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March 2018

There were moments earlier this month when I wondered if we were going to ever make it to our March book discussion after the bad weather delayed your book deliveries, so I’m really happy we’re finally here to discuss Jane Steele.

 

I know a lot of you waited two weeks before your book arrived and I really am sorry for that – the so-called Beast from the East and then Storm Emma really threw a spanner in the works. At least it was worth the wait. (right?)

 

This book was actually one of the first titles I knew I wanted to send with the book subscription. It’s exactly the kind of book I’m always looking for; one that’s smart and fun and interesting but was never going to get the kind of attention that would propel it to the bestseller charts.

 

Some of that comes down to snobbery – so often critics and booksellers reserve their praise for really highbrow literary fiction, that anything that doesn’t fall into that category ends up overlooked, forgotten or ignored.

 

Part of what I’m here to encourage you to do with this book club is branch out and enjoy all different types of reading. We all need variety – if we get stuck in a rut reading only one genre or only one type of book we miss out on all the wonderful things happening elsewhere.

 

In my opinion you don’t need help finding what’s on the bestseller lists – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a brilliant book, but also one that’s in just about every window at every bookstore around the country. It’s getting plenty of attention. I’m here to bring some balance and offer attention to the Jane Steeles of the world instead.  

 

So we’ve established Jane Steele is a book close to my heart. Now let’s get into what it’s all about.

 

Strictly speaking this isn’t a retelling of Jane Eyre – it’s a pastiche. What I mean by that is that this book imitates the style of Jane Eyre and is also a (loving) parody of it. By changing the story the author also draws attention to what’s ridiculous about it, and actually there is a lot that’s ridiculous about Jane Eyre.

 

Charles Thornfield’s big skeleton in the closet is pretty much literally a skeleton in the closet – he’s running a morgue from his basement.

 

In contrast, Rochester’s big dark secret is that he’s hiding his mad wife in the attic in solitary confinement and attempting to consign her to history by marrying his governess instead. (Which, I think we can all agree, is way worse)

 

Jane Eyre is so often depicted as a romantic story, and Rochester is right up there with Mr Darcy in terms of brooding, highly fanciable leading men.

 

But a lot of his actions are pretty inexcusable, and it wasn’t until I was thinking about Charles Thornfield in comparison that I realised just how problematic he can be. (but that’s a conversation for another day)

 

The two heroines are alike in some ways – both resourceful – but also very different.

 

Unlike Jane Eyre, who is rigidly bound by the rules of society, Jane Steele lives on the fringes of society and makes her own rules.

 

This book also plays with all the same themes present in Jane Eyre – both Janes grapple with identity, guilt and goodness. Both are called wicked, both eventually come to realise why they aren’t.  

 

But of course the original Jane Eyre isn’t a murderer, and Jane Steele is – five times over. I’m not sure I ever truly had an opinion on whether or not I enjoyed reading about murder before, but in this book I loved it.

 

One of my favourite scenes is when Jane kills her headmaster Vesalius Munt. She tells us that he had been ‘felled by a strangely skillful blow, as if i had studied the act, when in fact I had simply decided he should stop being alive.’

 

The way she matter-of-factly describes how he came to be dead was one of the things I liked best about this character and what made her a charming narrator I could go the distance with.

 

Jane Steele certainly borrows elements of mystery and thriller, but it’s not really accurate to call it a thriller as such.

 

Even in its most climactic moments it didn’t really feel like all that much was at stake – as a reader I was always pretty confident that everything would work out in the end, even if I wasn’t sure how it would work out. It’s written to entertain us rather than make us truly nervous.

 

This is a clear decision on the part of the author and one I mostly agreed with – what it sacrifices in nail-biting tension it makes up for with energy, wit and plot.

 

But looking back on the story, there is a crucial moment where we need more tension and we don’t really get it – and that was when Jane confronts Garima Kaur.

 

The mystery of the missing jewels was becoming more fraught – we knew we’re building up to something. And that something is a confession.

