Fiction: “The Spymistress” by Jennifer Chiaverini

spymistressThis was a book I picked up on a whim. My typical plan of attack when perusing the shelves of the library is to wander down each row, head tilted so I can attempt to read the spines of the books, and I stop at books whose titles intrigue me, and then if the dust jacket sounds interesting enough, I add it to my pile. I stop looking when my neck starts to hurt or I have six books in my arms, whichever comes first.

Obviously, the title of this book – The Spymistress – is what drew me to pick it off the shelf. Who was this Spymistress? Was she like, the head of a ring of intrigue? What was she spying on? And how?

It turns out, this work of fiction was based on fact: the Spymistress was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew, a resident of Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. I’ve had a non-fiction book about Ms. Van Lew languishing on my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads since … apparently March 2014 (Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy). So The Spymistress is kind of fictionalized non-fiction? Maybe?

The book begins just before Virginia joins the Confederacy. Lizzie lives with her mother in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Lizzie is mostly a spinster: she was engaged to someone, who sadly died unexpectedly. She has never sought to marry after his death. Her brother, John, manages the family hardware store in town. John and his wife, Mary, live with Lizzie and her mother for about half of the book. Mary is a Confederate sympathizer, which irks Lizzie.

Things obviously get more strained between Lizzie and Mary when war officially breaks out. Mary arranges to have uniform sew-ins (or whatever – sewing circles, I guess, where ladies sew uniforms for their mens at war) at the house, and Lizzie nearly bites her tongue clean off, trying to keep quiet about her political beliefs.

Lizzie is able, however, to make more of a difference when the Confederates turn one of the old warehouses in Richmond into a jail for captured Union soldiers. Lizzie learns of the terrible, inhumane conditions and marches herself over to the general’s office or wherever and offers her services as a nurse. To the Union soldiers.

And doesn’t that get a lot of looks. “Why do you want to help them, milady?” And then she quotes some line from the Bible reminding the Confederate that Jesus says compassion and nursing is due all poor suffering creatures, and Union boys are definitely suffering creatures. So she’s able to get passes to visit the men in the jail.

In so doing, she works with one of the captured Union captains (or whatever) and manages to smuggle notes in and out of the prison in books and pie pans. She then is able to send those messages to a contact in Pennsylvania.

I wouldn’t say she was a spymistress; that implies she had an entire ring of spies working under her. She had a former slave who was freed and agrees to work as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s house in order to pass information back to Lizzie, but it’s not like she was running MI-5 or anything. I do want to read the non-fictionalized account of her life and see if some things were glossed over in order to focus more on the family drama between Lizzie and Mary.

(Mary takes to drinking alcohol and laudanum and is almost divorced by John when he comes home one night to learn that she has left their daughters at home, alone, while she went to a hotel and gallivanted with some Confederate soldiers. She’s not a great person. She’d totally call the cops on a girl operating a lemonade stand without the proper permits.)

After the war ends, Lizzie is appointed Postmaster of Richmond by Ulysses S. Grant, in honor of the work she did during the war. She was (I believe – it’s been a while since I finished the book) the first female Postmaster? Maybe?

Overall, I thought the story was interesting. It’s rare to read a Civil War story from the perspective of a Unionist trying to live her life and truth while implanted in the middle of the Confederacy – and yes, I can imagine that tension is akin to a liberal living in the middle of Oklahoma City, but here’s the thing with this book: whatever tension there is, it’s resolved almost immediately.

There are moments where you think Lizzie’s going to get caught, but she’s able to talk herself out of it super-quickly, and then the plot moves forward. At one point, Lizzie learns that Mary has ratted out Lizzie’s Unionist leanings to the adjutant general, but the whole thing is resolved within 5 pages of text when Lizzie’s best friend, Eliza Carrington, goes to testify on Lizzie’s behalf to the adjutant general, who happens to be a distant cousin of Eliza. Familial ties override Mary’s nastiness, and the plot moves on.

Even when John is drafted into the Confederate Army, the tension is resolved in five pages. At first, he’s able to receive a deferment. When deferments expire, he reports, but then he’s able to be smuggled up to Philadelphia. He’s safe, and so there’s no more worrying about his well-being and the story continues.

I did like Lizzie. She’s, as they say up here in Maine, wicked smaht.

“You mean Lieutenant Todd, Ma’am?” The soldier frowned at her quizzically. “Is he expecting you?”

She took her watch from her pocket, glanced at the time, and feigned surprise. “My goodness, no. It’s not yet half past one.” Taken separately, both statements were true. [p. 61]

Maaaan, do I love people avoiding lies by being very careful with their words. And you have to be super careful about that with certain people. Certain people who may be signing executive orders, for instance.

SPEAKING OF BLIND BELIEF:

“Why leave home and come so far?” [asked Lizzie]

The young fellow exchanged a look of surprise with his partner before answering, “Why, we come to protect Virginia, Ma’am.”

“Why?” Lizzie was genuinely curious. “Protect Virginia from what?”

“From them Yankees, Ma’am,” the other soldier replied. Freckled and dark-haired, he seemed little older than the young volunteer drummer boys, and for a moment Lizzie wondered if he had wandered into the wrong part of the camp.

