Fiction: “Mistress of My Fate” by Hallie Rubenhold

Mistress of my FateOkay. It’s 10:02. I am giving myself until midnight to get this written. If I’m not done by then, I’m posting it incomplete, and you can fill in the blanks yourownself.

To be honest, this book was pretty … forgettable. I picked this up in the middle of my historical romance kick (I’ve still got a few of those left to review, be tee dubs), and was … very disappointed.

This is the first novel in a trilogy (how?!), narrated by Henrietta Lightfoot, the adopted niece of an Earl who becomes a fancy prostitute. Growing up, all she wanted was for her cousin, Catherine, to be her BFF. And for a time it looked like her wish came true, but then Henrietta becomes close with Catherine’s fiance, George Allenham. Catherine finds Henrietta’s platonic letters to George, becomes ill with the plague or something, and then dies under possibly suspicious circumstances. So Henrietta runs away (she also finds out that she’s not a foundling, she’s actually the illegitimate daughter of the Earl, who she was raised to believe was her uncle or whatever) to George Allenham, who takes her in and pretty much promises to marry her … but then bolts in the night.

(There’s a whole subplot about how George is a bit of an anarchist, fighting against the royals in France before the Revolution, and that he may be a spy or something, but it’s not very clear and honestly, not pertinent to my discussion of this book.)

So Henrietta, alone, follows George to London, but is a few days late and quite a number of pounds short. She is taken in by a kindly woman, and poor Henrietta learns too late that the kindly woman is actually a fancy prostitute. Henrietta is appalled — appalled, I say! — but then she’s introduced to St. John Something-Or-Other, who used to go with Henrietta’s mother (who was also a prostitute, and apparently the Best Madam Who Hast Ever Madamed), and he offers to take her in but then makes her his mistress. Then she learns that she’s pregnant, by Allenham, and when her pregnancy is discovered St. John again agrees to take care of her, but she’s a kept woman, and she then learns that nothing of hers actually belongs to her. It’s a whole big thing.

The rest of the book is Henrietta scheming with other Kept Ladies on how to maintain her autonomy in a man’s world, while also trying to make sure she has enough money to find Allenham in Paris.

Here’s the thing: I don’t trust Henrietta as a narrator. I talked about reliable narrators briefly with regards to Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. We trust Nick, because it seems that he relates the events as they happen, without outside commentary. Henrietta, however, addresses the reader directly, and she tells us in the first two paragraphs that this “book” is being “written” to tell her side of the story:

I have no doubt that many of you have come to this work out of curiosity. You have heard so much about me, most of which is pure fabrication. Now that you have torn off the packaging and cut the pages, you can begin to read my story and to know who I am. [p. 1]

The fourth sentence of the entire novel is this:

Now you may now the truth, and nothing gives me greater relief than this. [p. 1]

And maybe it’s me, being a cynic; but, in the words of my forever Pretend Husband (not boyfriend – he deserves more than that), Jon Stewartnobody says “believe me” unless they are lying. And, similar to saying “believe me,” I’m not inclined to accept what someone says is the truth if they’re constantly telling me it’s the truth.

Oh, this may sound unrelated, and I know the person I’m kind of subtweeting here won’t see this, but: DUDE: JUST TELL ME IF YOU’RE ABANDONING YOUR CAR. I DO NOT CARE IF YOU’RE ABANDONING YOUR CAR. I DO NOT JUDGE YOU ON THIS. IT MAY SOUND LIKE I’M JUDGING, BUT I ASSURE YOU, I’M NOT. BUT DON’T FUCKING TELL ME THE CAR HAS BEEN TOWED TO THE DEALER. NO DEALER WILL TOW A CAR TO THE DEALERSHIP FOR DIAGNOSIS OF THE ISSUE AND THEN TOW THE VEHICLE BACK TO THE PARKING GARAGE FROM WHENCE IT CAME. AND NOT ONLY THE GARAGE, BUT THE EXACT FUCKING SPOT THE CAR WAS IN FOUR MONTHS AGO. IT. HAS. NOT. MOVED. FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, MAN UP, AND GET A NEW DAMN CAR.

Ahem. Thank you for allowing me to get that off my chest. I would bring it up, but my horoscope tells me I should keep my mouth shut tomorrow.

ANYHOODLE. So, I don’t trust Henrietta. And that means that as I was reading her escapades, a voice in the back of my head was wondering, how much of a victim is she, really?

Other, stray thoughts:

I was far too inexperienced to recognize flirtation when I encountered it, and began to panic. [p. 48]

^^ IT ME.

And speaking of it being me,

“Do you have a strong appetite, Miss Lightfoot?”

“Why, I do not believe my appetite stronger than that of most ladies,” came my innocent reply. The company began to titter.

“And do you find most ladies to have large appetites, madam?”

I thought seriously upon Lord Barrymore’s question. The entire table seemed to hang upon my answer.

“No, my lord, I do not believe we do. As we are smaller creatures than gentlemen, we are more readily filled.” [p. 249]

THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID.

Don’t be surprised if I don’t continue with the series.

(11 minutes past midnight; I’ll take it.)