 

In the space of a few pages Garima Kaur moves from being a barely noticeable secondary character to being the person that connects every single mystery in the book.

 

The reason we never truly know her better makes perfect sense – the reader can’t have the opportunity to figure it out too soon – but it also meant that in this case when it does all come together it all felt a little flat.

 

In the space of a short conversation the mystery is solved. Did Jane even solve it? Not really. She was just around to hear the confession.

 

Kaur’s revelations should be like a punch to the gut. She has been overlooked, ignored and betrayed by the people who she believed should love her.

 

Kaur’s hurts are real, but they don’t have much emotional impact for us as readers because we barely know her.

 

Through Jane we’re told to consider Kaur’s point of view, but never really have the chance to feel it.

 

That’s not to say the confrontation isn’t pacey – the scene with Jane and Garima leads to Sardar losing his hand and Sahjara being kidnapped. The only piece that was missing here was heart.

 

We don’t know Garima well enough to feel empathy for her, and without it, when she falls from the horse and dies it almost didn’t matter.

 

She was a shadow, and then a crucial character, then a shadow again. As a plot device, Garima is very important, but as a character, she’s poorly rendered.

 

While I’m pointing out things that didn’t work for me, the other one I’ll highlight is the dialogue.

 

That the author was American, and not British, felt really obvious to me on more than one occasion. Some of the turns of phrase just weren’t quite right.

 

For the most part, it was something I noticed and then forgot. But once or twice – usually when Charles Thornfield was talking – the language felt so off that it took me right out of the story and really didn’t do justice to a book that for the most part I felt was very strong.

 

Dialogue aside however, once I got into this book – and it didn’t take long – I didn’t want to put it down. 400 pages felt like half that length and I flew through it in just a couple of days. I hope you had a similar experience.

 

Now, tell me: what did you think of Jane Steele? Did you like the book, and the character it’s named after? And what about Charles Thornfield? Smouldering hero or uptight glove-wearing weirdo?

 

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February 2018

It feels like Christmas morning over here at Rare Birds HQ – I have been patiently waiting for the day we could finally discuss the Girl in the Tower and that day is finally here!

 

The Girl in the Tower is the second installment of a fairytale fantasy series set in Medieval Russia starring Vasilisa Petrovna.

 

The book has been carefully marketed by its publisher both as a sequel and a stand-alone novel, and I’ve put that claim heavily to the test this month by tossing us in part way through the series.

 

It’s not usually my practice to read a series out of order, but I think it’s a good way to test how strong a story really is.

 

Can you start part way through and understand it? Does it feel like you’ve missed something? And crucially – does it feel like this story is just a waiting room before the real story takes place in the next book?

 

In my opinion, this book works – you can pick up The Girl in the Tower and read it on its own.

 

If you loved it, The Bear and the Nightingale (ie. the book that comes before GITT) is also a compelling and atmospheric read – but with mostly a different cast of characters and a completely different focus.

 

That disclaimer over, let’s get into the book.

 

There’s a huge amount of information to take in when you start reading, and a large glossary at the back of the book to help explain many of the words and ideas that feature in the book, so I’ll focus mostly on what’s actually going on in the story rather than dig any deeper into the background.

 

I don’t often read in this genre and I already know from your feedback that this was pushing many of you to the edge of your comfort zone with what you usually choose for yourselves. I hope though once you got into it you found it rewarding – I quickly went from a skeptic to a firm fan of this series.

 

Long-standing members of our book club will have heard me mention my ambivalence to the prologue before. As a plot device, it offers a bit of foreshadowing, usually at the expense of dramatic tension later on.

 

Prologues seem to be extremely fashionable in publishing at the moment, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised to see it used here.

 

I’ll allow it – I think it serves its purpose. Part One lays the foundation for much of the action to come, and our heroine Vasya naturally isn’t included in this yet.

 

The prologue introduces us to the two most significant characters (Vasya, Morozko) before quickly moving us along so we can start to understand the wider world the story will take place in.

