A New Day at Midnight by Michelle Hiscox

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

First, the good things: The book is a quick read. The writing is, generally, of a good pace and pleasant flow. Also, the romance wasn’t rushed, which is a particular annoyance of mine. This is not to say the romance was perfect (my objections will come below), but the author did give the relationship time to develop. The sex scenes were some of the better writing in the book – her efforts showed especially in depictions of physical sensations/situations (both positive and negative). The author also did a very good job talking about saving a life by turning someone into a vampire when the victim is unable to consent, and the morality and power dynamics in a such situations. This is a point that I feel is often skipped over in vampire narratives (there’s plenty of angst, but very little discussion of responsibility/consent), and I appreciate that she took the time to explore the nooks and crannies of that particular aspect.

Unfortunately, those were not enough to redeem the book. This book has the triple threat of racial violence, domestic abuse, and man-pain (the function in entertainment by which a female character is hurt/tortured/kidnapped/killed as motivation for a male character to act) all within the first few chapters. Needless to say, my motivation to finish the book was scant. But finish I did! I cannot say I was particularly pleased with the results.

This book shows a stunning lack of imagination. This is not to say that the author wrote a boring world. She did not. However, the world she wrote was filled with stereotypes and poor (or no) research about the complex society in which the main characters spend most of their time – Romani society. A quick internet search would have made this book MUCH better because the portrayal of the Romani would have been so much more nuanced and wouldn’t feel appropriative. I was HORRIFIED to read, multiple times in the first few pages, the racial slur generally used for the Romani people. There are better ways to portray ignorance of a culture or prejudice against it. Taboo racial slurs are an unimaginative shortcut and tell the reader this character is prejudiced/ignorant rather than SHOW it. However, my horror was NOTHING compared to the disgust I felt when after a Romani character corrected the ignorant use of the slur by the main character with, “We prefer Romani,” that the main character CONTINUED TO USE IT for a few more chapters. Also, the word was still peppered through the script. Also, the text is full of micro-aggressions (like the surprised exclamation “You speak English so well!”) and fetishizing of the Romani. Not to mention, when using Romani mythology, she mixed it with another mythological tradition to the point that the original legend was nearly obscured. Everything about the treatment of the Romani felt extremely squicky.

Women in this story tend to be acted upon rather than act themselves. It’s a frustrating thing to read. Especially the sister, Anya, who seemed completely there to be acted upon, rather than act. The main character swung between two poles: completely inactive to amazingly decisive. It was awkward and inconsistent. In the main, however, she was a body acted upon and I very much so dislike a main character who has little agency. So, while the romance wasn’t rushed, it was almost entirely on the male character’s terms, which made the pace of the thing feel less like a victory. SPOILER: A slave falls in love with their master! That’s so very gross and never ONCE did the novel even think to address the power dynamic there. If you absolutely MUST use that trope, at least bother to do it with a LITTLE respect. Considering that the author did an extremely good job of addressing the power dynamics of being a vampire faced with a dying person, this lack was BAFFLING. The book felt a lot like a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite faerie tale and while the book recognizably follows the sense of the story, it does so without ever capturing the true spirit and intent of it.

I could not get a sense of time period, because there were language functions that felt very 1800’s and some that felt very 1900’s. This is what broke the pleasant flow of the narrative the most. I was thrown out of the novel several times when the language changed from older usage to more modern usage (especially when the characters swore – the usages felt much more modern). Also, bride prices and slaves were a thing, making a case for the older time period, but again the language felt very modern.

I also believe that much of the errors in the novel were editorial mistakes. Some of them were convoluted sentences that needed a firm hand, some were formatting errors, but none of these did an already flawed novel any favors. Frustration on top of disappointment makes for an unsatisfying reading experience. This is not the first time I have read a book published by Bookkus and have felt similarly dissatisfied with the editing. I think this author’s book could have been much better, had she had a little more editorial guidance.