Grade for Mistress of My Fate: 1 star

Fiction: “Brooklyn” by Colm Tóibín

BrooklynIn a way, it’s a good thing that I’m currently suffering from a huge bout of Book ADD. I’m still reading the 800-page behemoth that is the biography of Alexander Hamilton (asked of me at the gym yesterday, coming off of my 30-minute bike workout: “What on earth is that light reading you’ve got going on there?”), but I have no interest in any other books. Nor do I have any idea of what I’m going to read when A dot Ham is through. [[iTunes, did you just pull up “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”? Goddammit – let’s see if I can get through this track without crying for once]]

This book ADD is awful, because look, I like reading in bed: lying prone in silence helps me fall asleep. And as interesting as the Alexander Hamilton biography is, it is hard as fuck to fall asleep while reading a book that, should it land on your face, could cause your septum to deviate from the force of the fall.

But the good side to only reading one book at lunch time for the time being is: ostensibly, I should have the ability to complete a few reviews and get almost caught up before my sister gets married at the end of the month. So – here we go.

Brooklyn was the last title I was able to get for my Oscar!Watch!Read project. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey (pronounced Eye-liss), the youngest girl in an Irish family, who emigrates to America – Brooklyn, to be specific – in the 1950s in the hopes of bettering her life. Her brothers have all moved to England to find employment; her sister, Rose, works as an accountant in a mill. Eilis wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps, but the opportunity simply isn’t there. Also not there are decent prospects for dating and marriage; none of the men in her age group show her any interest.

Rose corresponds with Father Flood, a priest from their hometown who currently resides in Brooklyn. Through their efforts, they are able to send Eilis to Brooklyn to find work and take classes towards an accounting degree. Eilis makes the journey by herself, and comes down with an awful case of seasickness. Her berthmate gives her tips on how to survive the rest of the week’s journey, and when she reaches Ellis Island she moves through the emigration line smoothly.

She has a room with Mrs. Keough, another Irish lady who runs a boarding house of other Irish ladies. They all work during the week, have dinner together at night, go out dancing on Saturdays and to church on Sundays. At first, Eilis is terribly homesick – the letters to and from Ireland do not arrive rapidly. Her sadness begins to permeate her every moment, including her shifts on the sales floor of the department store where she works. Unlike some other department stores where I’ve worked, Eilis’s manager asks her what’s wrong, and brings in Father Flood for guidance.

At one of the Saturday night dances, Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, an Italian plumber who has a thing for Irish girls. He sweetly walks her home, and they begin dating. Over time – between Eilis’s classes at the local night college, making friends with her fellow boarders, and her dates and time spent with Tony – Eilis’s homesickness goes away. Before she (and the reader) knows it, a year has passed, and Eilis is beginning to see her future in a home with Tony on Long Island.

And then, Rose passes away suddenly. Eilis goes back home to help her mother at the behest of her brothers. But because she loves Tony, and he wants an assurance that she’ll come back to him, they secretly marry before she sails back to Ireland. She is supposed to be gone for only a month. When she gets there, her mother simply assumes she’s back for good, and the assumptions pile on so quickly and effortlessly that Eilis finds herself buried underneath them – she is unable to tell her mother that she met anyone, let alone married him. Her best friend is getting married in six weeks, and it’s assumed that Eilis will stay for the ceremony, so Eilis finds herself writing to New York to extend her stay.

Meanwhile, her friend (whose name escapes me – sorry!) and her friend’s fiance ask Eilis to come out with them, and they bring Jim along – Jim being one of the boys who wouldn’t pay attention to her when she lived in town, but now that she’s lived in America she’s interesting. Eilis finds herself drawn to Jim, and there starts to be a chance that maybe she won’t return to Tony …

Brooklyn is a very quiet, pretty book. The only drama to speak of is all internal to Eilis’s thoughts and desires, and the translation of those thoughts and desires into words are beautifully-written. I was going to call the story “elegiac,” but then I found out that I’ve been using that word incorrectly all these years, because the story isn’t “mournful” whatsoever.

It’s … elegant? No, it’s like … hm. I thought I had the perfect word. Serene? Aside from whatever inner turmoil Eilis experiences? And even then, the turmoil seems minimal. Dammit, I am not as good at this as I thought.

Okay, clearly I don’t have the right word. The feeling, as best as I can figure, would be akin to floating down a lazy river in an innertube, like you used to be able to do at one of the waterparks at Disney World. The world is serene, and quiet, and you are connected to your thoughts because that’s all you have, but your thoughts are pleasant and good. You drift where the current takes you, and maybe you make a decision – left fork, right fork? – but the decision doesn’t have a lot of tension surrounding it. Whatever happens, happens, but you’re directing your own current.

And that’s what Eilis is doing in Brooklyn. At first, the decision for her to move to Brooklyn wasn’t really hers – Rose and Father Flood worked together to present her with this option of moving to America, and she took it because she knew how much Rose wanted it for her to prosper. When she got to Brooklyn, she was out of sorts. She threw herself into her studies, worked hard at her job, and then had the strength of confidence to find herself happy with Tony. Rose suddenly passes, and now Eilis is at her fork in the stream: does she go back to Ireland to help her mother, or stay with Tony in Brooklyn? Her decision is made, but not anguished over. Her decision to return to Tony (oh sorry – spoiler alert!) is made quickly, once the time to make that decision arises, but the decision is made with all the conviction in her heart based on the journey she’s taken.