 

The opening chapters are confusing but effective – it’s sort of like when you go swimming and plunge your head underwater for the first time.

 

You’re cold, you’re flailing around, trying to get used to the sensation of water all around you. Then suddenly you’ve acclimatised and you’re not freezing and shocked – you’re simply swimming.

 

By the time we meet Vasya again we know where the conflict is coming from; there’s a group of bandits raiding villages, we’ve met Kasyan, we’re starting to understand the dynamic between Sasha and Dmitrii and we’ve caught a glimpse of the developing relationship between Vasya and Morozko.

 

And in fact, the moments in the forest with Vasya and Morozko were among my favourite scenes in the book.  I am all about the Winter King; his begrudging admiration for Vasya and his inner turmoil as he realises he’s falling in love with her. I loved every moment of their star crossed love and how she demands things of him no one else would dare.

 

Vasya’s bravery is evident on pretty much every page, and something I liked about the book was that it always showed us the cost.

 

And a lot of what happens in the book is trouble of her own making. She’s not a victim of circumstance (the way you might argue Olga is, for example) – her arrogance and selfishness leads her into trouble that could have been easily avoided if she made different decisions.

 

This is what makes her a great heroine – she’s not perfect. She’s brave and resourceful, but she’s also often wrong and misguided.

 

You feel all the turmoil of her transition from childhood to adulthood – she makes decisions and has to live with the consequences of her actions, both good and bad.

 

She assumes that the life available to her – Olga’s life – will be unbearable, choosing an alternative path, but that one doesn’t necessarily bring with it the freedom she hoped.

 

We wouldn’t exactly accuse her of having a good time when she’s travelling through the forest, and when she arrives in Moscow, living as a boy is nearly as restrictive. The decisions she makes for herself have ramifications for others; in suiting herself she often puts her brother, sister, niece and even Morozko in danger.

 

The contrast between Vasya and Olga’s lives is stark. And on my first read of Girl in the Tower, I didn’t like Olga. I felt she lacked spirit. But as the story goes on the more you’re made to realise that she also exhibits a great deal of courage herself, albeit in a different way.

 

Olga took the road Vasya refused to travel – instead of running away from home as a teenager, Olga dutifully got married and learned to live within the restricted confines of what is expected of her.

 

By the time Vasya meets her again, a lot more is at stake for Olga. She is making decisions and sacrifices too, and with a lot more care for others than Vasya often shows. Where Vasya is selfish, Olga is much more controlled – Vasya is willing to risk her life but Olga is willing to make a sacrifice of it.

 

While the whole book is incredibly pacey, everything really turns on the final four chapters.

 

So to recap: Kasyan has exposed Vasya’s secret and asked Vasya to marry him. Olga nearly dies in labour until Vasya intervenes and chooses that the baby should die instead. Vasya discovers she’s wearing a piece of Morozko’s soul and rejects it (Call me, Morozko – I’ll wear it…).

 

Elsewhere, Sasha figures out what’s going on and sets off to save Dmitrii, and possibly Moscow, and the two of them eventually make up and and are fighting side by side again. Vasya releases a Firebrand that proceeds to set fire to Moscow.

 

Meanwhile, Kasyan kidnaps Olga’s daughter for his evil schemes, reveals himself as a powerful sorcerer who once loved a woman called Tamara. Her ghost appears, there’s a bit of a chat, Kasyan dies, Vasya rescues Marya then runs back into the burning city to drag Morozko into the land of the living, make it snow and save the city.

 

I devoured the entire book, but these last chapters in particular I barely blinked. When Vasya ran back into the burning city to summon Morozko I was riveted, and very nervous. And then suddenly it’s over – Morozko is gone, Olga offers forgiveness to her sister and we’re sort of left wondering: is that it? (spoiler: no, the sequel is published next year)  

 

We spend the entire book building up to what happens in the last few chapters and the fact that everything just seemed to clear itself up was a little frustrating.

