Review: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

25938397Title: Jane Steele

Author: Lyndsay Faye

Rating: 5 stars

Believe it or not, this wretched, never-ending election cycle is giving me the blues. Compounded with shit storms on twitter, base misogyny on full display everywhere you turn, and the slog that is my personal life, and you can color me exhausted by everything 2016 has been. So I’ve found myself recently turning to books I would term revenge fantasies. Books where women take power that is denied them by society, books where women turn society’s expectations on their head and punish the men who do them wrong.

Jane Steele started out as that, for me. Young Jane goes through a tide of almost unbelievable misery in the first quarter of the book, and it  was immensely satisfying when…well, I’ll try not to spoil it too much, but there’s a moment with a letter opener that made me sit up and cheer. I don’t like to think of myself as a violent or vengeful person, but sometimes, with fiction, the catharsis is real.

But Jane Steele is so much more than that. It’s marketed as a murderous retelling of Jane Eyre (the tagline: Reader, I murdered him.), and it is that, sort of. Actually, though, it uses the story of Jane Eyre more as scaffolding for the twisty, pulpy adventures of our titular heroine, Jane Steele. In some ways, it actually reminded me of being an English major undergrad, as Steele approaches her favorite book  from an analytical, critical point of view, referring back to it strengthen points in the narrative of her own life.

So, here’s the basic plot. Orphaned young, Jane is at the mercy of her spiteful aunt and her horrible cousin, Edward. Her escape, of sorts, is to Lowan Bridge* school, a truly horrific place run by an unrepentant sexual predator. (This is where that letter opener comes in.)  Jane escapes to London with her best friend, has a series of highs and lows there, and eventually learns that her terrible aunt is dead and her old home, Highgate House, has been occupied by one Charles Thornfield, who is conveniently in search of an unconventional governess. Determined to get back what’s hers by any means necessary, Jane takes on a new name, never expecting to fall in love with Thornfield, his precocious charge, or his best friend Sardar Singh and a household full of Sikh soldiers.

Part of what I loved about Jane Steele was the representation. It’s queer. It’s intersectional. Most of Thornfield’s household, including he himself, are Sikhs. Charles was born in Punjab and grew up alongside the people who have given up everything to travel to England to help him protect his ward. They take on the guise of silent servants to blend in better with the English countryside, but they are fully realized characters who act and speak and have agency as opposed to mysterious brown devils. (I’m looking at you, The Moonstone.) I can hardly count myself an expert on Sikhism, but a good deal of the novel hinges around it, and treats the religion seriously, and so I actually learned a lot about something I knew nothing of before encountering this book.

That said, plot-wise, there are some patently ridiculous things. Hidden jewels. Dogged police inspectors. Dramatic falls from horseback. The reason these elements work is that they are so obviously intentional, a conversation Faye has with the pulp adventures of the nineteenth century. Plus, there is the romance. I was willing to stomach pretty much any silly plot detail for the sake of Charles Thornfield, who was a truly magnificent hero.

Jane Steele is a modern heroine set in place centuries past, but one that still resembles our world in ways few people probably care to admit. I read her tale at the perfect moment for me, a time when I really needed the catharsis she could provide. I can’t wait to see what other tricks Lyndsay Faye, a new-to-me author, has up her sleeves.

*Lowan Bridge is also based on the very real Cowan Bridge school, where two of the Bronte sisters died.

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Review: Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr

16225525Title: Holy Shit: a Brief History of Swearing

Author: Melissa Mohr

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction this year. I really love books about language, and I really, really fucking love swearing. [Whenever I publish a story, my mother always has a comment about the bad words.]

Combine these things and you get Holy Shit,  a book that checked all of my boxes and then some.

In Holy Shit Mohr traces the development of the individual words we class obscenities themselves, but she also puts swearing into context throughout history. There was the medieval era, where obscenity very much was an outgrowth of oath swearing, and where the most shocking things you could ever say were religious in nature–the “holy.” There was the Victorian era, where the rise of privacy and civility gave bodily and sexual functions auras of shame–the “shit.” And a variety of degrees beyond and between.

Most interesting to me was the opening section on obscenity in Ancient Rome. I found it fascinating to see how an entirely foreign cultural mindset could be described through what words people did–or did not–find shocking. But really, this book is full of fascinating information, and all kinds of little tidbits that I never knew I needed to know.

If you’re intimidated by the idea of a “language book” (some of them can be really difficult to read and obscure), don’t be in this case. Holy Shit is an easy, fun read–as long as you’re okay seeing a lot of uncensored obscenity. (If anything in this review has offended you, then you definitely don’t want to pick up this book. It deals with many, many words, even some that I won’t commit to print.) It’s a fascinating cultural history, and one I particularly enjoyed.

