Book Review: Jane Steele

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Image for the cover of Jane SteeleTitle: Jane Steele
Author: Lyndsay Faye
Pub date: 2017
ISBN:  978-0425283202

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First impressions: A brilliant mash-up of Jane Eyre and serial killer novels, Jane Steele is an utter original in both plot and scope. I cannot gush enough on how much I love this book.


First, I cannot tell a lie. I started this book in the summer of 2017 but my own laziness that summer in reading was heightened when the print copy of the book was due back to the library before I finished. Sometime in the early spring of this year, I prowled through my library’s ebook collection and lo! Jane Steele was available to check out. Again, laziness intervened and finally, I gave myself a stern talking on checking out titles and not reading them, sat myself down and read. (I read seven books the week we were on vacation in May.  Feast or famine!) I am kicking myself for not finishing this last year!

Jane Steele tells the story of Jane Steele whose life runs parallel to Jane Eyre’s. Once Jane Steele’s father dies, she and her mother are whisked from their grand house by Jane’s aunt and creepy son to a small cottage on the property. One day, Jane accidentally kills her cousin who attempts to rape her and not long after, Jane’s mother succumbs to her madness from long held grief and dies. While the house was to be inherited by Jane upon her father’s demise when Jane was a toddler, her mother leaves behind no document or paperwork listing as such. Jane is shuttled off to a girl’s school where she accidentally murders the head teacher and this is when the story takes off.

When you think “Jane Eyre mixed with serial killers” as a pause in the material you will read, I can assure you it’s not as trite as it sounds. Faye takes very good care in honoring Jane Eyre, in fact, Jane Steele mentions much throughout the book Jane Eyre is her favorite novel and quotes from the book begin each chapter as well as Steele’s fondness for noting the parallels in their lives.

It’s meta upon meta.

Steele, for I must call her that to prevent further confusion, pulls herself up by her proverbial bootstraps, killing others until her body count is up to five, and attempts to win back her home. She changes her last name and presents herself as a governess to the new lord of the manor, Mr. Thornfield, for Thornfield’s adopted charge. The secrets that bound Thornfield are not a mad woman in an attic, but PTSD of sorts as well as secrets from his time in the Punjabi war. Coupled with Steele’s secrets including those dastardly murders of hers, Steele must reconcile her feelings for Thornfield along with her past. Will he accept her if he knows she’s a murderess?

You might be thinking, “No! She’s a murderess!” which yes, she is but she has very good reason to do so. She’s not a female Jack the Ripper but rather she kills accidentally and for good reason. Sorta like Dexter.

Jane Steele‘s subtitle is A Confession which it very much is with occasionally breaking the fourth wall as the story progresses. This plot device does not feel contrived or heavy-handed which was a bit of concern when I started reading and I was relieved to find out Faye handled that device with deft and care.

The book comes in at a hefty 500 pages which can be daunting to some but I promise the story will fly by quick. Steele is very much a character with whom you can empathize and hell, even cheer for. For its originality, character development, and unique take on Jane Eyre, I highly, highly recommend this book.

(I cannot leave this post off without quoting the following from the author’s note in the book because I genuinely lol’d

…if (Emily) Brontë lived today, it wouldn’t be impossible to picture her replying to troll tweets and one-star Amazon reviews…)

 

 

 

Book Review: The Madwoman Upstairs

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Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell
Pub date: 2016
ISBN: 978-1501126307

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First impressions: A wholly unique tale of the last remaining fictional survivor of the Bronte family, their legacy, as well as her grief of loss, a tiny bit of romance, and a mystery to bring closure to very important things(tm). I was captivated by the story and found myself falling in love with Samantha Whipple within the first few pages. An engaging and clever read that I was ultimately disappointed it had to end.


Whenever I read a book review on an upcoming or new published book, “unique,” “original,” or “clever” get thrown around a lot which makes me pucker my lips. I’m a firm believer there is rarely any “unique,” “original,” or “clever” works.

Reader, I was wrong. (I was so wrong, the next book I review also is unique, original, and clever.)

