The only reason I ever found out who Caitlin Moran is is because of a good book cover. Yes, we've all been lured into picking up a book because of a fThe only reason I ever found out who Caitlin Moran is is because of a good book cover. Yes, we've all been lured into picking up a book because of a fabulous cover, sometimes to our detriment, but for me it was really all about that hand lettering. For about six months straight How to Be a Woman was featured almost daily in my Waterstones email and I seriously clicked the link every time to admire the lettering. What I wouldn't give to be able to do hand lettering, but sadly it's not in my wheelhouse. Despite my insane case of cover lust I didn't feel compelled to buy the book. I'm not into nonfiction, I'm not into books that explore feminism, so I wrote off this book as not for me. Then all of a sudden within the last few weeks Caitlin Moran got on my radar again. One of my friends was reading another of her books, Moranthology, I have an e-galley of How to Build a Girl languishing on my Kindle, and Caitlin and her sister Caroline wrote a show based loosely on their childhood, Raised by Wolves, which has been airing on the BBC. It was really this last one that got me interested in reading more of her work. In twenty minutes I was able to gauge her humor and realize, that while uneven, it might just be for me.
How to Be a Woman was a great companion piece to Raised by Wolves, I got deeper insight into what might be a funny throw away line on the show by hearing the full story. It was like spending a little holiday in Caitlin's brain, which was oddly restful, relatable, and fun; and like all holidays, had it's crappy moments too. While I've seen many reviews saying how she is the British Tina Fey, I'd actually compare her writing style, and also her upbringing, more to David Sedaris. I had the same feelings reading this book as I did when I first read Me Talk Pretty One Day. The insights are something I've thought of but never really been able to verbalize. Their writing style makes me wish that I was more polished, that I could write like this. Because the truth of the matter is, while yes, I might have a book in me, I know in my heart of hearts that it would never be fiction. My book would be more memoir or a Roman à clef, and I would hope it would be like this. More even... but still, like this.
What I admire most about this book is how she simplifies the definition of feminism. Feminism has almost become a loaded word. Even women like me think of the strident feminist burning bras, not half the population just looking to be treated equally. So to simplify, here are Caitlin's instructions. "Put you hand in your underpants. a. Do you have a vagina? and b. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said "yes" to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist." So simple and so true. I think Caitlin would probably now encourage me to stand on my hair and shout it, but due to wobbly chair and lack of coordination, this could end badly, so I will just say it here I AM A FEMINIST! But what saddens me is to look at this hopefulness in this book, this idea that we are all humans living together and hopefully we'll be bros and be just one of the guys and pal around in a world of equality and to see the reality of what has happened in the few short years since Caitlin wrote this book.
The truth is that this book is sadly dated. There's hope and progressive thought and in just four years so much progress has been undone. Rights of women are flowing out of our hands faster then water. How can we women be "one of the guys" when not only the government is turning against us but more and more vitriol is being spewed on the web against us? Look to Gamergate and all that has wrought! Gamergate is the newest horror in the ongoing culture war of men and women. What started as backlash for supposed preferment for a woman game designer has descended into sheer madness. Death threats, doxing, hate mail, threats of physical violence, in particular rape. This has created a culture of fear and hate, where even me writing about it gives me pause, because anyone who takes a stand and speaks out against Gamergate could be their next target. Caitlin Moran has even tweeted about this, but sadly the movement hasn't failed and is just as strong as ever, so maybe it's time to switch the conversation? I can't do it on a global scale, but I can in this review.
How to Be a Woman is the best when it's relatable, when Caitlin's experiences are shared by her fellow women, obviously me included. Her tackling what it's like to get your first period, which for me also happened on my thirteenth birthday, to dealing with the emergence of hair all over our bodies, I wanted to scream YES, but from my comfy chair (remember, bad balance, so no standing up on said chair here). Though I haven't experienced everything she has, no marriage and kids for me, these are such universally feminine issues that as a woman you get it, you understand. But the truth is Caitlin had a very interesting foray out of Wolverhampton and into the greater world at large, writing for Melody Maker at the age of sixteen. It's when she starts to dwell on specific events that happened to her that couldn't ever in a million years happen to you when the book loses that relatablity and starts to lose your interest. In particular I am thinking about Caitlin going to a very German bar with Lady Gaga. Yes, Caitlin's extrapolation of Gaga as a feminist icon works, but it's almost too specific and too much relating to her sitting in a banquette with Gaga falling asleep in her lap. Yes, it's an interesting if odd story, but I don't think it works in the context of the book.
