Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Review: That Potent Alchemy by Tess Bowery

4.5 stars

Regency romances bring to mind the racially homogeneous and strictly gendered world of the Ton, as portrayed by Heyer and so many of her successors. But That Potent Alchemy was a Regency romance in the new mould, featuring POC, working class and genderqueer characters. It was engaging and touching, and I really enjoyed it. 

When the Surrey Theatre finds out that a rival establishment is putting on the same comedy they were planning to perform for the Season, they have to stage another production at short notice, thrusting actress Grace into the world of ballet. As an child prodigy, she danced the stages of Europe to line her father's pockets, and strapping her pointe shoes brings that experience of male exploitation to the fore, along with feelings of wrongness about her female body. 

Isaac, the stage machinist, is fascinated by Grace, who switches between breeches and dresses, and who has no patron. But, for him, the stakes on the new production are higher than ever: he's bet a month's wages against his counterpart at the other theatre as to who can come up with the most spectacular effects for his production. As the Surrey's production of Macbeth (complete with ballet!) gets closer to opening night, Isaac knows that he wants nothing more than to be at Grace's side, but first he'll have to prove to Grace that she can trust him. 

That Potent Alchemy was very much about trust and boundaries, and both themes were written in such an affecting and beautiful way. I was a bit wary of Isaac at first, because of his persistence in pursuing Grace, but the way that he respected Grace's needs and boundaries quickly won me over, as did other little things that demonstrated his lack of toxic masculinity, like this exchange: 
“Ask your sister how half-grown I am,” Thilby leered, and the very notion of Thilby ever getting within arm’s reach of Isaac’s sister, never mind having the chance to despoil her, was so absurd that Isaac laughed along with him. 
“She already told me—how d’you think I know?” (9%)
But this doesn't mean he's an infallible feminist man. He stuffs up, but when he does, he either addresses his mistake immediately and corrects it:
" complete me.” She recoiled, as though his answer offended her.  
"No, never say that! I’m not a rib, to be put back into place in someone else’s chest.”  Oops.
“A fair point,” he conceded. “You are certainly no one’s spare parts.” Isaac sat for a minute, rethought the words he had been going to say. (98%)
Or he apologies, grovels and says the right things when the misguided nature of his actions become clear to him (no example here, just read the book!). Marriage brings up conflicted feelings for Grace because of her gender fluidity, but Isaac gives her enough space to sift through them, saying that he'll wait, or if she doesn't want to get married, then that's fine too. For her part, Grace was a very relatable heroine, with whom I could empathise. Her experiences of being a workhorse for her father at such a young age, and losing her family when she broke ties with him, has made her strong, no-nonsense and assertive, but also vulnerable and starved for affection. 

Grace's gender fluidity was neither gratuitous plot-point nor put aside in any way. Consistently, throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the way that Grace relates to her body and her birth-assigned gender: 
A man’s face had looked back at her in the mirror this morning (3%)
“Some days the world is only right if I move through it as a man.” And some days it seemed just as wrong. Those were days when frills and silks were called for, setting her curls with pale ribbons and taking long walks with Meg. (34%)
There would be no escape from the wrongness with a child inside; no way to see anything but a swollen belly and breasts that didn’t belong to her. (39%) 
It was hard to see where his body ended and hers began, his cock rising from the space between them. It could be hers, this way, a missing limb slotted back where it should have been. (43%) 
Half the time she wasn’t a girl inside at all, and that certainly wasn’t what your average fellow was searching for. (97%)

However, some reviewers on Goodreads - some of them genderqueer - felt like Grace's gender identity was not acknowledged enough. I'm reading from a non-queer perspective, so my judgement here is not the soundest, and should be taken as secondary. One or two reviewers speak of a lack of internal understanding or insight from Grace about her gender identity, but I wonder if some were also referring to something that I thought was odd: Grace - to my memory - never outright expresses her gender fluidity to Isaac. He accepts that, some days, she is going to wear breeches, and that she doesn't want children, but I don't think they ever discuss it directly at any length. I will admit to being unsure about how to regard this. On one hand, it seems as though Grace is omitting a essential part of herself when she shouldn't have to, but on the other, no-one should have to explain or justify their gender identity except of their own volition, and perhaps it is enough for Grace that Isaac has promised to love and accept her as she is