Samantha Whipple is a first year at Old College, Oxford University. Her mother left their family when she was a teen, her beloved father had recently died, and she was the last inheritor to the Bronte legacy only there isn’t a legacy to be inherited and if there is, no one in the Whipple family have any idea what it is despite the insistance of Bronte scholars and academics.  Even with the romance as one of the subjects, this book is not chick lit or a romance but it is a woman’s story of how she works through grief, romantic love, academia, redemption, and finally forgiveness.

The Madwoman Upstairs was published a few years ago but it’s only recently I’ve seen it pop up in my internet reads as comparisons to new Bronte related fiction. I had a blase attitude towards it—the summary does the book no favors but once I got into the story, I became obsessed with finishing the book ASAP. Samantha is feisty, snarky, and in emotional pain—all the things I, and perhaps many, can relate to. Her relationship with her mother is fraught as she reconciles her mother’s relationship with not only her own but with Samantha’s father. Samantha is academically gifted and is often compared to her father who was a brilliant novelist and academic but gives two nothings about her place in academia.

Then there is the Bronte legacy.

The Madwoman Upstairs is many things and surprisingly does not get lost in its many things, but its heart is a mystery of Samantha reconciling and understanding her father more after his death and the dogged pursuit of Bronte scholars absolutely intent on the Whipple family to cough up an imaginary legacy. Samantha is on the hunt for the last remaining pieces of her father’s life, set up as a treasure hunt reminiscent of her childhood, and as she digs deeper into the mystery, Samantha not only learns much about her father and family but also about herself.

It’s rare for a debut to come out of the gate so strong with a finely tuned plot, the writing is sharp and clever (I tell you, I live for Samantha’s dialogue), and there is not a word wasted. At times the story is heart-breaking and uproarious and if you enjoy Bronte related fiction it’s a book not to be missed.

Book Review: Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters

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Title: Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters
Author: Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Pub date: 2014
ISBN: 978-1627791830

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First impressions: Imaginary and imaginative text messages from fictional and non-fictional characters that will have you in stitches.


Originally appearing on The Toast (RIP), Daniel Mallory Ortberg cultivated a following with their insightful, witty, and often painfully funny recreations of texts as if the characters and persons from the literature and history were writing them. Ortberg takes no prisoners covering from Gilgamesh to The Wife of Bath to Gone With The Wind. From Scarlett’s drama with Rhett and Ashely to William Blake’s texting his wife that no, he did not draw anything horrifying for her.

Examples:

Jane Eyre
Rochester: JANE / MY LITTLE SUNBEAM / WHERE ARE YOU / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE
Jane: I’m taking a walk / be back before dinner
Rochester: AH YES MY CAGED SPIRIT / COMMUNE WITH NATURE AND UPON YOUR RETURN RELATE TO ME THE VAGRANT GLORIES OF THE RUINED WOOD
Jane: do you really want me to describe my walk with you
Rochester: MORE THAN ANYTHING YOU POCKET WITCH
Jane: it’s fairly cloudy out / looks like rain soon
Rochester: AHHH TO THINK MY LITTLE STARLING JANE SHOULD RETURN / TO PERCH ON MY BROKEN MALFORMED SHOULDER / SINGING A SONG OF GREY AND WRACKING SKIES / MAKES MY HEART SWELL TO BURST
Jane: all right

Even Jane is included:

Pride and Prejudice
Mrs. Bennet: You must see to it your sister invites Mr. Bingley, Lizzie
Lizzie: He isn’t here, Mother
Mrs. Bennet: isn’t here? / He must be here / The ball is in seven days / and if he is not here then how will we convince our Mr. Darcy to attend?
Lizzie: Mr. Darcy is not here either
Mrs. Bennet: no? / But I thought he was in London / for business / and return in time for the ball
Lizzie: No / he’s not in London / he is on a ship / he is going to war
Mrs. Bennet: but this is terrible news
Lizzie: There is an actual war going on right now / against Napoleon
Mrs. Bennet: How could this have happened
Lizzie: He was commissioned months ago
Mrs. Bennet: And Mr. Bingley?
Lizzie: Probably yes

Texts from Jane Eyre is an anthology of sorts that you can dip in and out of and the chapters are well marked if you’re looking for a particular text to make the dipping in and out of easier. Clocking in at 240 pages, it shouldn’t take you too long if you read them from start to finish (which I did).  90% of the texts are hilarious while some are obviously Ortberg phoning it in but overall, whether if you’re an avid reader, like satire, or need a gift for someone who seems to have it all, you can’t go wrong with Texts from Jane Eyre.

