stuff I read

Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency by Bea Koch

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Summary from Goodreads:
Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond the Ton and Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history — until now.

Regency England is a world immortalized by Jane Austen and Lord Byron in their beloved novels and poems. The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels set in the period, which focus almost exclusively on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes. But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don’t fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father’s family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother’s assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own, Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall, and Judith Montefiore, a Jewish woman who wrote the first English language Kosher cookbook.

As one of the owners of the successful romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, Bea Koch has had a front row seat to controversies surrounding what is accepted as “historically accurate” for the wildly popular Regency period. Following in the popular footsteps of books like Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History, Koch takes the Regency, one of the most loved and idealized historical time periods and a huge inspiration for American pop culture, and reveals the independent-minded, standard-breaking real historical women who lived life on their terms. She also examines broader questions of culture in chapters that focus on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, the lives of women of color in the Regency, and women who broke barriers in fields like astronomy and paleontology. In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.

Mad & Bad is a fun overview of women bucking accepted norms during the Regency and surrounding eras. Now, I have a pretty strong background in feminist history from this time period, so this book doesn’t dig deep enough for me. I’m also a Regency nerd. I know who the Patronesses of Almack’s are and what their foibles were (I even have a WIP where they appear – don’t get excited, it’s still only four chapters long), Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane covers the non-Jane Austen writers of this period in depth, I’m a female scientist so Caroline Hershel, Mary Somerville, and Mary Anning are not new to me, I’ve read Anne Lister’s biography by Anne Choma, and Sarah Siddons and her follow actresses thread their way through theatre books I’ve read. So for me, much of this book is just a review.

But if you are less well-versed in this period of history, particularly women’s history, this book is a great entry to the period. I could really feel where this book pushed back hard against the people who complain about “revisionist” or “politically correct” historical romance novels that include women of color, queer women and nonbinary people, and working women – and if you are one of the people whining about “political correctness” you should probably pipe down and read Mad & Bad. The point here is that these people have always existed and were gradually erased as historical romance codified itself into an exclusionary world of cis-het, gender-conforming white women in ballrooms (I love me a Georgette Heyer romance, but she definitely has some issues). Koch’s writing is fun and poppy and quippy and it reads very well. It would also make a great book for a teen interested in history.

The one thing I would definitely change is to pull Princess Caraboo out of the chapter about women of color as a major figure. She is interesting, particularly in the aristocracy’s response to a “foreign” princess, but doesn’t fit very well into a chapter about women of color who didn’t have the privilege of passing as white. Put another woman of color in her place – because there are only two Black women profiled in the chapter, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Mary Seacole, then Caraboo – and maybe footnote Caraboo at the end of the chapter about the Ton.

Mad & Bad is out today, September 1!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

‘BEOWULF: A NEW TRANSLATION’ IS A NEW, FEMINIST TRANSLATION OF BEOWULF BY THE AUTHOR OF THE MUCH-BUZZED-ABOUT NOVEL ‘THE MERE WIFE’.

Nearly 20 years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’ – and 50 years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world – there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley that brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, re-contextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history – ‘Beowulf’ has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of ‘Beowulf’, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s long-awaited (hey, she made an adorable Grim in the middle, so we’ll accept the wait) translation of Beowulf has arrived.

It might sound weird to say a translation of an Old English poem is “bouncy” but it is. It has a very jaunty, devil-may-care feel to it since Maria mixed older words like “scop”, descriptive terms like “opened his word-hoard” (which is such a great way to set up a long speech), and of-the-minute soundbites like “hashtag: blessed” (got a zing off that one because it nails the rhythm of the line and gives it an ironic cast). Even the choice of “Bro!” as the opening “Whaet” (or however we represent that Old English term that doesn’t have a direct translation to modern English) makes me think of a bunch of dudes sitting around drinking and someone goes “Bruuuuhhhh, tell me about that time Chet went snowboarding naked” (or whatever Chets do). So fun.