I've said before that I'm a sucker for a well-drawn setting, and That Potent Alchemy was a real treat. Through the cast and crew of the Surrey, the reader is immersed in the world of the Georgian theatre - of Royal patronage, The Scottish Play, primitive stage effects and ghost-lights - while the characters' lives outside the theatre provide insight into a broader working-man's London. Isaac lives with his inn-keeping parents, who were my favourite secondary characters for the way they take Grace under their wing. Isaac's father is the descendant of freedmen from Scotland, while his mother is a white Englishwoman, and their interracial marriage and past in the abolition movement are subtly woven in.

Despite all that I loved about this book, I did find that some of the descriptive writing was not to my taste, particularly at the beginning, with passages like this:
The tent itself seemed to draw closer around them, get smaller, though the furniture didn’t shift at all. Lucy and Raiza’s voices seemed to soften and come from very far away, as though they had gone in to a cave. Grace’s head swam. A moment later (only a moment? It felt longer), Lucy was standing and heading for the tent flap, and Raiza was pinching out the candle wick with long-nailed fingers.
However, this either got more to my taste as the book progressed, or I became more used to Bowery's style (probably the latter). Towards the end, there were some descriptive passages that I thought were beautifully written, and I always connected with the dialogue (the banter between Isaac and Grace was wonderful!) and the characters' introspection. 

This has been a long and quote-heavy review, but consider yourselves lucky, because I highlighted 72 passages on my kindle, which is about 3 or 4 times what I normally do. Between the characters, the setting, the romance arc and the plot (which I haven't even spoken about, but it's good), there was just so much in That Potent Alchemy

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Review: My American Duchess by Eloisa James

3.5 stars

My American Duchess wasn't Eloisa James' best, but an average Eloisa James is still an above-average book. 

American heiress Merry Pelford has been brought to London to find a husband, since her two previous broken engagements have limited her chances in Boston. When Lord Cedric Allardyce proposes, she initially thinks that he's everything she could want in a husband, but quickly comes to realise that that she may have made another mistake, especially since it's his brother, the Duke of Trent, who really interests her. But to break another engagement would bring down even more scandal on herself, and even if she did, it's unlikely that Trent would want a ruined American who doesn't understand the intricacies of Ton etiquette as his Duchess.

This was a book of two halves, each of which had elements that were classic Eloisa James. The first half, where Merry is engaged to the hero's brother, offers the conflicted lusting that James always does so well, while the second half capitalises on the emotions of their marriage, which they initially both consider to be stronger if they don't fall in love. Merry's realisation that she is in love with her husband and the renegotiation of their marriage that follows was gut-wrenching in the same way that we've seen with other already-married couples of James'. 

However, each half also had some things that didn't quite work. While the chemistry between Trent and Merry was strong throughout, the first half featured a lot of pining and not much action, while the early second half had - God help me, I never thought I'd say this - a lot of sex and not much else. Then there's a big emotional disconnect and the moment of darkness that makes the hero realise he loves the heroine. The end.  

And the transition from engaged-to-the-spare to married-to-the-Duke. Man, I do not even know what to say about that transition. For a start, it made absolutely no sense until the epilogue, and even then I remain sceptical about Cedric's redemption. Secondly, having this part in Merry's perspective, when Trent is the one out there arranging things so that he can marry Merry instead of his brother - which nobody tells her about until after the ceremony, by the way, so be prepared for that removal of agency - means that it comes as a massive Deus ex Machina moment. One minute, Merry's being blackmailed into marrying Cedric, the next minute - ta-da - she's actually married Trent and Cedric's left the country. Cue second half about married life. 

Despite the narrative issues, James has retained her ability to tug at the old heartstrings, and that's the reason I can't give this a lower rating than I have. Merry's out of place, first as an American debutante, and then as an American duchess, and there is a lot of poignancy in watching her trying to remake herself into the duchess that she think Trent wants after he rejects her love. Trent doesn't put much stock in romantic love, especially since Merry has already declared herself in love with her previous three fiances, and it's only slowly that he starts to realise the effects of basically telling his wife that she's fickle, a slut for emotional instead of physical intimacy. Her is also dealing with the legacy of his mother's favoritism towards Cedric, which has strained the brothers' relationship, and his father drunkenness, which caused his parents' death in a carriage accident. There's a lot of pathos in this backstory, but it's not used heavy-handedly to make him a tortured hero. 

If My American Duchess had been by a new-to-me author and I'd picked it up, I probably would have been satisfied. But Eloisa James is an auto-buy for me, because I can always rely on her to put forward the perfect escape read, and this wasn't up to that usual standard.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Opinion/Reflection: On Pygmalion, Gender and Emotional Labour

After weeks of particularly bad chronic pain, I turned to one of my all-time favourite comfort movies, My Fair Lady. However, as much as I love it, I am also very aware that the Pygmalion story is part of deeply embedded sexist societal discourses that seek to control and mould women and their behaviour so that they are desirable to men, both sexually, and as people to be around.

For all that Henry asks Eliza to marry him, their relationship is extremely ambiguous, and I've always wondered if he actually has any romantic interest in her, or if he simply wants to secure her emotional labour. Because women's emotional labour is one of the key things behind these discourses: when a random man tells a woman to smile, what he is actually saying is that she must appear happy and at ease so as not to discomfort him, regardless of what she is actually feeling or her right to bodily autonomy. The most important or salient thing about a woman is how she appears to a man, as Henry so astutely realises: 

So, Eliza must not only do the work of transforming herself into a 'lady', but also take on large amounts of emotional labour for Henry, which goes unrecognised, and this is why Henry is so desperate to get her back when she 'runs away'. He doesn't know where anything is, and nothing is running 'as it should'. It is irrelevant that she occasionally objects to taking on this role, because it doesn't change the latent expectation that she will, and the ending - where she returns and all Henry says is "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" - implies that she accepts it as necessity. 

There is also the implication that she should be grateful to do this emotional labour, and grateful for her transformation in general, because it represents 'betterment'. In a situation familiar to many a corporate woman, it is Eliza who does all the work, and Henry who gets all the credit. Nobody acknowledges her achievements, or recognises the legitimacy of her anxiety about her future, to the point that she discusses her own death as a means of escape, which is dismissed merely as female hysteria. However, the film does also show sympathy for Eliza's plight, contrasting Pickering and Higgins' casual misogyny and self-congratulation with Higgins' mother, who understands Eliza's grievances and concerns perfectly. But this still perpetuates a gender divide: women are emotionally intelligent, while men are not. This is the very social stereotype that causes women to have to take on emotional labour in the first place.

Naturally, My Fair Lady takes it's cues from its source material, George Bernard Shaw's play PygmalionDespite the fact that Pygmalion was subtitled 'A Romance', Shaw was apparently horrified at the way stage productions, audiences and critics interpreted and amplified a romantic subtext between Eliza and Henry, and wished the emphasis to remain on his satirisation of the themes of class, independence and transformation. To the modern audience, all of these themes evoke Eliza more than Henry, but Henry's independence as a bachelor was also important to Shaw (McGovern 2011). In order to get rid of "any suggestion that the middle-aged bully and the girl of eighteen are lovers" (Berst p. 22, cited in Ross 2000), Shaw added a footnote to the play, in which he elucidated the fate of the characters after the curtain closed (Eliza marries her beau Freddy and opens a shop, all the while remaining friends with Higgins). The post-script also contains much long-winded philosophising, and is an oddd mix of proto-feminism and misogyny, awareness of class and classism. (According to his Wikipedia page, Shaw was a man of many contradicting opinions, including racial equality and intermarriage and eugenics). Shaw writes of Eliza: 
Such transfigurations have been achieved by hundreds of resolutely ambitious young women since Nell Gwynne set them the example by playing queens and fascinating kings in the theatre in which she began by selling oranges. Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it. This is unbearable, not only because her little drama, if acted on such a thoughtless assumption, must be spoiled, but because the true sequel is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular.
He's working his way up to saying that it should be obvious to the audience, especially women, that Eliza chooses Freddy. After all, he loves her, and is not likely to dominate, bully or beat her. What more can a gal ask for? 

I know very little about Shaw himself, but it strikes me that if he had lived today, he would have been a massive mansplainer, who thinks his work is the best thing since sliced bread, but bad-mouths everything else in the same genre, or using the same archetypes and tropes. Although the name Pygmalion refers to a myth where a sculptor falls in love with his creation and Shaw subtitled the bloody thing 'A Romance', when he wrote this clarifying footnote, he shits massively on romance: 
The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of "happy endings" to misfit all stories
He then works up to the inevitable stereotypes that we still see about romance readers and people who value a good HEA: 
[Higgins is] a standing puzzle to the huge number of uncultivated people who have been brought up in tasteless homes by commonplace or disagreeable parents, and to whom, consequently, literature, painting, sculpture, music, and affectionate personal relations come as modes of sex if they come at all. The word passion means nothing else to them; and that Higgins could have a passion for phonetics and idealize his mother instead of Eliza, would seem to them absurd and unnatural.
When I read that, I'm kind of happy that the romance between Eliza and Henry was drawn out against his will, despite my discomfort with it. It's a beautiful comeuppance to someone so holier-than-thou, not to mention the weird Oedipus complex thing going on. 

But Shaw is long dead, an it's his rendering of the Pygmalion myth that remains. There are numerous films, TV shows and books that have put their own slant Shaw's work, from the original 1935 German film adaption to the 1956 original Broadway production of My Fair Lady and modern adaptations like She's All That and Selfie. There's a post of the top 10 at Heroes and Heartbreakers

Many of the contemporary adaptations have feminist leanings, such as Jeannie Lin's My Fair Concubine, which I reviewed recently and absolutely loved. While these make explicit the fact that pre-transformation Eliza is worthy in her own right, the narrative structure still means that the hero will only discover this once he has forced her to undergo the transformation, which sometimes annoys me because it's so emblematic: men want women to change for them, and then women have to do more emotional labour when men don't like the results they asked for. 

No matter how feminist, I think that a Pygmalion tale with a female Eliza and a male Henry will also contain perturbing implications about the social control of the female person. Perhaps the only way to get rid of these is to gender-swap the roles (please someone write me some gender-swapped Pygmalion romance that are less problematic than Judith Ivory's The Proposition) or to make it into a M/M or F/F, like K J Charles' A Fashionable Indulgence. Charles' work shows that the romance between a Pygmalion and his Galatea does not have to, in any way, detract from the original and central themes of class, independence and transformation. In fact, they augment each other beautifully. Shaw was cremated, but if he'd been buried, I'm sure he'd be turning in his grave at that, the old, anti-romance bigot. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Review: Frozen by L. A. Casey

2 stars

I don't read many seasonal romances, partly because I'm a bit of an Ebenezer Scrooge, and partly because they're almost exclusively about the Northern Hemisphere 'white' Christmas, but since I don't associate that with Christmas, they aren't familiar or comforting in the way that I gather they are meant to be. But Frozen by L. A. Casey was on sale and has a 4.01 rating on Goodreads, so I gave it a go, with mixed results. 

Neala Clarke and Darcy Hart hate each other, but they're forced into each others' company by their families, who are thick as thieves. When their eyes meet over the last doll of a popular children's franchise available anywhere before Christmas, their long-running sniping erupts into a full-out war. Neala needs the doll for her niece, to prove that she can be reliable auntie, while Darcy wants it for his nephew. After a scuffle, Neala leaves the shop with the doll, but Darcy is determined to get it back. And as things heat up, they realise that there might have been something else beneath their hatred for each other all along.

Frozen was set in Ireland, and had very Irish speech patterns; 'eejit' for 'idiot' and 'me' instead of 'my'. It takes some getting used to, but it contributed to a very strong sense of place. The characters live in a small town, and it was nice to have a romance where both the hero and heroine had modest occupations and incomes: Darcy is a building contractor and Neala works in a hotel. 

The bad blood between Neala and Darcy stems from a falling out in the playground when they were ten years old. Although the flashback scene that recounted this was clunky, the way that each reacted and was affected by it was in line with their age and gender. However, I felt that the way this had snowballed over the years was awful. 

Throughout the course of the book, the hero and heroine - and their families, which was somehow worse - exhibited juvenile, irrational, dangerous and just plain odd behaviour. Both Neala and Darcy have a tendency towards extreme immaturity, and they have been going full an-eye-for-an-eye since they were children, often dragging their family into it as well. Darcy expresses regret for some of the pranks he pulled on Neala, or was complicit to, in their youth, but they were still horrible, and in fact 'prank' is not an appropriate word for one or two of the incidents. I'm no scholar, but the incident where teenaged Neala has to walk home naked because her clothes have been stolen is surely some form of sexual harassment, or at least very serious bullying. He also spills fake blood on her pants and tells everyone that she has got her first period. I think the reader is meant to excuse these because - unbeknownst to Neala - Darcy saved her from almost getting raped one time, but these things don't cancel each other out. In fact, somehow it's worse that he was still 'pranking' when she was dealing with the aftermath of that. Overall, it's a classic rendering of 'he's mean to you because he likes you' and you know what? Stuff that, women don't have to put up with that shit, and that's why it makes no difference to me that Neala gives as good as she gets, because it doesn't rectify the seriously skewy gender dynamic at work here. And the way that their families react to the whole thing is also quite stuffed up, in my opinion. 

Despite all that, I thought that the book got a lot stronger towards the end and began to really enjoy it. As Darcy and Neala drilled down into the hurt each had caused the other, and their feelings, I started to connect to them a lot better, where I had previously found everything to be very overblown. The second half was so affecting that I seriously considered upping the rating, but in the end I couldn't justify it. As well as the the characters' behaviour, which I've already spoken about, there was continual sexist - and occasional homophobic - language from the hero and other male characters. Some example:
Darcy, referring to another male character: I could have hugged him for that, but since I didn't want to deal with any gay jokes from him...I refrained from showing any sign of grateful emotion. (16%)
I scowled at him and straightened myself up to my full height of six feet three inches. Stop being a bitch. I repeated the thought over and over... (16%)
Be a man. (34%)
I didn't care if it made me a coward, a bitch, or anything else. (39%)
I lied to keep from looking like a pussy-whipped bitch in front of the pair of you (92%) 
As you can see, there's no character growth to be had here; Darcy's still using 'bitch' - and thus femaleness - as a synonym for 'weak' right at the end of the book. These language choices made me hyper-aware of the gendered aspect of their so-called 'pranks' that I discussed earlier, and I not only disconnected from Darcy each time he equated weakness with being female, I actually became increasingly angry and upset. It might seem like an out-of-proportion reaction, but I read Frozen against the background of the US election results. The sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, fear and hopelessness that accompanies it, together with my everyday experiences as a woman, got mixed up with what was on the page, and each time I came across another incident, I'd shut off my Kindle feeling sicker, tireder and more fragile than when I'd started reading.  I read romance to make me happy and to leave the ugliness of the real world behind, and the covert sexism of Frozen meant that it had the complete opposite effect. I accept that there were extenuating circumstances and the language used may well be reflective of how Irish men actually speak, but neither excuses the sexist language and behaviour of the hero and other male characters. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Christchurch Ruptures by Katie Pickles

Christchurch Ruptures had some interesting content, but if I'd had to read the words 'rupture', 'ruptures', 'rupturing' or 'ruptured' one more time, I'd be writing to you from a hospital bed after a ruptured brain aneurysm. 

I suppose it's good Pickles kept relating everything back to her thesis, but I wish she'd been able to do so without such constant and overt reiteration of one word. To give you a taste, here's an excerpt from a page-and-a-half of text in the conclusion: 
The ruptures identified in this book indicate how the city might regroup and move on. Chapter 1, with its discussion of ruptured landscapes, warns of being ideologically trapped in the past. [2 sentences excluded]. The rupturing of Christchurch has shown that being open to continual change is the best way forward.  
The discussion of ruptured peoples and heritage in Chapter 2 suggests that respect for all peoples, regardless of race or ethnicity, and regardless of length of residency in the city, is the way to proceed. [5 sentences excluded]. 
Chapter 3 indicates the possibility of learning from the strengths of the past. The Canterbury earthquakes have ruptured 'the People's Republic of Christchurch', bringing that radical heritage into question. [3 sentences excluded].
Chapter 4 reveals that conformity and opposition to diversity is unproductive. Post-quake Christchurch has the chance to rise from a ruptured Gothic identity as a creative and inclusive place. (p. 169-170)
It goes on, but you get the picture. Now that I've got that out of my system, I can talk about the book itself. 

As you may be able to tell from the tagline, it's more focused on the history of Christchurch and how this has determined post-quake responses, rather than post-quake Christchurch itself. I didn't know that much about the history of Christchurch - apart from the whole pilgrim thing - so I found this to be valuable. I also found a lot of value in the way the town's history was framed in terms of tension and coexistence between social conservatism (originating in the 'God's own Paradise' attitude of the first Anglican settlers) and radicalism (expressed in the many social movements and prominent reformers centred in Christchurch, including Kate Shepherd and Norman Kirk). However, this did lead to many intriguing local personalities and movements being brought up and dismissed in short order, and these sometimes read like a laundry list. 

In fact, overall - and even excluding the whole 'rupture' thing - Pickle's writing could have been more engaging. Nonetheless, it was straight-forward and accessible, which is far preferable to over-intellectualism. 

Another reason I appreciated the historical focus is that I was already familiar with what is discussed when the focus did switch to the post-quake environment, particularly the debate surrounding the fate of the Cathedral, and I suspect many New Zealanders will find the same. But we do tend to have selective memory when it comes to Christchurch, invoking the 'Kia Kaha' spirit when convenient, and just as conveniently forgetting that their struggle is ongoing the rest of the time. Pickle highlights that this struggle isn't only related to the physical environment, but it also discursive in nature: how do Cantabrians re-constitute a city with a contested but highly mythologised history, and where different experiences have lead to a proliferation of opinions over what 're-building' looks like. It's a question that resonates much further than New Zealand, and touches deeply on identity. 

Pickle does draw some conclusions, as you can see from what I quoted above, but they're haphazardly thrown in right at the close of each chapter, and then at the end of the book, and they were cursory. Sometimes it also seemed as though they were only tangentially related to what she had been talking about. I'm sure that they were extremely relevant, but I think that the historical focus (with the exception of Chapter 5) and the short length of the concluding paragraphs meant that what she regarded as the modern-day implications or lessons to be learnt weren't drawn out quite as explicitly as I would have liked. 

This book has left me with two conclusions. The first is that if look at the word 'rupture' too much, it looks as if it's spelled wrong. The second, more charitable one comes from reading both Christchurch Ruptures and the excellent The First Migration: Maori Origins 3000BC - AD 1450 and is that BWB Texts, the imprint who published these books, is an invaluable resource for anyone looking to educate themselves on New Zealand's past, present and future without breaking the bank. Their titles cover a wide range of interesting topics, spanning history, anthropology, economics, sociology, medicine and science, as well as memoir and many of the authors are well-known New Zealand academics and personalities, including Michael King, Atholl Anderson and Claudia Orange. I only wish that Australia had something similar (the closest thing I can think of is the Quarterly Essay), but I'm going back to New Zealand at Christmas so I'll stock up on more BWBs then. 
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