But even if it's uneven and occasionally meandering, it's a book that every woman and every man should read. Seriously, I think guys would understand us a lot more just from a few key scenes in this book. And she's not afraid to tackle the big issues, like abortion, and she's not afraid of making herself look bad, she tells it like it is. Sometimes it can be preachy, and it is definitely NOT for everyone, ie abortion, but I feel somehow more connected after reading How to Be a Woman. It's not about "Girl Power" or anything so trite. It's about knowing that what I feel is somehow universal. That even if we are totally different people, and that my and Caitlin's life are so different you can barely compare us, there is literally an ocean that divides us, but underneath everything we are the same. If nothing else, this book will truly make you think. And laugh. A lot. Out loud. ...more
Not as adorable as the Pride and Prejudice, esp. seeing as all the men are rather paunchy. But the little joke of the couch from Willoughby and the drNot as adorable as the Pride and Prejudice, esp. seeing as all the men are rather paunchy. But the little joke of the couch from Willoughby and the drawings of the houses make up for a lot. ...more
OMG, this was so cute and adorable. Loved the illustrations and while it was hard to pick a favorite picture, the dashing young redcoats might win theOMG, this was so cute and adorable. Loved the illustrations and while it was hard to pick a favorite picture, the dashing young redcoats might win the day......more
Ugh, that went downhill fast with stupid oh so stooopid government agencies, though the "Dead Presidents" might just be the worst I've ever come acrosUgh, that went downhill fast with stupid oh so stooopid government agencies, though the "Dead Presidents" might just be the worst I've ever come across. The only redeeming feature was the 80s flashback. ...more
Worked better then the first volume, allowing for the secondary characters to carry the weight, which let Spot and his Ape grandfather shine. FrankensWorked better then the first volume, allowing for the secondary characters to carry the weight, which let Spot and his Ape grandfather shine. Frankenstein monster lady isn't working and neither are the monster hunters, but it is getting better so I have hope....more
I picked this up because, well, I'm loving the TV Series. This isn't the TV Series. Not even close. What Rob Thomas has done is taken a derivative comI picked this up because, well, I'm loving the TV Series. This isn't the TV Series. Not even close. What Rob Thomas has done is taken a derivative comic and made an engaging show. As for this derivative comic, think Being Human, with a little Buffy, and a tiny bit of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not to my taste at all. Though I appreciate the clear classification system of supernatural entities. ...more
Jane and Vincent have been accompanying Melody and her new husband on their wedding tour of the continent. Leaving the newlyweds at Trieste, Jane and Vincent take ship to Murano. Lord Byron has given the Vincents an open invitation to visit him in Venice, which is a nice cover for what they plan to do in Murano. They have long wanted to visit the famed glassmakers there after their discovery about weaving magic into glass to make it portable and not tethered to the earth in a fixed locale. The couple hope that with improved techniques and materials they can get reliable results. Yet as Napoleon rallied and invaded Belgium when they were first experimenting with this idea, they are once again derailed by outside influences.
This time they are set upon by pirates who, while ransoming them and hence not enslaving them, take all their possessions and leave Vincent with a nasty concussion. Finding Byron away from home they are struck with the realization that they are destitute. A kind man from the infamous boat journey takes them in and gives them everything they could need till either Byron returns or they are able to alert their families. Only sometimes kind men have ulterior motives and the Vincents could be in far more trouble then they could even guess. In fact pirates might be a welcome relief. Just don't tell Jane's mother about the pirates, she'll never forgive Vincent.
