means to be Jewish. For details, I suggest reading Laura Curtis’s excellent analysis. Janine also makes excellent points about this aspect, based on the part of the book she read, at Dear Author.

I also want to point out the response of some Christian readers who recognize the problems with this book. Emily put it really well in her letter to the publisher, and Kelly makes some excellent points in her review, too. From a theological studies perspective, I think the book, an “adaptation” of Esther, really perverts the source story. As Kelly says,

[A] “Christian worldview” of the Holocaust is NOT OUR STORY TO TELL, and it never will be.

The Holocaust is our EVER-LASTING SHAME of APATHY and SELFISHNESS and COWARDICE. Our story is the UTTER FAILURE to do what was right.

And you know what, Kate Breslin and Bethany House? That right there is THE OPPOSITE OF THE STORY OF ESTHER.

The worst, WORST thing from my perspective (as if all the above wasn’t bad enough) is how this book appropriates and then erases the horrible Holocaust experience. The author doesn’t just use a historical setting, she CHANGES HISTORY to give a “happy ending” to her novel that DID NOT HAPPEN in real life. Sunita’s response really sums up what I think needs to be said about this historical revisionism: “It’s one thing to alter facts to create a more real-feeling ‘truth.’ It’s another to write a lie to get your main characters to an HEA.”

I made myself skim the book, and I forced myself to read the “happy” ending. It made me ill. I’m going to borrow a quote from someone else for this, and you can read the rest on Joanne Renaud’s Tubmlr:

I just—don’t know where to begin to deconstruct with how fucking HORRIBLE this is. It’s bullshit on so many levels. It’s a shit sandwich, with a new layer of shit every time you look. It’s shit in infinite dimensions. It’s a shit tesseract!

This story completely co-opts the Shoah and turns it into a neutered, tacky soap opera where the Jews are stripped of their culture, religion and traditions and are turned into a mass of ambulatory MacGuffins that Aric and Hermann can fight over like they were in the last act of a Michael Bay movie. It rewrites history—it takes a very real genocide where millions of people were murdered viciously and brutally—and uses it for grist in a cheap melodrama where the real issue is just how a misunderstood Nazi gets to show everyone that he’s really a swell guy. It’s like someone turned the Killing Fields of Cambodia into a heartwarming, life-affirming musical comedy. It’s garbage.

So, yeah. This is an awful book. But it’s an awful book that a lot of people and publications liked, praised and recommended before anyone spoke up and said “it’s awful!” Until the day that Sara’s letter was published, this book had no reviews below three stars on Amazon, and most were four or five stars. And that’s why I felt the need to write this post, even though all I’m really doing is pointing to the comments of a lot of other smart people and saying “I agree.” Because the louder we are, the wider we reach, the better the chances that this won’t happen as easily again.

TBR Challenge: I’m Back! And with Kinsale!

I finally read a book for TBR Challenge that I feel motivated to talk about. It even fits this month’s theme!

Book Cover
The Prince of Midnight won the RITA for Best Romance in 1991. Isn’t the Fabio cover wonderful? It has a lot of the hallmarks of “old school” romance (not that these have left us, really): the hero is a dashing highwayman; the heroine is an orphan deprived of her family and estate by a thoroughly two-dimensional villain; she dresses as a boy so that she can travel alone in safety, which works fine all across England and France, but the hero recognizes her as a woman in their first encounter. He has insta-lust, while she spends a little longer in denial of her feelings for him.

S.T. has been wounded, and is in retirement/hiding in France; Leigh comes to find him in hopes that the infamous “Signeur Minuit” will teach her sword-fighting skills that will help her to kill the man she hates. She tracks him down without too much difficulty, but he cannot teach her much because his last brush with the law in England left him deaf in one ear and with his balance impaired. But he wants her, so he doesn’t just send her away; she figures out that he’s not very likely to be able to help her, but she is drawn to him and unable to come up with another plan for revenge. So they stumble along, getting to know each other and eventually agreeing to pursue her revenge together in England.

Leigh considers herself unsentimental — she thinks that her experiences have hardened her, and she has no interest in loving another person or needing them for her happiness. She’s willing to have sex with S.T., but not to love him — he gives in to that once and then resists it, because while he isn’t looking for a long-term commitment, he is used to falling in love as part of seduction in his temporary liasons. This bit of role-reversal, combined with their verbal sparring and repartée, are what worked for me in this book. While some of their emotional reverses and mis-cues felt a bit contrived to me, and the overall length was a bit much, overall I enjoyed their encounters and the development of the relationship. As with some of Kinsale’s other books, I found individual scenes really entertaining, more than I enjoyed to overall story arc.