Book Review: Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan

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Image of the book cover for Camp Austen by Ted Scheinman

Title: Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan
Author: Ted Scheinman
Pub date: March 6, 2018
ISBN: 978-0865478213

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First impressions (ha!): the book is excessively diverting (double ha!).

I recently decided to get my reading lists in order.  Between books I’ve bought, books I check out from the library, and books I review for No Flying, No Tights and NetGalley, my reading list is a hot mess and I tend to return tons of books I never got around to reading. So one day I sat down and drew up a list of what books I had in chronological order from whom they were from and when the books were due. Not surprisingly this list has been instrumental in finishing titles in quick succession and it was even more helpful when I took MegaBus to Chicago last weekend for C2E2.* As the adventure was 14 hours round trip, I downloaded nearly 20 ebooks for reading. What can I say, I can comprehensively read on average of 75 pages per hour and I was ambitious.

An hour before I arrived in Chicago, I started Camp Austen and found myself surprised we were at the bus stop in what seemed like minutes. While the prose teetered between academic and layman’s terms, Scheinman is at first an academic, this did not deter the book as an engrossing read. While he does make use of popular vernacular such as “Lizzy Bennet dropping the mic on Lady Catherine in Volume II of Pride and Prejudice,”  I did not find distracting or out of place and it seemed appropriate in Scheinman’s balance between pop culture with a bit of high brow thrown in since some academics who write books to appease the general populace tend to get caught up in their $5 words with disregard to their audience. This is not Scheinman as he presents, and sometimes worships, Austen as a lingua franca: that commonality between the academics and fans where scholarship can expand (and yes fun can be had). Scheinman goes on to say he has no desire to protect Jane from the masses nor the masses from her. Take that crusty academics.

The story is thus: Scheinman finds one of his mentors wants to do Jane Austen Summer Camp  (inspired by the Dickens Universe at UC Santa Cruz) where there would be a week of lectures, balls, and other refinements. Additionally, Scheinman’s mother is well thought of through the Austen world and since she was laid up for most of Scheinman’s time with the Janeites with bad knees, Mrs. Scheinman’s popularity granted Scheinman himself easier access to the upper echelons of Janeiteism for this project that may not have been accessible to him without that introduction. Scheinman also splices his easy entryway into the story and is upfront about his easy admittance and it’s clear while he’s doing his mother a favor, he does indeed find himself as an “accidental superfan.” With that in mind, Scheinman as well juxtaposes his work with the camp with his introduction to Austen, via his mother, Austen’s works, and his travels to AGMs which is all research for a series he’s writing on Austen superfans for a magazine (he doesn’t say which).

While Scheinman admits he’s stepped back from the Austen world since his days of dancing and playing Mr. Darcy,  he writes about Janeites with much respect while poking a bit of fun on the superfans who take on Janeitism to a whole new level. He provides the example of an Austen themed tea company whose slogan was a cheeky take Austen was a loose woman (referring to Austen liked her tea loose) and one Janeite proclaimed haughtily how DARE the tea company imply Jane was “loose” (in regards to her morals). Even I rolled my eyes at that one and Scheinman agrees even Jane would have rolled her eyes as well.

Another pleasing theme that runs through the course of the book is Scheinman’s recounting of Austen’s history both personal and professional. He recounts a story of John Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth, a most unsavory character, who may have been the basis for a few of Austen’s villains in her novels. I did not know this. While granted I am not at a superfan level, I do take pleasure in knowing much about Austen’s personal history so reading Camp Austen was a history lesson that turned out to be much desired and fulfilling.

