Not Just Jane

Cover image for Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWeesby Shelley DeWees

ISBN 978-0-06-239462-0

“Of all the wonderful things I experienced during this journey, the best occurred at the end, as I stood in front of a bookshelf full of new titles, each of which introduced me to new women, new worlds, new windows into British history.”

Everyone has heard of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, perhaps the most famous women writers in British literature. All have been the subject of film and television adaptations, and Jane Austen will grace the new £10 bank note being released in Britain in 2017. But do you know Sara Coleridge (yes, she is related to Samuel Taylor) or Catherine Crowe? Perhaps you’ve heard of King George IV’s scandalous mistress, the actress Mary Robinson, but didn’t realize she was also a writer? Shelley DeWees selects seven British women writers of the Romantic and Victorian periods who were at least as famous as Austen and the Brontës during their lifetimes, if not more so, and often outsold them. Not Just Jane shines a light on their less-remembered works, while also showing the difficulties women faced in becoming writers, and the censure they faced when they succeeded.

DeWees’ subjects are not entirely forgotten so much as they are ill-remembered outside the halls of academia. I was familiar with all of the women from the Romantic period, which is the area I focused on during my undergraduate degree. Funnily enough, I even referenced Charlotte Turner Smith my review of The Fire This Time a few months ago. I was less familiar with the Victorians, with the exception of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. If you’ve never heard of Braddon, try to imagine a novelist as prolific as Nora Roberts and as famous as J.K. Rowling, and then imagine that almost no one has heard of that novelist a hundred years from now.

In large part, DeWees is not analyzing why the Brontës and Austen have been remembered, and her seven women have been forgotten. She ventures a few guesses, such as how Charlotte Brontë’s legacy was bolstered by a well-timed biography penned by Elizabeth Gaskell, who was herself an extremely successful novelist. She also hazards a guess that some of the women were willingly forgotten because of their scandalous and unconventional personal lives. But for the most part, she is concerned with illuminating the forgotten writers, rather than with trying to figure out exactly why they are not well-remembered today.

All seven women have interesting biographies that illustrate the problems commonly faced by Romantic and Victorian women. Many of them were married young to degenerate men who ran up debts they could not pay. The long-suffering wives then took up the pen to pay off their husbands’ debts and support their children. It was extremely hard to obtain a divorce, and both Smith and Robinson ultimately left their husbands without the legal niceties. Both Robinson and Braddon would become tabloid scandals for their extra-marital activities, Robinson for her role as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Braddon because she lived with and bore children to a man whose first wife was still living, but was confined to an insane asylum in Ireland. These women faced censure for the contents of their personal lives as well as the content of their novels, their punishment for being so bold as to publish under their own names rather than anonymously or “By a Lady.”

Perhaps because the works of her subjects are not always well-known, DeWees references Austen and Brontës frequently, using examples from their work to explain a social custom of the period, or point out a common literary trope. As she moves into the Victorian period, the works of Charles Dickens often fill this role in the text. At other times she hold Austen and the Brontes up for stylistic contrast, showing how her seven women are different, and often less comforting than their better-remembered counterparts.  DeWees’ background is in ethnomusicology, and her readings sometimes seem selectively chosen or read to make a point. Not Just Jane is at its weakest when it tries to explain why, but shines when the women themselves step to the forefront. DeWees ably highlights the gaps in our knowledge as she advocates for an expansion of the canon.

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The Midnight Star (Young Elites #3)

Cover image for The Midnight Star by Marie Lu by Marie Lu

ISBN 978-0-399-16785-0

“I do it because I want to. Because I can. That’s what anyone truly means when they gain power and call it altruism, isn’t it? I’m just not afraid to admit it.”

With her Roses at her side, Adelina Amouterou has become the Queen of not only Estenzia, but all the Sealands. She has raised up the malfettos, and subjected the unmarked to the very brutalities they once visited on her kind. Now, she has set her sights on conquering Tamoura, and extending her rule once more. Whispers also say that her sister Violetta fled to Tamoura after their falling out. But Adelina’s plans to conquer the world are disturbed by one problem; sooner or later she must face the inexorable deterioration of the Elites, as their immortal powers slowly destroy their all-too-mortal bodies. The voices in her head grow louder, and her illusions become more and more difficult to control. Facing this threat will require dangerous and uneasy alliances with old enemies and former friends if the world is to survive.