*SPOILERS*

S.T. overcomes his disability shortly after they arrive in England, so he has the fighting skills and dexterity to play the role of rescuer and vigilante. By then he and Leigh have fallen out, so he goes on alone to prove to her that he is worth her regard. After his own encounter with, and escape from, the villain of the piece, he wants the man dead and discredited on his own account. Meanwhile Leigh realizes that she has come to care about S.T. in spite of herself, so she asks him to give up on revenge rather than risk himself; he refuses, of course, and she is angry that his so-called love for her doesn’t make him willing to put her need to have him safe ahead of everything else.

Our villain is an evil cult leader, who is using unspecified drugs and tricks to keep a community in his thrall in an extremely patriarchal “ideal community” that turns out to be a front for some pretty sick shenanigans. So of course S.T. needs to rescue all the damsels, not just Leigh, and of course she sees that as a sign that he doesn’t really love her. When he won’t stop, she takes it on herself to kill the minister — naturally she almost succeeds but then is captured and imprisoned, so he can rescue her. Only in doing so he exposes himself as a wanted criminal, so there’s some more delay while he gets a pardon. Then the external obstacles are gone, but he still think he doesn’t deserve her, and she thinks his lack of pursuit means that he doesn’t really love her, they eventually sort that out, with time for an epilogue that I really could have done without.

On balance, I’m glad I read this — the dialogue and many of the characters are engaging, and I was entertained even when rolling my eyes. Kinsale writes horses and dogs particularly well, and the scenes involving animals are great. Sometimes I felt like I was being smacked in the face with evidence of historical accuracy, which can be as annoying as inaccuracy. Mostly I just felt that the time it took the characters to actually get together was too drawn-out; the epilogue, showing how this unconventional couple would move to England and become conventional, was disappointing.

The BEST Series: A TBR Challenge Post

RaisingSteamjpgSir Terry Pratchett died last week. My household is beyond sad, as he was a favorite author and meeting him was a family treat that we’ll never forget. His Discworld series, of which this is the most recent (number 40!), is one of the richest, funniest, worthwhile fantasy worlds ever created.

I bought Raising Steam for my partner’s birthday last year; he was putting off reading it, in case it was the inadvertent end of the series. (Sir Terry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease a little more than seven years ago, and we knew he might not be able to complete another novel.) So he was saving this book, and I waited almost a year before deciding to go ahead and read it before he did (something that has NEVER HAPPENED with a Discworld novel). I’m glad to return to the series after a couple of years (the book before this, Snuff, was published in 2011 and we read it almost immediately), and I’m really glad that I finished it before Sir Terry passed away. It was still a little sad, as all things Pratchett have been since he announced “the embuggerance,” but mostly I just laughed and cried over the story itself.

As a big fan of steam locomotives, I was thrilled to have them introduced to the Discworld. In previous books, Pratchett has pursued a theme of modernizing the world (“dragging it kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruit Bat”), both in terms of technology and attitudes, with lots of insightful commentary applicable to our own world. In this case, the question arises whether this is technology people are really equipped to handle, whether the convenience outweighs the dangers, as well as the recurring question of whether the changes wrought by technological advances are really “improvements” in every sense.

But wonderful as these themes are, they aren’t what makes the book so amazing. It’s the way the themes are carried out — wonderful, complex characters at the center of the story, interacting with characters who seem like stereotypes and then, suddenly, aren’t. And through it all, humor — wit, both high and low, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, reflective, “yes, life IS like that, isn’t it” chuckles. Favorite recurring characters include Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch and some of his watchpersons, Lord Ventinari (the Patrician of the city), Sir Harry King of the sewage rubbish empire, and Moist Von Lipwig, the former con-man turned civil servant who has already salvaged the postal service and the royal bank in previous books. New characters include the inventor of the steam locomotive, Dick Simnel, and King’s niece, Emily, who provide the romance subplot of the novel.

The story is about how Dick, having figured out how to build the trains, comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork, hoping to build his engine. He gets backing from King and they work to build the first railway. Moist is appointed as the government representative in the development, and the process meets various obstacles, including saboteurs and safety concerns. Dwarvish fundamentalists are at the root of many of these problems, and the train ends up being the only way to thwart their attempted coup. During all of that, there’s a lot more going on, including everyone falling under the mystical spell of train travel.

If you’ve read Pratchett, you’ll understand why I can’t do the book justice in a review. Cory Doctorow did a better job when the book was first released; his review is here. I tried to write more than this, but I just ended up a)crying and b)rereading, so this will have to do.

If you haven’t read Pratchett, you shouldn’t start with this book anyway. You can see a chart of the first 37 books (through 2009) and how they relate here ; the orange code for “starter novel” suggests possible beginnings. The Wee Free Men is also a great place to start, if you enjoy Young Adult fiction.

