Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.

Review: Remarkable Creatures

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

It doesn’t take long into reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel to figure out that the title isn’t just referring to fossils.  Remarkable Creatures alternates between two narrators: Mary Anning, the lightning-struck fossil finder from a poor family, and Elizabeth Philpot, the higher class spinster from London who turns out to be rather good at finding fossils too.  Both use fossils as an escape from their disappointing life: Elizabeth for the intellectual stimulation of collecting and learning, Mary for the money she can earn selling her “curies.”

At first, their relationship is sweet and symbiotic.  Mary takes the older Elizabeth under her wing by teaching her about the creatures they find on the beach and showing her where to find the best ones.  Then Elizabeth reciprocates by advocating for Mary when she finds a “croc,” an apparent monster skeleton embedded in the cliff, making sure Mary retains ownership despite other cury-hunters on the beach and trying to help her get a good price for it.

But, like the two women suddenly finding themselves thrust into the scientific world, the novel quickly becomes more about Elizabeth and Mary against the people who misunderstand them, or worse, mistreat them, and how those struggles start to strain their own relationship.

Elizabeth acts as Mary’s advocate, whether Mary knows it or not, for much of the book.  Here is where we see the struggle for female contributors to be recognized in the 19th century scientific community.  Elizabeth is outraged, for instance, that the collectors who buy skeletons from Mary and then sell them on to museums are listed as the finders of those fossils when they have never personally set foot on the beach.  For her, intellectual property and the right of a person to be acknowledged for his or her work is paramount.

Mary herself tries to balance the ownership she feels for the “crocs “and “monsters” she finds with the knowledge that selling them will bring in much-needed money.  Her arc deals more with class and elitism, recognizing that the best way for her to rise in status and secure her family’s future is to appease the men who come wanting tours of the beach – and to possibly marry one of them.  Few people besides Elizabeth recognize Mary’s intellectual potential, seeing her as a tool or servant to be used and paid rather than someone who could ever write papers about the things she discovers.  Indeed, to many of the men in the book, Mary doesn’t discover anything at all.

Beyond this already interesting feminist layer is the question of the “croc” itself, which turns out to be an ichthyosaurus – an as-yet undiscovered species no longer extant anywhere on earth.  This is a much bigger deal in the 1800s than nowadays; as many characters uneasily point out, an extinct species would seem to imply that God had made a mistake, or didn’t care about keeping His creations alive, which shakes their faith-based worldview.  I appreciated Chevalier’s evenhanded treatment of this debate.  She was far more interested in portraying the significance of Mary’s find than in condemning or promoting either extreme.  Indeed, Elizabeth comes to a sort of middle ground on the matter, while Mary doesn’t prioritize the God-vs.-science debate at all.

I didn’t much care for the amorous jealousy that undermines the two women’s friendship.  It seemed a bit forced to have Elizabeth envy Mary a man’s attention, even as she pronounced him a fraud and a cad (he reminded me a bit of a more abashed Wickham). Given how aware both women are of the ways social expectations limit them, I would have preferred to focus on their efforts to live despite those expectations (i.e., marriage) rather than let a clearly shabby suitor damage their friendship so much.  Then again, I suppose flaws are what make characters interesting, and an inability to let go of romance as a Way Out is certainly understandable given their setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this fictional look at two real women in the fossil community, and could definitely see parallels to the way some of my female friends in STEM have been treated today.  A worthwhile historical fiction read for any feminist or fossilist!

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review: Eligible

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings.  So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.

I ended up feeling very divided about the book.  Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work.  The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another.  The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister.  One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise!  The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia.  So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.

But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow.  Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show.  The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter.  Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines.  And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style.  It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.

I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version.  True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat.  But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character.  In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love.  This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family.  Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them.  I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?

Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff.  The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.


Have you read Eligible?  Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?

Peace Is Not What We Should Pray For

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

“For peace in our nation.”  I paused.  “We pray to the Lord.”

The congregation, slower in its responses here than in my home parish on the other side of the state, mumbled, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

It’s not my job to improvise the intercessions – lectors just read, we don’t write – but at that moment I wished I could add something to the single, well-meaning, inadequate line of that particular prayer.

Because peace alone is not good enough.

Peace is easy for people like me to find.  Peace is what we get because we are white, and heterosexual, and cisgender, and above the poverty line.  Our peace is not truly disturbed by the reports on TV of violence elsewhere, of fear elsewhere, of hate crimes elsewhere, because, if you noticed, it is always elsewhere, not next door.  And even if it is next door, we can draw the blinds.  We can change the channel.  We can shuffle to and from our cars and listen only to radio stations that agree with us and read only the same old books we have always read and we can do this because we are the ones who are represented in those places.  We have the option of shutting ourselves off from those different from us.  And when we cannot ignore what’s happening outside our comfort zones, we can at least use it to reinforce the mentality that allows us to shake our heads gently and think, “At least We are not Like Them.”

