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!

First Post of a New Year

Welcome to 2015. I’m trying to figure out how I want to use this space going forward; I miss having blog posts (although so far I don’t miss the process of creating them), and I’m determined to find some way to blog about books without feeding that awful “cog in the machine” feeling. In the meantime, Jonathan McCalmont posted something that really sums up my feelings about reviewing/blogging/talking about books. He wrote:

I believe in the value of negative reviews because I want to be part of a literary culture that puts the emotional and intellectual needs of ordinary readers above those of professional elites. Unlike Silverman, I don’t yearn for a culture of intellectual combat but I do want to exist in a cultural space where people feel empowered by their community to talk about books in the way that feels most appropriate to them. I want people to be unafraid to talk about books in ways that lead to discussions about more important things and it is impossible for fans to have that type of freedom when they are expected to bear in mind the interests of authors who are trying to build their careers and manage their brands. I understand that the publishing industry has fucked over a generation of authors and tricked them into serving as their own publicists but that doesn’t mean that ordinary readers are morally required to enable those professional aspirations. I don’t want to be part of a literary culture that exists only to serve the interests of professionals and that is why I will always defend a fan’s right to produce brutal, scathing and viciously negative reviews.

(You can find his whole post, and the others in the “blogtable,” here.

Book Review Blackout

I was going to publish my week-late TBR Challenge review today — I was traveling last week and couldn’t post. Instead, I’m holding off on that review and all others that I have thought about writing or started writing. Recent events in publishing have made me, like many others, sad and angry about the treatment of and attitudes toward readers and amateur reviewers by most publishers, some so-called journalists, some agents, and too many authors. Not all, not most, but the chorus is too loud for me to continue believing that “badly behaving authors” are really outliers.

I’m not going to stop reading, or talking about books on Twitter and in other discussions online. But I won’t be getting advance copies of books, posting reviews on Amazon, or spotlighting titles here for a while. When I do go back to writing about books, I think I’ll be more interested in writing about books that others have already read and doing more “On the Same Page”-type read-along features.

I have some ARCs that I have read or planned to read of books being released in the next couple of months; I haven’t decided yet what to do about those. Mostly they are books by authors whom I admire and respect, as writers and as people, so I’ll be thinking about how to support them without feeling like I’m shilling for an industry that by and large does not respect me or what I do.

Ethical Conflict: When My Principles Collide

Most of you who visit my blog are probably well aware that publisher Ellora’s Cave is suing Dear Author, and Jane Litte, for defamation because of her blog post reporting on the publisher’s business difficulties. I agree with Sunita that this lawsuit is intended to scare bloggers and authors, and I greatly admire Courtney Milan’s #NotChilled responses. It’s been amazing to watch the community of romance readers, bloggers, reviewers, authors, editors, et al., come together in amazing support of Jane in this.

One recurring theme in all of the support has been a request for Jane to accept help towards the legal bills that fighting this lawsuit will entail. A lot of us want to be part of that, and today Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, announced a legal defense fund for Jane through Go Fund me. Last I checked, the donations were more than $30,000. In less than 12 hours. That’s how strongly people feel about this. And while I think that’s terrific, I haven’t been able to push that donate button, because I have been boycotting Go Fund Me for a while now.

Go Fund Me has had a lot of issues. There was the problem over abortion rights — Go Fund Me encourages people to use them to raise money for medical bills, but it has adopted a policy that excludes abortions from the category of medical expenses. They classify abortions as “terminating life,” and they won’t allow funds for that to be raised on their platform. But it’s okay to raise funds for anti-choice intiatives. I can’t support that.

Then there was the Ferguson problem. Go Fund Me was the platform used to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. (Money that I’m not sure is even needed, since he is on paid leave from his job and so far faces no charges.) Worse yet, in my opinion, when Go Fund Me was challenged by a civil rights group over this issue, they threatened to sue the organization to stop the criticism. That to me was the ultimate irony, given that the legal fund for Dear Author is to fight just such a lawsuit.

Go Fund Me takes 5 percent of all funds raised as their payment, so any payment I make through them is directly helping to support their policies and practices. As much as I want to support Jane and Dear Author, because I believe they are on the right side in this and I want to be part of it, I joined the Go Fund Me boycott a while ago and have as yet seen no reason to reconsider my opinion of their stance or tactics. I have said no to other causes because of this as well, but this one bothered me the most.

Fortunately there’s a silver lining here. Although Go Fund Me has gained, as of this writing, more than $1500 from this, none of it is mine. And Sarah has shared a PayPal address (jane AT dearauthor DOT com) for donations (which should be earmarked “JL/DA Defense Fund”). I donated that way. And Sarah invites others who want to donate, but won’t/can’t use Go Fund Me or PayPal, to email her (sarah AT smartbitches trashy books DOT com); she’ll respond after Yom Kippur.

I just wanted to put this all out there, in one place, to flesh out the Twitter conversations and other discussions I’ve had with various folks.