There are few authors out there which I will drop everything for. Phone calls go unanswered, emails pile up, work deadlines get stretched to breaking point. If it wasn't for the fact that food keeps me going and therefore keeps me reading I don't think I would remember to eat. Even on a re-read of these books I have found myself reverting to these habits that are usually only employed when I first hold the book in my hands. My love of these books has grown and developed over time, much like the books themselves. They are no longer just Jane Austen fanfic with magic, they're so much more! The books are part history, part fantasy, part alternate reality, there's just so much to love about them that I really can't stress enough that you should go out right now and get yourself all the books, because the first won't be enough.
So what keeps me coming back to Mary's series, seeing as I have just devoured the first four books in quick succession yet again? Aside from the fact that I love anything Regency (ahem Regency Magic) and Mary captures the feeling of the time period by sprinkling in historic details without inundating us with information, she has created a world where the magic just works. I'm not talking about works as in you say a spell and wow a light goes on, or even that it's successful in that something magical happens, I'm saying in the way she has created how magic is done just makes sense. The way magic resides in the ether out of the visible range and is brought forth and woven into something visible, either temporary or lasting, just works, it makes sense. Add to that the manipulation of ether outside the visible spectrum, such as cold and hot, as being dangerous, and the system just clicks into place.
As an artist myself, the way you think creatively, the way work takes a toll on you physically and mentally, Mary just nails it. While Jane would blush if I went into specifics, the issue with her "flower" I totally get. There is such a simpatico going on between me and Jane with our feelings and our physical beings that I am right there with her every step of the way. While yes, there is this part of me going, Jane is me, there's a happier part of me going Jane is Jane. She is an amazing heroine, she doesn't just have a spine, she has spine enough for both her and Vincent, supporting them through their trials and hardships, making plans, taking names, befriending nuns, it's just perfect.
And those hardships. Mary perfectly captures the day to day struggle of someone who once didn't have to worry about where the next meal will come from. The shame of being less then you were and being indebted to others and having your name sullied. Wondering if there will be shelter, if there will be food, if you will be warm. Valour and Vanity shows the flip side of Regency life. It's not all ballrooms and magic, it can be working on the street in danger of fainting just hoping to bring money home for some food or wood for the fire. And the scene where Jane buys a bar of soap. The fact that a bar of soap can be such a luxury and such a source of contention. But I can say, there is something so amazing that something as small as a little bar of soap that can subtly change your outlook. But I do also look at Jane's life and think, I am glad I grew up knowing how to cook and clean. There can be something said for self-reliance.
Now speaking of those nuns... they are just one of the many aspects that made this book so awesome. The blurbs comparing this installment to Ocean's Eleven aren't wrong. Only I would personally choose Ocean's Twelve, having seen it twice in theatres it's a better movie for many reasons; it has an awesome soundtrack, has a part in Italy, I believe even in Venice, has an amazing Chachi joke, makes more fun of itself with meta humor, and has Eddie Izzard. Here we have glamourists, nuns, pirates, puppet shows, disguises, the Eleventh Doctor, breaking and entering, there is just so much awesome that it's hard to pinpoint what makes it work so well unless you count the fact that everything works so seamlessly together.
The thing I found interesting is you don't really think of heists starting before this past century. Sure there were pirates and brigands and all number of baddies who did all number of innumerable nasty things, but the heist feels like a more modern invention. In fact the definition of heist shows the word being an Americanism from the twenties and even references cars to define it. Aside from Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery, while being Victorian in conceit, but still very much a product of the seventies, I can't think of a successful book that combines a 19th century setting with an elaborate heist. For this alone Valour and Vanity should be held extraordinary and a must read, if not for every other reason I mentioned. Oh, and of course, me being a pusher for this series. Go on! You know you want to read it......more
Jane and Vincent have been recuperating at Long Parkmeade after the trials and tribulations they faced in France. Though spending so much time with Jane's family is hard on her, she can see it's excessively wearying for her husband. Luckily a commission in London means they are not long for the city. Jane though feels a tug of pity for her sister. Here is Melody, trapped far away from eligible bachelors and aging more and more with every passing season. Jane impulsively decides to help Melody by taking her with them to London. Jane and Vincent can work during the day and throw parties and go to receptions in their spare time so that Melody gets a chance at the happiness her sister has attained.