Peace is easy for people like me to find.

But it is a “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  The things that might bring us true peace, a “positive peace which is the presence of justice,” are more complicated.  And it’s not a terribly peaceful process.

Probably the writer of that intercession was hoping for a deeper peace, not just peace of mind or the bliss we speak of that comes from ignorance, but the peace we are promised in the Gospels, the kind “that surpasses all understanding,” which is good because a lot of other things right now surpass understanding.  But we are creatures who need the process spelled out for us, the true meaning defined and articulated point by point.

So this is what I’m praying for.

For peace and protection of marginalized groups and minorities as they face growing violence and aggression on top of the daily struggle of navigating a culture in which they are not the group in power.

For peace and communication between opposing views, that they may allow themselves to be coaxed toward a middle ground in which they can recognize the humanity of the Other standing before them.

For peace and humility in our leaders, that they may recognize their responsibility to those they represent and to the world as a whole.

For peace and true justice as we continue to work toward equality and a more perfect fulfillment of the American vision.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?

Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.

 

NerdCon Stories Part 3: Saturday

2016-10-15-09-55-24
I figured if there was anywhere to wear my Augustus Waters t-shirt, this was it.

Saturday morning began bright and early with a John Green Yoga Adventure hosted by YogaQuest MN.  This was basically like MadLibs with yoga poses: one of the instructors read a narrative in which the protagonists of Green’s novels found themselves outside their stories and tried to find where they belonged, while the other instructor led us through poses associated with each character name, certain nouns, and some verbs.  Whenever Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars was mentioned, for instance, we did Warrior II, because she is a strong female lead.

After yoga I ran back to the hotel for breakfast in the Executive Lounge (leftover perks from having to stay on the pullout couch in the Executive Suite!) before heading off to “Centering Women in Fiction: Removing Your Unconscious Bias.”  A panel of amazing women creators talked about internalized and learned biases that even we women have against ourselves, and how we can combat those by supporting (and even demanding) those stories when they do appear.  The girl power in the room was fantastic.  I also ran into Shayna from the feminist publishing panel the day before, so we sat together and chatted a bit.

When that panel let out, I went back to the expo hall because I wanted to try out the Depict-O-Mat.  Essentially, it’s some people in a box who interview you for a few minutes and then produce an impromptu puppet show starring you.  In mine, I was Queen of the Dragons.  Plus I got to keep the puppet!

After some lunch, it was time for our kaffeeklatsch with Saladin Ahmed.  Twelve attendees got to sit down with a featured guest at kaffeeklatsches (so called because there were coffee and tea available) for an hour and chat about creativity, process, and whatever else we wanted.  Though I didn’t actually talk, it was just nice to hang out and hear others’ thoughts on representation, writing, publishing, and reading recommendations.

From there, I dashed straight to the auditorium to get a good seat for the afternoon variety show.  This is also where I found Shayna again and she joked that I must be stalking her.

2016-10-15-16-55-45The variety show included a Q&A lightning round with a squid, a conversation between Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Jose Older, a lip sync battle, and a talk by John Green.  All I’ll say about that talk is that 1. he made me cry again and 2. you should go read it.

After the variety show I went down to something called Story Circle, where we all literally sat in a circle and talked about nerdom.  I got to say some things about Arabian Nights and how cool it was to be at NerdCon: Stories in the first place, so that was definitely fun.

My last panel at NerdCon was “Breaking into Publishing,” which is pretty self explanatory.  I got some good notes, some good quotes (my favorite was “How did I break into publishing?  With a black ski mask at night.”), and some good motivation to actually finish my manuscript so I can start querying! (I also saw Shayna.  Again.  Really can’t blame her for thinking I was stalking her.)

And thus, knowing I had a shuttle coming at 5 am the next day, my NerdCon: Stories experience was over.

Review: What We See When We Read

This book is blowing my mind.

If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, or a dream where you suddenly became lucid and realized it was a dream, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is a little like that.  Many of us readers claim to have mental movies of our favorite stories that played in our heads when we followed the written adventures.  We know these beloved characters like our own friends, like our own family.  Of course we can picture them!

But Mendelsund asks what their noses look like, and suddenly you concentrate too hard and the character suddenly becomes bits and pieces of specific description connected only by the hazy assumptions you make.