A note of confusion: I’m not sure I understand the origin of the title. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not sure the title is appropriately descriptive of the book. At the same time, there is something of the “new beginnings” feeling in the book. It’s not a bad title, but it doesn’t quite do it for me either.

D (Pacing and flow generally satisfying, romance not rushed, depictions of physical acts well-written, addresses vampire aspects often dismissed; appropriation of culture, time period inconsistencies, poorly discussed power dynamics, female characters lacking in agency, poor editing)

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North, you dummy!

I fell in love with Beauty and the Beast when I was a young girl.  It was the first movie I remember going to with my dad (actually, it’s just the first movie I remember being in the theatre for).  I remember grabbing his hand and clutching it tight when the beast came in a frightened Belle’s father.

It took me quite some time to realize the most popular version, the one Disney based their’s off of, was boring and dull.

Thankfully, I realized in time to be saved from a long life of the drab version of one of the most varied and distinct faerie tales on this earth.  Nearly every culture has at least one Beauty and the Beast story, some multiple versions.  East by Edith Pattou, is a novelization of the Norwegian version, called “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon.”  Truly, my favorite version of them all.  And let me tell you, there are some phenomenal contenders.

Pattou went about writing this book because she felt the original tale had plot-holes.  I don’t see them myself (if you want a great version of the tale, by the way, get the book illustrated by P.J. Lynch), but I can understand the urge.

Because she felt so much of the story was untold, especially in the sense of motivations, Pattou wrote East from multiple points of view: Rose (our Beauty), the White Bear (our Beast), Rose’s Father, Rose’s brother, and the Troll Queen (our enchantress).  At first, the constant switching got a little tiresome.  However, as I got used to the style, I realised this book was much like a rose itself, slowly opening petal by petal.  Yes, the multiple points of view make the chapters almost too short, but when considered an individual petal, the small chapters seem to make more sense.  All the outer petals must open before you can get to the large bud in the center.

Okay, done with that metaphor.  Apt, but felt stupid writing it all the same.

As much as I hate the Troll Queen for believing for a moment she had the right to own a human life, much less steal it, I think she is my favorite narrator in the entire book.  Perhaps it is because she’s an infrequent narrator at best that these looks into a mind so selfish, but so in love, are completely fascinating.  I also think it’s partially due to Pattou’s care.  She explains in her author’s note that that was one of the character’s motivations she understood the least in the original tale.  I believe this is another reason why she is the best.

Thankfully, even though the Troll Queen is clearly superior, the narrators are all good.  And, better yet, they are all distinct.  Neddy (the brother) is gentle and sweet, Father is constantly worried, the White Bear can barely string a few words together (which was quite the effect), and Rose is head-strong yet not so much as to be a brat.  Just marching to the beat of her own drummer.  I can say, with confidence, that had the author switched voices without labeling who was speaking at the beginning of each chapter, I would have been able to recognize each in their turn.  That was very well done.

Not only is the book split into five narrators, it is split into five sections, each titled after a cardinal point on the compass.  East, as one might suspect, is repeated.  These sections are well placed, and not even.  I like that.  Though there is much to be told for each phase of Rose’s life, some are more significant than others.  I think each section is connected to a narrator, the one who is most significant at the time.  I would assign them like so:

  • East: Neddy
  • South: The White Bear
  • West: Rose
  • North: The Troll Queen
  • East: Father

That is a matter of some opinion, though.  I think many people would see Father in the first East, and the White Bear in the second East.  This is merely my reckoning of the form and shape of book.  I’ve been known to be wrong many times before, and will be again for certain.  However, it is interesting to me that the section I like best is also the one that I feel belongs to my favorite narrator.

Technically, I suppose, there is a sixth narrator, the anonymous narrator who finds the manuscript in the Prologue.  Usually I am a fastidious reader of Prologues, but this one I somehow missed all three times I read the book.  I just found it tonight, and am somewhat glad of the fact.  The Prologue is good.  I think I would have preferred it as an Epilogue.  I recommend reading it that way, there is no vital information in it (as befits a good Prologue).