“Mr. Lincoln said he’s coming down to take all our Negroes and set them free,” the first soldier explained, tucking the book beneath his arm. “If they dare to do so, we’ll be here to protect you women.”

“If this should come to pass, we’ll be grateful for your protection, of course.” Lizzie ignored her mother’s warning look, the subtle shake of her head. “But why do you believe it will?”

They regarded her with twin expressions of bewilderment. “Because the papers said so, Ma’am,” said the freckled solider. [p. 51]

Because the papers said so. In other words, propaganda.

If you like stories of the Civil War, smart ladies, and rebellion, you might like this book. I felt the tension wasn’t quite enough to pull me throughout the story, and this book covers the entirety of the war – it moves quickly, and I don’t think enough time was given on certain events. However, I can’t point them out right now, because I read this book eight months ago.

Give it a shot and I’ll let y’all know when I read Southern Lady, Yankee Spy.

Grade for The Spymistress: 2 stars

 

 

 

 

 

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Fiction: “The Queen’s Poisoner” by Jeff Wheeler

Queen's poisonerI picked this up because I thought it would be similar to The Queen of the Tearling. I was wrong.

The Queen’s Poisoner is a young adult novel, and it takes place in a setting that isn’t exactly dystopian, but certainly not modern society or a utopia. This book deals with royalty as well, but from a different perspective. But most importantly, the protagonist in this story is an 8-year-old boy.

The kingdom is Ceredigion, and its ruler is King Severn. The parents of Owen Kiskaddon are like, duke and duchess? of a province in the northern part of Ceredigion. There’s a war going on, and Owen’s father betrayed King Severn in the Battle for Ambion Hill. As punishment as a form of control, King Severn conscripts Owen into his custody, and brings him back to the royal stronghold of Kingfountain.

Owen is a terribly shy child, and Severn relishes in the fact that he frightens the boy. All the palace’s children eat breakfast at the same time, and Severn would walk around the tables while the children ate, scaring them but also making sure that none of the food was poisoned. (We find out later that Severn has magic, and his power comes from feeding off of fear of others. Breakfast scare time is like, recharging his battery for the day.)

King Severn is also drawn very much as a Richard III figure. I believe he has a bit of a hunchback, and there are rumors that he murdered or sent away his two younger brothers.

Owen’s favorite place to hide is the kitchen. He makes friends with the cook and a couple of other servants. He also finds a bag of “tiles”, which I feel are akin to dominoes. He will spend hours stacking and unstacking the tiles – he uses the motion to help himself think.

One day, Duke Horwath brings his granddaughter to Kingfountan in the hopes that she’ll befriend Owen. His granddaughter, Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer – and yes, you have to call her by her entire name – is quite the chatterbox. Owen doesn’t quite know what to make of her, and basically hopes that she’ll leave him alone if he doesn’t talk. But nope – that just makes her talk more. Eventually, they do become friendly, and Owen is able to bestow upon her the nickname of Evie.

The other person that Owen meets is the mysterious Ankarette. She lives in the tower of the castle, but doesn’t leave. She goes to him in the kitchen one day and befriends him, and teaches Owen how to play Wizr (which I think sounds a lot like chess). She knows Owen is scared of King Severn, and she teaches him confidence and also about some of his abilities. Ankarette also held the position of Queen’s Poisoner; hence the title.

Because Owen is what they call “Fountain-Blessed” – he can have prophetic dreams, or he can see things in water that other people can’t… it’s a power. But Ankarette will take the gossip she hears in the castle and feeds it to Owen in the form of a story that she tells Owen to tell Severn at breakfast the next day. And it’s usually masked in the form of a weird dream – the wolf fell over a waterfall, and when he survived, a fish was in its mouth. But that actually meant to Severn that one of his armies was close to … who knows, I can’t remember. But you get the gist.

Meanwhile, Dickon Ratcliffe is keeping an eye on Owen. Dickon is the head of the Espion, which is King Severn’s band of spies. It turns out he’s actually a traitor to King Severn – oh, shit, spoiler alert. But he’s a bad dude.

Owen and Evie go on a few adventures – jumping into the castle cistern to cool off on a hot day, sneaking through secret passageways – all sorts of shenanigans. After Severn is able to find out Ratcliff is a traitor via Owen’s “dreams”, he rewards Owen by passing the dukedom from Owen’s parents directly to Owen, making Owen duke immediately.

This was … it was weird, to me. There were a number of moments where I wasn’t sure Owen was acting appropriate for his stated age. Meaning, he’d do something that an older kid would do, but then revert right back to a different way of speaking or not speaking at all and cowering behind someone. Now, I’m not near children routinely, and I certainly couldn’t speak to how an eight-year-old is supposed to act (if there’s even such a thing). But … I don’t know, I noticed it and thought it wasn’t consistent.

I also thought Evie was too headstrong for a nine-year-ish-old, but again, I don’t know kids.

King Severn’s heel-face turn also seemed very abrupt. We went through the majority of the novel thinking Severn’s evil, and it turns out he was just misunderstood or projecting evil as a way to shore up his power.