Over the course of The Young Elites series, Adelina has transformed from victim of her father’s brutalities into a terrifying despot in her own right. As Queen, she turns the injustices she faced on others for revenge, and has an insatiable appetite for conquest. The more powerful she becomes, the more isolated and paranoid she must necessarily be. Marie Lu has carefully crafted this slow transformation, and here we see Adelina balancing on the precipice of becoming so paranoid that she does not trust even Sergio or Magiano. The potential for her descent into complete madness is evident, even as Lu lays out an interesting new narrative path for The Midnight Star.

Rafaele and Violetta continue to form the empathetic counterpoint to Adelina’s fear and violence, with Rafaele serving as another narrative point of view. The Daggers steadfastly oppose Adelina’s empire-building, allying with Tamoura against her. As powerful Elites continue to sicken, can the extended hand of partnership be met with anything but violence from a ruler who has confused revenge with justice? Adelina and Violetta’s relationship has undergone a complex transition as the series has progressed, and that bond remains at the heart of The Midnight Star. Lu has a delicate balance to strike between making Adelina truly terrifying, and giving her motivations that are understandable despite their dark consequences. Violetta is often the key to that balance.

At the start of the series, Adelina was a girl caught between the Inquisition and the Daggers, with both groups desiring to bend her to their own purposes. Now she is powerful in her own right, but faced with a situation in which she has to decide if she will cooperate with those who she has little cause to trust. Readers’ satisfaction with The Midnight Star will likely hinge on their interest in seeing Adelina either redeemed or fully committed to her dark path.

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Previously in this series:

The Young Elites

The Rose Society 

Being Mortal

Cover image for Being Mortal by Atul Gawandeby Atul Gawande

ISBN 978-0-8050-9515-9

“Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.”

In 1945, most Americans died at home. By the 1980s that number was down to 17%. Today it is trending back upwards as more people pursue options that allow them to live out their final days in the comfort of their own homes. Doctor and writer Atul Gawande explores how dying became medicalized in the intervening years, as science offered new innovations for beating back disease in the 20th century. Encompassing both the elderly and the terminally ill, Gawande examines how end of life care falls short of providing patients with the best possible quality of life in their final days, instead focusing on what else can be tried to fix the unfixable, and beat back the inevitable. From nursing homes to cancer wards to assisted living facilities to hospice care, Gawande reveals the shortcomings of the institutions we have created for the dying, and asks how we can be better prepared to face the question of mortality with clear eyes and compassion.

Atul Gawande’s previous books Better and The Checklist Manifesto both make it amply clear that he takes continuous professional improvement extremely seriously. In Being Mortal, he examines how society and the medical system can improve the treatment and care of elderly and terminally ill patients. Using the case of his wife’s grandmother, he shows how North American nursing homes commonly fall short, by focusing on safety rather than quality of life. Turning to his own grandfather in India, he shows some of the comparative advantages of multi-generational in-home care, but also highlights the inter-generational conflicts and tensions that can arise from this living situation. In the end, he concludes that both models fall short of providing the elderly with the level of control they need to have over their lives in order to be happy.

Gawande is wary of over-idealizing care provided by children in their homes for their elderly parents. In addition to his own grandfather, he uses the case of Shelley and her father Lou to show the stresses and tensions that this can result in. However, many people feel that this model is the ideal, and it is commonly argued that the decline of children caring for their parents indicates a lack of respect for elders in North American culture that comes from the veneration of youth. But Gawande has a slightly different take. He argues that what is being venerated is not youth, but the independent self, and both nursing homes and living with one’s children degrade that independence which is so central to the North American identity. But this way of thinking offers up a question that has been insufficiently answered: “if independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?”

Gawande talks about patients, both his own and those he meets in the course of his research, talking with geratiatricians and hospice care workers. He also draws on examples from his own life. Early in the book, he discusses the situation of his wife’s grandmother, Alice Hobson, who lived independently for many years, but eventually began having falls that made it too dangerous for her to continue living alone. She ultimately ending up in a nursing home she despised. Later, after he has explored the nuances of geriatric and hospice care, Gawande approaches the case of his own father, who was discovered to have a slow-growing tumour in his spine when he was in his seventies. His father’s case shows Gawande putting his new skills to use, but equally demonstrates that life is complicated and unpredictable, and that even with this knowledge, the end of life will not necessarily be ideal. Gawande is offering hope and help, not a magical solution that will make every difficult situation easy.