The film is an exceptionally beautiful film. The colors are spectacular, and wonderfully evoke New York City in the 1950s. Saoirse Ronan inhabits Eilis perfectly, and it’s almost too bad she was up against Brie Larson in Room, because any other year, she may have had a chance at the Oscar. It’s such a sweet film, really. Also, should you decide to rent it, make sure you have tissues handy.

Anyway. I finished the Oscar!Watch!Read project in time for the Oscars to air, and I really feel like I was able to get a good grasp of the different degrees to which a film’s script can be adapted from a source material. I have a feeling – because I’m a masochist, first and foremost – that next year, I’m going to try and repeat this performance.

Having said that – hopefully, I’ll finish Alexander Hamilton by then. Even better, I hope to have figured out what I’m going to read after it.

Grade for Brooklyn: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Masque of the Black Tulip” by Lauren Willig

Black TulipI grabbed this off of my bookshelf in the last week of December for two reasons. One, I wanted to read a book quickly in order to bump up the number of books I read in December, and therefore, the year (spoiler alert! I didn’t make it. By about forty pages). And two, I was looking for something cute and funny and romantic in nature, but I wanted to know that I’d get that from the book that I ended up choosing. And I say that because the last few “silly little romance novels” I started to read all turned sour rather quickly; either the plot became too ludicrous for words, or I just got bored with the characters.

I haven’t given up on them, mind you; they’re on my nightstand under a whole bunch of library books right now. I’ll get to them eventually. And when I do, we’ll all be in for an excellent rendition of The Rant Song; so we’ve got that to look forward to, which is nice.

I also didn’t realize it had been three years since I’d read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation; it feels like I just wrote about it a year ago. So, I decided that it was about time to get back into the series, even if it is only temporary.

In case you didn’t elect to click the link above to my review of Pink Carnation, let me give you a rundown: these books are framed novels, in that we begin and end each book from the perspective of Eloise Kelly, a graduate student who is studying the flower spies of the French Revolution for her thesis. She is helped in her quest for original sources by a descendant of the Purple Gentian, one of the flower spies (along with the Pink Carnation and the more widely-known Scarlet Pimpernel). The descendant is Colin Selwick, who starts off the series kind of surly and protective of his family’s history, but — as typically happens in rom-coms — eventually warms to Eloise. Although, as the modern portions of the stories are told from Eloise’s first-person perspective, we the reader aren’t entirely sure how Colin truly feels; and Eloise definitely voices her confusion as part of her narration.

The action of the story moves between Eloise’s search in present-day and the goings-on of the flower spies and their acquaintances back at the turn of the 19th century. Pink Carnation introduced us to the Purple Gentian, Richard Selwick, through the eyes of Amy Balcourt. Amy is a lovable imp who only wants to join forces with the Purple Gentian. She and Richard fall in love — almost against their better instincts — and they are so damn cute together it’s sickening in the best kind of way.

When I originally reviewed Pink Carnation, I alluded to the rest of the books in the series. In writing these books, instead of returning to the characters we (read: I) fell in love with in Carnation, she instead spins off the sequels to get other pairs together. And while The Masque of the Black Tulip is similar enough to Carnation that I can enjoy it on its own, constantly moving to other couples in the historical section is not enough to keep me reading the books one after another; I need to take breaks in-between. (Mostly.)

That paragraph is convoluted. Basically, the history section of Pink Carnation introduces who we think are going to be main characters in the series (Amy; Richard) and their assorted sidekicks (Miss Gwen, Amy’s governess; Jane, Amy’s best friend; Henrietta, Richard’s younger sister; Miles Dorrington, Richard’s best friend). But in The Masque of the Black Tulip, we focus on Henrietta and Miles and the development of their relationship and eventual marriage. They are also sickeningly cute in an excellent way, though also in a different way from Amy and Richard.

I’ll get back to Henrietta and Miles in a moment, but within the historical part of Black Tulip, we meet sidekicks to Henrietta and Miles: Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, best friend to Miles and cohort of Richard; the object of his affections, Mary Alsworthy; and Henrietta’s friends, Penelope and Charlotte. So at the end of Black Tulip, we want to see more of Richard and Amy and more of Henrietta and Miles. But in the next book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, we are diverted yet again to focus on the developing relationship between Geoffrey and Mary’s younger sister, Letty (it’s a long story. Wait a couple of days, I’ll get into it later). So each book is like a spin-off of the one before, and I just want to get back to the original story! Because I know there are shenanigans at the School for Spies Richard and Amy started up after the Purple Gentian was de-masked! And I know there are tons of adorably bantery conversations we could watch enfold between Henrietta and Miles! Come on!

And yes, the entire series has a through-line of the courtship between Eloise and Colin, and that development is doled out in … well, very small portions. Just enough to keep us reading further to see what happens between them. And at one point in Black Tulip, their relationship is just about to go from “simmer” to “hot boil,” and then circumstances intervene and Eloise has to return to London, and that helps to propel us to read the next book, because we just want to know if those crazy kids get together in the end

It’s also possible that I’m being prematurely judgy. I’ve read through the fourth book out of a dozen, so it’s entirely possible that Amy and Richard (or Henrietta and Miles) return with substantial parts in later books. But based on my current perceptions, I’m disappointed in how the series progresses.

Not that that is going to keep me from reading the future titles in hopes of being proven wrong. And again, I’m talking about the series as a whole; The Masque of the Black Tulip is just as delightful as Pink Carnation, and while a lack of Richard and Amy is disappointing, Miles and Henrietta compensate wonderfully.