Try It, You’ll Like It! Recommended Read for TBR Challenge

Judith-Ivory-BeastThis month’s challenge was to fish out of the TBR pile a book recommended by another reader. I have been reading fairytale retellings lately and enjoying them, but a recent conversation with people who loved this book reminded me that I had started it a couple of years ago, but never finished it. I was enjoying the book, but I put it down and didn’t get right back to it. When I tried again, a few months later, I only got half as far, and I found the book too problematic and the characters unlikeable.

Beauty and the Beast stories are tricky for me. First, there’s the whole emphasis on physical appearance and its connection to inner beauty. In most versions of the story, Beauty is lovely inside and out. The Beast is often cursed to be ugly to match some ugly behavior, or has in some other way brought on his own disfigurement; if not, then whatever makes him physically bestial, and the way he’s been treated because of it, has made him bitter, angry, or hard to know and love. There are many ways that can be handled that are distasteful to me, particularly if the definition of “bestial” includes disability.

Then there are control issues. The original Beauty is the Beast’s prisoner; he demands her from her father in return for the father’s own life (nice parenting there). While the Beast needs her to truly love him to break the curse, he has to keep her captive in order to have a chance of that happening. I’ve heard this referred to as Stockholm syndrome, and it can often come across that way. Does Beauty really have free will when it comes to falling in love with her Beast? Who is responsible for the forced proximity that allows her to get to know him well enough to see beneath the surface? These questions can make or break this story model for me.

In this case, I chose to stop reading because of both sets of issues. Louise, the heroine, is indeed beautiful, and she knows it. She likes to flirt, and to experiment with her power over men. She’s somewhat spoiled and very high-spirited, which is why her U.S. parents have contracted for her to marry a European noble who won’t know about her antics. She is fully prepared to go through with marriage to a man she’s never met, until she hears that he is “ugly” and “lame.” Being so beautiful, she deserves to be with an attractive man, and it never occurred to her that her parents could like someone enough to accept him as her husband without that quality.

Charles, our “hero,” overhears Louise flirting and the conversation when she is told that he himself is “hideous.” His vanity is pricked, because he believes that he makes up in fashion and style for the scar that makes him blind in one eye and the slight limp he sometimes has. From his hiding place eavesdropping, he also sees Louise for the first time and is smitten by her beauty and her youth. He concocts a plan to attract her wandering attention, thereby preventing her from having a shipboard affair with anyone else, and he decides to conduct the whole proceeding in the dark and in disguise, so that she will find herself attracted to him before seeing what he looks like. He imagines an “aha!” moment where, having made her fall for him, he reveals himself and she must admit that her concern about his appearance was shallow. (Never mind how shallow he is being about her looks.)
This first part of the book is set on a ship crossing the Atlantic, bringing Louise and her family to France for her wedding. Charles is supposed to be waiting for her there, but instead he is on the same ship, incognito. So he lays a trap for her, taking out the light bulbs in the area of the ship set aside for passengers to visit their pets who are in the ship’s kennel for the trip, and striking up a conversation when she comes to visit her dog. He teases her, flirts with her, and tells her that he wants her, but that he won’t kiss her until she’s pleading for it. He challenges her to get to know him without looking at him, using senses other than sight. She clearly is attracted to him, as well as finding him infuriating in a good traditional romance novel way.

In the midst of all of this is Charles’s mistress, Pia, who with her husband is also making the ocean crossing. Pia has for several years been the only woman in his life, and he loves her; he is only marrying Louise because Pia is also married and refuses to consider changing that, and Louise’s father has offered him a fortune in ambergris for his perfume business as part of her dowry. Charles has every intention of continuing the affair, and it’s actually Pia who breaks it off, insisting on a double standard (“I am allowed to be married, but you are not”) to which Charles cannot agree. At this point I didn’t like either Charles or Louise very much, finding them self-centered, vain and shallow – perfect for each other, but not people I necessarily want to read about in a romance.

When I went back to the book this week, forcing myself to just enjoy Ivory’s beautiful prose, terrific characterization, and witty dialogue, I still didn’t like the characters, but that began to change. I actually liked Louise first, once the book got inside her head a bit and inverted the trope of outer beauty signaling inner beauty. I began to understand how being beautiful had defined her existence (narrowly) and given her little scope to be appreciated for any other qualities, thus causing her to wonder if she really had any other value. Her self-doubt and search for self-knowledge was just right for an 18-year-old, one of those times when I didn’t object to such a young heroine in historical romance. She’s intelligent and complex as a character.

I took longer to warm up to Charles. He went from being calculated, callous and controlling to being ridiculous about how much he wanted Louise sexually. I was glad that he quickly began to appreciate her mind as well as her beauty, and also that her youthful energy was something he welcomed and indulged. But while her impulsiveness was excused by youth, I had trouble accepting his – he made some poor decisions that were purely motivated by his lust for her.

By the time they leave the ship, Charles has created an impossible situation. Louise is in love with her “pasha” (Charles passed himself off as a Middle Easterner in the dark), and by contrast her scarred and limping husband is no prize. She goes through with the wedding but balks at actual marital intimacy with a man to whom she’s not attracted. She tells Charles that she was in love with a man who is now dead, at least to her; he realizes that he has hurt her with his deception, and that revealing the truth might just make her angry and more hurt. Moreover, he has intensified her reaction to his slight physical defects by helping her to create a perfectly handsome and sensual lover in the dark.

I admit to being really fed up with Charles by this point. He was unable to handle what he himself put in motion, and there was a lot of unattractive self-pity while he tried. But when he started making some decisions based on real concern for Louise, rather than just additional plotting to make her love him/sleep with him, I was able to appreciate him more. It actually took Louise longer to come around to valuing Charles and making some unselfish choices (often my barometer for real love in a book), but she managed to do it before finding out the truth and to weather the discovery, which I had begun to think was more than he deserved.

What I liked best about the book was its exploration of identity. Both Louise and Charles experience a sense of divided identity, of being two different people – the ones in the dark and the ones in the light, as it were. For a relationship to work between them, each had to figure out how to integrate their two identities and then find a way to relate this new version of themself with that of their partner. Stripping away some aspects of physical appearance, breaking social codes, and being alone with just the other person gave them insights into themselves and each other that they would otherwise not have had. That idea, that self-awareness and honesty make a relationship work, rather than just beauty and wealth, made the book work for me.

(After I wrote the review that appears above, I realized that I had reviewed the first half as my TBR Challenge book back in May of 2013. When I went back and read that review, I was really surprised that I liked the book that much the first time, since the second time was a deliberate DNF and the third time took some effort. I am not sure what changed in my reading perspective, but it’s definitely a reminder that I have to read a book at the right time. My original review of the first half is here.)

Who Reads Short Shorts? A TBR Challenge Review

Rochesterv3_Trickster is the third installment of My Mr. Rochester, a future-set retelling of Jane Eyre. L.K. Rigel is an author I’ve enjoyed before; I enthusiastically recommended her Apocalypto series of science fiction romance. Coincidentally my review of the first Apocalypto book, Space Junque, was my first TBR Challenge review of 2012.

So here’s the blurb on the My Mr. Rochester books:

Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic novel retold, set in a futuristic dystopia.

In the late 21st century, the American “red states” have formed New Judah, a more perfect union founded on biblical principles, rejection of technology, and reverence for women.

Orphaned Jane survives a cruel childhood and harsh boarding school education to become a governess at a remote and beautiful estate where mysterious and damaged Fairfax Rochester threatens her with a lawless love that shatters everything she’s struggled for.

I love this book’s differences from Jane Eyre, perhaps more than its similarities to Brontë’s classic. The world building is excellent, albeit chilling. As with the Apocalypto books, Rigel’s work reminds me of Sherri Tepper — and yes, that’s high praise. The repressive treatment of women in New Judah is sharper because it takes place in a larger world that has what Victorian England did not — technological advances like fast travel, instant news and communication, and excellent contraception. Denying those things, particularly keeping women slaves to their reproductive systems, makes the patriarchy feel even more evil, and Jane even more a victim of an evil system rather than just an unfortunate character.

It’s also really clever watching how people, places and events from Brontë’s novel are transfigured to fit in Rigel’s. I know a lot of readers don’t like re-tellings, but I enjoy them when they are done well. So far, this one is. The alternate setting brings out some of the feminist aspects of the story. When I eventually finish this series (I read the first one just over a year ago, so who knows how long that will be), I will need to re-read Jane Eyre, in order to appreciate some subtleties that I’m sure I’m missing because I haven’t read it in quite a few years.

One thing has not changed from the original book. I still think Rochester is an ass. It is hard for me, as a reader, to sympathize with him and the way he uses Jane. I think that has something to do with only seeing him, in both versions, through Jane’s point of view — which is hopelessly clouded until later in the story. She thinks he’s so wonderful that I can’t get a clear sense of him, although in this book, I found myself feeling a little more sympathy for the way he, too, was trapped by the rules of society. (I think that’s why my favorite version of Jane Eyre is the 1997 film with Ciaran Hinds as Rochester — he’s playing the character, not Jane’s view of the character, and so I feel his dilemma and poor choices more effectively.)

I enjoyed reading this book, and I will definitely finish the other two at some point. I see that Rigel also has a new series starting, Accomplished Ladies, about the women of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The first book is about Mary Bennet; I won’t be able to resist that!

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