Being Mortal is a book that is important for young and old alike. For those facing choices about where and how they will live in their last years, Gawande offers food for thought about the different options available. Younger readers will be better prepared to navigate these conversations with their parents. And of course, anyone of any age can find themselves faced with an unexpected illness that catapults them into facing their own mortality sooner than they might have wished or planned. Readers will emerge with a better understanding of the warning signs of decline that can severely limit independence, the factors that most affect satisfaction with elder and hospice care for the patients, and questions to use in discussions with doctors and loved ones.

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Ruin and Rising (Grisha #3)

Cover image for Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugoby Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9780805094619

Na razrusha’ya. I am not ruined. E’ya razrushost. I am ruination.”

Os Alta has fallen, and the Darkling rules Ravka. The Lantsovs have fled, and Alina is trapped underground in the hands of the Apparat and his zealots, unsure if Prince Nikolai is even alive. The only hope is for her and Mal to find the firebird, and finally unite all three of Morozova’s amplifiers so that she will have enough power to defeat the Darkling. But the Apparat is determined to keep her safe in the White Cathedral until he decides it is time to act. With the Second Army broken, and Alina’s allies scattered, the final amplifier is their only hope. But claiming its power will come at a terrible cost.

Ruin and Rising brings Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Over the last couple months, I have been listening to the Grisha series on audio in my car, excellently performed by Lauren Fortgang. More than once I have found myself sitting in the parking lot at my destination, unable to turn off the book until I could find out what happened next. The action is fast-faced and Bardugo’s world-building is excellent. Add in charismatic characters like Nikolai and Genya, and grouchy-yet-endearing personages such as Baghra and Zoya, and this series has had me hooked from the get-go.

One of my favourite characters throughout the series has been Baghra, the grumpy old Grisha teacher who helps Alina break through her block in Shadow and Bone, and is eventually revealed to be the Darkling’s mother. David and Alina have been pouring over Morozova’s journals, but Baghra seems to know more than she is telling, even as she warns Alina against tampering with Merzost, the power of creation. A supporting character to this point, Baghra’s own intriguing history is revealed.

I also very much enjoyed following Genya’s character arc. After being brutally attacked by the Nichevo’ya as punishment for her betrayal of the Darkling, Genya is stripped of the beauty that largely defined her character in the early installments of the series. As a Tailor, Genya begins the series as the lowest of the Grisha, a mere servant to the King and Queen of Ravka, and a spy for the Darkling. By the end, we have seen her grow into a determined and independent character, once she is able to get out from under the thumb of the Darkling and the Lantsovs.

The epilogues of YA series tend to be a bit hit and miss for me, and Ruin and Rising was no exception. I bought who Alina ended up with, but not where they ended up. But no doubt folks on the other Alina ships were even more disappointed, so I suppose I can suspend a bit of disbelief about the risks of her final destination given the events of Ruin and Rising. Even considering this small disappointment with the ending, the Grisha trilogy has still been one of my most enjoyable reading experiences of 2016.

Bad Blood (Naturals #4)

Cover image for Bad Blood by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-148475732-1

“Without order, there is chaos. Without order, there is pain. The wheel turns. Lives are forfeit. Seven masters. Seven ways of killing. This time, it will be fire. Nine will burn. So it has been decreed, and so it must be. The wheel is already turning. There is an order to things. And at the center of all of it—all of it—is you.”

When Cassie joined the Naturals program, she hoped that she might find a way to solve her mother’s murder. But Lorelai Hobbes isn’t dead but rather has spent the past several years in the hands of a cult of serial killers. Now the next Fibonacci date is rapidly approaching, and soon the ritualized murders will start again. But the race against the clock is interrupted when the Naturals are called in to consult on the disappearance of Celine Delacroix, the daughter of Thatcher Townsend’s business partner. Michael is only days from his eighteenth birthday, and being free of his abusive father forever, but seems that Townsend Senior isn’t willing to let go so easily. Now the Naturals have two problems on their hands, and time is running out.

When it comes to mysteries, I generally prefer cases were the detective is not being personally targeted. Writers usually use this technique to increase the stakes, but it more often jumps the shark. Going from individual serial killers to a cult of serial killers further ups the ante. Combine the two, and it is safe to say Bad Blood can get a little melodramatic. The series finale is naturally the most grandiose, graduating from serial killers to cults of ritualistic serial murders with clear ties to the disappearance of Cassie’s mother. However, at this point in the series I am much more invested in the characters than the plot.