The introduction really sets up Maria’s attitude toward this translation and why she made the choices she did. And while you don’t have to be familiar with other translations of Beowulf, if you’ve read the Heaney or, especially, the Tolkein translation you can really see where this new translation is finding new ground. It’s very similar to Emily Wilson’s introduction to The Odyssey which also brought new facets to an old classic.

Beowulf: A New Translation published on Tuesday, August 25!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women by Lyz Lenz

An impassioned and irreverent argument for dismantling our cultural narratives around pregnancy.
The U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, a rate that is increasing, even as infant mortality rates decrease. Meanwhile, the right-wing assault on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy has also escalated. We can already glimpse a reality where embryos and fetuses have more rights than the people gestating them, and even women who aren’t pregnant are seen first and foremost as potential incubators.

In Belabored, journalist Lyz Lenz lays bare the misogynistic logic of U.S. cultural narratives about pregnancy, tracing them back to our murky, potent cultural soup of myths, from the religious to the historical. In the present she details, with her trademark blend of wit, snark, and raw intimacy, how sexist assumptions inform our expectations for pregnant people, whether we’re policing them, asking them to make sacrifices with dubious or disproven benefits, or putting them up on a pedestal in an “Earth mother” role. Throughout, she reflects on her own experiences of being seen as alternately a vessel or a goddess–but hardly ever as herself–while carrying each of her two children.

Belabored is an urgent call for us to embrace new narratives around pregnancy and the choice whether or not to have children, emphasizing wholeness and agency, and to reflect those values in our laws, medicine, and interactions with each other.

Local author alert: Lyz Lenz lives up the road from me. Well, up the interstate. Welcome to Iowa. And I read a lot of her articles in the Gazette and other media. I really liked her previous book God Land so was looking forward to her examination of pregnancy and motherhood in America.

Belabored is really well-written. Lenz uses a combination of memoir and reportage to chronicle the many ways the deck is stacked against pregnant people in America. She covers the whole gestation, starting from perceived virginity or sexual availability of women through pregnancy and then post-pregnancy (the “fourth trimester”) as well as pregnancy loss. Lenz covered the historical aspects really well. She also made a real effort to cover racial disparities – Black women in American suffer from many times higher rates of complications and poor outcomes than white women – and LGBTQ+ issues in pregnancy and parenthood, since cis women are not the only uterus-owners who might carry a pregnancy (Lenz acknowledges the lack of inclusive language around pregnancy and motherhood as well).

Lenz’s own memoir of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood is woven throughout this book, so the book is structured somewhat linearly around her own life. She’s given birth to two children, so writes from that experience, but also suffered a miscarriage and recounts how she is now working through the emotional fallout of a sexual assault in college. [Brief content warning: Lenz doesn’t pull her punches; if pregnancy loss, sexual assault, etc. are hard topics for you then make sure you take care of yourself while reading this book.] She tells her own story in a very powerful way. However, I thought that perhaps there could have been a stronger conclusion or presentation of issues facing pregnant people, parents, and etc to tie everything together. The research she did was very good, so her information is solid. (This might just be the scientist background talking.)

Belabored is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

mini-review · stuff I read

Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos by Lucy Knisley

If you work hard enough, if you want it enough, if you’re smart and talented and “good enough,” you can do anything.

Except get pregnant.

Her whole life, Lucy Knisley wanted to be a mother. But when it was finally the perfect time, conceiving turned out to be harder than anything she’d ever attempted. Fertility problems were followed by miscarriages, and her eventual successful pregnancy plagued by health issues, up to a dramatic, near-death experience during labor and delivery.

This moving, hilarious, and surprisingly informative memoir not only follows Lucy’s personal transition into motherhood but also illustrates the history and science of reproductive health from all angles, including curious facts and inspiring (and notorious) figures in medicine and midwifery. Whether you’ve got kids, want them, or want nothing to do with them, there’s something in this graphic memoir to open your mind and heart.