So there you have it. This is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently each book in the series is supposed to see Owen at a different age with a different set of problems. Unlike other YA series I’ve read, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing obstacle that Owen et. al. needs to overcome, so that might be interesting. If I decide to read the next book, that is.

Grade for The Queen’s Poisoner: 2 stars

Fiction: “An Untimely Frost” by Penny Richards

untimely frostI spent one of my lunch breaks in early May at the local Barnes & Noble, looking for something to read. I was flying to D.C. to visit My Dear Friend Sarah for her baby shower, and I have a bad track record with bringing library books on trips (it was My Dear Friend Sarah who had to mail me back the copy of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan I had left at her house when she and I went to the midnight showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). So I wanted something to read that I wouldn’t get pissed at if I accidentally left it behind somewhere.

I was scanning the mystery shelves, and this was displayed face out, I think. The tagline says “Solving crimes is not a dress rehearsal…”, and look at me, not complaining about ellipses!

(sigh. I have a friend who texts rarely, but when he does, he always ends his sentences with ellipses. Like, “sounds fun…..”. NOT THAT WAY, IT DOESN’T! It sounds like you’re eye-rolling at me, and that just adds to my anxiety about people not wanting to hang out with me. JUST HIT THE PERIOD ONCE, DUDE, THAT’S ALL YOU NEED)

(Also yes, this is the same person whose vehicle has been abandoned for at least an entire year at this point.)

(And yes, since I first saw the vehicle as abandoned on January 3, 2017, I am most definitely preparing to Jerry Maguire the shit out of that vehicle for an anniversary present of sorts.)

(wait, let me be crystal clear: an anniversary present for the car, not for the friend. If a friend can’t return a “merry christmas” text then maybe the texting friend should just keep the DVD collection of The Grinder for herself)

ANYWAY. The back of the book said this:

In 1881 Chicago, the idea of a female detective is virtually unheard of. But when famed crime buster Allan Pinkerton opens his agency’s doors to a handful of women, one intrepid actress with her own troubled past is driven to defy convention and take on a new and dangerous role …

Oh god, those ellipses again. But seriously, the mention of the Pinkertons sealed the deal for me buying the book. Every time I see anything about the Pinkertons, I hear Al Swearengen growling about the Pinkertons and get all happy.

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(Deadwood, guys – you have to watch Deadwood. And also The Grinder. But definitely Deadwood.)

I read this over the weekend-ish of My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower. I remember reading a chunk of it on the Red Line into D.C. and back, because the day after the baby shower, I visited the International Spy Museum and checked a thing off of my bucket list:

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I TOUCHED THAT MOTHERFUCKER. I am not kidding or exaggerating: I have loved that car longer than I’ve loved any man. My father can attest: I asked for a miniature version of that car every Christmas from the age of 10 to the age of 17. There were substitutes, but never the real thing.

So when the gift shop had this:

it's coming home with me

— you bet your ASS I took it home with me.

But the book! Right. So Lilly Long is married to Tim Warner, who’s an asshole. He takes all her money and hits her a couple of times, and then leaves her. She attempts to find him in the local pub, but while there, she learns that not only does he owe for drinking and gambling, but he’s also racked up a debt with a couple of prostitutes.

Lilly returns to her actor’s quarters with the rest of her troupe, Rose and Pierce, who took her in after her mother died. While reading the paper, Lilly learns that Pinkerton’s is looking to hire women detectives, and Lilly gets it into her head that she’s going to join the agency and become a detective. She manages it, by dressing up as three different types of women (spinster, flirt, etc.) and going to three different interviews. She reveals her disguise at the end of her second interview and Allan hires her on the spot.

Her first case sends her to rural Illinois – a preacher and his family have disappeared, and the owner of the house wants to sell it but can’t until they have the permission of any remaining family members. So she heads out to Vandalia to find out what happened to the preacher man.

Well, she stirs up shit, that’s for sure. As soon as the residents learn why she’s there, they clam up and refuse to talk about anything. Lilly sleuths on her own, actually runs out to Heaven’s Gate (the preacher’s house, and also, the name of that cult that all killed themselves on my birthday in the late 90s, so – subtle, Ms. Richards) to see if she can find any clues.

Meanwhile, there’s this dude following her around: a boxer with a bit of an Irish accent, he calls her ‘colleen’ which throws her back right up – Colleen was the name of one of the prostitutes her ex-husband frequented – and Lilly tries to avoid him at all costs. But he has a habit of showing up at the most coincidental of places – like, when a runaway horse and cart were careening down the main drag right towards her, or when she got herself locked into the attic of Heaven’s Gate …

SEE THAT’S HOW YOU USE ELLIPSES, to add to the suspense! Not just as regular punctuation! I swear to god

So that’s about all I remember slash can talk about without getting spoilery. This was a cute mystery with absolutely no stakes. Any sense of suspense was resolved very quickly. You never for one second thought Lilly was in any real danger.

What kind of ticked me off was that the boxer I mentioned? We don’t learn his name – Andrew Cadence McShane – until p. 247. This book is only 258 pages long. That’s – that’s not the best use of suspense.

So overall, I’m rating this 2 stars. However, I am going to read the next book, because the paperback gives the first chapter of the next book, and it looks like the next book is going to have the Fake Married Trope be a big part of Lilly’s next case.