It’s funny, but it was only this last time around reading that I began to dislike the Beauty character, and not just in East, but in all versions of Beauty and the Beast.  I don’t know if this book revealed it to me, but the beauty strikes me as incredibly selfish.  She’s offered a choice to join the Beast to spare her family from poverty and certain death, but then acts as if her decision was somehow forced.  She then requires the Beast to take her back to her family, breaking his trust the first time, and when she returns from her family, she breaks his trust a second time.  I’ve always felt bad for the Beast, but now I really hate the situation he’s in!

I like that this book put that new perspective on for me.  I’ve written my own novella version of the tale, and my Beauty has the same problem.  I think it’s inherent to the role.  But, unlike The Little Mermaid (Disney version), she overcomes that selfishness to be a better person and to think more of others.  This is the important role of Rose, to show the capacity of the human spirit to be genuinely good against all odds.

Of course, there were things I did not like, but they were few and far between.  I felt that taking the setting from the Norwegian land (where it begins) to France was an unnecessary homage to what is considered to be “the original.”

Rose can be a real idiot sometimes.  She’s the daughter of a mapmaker, grand-daughter of a famous explorer and it takes her forever to figure out that “east of the sun, west of the moon” (her directions to the Troll Queen’s castle) could mean North.  Of course there’s no such place!  But, if you meet in the middle of the sun and the moon (which rise and fall as clear opposites of each other), but still need to keep moving away from them, how do you do that?  Well, I’m about as directionally challenged as they come, but even I know when the sun is at her height in the sky (noon), it is positioned due south in the Northern hemisphere.  So, to continue away from the sun, you would have to move North.  It seems to silly to me that Rose, who is much more the adventurer and acutely aware of her background, would not have at least tried some basic logic, even if it seemed like grasping at straws.

I also didn’t like that the personified winds of the tale were replaced with characters.  I like that part of the tale–it makes getting to the palace “East o’ the sun and West o’ the moon” even more impossible.  I still can’t figure out the fourth character who was supposed to be one of the winds, unless it was Rose herself.  That seems…unlikely.

However, these are small details.  I truly feel that this is a standout among novelizations of a faerie tale.  It’s well-paced, not forced, and if it doesn’t fix plot holes for me, it gives an interesting perspective on the original.

Reasons this is challenging for me:

  • It challenges my very strong notions of my favorite faerie tale.
  • It requires me to invest separately, by the two five-way splits, in parts that become a whole.
  • It requires self-examination on how I approach my own faerie tale telling.

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P.S.  This gets me up to date!  Huzzah!  I have one more Weeds Review to do, but as that is supposed to be after the weekly review, I am finally okay with going to bed and not feeling guilty!  YAY!

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

I love this book.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve read this book before.  I loved it then, but I was reading it for such a specific purpose that I missed some of the best and most beautiful moments.  I also mentioned that I suspected that C.S. Lewis was the “beast” in the story, but wasn’t sure.

I am now positive he is not, though I am similarly positive he is Orual, the jealous sister.  While the jealous sisters in the original version of “Cupid and Psyche” can be considered one of the many beasts (Venus and Cupid themselves playing the role of the beast at different times as well) the true beast in this version is love.  It took me almost the entire book to realize it, but I’m sure I’m right.  Though it follows that the book’s Venus/Aphrodite (Ungit) and Cupid (the Brute) would then be the beast, as these two are godly incarnations of love, they are not.  If anything, they are the true beauties, and Istra (also known as Psyche) is only reflecting their pure, healthy love.

Perhaps I should amend my earlier statement:  the true beast is human love, love that does not seek the divine.  And, while I balk at the concept (I’m human and I love people!), I have to agree.  The divine love he speaks of is not unattainable by the humans of the story.  Psyche is living proof of this.  It is just rarely attained, because of petty jealousies, predilection to ownership, anger at split affection, and a dangerous, self-serving tendency to wish to control all those we love so that they never leave us.  All of this I have observed and sometimes felt myself, so I cannot deny that it exists in humanity.  Lewis pokes and prods with careful, but hardly gentle, fingers at these sores in our humanity (and, I think (as I have mentioned), in himself).

Here is a synopsis from the back of the book:  In this timeless tale of two mortal princesses–one beautiful and one unattractive–C. S. Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche into an enduring piece of contemporary fiction.  This is the story of Orual, Psyche’s embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche.  Much to Orual’s frustration, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development.

Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, the struggles between sacred and profane love are illuminated as Orual learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods “till we have faces” and sincerity in our souls and selves.

I’m not sure I like this description.  It’s not very good, and misrepresents a lot of the book.  But it gets the idea across.

There are many revealing moments within the novel.  I wish I could type them all for proofs of what a disease love can be.  However, here are a few of my favorites.

1) The possessive love of Orual:

“I wanted to be a wife so I could have been [Psyche’s] real mother.  I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me.  I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister.  I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.”

2) The manipulative love (born of jealousy) of Orual:

“I flung back my cloak further, trust out my bare left arm, and struck the dagger into it till the point pricked out on the other side.  Pulling the iron back through the wound was the worse pain; but I can hardly believe now how little I felt it…

Maia,’ said Psyche, ‘what did you do that for?’

‘To show you I’m in earnest, girl.  Listen.  You have driven me to desperate courses.  I give you your choice.  Swear on this edge, with my blood still wet on it, that you will this very night do as I have commanded you; or else I’ll first kill you and then myself.’

‘Orual,’ said she, very queenlike, raising her head, ‘you might have spared that threat of killing me.  All your power over me lies in the other.’

‘Then swear, girl.  You never knew me break my word.’

The look in her face now was on I did not understand.  I thin a lover–I mean, a man who loved–might look so on a woman who had been false to him.  And at last she said,

‘You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know.  It is like looking into a deep pit.  I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred.  Oh, Orual–to take my love for you, because you know it does down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture–I begin to think I never knew you.  Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here.’

‘Enough of your subtleties,’ said I. ‘Both of us die here, in plainest truth and blood, unless you swear.'”

3) The cruel love of Orual:

“I had rejoiced when there was a press of work, had heaped up needless work to keep [Bardia, my captain of the guard] late at the palace, plied him with questions for the mere pleasure of hearing his voice.  Anything to put off the moment when he would go and leave me to my emptiness.  And I had hated him for going.  Punished  him too.  Men have a hundred ways of mocking a man who’s thought to love his wife too well, and Bardia was defenceless; everyone knew he’d married an undowered girl, and Ansit boasted that she’d no need (like most) to seek out the ugliest girls in the slave-market for her household.  I never mocked him myself; but I had endless sleights and contrivances (behind my veil) for pushing the talk in such directions as, I knew, would make the others mock him.  I hated them for doing it, but I had a bittersweet pleasure at his clouded face.  Did I hate him, then?  Indeed, I believe so.  A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.  One thing’s certain; in my mad midnight fantasies (Ansit dead, or, better still, proved whore, witch, or traitress) when he was at last to be seeking my love, I always had him begin by imploring my forgiveness.  Sometimes he had hard work to get it.  I would bring him within an ace of killing himself first.”

These are the fruits of human love in the book.  Pain, bitterness, hatred of others and self, but–above all–emptiness.  I gasped when I read that first quote this second time around.  How had I missed all the disease that was already rotting her love?  The manipulation Orual accomplishes so that she will not be alone (which, of course, backfires horribly on both parties concerned) is unfathomable.  And, of course, in her old age she not only recognizes the emptiness, but uses a horrid love that is “nine-tenths hatred” to fill it.  It is amazing to see what we humans can do in the name of “love.”  And, as if we are not quite satisfied with the extent of the pain we cause, after opening these deep cavities in others, we then salt the wounds, to ensure that they hurt exquisitely enough.  I say that we do this, and not the characters, because I am not blind enough to pretend that this book is a caricature.  Poisonous love exists and it is not those who understand divine/pure/healthy love that perpetrate it.  It is the worst of what it is human.

Thankfully, Lewis also covers the best of what is human as well.  The title of the book reflects it: Till We Have Faces.  At the moment we are able to acknowledge was is real and true about others, we cannot hate them.  Orual writes her book as a charge, a hateful diatribe, against the gods who have wronged her by removing the one thing in her life she loved: her sister, Psyche.  The way she puts it, when she sees Cupid/the Brute’s face, “I now know, Lord, why you utter no answer.  You are yourself the answer.  Before your face questions die away.  What other answer would suffice?  Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words…”

I love this truth: before the true face of a person, all questions die away.  If we are willing to look beyond the surface of what we expect to see, of what people project themselves, we will find the beginnings of that love.  Words will battle no more.  This is a much simpler concept for me to express, but a harder one to practice, I think.

Till We Have Faces is a brilliant book.  I am sure that the next time I read it, many new things  will occur to me.  Opinions will change.  All these things I am sure of this time will likely be the things I am least sure of next time.  But I will always recommend it.  Orual’s journey to find her own face within herself and find divine love is a quest that resonates within the human experience.

This book also poses a question that I was unable to answer, but I wish to open to anyone who would like to consider it themselves: As we destroy ourselves with fantasy, do we also destroy reality?

Just a thought.

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P.S. Incidentally, this book also carries one of my favorite quotes as a writer:  “I was with book, as a woman is with child.”  How awesome is that?!

Mid-Book Discussion: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

So, right now, I’m reading two books to make it to the one book a week since I made the resolution late.  Next week will also be a two book week.  So I apologize for the inundation of blogs that will be happening over the next few weeks as I give the Friday reviews/mid-book discussions and then the reviews as I finish the books I discuss.  It’ll certainly be an adventure.  Hopefully, it’ll end soon.

Thankfully, I’ve read this book before, so this discussion is more of what I’m discovering again rather than what I’m hoping to see.  I’m reading the book again because I read the book the first time with a specific purpose.  The first time I read the book, I was working on my thesis.  My thesis was a rewrite of Beauty and the Beast and my research was, mainly, reading as many versions of the faerie tale that I could get my hands on.  I read several short story versions and two novel versions.  This was one.  Because I was reading with such specific goals, I know I missed certain things.

What I didn’t miss, and I’m so grateful I did not, was that this is truly his best work.  I love what I have read of the Narnia books (I know, I know, they’re on the list) and I adore The Screwtape Letters, but nothing surpasses this book.  The book is dedicated to Joy Davidman, the American woman who became his wife in a religious ceremony the same year around the same time (I cannot determine whether the book preceded the marriage or the marriage preceded the book–it was a near thing).

The couple had entered into a civil union as a matter of kindness on his part several years earlier so that she could remain in England.  He enjoyed her company and intellectual companionship.  However, she was diagnosed with bone cancer and when faced with this, Lewis finally saw something he had not been able to see before.  Joy was on her hospital bed, but they were finally married. Joy finally had a face.  To me, this book is proof of that.  It is terrible and it is beautiful.  It is an accusation and a celebration.  These things I remember.

What I’ve noticed this time around is what a love letter this truly is.  I think Lewis put much more of  himself  into the main character, Orual, than I previously noticed.  I was paying much more attention to her sister, the Psyche character, than her.  I think Orual, who presents her life as an accusation against the gods, is Lewis accusing the universe that dared harm his wife.  This same Orual comes back to the book after she thinks she has finished it to discover–in one night!–how her perspective has changed and tries to share it but dies on the manuscript; this is Lewis attempting, in his poor way, to share his transcendent love with friends who could not accept his marriage to a woman who raised him beyond what he ever aspired to.  Orual, who covered her face from the world for her entire life, ugly and afraid, is Lewis hiding the ugliness of his anger and fear of Joy’s death.

I’ll find out as I go on.  The first time I read this book, I was unaware of the background.  Having read it once, I’ve found its beauty.  I have found Joy in this book.  Now, I look for Lewis.  Now, I look for the beast.

I wonder: are they the same?

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