I’ve been following Lucy on Instagram for years now, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with her story, of her miscarriage, of her pregnancy, of her labor and what happened after (cw: she had an extremely traumatic delivery and recovery, so be prepared). I’d seen bits of Kid Gloves that she posted to Instagram, that she drew as Pal grew from a baby to a toddler. And she lays it all out, her story and the research she did while she was pregnant, in her characteristic, straightforward style. There are parts that aren’t easy to read. I would definitely not recommend giving this to an expectant person unless they’re forewarned what happens because it is very stressful. We are so lucky that Lucy is with us. (And I want to kick her OB from here to the sun again, grrr.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book that I bought at Indie Bookstore Day a few years ago, I just didn’t get around to reading it until now.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite (Feminine Pursuits #2)

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Summary from Goodreads:
In this historical f/f romance you’ll find:
•a grumpy widowed engraver working far too hard to keep her print-shop going until her son is old enough to take over
•a middle-aged lady beekeeper who goes striding about in trousers and loves bucolic poetry
•a Queen on trial in Parliament and the press
•luxuriant English gardens with extremely naughty statues
•satirical ballads about tight pants
•… and more than you probably ever wanted to know about early 19th century beekeeping!

Could Olivia Waite outdo herself after The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics? Yes, yes she could.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is a lovely f/f historical. We met Agatha Griffin at the Royal Academy exhibition in The Lady’s Guide and her print shop handles the printing of Lucy’s Guide. Four years later, Agatha is now a widow, running the shop with her son Sydney and her apprentice Eliza, the gifted young artist who was briefly Lucy’s maid. Griffin’s has their printworks in the nearby village of Melliton, where one odd, beekeeping lady named Penelope Flood resides. When Agatha discovers a swarm of bees who have started making a hive among the plates for a local poet’s book, Mrs. Flood is recommended to her as the person who would know exactly what to do with the bees.

Penelope is rather intrigued by the no-nonsense printer from London. Mrs. Griffin is a world away from Penelope’s rural, beekeeping life in Melliton. The two women start corresponding through letters – because of the bees – but soon strike up a friendship, then perhaps something more. Olivia Waite lets the relationship between Agatha and Penelope develop gradually through these letters, with beekeeping knowledge interspersed between exchanges about their families or friends, weaving a bond between the two women. After a while, Agatha begins to visit Melliton more often, eventually staying with Penelope for Christmas. This is a relationship that develops between two women in their forties – neither are looking for their life’s One Great Passion, they each have established lives – so the realization that they have an emotional bond that goes deeper than friendship is especially poignant.

Being poignant or a lesbian romance does not mean this book soft-pedals the plot. The book is set largely in the year between King George IV’s attempt to divorce his wife Queen Caroline and his coronation. That bit of British Royal history is largely integral to the development of Penelope and Agatha’s relationship. The printing and sale of political broadsides and raucous ballads in Agatha’s print shop runs afoul of sedition and censorship laws in England at the time, particularly that from the Radical end of politics (you know, the ones that think you should treat people as equals or not trash or actual humans or whatever, and that’s clearly bad for the Establishment). Penelope’s neighbors in Melliton – both the good ones and the rotten ones – are affected by these larger events through the enforcement “morality” in the village and squabbling over an inheritance (just a CW that there is implied homophobia, although that jerk gets his comeuppance). There’s also a lot of between-the-lines commentary on Nice White Ladies (and other people) Doing Virtue Signalling. All this impacts how Penelope and Agatha slowly slide from friendship into love.