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Grade for An Untimely Frost: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch

locke lamoraBefore I get into the meat of this, AN UPDATE on: THE FRIEND’S CAR

You may not be aware, what with the terror incidents, the indictments, and all the other shit circulating in the news right now, but Sunday night, Maine was hit by a particularly hard windstorm. Gusts over 60 mph, driving rain, and from the southeast direction. Generally speaking, when Maine gets hit with storms, they come from the northeast. (A “nor’easter,” if you will.) But with this one coming from the southeast, it hit trees at particularly weak spots, and … yeah. It was gross.

My house lost power early Monday morning. I’m writing this paragraph just before 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, and I’ve been told I shouldn’t expect power before Thursday. (Thank goodness for generators.) We’ve got an actual state of emergency up in here, so … things are rough.

[NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: I’m posting this entry after 10 p.m. on Friday, November 3. We just got power back a little after 7 p.m. We were without power for nearly five full days. I have done so much reading this week – I also have two reviews stored up to post, so, silver lining, I guess.]

So anyway, on Tuesday, I returned my friend’s call tonight to see how he’s doing, and …. he tells me, that on Sunday night, during the wind storm from hell –

a tree fell on his new car. right through the moonroof.

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Like, I can’t even, you guys. I can’t with this. I just. I am laughing so hard at this, again, some more, five days later. I mean, karma, you guys – CARMA.

I guess the only good news is that this car can’t be abandoned in a parking garage, because he’s payments on it? I just — *sigh* it’s too good. It’s hilarious.

Needless to say, however, I won’t be covering his still-abandoned vehicle with Jerry Maguire VHS tapes anymore. That would be beyond the pale; I’d practically be pouring salt into the wound at that rate.

Okay. So that’s the update. Thank you for indulging me in my “horrible person” persona. And now, a poorly-written review.

When I get bored with the endless circle of Facebook, Twitter, and now, the Washington Post, I’ll check out Buzzfeed. Up until what feels like very recent times, Buzzfeed would occasionally post book recommendations. (Unlike last week, where an actual post is titled “Pick Six ‘90s Foods, Then We’ll Correctly Guess Your Age.” I picked Toaster Strudel, Dunkaroos, Handi-Snacks, Capri Sun, Flintstone’s Push-Up Pop, and Lunchables. Buzzfeed thought I was 22 to 25. I am 34.)

Back in 2015, Buzzfeed posted a list of the 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever Written. I’ve ventured into the fantasy genre on occasion, but never more than a title here or there. I’ve wanted to read more fantasy lately, and so I browsed the Buzzfeed list, and came across the description for the “Gentlemen Bastard Sequence” by Scott Lynch:

Thieves, pirates, and a beautifully planned series of heists that are a delight to watch unfold. This series is not without its share of heartbreak and loss, but the tribulations of its protagonists are tempered with a joyful sense of mischief, cunning, and a fair amount of swashbuckling. Oceans 11 meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Robin Hood.

DUDES. That is right up my alley! Ocean’s Eleven? Pirates? HEISTS?! I love all of those things! On one of my lunchtime trips to Barnes and Noble, I found a copy, purchased it, and forgot about it – until January, when I needed to read something on the plane from Boston to Vegas and back. The book is over 700 pages long, and I thought it would keep me occupied.

I slept through all the flights. I read maybe sixty pages? It was weird – it was one of those books that felt like it took forever for action and plot to start, but I’d think it was “starting too slow” and look at the page number and found I was on page 145 or something. If I can make it past page 50 I’m in it for the long haul.

So what’s The Lies of Locke Lamora about? Uuhhhh….

Look, I’m sorry: this is a dense book, and there’s no way I’m going to do it proper justice. I read it almost ten months ago. I can give you what details I can remember, but please know I’m not being very good at it. What I can tell you is that if you like fantasy novels (or, really, epic novels) and sarcastic thieves with hearts of gold (or at least plated with it), chances are you’re going to like this book.

The story takes place on the island city of Camorr, which is made up of the thievery class and the rich upper class. There are sects in the thieves as well. When Locke is a little boy, he is sold to Father Chains of the Gentlemen Bastards, and taught to be a thief along with the Sanza twins, Calo and Galdo, and Jean, a young ruffian and excellent fighter. The Gentlemen Bastards grow up to be great Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich through crazy schemes (like, counterfeiting whisky from another island, and then asking for investment money).

Meanwhile, there’s a character known as the Grey King, who has been killing the capos of the thief gangs in Camorr in an attempt to consolidate power. (He is not actually a king.) And the Grey King ensnares Locke into his plot: Locke must pretend to be the Grey King and have a conversation with Locke’s good friend (and boss, of sorts), Capo Basarvi. Well, that plan goes tits-up pretty much immediately, and Basarvi and his family are murdered by the Grey King’s army, and Locke only just manages to escape with his life.

The rest of the book is Locke and Jean going for revenge on the Grey King. They succeed (spoiler alert? I mean, there are more books in the series, guys), but not without losses.

The book also jumps back and forth between present-day and the past, showing us how Locke came to be in the employ of Father Chains and the Gentlemen Bastards, some of their earlier escapades, and other tales.