 

Because so many major events were packed in together so tightly, combined, they almost felt a little minor.

 

We have zero time to process what is going on between Vasya and Morozko. We never really return to the consequences of Olga’s lost baby.

 

The threat of being exposed as liars to the Grand Prince is a source of tension throughout most of the book – yet when the worst happens, it turns out not to be such a big deal after all.

 

That criticism aside, I loved the Girl in the Tower. It was clever, absorbing and packed with detail and action. I loved Vasya. If I could, I’d keep a framed photo of Morozko beside my bed. If you feel similarly attached to the story, I highly recommend you go and give The Bear and the Nightingale a read, too – you can buy it in our bookstore.

 

Now. Over to you – what did you think of this one? Anyone else shipping Vasya and Morozko or is that just me?

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January 2018

It’s our first book club of 2018 and we’re kicking the year off with Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air.

 

There were a few reasons I chose The Wild Air, one of them being that it offers lots of food for thought. Whether you loved it or it drove you mad I knew there would be plenty we could find to talk about.

 

Before I jump into the plot and characters, I want to point out what I think is the strongest element of this book: the details. A ton of research clearly went into the making of The Wild Air and it shows.

 

The same way they say you can tell a great restaurant by the way you don’t notice the staff at all, you know a novel is working when the research comes together to make the experience seamless for the reader.

 

There are hundreds of tiny details sprinkled throughout the book that add up to give us a vivid sense of the world Della lives in. I have almost no interest in flying or aviation, yet the novel managed to make it interesting and deliver up enough detail that it all felt real.

 

Della herself is a completely fictional character, but many of the other pilots we meet and hear about in the novel – Hilda Hewlett, Melli Beese, The Wright Brothers to name but a few – are all real people in history.

 

It’s these little things that anchor us to the story and create a world that feels like it could easily be real.

 

And it’s a good thing, because within the first three pages we know that the novel is going to span, at the very least, the better part of a decade. The prologue opens in 1918, but chapter one starts in 1909.

 

For a novel that’s less than 400 pages that’s pretty ambitious. We’ll come back to whether or not the story bites off more than it can chew in a minute or two.

 

Let me begin with Della. I love Della, I loved her pretty much from page one. I have a huge soft spot for quiet heroines – Jane Eyre and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot would be two other notable examples – because I typically relate to them more so than the bold, fearless characters we tend to bring to mind when we use the word heroine.

 

And for all that Della doesn’t see herself as clever or special or brave, she still is. She has the courage and conviction to follow her dreams despite the fact that the idea of a woman flying  makes her pretty much a laughing stock.

 

She’s strong-willed but rarely forceful. She gets on with it in spite of some pretty strong opposition – from her father, from her instructors, from other pilots – and kept at it even when working towards her goal was tedious, mundane and frustrating.

 

Della could both love flying but also find the sacrifices she made to do it boring at times – she wasn’t universally grateful for what she was doing and had to face down loneliness and self-doubt despite the fact that she was a talented pilot.

 

That the novel didn’t gloss over this to make the ‘adventure’ seem more exciting for the reader was another reason I chose this one to kick off the year. So often when we talk about pursuing dreams we use a glossy, Instagram-worthy version of the truth that ignores just how unpleasant the journey can be at times.

 

As a reader we get to experience the joy of her triumph but must also learn to stick it out when things aren’t going to plan.

 

For me, the Meggie Magpie years are definitely a highlight of this novel. I loved watching Della mature and rise up to meet her ambitions and had huge sympathy for her as she had to learn to navigate her relationships with the men around her.

 

Look at her relationship with Claude Grahame-White for example; she admires and believes she has fallen in love with him at first, only to later realise that the two would never be equals. She gives him too much credit, and he doesn’t give her enough.

 

And of course, Dud. It was only a matter of time before I got to Dudley – he becomes more and more important as the story goes on.

 

Though their relationship features heavily in this book I still wouldn’t necessarily call it a love story. That’s not where the tension comes from – once they decide to be together we never have cause to question the strength of their relationship again. Dud’s loyalty and devotion is simple and obvious.