When Eloise isn’t trying to parse whether Colin’s flirting with her, she’s reading the journals and diaries of Henrietta Selwick, Richard’s younger sister. She has been kept in London during her Season while Richard, newlywed to Amy, has retired to the country to run a school for spies. Henrietta, as many younger sisters in literature do, just wants to tag along and do her part for the cause. Richard’s best friend, Miles Dorrington, has been tasked to stay behind and intercept missives from the War Office. Miles also stops by the Selwick household in town daily to keep an eye on Henrietta.

Miles’s mission is to determine who is acting as the mysterious Black Tulip: a French spy on British soil, ostensibly gathering secrets about the British effort against Napoleon. His prime suspect is Lord Vaughn, who is described as a witter version of Lucius Malfoy(*):

… the gentleman approaching was dressed in a combination of black and silver, like midnight shot with moonlight. His hair carried out the theme, a few silver strands frosting rather than disguising the original black. Henrietta wouldn’t have been surprised if he had silvered them intentionally, just to match his waistcoat ….

… Henrietta noticed the silver serpent that slithered along the body of [his] cane, its fanged head constituting the handle. It was an ebony cane, of course. Henrietta had no doubt that, as he drew closer, the silver squiggles on his waistcoat would also resolve themselves into the twining writhing bodies of snakes.

Silver serpents, for goodness’ sake! Henrietta bit her lip on an impertinent chuckle. That was taking trying to look wicked and mysterious just a little too far. [p. 54-55]

(*): Fun Fact!: I have been reading the Harry Potter books for fifteen years, and no matter what I do or how many times I say it to myself as I write, I can never not write Lucius Malfoy as “Lucious” Malfoy or “Lucien” Malfoy first. I guess, at least I don’t write it “Luscious Malfoy”?

Lord Vaughn takes a liking to Henrietta, which sets Miles’s radar off. He wants to protect her out of honor to her brother. Meanwhile, the Marquise de Montvale is getting rather cozy with Miles (to no avail), and that’s pinging Henrietta’s own radar. The more Henrietta and Miles attempt to protect each other from Lord Vaughn and the Marquise, respectively, the more they realize that they love each other. Of course, there are some obstacles to conquer before they get to their Happily Ever After, but get there they do.

Richard and Amy fell in love under what TV Tropes calls the “Loves My Alter Ego“: Amy meets the Purple Gentian and falls in love with the Gentian, whereas she hates Richard while his mask is off. Until she realizes that Richard is the Purple Gentian, that is. Then everything is hunky-dory and they get married almost immediately.

Miles and Henrietta, however, personify the “Friends to Lovers” trope. At least, that’s what call it; unfortunately, after a brief perusal of TVTropes.org (brief – hah! TVTropes is never brief!), apparently “Friends to Lovers” is too broad a category for this — in fact, “Friends to Lovers” doesn’t actually exist as a trope over there, which is shocking to me.

The closest example I can find is “Relationship Upgrade“: where two people who may have experienced unresolved sexual tension in the past decide to announce their love and become official as a couple. Henrietta and Miles have bantered with each other all their lives and felt protective of the other as near-siblings are wont to do, but never attributed their feelings to actual love; Lord Vaughn and the Black Tulip become the impetus for their relationship to be consummated.

I should note here that yes, The Deception of the Emerald Ring takes a third type of trope for its romantic plotline.

I realize that my review sounds rather negative of the series, once you put all the parts together. But I really do like the series – I can state “this happens in this book, and I wish XYZ would happen in future books” while still liking it. My wanting different or more things from something — in this instance, at least — doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the something. This will be a much different discussion when I read the next Laurell K. Hamilton novel, but when it comes to this series, I’m still interested enough in a positive way to keep reading.

As we shall see.

Grade for The Masque of the Black Tulip: 4 stars

Fiction: “Mistress of Rome” by Kate Quinn

mistress of romeAfter the much-welcomed violence break that was The Intern’s Handbook, I found myself picking up Mistress of Rome, another book I had purchased at that trip to Barnes & Noble. This title is the first in a series named on Goodreads as The Empress of Rome series – so, spoiler alert for who survives, I guess?

The main character is Thea, a slave in the Pollia household in Rome. Thea is the personal slave to Lepida Pollia, the spoiled daughter of the house. One day, the family goes to watch the gladiators, and Lepida uses Thea to bring love notes to the reigning champion gladiator, Arius. Except that Arius falls for Thea, and their romance blooms over the course of the season. When Lepida realizes that Thea has ‘stolen’ her gladiator, she abandons Thea to the streets.

Thea then gets purchased by a benevolent master who trains her in the art of singing and entertaining. He names her Athena, and she becomes the most sought-after singer for the season. She catches the eye of Paulinus, son of Marcus Norbanus, who married Lepida Pollia after the death of Paulinus’s mother. So now Thea has come back into Lepida’s circle, and Lepida’s envy of Thea hasn’t ceased one iota in the time that’s passed. That envy only grows exponentially when Domitian, the emperor, becomes enamored of Thea to the point that he makes her his mistress.

This book was basically a soap opera set in ancient Rome. The author helps us out by putting the cast of characters and the sects they fall into on the last page of the book, and it’s interesting that some of the characters were real people. But I wouldn’t read this book expecting to take away any actual Roman history. Seriously, it’s a soap opera.