The book is as much a visual experience as it is a text, which is appropriate, considering Mendelsund sets out to challenge our concept of “seeing” when we read.  His text is creatively arranged on the pages, switching from black-on-white to white-on-black.  Some pages are blank.  Some have only one word.  Some squish the words together to literally illustrate his point about accumulating evidence about a mental picture as we progress through a book.  Illustrators’ interpretations of famous characters peer out from the book, sometimes half-hidden by more of Mendelsund’s words, or even by the descriptions from their own novels.

Reading anything else after spending a little time on one of Mendelsund’s chapters is like lucid dreaming.  You become very aware of the process your brain is going through to construct a mental image of the things represented only by printed characters on a page (or screen).  “Of course she has blonde hair, he said so, but what are her eyes like?” you think to yourself.  Mendelsund doesn’t just deal with physical characteristics either; he points out how the way we “see” characters changes depending on their actions as well.  Personally, I realized I had some placeholder characters in my head, a set of generic faces and figures that stand in and receive customization the more I get to know a character.

Even settings, which seem so obvious – it’s the background of all the action, of course I know what it looks like! – are revealed to be blurry at best, with a few stark details jumping out because they are motifs, or murder weapons, or somehow important to the plot.  My visions of Versailles (I’m currently reading America’s First Daughter and they’re in Paris right now) suddenly look like Impressionist paintings with a few photographs cut and pasted on by a two-year-old.

But it’s still magical that my brain can even construct that much out of symbols printed on paper.

Like any book that asks you to think about thinking, this is not something to tackle right before bed, or before you have to really use your brain for anything else.  But as a reader, and as someone who love to spread that love of reading around, I think it’s a process worth examining – and subsequently marveling at.  Because after all, Mendelsund only points out yet another reason that reading is amazing.

Review: The French Executioner

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Very few people cheer at the mention of Anne Boleyn.  At least, few people in the crowd at the conference dinner I was attending, where the panel of writers had just been asked, “Who is your favorite character in history, fictional or real?”  One author replied, “Anne Boleyn,” to which I responded with a quiet-ish “Whoo!”  I earned some weird looks, but apparently I also caught the attention of the author, C.C. Humphreys.  After dinner when I went to purchase a copy of his book and get it signed, he said, “Weren’t you the one who cheered when I mentioned Anne Boleyn?”

I grinned.  “She’s just so fascinating!  If I could have dinner with anyone living or dead, it would be her.”

So we chatted about the enigmatic queen for a few minutes, he signed my book “In honor of Anne,” and I went home.

And devoured the book in two days.

The book follows Jean, the titular French executioner, as he struggles to carry out his promise to Anne to bury her six-fingered hand at a certain crossroads in France.  The queen asks him to do this to prevent her powers from being used by her enemies, and enemies there certainly seem to be: an archbishop and his cronies chase Jean and his group of misfits (including a Viking!) all over Europe in their efforts to capture the hand and harness its power.

Now, as I told Mr. Humphreys, I am captivated by Anne Boleyn.  I have read everything from Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII, and she remains one of my favorite historical figures to examine and wonder about.  The impressive thing about The French Executioner was that, even though it takes place after Anne’s beheading, I found an entirely unique characterization of her.  Humphreys presents an Anne who even her executioner willingly recognizes and idolizes as his queen, but she’s not the manipulative, political strategist seen in other interpretations.  Nor is she an innocent, necessarily, a mere pawn in her father’s schemes.  Humphreys’ Anne, with her concern for keeping her power from being used for evil, is somewhere in between, and even though you know she has to die, and even though there are hints of something dark in her, you regret it.  You wish it didn’t have to be this way.

This connection to the characters is not limited to Anne.  Jean is conflicted about becoming a sort of accidental leader when he’s always followed orders himself.  His friends, mostly mercenary soldiers, must consistently decide whether or not Jean’s mission still aligns with their own interests.

On occasion, this devotion to characters leads the plot to some questionable places.  Conflicts from the core group’s past surface only long enough to send them on the next leg of their journey, then conveniently sink back into oblivion. I wished Humphreys would spend some of his excellently written descriptions on further developing the characters I was already rooting for, rather than presenting us with yet another obstacle standing between them and Anne’s hand.  The supernatural elements I believed – Humphreys has an incredible knack for the eerie and otherworldly – but some of the sidebar missions just felt like a stretch no matter how much I enjoyed reading them.  The characters drive the book, so that even when they somehow end up rowing on a ship for a while (honestly it seemed like Humphreys just had fun writing a sea battle) you still want things to turn out well for them.

In fact, the characters (and a new interpretation of Anne Boleyn!) made me so happy that despite the plot’s shortcomings, I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.


Who’s your favorite historical figure to read about?  Have you read a great book about them that renewed your interest?  Do you think characters should drive the plot, or vice versa?  Let me know in the comments!