London though is in a state of upheaval. The unnaturally cold weather means that crops are failing and people are looking for someone to blame, and they focus on the Coldmongers, a subgroup within glamourists that dangerously use glamour outside the visible spectrum and therefore have a short life expectancy. There is also the Irish Question and lingering hostilities towards the French. Because of Jane and Vincent's notoriety as the Prince Regent's Glamourists as well as Vincent being the son of Lord Vebury, they soon are dragged into the world of politics and their entire life is on show for the world. Will they be able to save their marriage, England, and get Melody married? That might take a little magic to pull off.
Re-reading Without a Summer I think that I might have maligned the book too much previously. I felt like it was such a departure for the final forth of the book from everything that came before that it was a square peg in a round hole. It was waving at sharks and thinking of perhaps jumping over them. I was so focused on what annoyed me that I was over-analyzing everything and almost searching for faults when I should have been enjoying the narrative shift. Each of the five books in this series has embraced a different genre, so to speak. We started with the traditional Austenesque book, Shades of Milk and Honey, moved onto espionage and war with Glamour in Glass, later Valour and Vanity would embrace the heist genre, while here we have politics and all that entails, from court to courting if you will. While I'm not the biggest fan of courtroom dramas, always liking the first half-hour of Law and Order over the second, knowing that it was coming I was able to look at the book more objectively and realize that I loved it just as much as the others. See, I have learned to admit when I'm wrong, and that's a big step for me.
But I think my opinions on Regency court procedure were very much formed by my hatred of Death Comes to Pemberley. I know she's dead, but I can not ever forgive P.D. James for this book hinging on old obscure British laws and courtroom antics. This one book did more harm then anything previously to make me come to revile courtroom drama. The tropes of surprise witnesses, the fainting of women in the gallery, please. While the narrative of Without a Summer did naturally lead itself to court, did it really have to bring forward all the problems of Jane and Vincent's marriage into public view? Hinting at the lewdness of Jane occasionally wearing men's garb, and perhaps that was because of Vincent's sexual proclivities that made his father hire the prostitute for him that was the center of their earlier fight? Blah blah blah. While I know great worldbuilding takes everything and every aspect of society into consideration, I could have done with a little more magic and a lot less mundane martial law.
Moving on from what nagged me let's embrace that which delights me. The true history being magically woven into this alternate history was staggeringly good. It's not just the bigger changes that captured my imagination, but the little ones, the fact that the battle of Waterloo never happened so that Waterloo Bridge is now Quatre Bras Bridge was a nice little touch, and all down to the Vincents in their previous adventure. But I really loved how Kowal tied in the frigid temperatures of 1816, known as "The Year Without a Summer," into not just the politics of the book, but into people's belief systems. Just think, snow in summer? You'd be more then a little concerned with this now wouldn't you?
The average person doesn't grasp that weather can not be controlled by glamour. Therefore people look for a scapegoat to explain away this problem, and the Coldmongers make a perfect target. They are specialized glamourists who deal with temperature. Even other glamourists don't know much about what they do, only knowing how dangerous it is to mess with the elements of hot and cold. They are poor, they are not understood, and they make a far more logical scapegoat then a volcano half a world away, which was actually the true reason for these bizarre meteorological conditions. Plus, this generally accepted belief of their culpability means that Vincent's father is able to politically exploit the situation to his own gain. Just sheer genius. Or should I say evil genius if I'm talking about Lord Verbury?
Though what I think I didn't really get the first time I read this book is that it's heroine isn't Jane, it's Melody. I just thought that Jane had had a brain transplant and that Melody was awesome. It never dawned on me that this was on purpose. Jane comes across as a little bit of a naive bigot. I know Jane had a sheltered life and was a bit oblivious to things before the arrival of Vincent in her life... but there's naive and then there's ignorance. All her opinions seemed to be based on "wild supposition instead of fact." She jumps to conclusions, has an obvious wariness of anyone Irish, despite the fact that she's working for them, and expresses astonishment at people of different skin colors. But what this does is gives Melody room to shine. Because while she has always been "the pretty one" somehow Jane hijacked her story.
In Shades of Milk and Honey Melody didn't get a HEA, she got stuck in the country with her parents while her sister got freedom and love. Melody has only ever been valued for her looks. It's nice to have our preconceptions turned on their heads. Melody has developed in other ways, she knows about current events and politics. She doesn't care that glasses will mare her beautiful face so long as she can see. She has taken her inability to excel at certain things, like glamour, and developed her mind to compensate. Melody has evolved into this strong independent woman and if Jane looks a little bad in comparison, well, think how Melody has felt all these years being valued only for her beauty? Just another stereotype exploded in artful fashion by Mary Robinette Kowal. ...more
Jane and Vincent have become quite the powerful couple. Working side by side they have elevated Vincent's art, their art, to a new level. The Vincents are the toast of London, with the Prince Regent throwing a dinner in their honor in recognition of the magnificent grotto they have created for his opulent New Years festivities. Yet being a woman Jane is confined to societal expectations, and the lack of recognition that goes with it. Even newspapers articles praising the work done for the Prince Regent omit her entirely. Jane doesn't want to be easily pushed aside after dinner when the men sit and talk and the women "retire." Jane has no desire to retire! She wants to be next to Vincent discussing magic and politics and all the things that matter in the world, not shut up in some parlor till the men deign to come to them! These after dinner traditions make her realize more then anything how lucky she is to have found Vincent, who views her as his equal.
The question of how to follow up their success leads them to consider a different path. They have some freedom at the moment and they never did have a honeymoon... With the continent recently open for travel with the exile of Napoleon, Vincent suggests a visit to his fellow glamourist, M. Chastain in Belgium. Not only has M. Chastain created a school for glamourists, but he has created a new technique that Vincent longs to see for himself. To travel with her husband and be surrounded by others able to work their craft and to perhaps learn more than she was able to learn herself is a dream come true to Jane. Though the journey there is not without peril. The continent is not as safe as they had hoped. Troops are rallying for Napoleon and it is rumored that he shall escape Elba and make an attempt on reclaiming his throne.
Being surrounded by glamour is inspirational to Jane and she stumbles upon an idea while playing with M. Chastain's daughter on the steps inside the house. What if you could capture a glamour in glass, thus making it portable? In particular, what if they tried it with Vincent's Sphere Obscurcie, which makes a person invisible, but only in a fixed location. The Vincents don't see this revelation as anything that could be used as a tactical benefit in armed combat, but others do. This discovery could mean defeat or victory at the hands of Napoleon. A discovery the Bonapartists would gladly kill for. Though the return of Napoleon isn't the only hitch that has been thrown into Jane's world. She has discovered she has a condition that will not allow her to work glamour. She is with child. Will Vincent still love her if they are no loner able to work side by side and she where to become a more traditional wife? As she quickly sees, Vincent is already keeping secrets from her and not confiding as much as he used to now that she is no longer with him at all times. Yet, when Vincent is threatened Jane might be the only one able to save him.
The declaration of my adoration of Glamour in Glass that started the first review I wrote of this book almost three years back now hasn't changed. As I return to this series I am even more enamoured of the world these books have created. Each installment in this series just finds me more and more enthralled. Instead of just continuing on the trajectory she created in Shades of Milk and Honey, making more Austenesque books, Mary instead delves deeper into the time creating a richer tapestry then Jane Austen ever did. While the mix of magic and the Regency world was what captured me initially, Mary has added in a level of French history that I am always drawn to, ie, the despotic wacko, Napoleon. How could you not love magic and deceit and Napoleonic spies? Napoleon and his hundred days, sigh. It is literally in my blood to be drawn to his time period. My great great great however many greats needs to be there, relative was a high muckety-muck for Napoleon, François Joseph Lefebvre, the Duc de Danzig. Family legend always had it that he had actually abandoned Napoleon during the hundred days, turns out, that wasn't quite the case... but, well, would you like to say you rallied to him? At least François's portrait is still at Versailles...
But the history is just a richness and plot contrivance that aids the deeper themes of the book; that of love and passion. As Vincent has shown to Jane, the most wonderful, the most true art is seated in our passions. The true artist thrives on their emotions and is driven by them. This passion makes us artists capable of things we didn't even think we could do, and I'm not just saying pulling a week of all-nighters sewing beads on a David Bowie puppet, though I have done that. Glamour in Glass pointedly shows how much our passions are able to push us beyond what we thought we could endure and achieve. Being driven by their passions leads to Jane and Vincent's new discoveries and new techniques, such as literally incising glamour into glass to create a portable invisibility field. But the heart of the matter is in their connection, their passion for each other. Because of this Jane is able to save her husband's life, quite literally. She is driven to create an elaborate and ultimately successful rescue attempt for Vincent all by herself because her ingenuity and drive is powered by her passion.
It is this love and passion that is so achingly perfect. When I think of what true love means, the marriage of true minds, it is the love embodied by Jane and Vincent. Jane is chaffed by the restrictions of her sex, she is a modern and amazingly capable woman who is not of her time. Vincent sees this and loves this in her. They are a modern couple who defy the expectations and mores of the time they live in. Vincent is even willing to buck the Prince Regent so that Jane can partake in after-dinner conversation instead of retiring to her designated seat in the parlor with the other women. They rely on and support each other in a way that makes the heart ache to have something so precious. Their love is so strong that they aren't shoved into the stereotypical romance tropes where the damsel in distress is rescued by the knight on a white steed in shining armor. Their love allows Jane to be the rescuer.
It is this love and passion that is what will last of their legacy. Because what interests me about their chosen art form is it's transient nature. A Glamoural is almost performance art. It is pulled from the ether and will one day return. It is fixed, it cannot move, and is meant to be an adornment that can easily be changed, almost as easy as redecorating. I can't help but think of the three months that Vincent and Jane spent creating the grotto for the Prince Regent's ball. It is a one night spectacle. Created for a single event and then it will be torn asunder. Gone in a flash to be replaced by the next sensation. The thing that always drew me to sculpt and build and paint was that after you were done you had something physically left over. Some tangible proof of your exertions. But then I started doing theatre, and in theatre you build something, you sweat and toil and in the end, after the run, you tear it all down. This was so hard for me to accept. To willingly destroy what you had made because the time limit was done. So while I ponder the inevitability and the end of all things, at least the love of Jane and Vincent lives on in Mary's "Histories". Their love is one for the ages. ...more
Jane and Melody Ellsworth are as different as two sisters can be. Jane is starting to accept the inevitability of her spinsterhood. At 28, there is no hope of finding a husband, particularly when Mr. Dunkirk, the man who holds a special place in her heart, is also the object of Melody's affections. Jane knows her beauty is no match to Melody's. Even if Jane is adept in the magical arts and can make the most fabulous glamours and illusions, she herself knows that men prefer beauty over brains. But more importantly, she would never stand in the way of Melody's happiness. Soon the small group of friends in Dorchester receives a few additions to their ranks. Mr. Dunkirk's younger sister Beth arrives, but the withdrawn and sallow young girl with a mysterious past is nothing to what is happening at the Viscountess's. Not only is her favorite, and need it be said, dashing, nephew, Captain Livingston, is arriving after years away, but she has also hired the famous Glamourist Mr. Vincent to make a wooded wonderland of her dining hall.
Soon everyone is coming and going between the homes with dinners and strawberry picnics, and all manner of enjoyments. Jane starts to hope that perhaps her sisters affections for Mr. Dunkirk are waning, as Jane befriends his sister and starts to hope that he might indeed have feelings for her, not Melody. The course of love never runs smooth though, neither does felicity between sisters. Melody and Jane have a falling out because Melody is willing to do anything to ensnare her man, even fain injury. Can talent and brains when out over conniving beauty? Or will the answer to true happiness be something and someone different than Jane ever thought.
Shades of Milk and Honey is like the best possible Jane Austen mash-up, drawing threads from her entire oeuvre. It's like if Elinor and Marianne had a major falling out with secret engagements to multiple parties. Then on top of everything, throw in some magic! The book is very much a slow burn. For a long time you just enjoy the routine of the characters very much pulled from the pages of Austen. The domesticity of everyday life is here on the pages for us to fall into. But instead of just painting or working on embroidery, the characters are using magic to enhance the world around them. There are the dances, there are the grand diners, and there are the arguments over fabrics at the modiste. Yet under the guise of Jane Austen fanfiction, like the threads of ether invisible to the naked eye used in a glamour, Mary Robinette Kowal is not only building an ending that packs a punch with the sheer number of Austenian endings happening simultaneously, but a deeper story about art and passion and love.
The magical element has this book being categorized as in the vein of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. While I can see the connections, one couldn't with two books both set in Regency England and employing the use of magic, but I think they are truly very different.Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has a far more faerie aspect. But more then that, for all the comparisons to Austen, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a far more masculine book with female undercurrents. Whereas Shades of Milk and Honey is derived more directly from Austen and stays within the female sphere. In fact, I will assert that, despite being of the same subset genre of the other Regency Magic books out there, Shades of Milk and Honey is so uniquely its own that it sets itself apart by the cunning deviations of magical usage.
In all the books I've read over the past few months set during this time and dealing with magic, the magic itself has practical applications. The magic is used for defeating foes, vanquishing Napoleon, this is, after all, the prime time to vanquish him, and other active endeavors. Now I'm not saying that the magic system here won't try to embrace this down the road, I have after all read this series before, but in this first volume the magic doesn't have many practical uses, magic is just art. Magic, or, as I should say, glamour, is just another womanly art, to be lumped in with embroidery, painting, and playing the piano. In fact glamour can enhance these already existing arts with subtle touches. Glamour is a home art, and is a skill that is recommended for a good wife to have. A way to add those special touches that make a house a home. The fact that it is womanly, finally giving a legitimate reason for women to swoon, is also why Mr. Vincent's chosen profession as Glamourist causes consternation to his family.
But Mr. Vincent understands the heights to which glamour can reach, and it's Jane's embracing of this revolutionary knowledge, to her, that calls out to the artist in me. The truth is anyone, given time, can become proficient in art or music. They can be technically wonderful, but that is all there is. Every key may be hit, every brushstroke executed to perfection, and yet there is something missing. This is what Mr. Vincent sees in Jane's art. Her studying and her interest in dissecting Vincent's work has given her technical perfection. But without the passion, without the raw emotions channeled into the art, then it can never be moving, it can never take a good artist and make them great. That passion inside you is what makes you strive, makes you see something and be inspired. Makes you always trying, learning, doing. There's a reason the greatest artists are caricatured as being passionate and emotional people, because deep down, if you don't have this, you won't make it.
The love and passion of art that the character of Mr. Vincent embodies is what pulls you into the story. It's as if Darcy and Elizabeth where dueling artists where their passion was expounded upon more, a Regency Zelda and F. Scott if you will. Jane's development from a retiring spinster to passionate artist because of the revelations gleaned from Mr. Vincent's journal literally took my breath away with it's beauty, simplicity, and passion. The scene where Jane gives way to all those bottled up emotions and creates the grove of trees in her room, it brought tears to my eyes. Taking an art form that during this time period was just an accomplishment for a young lady to possess as she is made the prefect meek wife and channeling that into a way to express all those bottled up and repressed emotions makes passionate glamour perhaps the most magical discovery of all. ...more
Life in Three Pines is about to change forever. Jane Neal is a doyenne of Three Pines and just one of the many eccentrics loved by the residents. ButLife in Three Pines is about to change forever. Jane Neal is a doyenne of Three Pines and just one of the many eccentrics loved by the residents. But Jane Neal has a secret. She has painted her whole life but she has never let anyone see her paintings, let alone invited them into her house beyond the kitchen. Jane has decided that the time has come to show the world her art, and in particular her small group of friends. But just two days after being accepted into the area's prestigious juried art show she is found dead in the woods. Her death looks like it might be a hunting accident, it is afterall Thanksgiving Weekend and the bow hunters are out in force. But Chief Inspector Armand Gamace of the Sûreté du Québec who is called in early on that Thanksgiving morning isn't sure Miss Neal's death is an accident. The aim of the arrow is too accurate and the murder weapon is missing. Beneath the placid surface of Three Pines Jane wasn't the only one with secrets to hide. After a shocking gay bashing a few days before Jane's murder, it looks like this small town is going into some kind of revolt and it's up to Armand Gamace and his team to bring back the peace.
