Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate: I do not take authors messing with my Jane Eyre lightly. If you are going to attempt to paint a new gloss over something that has already been perfected to my eyes, you’re going to have to bring something completely new to the table. In this regard, I applaud Connolly’s efforts to entwine a fey glamour over the well known Bronte tale, but I can’t say that she pulled off all she hoped to achieve.

Ironskin suffers from a dissonance between Connolly’s desire to adapt Jane Eyre and her desire to write an original fantasy work. The result feels like Connolly’s take on how she would have written Jane Eyre had she gotten first crack at it rather than a reimagining or tribute. Nevertheless, Connolly introduces some interesting ideas and I can’t help but feel that she ultimately did herself a disservice by trying to shoehorn her story into such a well-known mould; she would have done better to eschew comparisons and simply tell her own tale.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Jane Eliot is fundamentally different than Jane Eyre. Perhaps, considering our own reactions were we placed in Jane Eyre’s shoes, many of us feel that Jane Eyre should have felt rage at her situation, yet the very fact that she didn’t defines her character. It’s what sets her apart from and above her peers, what gives her the beauty that shines through an ordinary exterior. Where Jane Eliot allows the rage to take root, Jane Eyre lived above it. Where Jane Eliot yearns for normality badly enough to take drastic, disturbing measures to achieve it, Jane Eyre accepted herself with pride and grace if not always with pleasure. This was one of my biggest points of contention with the book, for in the original it is Rochester who needs reminding that Jane is as she is and won’t be changed. In Ironskin, it is Jane herself who succumbs to shallow desires and embraces superficiality. Making the decision a supposedly crucial plot point does nothing to lessen my disappointment in Jane’s decision and underscores the fact that this is not the same Jane I’ve come to love.

Rochert had potential as a reincarnation of Rochester yet, like so many who have tried before, Connolly fails to grasp Rochester’s essential nature. His depiction quite confused me, really. We are told of his internal suffering, but it doesn’t truly play out on the page. Before we learn of his deep, dark secret, I had actually gained the impression that he was in fact a warm man, loving of his daughter and wife both, not doggedly attempting to hold back the defeating force of his past as Rochester was. We are given so little page time with Rochert that he is never fleshed out (never mind the utter lack of chemistry between him and Jane). I rather liked the dimension Connolly added with his somewhat addled composure concerning the fey, but this too is inadequately addressed.

The greatest interpretations of character for me were Dorie and Poule, as Jane must work at her relationship with both much moreso than in the original. Though I never warmed to Dorie (in truth, she freaks me out more than a little), her storyline was one of the few that suggested the story would have been better off told as an original work. Poule also intrigued me, particularly as she and Jane formed something of a team here, so unlike Jane’s wary regard of Poole in the original. I wish we could have learned a bit more about Poule’s heritage, as it was one of several threads of fantasy worldbuilding that offered a promising story yet was not fully explained.

Overall, I couldn’t tell if Connolly truly wanted to retell our beloved story. Aside from the character names and a rough outline of the plot, so few critical elements of the original story remain. The pacing barely reflects that of the original, throwing Jane into her new employ on the first page, rearranging key scenes and completely eliminating the character of St. John. Whether this is meant to be a permanent feature of the series or whether Connolly introduces St. John in the next book remains to be seen. Jane’s background is completely altered, which likely goes far in explaining her drastic personality change. Whereas the unforgiving environments of her aunt’s home and Lowood shaped Jane Eyre into a strong woman determined to resist the scorn thrust upon her lowly station, Jane Eliot’s abrupt reversal of fortune at a later age made her resentful and proud.

Ultimately, Connolly seemed to want to write a fantasy, and Jane and Rochert’s relationship suffered for it. While her take on the bedroom scene is a novel change, it failed to make up for the numerous other iconic interactions that defined both characters in the original, yet that were missing from this novel. Though I was initially intrigued by the mask plotline, this too wound but being merely a grotesque externalization of conflict that distorted the subtle genius of the original.

I was also confused by Connolly’s repeated references to other classic works. Surely Bronte was influenced by those who came before her, yet she allowed those guiding voices to shape her story without stealing heavy-handed elements. Connolly not only mentions tales such as Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, but she goes so far as to incorporate threads of these tales into the story, which merely adds to the disjointed feel. It’s a shame, since, divorced from recollections of her predecessor, I rather liked Jane. The fey world Connolly has created seems rather fascinating, but we are given the barest glimpses of it. I’m also not quite sure that this work is best described as steampunk, but that characterization will suffice. Overall, Ironskin had promise, but ambivalence regarding the extent to which this was meant to be a retelling ultimately resulted in a failed execution of interesting ideas.

Review: Where You Hurt the Most by Anne Brooke

Where You Hurt the Most demonstrates perfectly the harmony that emotional impact and intimate detail can have in well-done erotica. Brooke’s story is only about fifty pages long, yet she manages to pack a larger punch in few words than many authors I’ve read of late who have failed to make me resonate with their characters after reading an entire series’ worth of interactions.
Brooke’s story can be seen as a modern-day Beauty and the Beast tale, and as in most of the best adaptations, the “Beast” isn’t the only one who needs saving in this story. Adrian is a man seemingly content with his lot in life. He loves his career as an escort, as it allows him to indulge in his favorite activities: sex, connecting with other people, and appreciating the simpler pleasures in life.

Where You Hurt the Most by Anne Brooke

Adrian easily could have come across as shallow, but instead his innate sensitivity and sympathy lift him above the superficial definition that his career could otherwise brand him with. We don’t learn much about Adrian’s past, yet his first-person narration is an honest-enough reflection of his nature that we don’t need to know more than the spare details we’re provided with. In contrast, while we are given a good picture of the traumas and losses that Dan has endured, leading to the disfigurement that now hinders his confidence and happiness, his emotions are a bit harder to read. We see him only through Adrian’s eyes, and since the story is so short, our glimpse isn’t a particularly comprehensive one. Yet in only a few encounters, Brooke made me believe in the relationship that grows between her two characters, even if neither of them can quite account for its cause. This is the type of writing I love, simple and sparse yet used to tenderly convey a connection of spirit that defies logic or explanation.

Because the story is so brief, I hesitate to say more lest I ruin the revelations that lay within. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Brooke’s writing in the future.

 

Meandering Around the Interweb

In my various hours of wandering through book blogs far and wide, I’ve come across some pretty fantastic posts lately, so I thought I would spotlight my favorites. Hopefully I can make this a semi-regular feature, although my laziness will test the bounds of my determination to do so, so stay tuned for now.

While I’m drowning in the tears that can only be brought on by The Reichenbach Fall, perhaps I’ll drink away my sorrows with some of these delightful Sherlock blend teas. I’m particularly curious to try Moriartea.

Heroes and Heartbreakers had some interesting television news this week. Apparently, come fall we will have a new Beauty and the Beast adaptation, this time with an update of the classic 80’s TV show. I can’t help but be rather disappointed with the trailer (and not only because I was an adamant Lana hater during the Smallville years). I’m sorry, but a little facial scar does not a beast make, especially when the monstrous attitude is replaced with a penchant for altruism. From the snippets we get here, it looks like he might become a tad more beastly when he’s in angry mode…but, no, wait- scratch that, he’s still handsome. Oh, well. At least we still have time to hope that the Anne of Green Gables modern update is better. But honestly, I’ll take Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie any day.

The Piper’s Son happens to be my favorite Melina Marchetta, and Kat Kennedy over at the Cuddlebuggery Book Blog recently wrote a wonderful review that expresses all the reasons I love this book more eloquently than I could. In other Marchetta-related news, according to Goodreads, the fourth book in the Lumatere Chronicles has a name, and it’s…Ferragost. Thoughts? Do you think this the official title, as it doesn’t really fit in with the first three.

There’s some interesting discussion of late about just what dystopian actually means, and how it differs from post-apocalyptic fic.

I’m guaranteed to track down this Princess Bride-inspired wine pack for my next dinner party. And don’t worry, according to the website, the Inconceivable Cab holds no traces of iocane powder.

I can’t help but love reading Amber at Down the Rabbit Hole’s reactions to recently completing her first viewing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While I don’t agree with everything in her post about why Buffy and Spike are meant to be, she makes some good points nonetheless. I’m even more interested to hear what she has to say about her foray into the world of Season 8 comics, as I’ve abstained from them myself. Personally, I love how Whedon ended the show, and while I’m somewhat intrigued by what I’ve read of the comic continuation, I’m also too apprehensive to delve in myself.

The world lost a wonderful writer last week. As always, Neil Gaiman’s words regarding the love he held for Ray Bradbury’s work are beautifully poignant and a lovely tribute.

A Spell of Vengeance by D.B. Jackson

I’ve been salivating for D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker since spotting the gorgeous Chris McGrath cover last year, and was so excited to receive an advance copy from NetGalley. The short story, “A Spell of Vengeance,” written for Tor.com makes me all the more excited to read it this weekend.

Once again, the scientific community has made a discovery that has gone shockingly unremarked-upon by the general populace. Bulgarian archaeologists have uncovered human remains from the Middle Ages with iron stakes protruding from their chests. These skeletons serve as evidence of actual vampire hunting back in the day. Beware, ye squeamish; the link leads to some relatively graphic images.

Jeaniene Frost and Ilona Andrews had a Twitter battle on behalf of their respective heroes, Bones and Curran. I think this speaks for itself.

Lynn Flewelling has written a short story in which Seregil from her Nightrunner series and Bast from Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind have a cage fight. I’ve never actually read Rothfuss (I know, I’m getting on it), but regardless, my money’s on Seregil every time.

And possibly one of the best things I’ve ever seen, Super Mercado has graced the world with Game of Thrones of Muppets. While they’re all super clever and fit in with the real cast surprisingly well, I think I stopped breathing when my eyes landed on Petyr Beakish and Dr. Varys Honeydew.

Beneath the Dust Jacket: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Beneath the Dust Jacket is a new feature in which I spotlight some exceptionally pretty books and the little artistic details that set them apart.

It seems a little disingenuous to inaugurate this feature with a book that doesn’t even have a dust jacket, but since my new acquisition is undoubtedly the prized piece of my book collection so far, I had to share.

There’s a great little bookshop in town that specializes in rare and collectible books alongside the standard used book fare. We’re talking gilded spines, notes regarding authenticity, a section guarded with a red velvet rope, the whole works. As I was browsing said section last weekend, a tiny white book caught my eye, innocuously nestled between books three times its age. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I had found something I’ve been searching for for ages.

My friends, I finally have a signed Neil Gaiman. And not just any Neil Gaiman. No, I managed to snag a first edition signed ARC of Stardust, one of my favorite of his works.

Possibly the only thing better than the fact that it’s signed is that there is an inscription and, like the man himself, it’s lovely. I wonder who he was writing to, who he hoped would like it, who received his tidings of love. The mystery only adds to the wonder of it in my eyes.

Review: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

I adore fairy tale retellings. While some scoff at the simplistic lessons and unrealistic conclusions to these stories that held us all enthralled as children, I’ve yet to allow the cynical hand of adulthood leach the wonder out of these classic tales. There is a reason why we cling so eagerly to them in our youth, and why they have endured in countless iterations throughout generations and across cultural ties. They speak to a part of us that never tires of contemplating the potential for hope and happiness, no matter how improbable the odds or circumstances.

While I’ve long heard Juliet Marillier’s praises sung, for some reason, I’ve never before picked up one of her novels. Yet today I found I could no longer ignore the reviews that hailed Daughter of the Forest as one of the best fairy tale adaptations to date, and I’m glad I finally gave Marillier a chance, because her tale did not disappoint. Her take on

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

the Celtic tale of Wild Swans is epic in emotional impact if not in action. This is a tale in which a woman must strive to become her own savior and that of her family; her strength is not questioned and discounted by those around her, and she delivers on her promise, quietly suffering to fulfill the salvation that only she can bring about.

I often find fault in heroines whose innate goodness seems unmarred. Though unfortunate circumstances are heaped upon their shoulders, they bear it stoically and kindly, and we the readers know the vast injustice that they face to bravely. Sorcha could easily have come across as this type of heroine, and in truth, Marillier does little to create the faults that might otherwise be necessary to flesh her out into a believable character. As it is, Sorcha’s unwavering resolution in carrying out her mission seems more than any one person could hope to undertake. Yet I never felt resentful toward Sorcha as I so often do toward heroines whose qualities are irreproachable. Perhaps it owes to the weight of the tasks she is forced to perform and the isolation in which she exists for three years, but each time some new adversity was forced upon her, I could not help but long for the day when Sorcha’s accomplishments would be acknowledged, no matter how unlikely their achievement might seem in real life. For what else is the purpose of fairy tales but to make the improbable seem possible?

For most of the book, I adored Sorcha’s relationship with her brothers. Often, when so many characters are introduced, particularly in a familial setting, it becomes inevitable that some of their personalities fail to distinguish themselves. Yet Marillier succeeds brilliantly in creating each of Sorcha’s brothers as distinct characters, ones whose love for their sister and heartbreak over their fortune makes the reader all the more sympathetic to the necessity of Sorcha’s success in her endeavors. It was due to Marillier’s success in evoking my emotional investment in Sorcha’s brothers that I was so upset by their attitude towards her after their curse is finally lifted. Maybe Marillier wished to contrast the effects of the curse on the male and female figures involved, showing a stunt in growth on the brothers’ part that stood out against Sorcha’s emotional development. Yet whatever the case, her brothers’ failure or disinclination to take Sorcha’s own desires and happiness into account after all she had sacrificed for them was disheartening. It undermined the very strength of sibling bond that justified and necessitated the heartbreak that has sustained the story thus far.

I’ve read many reviews that debate Sorcha’s decision to stay with Red rather than Simon. Suffice it to say, after finishing the story, I’m not sure how this can even be a topic of discussion. Sorcha’s connection to Simon was fleeting at best, and founded on the same superficial hopes that the tales she recounted to him warned against. While many lament the fact that, in contrast to Simon’s colorful energy, Red is too boring and unemotional to warrant Sorcha’s love, I found Marillier’s slow and subtle evolution of Sorcha and Red’s romance utterly charming. Red is exactly the type of hero I prefer in my stories, fairy tale or otherwise. His emotions simmer below the surface, yet they are fiercely present to those who know to search for it. His ambitions and desires reflect the mature mind that Sorcha needs upon emergence from the traumas of her childhood. Even had she been given the chance to get to know Simon better, he could offer her little more than the idealistic dreams sprung from youthful fantasy.

I’m glad I’ve finally given Marillier the attention she deserves as a masterful teller of tales told many times before. The ability to make such a story seem at once fresh and enchanting is a rare talent, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Book Beginnings on Fridays

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a meme hosted at Rose City Reader designed to feature the book you are reading right now by sharing the first few lines of the story.

This Friday I finally read Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

“Polly sighed and laid her book face down on her bed. She rather

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

thought she had read it after all, some time ago.”

After years of struggling to get my hands on a copy of this book, I finally tracked one down last summer. Yet, after an unsuccessful attempt to read it, I set it aside with vague thoughts that I would try again later. Try, I did, yesterday, and I read it through in one sitting. Many readers lament their confusion at the ending, so I made sure to pay particular attention to the last twenty pages or so, and I think I grasped the gist of it. It wasn’t the obliqueness that I minded so much as it was the fact that I never grew sympathetic toward a single character. While the hazy, dreamlike quality of the prose might have been intriguing had I never read any of Jones’s other work, I know the magical she was capable of creating, and so Fire and Hemlock failed to woo me. Still, I’m glad I gave it a second attempt and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Jones’s other works and reworked folk tales.

Here’s the summary, taken from Goodreads:

Polly has two sets of memories…

One is normal: school, home, friends. The other, stranger memories begin nine years ago, when she was ten and gate-crashed an odd funeral in the mansion near her grandmother’s house. Polly’s just beginning to recall the sometimes marvelous, sometimes frightening adventures she embarked on with Tom Lynn after that. And then she did something terrible, and everything changed.

But what did she do? Why can’t she remember? Polly *must* uncover the secret, or her true love — and perhaps Polly herself — will be lost.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme created over at The Broke and the Bookish that allows us to list our top ten answers to a different question each week.

This week’s theme is: Top Historical Romance Books

1. When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James

The first of many Beauty and the Beast adaptations on my list, James’s take on the classic tale features a cranky protagonist modeled after the television character House.

2. The Proposition by Judith Ivory

Men are rarely the subjects of makeover tales, which makes Ivory’s reverse-Pygmalion adaptation all the more compelling.

3. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Another take on Beauty and the Beast, Chase’s novel features some of the most electrifying dialogue between protagonists that I’ve come across in the genre.

4. Married by Morning by Lisa Kleypas

Love-hate relationships are one of my favorite romance tropes, and Kleypas writes the progression of emotions at a perfect tempo. This is the fourth in the Hathaways series, all of which is recommended.

5. Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

Another favorite trope is the ugly duckling scenario, which Quinn writes to perfection. This is the fourth in the ever-humorous Bridgertons series.

6. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean

Another book with an imperfect heroine, MacLean’s story also features one of my favorite rake characters. This is the first in the Love by Numbers series.

7. A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

Providing deceptive depth for its slim page count, you’ll want to read Balogh’s story again from the start after finishing. For fear of giving the secret away, I’ll let you discover the reason on your own.

8. Ravished by Amanda Quick

Another favorite Beauty and the Beast retelling, Quick’s novel features two imperfect leads with great chemistry.

9. The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie by Jennifer Ashley

I’m always intrigued by imperfect male protagonists, yet Ashley is one of the few authors I’ve read who has delivered that imperfection in a mental rather than physical form. It makes for a powerful and impressive read.

10. Yours Until Dawn by Teresa Medeiros

I had to give you one last Beauty and the Beast retelling, and this one has a twist that sets it apart from its peers.

Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls straddles that tenuous line between the elegant simplicity of a children’s story and the emotional resonance of young adult fiction, yet the sheer beauty of Ness’s prose and story make this a book that will be cherished by young and mature readers alike. For those who haven’t experienced the numbing terror of having a loved one take ill, this book might not strike as deep an emotional chord as it did for me. Yet even those who thankfully do not have similar experiences to draw upon will sympathize with Conor as the veil between his reality and the dream world in which the monster comes to him becomes ever thinner. With each new encounter with the monster comes more strain in Conor’s family ties, friendships, and school life, until his fantasy and reality ultimately enmesh as dual aspects to the horror he must deal with.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Conor is an extremely effective narrator, reacting with the premature responsibility that inevitably results when a child is dealt an unfair hand much too early in life. His responses to the increasing duress of his home-life and his meetings with the monster feel natural in their progression, planting readers firmly in his corner both because of and despite his actions. Connor’s voice is authentic; while I tend to remain hyper-conscious of the fact that I am reading a story  regarding most fairy tales, Ness’s writing absorbs you into Conor’s world completely and excruciatingly.

I admit I picked this book up based purely on a few good recommendations and knew little about it other than that it was an illustrated children’s story. My fears that the pictures would detract from the story flow were sorely misplaced. The illustrations never interrupted the flow of the story; rather, they enhanced and transported, so beautifully executed and incorporated into the text that they felt a natural extension of the story.

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s work for younger audiences will gravitate toward this story, and rightly so. Ness’s gift for teaming perfectly-phrased prose with a gut-wrenching storyline makes A Monster Calls one of the most expertly crafted books I’ve read this year. Though the story treads on supernatural elements, the truth of its message is utterly real.

Review: Firelight by Kristen Callihan

As readers might know, I’ve been on a bit of a Beauty and the Beast marathon of late. While this pleases my inner BatB fanatic to no end, it also comes with the unfortunate side effect that I am inevitably bound to draw comparisons among them. In the case of Firelight, the contrast actually works in its favor, for Callihan works with the tale in a way which, while not entirely unique, nevertheless offers a fresh flavor to the classic story.

Firelight is very much an historical paranormal romance. To be honest, at first I was

Firelight by Kristen Callihan

somewhat thrown by how erotic this story is. Only a few pages into the prologue and the characters are already having some decidedly non-innocent reactions to each other. Overall, Callihan does well to keep the romantic tension simmering without going overboard. Miranda and Archer have chemistry in spades, and their interactions were some of the best in the genre I’ve come across recently. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Miranda was no shrinking violet of a beauty. She consistently holds her own, with Archer and with all those who try to cross her, and her strength was a welcome thing to behold in a genre that seems to be replete with wilting wisps of heroines. Unfortunately, that attribute also wound up being one of the things I disliked about the novel, both because I find such headstrong heroines difficult to relate to and because, aside from her superficial beauty, I found little to suggest that she was a reincarnation of the Beauty from the well-known tale. I think perhaps Callihan wished to meld both beauty and beastliness into her female character, yet she fails in her task if she thought to make Miranda part Beast simply by giving her a potentially deadly power.

Though I enjoyed Miranda and Archer’s interactions, the entire novel felt half-done, as if every third chapter had been lost in a mad rush to the printers. Thus, while I wanted to be sold on their romance, I felt there simply wasn’t enough development early on to draw me in. This flaw pained me more so than usual since I could see the potential in this story; had Callihan added an extra hundred pages, I would have been all onboard. This potential bled through to the twist on Archer’s Beastly affliction, which was telegraphed a little too early, yet at least lent an interesting twist to the standard formula.

To be sure, lack of character development early on wasn’t the only fault in this novel. Archer’s disfigurement, while novel, appears somewhat superficial when compared to the moral the original fairy tale attempted to convey. The villain was obvious and drawn in shades of black-and-white, while the resolution was impossibly neat and tidy. Still, I look forward to reading the next in the series and applaud Callihan for offering something new to the Beauty and the Beast retelling mix.

Review: Beauty in the Beast by Christine Danse

Perhaps I didn’t read the summary well enough, but Beauty in the Beast surprised me with its mix of genres. Danse managed to incorporate steampunk elements rather gracefully in her world, immersing the reader in her worldbuilding without superfluous explanation. Her atmosphere spoke for itself, and I’m rather intrigued to see if she bases any further work in this world she has created. Though the details were somewhat sparse, I sensed room for growth and am particularly taken with the idea of mechanimals that she introduced in this short story.

Beauty in the Beast focuses on a traveling troubadour group of puppeteers, singers, and

Beauty in the Beast by Christine Danse

storytellers stranded on a winter night. Though the story is short, Danse manages to allow all the main characters to have their own storytelling peace, telling tales that range from fae folklore to a startingly unique take of werewolf lore grounded in the novel’s steampunk premise. Danse utilizes the stories-within-a-story format to give us a glimpse at each character’s persona as they all contribute their own tale to the fireside storytelling roundabout. The stories themselves were quite charming, somewhat reminiscent of Patricia McKillip’s style of fairy tale retelling while never sounding rehashed or dated. I could easily see Danse filling an entire anthology with original fairy tales and would gladly pay to read it.

Had Danse chosen to stretch her short story into a novella, she might have managed to make the overarching plot more believable and compelling, but unfortunately I wasn’t sold on the quick connection forged between Tara and Rolph. I wish Danse had opted to push herself to embrace a novel-lenth format, because the bones of this story are quite good. Her writing is fluid and engaging, and the manner in which she ultimately ties together seemingly disparate plot threads is novel. Yet she never really reaches her destination, despite how pretty the ride there might be.

I’ll be looking out for more from Danse in the future, and recommend Beauty in the Beast as a worthwhile contribution to the steampunk genre, original fairy tales, paranormal romance, and Beauty and the Beast retellings.