Locke is a very sarcastic and witty character (after my own heart), but he uses his sarcasm to mask his emotions and seem detached. It allows him to do terrible things when necessary. But always for the good of the Gentlemen Bastards.

It was an interesting story – very dense, and not a lot of magic. There is someone called a Bondsmage, who is able to illusion people to do his bidding – or, actually, the bidding of the Gray King, who is the Bondsmage’s boss. But there aren’t wizards or other races (like Orcs or elves) to deal with – all the characters are human.

I wish I could remember more about the plot (or at least, had internet right now so I could look up the Wikipedia entry), but at the same time …

My Dear Friend Sarah and I had a discussion last year, driving back from New York late at night. I can’t remember how we got onto the topic – I think we started talking about Breaking Bad again and then spoilers – and what came out of that discussion was that she and I read books (and watch TV) differently than I do.

She views authors as telling us a story. And she puts her faith in letting the author develop that story enough to draw her interest. In relation to Breaking Bad, she couldn’t really get over that she was not interested in the story at all. Whereas I let my curiosity take hold and that was what propelled me through the series: I knew what was going to happen, and I wanted to see how the story got there.

When Sarah was growing up, she read primarily from the fantasy genre. Game of Thrones, the extended Star Wars universe, and others. Meanwhile, I was reading Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, and eventually graduated to Kinsey Millhone and other mystery novels. She was reading books that took you on a journey; I was reading books that led to an answer or solution. And I think that’s why we came at Breaking Bad differently – she wanted a journey to enjoy, but I was looking for the solution.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know how I feel about Breaking Bad, other than that I know I’m never going to rewatch it.

So I struggled reading The Lies Of Locke Lamora a bit – I’m not used to being taken on a journey like this. I think the modern parlance of the characters helped me enjoy it more than if I had been reading Tolkien or something. I’ll probably read the next book in the series, but it probably won’t be any time soon.

Anyway. That’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’m sorry I did a shitty job reviewing it, but I’m going to try and get better.

Grade for The Lies of Locke Lamora: 2 stars

Fiction: “Alanna” by Tamora Pierce

alannaGood morning to everyone, except members of the State of Maine’s Executive and Legislative branches!

So … the good State o’ Maine is shut down. If you’re on your way up to the state for the Fourth of July weekend, your good news is that the governor deemed state park workers as “emergency”, so you’ll still be able to have your cookout on the beach.

(PLEASE, keep in mind as you travel that any state workers you see out there – state park rangers, state troopers, toll booth collectors – they’re all working unpaid right now, so please, be extra extra nice to them, okay?)

As for me: the people in my entire division were deemed “non-emergency”, so you’re looking at a girl who has an unpaid vacation of indeterminate length on her hands. But instead of bitching about how we wouldn’t even be IN THIS SITUATION if the goddamned APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE had DONE their FUCKING JOB THREE MONTHS AGO, I’m going to look on the bright side: I’ve got some money in my savings account, bills are paid for the month, and I’m probably going to be out for enough time to have some free adventures, so be sure to follow #ShutdownAdventure on Twitter and Facebook to see this week’s shenanigans.

Also: I have no reason to not get caught up with this backlog! So let’s dig in!

Not sure why I requested this book from the library – I may have seen it on a list somewhere about someone’s favorite young adult novels, or who knows why. Whatever reason it was, I requested it from the library and then it came in, so I read it.

Alanna: The First Adventure is, well – the first adventure for Alanna. There are four books in the Song of the Lioness series, and when I was a kid, I read three out of the four. I believe I was in fifth grade when I started reading them, and I’m not sure why I never finished. I may have decided to graduate to “adult” novels that year?

Well, actually – I know it was fifth grade when I started to sneak-read some of Mom’s romance novels she kept around the house, so my tastes probably matured quickly. I know it was seventh or eighth grade when I began reading Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, and John Grisham, so – it was probably a confluence of many events.

Regardless, I know I first picked up the book more than twenty years ago because her name was so close to mine. In classrooms surrounded by Tiffanys and Jessicas, seeing another name so close to mine was novel.

Alanna is the twin sister of Thom – which was another reason I thought the whole series was a shout-out to me at the time; I’ve been friends with Thomas since we were six, so to have a book where two of the main characters could almost be analogues for me and my dear-friend-almost brother? And my analogue was a pretty badass teen, learning how to fight like a dude? I latched on pretty hard.

Anyway. Alanna and Thom are growing up in a medieval-esque society, where the boys go off to be knights and the girls go off to be nuns or something. Not nuns – but they study stuff and don’t learn how to fight or do anything particularly rowdy. Alanna’s kind of a brute as an eleven-year-old, and on their way to their respective new schools, Alanna convinces Thom to go to the convent-thingee in her stead, while she’ll go to knight school as “Alan”.

Alanna/”Alan” makes friends and shows promise as a knight over the years – she works hard, and doesn’t let any tiny bit of failure deter her from her goal. Some of her friends include a thief named George, who manages to get her a horse. She also makes an enemy in one of her fellow trainees, Ralon. A bully, he pummels “Alan” every chance he gets. So Alanna sneaks out of the castle to train with George, and eventually she beats Ralon on her own. Ralon leaves the castle, but not before swearing revenge.