This is a Big Plot novel, so it moves a bit more slowly than I expected, but it wraps up so, so wonderfully. Plus there’s all the stuff about bees. And Penelope’s circle of wonderful friends in Melliton. And Sydney and Eliza and their relationship. Just go read it.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (The Singing Hills Cycle #1)

Summary from Goodreads: With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Praise for The Empress of Salt and Fortune

“An elegant gut-punch, a puzzle box that unwinds itself in its own way and in its own time. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Gorgeous. Cruel. Perfect. I didn’t know I needed to read this until I did.”–Seanan McGuire

“A tale of rebellion and fealty that feels both classic and fresh, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is elegantly told, strongly felt, and brimming with rich detail. An epic in miniature, beautifully realised.”–Zen Cho

I missed The Empress of Salt and Fortune when it published earlier this year, so I snagged a paper copy to read. This was such a surprising read! The world-building is so rich without pausing to tell the reader about it. It’s so skillfully sketched in through the interactions of Chih, a cleric who functions much like an archivist and anthropologist, Almost Brilliant, their accompanying niexin, and Rabbit, an elderly woman who slowly relates her tale of exile with the Empress. The way the little list of objects at the head of each chapter led into that little bit of story from Rabbit was so clever – like a little anthropology before a history lesson. It’s such an inclusive and feminist story.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Apropos Shakespeare · mini-review · stuff I read

Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women by Harriet Walter

33310390._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
‘A part we have played is like a person we once met, grew to know, became intimately enmeshed with and finally moved away from. Some of these characters remain friends, others are like ex–lovers with whom we no longer have anything in common. All of them bring something out in us that will never go back in the box.’

In a varied and distinguished career, Harriet Walter has played almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines, notably Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra, mostly for the Royal Shakespeare Company. But where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death? Why didn’t Shakespeare write more – and more powerful – roles for mature women?

For Walter, the solution was to ignore the dictates of centuries of tradition, and to begin playing the mature male characters. Her Brutus in an all–female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse was widely acclaimed, and was soon followed by Henry IV. What, she asks, can an actress bring to these roles – and is there any fundamental difference in the way they must be played?

In Brutus and Other Heroines, Walter discusses each of these roles – both male and female – from the inside, explaining the particular choices she made in preparing and performing each character. Her extraordinarily perceptive and intimate accounts illuminate each play as a whole, offering a treasure trove of valuable insights for theatregoers, scholars and anyone interested in how the plays work on stage. Aspiring actors, too, will discover the many possibilities open to them in playing these magnificent roles.

The book is an exploration of the Shakespearean canon through the eyes of a self-identified ‘feminist actor’ – but, above all, a remarkable account of an acting career unconstrained by tradition or expectations. It concludes with an affectionate rebuke to her beloved Will: ‘I cannot imagine a world without you. I just wish you had put more women at the centre of your world/stage… I would love you to come back and do some rewrites.’

4.5 stars. Some of the earlier chapters of Brutus and Other Heroines, which were drawn from other pieces she wrote for various publications, etc., felt undeveloped. But the later chapters created specifically for this collection are amazing in giving us a peek inside how an actor develops a character – and specifically a character that has been played so many times by so many other actors. I always enjoy Harriet Walter in anything I’ve seen her in so this was a delight to read.

And if you can catch it, the Julius Caesar where she plays Brutus is phenomenal. I haven’t seen the Henry IV (or Tempest, which she doesn’t get into) yet but I hope I can.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Duke Darcy’s Castle by Syrie James (Dare to Defy #3) – a blog tour review with Austenprose!

Duke Darcy Castle by Syrie James 2020

Lance Granville, the Tenth Duke of Darcy, was none too happy to give up his career in the Royal Navy to inherit the family title, complete with an ancient castle he needs to renovate. When an architect arrives on his doorstep, Darcy is astonished to discover that she’s a woman.

Kathryn Atherton has one goal: to become the first woman architect in Britain. Marriage doesn’t figure in her plans. Despite the odds, her schooling is behind her. Now she needs experience. When she’s sent to a small tidal island in Cornwall to remodel a castle, the last thing Kathryn wants is to be attracted to its roguishly handsome owner.