TBR Challenge: Freedom and Necessity

Gustave Wappers, Épisode des Journées de septembre 1830 (sur la place de l'Hôtel de Ville de Bruxelles), 1835

Cover of the novel Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull

It was about darn time I read this book. It was sent to me about a year ago by the delightful Anna M, whom I follow on Twitter (@helgagrace). It had come out of her TBR pile after several years, and she graciously passed it on to me when I squeed about it. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks was my TBR Challenge read two years ago, and I was excited to read another book by her (one of those fantasy authors I seem to have missed the first time around).

I won’t lie; this was truly a challenge. This is a 588-page novel, from 1997, in mass market paperback. I haven’t read one of those in quite a while; I missed my Kindle, especially the highlight and look-up functions. While I’m not sure this qualifies as a truly “big fat book,” it’s a lot longer than my usual reading material these days. More to the point, it is an epistolary novel — yes, all 588 pages are letters, journal entries, or news items. It’s a complex plot, with four primary first-person narrators, and it was definitely the most challenging ficion I’ve read in a wile. It was also a really good book, and I never had to force myself to go back to it, although it did take me more than a week to finish.

The book takes place in England and Wales in the last few months of 1849. The main protagonists are James Cobham, a sometime Chartist revolutionary whom family and friends believe dead by drowning, and his cousin Susan Voight, with whom he is obviously in love (although it takes him more than half the book to admit it). James is trying to figure out who might want him dead and why, while Susan is trying to keep track of him and help keep him alive. His stepsister Kitty, Susan’s best friend, and Kitty’s lover Richard, another cousin, are secondary characters who tell a lot of the story. The book is published as fantasy, and it does have hints of fantasy elements, or I suppose it could be considered alternate history, although I don’t know the period well enough to say how many liberties were taken. It has an intricate plot, as the four main characters try to figure out what is going on and then how to stop it, and this is made more complex by the epistolary format. It also is a book of elevated language and thought; Friedrich Engels is a character, and there are high-minded discussions of Hegel throughout the novel (this was where I wanted my Kindle look-up feature).

I don’t think I’m doing a very good job selling this novel — so far I’ve said it’s long, challenging to read, and full of philosophy. But it is also full of fun; Susan and James both have wicked senses of humor, and Richard and Kitty are just as funny, if in a slightly less skewering manner. It’s also full of adventure and risk; lots of hidden identity, undercover work, puzzle-solving, and several life-threatening situations. Events move pretty quickly, and there are few passages of time without action/narration — the reader lives the events almost at the pace of the characters. The plot twists and turns, and the letters and journals put the reader right there with the characters in trying to figure it all out. It is past tense, but immediate past, not the sort of past tense voice that comes when the whole story has already happened. This gives it a freshness and urgency without actually putting it in present tense. I admire the undertaking, and it succeeded for me.

This is definitely a novel with romantic elements; Susan and James, and secondarily Kitty and Richard, are important relationships that develop over the course of the book, and the reader very much wants them to end happily. The balance of that delighted me by the end. It’s also very much a book about being flawed and human, and learning to make the best of that; to forgive others, to forgive yourself, and to love and trust when it is warranted, no matter how much your trust has been abused in the past.

TBR Challenge: The Late, Great Mary Stewart

1967 cover image of The Gabriel Hounds by Mary StewardI bought this book last year at a charity sale in aid of the reconstruction of a Thomas Telford church in Ullapool, Scotland. I have never read anything by Mary Stewart except her Merlin books, which I read and loved in high school and college, so I bought this to try her Gothic/romantic suspense writing. I pulled it out when Ms. Stewart died in May, and this month I was home enough to actually read a printed book.

I don’t really worry about spoilers for a book published 47 years ago, but I won’t give too many details. I went into the book knowing nothing about the plot, and that was definitely part of its charm. I will say that it’s a romance with a happy ending, though.

The novel takes place in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon. Our protagonist is Christy Mansel, an English heiress whose family lives in the USA. She comes on a package tour, but plans to stay on in Beirut a few extra days on her own. While in Damascus with the tour, she encounters her cousin Charles, who is in the area on business but has also been hoping to see her. Charles reminds Christy that they have an eccentric great-aunt who lives near Beirut in an old palace, seeing herself as a modern version of Lady Hester Stanhope. They plan to visit her together, but when Charles is delayed by business, Christy finds herself visiting the palace alone.

The emir’s palace is a good, spooky setting. There are mysterious and suspicious events that make Christy (and later Charles) worried about their relative, and they get caught up in dangerous activities trying to figure it all out. While some elements of the mystery seemed really obvious to me, the book was still enjoyable to read. I gather this is a hallmark of Gothic novels, that they may have elements of self-parody and melodrama that make some aspects of the plot seem obvious.

Christy is a great narrator. She is smart and funny, and brave when she needs to be, but she’s also a bit vain, selfish and, as she herself says early in the book, “rather spoiled.” Her commentary on other people, as well as herself, brings the book to life. The descriptions of scenery and events are engrossing, and it’s to Stewart’s credit that her eloquent descriptions sound believable coming from Christy.

Who else has read non-Arthurian Stewart? What are your favorite titles?

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