Alanna has magical healing powers (not like Wolverine, though), and when the city is beset by a Sweating Plague, she uses her powers to heal Prince Jonathan when he’s on the verge of death. In doing so, she reveals her gender to her mentor, Sir Myles. The rumor is that the Plague was sent by a powerful sorcerer – not only does it nearly kill (or kill) the sufferers of the Plague, but Healers get their power drained when they attempt to heal the victims. Alanna doesn’t lose any power when she heals Jonathan. But she does suspect Jonathan’s cousin, Duke Roger, who had just returned to court.

Once Jonathan regains his strength, he starts seeing visions of a Black City, which is a city overcome by demons or something. Jonathan enlists “Alan” to go with him – or “Alan” refuses to stay behind, I can’t remember – but both of them go to find out what’s up with the city. At first it appears abandoned, but there’s some big evil living there (Wikipedia tells me its name was Ysandir), and Jonathan and “Alan” combine their powers – but not until after Ysandir reveals to Jonathan that “Alan” is really Alanna. Wisely, Jonathan decides to ignore the fact that his best friend is actually a girl and they both get the job done and defeat Ysandir.

Alanna thinks that Duke Roger sent Jonathan to the Black City on purpose; Jonathan agrees, but believes that Roger hoped that Jonathan would defeat the evil in the city. Alanna thinks Roger doesn’t want Jonathan alive. In the end, Jonathan chooses “Alan” as his squire, even though he knows she’s a girl, and they’re off to the next adventure.

I still recall loving this book when I was a kid. Returning to it twenty-ish years later, it is absolutely written for older elementary kids. It’s almost … pre-YA? It was the first wave of Young Adult novels. (It’s also an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the generation of girls who like swords and fighting – in one chapter, Alanna gets her first period and freaks out. That’s how George learns that Alanna’s a girl!)

I might continue with the series just to see how it ends up. I’ve read on GoodReads that the writing matures with the character, so by Book 4, it should be very similar to today’s YA genre. But even though I’m slightly disappointed with it as an adult, I still agree that it’s an excellent book and series for the right age group.

Grade for Alanna: The First Adventure: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Pirate Bride” by Shannon Drake

Pirate BrideOn my trip to My Dear Friend Sarah’s bachelorette party, I had brought A Wrinkle in Time and Killing Orders to read, between the bus, plane, train, Metro, and train rides to get from Portland, Maine to Montgomery County, Maryland and back. But on the Sunday morning of the party weekend, we all trucked out to WonderBook, where Sarah used to work, and I stocked up on I think, six books? to bring back home. The Pirate Bride was one of those titles.

I had read Beguiled by Shannon Drake ages ago, and found it meh. I had forgotten I had found it meh until I just went back and read the review of it I had written seven years ago. I did remember, quite clearly, that Beguiled was just an interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story. In the interim between Beguiled and The Pirate Bride, I also learned that Beguiled was part of a trilogy which looked at other fairy tales (I think – I know the first, Wicked, is supposed to be analogous to “Beauty and the Beast”). (Also, Shannon Drake is apparently one of the pseudonyms of Heather Graham. I have not read anything by Heather Graham, but if you like her and also like historical romances, you may want to give Shannon Drake a chance.)

So, here’s the bad news about The Pirate Bride: I can’t remember a lot about the plot. Not only because I read it so long ago, but also, I actually started reading this on the train ride back home to Boston, and … well …

Okay. I’m an idiot. It looks like I alluded to my transportation debacles in the reviews of the past two books, but let me be quite clear about what happened, for posterity.

When I learned of Sarah’s bachelorette party, I looked up transportation options, because while my car, Bruce, is an amazing piece of machinery, he was nearing 150,000 miles at that point and one trip to D.C. and back was more than enough for him. Of all the alternatives I could find – plane from Portland, bus to Boston and planes from Boston, overnight trains between Boston and DC – the cheapest option was actually the last: overnight trains from South Station to Union Station and back. So I booked those, and then got the official invitation which extended the party to Friday, so I canceled my incoming train and got a voucher (because of course they were non-refundable) and bought a one-way flight from Boston to Baltimore. I kept my return train trip, however.

The party ends, and Sarah drops me off at Union Station with all my things – including a bottle of Neuro Sleep, which I like to call my “Sleepy Time Drink”, because I’m an asshole. My train is scheduled to pull out a little after 10 p.m., and I should be hitting Boston around 8, bringing me back home to Portland in time for 11 a.m. I settle in for a long ride, and crack open The Pirate Bride to see if I can hasten sleep.

Well, the good thing about the book is that it kept me awake. And for some reason, something kept me from imbibing my Sleepy Time Drink – I’m not sure what it was, but I decided not to drink it. Good thing, too – because when the train pulled into Trenton a little past midnight, our train was stopped “due to police activity on the track”, and given an indefinite delay.

I don’t think Amtrak ever announced why we were stopped, but I found out on Twitter. The night before, at the party, all our phones had gone off because of the bomb found in SoHo (most of the other attendees of Sarah’s bachelorette party were visiting from New York). Well, the night I was going home – on a train – was the night of the bombs discovered in Elizabethtwo stations away.

We remained in Trenton for almost two hours.

We were finally told that we were going to pull forward to the next station (Metropark), at which point we were all to disembark, and there would be buses to take us to either Newark or Penn Station, whichever one we needed to get to.

Buses never showed. We disembarked around 3 a.m., and for over an hour, I had to listen to old white dudes wearing Giants jerseys shout into the void, “WHERE’S THE BUS?!” and then get angry when buses didn’t automatically appear at the sound of their voices, because they’re old white guys and have never been denied anything in their entire life.

There were also the people who tried to make a case that the lack of buses was the result of Democratic leadership in the White House, and that if a certain Cheeto’d Fiasco (this was pre-Access Hollywood tape, be tee dubs) got elected this wouldn’t happen. Sure. How’s that workin’ out for ya, chump? Do you have buses now?

At about 4:30 a.m., I had two women approach me, one of which had scoped out cabs to Newark. We eventually Uber’d over to Newark Station (which is an even longer story) where we caught the PATH to Penn Station. They went on their way, because they were from the city, and I busted through the LIRR and New Jersey Transit to finally find Amtrak, where I learn that the train I was supposed to be on (had I actually waited for the buses to take me to Penn) had pulled out.

It was now 6:30 a.m.  I had been awake since 10 a.m. the previous day. I was dehydrated, and hungry, but also didn’t dare eat something for fear of it upsetting my stomach. I had not napped on the train; nor had I slept standing up, because there were IDIOTS in front of the bus area at Metropark who were CONVINCED that HILLARY CLINTON was the reason WE DIDN’T HAVE BUSES TO PICK US UP, and also one of the women I Uber’d with was someone who had an OPINION ON EVERYTHING, and as I was on the PATH train with her and listening to her have VERY IMPORTANT OPINIONS on the fucking REDSKINS, of all things, I was suddenly completely overwhelmed with the feeling, I just want to go home.

I HAD WATCHED THE SUN COME UP IN FUCKING JERSEY, I AM DONE WITH HAVING ANYONE’S SHIT

And then, the Amtrak guy tried to tell me I had the wrong ticket.

distaste

maaaaaay have lost my shit.

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“It can’t be the wrong ticket! THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A WRONG TICKET. THIS TICKET is the ticket I had when I boarded the train in Washington at 9:30 last night, and this is the same ticket I had when Amtrak forced us off in Metropark to wait for buses that never came, I just Uber’d from NEWARK, of all places, and I need to get to Boston, and you, motherfucker, are getting me on the next fucking train north, or so help me GOD, I will end you!”

He shut up and got me a ticket.

When I finally got back into Bruce the Car in Portland to drive home, it was raining, and the traffic wasn’t going as fast as I wanted to, and this was an honest-to-god actual shot of me in the car on I-295:

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I finally made it home, took a shower, called my mother, and was asleep by 3 p.m. I passed out – not slept, passed out – for five hours, and still managed to sleep that night to go into work the next day.

And that’s the bare bones story! There is more detail I could put in, but I won’t! Namely because you probably don’t care, also I want to save it for my memoirs, but mainly because I’ve procrastinated on reviewing this book long enough.

The Pirate Bride is a stand-alone romance novel by Shannon Drake – there is nothing before it, and nothing after it.

The pirate in question is Red Robert – who happens to be Roberta. Or Bobbie, to her friends. When Bobbie was a kid, her parents were murdered by the evil pirate Blair Colm, so Bobbie grew up determined to take her revenge. One day, she and her crew captures Logan Hagerty’s merchant ship, and Red Robert decides to hold Logan for ransom. As they engage, Logan learns that Robert is a lady pirate and they come to an accord. But then they get shipwrecked on a deserted island and that’s where their romance truly blooms. Until the pirate Bobbie had been searching for all her life shows up with his crew, and Logan decides he’s going to kill him for Bobbie but Bobbie still wants to kill him herself —

I’m sorry. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to you, my readers, because I do not recall the details of the book. I just read through my dog-eared pages and I cannot remember why I dog-eared any of them. (Well, except one – someone reels off at the beginning of a chapter, “Outgunned, outsailed, outmanned, out … blasted!” and in my head I heard George Washington talk about the British taking Brooklyn and needing a right hand man.)

All in all, it’s a very formulaic historical romance – boy meets girl, girl is a pirate, boy admires girl’s chutzpah, boy and girl get shipwrecked, boy and girl fall in love, boy vows to kill girl’s enemy for her, girl gets mad, bad guy dies in the end anyway, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Eventually, I’ll read it again. I do remember that I read nearly half the book before the train stopped in Trenton, and I found the characters charming enough to keep me awake.

And I am never taking an Amtrak past Boston ever again.

Grade for The Pirate Bride: 2 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Witches: Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff

the WitchesMerry Christmas Eve! Let’s spend the time between now and the annual live-tweet of Alaina Watches Die Hard, The Best Christmas Movie In History, No I’m Serious, Don’t @ Me, by discussing a) a book I finished reading six months ago, b) about witches. So, completely the wrong holiday. Whatever; deal with it.

As you can tell from the title of the book, Ms. Schiff’s research attempts to find out what exactly led to the events of the Salem Witch Trials. She goes through the years 1690 through 1694 in deep detail, focusing on each family of Salem and their interactions, and discussed how political and interpersonal relationships could have led to exacerbating the situation with the witches.

The first quote I dogeared (and then transcribed into a Word document, because this was a library book and I didn’t want to incur six months’ of overdue fees just to be able to quote things afterwards) speaks to the mystery still attached to Salem:

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our [nation’s] first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. [p. 4-5]

For as many details there are in the book – and there are plenty – there are no true, definitive answers. The source materials Ms. Schiff draws from are incredibly deficient – family diaries, incomplete court testimonies, and the biased opinion essays of pastors and preachers related to the trials.

While the bewitched commanded a rapt audience for much of a year, their voices are lost to us. Their words come to us exclusively from men who were far from thorough, seldom impartial, and not always transcribing in the room in which they heard those statements. They mangle and strangle the voices of the accused; they are equally inattentive to the accusers, not all of whose statements they committed to paper. [p. 12]

I think everyone here must be aware of the basic plotline of the Salem Witch Trials: young girls start acting weird and accusing other women in town of being witches and using their witchcraft against them, everyone believes them, and at the end of it all, nearly twenty residents were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft. In fact, everything the collective consciousness knows about the Salem Witch Trials most likely comes from our reading of The Crucible when we were in high school. But The Crucible was a parable Arthur Miller used to expose the hypocrisy and hysteria surrounding McCarthyism, and should not be considered a historical artifact, regardless of the fact that Mr. Miller used the names of actual Salem residents for his characters.

Ms. Schiff attributes the cause of the Salem Witch Hysteria to many things, including a general distrust of women, an incredibly oppressive religious atmosphere, and a contagious psychological disorder. Sadly, we will never know the true root of the issue, as that is lost to history. Thanks, Puritan judges and other people back then who didn’t realize they should really WRITE THINGS DOWN.

Relatively early in her narrative, Ms. Schiff discusses the attitudes towards the women involved in the Witch Trials. She points out that this is one of the few times in history where the actions are directly related to the actions of women:

History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort. [p. 131]

Additionally, she discusses the power surrounding these women, and how the mysticism of witchcraft increased that power:

The wrinkle with Salem’s infernal onslaught of 1692 was that both the spirited victims and their oppressors were predominantly female. And in a New England first, women’s voices proved so commanding that the spectral testimony of two dead wives could prevail in court against an articulate, Harvard-educated minister. [p. 145]

Think about that: this is a period of time before the United States Consitutiton was even a thought. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington hadn’t even been born. The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” hadn’t been put forth yet. So our modern concept of a “trial” is not even closely related to what occurred in Salem. In Salem in 1692, a judge could accept the “testimony” of deceased women over that of a minister who had graduated from Harvard. That is a crazy concept to wrap one’s head around.

The accusations of witchcraft and witchery flew throughout the town, and created an oppressive atmosphere that centered on a form of gaslighting: fingers pointing at nearly every citizen of Salem, accusing them of witchcraft, and using previous actions as specious proof of interacting with the Devil:

For weeks the women had been stretched on the most pernicious of psychological racks: You are not what you think you are, they were hectored; you are what we think you are. [p. 235]

The biggest piece of new information regarding the Salem Witch Trials was actually a supposition or extrapolation: Ms. Schiff proposes that the cause was a form of mass hysteria, known as conversion disorder, where physical symptoms can arise following an emotional or mental crisis:

Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms. [p. 386]

The witch hysteria began in the house of Samuel Parris, with his daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams. Samuel Parris was the pastor of the town, and one of the more religious ones they’d had in town for a while. (Which is hard to believe, seeing as how Puritan the whole area was.) As Ms. Schiff states,

Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else. [p. 387]

So what would have been the inciting event that caused the mass hysteria? Possibly puberty – I mean, think about it. The two girls in Parris’s household that started the whole thing? Were 9 and 11. And in that type of oppressive religious atmosphere, who’s to say what emotional trauma may have been caused by a religious interpretation of changing bodies? Or even having a thought that went against what had been taught for years upon years? After all,

It would have been easier at the parsonage to have a vision than an opinion. [p. 388]

We will never know what really happened with the Salem Witch Trials – the causes of that trauma have been lost to history. We can only make assumptions and attempt to decipher the few documents from that era that still exist, and recognize that whatever was written down, was written from the points of view of extremely religious views and interpretations. But we can’t forget the Salem Witch Trials, or even attempt to ignore it. While the cause may have been conversion disorder, the unfounded persecution against a minority that led to the deaths of innocents was still the result.

The Salem Witch Trials endure in American history “not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt” [p. 413]. We as a people use the Witch Trials any time someone feels unjustly persecuted. But instead of using it as a label, or a crutch, we should use it as a reminder: we have done this before. We have pointed our fingers, as a society, at fellow citizens and deemed them guilty of crimes that were not proven. We killed innocents out of fear of the unknown. That era is not a time we should hope to return to. We should look to that era as a warning of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come, so as to not slide.

Grade for The Witches: Salem, 1692: 2 stars