Because Thea got pregnant by Arius but didn’t tell anyone, and her son, Vix, lives on the estate of her master. Just before Thea takes up with the Emperor, Domitian threatened Arius with death, so Arius had to escape Rome and ended up on the estate of the Emperor’s sister, who hates Domitian. So he hides as a gardener and befriends this slave kid that also escaped at the same time, named Vix. And it’s not until Thea comes to see Vix that she realizes that Arius is alive, but he’s also – GASP! – the gardener.

Then Lepida schemes to make herself the Emperor’s mistress, and apparently no one cares that the Emperor is a vicious, violent man intent on breaking the women he sleeps with. When Domitian finds out about Thea’s son, he decides to take Vix in exchange for Thea, and then there’s a plot between Thea and Arius and about forty other people to finally kill the Emperor.

The story is fine – if you like soap operas. I used to love All My Children, but as I was saying to my mother yesterday when The Young and the Restless came on (seriously, I’m not at home during the day, I forgot that soaps still existed) that if I found old clips on YouTube or something, I’m amazed at the dialogue, because it all sounds improvised. Like, how did I watch this for so long? Anyway, the characters are interesting, the story keeps the tension up so you get propelled along with the plot, but overall I thought the book was eh.

One thing that was jarring until I got used to it: the author switches the narration and point-of-view. A lot. We start off with Thea being a first-person narrator, but then halfway through the chapter it would switch to a third-person omniscient. There is a break halfway through the chapter, so don’t think it switches mid-paragraph or anything. But then the next chapter might start off with Lepida’s first-person narration, and then go back to third-person. It’s an interesting way to get into both characters’ heads, but it also makes me wonder why that couldn’t be accomplished by sticking with third-person narration the whole way through?

Oh well. Here’s the thing: when you look at it as an interesting soap opera set in a different time, place, and culture, the whole thing holds up. I read it quickly, so it definitely didn’t bore me. If I find the next book in the series at the library, I’ll probably pick it up. I don’t think it’s something I’ll buy again (sorry, author!), but we’ll see how the rest of the series goes.

Grade for Mistress of Rome: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “The Favored Child” by Philippa Gregory

Favored ChildFor my long-time readers (all — two of you, probably? Hey, raise your hands if you’ve been here since the New Moon rant, give me a headcount up in here!), you may remember when I read Wideacre. My review of Wideacre was actually the second time I read the book – or attempted to read it; my review here was merely the first time I read it after the blog’s inception.

For my newish readers, a brief synopsis of Wideacre – BUT ALSO, and possibly more importantly:

Both of these books, Wideacre and The Favored Child alike, have some very sensitive issues that could pose as triggers. I will be discussing some of these events, and those events include incest, rape, and overall violence.

And now, an impartial synopsis of Wideacre:

The setting: Georgian England; specifically, the feudal town of Acre and the landowner’s home, Wideacre. The Laceys have lived on Wideacre for forever, and the siblings Beatrice and Harry are brought up to take their separate tracks: Harry to run the land, and Beatrice to be married off to someone who will take her away from the land. Well, Beatrice has a strange obsession with Wideacre, and the idea of being away from it drives her to terrible lengths, including quasi-contracting with the farmboy, Ralph, to kill her father so she can take over the land. When she realizes that even when she shows her potential in farming the land to amazing success she will still be married off, she finagles herself into getting herself pregnant. Twice.

by her brother.

Yup. That’s a thing that happened. Twice.

SO ANYWAY, she lies to her family about her daughter’s parentage and Harry and his wife, Celia, raise the daughter as their own. Then Beatrice gets knocked up again and this time while she’s married to Dr. John MacAndrew, and the son they have they name Richard. Except John, being a doctor, knows that when babies that are born earlier than anticipated are actually full-term, somethin’ ain’t right. That leads to Beatrice discrediting John and sending him to England’s First Rehab Centre to get him out of the way, and also, all her lies have made the land stop growing stuff and Ralph comes back and kills her for being awful.

Well, I tried to keep that succinct and impartial, but clearly, Wideacre ruined impartiality for me. When I first read Wideacre, while I didn’t like Beatrice – mainly because she’s also the narrator, so we hear all of her horrible decisions and horrible thoughts – the suspense of what the fuck is she doing WHAT the FUCK IS going on  wait don’t y’all know back then that you didn’t FUCK YOUR BROTHER kept me reading to the end. I was curious to see if Beatrice would get her comeuppance. When she did, I was satisfied.

Because I am a crazy person when it comes to reading series, however, I realized that there was a piece of me that wanted to continue to read the series – because like all historical romance fictions, this one is a trilogy. I attempted to reread Wideacre back in 2009, and the result of that was the review I’ve linked above. I actually couldn’t get through the book a second time, because at that point, the curiosity had gone. I knew how it ended, I knew what would happen; there was nothing left for me to discover in it.

That did not however, stop me from purchasing the next two books in the series, The Favored Child and Meridon.

So earlier this fall, I was on a big historical fiction kick. And one night, I was scanning the shelves of my bookcases and I don’t even remember making the conscious decision to start reading The Favored Child – I think it was my brain making the decision for me, because six years should be long enough to overcome that particular trauma.