I've heard about Louise Penny and Chief Inspector Gamace for a few years now. But a cozy murder mystery series tends to be a comfort read for me so this book has been on a back burner, waiting, while my bloggerly duties took over my reading. A little over two years ago when they announced that this first book was being adapted for television starring everyone's favorite brooding detective, Inspector Lynley, ahem, I mean Nathaniel Parker, as Gamace, I made a note that I should definitely move Still Life up the tbr pile. Yet it wasn't until my mother's book club chose it as one of their monthly reads that I finally bit the bullet and devoured Still Life. This book is not a masterpiece, not by a long shot, and falls prey to many problems of the first time writer, but there is something homey about it, something about the community created with the cast of characters that makes me feel deep in my bones that this is a series that will get better as it goes on and I want to read those further stories.
The cast of characters is both the book's strength and weakness. Penny is creating a community that we will want to return to. To me it's like the Candian Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, obviously without the supernatural element. But the thing about the Sookie books is that the mysteries were secondary, it was spending time with this well-rounded cast of characters that made you keep coming back for more. The problem with the cast of characters in Three Pines is that they have potential, but are not well rounded. They are very much the stereotypical cast of characters. The gay couple who run the bistro and bed and breakfast and say "Bitch please" and "Slut" but in a "loving" manner. The large black lady who is a fount of knowledge and down home advice. The kooky artist with the flyaway hair. I could go on and on. But all I'd be doing is listing superficial two-dimensional traits. Yet that's all these characters have! Going forward Penny will have to flesh these characters out because people aren't so superficial and can't be summed up in a catchphrase. Which is why I'm more excited for the future books then I was while reading this one.
The character who harmed this book the most though is Gamace's subordinate, Agent Yvette Nichol. I hated her more then the killer. Yes, I spent an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about her death, that's how much I hated her. Even if she was the red herring baddie used to distract us while Penny waited to reveal the true villain, she was such an annoyance that I could almost not read any part of the book she was in. We've all known people in our lives whose sole outlook on the world is how everything revolves around them. They are in their own little microcosm of unreality where they are the center of the universe. Anything that doesn't matter to them or would inconvenience them is pushed aside and forgotten as being irrelevant. I have sadly even had some close friends who lived in their own little world where I felt like an intruder in their very self-centered life story. This is Agent Nichol. Any advice Gamace gives her obviously doesn't apply to her, because she knows best. Nothing sinks in, nothing latches on. The murder would have been wrapped up right away if not for her unwillingness to be a team player. She can't be on a team, because that would mean she's not the star. Plus she views her mistakes not as her fault but the cause of others, making her view herself as a victim. Could someone please make her a victim, the kind in a body bag with a toe tag? Because seriously, if she's in the next book I don't think I can read it.
An overall trait of all characters that was a failure in Still Life was the overuse of patois. Local sayings and even Quebecois swears were scattered throughout the book like pixy dust. Instead of adding flavor and color to the book it seemed forced into the narrative at random moments like we might be on the verge of forgetting the book is set in Quebec so here's a short sharp reminder. The patois didn't come naturally from the narrative, like it should. It felt like a gimmick. Like a mediocre substitute to actually bothering with some worldbuilding. Why would Penny bother to show us the world of Quebec when she could just tell us with a few words? This is where her greenness as an author shows. It's show not tell, not the other way around. Again, my hope is that as she grows she learns more how to develop her story and her world. Right now it's very two dimensional, when what we need is three.
Yet, despite all these nagging issues, they could all easily come under the heading of issues experienced by first time writers. They can be fixed in time. The core of her book, the mystery and the life of Jane, these ephemeral things that trip up even experienced writers succeeded here, making me hopeful for the future. But it's Jane's home that captured my imagination the most. I wanted into that house that even her closest friends were barred from so badly that every time there was a delay I almost audibly cried out. For us readers outside Canada we might not get the connection between Jane's house and the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. She is beloved in Canada and their answer to Grandma Moses, only with more cats. I was lucky enough to visit Nova Scotia a decade ago and see her artwork that is on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. More importantly I was able to see her house which is situated fully in this Gallery. While I won't spoil the reveal in Still Life, let me say that Maud Lewis and Jane Neal had very similar decorating schemes and I think would have gotten along marvelously. ...more