As Michael’s eighteenth birthday draws near, we learn more about his relationship with his abusive father. Michael and Lia also get back together, and inevitably end up engaged in the conflicts that come from always know what your significant other is feeling, or when they are lying. The unusual dynamic created within the group by the Naturals’ uncanny skills remains one of the strongest aspects of this series. The presence of a cult also shines a light on Lia’s past life growing up under similar circumstances. Unfortunately this was not explored in depth, but it was still an interesting peek at her past.

I was particularly delighted to see a love interest for Sloane introduced in this volume. Jennifer Lynn Barnes has made it amply clear throughout the series that despite her social awkwardness, Sloane cares deeply for her friends and fellow Naturals. She also suffered tremendously from losing her brother in All In. It was great to see Barnes show Sloane’s romantic side, and it was a sweet grace note for the series to introduce a new character who appreciates her for who she is.

Bad Blood brings the Naturals series to a dramatic close. It has been a fun ride, and I am going to miss these characters.

Certain Dark Things

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 978-1-250-09908-2

“She seems to enjoy your company, she may even like you, and yet. Don’t deceive yourself, my boy, this is not a love story.”

Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention. Unfortunately, her rivals are much less discreet, and soon the human gangs and cops of Mexico City become aware that vampires have invaded their territory.

Atl picks up Domingo on Mexico City’s subway, figuring that she can discreetly pay him to be her source of blood for the duration of her stay. This is not quite the arrangement Domingo expected when Atl solicited him, but he is fascinated by vampire stories, and willing to go along with what she wants. Soon, however, the two are bonded together by their adventures and Atl starts considering something more. Technically speaking, she is too young to be allowed to have a Tlapalehuiani, or a Renfield, but the unusual circumstances cause her to consider violating custom and binding Domingo even more closely. Yet it is also clear that Domingo is in danger of falling in love with her.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia pulls together a diverse variety of vampire lore, and is able to incorporate many different traditions by dividing her vampires into ten different sub-species. The protagonist, Atl, is descended from vampires that are native to Mexico with their roots in Aztec lore, but her family has been decimated by the Necros, a hardy and brutal European sub-species. A lot of information is built into the text, but for those who can’t get enough, there is also a glossary at the back for some extra details. Three sub-species of vampire feature in Certain Dark Things, but Moreno-Garcia clearly has a strong idea of the rest of her world as well.

Atl and Domingo are both vivid protagonists, but the secondary characters are no less interesting. Ana is a cop who used to work in vampire territory in Zacatecas, but moved to Mexico City for the promise of a better career, and a better life for her teenage daughter, Marisol. She has toed the line for so long, and tried to be honest, but the promise of Mexico City has proved hollow. The police force is still corrupt, and there are few opportunities for women. When a human gang offers a significant sum of money for Ana’s cooperation in helping them take out the vampires that have invaded their territory, she is tempted to accept.

Certain Dark Things is constantly shifting perspective, from Atl and Domingo, to Ana, to Nick Godoy and the Renfield Rodrigo. Rodrigo has worked for the Godoys for decades, and Nick is the spoiled son of his long-time employer. But this job has gotten out of control, leaving Rodrigo longing for retirement, and an escape from trying to harness Nick’s reckless appetite and careless disregard for caution. The Godoys relentlessly pursue Atl, even as she seeks passage out of Mexico City, while both the human gangs and the local authorities want to eliminate them both. The result is a perfect blend of real world crime drama and urban fantasy lore in this unique new take on the vampire story.

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Interested in learning more? Check out an interview with the author over at Read Diverse Books! 

Ash

Cover image for Ash by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316040099

“But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales.”

When Aisling’s mother dies, she is heartbroken. Her father remarries quickly and unexpectedly, bringing his new wife and her two daughters to live with them in the house in Rook Hill, at the edge of the Wood. Then her father dies as well, and Aisling is left alone with her strange new family. Abused by her stepmother, Aisling loses herself in fairy tales, reading and rereading her favourite stories. Defying all caution, she takes long walks in the Wood, hoping to be stolen away by the fairies. But a powerful fairy lord who calls himself Sidhean makes himself her protector, denying her desire. Thus able to pass safely in the Wood, she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Aisling owes Sidhean for the wishes he has granted her, but with Kaisa in her life, she is suddenly reluctant to pay.