The Favored Child concerns itself with Beatrice’s children, Julia and Richard. Julia is our narrator this time around, and Celia and John MacAndrew have sheltered both children from their horrible history. Richard and Julia are raised as cousins, not siblings. Richard will inherit Wideacre with Julia (per Beatrice’s will), and both will run the land together.

It quickly becomes clear to a reader that’s familiar with Wideacre and Beatrice that the children became split particles of Beatrice’s personality. Julia is kind, and has an affinity for the land, and a generosity towards the town of Acre; when Beatrice was running the land and everything grew and was prosperous, she exhibited those traits as well. Richard, however, is manipulative, violent, and driven with a thirst for absolute power: Beatrice at her worst.

When they were truly children, believing themselves to be cousins and nothing else, Julia and Richard would play at being married. They had it in their head as a secret plan to fight inflation that they would marry and run the land together. As Julia grows up and starts to see some of Richard’s more vile tendencies, she moves away from that dream.

A winter in Bath helps as well – during her time there, she meets and falls in love with James Fortescue, who falls right in love back. They become engaged, and when Richard hears the happy news, he immediately becomes dark. The sowing of the fields goes swimmingly, and Julia is imbued with Beatrice’s magic (I should note: the townsfolk believed that Beatrice’s affinity with the land was actually magic, and that Julia’s inheritance of that affinity makes her the favored child) and embraces Richard upon his return from school a tad more amorously than maybe she should have. But remember, they thought they were cousins, and while that’s frowned upon by most normal, common sense people in this epoch, back then, it was kind of okay.

Except Richard took Julia’s kiss as a silent acknowledgement of Julia’s love for himself, not her fiance, and the next morning, Richard rapes Julia in the summerhouse.

Julia then becomes pregnant, because in this world, one good poke is all it takes, apparently.

Julia writes a letter to James that she wants to meet and explain, but Richard intercepts that letter and tells James that their engagement was all a farce, that Julia was actually in love with Richard, and that they were to be married.

Julia and Richard are then married by a captain on a boat to make the pregnancy legitimate. When they tell John MacAndrew and Celia of their plans, their parental figures are horrified, because they’ve known all along – just as the readers who are familiar with Wideacre have known all along, and have I mentioned yet again that dramatic irony is my favorite irony? – that Julia and Richard are SIBLINGS, AND NOT COUSINS.

And instead of accepting the annulment and dissolution offered by John MacAndrew and Celia, Richard decides to … pretend to go along with it and then murder them in what appears to be a stagecoach robbing.

This leaves Julia under his thumb without an avenue of escape. But Ralph has come back, and he remains loyal to Beatrice and Beatrice’s magic.

So look, spoiler alert, Ralph kills Richard, Julia has her baby, but then leaves her with the band of gypsies because Wideacre is poison. Julia’s last narration is a letter she writes to James, informing him of what happened to her and to search out her child, Sarah.

The Favored Child controlled me in the same way that Wideacre did when I read it the first time: my curiosity kept me reading. I had no intention of putting the book down, and I think it helped that Julia was a much more sympathetic character than Beatrice was.

And look, this is probably going to stir up some controversy, so let me see if I can rationalize some things out. Beatrice is a great example of an actual Strong Female Character, in the way that “Strong Female Character” should be used. She was passionate about many things, she refused to give up on her dreams, she would achieve her goals by any means necessary. She was intelligent, she was brutal, she was maternal, she was lustful, she was wicked, she was brilliant. She experienced doubts as to whether the path she was choosing was correct or not, but she overcame them and made a decision, and all those decisions were towards her end goal.

I did not “not like” Beatrice because she was essentially a villain of her own making; nor did I think she was too aggressive in going after what she wanted. I didn’t like Beatrice because I found I couldn’t empathize with her. Maybe, if I had come from the perspective of someone who truly had to fight for what they wanted in spite of being told “no, you can’t have that” over and over again, simply because of who I was – a woman – I may have had more empathy. But I’ve also never had such powerful goals as Beatrice did. The strongest I’ve ever wanted anything was a job outside of retail, and it wasn’t my gender keeping me out of that – it was the economy and the fact that “managing over twenty people in a multi-million dollar department” didn’t apparently translate to “yes, I really just want to answer phones and make spreadsheets, and yes, I can do that, please let me try.”

Beatrice’s goals were constantly challenged, by Society, by the Patriarchy; by common sense. But she knew what she wanted and by gory, she was going to get it. I just couldn’t empathize with her because I could never, not in a million years, even consider doing some of the things she ended up doing.

Whereas Julia was more of an innocent, and unfortunately, more of a victim; instead of taking life by the horns and controlling it through her sheer force of will, Julia found that a lot of her life happened to her rather than because of her. Julia also had less … drastic thoughts than Beatrice did. Julia also operated with less knowledge than Beatrice – Beatrice knew exactly what she was doing when she seduced her brother multiple times in order to become pregnant with the squire’s heir. Julia had no idea Richard was anything other than her cousin. Her innocence aided my empathy towards her. Also, Richard was an incredible asshole the entire time, and that may win the Award for Biggest Understatement of the Year.

I don’t want anyone to walk away from this review thinking that I find it easier to empathize with female characters when they’re victimized, because that’s not true – I find it difficult to empathize with female characters when they feel that incest and murder are the right paths to take, time-period be-damned.

Holy shit, I wrote a lot about this book, and I feel I could do more, but I may end up talking in circles and also, it’s almost midnight. So I leave you with this:

I liked The Favored Child more than Wideacre. I will probably read Meridon at some point. I feel that both of these books are worthy of more discussion, but I also don’t want to belabor any points. There’s a lot to pull apart in both of these novels about feminism, feudal society, right and wrong versus shades of gray … but I don’t really want to spend my Dissertation Energy on these.

I’m saving that for something else.

Grade for The Favored Child: 2 stars

Fiction: “A Poisoned Season” by Tasha Alexander

Poisoned SeasonOh boy, WordPress updated their posting screen again. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that this will work with Sydney the Ancient Laptop’s processors!

(For those not in the know, Sydney the Ancient Laptop is my Dell Inspiron 6400 that I bought in 2007. She still runs Windows XP and iTunes 10. She will eventually be upgraded, but I also don’t want to upgrade, because Sydney is still going … well, not “strong” anymore, but “crawling with a leg wound like Christophe Waltz’s character at the end of Spectre.” Determined to keep going, y’know?)

(Also-also, if anyone reading this wants to talk about Spectre, please reach out to me! I have many thoughts about it that I want to talk to people about!)

A Poisoned Season is the second book in the Lady Emily series, and I continue to love her and her mysteries. The first book was And Only to Deceive, wherein Lady Emily Ashton mourns the death of her husband and becomes friendly with Colin Hargreaves while solving the mystery of her husband’s murder. In A Poisoned Season, Lady Emily fully comes out of her mourning period, and the way that Society reacts to some of her habits and independent tendencies is horrifying to me, a modern reader.

For instance: now that Lady Emily has safely “mourned” her husband for a year, it might be time for her to start looking for another husband. As we learned in And Only to Deceive, Emily admired her husband but didn’t love him while they were married; she only came to love him after she discovered details about his affections towards her and his scholarly pursuits. She engages in friendly banter and the occasional kiss with Colin, but she’s not ready to marry again because she enjoys being her own woman.

Oh, WordPress’s New Posting Thingy: I am not liking you. Getting rid of the “post as thumbnail” option on pictures? Having to manually scroll the posting window down as I type more? I’m not sure I’m going to like this…

So anyway – Society wants Lady Emily to get married again, and even Colin wants to marry her, but she’s just too independent to want to get hitched again. Until she begins to realize that her house isn’t technically her house – it belongs to her husband, and when the heir to the dukedom or whatever it is comes of age, Emily’s going to be out on her ear.

In the midst of all of this soul-searching, there’s this dude who claims to be the missing heir of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette sneaking around throughout Society, trying to get people to believe him long enough to allow him to add to his Marie Antoinette tchotchke collection. Oh, and also, somebody died.

I feel like I’m giving this short shrift, and that’s not my intent. Maybe it’s because I finished reading this book like TWO FREAKING MONTHS AGO and can’t remember more of the details of the plot, or maybe it’s because it’s almost ten o’clock on a Sunday night and I have yet to take my shower and I may have gotten sucked into catching up on The Grinder, which oh my god, I did not know I could love Rob Lowe more after Sam Seaborne and Chris Traeger, but guess what guys? I DO.

ANYWAY, you don’t need to know about my night showering or newfound appreciation for Rob Lowe. I really like this series – Lady Emily is very smart and independent, she has a gentleman caller who loves her enough that even if she doesn’t agree to marry him later, she will still get his entire library, and much like I would be in this situation, the idea of receiving a personal library – look, there’s a reason my favorite Disney movie growing up was Beauty and the Beast, and it wasn’t because of the catchy showtunes. It was because the Beast gave Belle a FRICKIN’ LIBRARY. Find me a girl who grew up at the same time as me who liked to read that DIDN’T develop “getting a library as a gift” into a romantic ideal, and I will show you a cold-hearted bitch.

I think I got off track. And I’m also getting a headache. And I should really go to bed. But I’m on my last episode of The Grinder, and Jason Alexander is playing a director with a bigger Indiana Jones-fetish than me, so I’m going to wrap this up:

If you like strong women, Victorian Society dramas, and intelligent mysteries that also has a fun, romantic element, you should definitely start reading this series. I apologize that I couldn’t do this justice, but let’s look at it this way: I have a backlog of eight freaking books, and I kind of want to get caught up before the end of the year. It would be a novelty! And let’s be real: I’ll be rereading this series in a couple of years, probably, and then I’ll be able to do this review justice.

(Just like the Grinder.)

(Have I mentioned that Natalie Morales is in The Grinder? And that I love her because she played Wendy on The Middleman, which is an excellent show that everyone should watch?)

(Hey look, I got through an entire review without mentioning Hannibal — aw, shit.)

Grade for A Poisoned Season: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “India Black” by Carol K. Carr

India BlackFUCK YEAH THREE POSTINGS IN AS MANY DAYS I GOT THIS

So one day, I spent my lunch break at the Augusta Barnes & Noble – probably because I was close to finishing The Mysteries of Udolpho and I knew I wanted to read something with … I don’t know, something not Mysteries of Udolpho. And I was browsing the shelves and came across this series, wherein the main character, India Black, was described as a “madam of espionage.” Okay, that sounds like a pun I’d make.