A day or two into C2E2, I found myself awake before my roommates so I headed down to the lounge with my iPad and to get coffee and I then proceeded to finish the book as the sun rose in Chicago. It wasn’t too long before the book was finished and I then closed the Kindle app with a sigh. This is the one failing of Camp Austen: it’s only 160 pages long so it makes for a quick read but additional detail would simply be filler.

I give this book a 5/5 and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is an Austen fan or has a passing interest in Austen since it’s a good introduction to Austen’s world and history coupled with a light critique and observation of the world of her fans and admirers. It’s got something for everyone.

*C2E2 is a comic-con held in Chicago every year and with the exception of 2017, I’ve gone every year since 2012. I’ve only cosplayed once (as the Ninth Doctor from Doctor Who) but I am thinking if one of my BFFs and I don’t go as Good Janet/Bad Janet from the TV show “A Good Place” next year, I’m going to see if I can get my druthers up to go as Lizzy Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and yep, I do adore the movie of the same name).

Book Review: Lizzy & Jane

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Title: Lizzy & Jane
Author: Katherine Reay
Pub date: November 4, 2014
ISBN: 978-1401689735

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Saints preserve us, I am done with this book and I detested every moment I was reading it.

The plot: Lizzy, a chef in New York, has burned out and retreats to Seattle to recharge and take care of her sister, Jane, who has cancer. While in Seattle, Lizzy struggles with who she is, her purpose in life, and how to strengthen, and build, her romantic, familial, and platonic relationships. Which choices will she make and what life will she lead?

(The book does reference Jane Austen but only that Lizzy and Jane are named after the two Bennett sisters and our Lizzy and Jane are Austen fans and often turn to her works for comfort. My mea culpa was I assumed based on the title the book would be a retelling of P&P but I was most certainly wrong.)

At first glance, the plot seems to be your typical chick lit plot which is fine. I do enjoy a bit of chick lit now and then. But ugh. It’s a hot mess.

This book was tedious, boring, and contrved. I nearly threw it against the wall a few times and the only reason why I finished it (five minutes before I wrote this review actually) was because I was hate reading it. Typically I give books the first 50 pages treatment: if you don’t succeed in hooking me within the first 50 pages, I do not finish your book. There are too many good books out in the world that need to be devoured and wasting time on lesser books is a crime.

There was no action. Sure, the characters did things but it was more “we are going to do this” and that lead to “we are going to do that.” The pacing was slow to the point of snooze-worthy and I felt reading this book was like watching paint dry.  I could not connect to any of the characters and I found Lizzy to be a bit on the wishy-washy side and her sister Jane to be a bit of a snot. Sure there are conflicts, like Lizzy and Jane fighting over their relationships with their parents, but it felt forced. The characters seemed to be going through the motion of what they were supposed to be doing rather than feeling what they were doing, you know, like sociopaths.

Note: While this book is not marketed as such, it definitely should be shelved as Christian fiction. I am not against Christian fiction as a genre but I feel the use of God and faith as a plot point should be consistent throughout but here it wasn’t. The first 100 pages were your standard “will they or won’t they” chick lit fare and then BAM! Faith, God, and religion are heavy-handedly thrown in on the characters decision process and I won’t mince words to say this is a bit off-putting.

Reay has a shtick using various Austen and Bronte characters and personalities as the focal point of her books: In addition to Lizzy & Jane, there is The Austen EscapeDear Mr. Knightley, and The Bronte Plot.  I own Dear Mr. Knightley but I have decided not to read it. But! The Austen Escape is time travel to Regency Engand and The Bronte Plot is a nod to my current favorite sisters and both titles are available from the library so I am checking those out and hopefully my mind will be changed on Reay’s writing style.

I’m donating my Lizzy & Jane and Dear Mr. Knightley to my local JASNA group (not only am I a member but also the librarian) in hopes that someone will give them the love I could not. Despite my misgivings, Reay’s books border on 4/5 stars at GoodReads and LibraryThing so her books have some appeal so it’s pretty clear they are not for me.