Malinda Lo’s Ash uses many of the elements of the various versions of the Cinderella story, while also incorporating a magical wood, a common set piece in many other fairy tales. Lo’s world-building exceeds what you might normally find in a fairy tale, incorporating the role of the King’s Huntress and fleshing out the kingdom that surrounds the story. And Lo’s fairies have the bite of the older tales, rather than the fluffier friendliness of Cinderella’s Disney godmother. Sidhean has long protected Aisling from the other fairies, telling her it isn’t time, but he seems to constantly struggle with the temptation to take her himself, complicating matters.

By tweaking the traditional narrative, Lo also interrogates the idea of marrying for money. Both Aisling’s father and her stepmother marry with this high on their minds. Aisling’s father because his business is in trouble, and her stepmother because she cannot offer her daughters the advantages she thinks they deserve with only her inheritance to live on. Each is bitterly disappointed and Aisling pays the price. Her oldest step-sister Ana is under tremendous pressure to marry well in order to remedy the situation. There are several interesting exchanges between Aisling and her younger stepsister, Clara, who is caught up in the romantic idea of marrying a prince, serving as reminder to Aisling that some people want the things that hold no appeal for her.

Throughout the tale, Ash explores the theme of home, and how home is not a place, but the people who love you.  Aisling finds herself following the paths of the Wood back to Rook Hill several times to visit her mother’s grave. But of course, her mother isn’t really there, and the house in Rook Hill is empty. It is no longer home without her parents, but nor is Lady Isobel’s house home, because the Quinn family does not love her. This theme is especially apt for a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, since many LGBT people are rejected by their family of origin, and end up making their own family. Aisling’s world does not seem to share this stigma, but nor has her home been a loving one since her mother’s death.

Ash is an understated retelling of Cinderella, made up of a good blend of the traditional fairy tale and Lo’s own reinvention and additions. But it is the sweet, slow-burning romance at the heart of the tale that gives this retelling life.


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The Bronze Key (Magisterium #3)

Cover image for The Bronze Key by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

ISBN 9780545522311

“He felt as though no matter what he did, he veered closer and closer to Constantine’s life and Constantine’s decisions. It was like being on a collision course with himself.”

Call, Aaron, and Tamara are heroes in the world of mages, having presented the head of Constantine Madden, the Enemy of Death, to the Collegium. But it seems that not everyone appreciates their efforts, because on the night of the ceremony acknowledging their service, someone tries to kill Call. Call thought his secret was safe, but why else would someone be trying to kill him? Worse, being caught in the middle costs a fellow student her life.  Not even the Magisterium can protect them, but the teachers have forbidden Call and his friends from trying to catch the killer. But since the Masters don’t know that Call is the reincarnation of Constantine Madden—and he isn’t about to tell them—he is sure that they will never catch the killer without his help.

The Bronze Key is a fast-paced magical adventure laced with the signature humour that Holly Black and Cassandra Clare have brought to the series. But the Magisterium series turns on playing with tropes, using both the magic school setting and the Chosen One narrative to advantage in this regard. In an introduction to The Iron Trial, Black and Clare wrote “we wanted to tell a story about a protagonist who had all the markers of a hero: tragedy and secrets in his past, magic power. We wanted people to believe they knew what kind of story they were in for. And then we wanted them to be surprised…” Readers expecting a simple Harry Potter rehash were met with twists and turns in both The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet.

That said, Black and Clare do not seem to have brought that philosophy fully to bear on the third installment of their series, which marks the mid-point of Magisterium. With the Enemy of Death publicly defeated, Call and Aaron’s Makar powers suddenly look more threatening. What if they become evil, too? There is a spy inside the Magisterium, and a new overseer of the school assigned by the government. Black and Clare typically play their hand late in the book, and this is true again here, with several plot twists and major events coming in the last few pages. But they don’t succeed in subverting the tropes in the same way as in previous installments, and that has been a large part of the allure of this series. As we ramp up into the two final volumes, there may still be room to play with these narrative choices, but it remains a disappointment for this volume.
The Bronze Key does have a good helping of mystery and adventure which will continue to hold many readers who are less interested in playing with convention. In addition to trying to identify Call’s would-be assassin, the trio also faces new magical tests, tensions within the group, and the daunting task of trying to save the Chaos-ridden animals like Havoc from extermination. Tamara is brought face-to-face with the fate of those, like her sister Ravan, who are Devoured by their power, and Aaron’s family secrets come out into the open. However, even those who enjoy the fast-paced plot may find the one-two punch of the cliff-hanger ending overwrought.

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