 

So Della’s career is going on well, and then the war arrives and obliterates pretty much everything. After spending so long touring around Europe, Della is at home and grounded, left to kick her heels and wait.

 

At first, the excitement is palpable – the naive belief that the war will be over and done with before anyone sees any real action is perfectly captured through Della’s brother Puck, and even, to an extent, Dud’s botched proposal.

 

And then reality starts to creep in. The war drags on, Puck is killed and the family is plunged into grief. Dud returns battered and shell shocked and Della is really fearful he might be lost to her for good.

 

We get a brief respite from this when she teaches him to fly, but once Dud’s training is finished the honeymoon is over – he’s sent back to the war and she’s once again left behind in anxiety and frustration.

 

Notice how we share that frustration as readers – we have little more to do than wait for news through Dudley’s letters for a huge chunk of the novel’s second half. I found myself impatiently reading through this section because, like Della, there’s really not much else we can do.

 

Thanks to the prologue we know that something serious happens to Della in 1918, and I was busy anticipating that while we wait as the war unfolds.

 

In general I’m not a huge fan of a prologue – it seems to rob us as readers of the dramatic tension. For example, until Della went across the Channel to rescue Dudley, I never once truly worried whether or not he’d be alright – I had been told as much on page one.

 

Which brings us to what I anticipate will be a key sticking point for many of us  – Dudley’s rescue.

 

For a book that was so rooted in reality her rescue of Dudley felt ridiculously far fetched. When I first read it I didn’t find it believable in the least – there were so many potential disasters and everything was just fine.

 

Is it truly plausible that Della would just fly over to France, find Dudley on the run despite having no real information to go on, and face no opposition getting him home? Too much fell into place too quickly and too easily.

 

But then later I had to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth as a reader: would I have found it as unbelievable if the tables were turned?

 

What if it was Dudley who went off and rescued Della? He says it himself – wives shouldn’t be rescuing husbands – and though I thought this scene could have played out much better in general, I wonder if it would have jarred me as much if the shoe was on the other foot.

 

There are several books in our Rare Birds bookstore that feature more ridiculous rescues than this and I accepted them without a second thought. It’s not lost on me that the rescues are usually the hero going after the heroine.

 

It’s an interesting question to grapple with, especially considering the novel directly and indirectly questions the role of women and what’s considered acceptable again and again and again.

 

We see it in Della’s treatment by the other pilots she encounters, but there are also dozens of smaller, subtler ways the author puts the question to us as readers. Even when I felt the plot wasn’t working – like in the rescue scene – I can admire the fact that it forced me to acknowledge that even as a reader (and a woman!) this was a moment I was all too ready to believe this was a bridge too far.

 

The other major criticism I have for this book was the treatment of Betty.

 

Betty, who helped bring Della out of her shell. Who introduced her to flying and encouraged her to pursue it, and believed in her and showed her a model for what a woman could be. Betty who was responsible for encouraging the friendship between Dudley and Della.

 

Secondary characters are notoriously tricky, and this is often true with novels of this length – we don’t have enough time and space to round them out. They end up as two-dimensional plot devices that enter the story to get our heroine from A to B.

 

This is where covering so much ground in one book can come back to bite you – Betty deserved better than to be treated as a plot device, and considering we spend so much time with her at the start of the novel it felt hugely unfair that she just disappears.

 

We learn about Betty’s death in a letter, and though Della explicitly acknowledges how hollow she feels at not being there, it takes her little more than a paragraph to come to the conclusion that the greatest tribute to her is to continue flying, and that’s Betty consigned to history.

 

I really felt like we could have dispensed with many of the war chapters and instead spent more time exploring Della and her Great Aunt’s relationship and how both women see an ambition achieved as Della begins to fly professionally.

 

That’s plenty from me – it’s your turn. What did you think of the Wild Air? Did you like our heroine Della? Did you fall for Dudley?