Kathryn is determined to keep things professional, but the sizzling attraction between her and the duke quickly blazes out of control. When Darcy learns that Kathryn is an heiress whose fortune would save St. Gabriel’s Mount, he wages the most important battle of his life: to woo and win the woman who’s captured his heart. But (in an homage to Austen), the Duke’s first proposal is so Darcyesque, he is refused. In any case, duchesses can’t be architects. And Kathryn has worked too long and too hard to give up her career for anyone….

Kathryn Atherton, architect, is sent in her boss’s stead to a tidal island off Cornwall to consult on the renovation of…a castle! She’s almost a licensed architect, almost, the first in Britain, and this will certainly be a boost in her career. She arrives at St. Gabriel’s Mount to meet the Duke of Darcy, who not only answers his own front door but also mistakes her for the new schoolteacher in the village.

Lance Granville has been the Duke of Darcy for only a few weeks after the sudden death of his elder brother. The duchy is drowning in debt, the estate drastically reduced and mortgaged, and Lance really doesn’t have the time (or money) for an architect to renovate the castle. Especially if said architect is a woman. He would much rather escape back to his Navy command. But Miss Atherton is talented and persuasive so Lance agrees to let her remain for the agreed three weeks to develop the renovation plans (although he really has no intention of putted the scheme in to action).

Soon enough, Lance learns that Kathryn is a richer-than-rich American heiress, with a proposed dowry to the tune of seven figures in American dollars. If he marries her, her dowry will not only save the duchy but put the village to rights. So Lance proposes – badly. Kathryn a) does not intend to give up her career to swan around as a duchess and b) she will only marry for love. Lance is chastened – his grandmother puts it in perspective for me – but determined not to give up. Although he isn’t exactly forthcoming about the duchy’s financial woes, an omission that will come back to haunt him later.

Duke Darcy’s Castle is a very sweet romance between an architect and Modern Woman and a brand-new duke (he used to be in the Navy). The romance is medium-steamy, with a lot of good, feminist sentiment about working women and women’s roles (I did love Lance’s grandmother quite a lot who is in Kathryn’s corner from the get-go). The plot trips along very neatly – with a couple of fun interludes where the couple gets to interact with each other – and ties up nicely, but the tension between hero and heroine didn’t quite pay off to my satisfaction. It felt unbalanced in a way – he had to prove he wasn’t a twerp or out for her money (which, lets be honest, would this love story have happened had he not learned she was worth seven figures?) while she had to decide that adding a ranking title to her fortune would unlock many doors for her as an architect who also happened to be woman. Lance’s first “Darcy-esque” proposal was excellent. The setting of a castle on a tidal island – based on the real-life St. Michael’s Mout – was quite unique.

Duke Darcy’s Castle is the third book in the Dare to Defy series, which follows three unconventional American heiress sisters. I haven’t read the first two books, Runaway Heiress and Summer of Scandal, but I was able to get the gist of the connections easily enough so don’t worry about getting caught up before reading this one. The sisters do make an appearance in Duke Darcy’s Castle but the plot doesn’t spoil any of the particulars of their books.

Dare to Defy series James

AUTHOR BIO:

Syrie JamesAuthorPhoto2012SYRIE JAMES is the USA TODAY and Amazon bestselling author of thirteen novels of historical, contemporary, and young adult fiction and romance. Her books have hit many Best of the Year lists, been designated as Library Journal Editor’s Picks, and won numerous accolades and awards, including Best New Fiction by Regency World Magazine (the international bestseller “The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen”), and the national Audiobook Audie for Romance (“The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte”, also named a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association). Los Angeles Magazine dubbed Syrie the “queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings,” and her books have been published in twenty languages. A member of the Writer’s Guild of America, Syrie is also an established screenwriter and playwright who makes her home in Los Angeles. An admitted Anglophile, Syrie has addressed audiences across the U.S., Canada, and the British Isles.

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB

Duke Darcy’s Castle was released on ebook from Avon Impulse on February 25 – the mass market paperback will be released March 24, 2020.

I’m participating in a blog tour with Laurel Ann at Austenprose! See the Austenprose review and a schedule for other features and reviews.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss