Review: How to Ruin a Queen by Jonathan Beckman

20448531Title: How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair

Author: Jonathan Beckman

Rating: 4 stars

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.

During the last years of Ancien Regime France, a conwoman is obsessed with the rights supposedly due to her as a descendant of the house of Valois. She wants money and power and the ear of the Queen, and when she cannot have them through legitimate means, she lies. A lot.

Meanwhile, a cardinal from another old, aristocratic family has been spurned by Marie Antoinette and has been trying to get back into her good graces for years. Otherwise, he is sure, he will never gain the prominent political place he feels sure he deserves. He latches onto the conwoman, who is first his lover, and then his dependent. And one day, she tells him that she has secret messages to him from the Queen.

How to Ruin a Queen is a difficult story. There are a lot of pieces, and those pieces often don’t make a lot of sense. How an opportunistic ploy for the conwoman, Jeanne de La Motte, to get her hands on a diamond necklace (that she could then dismantle and sell in pieces) turned into a trial about slandering the Queen’s royal name and became one of the precipitating events of the French Revolution is complex and confusing. I’m still not sure I understand it all. But I’m also not sure that it matters.

Beckman is a very engaging writer. How to Ruin a Queen frequently reads like a novel, and it’s worth checking out for the characterization of these people alone. Beckman also provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the late eighteenth century, from the culture of letter writing to the birth of freemasonry. It’s not a time period or setting I am overly familiar with, so I appreciated how vividly it was brought to life.

I felt that Beckman was a little too sympathetic to and forgiving of the cardinal, Rohan, characterizing him as bumbling and gullible throughout and excusing away most of his actions. Jeanne, meanwhile, came across as a vicious, greedy huckster. The perceptions of both often felt a little unbalanced, a little extreme, though I had no previous  knowledge of their history and of course can’t say for sure either way. But I think the truth of Jeanne and Rohan lies somewhat more in the middle ground, that Beckman probably exaggerated them. That makes for better drama but potentially detracts from the history. I really enjoyed the story, but I’m not sure how swayed I am by Beckman’s analysis of it.

Still, particularly if you are interested in the Revolution, you will find a lot to like in How to Ruin a Queen. It’s accessible even when it’s confusing, and offers a fascinating look at a footnote from history.

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Short Story Sunday: “Love is a Component of This Story”

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“Love is a component of this story.”

Love is a Component of This Story” by Liz Argall, published by Daily Science Fiction.

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Writing Wednesdays: Writing Longhand

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And we round out August with Writing Wednesdays. I’m not sure I’m going to continue this as a hugely regular feature–it may end up being something I just come back to once in awhile. But for now, let’s talk about writing longhand.

Used to be, I would sit in my room for hours and fill up spiral notebook after spiral notebook with “novels”–long, complex epics that move from black ink to blue ink to purple ink in one long, continuous chain. (As you can I’m sure guess, I was a hugely popular teen). We were late getting a computer, so for years I would write everything longhand and then transcribe it all into my mom’s electric typewriter. In a way that I didn’t understand at the time, it really connected me with the words coming out of my brain.

I lost that when I started writing on the computer. Not at first–at first the computer was this amazing new tool, where I could finally write fast enough to keep up with my brain. But a lot of what I was writing started to feel empty. Flat. And then that cursor started blinking at me, and sometimes, for the first time, I couldn’t find any words at all.

Recently, I’ve started writing longhand once again. At first it was just notes, character lists, random lines and title ideas. But then I started writing full scenes. And then I started writing flash fictions. And it’s turned out to be pretty amazing. The physical act of writing down words has helped me focus again. The act of transcribing helps me edit. And getting stuck with my nose in a composition notebook (side note–how come they don’t make real composition notebooks anymore? All I can find are cheapo glued ones with weird, decorative covers) means that I don’t get on the internet every five seconds to check Twitter or fall down the Wikipedia black hole. It’s fantastic. I don’t know if I’ll have the patience to write a full length story out longhand anytime soon, but I’m currently using my notebooks to write up a storm, and I love it.

So: longhand or typed? Do you have a preference? Do you think in different ways if its a pen in your hand, or a keyboard under your fingers? And do you know where I can get my hands on a composition notebook?

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I Really Want to Read but Don’t Own Yet

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Books I Really Want To Read But Don’t Own Yet.

OK, first off, people, go the fuck to the library.

Now, that’s out of the way. Of course, being a book lover, there are some books I just have to own. Almost all books I read through the library first, but I do have some insta-buy authors and books I just want to have all to myself. Most of these, alas, aren’t out yet. The rest I’m waiting for paperbacks or affordable ebooks. (I know, I know, I’m the worst, but I absolutely cannot justify spending 10 dollars on an ebook. Unless I get a gift card, it ain’t happening.)

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1. David Mitchell- The Bone Clocks

2. N. K. Jemisin- The Fifth Season

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3. Marissa Meyer- Cress

4. Tana French- The Secret Place

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5. Rainbow Rowell- Fangirl (a few paychecks down the road, I plan to go on a Rainbow Rowell buying spree)

6. Jim C. Hines- Codex Born

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7. Jhumpa Lahiri- The Lowland

8. Jeff Vandermeer- Acceptance

9. Justin Cronin- The City of Mirrors

10. George R. R. Martin- The Winds of Winter. (When, George? WHEN?)

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Short Story Sunday: “Detours on the Way to Nothing”

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“It’s midnight when you and your girlfriend, Elka, have your first fight since you moved in together.”

Detours on the Way to Nothing” by Rachel Swirsky, published in Lightspeed magazine.

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Tough Travel- Shapeshifiting

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Every Thursday, the Fantasy Review Barn is taking us on a journey through Fantasyland with their Tough Travel Guide. Today’s topic is shapeshifting.

SHAPESHIFTING is frequent among both WERES and MAGIC USERS. The usual form taken is that of a WOLF, but lions, eagles, serpents, owls, and cats are common too. In all cases the rule is that the shapeshifter cannont stay too long in animal form without actually becoming that animal.

My list doesn’t quite fit those requirements exactly, but these are the ones that occured to me:

8586681. Mercy Thompson (the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs)
Are we counting urban fantasy? I’m counting urban fantasy, because Mercy was the first character I thought of. She hangs out with a bunch of werewolves, as per usual in urban fantasyland, but she’s actually whats known as a skinwalker–she shapeshifts into a coyote.

2. Daine Sarrasri (the Immortals series by Tamora Pierce)

Here is where I commence to feeling awful, because this was one of the formative book series’ for me, and I’m not even sure I’m remembering it right (to the reread shelf!). Daine is able to communicate with all animals, and *if* I am remembering properly, she learns how to enter their minds and see through their eyes, but when she does so is in danger of getting stuck there.

3. Seregil & Alec (the Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling)

Not properly shapeshifters at all, but I can’t include a list without my dear Nightrunners. The Oreska wizards have an inner nature spell that changes the subject, briefly, into the animal that matches their inner nature–Seregil is an otter, and Alec a stag. It’s the basis of the cutest scene in book one, and then turns around into one of the most heartwrenching scenes in book two.

And finally,

4. The Stark kids (ASoIaF, George R. R. Martin)

This one has been a slow, slow burn, and as per usual in Martin’s world a lot is left unsaid, but I think its generally agreed upon by this point that all those Stark kids are wargs. Bran’s the one really learning about it, hanging around beyond the Wall turning into his own direwolf, but they all have a quasi-mystical connection with their wolves (even Sansa, who’s wolf is dead.) By the end of book 6, Arya’s training to become a Faceless Man and Jon Snow has warged into Ghost, so yeah: they’re all wargs.

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Writing Wednesdays: Outlines

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There was a time when I hated the idea of outlines. Surely, writing is an organic process, and will come out all in the right order because of my natural talent. Right? Right?

Then I realized that a project I had been tinkering on on and off for years, that I thought was fairly well developed on paper because it is in my head, had five different beginnings and had never even heard of such a thing as a middle.

So, outlines.

I’m still trying to work out the best outlining process for me. I write out detailed character and worldbuilding information, but plot is always hard for me, and its especially difficult to set it all down in something approaching order, even if I give myself permission to change that order. But one of the best things I have ever discovered is the power of the notecard and the empty wall.

I love it in detective stories when they make the evidence wall–you know, all those newspaper clippings and photographs and bits of paper, all connected with colored string. I’m not generally a very visual thinker, but I love the way those storyboards work, so why couldn’t I make it work for me?

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This is the wall (OK, doors), for the Big Project. What I ended up doing is writing down all the different scenes I wanted to include, in what mostly works out to chapter increments (I didn’t intend that, but writing it down made me see the shape of things). Then I put them in the order I envision. And because of my problem with endless beginings, I made sure to split them into three distinct sections, so that I can start to see an arc. But because it’s just tape and cards, I can do any shifting I have to. On the other side of the wall are important characters, lines I want to remember verbatim, and bits of worldbuilding. It’s like a big old Pinterest board right in my spare room. (I also have discovered the joy of Pinterest- less for outlining, more for inspiration boards.)

Next time, I think I need to get colored index cards.

There are all kinds of ways to outline. So far, this one really seems to be working for me, but I definitely want to experiment more. What are your preferred ways of outlining? Do you stick to it, or do you tear it all to shreds by the end?

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Short Story Sunday: “The Colonel’s Lady”

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It’s back! I haven’t done a Short Story Sunday in forever, but I finally got off my lazy but and collected some stories to share.

Starting it back off with “The Colonel’s Lady” by W. Somerset Maugham.

“All this happened two or three years before the outbreak of the war.”

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Writing Wednesdays: Settle Down

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I can’t settle on one story.

This isn’t anything new. Whenever I run into problems with a story, or run out of steam, I tend to let a project hibernate while I work on something new. Usually I’m running 7 or 8 projects in various stages at once.

But since my surgery, it’s gotten to be a really noticable problem. For awhile I had what  I called “swiss cheese brain”–nothing was sticking in there. And while that’s gotten a lot better over the past few months, I’m still having trouble focusing, and more importantly, settling.

I’ll write a paragraph in one story. Delete half of it and write it over again. Go to another story and write two lines of dialogue. Write a random paragraph for story 3 without having a concrete scene to attach it to. Go back to story 1. Stare at the blinking cursor for awhile. Suddenly remember and reboot an idea I had 10 years ago. Stare at the blinking cursor some more. It’s not block, really. I don’t much believe in writer’s block. I think it comes down to a lack of patience, and a lack of discipline.

So, how to deal with it? Do I pick just one project and force myself through it in one or two sittings? Do I continue to word vomit until each separate story finally takes shape? Get a change of scenery, or a change of writing habits? Writers, how do you put all of your focus behind one project at a time? (Or do you at all?)

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I’m Not Sure I Want to Read

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Books I’m Not Sure I Want to Read. I own these but am ‘meh’ on all of them for one reason or another. But here’s your chance to convince me to take the plunge!

109641. Diana Gabaldon- Outlander (it’s just. so. LONG. I’m already neck deep in ASoIaF over here, I need another long-booked series like a hole in the head.)

2. Abraham Verghese- Cutting for Stone

3. Scott Lynch- The Lies of Locke Lamora

4. Laini Taylor- Daughter of Smoke and Bone (I can never resist a good remainders sale)

5. Deborah Harkness- A Discovery of Witches (ditto)

6. Marilynne Robinson- Housekeeping11577576

7. D. B. Jackson- Thieftaker (confession: I totally DNFed this, and had it ready to go in my library donations bag, but then I saw Jackson on some panels at a con and thought I should give it another try.)

13528340 8. Jenny Lawson- Let’s Pretend this Never Happened

9. Connie Willis- To Say Nothing of the Dog

10. Various- Athena’s Daughters (I backed this Kickstarter…and then by the time it was over, I’d lost interest for some bizarre reason.)

So, any of these worth cracking into?

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