Crossing my fingers, I turned the book over, and sure enough – India was not only a spy for Britain, but she was also the madam of a brothel. “Sign me up!” I said, in the middle of that Barnes & Noble – where I was promptly shushed, even though it’s technically not a library. But unfortunately for me, Barnes & Noble did not have the first book in the series, and since I really prefer to start series at the beginning, I refrained from purchasing anything at that time.

Then I ordered it off of Amazon, along with like, four other books. Most of which, I’ve read at this point. BUT ANYWAY.

According to the back of the book, it is the winter of 1876 and India is minding her own business – Lotus House, her brothel. One of her charges is entertaining someone upstairs, when he unfortunately dies of a heart attack. Because she doesn’t want to have a death besmirch the honor of her house, she enlists the help of young Vincent, a pickpocket with a heart of gold — oh, actually, I meant a heart for gold. And just when they’re bundling the corpse into a wagon to take him to the docks, a smart gent by the name of French happens upon them and takes over the whole operation.

See, the dead guy was a member of the Ministry, and they’re going to make his death look like an info drop gone bad. But French needs Dead Guy’s briefcase. When India goes to retrieve it from the room, it’s missing. And now, French and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, threaten to close down her shop unless she helps them retrieve it.

Thus, India gets sucked into the world of espionage with nary a thought. The rest of the plot involves Russian spies, a couple more deaths, and a sable coat, but overall, I do not feel like this book lived up to its potential.

India Black was clearly written as a “strong female character.” Meaning, she has pluck and tenacity, but … no real weaknesses. She doesn’t have a spasm of horror at seeing Dead Ministry Guy; she’s all, “Oh shite, now we’ve got a mess to clean up. Guess I’ll have to find the starveling to help me with this.” Her dinners consist of a glass of strong whiskey and toast. We see her provide comfort to the women that live and work in her brothel, but we don’t see her care for them. India doesn’t have any friends; she is alone. And being alone is all right, but it seemed as if India was meant to be a man and then gender-switched to a woman, thrown in a brothel because apparently that’s the only place a smart woman can own a business in that time period (which, besides a dressmaker’s shop, is probably true) – and “brothel madam” just adds that hint of spice that I thought I was going to get.

Her part of Operation Retrieve Briefcase is simple: get invited into this Russian guy’s party and distract him enough so she can get the briefcase. Intel provides that Russian Guy has a preference for lesbian porn; therefore, India will rope one of her friendliest fellow madams (because remember, India really doesn’t have friends) into attending because a) Fellow Madam is bisexual and has always wanted to “get into India’s trousers,” and b) India doesn’t mind her, so — two birds, one stone.

No hesitation about having to not only have sex with someone she almost considers a friend, let alone in front of a stranger, let alone for nefarious reasons. India doesn’t hesitate; she sees the clearest means to an end and then pursues that end to … well, the end. I would expect any human being, female or otherwise, to have some qualms or murmurs of doubt or … just overall feelings about that type of scenario.

I’m definitely not saying that female lead characters should not show strength. But there is a difference between using strength as a character’s main characteristic and showing strength as a facet of a character. There’s a really good article on the use of a “Strong Female Character” that my friend Jen may have linked to me years ago – Jen, if this is the same article, yay I remembered! If it’s not, look, I found another one! But anyway, the article basically says that male characters get to have many facets whereas female characters, if they’re the lead, get to only be “strong”:

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

Everyone should totally read this article, especially the end.

I want my female characters to have depths – make them brave, allow them to be sad, make them scared. Give her traits that show that maybe, her rudeness or roughness are defense mechanisms, that she only acts that way when she feels cornered. Show she has a tender side. Give her female friends. Even if she tends to be a loner, tell me she’s happy being a loner.

Overall, I felt that India Black was a cipher – she was a Strong Female Character with an Interesting Occupation thrown into a Situation and she needed to assist a man without letting him be the boss. No, she never needed rescuing. Yes, she could use a gun, and she used it well. But she treated everything that came in her path as another run-of-the-mill thing that she needed to check off a to-do list. Oh no, I have to escape this room. Guess I’ll go out the window and try and get into the next room from the windowsill. No big deal, it’s only two stories up if I fall, and it snowed, so – I’ll be fine. I mean, she’s so – NONCHALANT! That’s the word I was searching for! Anyway, she’s so nonchalant about this whole business that she keeps referring to Benjamin Disraeli as “Dizzy.”

The only time she shows a different aspect of herself, India is able to rationalize it away:

… for a minute I almost lost my nerve and wished myself back safe in Lotus House, away from the cold and the dead Cossack and the exquisitely turned out Oksana. I could feel the sting of tears close to the surface, but I refused to give way. Then I recollected that I had had little to eat since dawn, my hands and feet were numb from lack of circulation, it was colder than the proverbial witch’s tit, and French and I were being held prisoner by a ruthless Russian major and his bitch of an accomplice. No wonder I was feeling a bit down.

Cheered by the revelation that I did not in fact have a serious character flaw … [p. 234-235]

Being scared and wanting to go home is not a character flaw! Uggghhhhh….

I was just really disappointed. I will try to read the next one – I’m definitely ordering it from the library, that’s for sure, no more spending money on this author for me – but if there isn’t growth in her character in the next one, I’m probably going to stop reading this series. Which is a shame, because I feel like there’s so much potential for this story.

Alaina has a sad now.

Grade for India Black: 1 star