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I wrote a thing…

…and somebody published that thing!

This month I’m over at Luna Station Quarterly with my story “Wayfarers.” Check out it and the rest of the amazing issue right here.

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I wrote a thing…

…and somebody published that thing!

Ship of Fools” is up today at Unlikely Story in the Journal of Unlikely Observances. It’s about first crushes, celebrations, and the last artifacts left in a drowning world.  I like it a lot and I hope you all do to. And check out the rest of the amazing table of contents as well!

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I wrote a thing…

…and somebody published that thing!

My story “Bone Man and the Sleeping Kings” is in the second volume of Bards and Sages’ Great Tomes series, The Great Tome of Darkest Horrors and Unspeakable Evils. I don’t know about unspeakably evil, but is probably as close as I’ve ever gotten to writing an adventure story. And there are Mesoamerican-style mummies. Who fly. So, if that floats your boat, go on and give it a look. I had fun writing this and I hope you all like it 🙂

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June 2016 Check In

 

Yes, I’m still alive. It’s almost-not-quite halfway through 2016 (yikes!), so I thought it would be a good time for me to take a look at what I’ve been reading.

My twofold goals for this year were to read 100% women  and 25% nonfiction. So let’s see where we’re at.

So far this year, I’ve finished 48 books, along with 14 novellas and literary magazines (I read more stories online, but I do not keep strict track of them). When you discount short stories, I have read 100% women authors. (I’m discounting short stories because I read a lot of them, and I’m not going to trawl through bylines weeding out the cismen. I have better things to do with my time.)

This goal hasn’t been very hard to stick to. I was already women-biased in my reading. But I’m still quite proud I’ve done it, because it means putting out books I’ve been diligently waiting for, like The City of Mirrors. It means new books piling up on my TBR. It means I haven’t even read the Hamiltome. (gasp!) There are more male-authored books on my radar than I thought their would be, honestly, but they’ll still be there in 2017. For now I’m quite happy to continue reading only women.

My goal for nonfiction was to be at 25%. Right now I’m actually only at 14.5%. It’s a lot harder to consistently read nonfiction every month than I thought it would be. Most of the nonfiction I’ve read I haven’t actually liked all the much, which has also kept me from pursing it more faithfully. My standout favorite has been Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. I’ve read books on Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hatshepsut, Catherine de Medici, and more, but while interesting none of them have quite grabbed me. I’ll be happy if, by the end of 2016, that 14.5% is bumped up to 20%.

Now I have to admit one of my big failures this year: reading diversely. WOC so far make up only 10.4% of my full-length reads. Now this is partially because I’ve burned through the back catalogs of certain authors (*cough* KJ Charles *cough*) but only partially. I need to be better. While I have books by NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jhumpa Lahiri on tap, even if I read them all tomorrow I wouldn’t be close to parity. I need to be better.  So recommend your favorite WOC authors to me. 25% seems like a decent ratio, if a lofty goal based on where I’m at right now.

Last year by this time, I had read 60 books. Obviously 48 is a bit of a drop off, but I actually feel good about that. I’m trying to focus on my writing a lot more, and I’ve also been trying to burn through the books I already own. I haven’t bought a (physical) book since December. That is huge for me. (ebooks are another story, but I’m clearing through them as well.) Focusing on what I own means I’m missing all of the “hot new” things, but I long ago stopped feeling guilty for not keeping up with the trends.

Most of my reading this year has fallen to fluff. Maybe that’s not so surprising. The world right now, frankly, sucks. Mostly I just want to read about pretty people bantering with each other and then making out. That’s okay, too. I banished “guilty pleasure” from my vocabulary years ago.

Here are 6 of my favorite books  (+ 1 novella) so far in 2016:

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Sarah Vowell- Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (read on audio, which I highly recommend)

Maggie Mitchell- Pretty Is (a twisty metafictional debut thriller)

Jhumpa Lahiri- The Lowland (guys I finally read The Lowland I’ve been promising to do that since I started this blog, it’s a miracle)

Lily King- Euphoria (insanely, heartbreakingly beautiful)

Courtney Milan- Her Every Wish (the hero of this novella is a multi-racial, bisexual bicycle salesman. It. Is. Glorious. And there are more puns about “velocipedes” (aka bicycles) than I ever would have thought possible. My only complaint is that this is a novella, because I thought the character pairing was stronger and more interesting than the one novel Milan has published in this series.)

Roan Parrish- In the Middle of Somewhere (sooooo angsty, but it’s also a really sweet love story)

KJ Charles- Think of England (and the Society of Gentleman series. and the Charm of Magpies side books. Basically, I see KJ Charles’ name now, and I click so fast I get whiplash, and I love them all. But Think of England is so good.)

Well that’s it, folks. This erstwhile blogger has been trying to keep herself busy and out of trouble. See any books here that you like? Anything I have to read right now? And who are your favorite WOC authors? Let me know!

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I wrote a thing…

…and you can Kickstart that thing!

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I am really, really excited to be included in a new anthology from Alliteration Ink. It’s called No Shit, There I Was…, and it’s live on Kickstarter right now. There are 24 awesome speculative fiction stories from 24 awesome writers in this project. So hop on over to Kickstarter and check it out. And please feel free to share it with your friends.

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Reading Groups

Hi guys. Wonder of wonders, I was inspired to make a new post! About books. Didn’t think that was going to happen.

[The title of this topic may change if I decide to do it again, but right now Reading Groups is the cleverest thing I can come up with.]

I go through my TBR pile by feel, whatever interests me at a given moment. But I’ve noticed that sometimes, my reading starts to follow patterns. Over a short period I may read a lot of books with a connection to Ancient Rome, or about first contact with space aliens, or about women scientists, or what have you. I may not read them one after another, but so many times I’ve found that books I’ve been reading connect in obvious and unexpected ways.

So I thought it would put together some of these groups, as a mini curriculum of sorts. Which brings me to what I’ve been reading so far in 2016.

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Mansfield Park > Of Noble Family >Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

All three of these books revolve around race, slavery, and the sugar trade in Regency/Georgian England.

In Mansfield Park, it can be easy to ignore underneath all the tea parties and plays. But Austen was a sharp social commentator, and she does make several overt references to the slave trade. The wealth that allows Mansfield Park to even exist was built on the backs of slaves, as Sir Thomas is an absentee sugar baron who is forced to go back to Antigua to deal with an uprising.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories are each based more or less on different Austen novels, and it’s clear to me that Of Noble Family owes a lot to Mansfield Park.  But because this is the twenty first century, and because Kowal is Kowal, she dives right in to uncomfortable topics instead of shying away from them. In Of Noble Family,  Jane and Vincent travel to Antigua to deal with Vincent’s father’s estate, and they come face to face with the dark realities of slavery. Jane faces some of her own prejudices, and learns that the slaves have different ways of working with glamour.  There are mixed-race “house servants,” conning and cruel plantation overseers, and tensions coming to a boil from all sides.

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real life mixed-race daughter of an English naval captain who was raised alongside her cousin in the house of her great uncle, the Lord Chief Justice. There is very, very little actual documentary evidence of Dido’s existence. She was often erased from the narrative even when she was plainly there. (For a long time she was assumed to be a servant, even when there was direct evidence that she had been raised as an adopted daughter.) But Paula Byrne works with what’s available, and manages to craft a compelling and easily readable social history about how black people existed in Georgian England. (And while I really enjoy the movie Belle, it did not surprise me to learn that, especially in the romantic elements, it was almost entirely fiction.)

These books all feed into each other. In Belle, Byrne even adds a codicil about Austen, who most certainly met Dido’s cousin (she wrote about her), and may even  have met Dido herself.

We tend to have this weird idea that people of color barely existed  eighteenth century England, and that when they did they were highly segregated and most white people would never have seen them. That slavery was hidden across the ocean, and most people never gave it a second thought. That is patently untrue, but it’s an idea that holds on, even in the face of direct evidence. While we won’t ever know if Jane Austen knew Dido Elizabeth Belle, she almost certainly knew of her, and it’s interesting to think if that played any part in the inspiration for Mansfield Park.

What do you think? Interested in more of my informal book groupings?

 

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I wrote a(nother) thing!

So, I didn’t expect this to come so soon on the heels of my last post, but I had a flash piece today up at Daily Science Fiction. It’s called “You’re Doing the Best You Can” and you can read it right here if you so desire.

Lest you think I am suddenly prolific: this is definitely an aberration. I’ve never had two pieces out in one month before, and I don’t really expect it to happen again.

And hello to my new followers. I’m still sort of on hiatus, but who knows? I may be inspired to write a bookish post or review sort of soon.

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I wrote a thing…

…and somebody published that thing!

So I’m gonna jump out of hibernation for a sec to tell you all about it.

This month I’m in Apex Magazine with a poem, “Arrythmia,” which you can read right here. (Surprising no one, it’s about hearts.) I hadn’t written poetry for like ten years until one night I couldn’t sleep, and I did. It still kind of freaks me out that somebody liked it enough to publish it. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy it.

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